HC Deb 16 July 1973 vol 860 cc218-28

12.11 a.m.

Mr. Jack Ashley (Stoke-on-Trent, South)

I want to draw the attention of the House to a subject cocooned in prejudice and buried in fear—the problem of wives who are victims of domestic violence.

Thousands of men in this country are subjecting their wives to physical brutality. Some are psychopaths, some are alcoholics, and some are sadists. All of them must be stopped from indulging in gratuitous violence. If necessary, they must be given psychiatric treatment, but the first priority must be to protect their wives. Yet many women allege that they are refused protection by the police and neglected by the social services. The general experience of these women is that no one wants to know.

The public indifference to this problem is remarkable—perhaps because domestic brutality is often confused with normal domestic dispute. Too many men flippantly attribute it to "female provocation" or even "a perk of marriage". In fact the torment and misery of these wives is just another, but more savage, aspect of sex discrimination.

The testimony I have received from the women themselves and their letters prove to me that thuggery and mugging are not confined to the highway. They exist in the home, extorting fear, submission and subservience from women who are deprived of their independence. In some cases they are almost deprived of their identity.

Let me quote one example of a woman living in Wales: I have been married for nearly 18 years to a husband who has subjected me to countless beatings in which I have sustained injuries ranging from black eyes', cuts on my face multiple bruises on my legs, arms and body to strangulation marks on my neck. I have been punched with closed fists—blow after blow being rained on my head; I have been kicked in the head, the ribs and the abdomen; I have been flung across the room like a rag-doll; I have been beaten lying on the floor". I hope that typical letter gives the House a clearer picture of the violence practised in British homes today. But for one woman victim in the Midlands there can be no clear picture of anything, for she is blind.

According to one of my honourable—-and most trusted—Friends, she lost her sight five years ago, when she was 32, after a haemorrhage of the retina. She is constantly beaten up by her husband—who is an executive class civil servant. Could anything be more despicable—or cowardly—than that?

Clearly, brutal husbands are not confined to the working class or families living in poverty. They exist, and give full reign to their violence, at many levels of society. Sometimes their veneer of respectability cloaks shattering cruelty.

In a letter to me, the ex-wife of a top executive in Berkshire has spelt out her stark experience: In the summers I couldn't swim or wear summer dresses because I was so covered with bruises. When I was eight months pregnant with twins I was knocked down and kicked repeatedly in the stomach and kidneys; the babies were born prematurely and although they had both been apparently healthy inside me up to the time of my 'accident' one of them (who had stopped moving inside me after the ' accident ') was born dead. So much for the myth of normal domestic disputes confined to inadequate homes. Imagine the public outcry if a thug attacked a woman like that in the streets. Yet it is condoned in a home because too many people believe that a marriage licence is a licence for domestic violence.

These are by no means isolated cases. Let me read an extract from the letter of a social worker in Solihull: I am the social worker at a school for educationally subnormal children, a good number of whom are brain damaged. I have been amazed—no longer surprised—at the number who have been beaten during their pregnancy". So the problem assumes larger proportions than anyone suspected.

Already the Chiswick Aid Centre has received hundreds of applications from women in distress all over the country. The centre was established by Mrs. Erin Pizzey, a compassionate and remarkable woman who first identified the problem, then promptly did something about it.

Her pioneering work deserves great tribute, especially as it has been conducted in face of indifference and sometimes hostility. But it must be supplemented in other parts of the country.

Already there are signs of significant and influential support. The Bishop of Aston, in Birmingham, has written to me about a new project for the Midlands. The Trent Trust, in Stoke-on-Trent, is also looking for accommodation for battered wives.

The demand is great but, as there are no official statistics available, I have made my own inquiries. In Stoke-on-Trent, a city of 250,000 people, 80 wives who had endured habitual cruelty asked the Social Services Department for help in the past year. In the county of Staffordshire, with a total population of just over one million, 320 assaulted wives complained to the police. Assuming these areas are typical, both of them give an approximate figure for the country as a whole of 16,000.

Some more remarkable figures have been given to me this afternoon by the Citizens Advice Bureau. In Manchester, with a population of 543,000, in the past six months 149 battered and beaten wives have asked the bureau for help. This is the equivalent of an annual rate of about 27,000 per 50 million of the population. Ashton-under-Lyne, with a population of 45,000, has had 37 cases in the past six months, equivalent to about 75,000 cases annually per 50 million population. In Stockport the rate is equivalent to 46,000 per 50 million people. In Salford the rate is 34,000, in Oldham it is 38,000 and in Prestwich it is 25,000. No one can now pretend that this is a minor problem.

If so many women in one year are so distressed that they seek help from police and social service departments, how vast is Britain's reservoir of needless cruelty and suffering?

The existence of a problem of this size and nature is a badge of shame reflecting on our society, on our police who allow it, on our lawyers who are often so inadequate, on our legal system which is cumbersome, on our social services, which ignore it. All of them bear a responsibility that has not so far been fully accepted.

Over half the letters I have received from battered wives complain of failure by the police to take action: Even when I fled to a police station with my face covered with blood all they did was write a report down in a book". A woman in Devon who had appealed to the police said: Never shall I ask help of the police, they make one feel degraded and humiliated". Inevitably, many women assume that nothing can be done because the phrase "domestic dispute" is parroted as an incantation for inaction. But much can be achieved, because even within the existing law the police and lawyers can significantly reduce violence. Every policeman, every solicitor and every housewife should be made aware of the Home Office Parliamentary Answer to me in June: The law does not discriminate between assaults by a husband on his wife and other assaults. Any assault constitutes a criminal offence". But a comprehensive plan to transform a serious situation must include action over a wide range. In the all too short time at my disposal I propose the following 15-point plan: the Home Secretary should write to every chief constable making four requests.

First, a criminal assault on a wife must be treated exactly the same as a criminal assault on a Member of Parliament, a police officer or a member of the Royal Family.

Secondly, every policeman should be informed that there is no law preventing him from interfering in domestic disputes where violence is use.

Thirdly, the police should prosecute in cases of criminal assault in the home rather than leave action to the woman.

Fourthly, there should be a guarantee of police protection to all wives who need it, and to ensure that in cases of criminal proceedings for violence the man is kept in custody until trial.

The Attorney-General should, first, request the Law Society officers to read the recent report by the Chiswick Aid Centre lawyers and send it to every solicitor, every citizen's advice bureau and every social service department, and to other appropriate organisations.

Secondly, he should request the Law Society to take steps to increase the number of solicitors familiar with this type of work and to be willing to undertake it.

Thirdly, he should ask the Law Society to provide immediate legal aid for all wives taking action against their husbands for criminal assault, even if they are not at that time taking steps for separation or divorce.

Fourthly, he should encourage the courts to request psychiatric evidence in all cases of severe and continuous assault.

The Secretary of State for Social Services should, first, take urgent action within the next three months to set up a network of acceptable sanctuaries for assaulted women.

Secondly, he should ensure that all women who leave their husbands because of violence receive their benefits immediately.

Thirdly, he should replace his general invitation for information with specific requests to representative organisations of doctors, solicitors, social workers, citizens' advice bureaux, probation officers and other interested bodies.

The Secretary of State for the Department of the Environment should, first, encourage local councils to give a wife temporary tenancy if she has evidence of brutality.

Secondly, he should urge that the permanent tenancy be given to whoever is given custody of the children after a breakdown of marriage.

Thirdly, he should seek legislation to give all wives equal rights in the matrimonial home.

Finally, the Prime Minister should ensure that all interested Government Departments collect relevant statistics and consider short- and long-term solutions to this problem.

If this plan is adopted we can lift the burden of brutality from the shoulders of thousands of women whose lives have been blighted.

12.25 a.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Mark Carlisle)

Everyone should be grateful to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley) for bringing the complex and very distressing problem of battered wives to the attention of the House this evening. We all appreciate and understand the difficulties of these unfortunate women. The hon. Gentleman is right in saying that society must do what it can to prevent their suffering and ill-treatment. About that there can be no dispute. The Government are anxious to ensure that the various agencies—the police, the probation service, the local authority social services, and the medical services—are able to do all that they can to assist these women with their extremely disturbing domestic problems.

This is no new problem, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree. Violence within marriage is, regrettably, nothing new. Brutality and callous cruelty have, I suspect, been with us for many generations. In view of the history of recent past times, I question whether it is today an increasing rather than a decreasing problem. However, whether it is increasing or decreasing it is none the less disturbing.

We know very little about the extent of the problem. The hon. Gentleman quoted figures. If we are honest, we must admit that we shall probably never know the full extent of the problem. Some examples of violence that goes on in the privacy of the home in the late hours of the night may never be known to those who are not directly involved. What different married couples will themselves accept as normal and acceptable differs. We are involved with the whole spectrum—from the marital tiff, on the one hand, to the wife beating that is the reflection of some mental disorder or abnormality, on the other.

I accept that this is not a problem limited to any one social class, but to accept as I do the problem that the hon. Gentleman has drawn to our attention is not to underestimate the difficulties of the authorities in dealing with it. As the hon. Gentleman said, quoting from an answer I gave to him, the law does not discriminate between assaults between a husband on his wife and other assaults: any assault constitutes a criminal offence. If the assault amounts to the infliction of actual or grevious bodily harm the police should always be prepared to take proceedings against the person responsible. In cases of common assault, whether it involves a husband and wife or two unrelated people, the police do not themselves, in general, institute legal proceedings. Section 42, I think it is, of the Offences Against the Persons Act 1861 requires that such proceedings should be taken by or on behalf of the aggrieved party. This means that the police can take proceedings themselves only on the express authority of the victim. There are, I can assure the hon. Member, good reasons for such a distinction. In the generality of ordinary cases, criminal proceedings may prevent the assaulted persons from pursuing their own civil remedies. I repeat that the police, in exercising their official functions, are guided by the same criteria irrespective of the relationship of the parties involved.

To say that, of course, ignores the practical problems of the police in involving themselves in what are basically domestic situations. First, as I have said, because of the very circumstances in which the assaults are committed, they often do not become known to the police. The women concerned do not go to the police, and nobody knows. Secondly, even when a wife does go to the police she is often unwilling to institute criminal proceedings.

Mr. Ashley

Is the Minister aware that I have given massive evidence, both in my speech and to the Prime Minister, of women who are willing to complain but have had their complaints rejected? What will the Minister do about that, in respect of police powers and their not rejecting complaints?

Mr. Carlisle

I was going to refer to some things that we might do. I was, I think rightly, pointing to the difficulties that face the police.

Of course, some women are willing to complain, but I think that the hon. Member will accept that of those who go to the police there are some who are still unwilling to bring criminal proceedings. A woman, however cruelly treated, is often reluctant to see her husband imprisoned or fined; she prefers to look upon it as a civil matter, to be sorted out by herself and her husband, or as a matter for the divorce courts. It is certainly my experience as a barrister that it is remarkable to what degree of violence women are at times prepared to be subjected without wishing to see their husbands charged with criminal offences. Thirdly, one cannot ignore the fact that a woman who may be prepared on a Friday or Saturday night to be a witness against her husband often changes her mind when the case comes to court on the Monday.

Fourthly, there is the realistic difficulty, which the police have to face, of providing the necessary evidence to obtain a conviction when the alleged assault has taken place with no other witness present. These, I would ask the hon. Member to accept, are realistic facts that the police have to face. Whatever the cause—whether it be a consideration for the care of the children, or whether, as the hon. Member has rightly stressed, it is the inability to find alternative accommodation—the fact remains that many women are not prepared to see their husbands in the criminal courts. The police do not neglect their duty, but they are sometimes prevented from doing it because of the situation in which they find themselves.

To point to what I believe are the realistic difficulties that face the police in carrying out their duties does not mean that we should for a moment be complacent about the present situation. The Home Secretary accepts the need to review the current practice of the police in relation to alleged assaults by husbands upon their wives. He has undertaken to consult chief officers of police about the problem, and this consultation is now in progress. It will take in such matters as the degree of seriousness of an alleged assault that should be sufficient to justify the institution of proceedings or other action by the police, either at the request of the injured wife or on their own initiative.

The process of consultation is bound to take time, and the results will need to be considered in relation to action being taken by other Government Departments in regard to the problem. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I have noted the various points that he has made tonight, directed to Departments other than the Home Office, and he may be assured that all of them will be considered.

I accept, as the hon. Gentleman said, that the problem of finding alternative accommodation is of crucial importance. Every year local authorities admit to their temporary accommodation large numbers of women and children who have left their homes as a result of family disputes. But, unhappily, we are only too well aware that certain areas suffer from an acute lack of accommodation, both temporary and permanent. Here, the problem facing the local authority social worker or housing department officer approached by a woman and children who have left their home after a quarrel, of which the circumstances and the gravity may vary from case to case and be far from clear, is by no means easy.

It may well be that in such areas there is a special place for the voluntary body such as the Chiswick Women's Aid, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, which provides much needed temporary acommodation as well as sympathy and skilled advice. I understand that one London borough has supported an application for urban aid from this organisation to help to extend its work in providing temporary accommodation for battered wives. Although, as the House will know, there are always, regrettably, many more applications for aid under the urban programme than there is aid available to meet them, I assure the hon. Gentleman that that application will be considered with sympathy.

I take the point that the hon. Gentleman made, that a serious criminal assault on a wife must be treated in exactly the same way as a criminal assault on any other person. I accept also what he said about the need for legal aid to be available in such circumstances. I hope that the £25 scheme, whereby people will be able to seek advice from solicitors, will in part assist in providing such assistance. Also, as the hon. Gentleman knows, proceedings may be taken through the county court to obtain an injunction.

The joint working partly considering matrimonial proceedings in magistrates' courts will take account of the problem and the adequacy of the law to meet it. Also, the Criminal Law Revision Committee is considering the whole issue of offences against the person.

I have no doubt and, I am sure, the hon. Gentleman has no doubt—that in the end the answer to this problem lies in education. It lies in leading people to treat their fellow human beings with the respect that they deserve. This debate, short though it has been, and the hon. Gentleman's concern, are part of that education, for he has drawn the attention of the public to the problem and in so doing is helping to break down what he himself described as the public indifference to the trouble which exists.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-one minutes to One o'clock.