Domestic Abuse Bill

(Report stage: House of Commons)
Sir Edward Leigh Excerpts
Monday 6th July 2020

(2 months, 2 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Bill Main Page
Home Office
Liz Saville Roberts Portrait Liz Saville Roberts - Hansard
6 Jul 2020, 6:39 p.m.

It is truly an honour to follow the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier), given the work that he has done to prevent the rough sex defence, alongside the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman). I welcome many of the Government’s new clauses and pay tribute to Members across the House who have worked constructively during the Bill Committee, and previously on the Joint Committee, to achieve that. Thanks to their efforts, the Bill now includes many landmark changes—frankly, too many for me to list in the time that I have. It is a pleasure for once to stand on this side of the House and welcome so many of them. I am sure that the whole House will join me in commending the outcome of what has been effective cross-party co-operation.

In that spirit, I urge the Government to take unequivocal action to guarantee that all victims of domestic abuse will be treated equally, and to afford them the same support and resources regardless of their immigration status. We were talking earlier about the evidence gap in relation to some victims, and how temporarily lifting the “no recourse to public funds rule” might provide the evidence required to address that gap, which seems to hamper the pilot project at present. How to find out exactly whom to target certainly seems to be an issue.

I add my voice to the call for further updates, especially on how the pilot scheme might achieve the ratification of the Istanbul convention, which I believe all Members present would very much welcome. I therefore urge the Government to support new clauses 22, 23, 26 and 27, which call for special attention to be paid to the exceptional circumstances migrant women face.

Amendment 46, in my name, would ensure that a representative for Wales would hold a seat on the commissioner’s advisory board to reflect the particular circumstances faced by women in Wales. Many of the services aimed at preventing and supporting people affected by domestic abuse are of course devolved, whether relating to healthcare, housing or social services. Specific Welsh legislation exists in the form of the Violence against Women, Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence (Wales) Act 2015. Much of the funding arrangements are already also devolved in Wales. With the role of the commissioner, it is important that the voice of victims of domestic abuse is heard. What I fear is that, as things stand, the voice of victims of domestic abuse in Wales will not be represented. It is important to remember that there are people who are at present experiencing the jagged edge of legislation, which will hold until Wales gains full legal jurisdiction. The designate domestic abuse commissioner has already done excellent work in co-operating with organisations in Wales—I commend Ms Jacobs for her hard work and her keen interest in the specific circumstances faced by Welsh women—but I beg the Minister to consider that the amendment would safeguard that relationship into the future, rather than being one on voluntary grounds.

Finally, my new clause 21 calls for the creation of a domestic abuse register to ensure that greater protection is provided for potential victims of domestic abuse from individuals who have a track record of abusive behaviour within a relationship and whose potential for repeat violent actions warrants proactive intervention. A domestic abuse register would provide the incentive for a shift in focus away from reacting to domestic abuse towards a preventative approach. We know that repeat offending by perpetrators with violent and controlling histories of abuse is common. Data provided by the Metropolitan police to the London Assembly as part of the Assembly’s domestic abuse report showed that in the year up to September 2019 there were 13,600 repeat victims of domestic abuse and that 21% of the cases discussed at the 2018 multi-agency risk assessment conference were repeat cases. One concern raised in Committee with regard to the domestic abuse register was the consequential increased bureaucratic burden it might place on police forces. Although I argue that cross-force technology offers opportunities, I respond in the spirit of compromise and urge the Government to support new clause 33, tabled by the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), as a way of improving the current situation, or even new clause 32.

We must take this opportunity to ensure that the Domestic Abuse Bill includes lifesaving measures to protect all victims of abuse. Recognising predictable perpetrator behaviour and addressing it is key to the Bill’s future success.

Sir Edward Leigh Portrait Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con) - Hansard
6 Jul 2020, 6:43 p.m.

I want to speak, if I may, on new clause 28. I thought a consultant who wrote to me summed it up very well: “Of course, we recognise that the Bill is important in view of widespread psychological, physical and emotional sexual abuse of women.” That is a view we all share. However, new clause 28 relates to the enabling of access to abortions in abusive relationships and the effect of the new clause will be to lead the way to coercive abortions within the concept of abusive relationships.

The consultant continued: “From a clinical perspective, I cannot understand how there would be any confidence in detecting an abusive relationship on the basis of a telephone conversation or audio-visual interview. How can the clinician distinguish between a false claim of abuse in order for the women to access a home abortion and a genuinely abusive relationship in which the woman might well be coerced into having an abortion by a partner or other family members? As a consultant”—I stress that this is not my argument, but the consultant’s argument—“I would take any abusive relationship very seriously, as it may directly impact upon patient welfare and raise important safeguarding issues. Indeed, what would be the situation if the doctor believes in ‘good faith’ that a ‘home abortion’ is being forced on the woman as the result of an abusive relationship with the father? The presumption behind the new clause is that the woman wants an abortion, but is prevented from proceeding because of the abusive relationship. However, it is likely that in the context of an abusive relationship she is being forced to have the abortion by her partner. New clause 28 would enable access to such coercive or forced abortions in abusive relationships.” That is a very clear argument from a consultant working in the field about the dangers of new clause 28.

There is also quite a lot that is unclear about new clause 28. For example, it is unclear whether a woman could have abortions anywhere and also whether the unborn child would have to be of a certain gestational age. That is why it is important that my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) set out in her amendments that there should be a proper inquiry before the temporary order is made perfect. I think the Government share that point of view.

Break in Debate

Jess Phillips Portrait Jess Phillips - Hansard

I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman agrees with the Government-funded telephone lines for domestic abuse if it so difficult to take advice and to give advice to women in a domestic abuse situation over the telephone.

Sir Edward Leigh Portrait Sir Edward Leigh - Hansard
6 Jul 2020, 12:06 a.m.

I think it was designed by the Government as a very temporary measure. I do not think for a moment that it was designed as a permanent measure; it was designed simply in the context of covid-19. Body language and visual signs cannot be observed over the telephone. It is not a perfect way of consulting. There are already investigations into nine cases where pills issued via telephone were taken beyond the recommended gestation. This is less than two months after the service commenced. In one case, the abortion took place some 18 weeks over the legal limit of nine weeks and six days. We have also seen, of course, the media give better attention to domestic abuse and that increase in visibility may have given victims greater strength to come forward, which is good, but the gravity of women being coerced into abortion does not seem to have been taken as seriously as it should have been. It seems obvious to me that a woman seeking an abortion under duress may be being observed by abusive partners, or are otherwise acting in fear, and they will be less likely to come forward and disclose abuse.

I could quote doctors on this again and again, but there is not enough time. One said to me:

“This proposed amendment would place doctors in a very risky situation. Deciding whether a patient might be in an abusive situation by one telemedicine consultation would be almost impossible… Assessment of women at risk of domestic abuse should be part of a comprehensive safeguarding strategy—it should not be left to a single doctor working under time pressure, via the medium of telemedicine.”

I know that there are strong views and I respect the position of the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson). None the less, we will never agree, and this is, frankly, lazy legislating. It is an abuse of parliamentary procedure. Abortion is such an important issue that we need to have a serious debate around it. We in the Pro-Life lobby recognise that we will never change the fact that if a woman wants an abortion, she will get one, but we will never give up arguing the importance of the value of all life, however frail, and the dignity of all human beings. We consider it a vitally important issue and it should be dealt with properly by parliament.

Christine Jardine Portrait Christine Jardine (Edinburgh West) (LD) - Hansard

It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh). In fact, it is a pleasure to have reached this stage in the journey of this Bill. As the Minister said earlier, it has in some ways been a very collegiate experience. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) also referred to that as well. It was certainly something that I felt about the Committee. Perhaps that has been because it is a journey that we all appreciate will be life changing for the hundreds of thousands of women particularly, who in this country and every year, face domestic abuse. If there is one message that we all want to go out from this place today, it is that we will accept no excuse for domestic abuse against anyone, whether physical, emotional or financial. It will simply not be tolerated.

In the time I have been involved in the Bill, I am happy to acknowledge that the Government have moved their position in several significant ways, and I am particularly pleased to see children now included on the face of the Bill, because we all recognise the impact that domestic abuse can have on them.

I also acknowledge the fact that the Government have listened to calls from the Liberal Democrats to improve protection of abuse survivors in family courts, where often perpetrators have been able to continue to coerce and control the person they have abused. However, there are still significant changes that many of us in this House would like to see—I will come on to migrant women in a moment—but we also want to strengthen support available from local authorities and measures to support teenagers involved in relationships that are abusive.

As I said, most importantly before us today are the amendments particularly relating to migrant women who encounter domestic abuse. That could enable the ratification of the Istanbul convention—it is now eight years or more since this country signed it. On that subject, I would specifically like to mention new clauses 26 and 27. I am mindful of the Minister’s comments on supporting the support for migrant women scheme, and I look forward to seeing that come to fruition, but new clause 26 would give migrant women who survive domestic abuse the right to remain in this country.

I note that the Government said in their letter that they did not believe a blanket proposal was appropriate, but as Amnesty International points out, expanding the domestic violence rule to offer leave to remain to all survivors is by far the simplest and surest way to stop anyone falling through the cracks. During covid-19, we have seen that it is all too easy for people to do that, regardless of good intentions.

The other relevant new clause I would mention is new clause 27, which would prevent the sharing of data between Government agencies such as the police and the Home Office and reassure those afraid to come forward and report violent and unacceptable abuse for fear that their immigration status might be investigated and they could ultimately be deported. How can we help people? What would it matter what steps were put in place to support them when they are too afraid to come forward in the first place? Surely we must offer those facing the most horrific of personal circumstances the comfort and security of knowing that they will be helped unconditionally. Numerous charities, such as Southall Black Sisters, End Violence against Women and other organisations, have called for these measures, and we heard heart-breaking evidence in Committee from a woman who had come here from Brazil only to find herself eight years later facing the most difficult of situations because of domestic abuse. I believe the Bill can change that, and all survivors of domestic abuse, regardless of where they come from or who they are, must have the same protection in law.

There is one other vital issue and that is misogyny as a hate crime, in the amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), which I have supported throughout the passage of the Bill. The reason is simple for me: if we are truly to tackle domestic abuse effectively—not just respond after the fact but prevent it in the first place—we have to understand where it comes from. That is the aim of amendment 35 in requiring police to record and act on offences that are motivated by misogyny—a hatred and disregard for women. It has been in place in Nottinghamshire since 2016, and campaigners there say that the approach has given women the confidence to report abuse.

In commending those various amendments to the House, I would also like to pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) and hope that when we conclude the proceedings she is happy with what we have done with the Bill she first brought forward.