General functions of Commissioner

Domestic Abuse Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:15 pm on 9th June 2020.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

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

I note that we are having a wide-ranging debate, and jumping from one clause to another, and I will take some advantage of the fact that the clause is about the general functions of the commissioner to give some general, broad input on this clause and some of those to follow.

As has already been said by pretty much everyone —probably even including myself, although it is hard to remember now—we very much welcome Nicole’s appointment, and we welcome the invention of a commissioner full stop. In fact, I remember not knowing this building at all well and being brought down here, when the now Victims’ Commissioner was a Member of Parliament. The Labour party was running a women’s manifesto-building session, in one of the rooms here for victims of domestic violence and those who worked with them. It was long before I even stood for the council, and I just came to this building and gave evidence. One of the things we pushed for then, probably in about 2011, was the creation of a commissioner, so it is incredibly welcome that we are now starting to see those powers come into play. I hope that they will be a catalyst for change in domestic abuse policy. They will certainly allow us to find gaps—or, as the Minister has outlined, over-supply—and, more importantly, solutions to fill those gaps.

In the Joint Committee report published on 14 June, a number of concerns were raised by witnesses and the Committee about the role of the commissioner. Those concerns were also raised at the aforementioned evidence session. Today, I still think that some of them have not been allayed. My hon. Friend the Member for Hove has gone over some of those issues, but there are a few things I wanted to pick up specifically around the commissioner’s general functions.

The domestic abuse commissioner has the potential to effect real change in the way domestic abuse services operate. However, for that potential to be realised, we must first ensure that the Bill is amended to resolve the substantial concerns that could stymie the commissioner’s remit in terms of independence, resource and power. We have laid some of the amendments to do that.

With regard to the remit, which is in clause 6, my first point is not a complaint but rather a comment as to the operation of the commissioner’s role and how best she can make a positive contribution to combat domestic abuse. Notwithstanding comments from witnesses to the Joint Committee and the subsequent recommendations, the Government have made it clear that the role of the commissioner and the Bill are limited to domestic abuse and do not cover other forms of violence against women and girls. One notes from our debates earlier around the definition of domestic abuse that the words “sexual abuse” are within that definition. That has not been ignored. Around 56% of all reported rapes happen within people’s marriages. One of the most amazing facts—I say this to schools when I go and visit—is that raping your wife was only made illegal in 1991. So, John Major, that and the cones hotline are things to be very proud of.

The level of sexual violence in domestic abuse cases is shocking, and there is some concern about the functions of the commissioner, whose role is—to be very purist—about domestic abuse. What is her interaction to be with rape and sexual violence organisations such as Rape Crisis England and Wales, for example? That is yet to be ironed out.

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)

I just want to draw attention to some of the subsections in clause 6 and the interaction between the domestic abuse commissioner and the Senedd. I can see complications in exactly that area, and it needs clarity.

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

Absolutely, because, in Wales, it is a violence against women and girls situation. The Minister will remember—it might not be as far back as the Investigatory Powers Bill, but it is from way back at the beginning of this particular Bill—that, for many, many moons, we went over the conversation about whether this should be a violence against women and girls Bill. People like me were very much on the side that it should be—that you cannot see domestic violence in a vacuum and that it exists within a framework of patriarchal norms in society. However, I do not make those amendments to this Bill now. We have come an awfully long way and worked very hard together over many years to this point.

In this area, however, there is potential for people to put pressure on the current commissioner. I happened to run a rape crisis service as part of a domestic abuse service. We had a standalone rape crisis service. I can see how I would have said, “Well, they’ve got a commissioner—I’m just going to go to her.” Nicole may very well end up feeling conflicted by that, because much is part of the process.

It is clear that the commissioner must take care to spread her powers as widely as possible, and must ensure that a multi-agency approach is taken and that the needs of the third sector in this regard, specifically, are considered. From the evidence we received in the evidence sessions from the Victims’ Commissioner—although we did not hear from the Children’s Commissioner, she sent in evidence for us to consider—I am aware that all of the commissioners are working closely together to, for want of a better word, divvy up some of the concerns. We need some clarity on that. The Victims’ Commissioner, a woman who has incredible experience in the violence against women and girls area, is also responsible for antisocial behaviour and for victimhood of all kinds, so it will be important to make sure that we have clarity of purpose on remit and functions of the commissioners.

Referring to clause 11, I also feel that the third sector should be represented on the commissioner’s advisory board, together with representatives from marginalised groups, such as migrant women, older people, disabled victims and—dare I say it?—children. The commissioner must also take account of those groups and their respective needs, placing survivors at the heart of everything she does. Following last Thursday’s evidence session, there is no question but that the commissioner has taken all of what I am saying on board. I raise it simply to urge her and the Minister to continue to ensure that that is the case.

I mentioned earlier that the violence against women and girls sector can be fractious. The thing that stops it being fractious—we could say this about any sector—is individuals’ personalities. If a certain person changes, or two people change, and people get on better and have a friendship and relationship, that will change the approach, so we have to make sure that all the things I have said about the commissioner’s functions and role in working with the voluntary sector do not simply rely on the fact that Nicole is a really good egg, but are built into the commissioner’s remit and functions.

Although I am hopeful that our new clause on this issue will ensure that the definition of domestic abuse is gendered—that will be for next week, I imagine—I again urge the commissioner to consider the impact of domestic abuse on women and girls. I am almost certain that the Minister will rise to her feet and say that that will be in the guidance, but it is important to say it.

I have one final point on the remit that is specific to clause 6. As was clear from last week’s evidence session, the domestic abuse commissioner has already taken initial steps in establishing a working relationship with the Welsh Government. Areas have already been identified where the domestic abuse commissioner is to work together with the Welsh Government, and there is a clear way for that to perhaps be formalised. Some of the issues of the additional areas of overlap will need to be managed. The Government have provided for the National Assembly for Wales to undertake appropriate scrutiny of how the commissioner’s office discharges its duties. However, we ask that the Bill is amended to give the commissioner a duty to consult with partners and agencies in Wales. I know that the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd seeks to do that with one of her amendments. That is very important.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hove has been over some of the issues of independence. What is obvious and appears to have been misjudged, I fear, is that for the commissioner to carry out her wide-ranging role effectively she must be independent. There is no question about that. As we have talked about in clauses 4 and 5, the Secretary of State determines the funding, the staff and the accommodation. I hear what the Minister says about how that will not affect the functions and independence of the commissioner, and I truly hope that that is the case. She alluded to the powers in her remarks on previous clauses: the Secretary of State has the ability to review annual reports and other reports made by the commissioner and to omit certain material. The “omit certain material” worries me, to be completely honest. What is it that we fear? Perhaps the Minister can give examples of what might we worry the commissioner would put into a review that the Secretary of State would wish to omit. The Secretary of State also has powers to approve any strategic plan made by the commissioner and agree any modifications with the commissioner. The Bill does not currently provide particularly well for any disagreement about how those functions might fall out.

The Minister has rightly said that the powers the commissioner will have in clauses 14 and 15 are pretty good—I would like some of those powers. The commissioner can demand an answer and actions from people, but what happens when it is the Home Office that the commissioner is critiquing for the way it has treated victims of violence against women and girls or of domestic abuse? That is, I fear, still the question.

The reality is that, in the functions the Home Office executes, I have seen practice that could definitely be called into question and reviewed by the commissioner. That does not necessarily involve the Ministers in front of me, but the reality is that there has been some bad practice. I worry about how that will work.

Photo of Liz Twist Liz Twist Opposition Whip (Commons) 3:30 pm, 9th June 2020

Does my hon. Friend agree that the issue at the heart of these clauses, and this clause in particular, is the commissioner’s independence and freedom to act? We heard evidence last week that that is a concern and that it would be helpful to have assurances from the Minister that the domestic abuse commissioner can in fact act independently and without fear of ministerial over-involvement, shall we say?

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

Absolutely. For us, for the commissioner, given her own evidence, and for the sector—for everybody —independence is the single most important thing we wish to see in this role. That is not unreasonable, as my hon. Friend pointed out. Where there is contention—I do not think there is any perception of any contention whatever in the current appointment—it can be used to undermine any report that that person had written. Let us imagine that one of these bodies had to look into a political party and that political party was found wanting. It would be easy for politics to then play the game where we say, “Well, they’re just your pals. You’re giving jobs to the boys.” That undermines the fundamentals of what these bodies are doing. Independence in every part of the commissioner’s function is vital. It is to protect their work so there is absolutely no conflict of interest with the Victims’ Commissioner, the Children’s Commissioner and the domestic abuse commissioner.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon makes an important point, and perhaps the Minister can answer this: who gets to decide if the commissioner should be sacked and should no longer be the commissioner? What grounds would they have to appeal that on? We all sit here with a weird employment status, in that we have no employment status. The people who employ me are the good people of Birmingham, Yardley, but they do not ever turn up to my 360-degree appraisals. No one is giving me the appraisal.

Let us say, for example, that there has to be an investigation by the commissioner into a report of practices by the Home Office regarding victims of domestic abuse, whether through its own policy on the matter or through other, adjoining policies, such as counter-terrorism or immigration. How can we make sure that the commissioner does not get sacked? If the Home Secretary were a Labour Home Secretary—I think this is a tool. With the recent stories, the Home Office has not necessarily been covering itself—

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Labour, Westminster North

Order. I have been quite generous with time, but I have to ensure that Members do not stray from the terms of the Bill Committee.

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

Okay. I just want to ensure that there is an independent process so that if there are problems, they can be solved. I close my remarks on that point.

The commissioner is a welcome position. Almost all the functions laid out in all parts of the Bill regarding the commissioner are to be welcomed and need little amendment. I commend the Ministers and the civil servants involved. I wish to seek some assurances specifically around the independence of the commissioner.

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

I do not propose to repeat what we have already said, because this theme runs through our discussions. We are conscious of the need for the commissioner not just to be independent, but to be seen to be independent. We have listened to the Joint Committee and its recommendations on this point.

Taking a step back, the Government cannot be accused of being shy of scrutiny on this Bill. The Bill, as published in its original iteration, was scrutinised by the Joint Committee. As those who have been in the House for a while know, that does not happen to every Bill; it is an unusual process. The reason we did that is precisely because we wanted to involve the House in the consideration of the draft Bill before it became the Bill that Parliament would consider formally.

Although politics has got in the way of the Bill’s progress, we have used those chapters in the Bill’s history to good effect, I hope. For example, since the second iteration of the Bill that came before the House, which managed to reach the first day of Bill Committee just before the General Election, we have been able to insert the duty on local authorities into the Bill. That would have had to be done by way of amendment.

We have changed parts of the Bill in relation to the role of the commissioner, because we listened to what the Joint Committee said. We also listened to what the previous Bill Committee said. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley referred in passing to the fact that the working hours of the commissioner have been changed. In consultation with the designate commissioner, we have extended her role from three days to four days a week, because she told us she was doing four days of work a week. We have listened to that and we have moved.

We also moved in relation to the Joint Committee’s recommendations about the laying of reports and strategic plans. In the original iteration, that was conducted through the Home Secretary. As happens with many reports, the report would be given to the Home Secretary and the Home Secretary would lay it before Parliament. We changed that in relation to reports and strategic plans so that the commissioner will lay them directly before Parliament, and she will choose the timing for doing so within the confines of the requirements of clause 12 in relation to strategic plans. We did that because we want her to be able to stand apart from Government and to lay her reports before Parliament as part of her role.

We have further amended the Bill to remove the requirements for the commissioner to submit strategic plans to the Home Secretary for approval. We have changed that so that the Home Secretary is simply consulted on them, and that is significant. I hope it reassures Bill Committee colleagues that, within the framework that we must have for any public role paid for through public funds—we have to have control and ministerial oversight—we have set that out in a way that safeguards independence. I hope people agree.

Photo of Andrew Bowie Andrew Bowie Conservative, West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine 3:45 pm, 9th June 2020

Clause 6(2) states:

“The things that the Commissioner may do in pursuance of the general duty under subsection (1) include… (g) co-operating with, or working jointly with, public authorities, voluntary organisations and other persons, whether in England and Wales or outside the United Kingdom.”

Does that include the commissioner working with organisations that are also within the United Kingdom but not in places specified in the Bill—in Scotland or in Northern Ireland?

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

That is a very good point, and I am sure that I will have an answer to it very soon. My hon. Friend has highlighted what we have also tried to achieve in the Bill, which is to respect the devolution settlements we have with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Colleagues will know that the second iteration of the Bill had substantial parts dedicated to ensuring that victims of domestic abuse in Northern Ireland had the same protections as we have in England and Wales, but now that the Northern Ireland Assembly has been reinstituted, it has taken back responsibility and can deal with these issues in Northern Ireland, which is great news. I wish them Godspeed.

I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to the incidental powers set out in clause 9, which states:

The Commissioner may do anything which the Commissioner considers will facilitate, or is incidental or conducive to, the carrying out of the Commissioner’s functions.”

As an aside, the commissioner “may not borrow money”—that is very helpful. I feel that my hon. Friend’s point requires further reflection, and we will do that.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley is absolutely right to raise the point about sexual violence and rape. She is correct to say that this has been one of those knotty subjects where we have listened to a range of views. It was my great pleasure to almost respond on Second Reading to my hon. Friend Philip Davies, who—I think it is probably fair to say—takes a different approach to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley on this matter. We have endeavoured to ensure the definition is gender-neutral, so that we capture victims regardless of gender, but in the statutory guidance we make it clear that it is a gendered crime, because we think that is an important part of the overall consideration of the legislation.

In terms of working with rape and sexual violence charities, the Victims’ Commissioner has responsibility for that. She is a formidable commissioner and does not hold back from establishing and proving her independence on a regular basis, for which we are most grateful. Taking a step back, the Victims’ Commissioner and designate domestic abuse commissioner clearly have a very good working relationship. They are both highly professional women. With the quality of people we appoint to commissioner roles—although personalities can be really positive and important—I would expect them to behave professionally with each other, and I have very much seen evidence of that. There may well be times when the Victims’ Commissioner and the DA commissioner join forces in drawing the Government’s attention to issues—they have done so in the last couple of months with the covid-19 crisis—and we welcome that. I hope that reassures hon. Members.

In terms of the advisory board—I apologise for the fact that I am jumping around—the advisory board is for the commissioner to appoint. I will step back from giving a suggestion of what she may or may not wish to do with that, because to do so would, I suspect, undermine all my previous arguments. It is for the commissioner to appoint, and she, I am sure, will be watching this line-by-line scrutiny very carefully. I suspect that the other points that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley raised fit more comfortably in our consideration of clause 7 and the amendments attached to it. If I may, I will hold my fire—that does not feel like a terribly consensual way of phrasing it; I will keep my powder dry instead—on that matter.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 6 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.