Amendment 12

Domestic Abuse Bill - Report (1st Day) – in the House of Lords at 10:00 pm on 8th March 2021.

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Baroness Burt of Solihull:

Moved by Baroness Burt of Solihull

12: Clause 15, page 9, line 42, at end insert—“(r) the Independent Office for Police Conduct;(s) the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman.”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment would extend the list of public authorities which have a duty to co-operate with the Domestic Abuse Commissioner to include the Independent Office for Police Conduct and the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman.

Photo of Baroness Burt of Solihull Baroness Burt of Solihull Liberal Democrat

My Lords, government Amendment 14 is very welcome. Clearly the call for the commissioner to have powers to collect information on domestic homicide through reviews of such homicides has been heeded. Domestic homicide reviews will give the commissioner a hugely valuable picture of deaths occurring as a result of domestic violence. They bring together the statutory and non-statutory partners to learn lessons and, hopefully, prevent deaths in future.

However, as the commissioner-designate says, actions can drift over time, and there is little accountability for implementation. Although statutory guidance says that a copy of each domestic homicide report should be lodged with the Home Office, it is often omitted because there is no legislative backing to the guidance. Someone needs to grasp that issue firmly, put all this disparate information together and drive the changes that are needed from the lessons learned.

Thanks to government Amendment 14, all domestic homicide reports must now be sent to the commissioner. As well as domestic homicide reports, though, there are other valuable sources of information into homicides and suicides—other reviews that hold vital lessons. Amendment 16 would spread the information net wider to incorporate reviews or investigations into deaths where domestic abuse had been identified as a contributory factor. Such reviews could come from any number of sources: safeguarding adult reviews, serious case reviews, NHS serious investigations, misconduct where a death was involved and so on.

Prevention of future deaths reports, issued by the coroner’s office, are hugely important in building up a picture of how things have gone wrong and can be improved in the future. Although this information resides on the coroner’s website, there is no systematic way to interrogate it. While recommendations are made, reports to the commissioner would enable her to correlate them and guide future best practice. The commissioner is anxious to preserve the independence of the Chief Coroner, which has been removed from the list of proposed public authorities required to co-operate with the commissioner, so that judicial independence is not compromised in any way. This is why proposed new subsection (3) requires copies of the coroner’s prevention of future deaths reports to be lodged with the Secretary of State and commissioner. Any public authority specified in Clause 15(3) would be covered; this is the subject of my Amendment 12.

During Committee, we proposed in Amendment 51 that Her Majesty’s Prison Service and the National Probation Service be added to the list of organisations with a duty to co-operate with the commissioner. It was subsequently confirmed that they already fall under this duty, as part of the Ministry of Justice, but there are a couple of authorities that the commissioner would find particularly useful to have added to the list. The Independent Office for Police Conduct will occasionally look at allegations of misconduct in relation to a death where domestic abuse has been a factor, while the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman will deal with deaths in prison or after release, when a victim or perpetrator of domestic abuse has been involved. These are two poignant examples of where the death of a victim can point to how such a tragedy can be avoided and circumstances can be better handled in future.

It is important to note that there is no intention of creating a blame culture here, but instead to learn lessons by producing thematic reviews that inform policy and practice. Every amendment in the group will strengthen the arm of the Secretary of State and the commissioner to do their job and design better systems to prevent systematic failure in the future. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Russell of Liverpool Lord Russell of Liverpool Deputy Chairman of Committees

My Lords, I rise briefly in support of Amendments 12 and 16, to which I have added my name. In Committee, the Minister was constructive and sympathetic, as she invariably is when considering improvements to the quality, accuracy and timeliness of data, so we are grateful for government Amendment 14. She has followed through, as she promised she would in Committee, and we thank her for it.

The noble Baroness, Lady Burt, has explained clearly what is behind Amendments 12 and 16, so I do not need to go into more detail. It is also clear that the commissioner herself has requested these additions and she is in the business of trying to pull together multiple strands of information, in a way that has not been done before. She is not learning on the job, but to some extent learning as she settles into the job, about the greater complexity that there is and the different strands of information that she will need to make informed decisions and give the Government good advice. It is a direct request from her to fill what she feels are some important gaps in the data that she requires.

The two key benefits are fairly self-evident. The first is to ensure that all these recommendations are recorded and assessed, in particular to see if the recommended follow-up actions are being taken. The second is to draw out the key themes and lessons being learned in order to have a proactive, preventive, joined-up approach, which we clearly do not have at the moment. That is a large part of the genesis of this Bill. The commissioner’s request is extremely simple: please support and accept these amendments, and act. She will then move swiftly to build a more informed, accurate and insightful understanding, which will enable her to do her job as well as we all want her to.

Photo of Baroness Garden of Frognal Baroness Garden of Frognal Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

The noble Lord, Lord Bhatia, has withdrawn, so I call the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove.

Photo of Baroness Newlove Baroness Newlove Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, on average, two women a week are killed in the UK by a current or former partner. While the figures have dropped slightly over the past decade, they remain unacceptably high. I am pleased that the Government have given their support to my amendment to create a standalone offence of non-fatal strangulation, as we will see later on on Report. This is truly a lifesaving change which I hope will prevent many victims losing their lives as a result of domestic abuse.

Each one of these deaths is an absolute tragedy, and perhaps even more tragic is the fact that we are failing to learn the vital lessons needed to prevent other victims losing their lives. We owe it to all the families who have lost a loved one to ensure that at the very least, their experience will help to prevent future deaths. That is why I support Amendments 12 and 16 to extend the powers of the independent domestic abuse commissioner to create a new oversight mechanism for domestic homicide and suicide, and I call on other Peers to do the same. The oversight mechanism will bring together all the reports and reviews that take place after someone has been murdered or takes their own life as a result of domestic abuse into one central place in a more systematic way. Right now, a huge number of reports are made, ranging from domestic homicide reviews, coroners’ prevention of future death reports and safeguarding adult reviews, but there is no means of bringing them all together in one place. It would also provide a much more robust accountability framework to ensure that individual recommendations are acted on. In too many instances, no processes are in place to ensure that once a report is produced, its recommendations are followed up. The new mechanism would enable the commissioner to identify key themes across investigations to help target the key policy changes needed to prevent future deaths.

I want to tell noble Lords about Anne-Marie Nield, whose death has helped to drive through the campaign for a standalone offence of non-fatal strangulation. What happened after her death makes a powerful case for why a stronger oversight mechanism that would bring together the lessons from a range of reports, not just the domestic homicide reviews, is needed to prevent future deaths. Anne-Marie died in 2016 during a sustained assault by her partner, who had previously subjected her to non-fatal strangulation. The officers who dealt with the previous incidents failed to appreciate the significance of strangulation as a risk factor. No support was offered to her and no referral was made to MARAC. The DHR carried out after her death identified a significant number of errors and omissions by the police. The recommendations then made were accepted in their entirety by Greater Manchester Police.

However, in 2019 the coroner noted in her prevention of future deaths report that not all of those recommendations had been implemented. That was more than two years later. The DHR did not address the issue of non-fatal strangulation, but the coroner did. An examination of this in detail, when it was raised by the family at the inquest, resulted in the officers who dealt with Anne-Marie being questioned about their understanding of the matter. The coroner noted that no reference was made to non-fatal strangulation in the GMP domestic abuse policy and that the police officers involved with Anne-Marie failed to appreciate its significance as a specific risk for domestic homicide. In 2019, the response to the coroner’s prevention of future deaths report stated that the force’s domestic abuse policy needed to be updated and would include non-fatal strangulation as a heightened risk factor. It is not known whether this has been done. Later that year, the Centre for Women’s Justice requested sight of the GMP domestic abuse policy under the Freedom of Information Act, but approximately 90% of it was redacted.

This clearly shows the huge gaps between different reviews and why it is important for us to go well beyond the lessons provided in DHRs and, crucially, arm the new domestic abuse commissioner, Nicole Jacobs, with the powers needed to create the new mechanism, to provide oversight to ensure that key recommendations and lessons are taken forward. For the sake of the families, it is so important that these amendments to give the duty to the domestic abuse commissioner are made to the Bill.

Photo of Baroness Garden of Frognal Baroness Garden of Frognal Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris of Aberavon, has withdrawn, so I now call the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox of Newport.

Photo of Baroness Wilcox of Newport Baroness Wilcox of Newport Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Equalities and Women's Issues) 10:15 pm, 8th March 2021

My Lords, I have added my name to and speak in support of Amendment 12, which would extend the list of public authorities with a duty to co-operate with the domestic abuse commissioner. Amendment 14 would place a new duty on public authorities that carry out reviews and investigations into deaths in which domestic abuse has been identified as a contributory factor to notify the Secretary of State for the Home Office and the office of the domestic abuse commissioner upon completion and to provide them with a copy of their findings.

This oversight by the domestic abuse commissioner is intended to ensure a more systematic collection of investigations into suicides and homicides in which domestic abuse is identified as a contributory factor, together with a robust accountability framework to ensure that individual recommendations are acted upon and key themes across investigations are identified to help target the key policy changes needed to prevent future deaths.

The pandemic has created so many problems for our society, notwithstanding the area of domestic abuse. Coronavirus may exacerbate triggers and lockdown may restrict access to support or escape; it may even curtail measures some people take to keep their own violence under control.

In 2011 domestic homicide reviews were established on a statutory basis under Section 9 of the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act. It was one of the most difficult and disturbing aspects of my role as a councillor when I had to take part in such a review following the death of one of my constituents. It was a devastating time for the community and left long-running consequences as we searched our souls to see what more anyone could have done to prevent such a tragedy. In hard terms, what can be done by agreeing these amendments is to establish a clear oversight and accountability mechanism, led by the independent domestic abuse commissioner, which would help to drive effective implementation and share lessons nationally in the long as well as the short term.

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department

My Lords, we return now to the debate we had in Committee about the role of the domestic abuse commissioner in helping all relevant agencies to learn the lessons from domestic abuse-related homicides and suicides so that we can avoid such deaths in future.

In Committee I undertook to consider further amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Burt. We agree that the commissioner has an important oversight role to play in this area, and government Amendment 14 will support it by placing a duty on those responsible for carrying out a domestic homicide review under Section 9 of the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004 to send a copy of the report of the review to the commissioner.

As I indicated in Committee, we are not persuaded that it is necessary to extend this requirement to the other homicide reviews listed in Amendment 16. Given that the bodies involved are required to engage and feed into domestic homicide reviews, we think the lessons will be captured through this process. Where necessary, the commissioner can also use her powers under Clause 15 to request relevant information from the public authorities subject to the duty to co-operate.

Amendment 12 seeks to add to the list of public authorities subject to the duty to co-operate. We agree in principle that the IOPC, the Independent Office for Police Conduct, should be added to the list. Clause 15(4) includes a power to add to the list of specified public authorities by regulations, and we propose to exercise this power in relation to the IOPC. The IOPC has come late to the party, as it were, so we consider it preferable to use the regulation-making route to allow time for the IOPC and the commissioner’s office to work through the implications for the IOPC of adding it to the list of specified public authorities.

As for the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, I must point out that it is not a statutory agency, and therefore there are difficulties with referring to it in statute. On a more practical level, the ombudsman routinely publishes its fatal incident investigation reports, so they are accessible to the commissioner and others. That said, there is scope for discussions between the commissioner and the ombudsman about how the flow of relevant information might be improved.

As I indicated at the start of my remarks, we consider tackling domestic homicides a top priority and we intend to work closely with the commissioner on this issue. The changes being made through Amendment 14 and our commitment to add the IOPC to the list of relevant public authorities by regulations are only part of the wider programme of work taking place to tackle domestic homicides. I hope, therefore, that the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, would agree that these are important advances and that accordingly she would be content to withdraw her amendment.

Photo of Baroness Burt of Solihull Baroness Burt of Solihull Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Russell, and to the noble Baronesses, Lady Newlove and Lady Wilcox, for their very knowledgeable contributions, particularly the poignant case of Anne-Marie Nield, provided by the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, which just illustrates how important it is that we learn the lessons.

I am very grateful to the Minister—she is clearly a Minister who listens and works out what is logically possible and what is not. It perhaps would not have been realistic for her to say, “Oh yes, we’ll do all of that, that’s no problem at all”, but what she has said is extremely encouraging, particularly regarding the IOPC. I am very grateful to her particularly for the way that she has gone more than half way, and her actions, I am sure, will make a very big difference to the ability of the domestic abuse commissioner to do her job—and, indeed, to the Secretary of State. I have great hopes for what the commissioner is going to achieve with all of this. We have certainly loaded on her enough information, so I hope that it is not going to overwhelm her, but I really feel heartened that she is going to have the tools to do the job, and I am very grateful. I respectfully wish to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 12 withdrawn.

Photo of Baroness Garden of Frognal Baroness Garden of Frognal Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 13. Anyone wishing to press this or anything else in this group to a Division must make that clear in debate.