Laura Farris – 2020 Speech on the Domestic Abuse Bill

Below is the text of the speech made by Laura Farris, the Conservative MP for Newbury, in the House of Commons on 28 April 2020.

This legislation has been a long time coming, and for those on the Front Bench on this side and across the Floor of the House it ​has been a labour of love. I commend my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) and the Lord Chancellor and his ministerial team for all their work.

There is so much that the Bill will achieve. I start by praising the creation of the post of domestic abuse commissioner. The Home Affairs Committee had the benefit of hearing from her a fortnight ago when she gave evidence on the impact of the lockdown on women with abusive partners. The cogency of her evidence, and her understanding of the pressure points and the unique challenges for women seeking escape, left no doubt in my mind about how vital her role will be.

Then there is the simple act of creating a statutory definition that expresses domestic abuse in all its myriad forms, which is what I think makes the Bill so much more than the sum of its parts. When the Sex Discrimination Act was passed in 1975, it was on the face of it a law that gave women the right to bring cases to employment tribunals, but in fact it was a piece of great social reform that said to women, for the first time really, “We understand the wrong that you experience. We give it definition as a statutory tort and we give you a right of enforcement.” The Bill has many of those features. It shines a spotlight in the darkest corners, and it puts women centre stage.

It is with the darkest corners in mind that I speak in support of the amendments jointly proposed by the Mother of the House, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), and my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier) on the rough sex defence. Through that defence, acts of extreme violence are given a different complexion because they occurred during sex, and it is said that the victim wanted it—something that the Prime Minister himself has said is unacceptable. I know that there are big brains on the Front Bench giving this serious thought. Their task is technical, and it must avoid unintended consequences.

The Lord Chancellor was correct when he said that rough sex is not a defence. That is true, but it does not prevent a defendant from establishing that there was consent when the victim is not alive to tell the tale. The Natalie Connolly story is a case in point. I cannot imagine how hard it was for her family to hear how John Broadhurst inflicted more than 75 catastrophic injuries on their daughter, sprayed bleach in her face and left her in a pool of blood. And yet he established in court that one of the most extreme and violent of those acts—the intimate insertion of a bottle of carpet cleaner—when he had beaten her black and blue, and she was very close to death, was done with her consent. In fact, at paragraph 31 of the sentencing remarks, the court found that it was done at her instigation. It is easy to see why her father, Alan, told The Sun in an interview last month that at times, it felt like Natalie was on trial. That is why I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest for affording Natalie the dignity in this Chamber that she was deprived of in her death.

Natalie’s case is by no means an isolated example. Take Laura Huteson, who in 2019 had her throat slit by her partner, or Anna Banks, who was throttled to death by her partner a few years earlier. In all these cases, what is really just extreme violence against women is given a veneer of complicity through the sexual element. The victim has no voice. The lurid details of a private encounter are made public in circumstances where, had she lived and the case proceeded as one of rape or ​sexual assault, she would have been anonymised, and the man receives a derisory sentence on a manslaughter conviction.

We must recognise that violence of this nature is becoming normalised. ComRes undertook a survey last November of a large group of women aged between 18 and 39. Of them, 70% said that they had experienced strangulation during sex, and of that cohort, more than half said that the man had not sought their consent before doing so. They had not wanted it, and some of them gave moving interviews to the BBC in which they said they thought the man was going to kill them.

This landmark legislation offers an opportunity for the Government to show cultural leadership. I hope that it will look to the horizon and build in statutory protections that will keep women in relationships safe for the future.