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I beg to move,
That this House
has considered children and domestic abuse.
It is a pleasure to have you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone, for a very timely debate. The Leader of the House and relevant Ministers—including the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Victoria Atkins, who I am pleased will be responding to this important debate—committed to introducing the Domestic Abuse Bill at the earliest opportunity. I was pleased to see the Bill return to the House earlier today, and I congratulate the Minister on staying true to that commitment. I look forward to hearing her detail the Government’s plans to support children affected by domestic abuse.
I want to continue on that positive note, because the Domestic Abuse Bill is a once-in-a-generation chance to deliver real change in how we respond to domestic abuse. When the Bill was introduced in the last parliamentary session, there was much to be welcomed—not least the introduction of a definition of domestic abuse, which will help guide our response. It is commendable that the definition specifically identified the coercive control elements of abuse, which we know are all too common. There were also improvements to the Bill on the advice of the Joint Select Committee that undertook prelegislative scrutiny, including clarifications on the independence of the new domestic abuse commissioner to ensure that they can carry out their role as effectively as possible. It is also positive that the commissioner will be expected to encourage good practice in identifying children affected by domestic abuse, and I was pleased to see Nicole Jacobs appointed as the commissioner designate; she brings a breadth of experience in this area.
The Domestic Abuse Bill is a prime example of legislation that, if done well, stands a real chance of securing widespread support from hon. Members of all parties, and from outside the House. I am sure that every hon. Member present wants to ensure that we get it right, but the Bill is not perfect. The crux of my concerns is that the Bill fails to grasp the opportunity to truly take account of the needs of children affected by domestic abuse, which is why we are having this debate. It is an issue that was brought close to home by my constituent Christine, who is a survivor of domestic abuse. Christine came to see me about her experiences and about her concern that the needs of children are not properly taken into account when considering the impact of domestic abuse.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech and I congratulate her on securing this important debate. Does she agree that children who see, overhear or experience domestic abuse are sometimes at risk of copying that abuse and the behaviour of the person who survives it? Does she agree that there is greater need for specialist support for children who experience such abuse, and that the Government should take it seriously and try to fund that support?
It is absolutely right—it is the crux of my argument—that we need to ensure that specialist and appropriate services are available for all children going through that experience.
My constituent Christine believes strongly that the effect of domestic abuse on children needs much more attention, so that they, too, can be helped to survive and thrive with the right emotional support. She told me that years after her leaving that abusive relationship, her daughter, who is now over 18, is still dealing with the damage caused by experiencing the abuse that her mother suffered. Christine is an amazing, strong woman and I am glad to be able to raise this issue for her.
I sincerely hope the Minister takes on board the points that come from the debate. I also hope she will work with organisations from across the children’s sector and the violence against women and girls sector, which have informed today’s proceedings, to ensure that the Bill addresses the needs of children and young people affected by domestic abuse.
There is also the issue of abusive relationships between under-16s. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need the Government to look at that as well, and to consider recommendations so that we can help and better support children, particularly girls, who find themselves in those circumstances?
I certainly do. I know it has been raised by some of the groups working on this issue, and it is important that we take that into account.
Worryingly, the evidence tells us that up to one in five children and young people are exposed to domestic abuse during their childhood. On average, 37 children’s social care assessments that identify domestic violence as a feature of a child’s life are undertaken each day in the north-east alone. However, they will not be seen as victims. Analysis indicates that over 800,000 children in England live in households that report domestic abuse, yet there are still shortcomings in the family courts that deal with domestic abuse cases, with a perpetrator of domestic abuse seen as a violent criminal in the criminal courts but as a “good enough” parent in the family courts.
Although we know that the consequences of such childhood experiences can be devastating and result in emotional, social, psychological and behavioural difficulties, there is significant variability around the country in the level of support available to children. In two thirds of local authorities taking part in a recent study by Action for Children, children face barriers to accessing support. In over 10% of such areas, no support services were available to children at all. Those are just some of the issues that the Bill must deal with if it is to live up to expectations and become the landmark piece of legislation that we all want it to be. I would welcome hearing how the Minister envisages the Bill supporting children affected by domestic abuse.
I want to highlight two key areas in the time I have left. I know that hon. Members will pick up a multitude of other concerns directly, from migrant children and their families through to the operation of the family courts, but time will not allow me to address them all. My first concern is about the definition of domestic abuse. Although it is welcome, the statutory definition will not, as it stands, include children, relegating them instead to the statutory guidance. That is problematic on a number of fronts, not least because the guidance is yet to be published.
First and foremost, it worries me greatly that overlooking children in the definition of domestic abuse fails to recognise the serious impact that seeing, hearing or being otherwise exposed to domestic abuse perpetrated by one adult against another can have on children. In short, they will be considered witnesses to domestic abuse, rather than being recognised as victims themselves. Given that we know about the seriousness of the impact that this can have on children, such an approach is untenable.
Secondly, the Government have made it clear that frontline practitioners and public authorities, including the police and social services, are to adopt the Bill’s definition in their day-to-day duties. However, I share the concerns of organisations across the children’s sector that, if children are not included, it could affect how they are treated by the professionals coming into contact with their families. I therefore urge the Minister to consider broadening the Bill’s definition of domestic abuse to include children.
My second key concern is about the provision of support services for children. I have already mentioned that domestic abuse can result in long-lasting impacts on a child’s health, development, ability to learn and wellbeing. That is on top of increased risks of criminal behaviour and interpersonal difficulties in future intimate relationships and friendships. Analysis of the millennium cohort study shows that children whose parents reported experiencing domestic violence when children were aged three reported 30% higher than average antisocial behaviours at age 14, a finding that should be seen in the context of the trauma suffered by children who are affected by domestic abuse. With the right support, however, children can thrive in even the most difficult circumstances.
It is very concerning that the percentage of domestic abuse services providing dedicated support to children and young people fell from 62% in 2010 to just 52% in 2017. More alarming still, research from Action for Children suggests that that support is patchy at best, with significant variability in what is available for young people depending on where they are in the country. A fundamental part of the problem is the lack of clear requirements for delivering support services specifically for children who are impacted by domestic abuse. As a result, insufficient funding is allocated to providing a sustainable future for those vital projects.
Although the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government’s recent consultation on a statutory duty for accommodation-based services is welcome, clarity is needed on the all-important community-based services that support so many children and families, especially as they deal with many of the issues that accommodation-based services face. I recognise that that matter is not part of the Minister’s brief, but I hope that she will both offer reassurances that the Government are looking at it and outline how non-accommodation-based support services will be provided and funded under the new statutory duty.
I am glad to lead this debate on the day that the Domestic Abuse Bill is introduced and very much hope that the Government will work to strengthen the Bill for children. I thank my constituent Christine, who so powerfully brought the issue to my attention.
The debate can last until 5.30 pm. I am obliged to call the Front-Bench spokespeople at no later than 5.12 pm. The guideline limits are five minutes for Her Majesty’s Opposition, 10 minutes for the Minister, and two or three minutes for Liz Twist to sum up, but until 5.12 pm, we are in Back-Bench time. Three Members wish to speak, and I am determined that they should all get their fair share. We will start with Jim Shannon.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone. That is quite easy to work out, with seven minutes each or thereabouts. I will do my best to keep to that and hopefully I will finish a wee bit sooner.
I thank Liz Twist for setting the scene. In the short time that she has been in the House, she and I—and many others who are present—have spoken about things of interest to us. I look forward to the contributions from other hon. Members, who will refer to the same issues as the hon. Lady, and, I hope, that I will as well.
I know from the work that my constituency office does that domestic abuse is, very unfortunately, a common occurrence. That is sad in a society in which we hope that people will have understanding and respect for each other. Every one of those occasions in my constituency has involved a lady and, more often than not, her children, who have borne the brunt of the domestic abuse.
Women’s Aid NI states:
“Children and young people have often been referred to as the hidden or forgotten victims of domestic violence. In recent years however, recognition that children and young people are impacted upon by domestic violence has spread, and policy and practice has begun to develop accordingly. It is important to remember that whole families suffer from domestic violence. For every woman experiencing violence in the home there will usually be children who are also suffering. The experiences of these children and young people are often overlooked.”
That is key to this issue. The hon. Lady referred to that very honestly in her contribution.
It is not just the lady who suffers abuse, but the children, and I will offer some examples from my constituency casework. I have witnessed at first hand the effect of domestic abuse on children when, through my constituency office, I have attempted to help women find their way out of abusive situations and into safe places. I put on the record my sincere thanks to those at North Down and Ards Women’s Aid, who have often been the difference between life and death for women and a source of new starts for children in my constituency. Despite cuts in funding and an increase in paperwork, all that they do, as well as the compassion and dedication with which they do it, makes a difference.
I know that the Minister does not have responsibility for Northern Ireland, but when she has spoken in any debate that I have been involved in, she has always spoken with compassion and understanding, and has really grasped the issue. I think that every one of us is impressed by her ability to do that. I look forward to her response.
Between July 2018 and June 2019, there were 16,575 domestic abuse crimes recorded in Northern Ireland, which represents an increase of 10% on the previous 12 months, and is the highest since records began in 2004-05. We are seeing more domestic abuse, and I am not sure why that is. Is the cause social media, the society we live in, or do people have more addiction issues? I am not sure, but there is definitely more of it.
A study of 108 mothers who had been victims of domestic violence in Northern Ireland uncovered some horrendous statistics: 90% of children in these homes were aware that violence was occurring; 75% had witnessed violence at home; and 27% of the children had themselves been physically abused by the violent partner. Those numbers may be increasing because more people are reporting domestic abuse. Although the rise in reports is a success, whatever way we look at it, homes are being torn apart and children are being scarred for life by it.
I overheard my parliamentary aide speaking with a friend of hers whose partner was threatening violence and, even though the friend tried to qualify that by saying that it was the first time he had done it, my aide said something that stuck in my mind, because it might be the first time, but that might lead to a number of times. My aide said to her friend, “Okay. So will it be okay the first time your daughter hears that from a man? Because if it is okay for her to watch and hear you going through it, then she will believe it is okay for her to go through and accept it.” If it is okay for the mother, is it okay for the child? I do not think so. We were able to help that young girl and her three children to find a safe place and get help. We need to be able to help children who watch and live through the abuse, even if they are not touched—that is so important.
I hope that the Minister will acknowledge in her response, which I know will be positive, that the issue is not just about how we help mothers, but their children. That is the thrust of the debate. I also look forward to the response from the shadow Minister, Carolyn Harris, with whom I have worked on many issues. We need support systems in place for children to prevent them from repeating the cycle by becoming the abuser they have witnessed or accepting abuse as the norm. We need better systems in place to provide help, counselling and support for children who have witnessed domestic abuse—that must be a priority. Well-balanced children are not taught to bury pain but to express it in a helpful way. They need help to do so, and that is what we are asking for. I look to the Minister for an understanding of the strategy to improve support provided to children who witness domestic abuse and who, too often, are a part of its cycle. That has to stop, and it has to stop now.
The most common thing that women in refuges or community services have said to me is that they wish that there was something for their children—somewhere that their children could go to speak to somebody about what was happening at home. Although many of those women appreciated the support that was available to them, there was a hole for at-risk children, whether in classrooms or even in social services, with zero therapeutic support or play care support, or even just somebody at school who they could speak to and who would understand.
If the women of this country who have suffered domestic violence had written the Domestic Abuse Bill and had picked a single thing to ask for, they would have asked for their children to be supported. Across the country, support for children who are victims of domestic violence is patchy at best. Sometimes it is done well. The organisation where I used to work has a huge team of children’s support workers, funded as a pilot project through the Home Office. Unfortunately, however, such things are often pilot projects that do not extend to everywhere in the country and often go to those places that are best at writing bids. As the bid writer, I am delighted that we had that project, but the reality in most parts of the country is that if a teenager who was suffering abuse stepped forward at school, or if a child in a primary school stepped forward to say something about what was happening at home with his mum and dad, there would be nowhere to send that child.
I am fairly well versed in the local domestic abuse projects where I live, and I have most of their mobile phone numbers, but I would not know where to send a child who needed therapeutic support in Birmingham, the second biggest city in the country. If provision is patchy where I live, I cannot imagine what it is like in Blaydon.
My hon. Friend, whose background is in this area, is making a really good speech. As a former children’s services manager in Birmingham, she is absolutely spot on when she says that there is nowhere to refer children, especially when even children on child protection plans are not given support. Does she agree that it is wholly inadequate not to recognise children in the definition?
I absolutely agree. The Domestic Abuse Bill gives us a real opportunity. We will not get the moon on a stick—the Bill will not give us everything—but the annual case load at Women’s Aid, where I used to work, involved on average 8,000 women and 16,000 children. Children’s names are written down on a form and their social work paperwork is in the file, but no one from my organisation would necessarily have laid eyes on them. A tiny fraction of them would have lived in refuge accommodation—less than 10% of the total number would have gone through that in a year—so we are talking about thousands of children in the west midlands who, every day, are without someone to confide in, to talk to, or to deal with the trauma they are feeling in their lives.
Anyone who sits for five minutes with people who have been a child victim of domestic abuse, who have grown up in a home, will tell us that that trauma stays with them in adulthood. They are likely to suffer from PTSD and from problems within their own intimate relationships. All the findings from studies of crime data on knife crime or even terrorism show links to people who grow up in traumatised households. It is imperative for the future of those children and our country that we get this right. Children must be included in the Bill, and at the same time we must take a huge, wholesale look at funding for children’s services in the country. I ask the Minister directly: how many young people’s violence advisers and specialist children’s workers are there across England and Wales? The SafeLives data shows that it would cost only £2.5 million to provide those services across England and Wales. In the greater scheme of things, what it would save would be huge.
We are moving into an era when this will be talked about in schools. All of us in the Chamber have fought—some of us literally had to fight directly on the streets—to ensure that compulsory sex and relationship education will be available in our schools. As we roll that out and talk about such subjects in schools, we must ensure that we do not open a door into an empty room. We must ensure that specialist training and specialist single points of contact are available to handle this in every school, and to handle it well.
The murder rate of women and girls were released the week before last. I have forgotten the name of the organisation, but the data was released: 144 women and girls were murdered last year. That is an increase of about 27 on the previous year. Those figures include the murder of girls younger than three. The reality is that we need to provide support for victims of domestic violence who are children, and it is also imperative that they are safeguarded. We need to start looking at where we are failing in the system of children’s social care. To look at my own city again, I am sure that my hon. Friend Preet Kaur Gill could tell horror stories about how the under-resourcing of children’s services is leading to dangerous situations for the city’s children.
I cannot stress one thing enough when it comes to the review being undertaken of the family court. All of us have been in meetings with the likes of Claire Throssell, whose children were burned in their home by a violent perpetrator who the family courts had allowed to have access to them, even though she had begged and pleaded against that. The presumption of access for domestic violence perpetrators has to end.
To build on the hon. Lady’s point, the presumption in favour of access for a parent who in a criminal court would be considered a violent offender has a hidden dimension. Sometimes the perpetrator of domestic abuse will use the child as a pawn. Enhanced right of access will, typically, be used as a tool to torture the mother. The hon. Lady gave powerful figures not only for women who have been killed by domestic abuse but for children as young as three. She also gave an example of arson. That grim conclusion might not be reached, but children are still treated as pawns. They are placed with the perpetrator parent, in a highly dangerous situation, and they are denied access to their mother. That is a tool to torture the mother, and goodness knows what is happening. Another problem is the reporting restrictions in the family court, which make it difficult to know how the decisions are reached and the slipstream in which those children are moving.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I have seen hundreds of cases in which access to a child is used simply to extend the abuse. Children become pawns, and that has a psychological effect on them. They are pulled about and told that they have to go somewhere, such that they do not feel safe. Their mothers have to watch on and say goodbye to their children, putting them into the custody of someone they do not believe to be safe. That is psychological torture in our family court system—although, thanks to its secrecy, we will never truly know. However, I am sent emails with reams of accounts about that exact thing happening, day in, day out. We have to stop wringing our hands.
The Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service is also an issue with regard to the family court. CAFCASS provides support and services for perpetrators to try to stop the perpetration of domestic abuse. I am not here to criticise that, but I note that CAFCASS does not provide the same support for women and children. I often found a disparity when people decided to fund local commissioned services for perpetrators. Again, I have no problem with that, but there was always a discrepancy between the amount of money that would go to the perpetrator project and the amount that would go to the project that ran alongside it for women and children. Double the number of people was always a fraction of the price, I noted.
I am conscious of the psychological, financial and emotional ways in which a partner can put pressure on a wife and mother of the children. My office has dealt on many occasions with the issue of finance, where the male controls the money and the female and the children depend on him for finances. It is another nasty form of control. I have spoken about it many times, as has the hon. Lady.
The hon. Gentleman is right. We will welcome the Domestic Abuse Bill giving recognition to the issue of financial abuse. Things will only ever change if there are proper support services in every part of the country, to ensure that people can recognise financial abuse and that there is a route out.
People often say, “Why doesn’t she leave?” When a woman leaves a domestic violence perpetrator, with her children, the risk that she will be murdered elevates. There is a pattern in all domestic homicide reviews and children’s safeguarding serious case reviews: when people try to escape, the likelihood of their being murdered increases. That is one reason, but the other reason a woman might have nothing is that she will have no money. It is easy for us to say that we would leave, but it is very different in practice.
It would not be a day with me and the Minister if I did not mention the plight of migrant women, but my hon. Friend for Edmonton will talk much more about that, so I shall give her the time to do so. Until the Domestic Abuse Bill accounts for all victims, whether they be children or adult victims, and can guarantee at least an opportunity of safety—we cannot guarantee safety; no Government Department can, no matter how great—for every woman in this country who comes forward, homicide rates will not decline. The people whose names I will have to read out every year will increasingly be those of migrant women and children. I shall leave the Minister with that.
I am grateful to serve under your chairship, Mr Hollobone, and I look forward to doing so again in future. I congratulate my hon. Friend Liz Twist on securing today’s important debate, and I thank my hon. Friend Jess Phillips for her usual passion in speaking about this important subject that needs a lot more forensic inspection, especially in the light of the Bill.
I speak not only as a Member of Parliament but as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on no recourse to public funds. I am particularly keen to contribute to this debate to speak up for those mothers who, as result of their immigration status, have had the condition of no recourse to public funds imposed on them, and who are also more likely to be subject to domestic abuse and less able to escape it. Children in those families are in an especially vulnerable position. The reality for thousands of families and children in this country is that if they find themselves in an abusive situation, they have no safety net to fall back on. Many of those families are presented with a choice: continued abuse or possible destitution. Nobody should have to make that choice.
The Children’s Society’s research found that between 2013 and 2015, more than 50,000 individuals with children had no access to mainstream welfare support. According to the University of Wolverhampton and the Greater London Authority, there are 250,000 undocumented migrant children living in the UK. I want to speak up for those families and children. They must not be forgotten in this debate and in the Bill.
No child should be more vulnerable to domestic abuse as a result of barriers placed in their way by the Government’s hostile environment policy. The bottom line is that protection from domestic abuse must be provided regardless of immigration status. Yet, as it stands, those with no recourse to public funds are incredibly vulnerable to suffering from abuse and being trapped in an abusive cycle from which they cannot escape.
One common pathway for children to escape abuse is assistance from social services but, for many, that pathway is blocked because of their immigration status. Under section 17 of the Children Act 1989, local authorities have a duty to safeguard and promote the wellbeing of children in need. However, many families with no recourse to public funds find that route to safety totally blocked. Charities such as the Children’s Society and Project 17 have even found that social workers have assessed that it is safer for children to be placed with an abusive parent than it is for them to face living with a parent who has no recourse to public funds. That is shocking.
Project 17’s report “Not Seen, Not Heard: Children’s Experiences of the Hostile Environment” contains multiple accounts of local authorities who refuse support to destitute families because their parents—generally, mothers —have a pending immigration application. Decisions such as those prevent survivors of abuse from seeking help from local councils, in effect removing their access to that vital support. As a result of Government cuts over the last 10 years, our councils’ social services are under huge strain, but social services must never use a family’s immigration status as a way of gatekeeping and preventing them from getting the help they need to escape. What will the Government do to prevent this appalling situation, and ensure that local authorities properly recognise their duty towards all children, regardless of immigration status?
We are debating the abuse of children. All children must be protected from abuse, under all circumstances. No ifs, no buts. The uncomfortable truth is that they cannot be protected properly while that support is dependent on the immigration status of a child’s parents. I hope the Minister will agree that we cannot have a two-tier system when it comes to child abuse; there can be no hierarchy of protection. For children and parents living in an abusive relationship, all barriers to receiving support and escaping their abusers must be removed. It is therefore vital that the Domestic Abuse Bill ensures that every migrant survivor of domestic abuse has access to public funds.
I hope the Government will look again at families with no recourse to public funds, and ensure that every child has full access to the support needed to escape abuse. It is time to recognise all survivors of domestic abuse, regardless of age, immigration status or entitlement to support. I hope that today’s debate can be a step towards that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend Liz Twist on securing this important debate and on her wonderful advocacy of her constituent Christine.
It is welcome news that the Domestic Abuse Bill has returned to the House. As the Bill has only been published in the last couple of hours, I have not had a chance to familiarise myself with all of the changes, but it is up to us all to ensure that the Bill is robust, makes rapid progress through Parliament and that the new legislation is in place to protect victims as soon as possible. That includes the sometimes hidden victims of domestic abuse —the children. Some children may be living in homes where they are victims of physical, emotional or even sexual violence. For others, the psychological effects of seeing a parent suffering abuse can be just as damaging. All children who experience domestic abuse, be it as a victim or as a witness, must have protected places on all NHS waiting lists, including for mental health services. Likewise, they should be given priority access to school places if required, to give them parity with looked-after children. We must ensure that child victims of domestic abuse, who already face huge upheaval in their lives, do not experience unnecessary additional disruption or trauma.
We must also look at the role of the family courts in domestic abuse cases. I am pleased that the new enhanced Bill includes a wider ban on cross-examination of victims, but I have heard too many first-hand accounts of incidents in which the courts have let down the children they should be there to protect—incidents in which the safety and wellbeing of young people is overshadowed by the rights of perpetrators. No one who is awaiting trial, on bail or facing ongoing criminal proceedings for domestic abuse-related offences should be permitted unsupervised contact with their children. Family courts need to be accountable for prioritising the physical safety and emotional wellbeing of all the vulnerable young people they are there to protect.
We must also consider children in families with no recourse to public funds. There has been much discussion about migrant women with insecure immigration status, who struggle to find protection from domestic abuse. I understand that the Government have begun a review of what support can be provided, but those women and their children need urgent action. In addition, teenagers in abusive relationships all too often are not considered to be victims of domestic abuse, but they are.
We must never lose sight of how big an impact domestic abuse can have on children, both at the time of the experience and in the future. Although physical injuries may heal, the emotional and psychological effects of being a victim or a witness last a lifetime. I welcome the introduction of the Bill and eagerly await details of its Second Reading and Committee stage. The Bill is long overdue; we must not delay any longer. Protection for those affected by domestic abuse desperately needs to be brought into legislation. Survivors want to see it happen, victims need to see it happen, and the innocent, vulnerable children who are caught up in it all deserve to see it happen.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate Liz Twist on securing this important debate about a subject that we all clearly care so much about. May I congratulate her on her timing as well? As she said, the Bill is back today.
I am delighted that my very first act as the Minister leading the Bill through the House is to respond to this incredibly important debate about the impact of domestic abuse on the lives of children, not just in the immediate term but in the much longer term. The hon. Lady articulated that extremely well with the example of her constituent Christine, who set out not just the impact on her own life but the long-term impact on the life of her daughter, who is now over the age of 18. I hope that everyone watching the debate realises that we all genuinely understand the impact that domestic abuse can have.
I am extremely grateful to Jim Shannon, who, as always, brought the perspective of a vital part of our United Kingdom to the Chamber. He made the point that domestic abuse affects many families in Northern Ireland. I hope he is pleased that we were able to remove from the latest iteration of the Bill the sections we were going to include to ensure that legislation is passed in Northern Ireland. Of course, we were able to do that because the Northern Ireland Executive is back. We have confirmation that the Executive intend to legislate on this important subject locally, which is as it should be. I am delighted by that development.
As was set out, we know that as many as one in five children in the UK are witness to or exposed to this awful crime type in their households. We know too that domestic abuse has a devastating impact on young people. Growing up in a household of fear and intimidation can have serious, long-lasting effects on the health, wellbeing and development of a young person. We know that children exposed to domestic abuse are more likely to experience mental health difficulties, to be excluded from school and to become victims of domestic abuse later in life. I do not for a moment say that is the life outcome of every child—of course it is not—but we must pay attention to the statistics and to the trends that we see in them.
The hon. Member for Blaydon rightly challenged the Government on why the definition has been set at the age of 16 and above. As I hope I have been clear when speaking about previous iterations of the Bill, that is something we have grappled with. In 2012, following a consultation, the cross-Government definition of domestic abuse was amended to include 16 and 17-year-olds, with the aim of increasing awareness of young people’s experience of domestic abuse. Indeed, there was strong support for maintaining that age limit in responses to the domestic abuse consultation we held in 2018, which was part of the foundations of the Bill.
The concern is that lowering the age limit below 16 risks blurring the line between child abuse and domestic abuse between adults. Abuse perpetrated by an adult towards someone under 16 is classified as child abuse. We argue that the distinction needs to be maintained because, as colleagues will know, many interactions with social services and so on may flow from that definition.
We note that the Joint Committee on the Draft Domestic Abuse Bill, which scrutinised the draft Bill in huge detail and heard evidence from many witnesses, concluded that an age limit of 16 is the right one, but we are absolutely clear that the impact of domestic abuse on young people needs to be recognised properly, and that we must ensure that the agencies are aware of it and know how to identify and respond to it.
Are we therefore to assume that any child under 16 who suffered as a victim of domestic abuse, either directly or indirectly, would meet the threshold for child abuse and therefore should be reported to children’s social care immediately by all the authorities that we would expect to report that? For example, should every schoolteacher who hears about something like that report it as child abuse? If so, what will the Government put in place to ensure that children’s social care can deal with that?
The hon. Lady will appreciate that I cannot give a broad-brush answer for each and every case; clearly, every case must be treated on its facts. However, the definition of harm in the Children Act 1989—again, the Joint Committee looked at that very carefully—includes
“forms of ill-treatment which are not physical” as well as
“impairment suffered from seeing or hearing the ill-treatment of another”.
We are therefore clear that the definition of harm in the 1989 Act includes witnessing and experiencing coercive control. From that, we concluded that the most effective way of trying to act on the Committee’s recommendation with regard to that definition is to amend the Department for Education’s statutory guidance, “Working together to safeguard children”. I hope that helps to clarify the point.
We are also clear that the impact of domestic abuse includes the impact on children living in households where abuse is conducted, teenage relationship abuse—Jessica Morden mentioned that—and abuse directed towards siblings and parents, which is perhaps one of the most hidden forms of abuse in a crime already typified by concealment and hiding.
We are seeking to address the very real points and concerns raised by Members and, indeed, others outside this House in a number of ways. First and foremost, the statutory guidance, which will sit alongside the definition in the Act—when it is passed, I hope—will specifically address the adverse impact of abuse on children. We are working closely with key charities such as Barnardo’s, Action for Children and the Children’s Society as well as the domestic abuse commissioner—the commissioner designate, I should say—the Children’s Commissioner and many others to ensure that the guidance makes the impact on children clear.
To answer the question from the hon. Member for Blaydon, we will publish a draft version of the statutory guidance ahead of the Commons Committee stage to assist in scrutiny of the Bill. I genuinely encourage hon. Members and their networks of experts and survivors to consider that draft guidance and feed back to us on it, because we want to get it right.
Importantly, the Bill as introduced today includes a new statutory duty that will require tier 1 local authorities in England to provide support to domestic abuse victims and their children in refuges and other safe accommodation. That will result in the right level of tailored support for victims and their children across the country at the time of need, with improved recovery rates and the release of bed spaces as people rebuild their lives more quickly. We will ensure that local authorities receive appropriate financial support to meet the proposed duty.
The hon. Lady knows that there is already provision under the domestic violence concession in some circumstances. I am pleased that she raised migrant women, because, as I hope she knows, alongside our introduction of the Bill the Government published today our further response to the Joint Committee’s recommendations, and in that we set out our response to this particularly difficult situation. She will understand the complexity involved. At the moment, I am afraid, we are still reviewing the consultation responses, but we have said that we will set out our conclusions before Report stage in this House.
One of the key functions of the domestic abuse commissioner will be to encourage good practice in the identification of children affected by domestic abuse as well as the provision of protection and support to people, including children, affected by domestic abuse. Under the terms of the commissioner’s appointment, they are required to have a thematic lead in the heart of their office to represent the interests of children. We are working with the commissioner to address some of the important points raised on community-based services and how those can be provided better across the country.
In terms of helping children above and beyond the law, the statutory guidance and so on, legislation can achieve so much, but much more needs to be done to address the impact on children. That is why in 2018 we launched the £8 million fund for children affected by domestic abuse, which funds projects that support children experiencing domestic abuse at home, focused on early intervention and reducing the impact of domestic abuse on children’s physical and mental wellbeing. Those projects are making a difference. We see those services really helping children and young people across England and Wales, supporting them through innovative practices and therapy.
Jess Phillips rightly raised the issue of schools. She will know of Operation Encompass, and we are funding the national roll-out of this fantastic project, which gives the police a set of simple procedures to enable them to communicate quickly and effectively with schools in relation to any pupils who may have been exposed to domestic abuse the night preceding the start of the school day. We all know examples of where the project has had a real impact. It will help schools provide timely and effective help to the pupils involved. Whereas children’s social care intervenes only in the most serious cases, Operation Encompass enables every child to receive support, regardless of whether an incident is recorded as a crime. We have also provided £220,000 to develop and pilot a training programme for children and family social workers to improve awareness of coercive control, indicators of domestic abuse, and how best to support families.
Many Members have raised the impact and role of the family courts, not just in today’s debate but in more general discussions. That is a critical part of our addressing this hidden crime. The welfare of the child is the family court’s paramount concern when making any decision about their upbringing, including with whom the child is to live or spend time. The law is clear that the presumption in favour of contact with each parent will apply unless there is evidence to the contrary, such as in cases that may involve domestic abuse. We have revised a practice direction to set out procedure for the courts to follow when dealing with applications for child arrangement orders where domestic abuse is alleged, which makes it clear that the presumption of contact can be explicitly displaced—
I am so sorry; I have about 30 seconds left.
We have an expert panel to gather evidence to better understand how the family courts are responding, because we understand the concerns that hon. Members and survivors have expressed. The panel is working through a body of evidence and we expect its findings and recommendations for next steps to be published this spring.
I thank the hon. Member for Blaydon again for raising the issues in this debate as well as all people not just in this place but outside who are working so hard to support the victims and survivors of domestic abuse, including children. We are committed to getting this Bill right. With their help, we can.
I thank all hon. Members who took part by speaking or intervening in the debate. There is much shared concern from everyone who raised an issue. Jim Shannon referred to children as the forgotten victims of domestic abuse. The purpose of the debate is to ensure that they are not forgotten but properly cared for.
My hon. Friend Jess Phillips talked about the support that is available. If there is patchy support in Birmingham, she said, how is it in Blaydon? We see very mixed provision across the country and it is important that we get that right. She also talked about access by perpetrators of domestic abuse to children and about the Home Office pilots. We all think these services need secure funding, not funding based on a bidding process and who writes the best paper. My hon. Friend Kate Osamor explained clearly the issues faced by migrant women and those with no recourse to public funds.
In the minute and a half left to me, I want to recapitulate some of the asks. We talked about revising the definition to include children, and I heard the Minister’s statement and explanation about how she had grappled with the definition. I say to her: please grapple some more, because this is a really important issue. Many organisations representing the interests of children are supportive of that move. The other big ask was to ensure that support services, whether accommodation-based or community-based, are available to all children so that they get what they need. This is not just a failure of financing; it is a failure to look after the most vulnerable children who face difficult situations. I ask her to look at that.
The Minister asked us to look at the guidelines and to provide feedback, and I have no doubt that many people and organisations will do that. I thank her for her comments and ask her to look again at those key asks to look after children.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered children and domestic abuse.