Definition of “personally connected”

Domestic Abuse Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:00 am on 9th June 2020.

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Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Shadow Minister (Home Office) 11:00 am, 9th June 2020

I beg to move amendment 48, in clause 2, page 2, line 21, at end insert—

“(ee) one person is a provider of care to the other;”.

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Labour, Westminster North

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 49, in clause 2, page 2, line 34, at end insert—

“‘provider of care’ means any person (‘A’) who provides ongoing emotional, psychological or physical support to another person (‘B’) with the aim of enabling B to live independently, whether or not A is paid for this support;”.

An amendment to ensure a carer of a person with disabilities is included in the definition of “personally connected”.

Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Shadow Minister (Home Office)

We are now moving on from the definition to talk about exactly who we mean by “connected parties”. The amendment is a response to calls from people with disabilities and organisations within the disability rights sector that have been in touch with us to express their concerns about whether they are seen in the Bill.

As we said in the debate about whether children should be in the Bill, we recognise that there is a need for much more detailed and in-depth guidance. In relation to domestic abuse, we are potentially missing some real opportunities that genuinely need to be responded to with law—the courts of our land—but are currently not covered by the area of “connected parties”. The issue is those whose connection to a person is that they are their carer. We are not necessarily talking about paid carers.

Carers UK announced yesterday that 4.5 million people have become unpaid carers during the coronavirus crisis, so it is not a minority issue or something that happens only in certain areas. People who very much rely on others for their care might not currently be covered by what is outlined in the Bill as a connected party. They might never have been married or had a civil partnership. They might never have been divorced, which got a bit easier yesterday, and they might not be related. I should tell my husband that it got easier to get divorced yesterday—

Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Shadow Minister (Home Office)

The reality is that for lots of people a connected party to their wellbeing, their life, or what people would call their family, is a bit like in working class communities, although I am sure it happens in others: a woman lives down the road and her husband borrows somebody’s dad’s ladder, so they call her auntie, even though she is absolutely no relation whatever. We have to understand that in lots of people’s lives, connected people might not be what we would naturally recognise.

On the definition of “personally connected”, I want the Bill to reflect the realities of all domestic abuse victims. I want all victims to be able to access services, justice and support when needed. I think we would all agree that no victim should be left behind. We are taking our time—my gosh, it is quite a lot of time—to get the Bill right and see it through. It will never be perfect, but we should make every effort to make it as perfect as it can be.

Clause 2 defines what it means to be personally connected. In other words, the clause sets out the relationship between a victim and a perpetrator that comes under the definition of domestic abuse. The list includes what we would typically expect: as I have already laid out, those in intimate personal relationships with each other. However, my concern is that the clause, as it stands, fails to recognise the lived experiences of disabled victims of domestic abuse, who are among the most vulnerable. Their abuse often goes unnoticed.

The crime survey for England and Wales found that individuals with long-term illness or disability were more likely to be victims of domestic abuse. A 2016 report on intimate personal violence by the Office for National Statistics found that 16% of women with long-term illness or disability had experienced domestic abuse. Disabled victims are also more likely to experience domestic abuse for a longer period of time: 3.3 years, on average, compared with 2.3 years for non-disabled victims. With that in mind, I want the Bill to make it easier for disabled victims of domestic abuse to be recognised. To do that, we have to accept the reality of disabled people’s lives, where significant relationships are perhaps different from those of a non-disabled person with an unpaid carer.

Ruth Bashall, the chief executive of Stay Safe East, said that disabled people

“have emotionally intimate relationships with the people who, in very large inverted commas, ‘care’ for us, and the experience of abuse by those people is exactly the same as domestic abuse: the coercive control, the violence, the financial abuse and so on.”

It is important that we recognise, based on the evidence presented to the Committee, that a large number of disabled people will have no relationship with anyone except for the people who “care” for them. This type of close relationship can easily take on a problematic power dynamic that closely mirrors familial or intimate partner violence. As I have said, we can see how that might occur. I have been doing shopping and taking money from people who needed me to go to the shops for them. It would, if I were that way inclined, not be particularly difficult to build a relationship, a rapport and a need from me in that person that I could then exploit over a number of years. I would not do that, obviously.

In response to the Joint Committee’s report, the Government said that they did not propose to review the personally connected clause at the current time. Paragraph 60 of the their response states:

“If they are personally connected to their carer, this will be covered by our definition of domestic abuse. Otherwise, abuse of disabled people by their carers is already covered by existing legislation.”

What we heard from Saliha in the evidence session last Thursday was that, as a disabled victim of domestic abuse, she often finds that she is not understood by one or the other. As I have said this morning, her experience as a victim of gender-based violence or domestic abuse is often not expected, dealt with or understood by disability agencies, and vice versa: as a disabled person, she finds getting access to mainstream domestic violence services difficult.

We have to be very careful, when writing this Bill, not to ignore those intersecting groups of people and just say, “Well, there’s already existing legislation that would cover it.” It would not cover it from the point of view of domestic abuse because, as we all know, that has been lacking from our laws, and that is what we are here to try to improve.

I urge the Government to rethink their position for a number of reasons. First, it is not appropriate to say that abuse of disabled people by their carers is already covered by different legislation. This is a Domestic Abuse Bill for all victims. Therefore, if the abuse of a disabled person meets the definition of domestic abuse—if it is financially controlling, or if it involves sexual, economic or psychological abuse—but it is not by somebody in one of the connected party groups, that disabled person would not be left with many places to turn to take the case of domestic abuse to court or wherever.

If a disabled person meets the definition, that ought to be recognised and covered by this legislation, not something else. We cannot just keep saying, “Well, if you’re in this group you’re covered by this, and if you’re in this group you’re covered by this.” I would have thought that we would want to make a Domestic Abuse Bill that covers everybody.

I would go even further, and suggest that the Government’s response is a bit dismissive and fails to recognise the gender-based nature of domestic abuse solely because the victim is disabled. We cannot have domestic abuse covered by other legislation just because the person is disabled.

Secondly, while I appreciate that section 42 of the Care Act 2014 places a duty on local authorities to carry out safeguarding inquiries if they suspect abuse, that is no reason why disabled victims should not be represented in this Bill. Furthermore, there is evidence to suggest that local authorities are failing even to identify victims, even those who are at highest risk. Between 2015 and 2016, none of the 925 referrals of disabled victims to domestic abuse services were from adult safeguarding—zero.

I would be so bold as to bet that every piece of single adult safeguarding guidance in every adult safeguarding group that exists in every single local authority has domestic abuse written within it somewhere, and says that the vulnerable adults can be victims of domestic abuse. In all my years, I have literally never once referred a victim of domestic abuse to adult social care, because that is not what adult social care is for.

If I were to ring up my local authority or, I would even wager, Westminster City Council and say, “I’ve got this woman and she’s a victim of domestic abuse, and I see that that’s written into your adult social care board, so can I get a social worker out to see her later? She’s suffered some violence over the years and a bit of emotional abuse recently, the kids are getting a bit—”, the idea that an adult social worker would go out and see that victim is for the birds. The fact that zero referrals —none—to domestic abuse services of disabled women came from adult social care speaks to the evidence.

That is why we are proposing to amend the Bill to include carers in the definition of “personally connected”. Including carers will raise awareness and, I hope, help the police and local authorities to adopt better practices—for example, on something as simple as questioning a victim separately from the carer, which I imagine happens quite rarely. It is vital that those sorts of policies are put in place. The amendment provides an opportunity for us to tackle the profound inequalities faced by disabled survivors.

Stay Safe East sent a number of case studies, such as this one:

“A disabled woman was targeted by a man who was homeless. He gradually gained her trust and over a period of months, she began to see him as her friend, then as ‘better family than my own’. He assisted her first with shopping (while taking her money), then with household tasks and eventually with personal care. His controlling and intimidating behaviour towards the woman’s carers led them to withdraw the support, leaving him in complete control of the disabled woman’s life.”

To anyone who has ever worked in domestic abuse services, that sounds exactly like what a domestic violence perpetrator does—isolate, control and ensure there is no one else there to turn to. The quote continues:

“There was physical, sexual, emotional and financial abuse. The man then brought his friends into the woman’s home; they further intimidated her. When she was eventually able to seek help, her health had deteriorated due to neglect. Whilst the actions of the man and his friends could be described as ‘cuckooing’ (a term used by the police to describe taking over a person’s home for criminal or other purposes), they also constitute domestic abuse: the woman had a ‘close personal connection’ with the abuser which left her dependent on him and open to abuse.”

I am sure the Minister would say that the woman would have been able to get support from this service or that service, but why should she not be able to access direct support from domestic abuse services? Why would we not want to compel councils, for example, to commission services specifically for victims of domestic abuse who are disabled? Should the police take that case, on different grounds, using different legislation from a different law —[Interruption.] The very polite Member for Cheltenham is leaving; take care. It is a lovely constituency.

It is not fair to say that the woman had not been a victim of domestic abuse. It is not fair that she would not then be entered into the system that would allow her to access the specialist support that comes with understanding control, power and her own sense of worth in the world.

Another case study notes:

“A neighbour befriended a woman with learning disabilities, became her carer and provided her with support. He then demanded sex and verbally abused her because she would not have sex with him.”

These women experienced abuse by people who had in effect become their family, and with whom they had a close personal connection. They experienced this abuse as domestic abuse. In lots of the cases that Stay Safe East sent, when these women sought help, they were often refused services as victims of domestic abuse—they did not fit the current definition, and they suffered for months before being able to access the right, more specialist support.

Disabled people face huge barriers in getting support from the services that are available today and that we all hope to see improved. They still find it very difficult to access domestic abuse services; by and large, only one or two beds available in an area will be accessible.

With regard to specialism in learning disability support, for example: with the greatest will in the world, people like me and the women who work in the refuge where I worked are not specialists in dealing with people with learning disabilities. We did not have specialist training. With 19 women and 28 kids in the building each night, and people coming and going because of housing emergencies, where is the level of specialism that might be needed in our refuge for somebody with severe autism? Everybody does their best, but the specialism that can be found for disabled victims is often provided only by disabled voluntary sector providers, who do not deal with the manifest issue of recovering from the trauma of domestic abuse. We have to find a way to make sure that if a disabled person is the victim of domestic abuse, they get the same service as they would if they were not disabled—I am not saying that it is perfect for everyone, by any means.

Again, I cannot help but go back to the evidence from the victim Sal. She told the Committee that that was exactly what had happened to her: her parents had abused her, stating that she would never be able to do anything or go anywhere, and she had to allow them to control her because as a disabled woman in society she would not be able to cope. We have to hear her voice and make sure that we make the Bill as inclusive as possible, so that it can help as many people as possible.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I will try to finish in eight minutes. I thank the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley for setting out the case for her amendments.

Clause 2 defines “personally connected” for the purposes of the definition of domestic abuse in clause 1. We believe that the personal relationship between the perpetrator and the victim is central to the nature of domestic abuse, which is why our clause 2 definition of “personally connected” covers two individuals who are or have been in an intimate relationship or have a familial relationship, as defined. We believe that the connection between the two—the victim and the perpetrator—is central not just to our understanding in the Bill but, frankly, to the public’s understanding of what domestic abuse is.

The hon. Lady set out the horrors that disabled victims have faced. We absolutely agree that the abuse of a disabled person by their carer is as unacceptable as any other form of abuse, but we fear that the impact of the amendment would be to broaden the scope of the definition of “domestic abuse” by capturing a range of people who are not personally connected. That would widen the definition beyond how it is commonly understood.

The examples of exploitation that the hon. Lady gave could, as she says, be dealt with by other legislation. I myself have prosecuted carers for stealing the life savings of an elderly woman with dementia; we were able to catch that exploitation and the resulting loss with existing legislation, under the Theft Act. There are other examples of exploitation; it is not something that we like discussing in day-to-day life, but the fact is that there are forms of exploitation across many, many walks of life.

Another example within my portfolio is county lines gangs. Gang leaders ensnare vulnerable children as young as 11, 12 or 13, build relationships with them and build up the trust that the hon. Lady described in her examples. They offer them food or new pairs of trainers, and when the children have accepted those “gifts”, they are part of the gang—they are sent out to work: to rob, steal and deal drugs. That is exploitation.

The Chair adjourned the Committee without Question put (Standing Order No. 88).

Adjourned till this day at Two o’clock.