Duty of the Secretary of State to take account of matters relating to gender

Domestic Abuse Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:15 pm on 16th June 2020.

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“It shall be the duty of the Secretary of State in performing functions under this Act to take account of the point that domestic abuse is a subset of violence against women and girls, which affects women disproportionately.”—

This new clause establishes the gendered nature of domestic abuse in statute.

Brought up, and read the First time.

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

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

We all know that domestic abuse disproportionately impacts on women. I think pretty much everyone who has stood to speak in Committee has at one point said that—we always add the caveat that of course we know it mainly happens to women. One in four of us in England and Wales will experience it at some point in our lives, compared with one in eight men. Women experience domestic abuse in far greater numbers than men—that is just a simple fact.

When we take a deeper look into the statistics, however, gender is clearly intertwined with domestic abuse in a much greater way than bald prevalence stats first indicate. To start with, the stats on domestic abuse collected and published by the Office for National Statistics, while being the best we have, do not take into account coercive and controlling behaviour. Academics working in the field estimate that the disparity in experience of domestic abuse between men and women would increase significantly were coercive control taken into account.

Abusers will use any tool at their disposal to control and coerce their partners, which in far too many cases includes rape and sexual assault. More than 1.7 million women in this country have experienced domestic sexual assault and rape. That is more than 12 times the number of men who have experienced this trauma. Last year, five times more women than men were killed by their partner or their ex. Over the past few years, over 96% of women killed in domestic homicides—almost all of them—were killed by men. Of the men who were killed in domestic homicides, more than half were killed by other men.

None of this means that men do not experience domestic abuse; I have never suggested that, and nor would I ever, no matter what somebody might read about me online. What that means is that domestic abuse is a form of violence against women and girls, with women making up the vast majority of victims and survivors of domestic abuse, particularly when it comes to rape, sexual assault and murder at the hands of their partner or ex, and that men make up the overwhelming majority of perpetrators.

However, domestic abuse as a form of violence against women and girls is not just about the numbers, as stark as they are. Domestic abuse is, in the words of the Istanbul convention—you know, I was meant to be in Istanbul this week. Sad times. I would have walked around citing parts of the convention, which I am sure the people of Istanbul know very little about, other than that it is their namesake. Anyway, the Istanbul convention says that domestic abuse is

“a form of gender-based violence that is committed against women because they are women.”

It is about the patriarchy that instils in abusive men the belief that they are entitled to control, abuse, rape and murder women because we are lesser. Gender inequality is a cause and consequence of domestic abuse. It is used to keep us controlled and silenced, and it happens to us because we have a lesser position in society.

The nature of domestic abuse as a gendered phenomenon has to be understood, not just by feminist academics, thousands of individuals working on the frontline in domestic abuse services, or those of us working in Westminster, but by all those whose job it is to respond to domestic abuse survivors and perpetrators. Too often, the nature of domestic abuse is not appreciated by professionals who need to understand what it is. According to Refuge, the largest specialist provider of domestic abuse services in the country, it is becoming increasingly common for local authorities tendering for domestic abuse support services to rely on a complete misapprehension about the nature of domestic abuse and the needs of survivors. Time and time again, I have seen commissioning rounds go out that just say, “Domestic abuse services”, without any suggestion that some of those need to be women-only services, for example.

Refuge staff have also told me that when the police attend domestic abuse call-outs, their misunderstanding of the nature and dynamics of domestic abuse, including the role gender plays, leads to them arresting the survivor rather than the abuser; asking perpetrators to translate what survivors are saying; and referring survivors and perpetrators to completely inappropriate support services, for example.

Within the Westminster bubble, it is easy to labour under the false belief that a critical majority of people have enough of an understanding of domestic abuse as a form of violence against women and girls that those responses to survivors are anomalies. That is not the experience of organisations such as Refuge, and Members need only look at my Twitter feed after I have mentioned gender or domestic abuse to see that we cannot assume that the majority of people understand domestic abuse as a form of violence against women and girls. There was a discussion about misogyny earlier today, and I invite members of the Committee to look at what my online experience will be tonight after I have said this about women. I imagine that, for many, it will be shocking, and some of it will almost certainly be a hate crime, but one that would never be collected in the data.

It is critical that every effort is made to ensure that domestic abuse is understood as a form of violence against women and girls. It is my view, in addition to that of Refuge, Women’s Aid, the End Violence Against Women Coalition, Southall Black Sisters and virtually every other domestic abuse service provider, that the best way of raising awareness of domestic abuse as a form of violence against women and girls is to include that definition on the face of the Bill. The Government’s consistent response is to say that they agree that domestic abuse is a form of violence against women and girls, that both men and women experience it, and that they are committed to including this in the statutory guidance accompanying the Bill.

Yet the Government have also, on several occasions, agreed with me and expert organisations in the sector that it is the definition that will be the primary driver on domestic abuse, not the statutory guidance. It is the letter of the law that police officers, work coaches, housing officers, local commissioners, employers and numerous others will look at when forming domestic abuse policies and procedures.

I have had some experience of that this week. My sister-in-law came over—to sit in my garden, I hasten to add. She is training to be a social worker and spoke about the different Acts that she was learning about as a frontline social worker because she was going to take her law exam. I told her that I hoped to change some of them by the time she becomes a social worker. If we do not make sure that this Bill accurately reflects the dynamics and nature of domestic abuse, we are missing a huge opportunity to counter some of the damaging practices that are seen among some of those tasked with responding to domestic abuse.

Photo of Alex Davies-Jones Alex Davies-Jones Labour, Pontypridd 3:30 pm, 16th June 2020

In our Committee’s evidence session, we heard from Sara Kirkpatrick, the CEO of Welsh Women’s Aid, who said this, and I heartily agree:

“Some really exciting things have come out of the Welsh legislation, particularly the idea of taking that broader lens…of violence against women and girls”––[Official Report, Domestic Abuse Public Bill Committee, 4 June 2020; c. 66, Q158.]

I know that I am harping on about Wales again, and I make no apology for it. We know that domestic abuse impacts everyone—men, women and children—but we also know that it is women and girls who suffer the most frequent and severe abuse. It is important to acknowledge that in order to enable practice and support to be tailored to the specific needs of the person experiencing abuse, as opposed to a one-size-fits-all approach.

The Violence against Women, Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence (Wales) Act 2015 includes all forms of violence and abuse against women and girls, including domestic abuse, rape and sexual violence, stalking, forced marriage, so-called honour-based violence, female genital mutilation, trafficking and sexual exploitation—including through the sex industry—and sexual harassment in work and public life. None of these forms of abuse are mutually exclusive, and policy and service provision should reflect that.

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

I thank the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley for tabling the new clause. I hope that she knows that I always enjoy debating the issue of gender with her, because those debates draw us out of the nitty-gritty of the Bill’s text and make us think about wider and bigger topics. I very much accept that she will get all sorts of abuse tonight on Twitter, but may I gently remind her that Twitter is not the real world? I say that as someone who came off Twitter a few years ago and I have not missed it for a second.

My bigger concern when it comes to raising awareness of domestic abuse relates to a more common misunderstanding. It is not necessarily that women are disproportionately victims and survivors, because from my experience, I think that that is pretty well understood. What worries me is the idea that “She must leave him.” I hope that, through the Bill, and the work that we are all doing, we are beginning to change that conversation, but I absolutely understand why the hon. Lady has raised this issue.

The hon. Member for Pontypridd took the words out of my mouth: anyone can be a victim of domestic abuse, regardless of their age, gender or ethnicity. We have had to reflect that fact in the definition. We have followed the lead of the drafters of the Istanbul convention in adopting that gender-neutral stance. There is no reference to gender in their definition of the act of domestic violence. The explanatory report published alongside the convention expressly states that the definition is gender neutral and encompasses victims and perpetrators of both sexes.

However, we very much want to reflect the fact that the majority of victims are female, which is why we set out in clause 66, following careful consideration by the Joint Committee on the Draft Domestic Abuse Bill, the requirement on the Secretary of State regarding the guidance; the guidance reflects that fact. I appreciate that the definition is incredibly important, but the people commissioning services, training and looking at how their local services are working will be drawn to the guidance, in addition to the Bill, and will want practical help with it. That is how we adopted the definition.

We have made it clear that the definition has two fundamental elements: the first deals with the relationship between the abuser and the abused, and the second deals with what constitutes the categories of abusive behaviour. If the definition is to work for victims and survivors, it must work for all, regardless of gender or other characteristics. Interestingly, we have not been able to identify any other English-language jurisdiction that adopts a gender definition in relation to domestic abuse.

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

Other than Wales—forgive me. Gosh, that was probably a career-ending slip. I take the hon. Lady’s point about Wales. Apart from England and Wales, we have not been able to find other examples, although it may be that the hon. Lady’s Twitter feed will be inundated with them tonight. We place the emphasis on the draft statutory guidance. Believe me, I am under no illusions: hon. Members in the Committee and outside will be paying close attention to the guidance. I very much hope that, at the end of the informal consultation process, the guidance will be in a shape that meets with the approval of members of this Committee.

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

I thank the Minister. I know that she fundamentally wants a system in which commissioning is gendered and recognises the fact that the vast majority of these crimes happen to women. I agree with that.

If I read all the things that were tweeted at me in any one day, I would lose the will to live. It is important, on today of all days, to remember that the aggression towards Members sometimes features in real life, and that anyone who is willing to stand up and say what they feel about something can pay a heavy price.

I recognise what the Minister has said, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.