Battered Wives

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 16 July 1973.

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Photo of Mr Mark Carlisle Mr Mark Carlisle , Runcorn 12:00, 16 July 1973

Everyone should be grateful to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley) for bringing the complex and very distressing problem of battered wives to the attention of the House this evening. We all appreciate and understand the difficulties of these unfortunate women. The hon. Gentleman is right in saying that society must do what it can to prevent their suffering and ill-treatment. About that there can be no dispute. The Government are anxious to ensure that the various agencies—the police, the probation service, the local authority social services, and the medical services—are able to do all that they can to assist these women with their extremely disturbing domestic problems.

This is no new problem, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree. Violence within marriage is, regrettably, nothing new. Brutality and callous cruelty have, I suspect, been with us for many generations. In view of the history of recent past times, I question whether it is today an increasing rather than a decreasing problem. However, whether it is increasing or decreasing it is none the less disturbing.

We know very little about the extent of the problem. The hon. Gentleman quoted figures. If we are honest, we must admit that we shall probably never know the full extent of the problem. Some examples of violence that goes on in the privacy of the home in the late hours of the night may never be known to those who are not directly involved. What different married couples will themselves accept as normal and acceptable differs. We are involved with the whole spectrum—from the marital tiff, on the one hand, to the wife beating that is the reflection of some mental disorder or abnormality, on the other.

I accept that this is not a problem limited to any one social class, but to accept as I do the problem that the hon. Gentleman has drawn to our attention is not to underestimate the difficulties of the authorities in dealing with it. As the hon. Gentleman said, quoting from an answer I gave to him, the law does not discriminate between assaults between a husband on his wife and other assaults: any assault constitutes a criminal offence. If the assault amounts to the infliction of actual or grevious bodily harm the police should always be prepared to take proceedings against the person responsible. In cases of common assault, whether it involves a husband and wife or two unrelated people, the police do not themselves, in general, institute legal proceedings. Section 42, I think it is, of the Offences Against the Persons Act 1861 requires that such proceedings should be taken by or on behalf of the aggrieved party. This means that the police can take proceedings themselves only on the express authority of the victim. There are, I can assure the hon. Member, good reasons for such a distinction. In the generality of ordinary cases, criminal proceedings may prevent the assaulted persons from pursuing their own civil remedies. I repeat that the police, in exercising their official functions, are guided by the same criteria irrespective of the relationship of the parties involved.

To say that, of course, ignores the practical problems of the police in involving themselves in what are basically domestic situations. First, as I have said, because of the very circumstances in which the assaults are committed, they often do not become known to the police. The women concerned do not go to the police, and nobody knows. Secondly, even when a wife does go to the police she is often unwilling to institute criminal proceedings.