Amendment made: 15, in page 2, line 37, leave out
“on the day on which this Act receives Royal Assent”
“at the end of the period of 2 months beginning with the day on which this Act is passed”.—(Sarah Newton.)
This amendment means the Act will be brought into force two months following Royal Assent, rather than immediately on Royal Assent.
Amendment proposed: 16, line 1, leave out
“Require the United Kingdom to ratify”
“Make provision in connection with the ratification by the United Kingdom of”. —(Sarah Newton.)
This amendment is consequential on amendment 7.
Question put, That the amendment be made.
The House divided:
Ayes 132, Noes 2.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
The Bill now before us sets us on a clear path towards ratification of the Istanbul convention, and I want to thank all Members who have attended and participated in the debates today and at other stages of its progress. In particular, I want to thank Sarah Champion and the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Sarah Newton, both of whom have shown real leadership from their respective Front Benches, today and throughout the passage of the Bill, in working towards a shared objective, even when we have not always agreed on the detail. I am sure that our gender is entirely coincidental to this outcome. Should the Bill pass today and progress to the Lords, it will be presented there by Baroness Gale, to whom I am also extremely grateful. I hope that it will have a smoother passage there than it has had here, but I guess time will tell.
The real credit for the progress that this Bill represents must go to the women across civil society who insisted on change and compelled Parliament to act. The women of the IC Change campaign, Women’s Aid in Scotland, England, Northern Ireland and Wales, and a host of other individuals and organisations—including the men who have stood with us in solidarity—have advised, supported and worked so hard over such a long time to make this happen.
I share in my hon. Friend’s praise of Becca, Rachel, Robyn and all at IC Change, and it has been a pleasure to work with them over the past year-and-a-half. It would be remiss of me if I did not take this opportunity to thank my hon. Friend herself on behalf of SNP Members for her professional and fantastic stewardship of the Bill.
I am flattered by my hon. Friend’s remarks, but the real thanks go to the people, some of whom are here today, who led the way and made us listen. I know that the campaign will not end here. In many ways this is a beginning for substantive change.
I also thank Emma Watson, who took time out of her busy film promotion schedule to speak out in support of the Bill to an audience that politicians find hard to reach. These issues lie close to her heart.
On reflection, it strikes me powerfully that Parliament has frequently been left playing catch-up on progress for women: from those who campaigned for women’s suffrage for more than a century before it was achieved to those trade unionists who fought for equal pay for women years before the Equal Pay Act 1970 came into force and the women who, in the 1970s, set up refuges for women fleeing domestic abuse at a time when there was absolutely no support from the state or the authorities for women experiencing violence or coercive control from an intimate partner—a time when rape within marriage was not even a crime. Every step of the way, it is citizens who have driven progressive change. Sisters have had to do it for themselves.
I offer my huge congratulations to my hon. Friend and all those involved. Does she agree with me and Emmeline Pankhurst, who famously said:
“We are here, not because we are law-breakers;
we are here in our efforts to become law-makers”?
My hon. Friend is the absolute embodiment of those words.
It is important that we remember our history and understand the historical process of change within which we live. I have been asked so many times over the past few months: why the Istanbul convention? Why these difficult, painful, controversial issues? Why this convoluted, complex multilateral process? The long answer is that it has the potential to make concrete improvements—at local, national and international level—to the lives of people affected by sexual and domestic violence.
In light of the Istanbul convention, and in direct response to the debates we have had in this place, I am pleased to say that my local authority, Aberdeenshire Council, is already considering how local provision might be strengthened and improved. That could and should be replicated by local authorities across the UK.
We have already seen at UK level and in the devolved Administrations a raft of new legislation, driven by the Istanbul convention, on issues such as stalking, forced marriage, human trafficking and modern slavery, all of which has taken us closer to compliance. Internationally, we can make the world a safer place for our own citizens and for others, but we now need to finish the job.
The short answer to my question—why the Istanbul convention?—is that change needs to come and change will come. Ultimately, this is about real people and real lives. I have been moved beyond measure by the truly inspirational courage of my constituent Sarah Scott, a woman from the small coastal community where I grew up. She was subjected to an exceptionally brutal rape, and she waived her right to anonymity in an attempt to prevent what happened to her from happening to anyone else.
Sarah is one of the desperately small minority of rape victims who has seen her attacker brought to justice and convicted, but during the course of the trial her medical history was used by the defence in an attempt to discredit her as a witness to her own experience. She has spoken publicly about that profound violation of her privacy and the re-traumatisation that those experiences invoked, and I can only begin to imagine the inner strength and bravery it took for her to speak out.
We have travelled some distance in this struggle, but we still have such a long way to go. We need to recognise that ratification of the Istanbul convention is a milestone in the journey to equality and justice for women, and not an end point.
I will not give way.
So, Sarah, this Bill is for you and for every person who knows at first hand the brutal, life-shattering reality of sexual violence and has had the courage to claim justice and fight for it. Thank you for helping us all be a bit braver and stronger in the fight for equality and human rights, and more determined than ever to end this abuse, once and for all.
Unfortunately, I was not able to contribute on Second Reading, as the debate was terminated before I had the opportunity to try to persuade the House of the merits of my case against the Bill, but I am very grateful to my hon. Friend Philip Davies for at least putting several of the points that I wanted to make on the record then.
I congratulate Dr Whiteford on the polite and efficient way she has brought the Bill before the House and steered it through to this Third Reading debate. No private Member’s Bill is an easy thing to deal with and she has demonstrated great skill in being able to get this Bill to this stage. It is no secret that I oppose it. I am open about that, but I wish to start by putting on the record the fact that those of us who oppose it do so on the basis that the Istanbul convention will do nothing to achieve the aims that its supporters think it will. It will certainly do nothing to stop violence against men and boys, and I am just as concerned about that as I am about violence against women and girls, leaving aside for a moment the position of transgender individuals, which we have not considered at great length so far.
It is important to note that the views that my hon. Friend and I have espoused—we have yet to hear in depth from my hon. Friend Mr Chope—are supported by a larger section of society than some in this House might think. After the Second Reading debate, even though I had not been able to contribute to it, I received emails from people from all over who were saying, “Good for standing up for our rights as men, because sometimes we feel that we are not getting a fair crack of the whip.”
This morning, we have seen something remarkable happen to this Bill, and I am grateful that we have had the opportunity to put certain matters to a vote. Anybody watching the proceedings may have wondered what was going on, but we have demonstrated this morning that those who support this Bill have actually gone through the Lobby to vote to weaken it. We have been given a bit of a clue; if ever a Bill has to have its title amended, the chances are that it has been seriously filleted. On this occasion, the fact that the whole of clause 1 has disappeared and the whole of clause 3(e) has disappeared demonstrates the extent to which this Bill has been chopped and changed, not in Committee, but on Report.
Incidentally, the Minister on Second Reading was my right hon. Friend Brandon Lewis, rather than my hon. Friend Sarah Newton, who is here today. He said that amendments would be tabled in Committee, but we now know that none was, even though they must have been ready, because they were tabled on
The series of Government amendments that have been accepted have had the effect of making the Bill very different from when it was introduced. The requirement for the UK to ratify the Istanbul convention has gone. Now, as reflected in the Bill’s new long title, it only makes
“provision in connection with the ratification by the United Kingdom of the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (the Istanbul Convention)”.
Even the words “and for connected purposes” have been removed.
The whole of clause 1 has been removed, and that was the crucial point of the Bill. We were told that the whole object of the exercise was to impose a duty on Her Majesty’s Government
“to take all reasonable steps”— so the Government were not expected to do everything in their power—
“as soon as reasonably practicable”.
It was a very modest clause to enable this country to become compliant with the convention, but that is all gone now.
For those who support the Bill and the campaign behind it, it is worth putting on record exactly what it now looks like and will do. Essentially, it now requires no more than that the Secretary of State lays a report before each House of Parliament to set out
“the steps required to be taken to enable the United Kingdom to ratify the Istanbul Convention”.
We all know what those steps are anyway, so there is going to be nothing new in it. It has been said many times that the only thing the Government still need to do is sort out how we are going to deal with extraterritorial jurisdiction. I accept that that is not an easy thing to do, but it has been done in respect of other offences, which leads me to think it would not have been that difficult, given how many years it has been since the convention was signed, to have worked out by now why primary legislation is not ready. We have still not heard whether primary legislation is going to be included in the next Queen’s Speech, for example.
The timescale is crucial. As originally drafted, the Bill would have required the Government to set a specific date
“by which the Secretary of State would expect the United Kingdom to be able to ratify the Convention.”
That requirement is now gone, as we are talking only about a “timescale”, which could of course be anything: a day, a week, a month, a year, a decade—all are timescales.
The number of stories my staff shared about violence against women and the severity of the violence in them was staggering. The vast majority of them ended with the victim deciding not to report the incident to the police due to social stigma, fear of retribution, concern that the authorities would not believe them and shame. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is time that we changed that by ratifying the Istanbul convention as soon as possible?
To be quite honest, I entirely agree that anyone who has been the victim of domestic violence, or of violence outside the domestic setting, should be reporting that violence, and that applies to both men and women. Incidentally, the incidence of men reporting such violence because of fears that people might laugh at them is much lower than it is among women, particularly where domestic violence is concerned. How on earth anyone can think that just because the Government have ratified a convention, which most members of the public have never even heard of, will make one iota of difference to whether or not someone reports a crime is beyond me.
If the issue is whether I think that people should report domestic violence, then of course the answer is yes, but on whether I think that the figure will be changed as a result of the ratification of the convention, the answer is no, I do not. In countries where ratification has already taken place, the figures that have been provided by their ambassadors to my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley show that there is a very mixed picture—and that is putting it very modestly—of the effect that this convention has had in reducing the incidence of domestic violence. We all want to see violence against women, violence against men and domestic violence reduced—there is no issue about that—but this Bill is not about that.
Let me now return to the issue of the timescale, which is the main thrust of this Bill. The purpose is to try to tie down the Government to doing something and to stop this matter from drifting on. What do we have now? The words “the date by” have been replaced by “the timescale”. Previously, the report, which was to set out the date, had to be laid
“within four weeks of this Act receiving Royal Assent.”
That has been changed to
“as soon as reasonably practicable after this Act comes into force.”
There is a subtle change there. It is no longer after
“this Act receiving Royal Assent”.
Another Government amendment changes the date on which the Act comes into force from being the date on which the Act receives Royal Assent to a period of two months beginning on the day on which the Act is passed. So, we have a two-month delay, and then an unlimited amount of time before the report has to be laid. Even when the report is laid, all it has to do is set out a “timescale”—there is no specific date. Frankly, we might as well say it is the 12th of never, because that is essentially what this Bill is saying. No specific date is given and there are no provisions in the Bill to tie down the Government. If Members want proof of that assertion, they should simply ask this question: on what date would it be possible for anyone to turn around and look at this Act—if it passes through this place and the House of Lords—and say, “Ah, the Government have not complied with the Act.” I venture that it would be difficult to pick any day. The Bill is now so widely drafted that there would never be a date when it would not be possible for the Government to say, “We’re not quite there yet. We are dealing with things. It is not reasonably practicable at this stage to deliver the report.” Even if a report were delivered, we would still have to get over the hurdle of the timescale, which could be very vague indeed.
Much progress has been made under this Government, particularly when the Prime Minister was Home Secretary, with criminalising acts such as forced marriage, dealing with stalking, tackling female genital mutilation, and the domestic violence protection orders. I chair the all-party parliamentary group for women in Parliament. Does my hon. Friend agree that this global commitment is constructive in leading the way to continue the fight?
My hon. Friend highlights some of the valuable work that the Government have already been doing without ratifying the convention. Other countries may well want to look at the work of this country to see whether they could improve their procedures and adopt some of the things we have been doing. It is interesting that my hon. Friend highlights those points because, of course, all that has happened without ratifying the Istanbul convention.
The short answer is no; I cannot think of anything. I would be very interested if anyone else present could come up with any measure that we are prevented from introducing because we have not yet ratified the convention. In fact, as the previous intervention demonstrated, the Government have quite happily brought forward lots of proposals to tackle these matters already, and quite rightly. I have my own ideas about what we could do to try to tackle domestic violence, and I am interested in whether Opposition Members would support me. For example, we could start by saying that those who are convicted of domestic violence and sent to prison are required to serve the full length of their sentence, rather than being let out halfway through. If we are talking about sending signals, let us send the good signal that if someone commits an act of domestic violence and is sent to prison, they would have to serve the full length of their sentence. There are things we could do that I would be very much willing to support.
It is not even the final step when the report is finally tabled by the Secretary of State—
“as soon as reasonably practicable”— and sets out the timetable. The final step comes afterwards. Even when the Secretary of State has finally determined that the United Kingdom is compliant with the Istanbul convention, a date by which the convention will be ratified does not have to be set. Following the amendments made, the Bill simply states that
“the Secretary of State would expect the Convention to be ratified”, so another small delay is built in there. But then what happens? What is the purpose of the Bill then?
Previously, the purpose of the Bill would have been to report on progress every year until ratification and then, after ratification, to report on how the Government were doing. All the reporting after ratification has now been removed, and reports will be prepared only until ratification. There is no mechanism under this Bill—I stress under this Bill—to measure the various things set out in it, which the promoter must have thought were important at the time it was drafted. Those include measures to
“protect women against violence, and prevent, prosecute and eliminate violence against women and domestic violence”— there is a long list.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, because he raises an interesting point. Many supporters of the Bill will, like him, look at what has happened this morning and at the changes that have been made and think, “What is the purpose of this Bill?” Even people who, like him, were sympathetic towards it could now look at it and think, “Actually, there’s no real purpose to the Bill anymore.” I hope my hon. Friend has been persuaded that any measures he may have in mind to reduce domestic violence against women and men could be taken regardless of whether the Bill goes through; it is merely virtue signalling—we are merely sending a message. The Bill does nothing of itself to reduce violence against women and girls or men and boys.
Understandably, the Government say they cannot ratify the treaty until they know they are compliant in every respect, although, of course, lots of other countries have managed to ratify it, and as we heard earlier, a lot of them have done so by making reservations.
I have worked through the text of the Bill, but I want now to touch on another reason why the Bill is not necessary. A procedure already exists in law to govern the way this House ratifies international treaties. The Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 was passed by the coalition Government in 2010 and came into force on
There is a general statutory requirement to publish a treaty that is subject to ratification or its equivalent. The Government must lay the treaty before Parliament for 21 sitting days. That provision put into statute what was previously known as the Ponsonby rule, which was named after Arthur Ponsonby, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs in 1924, during the debate on the treaty of Lausanne, a peace treaty with Turkey. The 2010 Act allows both Houses the opportunity to pass a resolution that a treaty should not be ratified during the 21 sitting days. If neither House does so, the Government are then able to proceed and ratify the treaty. If either this House or the other place votes against ratification, the Government cannot immediately ratify the treaty. Instead, the Government must lay a statement to explain why they wish to proceed with the ratification process.