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Victims of Domestic Violence and Abuse - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:29 pm on 6th June 2019.

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Photo of Lord Wasserman Lord Wasserman Conservative 12:29 pm, 6th June 2019

My Lords, I begin by drawing attention to my interests as set out in the register. I do this because some of what I want to say today, particularly about technology, reflects things that I learned while I was serving as an adviser to a firm operating in this field. I want to make it clear, however, that I no longer have any commercial interests in this area.

Having got that matter out of the way, I add my congratulations to my noble friend Lady Newlove on securing this debate. Like my noble friend Lady Jenkin, I pay tribute to the outstanding job that she has done both as this country’s first Champion for Active, Safer Communities and, more recently, as the Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales, a position from which she retired at the end of last month.

I am sure that my noble friend would agree that neither of those jobs was easy, but I can tell noble Lords that, on the basis of reports I have had from police and crime commissioners around the country, my noble friend has carried out both jobs with great distinction and that she leaves her most recent post, that of Victims’ Commissioner, with the heartfelt thanks and deep respect of all those who care about victims and are trying to help them.

In two previous speeches that I made on domestic violence in your Lordships’ House, I talked about the availability of technology which would improve both the safety and happiness of victims of domestic abuse but which could not yet be used effectively in this country because the courts did not have the power to make it mandatory. On both occasions, I urged the Government to introduce legislation to allow this to happen before more innocent victims lost their lives in attacks that could have been prevented had this technology been in use. I therefore make no apology for returning to this subject again today. We really are talking about matters of life and death.

The technology that I have in mind is a form of electronic monitoring or tagging developed specifically for domestic abuse cases and known as proximity monitoring and notification systems. These systems provide victims with early alerts that their potential attacker is in the vicinity, whether the victims are at home, at work, with friends or on the move. They do this by fitting the potential attacker—sometimes called the offender or perpetrator—with a securely attached radio frequency, or RF, ankle tag and by giving him a GPS tracking unit, which he must carry with him whenever he leaves his home base.

If the offender tries to tamper with the ankle tag or leave home without the tracking device, an alert is generated at the monitoring centre associated with the scheme, 24/7. In this way, his location is continuously tracked by the monitoring centre. Whenever an offender fitted with this equipment attempts to enter a predefined restricted zone—for example, within 500 metres of the victim’s home or workplace or wherever the victim happens to be at the time—the technology generates an alert. The alert is transmitted to the victim, who has been given a GPS alarm unit to carry with her at all times. The portable unit alerts her that the offender is nearby and that it would be sensible to leave the area. The offender is also alerted by those monitoring the system that he is entering a restricted zone and should leave it. At the same time, the police are alerted that the offender is heading into a restricted zone and can notify local units that they need to respond to a potential attack.

As I have said, I have referred to this technology in at least two speeches in your Lordships’ House. In both, I pointed out that, while proximity tagging does not deal with the underlying social and psychological causes of domestic abuse, it can save lives. To give your Lordships some idea of just how many lives I was talking about, I pointed out that between my first speech in November 2014 and my second in March 2018, 300 women had been the victims of domestic homicide.

However, this technology can save lives only if the courts have the power to make it mandatory. We have another opportunity to make this happen as part of the new domestic abuse protection orders to be included in the forthcoming domestic abuse Bill. I urge the Government to bring this Bill and these orders into law as expeditiously as possible so that this new technology can be trialled and introduced across the country. I know that several PCCs are simply waiting to be able to mount such trials as soon as the law permits them to do so.

I understand that this technology by itself is not a panacea for domestic abuse—indeed, it is not even a cast-iron guarantee that the victims of determined perpetrators will always be safe from harm. The use of tagging depends on adequate police resources to make it effective. There is no point in the police knowing that an attack is about to take place unless they have the resources available to prevent it. That is why technology by itself is only part of the answer. It must be complemented by adequate police resources and the appropriate legal powers.

I very much regret that I do not have the time to mention any of the many innovative, non-technological domestic abuse prevention and support programmes which police and crime commissioners up and down the country have developed and are funding, often out of their own resources. I have had emails from at least 10 PCCs giving terrific examples of what they are doing. I am sorry that I have not been able to include them, but I suspect that my noble friend Lady Seccombe will tell us something about what at least one PCC is doing in this area.

I do not want to sit down without mentioning the brilliant appointment of Dame Vera Baird, the PCC for Northumbria, as my noble friend Lady Newlove’s successor as Victims’ Commissioner. I congratulate Dame Vera on her appointment. I can think of no other PCC who has done more to highlight the importance of domestic abuse as a police priority. With her experience, both as a PCC and a Minister in Whitehall, victims of crime—and especially of domestic abuse—could have no better champion. Her task is immense and urgent. It is also critical to the safety of our communities. I wish her well.