New Clause 15 - Children as victims of domestic abuse

Part of Domestic Abuse Bill – in the House of Commons at 5:15 pm on 6th July 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Shadow Minister (Home Office) 5:15 pm, 6th July 2020

I absolutely agree. I agree not because it suits my purpose, but as someone with a vast amount of experience of handling cases of victims with no recourse to public funds, both as a support worker and as a Member of Parliament. My heart sinks when somebody tells me that they have no recourse, when I know there is very little I can do. That is when they come to me—someone who knows the different possible pilots that are happening. With the greatest respect to Members in this House, does everybody know how they would go about accessing exactly what was needed? Now think of Sue, who is at your local homelessness centre. The reality is that we will never know how many get turned away—that data will never be available—but by dropping “no recourse”, we can find out if it works.

As legislators, if we know something is a problem, we have a responsibility to address it. Our ideology should always be trumped by facts. I understand that often making law is complicated—seeing the consequences of this or the repercussions of that, the risks, benefits, checks and balances—but I think the Bill before us is quite simple. Today, we are making a law that tries to save people from domestic abuse.

New clause 25 would insert a non-discrimination clause to ensure that all are protected. If we stand here today and create a Bill that, not unintentionally or accidentally, but purposefully and wilfully excludes some from safety, we say that those people do not matter. We say that their life is not as important to us. In the votes today, we will be deciding whose lives are worth trying to save and how serious we are about trying to save them. Our new clause seeks to meet the Government in the middle. It is certainly not, as the Minister knows from the many amendments I tabled in Committee, necessarily what I always wanted, but it is an attempt to meet the Government in the middle. I simply ask that they walk toward us.

New clause 23 would expand an area where the Bill is very good—the duty on local authorities to provide accommodation-based services. This part of the Bill was hard won, and I will be thrilled to see it on the statute book, as it has the potential to put refuge services finally on a sustainable footing. However, 70% of domestic abuse victims do not receive services in refuge; instead, they are supported in community-based services. The victims in those services are often at highest risk of harm and homicide, and we want the same level of sustainability and strategy there as in refuge services.

I spoke last week to a brilliant community worker in Merseyside, who told me that their service, which has only four support workers, is currently supporting 776 complex domestic abuse cases. She had yet to receive any money from the announced covid-19 schemes, which would only last until October anyway. She told me how the easing of lockdown and the good and right national conversation about domestic abuse was massively increasing the numbers and the complexity of their caseload.

Our clause would place a duty on all relevant public bodies, not just local authorities, to do their part in commissioning domestic abuse services in the community. Every single health commissioner should have a duty to look at what domestic abuse services they can provide. Instead, as it stands, some A&E departments, such as those at the hospitals in Birmingham, have specialist domestic abuse workers on site, but the vast majority do not.  If public bodies are working with people, they are working with victims of domestic abuse. All should do their part.

The new clause would also ensure consideration for specialist groups catering for child victims, disabled victims, those working with perpetrators of abuse, LGBT victims, male victims and older victims, as well as services run by and for black and minority ethnic women, so that they have proper strategies in place to protect them. Groups such as Sistah Space in Hackney, which offers specialist services for black women, and Stay Safe East, which is one of only a tiny number of specialist disabled victims’ services, live hand to mouth, never knowing how sustainable their services might be. They rely on crowdfunding and fun runs to fund life-saving services.

I remember what it was like working in those services, drafting letters every January to put community-based staff on notice because we did not know, for example, whether our project catering for child victims or stalking victims would be funded after April. That is the reality for the vast majority of community services. The Bill recognises that refuge needs to be put on a sustainable footing. Bravo! It is absolutely brilliant. I think I said to Mrs Miller that I might retire when that happened, but I will renege on that—sometimes even I do not tell the truth.

We must give the same attention to vital life-saving community services, which support the vast majority of victims in this country. One-hundred-and-twenty specialist community-based support services from all across our country wrote to the Government, and to all of us, to say:

“Our services have remained open during COVID-19—our staff have moved heaven and earth to make that so—ensuring we don’t let victims of abuse down. Now we look to you”— the Government—

“to continue that commitment by pledging to recognise the huge contribution of community-based services in the Domestic Abuse Bill.”

Our new clause would do that.

In new clause 24, we seek, once and for all, to take decisive action to protect the lives of children who live with domestic abuse and have their cases heard in the family court. Between 2006 and 2019, at least 21 children were killed during contact with fathers who were perpetrators of domestic abuse. The Government’s report, released last week, states that many mothers explained how they fled the relationship with their father to protect their children, only to find that protection undermined or destroyed by the family court. The Opposition recognise that the Government, and especially the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, Alex Chalk, committed to a review of the pro-contact family court culture and how in some cases it endangers the lives and welfare of children. I have heard Ministers and Secretaries of State stand in the Chamber and cite the case of Claire Throssell, whose two sons, Jack and Paul, were murdered by their father after he was granted contact. We should not just say her name or think of her loss as some grisly exception when the Government’s own commissioned review shows that there is a systematic problem. We should act now to save lives and improve the safety of our country’s children while we have this Bill in front of us. At the very least, the Government should seek to ensure that their planned review is time-bound to conclude with the return of the Bill from the other place. If it is not, we could lose the legislative opportunity that is presented to us.

The argument to end the presumption of contact for proven violent perpetrators is, in my mind, made. There are already dead children—and I do not want to have to call for an urgent question to ask Ministers where we are with the review each time a new case of child homicide hits the media. I want us to act now, or at least to commit to a short timeframe of when and how the Government will act. I have no doubt that Ministers from the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice understand the severity and importance of the issue and, like the Opposition, do not want to kick the safety of our children into the long grass.

Amendments 40 and 43 relate to the degree of independence afforded to the commissioner of domestic abuse. The Bill before us deviates from the precedent set for the Children’s Commissioner by requiring reports and advice to be submitted to the Home Office rather than Parliament. Our amendments would retain the statutory requirement for safeguarding considerations but remove the possibility of the Home Office interfering, putting on undue pressure, or, in reality, just delaying the commissioner’s work. Every commissioner who gave evidence to Parliament in consultation for the Bill supports this approach. We will not press these amendments to a vote today, but we are keen to see further debate on the commissioner once the Bill arrives at the other place.

We do not stand here today to fight a political battle. The Domestic Abuse Bill has all our fingerprints across its pages. Its very existence sends a message to the victims in this country that we can see them, and to the perpetrators, that we will not tolerate them. We tabled the amendments and new clauses because, as has been the case since the Bill’s inception many, many moons ago, we want it to be the best it can be and for it to ensure that, no matter who you are, where you come from, where you work or whether you need refuge or want support in your own home, here in this Great Britain, we want to help you, because that is the kind of country we are: one that leaves no victim behind.