Domestic Abuse Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:21 pm on 2nd October 2019.

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Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Labour, Kingston upon Hull North 5:21 pm, 2nd October 2019

This has been a very hard debate to listen to, with some truly remarkable speeches.

When I became the MP in Hull North, I was told that it would be possible to fill the local football stadium, which holds 25,000, with all the domestic abuse perpetrators in the city, and that in a class of 30 pupils, you could expect three or four to be living with domestic abuse at home. This morning, a constituent emailed me to say:

“I was abused domestically for 30 years which included physical abuse—including getting my head smashed against a wall. I suffered the range of coercive control in which for periods of time I could not access money.”

I know that police in Hull respond to 800 calls per month around domestic abuse. I am very aware how important this Bill is, therefore, and I was very pleased to be asked to serve on the pre-legislative scrutiny Committee. That Committee made strong recommendations, and the Bill would be better if all of those were accepted.

However, the Bill is only part of the solution. We need to ensure that work on domestic abuse is properly resourced, and that it co-ordinates with the ending violence against women and girls strategy that the Government have put forward. Hon. Members have spoken about many issues. The need to ratify the Istanbul convention and the needs of migrant women must be addressed, as must our concerns about the DWP, especially universal credit, and the role of the health service.

I want to comment on two issues. First, the recruitment of the Domestic Abuse Commissioner is widely welcomed; the commissioner could be a very powerful agent for change. However, I have already expressed in the House my surprise that the Home Office went ahead and recruited to that post on the basis of the December 2016 job description, which was a part-time post with accountability to the Home Office alone. The scrutiny Committee’s recommendation was that it should be a full-time post, and that accountability should be looked at and addressed. When we took evidence from the Independent Anti-slavery Commissioner, we heard from him that the best way of doing that was to put the accountability on the Cabinet Office and have the reporting mechanism into the Cabinet Office, not the Home Office, to provide that cross-Government approach to this issue. I hope that the Minister will reflect on that, because I am sure that amendments will be tabled in Committee to that effect.

My second point relates to women who are suffering domestic abuse and having their lives controlled. In particular, I am referring to their fertility being controlled and to them being coerced into unwanted pregnancies. This, of course, goes to the heart of women’s bodily autonomy. The Bill before us is an opportunity for us to recognise this particular problem. As the Minister knows, sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 says that, where a woman procures an abortion, she faces life imprisonment. The Abortion Act 1967 allows abortion in certain limited circumstances, but we know from Women on Web, which provides assistance to women who are seeking terminations, that the current law is not working for women, particularly for women who are suffering domestic abuse. Between May and June 2019, of 100 women who came forward, a third were not able to access abortion services because of domestic abuse and controlling behaviour, seven were hiding their pregnancy from a non-supportive partner, and one had been raped.

A few weeks ago, this House agreed to decriminalise abortion in Northern Ireland, which means that sections 58 and 59 of the 1861 Act will no longer apply from early next year. We now need to do the same in this Bill to protect the women in England and Wales who could face the full might of the law under sections 58 and 59 of the 1861 Act and ensure that women, including those in very desperate circumstances, are not criminalised. I am sure that the Minister will expect that, at some point during the passage of this Bill through the House of Commons, this issue will be raised, and the House will be asked to a vote on it to put women in Wales and England in the same position as, hopefully, women in Northern Ireland.