HC Deb 26 July 1974 vol 877 cc2168-80

7.53 p.m.

Mr. William Hamilton (Fife, Central)

I begin this short debate by paying tribute to my good friend the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley) who, on becoming Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Department of Health and Social Security, asked me to take his place in championing the cause of battered wives and the connected problem of battered babies. I cannot pretend adequately to play the part which my hon. Friend played. He is an extremely popular and kindly man, determined in the protection of minority groups, and I gladly offered to do what I could in this cause.

As the Under-Secretary knows, my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South initiated an Adjournment debate in the early hours of the morning of 16th July last year, almost exactly a year ago. As one would expect, he made a passionate speech brimming over with imagination, indignation and humanity. In the course of that speech he quoted several cases of battered wives and children from all classes of the community, and I stress that this is not a class problem in that sense.

I propose to quote just one or two cases which have been provided to me by the Chiswick Aid Centre, which is pioneering in this field and which is run by quite remarkable women literally on a shoestring. First I quote an extract from the book which Mrs. Erin Pizzey is about to produce. She cites one or two cases to indicate the problem, with which my hon. Friend is well acquainted.

Mrs. Pizzey writes: People who are being ill-treated don't usually talk about it. Some are scared about what might happen to them if they speak. They know well that if they tell how they are treated they will again be threatened and most probably beaten. Many of the women who write to us ask for the reply to be sent care of friends or at their parents', because they are afraid they'll get another beating if their husbands find out that they've contacted us, … One woman just telephoned when her husband was out of the house and cried and sobbed. She was physically handicapped. Her husband, an alcoholic and a gambler, had put padlocks on the wheels of her chair. He would go off sometimes for several days at a time leaving her lying on the floor helpless. She never told us who she was. We would spend hours trying to convince her we could help but she was too frightened of him. Another case comes from Scotland and it is because of that, since I am the Member for a Scottish constituency, that I wish to quote it. This letter followed a radio programme: Dear Madam, having listened to the last two minutes of your interview on Radio 2, and having read the article in the Daily Mail, I felt compelled to write to you. I am an ex-"battered" wife and have finally left my husband with my daughter who is nine months old. She was born with a congenital dislocation of the hip. She was being treated in "— —then there is a blank because of her fear of indicating who she was— where I come from and the decision to interrupt her treatment was a very difficult one to make, despite my desire to leave the horrors of being married to a nightly wife-beater and an alcoholic. I will not go into the details of the terrible cruelty that I have suffered although I would be more than willing if they would be of any use to you. My husband —this may be of interest to my hon. Friend— is a general practitioner and whilst at medical school was an amateur boxer so he had plenty of brawn as well as brain plus enough money to keep him well supplied with as much whisky as he wanted. I have left him four times previously but always ended up going back to him because he would find out where I was—usually with my elderly parents—and harass and threaten them at all hours of the day and night, at the same time promising to mend his ways and pleading with me to go back because he loved me. He is an excellent doctor and much respected public citizen. He was, however, on his own insistence my own doctor and treated me with utter contempt even when I threatened to miscarry at twelve weeks of pregnancy and also during and after my baby's delivery. (I gave birth to her at home without a midwife present.) I shall not quote any further from that case.

They are just two indications of the tip of the iceberg which we are now discussing. The size of the problem is unknown. The estimate made by the Chiswick Women's Aid Centre of 25,000 women or 100,000 women and children a year is probably a gross under-estimate. That is mainly because the wife, for one reason or another, is unwilling or afraid to disclose what is going on. I do not want to be too harsh, but that, coupled with what appears to be the failure, indifference, ignorance and apathy of the multiplicity of organisations concerned with these problems, from the social worker to the police and the law courts, seems to be the problem and it is not getting the publicity, still less the Government action, that is demanded.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South put forward a 15-point plan. The Minister of State, Home Office, then the hon. and learned Member for Runcorn (Mr. Carlisle), made the appropriately sympathetic departmental reply about the difficulties facing the police of women unwilling to bring criminal proceedings, and some of them even willing to accept battering as part of the price of marriage, I suppose. He said that there was often a lack of witnesses and the difficulty of finding alternative accommodation, but he promised consultation between the Home Office and chief police officers and consideration of the points put forward by my hon. Friend.

What progress has been made with the implementation of those promises and what use has been made of the £25 legal aid scheme by these people in the last year? It seems to me and to those who are most intimately concerned with the problem that very little progress has been made, except via the voluntary organisations and varying degrees of practical help from some local authorities.

Last Tuesday, 16th July, exactly a year after what I might call the Ashley debate, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services made a statement in answer to a question about battered babies. She announced that there was to be a grant of £112,000 to the NSPCC over three years for specific research proposals. I should like my hon. Friend to tell me precisely what they are. Some of them were mentioned in an article in The Times on 19th July written by Clare Hyman, the consultant research psychologist to the National Advisory Centre on the Battered Child.

My right hon. Friend last week talked about progress with area review teams set up by local authority social services departments. In reply to a supplementary question by my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Moonman) there was a bit of disturbing evidence of ignorance and naivety on the part of the Minister when she indicated a lack of appreciation of the undoubted link between the problems of battered children and battered wives.

I am glad that the Prime Minister, in answer to a question of mine last Tuesday, indicated that the terms of reference of the proposed Select Committee which is to be set up in the autumn to look into this problem would be sufficiently wide to cover the linked problems of battered wives and battered children. But, however welcome such a Select Committee may be, it will deal with the problem in the long term and at leisure. A Select Committee, by its nature, will take a long time to report. I should add, in parentheses, that the Secretary of State has never been to the Chiswick Women's Aid Centre. She sent the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, West (Mr. Brown). I suggest that she should go personally with the Prime Minister and with TV cameras to see how the other half live.

I visited the place on 2nd April last and I was appalled and at the same time uplifted by what I saw. I was appalled by the magnitude of the problem. I was appalled by the physical problems with which they are faced in providing education for the children, dealing with questions of accommodation and, above all, in dealing with questions of finance. But I was uplifted by seeing and talking to so many dedicated and articulate women who were struggling on a shoestring to try to deal with the problem that has been neglected by successive Governments.

These people were living—if living is the right word—in a house kindly provided by the Bovis Building Company. The Chiswick Women's Aid is extremely grateful to the company for providing the house, however inadequate, and there are now about 40 such places scattered all over the country. I say this more in sorrow than in anger. If that house at Chiswick had been full of maltreated dogs and cats, this House of Commons would have been full today and there would have been a protest meeting in Trafalgar Square on Sunday, because we seem to have more love for animals than for human beings.

My hon. Friend may not have seen the report produced by the Royal Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, entitled Battered Wives' Survey. The research was for the period mid-September to mid-December 1973 and covered the whole of Scotland. The report dealt with 74 cases, but I do not propose to go into those in detail. I shall send the document to my hon. Friend, but I think that I should quote one or two examples of the effects on the children, and such children can be seen at Chiswick at any time that my hon. Friend cares to go there.

These children were either described by the mother or observed by a woman visitor. The report says: Children in hysterics, schooling affected, inability to concentrate because of emotional upset. Lack of respect shown towards father. When the mother was about to leave the home, the children began sobbing bitterly and screaming for the mother to remain. It goes on to say: The elder child (aged four) has had tablets prescribed by the GP due to her nervous condition. Both children appear to be of a nervous disposition. One then reads: Terrified—sat and stared from one to the other. Mother stated her eldest child always ran to protect her and ended up being thrashed with a buckled belt. This child is very disturbed and has been seen several times by a psychiatrist. I want to make two or three suggestions to my hon. Friend, the acceptance of which would throw an immediate lifeline to the women and children at Chiswick and at the other centres.

The first and most obvious one is an immediate grant of about £55,000 to buy the empty premises next door at Chiswick. It was, I believe a school, and it could be used as such. The educational problem is not the least important of the difficulties that are being faced. This afternoon I heard my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Energy, in 13 minutes flat, ask the House to grant £1,300 million to the electricity industry. This industry is undoubtedly important, but human beings are just as important as the provision of electricity, and if this movement at Chiswick cannot get £55,000 from a country which talks in terms of supplying electricity at a cost of £1,300 million spread over a given period, there is something vastly wrong with our priorities.

Secondly, there should be an immediate and speedy examination of the feasibility of providing rapid legal aid by phone when a parent with a known history of violence is left with a child. Mrs. Pizzey can give examples showing the value of this in a magazine which, I am sure, my hon. Friend has seen. She shows how the life, or certainly the health, of particular children and wives might have been saved if this facility had been available.

My third proposition is that, in conjunction with the police, there should be a change in policy to ensure that any court injunction is immediately enforced by the police. It is not much use a court issuing an injunction if the police have not the power to enforce it.

Fourth—these points have been put to me by Chiswick Women's Aid; they are not my original thoughts on the matter—where divorce cases on grounds of persistent cruelty and/or violence are heard they should automatically result in denial of access by the husband to his wife and children. At present, the right of access can simply be a licence to harrass the wife and children.

Fifth, where a divorce is granted on grounds of persistent cruelty, at present the matrimonial home is available only during the dependence of the children. Immediately the children cease to be dependent, the husband may sell the house. Admittedly, half the proceeds go to the wife, but that is little consolation to her because she will probably be at an age when she cannot get a mortgage, and certainly she cannot buy a house in the area to which she has been accustomed with half the proceeds. Therefore, such cases of divorce through cruelty should deprive the offender of any financial rights to the matrimonial home.

That is my case in brief. I know that my hon. Friend's Department, like other spending Departments, is faced with all kinds of demands for all kinds of cases, but I feel that a gesture might be made by the Government in this instance. Will they please give these women some encouragement in the enormously valuable work which they are doing?

8.12 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Health (Dr. David Owen)

My hon. Friend the Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton) brings to this subject, as he does to so many, a deep compassion and considerable understanding and commitment. He has done the House a service in bringing this matter before us so late on a Friday. He paid a generous tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley), who is currently the Secretary of State's parliamentary private secretary. All I can say is that my hon. Friend ensures that no Minister in the Department of Health and Social Security—certainly not the Secretary of State—is unaware of the problems of battered wives or, indeed, of many other troubling aspects of our society. Therefore, although his voice cannot be raised on this subject in the House, it is certainly raised in the Department, which is, perhaps, of even more importance.

We are dealing here with a complex and extremely distressing problem. It generates hatred, and it is associated with a deep sense of fear. It raises very subjective emotions in those who come into contact with violence in marriage, and may make them less confident about their ability to help. It is an extremely serious matter for society, and one of the issues is the regularity with which a history of violence in the home appears in the childhood histories of those husbands who use violence on their wives, and sometimes also of the wives themselves.

It is difficult, sometimes, to apportion blame. It is difficult also for the violent husband to understand or control his own feelings. But the responsibility of society is clear—to do everything possible to try to prevent this pattern of violence from replicating itself from generation to generation. In the interests of the wives and children, and of the husbands themselves, we must find ways of bringing help and support to those caught up in this crippling cycle of violence.

One problem is that there is still relatively little known about the extent, about the patterns of causation and about the social pathology of violence between the partners to a marriage, or about the deeper needs to which it gives rise. In this subject we need to know a great deal more about the damage caused to personality as well as the best way to relieve practical and pressing needs of the wife who decides to escape with her children from a situation of violence.

I have taken a special interest in problems of non-accidental injury to children—more commonly called battered babies, I suppose—and I am struck by the difference in the situation in that field, where some years of research have given us a body of well-established facts. We do not know everything in this area by any means, but it has given us a tested hypothesis as a basis for action. We know from these studies that there is a degree of overlap—perhaps 25 per cent.—between the families where there is non-accidental injury to children and those where there is intermarital violence. A factor in common may also be alcoholism, or psycopathy. But just as there is a whole variety of patterns which may give rise to non-accidental injury to children, so here there seems to be a variety of causations.

It is becoming clear from reports from citizens advice bureaux and elsewhere that serious violence in marriage is considerably more widespread than is usually supposed. I wish we had detailed figures. There are many case histories illustrating the variety of backgrounds and forms in which marital violence may be found, behind the facades of some apparently successful marriages—and it occurs in all classes of society; a point we perhaps too easily forget.

In some areas there may be a link with cultural deprivation and local or sub-cultural traditions, perhaps now beginning to break down, about the rôles of man and wife in the home. There are certainly some signs now that the battered wife may be more ready to seek help in her problem when in the past she might have concealed it from the outside world. I believe that the publicity given to this subject has been a tremendous help in making it more readily discussed and people find it easier to discuss their problems with others and to go to places where they can receive some form of help.

Changing patterns within marriage, and woman's changing rôle in society certainly play a part in this. We know little about the extent to which the strains of living under pressure, of raising children in poor overcrowded housing, unemployment or financial worries all contribute to the problem and what lies behind the violence due to pathological jealousy, or what is the rôle of sexual incompatibility or provocation.

The House will have seen the interesting NSPCC report "Yoyo Children" which was recently published, which is an account of a pilot study of children in families where violent matrimonial conflict was present.

Much can be done, and here may I deal with the question of ministerial involvement. My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, West (Mr. Brown) was the first Minister to visit one of the refuges which had been set up. Shortly afterwards my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services, in the midst of the extremely crowded programme of the last few months, found time to receive a deputation from the Women's Aid group at Chiswick and was able to hear first hand about the problems of these unfortunate women and their children. So, in terms of ministerial involvement my hon. Friend can expect more, and it will continue.

The Government Departments involved include the Home Office, concerned with the rôle of the police, the work of the probation service, civil remedies through magistrates' courts and the law of assault. The Lord Chancellor's Department is involved in procedure in the High Court, civil legal aid, ways in which the law might be changed to give the wife easier means of injunction restraining her husband, and rights over the matrimonial home. The Department of Health and Social Security deals with temporary accommodation, psychiatric disturbance and the effects of violence in the home on the children. The Supplementary Benefits Commission deals with the financial needs of an emergency situation and the Department of the Environment with housing.

It is because of this multi-departmental involvement that it was felt that a wide-ranging look would help in this subject and that is why the Leader of the House was able to announce that the Government intend, in the autumn, to set up a Select Committee. I have long believed that we do not use the experience and wisdom of this House anywhere near enough and the Select Committee procedure has been invaluable in many delicate areas of human relations in bringing together the experience of a legislative body and a body with knowledge of constituency problems. I hope that the Select Committee will be able to make recommendations which can be acted upon speedily. My hon. Friend rightly said that he wanted results immediately.

With regard to the problem of Chiswick, the situation is that an application for financial aid has been made to the Department by Women's Aid. It has already been in receipt of urban aid. The Department has started discussions with it, asking for further financial information—information which it has readily agreed to make available. I think that it will take only a few weeks. As soon as it is available, the Department will consider the issue.

I know that my hon. Friend, who visited the home, will take a strong personal interest. We shall make a decision as soon as we can. There will be no delay, because Women's Aid needs to know the possibilities of some assistance.

Research is an extremely important area. The Scottish Home and Health Department is supporting an explanatory study into violence within the family setting by researchers from Stirling University. On 1st April this year two doctors from Severall's Hospital, Colchester, began a study of wives' attitudes. The study is to last six months and we are looking forward to the results. Another doctor from Warlingham Park is concentrating on Women's Aid and has interviewed women in Chiswick, Liverpool and Dublin. The Department has granted him access to the replies received to the inquiries made to a number of professional and voluntary organisations last year. We are prepared to consider any serious request for research into this difficult subject.

I shall try to deal with my hon. Friend's specific questions. First, legal advice and assistance is very important. Women who are subjeted to violence and forced to leave the matrimonial home are entitled to relief from the civil courts. In certain urgent cases this may be obtained at very short notice—a matter of days, or even hours in cases of extreme urgency. It is a matte of importance to us in this House t at availability of advice should be realistic and that advice should be seen to be available throughout the country.

In his speech in another place on 21st March this year, my noble and learned Friend Lord Chancellor outlined his plans for extending the legal services available to poorer sections of the community by setting up, as soon as funds permit, a network of law centres, encouraging greater expertise in the legal profession in welfare and social law, and by taking further steps to increase the public's knowledge of the legal services available to them.

There is already close co-operation between the Lord Chancellor's Office and Citizens' Advice Bureaux for the provision of information about the new legal aid scheme set up under the Legal Advice and Assistance Act 1972. More needs to be done. Poorer sections of the community are a high priority in trying to improve our legal assistance. I know that my hon. Friend shares that view.

I turn to the question of assault. The law does not discriminate between assaults by a husband on his wife and other assaults. If the assault is not serious, it amounts to the common law offence of common assault in respect of which prosecutions are not normally brought by the police. If the assault causes real injury, it is an offence under the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. The police have power to enter private property to arrest anyone whom they see involved in any activity likely to cause a breach of the peace—

The Question having been proposed after Four o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-three minutes past Eight o'clock.