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Domestic Abuse Bill – in the House of Commons at 9:00 pm on 6th July 2020.

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Amendments made: 33, line 2, after “Commissioner;” insert “to make provision for the granting of measures to assist individuals in certain circumstances to give evidence or otherwise participate in civil proceedings;”.

This amendment is consequential on the new clause to be inserted by NC17.

Amendment 34, line 3, after “family” insert “or civil”.

This amendment is consequential on the new clause to be inserted by NC18.

Amendment 39, line 4, after “circumstances;” insert “to make provision about circumstances in which consent to the infliction of harm is not a defence in proceedings for certain violent offences;”.—(Victoria Atkins.)

This Amendment is consequential on NC20.

Third Reading

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice 9:31 pm, 6th July 2020

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

It is a real pleasure to have made it to the first Third Reading of this Bill. As Jess Phillips and I were reminding ourselves, there were two Second Reading debates, and the fact that we have reached Third Reading is a significant milestone not just in the history of the Bill, but for the millions of people who have either suffered in silence or who have had their stories told, either here or to courts and other proceedings up and down our country.

The passing of this Bill by the House marks an important milestone in our shared endeavour to provide better support and protection for the victims of domestic abuse and their children. It is the culmination of over three years of work and I again pay tribute, in particular, to my right hon. Friend Mrs May for championing this Bill, as well as to all right hon. and hon. Members who have contributed. We know that this Bill went through a draft Bill procedure —one that I commend and support in particular in this instance, because the prelegislative scrutiny that was undertaken by my right hon. Friend Mrs Miller and her colleagues in that Joint Committee made it clear and ensured that this Bill, as it came to the House, was already in a strong state.

The Bill was improved during the course of debate. It was scrutinised properly in Committee. I am grateful to the Committee members of all parties, who not only did their duty but threw themselves into the process with enthusiasm, vigour and purpose. It shows that, contrary to how some of the commentariat often scoff at the Committee process in this House, the process is not only alive and well but working well. That is a vote of confidence in a vital part of line-by-line scrutiny

The Bill now expressly recognises the devastating impact of domestic abuse on the lives of children growing up in a household where one parent is being abused by another. Such children are also the victims, and it is right that the Bill recognises that, allowing them to gain better access to the protection and support they need.

During the passage of the Bill, we have also strengthened protection for victims in court. No victim of domestic abuse should be re-traumatised as a result of being subjected to cross-examination in court by their abuser. Such cross-examination in person is already prohibited in the criminal courts, and the Bill now extends that protection to the family and civil courts.

We must also do everything we can to enable the victims of domestic abuse to give their best evidence in court. That might mean, for example, giving evidence from behind a screen or via a video link. Again, that principle should apply in all court proceedings. As a result of an amendment, we now have automatic eligibility for special measures in criminal, family and civil proceedings.

We have also delivered on our commitment to make the law crystal clear in relation to the so-called rough sex defence. We now have it enshrined in statute that no one can consent to serious harm, or indeed their own death, for the purposes of sexual gratification. I join in commendation of Ms Harman and my hon. Friend Mark Garnier, both of whom have met me on several occasions to discuss these matters and to whom I am grateful, and, most importantly, the family of Natalie Connolly, who have assiduously campaigned on this issue.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

I raised on Report the link between rough sex and pornography, with recent surveys indicating that there is indeed a link. Would the Secretary of State be good enough to give a little more information on the assurance I sought that the Government would take early action to address concerns about harms resulting from pornography?

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the way in which she brought the issue to the debate via her amendment and the constructive approach she has consistently taken. Yes, I can give her that assurance, which will come in several forms. Research is being done by the Government Equalities Office on this sensitive and important issue. That will be published soon, and through legislation and the online harms policy, which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is responsible for, we have again a vital opportunity for early action to deal with the issue she rightly raises.

The Bill has been a prime example of how the Government, parliamentarians and campaigners have come together to identify an area where the law falls short and done something about it, yet we recognise that, in relation to a number of other issues, there is still more to be done. The recent publication of the report by the expert panel on harm in the family courts and the Government’s implementation plan affords, I think, a unique opportunity for the family justice system to reform how it manages private family law cases involving children. I put on record my own personal commitment to the process. That report was uncompromising, it made for difficult reading and it was critical, but I felt strongly that it had to be published, warts and all, because if we are going to deal with this problem, we have to be honest about the failures of the past, and through that process of honest assessment come up with something better. We owe it to the families who look to the court as a place of resolution rather than a place of further abuse, strife, hurt and horror.

The panel received more than 1,200 submissions of evidence and the report provides significant insight into the experience of victims of domestic abuse in family courts. It is a launch pad for the actions that we are going to take to better protect and support children and domestic abuse victims throughout private family law proceedings. There is more work to be done, because I strongly believe that although the adversarial principle is an important one and serves to advance the interests of justice in many settings, in private family law proceedings in particular we have to look for a better way to resolve the issues and to achieve a higher degree of justice for everybody involved, not least the children whose voices must be heard and who, despite the best efforts of the Children Act of 30 years ago, still do not necessarily get their voices heard in the way that we owe it to them to allow.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Conservative, South Holland and The Deepings

While my right hon. and learned Friend is in the mood to concede and be generous, might I ask him to look again at the issue of maximum and minimum sentences? He is of course right that during legal proceedings victims should be treated with the respect and regard that they deserve, but once people are convicted, there needs to be exemplary sentences—there needs to be just deserts. Will he look at that issue through the prism of the new clause that I tabled, which I have no doubt inspired and impressed him?

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

My right hon. Friend he tempts me into new territory. As the Government and I develop a White Paper on sentencing reform that will be published later in the year, we will have ample opportunity to engage properly on such issues. My right hon. Friend knows that I come to this role with, shall we say, a little bit of form on the issue of sentencing and a long experience in it, and I want to use that White Paper as the opportunity to set something clear, firm and understandable that will only increase public confidence in the sentencing system in England and Wales.

Before I move on to the question of migrant victims, I pause to pay warm tribute to the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend Victoria Atkins and, indeed, to the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend Alex Chalk, who is part of my ministerial team at the Ministry of Justice. Together, they did not just do their duty, but did it with zeal, passion and a deep commitment to the issues. I know that that commitment is shared by Opposition spokesmen, too, and pay tribute to them for their assiduous work on this issue. True cross-party co-operation can move mountains, and this Bill is an emblematic example of that important principle.

Let me return to the important issue of migrant victims of domestic abuse and the review that has been conducted. We acknowledge that more needs to be done to support migrant victims who do not qualify under the destitute domestic violence concession or other mechanisms—that is very clear—but we do need to assess precisely that need, as outlined by the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle. That is why the £1.5 million pilot scheme that is to be launched later in the year will provide support additional to the mechanisms that have already been discussed. It will also provide the evidence necessary to help to inform decisions about a long-term solution.

The provision of better protection and support for victims of domestic abuse and their children is at the very heart of the Bill. In the first Second Reading debate —on the previous version of the Bill—I told my own story about being a young barrister dealing with a domestic abuse case, one of many that were dealt with somewhat differently, shall we say, in those days from how they are dealt with now. That does not necessarily mean that we should be complacent about where we have come to with regards to how we deal with domestic violence, but it is right to say that if the phrase “It’s only a domestic” has not previously been consigned to the history books, this Bill will make sure that it is. We owe it to the 2.4 million victims a year to ensure that the justice system and local support services work better for them.

Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Conservative, Maidenhead

I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for the kind remarks he made earlier. He has just outlined the importance of this Bill. Will the Government do everything they can to ensure that, in timetabling it through the other place, it is given the priority it needs to ensure that we can get it on the statute book as soon as possible?

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, and with alacrity I give her that undertaking. I know that my colleagues in the other place will share the same ambition that we have here, and I will work with them to make sure that the Bill makes its proper passage through that House so that we can give it the Royal Assent that we all want it to attain.

Ultimately, we all just want the abuse to stop, but in the meantime we must, and we will, do everything we can to protect vulnerable people, to protect victims and their children, and to offer them the safety and support they so desperately need and deserve. I commend this Bill to the House.

Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Shadow Minister (Home Office) 9:46 pm, 6th July 2020

It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Gentleman the Lord Chancellor. After three years, I am delighted that I might get the last word on this Bill. I will echo some of the thanks that he has laid out.

When I was speaking to the Deputy Chief Whip earlier, he said, “You know on Third Reading, Jess”—which I have not prepared for at all, because I did not think we would actually get to it—“you’re not allowed to just go on about what you want in the Bill,” so I might just sit down, because my forte is going on about what I want in the Bill. As it passes Third Reading, I feel slightly bereft about not updating it anymore. It seems that, since I was elected to this House, it has been going through.

I pay huge tribute to Mrs May for her work in the Home Office and latterly as Prime Minister. I told a story in Committee about how, on one occasion when she was Home Secretary, I was a candidate in the election so when she visited the refuge where I worked, I was allowed to work from home that day for shame that I might show up the organisation with the Home Secretary there. She visited where I used to work on a number of occasions and has always been, I would say, mostly in the right place around domestic abuse. We would not be here today had it not been for her efforts.

I also pay tribute to Mrs Miller and the work done by the Joint Committee, which was very thorough and detailed and has definitely led to the Bill being in the position that it is.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Conservative, Basingstoke

That gives me the opportunity to thank the other members of the Committee in both Houses, the other place and here, for the assiduous way in which they attended the Committee and for the excellent evidence that we were given by a large number of organisations. I also thank the Clerks of the House, who, when it comes to these sorts of Bills, go from a standing start to being ready for action almost overnight. They have our undying gratitude.

Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Shadow Minister (Home Office)

I could not agree with the right hon. Lady more about the Clerks of the House. I had not quite understood, until I was in my current position, exactly how much they do, but I feel as though Kevin from the Clerks’ office is currently on my speed dial and I will definitely be buying a hat if he ever gets married. I feel very close to the Clerks of the House now.

I want to pay tribute to the Ministers on the Bill Committee. Everybody today has rightly paid tribute to Ministers from the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice for their efforts and their open hearts and minds throughout the Bill, and I certainly echo that. I also want to pay tribute to a former Member, Sarah Newton, who is no longer here. I was about to say that she was the first Minister I ever sat down with and talked to about the Bill, but actually I think that was Karen Bradley. I pay tribute to them both.

On my side of the House, I first wish to say a big thank you to my hon. Friend Nick Thomas-Symonds. Since he has taken up his position, he has really prioritised the issue of domestic abuse. In the context of the covid crisis we are currently facing, he is pushing every day for things to be better for victims in England, Wales and across the United Kingdom. My hon. Friend Peter Kyle dealt with these issues very ably in Committee. I also want to make a special mention to my hon. Friend Rosie Duffield, who felt that she could not speak today. We owe her an enormous debt of gratitude for what she has done.

Inevitably, I am going to forget somebody. Never list a group of people, because you will inevitably forget some of them. I do it with my children, so we will have to see how I go. I wish to thank: Women’s Aid, SafeLives, Southall Black Sisters, the Latin American Women’s Rights Service, Nicole Jacobs, End Violence Against Women, Vera Baird, Hestia, Refuge and every single organisation working every day across the country to support people directly. They have worked on the Bill just as much as anybody in this House. They put a lot of effort into the policy work and we are better representatives for the work they have all done.

I welcome what the Lord Chancellor said with regard to timeliness, and the severity and importance that he puts on the issue around the family courts he mentioned today. I look forward to the details of the review, and the pilot scheme, of migrant women’s support services.

I came to this House inspired by women and children who had been abused. It is an honour to stand in the Third Reading debate of the Domestic Abuse Bill. This place can seem completely otherworldly. The words written in the Bill will seem in many cases completely otherworldly to the vast majority of the people I have supported in my life as victims of domestic abuse. But the message it sends is that we can hear them, and that is a message we should send loud and clear from this place. Finally, in Third Reading part 1, I hope the Bill only ever has a part 1.

Photo of Bob Neill Bob Neill Chair, Justice Committee, Chair, Justice Committee 9:53 pm, 6th July 2020

Those were two very powerful speeches, which is right because this is a really important Bill. It is a major aspect of reform of family private law. The Lord Chancellor is entitled to great credit for what he has done. It is the second time in almost a fortnight that he has brought in major reforms and we should remember that. We have reformed divorce law and now how we deal with private family law.

I welcome the comments by Jess Phillips from the Opposition Front Bench, because this is something we ought to deal with together. It is a difficult and complex area. As Chairman of the Justice Committee, I can say that we have wrestled with some of those issues from time to time. As a practitioner, as a constituency MP and as a human being, I have seen the consequences of some of the deficiencies in the law as it currently stands. This is a major reform and we should welcome it. There is more to do, I have no doubt, but it is a good step forward. In particular, the changes to the procedures in the family court, which have taken some time to get through, are really important. I hope we will now see that properly resourced. I hope also that we will follow that through in some of the understanding that is required, for example, with regards to acquired brain injury—a point made by Chris Bryant in a previous debate—and some of the pressures that are put on people through coercive control, which this Government have recognised and taken on board beyond most others. We need ensure that we keep practice in line with the letter of the law.

I am particularly pleased that the Bill has dealt with the issue of non-fatal strangulation. As a legal practitioner, it always struck me that this was a real difficulty—when one could not prove the necessary intent under section 18 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. The irony was that if somebody died, we could prove manslaughter, but sadly we could not prove anything less. That is another gap that the Bills fills.

An awful lot of really important points have been covered by the Bill, but I suspect that the overall thrust is that we are determined to improve the situation of victims in the criminal courts and the family courts. Ironically, crime got in front of the family division in many ways, when it came to the protection of witnesses and the special care that should be given to people. Judges and practitioners have repeatedly sought this and it has been delivered. I hope that we can now move forward towards better reform of private family law generally. But may I just make a final prod to the Lord Chancellor in a nice way, and say that that requires resource? It requires resource for the judges, the ability for people to sit the requisite hours, and resource for those who undertake a number of onerous duties referred to in the Bill on behalf of the public to be properly recompensed. I suspect that he will do that.

We ought to welcome this legislation, and, above all, welcome the fact that we are moving away from what was rather a blame culture in the way in which we dealt with family law, and towards something that is much more constructive. Maybe we should move forward in such a way in a number of other matters too.

Photo of Yvette Cooper Yvette Cooper Chair, Home Affairs Committee, Chair, Home Affairs Committee 9:56 pm, 6th July 2020

In the last few minutes remaining, I want to thank the Government for bringing forward this important Bill and for listening. I thank Ministers and the Labour shadow Front-Bench Members, who have been such passionate advocates for improvements to the Bill. I also thank Members across the House who have tabled important amendments, proposals and reforms, and have very much come together in the kind of cross-party spirit that we would expect in dealing with such a terrible crime—a crime that destroys lives and haunts children’s futures for very many years to come.

We have already come a long way since the Home Affairs Committee’s report on domestic abuse two years ago, and since I raised with the former Home Secretary, Mrs May, questions about having a domestic abuse commissioner back in—I think—2012. We have seen great progress as a result of cross-party working and the decisions that the Government have taken to put these measures into practice. We all owe thanks to the many organisations that work so tirelessly every single day to support domestic abuse victims right across the country and to rescue families, put lives back together and give people a future.

I join the tributes to my hon. Friend Rosie Duffield. Her words and her bravery in speaking out have already provided great comfort and growing confidence to many other people across the country who have experienced something similar. Her reaching out and saying, “You are not alone”, has been extremely powerful.

We also need to think with some humility about what happens next. Although we may have come together and agreed legislation, legislation does not solve everything. This is not just about how legislation is used, but about how Government policies work, how partnerships work and how things happen right across the country. That humility should be even greater at this moment, because we have come together to say how important this legislation is at the same time that domestic abuse has been rising during the coronavirus crisis. It is to all those who are still suffering that we owe an ever greater commitment to help them and to rebuild their lives.

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I want to place on the record my thanks to all the officials who have laboured very hard in both the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice on this matter, and I seek your guidance on how to do so.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

As the most brilliant lawyer in the Chamber—[Interruption.] —in the House, the Lord Chancellor has made his point perfectly. Rarely have I seen a Bill with such co-operation from everyone right across the House, wonderfully worked on by the Clerks, and rarely have I seen a Third Reading conclude with everybody so satisfied and pleased at the result.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.