Domestic Abuse Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:46 pm on 2nd October 2019.

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Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Minister for Women 6:46 pm, 2nd October 2019

I hope that colleagues will forgive me if I depart from what Ministers normally do in winding up—which is to look at our files and the prepared speeches that our wonderful officials write for us—and speak from my heart because this has been an extraordinary debate. We have had the most compelling, the most heartfelt, the most heartbreaking examples of domestic abuse laid out before us. I cannot hope to do justice to those accounts in the short time that I have, but I will do my best. Any points that I have not been able to cover, I will, of course, write to hon. Members and put letters in the Library.

There have been 38 Back-Bench speeches in this debate and every single one has had an extraordinary contribution to make to the Bill. I should say that I am particularly grateful to the Lord Chancellor, who joins me on the Front Bench. I also want to record my thanks to the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend Wendy Morton, who is replacing—if he can be replaced—my hon. Friend Edward Argar in working through this Bill. I want to record my thanks to them.

In those 38 speeches, many, many experiences—horrific experiences—have been put before us. Hon. Members have very much drawn us into the lives, the suffering and, as I have said, the heartbreak of millions of our fellow citizens, whether constituents or not.

There are a few names out of an incredibly long list that I will mention because they have caused such an impact in the Chamber and, indeed, outside the Chamber. The first is that of Natalie Connolly. My hon. Friend Mark Garnier and, indeed, Ms Harman, the Mother of the House, set out the agony that the Connolly family have gone through in the case coming before the court concerning their dear daughter, Natalie, the facts of that case and of similar cases. I cannot help but be horrified by some of the experiences that victims of sadomasochistic sexual acts, which defendants then claim as a defence in court, have gone through. It is extraordinary and I will very much go away and reflect on the matter. It may not be this Bill that deals with that, but I do think that we must look at it very carefully and see what more can be done.

The next set of names that I think the House was touched by—I am very mindful that Claire is here in the Gallery—are those of Claire, Jack and Paul Throssell, represented very ably by their Member of Parliament, Angela Smith. I have had the privilege of meeting Claire and listening to her experiences at first hand. I would challenge anyone not to be incredibly moved by Claire’s story and not to be haunted by her story for many, many days after they have heard it, so I thank and salute Claire for being here today and working on behalf of other victims.

Jo Platt mentioned Leanne and Nikita. I thank her for bringing their experiences into this debate.

Then we move on to our friends and colleagues who have themselves been incredibly brave in describing their own experiences. My friend, Naz Shah, talked about her mother Zoora, and of course about her own experience of forced marriage. I am very keen that we all understand that although the words “forced marriage”, “FGM” and so on are not in the Bill, they are examples of the categories of behaviour that we have set out in the definition, and they will be in the statutory guidance, so people should be under no illusion: we consider those acts within intimate relationships to be examples of domestic abuse.

Then, of course, there was the account of our friend, Rosie Duffield. I sat here listening and thinking, “She is doing a very good job of representing her constituent. This is a terribly sad tale.” It was not until she said, “and then you introduce him to the leader of your party” that I shook myself a bit and thought, “My goodness—are we on a journey different from the one that I had anticipated?” She used words that every person who works in the field of domestic abuse will recognise, such as “hyper-alert” and “abject rage”. She spoke of bills piling up and finding out months later that they were unpaid. And then there was the final phrase: “emotionally exhausting”. The hon. Lady has done more to further the cause for victims of domestic abuse today than we have seen in a very long time, and I thank her sincerely for her contribution.

This Bill is truly groundbreaking, and I am delighted that we have agreement on that. I fully accept and acknowledge that we are not all agreed about parts of it, and of course that will come through in the scrutiny of the Bill. But we have this Bill before us today because of the determination, commitment and grit of my right hon. Friend Mrs May. I think it is extremely telling that, after some 20 years on the Opposition and Government Front Benches, she has chosen as her first contribution to speak in this debate about a cause that is very close to her heart. I am extremely grateful to her not just for her contribution today, but for the fact that we have this Bill and are driving this work forward in Government.

There are other colleagues I feel obliged to mention, because I see this as a Bill that is owned by the entire House. I must thank my right hon. Friend Karen Bradley, who started the journey by bringing in, with the Lord Chancellor, the controlling or coercive behaviour offence. I also thank my hon. Friend Sarah Newton, who was my predecessor in this role and who insisted on the terminology of economic abuse being included in the definition, because our understanding of it is so much better than it was even a few years ago. At the risk of sparing the blushes of a member of the Whips Office, I must also thank my hon. Friend Mr Jones because when he was on the Front Bench in another guise, he worked hard on the secure tenancies provision that we now see in the Bill.

As I say, I consider this to be a Bill that is owned by the whole House, and I thank colleagues across the House for their work not just today, but in the run-up to Second Reading. That includes, of course, Carolyn Harris. I tried to learn some Welsh before I got to this part of my speech, but I am afraid that it is beyond me. I also thank the “professional feminist”, Thangam Debbonaire, who does so much work —work that we are now much more comfortable talking about—tackling the perpetrators, including serial perpetrators, to stop the cycle of abuse.

I also thank Peter Kyle for his work on cross-examination—it is always a pleasure to work with him—and, of course, Jess Phillips, who has been and continues to be a staunch advocate for victims of domestic abuse. I look forward to grappling with some of the more difficult issues with her in due course.

I am delighted that the Bill received the level of pre-legislative scrutiny that it did through the Joint Committee, which was chaired so ably by my right hon. Friend Mrs Miller. Her leadership and that of others on the Committee has meant that the Bill is in a better place than it was before they scrutinised it. We have accepted many of the Committee’s recommendations and there are still recommendations that we are working on and may add in Committee. I thank every member of the Committee and its Chair.

Nick Thomas-Symonds asked Ministers to be open hearted. We are absolutely open hearted in admitting that this Bill is not yet in the place that it should be. It has to be perfected through scrutiny. In particular, hon. Members have rightly raised the issue of refuges. Hon. Members may recall that, when the Bill was introduced, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government’s consultation on refuge accommodation was still live, so by definition we could not make amendments to the Bill or add clauses at that stage. However, we are working through the consultation responses and I am confident that we will be able to move amendments in Committee, which I very much hope will meet with hon. Members’ approval.

I am conscious, too, of the comments made by the hon. Member for Bradford West and others about specialist services. I myself have been on a learning curve when it comes to the particular requirements of women who are perhaps suffering cultural difficulties as well as abuse, in the more conventional sense that we would understand, in the home. That will very much form part of our review of those services.

Colleagues have also rightly been holding me to account on funding. This year’s spending review, being a one-year review, is unusual, but we are clear that funding will be a priority in the 2020 spending review and we will push for appropriate funding for all the important services that hon. Members have mentioned.

I also acknowledge the concerns about migrant women. Women—all people who are suffering domestic abuse—must be viewed as victims first and foremost. We have not got it right yet with migrant women, but we are conducting a review, as we told the Joint Committee we would. We are looking at everything and will do our very best to bring forward those proposals in Committee. There might be things that we can do that do not need to be in primary legislation. The House should bear with us while we work through the review and we will see what more we can do.

Colleagues have rightly mentioned the definition. There have been many thoughts about whether it goes quite far enough. I am very conscious of the contribution from my hon. Friend James Cartlidge, who raised the impossible situation that a constituent and their family found themselves in with a person—a therapist—in a trusted position. There are concerns about positions of trust. [Interruption.]

I have just had my dress tugged, because if I do not sit down before 7 o’clock, the Bill will fall, so forgive me if I stop mid-sentence, Madam Deputy Speaker. I very much hear colleagues’ concerns about the definition and, if I may tackle the gendered point, we absolutely acknowledge that domestic abuse predominantly affects women. However, we are conscious that, of the estimated 2 million victims in our country, about a third are male. We cannot ignore those victims. In fairness, I do not think that anyone is suggesting that we should, but we are going to make the gendered nature of the crime apparent on the face of the statutory guidance, which I think will be significant.

To sum up, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead said, this statute is only part of the solution. There is consensus that we all have to ensure that people begin to understand what domestic abuse entails, that the relationships that they are entering into are not healthy and that girls growing up can expect much better from relationships in their adulthood. That is absolutely what this law and the non-legislative measures are directed at. The Bill is vital, but there is so much more that we need to do to ensure that everybody understands that domestic abuse is everyone’s business.