The Bill is a good example of legislation not having to be contentious to be worth while and, indeed, to be worth a decent debate. From reading the speeches on the Bill in the other place, it is clear that such a sentiment prevailed there, even when the stronger levels of collegiality that customarily define that place are taken into account. Lord Bourne and Baroness Lister were especially prominent in the debates and brought to light some technical but important components of the legislation. Their work was subsequently added to by the as ever superb work of the Commons Library staff and Wendy Wilson in particular.
As a former director of a housing association, Dales Housing, involved in the stock transfer of Derbyshire Dales District Council’s former council housing, I have seen benefits flowing from such arrangements. To reflect a little on the comments made by Wera Hobhouse, I was surprised to see, for what seem to be quite technical reasons, a situation wherein tenants of housing associations are less protected by legislation than traditional council house tenants, as is the case here. I therefore echo and, indeed, reinforce the remarks of Lord Bourne in stressing that housing associations not only do a lot of work in support of victims of domestic violence, but recognise the spirit of the Bill as much as possible in their decision making about new secure tenancies for domestic violence victims, even though they are not as bound by it in law. During the research I carried out for this speech, I was pleased to discover that the arm’s length management organisations that, via Northampton Partnership Homes, are responsible for the bulk of the social housing in my constituency will be covered by the Bill.
This speech is not a bid for a change of status within the Palace of Westminster, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I beg your and other Members’ indulgence in my again referencing a Member of the other place—in this case, Lord Kennedy, who highlighted a significant concern of mine and, I suspect, of many other Members, when he talked about domestic violence victims being charged for letters of evidence of abuse. With regard to solicitors’ letters, notwithstanding the legal aid dimension, there may be little that can be done, but with regard to GPs’ letters action is possible and certainly desirable. It appears that fees of approaching £100 can be charged by GPs for letters of evidence of domestic abuse. Even if much less than that is charged, I think that it would be seen as wrong. It may be within the letter of GP contracts as they currently stand, but it is wrong nevertheless. I am sure that many GPs would not levy such charges to the vulnerable and would see the fact that in theory they could do so as irrelevant. Furthermore, it is true that imminent changes to data protection law will allow for some help for victims to obtain some medical information without charges, but “some information”, which means pretty raw data and printouts, is not the same as the tailored and specific GP letter that they actually want.
It all brings to mind an experience that I had as leader of Derbyshire County Council, when a local GP wanted to charge an extortionate amount of money to a lady in her 80s who wanted to vote by proxy on health grounds. In that case, a good dose of publicity secured a free letter for the lady, but publicity and victims of domestic violence obviously do not go together, although the shame for the GP in question would be all the greater. I am therefore interested to hear what progress has been made since the House of Lords debate on the Bill, in respect of GPs, their contracts and their receipt of public money placing on them additional obligations to act in the public interest. Will the Minister say what can be done to ensure that huge charges—preferably any charges at all—are not levied for people likely not to be able to pay and who do not need any additional stress in their lives at that point?