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Domestic Abuse Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:25 am on 10th June 2020.

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Photo of Peter Kyle Peter Kyle Shadow Minister (Justice) 9:25 am, 10th June 2020

I beg to move amendment 45, in clause 13, page 8, line 16, leave out from “must” to “on” and insert “report annually to Parliament”.

This amendment changes the requirement for the Commissioner to submit an annual report to the Secretary of State to a requirement to report annually to Parliament.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 46, in clause 13, page 8, line 25, leave out subsections (3) to (5) and insert—

“(3) The Commissioner must arrange for a copy of every annual report under this section to be laid before Parliament.

(4) Before laying the report before Parliament, the Commissioner must ensure that no material is included in the report which—

(a) might jeopardise the safety of any person, or

(b) might prejudice the investigation or prosecution of an offence.

(5) The Commissioner must provide a copy of the report to the Secretary of State.”.

This amendment is linked to Amendment 45.

Photo of Peter Kyle Peter Kyle Shadow Minister (Justice)

It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I do not know about you, but I like to start every day with a quote from an inspirational political figure, and I thought today there could be no better inspirational political figure than the Minister for safeguarding. On 18 September 2019, the Minister said:

“The focus of the Commissioner will be to stand up for victims and survivors, raise public awareness and hold both agencies and government to account in tackling domestic abuse.”

That is key: to hold Government to account. The most important Government Department that the commissioner needs to hold to account will be the Home Office.

Yesterday we explored the independence and importance of the commissioner. I will not go over all the arguments made yesterday, as we want to make some progress today, but we established that it is absolutely essential. For the commissioner to be successful in the role, she will need a degree of independence from the Home Office. Amendments 45 and 46 would deliver the independence that she will need.

The Minister is right that the role of the commissioner is to hold Government to account. An essential part of the commissioner’s role is to advise, support and inform, and at times to challenge. Nothing must stand in the way of her being able to perform that challenge. Holding to account sometimes involves disagreeing. Sometimes it involves saying publicly, “I believe they are wrong,” or, “I believe they should be doing things differently.”

We need the commissioner to be 100% focused on giving a voice to victims and survivors, and that is not possible if they are worried about the reaction of the people paying their wages. That is true for any other organisation up and down the country, and it is true for this appointment as well. The thing that makes the biggest difference to a survivor’s life is the way that public services respond to their needs.

Most of the commissioner’s time will be spent trying to improve and change things. By definition, improvement is change, so the role of the commissioner will be to change Home Office policy. The vast majority of that change must come from the Home Office. Yet the Home Office pays the bills, sets the budget, hires or fires the commissioner and sets the framework. The Home Secretary is, in essence, the commissioner’s line manager, and even gets to mark her homework.

The Minister has drawn the Committee’s attention to the exhaustive prelegislative process that the Bill has been subjected to, and it is true that the Bill is one of the most heavily scrutinised pieces of legislation—even before arriving in the House—of any in recent years. However, what if every part of that exhaustive process comes to the same conclusion—as, when it comes to the Home Office, it has? If every part of prelegislative scrutiny results in saying the same thing but the Home Office does the exact opposite, we must ask ourselves what the point of all the prelegislative scrutiny was.

As I have said, the commissioner is popular—everyone wants a piece of the commissioner. Everyone wants her to report to them or to someone else. The Home Affairs Committee wants her to report to Parliament. The Joint Committee on the Draft Domestic Abuse Bill wants her to report to the Cabinet Office. However, they all have one thing in common: none of them thinks that it is appropriate for her to report to the Home Office.

That can be seen in the prelegislative scrutiny. I will quote from paragraph 306 of the Joint Committee’s report. It mentions two names: Emily Frith, who worked for the Children’s Commissioner, and Kevin Hyland, the former Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner. It states:

“Emily Frith noted that the Children’s Commissioner had to send draft reports to the Secretary of State for Education before publication, and that the Secretary of State had to approve its annual strategic plan. She stated, ‘We would like to see both those things removed, because that would give the commissioner much more independence to report directly to Parliament.’”

That was with reference to the domestic abuse commissioner. The report continues:

“Kevin Hyland told us that, during his reappointment, he was criticised for giving evidence to a parliamentary committee. He suggested that, if the Commissioner were to be responsible to a parliamentary committee rather than a government department, then they would be able to express concerns more openly.”

Paragraph 307 states:

“In its report on domestic abuse, the Home Affairs Committee recommended that the Commissioner be accountable, and report directly, to Parliament rather than to Government, and should be independently accommodated and resourced.”

The safeguarding Minister drew the Committee’s attention to the process, and it is incumbent on us to heed the Joint Committee’s advice. It did not mince its words, and concluded, in paragraph 323, that it had

“grave concerns about the proposal for the Commissioner’s role to be responsible to the Home Office.”

It recommended in paragraph 324

“that the Commissioner be responsible to the Cabinet Office”.

The Opposition—[Interruption.] I reassure the Committee that my cough is the result of the London plane trees outside Parliament, not anything else that might be making its way around the city. [Laughter.] I am well protected by the Brighton Gin hand sanitiser that sits before me.

The Opposition accept the clear advice of both parliamentary inquiries, which involved both Houses of Parliament, and their exhaustive deliberations. Since those inquiries completed, Britain has left the European Union and the Cabinet Office is consumed—some might say overwhelmed—by the challenges posed by the negotiations and preparations for our future relationship. It is unlikely that a domestic abuse commissioner would find a suitable home there right now, bearing in mind that the Joint Committee reported almost two years ago.

We accept the clear recommendation of the Home Affairs Committee that for matters of substance the commissioner should report directly to Parliament. I feel certain that if the Joint Committee were reporting today, rather than two years ago, it would totally agree.

Amendment 45 and 46 are straightforward. Amendment 45 would simply exchange “Secretary of State” for “Parliament” for the submission of the commissioner’s annual report. Amendment 46 achieves a similar outcome but has regard to a concern raised by the Minister yesterday, by requiring the commissioner by law to ensure that no material be included that might jeopardise the safety of anyone or prejudice an investigation or prosecution.

These amendments refer to the annual report. We do not cover all the different areas of reporting. These amendments are intended to probe the issue of accountability and independence and will not be pressed to a vote. We urge Ministers to look afresh at the conclusions of pre-legislative Committees and, if they are in a generous mood, to ensure that we can argue for the amendments, engage with them as they stand and keep an open mind as to whether the role of the commissioner could be strengthened, delivering an outcome that I believe would put it in a much safer, stronger and more secure position, to enable the commissioner to do their job. My God, the people whom the commissioner seeks to give a voice to need the strongest possible voice that we can muster.

There is one final aspect of the relationship between the Home Office and the commissioner that I want to raise. I do this carefully and with respect to all hon. Members, because I know that when we talk about individuals it is a sensitive issue. I do not want to squander the constructive nature of our deliberations so far, but I believe that this is relevant and important. This relates to the nature of the Home Secretary and issues raised about her own personal behaviour in recent times.

At this time there are two separate formal processes underway that involve multiple allegations of abusive behaviour by the Home Secretary: one is an internal civil service inquiry being conducted by the Cabinet Office; and the other is a legal tribunal by the Home Office’s former most senior official for constructive dismissal. Both are ongoing and I will say nothing that will prejudice either inquiry.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

Order. I liked the part where you said that you will say nothing on this issue, because I am not really sure what the relevance is to amendment 45 to clause 13.

Photo of Peter Kyle Peter Kyle Shadow Minister (Justice)

Mr Bone, I would like to explain. We are talking about the establishment of a commissioner for abuse, reporting directly to the Home Secretary. The amendment seeks to change the line management of the commissioner. I believe I am treading lightly as I progress through this. I think it will become apparent why I want to put this on the record.

As I say, we will not push the amendment to a vote, but there are arguments here that I believe need to be made. Many people who have contacted me are aware of the irony of having a commissioner for abuse reporting to somebody who has two active investigations into abusive behaviour. I will tread lightly.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

Order. I am afraid that you will not tread lightly, because you have made the point. I understand the argument you are making, but we are talking about the post of Home Secretary, not an individual. The point is on the record and I think we should now move on.

Photo of Peter Kyle Peter Kyle Shadow Minister (Justice)

I am very respectful of your chairmanship. I will move on and conclude my remarks. I have put on the record what I wanted to say, which was to explain delicately the parallels between the comments that were made in public statements relating to the Home Secretary. What I said—I will not repeat it—was meant to acknowledge your point, Mr Bone, that this legislation will almost certainly last for a generation and will therefore see successive Home Secretaries. A particular issue right now is the character of the one who—

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

No, I am not having this. I do not want to spoil the hon. Gentleman’s speech, but I am going to. I thought he was making a very well-argued speech until he got to that point, which I think is out of order. In fact, I am telling him that it is out of order. We will now move on.

Photo of Peter Kyle Peter Kyle Shadow Minister (Justice)

I appreciate that. In our debates yesterday, during an exhaustive set of speeches about the independence of the role of the commissioner, the case was made that it is extremely important that the link between independence and effectiveness is categoric. That has been exhaustively investigated by two previous inquiries by the Home Affairs Committee and by a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament. The direct link between effectiveness in that role and where it reports—its independence—comes from a central role of the commissioner: to give voice to people who have, for too long, been shut out of public debate. Victims and survivors of domestic abuse are some of the most disempowered people in our society.

The reason that independence is important is that there will be times when the commissioner needs to give voice to people who are suffering abuse but comes into conflict with current Home Office policy. That area is never more acute than on the issues of migrant women, legal aid and the experience of women at the hands of law enforcement agencies. Overwhelmingly, there will be a constructive relationship between the Home Office, the Home Secretary and the commissioner—there is already a good and fruitful working relationship between the Home Office and the commissioner designate—but there will be times when we need the commissioner to be an unflinching advocate for survivors and victims and to be 100% focused on the needs of those individuals, and not even 1% focused on the delicacies of managing a complex set of relationships within the Home Office.

There are also technical reasons why that is seen as more effective. As we heard in evidence, reporting to the Home Office is a complex relationship. The Home Office is a complex organisation with numerous officials and various levels that can have direct relationships with the commissioner. The commissioner will have a handful of staff, while the Home Office will have thousands, and although those thousands will not all report directly, dozens will—that is a very high-maintenance reporting line.

We will not push the amendment to a vote, but I urge the Minister to assure us that she will use her influence at the Home Office to ensure that the reporting line is effective and efficient and that the commissioner is not overwhelmed with different people asking for different things. As we all know, the civil service rightly needs to protect taxpayers’ money, and people’s liberty and safety, so it can sometimes overwhelm small organisations with bureaucracy. We want to ensure that the commissioner has all the freedom to act in a way that fully represents the victims and survivors for whom she is there to give voice.

Photo of Nickie Aiken Nickie Aiken Conservative, Cities of London and Westminster

I understand the concerns that you raise about effectiveness and independence. We have a Children’s Commissioner and a Victims’ Commissioner, and they are both very independent. What makes you think—

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

Order. It is not supposed to be “you”, because I am “you”—you are supposed to speak through me.

Photo of Nickie Aiken Nickie Aiken Conservative, Cities of London and Westminster

Yes, Mr Bone.

What does the hon. Gentleman think? Why would this commissioner be any different in independence and effectiveness compared with the Children’s Commissioner, the Victims’ Commissioner or any other commissioner that the Government may have?

Photo of Peter Kyle Peter Kyle Shadow Minister (Justice) 9:45 am, 10th June 2020

I welcome the hon. Lady’s intervention. As I said yesterday, I remember my first Bill Committee well. I assure every Member sitting on a Bill Committee for the first time that they are in the safest of environments if they want to stand up to speak—and, like me, to make mistakes in an honest, open and sincere way. Believe me, it is much better to do so here in Committee than over there in the Chamber.

The hon. Lady is completely right about other commissioners, including the two she named. In fact, the Victims’ Commissioner reports directly to a Department. The Children’s Commissioner has a slightly different reporting line, because more aspects of her role involve reporting directly to Parliament. What those commissioners have in common, however, is that they have both given evidence to the Joint Committee and to the Select Committee on Home Affairs, and one commissioner gave evidence in our evidence session only last week.

Both those commissioners believe that greater independence for the domestic abuse commissioner is desirable. Based on their experience of being commissioners, they believe that that is more desirable, and they have both said so on the record in the firmest possible terms. That reflects on their own positions—they would like more freedom in their roles—and they are generously willing to share their experience with this Committee so that we can get it right for the new commissioner. We got it mostly right in previous times, but there is always room for improvement and, given on their experience, the issue of independence is something they would like to see improved.

With that, Mr Bone, I conclude my remarks.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

I thank the hon. Gentleman, and I wish him well with the cough because I suffer from exactly the same problem. You never know when it is going to come on—if I start to have a coughing fit, please, that is the reason.

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

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone.

I thank the hon. Member for Hove for emphasising yet again the exhaustive scrutiny that the Bill has received. When we look over the history of the Bill and its scrutiny, we see that he is right to say that few other pieces of legislation in recent history have received such scrutiny. Yesterday, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley said that we had “got away with it” this time with the appointment of Nicole Jacobs, but, on behalf of the commissioner, I should say that it is not a question of getting away with it.

We had a recruitment process in line with the public appointments process, which is carefully managed and objective. I interviewed Nicole myself, and she was the stand-out candidate. That is why I advised the Home Secretary to appoint her. I know that the hon. Member for Hove does not mean to do this, but the more it is suggested that Nicole, the designate commissioner, will somehow not be independent, the more I fear that that risks undermining her. We have to accept that Ms Jacobs is a professional, highly qualified and highly experienced person in the world of domestic abuse. We should welcome her appointment, which shows that the system has worked.

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

I absolutely echo the Minister’s words about Nicole Jacobs—and, I am sure, anyone who had been given the position.

May I ask if that same process was followed in the appointment of Kevin Hyland as the Independent Anti-slavery Commissioner? Where does the Minister feel that that relationship broke down, to the point that his evidence on this Bill led to concerns that are now shared by me, Parliament, my hon. Friend the Member for Hove, the Home Affairs Committee and so on?

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

I cannot speak to that appointment process, because I was not the Minister at the time, although I know that, personally, I had a good relationship with Mr Hyland at the tail end of his tenure.

Clearly, however, I was involved in the appointment process for the current Anti-slavery Commissioner, Dame Sara Thornton. I asked officials to double-check this: I do not believe that she has voiced any concerns about her independence in the year—it must be at least a year—that she has been in role. I remind the Committee that Dame Sara is a former chief constable and was chair of the Association of Chief Police Officers before the National Police Chiefs Council was set up. She is, again, a very highly qualified, highly experienced professional with decades of public service under her belt.

In exploring these issues, I would not for a moment wish to risk undermining the work or reputations of Dame Sara, Ms Jacobs or any of the commissioners that we have heard reference to.

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

There is absolutely no sense that anybody here wishes to undermine the commissioners—we also work with those commissioners. We wish to empower them. We are concerned about relationship breakdown, and not necessarily with the current commissioner. Can the Minister speak more to the relationship with the previous Anti-slavery Commissioner, which definitely broke down?

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

Forgive me, but I am returning to the Bill, which is what we are concerned with now.

I am very happy to talk about the Children’s Commissioner, who is sponsored by the Department for Education. I do not know whether anyone has been listening to the news recently, but I do not think anybody could accuse Ms Longfield of not being independent or not expressing her views pretty forcefully and vehemently. Only yesterday there was a statement in the House about the issues she has raised.

Photo of Peter Kyle Peter Kyle Shadow Minister (Justice)

I am keen for us not to fall into the bearpit that the Chair has already identified. We are not talking about the specific officeholder; we are talking about the role. We need to make sure that we get the role right so that future holders of the office are able to exercise powers correctly and so that the powers encourage a certain type of behaviour, rather than relying on a character who can find their way through unideal rules, making the best of it.

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

I am absolutely focusing on the powers available. Ms Longfield is exercising her powers as a commissioner who is sponsored by the Department for Education, just as Dame Vera Baird is—I think the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley referred to Dame Vera’s political background. I have to say that she was appointed by a Conservative Government. She is very capable and experienced, with decades of public service under her belt. Again, the appointments process identified the correct candidate and she uses her powers to great effect. No one can accuse Dame Vera of holding back when she feels there is a need to hold the Government to account.

The point is that the powers and the offices already exist, they work, and it is on that basis that we have listened to the Joint Committee’s recommendations. We have made changes between the first iteration and this iteration of the Bill. For example, clause 13 has been changed. It was the case that the Home Secretary would lay a copy of the report before Parliament, but we listened and took on board what the Joint Committee recommended. We have now changed that so that it is the commissioner who must arrange for a copy of her report to be laid before Parliament—it is the commissioner who decides when that happens, within the realms of the reporting framework and the financial year and so on. It is the commissioner who decides what is in that report, with that tiny, narrow exception that we discussed yesterday, which mirrors the previous clauses. I am grateful that the hon. Member for Hove withdrew that amendment; I took it that he was satisfied with my explanation.

I would very much argue that the domestic abuse commissioner is empowered. She has oversight by a Department—the Home Office—as does pretty much every other commissioner, with the three exceptions that we have identified, including the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, which by definition reports directly to Parliament. We have followed that model, but adapted it to take into account the matters raised by the Joint Committee.

In recommending the clause to the Committee, I pray in aid the fact that, when Ms Jacobs appeared before the Public Bill Committee in the previous Session, she was asked about sponsorship of her office by the Home Office. She replied that she felt

“confident about the hosting at the Home Office.”––[Official Report, Domestic Abuse Public Bill Committee, 29 October 2019; c. 9, Q10.]

In separate evidence to the Public Bill Committee last October, Zoë Billingham, who is one of Her Majesty’s inspectors of constabulary and fire and rescue services, said:

“The fact that I have a relationship with the Home Office does not undermine my personal statutory independence as an HMI or our organisation’s independence.”––[Official Report, Domestic Abuse Public Bill Committee, 29 October 2019; c. 43, Q70.]

I fully appreciate why hon. Members want to debate and explore the issue, but I hope that they will be reassured by the fact that office holders do not have a problem, and feel confident about the hosting at the Home Office. What is more, we have listened to the Committee and adapted the measures so that the commissioner has the direct relationship with Parliament that Members feel is so important.

Photo of Peter Kyle Peter Kyle Shadow Minister (Justice)

I briefly make the point that you cannot have it both ways—or, rather, the Minister cannot have it both ways. You, Mr Bone, can obviously have it any way you like.

The Minister cannot say that the commissioners speak up freely, and give examples of that, but ignore what they say, and have a reporting line for them. Every one of the commissioners that she mentioned believes that the commissioner for domestic abuse should report somewhere other than the Home Office.

The Minister is right to quote Nicole, because she is a formidable and generous advocate. She has been given the role, and was clear from the outset about the reporting lines, which she accepted when she began to apply for the job. However, I remind the Minister that last week, in giving evidence, she made it clear in her opening exchange with me that she would welcome greater independence from the Home Office. She was clear about that.

I will lay the argument to rest, and accept the arguments of the Minister. I hope that she sees the sincerity with which we make our argument, which in no way impugns our belief that Nicole Jacobs will be a fantastic advocate. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 13 ordered to stand part of the Bill.