Nick Thomas-Symonds – 2020 Speech on the Domestic Abuse Bill

Below is the text of the speech made by Nick Thomas-Symonds, the Labour MP for Torfaen, in the House of Commons on 28 April 2020.

I would like to put on record my thanks to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, the Speaker, the House authorities and all staff for facilitating the sitting of the House in these most unusual circumstances.

I am grateful to the Lord Chancellor for his welcome. He and I have debated many times at the Dispatch Box in various roles, and I look forward to continuing to do so in future. I also look forward to debating with the Home Secretary when she is next in Parliament.

The Lord Chancellor was absolutely right to pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield) and for Bradford West (Naz Shah) for their very moving speeches in October, when the Bill was last before the House.

I welcome the Bill’s return to us today, in these extraordinary circumstances. The Opposition support it, and it is entirely right that, even in the midst of this crisis, we send the strongest possible message that tackling the appalling crime of domestic abuse remains a priority and that some of the urgently needed provisions in the Bill can progress.

However, it is not without bitter irony that we face the prospect of pushing forward with the Bill in such a constrained timeframe. After all, it was as far back as March 2018 when the Lord Chancellor’s predecessor but one, who no longer sits in this House, announced the initial consultation for the Bill, and it was promised long before that. The wait has been too long for those desperately needed provisions, and many others besides, that should be included in the Bill. I will come back to that.

The lockdown has changed patterns of crime. Over the weekend, the National Crime Agency announced that it had alerted the police to 1,300 potential child sexual abuse cases and that it had also recently arrested a British man possessing indecent images of children who was attempting to re-enter the UK from the Philippines. That paints a worrying picture and we must do all in our power to stop such abuses and prevent them from ever taking place. I pay tribute to the NCA, particularly its director general, Lynne Owens, who is leading the fight to tackle those heinous crimes.

Isolating victims from the support of others is what the perpetrators of domestic abuse often seek to do, so it is sadly no surprise that the coronavirus crisis and the lockdown required to deal with it have produced the conditions in which domestic abuse has sharply increased. At the end of last week, the Metropolitan police reported that in the six weeks up to 19 April, officers across London had made 14,093 arrests for domestic abuse offences—nearly 100 a day on average—and domestic abuse calls had risen by around a third. At the same time, the national domestic abuse helpline has experienced a 25% increase in calls and online requests for help.

Clearly, the warning signals of abuse are flashing red. We have been seeing and hearing those warnings from the domestic abuse sector since the start of the crisis. Asking people to stay at home when home might not be a safe place is clearly a huge challenge. Add to that the massive operational challenge that the need for social distancing creates for refuges and related services and the drop-off in charity funding, and it is clear that services for some of the most at-risk people face ​extraordinary difficulty. That is why I have been clear since becoming the shadow Home Secretary that the Government must take action on tackling domestic abuse and supporting the wider sector that deals with violence against women and girls.

Government action, such as the £2 million of funding for a helpline, is welcome, as is the You Are Not Alone public campaign, but it is not enough to provide the emergency support necessary. For a start, that £2 million needs to reach the frontline. We will work constructively and responsibly, and we have repeated the offer to discuss what can be done to fast-track that support.

One of my first priorities was to meet representatives from the sector with the shadow Domestic Violence and Safeguarding Minister. Many of those women have put themselves in harm’s way throughout their working lives to stand up for people who are facing abuse, and that is even more true in the middle of the current crisis. The message they gave me was absolutely clear: not only does the coronavirus crisis seem to be pushing up the rate of domestic abuse, but it is putting extraordinary pressure on the services that people turn to for help. Refuges face a massive challenge in keeping their doors open while sticking to the social distancing rules. We are asking people to do the right thing and stay at home, so it is only right that the country is there to support the people put at direct risk by those measures.

The Government have yet to engage fully, and the action does remain too slow. It is our intention to try to set out in Committee amendments that would guarantee rapid support for the domestic abuse charities from the £750 million fund that the Chancellor announced to support charity work. I would like to say from the outset that that in itself is an inadequate amount, and I urge the Chancellor to think again. The Lord Chancellor mentioned making allocations, but let me make this suggestion to him. First, a dedicated proportion of the £750 million should be ring-fenced for domestic abuse and the wider violence against women and girls sector. We say 10%, which is not unreasonable and would keep services going. Secondly, a system should be in place to fast-track that investment to the frontline before charities have to close their doors for being oversubscribed or unable to pay their staff. Thirdly, an element of support should be earmarked for specialist services such as BAME services run with and for migrant women, men who are at risk of or suffering domestic abuse, and specialist LGBTQ services.

I do not want to stand here and criticise the Government. I want the Minister to show the grip and urgency that the challenge requires and needs urgently. It cannot be right that vital services for the most at-risk people are in the position of turning people away because of a lack of funding. As I set out in my recent letter to the Home Secretary, there are a range of ways that the Government can help the sector, such as co-ordinating access to under-used existing accommodation; ensuring that support workers have access to PPE; providing technological support; and ensuring that women are not trapped in abusive situations because they have no recourse to public funds. That requires grip and a more joined-up cross-Government approach. We have seen that happening in the devolved Administrations, such as the £1.2 million fund created by the Welsh Government to purchase community accommodation for victims, to enable move-on ​accommodation and prevent lack of bed spaces in refuges or, indeed, to provide other accommodation when a refuge is not the right answer. In London, the Mayor has dedicated £4 million to the London community response fund, taking the total to £16 million to help the capital’s community and voluntary organisations. The lesson is that, with political will, these changes can be made. The need is now and the Government must respond to that challenge.

I turn to the Bill itself. It clearly is, as the Lord Chancellor set out, a step forward to have a statutory definition in the first clause of the Bill that also includes, in addition to violent and sexually threatening behaviour, controlling and coercive behaviour and other forms of abuse, including economic, psychological and emotional. I welcome the appointment of a domestic abuse commissioner and pay tribute to the work that Nicole Jacobs is doing as designate commissioner, alongside the work of the Victims’ Commissioner, Dame Vera Baird, and indeed the children’s commissioners across the UK. I welcome the domestic abuse protection orders and the notices, although I hope that they will be accompanied by support, training and resources our officers need. On the family courts, I agree with the Lord Chancellor that the prohibition of cross-examination of victims by perpetrators in person is welcome and long overdue, and I remember speaking on it myself in the Prisons and Courts Bill, which fell before the 2017 general election. I am glad the wait will not be even more protracted.

We will look to improve the Bill in Committee, and the sector must have its full say in giving evidence to the Committee. That process of scrutiny would be far more effective if we had more information before us. The Home Office has undertaken a review of how migrant women, especially those with no recourse to public funds, interact with domestic abuse provision. Having that review available to members of the Committee is very important.

The second issue on which there is a currently unpublished review is the family courts. Prior to the coronavirus crisis, it was thought that the family justice review panel would report this spring on how the family courts protect children and parents in cases of domestic abuse and other serious offences. Again, having that available would greatly enhance the Committee stage.

A victim is a victim. We will press the Government on protections for disabled victims. We cannot tolerate a situation where victims with insecure migrant status are not only prevented by that from coming forward, but actually have it used against them by someone abusing them. That is why, as I have argued, the Government should suspend the system of no recourse to public funds during the coronavirus crisis, so that victims can get the support they need, not only in their interests but in all our interests in this public health emergency.

In Committee, we will also press the Government on a clear statutory duty on public authorities in England and Wales to commission specialist domestic abuse support and services for all people affected by domestic abuse, regardless of status. That should include a duty on the Secretary of State to provide sufficient funding. The duty should be to all who are affected by domestic abuse, including those with insecure immigration status, ​children and young people. Let us make sure, too, that there are perpetrator programmes with proper quality assurance as to their standard.

We will also push the Government on measures on post-separation abuse. In fact, it is often the case that when perpetrators lose control of the situation, their behaviour becomes even more extreme and the victims require greater protection. I say to the Lord Chancellor that although there are existing laws, such as the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, more is required to be done to tackle the threat to people even after the particular relationship has ended. We will press that in Committee.

The Bill contains a series of measures that will clearly have wide support across the House. I pay tribute to all those people who worked on it, particularly in the last Parliament, including, on these Benches, my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris), who pushed it forward with her characteristic passion and determination. She is not sat in the House today, but I am sure she will be watching at home. She should have our thanks for the way that she conducted herself.

I implore the Government to keep an open mind in Committee as to how the Bill can be improved. If they decide that they want to ignore all the suggestions for improvement, that will be an extraordinarily grave mistake. The Bill is a real opportunity to consensually make vital changes in the interests of victims and potential victims up and down the country.

We should remember, too, that many services that we rely on to respond to the crisis, and to support women and girls at risk of violence, have faced a toxic cocktail of cuts to policing and preventive services for a decade. We did not go into the crisis with the resilience that we would all have hoped for.

I conclude by giving my deepest thanks to the frontline workers who are doing so much to keep our communities safe and who are working especially hard to protect those most at risk. They deserve all our gratitude and respect for all that they do, putting themselves at risk to keep us all safe.

Desperate as these circumstances are, I say to anyone who is at home and afraid that they are not alone. Since taking up this role, I have made it my priority to speak to senior and frontline officers, who all assured me that tackling domestic abuse remains exactly where it should be—right at the top of their priority list—and that anyone who feels that they need their support should reach out. The message that should go out from this House today is that they are not alone.