Amendment 141

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

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Photo of Lord Garnier Lord Garnier Conservative 9:45, 3 February 2021

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.