Following on from the Second Reading of the Bill’s previous incarnation, I have now been able to draft some of the amendments I mentioned, which I believe will help to improve this Bill. I do not have much time today, but I just want to highlight a few of those.
As I have said on numerous occasions, one of my biggest priorities regarding domestic abuse is that we must treat male and female victims equally. Some of my amendments would ensure that this Bill is completely non-sex specific and that it supports male and female victims. While there are more recorded female victims of domestic abuse, there are still many male victims, and a further body of evidence shows how their numbers are also likely to be underestimated. They should not be ignored. I really want to reiterate for the record that we need to be very clear that women are not the only victims of domestic violence and that violence against women is not always perpetrated by men either.
I have grave concerns about the definition of domestic abuse, including economic abuse. The Government’s own guidance on this states:
“Examples of economic abuse include…having sole control of the family income”.
I am not sure why that should in itself constitute domestic abuse, and I hope that the amendment I will table can at least alleviate the potential damage that this current wording could do, as it is not caveated by saying that this does not apply where, for example, there is good reason. There could be a very good reason for something that could be classed as economic abuse under this definition—for example, where the person the money has been withheld from has a drug problem or a gambling addiction or because they are too sick. I have spoken to the Secretary of State about this, and I got the impression that he felt there was something he could do to improve the wording here. I sincerely hope that the Government will look favourably on the amendments I am tabling on this point.
Another amendment I will be tabling would extend the definition of domestic abuse to include parental alienation. This is where one parent deliberately alienates the other parent from a child. I have heard horrific stories affecting parents and children, which I would love to expand on today but cannot because of the time available. However, if we are to save future generations of children from having non-existent relationships with one of their parents, something needs to be done, and my amendment would be a start.
I also want to amend the Bill so that false allegations of domestic abuse would be classed as domestic abuse in their own right. Some parents have their reputations and lives trashed by malicious, vexatious accusations, particularly in relation to domestic abuse. By including false allegations of domestic abuse in the definition of domestic abuse, we can hopefully reduce the instances of this occurring. The definition of domestic abuse should also include cases where one parent deliberately denies the other parent contact with their children for no good reason. As far as I am concerned, this is just as abusive as other forms of abuse that are regularly mentioned; it causes significant distress, upset and harm. In some cases the harm is so bad that it can tragically lead to suicide.
This leads me on to the current situation. According to the charity ManKind, a number of fathers are now contacting the charity stating that their exes are using the covid-19 lockdown as a reason to breach agreed child arrangement orders awarded as part of shared parenting. There have been media reports of lawyers being inundated by divorced parents arguing over lockdown custody. It is always wrong to use a child as a weapon, but it seems that coronavirus has made things worse on this front, too.
In terms of domestic abuse generally during this pandemic, I have heard a lot about female victims on the news—quite rightly so—and about women’s organisations, but not so much about male victims, so I thought I would mention them today, given the limited time available. According to the charity ManKind, calls to its helplines since lockdown are 30% higher than normal, and visitors to the ManKind Initiative website are 50% higher. I hope that any victims of domestic abuse, male or female, will call the police and get in touch with individuals or organisations that can help them in these difficult times. Meanwhile, I urge the Minister to consider my amendments properly, because I genuinely believe that they will improve the Bill, not least by making it fairer for male victims as well as female victims, but also by providing a chance to improve the lives of children.