Amendment 141

Domestic Abuse Bill - Committee (4th Day) – in the House of Lords at 9:45 pm on 3 February 2021.

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Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames:

Moved by Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames

141: After Clause 68, insert the following new Clause—“Controlling or coercive behaviour by persons providing psychotherapy or counselling services(1) A person (“A”) commits an offence if—(a) A is a person providing or purporting to provide psychotherapy or counselling services to another person (“B”),(b) A repeatedly or continuously engages in behaviour towards B that is controlling or coercive,(c) the behaviour has a serious effect on B, and(d) A knows or ought to know that the behaviour will or may have a serious effect on B.(2) A’s behaviour has a “serious effect” on B if—(a) it causes B to fear, on at least two occasions, that violence will be used against B, or(b) it causes B psychological harm which has a substantial adverse effect on B's usual day-to-day activities.(3) For the purposes of subsection (1)(d) A “ought to know” that which a reasonable person in possession of the same information would know.(4) In proceedings for an offence under this section it is a defence for A to show that— (a) in engaging in the behaviour in question, A believed that he or she was acting in B’s best interests, and(b) the behaviour was in all the circumstances reasonable.(5) A is to be taken to have shown the facts mentioned in subsection (4) if—(a) sufficient evidence of the facts is adduced to raise an issue with respect to them, and(b) the contrary is not proved beyond reasonable doubt.(6) The defence in subsection (4) is not available to A in relation to behaviour that causes B to fear that violence will be used against B.(7) A person guilty of an offence under this section is liable—(a) on conviction on indictment, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years, or a fine, or both;(b) on summary conviction, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months, or a fine, or both.”

Photo of Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Justice)

My Lords, this amendment, in my name and the names of my noble friend Lady Jolly and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, addresses an extremely serious issue that affects far more lives than noble Lords might have expected. Psychotherapists and counsellors are not in any way regulated by law. In opening a debate on this issue on 2 March last year, my noble friend Lady Jolly pointed out:

“The terms ‘counsellor’ and ‘therapist’ are not protected. All of us could call ourselves such”.

She also pointed out that there is

“no assurance of the level of training or competence … nor a redress system to access should something go wrong”.—[Official Report, 2/3/20; cols. 468-69.]

We should all be clear that this amendment is not a criticism of the work undertaken by many straightforward, honest and understanding therapists and counsellors up and down the country, who are dedicated to helping their patients or clients address difficult issues in their lifw and get through particularly troubling periods. Nothing I say is intended to disparage their commitment or undermine their work. However, it is a tragic reality that a combination of this lack of regulation and the cruel techniques of coercive control adopted by some who offer so-called therapy and counselling services leads to many—mostly young—lives being, quite literally, ruined.

There is a pattern to these cases of abuse: charlatan therapists or counsellors secure clients—usually young and always troubled people—and proceed, over a period, to take over their life. Sadly, the typical case involves such so-called counsellors persuading their clients, quite without foundation in fact, that they have been dreadfully wronged or abused by their parents or families during their childhood. They generally implant entirely false memories in those clients. As the clients come to believe, under an insidious form of persuasion, that these false memories represent reality, they are led to blame their parents and families for all that has gone wrong in their life and all that troubles them. In this way, the clients involved are gradually alienated from their parents and families in a sinister process of coercive control.

The well-known and well-documented phenomenon of transference, originally explored by Sigmund Freud in the 1890s, plays its part in this sad process. It involves the clients projecting on to the therapist or counsellor feelings that they originally held towards a parent or other important figure in the client’s early life. The clients’ parents and other close family and friends are supplanted by the counsellor in the client’s affections by a learned dependence on them.

In our debate last March, I said that such clients are

“brainwashed by unscrupulous and controlling individuals. These charlatans play on their clients’ suffering, deluding them into a false belief in their treatment”—[Official Report, 2/3/20; col. 477.]

Everything that I have read and learned since that debate in relation to this issue and in preparing for this debate has strengthened my concern not only that that description was fair but that I underestimated the extent of the problem.

These issues have been widely recorded in the press and I will not detail them now, but I will repeat a question posed in the Daily Telegraph not long ago:

“What made two seemingly happy young women from loving homes sever all contact with their families and friends, renounce their inheritances and vanish into thin air?”

The journalist investigated how

“a self-styled ‘personal development coach’ digging for ‘forgotten’ childhood memories opened a door to catastrophe.”

The article went on to describe how a rogue counsellor had ruined two young lives in the way I have described, pointing out that there had been absolutely nothing the courts could do about it, given that the clients were adults—although they were young. The law offers no protection whatever for the victims of what is so clearly abuse by coercive control. The fact that such counsellors often charge their clients substantial fees, as the rogue counsellor did in those cases, only serves to make the matter worse.

Our amendment would introduce the following offence:

“Controlling or coercive behaviour by persons ... providing or purporting to provide psychotherapy or counselling services”.

The proposed offence is closely modelled on Section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015, which covers “controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship”. The definition of coercive and controlling behaviour in that Act is mirrored in this amendment, and the definition of the required relationship for the Act is mirrored in Clauses 1 and 2.

As the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, who would have liked to speak today but is unable to do so, said when we debated this issue last March:

“Section 76 of the Serious Crime Act covers domestic abuse. The Government accept that individuals can be coercively controlled, and they have rightly made it illegal for a spouse, partner or parent to coercively control somebody with whom they have a relationship—that is an imprisonable offence. However, in the case of coercive control, the law does not apply equally to everyone. A person coercively controlling their daughter would be breaking the law, but the same person coercively controlling someone else’s daughter is not covered by the law. There does appear to be a gap in the law, so will the Government look into this?”—[Official Report, 2/3/20; col. 472.]

The logic of that question is inescapable. This amendment is directed to filling the gap identified by the noble Lord, Lord Astor. The gap has been filled by legislation in France, Luxembourg and Belgium. The French litigation broadly criminalises persistent or repeated pressure on a person which abuses a vulnerable person’s weakness or abuses a person in a state of psychological dependency resulting from serious or repeated pressure or techniques used to affect their judgment in a way which is seriously harmful.

I have been grateful for the support of the noble Lords, Lord Astor of Hever, Lord Fairfax and Lord Dannatt, and my noble friend Lord Alderdice and others, who have not been able to speak tonight. Numbers of noble Lords have told me that they know families and young people who have fallen victim to the actions of charlatan psychotherapists who would be liable to be prosecuted for the new offence proposed by this amendment.

My hope is that the Government will agree to legislation reflecting this amendment and that it will be supplemented in the future by provisions requiring psychotherapists and counsellors to be licensed and regulated, with a register of qualified members, recognised qualifications and a clear statement of ethical standards. Meanwhile, serious cases where charlatan psychotherapists and counsellors are guilty of coercive control which is plainly abusive should be met by their prosecution for a criminal offence, as set out in this amendment. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Garnier Lord Garnier Conservative

My Lords, I apologise for not taking part on Second Reading, although I have read the Official Report. I also apologise for keeping my noble friend the Minister, new to his job, a bit longer at the crease.

Amendment 141 proposes a new clause that is within the scope of the Bill, but its value is not dependent on the Bill. The wording and effect of Amendment 141 is self-explanatory but, if it needed any further elaboration, the noble Lord, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames, has just provided it in his excellent speech. I cannot improve on what he said, but now is the moment when Parliament must at last legislate to outlaw the quack counsellors who predate on vulnerable people through controlling or coercive behaviour, and to provide some sort of protection to their victims or intended victims.

I have been concerned about these quacks and trying without success to get the Government to legislate for some years. I worked with Oliver Letwin and Tom Sackville, two former Ministers, as well as parliamentary counsel and Ministry of Justice officials with the support and encouragement of David Cameron, who had a constituency interest in the matter. I spoke about these quacks at Report on the Modern Slavery Bill in November 2014 and the Serious Crime Bill in February 2015 when I was a Member of Parliament, and then again in your Lordships’ House on 2 March 2020 in the debate on the unregulated treatment of mental health, initiated by the noble Baroness, Lady Jolly. Now, thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Marks, the noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, again, and the other contributors to this debate—as well as my noble friend Lord Astor of Hever, who spoke in the debate last March about the Serious Crime Act—we are making real progress.

We have laws to protect children and those under a mental incapacity through intellectual impairment, disability or the effects of old age. We can prosecute those who dishonestly take old and frail people’s money, but we leave unprotected adults who may succumb to pressure exerted on them by others of malevolent intent because their exploitative activities currently do not come within the criminal law.

From the outset, I have had in mind some young, adult women whose experiences were brought to my attention by their parents and families. In essence, they had been brainwashed or suborned by quack counsellors. They persuaded these young people to break off all contact with their families, infected them with false memories and got them to pay fees for the so-called counselling. Some of these young women were well-off and suggestible but all of them, for no apparent reason, broke off all contact with their families.

As the noble Lord, Lord Marks, has just said, France, Belgium and Luxembourg have laws to criminalise the behaviour of predatory charlatans who exploit others in a state of emotional or psychological weakness for financial or other gain. It must be assumed that their laws do not conflict with those articles of the ECHR that protect the right to private and family life, the right to freedom of expression and association, and the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. To take the French example, in that jurisdiction it is an offence punishable by imprisonment and very heavy fines to abuse the ignorance or state of weakness of a minor or of a person whose particular vulnerability due to age, sickness or infirmity, to a psychological or physical disability or to pregnancy is apparent or known to the offender. It is also an offence to abuse a person in a state of physical or psychological dependency resulting from serious or repeated pressure or from techniques used to affect his judgment in order to induce the minor or other person to act, or abstain from acting, in a way seriously harmful to him.

Amendment 141 is clearly different but, I believe, as useful. One way of considering whether the proposed defence in Amendment 141 would work is to ask oneself the following questions. Would it be prosecutable in theory and in practice? Could each of the elements of the offence be proved in a real-life example? Would the measure deal with the mischief that was identified, and would it catch no one else? The answer to those questions is yes. How would it affect partners, husbands, wives, teachers, gurus, salesmen, priests and employers, all of whom are likely to have power and influence? It need not do so. Would it allow the mentally capable who want to give away their fortunes and leave their families to do so? Of course it would. Would it make sufficiently clear what was criminal behaviour and what was not? Would it comply with the European Convention on Human Rights? Yes, it would. What effect would it have on religious freedom, or freedom of expression or association? In my view, none at all.

The victims of these bogus therapists have been waiting far too long for Parliament to help them. The amendment is humane and practical, and it has nothing whatever to do with party politics. If the laws of France, Belgium and Luxembourg can protect the people that this amendment seeks to protect, the law of England can and ought to do so as well. Amendment 141, or something like it, should be added to the Bill.

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, I am afraid we have to leave it there for this evening.

Debate on Amendment 141 adjourned.

House resumed.

House adjourned at 10.14 pm.