HC Deb 17 June 1996 vol 279 cc593-8

'.—(1) Rules of court may provide for a prescribed person, or any person in a prescribed category, ("a representative") to act on behalf of another in relation to proceedings to which Part IV applies.

(2) Rules made under this section may, in particular, authorise a representative to apply for an occupation order or for a non-molestation order for which the person on whose behalf the representative is acting could have applied.

(3) Rules made under this section may prescribe—

  1. (a) conditions to be satisfied before a representative may make an application to the court on behalf of another; and
  2. (b) considerations to be taken into account by the court in determining whether, and if so how, to exercise any of its powers under Part IV when a representative is acting on behalf of another.

(4) Any rules made under this section may be made so as to have effect for a specified period and may make consequential or transitional provision with respect to the expiry of the specified period.

(5) Any such rules may be replaced by further rules made under this section.'.—[Mr. Boateng.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Boateng

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this, it will be convenient to discuss Government amendment No. 59.

Mr. Boateng

We have now reached that part the Bill that seeks to address specifically an issue that is of considerable concern and reflects a growing phenomenon—that of domestic violence. One in four crimes of violence reported to the police is the result of a woman being assaulted in her home by the man with whom she lives. A woman is four times as likely to be the victim of violence in the home as of mugging, and yet research suggests that only 2 per cent. of attacks on women in the home are reported to the police.

Within the context of those horrific statistics, upwards of 750,000 children are caught in the crossfire of domestic violence. That is the scale of the problem that we are required, as a House, to address. Zero tolerance of domestic violence must become the norm.

I am pleased to say that, throughout the country, examples are multiplying of local authorities developing, in conjunction with a broad cross-section of agencies in the voluntary and statutory sectors, effective policies designed to combat this especially pernicious form of violence—in very many cases, as a result of initiatives taken by Labour-controlled councils. I am glad to say, however, that they are increasingly supported by the cross-party alliance.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Mrs. Peacock), who was outstanding among her colleagues in Committee for being the only one of their number prepared to support the precursor of the amendment that we are discussing. That is a matter of record, and it is one that the House and the country should note, because the time has come for us to be prepared, as a House, to take strong measures in support of existing multi-agency initiatives and to extend police and other agency powers in that regard.

That is what new clause 15 seeks to do. It seeks to build on a recommendation of the Law Commission, following its consideration of domestic violence, and to build on the work of the Home Affairs Select Committee—on which my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche) served with such distinction—to create, on a pilot basis, an opportunity for local strategies to develop geared towards combating domestic violence.

The new clause will enable a third party—usually, but not necessarily, a police service—to take legal action on the part of the victim of domestic violence. The need is obvious, because all too often the victim of domestic violence feels peculiarly vulnerable and therefore unable, because of the oppression she faces daily, to take action herself. It is a radical proposal—a departure from the existing processes and procedures of the court.

Mr. Marlow

I know that the police are very wary of getting involved in domestic disputes. Has the hon. Gentleman any evidence from the police that they would be happy to have this power?

Mr. Boateng

Certainly. Interestingly, when the Home Affairs Select Committee took evidence on that subject, support was expressed, not least, the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear, by the Police Federation, the representative of the men and women working on the ground, which said that it would welcome such a power.

The Association of Chief Police Officers properly mentioned resource implications. We have sought to tackle the resources issue as follows. It is our proposal, contained in this amendment, that several pilot schemes should be conducted by the Lord Chancellor at the instigation of his Department. Such schemes would be conducted in areas where there was already good practice, where there was a multi-agency approach involving the local social services, the local police and the refuge movement, and build on the co-operation that is already developing along those lines in many places.

8.15 pm

Obviously, the local authority, the police authority, chief police officers and chief officers of social services would consider their role and take resource implications into account before making an application to the Lord Chancellor for exercise of authority given to the Lord Chancellor under new clause 15. Similarly, the Lord Chancellor would satisfy himself that the resources were in place alongside the policy in order to make the new clause an effective vehicle for bearing down on those who persist in using violence as a means of terrorising and oppressing their partners.

I pay tribute to those working in this area. I am grateful for the advice and briefing given by the Northampton Domestic Violence Forum, which, as the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow) may know, is working in this area. It has developed an inter-agency strategy group for domestic violence in Northamptonshire. It is designed to provide a variety of co-ordinated responses, including encouraging women to seek advice and support, providing information and advice to victims of domestic violence and protecting women in their homes, as well as providing emergency and longer-term accommodation for victims, recognizing the special needs that exist by virtue of disability or cultural or religious distinctions and recognising the importance of working to change the behaviour of violent men.

It was suggested sometimes in Committee that to talk about domestic violence was to be anti-men. Nothing can be further from the truth. To talk about domestic violence and the need to combat violence in the home is to recognise that some men have a real problem about violence against women and need to be set right. They need to understand that, if they persist in beating up on the people with whom they live, they will be subject to the full rigours of the law, that the people they live with are entitled to the full protection of the law and that they need to get help for the problems that they have in that regard.

One of the attractive things about the work being done in Northamptonshire is that it is not only about protection of the woman, vital although that work is and although it must be given top priority; it also recognises that men have a job of work to do in looking at themselves and changing their own conduct so that they do not repeat it with other women in future after the woman they happen to be violent to at the moment has been protected.

Sir Michael Neubert (Romford)

If the hon. Gentleman is anxious to make clear that he is not anti-men in the context of violence, will he acknowledge that there are cases where men are the subject of assault and violence by women? One such case has come to my attention in my constituency.

Mr. Boateng

There may well be such cases, but they pale into insignificance when compared with the number of men who beat up women and who get away with it. The hon. Gentleman must excuse me if I do not get in high dudgeon about the number of men who are beaten up by women, because it is a remarkably small number.

Ms Margaret Hodge (Barking)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the real concern is that nine out of 10 domestic violence incidents involve violence of men against women? Every week two women are murdered by their husbands. Is it not that concern that should be dominant in our minds?

Mr. Boateng

I endorse wholeheartedly what my hon. Friend has said. I have worked in family law for about 20 years and I began my career by working for a woman called Erin Pizzey, who ran one of the first refuges in west London. It astounds me that it is only when women are beginning to make some considerable gains in this area—in terms of winning public recognition of the fact that this is something that needs to be addressed and that it is important that we take concerted action to bear down on these violent men—that instances of men who have been beaten up by women are brought to the attention of hon. Members. It is rather interesting. The hon. Member for Romford (Sir M. Neubert) must understand that Labour Members would be a little more receptive to his point if it were not made in the context in which it is made—years of shameful neglect by the House of the issue of domestic violence against women.

Sir Michael Neubert

Should not the hon. Gentleman recognise that we are here to oppose, condemn and deplore the act of violence by whomsoever commits it? In labouring the point—with which none of us disagrees—he is making the same mistake as those who talk about terrorists as being exclusively men when, as we know, regrettably, a few are women.

Mr. Boateng

With the utmost of respect, I prefaced my remarks with references to zero tolerance of domestic violence, from whatever source. It was the hon. Gentleman who raised the issue of the number of attacks by women on men. I shall move on, so long as he is prepared, likewise, not to labour this point.

The important work that is being done by the Northampton Domestic Violence Forum involves the police; it involves social services; it involves the magistrates courts, whose powers in this area are extended by the Bill; and it involves the local housing departments. If we are to develop an effective multi-agency strategy, it is necessary for us to harness the resources that are made available to homeless families. The Northampton experience is just one example of good practice that is occurring throughout the country.

I am glad to say that this new clause enjoys the support of the Women's Aid Federation of England, which says that it will contribute to an improved package of care and help from all relevant agencies. It welcomes the capacity of the Lord Chancellor to initiate pilot schemes that maximise the effectiveness of police action and the safety of victims. I thank the federation for the valuable work that it has done in protecting women, day in and day out, from domestic violence and in shaping the Bill. In that spirit, I commend the new clause to the House.

Mr. Streeter

I am delighted to support the amendment enthusiastically. Domestic violence has no place in our society. Domestic violence is primarily an issue where men inflict violence on women—although I take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Sir M. Neubert). Too many men in our society feel that it is their right physically to intimidate or to beat their women. Tonight, we must send a clear signal that this is not acceptable and that it will not be tolerated. Domestic violence is not a right-wing or a left-wing issue; it is not a Conservative or a Labour issue—it is an issue of concern for all hon. Members who serve in the House.

In Committee, the Government resisted calls to give powers to the police and to other authorised persons to act on behalf of the victims of domestic violence. Now that Labour Members have thought again about the wording of their amendment, we are happy to accept it.

I pay tribute to the Women's Aid Federation in Bristol, which I had the privilege of visiting less than two weeks ago. The time that I spent with the federation in discussing this important issue has helped to shape our decision tonight. This does not mean that the concerns expressed by the Government in Committee no longer hold true. The Government have no wish to oppose any measure that would prove an effective weapon in the armoury of those battling against domestic violence.

Our concern arises from the disagreement that exists among those who have considered the question of enabling the police to seek civil remedies on behalf of others as to whether this would prove a useful weapon in the fight against domestic violence. The proposal to grant police powers to seek civil remedies on behalf of those suffering domestic violence has its origin in the Law Commission report of 1992. However, the Home Affairs Select Committee's inquiry into domestic violence in 1993 rejected the proposal, as did the House of Lords Special Public Bill Committee on the Family Homes and Domestic Violence Bill.

There was, and remains, concern that the police have neither the resources nor the expertise to take on this role. Interest groups were also divided on this issue, some fearing the further disempowerment of women already trapped in situations over which they have little control. In light of these considerations, it was decided not to include such a provision in the Bill. Whatever the pros and cons of the third party approach to attacking domestic violence, it is clear that we are not yet in a position where it is wise to embark immediately on this course. However, the Government readily accept that knowledge and experience in this area is growing all the time. For example, police domestic violence units are now much more developed and expert in the field than they once were.

Mr. Marlow

While I accept everything that has been said and agree that we ought to do what we can to deal with the problem of domestic violence, I am concerned about third parties being involved. It is one thing for the police and for social services to be involved, but is there a possibility that politically correct pressure groups could home in on a victim and use her to make their political points before a court? Is my hon. Friend confident that the amendment could not be used in such a way?

Mr. Streeter

I have no time for political correctness for its own sake. My hon. Friend will be delighted that the Lord Chancellor will shape these rules, with wide consultation—I am sure that he will find that reassuring.

I pay tribute to the efforts of the police in developing domestic violence units. All hon. Members will admit that there is still some way to go in this regard. The Government remain of the view that there may need to be a good deal more thought, discussion and research before any rules are made under the new clause. My hon. Friend's concerns will be listened to carefully.

The Government also accept that the proposers of the amendment appear, at last, to have recognised that the amendment does not prescribe that the police shall act as the representatives, and that others may more appropriately be able to do it in consultation with the police. It makes provision for the piloting of any rules made. It may well be that a measure of agreement will emerge among those concerned with the prevention of domestic violence as to the need for the provision of third party action in the way envisaged by the new clause. In addition, suitable pilot schemes may be devised. It therefore does not seem sensible to have to wait for a further legislative opportunity to provide such a rule-making power.

Government amendment No. 59 simply makes a technical change to clause 60. It makes it clear that the provisions of the clause do not apply to rules of court made under the Act that the Bill will become, or any power to make rules of court, for the purposes of this Act.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

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