We come now to Mike Amesbury, but he has not been here for the debate, so theoretically we should not call him. On this occasion, as we have some time in hand and he probably has perfectly good reasons for not being here, we will call him towards the end of the debate. That brings us to Liz Twist.
Thank you for calling me in this important debate, Mr Gray. It is always a pleasure and a privilege to serve under your chairmanship. I thank the Petitions Committee and the hon. Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) for the way in which he initiated the debate. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) for all the excellent work he has done, over a number of years, in promoting the Freedom From Fear campaign. I also want to give a shout-out to USDAW, the GMB and the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union, who have been very much involved in speaking up for their members who face assaults and in the campaign to end abuse and violence towards retail staff.
Whether it is clapping for NHS staff or thanking our key workers, such gestures are worthless if not substantiated with meaningful change by this House. I look to the Minister here. Time and again the Government sympathise with but ignore workers facing cuts to their pay and terms and conditions. I am thinking of businesses, many that have received substantial sums in taxpayer-funded support, using fire and rehire tactics as a form of industrial blackmail. Unless the Government act, they are failing our retail workers because, sadly, workplace abuse and violence have been normalised and are now accepted as part of the job.
My hon. Friends the Members for Ogmore (Chris Elmore), for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) and for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) and others have referred to the USDAW survey, so I will not repeat that, but the British Retail Consortium revealed that there were 455 incidents of abuse and violence every day in the year to March 2020. Indeed, covid has not improved the situation, with the enforcement of Government covid regulations being a major trigger alongside the more traditional confrontation points, such as challenging customers over ID for age-restricted products like alcohol, or encountering shoplifters. Clearly, the Government have placed additional responsibilities on retail workers. Failing to ID customers for age-restricted products can lead to a criminal conviction for a retail worker, a fine, or even being sacked.
Clearly, challenging people can lead to threats of violence. Where the Government place extra demands on retail workers, it is surely reasonable for those workers to expect that when they are placed in harm’s way they are provided with greater protection under the law.
I want to refer to a survey by the Home Affairs Committee, in which 42% of respondents said,
“More or improved security measures in/around the premises”
“prevent future incidents…from occurring”.
I hope the Minister has noted that. People working in convenience stores are particularly vulnerable, potentially being a lone worker or working in a small team of young staff. The Association of Convenience Stores estimated that there were 50,000 incidents of violence in the sector, a quarter of which resulted in injury.
I want to make some promises to our key workers and our frontline shopworkers: people such as Loraine Fox from the GMB who works at the Peterlee Asda in my constituency and Alan Kell and his colleagues in USDAW. I want to do more than clap on the doorstep for key workers. I will not say thank you and then vote against protecting workers in Parliament. I say to the Minister: you have a choice. Will the Government introduce legislation to protect retail workers, or will they ignore the epidemic of abuse and violence in our retail sector? Will the Minister sit on his hands and leave shopworkers unprotected in the workplace?
I agree that there is an issue with the number of prosecutions. I will come to that in just a few moments’ time. I will address that point—I am not trying to duck it, because I am coming to it next.
Points have been made about knives and people producing a bladed article in a shop. Again, if somebody makes a threat with a knife, it is not charged as common assault and it would not be charged under the new offence in Scotland. It would be charged as making a threat with a bladed article, which carries a four-year maximum sentence and, for adults, a six-month minimum sentence. All of these offences exist, and many of them carry higher sentences than the new Scottish law, and higher sentences than common assault.
That does not, however, answer the question that many Members have raised. They have made the point that attacks on retail workers are different, because the retail worker is providing a service to the public. In some cases, the retail worker is effectively enforcing the law on our behalf—for example, by asking questions about whether somebody is over the age of 18 when buying cigarettes, alcohol and similar. Many Members have made the point that retail workers are different and that for that reason the offence should be taken more seriously. Members are right to say that.
In responding to that reasonable and legitimate question, I point colleagues to the Sentencing Council guidelines for common assault, which, as it happens, were refreshed and updated just last week—I think the updated version came out on Thursday of last week. The section on common assault also covers racially and religiously aggravated assault and the common assault of an emergency worker. One of the listed aggravating factors for common assault, which would lead to a sentence going up relative to what would otherwise be the case, is an
“Offence committed against those working in the public sector—”
“or providing a service to the public or against a person coming to the assistance of an emergency worker.”
The Sentencing Council guidelines, refreshed just last week, expressly recognise that those people providing a service to the public, including retail workers, are doing a different kind of job, and that somebody who assaults them deserves a higher sentence. That is what aggravating factor means.
That applies not only to the common assault offence; it is also to be found in the list of aggravating factors for actual bodily harm, grievous bodily harm and so on. That list of aggravating factors is not long; it is about 15 bullet points. Those concerns are recognised, as is deliberately spitting or coughing. Some Members mentioned that, during the pandemic, people have spat at or coughed on retail workers in a deliberate attempt to give them covid, to threaten to give them covid or to give them the impression that they might be at risk of covid. “Deliberate spitting or coughing” is the very first non-statutory aggravating factor on the list, so again, that is accounted for.
It is worth saying that these aggravating factors do not apply only to retail workers but to any public sector worker, quite rightly, and to other people providing a public service, including transport workers. The debate has focused on retail workers, who are special and deserve protection and who suffer terrible abuse, as everyone has said, but we should not forget people who work on buses, trains or the London underground, or postmen, teachers or social workers. I would not like to say that they should be overlooked if they are assaulted as they go about their work. They are just as important as retail workers. The Sentencing Council aggravating factor sets out that people who assault retail workers, teachers, postmen and people working on trains and so on will get a heavier sentence.
I will now come to that critical point, which the shadow Minister also raised. I hope I have demonstrated in my foregoing remarks that, first, the criminal offences to prosecute assaults on emergency workers are already on the statute book, and secondly, that where prosecutions are secured, a longer sentence will already be given owing to the aggravating factors I have just read out. Creating a new offence does not answer the question, because the offence exists already. The aggravating factor exists already. The issue is prosecutions, as the shadow Minister and the hon. Lady have raised.
I have some data. I am not sure whether it came from the USDAW survey or another source. I got it through the Home Affairs Committee’s survey. I am not sure whether that is the same one or a different one.
As I laid out in the first half of my comments, the laws exist already. The law criminalises every example of the behaviour—terrible behaviour—that Members have laid out this afternoon. They are criminal offences already, each and every single one. Most of them, including the two examples given by the shadow Minister, would not be prosecuted under the new Scottish law; they would be prosecuted as more serious assaults. The criminal offences exist and they are, in the Sentencing Council guidelines, already aggravated where the victim is a retail worker or, indeed, a transport worker. In any case, if we passed a measure focusing only on retail workers, it would obviously neglect train and bus drivers and everyone else. However, they are already covered by those aggravating factors.
What is clearly needed is not to criminalise the behaviour; it is criminal already. It is not to elevate the penalty given to those people who are convicted; it is elevated already. What we need to do is to get more convictions, and that starts with reporting. That is the work that the national retail crime steering group is doing. I have participated in this debate from the Ministry of Justice point of view, while the steering group and policing sit with my hon. Friend the Policing Minister, so I will take away a clear message for him and the national retail crime steering group: these terrible offences, which have an enormous impact on retail workers, need to have a significantly elevated focus, in terms of getting more reporting, as we have just talked about, and making sure the police follow them up in every case. The Government obviously agree that these are serious offences and that they need to be investigated and prosecuted. I can give a firm undertaking to hon. Members that I will take that message back to the Policing Minister.
The police can only respond to and investigate crimes that are reported, so any investigation starts with the report by the victim or, in this case, the employer. We heard evidence in the survey report that many victims do not report the crime because they think that their employer will not support them. Clearly, we need to ensure we are actively encouraging reporting and that it is then actively followed up and investigated.
That is the message I will take away from this debate and give clearly to the Policing Minister. I undertake that I will ensure that that message is heard by him and by the steering group, so that steps can be taken to make sure that more of these offences are reported and prosecuted. That is how we can ensure that justice is done and victims protected.
My hon. Friend is right that that can be a devastating form of abuse for victims of domestic abuse. We are very much listening to debates in the other place about the terrible factors in that type of behaviour. I hope she knows that we have already asked the Law Commission to look into the many forms of malicious behaviour that can occur online. I know that the Law Commission is considering that and we are very much looking forward to receiving the outcome of that review to see what may be needed in future.
I hope the hon. Lady has seen not just the announcement of the codeword scheme today but the announcement encouraging employers to join the cause and to be better informed as to how they can help members of their workforce who may be suffering from domestic abuse. The Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), has written to many, many businesses today to set out how they can help. I see this as very much part of our overall efforts to ensure that people understand what domestic abuse is, the many forms it can take, and how it is everyone’s business.
I beg to move,
That the draft Terrorism Act 2000 (Proscribed Organisations) (Amendment) (No. 2) Order 2020, which was laid before this House on 13 July, be approved.
That confirmation from the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) is very welcome. Subject to the agreement of this House and the other place, the draft order will come into force on Friday 17 July 2020.
The threat we face from terrorism remains significant, but, as assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Service and national lead for counter-terrorism policing Neil Basu has said, right-wing terrorism is the fastest-growing terror threat in the United Kingdom. We can never entirely eliminate the threat from terrorism, but the Government are determined to do all we can to minimise the danger it poses and keep the public safe.
The nature of terrorism is constantly evolving. There are organisations that recruit, radicalise, promote and encourage terrorism, as well as those that actually commit terrible acts of violence against innocent people with the aim of undermining our democracy. Proscription is therefore an important part of the Government’s strategy to disrupt the full range of terrorist activities.
The group that we propose to add to the list of terrorist organisations, amending schedule 2 to the Terrorism Act 2000, is Feuerkrieg Division, or FKD. This is the 25th order under section 3(3)(a) of that Act. FKD is a white supremacist group whose ideology stands in direct contrast to the core values of our United Kingdom. Its actions, which seek to divide communities, stir up hatred and glorify violence, are reminders of the darkest times in Europe. Proscribing this group will prevent its membership from growing and help to stop the spread of propaganda that allows a culture of hatred and division to thrive. It will also help to prevent FKD from radicalising people who may be vulnerable to extreme ideologies and at risk of emulating the terrorist acts that they glorify.
Under section 3 of the Terrorism Act 2000, the Home Secretary has the power to proscribe an organisation if she believes that it is currently concerned with terrorism. If the statutory test is met, the Home Secretary will then exercise her discretion to proscribe the organisation. The Home Secretary takes into account a number of factors in considering whether to exercise this discretion. These include the nature and scale of an organisation’s activities and the need to support other members of the international community in tackling terrorism. The effect of proscription is to outlaw a listed organisation and ensure that it is unable to operate in the United Kingdom. It is a criminal offence for a person to belong to, support or arrange a meeting in support of a proscribed organisation, or to wear clothing or carry articles in public that arouse reasonable suspicion that they are a member or supporter of a proscribed organisation. Proscription acts to halt fundraising and recruitment while making it possible to seize cash associated with the organisation.
Given its wide-ranging impact, the Home Secretary exercises her power to proscribe only after thoroughly reviewing the available evidence on an organisation. This includes open-source material, intelligence material, and advice reflecting consultation across Government, including the intelligence and law enforcement agencies. The cross-Government Proscription Review Group supports the Home Secretary in her decision-making process.
I would like to start by saying this is a good Bill. I would particularly like to add my support to new clause 20, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Newbury (Laura Farris) and for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier) and to the Mother of the House, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), for their work on this. I would also like to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) for her work on new clause 15, which I think achieves a great deal of good.
I will briefly touch on new clauses 22, 25 and 26. I welcome the Government’s long-standing commitment to support all domestic abuse survivors, including migrants, and they should always be treated as victims, regardless of their immigration status. The introduction of the destitution domestic violence concession and the domestic violence indefinite leave to remain scheme in 2012 were important steps in supporting migrant women who are victims of domestic abuse. It is important to note that obtaining these visas means that those affected have set up their lives in the UK with the expectation of obtaining indefinite leave to remain here. Already, this concession permits them to receive welfare payments, support and safe accommodation, and the scheme enables them to apply for the indefinite leave to remain that they would have had had they not been victims of domestic abuse.
The concession and the scheme are not available to people who enter the country on other visas, such as visitor, student or work visas, or to those here illegally. As we have heard, this is because, to obtain such visas, they will have already confirmed that they are financially independent and therefore require no recourse to public funds and, as such, their stay will be for a defined time. They do not therefore have a legitimate expectation of securing indefinite leave to remain.
I welcome the fact that the Government have pledged £1.5 million towards a pilot later this year, which will be used to assess the level of need for migrant victims of domestic abuse and to inform decisions. I join my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) in hoping that this will identify the gaps in the current support available.
At this point, I was going to talk about amendments 40 to 43, but, as I understand from the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) that they will not be brought forward, I will not labour that point as time is short. None the less, I would like to put on the record how welcome are the appointment of Nicole Jacobs as the Domestic Abuse Commissioner and the establishment of her independent office, which rightly holds the Government to account to ensure that all areas are working better to protect victims. I have the utmost confidence that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will listen to her sage advice.
Abuse can come in myriad forms—not just physical control or coercion, but financial and mental. Having listened to my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), it is clear that we also have to consider the new forms that abuse can take as technology and society develop. I welcome the fact that the commissioner will be required to have specific focus on victims from minority groups, and I hope that she will include the LGBT+ community, who experience disproportionately high levels of domestic abuse and distinct barriers in accessing support.
Finally, I would like to thank the Ministers and Members from both sides of the House for all their work on this truly historic Bill, which puts the determination to protect victims and their families at the very heart of our law.
I thank the hon. Lady. I will deal first with the NHS and then move on to schools. I think there is agreement across the Committee that it is important to recognise the impact of domestic abuse on children and the trauma it can cause. The role of the NHS is to give the best care to address the immediate and continuing health needs of such children. It is a key principle that access to the NHS is based on clinical priority, so when patients move home and between hospitals, the NHS should take previous waiting times into account and ensure, wherever possible, that they are not disadvantaged as a result. A child’s need to access and receive health services will be assessed, and services will be provided according to clinical need, which will consider the individual needs of the child. We have to trust clinicians to take decisions about a patient’s treatment.
On schools, I agree with the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley that vulnerable children, including those who have been affected by domestic abuse, should be able to access a school place quickly, and that any gaps in their education must be kept to an absolute minimum. As I have said before, wherever possible, we want victims, survivors and their children to stay at home and the perpetrator to leave, but in some cases, sadly, that is not possible for their safety.
Before I explain the Government’s position on that, I will highlight an important distinction between seeking school places in the normal admissions round, such as the start of the school year, and doing so outside that process, which is called in-year admission. As we know, it is important that children who have experienced or witnessed domestic abuse are more likely to seek a school place outside the normal admissions round and to require the in-year process. During the review of children in need and the 2018 consultation on domestic abuse, we heard about the difficulties and delay that such children face in accessing new school places when moving into refuge after fleeing domestic abuse. Improving the in-year admission system is the most effective way to get vulnerable children back to school as quickly as possible.
The in-year application process varies between local authorities and can be particularly difficult to navigate for disadvantaged and vulnerable families, including those who have been victims of domestic abuse, because the school may already be full, and oversubscription criteria are unlikely to be helpful at that point. To ensure that this does not prevent children experiencing domestic abuse from accessing the school places they need, the Government have committed to make changes to the schools admissions code to improve the in-year admissions process. That will ensure that all vulnerable children can access a school place as quickly as possible.
That is not to say that the current system does not support the admission of our most disadvantaged children when they apply for a school place in year. Fair access protocols are in place to ensure that vulnerable children who need a school place outside the normal admissions round can secure one as quickly as possible, but we know from consultation that there is confusion about how fair access protocols should work, which means that sometimes they do not work as effectively as they should do. In some areas, fair access protocols are used as the default way to place every in-year applicant, rather than as a safety net for vulnerable and disadvantaged children.
I am pleased to state that we intend to consult on changes to the school admissions code to better support the in-year admission of vulnerable children, including those in refuge or safe accommodation. In practice, that means making changes to the provisions relating to the in-year admissions process and fair access protocols by introducing a dedicated section in the code that will set out a clear process for managing in-year admissions. We are also proposing to provide greater clarity in the code on fair access protocols, which will improve their effectiveness by making clear their purpose and what they should be used for, and by setting out a clear process by which they should operate.
We will also extend the categories of children who may be admitted via the fair access protocol, specifically to include children on a child in need or child protection plan and children in refuge and safe accommodation. That will ensure that those children are secured a school place quickly, keeping disruption to their education to an absolute minimum.
I understand that, but the problem is that we are now rubbing up against the fundamental principle of the NHS, which is that it is based on clinical need and priority. Clearly, if a child is in the most urgent clinical need, we would absolutely expect them to be at the front of the queue to receive help, but there will be different gradations depending on the condition, the length of the condition and the way in which it manifests. We have had to keep to the fundamental principle that that must be clinician-led, because we could not, with the best will in the world, hope to categorise exhaustively in the Bill the many ways, quite apart from domestic abuse, in which children may suffer or be ill
Very much so; that is the key principle on which the NHS operates. The hon. Lady will appreciate that I am neither a doctor nor a Health Minister. I take her point about waiting times, but once the clinicians have assessed the clinical need, they must surely be the ones to determine what sort of treatment the child receives, as well as when and where.
Again, that comes back to the principle that, wherever possible, we do not want victims and survivors to have to move and be put in that new place. The hon. Lady articulates very well one of the many ways in which it is incredibly traumatic for the survivor to have to leave the family home to flee to the other side of the country with the children. In some cases, the survivor has to do so because of the danger of the perpetrator, but where we can, let us try to keep her and her children at home, so that they do not have to put up with such concerns about things that are terribly important on a day-to-day basis, but sadly become another consequence of fleeing.
Part 4. I will take the hon. Lady through it carefully, so that she understands how we have cross-checking systems in this part, in addition to all the checks in the rest of the Bill, including the commissioner and local authorities.
The Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government will specify in regulations a description of “relevant accommodation”. That is intended to be a broad definition in recognition of the diversity of housing in which the victims of domestic abuse and their children may live, from refuges to dispersed housing units. That is one of the complexities that we have had to deal with during the covid-19 crisis.
Clearly, people at the beginning stage of fleeing their accommodation will be in a different state of mind, different physical states and a different state of trauma after receiving specialist support in safe accommodation and when looking to enter the next stage of their life. Therefore, that diversity of accommodation must be reflected in the regulations. That will help to ensure that victims get the right support in the right place for them, which includes refuge accommodation, specialist safe accommodation, dispersed units of accommodation, sanctuary schemes, and move-on or second-stage accommodation.
The duty will require each relevant local authority to give effect to its strategy in carrying out its functions. Before publishing the strategy, the local authority must consult the domestic abuse local partnership board established under clause 54. Looking at the membership of that board, the hon. Lady understandably expressed concerns such as whether we were collecting or aware of data from A&E departments, but we have set out that not just tier 2 local authorities should be represented on the board, if appropriate to the local area, but victims of domestic abuse, children of domestic abuse victims, voluntary organisations and charities that work with victims of domestic abuse, persons who have responsibilities in relation to healthcare services in the area, and policing and criminal justice representatives.
We have very much taken on board the requests in the consultation and elsewhere for a multi-agency approach to this problem. That is very much the direction of travel at national level. Through clause 54, we are insisting that it is the direction of travel at local level.
I am going to, but a little bit later in my speech, because I am concerned to ensure that everybody understands the purposes of this part. I sense that there may be a little bit of misunderstanding; I want to make sure we are all clear and will deal with that point later.
The duty will require consultation with the local partnership board—local partnership boards do not exist at the moment; they will be a really important factor in local areas—and will ensure that the local authority draws on the expertise of local domestic abuse services in its area. That provides for local accountability, requiring as it does the consultation.
The strategy that is created by the tier 1 local authority must be kept under review and any alterations, amendments or replacement must be published. That is in lockstep with everything else we are trying to do with the Bill, through the commissioner’s reports, the strategy plans and so on—making sure that this is transparent. At the moment, it will not be very easy in some areas to understand what the local strategy is. We want this section, with all the other parts of the Bill, to make that really clear.
The relevant local authorities have been picked as being tier 1 local authorities because of their larger geographical coverage, which is often coterminous with the footprint of other key partners such as police and crime commissioners, which supports planning of services. Providing support across a wider area will also help those victims who need to move further to stay safe. My own county of Lincolnshire is one of the largest counties in England and is an example of where a tier 1 local authority can help. Someone who lives in one corner of the county may be an hour and a half or two hours’ drive away from my constituency. They have that breadth of service provision and knowledge. That is how we have selected the authority, but we are also clear that tier 2 local authorities, where they exist, must play their part, which is precisely why we want them to be part of the partnership boards.
Of course, tier 1 authorities also have related responsibility in governance arrangements to draw on in leading this work, including their work on adult social care, health and wellbeing boards, community safety partnerships and children’s services.
In London in particular, tier 2 authorities will be critical to the success of this system, because they will have responsibility for housing and in some parts they commission domestic abuse services as well. We are putting the joined-up approach that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley and many others in the sector have been crying out for into the Bill in part 4 at local level.
I am delighted to hear that the Minister is certainly in listening mode. Having heard from the hon. Member for Blaydon that the Minister met with children’s charities on Friday, it is clear that she is in listening mode.
I would like to make the point that there is a lack in the role that local authorities should be playing under the Children Act, which I mentioned earlier. I led a council and was the children’s services lead at a time— 2010 onwards—when it got quite difficult. We were innovative and put children first. That was responded to by Ofsted, which awarded Westminster City Council the outstanding grade in children’s services. Again, last year, that was repeated—the first time any local authority had received an improved Ofsted outstanding grade. That was a brilliant example of how social workers and children’s services experts put the child at the forefront of all that they do.
Domestic abuse runs through so much, as we have heard today. Having launched the first ever domestic abuse strategy for Westminster back in 2012, I know that we put children at the heart of that.
At the risk of turning into a sketch from “The Two Ronnies”, I am told that we will be consulting Welsh Ministers on the precise point raised by the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd, so I am grateful for that.
In relation to the intervention from the hon. Member for Hove, it is not a question of conflict. I was trying to explain the journey of the Government’s drafting of the definition. I do not wish anyone to think that children have been forgotten or ignored in the course of drafting the Bill. I hope that the references to children that we have scattered through the Bill—clause 66 is a good example—show our thinking on that.
I do. I am going to complete the journey, because I suspect that where I end up will, I hope, answer some of those concerns. I take on board carefully the views of children’s charities.
We have made sure that the domestic abuse commissioner is required to recognise the impact on children in her statutory functions, which can be seen in clause 6. Of course, we also have local authorities. My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster set out the responsibility and the ways in which local authorities can help to deliver services on the ground. Indeed, I was most interested to hear about the domestic abuse strategy introduced by her council under her leadership. That is a very sensible point to be making and it is why, in part 4 of the Bill, where we put the responsibility on tier 1 local authorities to provide support to victims of domestic abuse in safe accommodation, we have expressly referred to victims and their children in that duty.
The need for statutory agencies to recognise and respond to the impact of domestic abuse on children is already embedded in the Bill. Councillor Simon Blackburn gave helpful evidence last week—he has experience as a former social worker, but also as the current leader of Blackpool Council and through his work in the Local Government Association—about the safeguarding legislation in respect of children and how, in some cases, although I accept not all, the safeguarding legislation will kick in.
I also remind colleagues that in clause 54—this has not necessarily come to light yet in the evidence, but I hope it will do so in due course—as part of that duty, tier 1 local authorities are required to set up local partnership boards for domestic abuse. One of the members of that board must represent the interests of children who are victims of domestic abuse.
The theme of children, and the impact on children, already runs throughout the Bill, but I take very seriously the concerns that members of the Committee have voiced and, indeed, the concerns of children’s charities and the witnesses we had last week. I am going to reflect carefully on this debate, and I invite the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley to withdraw her amendment.
Absolutely. For us, for the commissioner, given her own evidence, and for the sector—for everybody —independence is the single most important thing we wish to see in this role. That is not unreasonable, as my hon. Friend pointed out. Where there is contention—I do not think there is any perception of any contention whatever in the current appointment—it can be used to undermine any report that that person had written. Let us imagine that one of these bodies had to look into a political party and that political party was found wanting. It would be easy for politics to then play the game where we say, “Well, they’re just your pals. You’re giving jobs to the boys.” That undermines the fundamentals of what these bodies are doing. Independence in every part of the commissioner’s function is vital. It is to protect their work so there is absolutely no conflict of interest with the Victims’ Commissioner, the Children’s Commissioner and the domestic abuse commissioner.
My hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon makes an important point, and perhaps the Minister can answer this: who gets to decide if the commissioner should be sacked and should no longer be the commissioner? What grounds would they have to appeal that on? We all sit here with a weird employment status, in that we have no employment status. The people who employ me are the good people of Birmingham, Yardley, but they do not ever turn up to my 360-degree appraisals. No one is giving me the appraisal.
Let us say, for example, that there has to be an investigation by the commissioner into a report of practices by the Home Office regarding victims of domestic abuse, whether through its own policy on the matter or through other, adjoining policies, such as counter-terrorism or immigration. How can we make sure that the commissioner does not get sacked? If the Home Secretary were a Labour Home Secretary—I think this is a tool. With the recent stories, the Home Office has not necessarily been covering itself—
Q How do you see your role working with the Welsh Government advisers and the other commissioners—the Victims’ Commissioner and the Children’s Commissioner?
Nicole Jacobs: Again, if anything, covid has accelerated my picture of how I would do that. I speak to the Children’s Commissioner often, and to the Victims’ Commissioner several times a week. I speak to the Welsh national advisers usually once a week, but possibly once every two weeks. We have pretty close working relationships because there is such a lot of join-up about, in recent weeks, the response to covid, but, in general, the breadth of whatever is being implemented or thought about or should be happening. They are pretty close working relationships, and I will develop a memorandum of understanding with all those offices in due course.
Q As a former magistrate in domestic abuse courts, I have seen women suffer in court and have more trauma imposed on them. How do you feel about the new measures to prevent cross-examination in family courts and to ensure that we can get special measures? How important do you think they are?
Lucy Hadley: At Women’s Aid, we think they are absolutely essential measures, and we are so pleased that the ban on cross-examination is finally being brought forward in the Bill. For survivors who are being re-victimised and re-traumatised in the family courts, it is so important that the ban be in place. I think you heard earlier that we would like it to be strengthened and to apply to all cases where domestic abuse is alleged, not just where there is an evidence test for it. Unfortunately, many women who experience domestic abuse will never tell anyone about the abuse, so having a form of evidence is a challenge.
We would like the Bill to go much further on the family courts, and to deliver a safe family court system for survivors and their children. One of the experts by experience in the project I mentioned earlier told us that the family courts were “horrific, traumatic, psychological warfare”, and that the proceedings replicated the abuse of her relationship. That is what we hear time and again.
The family court estate can feel very unsafe for survivors. Sixty-one per cent. of survivors we surveyed in 2018 had no access to special protection measures at all in court. Those are really basic things like screens, separate entrances and exits, and waiting rooms, which are vital to keep them safe from the perpetrator while they go through family proceedings.
We would like to see the guarantee of special protection measures in the Bill extended from the criminal courts to the family and civil courts, because it is vital that women experience consistency across the different jurisdictions. Many women will never go to the criminal courts, but they will use the family courts, and it is important that they get the same treatment.
Finally, we would like a systemic change in the approach to safe child contact with a perpetrator of domestic abuse. There are really serious issues about the understanding of domestic abuse and coercive control by the family judiciary and professionals in the child contact system. Despite robust judicial guidance in the area—practice direction 12J—we continue to see a very strong presumption that parental involvement in a child’s life is in that child’s best interests, regardless, seemingly, sometimes, of any safeguarding concerns about domestic abuse. We would like to see an end to that assumption of contact in domestic abuse cases, with a focus on child contact arrangements that are always safe and in a child’s best interests.
Q Could you outline for us the role that the domestic abuse commissioner will have in helping the court service to understand domestic abuse?
Lucy Hadley: I think the domestic abuse commissioner’s appointment is really helpful right across the public sector. She has duties, and public bodies are required to respond to her recommendations in a range of different areas, from criminal justice to health, as are other Government Departments. That is really important.
However, we need to recognise that the domestic abuse commissioner’s remit is focused on driving up standards, improving practice and ensuring that we have consistent responses to survivors across the public sector. I absolutely think that the commissioner would be able to map special measures, for example, in court systems, or map different practices in different parts of the public sector. However, without the robust legal framework that the Bill could deliver for ensuring equal access and equal provision of measures such as those for special protection, or to ensure that migrant women with no recourse to public funds can routinely and consistently access support, it will be difficult for the commissioner to hold accountable the bodies that they need to. We need the law to be really clear on consistent access to protection and support for survivors; the domestic abuse commissioner can then hold public bodies accountable for that
Andrea Simon: The domestic abuse commissioner has said that having a cross-government framework is really important. We have had the VAWG strategy for some 10 years—a cross-departmental strategy focused on tackling and ending violence against women and girls. The responses of every part of Government need to be co-ordinated. That is very important for the domestic abuse commissioner’s work.
Q The reason I ask is that we want, of course, to make sure that this critical resource is doing what we expect. We hear evidence from you and we take it at face value, but do you agree that the commissioner can play a role in adding to public confidence that that public money is having the impact that we all wish it to have?
Ellie Butt: Absolutely. I am sure that she can and, at the same time, draw attention to what is not being done and where gaps are. You will have heard already that domestic abuse services are largely run on a shoestring. I would say this, but I think Refuge does brilliant work and lots of the organisations in the sector do brilliant work, but there is absolutely room for that to be scrutinised, for improvements to be made where they need to be made, and for gaps to be filled where they are not funded and there is unmet need.
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?
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?
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.
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.
Action is the key word—definitely. Some quick maths tells us that, in the 228 days since the call for evidence, 91,200 more workers have been assaulted. Will the Minister be clear and tell us when we will get the Government’s response? The Government claim that they are keen to apply tougher sentencing to criminal offences. There are plenty of upcoming opportunities to create the tougher, clearer sentences that retail workers, as well as the British Retail Consortium and the Co-op Group, are asking for. A serious violence Bill and an employment Bill were announced in the Queen’s Speech. As I mentioned, my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) introduced a Bill on this issue less than two years ago.
A Bill to protect retail workers by creating a new statutory offence of assaulting or abusing them has received cross-party support in Scotland. Does the Minister agree that English and Welsh retail workers are just as deserving of protection as their Scottish counterparts? If he does, will he commit to including measures in an upcoming Bill to protect people doing their jobs? I am sure there would be plenty of cross-party support for that. Additionally, will he ensure that he attends meetings of the national retail crime steering group, a vehicle he has cited as an opportunity for people to provide feedback, as a matter of course? Finally, will he assure us that he will take steps with his Department to prioritise this issue by including it in the strategic policing requirement?
We are in a unique situation: from the shop floor to senior executives, those working in the retail industry tell us with one voice that retail workers who interact with customers are being put in harm’s way. We need greater cultural change, and an end to the attitude among some that people who serve us in shops are fair game. They are spat on, racially and sexually abused, kicked and punched. They are threatened with knives, guns and dirty needles. Nobody should be treated in that way—especially not in their workplace. Those who would do retail workers harm need to hear a clear message that that is not acceptable, and that we value retail workers and the retail industry. I call on the Government to act.
The UK has a long and proud tradition of offering protection to vulnerable people who are fleeing war and persecution, and this Government take the welfare of vulnerable children extremely seriously. We support the principle of family unity wholeheartedly.
The hon. Lady will be more than aware of the work that we do to provide safe and legal routes for family reunion, and for vulnerable persons and children. She has heard me say that we are fully committed to supporting the most vulnerable children and the principle of family reunion. It is a fact that we are about to negotiate with the European Union. I set out the Government’s position clearly in communications and correspondence with the European Commission at the end of last year, and that is the route we will be pursuing.