Domestic Abuse Bill Debate

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Department: Home Office

Domestic Abuse Bill

(Committee: 3rd sitting (Hansard))
Baroness Wilcox of Newport Excerpts
Monday 1st February 2021

(6 months ago)

Lords Chamber

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Home Office
Baroness Meacher Portrait Baroness Meacher (CB) [V]
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My Lords, I will speak to Amendment 154 in my name. I thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Wilcox and Lady Hamwee, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London for supporting it.

The key point is that victims of domestic abuse and their witnesses must be able to divulge personal data in the context of seeking or receiving support or assistance related to domestic abuse without the risk that such data may be used for immigration control purposes. Proposed new subsections (1) and (2) require the Secretary of State to make arrangements to honour this key principle and proposed new subsection (4) requires them to issue guidance to relevant officials and others affected by the new clause.

Migrant women with insecure immigration status are, in my view very understandably, reluctant to report domestic abuse to the statutory services. Would you, one might ask, particularly to the police? This reluctance is due to the current data-sharing agreements between statutory services, including the police and the Home Office, for immigration control purposes. This means that women affected cannot seek support or a safe place to go, with the most appalling consequences, as one can very easily imagine. Perpetrators are not being brought to justice.

In 2019, the Step Up Migrant Women campaign found that half of migrant women with insecure immigration status do not report abuse to the police for fear of detention and deportation. The use of insecure immigration status by perpetrators as a tool of coercive control has been highlighted for many years. CEDAW highlights this problem and calls on states to repeal restrictive immigration laws that leave migrant domestic workers vulnerable in this way. Imkaan’s vital statistics report shows that no less than 92% of migrant women have reported deportation threats from their perpetrator.

The Government’s draft statutory guidance framework for the Bill recognises the situation; indeed, it recognises the need for more support if these women are to seek help, but this support is not available in this Bill. The Government’s response has been to announce a pilot scheme to assess the needs of migrant women and provide those with no recourse to public funds with emergency accommodation. This is really concerning. As I have said, we know very well what the issues are and their consequences for migrant women. We know perfectly well what their needs are—the same as those of other women or men subject to domestic abuse—so I do not believe that we need this pilot. We need legislative protection for the women involved. If the Bill is passed without a solution to this problem, it could be years before the next appropriate piece of legislation. I really hope the Minister will agree that the proposed pilot is redundant and therefore not appropriate at this point.

The briefing sent to us by Step Up Migrant Women and others includes a number of heart-rending cases—I am very happy to pass them on to the Minister, but I have a feeling she already has them. She might want to make that clear.

In view of the serious crimes that go unpunished because of the fears of women with insecure migrant status, it is not surprising that the Equality and Human Rights Commission supports this and related amendments. The EHRC refers to a joint report of several policing bodies, including the HMICFRS, which found that victims of crime with insecure or uncertain immigration status are fearful that, if they report crimes to the police, their information will be shared with the Home Office. It concluded that the current system of information sharing between the police and the Home Office was causing significant harm to the public interest. I hope the Minister will respond to this particular concern in her response.

I put on record that, in 2019, the draft Bill committee made a clear recommendation to the Government to establish

“a firewall at the levels of policy and practice to separate reporting of crime and access to support services from immigration control”.

That is exactly what this amendment seeks to do.

Finally, as the Minister knows, without this amendment, and no doubt others, the measures in this Bill will not be compliant with Article 4(3) of the Istanbul convention, which states that

“provisions of this Convention by the Parties, in particular measures to protect the rights of victims, shall be secured without discrimination on any ground such as … national or social origin … migrant or refugee status”.

The Minister will know that, in December 2019, the Government stood on a manifesto pledging to support all victims of domestic abuse. Can we discuss how to deal with this before Report? I am tremendously aware that she is responsible for, I think, three Bills—overwhelming, I must say—and is clearly extremely busy, but I would very much welcome even 10 or 15 minutes to try to clarify where we might go on Report. I realise that these are complex issues but very much hope that the Minister will work with her colleagues to achieve government support for this amendment or something like it.

Baroness Wilcox of Newport Portrait Baroness Wilcox of Newport (Lab) [V]
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My Lords, it is an absolute pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, who has such knowledge and experience of these issues as a former social worker, and to speak in support of her Amendment 154, calling on the Government to ensure that the personal data of a victim of domestic abuse in the UK is processed only for the purpose of that person requesting or receiving support or assistance related to domestic abuse and not for immigration control. We need to separate these distinct areas of immigration enforcement and the necessary protection of victims of domestic abuse. We cannot continue to ignore this perilous area where migrant women are put at continuing risk from their perpetrators while fearing deportation.

During the research for this amendment, I read moving testimony from many women, some of whom have been helped by Safety4Sisters in the north-west—a small, committed group of Manchester-based feminist and anti-racist activists. They speak to many migrant women who continue to receive piecemeal, inconsistent and, on occasion, downright dangerous responses from state and non-state agencies. I was particularly moved by the response of one of their clients, who summed up her experience so succinctly yet so movingly:

“We just have humiliations, a lack of dignity, we are powerless next to the man abusing you.”

The organisation offered a place to migrant women where they were treated with dignity and respect, and as citizens. Women talked frequently about feeling that they were not seen as human beings, either by family or by external agencies. Being treated as illegal was an all-too-frequent experience, which acted as a powerful deterrent to asserting their rights and engaging with wider society. It also acted as a label that had a profound effect on the women’s sense of self-worth, intensifying the threatening messages that violent partners and families had already employed to control the women and keep them from leaving. Time and again, migrant women reported that as part of the pattern of violence, abusers would constantly state that they were worth nothing and threaten that the authorities would deport them and remove their children if they reported the violence. By positioning women as outsiders, abusers were able to maintain their power over their victims.