Definition of “personally connected”

Part of Domestic Abuse Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 9th June 2020.

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Photo of Liz Saville-Roberts Liz Saville-Roberts Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Women and Equalities) , Plaid Cymru Westminster Leader, Shadow PC Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) 2:00 pm, 9th June 2020

I beg to move amendment 29, in clause 2, page 2, line 24, at end insert—

“(h) they live, or at the time of the abuse lived, in the same household.”

This amendment would ensure that victims living with an abuser in the same household, for example as a flat share, are considered to be “personally connected”.

This is obviously a broader amendment than that of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley, and I am aware that the Minister has made some response, which I will try to address.

I have two main points. I was on the Joint Committee on the Draft Domestic Abuse Bill last year and this is one of its recommendations—I will refer to that in a moment. Secondly, “personally connected” is a term that is used in the legislation in Wales and I have found it very interesting—I hope it is interesting for others as well—to make the comparison between the legislation in Wales and that which we are creating here today, and to be aware of how those two pieces of legislation sit together.

The report from the Commission on Justice in Wales, led by Lord John Thomas, came out in October 2019. We have a legislature in Wales alongside the legislation that we make in similar areas in Westminster, and the growing effect of the divergence of legislation needs to be considered, particularly the impact on the ground —on victims and perpetrators. The report from the commission—chaired by Lord John Thomas, previously of the Supreme Court—was commissioned by the Welsh Government, but we should be alert to the effects on justice in Wales, particularly in legislation such as this Bill where we already have legislation in a similar area in Wales, although with a very different effect.

Amendment 29 would insert those who live, or who at the time of the abuse lived, in the same household into the definition of those who are considered to be personally connected. Although we have voted, I was supportive of amendments 48 and 49. As the Bill stands, people who live in the same household but who do not have an intimate relationship are not considered to be personally connected.

There is an interesting golden thread, to use a phrase that has already been picked up on: we are using the phrase domestic abuse, but at the same time we are dealing with relationship abuse and how those two issues sit together, because they evidently do not merge entirely together—nor do they in the concept that we are dealing with here. It is important that we tease out the differentiations and that we do not get caught into assuming that a certain term means one thing when perhaps it means something else. We should be very aware of whether there are individuals we intend to safeguard in the legislation who otherwise fall outside of it.

First, I must say clearly that the purpose of my amendment is not to add into the legislation a requirement for the victim to live in the same household as the perpetrator in order to be protected. Rather, the amendment seeks to ensure that victims of abuse inflicted by a housemate in the same domestic environment as them, which might be a friend, a sibling or a cousin, would be protected in addition to those who are protected here, to ensure that we cover that environment-specific case.

There were relevant recommendations from the Joint Committee; I will just refer to them again, because I think that will enable me to refer to some of the points that the Government have made in the meantime. The Joint Committee recommended that the Government

“reconsider including the ‘same household’ criterion in its definition of relationships within which domestic abuse can occur. This landmark Bill must ensure that no victim of domestic abuse will be denied protection simply because they lack the necessary relationship to a perpetrator with whom they live.”

The Joint Committee recognised that

“abuse of disabled people by their ‘carers’”,

which we discussed earlier,

“often mirrors that seen in the other relationships covered by the Bill. We conclude that abuse by any carer towards the particularly vulnerable group should be included in the statutory definition. We share the concerns of our witnesses, however, that, even with the ‘same household’ criterion included in the definition of ‘personally connected’, paid carers, and some unpaid ones, will be excluded from the definition of domestic abuse.”

The Joint Committee therefore recommended that the Government

“review the ‘personally connected’ clause with the intention of amending it to include a clause which will cover all disabled people and their carers, paid or unpaid, in recognition of the fact this type of abuse occurs in a domestic situation.”

I am aware that the Minister has already referred to some of these matters. She touched on the Care Act 2014; just as an aside, and at the risk of repeating this all the time, I am not sufficiently familiar with the Care Act to be able to disentangle those areas that apply to England and those areas that apply to England and Wales, but I ask her at least to consider whether there are any possible gaps or loopholes in which there could be confusion of expectation. There may well not be, but one of my roles here is to ensure that we have checked that, care being devolved in Wales.

The only other point that I will make in relation to what the Joint Committee raised is the need for consistency of approach. Again, when we refer to previous legislation, or legislation that already exists, one of the alarm bells set off in my mind with this domestic abuse legislation is that what we are attempting to do here is to provide clarity and consistency. We have seen exactly the same issue with the range of sexual abuse offences. The fact that something exists in law does not mean that it is applied consistently across forces or even perhaps across local authorities. We need to be alert to ensure that what is put into this legislation is applicable and is experienced by victims consistently, as is intended. It is important to ensure that.

I have a few further points. As I mentioned earlier, this issue is particularly important when it comes to the victims and potential victims living in Wales, as definitions within Welsh legislation vary from what is included in the Bill. The Violence against Women, Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence (Wales) Act 2015, in its definition of associated people, includes people who live or who have lived in the same household, so a different definition is being applied in Wales.

That is particularly important, since this is something we may well have seen at this time of covid-19 and also with young people, because younger households are much more likely to live in house shares and to rent privately. When all the bedrooms within a single house are occupied—in a terraced house, for example—with everyone sharing a bathroom and kitchen, that is a domestic situation in which abuse may occur. The landlord may well live there. There is a question about whether the legislation is missing something there that we might wish to capture. The 2019 figures from the Office for National Statistics illustrate that people aged between 25 and 34 now account for 35% of households in that sector.

Private renters are more likely to have direct experience of unaffordability, of precarity in their relationship and in how they pay their rent, and of insecurity, particularly at the lower end of the private rental market. Although we cannot know the true extent of financial abuse or coercive control, I fear that those suffering in house shares are not sufficiently protected in the Bill. That situation warrants particular attention.

Housemates, or individuals living in shared accommodation, are covered under the 2015 Act but, as it stands, they would not be protected under the Bill. It is worth considering whether both pieces of legislation complement one another or if we have an overlap up to a point, but not beyond, and if so, whether that inconsistency will result in victims whom we might have intended to protect. The legislation should be as aligned as possible.

We debate the Bill in a context that is a world away from that in which it was first drafted. Looking back to the October draft—I remember discussing it this time last year with the Joint Committee—the world is a very different place now. The pandemic means that people who live with abusive housemates will have to spend more time than ever in the same house, and the places where they could previously spend time apart—cafés, pubs, gyms, other friends’ homes, or workplaces—are not available to them. We may well see a spike in that sort of behaviour, which is exactly the sort that was intended to be captured this time last year, but there is a risk that we are defining it too tightly now. Of course, this applies just as much to carers. Because people have spent far more time in each other’s company, we anticipate that when we come to review it, there will have been a spike in domestic abuse.