Battered Wives

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

Alert me about debates like this

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

I was going to refer to some things that we might do. I was, I think rightly, pointing to the difficulties that face the police.

Of course, some women are willing to complain, but I think that the hon. Member will accept that of those who go to the police there are some who are still unwilling to bring criminal proceedings. A woman, however cruelly treated, is often reluctant to see her husband imprisoned or fined; she prefers to look upon it as a civil matter, to be sorted out by herself and her husband, or as a matter for the divorce courts. It is certainly my experience as a barrister that it is remarkable to what degree of violence women are at times prepared to be subjected without wishing to see their husbands charged with criminal offences. Thirdly, one cannot ignore the fact that a woman who may be prepared on a Friday or Saturday night to be a witness against her husband often changes her mind when the case comes to court on the Monday.

Fourthly, there is the realistic difficulty, which the police have to face, of providing the necessary evidence to obtain a conviction when the alleged assault has taken place with no other witness present. These, I would ask the hon. Member to accept, are realistic facts that the police have to face. Whatever the cause—whether it be a consideration for the care of the children, or whether, as the hon. Member has rightly stressed, it is the inability to find alternative accommodation—the fact remains that many women are not prepared to see their husbands in the criminal courts. The police do not neglect their duty, but they are sometimes prevented from doing it because of the situation in which they find themselves.

To point to what I believe are the realistic difficulties that face the police in carrying out their duties does not mean that we should for a moment be complacent about the present situation. The Home Secretary accepts the need to review the current practice of the police in relation to alleged assaults by husbands upon their wives. He has undertaken to consult chief officers of police about the problem, and this consultation is now in progress. It will take in such matters as the degree of seriousness of an alleged assault that should be sufficient to justify the institution of proceedings or other action by the police, either at the request of the injured wife or on their own initiative.

The process of consultation is bound to take time, and the results will need to be considered in relation to action being taken by other Government Departments in regard to the problem. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I have noted the various points that he has made tonight, directed to Departments other than the Home Office, and he may be assured that all of them will be considered.

I accept, as the hon. Gentleman said, that the problem of finding alternative accommodation is of crucial importance. Every year local authorities admit to their temporary accommodation large numbers of women and children who have left their homes as a result of family disputes. But, unhappily, we are only too well aware that certain areas suffer from an acute lack of accommodation, both temporary and permanent. Here, the problem facing the local authority social worker or housing department officer approached by a woman and children who have left their home after a quarrel, of which the circumstances and the gravity may vary from case to case and be far from clear, is by no means easy.

It may well be that in such areas there is a special place for the voluntary body such as the Chiswick Women's Aid, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, which provides much needed temporary acommodation as well as sympathy and skilled advice. I understand that one London borough has supported an application for urban aid from this organisation to help to extend its work in providing temporary accommodation for battered wives. Although, as the House will know, there are always, regrettably, many more applications for aid under the urban programme than there is aid available to meet them, I assure the hon. Gentleman that that application will be considered with sympathy.

I take the point that the hon. Gentleman made, that a serious criminal assault on a wife must be treated in exactly the same way as a criminal assault on any other person. I accept also what he said about the need for legal aid to be available in such circumstances. I hope that the £25 scheme, whereby people will be able to seek advice from solicitors, will in part assist in providing such assistance. Also, as the hon. Gentleman knows, proceedings may be taken through the county court to obtain an injunction.

The joint working partly considering matrimonial proceedings in magistrates' courts will take account of the problem and the adequacy of the law to meet it. Also, the Criminal Law Revision Committee is considering the whole issue of offences against the person.

I have no doubt and, I am sure, the hon. Gentleman has no doubt—that in the end the answer to this problem lies in education. It lies in leading people to treat their fellow human beings with the respect that they deserve. This debate, short though it has been, and the hon. Gentleman's concern, are part of that education, for he has drawn the attention of the public to the problem and in so doing is helping to break down what he himself described as the public indifference to the trouble which exists.