I beg to move amendment No. 108, in page 1, line 22, after 'end', insert
(d) that any risk to one of the parties to a marriage, and to any children, of violence from the other party should, so far as reasonably practicable, be removed or diminished.'.
A similar amendment was moved in Committee. The purpose of this amendment is to ensure that all persons exercising any function under parts II and III of the Bill are obliged to take into account, as one of the guiding principles of the legislation, the need to remove or diminish the risk to which it refers.
A number of my hon. Friends who are present now were present when, for the first time, the Committee dealt with the issue of violence. If memory serves me well, we spent more than half a day debating that issue, and the Government took us to task repeatedly for raising it. We were told that it was unnecessary and inappropriate, and had no practical meaning or significance. We were asked for examples of its significance. My hon. Friends the Members for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche), for Barking (Ms Hodge), for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson)—she is not present now, but she made an important contribution then, and has spoken on related issues today—and for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping) spoke to the amendment, as did I. Each and every one of us gave examples, drawing on the experience of organisations in our constituencies. We sought to develop the argument in favour of a principled stand against domestic violence in connection with parts II and III of the Bill, but on each occasion our arguments were rejected.
We were asked what relevance the amendment had to information meetings. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East (Ms Corston)—who is currently working with a Select Committee outside the House—recounted how she had appeared in court on behalf of a victim of domestic violence. Not only was the perpetrator present in court; he renewed his threats, and his attack on the victim, within the precincts of the court.
Such information sessions represent an innovation. No one quite knows how they will work out in practice. We asked time and again what sort of premises would be used for the purposes of information sessions. We thought—and the Minister specifically declined to rule it out—that the Government might want to use cubicles in social security offices for one-to-one sessions, that being their concession to the need for privacy. Such an idea is ironic in itself: anyone who has ever visited a social security office knows that scant privacy is provided by the cubicles. The experience is very public, and all too often it is humiliating and degrading.
In such circumstances, with direct free public access to the buildings, there is a real danger that domestic violence might occur. Those whom the legislation makes
responsible for arranging information sessions must take into account any risk to one of the parties, or the children, from the other party, and such risks
should, so far as reasonably practicable, be removed or diminished.
I have given one example, but many others can be drawn from the courtroom and, indeed, the Lord Chancellor's Department.
This important amendment sets out our principled opposition to domestic violence, as a House and a society, and our determination—
so far as reasonably practicable
to remove the risk of domestic violence from the parties and the children.
The provision of protection from domestic violence has always been at the heart of the Bill. Indeed, the Government's determination to do something about it is evidenced by the speed with which the provisions of the Family Homes and Domestic Violence Bill of 1995 were largely reintroduced as part IV of this Bill.
In Committee—as the hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng) rightly said—the Government rejected the idea of putting this duty into the general principles clause: we felt that domestic violence was catered for adequately in part IV, and indeed it is well catered for. But I am pleased to report that, following my conversations with the various interest groups that are expressing their concerns about domestic violence, we will happily go the extra mile and include a reference to the need to remove or diminish the risk of domestic violence, so far as reasonably practicable, during the divorce process. The Government accept that the potential for domestic violence will be present for some at a number of points in the divorce and separation process, and that it is right for those exercising functions in connection with the process to take that into consideration.
I gained some personal knowledge of the devastation to family life that the presence of violence in the home can bring through church-based counselling in the inner city of Plymouth in the early 1980s. In those days I was able to see life in the raw, and through that experience I developed a deep-seated loathing for what we now call domestic violence. I personally am pleased to support the amendment, and the Government are committed to doing what they can in the Bill to support effective measures to provide protection from domestic violence for all who need it.