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Power of Secretary of State to issue guidance about domestic abuse, etc

Domestic Abuse Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:25 am on 16th June 2020.

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Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Minister for Women 9:25 am, 16th June 2020

I beg to move amendment 40, in clause 66, page 49, line 36, after “64” insert

“, (Homelessness: victims of domestic abuse)”.

This amendment is consequential on amendment NC16.

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Labour, Westminster North

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Government amendments 41 and 42.

Government new clause 16—Homelessness: victims of domestic abuse.

New clause 13—Homelessness and domestic abuse—

“(1) Part 7 of the Housing Act 1996 (Homelessness: England) is amended in accordance with subsections (2) to (5).

(2) In section 177(1) and (1A) (whether it is reasonable to continue to occupy accommodation) for each instance of “violence” substitute “abuse”.

(3) After section 177(1A) insert—

“(1B) In this Act, ”abuse” means—

(a) physical or sexual abuse;

(b) violent or threatening behaviour;

(c) controlling or coercive behaviour;

(d) economic abuse (within the meaning of section 1(4) of the Domestic Abuse Act 2020);

(e) psychological, emotional or other abuse.”

(4) At the end of section 189(1) (priority need for accommodation), insert—

“(e) a person who—

(i) is homeless as a result of being subject to domestic abuse, or

(ii) resides or might reasonably be expected to reside with a person who falls within sub-paragraph (i) and is not the abuser.“

(5) In section 198 (referral of case to another local housing authority):

(a) In sub-section (2)(c) for “violence” substitute “abuse”;

(b) In sub-section (2ZA)(b) for “violence” substitute “abuse”;

(c) In sub-section (2A) for “violence (other than domestic violence)” substitute “abuse (other than domestic abuse)”;

(d) In sub-section (3) for “violence” substitute “abuse”.

(6) Article 6 of the Homelessness (Priority Need for Accommodation) (England) Order 2002, SI 2002/2051, is amended in accordance with subsection (7).

(7) In Article 6,

(a) after “reason of violence” insert “(other than domestic abuse)”;

(b) after “threats of violence” insert “(other than domestic abuse)”.”

This new clause amends Part 7 Housing Act 1996, concerning local housing authorities’ duties to homeless applicants, for England. It updates the definition of “domestic violence” to that of “domestic abuse” and removes the requirement that a person who is homeless as a result of domestic abuse must also be vulnerable in order to have a priority need.

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, Ms Buck. I am pleased today to be able to bring forward new clause 16, which will amend the Housing Act 1996 to give those who are homeless as a result of being a victim of domestic abuse priority need for accommodation secured by the local authority. The Government believe that it is vital that domestic abuse victims who are homeless or at risk of homelessness are supported to find an accommodation solution that meets their needs and reflects their individual circumstances.

In April 2018 the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 came into force. That Act, for the first time, puts prevention at the heart of the local authority response to homelessness, irrespective of whether those seeking support are a family or an individual on his or her own, and notwithstanding what has put them at risk. That means that all households that are homeless or at risk of homelessness should be provided with an offer of support from their local authority to find appropriate accommodation.

Since the 2017 Act was implemented, more than 200,000 households have had their homelessness successfully prevented or relieved. However, for those who need more support, it is right that the local authority should have a duty to house them immediately and secure accommodation for them. Under homelessness legislation, a person who is pregnant, has dependent children or is vulnerable as a result of having to leave accommodation because of domestic abuse, already has priority need for accommodation.

However, the Government are now going further. Through new clause 16, the Government will automatically give domestic abuse victims priority need for accommodation. That change will mean that consideration of vulnerability will no longer be required for domestic abuse victims to be entitled to accommodation secured by the local authority. If the authority is already satisfied that an applicant is homeless as a result of being a victim of domestic abuse, that victim and their family should not need to go through an additional layer of scrutiny to identify whether they are entitled to be accommodated by the local authority. The amendments to the Housing Act will help ensure that victims do not remain with their abuser for fear of not having a roof over their head. Alongside the announcement made in the spring Budget to extend exemption from the shared accommodation rate to victims of domestic abuse, that should support victims to move into a place of their own where they can feel safe and secure.

New clause 13, tabled by the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark, who is not here today, would have the same effect as the Government’s new clause 16. The one difference is that the hon. Gentleman’s new clause would also extend priority need status to other persons residing in the same household as a victim of domestic abuse. I want to assure the Committee that such provision is not needed. Where an applicant has priority need, the Housing Act already requires local authorities to provide accommodation that is “suitable” for the household. There is therefore no need for each member of the household to have priority need. Amendments 40 to 42 are consequential on new clause 16.

Photo of Alex Davies-Jones Alex Davies-Jones Labour, Pontypridd

Diolch yn fawr, Ms Buck. It is my pleasure to speak to new clause 13, which outlines the need for more stringent housing support for those fleeing domestic abuse in their current households. Colleagues may recall—I certainly will not forget it, and will be dining out on it for a while—that last week the Minister kindly coronated me as the princess of Wales. I was most flattered by the proclamation and make no apologies for speaking up for people across Wales. I plan to use my new-found royal status to ensure that the voices of Welsh victims of domestic abuse are heard and protected in the Bill.

We all know that with great royal power comes great responsibility. I will be using my voice today to focus on themes that are relevant across the board in England. It is clear that domestic abuse has no boundaries; it does not care what nation you are from or what language you speak. It is imperative that we ensure that collaborative working between both nations covered by the Bill can continue if we are to strengthen the spirit of the Union.

I am delighted to speak to new clause 13. I pay tribute to the hard work of my colleague the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark for prioritising the housing needs of survivors of domestic abuse. Sadly, he is unable to join us today, and I know that all Committee members wish him well.

The Government’s change of heart following the brilliant campaign by the all-party parliamentary group for ending homelessness is a welcome step, and these changes will undoubtedly save lives. The campaign was supported by MPs across the House, and a number of organisations in the domestic abuse sector were involved. I hope that colleagues will afford me the opportunity to list the organisations that played a vital role and that are standing together against domestic violence: Crisis, Women’s Aid, Refuge, the Domestic Abuse Housing Alliance, St Mungo’s, Surviving Economic Abuse, Shelter, Homeless Link, Depaul, Centrepoint, Hestia, Changing Lives, the Chartered Institute of Housing, The Connection at St Martin-in-the-Fields, and Latin American Women’s Aid.

It is clear that in England there is a gap in the support offered to those fleeing domestic abuse. These are very real people who are making the brave and bold decision to flee from an unsafe household. We must remember that, because it can be easy to lose sight of that as we sit in this place and discuss the technicalities of the Bill. They should be our priority, but the current system is failing them.

Research by the APPG last year showed that nearly 2,000 households fleeing domestic abuse each year in England are not provided with a safe home, because they are not considered to be in priority need for housing. Colleagues may be aware that during the APPG’s inquiry into domestic abuse and homelessness in 2017, there was clear evidence that local authorities in England were consistently failing to provide people fleeing domestic abuse with the help they need.

I was particularly concerned to read about the vulnerability test being used as a gatekeeper tool by local councils across England. I am pleased that we will now be able to reverse that trend and provide those who are fleeing domestic abuse with a real opportunity to rebuild their lives, yet the amendment still does not go far enough. Despite initial informal commitments from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to adopt the APPG’s amendment word for word, there are now some key differences in the final amendment, which could undoubtedly lead to some domestic abuse victims in England who require housing support falling through the cracks.

The APPG’s amendment would ensure that anyone in a household who applies for homelessness assistance in England due to domestic abuse would qualify for automatic priority need and have a legal right to a safe, permanent home. It is extremely disappointing that the wording of the Government’s amendment means that survivors would be required to physically make the application for homelessness assistance themselves in order to receive automatic priority need. Both the domestic abuse and homelessness sectors have expressed concern that the Government’s amendment fails to guarantee adequate protection to survivors of domestic abuse.

Colleagues will be aware that a note from the APPG, containing more information, was circulated to Committee members recently. I am aware that Bob Blackman, in his capacity as co-chair of the APPG, recently wrote to Ministers and received a reply indicating that the Government do not intend to change their position on this. The Government response states:

“Allowing a member of the household to make the application could allow a perpetrator to manipulate the situation and frame themselves as the ‘new partner’, using the victim to obtain accommodation for their own gain and allow the abuse to continue.”

However, the domestic abuse sector does not agree.

The APPG’s amendment makes it clear that priority need status for settled housing can be guaranteed regardless of whether the homelessness application is made directly by someone in the household who is experiencing domestic abuse. In comparison, the Government’s amendment would not allow for other members of the household to make the application. So many examples spring to mind of where domestic abuse victims could slip through the cracks under the terms of the Government’s amendment, such as children who have had to flee an abusive situation with their mother.

Specifically, this is relevant in a context where only the mother has been abused but the children are not able to reside with their mother, perhaps due to parental addiction or the children being adults. Similarly, if a mother and her children were facing abuse by an adult child against one or more siblings who are under 16, but not against the mother, they would not be entitled to seek urgent support. I hope colleagues will forgive my listing the technicalities of those situations, but they are very real and present in all the communities that each of us represents and serves.

Allowing a member of another household to make an application for homelessness assistance on behalf of an individual who is the victim of domestic abuse is a vital safeguarding mechanism for those fleeing abuse. The strength it takes to flee an abusive household is undeniable, but it will not always be safe or suitable for victims of abuse to make an application for assistance in person. In many cases it will be too dangerous for them to leave their home until they know that they have somewhere safe to seek refuge, or there could be logistical issues, such as where a victim is receiving hospital treatment. For other groups of people considered to be in automatic priority need for settled housing in England, it is already the case that someone else in the household is able to make the application—for example, if a woman is pregnant, their partner is able to make an application on their behalf. The same principle must be extended to people who are fleeing domestic abuse.

Having spent some time discussing the provisions needed in England, I will turn my attention back to my home nation of Wales, to highlight the impact that the truly groundbreaking Violence against Women, Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence (Wales) Act 2015 has had. In Wales, the Labour Government have implemented legislation that puts a duty on the devolved public sector to prevent, protect and support. This has increased understanding and built referral routes to specialist support, allowing local authorities to work alongside and in conjunction with those specialists in order to ensure rapid support for those who need it. After a decade of funding cuts to local authorities across the UK, it is clear that those local authorities are under pressure, particularly when it comes to the housing crisis that we see up and down the country. I urge the Government to reconsider and allow more flexibility for domestic abuse victims who are seeking urgent housing support.

Finally, I hope that colleagues will indulge me as I use some key case studies to highlight the importance of a more accessible system for applying for homelessness assistance. At Women’s Aid, one service user said:

“After a year of fallout, I was still homeless and on my backside—it felt like I was worse off for going through ‘the system’.”

A key worker from Solace Women’s Aid—a fantastic charity based in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark—said:

“A lot of women I work with have a secure tenancy. They really don’t want to leave the secure tenancy. But then often they might not have a lot of choice… some women will prefer to…take massive risks…than leave it.”

One case highlighted by Crisis was that of Danielle, who was made homeless when her relationship ended, after her neighbour called the police following a two-day beating. Despite visible bruising and a letter from her partner admitting the abuse, she was told by the council that she needed to provide further evidence of her vulnerability, and that she was not a priority. So she ended up homeless and sofa-surfing for more than two years.

An anonymous survivor said that he had escaped a three-year abusive relationship where, on occasion, his partner had locked him in a room for five days and beaten him so severely that he was confined to a wheelchair. When he approached the council, he was refused help with finding a safe home, which left him with no option but to sofa-surf for several months. Eventually, a charity that supports victims of domestic abuse helped him to deal with the council, and he is now socially housed.

It is clear from those testimonies that we have an opportunity to change the course of people’s lives and affect their ability to regain their independence following a period of domestic abuse. It is not unreasonable to allow for a more flexible system to ensure that victims can get access to the housing support they need. That additional power would improve people’s ability to flee, and could be hugely powerful as a lifeline for those in need. The new clause is well written, with substantive detail. I ask that the people I have talked about be made a priority.

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

I thank the hon. Lady for her comments. In the spirit of the Bill, and of the Committee, let us welcome the fact that we are making changes in the area in question. It is fantastic that new clause 16 has been tabled.

There is a sliver of disagreement between the Government and the hon. Members for Pontypridd and for Bermondsey and Old Southwark, on the role of other people in the household. We have heard a great deal—just in the Committee Room, let alone in our experiences outside it—of the manipulative nature of some perpetrators and their ability to seize an opportunity against their victim, use it for their own ends and do incredible damage to the victim. Also, the children are often victims. Victims of domestic abuse may be vulnerable and at risk of such manipulation—of being controlled by the perpetrator, whether that is a partner in an intimate relationship, as described in clauses 1 and 2, or indeed a family member. It was against that backdrop that we drafted the clauses.

Our primary concern, on the sliver of disagreement between us, is that an abusive partner could apply for new housing under the approach suggested by the hon. Lady, to the detriment of the victim and the gain and advantage of the perpetrator. Clearly no one wants that.

I take the point about the need to ensure that the system is sensitive to the needs of victims. Indeed, I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East, who has led the campaign with the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark, wrote to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Luke Hall, who responded on 10 June. In the course of the correspondence and conversations, the hon. Lady’s concerns were clearly canvassed as well. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary told my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East that there is already the flexibility in the system to take care of cases where someone has difficulty making their own application, whether that is because they are in a hospital bed or because they are in a refuge that they cannot leave.

The homelessness code of guidance covers such circumstances. Paragraphs 11.13 to 11.16 make it clear that where a face-to-face appointment does not meet the applicant’s needs, assessments can be completed on the telephone or internet, or with the assistance of a partner agency. As for the case studies that the hon. Lady raised, I very much hope that, under new clause 16, Women’s Aid and the other fantastic organisations that we all support would be able to help the victims who could not make applications face to face because of their circumstances.

The hon. Lady raised the issue of secure tenancies. Again, that is addressed in the Bill, in clause 65. Our slight disagreement, as I have said, is on the point about a perpetrator’s ability to manipulate.

We want victims to have full control and ownership of their homelessness application and the accommodation offer from the local authority. That is what new clause 16 manages to achieve.

The hon. Member for Pontypridd also raised what she called the analogous example of pregnancy. Pregnancy is different. It does not—one would hope—involve the same relationship of abuse, manipulation, and coercive and controlling behaviour, and the assessment of priority need is pretty straightforward. One can assess that someone is pregnant without the need for expert evidence past a certain stage. I would argue that that is a different set of circumstances.

For these particular circumstances of abuse, we are clear that we want to give power back to the victim and to enable the victim to make the application with the sensitivities that I have set out in the homelessness code. We will update the homelessness code of guidance as part of this change coming into effect. We will take the opportunity to ensure that the guidance is clear about the need to ensure that victims are appropriately supported by local authorities to make this application. We will reinforce to all local authorities that all homeless applicants, including victims of domestic abuse, are able to be accompanied by a friend, family member or support worker, if they wish.

Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Shadow Minister (Home Office) 9:45 am, 16th June 2020

The Minister used the term “all victims”. Does the new clause cover those victims who are working in this country but have no recourse to public funds?

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

We will come to debate that set of circumstances tomorrow. In terms of homeless applicants, including victims of domestic abuse, we are dealing with this within the confines of the regulations as they apply at the moment.

Amendment 40 agreed to.

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

I beg to move amendment 55, in clause 66, page 49, line 42, after “children” insert “;

(c) the support employers should provide to victims of domestic abuse, including through the provisions of paid leave.”

This amendment would ensure that employers are provided with guidance about the support they should provide to victims of domestic abuse, including provision of paid leave.

I did not do this last week, but I just want to say a massive thank you to the people in the Public Bill Office. The amount of work that has gone into these amendments might be clear from the number of times that I stand on my feet. It is important to thank the people who sit in the background doing all that work, having an argy-bargy with all of us as we try to table amendments. They are a godsend, so I want to say a massive thank you to them.

This amendment goes back to the Committee’s conversations last week about workplaces. In part, the Government’s announcement of a review of domestic abuse in the workplace potentially covers what this amendment seeks to do. It did not exist when I tabled the amendment.

This amendment is about workplace guidance, which would ensure not only that a victim is supported, but that secondary benefits are offered to other employees, who would be indirectly affected by the abuse happening at their workplace. Without guidance, we expect employers just to know what to do. In many cases, which I spoke of last week, they have considered terminating employment in order to protect their business and their employees, removing the only lifeline that a victim might have. Often, when we try to change things in the workplace—certainly in relation to an equalities framework—the argument we get back is, “This will be too onerous on big and small business.” Over the past couple of years, however, I have seen that businesses are truly interested in trying to do something about this.

I was called to one of those fancy things where lots of businesses sit around a table in a fancy building. It was so fancy that I saw Anna Wintour from Vogue in the lift—she was exactly as Members might imagine. Businesses from all over the country came to listen to me talk about what they might be able to do to help domestic violence victims in their workplaces. Various companies, such as Lloyds and Vodafone, have offered two weeks’ full pay to victims of domestic abuse.

Studies by those organisations—EY, for example, has done a specific study, such is the nature of its business—show that although that right was appreciated and used when needed, no employee had taken the full two weeks off as part of their paid employment. Those organisations are trying to be proactive. We have to make sure that that is available for everybody.

During my work on sexual harassment at work, I was often on the phone to fancy people in Los Angeles who ran the Time’s Up campaign. I constantly used to say, “We mustn’t forget about Brenda in Asda. We mustn’t forget that the person we are talking about is actually a woman called Brenda in Asda.” The same applies to the amendment, which seeks an element of paid leave as well as guidance for employers who want to do more than simply step forward and be the goodies and go to fancy lobby lunches to talk about these issues. We have to truly seek to change that.

The Government have suggested that they are going to hold a consultation and review what exactly that will mean. I have absolutely no doubt about what the findings will be. They will be the same as those reached over a number of years by different groups, including the all-party parliamentary group on domestic violence and abuse, working alongside the Employers’ Initiative on Domestic Abuse and the TUC. An unusual group of people have been working on this for a while. There are rabble-rousing union stewards working alongside some of the poshest organisations I have ever worked with. Those meetings are always a delight. We have taken evidence from New Zealand, for example, where that right already applies.

I will not press the amendment to a vote. It was tabled before the Government announced any sort of action in this area. It is merely a probing amendment, given that businesses have told us that they would not find onerous.

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

The amendment brings us to the role that employers can and should play in supporting employees who are victims of domestic abuse. The Government expect all employers to show compassion when faced with cases of domestic abuse. It is important that the Government help employers to support victims. We recognise the excellent work of organisations that provide guidance to help employers to do more. The Employers’ Initiative on Domestic Abuse, for example, does great work and has increased the services that it can provide employers during covid-19, because it recognised its ability to send messages through its network of support. We very much support and applaud that sort of work.

Public Health England, in partnership with Business in the Community, which is a business-led membership organisation, provides an online domestic abuse toolkit, including advice on developing a workplace policy and guidance on practical workplace support. Although not specifically designated for victims of domestic abuse, some existing employment rights can help to support victims who face particular circumstances. For example, statutory sick pay may be available where the employee is suffering from physical injury or psychological harm. The right to request flexible working may also help in circumstances where working patterns or locations need to change. We committed in our manifesto to taking that further and consulting on making flexible working the default. In addition to the statutory right, many employers offer compassionate leave or special leave to their employees to enable them to take time to deal with a wide range of circumstances. That leave is agreed between the employer and the employee, either as a contractual entitlement or on a discretionary basis.

We accept, however, that that framework of rights may not work for every circumstance faced by victims of domestic abuse. There may be more that the Government can do to help employers better support those who are experiencing abuse. That is why the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy last week launched a review of support in the workplace for victims of domestic abuse. I always like to give the end date of such consultations so that colleagues are nudged into responding if at all possible: the end date is 9 September 2020. I ask colleagues to please submit their views and those of their networks of contacts, charities and businesses.

The review invites contributions from stakeholders, covering the practical circumstances that arise in relation to domestic abuse and work, best practice by employers, and where there is scope for the Government to do more to help employers protect victims of domestic abuse. We will also host events to build the evidence base further, before publishing the findings and an action plan by the end of the year. Our view is that the Government review provides the right framework for identifying how the Government can best help employers to support victims of domestic abuse. It creates a firm basis on which to make progress.

I am pleased that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley has indicated that this is a probing amendment, so I invite her to withdraw it.

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

I thank the Minister. If anyone in this room were faced with an employee—and I have been in this situation a number of times—going through a court case, I cannot imagine that anybody, no matter whether they were working here or elsewhere, would expect that person not to be paid or even to be paid statutory sick pay for that period. However, that is the reality for the vast majority of people. Victims of domestic abuse need access to a specific sort of leave. That would change the culture in an organisation, and including information about it in the big pack that people receive on their first day would be a real sign that they could speak to their boss about it.

Asking for sick leave or compassionate leave because you have been raped is completely different from doing so because your mother has died. It is much easier for someone to ask their boss for leave because a relative has died than to do so because they might have been raped the night before. If someone’s house was broken into, they would ring their boss in the morning and say, “My house has been broken into. I can’t come in today because the police are coming.” That is a different conversation from, “My husband beat me up last night. I’m sorry I can’t come in, but the police are coming over.” It is not the same. We need to change the culture from the top down, to make sure there is a marker that shows people that if they have to go to court—which can take weeks and weeks—and if they need to flee, something can be done.

The Minister mentioned different guidance. The TUC says that its guidance on domestic abuse is the most downloaded piece of guidance ever from its website. Let us hope that culture is changing and that the review mentioned by the Minister shows real courage on what needs to change in the workplace. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Christine Jardine Christine Jardine Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Women and Equalities)

I beg to move amendment 47, in clause 66, page 49, line 42, at end insert—

“(2A) The Secretary of State must issue separate statutory guidance on domestic abuse that also constitutes teenage relationship abuse and such guidance must address how to ensure there are—

(a) sufficient levels of local authority service provision for both victims and perpetrators of teenage relationship abuse,

(b) child safeguarding referral pathways for both victims and perpetrators of teenage relationship abuse.

(2B) The guidance in subsection (2A) must be published within three months of the Act receiving Royal Assent and must be reviewed bi-annually.

(2C) For the purposes of subsection (2A), teenage relationship abuse is defined as any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening behaviour, violence or abuse, which can encompass, but is not limited to psychological, physical, sexual, economic and emotional abuse, including through the use of technology, between those aged 18 or under who are, or have been in a romantic relationships regardless of gender or sexual orientation.”

This amendment would place a duty on the Secretary of State to publish separate statutory guidance on teenage relationship abuse. The statutory guidance would cover not just victims of teenage domestic abuse but extend to those who perpetrate abuse within their own teenage relationships.

This cross-party amendment addresses teenage relationship abuse. It would place a duty on the Secretary of State to issue separate statutory guidance on how to support teenagers who either experience or may display abusive behaviour in their relationships. To be clear, the amendment does not advocate lowering the age limit for domestic abuse or criminalising anyone. We have to acknowledge that domestic abuse is not like a driving licence or a coming of age, because we know that it does happen to people before they turn 16. The amendment acknowledges that teenage abuse is a reality, and calls for the production of separate statutory guidance and recognition that young people, whether victims or perpetrators, need special referral pathways and service provisions that are appropriate for them and for their age.

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 am sure that the hon. Lady will greet the fact that this amendment would align English and Welsh legislation with safeguarding procedure in Wales, which presently acknowledges peer-on-peer abuse. That consistency of approach would be advantageous in enabling better service support to follow on from it.

Photo of Christine Jardine Christine Jardine Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Women and Equalities)

I thank the hon. Lady for that excellent and very well-made point. If the Bill is to be as successful as everybody wants it to be, this amendment provides an opportunity to take early action to support and encourage young people away from a path that could lead to an abusive or an abused life. It is also very much in the spirit of much of the evidence we heard during our first sitting and much of what we have said in this room about recognising the impact that domestic abuse has on young people and the need to protect them from it throughout their lives.

The Bill in its current form defines domestic abuse as taking place between two persons above the age of 16—as I have said, we can recognise that people do not miraculously change when they are 16—and yet the evidence shows that to define it in those terms is to miss out vulnerable, troubled and an abused section of our young people who are unseen, unheard and, as a result, unsupported.

We know, however, that abuse takes place between younger teenagers. According to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, 25% of girls—one in four girls—between the ages of 13 and 17 have reported some sort of physical relationship abuse. That is very similar to the rate in the adult population. Ministers will be aware that that sparked an awareness campaign by the Home Office and that prevention work was done in schools, but I am afraid to say that not much has changed since then.

More recently than the NSPCC, the Children’s Society undertook a piece of work between April 2018 and March 2020, which found that out of 218 young people whom the society worked with in a range of services, 25%—one quarter; again, one in four—had experienced physical abuse in relationships. At 57%, more than half had experienced some form of emotional abuse.

One thing stopped me short when I read the evidence: the majority of the victims were aged between 14 and 17, but some of them were as young as 10—these are children being damaged already. Age seemed to make little difference to the sorts of abuse that they experienced, the only difference being that, from 16, the statutory agencies recognise it as domestic abuse and in some cases offer specialist support. But it should not just start at 16. All young people need to have that availability. And although they need a different response from adults, that does not mean that they should be excluded from the Bill.

I know that the Minister evaluated the Government’s response to this form of abuse, but I think we need to draw different conclusions. I will outline why. The “Working Together to Safeguard Children” guidance, or how-to manual, for all agencies makes no reference whatever to teenage relationship abuse. That is an oversight. It has led to local policies, referral pathways and service provision that do not meet needs. Recent research by the Children’s Society found that just 21% of local authorities had a policy or protocol in place for responding to under-16s, and only one local authority could provide details of referral pathways. Surely that is not good enough.

Policies and guidance matter. They are the starting point for recognising and responding to forms of abuse and they enable all agencies to work with the same understanding. Without a multi-agency approach, organisations, schools, local authorities and others work in silos, and that minimises the impact that they can have. If they all work together—like we are doing—they can have a fantastic impact. Working in silos lessens the impact.

In education, a survey of just under 18,000 secondary school pupils in February of this year found that 51% said that they could spot the signs of an abusive relationship. I find it quite scary that 51% of teenagers said that. Some went on to say that they would not know how to leave an abusive partner, so clearly the lessons that they are getting are not working in education.

We welcome the introduction of compulsory relationship and sex education lessons. However, for some years many schools have already adopted school-based healthy relationship initiatives, and yet abuse among teenagers remains pervasive. We have to recognise that it is a problem, and education is just one piece of the puzzle. If there are no services available to understand and change abusive behaviour, we will not see the progress necessary to tackle that form of abuse; and, if we do not tackle such abuse, we allow it to develop as people grow and get older. That is the point at which we need to get it.

Brilliant work is being done by specialist independent domestic violence advisers, working with young people who experience abuse. They provided a response to the pre-legislative Committee, but only one third of services actually offer specialist support. The Children’s Society found that only 39% of local authorities commission the specialist service for under-16s and that just over half provide specialist support to 16 and 17-year-olds. That suggests that, despite 16 and 17-year-olds being brought into the scope of the definition of domestic abuse some four years ago, there are still significant gaps in the specialist services available to them.

This amendment would ensure that 13 to 18-year-olds experiencing abuse and presenting as abusive are seen, and that the abuse is understood so that specialist referral pathways and services are designed in an effective child-centred way. I know that the Government have expressed concerns previously about criminalising young people who display abusive behaviour. I agree. That is why support must be offered as early as possible to change that behaviour, to prevent them not just from being criminalised at a young age but criminalised as adults. Surely we want to avoid teenagers with a problem becoming adults with a problem.

Prevention must begin at the outset of displaying abusive behaviour, not when the behaviour has set in as adults. Early intervention specialist support is effective for young victims as well. One young person violence adviser said that the young girl she had supported in abusive relationships did not reappear in later life.

My question is, why would we not want to ensure that the Domestic Abuse Bill is preventive? Why would we not want to ensure that it reaches out to young people, some of them children, sets them on the right course and has the referral pathways for them? Surely that is so much better than having to pick up the pieces of broken young lives.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Minister for Women 10:00 am, 16th June 2020

I thank the hon. Lady for her powerful speech and for setting out the case for the amendment.

We know that domestic abuse in teenage relationships has the potential to shape adult lives. We know that it can be severe and can have many consequences outside the two people in the relationship. We are clear that the impact of domestic abuse on young people, including those in abusive relationships, exists and that we need to ensure that agencies are aware of it and of how to identify and respond to it.

The Bill’s definition states that behaviour is domestic abuse if parties are aged 16 or over. I note that that was supported by the Joint Committee and, indeed, by the evidence we heard from Lucy Hadley of Women’s Aid and Andrea Simon of the End Violence against Women Coalition at the evidence session of this Bill Committee. We are of the view that having a minimum age of 16 years does not deny that younger children are not impacted or affected by domestic abuse, including in their own relationships.

I have no doubt that the amendment is well intentioned. However, having established that minimum age as the threshold in the definition of domestic abuse, it follows that any statutory guidance issued under clause 66 of the Bill, which relies on the definition in clause 1, cannot and should not as a matter of law, address abuse between people who are aged under 16.

That is not to say that the guidance issued under clause 66, which addresses abuse between older teenagers, cannot have wider application. There are other sources of guidance for younger age groups. We intend to publish a draft of the guidance ahead of Report and, in preparing that draft, we have worked with the children’s sector, among others, to include the impacts of abuse in older teenage relationships within the guidance. Clearly, we will continue to work with the children’s sector to ensure that the guidance is as effective, thorough and accessible as it can be before it is formally issued ahead of the provisions in clauses 1 and 2 coming into force.

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

As the Minister knows, I have concerns about this—I spoke to her when in listening mode. At the evidence session two weeks ago, for me the powerful evidence was from the Local Government Association spokesperson, the leader of Blackpool Council, whom I questioned specifically. He said that he felt that under-16s were dealt with under the Children Act. Does my hon. Friend agree that there are other ways of dealing with the matter?

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

I thank my hon. Friend for her contributions, her canvassing of views sympathetic to the situations faced by teenagers under 16, and her work on that. She is right to point out the evidence of Councillor Simon Blackburn. He is an experienced councillor and also, in a previous life, was an experienced social worker. He contributes on behalf of the Local Government Association in all sorts of forums on which he and I sit—not just on domestic abuse, but on other areas of vulnerability.

I appreciate that it sounds rather lawyerly to focus on the age range, but we are careful not to tamper inadvertently, albeit with good intentions, with the strong safeguarding mechanisms in the Children Act. That is why we are not able to accept the amendment to the guidance, given that the guidance is based on the definition in clauses 1 and 2. However, other forms of information are available and as of September relationships education will be introduced for all primary pupils, and relationships and sex education will be introduced for all secondary school pupils. That education, particularly for primary schools, will cover the characteristics of healthy relationships, and will help children to model the behaviours with knowledge and understanding, and cover what healthy relationships look like. Of course, as children grow up and mature, the education will grow and develop alongside them, to help them as they are setting out on those new relationships.

In addition, the important inter-agency safeguarding and welfare document produced by the Department for Education called “Working together to safeguard children” sets out what professionals and organisations need to do to safeguard children, including those who may be vulnerable to abuse or exploitation from outside their families. It sets out various scenarios, including whether wider environmental factors are present in a child’s life and are a threat to their safety and/or welfare.

Finally, of course, the courts and other agencies should also take into account relevant youth justice guidelines when responding to cases of teenage relationship abuse, avoiding the unnecessary criminalisation of young people, and helping to identify appropriate interventions to address behaviours that might constitute or lead to abuse. As I have said, I appreciate the intentions underlying the amendment, but I return to the point that the age limit was on careful reflection set at 16 in the definition, and so the statutory guidance must flow from that.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Christine Jardine Christine Jardine Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Women and Equalities)

I beg to move amendment 84, in clause 66, page 49, line 42, at end insert—

‘(2A) The Secretary of State must issue guidance under this section which takes account of evidence about the relationship between domestic abuse and offences involving hostility based on sex.

(2B) In preparing guidance under subsection (2A) the Secretary of State must require the chief officer of police of any police force to provide information relating to—

(a) the number of relevant crimes reported to the police force; and

(b) the number of relevant crimes reported to the police force which, in the opinion of the chief officer of police, have also involved domestic abuse.

(2C) In this section—

“chief officer of police” and “police force” have the same meaning as in section 64 of this Act;

“domestic abuse” has the same meaning as in section 1 of this Act;

“relevant crime” means a reported crime in which—

(a) the victim or any other person perceived the alleged offender, at the time of or immediately before or after the offence, to demonstrate hostility or prejudice based on sex,

(b) the victim or any other person perceived the crime to be motivated (wholly or partly) by hostility or prejudice towards persons who are of a particular sex, or

(c) the victim or any other person perceived the crime to follow a course of conduct pursued by the alleged offender towards the victim that was motivated by hostility based on sex;

“sex” has the same meaning as in section 11 of the Equality Act 2010.’

This is another cross-party amendment. Misogyny is the soil in which violence against women and girls grows. That was said by Sophie Maskell of the Nottingham women’s centre, but it is a sentiment that sums up much of what the Bill is about. The amendment is an attempt to attack the problem at its root. It would do two things. First, by requiring all police forces to record misogyny as a hate crime it would allow us to assess how it influences domestic abuse and begin to understand the nature of violence against women and girls. That way, we might begin to overcome it, not pick up the pieces. Protecting survivors, making sure support systems are in place and constantly looking for improvements are all important, but understanding the roots of the problem and attacking it there is crucial. If we understand the nature and motivations of violence against women and girls, we can begin to prevent it in the first place.

This approach is already proving successful in Nottinghamshire, and has the support of many women’s charities including Refuge, Women’s Aid, Plan International, Southall Black Sisters, Citizens UK, Tell MAMA, Hope not Hate, the Jo Cox Foundation and more. The Law Commission is about to launch a consultation on the issue, but that is no reason not to start to record data, monitor incidents and get a full picture of where and how violence against women happens, so we can influence its prosecution and understand the role misogyny plays in it.

The second effect of the amendment would be to strengthen the status of the legislation by seeking to ratify the Istanbul convention, which this country signed eight years ago last week but has still not ratified. For so many women’s organisations in this country, that delay is inexplicable.

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) 10:15 am, 16th June 2020

Given that this is a landmark piece of legislation, I am sure that many Members present share my concern about the fact that we are failing to ratify the Istanbul convention with it. Surely we should be taking the chance to do so through this amendment, as well as a measure we will be discussing tomorrow.

Photo of Christine Jardine Christine Jardine Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Women and Equalities)

I thank the right hon. Lady, and absolutely agree. We have a number of opportunities in this Committee to ratify the convention through this Bill. It is an international women’s rights treaty that this country signed, yet it is one of a handful of countries that still has not taken the steps the convention demands. Recognising misogyny as a hate crime would go some way towards achieving the goals of the treaty.

I will step back for a minute to explain why we should record misogyny as a hate crime, and what exactly I mean by a hate crime. Hate crime is defined as criminal behaviour where the perpetrator is motivated by hostility, or demonstrates hostility, towards a protected characteristic of the victim. Intimidation, verbal abuse, intimidating threats, harassment, assault, bullying and damaging property are all covered. Hate crime law is rooted in a need to protect people who are targeted because of their identity, and is defined as

“Any criminal offence which is perceived by the victim or any other person, to be motivated by hostility or prejudice, based on” a protected characteristic. Currently, those characteristics are defined as disability, transgender status, race, religion and sexual orientation under the relevant sections of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 and the Criminal Justice Act 2003, and allow prosecutors to apply for an uplift in sentencing.

Where does misogyny fit into that and affect it? Women and girls from a black, Asian and minority ethnic background often experience hate crimes based on multiple characteristics, and if we do not take misogyny into account, we do not truly get an intersectional understanding of the crime. Sex was the motivation for more than half of the hate crimes women reported last year; age was the second most common, followed by race. Some women may be victims of a hate crime because of their ethnicity or religion, and also because they are women. Some 42% of BAME women aged 14 to 21 reported unwanted sexual attention at least once a month. Many women and girls with intellectual disabilities are also disproportionately subjected to street harassment and sexually based violence, for the dual reason that they are disabled and that they are women. Our laws have to protect them equally, and they cannot do so effectively while misogyny is a blind spot.

I have a personal theory. I suspect that all the women in this room are like me, and have always rejected the idea that they are not equal. That is how we come to be here: we do not accept the premise that we are not equal. I grew up in a household with three daughters, and had no reason to believe that we were not equal to anyone else. I have often had the opposite problem, actually. My confidence was taken for aggression that was not appropriate in a woman, because women are not aggressive, apparently. I remember once when the BBC was tackling sexual harassment problems among staff, it launched an assertiveness programme for women. I asked my boss if I could do this assertiveness programme. I could not understand why my colleagues all laughed when I came out. They asked, “How did it go?” I told them that when I asked, “Gordon, is it alright if I do this assertiveness programme?”, he said, “I wouldn’t dare say no.”

Many of us cannot understand how women come to be the victims of misogyny unless it actually happens to us. Although we might think that we are equal, we have all witnessed misogyny everywhere and been the victim of it. We might cope with it, but we have been the victim of it. Harassment and abusive behaviour are often linked to misogyny, which comes from deep-rooted contempt for women and the understanding that we should behave in a certain way, and the belief that if we do not do so, it is acceptable to slap us or abuse us.

I am sure we do not need a reminder, but if we did, Friday’s front page of a national tabloid newspaper reminded us all quite firmly: contempt for women, an in-built hatred, misogyny that says it is okay to slap us, bully us or harass us in the street because we are women.

Photo of Julie Marson Julie Marson Conservative, Hertford and Stortford

Misogyny is obviously appalling. A lot of us have experienced it. Does she agree that a consultation is really important, because it is a really complex area? Some of my experience and some research into abusive men has shown that a lot of them have borderline anti-social personality traits. They certainly have hostility, but a lot of it comes from things like lack of problem-solving skills, childhood abuse and personality traits, which need to be factored in.

Photo of Christine Jardine Christine Jardine Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Women and Equalities)

I agree that consultation is necessary, but I see that as making the point. Consultation is necessary and we need the data to be able to figure out how much of it is due to borderline personality problems and social background, and how much of it is misogyny. We can only do that by having the police gather the data.

Where misogyny has been identified as a hate crime by police forces, it has helped the way that they address the causes and consequences of violence against women and girls. The proposal in this amendment is not theoretical. Police forces around the country are already doing this, showing the positive impact it can have. In 2016, Nottinghamshire police were the first. Their proposals have gone some way to allowing the Nottinghamshire authorities to see exactly where there are problems and how to deal with them. For four years, women and girls there have been able to report crimes that they regard as hate crimes and misogynistic.

This amendment has, as I said, wide support from women’s groups. Let us not wait for the Law Commission before we start working on it. If misogyny is the soil in which domestic abuse flourishes, we have the opportunity with this Bill to root it out, not just to pick up the pieces. We have to support victims and survivors, and we have to encourage perpetrators away from the crime. But if we can identify the different causes of abuse, we can tackle the cause and begin to reduce and eliminate domestic abuse.

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

The Government are clear that all hate crime is completely unacceptable and has no place in British society. That is why we have tasked the Law Commission to review current hate crime legislation. By way of background, I should say that the Law Commission was asked to review both the adequacy and parity of protection offered by the law relating to hate crime and to make recommendations for its reform.

The review began in March last year, since when the Law Commission has tried to meet as many people as possible who have an interest in this area of law; it has organised events across England and Wales to gather views. Specifically, the Law Commission has been tasked with considering the current range of offences and aggravating factors in sentencing, and with making recommendations on the most appropriate models to ensure that the criminal law provides consistent and effective protection from conduct motivated by hatred towards protected groups or characteristics. The review will also take account of the existing range of protected characteristics, identify any gaps in the scope of the protection currently offered under the law, and make recommendations to promote a consistent approach.

The Law Commission aims to publish its consultation, as the hon. Lady said, as soon as it can, and I again encourage all hon. Members to respond to it. Given that this work by the Law Commission is under way, we do not believe that the time is right for specific guidance to be issued on this matter. Our preference is to await the outcome of the Law Commission’s review before deciding what reforms or other measures, including guidance, are necessary. However, I point out that in clause 66(3) we do put the gendered nature of this crime in the Bill. It states:

“Any guidance issued under this section must, so far as relevant, take account of the fact that the majority of victims of domestic abuse in England and Wales are female.”

And of course the guidance itself will reflect that.

The hon. Lady raised the Istanbul convention. We are making good progress on our path towards ratification. We publish an annual report on progress, with the last one published in October 2019. Provisions in the Bill and other legislation before the Northern Ireland Assembly will ensure that UK law is compliant with the requirements of the convention in relation to extraterritorial jurisdiction and psychological violence, so we are on our way. I very much hope that on that basis the hon. Lady will feel able to withdraw her amendment.

Photo of Christine Jardine Christine Jardine Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Women and Equalities)

Following the Minister’s comments, there is just one reservation remaining. If misogyny is a hate crime, we can gather the data. Does the Minister accept or appreciate that perhaps we could start doing that before the Law Commission has reported?

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

The Law Commission, in all its reviews, is incredibly thorough and of course independent. How long it takes is, I have to say as a Minister, sometimes a little bit frustrating, but that is because it is so thorough, so I cannot criticise the commission for that. I would prefer the commission to do its work so that we have a consistent body of evidence that I hope will enable the Government to draw conclusions as to the adequacy of the existing arrangements, and take steps from there.

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

I confess that I had not given thought to that particular detail. Far be it from me to suggest to ingenious Back Benchers how they can hold the Government to account. As I have said, we have the Law Commission review under way, and when the commission has reported, we will, of course, in due course publish our response to that review.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 66, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.