Baroness Helic debates involving the Home Office during the 2019 Parliament

Wed 14th Jun 2023
Illegal Migration Bill
Lords Chamber

Committee stage: Part 1
Mon 12th Jun 2023
Illegal Migration Bill
Lords Chamber

Committee stage: Lords Handsard Part 1
Wed 7th Jun 2023
Illegal Migration Bill
Lords Chamber

Committee stage: Part 2
Mon 15th Mar 2021
Mon 8th Mar 2021
Domestic Abuse Bill
Lords Chamber

Report stage & Report stage & Lords Hansard
Mon 25th Jan 2021
Domestic Abuse Bill
Lords Chamber

Committee stage:Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard) & Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard) & Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard): House of Lords & Committee stage
Tue 5th Jan 2021
Domestic Abuse Bill
Lords Chamber

2nd reading (Hansard) & 2nd reading (Hansard) & 2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords & 2nd reading

UK: Violence Against Women and Girls

Baroness Helic Excerpts
Thursday 29th June 2023

(1 year ago)

Lords Chamber
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Baroness Helic Portrait Baroness Helic (Con)
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My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the speech of the noble Baroness, but how depressing to hear that this is the world in which girls and boys are being brought up. I really hope that we can do more and better to address these issues. I would like to focus on two areas: the situation of migrant victims of domestic abuse and the experience of survivors of domestic abuse in family courts.

We know that migration status is weaponised by abusers. Eleven years after signing and ratifying the Istanbul convention on preventing violence against women, we are still waiting for the Government to sign up to Article 59 of that convention—they have refused—which grants protection to survivors of domestic abuse or forced marriage whose residency status is dependent on their abuser.

Last year, in response to a Written Question, my noble friend Lady Williams, then a Home Office Minister, wrote that the reservation on Article 59 was

“pending the results and evaluation of the Support for Migrant Victims”

pilot scheme, and that the Government would decide what to do about supporting these very vulnerable survivors of abuse, and about the reservation, “as soon as possible” once it was concluded. The scheme, which was offered by the Government as the answer to all our concerns about support for migrant women while we debated the Domestic Abuse Bill, was originally due to be concluded last summer but has now been extended. Can my noble friend the Minister update us on when the Government intend to publish the evaluation of the first year of the scheme, and tell us what the timetable is for moving beyond that pilot to comprehensive support for migrant victims of domestic abuse and ratifying Article 59?

Turning to family courts, I thank my noble and learned friend Lord Bellamy, who wrote to me last month with an update on the implementation of the Ministry of Justice’s 2020 expert panel report, Assessing Risk of Harm to Children and Parents in Private Law Children Cases. He highlighted the success of the integrated domestic abuse court pilot scheme, which shows that a more humane and efficient court system is possible. I urge the Government to roll this model out across the country. When that happens, it will be important to ensure that it receives the funding and institutional backing necessary, so that it can continue to be a success.

In the meantime, anecdotal evidence suggests that women continue to have their children taken away from them on the basis of so-called expert opinion, given by unregulated witnesses who would not be allowed to make formal diagnoses in any other setting. It would be helpful if the Government could publish data on how many children are removed from parental care by the family courts in private law proceedings and in how many of these cases domestic abuse has been experienced by a parent and parental alienation has been alleged by the abusive parent.

Greater transparency over judicial training on domestic abuse is crucial. Without clear information on what training is provided and who is providing it, we are not able to scrutinise the basis on which judges are making decisions. During the passage of the Domestic Abuse Act the then Minister, my noble friend Lord Wolfson, assured me that he would continue to raise this in his meetings with the senior judiciary. Can the Minister tell the House today if judiciary training on domestic abuse remains on the agenda for ministerial meetings with the senior judiciary? I respect the impartiality principle of the judiciary’s independence, but perhaps Ministers could encourage the Judicial College to be more open about what training is being provided.

Finally, I am concerned about a Ministry of Justice consultation on making mediation mandatory in domestic abuse cases. This gives the abuser a platform from which to continue their abuse. I strongly urge the Government to preserve the existing exemption from mandatory mediation for survivors of domestic abuse.

There are many who are stepping up to deal with—

Lord Davies of Gower Portrait Lord Davies of Gower (Con)
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Can the noble Baroness wind up her speech, please?

Baroness Helic Portrait Baroness Helic (Con)
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Given the organisations which are stepping up to address this issue, would it not be better if we could resolve it at the source and protect survivors, while preventing inappropriate child removals?

Illegal Migration Bill

Baroness Helic Excerpts
Lord Hannay of Chiswick Portrait Lord Hannay of Chiswick (CB)
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My Lords, I support Amendments 128B, 128C and 131, which all deal with an issue which is crucial to any overall approach by this country to remake its broken asylum policy. Without that, you do not have an overall approach; you just have a piece-by-piece approach. All that was spelled out during the debate tabled by the most reverend Primate in December last year, and many Members of the House spoke in support of these safe and legal routes as one part of an overall solution. That is what I am doing today by supporting these amendments. At the time, the Minister who replied to that debate did not respond on the point of safe and legal routes, nor did the Government respond in the legislation we are discussing today, which they tabled quite soon after that debate. That was a pity: it was an opportunity missed.

Now, in the course of the proceedings in another place, the Government have put in the Bill some language about safe and legal routes. I welcome that—it is a shift of policy, as the noble Lord, Lord Kirkhope, said, back to policy which we practised before 2011—but I am sorry to say that the drafting currently in the Bill is really quite inadequate, not only because of the cap, which is arbitrary and is liable to frustrate the objective being pursued, but because actually there is no obligation on the Government, if the Bill passes in its current form, with some reference to safe and legal routes, to arrive at the implementation of such safe and legal routes. Amendments 128B, 128C and 131 are all aimed to arrive at that point: where there is an obligation on the Government. The Bill imposes a lot of obligations on the Government, many of which I and others in this House have said are contrary to our international obligations. This would be in total conformity to our international obligations, and I therefore argue that it needs to be mandatory now, not awaiting some mythical moment when the last boat has been stopped. That is not going to work; it is simply not going to happen. The wording in the Bill at the moment leaves enormous opportunities for a Government who do not wish to proceed to give effect to safe and legal routes to escape. That is why I support the amendments.

I hope that the Minister will finally lay to rest the argument that the UNHCR can do all this on our behalf. As the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, has said—and others have said—reading out the text that the UNHCR has issued, that is simply not the case. I hope also that the Minister will feel able on this occasion to answer the question that has been put so many times and which I now put again: what safe and legal route exists for an Iranian woman fleeing for her life from the persecution of an extremely unpleasant regime that has hanged quite a lot of people and persecuted many others? What safe and legal route does this Iranian woman have to apply for asylum in this country? I believe myself that the answer is a very short, one-word answer: none. I would like to hear from the Minister whether he disagrees with that. If he does disagree, I would be delighted. Perhaps he would then, on the public record, show us what such a woman could do to achieve a safe and legal application, which is what she deserves.

My final point is that this all fits with our relationship with the other countries of Europe, which are also struggling to shape their migration policy to make it more apt for the circumstances of today. They are at the point of agreeing a new set of migration policies. Everyone who has looked at this—and I think the Home Office believes this too, because that is why the Interior Minister of France is in this country today, talking to the Home Secretary—acknowledges that the only way that we are going to get to grips with this is if we are able to work together right across the board. Whether it is on prevention, police work, intelligence or handling the scale of the problem, we need to work together with other European countries. That is, after all, where all these asylum seekers come from when they come illegally and where some of them would come from if we made it possible for them to come legally. At the heart of getting an effective policy is the need to have one where we can work 100% hand-in-hand with the other European countries. I hope that the Minister, when he replies to this really rather crucial set of amendments, can give us a full-scale response to these wider issues. I am sorry if it is thought at some stage that some parts of this debate have been repetitious. This is not repetitious; it is necessary.

Baroness Helic Portrait Baroness Helic (Con)
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My Lords, I am pleased to support Amendment 128C in the names of my noble friends Lady Stroud, Lord Kirkhope and Lady Mobarik. The very first clause of the Bill states that its purpose is to,

“prevent and deter unlawful migration, and in particular migration by unsafe and illegal routes”.

This amendment seeks to support that aim by requiring the Secretary of State to set out additional safe and legal routes in keeping with the Prime Minister’s ambition, as stated in the House of Commons last December, to “create more” safe and legal routes. The amendment leaves significant discretion for the Secretary of State to determine the size and scope of these routes, and I hope that the Government will recognise that. It complements the existing clauses of the Bill that require the Secretary of State to report on what routes exist. I believe it is entirely in line with the Government’s own aims and ambitions for this Bill.

In particular, the amendment addresses one of the key pressures that drives unsafe and illegal migration: the fact that, for the vast majority of refugees and asylum seekers, there are no routes deemed safe and legal by the Government. As it stands, there are routes, as others have said, for Ukrainians, for the British nationals (overseas) from Hong Kong, for select Afghans, and for a few—a very few—under UNHCR resettlement, though there is no guarantee of being sent to the United Kingdom under resettlement. For many people in desperate circumstances, there is simply no safe and legal route available for claiming asylum in the United Kingdom; yet there will always be people forced from their homes who want to seek safety—and, in particular, safety in the United Kingdom, perhaps because of family or historical ties, or perhaps because of their admiration for this country, something that we ought to be proud of. We should also recognise our obligation under the refugee convention to allow people to claim asylum in the United Kingdom. The question is whether we provide a safe method where we can carefully monitor—and indeed, as per the Bill, control—the numbers coming, or whether we criminalise everything and everyone, force everything underground and push people into unsafe routes.

There are more refugees and displaced persons around the world than ever before. The number has doubled in the past decade. Only a very small proportion of them seek to come to the United Kingdom. However, this is a global crisis that is likely to get worse rather than better. Climate change risks driving millions of new displacements. This is not something that one country can hope to solve on its own. As it stands, three-quarters of refugees are hosted by low- and middle-income countries. If they start to follow the approach set out in our Bill, the Government really will have a migration crisis on their hands.

Illegal Migration Bill

Baroness Helic Excerpts
Baroness Kennedy of Shaws Portrait Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws (Lab)
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My Lords, I am a member of the Joint Committee on Human Rights. The report, as others have mentioned, came out early today, and many noble Lords will not yet have had the opportunity to read it. Evidence was taken from many people who had in-depth experience and who were experts in these different fields.

On modern-day slavery, we heard from the former anti-slavery commissioner, Professor Dame Sara Thornton, who, as noble Lords know, had been a very senior police officer and the lead police officer in the area of Oxfordshire. She made it very clear that she was horrified at the implications of the Bill, saying:

“It basically denies those who are trafficked to this country and arrive irregularly any modern slavery protections … It will be the victims who are punished, not those who are trafficking them”.


She says that as someone with huge experience. While we do not have a modern-day slavery commissioner at the moment, she is our last one, so her voice of experience should be heard and appreciated by this House.

We also heard from the Salvation Army, which the Committee will know is, again, the lead organisation dealing with modern-day slavery. Similarly, in its testimony to us, it said that

“removing people … will deliver vulnerable people back into the hands of the criminal gangs who have exploited them. This does nothing to break the cycle of exploitation”.

We really have to listen to that. I know that there are people who do not believe in expertise, but we have to listen to those with real expertise. I agree that this whole set of recommendations in the Bill is unacceptable, inhumane and unworkable.

The noble Lord, Lord Weir, suggested that we are being cynical if we think that this is performance politics. I am afraid that that is the view held by noble Lords all around this Committee, not just on the Opposition Benches. There are many Members on the Conservative Benches who know that the Bill is really the last shout of a failing Government. One said to me that it was the last card in the pack. Just think about what that means: that, when you are foundering, you turn to immigration and make a dog-whistle piece of legislation in the ugliest of ways.

Baroness Helic Portrait Baroness Helic (Con)
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My Lords, I will speak in support of Amendment 86 in particular, but I fully endorse other efforts to preserve protections for victims of modern slavery.

As I said at Second Reading, and as many noble Lords have warned, the provision in the Bill to remove modern slavery protections from migrants targets the very people most at risk of being trafficked. It would reduce the number of people coming forward with evidence and make prosecutions harder. My noble friend the Minister reaffirmed then the Government’s commitment to tackling the horrendous crime of modem slavery and to supporting victims, but I am afraid that the Bill still falls short.

There are strong similarities to cases of sexual and gender-based violence. We know that survivors’ testimony is crucial for accountability, but, without proper support and good systems in place, survivors are not, and do not feel, able to give evidence. The Government say that, where absolutely necessary and where they are co-operating with the police, victims will be able to stay in the United Kingdom while their case proceeds, but I fear that this sets the bar way too high. By the time it becomes apparent that a survivor’s evidence is necessary, it will often be too late. Survivors need the time and space to process what they have been through and to prepare themselves for coming forward with evidence, speaking about what they have experienced and going through the justice system. It can be an intense and daunting process which requires determination from the survivor and engagement and support from prosecutors. That is much harder to deliver remotely and why a recovery period is so crucial. It allows the time to reflect, to receive support and to rebuild trust, which may have been shattered by the experience of being trafficked, but without which they cannot work with the police or prosecutors.

There are parallels with the situation of migrant victims of domestic abuse. We have ample evidence that the fear or threat of deportation is used by abusers to control their victims and that it prevents victims from seeking help or escaping an abusive situation. Similarly, if survivors of modern slavery and human trafficking believe that reporting the crime that they have experienced will mean immediate deportation, trafficked persons are far less likely to come forward in the first place. The net result of that might end up being more people suffering and less control over migration.

The support that survivors of trafficking are able to receive during a recovery period can also reduce their risk of being trafficked in future. Trafficked persons are often highly vulnerable. Returning them to their home country without support may not solve the problem and risks putting them back into the cycle and seeing them trafficked again. A recovery period can be crucial to ending dependency, allowing survivors to rebuild their lives—that, in itself, is a blow to the human traffickers’ model.

I really hope that my noble friends in government will feel able to look again at this. I do not think that removing the protection against modern slavery will have the impact for which they hope; I fear that it will make the situation worse rather than better. If we want to prevent dangerous illegal migration, we need to tackle the traffickers who facilitate it. Targeting their victims will only make that harder. By ensuring the recovery period, Amendment 86 would allow survivors the space and cover to receive the support they need and, in doing so, would make successful prosecutions more likely and escape from modern slavery easier. I hope my noble friend the Minister will be able to support it.

Baroness Lister of Burtersett Portrait Baroness Lister of Burtersett (Lab)
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My Lords, I support these amendments generally, in particular those in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Mobarik—it is a pleasure to follow her powerful speech. I have added my name to Amendments 60 and 65.

It was to the Conservative-led coalition Government’s credit that they ended the routine detention of children and replaced it with strict limits. It is thus inexplicable, as the noble Baroness said, that the present Conservative Government should choose to reverse that policy. Prior to that reversal, the Royal College of General Practitioners, together with other royal colleges, published an intercollegiate briefing paper which described the

“significant harms to the physical and mental health of children and young people in the UK who are subjected to administrative immigration detention”.

It concluded that the immigration detention of children and their families is “harmful and unacceptable”. Among the evidence at the time was that provided by Medical Justice clinicians, who

“identified psychological harm to be caused and exacerbated by detention. Symptoms included bed wetting and loss of bowel control, heightened anxiety, food refusal, withdrawal … and persistent crying. Many children exhibited signs of developmental regression … some attempted to end their own lives”.

Today, many organisations—health, children’s and refugee—have briefed us about the likely health implications of such a reversal. To quote the Refugee and Migrant Children’s Consortium, the effects on children’s

“physical and mental health included weight loss, sleeplessness, nightmares, skin complaints and self-harm, depression and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder”.

It also cites, as did the noble Lord, more recent collaborative evidence from Australia. The Royal College of Psychiatrists warns of the likely damaging impact on child mental and physical health of

“the restriction of movement, lack of community exposure, and limited access to health and educational services”

associated with detention. The Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody, a non-departmental public body, has warned the Home Secretary that this is

“a group who are particularly vulnerable, including in respect of mental ill-health, self-harm, and suicide due to trauma caused by dislocation from family”.

It also emphasises

“the link between the indefinite nature of detention and feelings of uncertainty and hopelessness, which can increase the risk of suicidality”.

A group of people with lived experience of the asylum system who advise Doctors of the World have written an open letter to Peers which speaks of their particular concern about the detention of children and pregnant women, whose plight I think we will debate shortly. However, more generally on the basis of their experience they write that

“some of us start shaking when detention centres are mentioned, or crying when watching the news about this Bill”.

The Children’s Commissioner has expressed deep concern at the prospect of children being detained for significant periods of time. She has not been reassured by the government amendment—mentioned by the noble Baroness—which does not specify any time limits or cover children who are with their families. Can the Minister tell us what steps will be taken to ensure that children are detained for as short a period as possible, as he assured us they would be? Also, what is his estimate of the numbers of children in detention as a result of this change of policy, in the absence of an impact assessment?

The Children’s Commissioner points out that Article 37 of the UNCRC is clear that children must be detained for as short a time as possible. UNICEF makes the point even more strongly, warning that the broad discretion on the detention of children provided by the Bill

“is not compatible with international standards”

and

“would not comply with the principle of the best interests of the child”.

Some, including the Committee on the Rights of the Child, have gone so far as to argue that Article 37 means that children should simply not be detained at all in an immigration context. Whether or not one accepts that interpretation, it is clear that the powers given to the Home Secretary in Clause 11 once again contravene a key international convention.

Although the Chief Inspector of Prisons’ report published yesterday, mentioned earlier by the noble Lord, Lord German, welcomed some improvements in the short-term holding facilities in Kent, it noted:

“Children were detained for far too long at all sites”.


During the previous six months:

“Detention records indicated that 337 children had been held in breach of the statutory 24-hour time limit”,


with one held for just over three days. It notes that some particularly vulnerable children were held for too long, giving the example of a 17 year-old girl with a 10 month-old baby—conceived, she said, following rape—who was held from 11.30 am and then overnight, for nearly 24 hours. If this is already happening, I dread to think what the situation will be like if Clause 10 reaches the statute book.

The incentives—pull factor—argument used by Ministers in their attempt to justify this retrograde policy would be laughable if the implications for children’s well-being and best interests were not so serious.

Baroness Helic Portrait Baroness Helic (Con)
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My Lords, I support Amendments 59, 63, 64 and 67. I believe these are measured and proportionate steps to preserve existing safeguards around child detention—safeguards introduced by a Conservative Government.

Child detention must only ever be a last resort. That is a clear requirement, as many have said, of Article 37 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which also requires that detention be for the shortest appropriate time. Article 22 requires states to ensure that children seeking refugee status receive “protection and humanitarian assistance”. I hope and believe that these principles will be recognised and shared across your Lordships’ Committee.

There is strong evidence that the mental and physical health impacts of detention on children are severe. For refugee children, often escaping from traumatic circumstances, detention can further compound their trauma. Detention separates children from their peers, interrupts their education, exposes them to violence and denies them the safe, loving and supportive environment that children need to develop and thrive, and which is their right. Detention undermines parental authority and strains the parent-child relationship. This lasts well beyond the period of detention itself. Even short spells in detention can cause trauma and long-term mental health risks for children. When we detain refugee children, we should know that we are making their future lives and integration into society even harder.

My noble friends in government may have said that they recognise these impacts and do not want to detain children, but I am afraid that, as written, this is precisely what the Bill will do. My noble friend Lady Mobarik has explained the existing limits and how the Bill would change them. To reiterate: the detention powers in the Bill would apply to all migrant children and could see them routinely detained in any location for an indefinite period. This is simply not in line with the principle of child detention as a limited last resort.

We know that the immigration system is overstretched. As such, we can reliably expect every time limit and latitude granted to immigration officials by the Bill to be exploited to the full. Therefore, we must make certain that children’s rights and the limits on their detention are guaranteed in law. It is not good enough for my noble friend the Minister to say that child detention should be exceptional. The law must make it exceptional.

There are some problems which new laws can solve. There are other times when new laws will have no effect—or such serious side-effects that they are entirely disproportionate to the problem. If the Government do not feel that they can regulate immigration and asylum without locking up children for extended periods, that is indicative of a broken system. It is not a problem that is resolved by detaining children.

There is no evidence that the introduction of the existing limits on child detention have led to an increase in illegal immigration. There is no reason to think that removing these limits will improve the Government’s ability to control immigration and prevent the dangerous channel crossings. Exposing children to greater risk of harm, with no guarantee of preventing harm, is not a step we should accept.

The existing limits on child detention, brought in after careful consideration by the Conservative Government, meet the practical need that sadly exists. They ensure that detention is strictly controlled and time-limited, as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child requires. They mitigate the harm that detention causes. They make detention the last resort. That is what we must retain, and I urge noble Lords to support these amendments.

Baroness Hamwee Portrait Baroness Hamwee (LD)
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I remember well when the detention of children was ended by legislation. I visited Cedars, the property—I do not like the term “facility” in this connection—near Gatwick that was used for two or three days before the removal of families who were going to be removed and were at the end of the argument, if you like. What was particularly notable to me were the facilities for the children, and the support that was given to them, who were accommodated there for a very short time, to help them prepare to go back to a country that they may or may not have remembered—indeed, that they may not have ever lived in. It suffused the whole place and was really admirable. You only had to walk into the place to see the equipment and toys, and the information that was set out, as well as the work being done by social workers to support the children concerned. There were no families there at that point; the property used to allow visitors only on days when it knew that no families would be in residence.

I have a number of amendments in this group. The first is Amendment 59A, which seeks to probe the “discretion” given to the Secretary of State in making regulations regarding the detention of unaccompanied children. Amendment 64A is a similar amendment. The reason for my tabling this amendment is to understand whether the envisaged discretion can be exercised to extend the circumstances specified in an earlier part of the clause or to narrow those circumstances.

I discovered a possible answer to this when looking at my next amendment, Amendment 61B, which would provide for the affirmative procedure. Amendment 64C is a similar amendment. I tabled this amendment out of pure instinct that there should be an affirmative procedure, not a negative one. I subsequently discovered that the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, with considerably more logic than I bring to the matter, recommended the affirmative procedure. I quote its report:

“The Memorandum explains that the negative procedure is considered appropriate because ‘the effect of any regulations is to limit the circumstances in which an unaccompanied child may be detained or the duration of detention for the purposes of removal’. In our view, this explanation is misconceived”.


That is very much committee speak for, “We really disagree”. The report went on:

“The regulation making power can only be viewed as a limiting power from the perspective of the Bill as introduced into the House of Commons which conferred an unfettered power to detain unaccompanied children”.


However, amendments were then made in the Commons, so

“no such unfettered power of detention exists in the Bill as introduced into the House of Lords. It is the regulations alone which will specify the circumstances in which unaccompanied children will be capable of being detained, in the absence of which there is no power to detain such children. Given the importance and sensitivity of the subject matter, we consider that the affirmative resolution procedure should apply”.

As I say, the committee approached this with considerably more logic and power than I was planning to bring to it.

Ukraine: Refugees

Baroness Helic Excerpts
Wednesday 6th April 2022

(2 years, 3 months ago)

Grand Committee
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Moved by
Baroness Helic Portrait Baroness Helic
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That the Grand Committee takes note of Her Majesty’s Government’s plans to support refugees from Ukraine.

Baroness Helic Portrait Baroness Helic (Con)
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My Lords, I declare my interests as per the register. I am pleased to welcome my noble friend Lord Harrington of Watford, who brings with him valuable experience from another place and is taking on important responsibilities at a grave moment. I look forward to his maiden speech and to his work on behalf of refugees, at a time when one in 10 people worldwide is displaced by conflict, persecution or disaster.

This debate is very close to my heart: 30 years ago today, Sarajevo, the capital of the country in which I was born and brought up, was attacked by the Yugoslav and later the Bosnian Serb army. It was besieged for 1,425 days, and 11,541 civilians were killed, of whom 1,601 were children. On an average day, 329 mortar shells fell on the city, which was cut off from electricity, food and water—and from the rest of the world. Almost 100,000 people died across Bosnia-Herzegovina during three and a half years of war. Crimes against humanity and genocide were committed, and over 1 million Bosnians became refugees. I was one of them. I hoped never to see similar scenes in another European country—yet, as we speak, Mariupol is enduring its 42nd day of bombardment and a quarter of the Ukrainian population is displaced, inside Ukraine or as refugees.

No one wants to become a refugee or to leave their home; it is a journey of fear, uncertainty, peril and loss. This country welcomed me and has given me extraordinary opportunities. It is a privilege to stand here today; it is something that I love and am deeply proud of. But I would much rather I were not here, had never been a refugee and had never been forced to leave my country of birth. I would much rather I were teaching English in Bosnia after a life of peace, as I had imagined and hoped, than speaking here, after an experience of war. I know that Ukrainians fleeing today will wish nothing more than to be able to live in safety and stability in Ukraine and for the international community to find ways to stop the aggression that has been unleashed upon them.

In the light of that experience, and of mine, I urge the Government to intensify their efforts in six areas in particular. First, on visas routes for Ukrainians coming to Britain, we should continue to expand our visa schemes so that they are as broad and generous as is possible and safe. All Ukrainians in the United Kingdom should be able to use the family visa route to bring their relatives to this country. All Ukrainians in the United Kingdom should have the same leave to remain, and non-Ukrainians who were permanent residents in Ukraine, and were displaced by the conflict, should also be entitled to refugee status in the United Kingdom.

I welcome my noble friend’s commitment to simplifying and speeding up visa processing. Security checks are absolutely necessary but must be as fast and as easy as possible. Research by the University of Birmingham has shown that the longer women in particular are without access to housing and resources, the more vulnerable they are to sexual and gender-based violence. Speeding up the process is a matter of basic safety.

This leads me to my second point, on trafficking and safeguarding. Some 90% of Ukrainian refugees are women and children. Like all displaced persons, they are at increased risk of trafficking, abuse and exploitation. The best way to combat this is to make sure that safe and secure official routes are open, bureaucratic hurdles are reduced and information on how to access those routes is readily available. We should also look to liaise with our European partners and strengthen our joint efforts to combat trafficking, including by urgently making sure that citizens and agencies are aware of risk signs, not at some point in the future but now. Although the vast majority of Homes for Ukraine hosts are generous and genuine, we need to be vigilant. There are always people who seek to exploit suffering for their own ends. Safeguarding checks on hosts need to be thorough. Perhaps my noble friend could look at accelerating enhanced DBS checks. Councils will need additional funding for checks upfront—they need to happen before refugees arrive.

Refugees will be vulnerable, even once here in the United Kingdom. Unaccompanied minors are a particular concern. I welcome the fact that the Department for Education has done work on this and is offering guidance to councils and schools. Safeguarding should not stop once a refugee has arrived. There should be follow-up checks over the coming months. I look to my noble friend to make sure that the safeguarding and anti-trafficking aspects of our response are not forgotten.

Thirdly, we need to make sure that there is comprehensive and ongoing support for refugees in the UK. A refugee is not only in need of physical safety. Many will be traumatised and vulnerable. We need to ensure that psychosocial support is available, both during the first six months and beyond, as refugees establish new lives here in the United Kingdom. I know from my own experience how difficult it is. I remember coming to Britain and how happy and relieved I was, but at the same time how hard it was to get used to peace. The initial euphoria of safety suddenly became a burden: a feeling of guilt that I was safe, but my friends and family were not. When I think about it today, I wonder how my host family coped, and from where they found their understanding, generosity and patience. It is not an easy undertaking. I hope that my noble friend the Minister can offer a commitment on providing support for refugees in processing their ongoing trauma. Specialist mental health support must be available for children in particular, as well as for survivors and witnesses of sexual violence and other atrocities. Schools, health services and local councils are all likely to need additional resources and assistance for arrivals under both visa schemes. We should not overlook the need to support those coming via the family visa route, either.

We all hope that this war will be over swiftly, but it may not. Just as important as speeding up the process now is making sure that our response can be sustained. What will happen in six months’ time, or a year’s? What support will be in place for refugees then, if needed? How are we going to help them find long-term accommodation? Support services will need funding beyond this year. My noble friend’s other responsibility is Afghan refugees, 8,000 of whom are reportedly still living in hotels. It is almost impossible to build a new life like that. I hope that he can tell us what is being done to provide long-term support for Afghans as well as Ukrainians arriving in the United Kingdom.

Fourthly, we should maintain our support for Ukrainian refugees in Europe. Most of them will want to remain close to Ukraine, where their husbands, sons, fathers and brothers are defending their homes and towns. We should continue to offer additional funding to UN agencies, NGOs and directly to Ukraine’s neighbours, who are supporting the great majority of Ukrainian refugees. We should push for third-country nationals displaced by the conflict to receive the same protection as Ukrainians in Europe. The funding we offer must be additional, not reallocated from elsewhere.

Fifthly, we should learn from these crises and apply the lessons to refugees elsewhere. There were 84 million displaced people worldwide before the invasion of Ukraine, more than 26 million of them refugees. It is natural that we play a bigger role in helping refugees from our neighbourhood than from countries further away, but all refugees have a right to protection and around the world too few are able to access the safety which is theirs by right. There are still refugees stuck on the Poland-Belarus border, exploited by Lukashenko, for sure, but also abandoned by democracies.

In the last year, two major crises have led to new refugee schemes in this country—the two schemes for which my noble friend the Minister is responsible—for refugees from Ukraine and Afghanistan. We have also had the BNO visa for British nationals from Hong Kong. I hope that, once Ukrainian refugees are receiving the support they need, my noble friend will reflect on the lessons of these three schemes. We cannot continue to lurch from crisis response to crisis response, improvising schemes which, for all their strengths, have real flaws—the Afghans still in hostels, the Ukrainians going to unprepared hosts and the endless visa process. We need to be better prepared.

I hope we will take the lessons learned from our response to Ukraine and apply them elsewhere. Human Rights Watch and others are calling for an Afghan family reunion scheme, based on the Ukraine family scheme, to allow those who supported our work in Afghanistan to be reunited with their families. Will my noble friend consider that?

If we could put the unity and determination currently on display in the West behind a long-term commitment to resettling serious numbers of refugees in liberal democracies around the world every year, that would be a remarkable achievement and a staunch rebuke of Vladimir Putin’s policies of division and his unconcern for human life.

Sixthly, we should remember that the best thing we can do for refugees in the long term is to prevent so many citizens from having to flee their countries in the first place. Donations are a stop-gap, not an answer. I struggle to think of a conflict in the last decade that we have really succeeded in ending. Fighting goes on in Syria, in Yemen, in Ethiopia, in the Central African Republic, in the Sahel. A fragile UN-brokered ceasefire is holding, just, in Libya, but the situation is still unstable. Our role in Afghanistan has ended in defeat and, of course, war has continued in Ukraine since 2014.

We have to work on solving conflicts rather than providing support around the edges. We must get better at tackling the root causes, not just responding when it is already too late. We should seek to strengthen international institutions where we can and urge our friends and partners to play their part. If those do not work, let us be honest about it. We need to improve our capacity to maintain the rules of war and to prevent war crimes such as sexual violence in conflict—crimes which are both drivers and results of displacement.

The horrific reports emerging from Ukraine are a reminder of how far we have to go and how impunity is still the norm. I hope that the opportunities for accountability in Ukraine may be greater than in most conflicts. Ukrainian prosecutors are active and I welcome the International Criminal Court investigation, the UN Human Rights Council commission of inquiry and the OSCE mission of experts. It is crucial that sexual violence in conflict gets due attention as part of these efforts. We can and should support this, offering expertise from our Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative and our team of experts.

I was pleased to see signs at Heathrow recently offering details for those arriving from Ukraine on how to report war crimes to the police. We need to ensure that such notices are widespread, particularly when it comes to sexual violence in conflict, which is almost always underreported. Investigations and accountability take expertise and dedicated resources. Survivors must be supported to give evidence. I firmly believe that establishing a permanent independent international body to investigate sexual violence in conflict in post-conflict situations would be the most effective way to ensure that this terrible crime receives the attention and knowledge it demands, that allegations can be investigated as soon as they arise and that impunity can be broken down, not just in Ukraine but elsewhere.

I will make one final point. We do not know how long this war is going to continue, nor do we know precisely how it will end. I believe, though, that one day there will be peace and that Vladimir Putin will not have won. Ukraine will outlive Putin and will remain a democracy and a free country. Many Ukrainian refugees will want to return to the homes, friends and family members they left behind. Just as they need our support now, they will need our support then. The cities of Ukraine will need to be restored and the economy rebooted. Schools and hospitals will need to be rebuilt. As we discuss how best to help refugees today, let us also remember to look forward to peace and rebuilding. That is the timescale over which we must sustain support for Ukrainian refugees and the goal towards which our efforts should point.

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Baroness Helic Portrait Baroness Helic (Con)
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My Lords, I will not take up much time. I just want to thank you all for your kindness towards me, which you have extended on many occasions, including today. You represent the country that I fell in love with years ago and had the privilege to find refuge in. It is an enormous privilege, which you cannot feel, because you were born and brought up in this country, so somehow it comes by default. It was given to me and is a privilege that I hope I will never betray. I am sure that every person who comes into this country, when they are afforded the welcome that I was, will feel the same.

I start by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, for raising the issue of visas and a system that may have slowed down slightly. What is absolutely necessary is to have a fast and safe route for people who are escaping the terrible circumstances in which they have found themselves, due to the aggression of Russia against their country, Ukraine. I agree with the noble Lord and was pleased to see the unity of Europe—something that I regret we did not have 30 years ago. I am pleased to see that, together, we are giving dignity and the right to defend themselves to the people of Ukraine. That was not afforded to the country of my birth, because of the arms embargo that was imposed as soon as it declared its independence.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, for his philosophical questions. I agree with him that third-country nationals have to be afforded the same rights. They are in the same danger, so have to be given the same rights and safety that is given to our Ukrainian friends.

The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, forensically examined the successes and failures of the last few weeks. I agree with his point about the shortage of staff that may occur during the Easter holidays. I am sure that my noble friend has already taken that into account and that preparations have been made. If we can, we should be doubling the number of people who are dealing with this crisis, rather than revisiting this after Easter.

I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Udny-Lister for raising the issue of sexual violence and trafficking. I welcome the fact that the Prime Minister has already dispatched police and military investigators to the borders, and that interviews will be held. I just caution that, as important as forensic experts are doctors and trauma experts, because the mostly women and girls who have gone through this experience will be deeply traumatised and will find it very difficult to report what has happened to them. At the same time, they will have to go through yet another trauma in explaining in minute detail what the forensic experts will need to find out from them. I am grateful for that issue being raised.

I thank my noble friend Lord Balfe and agree with him that what is happening in Ukraine has been a massive failure of humanity. I also agree that there is a European dimension to this; we are part of this and have to work with our European allies. I hugely support the right we have given our Ukrainian friends to defend their homes. It is very important and it is the best way to defend Ukraine. Right now, they are not only defending their country but defending us. They are defending the Balkans and every part of the world where people want to live in freedom and democracy. The example of a bullying country that has decided to invade its neighbour because it does not like their democratic choices cannot be allowed to stand. I am fully supportive of that and am proud that our Government have taken a forward-leaning policy on this issue.

I also note my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury’s moving response to two Ukrainian young women, Olia and Tonya. I hope that Tonya’s status is soon resolved so that she, together with her sister, can come to Britain and fulfil their dreams, secure in Shropshire. I am sure those circumstances will be very welcoming.

I was very moved to hear from the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, about how much has been done in Wales on education and welcoming, and how many people have come forward. I think she mentioned that 10,000 people in Wales have opened their homes to 1,300 applicants. It is important that young people, particularly students, are not just sitting glued to their radios and social media noting what is happening in Ukraine, but that their energy is turned into something positive and that their frustration is turned into ambition, so that they learn to use what we can offer them—not only safety but the exchange of knowledge. That will be extremely important for their mental health and for getting over the trauma they have experienced.

My noble friend Lady Pidding rightly raised the issue of Georgia and the occupied territories. There are no breakaway republics in Georgia. South Ossetia and Abkhazia are Russian-occupied territories, and the same applies to Moldova and Transnistria. I hope that at today’s NATO summit we will offer further help and support to Georgia in particular but also to Moldova, so that their resilience can be enhanced and they can respond if, in some crazy scenario, they find themselves in the same position as Ukraine.

I thank my noble friend Lord Cormack for his kind words about me and my part of the world. It is essential that we get this right, and particularly that this war does not last for ever, because, as he rightly pointed out, Ukraine is the breadbasket of Europe and the rest of the world, and there are many people who cannot afford to have yet another meal taken away from them. Whether we are talking about Yemen, Syria or Afghanistan, we have to bear that in mind.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, for her contribution. I completely agree that an application from a four-year-old being approved and the application from their mother not being approved shows that there is a problem that we need to fix. However, I have high hopes for the Minister and I know that he will do his absolute best.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, for his kind words. I occasionally go to a south London school and speak. Some 80% of the children are refugees or migrants, or of refugee or migrant families. I learn much more from them than they learn from me, but I always tell them that they are in a country where they will succeed if they work hard, and that they should not give up. They are fantastic. I would be very pleased to go to any school and speak to anyone if that will be of any help.

I finish by thanking my noble friend and welcoming him to the House. His speech was disarming and it is very difficult to criticise him, at least on this occasion, but we will have our moment in the Chamber and we will be watching every single application, approved and not approved. As he said, we met a long time ago on a visit to Israel. I have been an admirer of his work and what he did for Syrian and Afghan refugees, and now Ukrainian refugees. I hope and pray that this is his last job, that we will never again need a Minister for Refugees, and that the world will come back to its senses. I doubt that it will, so this may be a longer affair than he was preparing for, but I wish him all the best. We could not have a better colleague or a better Minister to take charge of this and fix this problem.

Motion agreed.

Domestic Abuse Bill

Baroness Helic Excerpts
As I highlighted in Committee, there is no guarantee that any lasting change will follow when the pilot scheme ends. It is only legislative protection for this vulnerable cohort of mainly women that will ensure the Bill delivers its promise as landmark legislation that can deliver protection for all survivors in the UK. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say today, but I intend to press this to a vote.
Baroness Helic Portrait Baroness Helic (Con) [V]
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My Lords, in speaking to Amendment 87 I will not repeat all my arguments from Committee, but I will reiterate two key points. First, it would allow us to ratify the Istanbul convention and, secondly, it relates primarily to access to services and is separate from the question of immigration control. I am grateful to the noble Baronesses, Lady Hussein-Ece and Lady Hamwee, and the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, for joining me in sponsoring the amendment, to all noble Lords who supported it in Committee and are supporting it now, and to End Violence Against Women and Southall Black Sisters for their invaluable assistance. I add my support to Amendment 70.

Amendment 87 would ensure that all victims of domestic violence, whoever they are, get the support they deserve. When a crime is committed, when a man or a woman is abused, we offer them help, compassion and justice as our first response, not as a final stage. Domestic abuse cannot be hidden behind discrimination. That principle is central to the Istanbul convention, which insists on non-discrimination, including on the grounds of migration status. This will be the only area of the convention left outstanding once the Bill has passed and there is every sign that it will remain unresolved for some time yet.

Nine years after we signed the convention, we seem to have no plan to ratify it. Ratification enshrines the substantive requirements while still allowing the detail to be developed by the Government. Alignment of the legislative framework can be an ongoing process but it is clear that an international commitment is a powerful statement of intent. It has great symbolic meaning: that we are committed to treating every victim with dignity and will take every incidence of domestic abuse seriously from the point of disclosure. Ratification would be a signal to other countries around the world. It would also be a ray of hope for victims in this country.

In Committee, the Minister pointed to the Government’s pilot project, the migrant victims scheme. I am concerned for two reasons. First, it misunderstands the crucial purpose of this amendment. The pilot is a way of deciding what specific support migrant women might need but the amendment is about establishing their fundamental right to support as victims. Those issues are related but they are not the same.

Secondly, as other noble Lords have already explained and specialist organisations repeatedly tell us, the migrant victims scheme seeks answers that we already know to problems that we can address today. It is an unnecessary delay that creates the appearance of action without any lasting resolution to the terrible situation faced by migrant victims of domestic abuse.

The history of the Bill should be a cautionary tale for all of us. It has taken more than two years to get to this point. Set that alongside the nine years since we signed the Istanbul convention, and I fear that if we do not take our chance to ratify it now, we may be in for a very long wait indeed. If we insist on delaying for the migrant victims scheme, we are saying that migrant women can have protection but only at some unspecified time years in the future. That is not good enough. The Government’s failure to lay out a timetable for ratifying the Istanbul convention only confirms that. I was especially concerned to hear suggestions that the convention could be ratified with reservations so that the Government did not have to address this issue. That would be a very bad outcome indeed, above all for the migrant women themselves.

There is a point of principle here about fulfilling our international commitments. There is also a practical point: the amendment would ensure that the migrant women who are at such great risk could access those services they need. I reassure those who might have concerns about immigration that the amendment would not affect immigration control; it would not require changes to immigration regulations or to the Government’s ability to control who comes to Britain and who gets to stay. However, it would offer protection from serious crimes to those who are here. If someone is attacked on our streets, we do not stop to check their passport before offering them assistance. Abuse behind closed doors should not be any different.

A non-discrimination amendment would mean that public authorities would be expected to take into account migrant victims’ needs when dealing with them or making strategic decisions. It would ensure that survivors could access the services they needed to protect them from harm. It would make sure that the Government’s stated desire to treat victims first and foremost as victims was a reality. It would guarantee that the provisions of the Bill truly worked for and applied to everyone, which they do not currently do, rather than just those lucky enough to be born in the right place. This can be the landmark Bill that we need, for which the domestic abuse sector, and victims and survivors of abuse, are calling, but it cannot do that while it ignores a section of society at serious risk.

I will close with the words of one migrant survivor. She was sexually abused by her ex-husband and other men before finding support from a refuge. She said, “The centre has allowed me to get independence. I have learned so much about life. I have joined college. I am learning every day and I am doing well. I have my autonomy back. I feel safe and less anxious about my future. I can now finally focus on getting help and getting better. I have met many women from different cultures and religions, and we live in harmony at the refuge. We go on courses together and help each other with the homework. We taste all sorts of food that we cook, and we share our lives, our experiences and hopes for the future. I love it here at the refuge. It is my home. It has honestly made a massive difference in my life.”

We have heard many difficult testimonies throughout these debates. This is a reminder of the hope that we can offer and of the power of support and dignity to transform women’s lives. That is what the Istanbul convention seeks to do; that is what the amendment can do. I hope that my noble friend the Minister can offer the necessary commitment on swift ratification.

Baroness Lister of Burtersett Portrait Baroness Lister of Burtersett (Lab) [V]
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My Lords, I wish to address just three issues in support of these amendments, which have been moved so powerfully. First, in Committee the Minister argued that the DDVC and domestic violence rule were designed to

“provide a route to settlement for migrant victims who hold spousal visas.”—[Official Report, 8/2/21; col. 98.]

The position of those who entered on other types of visa was addressed by the right honourable Theresa May on Report in the Commons. She took the point that generally they would have to show that they have independent financial support but noted that

“it is perfectly possible that they might find themselves in a relationship where the removal of that financial support is part of the abuse they are suffering. We have to take account of that as we look at this issue.”—[Official Report, Commons, 6/7/20; col. 712.]

I wonder whether the Minister has taken account of that.

Secondly, the Minister explained that

“we have worked with the sector to launch the support for migrant victims scheme.”—[Official Report, 8/2/21; col. 101.]

This is welcome and, as I said in Committee, it is to the Government’s credit that they revised the scheme in response to some of the criticisms of the draft prospectus. However, as already noted, it remains the case that the sector does not believe that such a scheme is necessary and has real concerns that the funding made available will not meet the needs of many of the women who will be seeking help from it. I asked in Committee whether it would be possible to at least suspend the “no recourse to public funds” rule for this group during the lifetime of the pilot. However, I did not get a direct response, so I would appreciate one now.

Thirdly, with regard to the Istanbul convention, the Minister noted that

“the position on whether the UK is compliant with Article 4(3) … to the extent that it relates to non-discrimination on the grounds of migrant or refugee status, and with Article 59, relating to residence status, is of course under review, pending the evaluation and the findings from the support for migrant victims scheme”—[Official Report, 8/2/21; col. 100.]

Domestic Abuse Bill

Baroness Helic Excerpts
Lord Harries of Pentregarth Portrait Lord Harries of Pentregarth (CB) [V]
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My Lords, I was very distressed during Committee on the Bill at the way the House has become so polarised over this amendment. I believe a way can and should be found to do justice to both sides of the argument, for both raise real and serious concerns.

Clearly the term “parental alienation” has become controversial, coming as it does from the United States, where it has been so closely linked with gender politics, so I welcome the rewording of the amendment, where what we are dealing with is clearly defined.

Parental alienation was referred to in earlier debates as a “concept”, or even prefaced, as in the debate this afternoon, sadly, by the qualification “so-called”. But the concept arose on the basis of experience. The fact is that very many people, both men and women, have been alienated from their children as a result of the unacceptable behaviour of their partner or former partner. That it exists I have absolutely no doubt. Do the opponents of this amendment really doubt this?

At the same time, it is clear, particularly from the evidence of Women’s Aid, that some people use the concept of parental alienation to cover up child abuse. I am sure this happens, and I can believe that the greatest number of perpetrators are men.

So we are dealing with two realities, both of which have to be taken into account. In any given case, the evidence has to be heard and assessed and judgment given. This is what courts are for. This is what Cafcass is for. They know what it is and can recognise it for what it is. They have developed the child impact assessment framework to

“identify how children are experiencing parental separation and to assess the impact of different case factors on them, including parental alienation.”

At the same time, they will be well aware that there are cases where this is a cover for child abuse. This, too, they can recognise for what it is.

These are very difficult decisions. I would not like to have to make them myself. But the point is that there are people who are trained to make such decisions, and the courts use them. So I very much hope that the Government will accept this amendment, or at least, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, suggested, that the wording proposed in the amendment is clearly understood to be an example of coercion, and that this is set out equally clearly in statutory guidance.

Baroness Helic Portrait Baroness Helic (Con) [V]
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My Lords, I have listened carefully to the speech of my noble friend Lady Meyer and to those who support the amendment. I recognise their sincerity and good intentions and their desire to do the right thing for the victims of abuse and, above all, for children. But I am afraid I continue to have very serious concerns about the amendment and the ideas it seeks to introduce into the Bill. I do not think it is required to help those victims whom noble Lords wish to help. In fact, I fear that it will do the opposite; it will empower abusers. I am concerned that, despite the change in language, the amendment still rests on the idea of parental alienation and serves as a means of embedding that concept, so open to misuse as a means of covering up domestic abuse, in law. Parental alienation is a flawed model for addressing the experiences of the parents and children the amendment seeks to help.

I agree that parental behaviour

“deliberately designed to damage the relationship between a child of the parent and the other parent”,

in the words of the amendment, is unacceptable, but the concept of parental alienation is so open to misuse in a way that is deeply harmful to children who are victims of domestic violence that we must be extremely cautious. Its lack of rigorous scientific foundation or clear definition means that it does not in assist in addressing abuse. Rather, it has become a vehicle for minimising and evading legitimate allegations of domestic abuse and child abuse by suggesting that child victims, often suffering serious medical trauma and with valid reasons for resisting contact with the abusive parent, have been manipulated by the so-called alienating parent. In the United States, where the concept originated, when a parent claims alienation, courts are more than twice as likely to disbelieve evidence of any type of abuse and almost four times less likely to believe a protective parent’s claims of child abuse. The result is that children are often forced to live with their abuser and are at risk of serious harm, lifelong trauma and even death.

We do not need this imported into our law. I do not wish to diminish or ignore the experiences of those not feel that their relationships with their children have been undermined and damaged by a protective parent. They are victims too, and we must hear their voices. I am also open to being told that I am wrong, and I have sought additional clarification from experts on domestic abuse. They tell me that this behaviour is an example of coercive control. We already have the legal means to tackle it under existing laws on coercive control. The recognition of children as victims in the Bill should strengthen that, as should the very welcome government amendment on post-separation abuse.

A clause to tackle this behaviour already exists, and there can be no case for us introducing any concepts or amendments which come with so many proven risks to children attached. However, there is a strong case, as I shall argue later in my speech on my amendment on training, for the training of judges. Children must have contact with both parents, but not at any price. We cannot dismiss a child’s voice when they disclose abuse.

Before I close, I believe it is important to make one final point. This is not aimed at anyone in your Lordships’ House, but it is necessary as a matter of basic principle. I think it serves to confirm some of what I have said about the dangers of the concept of parental alienation that the behaviour of some of its proponents is aggressive, bullying and abusive. They attempt to silence anyone who disagrees with them. People who have dared challenge parental alienation have faced vitriolic attacks and regular attempts to undermine their career and even see them sacked from their job. Respected experts have been called fraudulent, corrupt, lying and biased. People who have devoted their career to tackling abuse have been described as child abusers.

We cannot ignore those attacks. Since we began to debate the Bill, they have increased. One person who has faced a great deal of harassment tells me that it has significantly escalated and continued on an almost daily basis since the Bill received its Second Reading in your Lordships’ House.

I have spent most of my career working in foreign policy. I have never witnessed behaviour such as this until I became involved in these debates. Many supporters of parental alienation outside this House seek to use abusive behaviour to silence their critics and, in doing so, they serve only to remind us why we have such serious concerns about this concept and why it is imperative that we do not allow it into our laws.

Lord Winston Portrait Lord Winston (Lab) [V]
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My Lords, I thank the House for its indulgence. I apologise, because my internet connection collapsed completely during the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, and I missed a great deal of what she said.

Parental divorce or separation is the second most prevalent adverse event during childhood. There is plenty of evidence that most children who experience parental divorce do not develop long-lasting problems. Many studies show that children are remarkably resilient. Long-term studies of children in Romania after Ceausescu’s regime, for example, showed that, provided they were adopted into loving, caring families, they returned to an almost normal existence.

Even so, there are certain times when biology conflicts with resilience—for example, when children are first socialising, with puberty, with adolescence and with certain mental conditions. Nor can we ignore good follow-up studies of all ages which report problems. They confirm that, compared with children who remained in two-parent families, young people who experience parental divorce are at increased risk of a whole host of difficulties. These include depression later in life and may involve poor social values and behaviour, lack of empathy and various psychopathological disorders, substance abuse and academic underachievement.

These children and adolescents are much more vulnerable to various pressures, particularly when one divorced or separated parent deliberately attempts to undermine his or her offspring’s relationship with the other parent. This may not always be deliberate and, when it is, it may be difficult to prove in court. There are examples where this is clear cut, with substantial evidence of this kind of damaging behaviour.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, firmly said in her speech, this amendment is unquestionably about child abuse. Research clearly shows that this can have long-term effects on children as they become adults. Moreover, it is possible—although this is more difficult to show in long-term studies—that traits which a child may develop in consequence of this kind of behaviour may be passed on. The child’s own offspring—the grandchildren of the fractured experience—may be affected. There is, incidentally, increasing evidence of a biological mechanism for such inherited behaviour. There is a significant indication that this may be epigenetic—a chemical alteration which influences the way in which the genes function. Evidence is growing that it may be true for one particular set of conditions which are of growing interest in human development.

Autism spectrum disorder—so-called ASD—is a group of neurodevelopmental disorders in which multiple genetic and epigenetic factors definitely play a role. As long ago as 1991, the famous expert, Professor Rutter, pointed out mistaken stereotypes in psychiatric and behavioural genetics. He was decrying the idea that strong effects might mean that environmental influences must be unimportant. In America, Judith Kroll has pointed out that parental behaviour is critical in enhancing or reducing the negative effects on autistic children. This is often a particular problem with one or other, or both parents. Her study is a useful marker to consider.

I want briefly to mention Karey O’Hara’s remarkable follow-up study from Arizona, looking at 240 children over six to eight years. The study showed very clearly quite subtle changes in these children’s relationship with one or the other parent. Mental health problems, drug abuse and risky sexual behaviour were all common. She and her colleagues concluded that children in families with high levels of post-divorce conflict, which could certainly include the sorts of behaviour to which the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, referred, are an appropriate target group for preventive interventions. We know that these interventions work; they must surely be better than recourse to law. None the less, it is an important kind of child abuse because it can occasionally be hidden and difficult to see.

This is a vital discussion on an important amendment, and I am glad that the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, has seen fit to introduce it on Report.

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Baroness Helic Portrait Baroness Helic (Con) [V]
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My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Marks, for signing Amendment 44 and for his assistance in drafting it. It is an evolution of the one that I tabled in Committee, which received strong support from your Lordships’ House. It seeks to ensure that high-level training on domestic abuse, developed with experts, is mandatory for all judges and magistrates hearing family cases. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Wolfson for meeting with me this morning, and for his acknowledgement that training is a crucial piece of the puzzle in tackling harm and improving family courts. This amendment will be a major contribution to improving the provision and quality of training. That will make our family courts work better and provide the protection, support and justice that victims and their children deserve.

It is a sorry fact that the courts are failing victims. Process and procedure can feel stacked against them. In the worst cases, the courts themselves can be subverted by abusers so that they serve not as a source of justice but as a tool of abuse. For example, one survivor has been taken to the family court by her abuser 27 times since 2015. The court has become the new venue for control.

To give another example, a woman who had been advised to leave her abusive partner by the police, a GP and the independent domestic violence adviser saw her case rushed through and extensive evidence of abuse overlooked by a judge who showed little evidence of awareness of domestic abuse. The words of that survivor should be in all our minds as we consider this Bill:

“We fled to be free from domestic abuse, yet now my ex-husband is allowed to continue his abuse legally through the family court.”


That is a terrible situation. Unfortunately, it is a common one that the Government are all too well aware of, given the harrowing evidence collected during their own harm panel review.

Many provisions in the Bill seek to address this problem. I particularly welcome the excellent progress on post-separation abuse, barring orders and the banning of cross-examination, but we need training to give those provisions practical, tangible value to ensure that they work on the ground to protect survivors and their children. It was a main recommendation of the harm panel, and it is critical to changing cultures and practices within the courts. Without those changes, these new measures will not be enough. They will provide false promises of hope to survivors, and new mechanisms are no help if domestic abuse continues to be overlooked, misunderstood and dismissed.

I know that my noble friend the Minister recognises the importance of training. The Government’s commitment to trialling improved guidance and training across the system is a welcome first step, but it is crucial that this amendment be accepted. Without the statutory imperative and government oversight, we are not providing survivors with any guarantee that work is under way to change the systemic cultural issues that have been identified.

By placing a statutory duty on the Lord Chancellor to publish a strategy and timetable for judicial training, we can ensure scrutiny, rigour and effectiveness, and we can guarantee that this is a commitment that outlasts individual Ministers and funding cycles. By specifying some of the material that the training must cover, we can ensure that it gives judges and magistrates a thorough grounding in all the different ways that domestic abuse can influence a court case or should be taken into account when considering child welfare. By involving the domestic abuse commissioner, we can ensure high-quality training, informed by up-to-date expert thinking that equips our judges and magistrates with the skill they need to wrestle with these difficult cases to provide protection and justice to survivors of abuse.

This amendment will strengthen the training provided; crucially, it will also make it mandatory. Over the course of this Bill, one of the things that we have heard is how insidious domestic abuse can be, how it can appear across all aspects of the family courts’ work and how it can be used to subvert them. This is why it is so important that any judge hearing a family case has a good knowledge of domestic abuse and how it can influence a case.

Domestic abuse must be taken into consideration in the course of a trial, when considering appropriate ways to proceed and when reaching a judgment. It is impossible to do that well without regular training that is consistent, comprehensive and created by true experts. If we do not embed these parameters in legislation, I am afraid that we will be here in a decade’s time, discussing the same ongoing issues in the courts. I dread to think how many people will have suffered during this time if we fail to act properly now.

Family cases are perhaps some of the most difficult and complex cases anywhere in our courts. In the great majority, judges act with wisdom, compassion and care. This amendment should not be seen as an attack on them; rather, it is about ensuring that they have the tools and skills that they need to do their job. Just as we expect judges to be versed in the law, so they should be versed in the facts and consequences of domestic abuse. We owe that to victims going through the courts and to the judges and magistrates themselves.

We have listened to the concerns raised by some noble Lords in Committee and adapted the amendment accordingly. It now guarantees a role in designing training for the Judicial College, the President of the Family Division and the chief executive of the Magistrates’ Association. They will play an important role in making sure that training is as effective as it can be. I hope that this more collaborative approach will attract even wider support than the original amendment.

This amendment is only a start; we should be thinking about training for all staff in the courts and all others, such as Cafcass employees and social workers. However, it is a crucial start: it is how we make the excellent provisions in the Bill a reality on the ground. It is how we will be able to tell survivors in full truth that we have taken real steps to protect them. I hope that my noble friend the Minister will think again and accept this amendment. However, I am prepared to test the opinion of the House.

Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Portrait Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames (LD) [V]
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My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Helic, for putting down and so persuasively opening this debate on Amendment 44, to which I will speak and have added my name. In Committee, we discussed judicial training at some length. It was interesting that there was general agreement that the amendment on judicial training was by far the most important of all the amendments in a raft of suggested measures seeking reform to procedure in the family courts.

I agree with the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, that the Judicial College provides first-class training for judges and magistrates, with its induction courses for those newly appointed or newly authorised to hear family cases and through continuing education, practical workshops and training materials, appraisal and mentoring. Nothing I say should be taken as a criticism of the quality of the work done by that college. However, one thread that ran through the debate in Committee was that, time and again, victims of domestic violence found their experiences of bringing cases in family courts to be somewhere between daunting and terrifying, They often found the courts and judges profoundly out of sympathy with the suffering of abuse victims.

EU-UK Joint Political Declaration on Asylum and Returns

Baroness Helic Excerpts
Thursday 28th January 2021

(3 years, 5 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Baroness Williams of Trafford Portrait Baroness Williams of Trafford (Con)
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The right reverend Prelate is absolutely right to say that there are some countries where there will be more returns and relationships in terms of asylum seekers. I can confirm that those talks are ongoing; what I cannot do is give an ongoing commentary on them.

Baroness Helic Portrait Baroness Helic (Con) [V]
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My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that, following the end of the transition period, the Government published an overview of family reunion routes under the Immigration Rules, as promised during the passage of the immigration Bill? I would be grateful for an update on when, and whether, they also published clear guidance on the savings provisions, under which the UK processes all Dublin regulations requests received before the end of December.

Baroness Williams of Trafford Portrait Baroness Williams of Trafford (Con)
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I can confirm to my noble friend that new guidance, providing an overview of family reunion routes under, and outside of, the Immigration Rules, has been published on GOV.UK. Those Immigration Rules are unaffected by the end of the transition period. We have also taken steps to ensure that Dublin family reunion cases which entered the system before the end of the transition period continue to be processed after 31 December 2020, and we have published guidance on the savings provisions.

Domestic Abuse Bill

Baroness Helic Excerpts
Committee stage & Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard) & Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard): House of Lords
Monday 25th January 2021

(3 years, 5 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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-II(Rev) Revised second marshalled list for Committee - (25 Jan 2021)
Baroness Garden of Frognal Portrait The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Baroness Garden of Frognal) (LD)
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Lady Watkins, we have lost you—we can see you, but we cannot hear you. I think we will carry on and hopefully come back to the noble Baroness later, if she will forgive us. I now call the noble Baroness, Lady Helic.

Baroness Helic Portrait Baroness Helic (Con) [V]
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I thank my noble friend Lady Meyer for her moving and courageous contribution based on her personal experience. However, I am unable to support Amendments 2 and 4.

I wish to focus my remarks on the deliberate misuse of allegations of parental alienation as a tactic to minimise or cover up serious allegations of domestic violence and abuse; in other words, allegations which direct attention away from an abusive parent onto a protective parent. We must guard against them becoming a loophole, or a get-out-of-jail card, in our law, in a way which makes it even harder for victims of domestic abuse—whether male or female, young or old—to receive protection, medical and emotional care, and justice.

The concept at the heart of the amendments put forward by my noble friend emerged in the United States during the 1970s. The core idea was that, if a child appeared afraid of one of their parents, or did not want to spend time with them, this was the result of pathology, rather than a possible reaction to that parent’s behaviour. This theory was developed in the 1980s by psychiatrist Richard Gardner, who came up with the term “parental alienation syndrome”. Gardner believed that almost all children in custody litigation suffered from this supposed syndrome. To treat it, he recommended de-programming therapy, which denied maternal contact in order to change a child’s belief that they had been abused. To be clear, he thought that children should be forced to live with a parent whom they said abused them.

While the term “parental alienation syndrome” has fallen from fashion, theories of parental alienation, alienation, and children who resist or refuse contact are all grounded in the same ideas. And just like parental alienation syndrome, these new terms are based on weak evidence, founded mainly on clinical observation rather than empirical academic studies. The World Health Organization has also dropped the concept from its index and classification altogether.

While there is very little evidence for parental alienation, there are clear studies which demonstrate the gendered assumptions and myths underlying it. A recent American study published a few months ago found not only that 82% of the alienation claims analysed were brought by fathers but that fathers were more than twice as likely than mothers to win their cases when claiming alienation, and that fathers’ claims of alienation were far more likely to result in a change of residency than mothers’ claims. Parental alienation is not just bad science; it is bad science biased against women.

Despite this, the idea of parental alienation persists in public discussion and has gained traction in some parts of the family justice system, particularly regarding parental alienation experts being instructed in cases. But these so-called experts, who often have very limited credentials, are still referring to Gardner’s discredited theories and recommending transfers of residence from mothers to fathers. This has the potential to cause real harm. The Cafcass Cymru review noted that

“the label parental alienation syndrome (PAS) has been likened to a ‘nuclear weapon’ that can be exploited within the adversarial legal system in the battle for child residence”.

Yet these damaging ideas are now being proposed for inclusion within the statutory definition in the Bill.

The Bill is meant to tackle domestic violence, but as that quote warned, perpetrators of domestic abuse use this discredited theory to undermine non-abusive parents. This tactic has been highlighted by specialist domestic abuse organisations for more than a decade. There is clear research highlighting the links between domestic abuse and parental alienation allegations. A Canadian study looking at cases involving parental alienation accusations found that 42% also featured allegations of domestic or child abuse. In almost four-fifths of these cases, the parental alienation allegation was made by the alleged perpetrator of domestic or child abuse against the non-abusive parent.

Domestic abuse experts are clear about what is happening. Parental alienation is being used as a stock response to any allegation of domestic abuse. In contrast to the weak evidence base for parental alienation, the pattern of it being used like this by perpetrators is found in research from across the world, including the United States, Spain, Italy, Australia and New Zealand. It is also seen here in the United Kingdom. Survivors who directly contacted me have described this happening, and their experiences are echoed in the reports of organisations such as Women’s Aid, front-line services, and survivor campaigners. Dr Adrienne Barnett, a leading expert from Brunel University, has studied child contact cases in England and Wales, and found that 50% of the cases she looked at which involved allegations of parental alienation also involved domestic abuse allegations. Yet researchers and survivors tell us that if children are alienated, this is almost always interpreted by the courts as evidence of manipulation and parental alienation, and never as the alternative: that the parent has been abusive and alienated the child through their own actions.

These findings are confirmed by the Ministry of Justice’s expert panel review, which reported in June 2020. It warned that the pro-contact culture of the courts makes them receptive to accusations of parental alienation whenever concerns over child safety are raised. Alarmingly, parental alienation is then taken more seriously than allegations of domestic abuse. The expert panel made a number of recommendations which are in the process of being considered and implemented, but it is safe to say that this amendment would have a negative impact on this work.

Above all, we must not overlook the impact on children. On the basis of discredited science, children are being forced to live with abusers. Indeed, the theory and practice of parental alienation run counter to many of the advances that have been made in recent years, and in this Bill, when it comes to children and abuse. We increasingly recognise the importance of the voice of the child, and that children are victims of domestic abuse in their own right, and not just as bystanders. Yet the concept of parental alienation strips them of all agency and denies that they can really be suffering harm as a result of abuse—that suffering must be something dreamed up by their mother; an idea with which they have been brainwashed.

Nobody denies that there may be cases where abuse is falsely alleged, or where parents try to control their children’s affections. But it is already the job—the daily bread and butter—of the courts to determine whether allegations are true or not. In so far as there is genuinely abusive behaviour covered under the vague label of parental alienation, it would be covered by the much tighter and better evidenced concept of coercive control. Introducing parental alienation into the mix does not safeguard against abuse or protect against some heinous crime; it allows an allegation of a discredited concept to have equal or even greater weight than an allegation of domestic abuse, which we know is associated with significant harm to children.

The definition of domestic abuse in this Bill will be critical for improving responses for survivors and children experiencing domestic abuse. It is vital that it does not include concepts without a robust basis in evidence. There is no convincing evidence for theories of parental alienation. There is evidence, however, that they are used to counter domestic abuse allegations and that they risk causing great harm to survivors of domestic abuse, including children. I hope that my noble friend will consider withdrawing her amendment.

Baroness Garden of Frognal Portrait The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Baroness Garden of Frognal) (LD)
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My Lords, I think we may have the noble Baroness, Lady Watkins, back again. Perhaps she would like to continue with what she was saying.

Domestic Abuse Bill

Baroness Helic Excerpts
2nd reading & 2nd reading (Hansard) & 2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords
Tuesday 5th January 2021

(3 years, 6 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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: Consideration of Bill Amendments as at 6 July 2020 - (6 Jul 2020)
Baroness Helic Portrait Baroness Helic (Con) [V]
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My Lords, I am grateful to follow in the footsteps of Members from all sides here and in the other place who have worked steadily to bring this Bill to its final stages. I pay particular tribute to the former Prime Minister Theresa May, whose Government introduced this once-in-a-generation opportunity to bring the crime of domestic violence out from behind the walls of the home into the light of day and before our country’s law. Above all, I am conscious of all the survivors and their courage and strength, and of the many organisations that support them. I particularly want to mention Southall Black Sisters.

I come to this issue from my work on preventing sexual violence in conflict. That taught me what happens to women in war, but nothing prepared me for the horror of what happens, predominantly to women, in conditions of peace. It happens to women of all backgrounds and social status, women who appear strong yet at home are victims of this private crime. I expect that each and every one of us knows at least one victim and maybe their perpetrator too.

I also speak as someone who has had the sad honour of meeting migrant women who are victims of domestic violence. They face additional barriers to safety because abusers commonly use their fears of immigration enforcement and separation from their children to control them. In the words of one victim: “Without money, a job, a place to live or anyone, and on top of that with immigration problems, I had nowhere to go. I had to stay with him and let him do what he wanted.” I believe that three measures will make a real difference to these women: extending existing safety net provisions to all victims of domestic violence; guaranteeing safe reporting mechanisms; and ensuring that all survivors receive equally effective protection and support, regardless of their background or status. I hope that the Bill will address all these measures.

Victims of domestic violence include both women and men, but it is often children who suffer the most. Their lives may be marked by violence, abuse or psychological trauma, altering their normal development. We often talk about the best interests of the child, yet children are often voiceless, their rights neglected and wishes not respected. In particular, children can find themselves the victims of the concept of so-called parental alienation, which is sadly often used to cover up, deflect from or counter allegations of domestic abuse, forcing reunification rather than addressing violence and trauma and protecting the best interests of the child—very often with tragic consequences.

This concept, conceived in the United States, has crept into the UK family courts, where parental alienation is invoked as a stock response in cases involving allegations of domestic abuse. Shockingly, claims of parental alienation appear to be given more weight than allegations of abuse, as they are often backed by supposedly expert testimony and evidence, leading judges to make unsafe decisions around child contact and residence. As a result, current practices around parental alienations are exposing domestic abuse survivors and their children to even more harm, while entirely erasing the voice of the child. The Bill does not currently recognise parental alienation as a form of abuse, yet there are two references in the accompanying statutory guidance which should concern us all. Such references open a back door to the very harm that the Bill is designed to prevent. We should scrutinise the Bill extremely carefully to ensure that we do not let this happen.

That some women and children in our country are violently treated and not allowed free and equal lives reflects as much the failure of our collective willingness to confront the problem of domestic violence as the failure of our country’s law. This is a very good Bill, as many of your Lordships have noted already, but it could be excellent. I hope that in the weeks to come we can put some of this right.