I would like to start by saying that we on the Labour Benches fully support all the Government’s new clauses and amendments today. Many of them and, in fact, many of the changes to the Bill since its very first draft, all those many moons ago, have been things that we on the Opposition side of the House have championed from both the Front and Back Benches. The Government have taken an approach throughout the whole process of this Bill of seeking always to try to improve it. For this, we are very grateful, and the victims in this country will be grateful. The Bill still has a number of processes to go through in the other place, and I very much hope that the Government will continue to have this attitude to positive change as the Bill progresses, although let us hope it progresses perhaps quicker than it has in the past.
To touch on a number of the Government’s amendments very briefly—in support—the changes suggested to the family courts were, by and large, amendments tabled by the Labour party in Committee, and they come hot on the heels of the Family Law Panel review, which was a very good, thorough and timely piece of work. I want to praise my hon. Friends the Members for Hove (Peter Kyle), for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh), for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) and for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi), who worked tirelessly on behalf of their constituents and victims across the country to seek that review. I make a very special mention of Women’s Aid, and of Rachel Williams, Sammy Woodhouse and Claire Throssell—all victims and campaigners who have pushed family law reform for victims of sexual and domestic violence through their own pain, suffering and loss.
The amendment on including children in the definition of domestic abuse was again an amendment tabled by the Labour party in Committee. For this, we are eternally grateful, and I look forward to seeing it in today’s amended Bill. Huge thanks for this go to all the children and young people who joined the campaign to speak of their experiences of living with domestic abuse and about how, without question, this had victimised them. I want to say thank you to Charlie Webster and, in memory of Karl, Jack and Daniel, we once again pay tribute to them. To all the children’s charities from national groups such as Action for Children, Barnardo’s, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the Children’s Society to local grass-roots campaigners such as Free Your Mind in London, WE:ARE —Women’s Empowerment And Recovery Educators—in Birmingham and Wirral Women and Children’s Aid in Merseyside, I say thank you for all seeing those children and fighting for them.
As for amendments regarding the rough sex defence, so ably championed by my inimitable right hon. and learned Friend Ms Harman, Mark Garnier and Laura Farris, as well as by the brilliant campaign We Can’t Consent To This, I simply want to say one thing. Natalie Connolly’s name and story has rung out around this Chamber and been told in many newspapers, and the bravery of her family will see this law changed. Today, I do not want to remember her for how she died or to allow a violent man to get to say what her story was. I simply want to remember Natalie, a brilliant, beautiful, bright mother, sister, daughter—a woman who had a story all of her own about the things she loved and cared for. I hope that now the story of Natalie Connolly can be that: one that centres her as a human, just like all of us, not the story that somebody else told.
As the Minister has alluded to, we are debating new clause 23, which stands in my name and that of the Leader of the Opposition, and we return to what seems now like an age-old issue: how we deal with victims of domestic abuse with no recourse to public funds. In Committee, the Minister and I disagreed over the terminology for who we were talking about. I decided to refer to our care workers, NHS workers, people in this building serving us our drinks, to highlight the kind of people I was talking about when I referred to people with no recourse to public funds. The Minister, quite rightly, cited evidence of asylum seekers or even those with irregular immigration status.
Fundamentally, it does not matter on which rhetorical side of the fence we fall. We are talking about people, humans, who, when they have been raped, beaten, controlled and abused, before we ask them how we can help, first we ask what stamp is in their passport. This cannot be right. What is more, the situation as it is today is not only hindering support to victims; it is helping to leave rapists, abusers and violent perpetrators on our streets.
Since our debate in Committee, a number of police officers from across the country have been in touch with me. This is what they told me. One officer said:
“For years now, we have faced difficulties trying to effectively safeguard subjects of very serious offences. There are some things in place, such as the destitution domestic violence concession, but this process can take weeks to sort. The refuges are usually very helpful, but they obviously cannot operate without being paid, so we are often left with subjects being isolated in hotels for weeks, which is a bad outcome for everyone.”
Another officer from a different force got in touch and said:
“The current situation has a serious impact on the police’s safeguarding duties. It also has a knock-on effect on our ability to investigate domestic abuse as crimes, since officers are distracted by the need to find alternative safe accommodation and support, rather than concentrate on their primary role, which is to investigate the commission of potential criminal offences.”
The Minister is right to seek evidence, so I have looked to my own force, in the west midlands, which is a place obviously close to my heart. There the police public protection unit last year, out of police force funding, spent £23,161 on temporary accommodation. While some of this will have been due to the pressure on refuge places, I understand from the force that a common reason is accommodating out of police resources victims with no recourse to public funds. As the Minister seeks to gather evidence, I wonder if she will ask every police force how much police money—money that could fund a police officer—they are spending on such temporary accommodation.
The Government’s own draft guidance essentially admits that no recourse to public funds is a barrier to women getting out of abusive situations. In the Government’s words:
“Victims who have entered the UK from overseas may face additional barriers when attempting to escape domestic abuse that are related to their lack of access to public services and funds, leading to higher dependence on the partner or family that has supported their being in the UK. This may be exploited by partners or family members to exert control over victims.”
The police are saying this is a problem, all the expert charities bar none are saying it is a problem, Members of Parliament who face these issues every day are saying it is a problem, and the Government’s own guidance highlights that it is a problem and is being used by perpetrators, so why do we not seek to fix the problem? Our new clause seeks to meet the Government in the middle using what they suggested in Committee. We are suggesting that for the year of the pilot project outlined by the Government they trial the end to no recourse to public funds for victims of domestic abuse.
We have listened to the Government’s concerns regarding the pathways to settled status and essentially pleaded with Ministers to test whether giving these victims access to public funds will make a difference. The experts all say it will. Although I recognise what Ministers are saying about needing hard data, you cannot prove a negative; we will never know how many people turned up for help but were turned away because access was not available to them.