Report (5th Day)

Part of Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill – in the House of Lords at 7:30 pm on 20th March 2012.

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Photo of Lord Beecham Lord Beecham Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Health) 7:30 pm, 20th March 2012

My Lords, I am not sure what the correct collective noun is for a group of persuasive Baronesses, but whatever it is, we-the House, and indeed society-are greatly indebted to this particular group of persuasive Baronesses, supported as they have been by the occasional male Member of this House.

I would like to join other noble Lords in congratulating the Government on responding so positively and readily to the proposals to carry forward the pilot scheme and to come forward with a legislative framework to adopt the proposals. These have been pushed very hard by the Mayor of London and, indeed, by London Councils as an organisation. There has been complete unanimity politically in London, and in this House too, about the merits of this scheme.

Coming as I do from a city where, unfortunately, alcohol consumption is particularly high-leading generally to low-level crime and a low level of violence which is nevertheless a disturbing social phenomenon-I am very glad that we are beginning to see an approach here that we hope will make a difference. As has been pointed out, however, an alcohol strategy is still awaited. This is perhaps only a first instalment in what may need to be a major review of how we deal with these problems.

The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay-who has been so much the moving spirit, if I can be forgiven the use of that term, in these matters-mentioned one particular matter: domestic violence. There has been consultation about this, as the noble Baroness rightly said. At a meeting held in May 2011, all the violence-against-women agencies present expressed,

"high levels of concern about this scheme operating in relation to domestic violence".

They gave as reasons that tackling alcohol in itself,

"does not tackle domestic violence ... implies that domestic violence behaviour is driven by alcohol, which is not the case ... domestic violence can occur when men are sober"- or when women are sober, as it is not always one-sided-and,

"implies that physical assault (which is linked with alcohol) is the main/only form of domestic violence", as that is not correct either. There was,

"general consensus that the additional elements which would need to be considered for DV"- domestic violence-

"cases, including risk assessment and support", would make the matter very complex.

That is not in any way to derogate from the proposals being made, but it does emphasise the need to look carefully, in the context of the pilot, at what will be run as part of the experiment, and to look very sensitively at the concerns of the organisations that work most closely with women as the principal victims of domestic violence, to see whether this is necessarily the most appropriate way of dealing with those problems.

I certainly have an open mind about that, and I assume that the Government would as well. I am therefore just uttering a word of caution. It should not necessarily be assumed that domestic violence is an appropriate topic for inclusion in a scheme of this kind. It is a matter that needs to be tested. The American experience might be helpful in that respect, of course, but the culture is not necessarily the same here as it is in South Dakota or other parts of the United States. I think that we have to be a little careful about jumping to conclusions.

With that single reservation-it is only a note of caution-I very much endorse the principle and the Government's amendments. I would also like to endorse what the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, has said about costs. I assume that the Government would cover the cost of pilots as they take place in localities. In local government parlance, this would be a new burden, and the convention is that such new burdens are funded by government. As it is a pilot, it should not be too expensive to run-and ultimately, we hope, the public purse will benefit significantly from any savings that accrue, not least in the health service, where such savings would be extremely desirable. I mean savings not only in financial resources but in the time and skills of staff.

The Opposition strongly support this principle. With that note of caution, we congratulate the Government and look forward to taking matters further. Perhaps I may also ask whether the Minister or her colleagues would be prepared to meet before the pilots are instituted with representatives of the organisations concerned with violence against women to explore their concerns and to see whether, perhaps together, a joint approach might be worked out to test the scheme in practice or to see how it might be modified to reflect the real concerns they have expressed. We certainly support the Government and these amendments.