Debates between Baroness Bertin and Lord Wolfson of Tredegar during the 2019-2024 Parliament

Wed 10th Mar 2021
Mon 8th Feb 2021
Domestic Abuse Bill
Lords Chamber

Committee stage:Committee: 5th sitting (Hansard) & Committee: 5th sitting (Hansard) & Committee: 5th sitting (Hansard): House of Lords

Non-fatal Strangulation and Suffocation

Debate between Baroness Bertin and Lord Wolfson of Tredegar
Thursday 8th July 2021

(3 years ago)

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Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Portrait Lord Wolfson of Tredegar (Con)
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My Lords, I agree that an awareness campaign is important. Of course, having the offence itself will raise awareness. Perhaps I may make a topical point. We know that domestic abuse goes up when there are big football matches and, while we all want England to win, we must remember those for whom “It’s coming home” is a threat often accompanied by alcohol and violence.

Baroness Bertin Portrait Baroness Bertin (Con) [V]
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My Lords, I am always shocked that many police forces still do not have specialist domestic abuse units. Does my noble friend the Minister agree that now we have offences such as non-fatal strangulation, the provision of those units and specialist training for front-line officers are even more crucial? What steps are the Government taking to ascertain the proportion of domestic abuse cases that are dealt with by specialist teams, in order to improve the situation?

Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Portrait Lord Wolfson of Tredegar (Con)
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My noble friend is absolutely right. We need important work by the police in this area. The College of Policing has issued guidance to all its forces to ensure that domestic abuse receives proper priority, and 29 forces have received that training as of June 2021. A recent evaluation showed a 41% increase in arrests for controlling or coercive behaviour.

Child Trust Funds: People with a Learning Disability

Debate between Baroness Bertin and Lord Wolfson of Tredegar
Tuesday 22nd June 2021

(3 years ago)

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Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Portrait Lord Wolfson of Tredegar (Con)
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The noble Lord puts his finger on a problem: the Law Commission in 1995 highlighted the need for a small payments procedure, but that was not picked up in Parliament in the Mental Capacity Act 2005. Here we are in 2021, trying to resolve a long-standing legal issue. We need to amend the legislation—otherwise, the Mental Capacity Act is a legal block to people’s ability to obtain funds.

Baroness Bertin Portrait Baroness Bertin (Con) [V]
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Could my noble friend the Minister help us to understand how many individuals with cognitive impairments could be supported to grant power of attorney to their parents or carers to manage these moneys in the interim? Can we also have reassurance that never again will policies such as this be introduced without any consideration whatever being given to how they might impact those with learning disabilities?

Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Portrait Lord Wolfson of Tredegar (Con)
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My Lords, I will pick up the noble Baroness’s second point first. As the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, explained on a previous occasion, regrettably, no thought was given when these funds were set up to people who could not access them because of mental incapacity. That is why we are having to deal with the point now. We do encourage people to make lasting powers of attorney, for example. The important fact is that we want to encourage young adults and their parents to be aware in advance of the legal position that the young adult will be in when they turn 18; it is a fundamentally different position from the one they were in the day before their 18th birthday.

End-to-end Rape Review

Debate between Baroness Bertin and Lord Wolfson of Tredegar
Tuesday 22nd June 2021

(3 years ago)

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Baroness Bertin Portrait Baroness Bertin (Con) [V]
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My Lords, there is much to support in this review. I am pleased that the Government have been so candid in their assessment of what is a totally unacceptable situation, but I do not doubt their commitment to trying to rectify it.

It is particularly encouraging to see that the report is committed to implementing an offender-centred police process. Putting victims and their character at the centre of the investigation, rather than the suspect and his behaviour, is one of the biggest reasons why so many cases fall down and have “NFA” stamped on them. We have to try to change the culture of questioning the victim’s behaviour and focus instead on perpetrators and why they are doing this. In my view, this approach should always have been the norm. Will the Minister commit the Government to a further funding stream and ensure that this approach is rolled out across forces as quickly as possible?

Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Portrait Lord Wolfson of Tredegar (Con)
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My Lords, on funding, we have invested record amounts in support for victims in the last 18 months. We spent more than £70 million on rape and domestic abuse services in the financial year 2020-21, and £27 million on the expansion of the independent sexual violence adviser service—ISVA —which I mentioned earlier. The data is extraordinary, showing that a victim is 49% more likely to stay engaged with the process and see their complaint through to its conclusion if they have that support. That is why we will be consulting on a statutory underpinning for the ISVA role.

My noble friend used the phrase—if I have taken a correct note—“totally unacceptable” to describe the current position. I do not dissent from that. I also agree with her, as I said earlier, that we need to have more focus on investigating the perpetrator and less on investigating the victim.

Domestic Abuse Bill

Debate between Baroness Bertin and Lord Wolfson of Tredegar
Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Portrait Lord Wolfson of Tredegar (Con)
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My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend Lady Bertin for her continued engagement on the issue of the confidentiality of refuge addresses. I take this opportunity to thank refuge providers and others in the sector who took time out of their very busy diaries to meet me on this issue: we had a very useful discussion.

As with many issues with the Bill, it seems to me that we all agree on the issues of principle. Refuges are places of safety. They play a vital role in effectively responding to domestic abuse, and in supporting victims and their children. Therefore, I am in complete agreement with the principle underlying my noble friend’s amendment, that those in refuges must be protected. As such, it is right that the Government and those involved in family proceedings carefully consider both whether existing measures offer enough protection and whether there are further steps that could be taken better to protect domestic abuse victims living in refuge accommodation.

In Committee, I outlined that those engaged in family proceedings are not required to disclose their address, or that of their children, unless specifically directed to do so by the court. Where such a disclosure direction is made, addresses are disclosed to the court only, and it is for the court to determine whether information it holds should be disclosed further. Where there are known allegations of domestic abuse, the court should hold this information as confidential. I reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, that the formulation I used in Committee was certainly intended to indicate agreement.

Turning to the service of orders at refuge addresses, I again thank those from the refuge sector with whom I discussed this issue and their experience of it. They gave some valuable evidence, and we heard some more this evening from the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin. As I indicated in Committee, existing measures, particularly Part 6 of the Family Procedure Rules, enable the court to direct bespoke service arrangements, and orders can be served at alternative addresses, such as the refuge office address. This approach should be taken wherever possible.

I noted the way that the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, put it: service on a refuge should be avoided. However, as I said on the last group, the real question is the welfare of the child, which is of paramount consideration in family proceedings. I remain of the view that there can be limited circumstances where the court may need to serve an order on a party at the refuge they are staying in because not doing so would pose risks to the safety of children involved in family proceedings.

One can envisage such cases, and I would not wish to limit the court’s ability to act quickly in those circumstances to safeguard a child, which might occur were we to place a blanket or inflexible restriction on addresses at which an order can be served. However, I would expect family proceedings where an order needs to be served at a residential refuge address to be very few and far between. Although the question must ultimately be a matter for the judiciary and not for the Government Front Bench, one would expect that a refuge address would be used only when there is no other viable alternative in the circumstances.

I have indicated that existing measures enable protection for victims in refuges. However, I am persuaded that there is a legitimate question of whether those measures could be strengthened to ensure that victims are better protected, that addresses are not disclosed to perpetrators, and that service of orders at refuge addresses is directed only when absolutely necessary. While I am clear that primary legislation, and therefore this amendment, is not the appropriate response here, there are other routes to explore, as I have discussed with my noble friend since Committee.

This issue has been discussed between Ministers and the President of the Family Division in recent bilateral meetings. I assure my noble friend that the judiciary is taking seriously the concerns raised. I appreciate, in this context, that the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, wanted some reassurance from the Government; I hope I am giving it to him. The Whips may not agree, but one of the benefits of making slightly slower progress on Monday than we intended is that I can now say that this matter was discussed at the meeting of the Family Procedure Rule Committee on Monday, which was a couple of days ago. The committee agreed to work on this issue and will be giving it detailed consideration in the coming weeks and months.

The Government are committed to protecting vulnerable victims of domestic abuse from further harm by their abuser. I am confident that this issue is being properly and carefully considered by members of the senior judiciary and by the Family Procedure Rule Committee. I have full sympathy with the motivation behind this amendment. I understand why my noble friend has maintained this, and why the noble Lord, Lord Marks, had considerable sympathy with it on the confidentiality point, although I note that he did not engage with the lack of any exception to the proposition set out in subsection (3) of the proposed new clause—that is, service on a refuge address.

I have used my response to set out what the Government are doing and the steps being taken. I hope that, having provided that assurance to my noble friend, she will now be content to withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Bertin Portrait Baroness Bertin (Con) [V]
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I thank noble Lords for their valuable contributions to this short but very important debate. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, for her support and for putting her name to the amendment, and likewise to the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, for her kind words. It was powerful to hear that the noble Lord, Lord Marks, with all his deep knowledge of the law on these issues, and the noble Lord Ponsonby, agreed with the amendment. I felt it was important to hear them say that, and I thank them for it.

I am of course disappointed that my noble friend the Minister does not see that there is a need to put this into the Bill. I will never accept that there is justification for revealing the location of a refuge, but I have really appreciated the time that he has given to this issue. I can tell that he cares; he obviously has a concern about this issue and is committed to trying to deal with it. I absolutely accept that his response has gone further than that in Committee, so I will bank that progress and am grateful for it. We have indeed spoken at length about other routes to explore, and I will certainly be keeping in touch with him on this. I also want to pursue greater transparency.

I was very reassured—as my noble friend said, the timing has been fortunate—that the issue has already been discussed with the President of the Family Division on the back of the amendment. I do not doubt the judiciary’s willingness to tackle this and to take these accounts seriously. We will certainly keep a close eye on this and the progress that it makes. With that in mind, I will withdraw the amendment.

Domestic Abuse Bill

Debate between Baroness Bertin and Lord Wolfson of Tredegar
Committee stage & Committee: 5th sitting (Hansard) & Committee: 5th sitting (Hansard): House of Lords
Monday 8th February 2021

(3 years, 5 months ago)

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Read Full debate Domestic Abuse Bill 2019-21 View all Domestic Abuse Bill 2019-21 Debates Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts Amendment Paper: HL Bill 124-VI(Rev) Revised sixth marshalled list for Committee - (8 Feb 2021)
Baroness Bertin Portrait Baroness Bertin (Con) [V]
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My Lords, I support Amendment 161 and thank the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, for tabling it and for being so tenacious. It is an honour to speak after the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London. We cannot on the one hand spend years putting together a great Bill like this that says to victims, “We hear you; we are there for you; we want to help you escape”, and on the other hand stand by and allow those same victims to be potentially charged £150—an extortionate amount for many people—for proof of that abuse.

Domestic abuse does not discriminate. You can be a victim of abuse whether you are rich or poor. Unfortunately, while this fee remains, it does and will discriminate against poorer victims. Many of them will go without legal representation, many will return to an abuser and many will be seriously injured or worse as a result of being unable to access the legal remedies that are supposed to keep them safe. I know that the Department of Health has a fair amount on its plate right now, but it should endorse this small change to the Bill. It could have an immeasurable impact on people’s lives when they are at their most vulnerable.

Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Portrait Lord Wolfson of Tredegar (Con)
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My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, for raising this matter—I am tempted to say “again”, but of course I should really say “again and again”. The list of engagements which he set out was impressive, and I fear I may not be able to provide satisfaction to the noble Lord where so many of my illustrious forebears have already failed. If I can put it this way: what he has said this evening has only increased my resolve to try to sort out this issue, not only because it is plainly an important matter to be addressed, as so many have said, but because it means that I will escape the horrid fate of being added to the noble Lord’s list.

The Government, as will be clear from what has been said by my forebears and what I have just said, wholeheartedly agree that vulnerable patients should not be charged by doctors for evidence to support them in accessing legal aid. That being the case, we are sympathetic to the spirit of this amendment. The issue requires further consideration ahead of Report for the reasons I will briefly set out. While I cannot commend this amendment to the Committee today, I will be looking at it in detail between now and Report. I should also take the opportunity to point out a couple of technical issues with the amendment, which I hope will also be helpful.

I am pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, was able to meet with the Minister for Prevention, Public Health and Primary Care and representatives from the British Medical Association ahead of today’s debate to discuss the issue. I think it fair to say that everyone who attended this meeting was seized fully both of the issue and of its importance. As the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, said, we do not want to do anything to prevent or discourage victims of domestic abuse coming forward, and that includes questions of cost. That said, it is fair to say that there was some anecdotal evidence at the meeting which pointed to this perhaps being a diminishing problem, particularly since, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London reminded us, the BMA issued advice to its members last year that they should not charge for this service, advice which they recently reinforced.

Following that meeting, the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, graciously undertook to provide what evidence he had of this being a continuing issue so that we could consider the matter further. We look forward to receiving that evidence and continuing our discussions. However, as matters stand this evening, we remain to be persuaded that this issue needs to be resolved through primary legislation.

The position is that GPs can provide services in addition to NHS contracted services. They are classified as private services, for which they have the discretion to charge the patient. Letters of evidence to access legal aid is one such private service. It is therefore up to an individual GP practice to decide whether a charge should be levied and, if so, what it should be. However, as I indicated, as part of the 2020-21 contract agreement, the BMA recommended to all GPs that a charge should not be levied for letters of this kind. That is a welcome recognition by the BMA that, as was said, vulnerable patients with limited means should not be expected to pay for such letters. We recognise and commend the vast majority of GPs who are following that guidance, but it is a non-binding recommendation. As the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, mentioned, we are informed of anecdotal examples where patients can be charged up to as much as £150 for that evidence.

As I said, I should make a couple of observations about the drafting of the amendment, although I recognise that these can be readily addressed in a further iteration of it. First, as currently drafted, the amendment refers to

“providing a letter … for the purposes of regulation 33(2)(h) of the Civil Legal Aid (Procedure) Regulations.”

That regulation was amended by later civil legal aid procedure regulations in 2017, so there is now no such regulation as presently referred to in the amendment. That is something that could be addressed in further drafting, and I respectfully suggest that it is.

Secondly, the amendment relies on the definition of a “general medical services contract” in Section 84 of the National Health Service Act 2006, which applies to England only. I assume that that is the case because, as the noble Lord is aware, the health service is a devolved matter in Wales and therefore this issue is a matter for the Welsh Government. I thought that it was worth making that point clear as well.

I return to the main point, on which, if I may respectfully say so, we have heard a number of very cogent speeches. I have not yet mentioned the contribution of my noble friend Lady Bertin, which was equally forceful. The Government remain committed to exploring options around this issue with the medical profession to ensure that vulnerable patients are not charged, and I would welcome the noble Lord’s continued help in this regard. In particular, once he has been able to provide what evidence he has of GPs continuing to charge victims of domestic abuse for these letters, we will be happy to have further meetings with him ahead of Report.

I hope that in the meantime he will feel able to withdraw his amendment, but he can rest assured that I have it ringing in my ears that I will face a similar amendment on Report if we cannot satisfactorily resolve the matter before that stage. I commit to working with him and to doing all I can to reach that satisfactory conclusion.