I am grateful for the opportunity to make a contribution to this important debate. It has been my privilege to be here for the whole debate and to hear many brilliant speeches, particularly the amazing speech by my hon. Friend Rosie Duffield, whose courage in speaking about the domestic abuse and coercive control that she suffered will give others the hope and courage they need to speak up and get away.
I pay tribute to the Mother of the House for raising the issue of the “S&M” defence in relation to the terrible death of Natalie Connolly, which was the subject of a powerful speech by Mark Garnier; and to my hon. Friend Naz Shah, who spoke courageously of her own family experience and the needs of BAME women under the Bill.
I particularly want to raise the effect of domestic abuse on children and their inclusion in the Domestic Abuse Bill. Under the Bill, the definition of domestic abuse would not extend to relationships between persons under 16 years old, but this subject have been hotly debated. The Children’s Society is arguing for a wider definition and suggests that an age limit of 13 years would be more appropriate, to include teenagers who are in relationships and experiencing violence or abuse and to allow for an early response to prevent abuse from escalating. This view is supported by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner, but opposed by Action for Children to ensure that abuse of under-16s is always regarded as child abuse. However, the NSPCC makes the point that child abuse can include the emotional impact of being exposed to harm as a result of witnessing the abuse of one parent by another. It says that by failing to recognise children as victims in law, the Government are missing a crucial chance to give young people an extra layer of protection.
At the Labour party conference last week, I met a representative from Barnardo’s. She was delighted that the Bill was going to be discussed, and she welcomed the Government’s commitment to it. However, she talked to me about the impact of domestic abuse on the lives of vulnerable children. Living in an abusive household is hugely traumatic for children and can cause long-lasting emotional scars. Without the right support, children in this situation are at risk of becoming trapped in a lifelong cycle of violence. These children need access to vital services such as counselling and mental health services so that they can recover from the harm they have suffered and work towards a positive future.
Research demonstrates that specialist children’s services reduce the impact of domestic abuse and improve children’s safety and health outcomes, which is why it is so concerning that dedicated support for children and young people is falling. The Joint Committee supported retaining the age limit of 16 because of concerns that a consequence of lowering it would be the criminalisation of perpetrators under 16 years old. However, the Joint Committee recommended that the Government conduct a specific review on how to address domestic abuse in relationships between under-16-year-olds, including age-appropriate consequences for perpetrators, and I hope to see the results of that review and that guidance colouring the way in which we debate this Bill.
Women’s Aid has recently launched a website called LoveRespect to support teenage girls at risk of relationship abuse and to challenge myths around the nature of coercive control. Teenage girls may not realise that they are experiencing relationship abuse, and they are less likely than older women to call a helpline. Researchers found that two thirds of teenage girls who had been in abusive relationships did not recognise the behaviour as such. This highlights the importance of educating young people on what healthy relationships should look like. Having a bad boyfriend should not be seen as an acceptable rite of teenage passage. We need to get the impacts of coercive and controlling behaviour into the Bill, given that it will inform efforts to address domestic abuse and guide the response of agencies and statutory services. It is vital that the needs and experiences of children are reflected on the face of the Bill.