My Lords, Amendment 149 would protect those who were previously personally connected to an abuser from any coercive or controlling behaviour—including, in particular, economic abuse—that occurs post separation. It would do so by amending the Serious Crime Act 2015 so that its provisions concerning controlling or coercive behaviour were extended to cover those not living together. It would therefore also safeguard those covered by the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, which focuses on another important group in need of protection. I am grateful to noble Lords who have added their names to Amendment 149. Analysis of successful prosecutions of the controlling or coercive behaviour offence found that six in 10 involved economic abuse, yet the wording of that legislation means that, post separation, the victims of such abuse have no legal redress.
Economic abuse has been a long-standing concern of mine, even if I had not then come across the term, so its inclusion in the definition of domestic abuse in the Bill is welcome indeed. But I must admit that I had not been aware of the prevalence and seriousness of post-separation economic abuse until it was brought to my attention by the charity Surviving Economic Abuse—SEA—to which I pay tribute for all its work on the issue and express my thanks for its help with the amendment.
We are talking about, for instance, spending money from a victim’s bank account or a joint account without permission, running up bills in their name, prolonging the sale of joint property unreasonably, interfering with the victim’s employment, and jeopardising their social security entitlement through malicious calls or wrongly claiming the child benefit. Post-separation abuse can also involve indirect control through use of the family courts.
Following an interview I did on “You and Yours” last Autumn, prompted by SEA’s work, I received a long email from a mother of three children who shared her experience, and I am grateful for her permission to quote from it anonymously. Currently going through a divorce, having suffered a combination of psychological, economic and some physical abuse, a common combination, she detailed the ways in which her husband was putting debts in her name and was taking steps that undermined her financial position before the divorce and any financial settlement. She described his actions as
“malevolent, wilful, controlling that are all-consuming and intent on destruction.”
“sleepless nights worrying about debts put in my name, no pension provision, my credit score, ability to borrow.”
She said she had learned that
“the drive to dominate does not end after physical separation”,
and she finished:
“I hope your colleagues take note that economic abuse that continues post separation, particularly when children are involved is disordered behaviour that goes against healthy parental and societal norms and should be legislated as unlawful.”
Since then I have received many emails covering various forms of post-separation abuse. One described it as
“a merry-go-round that just keeps turning post-separation” that
“in many ways has been worse than the emotional abuse I was subjected to throughout the relationship.”
Many echoed this plea from one of them:
“Please give survivors protection from on-going abuse after we leave as this is the most dangerous period for the victims.”
These emails are just the tip of an iceberg of anxiety, suffering and trauma caused by economic abuse which research shows frequently continues after separation.
For instance, in a national survey last year by Refuge and the Co-operative Bank about one-quarter of all respondents said they had experienced economic abuse after separation from their partner, nearly one in 10 said their former partner damaged or stole property that had to be replaced, and 6% reported that in each case their ex-partner had spent money from a joint account without consent or discussion, had run up bills in their name or had refused to pay any child support. In all, only just over half of those who had experienced economic abuse said it had ended when they split up with the abuser, and some said it started only after they had ended the relationship. The research underlined the devastating and long-term financial and mental health effect that economic abuse can have on well-being.
More recently, nearly four-fifths of post-separation abuse victims who responded to SEA’s pandemic survey said the perpetrator had attempted to control their finances, with success in two-thirds of all cases. Nicola Sharp-Jeffs of SEA has detailed how coerced debt is a particularly effective and insidious form of economic abuse and is all too frequent post separation. One project found that three out of five domestic abuse survivors had been subject to at least one coerced debt. One woman described such debts as “invisible chains” that link you to the perpetrator post separation.
Research from Manchester University shows how this can affect older women. The researchers quote one divorced woman with debts of around £6,000, who said:
“He used to wish me dead on the phone and ask ‘You’ve not died yet’? If I don’t talk to him politely enough he won’t pay the bills. I have to do as I am told. He’ll always have control. He still has the keys to the house and all the bills are in his name. He still comes round and opens the letters and tears them up or burns them.”
The Government are well aware of the problem created by post-separation abuse. Indeed, the draft statutory guidance on the Bill warns:
“Given that economic abuse does not require physical proximity it can continue, escalate or even begin after separation, creating a significant barrier for victims seeking to rebuild their lives.”
“People have come to realise that this is a particularly potent and cruel weapon”.—[Official Report, Commons, Domestic Abuse Bill Committee, 17/6/20; col. 392.]
Nevertheless, despite expressing some sympathy with the amendment when it was proposed in Committee in the Commons, he argued that it is not necessary for two reasons.
First, he said this form of coercive and controlling behaviour could be prosecuted under the existing offences of harassment and stalking. I note that the Minister used a similar argument in her Second Reading response but, if I may say so, without much conviction. Mr Chalk conceded SEA’s argument that stalking and harassment offences were not designed to prosecute this form of behaviour, but suggested that it was not beyond the wit of man or woman to find a way of including them in a specific case.
Common sense tells us that few if any people would understand the behaviour I have described, such as coerced debt or non-action such as the refusal to pay the mortgage, as stalking. This remains the case despite the fact that the recently updated statutory guidance on stalking protection orders includes economic abuse as a form of stalking. SEA rightly describes this approach as misguided.
Clear labelling is essential to criminal law. Naming economic abuse as stalking, a completely different type of abusive behaviour, is simply confusing. Indeed, on the basis of past experience, it is quite likely that there would be judicial resistance to convicting under stalking legislation a defendant who has committed economic abuse. I fear it would do nothing to address the situation of those women who have told me they have not been able to turn to the law to stop the abuse they are suffering, or that of the victim in a SEA case study of post-separation economic abuse who was told by police that the abuse could not be prosecuted because the perpetrator had left her—one of many examples it has received.
Secondly, Mr Chalk seemed to suggest that the amendment is unnecessary because the new statutory definition of domestic abuse in the Bill includes ex-partners and does not include a living together requirement. But surely it makes sense, again in the interests of clarity, to have consistency between this legislation and the legislation on coercive control, given that economic abuse is a form of coercive control and that the aim of the definition in this Bill is primarily to achieve a common understanding of domestic abuse across government and the public—a point made by the noble Viscount, Lord Goschen, and others at Second Reading.
The other argument used to deflect the amendment was that we should await the outcome of a review of the coercive control legislation due to be completed by early autumn; that is, last early autumn, nearly eight months ago. Yet despite an assurance in a Written Answer in November that the intention was to publish it in time to inform our debates, it was disappointing that the Minister responded by saying that we would not receive it until before Report, which is late in the day to say the least. I quite understand that the pandemic will have delayed things, but surely that could have been predicted when an early autumn completion was prayed in aid in the Commons.
The Government acknowledge that there is a real problem here. Their arguments against using this legislation to solve the problem are unconvincing. I do not understand why they are so reluctant to accept an amendment that is very much in the spirit of the Bill and without which the milestone step represented by its recognition of economic abuse could be seriously hobbled. The amendment is supported by the domestic abuse commissioner designate and a wide range of organisations on the ground. I beg to move.