Domestic Abuse Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:22 pm on 28th April 2020.

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Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Minister for Women 6:22 pm, 28th April 2020

I thank all Members who have contributed to today’s debate. I also thank those Members who tried to contribute but, because of the new procedures, were unable to speak. I thank each and every one of the 87 Members who put their names forward.

The harrowing stories that we have heard today underline the horror of domestic abuse and the devastation that it leaves in its wake. Time after time—not just today, but in debating previous iterations of the Bill—we have heard stories of families shattered and of lives torn apart or even ended by this terrible crime.

One of the most moving speeches today was, of course, that of my hon. Friend Mark Garnier, who talked incredibly emotionally about Natalie and her family, and the experiences that Natalie had before she died. I went to his constituency to meet Natalie’s family, the Andrews, and they set out to me very clearly the journey of domestic abuse that Natalie had suffered before that fateful night. I know that my hon. Friend wanted to include in his speech the sentence that this perpetrator got for his behaviour—a mere three years and eight months for that course of conduct. It was a case that I am sure will live with many of us for a very long time indeed.

Another speech that I would like to highlight for its power was that of my hon. Friend Mark Fletcher, who brought to the Chamber his perspective as a child living in an abusive household. Many Members have raised the plight of children living in abusive households, which I will deal with in more detail in due course, but I want to thank him for being brave in laying those experiences before us in the Chamber. It does help victims; I know that for a fact.

The speech made by Rosie Duffield on the Bill’s last Second Reading was one of those parliamentary moments that those of us who listened to it will remember for a great deal of time. One of the most moving aspects of her speech today was setting out the wall of support that she has received and the network of women who have risen to support her. I wish her and that network all the very best.

Other Members set out the experiences of their constituents most eloquently. My hon. Friends the Members for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) and for Brecon and Radnorshire (Fay Jones) and Sarah Owen really did justice to their constituents. If these stories are difficult to listen to, they are unimaginable to live through. In all their stark horror, those stories and all the stories that we know through the experiences of our families—or, indeed, in our own families—and of our friends, colleagues and constituents show us why this Bill is so urgently needed.

We all understand this. It is to the credit of all the parties that the Bill enjoys cross-party support. I know that there will rightfully be discussions about various aspects of it in due course, but it is to our collective credit that the parties can unify around this Bill. I would like to thank Carolyn Harris for her work in her previous role, and I welcome Jess Phillips to her position. I spoke to her this week, and she said that it was the only job she would accept— I absolutely believe her, so I am delighted for her.

I am conscious that I have to sit down by 6.34 pm, otherwise the Bill falls. We do not want that to happen, so forgive me if I do not address all the points that have been raised. I will write and put a copy in the Library to answer the detailed points that Members have raised.

I must take the trouble to mention the maiden speech of my hon. Friend Sara Britcliffe. It is a rather extraordinary experience to want to pay tribute to colleagues but not be able to see them in the Chamber. She described herself as the youngest MP, the first female MP for her constituency and the first Member of Parliament to make a virtual maiden speech—what an extraordinary set of achievements. I was so grateful for her speech, because she told us movingly about the struggles that her mother had with substance misuse and the terrible loss that she endured as a child. I can only say to her that I think any mother watching her today would have been extraordinarily proud. I also pay tribute to her father, who had to step into the role of sole parent in such difficult circumstances, and wish him a very happy birthday, which he is having to celebrate alone in these circumstances.

I thank Gavin Robinson for his steadfast support for the Bill. We have had to remove some sections from the Bill because the Assembly is back, but I pay tribute to him for his contributions to the Bill thus far, and to the Northern Irish Assembly and the Minister there, who I hope will be bringing legislation forward quickly.

We have worked tirelessly to ensure that the risks of domestic abuse in the covid-19 crisis are understood and met. We must be clear with anyone contacting us regarding domestic abuse cases that social distancing does not prevent people from leaving their homes for a place of safety if they need it because they live in an abusive household. Since social distancing came into force, we know that domestic abuse charities have reported a surge of activity in people contacting helplines and accessing web-based services, and we are working closely across government and the charitable sector to ensure that vulnerable people can access the support they need.

Local authorities have access to a £3.2 billion support fund to bolster their services, and Ms Abbott and my hon. Friend Claire Coutinho both raised a point about refuge accommodation in the circumstances. The Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend Luke Hall, wrote to local authority leaders yesterday about domestic abuse services and has suggested help with additional accommodation sources, should local authorities require that.

Other colleagues have mentioned the report by the Home Affairs Committee on that topic, and I very much thank the Committee for its report. I want to reassure Members about the actions we are taking. We have been working closely with the domestic abuse commissioner to ensure that frontline charities will receive a share of the £750 million charitable support package announced by the Chancellor. I cannot go into details at this point, but we are actively working on it. Of course, we have also announced £2 million in addition to that to support technological capability for domestic abuse services, and a further £600,000 from the Ministry of Justice to allow victim helplines to stay open longer. The national campaign, which I know many hon. Members have been kind enough to join, was launched by the Home Secretary earlier this month to raise awareness of domestic abuse and help victims to access support.

Many colleagues have raised the topic of migrant victims. We understand the problems that such victims face, and we are absolutely committed to ensuring that all victims of domestic abuse are treated first and foremost as victims, regardless of their immigration status. As part of our response to the Joint Committee’s report, we undertook to complete a review. We have now completed the evidence gathering phase of the review, including focus groups and a final call for evidence from the sector, but if we are to put in place new support mechanisms, we need a clearer evidence base so that it can be targeted properly to meet the needs of those for whom it is intended. That is why today I am announcing that later this year we will invite bids for grants from a £1.5 million pilot fund to cover the cost of support in a refuge or other safe accommodation. We will use the pilot to assess better the level of need for that group of victims and to inform spending review decisions on longer-term funding. We aim also to publish a full response to the Joint Committee’s recommendation ahead of Report, and we will of course take into account the comments made during this debate.

Another large topic for discussion was that of children. My right hon. Friend Mrs May, who did so much in her previous role to spearhead this legislation, my hon. Friends the Members for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) and for Bolsover (Mark Fletcher), and Sam Tarry, all described the impact that domestic abuse can have on children. It is vital that we recognise that in the statutory functions of the domestic abuse commissioner. Indeed, Vicky Foxcroft and my hon. Friend David Johnston both explained about ACEs and the impact that domestic abuse has on them. One of the key functions of the commissioner will be to encourage good practice in the identification of children affected by domestic abuse and the provision of protection and support. Clause 66 places a duty on the Home Secretary to issue guidance on the effect of that.

I wanted to move on to the gender definition and mention my hon. Friend Philip Davies and Lilian Greenwood, but I think I will be denied the time to do that. So, in closing, this debate has shown the House at its very best. Across the country, far too many people are experiencing the awful reality of domestic abuse. There is not a single constituency untouched by this terrible crime. Bringing an end to this awful crime is our collective responsibility. Legislation alone cannot provide all the answers, but where it can, the Government are steadfast in our determination to see this Bill enacted and implemented as quickly as possible.

To those suffering today, I can say only this: you are not alone. Help is available, and we will do everything in our power to protect you. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.