May I start by saying how much I and many others present appreciate the consensual nature of the debate? As well as praising the leadership of my own party’s Front Benchers, who have been fantastic on this issue, I thank the Government Front Benchers for the remarkable leadership they have shown. In particular, I thank the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Victoria Atkins, who has met me many times to discuss this and other issues. She was the first Member from the 2015 intake to go into government, so I see her as an ambassador for all of us in that intake, and she has done very well. The Minister for Health, Edward Argar, was previously in the Ministry of Justice. Although he has now been moved to another Department, he is back here supporting the Bill. Those things do not get noticed by people observing us from outside, but they really matter to those of us who are here.
I was made very aware of the problem of cross-examination by perpetrators of domestic violence when a woman came to see me at a surgery soon after I became a Member of Parliament. She had suffered so much abuse—she had been raped multiple times, she had been knocked unconscious and she had been hospitalised more than a dozen times—but the perpetrator of those crimes, from prison, summonsed her to family court on three separate occasions. She told me that on the third occasion she had to ask the taxi driver to stop on the way home so she could vomit in the gutter because of the experience of being cross-examined by the perpetrator of the crimes against her. She told me that if she was summonsed a fourth time, she would capitulate and give him whatever he wanted. She was broken, not just by the criminal who raped and abused her, but by the system that allowed her to be cross-examined by him, and that allowed the abuse to continue under the nose of judges, and in front of police—the very people the state appoints to support and protect women like her.
After a huge campaign, both from Members from across the House and in the media, the Government finally gave way and agreed to make a change. I credit Mr Speaker with granting me an urgent question on the subject in January 2017, almost three years ago, at which the Government relented for the first time and promised to change the law. Sir Oliver Heald, then Minister for Courts and Justice, said in response to the urgent question:
“This sort of cross-examination is illegal in the criminal courts, and I am determined to see it banned in family courts, too.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 619, c. 25.]
He reiterated the urgency thus:
“work is being done at a great pace…the urgency is there.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 619, c. 27.]
That is important. The woman I mentioned cried with joy at the news that there would be a change. In her words, she felt liberated; a weight had been lifted from her shoulders.
However, we must recognise the scale of the suffering that there has been since the Government gave that commitment almost three years ago. While we celebrate the Bill finally bring brought in, there has been much suffering as a result of the delays. As Lord Justice Munby said on Radio 4 recently:
“Every day that passes exposes more victims to what is intolerable. Today, in court somewhere in this country, there will be someone—a frightened victim—being let down by the system. It must stop”.
I pay tribute to Lord Justice Munby for the support that he has shown for the changes.
In the time left to me, I want to mention quickly the role of Domestic Abuse Commissioner. It is essential that we get that role right. We have seen how Brexit eclipses everything in this Chamber; we urgently need an independent, strong voice for victims of domestic violence that can rise above that.