My Lords, like many of you, I first wish to pay tribute to the untiring efforts of my noble friend Lady Newlove. As Victims’ Commissioner, and well before her appointment, she has devoted an incredible amount of time and effort to raising the profile of the victims’ code and supporting those who have been the victims of crime. She is an inspiration to all of us who work in public policy.
Amidst the stifling enormity of Brexit, it seems that important parts of the domestic agenda have been left adrift or to be patched up by ad hoc measures and not substantive legislation. I am glad that domestic violence is not one of those issues, and that the Government have a proper Bill, which I am proud to support. The Prime Minister has announced her formal departure, to take effect on Friday. While she may not have had the chance to pass as much domestically as she might have liked, she can take pride in setting the groundwork for the Bill at the Home Office and pushing it along in No. 10.
I am particularly gladdened that the appalling practice of survivors being cross-examined by their abusers is to be outlawed, which will bring us into line with other common law jurisdictions. The understanding we have of coercive control has been deepened with new research that suggests that the court process itself might enable it—this practice being a good example. I look forward to a further discourse on this important issue and commend the Government for this sensible proposed change to the law.
That said, some alterations could be made that would improve the Bill’s impact and ensure fair treatment for those who suffer domestic abuse, wherever they are in the country. In another place, the Member for Sheffield Heeley has drawn on the saddening treatment of a constituent to suggest a sensible alteration, which received cross-party support in a letter to the Lord Chancellor. It is a sad fact that rapists are entitled to seek access to children they father by Section 8 of the Children Act, which entitles the family courts to make contact or residence orders in favour of a natural parent. The paramountcy principle embedded in statutes is powerful, and the discretion afforded to the court is wide. It is appropriate for us as legislators to see if there are public policy reasons to limit the scope of this discretion. I think Members here and in the other place, as well as the general public, would agree that rapists should rarely, if ever, receive rights of parental access.
While such an amendment might seem difficult to include, there are other statutes from which we can draw useful parallels. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, which other Members might recall, excludes donors of gametes and embryos from being automatically included in the category of persons entitled to apply for such orders. As such, applicants have an additional barrier to overcome before the orders can be granted in their favour, and the actual paramountcy test embedded in statute need not be altered or amended.
We have previously combined departmental competencies in single Bills, and the domestic abuse Bill does seem an appropriate vehicle for such a policy, given the interconnectedness of sexual and domestic abuse. With limited parliamentary time for policies that do not relate to Brexit, it seems prudent to consolidate some issues, so that important domestic policies can receive the legislation they deserve.
Will the Minister consider working with the Ministry of Justice to conduct a consultation regarding this important issue, which has already received cross-party support in the other place? Alternatively, will the Minister consider consulting on a separate Bill to remove parental rights from rapists?