|Mon 8th March 2021||
Domestic Abuse Bill
|7 interactions (353 words)|
|Wed 10th February 2021||
Domestic Abuse Bill
Committee: 6th sitting (Hansard)
Committee: 6th sitting (Hansard): House of Lords
|3 interactions (326 words)|
|Mon 1st February 2021||
Domestic Abuse Bill
Committee: 3rd sitting (Hansard)
Committee: 3rd sitting (Hansard): House of Lords
|3 interactions (795 words)|
|Mon 25th January 2021||
Domestic Abuse Bill
Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard)
Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard): House of Lords
|7 interactions (804 words)|
|Tue 5th January 2021||
Domestic Abuse Bill
2nd reading (Hansard)
2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords
|3 interactions (561 words)|
My Lords, it is a pleasure to listen to and follow my noble friend Lord Mendelsohn and the other sponsors of these amendments.
I wish to make two brief points. The first is that whenever there is an unequivocal imbalance in power relations, that affects behaviour. The behaviour relayed to me in the context of these amendments particularly concerns women who remain in abusive relationships precisely because, in any definition of “negotiation”, the odds of getting out are stacked against them. One cannot go fairly into a separation negotiation if the other side has additional cards that are greater than the ones you possess. That imbalance affects ongoing behaviour; it will be affecting people’s behaviour now, as my noble friend Lord Mendelsohn rightly pointed out, in cases where perhaps no one will know anything at all other than the woman directly affected. There is a responsibility on the Government to listen acutely to the expertise being brought.
That brings me to my second point—and it is an apposite time to be making it in the context of Lord Speaker elections and people thinking about the size of the House—about the diversity of this place. There is no purpose in having an unelected Second Chamber if it does not represent the diversity of the communities out there. With these amendments and the Government’s arguments against them, we see a juxtaposition of the best and the not so good. Here we see a community effectively represented, by Members from across the range of the political spectrum knowledgably putting forward their expertise to the Government and to the House. But if we are to have a purpose here and carry out the precise role that an unelected Chamber needs to, we need to be far more inclusive of all communities across the country. The amendments, as clearly as any that I have ever seen, absolutely demonstrate the strengths of this House but also, in a sense—and I anticipate that this will be the Government’s response—part of its ongoing weaknesses, in that we are not inclusive enough of all communities.
I congratulate those who have brought forward their expertise from their community for the rest of us. With such cross-party wisdom, it would be foolish of us to ignore that expertise.
While it remains true that I am a member of the United Synagogue and part of the Modern Orthodox Jewish community, I am qualified to speak for no one. However, I spoke to a close family member who happens to be going through a divorce and, as she said, if via this Bill only one woman, one agunah, were spared the indignity, the abuse, the embarrassment and the hurt and were enabled to rebuild her life then that would be a good result. How much more important it is if, by passing these focused and narrow amendments, we can help many more than just one agunah. My noble friend Lord Wolfson understands, he has empathy and he has the knowledge to help. I urge him to help those who need it.
Break in Debate
My Lords, I support the purpose of this amendment, and in doing so I also pay tribute to the work of the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, on this matter. She has been consistent in her determined efforts to ensure that the impact on children is not forgotten in debates on the Bill and that parental alienation is much better defined than is the case at present. I believe that the Bill would benefit from greater clarification.
It is vital that, among the many difficult and complex issues within the Bill, we consider the impact that parental behaviour can have on their children. Sadly, there are times when the actions of one parent can, over time, damage and diminish the child’s relationship with the other parent.
I decided to participate in this debate because I have witnessed this behaviour and the devastating impact it can have, through manipulation, the loss of self-esteem and confidence, the fear of even correcting a child for misbehaviour in case it results in reporting back to the other parent and, in doing so, perpetuating the abuse and alienation. This can obviously have lasting emotional and psychological effects on the parent but also, importantly, on the child.
As has been stated a number of times, these are complex and sensitive issues, and such instances must be handled with extreme care, bearing in mind the particular circumstances of each individual case. However, when a child is forced into choosing sides in an argument, when the emotional stability and authority of one parent is consistently undermined by the other, this puts the child or children in a potentially traumatic situation. This should be considered a form of abuse and included within the scope of the Bill.
The consequences can include insomnia, depression, lack of confidence as well as long-term difficulties in rebuilding relationships and in relationships with others. This amendment makes it clear that damaging the relationship between a child and a parent is abusive behaviour. By extension, this makes the Bill more thorough in the abuse it identifies and seeks to prevent. I acknowledge the wise advice from noble and learned Lords during this debate, and I hope that the Minister will respond positively to this discussion.
My Lords, I have no hesitation in supporting the aims of this amendment standing in the name of my friend, the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, and others. I feel very strongly that we will listen—I certainly will—to what the Minister is going to say, because there are difficulties. I have listened to some of the opposition to the amendment, although there seems to be a very general agreement on the principles. It has now become a very wide-ranging Domestic Abuse Bill, so I really need to be satisfied that the aims and principles of what we are trying to do in this amendment, and what the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, is trying to do, will actually be satisfied without the amendment.
I believe that we should use the Bill to protect children and their victim mothers or fathers from psychological abusive and coercive control. During my 30 years as a Member of Parliament, I had many cases of parents, male and female, coming to see me and telling me in harrowing tones what was happening. They did not use the words “parental alienation”—it is a very Americanised term, which I personally do not like. But I listened to the some of the ways in which they talked, very simply—[Inaudible.]
My Lords, I support all the amendments in this group but I will focus my remarks on Amendment 167, to which I have added my name. This is a good Bill and it contains many well thought out provisions to help victims and survivors of domestic abuse, but it deals almost exclusively with the support of those victims after the abuse has occurred. That is commendable, but it is not enough. Surely we also need measures to stop abuse happening, so that there are fewer victims and there is less harm done to them and their children.
Amendment 167 focuses on the perpetrator rather than the victim to prevent repeat occurrences with the same victim or, as often happens, with fresh victims. If we want to reduce domestic abuse, we need to change the focus. Instead of asking “Why doesn’t she leave?”, we should be asking “Why doesn’t he stop?” We should be changing the dynamics of abusive relationships, making it clear that responsibility lies with the perpetrators of domestic violence and giving them tools to deal with their behaviour.
We already know, and we have heard again today, that high-quality interventions can substantially reduce or even stop violence and coercive control, which leads to happier and safer lives for victims, their children, and future generations. Amendment 167 calls for urgent research on the assessment and identification of perpetrators. Domestic violence does not come from nowhere. It often builds over time until outbursts of violence become commonplace. For example, we already know that non-fatal strangulation is a common signal of future, more serious violence and even murder. This research should lead to an increasing number of high-quality rehabilitation programmes, which should be checked for quality and based on best practice. The opportunity to make use of such a programme should no longer be a postcode lottery based on whether an appropriate charity is funded in your area. It currently amounts to a postcode lottery as to whether the one or two women who will be killed this week by their partner will be you, your daughter, your sister or your mum.
We should be ambitious in tackling the foothills of domestic abuse issues. Specialist work that challenges abusive attitudes and behaviours should be part of every school curriculum, so that every child knows what an abusive relationship looks like. We can teach the next generation to recognise the warning signs, so that they can avoid ever entering into such a relationship —either as an abuser or a victim. For those children who know all too well what domestic abuse looks like, we can give them the vocabulary and a place to talk about it, and chances to seek help to stop it.
We know that working with perpetrators brings success. The University of Bristol’s three-year study of over 500 cases, as we have heard earlier, shows an 82% drop in physical abuse and an 88% drop in sexual abuse. Similar dramatic drops in stalking and controlling behaviours are also seen after high-quality perpetrator programmes.
Domestic abuse leads to whole families living with the constant presence of fear at home. It leads to victims in a constant state of high alert, concealing physical and emotional damage, terrified almost every moment of every day, but with nowhere else to go. It leads to children feeling frightened, powerless, confused and angry, and their taking responsibility for events over which they have no control. They are unable to concentrate at school, unable to make friends, afraid to go home and afraid not to.
Domestic abuse leads to abusers feeling that the only way they know of staving off loneliness is to carry on controlling, beating, hurting, screaming, shouting and threatening, because no one who had a choice would ever live with them. Perpetrator intervention can reduce and even eliminate this pain, violence and death which leaks from relationship to relationship and generation to generation. We know this and now we have the chance to act on it. Amendment 167 is that chance, and I hope the Government will accept it into this Bill.
My Lords, I am also pleased to speak in support of Amendment 167 in the name of my noble friend Lady Bertin. I am pleased to follow my noble friend Lord Polak in his encouragements for this amendment to be made law, particularly because of the emphasis on prevention as well as perpetrators in the strategy. It is essential to focus adequately on perpetrators, but this is late intervention. It needs to be properly matched with a root-and-branch approach to early intervention, preventing, where possible, the precursors to violence and abuse from developing into full-blown perpetration.
There is very little mention of prevention in the Bill as it currently stands, yet adopting a prevention paradigm is indispensable for reducing the staggeringly high levels of domestic abuse reported in this country over the long term. This requires acknowledging that in this area of policy, as in so many others, people cannot be treated as individuals, because their identity, health and well-being fundamentally depend on their relationships. As well as being a crime, domestic abuse is a problem with a relationship or set of relationships, and if we are ever to get ahead of its dreadful curve, a cross-government approach to strengthening families before, during and after abuse occurs is utterly foundational.
I could substantiate this in very many ways. The noble Baroness, Lady Casey, when she led the Government’s troubled families programme, highlighted the ubiquity of domestic violence in the families being helped. Evidence suggests that the most powerful contributors to domestic abuse in our society are rooted in the relationships people have and are witnesses to when they are young. This needs to be addressed in a prevention paradigm. Childhood exposure to domestic violence and child physical abuse are two of the most powerful predictors of both perpetrating and receiving domestic abuse as an adult. Domestic violence between parents increases the likelihood of violence in their children’s later relationships by 189%. The public understand this. Polling carried out by the Centre for Social Justice, albeit in 2011, found that most of the population—73% of adults—think that if we want to tackle domestic abuse, we have to recognise that many perpetrators have themselves been victims of abuse.
Childhood neglect can mean that individuals enter adult life unable to regulate their emotions and communicate with others. They often have intrusive memories of violence, think badly about themselves or others and are at risk of struggling profoundly when they become partners and parents. Obviously, there are other cultural influences, such as misogyny and enduring beliefs that it is okay, under certain circumstances, to resolve arguments with violence. These can be tackled also with social marketing. In Hull, they put up posters with slogans such as “Real Men Don’t Hit Women”.
Low income is consistently associated with, and indeed worsened by, domestic abuse. Victims’ ability to work is hampered by psychological and physical effects, and restricting their access to work is a form of abuse of economic control. Money worries make conflict about finances more likely to trigger aggression. It can also threaten men’s identity where lack of money is associated with lack of male power. Men denied power through social status can seek it in violence, social control and subjugation of women.
Alcohol and drugs are also massive drivers. In almost two-fifths of domestic violence incidents, the perpetrator is under the influence of alcohol; in one-fifth of cases, under the influence of drugs; and sometimes, both. Substances hamper social and problem-solving skills and the ability to control emotions and they lower inhibitions, but the link between alcohol and violence is socially learned. This and the other factors cited above, including adversity in childhood, are never excuses; they simply help to explain. Many men and women with the most desperate back stories never resort to abuse. They may even determine to alchemise adversity into kindness towards themselves and others.
Finally, if we are to prevent revictimisation, we have to recognise that victims are often unable to break free of the psychological drivers embedded in their past experiences. These can contribute to them becoming enmeshed in an abusive relationship in the first place, and help explain why they feel so ambivalent towards the perpetrator and end up in other abusive relationships. Between 40% and 56% of women experiencing domestic abuse have had a previously abusive relationship. In one study, 66% of refuge residents had previously left and returned to their abusive partner; 97% of these women had done so on multiple occasions. These are sobering statistics because the impact of abusive relationships is cumulative; so much of the harm associated with domestic abuse is due to multiple victimisation.
I hope that I have given the Government a steer as to what a prevention strategy would look like. It would acknowledge the effects of low income, substance misuse and culture, but primarily focus on early intervention in families and be explicit about the relational character of domestic abuse. It would highlight the role of family hubs as places people can go to get help in this area, including when early signs of violence are seen in children and young people. In summary, families and family relationships can no longer be neglected in solutions to this most heinous of social problems.
My Lords, I was pleased to add my name to Amendment 101, which in some ways follows on from my group of amendments on social security, debated last Wednesday.
If we had a decent social security system that provided genuine security to survivors of domestic abuse, including economic abuse, and still had a national emergency scheme like the Social Fund, we might not need local welfare assistance schemes. As it is, such schemes, which constitute the final safety net—leaving aside charitable support—are in a parlous state, despite the welcome injection of cash to help cope with the pandemic.
When local welfare assistance schemes were introduced to replace the national Social Fund, the Government refused to make them compulsory or to ring-fence the money allocated, despite your Lordships’ best efforts. It is no surprise, therefore, that when local authorities are strapped for cash because of years of cuts, research by the Children’s Society last year found that one in seven local authorities does not even run a scheme any more. It found that, of 121 authorities that provided spending data, about three-quarters spent less than half their allocated budget on local welfare assistance schemes. That budget has itself been cut, so that overall, it stands at less than half the money that was allocated to the Social Fund it replaced.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Burt of Solihull, has pointed out, the lack of any regulation has given rise to our old friend the postcode lottery, which is particularly damaging to domestic abuse survivors who might find themselves excluded by local connection criteria if they have moved local authorities to escape their abuser. A woman might find herself excluded because she is subject to the “no recourse to public funds” rule. It is essential that any guidance issued under this amendment, should it eventually pass, ensures that these groups are covered.
More generally, domestic abuse survivors need the security of knowing that they can get appropriate help from local authorities and not just help in kind which may well not be appropriate. It is not good enough that we have to rely on a charity to provide basic information on state local welfare assistance schemes because central government have taken the Pontius Pilate approach and washed their hands of all responsibility for the schemes, ignoring the recommendations of the Work and Pensions Committee in a previous Parliament.
Paul Maynard MP on the Government Back Benches is leading a cross-party call tomorrow in the Commons for a review of local welfare assistance schemes, supported by among others former Secretary of State Iain Duncan Smith. Mr Maynard stated:
“We need to ensure we learn the lessons of the pandemic to embed a better provision of emergency support for some of the most vulnerable in our society.”
This amendment would at least require central government to exercise some responsibility towards this particularly vulnerable group of people and it therefore deserves support.
I also want to speak briefly in support of Amendment 176, leaving it to the sponsors of the amendment to make the case more fully. I am sure no one would dispute the importance of specialised domestic abuse provision for a range of minority groups, including particular provision by and for domestic abuse victims and survivors. It is just such provision which has been particularly vulnerable to funding cuts and changes in commissioning practises in recent years, as was discussed earlier. That is sufficient reason for supporting this amendment, but it would also go some way to redress the balance, following the welcome introduction in the Bill of a duty on local authorities to assess the need for accommodation-based services by ensuring the duty in this new clause covers community-based services. As important as accommodation-based services are—they are very important—the Justice Secretary noted at Second Reading debate in the House of Commons that 70% of domestic abuse victims never set foot in a refuge. Many of them will seek support from community-based services.
The Government say they need more evidence about the need for community-based services and that nothing can be done until the domestic abuse commissioner designate has completed her investigation. However, the domestic abuse commissioner herself and organisations on the ground insist there is ample evidence to make legislative provision now. What further evidence do the Government need?
In Committee in the Commons, the Minister assured MPs that
“the Government are committed to addressing”
Whatever the domestic abuse commissioner’s findings are,
“that the commissioner will publish her report under clause 8”,
and the Government are
“required to respond to it within 56 days.” ”—[Official Report, Commons, Public Bill Committee, 11/6/20; col. 249.]
That is all well and good, but this Bill will be on the statue book by then. The chances of another Domestic Abuse Bill coming along in the near future must be slim—just look at how long it has taken us to get to this point on this Bill. I hope the Government will listen to the experts, the domestic abuse commissioner designate and organisations on the ground and extend the duty on local authorities to assess the need for community-based services and accept this amendment as a way of doing so.
As I said at Second Reading, I am concerned that community-based services will become the poor relation. People will suffer; children will suffer. They will not be educated to know what is and what is not a healthy relationship. My amendments are an effort to find a way of ensuring that this becomes a landmark Bill that includes community-based services in a statutory duty. Children are at risk and I am endeavouring to ensure that they are at the heart of the Bill. The Government took an incredibly important step by recognising children under the age of 18 as victims of domestic abuse. However, they also need to receive support to ensure that the cycle of domestic abuse can be broken.
My Lords, I begin with an apology: I was unable to take part at Second Reading of this important Bill, a Bill on which I, like others, congratulate the Government. Unlike much of our discussion and debate in this House, this is a real debate, with passionate views, strongly and sincerely held, being expressed on both sides of the argument.
I come to this from a background of 40 years as a constituency MP. Throughout that time, I held frequent and regular advice surgeries—at least a couple a month. I was always most distressed and least able to help when people brought their parental and marital difficulties to me. Whenever I saw people to discuss these things, I became convinced that, in almost every case, the victims were the children. When there is a separation or break-up of a marriage, long-term relationship or anything else, it is the children who always suffer, regardless of the “blame” attached to either side. Other noble Lords will have shared these experiences, which were the most difficult—indeed impossible—to resolve adequately, properly and fairly.
Some years ago, when I was in the United States with the Foreign Affairs Committee of another place, I met someone who felt passionately about this issue. In the margins of our meetings, she explained to me the cause that she was championing and gave me some of the details of why she was doing so. That person was the wife of our then American ambassador, Sir Christopher Meyer, and is now our much-admired colleague in your Lordships’ House. She spoke today with passionate intensity; it was a very moving speech.
I was minded to say that I would of course support these amendments. I support so much of what is behind them, but I cannot ignore the powerful speeches from the noble Baronesses, Lady Brinton and Lady Helic, or from the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, a few moments ago. I am very persuaded by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, who knows perhaps more than any of us about marital problems and difficulties from her work in the family court. Although she spoke so briefly but movingly, this is something we must not dismiss.
I wonder whether the Bill is the right vehicle at the moment. I am not saying that I am persuaded that it is not; I shall talk and read more after today’s debate, but one body is frequently derided in the modern age: the royal commission. I wonder whether a royal commission to look into these things, to weigh the conflicting academic and other evidence, might not offer a positive and helpful way forward. There is no doubt that both my noble friends Lady Meyer and Lady Helic would be more than well equipped to give powerful evidence to such a body—as would others; we have all had representations on both sides of the argument.
There is nothing worse than polluting the mind of a child and weaponising and indoctrinating a child, particularly doing it with the intention of discrediting the other parent. Those of us who have been fortunate enough to enjoy very long marriages and see our children likewise enjoy long marriages have no real idea of just how devastating the sort of situation that my noble friend Lady Meyer described can be. We can only listen with sympathy and regard. We can empathise to the best of our ability, but we have not been there and we do not know that. However, I think that it would be very sensible for a royal commission to look into this. Royal commissions do not always have to, in the words of the late Lord Wilson, take minutes and sit for years. A small group of very experienced lawyers and others could pronounce on this in a fairly short timescale.
For the moment, I reserve my position on this amendment. I want to listen to what others say in this debate and when we come to Report, but I ask my noble friend who will reply from the Front Bench at least to reflect on the suggestion I have put forward and see whether it offers us a way to achieve what my noble friend Lady Meyer would have us achieve without some of the dangers talked about so powerfully by the noble Baronesses, Lady Brinton and Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, and my noble friend Lady Helic.
My Lords, I, too, wish to commend the Minister on bringing this solid piece of legislation before the House and getting it to this stage. However, I rise to speak in support of these two amendments and commend those who tabled them and brought them before the House. I know the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, speaks with personal knowledge on this issue, having listened to her on another occasion and to what she has said today. When someone refers to their personal experience, I think it is always prudent, has a lot of merit and deserves a lot of close attention.
I want to address my comments today to the narrow issue of parental alienation. I am aware that this legislation applies primarily to England and Wales, not Northern Ireland. However, it is important that all parts of the UK are able to move forward with these protections as soon as possible. A gap in legislation was created when the Northern Ireland Assembly was suspended. My DUP colleagues and I will support the amendment in the event of the Committee dividing. It would insert parental alienation into the definition of domestic abuse in Clause 1.
Sadly, we live in a society today where there are thousands of parents who do not have any relationship with their children, and in some of these cases simply because one parent, for no good reason, turned their child against them. This amounts to abuse and is debilitating. Parental alienation is a serious, deliberate manipulation of a child by one parent against the other parent. Of course, it can take many forms, including speaking negatively to the child about the other parent, reducing and controlling the child’s contact with the other parent, cancelling contact at the last minute and forbidding the child to talk about the other parent.
The effects can be life-changing. A child may believe that their parent is bad and dangerous. This can adversely affect a child’s mental health in later years. The child can be left bereft of the love, compassion and guidance of a parent. The alienated parent cannot share key milestones in their child’s life. I do not think it is possible to overstress the importance and influence of parents in their children’s life. Often by the time alienation has been proven through the courts it is much too late to encourage a child to see his or her other parent. Clinical depression, anxiety, fractured attachments, suicide ideation, deliberate self-harm, alcohol abuse, premature sexual activity and academic underachievement may have already occurred.
The sweeping generalisation that parental alienation is a concept being used by fathers as a tool to silence female victims of domestic violence is not accurate. There is a real risk that those advocating that position will neglect the needs of those men and women who do not have convictions for domestic violence or other offences but have been cut off from contact with their children and grievously miss them.
However, I want to make it abundantly clear that I am not in any way seeking to challenge cases where a child has valid reasons for rejecting a parent, such as abuse or neglect, or where they have been unavailable to a child due to a prolonged period of addiction or of working overseas. My understanding of these amendments is that they are focused on situations where children become alienated through no fault of the affected parent, so it is critical that the Committee recognises that the harm caused in these cases is not restricted to abuse of a child. We should not ignore the fact that there is a range of motivating factors and circumstances involved in parental alienation, but I consider it appropriate to place it within the domestic abuse legislation as it victimises both parent and child.
I recognise and welcome that the Minister has already taken steps to classify parental alienation as an example of the psychological abuse in draft statutory guidance accompanying the Bill. On balance, however, I do not believe that this represents a level of protection or impetus that full legislative protection would provide.
My party, the DUP, has some concern around whether parental alienation will receive the attention it deserves in training and guidance on criminal behaviours without it being specifically stipulated as an offence in the Bill. Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly raised similar points during the development of the Domestic Abuse and Family Proceedings Bill. We must ensure that there is knowledge, understanding and application of domestic abuse law as it relates to parental alienation.
We are mindful that these amendments and the Bill in general would address only issues relating to parental alienation at the point at which harm has been caused. While it may dissuade such behaviour in the future, we also recognise that prevention and earlier and better support for parents—and between parents and children—are key to improving long-term outcomes for children and families. There is a need for better collaboration between health and justice departments right across the UK in respect of this and specific policies on alienation.
Break in Debate
My Lords, like the other stories lying behind the need for this Bill, this set of amendments reveals a shameful story. I am pleased to support this group of amendments and to support the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann. There could be as many as 100 women at a time caught in this situation who are known to the religious courts. It is not uncommon for women to secure their release by paying sums extorted from them by acts comparable to blackmail. The grant of the get can be used by the husband as leverage. A recent case involved a woman paying her ex-husband £50,000 for her freedom after 15 years of being chained; others have cost similar five-figure sums. It is reported that more abuse occurs nowadays than previously, perhaps connected to higher divorce rates and higher financial obligations imposed by secular courts. It is true that a religious divorce needs the woman’s agreement as well, but her refusal can be overridden by a religious court whereas a man’s cannot. Noble Lords can imagine what we women think of this and the lack of respect we have for the rabbinic authorities who manage to find all sorts of loopholes in religious law but not in this one.
It is embarrassing to have to turn to secular law for relief. The Divorce (Religious Marriages) Act 2002 allows parties to ask a judge to delay a decree absolute until a religious divorce is finalised, but this law is ineffective if the husband does not care about getting a civil divorce. Then there is the Serious Crime Act 2015, Section 76, which is referred to in the amendment too. In the circumstances of a get refusal, there have been prosecutions launched against wholly unreasonable and controlling husbands under that section, which created the offence of controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship. Withholding the get fits well within that section. It is not, however, retrospective, and a person bringing a private prosecution has to be prepared to foot the bill for their legal costs. The section needs the proof of intent to cause fear of violence or serious distress. The cases about the get brought under this section never came to court because, once the husband had been served with the charge, he caved in. The result is that there is no precedent that this section can in fact be used where a get is withheld.
So why will the potential of Section 76 not suffice for the cruel treatment that has been described? The answer is that there would be advantages to dealing with unreasonable withholding of the get in the domestic abuse setting rather that of the Serious Crime Act. The use of a domestic abuse protection notice or order would open the door to a range of support for the victim. It also would mean that, rather than a criminal procedure, the perpetrator—usually, but not always, the husband—will be subject to a civil preventive measure, the notice, not a finding of guilt. A domestic abuse protection order can contain appropriate conditions, and must not conflict with the perpetrator’s religious beliefs. It is important that a domestic abuse order or notice be perceived as less coercive than a criminal conviction under the Serious Crime Act 2015. This is because a strict interpretation of the orthodox Jewish law requires that the husband be not directly coerced into giving the get; it has to be voluntary, as is widely understood. I am not defending this for a moment but, for those for whom the correct religious forms are important, and bearing in mind the impact on their present and future families, a domestic abuse protection notice or order would be a lifeline in secular and religious terms.
I support this set of amendments, which define the unreasonable withholding of a get as abusive behaviour; that is, when one spouse acts in a way which is controlling, coercing or threatening, or abusing the other spouse’s normal civil liberty of being able to remarry and have children in accordance with her beliefs. I hope that this House and the Government will extend a helping hand and free these unfortunate women.
While the amendments do not create any new provisions that currently cannot be exercised through existing legislation, it can be argued that the reasons for adding these measures to the Bill are that they will make access to its provisions easier and more timely, thus potentially reducing the cost burden, while the agunah—the chained woman—can more speedily gain the ability to remarry or to lead a normal life without the stigma associated with her position. In addition, these women can access sources of support that will be made available by this important Bill.
My Lords, this Bill offers hope and help to all those who face the soul-destroying horror of domestic abuse, often for years, and are afterwards left trying to piece together the fragments of broken lives. I make just a few discrete points for further consideration.
The first concerns special measures for protecting witnesses and victims. We know that we must make giving evidence less terrifying, make proceedings more humane and help victims summon up the courage to bring cases against their abusers. The Bill provides for automatic eligibility for special measures for victims in the family and criminal courts. I agree with Refuge that we should extend this to all relevant civil cases.
Secondly, the Bill outlaws direct cross-examination of victims by their alleged abusers in many—but not necessarily all—family proceedings, and, on a discretionary basis, in civil proceedings. Little could be more traumatic for a victim than being harangued by her abuser in intimidating and humiliating language, often crude and intimate, masquerading as cross-examination. This ban should extend to all family and civil cases involving domestic abuse. However, the Bill proposes that court-appointed qualified legal representatives should conduct cross-examinations, but without being responsible to the parties they represent, which concerns me. Cross-examination must be acceptable questioning, sensitive to the witness, which should be achievable without losing the lawyer’s responsibility to the client. We should provide legal aid to both parties, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said, and as the Bar Council agrees.
I share the view of my noble friend Lady Burt that polygraph testing, on the present state of technology, has no place in our criminal justice system.
Along with Nicole Jacobs, the commissioner-designate, the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, and Dame Vera Baird, the Victims’ Commissioner, my noble friend Lady Burt and others, I favour making non-fatal strangulation a specific offence. This horrible form of violence is appallingly common and devastating in its physical and psychological effects. Yet because the injuries are difficult to prove, prosecutions, where they happen, are often for common assault, or ABH at most, demonstrably understating the severity of the violence involved.
In 2015, when we criminalised revenge porn, many of us argued, as the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, said, that threatening to share intimate images without consent should also be an offence. We did not succeed then, but the dreadful effect on the psyche of victims, often very young, threatened with such exposure, should now persuade the Government to follow Scotland’s lead in criminalising such threats. These new offences could sit comfortably in Part 6 of the Bill, dealing with offences of violent or abusive behaviour.
Finally, we welcome categorising controlling or coercive behaviour as domestic abuse. However, confining abuse to cases where abuser and abused are personally connected, as defined, is a mistake. In March we debated coercive control in psychotherapy and cases where, through the process of transference, sometimes stimulating false memories, therapists had effectively replaced clients’ parents or families, alienating clients from them, often for years and sometimes for life. I favour broadening the definition of “personal connection” to cover this and other relevant relationships.
My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. We are discussing a very good Bill, most effectively introduced by the Minister. It has excellent features—for instance, the commissioner and protection orders. I also commend Clause 50, which gives powers to the family judge under Section 8 of the Children Act 1989. I recognise that, as the Minister said, excellence can be the enemy of the good, but good Bills can none the less usefully be improved, and this is one of them.
I want to highlight several issues. As we all know, domestic abuse is found across all society and in many different situations. Those in a forced marriage often suffer domestic abuse and are clearly within the existing definitions in the Bill, but it is essential to flag up the existence of this group of victims.
The word “domestic”, however, should not be interpreted as meaning solely spouses or partners but should include the wider family and those living within a family. I am delighted to see that “personally connected” in Clause 2 includes relatives, but it should also include guardians. Other groups, too, suffer abuse in a domestic setting. A senior police officer recently reminded me of victims of modern slavery who are in domestic servitude and subject to domestic abuse by the family in which they work and with whom they live. He had come across several such cases, but they are not related to the family and do not, at the moment, come within Clause 2, although they should.
There is a particular problem for women brought from abroad to marry in this country by a ceremony of marriage that is not registered and consequently is not, in English law, lawful. Such women are in a parlous state when they flee their husband. Their immigration status is, at best, uncertain. They may not obtain the protection of a DV rule and have no recourse to public funds. This is a serious injustice.
I am delighted by Clause 3 and the inclusion of children. I remember, as a family judge, hearing the saddest stories, one of which concerned two children sitting in the living room with the TV at full blast so that they could not hear their father hitting their mother in the kitchen. There are, however, other men who live in a household and abuse the women with whom they live. Very often there are children in the family unrelated to these men, as women have multiple, successive partners. Such a situation does not appear to be covered by Clause 3, but abuse takes place to the detriment of this group of children and the clause needs to include them.
It is essential that the domestic abuse commissioner is able to act independently of government. There is a need to have refuges for men who are victims of abuse; there are not sufficient. There also need to be suitable refuges for those fleeing forced marriages, particularly those under 18. As the AHRC points out in its excellent briefing, the proposed statutory duty on local authorities to provide accommodation-based domestic abuse services is too narrow and should include community services. As, indeed, the domestic abuse commissioner has advised that a review by her is not necessary, it is important that sufficient funding is given to local authorities for these services, otherwise other important services suffer.
The Government are to be congratulated on introducing the Bill and I hope that they will be open to listening to how it can be improved.