HC Deb 14 June 2004 vol 422 cc536-615

[Relevant documents: The Third Report, HC 252, and the Fourth Report, HC 303, of Session 2003–04 from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, on the Committee's continuing scrutiny of Bills.]

Order for Second Reading read.

4.28 pm
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Blunkett)

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

There has been a degree of unanimity and consensus around the proposals in the Bill which I strongly welcome and intend to foster this afternoon. I thank Members in all parties in the House and beyond for their support and co-operation and pay tribute to my ministerial colleagues in the Home Office team and to my right hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General for the tremendous work that they have done and will continue to do in a cross-party, no-party approach to the issue.

This debate follows the consultation paper and the statement earlier this year and the debate in the House of Lords. I am in a privileged position to be able to bring forward long overdue changes to put in place the biggest overhaul of domestic violence legislation in several decades and to be able to bring forward proposals and support for victims which, again, I think all of us agree are both justifiable and long overdue. That is part of a careful balance that we wish to develop to respond to major challenges and the unacceptable nature of past social norms. Such behaviour was tolerated in years gone by, often condoned, and certainly pushed under the carpet. At the same time, we must demand that people take responsibility for their actions and that peer groups, families and neighbourhoods are not tolerant of the intolerable.

Our Criminal Justice Acts, sentencing legislation and the Sexual Offences Act 2003 endeavour to put the victim first, thus changing the balance of the system in favour of those who are most affected and putting law-abiding citizens at the forefront of what we are attempting to do. They also aim to change culture, so, as we said at the time of the consultation, young men should no longer think it acceptable to commit violence against women. As can be seen from recent surveys, women no longer think that it is tolerable to have the intolerable inflicted on them, yet they can be afraid to come forward, bear witness, and get something done about it.

Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab)

I welcome the Government's determination to ensure that victims of domestic violence get the support and protection that they need, as is exemplified by the Bill. Will my right hon. Friend consider whether improvements could be made by adopting recommendations proposed by the Women's National Commission? May I especially highlight the plight of victims of domestic violence who are subject to immigration control? Will the Government consider making an exemption to the no-recourse-to-publicfunds rule in such cases so that people may receive the support that they need with housing and living costs in women's refuges, and so that eventually, hopefully, money may be recovered from the victims' sponsors?

Mr. Blunkett

I said when I made my statement that we are deeply aware of, and sympathetic to, those who suffer domestic violence and are captured due to the way in which they were brought into the country or because they acted as a sponsor. Although we are mindful of the need for robust controls so that we do not create a loophole that could be opened by those who may cleverly exploit even sensible alterations to the system, we need to support such individuals. We must do that by increasing resources for refuges and the availability of funding for people at the time they try to get help. The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Paul Goggins), will address that matter over the next few weeks and months. He will be able to say more in Committee about how we may help individuals without helping exploiters to find new routes by which they may cause other people misery.

It is important to understand the extent of domestic violence in terms of overall violence. When we talk about domestic violence, we are not talking about the low-level violent activity that constitutes the bulk of violence recorded in the statistics. Domestic violence accounts for almost one in five of the total incidents of violence. Much of it is deep-seated and born of aggression, and it leads to considerable emotional and physical damage to individuals. That is why the consensus behind the need to recognise and respond to that problem has been welcome, although we must support the victims of all crime, of course. The Bill will support victims of domestic violence by building on measures that have already been implemented. We have created rights that did not exist and put in place resources that were not available seven years ago, which meant that the infinitesimal contribution for victims in general was substantially expanded. I shall say more about the victims' fund later and how we can develop it so that it makes a worthwhile contribution to linking what we are doing on a number of things. For instance, alcohol was mentioned in Home Office questions. There is no question whatsoever but that a very high proportion of domestic violence is not necessarily caused, but is fostered and accelerated, by the misuse of alcohol. What we do in relation to that part of our agenda on education and moderation will make an important contribution.

The preparation for parenting in schools and colleges is a critical element, with 30 per cent. of domestic violence victims experiencing the start of that violence during pregnancy. An understanding by men of parenting issues—a basic understanding of their responsibilities—is therefore crucial to reducing domestic violence at that stage when love and care are desired and needed more than ever. That is also part of changing a wider culture of sheer selfishness. It plays into, and is crucial to, the equality agenda, not simply in terms of structures, but in terms of changing equality in practice, so that people accept both responsibility and duty with respect to how they address each other.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone) (Lab)

Does my right hon. Friend intend to instruct the crime reduction partnerships to draw up a strategy on how they intend to tackle domestic violence so that it covers all those things that he just mentioned?

Mr. Blunkett

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the part he has played as chairman of his crime reduction partnership and on his involvement in a prolonged effort to get joined-up thinking on local action. As one in five violent acts take place in the home and the domestic situation, when we ask crime reduction partnerships to adopt a programme on violence as a whole—developed nationally but implemented and adapted locally—we will expect them to accept that fundamental to the joined-up programme is the recognition that domestic violence has a prominent place in the strategy.

We have outlined three parts to that strategy. Obviously, one of them is prevention, and the way in which the education information campaign and a change in culture can play their part. Another is the protection and justice elements, which mean protecting people by intervening and by changing the law. We want to change the perception of what is acceptable and people's willingness to come forward when affected by domestic violence.

The third part of the strategy is the support element, which affects the ability to bring people to justice and to gain justice generally, in terms of both protecting people and of enabling people to escape, rather than feeling captured, as they so often were from an economic and a social and family perspective. Deterring, tackling root causes wherever we can, sending the right signals and ensuring that enforcement is in place all form part of the programme.

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre) (Lab)

In rightly pursuing the cultural change that would make all forms of violence unacceptable in our society, does my right hon. Friend think it important for the Government to support changes that outlaw the ancient defence of reasonable chastisement and give children the same protection from violence under the law as is enjoyed by adults?

Mr. Blunkett

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Children is, of course, in a dialogue on that issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) is assiduous in making his views known and in pressing on the problem. He has undoubtedly achieved much in drawing people's attention to it, including that of my light hon. Friend.

My own view is that of course we must protect, but we must build in responsibility in the family, to engineer and direct the relationships rather than allowing responsibility to lie solely with the Government. In relation to domestic violence and familial homicide and actions around that, which touch on the most obvious and terrible end of violence to children, we want to ensure that where we need to intervene—we certainly need to do so in such cases—we do so from the point of view of the three elements of prevention, protection and support, and by engaging with the legislation in order to provide proper enforcement, which I shall come to in a moment.

I want to stress, because it is really important, that the Government cannot do this alone. It is not the responsibility solely of Government. Whether considering the abuse of children or their chastisement, the matter should not rest with legislation or direction. It has to rest with the acceptable teaching of parenting—how to bring order and discipline into the family to create a framework for life that does not involve us constantly having to intervene in family relationships.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge) (Lab)

Will my right hon. Friend look at the funding for services for children and particularly those who have been traumatised by domestic violence? Cambridge Women's Aid, which runs some excellent groups to deal with the problem, has told me that it feels that such services are very underfunded. I would be grateful if he investigated that.

Mr. Blunkett

There is a considerable problem over funding the right services with the right kind of urgent response. That is true—we are endeavouring to address it jointly with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health—in respect of the emotional needs of children who are affected by trauma. That obviously relates to domestic violence cases, as it does to murder or considerable abuse in the family more broadly. Early intervention and the quick and effective provision of services can make the most enormous difference to the life chances of children—rather than their returning to the trauma throughout the rest of their lives. There is a cross-Government, cross-departmental and agency issue that needs to be addressed not simply in my hon. Friend's constituency but across the country. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health is addressing it urgently.

The pilot scheme "No Witness, No Justice" is working well. The £36 million provided over three years is money well spent, and it is linked to ensuring that, as with the 44,000 more offences brought to justice over the past year, people have greater confidence in the services and are prepared to use them. The £70 million going this year into delivering the domestic violence strategy is a start in ensuring that there are services not simply for those affected by domestic violence but for victims of rape and sexual assault. I have been to a number of centres recently where a joined-up service is being provided, and I hope that we shall see that across the country in due course.

Let me say where we are on the victim's fund, which takes us into the broader issue of how to assist victims. My hon. Friend inadvertently led me into that; I did not plan that with her. We need desperately to add to the £650 million plus that goes into broader services for victims. We have the £30 million going into Victim Support, which of course celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. That compares with the £11.7 million that went into the organisation seven years ago. I think that the start that we are making by establishing a new victim's fund in addition to those contributions will be welcomed by everyone. A sum of £4 million from asset recovery will be made available immediately to kick- start the new fund. A great deal more can be done to recover criminal assets and invest them in the community, not least in victim and witness support. The consultation ended on 12 January, and I want to set out the way in which we will proceed.

We will, of course, press ahead with administrative efficiencies and the streamlining of the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority. We could save money by operating the fund more efficiently, then invest it more effectively. It would make sense to combine lower-level awards. At the moment, it costs as much to administer some awards as to deliver them. We intend to legislate to empower the authority to recover money from offenders, and seek to link that to new powers in the legislation that we shall shortly introduce to set up the serious organised crime agency. We will improve the enforcement of compensation orders which, at present, are not linked to fines, so we cannot use powers in the Courts Act 2003 to enforce collection. That does not make sense, so we want to introduce corrections legislation, and intend to press ahead with surcharges on both criminal convictions and fixed-penalty notices.

We expect people who are committed to custody to pay a minimum of £30 in a levy or surcharge, but that depends on whether we can use the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002. We will change the regulations on earnings of people in prison to make that possible. In addition, we will levy a contribution from people who are subject to fines. Substantial fines of more than £1,000 will be subject to a £30 surcharge, and fines under £1,000 to a £15 surcharge. There would be a £10 surcharge on fixed penalty notices. There has been considerable lobbying in relation to criminal, as opposed to civil, fixed penalty notices for drivers. There is no proposed surcharge for parking offences, which are a civil offence.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con)


Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD)


Mr. Blunkett

I am happy to take questions, but things will be clearer if I can finish my point first.

Following the consultation, we accept that it would be wrong for low-level first-time offences to be subject to a surcharge. Helpfully, the Department for Transport will shortly consult on changes in the points system for fixed penalty notices. The new system will be introduced in 2006, which is when we will consider introducing a levy of £10 on fixed penalty notices for serious repeat offenders, as opposed to general fixed penalty notices. We will link the levy to the higher number of points added to people's licences, so the system will be fair to everybody. We should bear in mind the fact that 10 people are killed on the road every day and more than 40,000 are injured every year. Driving is a perfectly reasonable activity, but vehicles can become deadly weapons in the hands of those who misuse them, taking lives and harming the well-being of others. I shall give way to the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) now, and then to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath).

Mrs. Gillan

I apologise to the right hon. Gentleman—I was trying to wait until he got to the end of the passage. He is introducing major changes to the Bill at the eleventh hour, and that in itself is a difficult matter. As he envisages that the victims' support fund will rely on fines, can he explain to the House how that will work? I believe that in 2002–03 only 55 per cent. of fines were paid on time, and many fines were not paid at all.

Mr. Blunkett

That is correct. I am pleased that the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Mr. Leslie), has joined us. He is welcome, not least because he reminded me—I have extraordinarily good hearing on the left side—that we have now reached a figure of 75 per cent., and there is a major programme in place to enhance that still further. I welcome the substantial progress that he and his colleagues have made in this important area. We would all agree that the previous situation was unacceptable. If we are to make fines work—there are substantial recommendations from all quarters that we should—enforcement is critical. Along with the other measures that I have described, it will help us to reach a total of £25 million initially for the victims fund, which will be widely welcomed.

I promise that there will be proper time for the Standing Committee to examine the amendments. We will make sure that Opposition parties have the details to enable that to be done. Obviously, questions may be asked. We can introduce some of the measures without legislation, but it is only fair to spell out on Second Reading what we intend to do, rather than leave that to the Committee stage. In view of the interest shown these days in the Committee stage, particularly of noncontroversial Bills, that would have been an abuse of Parliament. I am doing my best.

Mr. Heath

I welcome the fact that we will have good notice. The Committee stage will soon be upon us, so I hope we will have almost immediate notice of the Government's intentions.

I welcome the Home Secretary's remarks. He has listened to some of the reservations that were expressed when he first announced the proposals—that those who pay for the support of victims of muggings should be muggers, not motorists. He has listened to that and I pay tribute to him for having done so.

Mr. Blunkett

I hope that this is the beginning of an entirely new approach by the Liberal Democrats. I welcome that, having given them a good kicking—but, as the polls last Thursday suggest, not a good enough kicking—as regards their attitude to antisocial behaviour. [Interruption.] I am not afraid to mention that. As the hon. Gentleman said, we all need to listen and learn.

Let me deal with some of the consultation items that we do not intend to proceed with, so that we have everything nice and clear for the Committee stage. For example, with reference to making employers liable for compensating employees criminally injured in the course of duty, we were approached by the TUC, the CBI, the Federation of Small Businesses and many others with a request that we did not pursue that. They pointed out that good work was being undertaken to secure a better way forward.

I pay tribute to both sides of industry, including the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, for their good work in that regard. I also pay tribute to those who have been working with us to see how they can contribute to prevention in the wider sense by releasing staff to become special constables. A number of retail outlets are now doing that, working with the police on training. That can help in the workplace and in the wider community. Therefore, we have decided not to proceed with the original proposal.

As my right hon. Friend, or rather, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East—I promoted him—indicated during Home Office questions, we do not intend to proceed with the withdrawal of payments for emotional damage and trauma suffered by railway staff as a result of suicides on the railways. Neither do we intend to remove from the scheme those who are accidentally injured while taking exceptional risk. We decided that we needed to discourage the current trend towards greater caution and instead reward those who are prepared to set that aside in the interests of helping others. I believe that that, too, will be welcome.

I shall move fairly quickly through the clauses because hon. Members are familiar with them and may intervene if they feel that we have erred. I shall deal first with the clauses on domestic violence, which it is sensible to take together. Clauses 1 to 4 deal with the civil law, which we discussed at considerable length throughout the consultation and which has been debated in the House of Lords. Clause 1 widens the scope for breaching non-molestation and occupation orders and makes that a criminal offence. It provides for arrest without warrant for breaches and for the new five-year sentence. The clauses covering equality of treatment between the sexes, including relationships of significant duration, have been widely welcomed and fit in with other changes to the law that we are in the process of introducing.

Clause 7 deals with domestic violence and homicide reviews, the drawing together of the agencies, and the changing systems that are necessary for prevention. Clause 8 makes common assault an arrestable offence—most people thought, wrongly, that it already was—and links with clause 1. Clause 10 provides for restraining orders.

Clause 5 contains wider measures on a matter that I mentioned earlier. It is a difficult issue that has become close to my heart as I have tried to find a way of dealing with it—namely, familial homicide in relation to what I call, following the days when I dealt with the poll tax, joint and several liability. People have been able literally to get away with murder because under existing law it is impossible to carry through action against someone who simply will not name the other person involved and claims that they did not do it. That applies not only to children, but to elderly and vulnerable adults. I do not intend to be controversial, but in due course we will have to ask the House to overturn the Lords amendment. It must not be possible for people to get away with it by having their case adjourned halfway through because it was not possible to prove at the beginning whether the charge was murder or a lesser offence. It should be possible to change the charge to allow for a conviction rather than a technical knockout by the defence. We have to determine the person's guilt, not allow them to get away with it because the charge as initially put could not be proved. We must ensure that we get that right in Committee. Our proposals have gained widespread support in the judiciary.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con)

Can the Home Secretary explain why the Bill would not cover a case involving abuse where a brother and sister live together?

Mr. Blunkett

It is very rare for me to have to say that my homework does not enable me to answer the question, but in this case I cannot. I will write to the hon. Gentleman and ensure that we get a definitive answer in Committee, because waffling would not be helpful at this stage. Of course, we are considering circumstances whereby more than person in the household commits a crime in relation to a third or subsequent person. It is in that context that I am unable to answer the question.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con)

I want to revert to the Home Secretary's comments on his anxieties about the Lords amendments on familial homicide. It is a difficult subject, but one of the anxieties expressed in the House of Lords was that the Government's original drafting of the measure meant shifting the burden of proof and the implied possibility of being convicted of murder on the basis of silence and that that would breach the Human Rights Act 1998. I should be grateful for the Home Secretary's comments because I thought that such an anxiety led to the amendments that were tabled in another place. Clearly, the Committee must consider the matter carefully to ascertain whether the Government's original proposals comply with the Act.

Mr. Blunkett

We believe that they do. Although, when making a charge of homicide, one obviously wants a conviction of murder, it is reasonable to prove that the individual committed a lesser offence if the murder charge clearly will not stick.

A second Lords amendment related to condoning murder in circumstances in which the person condoning may have believed that they were at risk. That is a delicate matter, but, in Committee, we want to explore restoring the procedures that are crucial to ensuring that people could not use such risk as an excuse. As with domestic violence, we want people to escape rather than remain in circumstances whereby a child is put to death and someone is compliant with it through remaining in the situation and being afraid.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con)

I suspect that my question will be easier to answer, but no less relevant than that of my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous). I welcome the proposed equality of treatment between married and cohabiting couples on the simple principle that the issue at stake is the protection of vulnerable individuals. Will the Home Secretary enlighten me about the significance of the reference in clause 4 to relationships of non-cohabiting couples being "of significant duration"? I hope that that will not prove to be an exacting criterion or threshold. It would appear to undermine the important principle that the measure has embraced.

Mr. Blunkett

It is designed to show that there is a stable relationship and therefore comes within the scope of the Bill, given its concentration on domestic violence, rather than other forms of abuse, which other aspects of the law tackle.

Let me be helpful to hon. Members. One of the advantages of being in government rather than in opposition is that one receives messages on occasions such as this afternoon's debate. I have received a message, not through some hidden earpiece, but when I gave way my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary received a message, which he communicated to me. The Bill covers all members of a household who are over 16, including brothers and sisters.

Mr. Bercow

Instant gratification.

Mr. Blunkett

No, I am in favour not of hedonism and instant gratification of any sort but of considered messages, whose suitability to convey I can weigh up.

Mr. Bercow

Within minutes.

Mr. Blunkett


Mr. Dawson

I believe that the only under-16s in a household who would be caught by the Bill are children who are also parents of a child who dies. Is my right hon. Friend entirely comfortable that the concept of parental responsibility in relation to those children is sufficient to warrant their being brought into serious criminal proceedings?

Mr. Blunkett

We are dealing with culpability. There is already an understanding of the responsibility that those of different ages bear and the legal system allows us to tackle that. In other words, a conviction is sought. The punishment, and how those individuals are dealt with, are then commensurate with and balanced by their age. That is how we seek to deal with such circumstances, for which we have different forms of penalty and approach, including through the youth courts. We can deal with that in a sensitive and sensible way.

Mr. Grieve

The hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) raises an important point, which we can look at more closely in Committee. The offence referred to is one of negligence, or at least offers the opportunity of a conviction on the basis of negligence. The age selected for the start of culpability is 16. Is that too low or too high? I should be interested if the Home Secretary wanted to amplify why 16 was selected, as opposed to 18, for example.

Mr. Blunkett

In the sex offences legislation that we introduced we established a pattern determined by an individual's age, and 16 was seen as a significant and appropriate age in that legislation—which was debated and agreed in the House with much unanimity. We are applying similar tests in relation to this legislation. I should be happy, however, for that to be debated, examined and tested in Committee, and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will, in his usual fashion, ensure that common sense prevails if people have doubts and concerns about the matter. We should bear it in mind—I refer back to the question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre—that in circumstances where parents are under 16, it is presumed that they are in a household with adults over 16 who supervise and support them. Therefore, on this specific aspect of familial homicide, there will be others in the household who also stand responsibility and duty.

Clauses 12 to 16 bring in powers that were pressed for by Members from all sections of the House during the passage of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, but which we were not able to deal with then because we had not received the appropriate advice from the Law Commission and others on multiple offending and how to deal with it. I am glad that we have been able to use this Bill to introduce those powers. We promised that we would do so at the time—last November, I seem to remember—and we are able to fulfil that pledge now. There is an issue about vulnerable adults and whether there will have to be two juries rather than one, but that can be dealt with in Committee. I do not intend to hold up the House with that today, because many hon. Members want to speak. Clauses 17 and 18 make technical changes, which do not need to hold us up today.

That brings us to part 3—clauses 21 to 33—which is the element of the Bill that deals with victim support. It includes the code of practice that we are putting on a statutory footing, the independent commissioner who will champion victims, the victims advisory panel, which will be made statutory, and various stages of amendments, to which I have already referred substantially, that will build up the victims fund. There is also an issue in part 3 about giving the victims of mentally disordered offenders the same rights as victims of other violent offences. That will be widely welcomed outside the House. I pay tribute to the Zito trust for its work on that and many other aspects of a difficult field of policy. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health will press separately on that matter through the draft mental health Bill and the consultation on it.

Mrs. Gillan

On a point of information, will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that he is planning to reinstate the old clause 18 from the original Bill?

Mr. Blunkett

It is our intention to reintroduce the principle. If, in negotiations with Opposition parties, minor changes are proposed to what was clause 18, which we can take on board, we will be happy to do so. We want to ensure that we get our intended objective, rather than merely getting the words that we first thought of—if that makes sense.

Lady Hermon (North Down) (UUP)


Mr. Blunkett

I thought that the hon. Lady might want to intervene.

Lady Hermon

Will the Home Secretary take a moment to explain what justification there is for the creation of two tiers of victims in the United Kingdom? Those in England and Wales will have recourse to the new victims commissioner, unlike those in Northern Ireland—although we have a substantial number of victims for a variety of serious reasons.

Mr. Blunkett

The hon. Lady is assiduous in ensuring that our attention is drawn to the different legislation applying to Northern Ireland. I was about to say that measures relating to victims of mentally disordered offenders applied to Northern Ireland, but the hon. Lady is right to say that there are different provisions in other parts of the Bill. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will be happy to meet her, and will also meet the commissioner, to establish whether coterminosity can enable victims in the United Kingdom to be treated on a similar basis.

This is genuinely one of those occasions on which we have the good will of everyone and can make a difference by using the parliamentary process. Because there is consensus on the issue and because we are seeking to implement common sense, it is inevitable that we shall not receive much publicity. People will not learn about this side of politics—about those who work together day after day in Committee, behind the scenes, changing law and making a difference to lives. I appeal to those in the Press Gallery to help us shed a bit of light—[Laughter.] I appeal to both of them to help us shed a bit of light on how democracy can work in the best interests of our people, how we can bring about a just and fair society, and how we can change the culture to one of respect and responsibility.

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab)

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Blunkett

Just in time.

Ms Keeble

Does my right hon. Friend agree that a key part of that culture change is accepting that perpetrators can change and control their behaviour? Is it not important to fund and develop perpetrators' programmes, such as the one in my town, if we are to change the culture and the general approach to domestic violence?

Mr. Blunkett

I know of my hon. Friend's interest in the subject and I know of the project she has mentioned. It is making a valuable contribution. In the end, of course, we must change the behaviour of those with whom we are dealing; otherwise, they are highly likely to become prolific repeat offenders who cause misery to others.

One of the tragedies of domestic violence, which is true of victims of violence more generally, is the way in which people move from one circumstance of tragedy to another. There is a wider desire, and a wider need, to ensure that we overcome the problem rather than merely enabling people to escape from their circumstances, crucial though that is. Being able to work with close colleagues who have battered away at this for many years sometimes makes the job of Home Secretary worthwhile, and I am proud to have been able to move the motion for Second Reading.

5.13 pm
Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con)

I am delighted to open for the Opposition. As the Home Secretary said, this subject is important to all parties in the House. I trust that it will show the House working at its best, and those who serve on the Committee doing the same.

It has taken nearly six months for the Bill to reach the House, and Conservative Members have awaited it with eager anticipation. As we finally welcome it, it seems to us that the gestation has lasted a long time. There is no doubt that the subject transcends party politics. We consider the Bill so important that both the shadow Minister for Women and the shadow Attorney-General will join me in Committee, and I understand that the Home Secretary considers it important enough to field three Ministers. We all look forward to constructive discussions.

I pay especial tribute to my colleague Baroness Anelay for the sterling work that she did in steering the Bill through the other place and for some of the reshaping that was achieved there. I was therefore sorry in some ways to hear that the Home Secretary intends to reverse all those changes, but his speech today gave me some hope. Rather than a reversal, I would call it a refinement. I hope that we will be able to work together. A reversal could reflect a wider intention to reject all the helpful suggestions from the Opposition, and indeed from Government Back Benchers and the numerous organisations that are deeply concerned about the Bill.

I hope that, in the light of the seriousness of the subject, my colleagues and I will be able to work very constructively on the issues in Committee and send an even better piece of legislation to the statute book than the one that we are starting with today.

In 2001, it was estimated that there were 12.9 million incidents of domestic violence against women in the United Kingdom, and 2.5 million against men. Currently, in the United Kingdom, two women are killed at the hands of current or former partners every week; 62 per cent. of domestic violence incidents are reported to end in injury; and in 81 per cent. the victim is a woman. Countless women and men experience the horror of domestic violence, and it is said that one in four women will experience it at some point in their lives. That means that there will undoubtedly be women known to each and every one of us and perhaps men as well, who will have endured domestic violence without our ever knowing that it has happened to them.

Many live in a climate of fear and intimidation. The testimony of people who have ends red systematic abuse at the hands of their partners over a long period is both harrowing and humbling. Domestic violence also has an impact on employment: among women suffering domestic violence last year, about 21 per cent. took time off work, and of the men and women suffering it, 2 per cent. lost their jobs.

Furthermore, tens of thousands of children experience the sheer horror of violence in the home. The trauma is incalculable. Many children who watch a parent being abused may go on to become abusers themselves. This makes tackling domestic violence an even greater priority, as the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) said.

Domestic violence is like few other crimes. It is an emotional and psychological attack, as well as a physical one. On average, women are subject to physical attack on dozens of occasions before reporting it to the police. It is a crime that is kept secret from other family members and closest friends. It can take years to recover from it, and some people never do.

In a recent survey conducted for the British crime survey, 31 per cent. of female victims and 63 per cent. of male victims had told no one other than the survey about the worst incidents of domestic violence that they had suffered in the year before the survey was taken.

There can never be an excuse for domestic violence. We cannot allow alcohol, stress or poverty, or culture, to be used to excuse the use of violence as a means of domination or control. I hope that the Bill will help to redress the injustice that many now face. We support its objectives, but we should acknowledge at the outset, as the Secretary of State did, that tackling domestic violence is not simply about legislation: much of it is about changing attitudes.

Too many people still seem to think that domestic violence is in some circumstances acceptable. Too many seem to think that the victim may somehow have deserved it. Many who experience domestic violence also blame themselves. In fact, 64 per cent. of women and 94 per cent. of men who were subject to domestic violence last year did not even think that what had happened to them was a crime.

Too many people still think that the woman is responsible too, if she stays in the home despite being abused. How often have we heard people ask, "Why didn't she leave?" as if leaving one's home and children were an easy step to take. On the reverse side of the coin, some people think that a woman is deeply irresponsible if she leaves children at home and flees to a hostel to escape violence. She is damned if she does and damned if she does not.

Those outdated attitudes need to be changed, but we cannot legislate to change minds; that requires more education and more public awareness. The more domestic violence is discussed in the open, the more light will be shed on an issue that has traditionally remained behind closed doors—one of the last great taboos in our society.

Tackling domestic violence effectively means involving the police. There are plenty of examples of good practice in today's police force, and I pay tribute particularly to the Metropolitan police and the Association of Chief Police Officers for their work in improving the training for police officers responding to domestic violence. I also pay tribute to my local Thames Valley police, who constantly face domestic incidents that require sensitive handling. The idea that violence in the home can be dismissed as "just a domestic" is coming to an end, and I hope that we will be able to find ways in the Bill to empower the police to deal with domestic violence even better.

Many of the organisations at the sharp end of domestic violence have welcomed part 1 of the Bill, but many issues need addressing, such as the concerns of the Women's National Commission that were referred to by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Lynne Jones), who is no longer in her place, and the concerns of the Southall Black Sisters about ethnic minority women subject to immigration control, and their recourse to public funds. Issues have also been raised by Women's Aid, which has proposals to allow for the automatic granting of a non-molestation order where violence is being used or threatened, whenever an occupation order is being granted. We will want to examine that part of the Bill in detail, including exploring a potential definition of domestic violence.

Some of the most complex measures are in the provisions on familial homicide. There is near universal agreement that that subject needs to be addressed. Research undertaken over three years by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children found that every week no fewer than three children under 10 were killed or suffered serious injury. In 61 per cent. of the investigations that reached a conclusion there was no prosecution, and in the cases that resulted in a conviction for a criminal offence, only a fraction resulted in a conviction for homicide, wounding or causing grievous bodily harm.

Clearly, injustices are taking place and the need for reform is accepted throughout the legal profession. Indeed, the provisions in the Bill follow from the Law Commission's proposals published last year. Nobody doubts the Government's good intentions, but good intentions do not necessarily make fine laws, and we will want to examine the provisions more closely in Committee, especially where the Government's proposals diverge from those of the Law Commission. In particular, we shall need to be reassured that the Bill is compatible with human rights legislation.

The Government have made it clear that they intend to restore the provisions on multiple offending, but we made it clear during the passage of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 that we were prepared to accept the idea that a jury may try a sample of cases. We agree that sentencing should be possible on the basis of specimen counts, but we must be vigilant in ensuring that that is not an attempt to erode jury trial by the back door, after the failure to do that openly last year.

I understand that the Government also intend to restore the former clause 18 on fitness to plead, which was removed in the other place. The clause took away from the jury the decision whether the defendant was fit to be tried, leaving that decision for the judge alone. The Government seem determined to remove lay people from the administration of justice. Last week, they tried to do that with the asylum tribunals, for no apparent good reason, and last year they tried to do it with long complex fraud trials, but on every occasion we defeated them.

We remain unconvinced by the argument that judges should be able to decide unfitness to plead. The consequences of being declared unfit to plead could be a person being locked up under a hospital order without any time restriction, so we shall examine very carefully the Government's attempt to reinstate clause 18.

Let me move on to part 3. The victims charter was first published in 1990 under a Conservative Government and was widely recognised as a major step towards victims starting to get better treatment. Victim Support has been advocating the right for victims to be entitled to reliable support for some years, and it welcomes those measures in the Bill, as I do. However, confidence in the criminal justice system is low. Very few victims see their offender brought to justice, and victim satisfaction with the police went down from 68 per cent. in 1994 to 59 per cent. in 2002–03. Some people will not even report crimeߞas victim or witness—because of fear of reprisals, or because of disengagement from the system.

We will want to examine the effectiveness of the code of practice and the role of the commissioner, but I now understand that the Government intend to table a series of amendments on support for victims of crime, so we shall want in particular to examine the provisions relating to surcharges on criminal convictions.

As the court system cannot currently enforce the existing fine system, is there not a danger that the compensation orders will bite on the generally law-abiding, leaving the real criminals to escape? As I said, despite the new and improved figures from the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, just 55 per cent. of fines were paid on time and collected in 2002–03—[Interruption.] He brushes that to one side, but it is obviously a pivotal part of this new policy.

It really was unacceptable for the Home Office to announce a truncated consultation period on these proposals after the Bill received its Second Reading in the other place. To be truthful, it beggars belief that the Home Office has only just decided how to proceed, and that we shall now receive a raft of amendments at such a late stage, some of which might well be controversial. I hope that the Minister can tell us in the wind-up exactly when we can expect sight of those amendments. That is an important issue, given that proceedings in Committee are due to start as soon as 22 June. This is not a sensible way to legislate, and the Secretary of State knows exactly what I mean.

As I made clear at the outset, we support the principle behind the Bill, and I do not intend to ask my colleagues to vote against Second Reading tonight. However, some valuable and constructive work could be done in Committee to improve it, so I reserve the Opposition's right to vote against the Bill on Third Reading if the Government do not listen to our sincerely held concerns during its legislative passage. So far, they appear to have listened a little, and we hope that the Secretary of State and his Ministers will listen a lot more. I am very pleased to support Second Reading of this Bill.

5.27 pm
Mrs. Barbara Roche (Hornsey and Wood Green) (Lab)

I qualified as a barrister in 1977, and as many Members will know, back then, on becoming a barrister one was not allowed to earn any money for the first six months—and rightly so, as I certainly knew nothing then. Since then, the system has improved somewhat through sponsorships and scholarships. In my second six months I was allowed to earn money, and during that period I was fortunate to be in chambers that gave me quite a lot of work, much of which was to do with domestic violence. I was given such work because it was not regarded as important, and it certainly was not the sort of work that more senior barristers and members of chambers would do. It was the work that nobody else wanted, so the most recently qualified member of chambers would be sent along, and would probably turn up in court having got the papers that morning or the night before.

I was very young and although I would not need a white wig now, I certainly did then, and mine was a very new wig indeed. I was representing women—and it was women—who were in the most difficult of circumstances, and indelibly fixed in my mind is one of my very first appearances. I went to the county court to represent a woman in respect of a non-molestation and ouster application. She had been the victim of severe domestic violence, but the judge made an instant judgment about her and her character and morals. He said, in open court, "I won't have your client behaving like a slut." He attached conditions to the order and it eventually ended up in the Court of Appeal. That is an illustration of how the courts, the judiciary and the system treated women in those cases.

Not long after that, I went to work in, and helped to run, a law centre in London. We had a number of cases of domestic violence. At that time not many firms of solicitors wanted to take on those cases. I recall a case in that law centre where we had found a refuge space for a woman and we were going to court, but she returned to a violent husband who murdered her. That case was not unusual and it happens every week in our country.

Today, some years later, the position has changed. I anticipate that we will have a consensual debate today—an adult and a grown-up debate in which we can treat the issue seriously and view it with the importance that it deserves. For a long time, though, we could not have such a discussion—certainly not in the country at large and, if we are absolutely honest, not in this place.

When I entered the House in 1992, I was lucky to be chosen to sit on the Home Affairs Committee and one of our first reports was on domestic violence. I have just refreshed my memory of the conclusions that it drew. I argued in that Committee that we should work to produce a report on domestic violence, but some of my colleagues wanted instead to produce a report on car boot sales. Nevertheless, we produced the report on domestic violence and the House has certainly made progress on the issue.

It is not just the House that has changed; many other agencies and services have also changed. The police service, for example, is now radically different from the one that we used to know. I recall how it used to be in the early days of the domestic violence units when only a couple of police officers in those units knew what they were doing and were sympathetic. I am not saying that policing is perfect now; of course it is not. In the main, however, a change of culture has occurred among the police. Anyone who travels around to speak to people working in the area of women's aid will know that they have extremely good relationships with their local police officers. That is a tremendous step forward.

However, many women and children in our society remain in an appalling position. The figures on the number of women who are victims of domestic violence are staggering. I have to say that, if those figures were reversed and it were the men in our society who were dying at the same rate, there would probably be a national inquiry. For far too long, domestic violence has been treated as if it were somehow an issue of concern for women only—a women's issue. It is not. It is an issue for men and women. It is one of the most vital criminal justice issues in our society.

I warmly welcome the Bill. It is a very important step forward. The fact that we can have a debate in which all parties of the House make a constructive contribution is a vital aspect of progress. However, we still need to deal with some other issues, and we must use legislation to deal with some of the matters that are so important to tackling domestic violence. Of course the legislation is vital, but we must use it as a way to change the culture by adopting measures that go alongside it. There are problems for women whose immigration status is uncertain, especially in connection with the recourse to public funds rule. That issue has been raised many times over the years, as the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) rightly said, by Southall Black Sisters. In fact, it was raised in the Home Affairs Committee report that I mentioned a moment ago, because that group came to give evidence to the Committee, and I remember advocating that it should do so. That remains a major issue, but it could be overcome.

We must also face the issue of legal aid, because there are problems with some firms of solicitors being unable to take on domestic violence cases. I had such a case recently in my constituency. The thresholds for qualification are also a problem that will have to be looked at.

We must also ensure that the Government's approach to domestic violence is truly joined-up. That is why it is good to see so many different Departments taking part. When I was responsible for homelessness, among other issues, I put some of our budget into tackling domestic violence and into support for the 24-hour hotline, because we know that domestic violence is a major driver of homelessness. Any council housing department will confirm that. A proper, joined-up approach is vital.

We must also ensure that refuge provision is not patchy. Some parts of the country have a surplus of housing stock and it is easier for women and families to find other accommodation, but it can be much more difficult in other areas. We need to support organisations such as Women's Aid and Refuge. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the people who work in those organisations. I felt very privileged when I had the chance to tour those organisations, and I found it amazing how long the people working there had spent doing so. It was not unusual to find women who had worked there for 15, 20, 25 or 30 years. One remarkable organisation was run by a mother-and-daughter team who had put in untold years of work, at not very high pay, completely devoted to public service. That is public service at the highest level. People can suffer burn-out in providing such a service, but it was especially pleasing to meet women who had been through domestic violence and then come back to those organisations to work as advisers and counsellors.

My final point concerns education. We need to ensure that we educate children to realise at a very young age that domestic violence is wrong. The provision of domestic violence education in schools is patchy. In some areas, local education authorities and schools have incorporated the issue into the curriculum, but others have not. We need to make much more progress in that area. Girls and young women need to know that they do not have to put up with domestic violence. Boys and young men need to know that decent men do not behave in that way. That is why we need to think of different ideas for getting to people. When we had the idea of putting advertisements for women's aid in black cabs in London, it was looked on by some as extraordinary, but everybody wants to have a say in pointing out that domestic violence is wrong. It is important that we think of non-traditional methods of getting over that message about domestic violence.

Domestic violence knows no particular social groups; it has no socio-economic barrier—it is there and we must overcome it. Although I am not complacent, I feel more confident than ever before that we are on the way to tackling domestic violence. However, it will require not only the Bill but a great deal of hard work and effort to ensure that we have measures alongside it to bring it to fruition.

5.40 pm
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD)

I warmly welcome the Bill, and we have already heard three extremely constructive speeches in its support. It has been eagerly awaited; it seemed to take an intolerable time to come from the other end of the Corridor, but it was eagerly awaited before that because we had hoped for legislation in the last Session. Nevertheless, it is more important for the measure to be right than early; as previous speakers said, domestic violence is undoubtedly a major issue for our criminal justice system, as is the support of victims and witnesses, so we need constructive legislation to deal with it.

When we talk about domestic violence, we are talking principally about violence of men on women, but not exclusively; it is equally important to remember that domestic violence can be directed against men and against children, who are often the inadvertent victims of domestic violence against another individual, usually their mother. There is also abuse of people who are vulnerable through age or infirmity.

I am about to say something that I rarely say to the Home Secretary: he has introduced a Home Office Bill that may not, I fear, go quite far enough. I do not suppose I shall ever say those words again. My fear has been recognised by practitioners in the field, many of whom, as the right hon. Gentleman is aware, were keen to brief us of their concerns about both the commissions and omissions of the Bill. I share with the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche) admiration for those who work in associations dealing with domestic violence issues and with victim support; they do an admirable job, often with little credit, so if we can make some redress for that it will be worth doing. They have expressed disappointment that the Bill does not deal with some of the aspects that they wanted it to cover. It will be the job of those of us who serve on the Standing Committee to set out some of their proposals—not to wreck the Bill, but to improve it. We want not to undermine the Bill but to ensure that it does its job in the most effective way.

Domestic violence has been around for a long time—we should not see it as a new phenomenon. Recently, I attended a production of "Oliver!" by Frome operatic society and it occurred to me that Bill Sykes is the archetype of an abuser—the domestic abuse of his partner ended up with familial homicide. Such fictional archetypes make us realise the prevalence of violence in domestic relationships; it has been with us for a long time and, sadly, is still prevalent.

I entirely agree with the Home Secretary when he said—I think that the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Galan) agreed—that this problem could not be cured entirely by statute. We should not pretend that it could. A cultural change is needed in many ways to deal with a public culture of acceptance or tolerance of abusive behaviour within a relationship. I do not accept such tolerance, and I hope that no Member of House would accept it either. Sometimes it is reinforced by cultural stereotypes within a particular youth culture. I am not one of those who say that every ill in this society is down to pop culture, films or anything else. However, when it is possible for reputable record companies to put out records that talk about slapping partners around as if that were normal behaviour or something to be admired, I have serious concerns. I am not a natural censor; I do not want to stop people enjoying the music that they enjoy. However, a degree of responsibility is required.

Sandra Gidley (Ramsey) (LD)

Does my hon. Friend not think that we as politicians also have a responsibility? Does he share my sense of more than slight dismay that the Home Secretary himself earlier used phraseology such as giving somebody a kicking? I know that that was said in another context, but this is not a subject for jest. Should we not be careful about the language that we use in this place?

Mr. Heath

We all need to be very careful about the language that we use in any circumstances. I do not want to overplay this point, but I believe that we have to make things clear to young people in particular. Surveys have shown that there is an alarming degree of acceptance among young people that domestic violence is somehow okay. We have to counter that through education and exemplary behaviour.

There is an element by which domestic violence is hereditary. I do not mean in terms of a congenital disposition—I do not believe that for a moment—but in terms of learned behaviour. People who are brought up in households in which there is an abusive relationship are more likely to believe that such behaviour is acceptable.

Mr. Dawson

I make the same point that I made to the Home Secretary. How on earth can we send positive messages to young people when it is perfectly permissible under the law for people to assault them?

Mr. Heath

The hon. Gentleman makes his point, and makes it frequently. It is a matter that will be debated in the context of other legislation, and I do not want to confuse two pieces of legislation.

If there is a problem with the public culture, there are also issues with police culture. I accept the fact that the police have improved no end on this issue, but their response is still patchy. The problem is often not the lack of power available to police officers but their willingness to use the powers that are already available. They may believe that they are acting in the best public interest, but they need better training so that they know how they should respond to a given situation.

There are also problems with the legal culture, and that point was admirably made by the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green in her remarks on the legal profession. Sadly, there is a lingering culture in our courts and legal system that makes it more difficult than it need be for someone to lay a complaint, have it properly investigated and resolved I through judicial process. We need a legal culture that sustains and supports the victim far better than the one we have at the moment.

The culture of the victims themselves is also a problem. In a way, it is nonsense to talk about a victims' culture, but there is a feeling among many victims that they do not have the capacity to get themselves out of the situation in which they find themselves. We must find ways, either through the agencies with which we engage or the legislation that we introduce, to reach out to those people and tell them that there is a way in which they can get themselves out of their relationships and that the law and society will support and help them in the future.

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park) (LD)

My hon. Friend has spoken at length about different cultures and criticised them for allowing things to happen or turning a blind eye, but in supporting what the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) said, surely we must also attack the culture that makes it permissible to smack or beat young children in a family setting.

Mr. Heath

Again, my hon. Friend tries to lure me into a different debate, but I want to maintain my position and talk about the Bill.

I fear that the Government have vastly oversold the Bill. I am not saying that it will not be valuable, but it will not do many of the things that people outside the House—and perhaps even hon. Members—expect after hearing the messages that the Home Secretary and his colleagues put out. They might feel that it will achieve more than it will.

Many practitioners think that criminalising the breach of non-molestation orders will not provide an adequate material solution to the situation that exists. The Home Secretary knows that there are real worries about how civil and criminal court processes will interact. Assurances were given in the other place that it would not be a problem to use the civil court process, even if the criminal court process existed. I hope that that will be the case; it is something that we shall have to tease out of the Under-Secretary it Committee.

I hugely welcome the provision that will extend existing legislation to same-sex couples, although I wonder how that proposal to promote equality will interconnect with the Civil Partner ship Bill. We need a clear understanding of the definitions used and the way in which they will work.

I think that every hon. Member will welcome the proposal that common assault be an arrestable offence. Many of us warmly welcome the fact that the Government are addressing cases of familial homicide in which it is impossible to establish clearly which of two people may be responsible. The Law Commission's report was extraordinarily helpful and we also had a good Westminster Hall debate on the subject recently, which was secured by the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner). I am slightly worried that the Government have chosen some of the Law Commission's proposals and rejected others, but I nevertheless welcome the fact that they are prepared to address the issue. The Under-Secretary will know that domestic homicide reviews are much supported by the Metropolitan police as a valuable addition to the system, but that others have doubts about the value added by the proposal. We shall have to tease out from the Government whether there will be adequate resources to underpin the structures that will be needed to make the system work. We want a proper definition of domestic violence to be incorporated in the Bill, and although that argument has been heard in the other place, we will need to rehearse it.

We will examine the operation of occupation orders and the way in which they will work in practice. We want to know a little more about the central register of occupation or non-molestation orders that Baroness Scotland said would be established. How will that work, what will be its scope, how will it be resourced and how will it be accessed so that it can provide valuable support to law enforcement agencies? There are worries about the use of recovery orders, and I hope that they will be addressed later in the debate.

I repeat the point that has been made about access to public funds by victims of domestic violence who are subject to immigration controls. We have always said that we want something to be done about that, and I thought that the Home Secretary made a helpful suggestion when he said that he might try to find a non-statutory route to achieve the same objective that we want, so we shall listen carefully to what the Under-Secretary says about it in Committee. On criminal procedure, we must consider sample counts, although we are told that the Government intend to reverse the amendment that was made in the other place. They also intend to reverse the amendment passed in another place on unfitness to plead.

I hugely welcome the proposal for a commissioner for victims and witnesses. I hope that that individual will have the widest possible remit and a clear working relationship with children's commissioners. I hope that he or she will be able to deal effectively with the status of vulnerable witnesses. Many of our co-respondents have suggested that a proper advocacy service should be placed within the context of the commissioner for victims and witnesses, which I support. The one thing that would make a huge difference to people would be a properly resourced advocacy service, and the commissioner could provide a useful focal point for it.

Lady Hermon

The hon. Gentleman rightly referred to the widest possible remit for the victims commissioner, so may I rely on his support and that of his colleagues in Committee to ensure that that remit is extended through the code of practice for victims, given that the Northern Ireland Office is currently resisting the proposal? Will he assure me that he will support extending the remit of the victims commissioner to Northern Ireland?

Mr. Heath

The hon. Lady knows from experience in Committee that I often support her proposals, and I know of no contrary arguments to her suggestions at the moment. I thought that the Home Secretary gave a guarded, yet positive, response to her earlier intervention, so we shall have to find out what happens in Committee.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that consideration should be given to whether the victims commissioner and any body subsequently set up should be able to reflect the views of disabled women who are subjected to domestic violence? I hope to catch your eye later, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to make that point because disabled women have specific needs and I am worried that they might not have been considered during previous discussions on the Bill.

Mr. Heath

The hon. Lady makes an admirable suggestion that I shall be happy to support, although I am not sure whether it would be necessary to limit her proposal to disabled women because disabled people of both genders may be subjected to violence. I hope that we will be able to return to that matter.

We are advised that the Government intend to reverse four amendments made in another place. On the "no case to answer" issue, I will listen carefully to what the Under-Secretary says because I do not think that our opinions are especially far apart. We all understand that human rights are paramount, but, equally, we want a competent trial process. We might be able to reach a consensus on a process with adequate safeguards that would achieve the Government's objective. I am open to a constructive debate on the matter.

I have less sympathy with the Government's case on the other three amendments that they intend to reverse. The Home Secretary said that citing domestic violence as a mitigating factor for a reasonable inability to prevent violent behaviour was similar to condoning murder or murderous behaviour. That was an unfortunate phrase. When someone is seriously worried about their welfare and perhaps the welfare of the dependent children, it is wrong to say that that concern condones inappropriate behaviour. I hope that the courts will have the capacity to take the incidence of domestic violence into account when determining the appropriateness and, indeed, the reasonableness of the defendant's behaviour. If that is not explicit, the Government should give us strong reasons why because I have yet to hear them.

I do not understand why the Government are attempting to reverse the cross-admissibility in sample counts. It is common sense and what judges will, in any case, do. In that case, why are the Government so insistent that it should not be in the Bill?

Mr. Grieve


Mr. Heath

I give way to someone who knows far more about this than I do.

Mr. Grieve

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if the courts are not to be cross-admissible, it at least raises the suspicion, which I am sure is not justified, that the Government are trying to achieve something quite different from their stated objective at the outset? That is why the other place and I—and, I suspect, the hon. Gentleman—have some anxiety on the issue.

Mr. Heath

I agree entirely; one can come to no other reasonable conclusion because the case is proven. We must again wait to see on what grounds the Minister chooses to explain his desire to reverse the amendment.

On fitness to plead, I agree with the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) that it is yet another erosion of the role of the jury. The measure is not necessary and is inappropriate. We should resist any attempt to put the provision back into the Bill.

We heard about the one addition that the Home Secretary wishes to make. I have no further comment on that other than to say that I welcome the fact that he has listened. We want to consider the detail and I hope that we will be able to support what is being proposed as an appropriate source for the victims' fund.

I finish by asking two direct questions on things that might be in the Bill. One should be included, but I can understand why the other might not be, although I want the Minister to confirm that that is the case. The first is the problem of contempt of court, which was brought to the House's attention via the case before Mr. Justice Munby, on which the Solicitor-General fairly recently made a statement. It seems that sharing information with an elected Member of the House would be construed as a contempt of court. The Bill is an appropriate vehicle to deal with that difficulty. Will the Minister consider whether a form of words could be included at a later stage to deal with a situation that will cause many problems to many hon. Members and their constituents if it is not corrected?

The second question is whether the Minister intends to legislate in any way on the partial defence of provocation. We have the Law Commission proposals, which are being consulted on, and that process will be completed in due course. I believe, again, that the Bill is an appropriate legislative vehicle for such a measure. I suspect that he may not agree and will want to wait a little longer. Perhaps he can share his intentions with the House. That does not mean to say that we will not necessarily test the proposals within the context of the Bill, but at least we will know where the Government stand.

The Bill is useful. It could do much more to support victims of domestic violence and victims and witnesses generally. That is what we will attempt to achieve in Committee and at later stages. Nothing that I have said in criticism of the content or the omissions should be interpreted as anything other than full-hearted support for the Government's intent behind this valuable Bill.

6.4 pm

Ms Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op)

I, too, welcome the Bill, the first major piece of legislation for some 30 years on domestic violence issues. It rightly puts the focus on victims at the heat t of the issue.

The Bill has been welcomed by groups, organisations and my constituents as trying to address an extremely complex problem that brings so much heartache and distress to so many children, parents and families. This process of debate and discussion gives us a real opportunity to address the many issues and to strengthen the protection for all victims.

As chair of the all-party group on Voice, which focuses on issues concerning learning-disabled adults, a number of issues concern me. I want to devote my speech to looking at things from the perspective of adults with learning disabilities. My starting point is that adults with learning disabilities have the same rights as all adults and that, wherever possible, those should be protected in mainstream legislation. We have an opportunity to put that protection in place in this Bill rather than in other Bills that will come before the House in the near future, such as the mental capacity Bill or the mental health Bill. We should consider how this Bill can put that protection in place.

Violence against, and the neglect and ill treatment of, women and men with learning difficulties in their own homes is horrifyingly widespread. Perpetrators are too often not brought to justice, which is a scandal and something that must be tackled. The Bill allows us the opportunity to do that.

On the specifics, I am concerned that the definition of vulnerable adult differs from that which has been in use for some time for adults with learning disabilities under the Department of Health Guidance "No Secrets". I understand that the issue is complex because the Bill seeks to deal with a wider range of issues, but it is important and needs further discussion. The Bill identifies a vulnerable adult as someone over the age of 16, whereas "No Secrets" identifies them as over the age of 18. There are issues of compatibility with other legislation to consider. It is possible for someone to be the perpetrator of an offence at the age of 16. However, given that child protection legislation goes up to the age of 18, it would seem more appropriate that children are deemed to be under 18, not 16.

Clause 7 deals with domestic homicide reviews. How does that fit with the requirements in child protection guidance, as set out in chapter 8 of "Working Together: Giving children and young people a say", in which a child who is killed has to be the subject of an interagency review? Fortunately it is rare for someone aged 16 or 17 to commit such an act, but if they did, to which guidance or legislation would they be subject? How would the process work? I am not saying that we cannot overcome those problems, but we must consider them. My preference is to have the vulnerable adult as someone who is over the age of 18. People between the ages of 16 and 18 should be deemed I to be children and covered by relevant legislation.

I am also concerned about the current definition of vulnerable as set out in clause 5(7). Old age, physical or mental disability or illness do not in themselves make people vulnerable. I have been in helpful correspondence with the Minister on the matter and understand that it is not intended for that to be the only way in which vulnerability is ascertained. However, it suggests to me that there is a need to define vulnerability in addition to the specific attributes.

I also understand that the courts need leeway in judging whether someone is vulnerable. I am concerned that without a clearer definition, or at least a move towards that, there will be only judgments to rely on in determining someone's vulnerability, and that that will not lead to consistency.

The offence in clause 5 of causing or allowing the death of a child or a vulnerable adult is very welcome. I understand entirely that the provisions have been framed to deal with concerns that have been around for many years that two adults can deny having been involved in the death of a child, and nobody is held accountable or brought to justice as a result. I would like consideration to be given to the Bill also covering cases where somebody is seriously injured but not killed. That could be dealt with by the inclusion of a specific offence of causing or allowing serious harm to a child or a vulnerable adult. That would push forward the issue and identify just how serious it is.

Several hon. Members have said that domestic violence has not been given the status that it should be given. We are talking about violence in the home; it could not be more serious. We need to consider the matter seriously. Including such an offence in the Bill rather than trying to deal with the abuse and neglect of people with learning disabilities through other legislation or guidance would be beneficial, because it would recognise that they are people first. All such legislation and guidance is to be welcomed, but wherever possible we should aspire to making such provision in mainstream legislation.

I also want to talk about the definition of households. It seems that I have become a little caught up with the definitions in the Bill, but that needs to be the nature of our discussion because we should have overall aims that we can all sign up to. The current definition is not clear about which premises it includes. There have been many changes in practice concerning learning-disabled adults over the past 20 or 30 years, and they now live in a range of settings, which is very welcome and in line with the Government's aim of enabling such people to live as full and as independent a life as they can. I want to be assured that all learning-disabled adults are covered by the legislation wherever they live. That would require inclusion in the definition of residential homes. I know that there is legislation about care standards and the like, but whether people have protection by right or purely on the basis of where they live merits consideration again.

Even more important is the issue of other supported accommodation for learning-disabled adults. Again, that can encompass a range of settings—just, indeed, as it does for everybody else. Sometimes such accommodation is a group home with some carer support living in; other times it is a group home with no carer support and only people coming in from time to time. It can also be an individual living in a flat in a complex where support is provided. Protection of learning-disabled adults could be improved by the specific inclusion in the Bill of carers. That would ensure the inclusion of learning-disabled adults who had been abused by someone who had responsibility for their support or care but did not live with them.

Hon. Members on both sides of the House will know of horrific examples of abuse and that the ability to explain and to talk about one's experience is often so important to achieving a conviction. We know how hard it is for people without a disability to talk about having been the subject of domestic violence. How much harder is it for those who face the difficulties of a disability? The most vulnerable people are the most at risk, and we should consider whether we can do more to offer protection. By adding the words "or is a paid carer or volunteer" to clause 5(5), we might be able to achieve that. I urge the Minister particularly to consider supported accommodation.

I know that there is a view that adults in such accommodation receive professional support, but the standard of it varies enormously depending on the capability of the residents. I am concerned that the Bill does not provide protection when the person giving the help and support is the abuser. It is important to bear in mind the fact that physical abuse is almost invariably preceded by some form of mental abuse or cruelty, which isolates the victim and prevents them from seeking help. That happens within marital or cohabiting relationships in the home, and it also occurs when people are abused by their professional or voluntary carer. We must recognise that. While the Bill is before us we have the opportunity to address that complex and difficult issue.

The creation of the commissioner is an enormously welcome move. It will ensure that there is someone who focuses on the victim and is able to speak for them. I would like the inclusion of a requirement to consider diversity. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) described the importance of disabled women. We have an opportunity in considering that to consider strengthening the protection of learning-disabled adults. I would like a specific requirement to oversee care settings as well as domestic ones. I am pleased that the Minister has assured me that equality and diversity will feature prominently in the commissioner's terms of reference, even though they will not be defined specifically in the legislation, but we need to bear in mind how difficult it is for people who have a disability, particularly a learning disability, to get justice. Ensuring that the commissioner plays such a role would be most welcome.

As has been said, this debate is not just about legislation; it is about changing culture and attitudes and what we do. How we implement the legislation when it finally comes through is also enormously important. It is important that the police are made fully aware that the legislation refers and applies equally to people with learning disabilities. Victims do not always see themselves as such. One hon. Member—I cannot remember who—gave some statistics that showed that people do not necessarily recognise that they have been the victim of the crime of domestic violence, so it is important that the police who act in such situations take that message fully on board.

There has been concern about whether the definitions of domestic violence used by the police and by the Crown Prosecution Service are the same. The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) raised the difficult issue of whether there should be a specific, agreed definition of domestic violence in the Bill. I accept that that might not be desirable, because it would not allow for change over time in response to changing circumstances, but there is concern that there are different definitions around and that that might even be reflected in different police forces. I am assured that the Association of Chief Police Officers uses a clear definition and that that should be used by all police forces. The Bill provides the opportunity to change practice through tight implementation plans in order to achieve consistency across all police forces.

This is an excellent Bill with many strong points. I welcome the work of the Home Office both in putting it together and in supporting the organisations that provide help for victims of domestic violence, although there is always more to do. I am sure that by working with all interested parties who want a strong and protective piece of legislation it will be possible to achieve a law that will protect more people and make it clear that domestic violence is violence and is not acceptable.

6.20 pm
Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con)

I am delighted to speak in support of the Bill. I hope that it has been worth the wait because, as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) said, it has been a long time coming. The Bill received its Second Reading in the other place on 15 December last year, and was brought to the Commons from the Lords almost three month ago.

I declare an interest as a patron of the Brighton women's refuge near my constituency in Sussex. I recently visited the Adur district women's refuge in my constituency to see the excellent work that it does in difficult, cramped circumstances on tight budget, and was impressed by the support that it offers many of my constituents. It could offer support to many more, if it had the resources to do so. It operates a floating support housing scheme, and helps people to access services such as GPs, benefits, social and health care, and legal advice. Most important of all, it gives information in a safe and sympathetic environ merit, as it was lucky enough to be given premises by the local authority and is housed in the Adur civic centre.

Too many such projects and refuges rely on the vagaries of local authority finances and the budgets available in a particular year. Occasionally they receive lottery funding, but they should receive mainstream funding because the number of victims of domestic violence does not fluctuate with the economy, or according to how much council tax or the local authority budget has gone up or down in a given year. We must therefore look again at the way in which many of those essential projects are funded.

As many hon. Members have said, this is not so much about the minutiae and details of the legislation, but about changing cultures and attitudes. It should be commonplace and acceptable to talk about the problem of domestic violence, and we should encourage and coax out of the shadows people who do not want to admit or acknowledge that they are the victims of domestic violence. It is a very welcome subject and an important Bill, and I am glad that we could support it in another place.

Domestic violence has been a crime in the United Kingdom since 1861, yet two women a week are still killed in England and Wales as a result of domestic violence. Women, as we have heard, are predominantly the victims of domestic violence, which is thought to account for about a quarter of violent crime. It has been estimated that in the past year police attended more than 500,000 million domestic violence calls, which represents a big cost to the police budget. A response to a single incident is estimated to cost more than £1,027. It is important that the police respond and that the scale of that response is not a financial judgment.

The criticism has been made that many domestic violence officers, who do an excellent job—I have met and worked with them in my own constituency—spend a great deal of time seeking information instead of responding to it. Domestic violence does not feature in many Government targets and is not a registered performance indicator, so inevitably it has a lower priority, as is the case with many other things that are subject to the target mentality. Some 62 per cent. of reported domestic violence incidents end in injury, with 18 per cent. requiring medical attention. Those at greatest risk, as we have heard, are women aged 16 to 29. Most alarming of all, as I recently learned, is that domestic violence often starts or escalates when women are pregnant—a time when they need the most support but are also the most vulnerable to potential abusers. Many partners walk out on pregnant women.

A woman is assaulted, on average, 35 times before she flees to safety. She may go to up to 10 different agencies before she gets the help that she needs. It is extremely frustrating for refuges when women are passed around different agencies—a streamlined one-stop-shop approach is needed to provide help at the crucial time when somebody has made the decision to leave home, is on the verge of making such a decision, or desperately needs help to stay in her own home, where she may be under attack. Despite that, however, we have more animal sanctuary places in this country than places in women's refuges. It is estimated that there are 40,000 women staying in refuges, which every year provide accommodation for 23,000 children and 110,000 people in need of refuge support services. We therefore need to treat the problem more seriously.

We have all, I am sure, dealt with constituency cases involving victims of domestic violence. I have dealt with a number in recent months—the problem seems to be on the increase. It is never a straightforward case of a wife being beaten up or physically assaulted by her partner or husband. Usually, the focus is the psychological intimidation that she experiences, even after she has split up with her partner and non-molestation orders have been secured following considerable angst, stress and legal expense. Women can still be abused, and are subject to devious forms of stalking. Former partners may retain house keys, enter premises, rifle through possessions, then disappear. An abuser may move into accommodation close to the home where his former partner lives, hang around the restaurants and schools that she uses or the schools attended by the children.

Such psychological intimidation or stalking can be much more dangerous and threatening than the physical act of being beaten up.

Mr. Dawson

I agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman has said. Is he concerned about the number of contact orders issued to violent fathers with a record of domestic violence, and does he think that we need to take action in the Bill to ensure that contact orders and residence orders are only made when children's safety can be guaranteed?

Tim Loughton

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman who, for once, has not mentioned smacking. He makes a perfectly legitimate point, about which we can have a separate debate, and shall no doubt do so under the auspices of the Children Bill. We need to do a great deal to improve the whole contact process. I am in favour of an assumption of shared parenting contact wherever possible, but clearly where there is a serious risk of harm to the children we need to take suitable precautions to limit, bar or control the contact of non-resident parents at contact centres and so on. The process is extremely complicated—the hon. Gentleman and I agree about much of the problem, and we need to look at ways of solving it.

Many of our constituents who bring cases of domestic violence to our surgeries are frustrated by the lack of effective police action. It is not a case of police officers lacking the will to do something—they are sympathetic to the victim, and many of them, as I have said, do an excellent job—but of it being difficult to pin something on the abusers, who are often devious in the way in which they push the threshold of the law to the limit. Therefore, it is essential that the Bill initiates a joined-up approach among agencies, including the police, the courts, the various health agencies and, because of the stress caused to those involved, housing agencies—one of the most important practical problems for a woman fleeing the home is for her and the children to find alternative accommodation from already strained local authority housing lists—as well as schools and the agencies dealing with alcohol abuse.

I shall concentrate now on the effects on children. There is rather an absence of references to children in the Bill, but they are an important element of the problem we are discussing. Every day, thousands of children witness cruelty and violence behind closed doors. More than a third of children of domestic violence survivors are aware of what is going on. The figure rises to more than half if the woman has suffered repeated violence. There are clear links between domestic violence and child abuse. It may become a generational phenomenon. Hon. Members spoke earlier about a learned attitude, and there is evidence to suggest that if children see parents being physically abused, that behaviour can be replicated in the school playground.

In a recent survey, 27 per cent. of mothers said that violent partners had also physically assaulted their children. That must be psychologically traumatic for children at a sensitive stage of their development. There are implications for the Children Bill, which is currently in another place and will come to this House before long. A significant determining factor for an abused woman leaving an abusive partner is the fear of having her children taken away from her by social services. We need greater understanding and a better service from social services to reassure an abused woman that her children will be safe if she takes herself to a place of safety where the children can go as well, and that there will not be an assumption that she has somehow become a bad parent and that her children therefore need to be taken into care. That is an important aspect.

There are further implications for the Children Bill arising from the need to share information about domestic violence. I should be interested to hear from the Minister what discussions he has had with the Minister for Children in that regard for the forthcoming Children Bill. I particularly welcome the terms of the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill in relation to familial murder—

Sandra Gidley

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Tim Loughton

In a moment—and the thorny issue of joint enterprise, on which I have campaigned for many years and on which I introduced a ten-minute Bill last year.

Sandra Gidley

The hon. Gentleman has moved on a little from the point on which I intended to comment. He mentioned the Children Bill and access to information. There are growing concerns that the provisions to ease access to information for professionals could make it easier for a violent parent to access the information, and that safeguards are needed to make sure that that does not happen. Is that the hon. Gentleman's understanding, and does he wish to comment further?

Tim Loughton

The Children Bill is currently going through the House of Lords. There are serious concerns about the formulation of clause 8, which I think is the one to which the hon. Lady was referring, and which deals with data sharing. I have some serious concerns about it because it appears to present a blank cheque to the Government to the extent of producing a surrogate ID card for children through the back door.

I am in favour of data sharing. That was clearly the message that came out of the Climbié report, and that is the way we must move ahead. But that can be done only with the relevant safety checks and balances to determine how appropriate information is input into the system and, more importantly, who has access to it. I am sure that the Government would not countenance any system, and we would not give it our support, if there were any question that information about vulnerable children could be accessed by people who might abuse those children.

The hon. Lady may be alarmed, but she can rest assured that the Conservative Opposition will make sure that the Government do not try and sneak in anything like that, if they were so minded. I am sure that they are not, but there is an awful lot of detail missing from that part of the Children Bill, and we will want to be substantially reassured before we give it our support.

I return to the topic of joint enterprise. I have an interest in that first, in my role as the shadow Children's Minister; secondly, because I introduced a ten-minute Bill about joint enterprise last year; and thirdly, because of a constituency case. It was the case of a four-year-old constituent of mine, John Smith, who on Christmas Eve 1999 died in hospital from 54 marks on his body at the hands of his prospective adoptive parents, Simon and Michelle McWilliam Each subsequently denied that they had struck the fatal blow. A charge of murder or even manslaughter could therefore not be brought against either of them and they were both convicted of the lesser charge of cruelty to a child, for which they received an eight-year sentence. That was murder in anything but name. The couple got away with murder, literally.

Too many other cases like that are happening. There is a loophole in the law that will, I hope, at last be addressed by clauses 5 and 6. I wholeheartedly congratulate the Government on having responded to that. The Justice for John campaign in my constituency, arising from the case of John Smith, lobbied long and hard for that, with my support. It will be a testament to that horribly abused child that at last we are getting a change in the law, which hopefully will deter people from thinking that they can get away with it. Too many of the cases of the 80 or so children a year who die at the hands of their carers or parents do not result in the prosecution of those people.

Of those 80 children, half are under the age of one. Contrast that with a halving in the number of children who have died as a result of accidents since the 1970s. Babies are five times more likely to be killed than any other age group, and the prosecution rates are very low. As the Law Commission showed, 61 per cent. of investigations that reached a conclusion resulted in no prosecution for any offence at all—and of those that did result in conviction, only a few were for the serious charges of murder or manslaughter. That was the subject of the excellent NSPCC report, "Which of you did it?", which was greatly informed by a Sussex policeman, Detective Inspector Martin Bacon, who has done so much work on joint enterprise and child killing. I welcome the reforms in the law.

There are a few small points relating to concerns about the way in which the Bill has been drafted, or which might be added to the Bill. I wholeheartedly share the concerns of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Ms Munn) about the age definitions of children in the various parts of the Bill and the grey areas that that causes.

Various outside bodies are concerned about ethnic minorities and asylum seekers, especially women who are subject to domestic violence and whose right to stay in the UK is largely dependent on remaining with the abuser. We must get a little smarter when dealing with ethnic minorities and asylum seekers who are being abused.

There are problems with the definition of domestic violence, as the hon. Lady said. We need consistency between the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and social services. There are a couple of further points that relate to the Children Bill as well. How will the proposal for a register of civil orders to allow police to check for outstanding orders against an alleged offender interact with the database proposed in the Children Bill? Surely that is an essential piece of information that needs to be available to the appropriate agencies, under the auspices of the director of children's services, to ensure that children are not vulnerable in that respect.

How will the commissioner for victims and witnesses interact with the children's commissioner proposed in the Children Bill? Which commissioner will promote the welfare of child victims? Unless those inconsistencies are straightened out at an early stage, they may fall between two stools.

Another technicality that may have been addressed elsewhere, but has been mentioned to me, is highly topical given that we have just been through a series of elections. Some women wish to exercise their vote, but remain anonymous on the electoral roll because they are staying in a refuge where they do not want an abuser to find them, or have moved to a new address that is a little distant from their original home address and similarly do not want to be tracked down. Are there measures to ensure that those women are entitled to exercise their right to vote without compromising their safety? Have the Government considered taking that into account?

Finally, I echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) regarding the mental capacity measures in the Bill. I hope that the Government will think again about reversing the amendments that were made in another place. In the matter of unfitness to plead, it is right that the decision should remain with the jury. The Government have not made the case for changing that. Such a decision is a matter of public interest, and a jury has the competence to make that decision. A decision that someone is unfit to plead can have draconian results, such as a hospital order without time restrictions. That is as the law stands now—the changes that the Government propose in the draft Mental Capacity Bill, which has been knocking around for two years without any sign of becoming legislation, provide even greater powers to lock up people whose behaviour certain other people do not like. It is essential that there are proper checks and balances over who is deemed unfit. I strongly urge the Government to reconsider that and to consult more widely than before with mental health charities and other organisations, because the Bill has serious implications for those suffering from mental health problems.

Notwithstanding those small points, it is right that the House should give the Bill its support. It is also right that the Government should be scrutinised in relation to the amendments that they are trying to overturn, some of which would improve the Bill. The Bill is long overdue, but its time has finally come. I hope that Members of all parties will give it their constructive support to ensure that, when it eventually becomes law, it will be even better than the version that we are scrutinising today.

6.43 pm
Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley) (Lab)

Like other hon. Members, I welcome the Bill. I am afraid that I must start with a minor point of disagreement with the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), who said that the Bill had been oversold. Other mechanisms are required to deal with the issue—legislation is only one part of it—but we should not a accept that the Bill has been oversold. At last, after all these years, there has been such a change of culture in the way in which the subject is considered that the House is seriously identifying it as a crime that is unacceptable and cannot be tolerated. That in itself is deeply significant.

When I go to the annual general meeting of the local east Derbyshire domestic violence forum this Thursday, the Bill will be welcomed because several of its measures deal with issues highlighted by forum members in a consultation that I encouraged them to undertake. The same applies to proposals that were made following a consultation that we organised with the Derbyshire-wide forum, when we sat down for a day with Women's Aid and victims to go through the issues that they wanted us to take up on their behalf.

Several of the legal changes in the Bill were mentioned in the course of both consultations. Making the breach of a non-molestation order an arrestable and criminal offence will be broadly welcomed. When a perpetrator comes to someone's home in the middle of the night and is threatening, the victim will feel safer in the knowledge that the police have greater powers to arrest that person and take them away. The importance of making common assault an arrestable offence has been emphasised to me by local police officers who deal with cases of domestic violence and who reckon that people are assaulted 35 times before they go to the police. They will welcome the ability to arrest someone on suspicion of assault without a warrant.

The Bill has been a long time coming, but that is partly because it has been through a huge amount of consultation. That is important, because the issue has to be subject to detailed and ongoing work by all the agencies in our community and a wide range of people. The Bill is just one element of what needs to be done.

I welcome the code of practice, which will ensure that victims have the advice, information and support that they need to deal with the criminal justice system. I also welcome the victims' fund and the commissioner for victims and witnesses. However, I want to highlight a couple of concerns that my local domestic abuse forums have particularly emphasised and which may not be given enough support. I hope that they will be taken on board in developing the code of practice and ensuring that the necessary resources are put in.

First, the local and Derbyshire-wide forums strongly highlighted the lack of facilities and resources for counselling. One of my main local counsellors is a woman who operates through Victim Support and is being taken on board, with some funding, by our community safety partnership specifically to coordinate and develop counselling services. She told me that victims need life coaching from the moment they agree to seek help. They need to be taken right through the criminal justice process, which can last for a long time, and sometimes to be assisted over a lifetime. Yet many counselling services offer only a limited number of sessions.

That issue arose many times during the consultations with local victims that we organised as part of the consultation exercise. I could give one quote after another from women saying that they needed advice. One woman said: The only problem I face is the isolation and loneliness of not being part of the family. She said that the refuge staff had been very supportive, but continued: I think a woman who has experienced this abuse should be designated a personal mentor, counsellor who has been through the situation herself, maybe for the rest of her life. Another woman said: After two years on my own I still think about what it was like. Talking about it helps. I have a support worker but I would like to see her more often. Counsellors can legitimise the victim's experience by telling them that they were not at fault and talking them through it.

Another woman said that she discovered a huge amount of support when she went to seek it. However, she then said: A key reason for my never seeking help in the years before was my conviction that no-one would even start to believe me—to everyone else he was a charming, attractive fireman. Such support cannot be provided in only a few counselling sessions. A little help in going through the process is not enough. We need to ensure that that point is taken seriously and that the code of practice, the help that we provide and the necessary resources cover the matter.

Mr. Heath

The hon. Lady is making an important point. She said that the experiences that she cites are from a survey covering Derbyshire. Was the point made about the difficulties for people in rural communities, who live a long way from support structures? They can feel even more isolated, if that is possible, than someone in an urban setting, where at least there are refuges and structures that they can consult.

Judy Mallaber

There is a specific problem in rural areas, and one of the programmes in Derbyshire concentrates on villages and what we can do there, but similar problems arise in urban areas. A woman who now lives in London but previously lived in one of the towns in my constituency came to see me with her mother and sister. She had suffered the most appalling emotional and psychological abuse for many years and had never talked to anybody, including her family. She had not found it possible to raise the matter. She did everything that her husband said—she would not open the cupboard that contained the cheque books or do anything that he told her she could not do. She was isolated in an urban environment. One can be as lonely there as in a village or rural area, although I accept that specific problems apply in rural areas.

Support for perpetrators to deal with offending behaviour was also highlighted locally. Last week, I spoke to one of our local police officers who deals with the matter and was told that victims often say that they are not happy or confident about taking up and pursuing their abuser if they feel that they cannot get help for their partners who are abusing them. It can be important for the victim to feel that some help is available for the perpetrator to deal with offending behaviour. Little such help is currently available; a huge gap in services has been identified. I hope that taking people through the criminal justice system, providing continuing counselling and dealing with offenders' behaviour will be taken on board. These measures are a critical part of finding a legislative system and support services that will help victims, and help perpetrators to deal with their offending behaviour.

One project at the university of Derby—Prevention of Domestic Abuse—was originally funded through lottery money, but now continues solely because of an academic, who is using it as a project and getting psychology students to provide assistance. Provision is hit and miss, and such services are unavailable in other parts of the country. I am sure that that is happening elsewhere. A couple of national pilot programmes have been set up, but only in the Prison Service and the probation service. I should be interested to know their outcome. They do not tackle the problem of people who have not yet been convicted; nor do they consider the possibility of a victim seeking help if she knew that assistance was available for her abuser to deal with his offending behaviour.

Locally, we are seeking European funding through a Daphne application. We must have more consistent funding and I hope that that will be taken on board when we consider the code of practice and other services.

Training is also crucial. We are developing a protocol locally to ensure that every professional is involved and takes responsibility. All the surveys that have been conducted, the day that we spent with victims and the questionnaires that we persuaded the trade unions to send out on what was being taken up in the workplace, showed that, although there had been a sea change in attitude and despite the wonderful quotes from incredibly supportive people in all the agencies and the police, unsympathetic approaches continue to exist. A huge amount needs to be done. The protocol that is being developed in our area provides that every professional should take responsibility. In the next couple of weeks, training sessions will be held for 100 of our local professionals, for example, police officers, social workers and teachers in east Derbyshire. That is important.

I look forward to hearing what the code of practice will include and how the Under-Secretary envisages that the supplementary services, which the commissioner would presumably examine, will be taken on board. The Bill contains much that is important and valuable, but it should be supplemented by a range of other services.

I want briefly to mention a subject that was raised earlier: the amendments tabled in another place on repeat offences. I have not examined the legal position in detail and I do not pretend to understand the legal arguments, but I plead with those who intend to support the Lords amendments to reconsider carefully. One main reason given for the relevant provision is internet pornography. I have examined that issue and I recently contributed to a debate in Westminster Hall on the subject.

It is difficult seriously to tackle the crime of child pornography on the internet when one is considering only a few cases. A man in Lincolnshire was sentenced to five years' imprisonment for downloading 450,000 images. When they started some years ago, the police were chasing perhaps 12 pieces of child pornography in their area, but they now chase hundreds, thousands and millions. Every one of the 450,000 images involved a child being abused, yet there is a sneaking suspicion that it is difficult for current legislation to exert its full force because of the scale of the crimes.

Tim Loughton

I concur with the hon. Lady's comments. I recently spent an afternoon in the paedophile unit at Scotland Yard and saw cases of literally hundreds of thousands of images that had been downloaded. It is so easy to do—as easy as downloading a record track on to an MP3. The other problem is the enormous shortage of forensic technical officers who can get the kit together to analyse all the stuff. It is essential to make that easier when abuse is clearly taking place on a large scale.

Judy Mallaber

I understand that new technical methods may make it possible to scan through all the images and identify them as unacceptable and illegal without having to go through every one. However, we have not yet arrived at the point at which the technology has developed to the extent that courts can accept it as evidence. I urge hon. Members who are keen to accept the Lords' amendments to be careful. Every single image represents a child who has been raped, abused or had something else appalling done to them. The full force of the law needs to be applied. It is not acceptable that, because one cannot get a jury to look at 450,000 images, the case will not be taken sufficiently seriously and the appropriate sentencing will not be carried out.

I welcome the Bill. I look forward to a constructive debate and to our taking up all the issues that need to be covered to ensure that the legislation is underpinned and supplemented by the range of services required to ensure that domestic violence and other crimes are tackled seriously.

6.59 pm
Sandra Gidley (Romsey) (LD)

Since we began our debate, 151 instances of domestic violence have probably been reported to the police, if the average is anything to go by. I therefore welcome the Bill's proposals, but the question of whether more could be done has already been asked. Some of what I was going to say has been highlighted already, so I shall just reinforce the points that have been dealt with in some detail.

The first helpful addition would be to include a definition of domestic violence in the Bill. The Home Office has a perfectly adequate definition. I wondered whether having a definition mattered, and what difference it would make, but when I have talked to agencies that deal with this field and try to track what is happening, I have found that the fact that different agencies have different definitions makes it difficult to track through and compare like with like. I fail to see what the opposition is to having a definition. In nearly every Bill that we deal with, we spend the first two or three hours defining concepts in fine detail, so I really do not know why there is no definitions here.

Another issue, which has been raised a number of times, is the lack of recourse to public funds for women with an uncertain immigration status who are victims of domestic violence. Many of those women have been sponsored by UK-based spouses or partners, and may not have had much to do with their partner before coming over. Unfortunately some, within a short period of time, become subject to domestic violence. Often, because of language difficulties and other problems, the only network that such women have in this country is the friends and relatives of the family into which they have married, so they literally have nowhere to go and are often forced to remain with an abuser.

Some such women will be eligible to stay, but there is still a period of time in which they cannot have access to money in their own right. It can take months to process an application in their own right, during which time a woman cannot leave because she has no access to money for accommodation or living expenses. There might also be children affected in such cases. This is, fundamentally, a human rights issue, but my understanding is that the Government have resisted change because that would undermine the integrity of the immigration and benefits rule. I urge the Minister to consider ways in which we can get round that. I suggest that he look closely at the whole issue of sponsorship. There are probably ways in many cases in which a woman's living expenses can be recovered from the sponsor without jeopardising her safety. I hope that he will look at that in further detail.

Many groups that have commented on the Bill have called for a community-based domestic violence advocacy service. I am not sure whether that is what the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) was referring to when he mentioned a one-stop shop, but we are probably thinking broadly on the same lines. The thought is that such a service would be cost-effective. In 2000, the cost for the police to respond to a single incident was £1,027. The average cost of an advocacy service has been estimated at £778, a saving of £249 per case.

Vera Baird (Redcar) (Lab)

I think that it is the cost of each visit from the police that is £1,027, whereas the cost of an advocacy service attending a client from start to finish would be £778.

Sandra Gidley

I thank the hon. and learned Lady for her intervention; she has far more experience in this field than I have. As we have already heard, 500,000 domestic violence calls were attended by the police last year, so it seems sensible to try to save money. Domestic violence is one crime that has, sadly, a very high repeat rate. Investing resources in each case, in whatever is the most cost-effective way, should in the long run bring down the overall rate.

Why is it so important to have a domestic violence advocacy service? There is a great need for the one-stop shop approach, and many calls are made for that to be delivered by women for women. I was slightly uneasy with that suggestion at first, because there are men who are victims too. However, they are generally not the biggest problem and are not usually in a situation in which they have nowhere to go. I am also assured that men in such circumstances are happy to talk to women. It seems to be necessary for women to have somewhere to go where they can be made aware of their rights, their entitlements and the support that is available for them. This subject is rarely talked about, and most women think that they are going through their problems alone. They often do not want to go public or let people know what is happening because they somehow think that it is their fault. It is not; but that is often the mindset involved.

The biggest omission from the Bill concerns child contact. Is it right that a parent with a proven history of domestic violence can have unsupervised access to their child? The consultation paper "Safety and Justice" said that that would be dealt with in the Children Bill, but it is not dealt with there and it is not dealt with in this Bill. If we are not careful, we will miss two perfect opportunities to do something about this problem once and for all.

Mr. Dawson

I share absolutely the hon. Lady's concern. Does she agree that it also seems utterly unacceptable for residence orders to be given to parents with a record of domestic violence or child abuse?

Sandra Gidley

Yes. The hon. Gentleman has a long record of proactivity in this field, and I have much sympathy with those arguments, which I shall come to in a moment.

The current presumption seems to be that a child is better off if he or she has contact with both parents. I cannot argue with that if both those parents are loving parents, and violence was not a factor in the break-up of a marriage. I could not agree more in those circumstances, and I have sympathy with those—usually fathers—who for various reasons, not their fault, are not allowed as much access to their children as they would like to have. Sadly, however, this is not all a bed of roses—life ain't like that. Research by Women's Aid has shown that in approximately half of domestic violence cases, the man has also abused the child in some way.

Listening to some of the rhetoric that is around these days one gains the impression that contact is often not granted to fathers, but let us look at the statistics. In 1997, 42,000 contact orders were granted; in 2002, 61,356 were granted. We might ask how many were refused, and wonder whether there is a growing trend in that direction, too. Bearing it in mind that a third more contact orders were granted, the statistics for refusal are quite stark. In 1997, 1,850 were refused; in 2002, the number had decreased to 518, which is 0.8 per cent. of cases. Clearly, a significant number of children have contact with a parent who has a known history of violence.

Guidance to the courts on that matter does not seem to be enough because the statistics show that since the court guidance was issued in April 2001 across England and Wales, at least 18 children have been ordered to have contact with fathers who have previously committed schedule 1 offences against children, and 64 children were ordered to have contact with fathers whose behaviour had previously caused the child or another child to be placed on a child protection register. Of those, 21 had unsupervised contact.

We are told that every child matters. I am not sure that those children's best interests were taken into account. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which has done much work on this, has produced numerous case stories showing the complexity of what the courts and others must handle. In some cases, children have been under considerable pressure to play down certain aspects of behaviour. Children want to please. They want to please both parents, and they want to say the right thing. It is not always possible to obtain the full story of what is going on during the first contact with a child. In one very sad case, pressure was put on a child who had claimed that certain things were happening with the parents. None of the family could believe it, and the whole family put pressure on the child, suggesting that he was imagining it and it could not really have happened. Each of us could probably describe equally heartrending cases.

A disturbing theme in a number of the NSPCC's case studies is the importance that officers in the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service appear to ascribe to contact with the father, often against the wishes of the child. The child may say that he or she is scared and frightened, and there are examples of that. Perhaps the Minister will tell us whether the suitability of CAFCASS officers for the task has been reviewed. As I have said, children's wishes and needs are often complex.

There are other vulnerable groups to consider. I welcome clause 5, which creates the offence of familial homicide— Causing or allowing the death of a child or vulnerable adult". It closes a legal loophole that allows each parent to say, "It was not me" or to stay silent, thus preventing a case from being made.

Not just children and not just women are affected. Action on Elder Abuse began campaigning for clause 5 after a lady called Margaret Panting, aged 78, died at the hands of her family in Sheffield. I understand that she was a constituent of the Home Secretary, and that he has taken a close interest in the case. There is a real need for the clause. Statistics from Action on Elder Abuse show that two thirds of such abuse takes place in private households, and that 44 per cent. of identified abusers are family members. Of the identified abusers, just under half are sons and daughters, and a quarter are spouses. It is only rarely that a hands-on carer causes the abuse. Because people often think of carers in this context, I want to make it absolutely clear that I am not talking about them.

Despite the need for clause 5, however, I am not entirely sure that the current definition of a vulnerable adult is satisfactory. I am not convinced that we should define vulnerability in terms of age alone. That needs to be pursued in Committee.

A potential scenario in the clause gives cause for concern. There is an assumption that in a case involving a husband and wife, both partners are equally culpable. To an extent, that assumption ignores the nature of domestic violence. It is insidious. We tend to focus on physical violence, but a strong characteristic of these cases is the belittling of women. There is psychological abuse. A woman will reach a stage at which, although not exactly cowering in a corner, she adopts protective behaviour in order not to attract violent behaviour, and her self-esteem is shattered. It takes a long time for women to recover from that.

In such circumstances a woman may be terrified of saying something, and pointing the finger of blame. When such a woman is herself a victim, is it fair to put her in the dock beside her partner? The last thing I want to do is create a loophole—a defence allowing people who clearly have not been victims of domestic violence to say, "I was terrified that he was going to beat me up." Nevertheless, I feel that we must recognise a type of behaviour that is not unusual and make allowances for it.

Mr. Heath

We would expect a court to have particular regard to the extent to which the defendant had been subjected to domestic violence or was in fear of being subjected to it. Our noble Friends tabled an amendment to that effect, which the Government apparently intend to remove.

Sandra Gidley

I urge the Minister to think long and hard. If that amendment is indeed to be removed, is there another way in which attention can be drawn to what is a very real problem?

Vera Baird

I understand why such action has been advocated. My only concern about it is that there are other ways of putting pressure on people to stay quiet, to join in or to deny to the police that either party committed any offence. What about pressures such as duress and the withholding of money? My fear is that, by implication, the term "domestic violence" could almost exclude many other means of exerting pressure.

Sandra Gidley

I understand that the courts have some discretion. I am sure that the Committee will spend a long time trying to get it right, and I hope that the hon. and learned Lady will be on the Committee, because I know she often has useful insights into thorny questions of this kind. I hope she accepts the spirit in which I make my comment.

My hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) mentioned the particularly thorny issue of fitness to plead, a subject dealt with comprehensively by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham. Mind believes that the proposed changes will lead to an increase in unwarranted deprivation of liberty and an unfair criminalisation of people who are not of proven criminal liability. I am sure that that too will be explored further in Committee.

We have reached this point after some time. What has been happening is welcome, but while welcoming the Bill to an extent, Davina James-Hanman of the Greater London Domestic Violence Project says: The changes will not, however, deliver the results that the Government wants. The current system fails through a lack of consistent implementation not through a lack of legislation. I hope we will improve the Bill. but I also hope that the Minister will give thought and impetus to further and more consistent implementation. I lope we will improve the Bill, but I also hope that the Minister will give thought and impetus to further and more consistent implementation.

7.18 pm
Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab)

I want to discuss the possibility of including in this excellent and welcome Bill a new and specific criminal offence of forcing to marry, which is a dreadful aspect of domestic violence. First, however, let me say to the hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) that I have had dealings with young ladies who have been brought in at a very young age, married, subjected to domestic violence and, in two cases, thrown out on the street. As she says, they often have no one to turn to—their parents and family are 10,000 miles away, and may not have much sympathy in any case, because in their community the woman is always wrong. I have had 100 per cent. success using the domestic violence concession in those five cases. It has taken three or four weeks to avail them of the concession, allowing public funds to be allocated. Everything can be improved on, but it is my experience that those women have benefited from the concession.

In February 1999, I raised in the House the subject of forced marriages. Since then, a great deal of work has been done: we have had the working group on forced marriages, the tireless work of the community liaison unit of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and guidelines for social workers and police officers. More importantly, many people who denied the very existence of forced marriages at that time now publicly denounce the practice. There has been a sea change in attitudes. At least now we can openly discuss a subject that was for too long taboo. I applaud the achievements of the Government and the police—especially West Yorkshire police: they may have come well down the league tables, but as far as many Asian women in my constituency are concerned, they really are wonderful. The team led by Martin Baines, with the help of Phillip Balmforth, is truly second to none. There has also been help from the Home and Foreign Offices, and from consular staff around the world, which has had an enormously positive impact.

Despite that progress, the fact remains that young girls are still being forced into marriage every day, and there has been an increase rather than a diminution in the number of cases, perhaps because of increasing interest in the subject or an increase in the number of young people who are now of the traditional marriageable age—or possibly it is simply because the good work done to date has concentrated only on the effects of forced marriages, as opposed to their causes. It is perhaps a case of closing the gate after the horse has bolted.

On average, my constituency office deals with a case of forced marriage every week. I happen to know that my two Bradford colleagues, who have large ethnic communities in their constituencies, deal with approximately two a week. The community liaison unit at the Foreign Office handles between 250 and 300 cases a year, as do Southall Black Sisters, and West Yorkshire police had 52 reported cases in the first half of this year.

I have, I am sad to say, lost count of the number of desperate stories I have heard of the plight of British girls, and to a much lesser extent boys, some as young as 14 or 15, who have been forced to marry someone, often thousands of miles from home, with whom they are completely incompatible.

I remember well the case of Noreen—not her real name—who was forced at the age of 14 to travel to Bangladesh to attend a family wedding, only to find on arrival that it was her own. She objected, but the psychological and emotional pressures from the family, and the physical pressure from her grandmother, ensured that she went along with it. Subsequently, she was told that she could not return to the UK until she was pregnant and "happy" with her husband. Desperate to return home to Keighley, 14-year-old Noreen complied with the family's wishes.

Three months after the wedding, pregnant, and with her education disrupted, Noreen was allowed to return home on the understanding that she agreed to sponsor her husband's application for entry to the UK as a spouse. Her son is now 15 months old, and her husband has made an application for leave to remain in the UK as a spouse. The pressure from her family and the threat of repercussions if she failed to comply were so great that she was forced, initially, to agree to sponsor that application. However, even at her tender age, with a young child, she has finally decided to divorce her husband, stay his application for leave to enter, and live with her boyfriend, whom she met at school, and his family. She has paid the price for her honesty. She has been disowned by her family, deprived of all contact with her brothers and sisters, and lives in fear of retribution from the family.

Why, in the 21st century, are we prepared to allow the rights and lives of young people to be abused in such horrific ways? How can we possibly sit back and allow the rights of women to be ignored, with young British girls relegated to the category of an item for sale or a convenience that can be used as a means to get round immigration legislation?

In the case of Noreen and many others, there is not only the threat or the reality of physical violence. All too often, they are haunted by the spectre of an honour killing—an extreme aspect of the psychological and emotional pressure and blackmail brought to bear so heavily on the victim.

Education certainly has a crucial role to play in our attempt to eradicate this abuse of human rights and breach of child protection. Given that the number of forced marriages continues unabated, legislation is urgently required. This Bill gives us the chance to do something now. An amendment to make coercing or aiding and abetting someone into forced marriage a specific criminal offence in its own right is long overdue. A clear definition of forced marriage, incorporating not only the physical threat to the victim but taking account of the psychological and emotional intimidation that can be suffered is vital.

I am sure that many will suggest that the criminal law already makes adequate provision for those abusing their children in such ways. The laws of assault, child abduction and false imprisonment are generally cited, but despite the existence of those laws, the practice of forced marriage continues. The aim of a new and specific offence criminalising coercing or aiding and abetting someone into forced marriage is not to bring about mass prosecutions of otherwise law-abiding citizens. Rather, it is an attempt to send out a clear and decisive message: forced marriage is not only un-Islamic but illegal.

Why introduce a criminal law when we are not expecting many prosecutions? It is a question of changing hearts and minds regarding unacceptable practices. The House passed legislation some time ago criminalising the driver or passenger of a vehicle without a seat belt. I cannot be sure of the exact figure, but I would suspect that the number of prosecutions for non-compliance over the past few years has been very small. That does not diminish in any way its value in terms of road safety.

A new law would give a victim of forced marriage, at a time of considerable pressure, the comfort of knowing unequivocally that she is in the right and those applying the pressure are categorically in the wrong.

Mr. Grieve

I have been listening carefully to what the hon. Lady has to say on a very difficult problem. Is not the difficulty with her interesting proposal that it still puts the onus on the individual victim to be willing to give evidence, probably against her parents, so it might be unlikely to be effective? Does she agree that it is an irony that at one time the primary purpose rule was operated, sometimes imperfectly, to provide a deterrent to such forced marriage being used as a mechanism to allow immigration to the United Kingdom, but that that is now gone?

Mrs. Cryer

I would prefer not to discuss the primary purpose rule at this point—I could go on about it for quite some time, but I was not a Member of Parliament when it was being used, so I cannot comment on it. However, my late husband was a Member of Parliament at the time, and I know that he had some problems with it. There were problems, and that is why it was removed, but I agree that that did open to a certain extent the floodgates to the problems that I am dealing with. I also agree that it would be difficult to get young girls to come forward to give evidence against their parents that could well put them in prison, but we need to do this as a shot across the bows. No, we shall not have many prosecutions, but the very existence of a criminal law on that subject would be helpful to us when we try to help those girls.

Mr. Grieve

There is one area in which we have already made some progress. As a result of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, for the purposes of coming back into this country, and for sexual relations to take place, we do not recognise marriages under the age of 16 that have been carried out abroad—a matter on which hon. Members on both sides of the House combined. That may go some way towards solving some of the problems that the hon. Lady has identified.

Mrs. Cryer

In the case of Noreen, the police knew what was going on, but no charges were brought; the grandparents were involved, and they were not charged with anything. I still feel that a specific criminal offence would assist such girls.

Mr. Dawson

My hon. Friend is making a powerful case, and I support what she proposes. Is she aware of the use of care proceedings by local authorities in such cases?

Mrs. Cryer

Yes I am, and I appreciate what my hon. Friend is saying—but I cannot explain how very difficult it is for girls who are brought back traumatised. It takes them all their time and effort to come to see me, and they come through the back door, because they are terrified that somebody from their community might see them. For some reason, both the young girls and their families in the Asian community in Keighley seem to regard social services as a sort of monster. I have never understood that, because I have no evidence that they have been dealt with unfairly, but they do seem to be terrified of social services, so I do not think that it is an option for those girls to seek help as my hon. Friend suggests.

To continue: the weight of English law is clearly on the side of the victim—or should we pay lip service to political correctitude and parental choice, however misguided, and leave the law unchanged? I am not attempting to point the finger at any particular group or community; I can only act on the information that I am given in my constituency work. I do not go out to find such horrific cases; they are brought to me.

It would give me the greatest pleasure if representatives from the communities in which forced marriage affects a minority were able to raise the issues themselves. The day when the words of a white, middle-aged, middle-class old-fashioned socialist can be replaced by those of an Asian woman in this House will be the day when I will no longer need to raise such issues. Were those communities prepared to take the lead on these issues themselves, there would be no need for a change in the law. Regrettably, not only in my constituency but in many northern towns and cities, I see no sign of that lead being taken. Instead, traditional patriarchal views seem to dominate and be of paramount importance, rather than the rights and the equality of women.

I am not having a go at any particular religion or community, and I am aware that the Koran is as explicit as the Bible in its support for gender equality. For example, Sura 3:195 says: And your Lord replied, 'I shall never cause the deeds of any of you to be lost, male or female, you are of each other'". Clearly, this is a question not of religion but of culture—or, more correctly, of the use of and reliance on perceived cultural values to excuse behaviour that we in the 21st century rejected years ago. For us to do nothing would, through our inactivity, sanction abuses of human rights, and young people would continue to suffer as a result of outdated and unacceptable perceived cultural traditions.

I do not suggest for one minute that a new law criminalising the coercion, aiding or abetting of a forced marriage would solve the problems of forced marriage overnight. It would, however, be a major step forward. This may be more properly discussed on another occasion, but I would also like to see new legislation in line with the law in Denmark, in which a minimum age for people from outside the European Union who enter Denmark as spouses has been established. The Danes have specified the age of 24; I would be happy with 21. Likewise, ensuring that British citizens could not act as sponsors until they reached that age would give additional protection to the vulnerable. It would also give them time to complete their education.

Whatever improvements there have been since 1999, clearly they are insufficient to deter some parents from subjecting their children to a marriage that they do not want, and which devastates their lives.

This Government have had the courage to meet the challenge of domestic violence head on. Many victims, and professionals who deal with the consequences every day, will thank us for our boldness. However, I hope that the Government will also consider extending the protection of the Bill to young people whose rights are being daily abused by enforced marriage.

7.36 pm
Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con)

It is always a pleasure to listen to the hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer), who speaks with great wisdom, insight and compassion about the issues that she finds in her community. The extent of the problem of domestic violence has been well outlined by everyone who has spoken so far. It is appalling that there are between half a million and three quarters of a million domestic violence offences every year. I understand that a quarter of women and one sixth of men are likely to find themselves subject to domestic violence at some point in their lives.

We have already heard several times that there are two deaths a week from domestic violence, and that 22 per cent. of all violent crime relates to domestic violence. Those are shocking statistics that rightly shame and concern all of us in the House, wherever we sit within it. Like many hon. Members, I have had the privilege of going around a women's refuge in my constituency, and I pay tribute to the staff of South Bedfordshire women's aid., who do an excellent job. They do not always have the funding or the facilities that they would like, but they provide an extremely important service at a critical and distressing time in the lives of many of my female constituents.

I spoke to some of the staff there earlier today and they asked me to make several points in the debate. The constituency that I represent is partly a rural area, and they said that there is still a strong feeling among many people that domestic violence is not something that would happen in "our village", or "our town". The subject tends to be under cover, and I hope that this debate, and the publicity that we can give it in our constituencies, will give people the courage to realise that, sadly, the problem is widespread, and encourage them to go forward, seek help and contact the police as soon as possible.

Another question raised by the lady to whom I spoke in the South Bedfordshire women's aid refuge was: where can men go? Women have been the focus of the debate, rightly, as I understand that 81 per cent. of the victims of domestic violence are women—but that means that almost 20 per cent. of victims are men. A gentleman came to one of my constituency surgeries not so long ago—a strong, healthy man—and broke down in tears in front of me when he described the distress and sheer terror that he felt because of the woman with whom he was living.

We have talked of taboo subjects, and I venture to suggest that domestic violence against men is even more of a taboo subject than domestic violence against women. However, we should be aware that it does exist, and we should encourage men not to suffer it and to seek relevant help.

Vera Baird

I agree very strongly with what the hon. Gentleman said, in that it is probably harder for men than for women to complain about domestic violence, particularly in situations such as he is describing. However, it is important to note that most domestic violence against men—although clearly not in the case he describes—is by men on men: by fathers on sons, brothers on brothers, sons on fathers and gay men on other gay men. The joint inspectorates of constabulary and the Crown Prosecution Service, which conducted a thematic inquiry into domestic violence, found a female to male domestic violence level of only 1.5 per cent.

Andrew Selous

I am most grateful to the hon. and learned Lady, who has informed our debates throughout. I was merely highlighting the fact that men are also victims, rather than trying to argue that any particular group causes these problems. This is a very real question that we should be aware of in designing these services. Who of us in this Chamber today has any facility for men in that situation? So far as I am aware, there is certainly no South Bedfordshire men's aid for the 20 per cent. or so of men who are victims of domestic violence.

I should also like to pay tribute to Bedfordshire police, and in particular to Chief Superintendent Ivor Twydell, who used to be the superintendent of central division, which covers my constituency. He organised a conference on domestic violence not so long ago, and I know that he has a personal commitment to this issue. It was he who first told me that Bedfordshire police estimate that, typically, some 28 different assaults have to be made on a woman before she is prepared to come forward and do something about it. That is a truly shocking statistic, and I am pleased to note that one of Bedfordshire police's objectives for this year is to increase the arrest rate in cases of proven domestic violence.

I want briefly to express a few concerns about the Bill as drafted. Like all who have spoken, I recognise its importance and hope that it is passed, but I look forward to hearing from the Home Secretary about the sibling relationship aspect, and I am most grateful to know that a letter will be forthcoming on that subject. Like one or two other Members, I am worried about convictions going ahead without a jury trial on remaining counts if an initial sample count has reduced a sentence. I note that the Bar Council has expressed concern about that issue. I am also worried about the issuing of restraining or non-molestation orders against acquitted suspects, and I hope that that issue will be considered in Committee. We are talking about very serious offences, and we must have the assurance of proper and due process of law to make sure that when such penalties are imposed, we are absolutely happy that justice has been done. That is very important indeed.

Many Members have rightly said that this whole subject is about tackling a culture that regards domestic violence as acceptable, and about making it clear that our society is not prepared to accept it. However, I want to focus the remainder of my remarks on pointing out that that is too low an ambition. We should do far more than simply change the culture, so that domestic violence is no longer acceptable. We should focus on what we can do to ensure that domestic violence does not happen in the first place, because as with all things, prevention has got to be better than cure.

In considering the origins of domestic violence, we must first pay tribute to those parents who engage in the long, hard slog of disciplining their children in a loving way, to make sure that they resolve disputes with brothers, sisters and friends in a non-violent way. That is a very tough job, whether one's children are aged between three and eight, or older. It is a very long, hard, tough slog, and I pay tribute to all parents who engage in that process, and who, through the love of their children, are prepared to discipline them and to make them realise that hands and feet are not the things with which to resolve arguments. If we as a country can establish that principle with young children, we will go a long way towards making sure that there are fewer victims of domestic violence in future. Doing so is very important indeed.

Of course, it is absolutely vital that there is no tolerance whatever of bullying in schools. South Bedfordshire schools are generally excellent, but from time to time people come to my advice surgeries and tell me stories that really do worry me. I am not sure that the school or local education authority in question has always acted with quite as much speed or concern as the parents and children had a right to expect.

It is also very important that we encourage our children to communicate. I was concerned to learn that David Bell, the chief inspector of schools, thinks that the nation's five-year-olds are less able to speak and to communicate than in previous generations, and perhaps slightly less articulate generally. This issue is terribly important, because if people are unable to communicate properly, the likelihood of their expressing themselves physically, rather than verbally, can increase.

My worries were reinforced following a conversation with the former chief inspector of prisons, General Sir David Ramsbotham. When he was chief inspector, a prison governor told him that if he had to get rid of all his staff, the last people to leave through the gate would be the speech therapists. He was pulled up short by that comment. Many prison inmates have never really learned the ability to communicate properly, and a lot of them are in prison because they have resorted to violence—in many cases. domestic violence. We need to teach people in prison the ability to communicate properly, and we should acknowledge the constructive role that speech therapists play in that regard.

Domestic violence, as we know, arises primarily out of broken family relationships. Sadly, this country fares very badly in that regard. We are the divorce capital of Europe, with some 40 per cent. of marriages breaking down; indeed, the figure for broken cohabiting relationships is even higher. Of course, it is by no means the case that all broken relationships lead to violence, but we can say that violence is very largely a product of broken relationships. That said, domestic violence is also often alcohol or drug-induced.

On prevention in cases where domestic violence has already happened, I was very interested to learn from the Assistant Secretary of State, who visited the UK just before Christmas, of the preventive work undertaken recently by the United States Department of Health and Human Services. It runs a relationship enhancement course, and on a recent cohort some 90 violent husbands who were first-time offenders for spousal abuse were put through it. As a result, not one was rearrested for the same offence within a year.

However, some 20 per cent.—one in five—who had not been on that programme committed domestic violence again. It would be useful if the Minister contacted the American equivalent of the Department for Work and Pensions to see whether we can learn from those preventive programmes, to make sure that domestic violence reoffending rates come down. Indeed, there are other programmes, such as the alcohol programme, from which we can also learn.

Within the UK, the particular voluntary organisations that I look to with the greatest enthusiasm in respect of their ability to reduce domestic violence in the future are the community family trusts. These are relatively new in the UK and there are only about 17 throughout the whole country. They were established in 1998, but more are on the way. Since their establishment, they have attracted Government and charitable funding. The Government funding has come partly through the marriage and relationship support programme within the Home Office, although it is now been moved to the Department for Education and Skills. I believe that the community family trusts will play a key part in helping us as a nation to develop our relationships better and to learn relationship skills so that there is less domestic violence within the UK.

Community family trusts work with a wide range of professionals within the community—typically registrars, clergy, school heads, primary care trust staff and local authority staff—and they are committed to improving all couple relationships. They are also committed to the promotion of healthy marriages. They work before couples get married, when children arrive and when couples are in danger of splitting up—but not only at that stage. I believe that these groups will play a significant role in helping to reduce domestic violence in the UK.

My plea is for prevention as well as cure. I recognise that the Bill's provisions are important for dealing with domestic violence as and when it occurs, but let us not lose sight of the fact that the best result of all would be to reduce the numbers that have to be dealt with as a result of the Bill.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. May I tell the House that there are about 100 minutes left for debate and eight hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye? Hon. Members can do the maths for themselves and work out how many minutes are appropriate if we are to include all who have been waiting patiently to contribute to the debate.

7.52 pm
Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab)

I am pleased to contribute to this important debate and delighted that the Bill is finally before us and beginning its passage through the House. I am pleased that the Bill has all-party support, but I am also proud that the Labour Government are introducing the legislation as a matter of priority. I congratulate Ministers on pushing for it to be included in the legislative programme and thank the Solicitor-General for her determination in seeking to get domestic abuse high on the political agenda. We have certainly succeeded in achieving that.

In nearly all the consultations with women that I have had and also in the Government's consultations through the "listening to women" programme. tackling domestic abuse always comes up as a high priority. When the "Safety and Justice" consultation paper came out in June 2003, I held a meeting in my constituency at which nearly 100 people, mostly women, came together to discuss the issues—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Lady, but the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) is not meant to read newspapers in the Chamber—and photocopies of newspapers are the next best thing.

Julie Morgan

When the 100 people, mainly women, attended my meeting to discuss the Government's proposals, I was struck by the intensity with which they—together with representatives of different agencies that came along—discussed the subject. Given that one in four women suffer from domestic abuse, it is a matter of huge concern to all of us; if we have not suffered from it ourselves, we know of friends and relatives who have been in that position. I have always found that whenever domestic violence is discussed in a small group, workshop or private setting, there is always someone there who says, "This has happened to me." It is important that we take the opportunity presented by the Bill to try to encourage as many people as possible to come forward and talk about their experiences. There has been a taboo on talking about these difficult, intimate problems.

The clear message from the Government in introducing the legislation is that domestic violence is unacceptable and must be tackled. There are ways of tackling it, and it is no longer acceptable to provide excuses. As others have said, it is no longer acceptable to say, "It is only a domestic". This criminal behaviour must be tackled head on: that is the Government's message today.

I would like to talk a little about the experience of domestic abuse in Cardiff. We have discovered there that it is possible to tackle the problem, but that the best way of achieving results is to get all the agencies to work together. That is the key to tackling domestic abuse. We need domestic abuse legislation, but we also need effective multi-agency working. It is essential that proactive advocates work with the victims. We need the legislation, but as many others have said, we also need the work on the ground.

I chair the Cardiff domestic violence forum, which is attended by all the key agencies. Two years ago, the Cardiff women's safety unit was set up with a grant from the Home Office as a pilot project for 12 months. After the first 12 months, because of the unit's success in tackling domestic abuse, the funding continued and was split between the Home Office and the Welsh Assembly. Now the funding has moved over entirely to the Welsh Assembly.

The women's safety unit is a multi-agency group of workers that, most importantly, includes a serving policewoman. That is one of the keys to its success: the police and all the other agencies are working together to tackle the problem. The unit supports victims and their children throughout the entire court process and acts as a central point for all the agencies in the area. It trains the relevant agencies, including magistrates, court officials, accident and emergency staff—health is a key sector to be taken into account—midwives and many other agencies.

As a result of working together in Cardiff, there has been a notable improvement in the statistics. We have actually seen how this work has changed the statistics for the better in Cardiff: more crimes are being reported, the number of repeat incidents has gone down, and the number of women withdrawing their cases before reaching the courts has also gone down. One of the reasons for that happening is the support to victims given by the women's safety unit staff: accompanying them to court, promoting a special domestic violence court where all the domestic violence cases are listed together, building up strong links with the Crown Prosecution Service and responding to emergencies.

In common with other hon. Members, I have had women coming into my constituency surgeries in desperate situations, but I have been able to contact the women's safety unit, which often offers an almost immediate appointment or to go to the victims' homes, if necessary. The unit will negotiate over the different legal, housing and benefits issues and it is able to provide the one-stop shop that other hon. Members have mentioned today. That is the sort of response that is needed when we have reached the stage of women reporting a crime.

Several measures in the Bill will further help that safety work. For example, setting up an independent commissioner for victims is bound to contribute to supporting victims. The change in the law to make common assault an arrestable offence will give much more power to the police when they go victims' homes. As I have said already, experience in Cardiff shows that intensive work and intensive intervention can deal with the problem with some degree of success, particularly helping cases to go to court. As other hon. Members have said, what we really want is to stop cases reaching the stage where that is necessary.

In Cardiff, we set up multi-agency risk assessment conferences. An evaluation showed that the monthly meetings provided a focus for sharing information from all the different agencies. As a result of those meetings, action was taken to reduce the harm to high-risk victims. The MA RACs deal with only a small number of very high-risk cases—about 20 to 30—working with both victims and their children. They have been successful and, since their establishment in April 2003, have been effective in reducing revictimisation. Six out of 10 women have not had to seek help since that intensive form of help was introduced, and those positive results show the benefits of a multi-agency approach to helping women who experience domestic violence.

Helping those women requires large resources, and most of the work is done by women workers from the women's safety unit. I would like to see a network of such units across Wales and the rest of the UK. There is one in Cardiff and another has been partially set up in Caerphilly. The intensive support needed to address those issues must be available to all victims of domestic abuse in the UK.

Another recommendation in the Bill that I strongly support is the statutory establishment of homicide reviews. We have only had one such review in Wales; most of them have been carried out by the Metropolitan police in London. The one we had in Wales came to some important conclusions. It was jointly chaired by the NSPCC and the police, which felt that that was important as it facilitated the involvement of other agencies and provided a good model.

The review produced some awful and regrettable statistics. Before the death of the woman involved, she had made 27 visits to accident and emergency, and suffered 11 assaults and six unexplained injuries. Her case had not been flagged or tracked, and no routine questioning on domestic abuse took place. Only one health professional sought to refer the victim to another agency, despite her numerous visits to her GP. A lack of training was evident as has been true for all the reviews so far.

The importance of putting such reviews on a statutory basis is to show that they are not done to blame anyone. We need to find out why such homicides happen and learn the lessons from them. Homicide reviews should also be linked to other reviews. Other hon. Members have mentioned the chapter 8 case reviews for children at risk and reviews of the situation of vulnerable adults. Much of the information will overlap and many of the professionals involved will be the same. Much experience can be built up from those reviews and it is important that the work is not duplicated. The review in south Wales took 18 months and enormous time and effort from the professionals involved. It is important in terms of cost and efficiency that work is not duplicated and that professionals who deal with various vulnerable groups work together. In that way, it would be possible to build up a body of expertise linked to all the various agencies.

It is also important to consider this Bill in connection with the Children Bill. We need a strategy to deal with the child victims of domestic abuse and the men who offend. If one in four is a victim, there must be a lot of offenders. We must create a climate in which men do not become offenders, and that involves education. We also need to offer opportunities for men to seek help for their behaviour voluntarily, through programmes in the community, instead of waiting until they get to court and are made to attend. When I last looked at the number of programmes in prison available for domestic violence offenders, there were only two in the whole of the UK. I hope that the Minister will be able to address that important issue when he replies.

Alcohol abuse has already been mentioned. Sadly, Euro 2004 will mean that the rate of domestic violence will soar. Half of all domestic attacks on women are fuelled by alcohol and, unfortunately, the football competition will increase the amount of alcohol consumed and, therefore, the number of attacks. It happens on Superbowl Sunday in the United States and it will happen in the next three weeks.

I am pleased to support the Bill, which is a huge step forward and recognition of a problem that has been hidden for far too long. I shall be pleased to support the Government tonight.

8.5 pm

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole) (Con)

I also welcome the Bill and the way in which the debate has been conducted, with dialogue across the Chamber. I am sometimes suspicious of that, because well-intentioned Bills can go wrong because of too much consensus; a little argument is sometimes necessary. However, I know that my hon. Friends the Members for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) and for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), and indeed the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), all have an eye for detail. I am sure that the propositions in the Bill— many of them very technical—will be tested and we w ill get the legislation that the country deserves. The problems that we can all foresee will be sorted out so that we end up with a reasonable Bill.

Much of the challenge of addressing domestic violence lies in changing attitudes, and they have changed substantially in my lifetime. Attitudes have changed on what is considered acceptable and what people will report or tell their friends and relatives. We have taken a giant step forward. The point that the hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) made about implementing the current law is right. Much of the present law is not used but could help in the fight against domestic violence. One of the greatest strides has been in police attitudes to the topic. As the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche) said, people now know that the police deal much more sensitively with the issue, and that is very helpful.

Domestic violence is a major problem. Between 500,000 and 750,000 incidents occur each year, of which 62 per cent. lead to injury and 18 per cent. require hospital treatment. As we have heard, it can lead to people losing their jobs because they cannot turn up to work. People can suffer for years. Indeed, many people suffer many assaults over the years before they feel that they can come forward, and so we may still only see the tip of the iceberg.

I welcome many of the provisions in the Bill. The introduction of significant new police powers to deal with domestic violence, including making it an arrestable criminal offence to breach non-molestation orders, with a penalty of up to five years in prison, is very good. When people see the courts issue an order, they want to feel protected, and when such orders are breached those responsible must feel the full rigour of the law. In such cases, five years in prison is perfectly appropriate. I also welcome the provision to make common assault an arrestable offence and the amendment of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 to ensure that victims have a say if an application is made to change a restraining order that protects them from abuse or harassment. People do not always understand why orders have been changed, especially if they were happy with them, and that can lead to further pressure and harassment. I also welcome the strengthening of the civil law on domestic violence so that cohabiting and same-sex couples have the same protection as heterosexual couples. The Bill will also extend the availability of non-molestation orders to couples who have never lived together or been married, and that is important because problems can arise in such circumstances and need to be dealt with.

Like some of my hon. Friends, I still have reservations. If a man is acquitted in a criminal trial, he could still be subject to a yellow card restraining order, and that raises civil liberties issues. I am sure that the Committee will consider that provision in great detail to see whether it would be appropriate.

We heard from the previous speaker of the tremendous importance of multi-agency working between the police, the probation service, local authorities and other statutory agencies. Many have domestic violence forums, but they are not necessarily funded; certainly in Dorset, where our police force is well at the bottom in funding terms, that adds to the burden on the agencies. If the sharing of information reduces problems in the long term, it may save money; as we have heard, visits—perhaps repeated visits—from the police cost an awful lot of money, so information sharing and multi-agency working could represent a saving.

I welcome the setting up of a register for civil orders. Victim Support certainly recognises the importance of that, because sometimes the police and the Crown Prosecution Service are hampered by not having full information.

In 2001, victims' personal statements were introduced and they have become a helpful sentencing tool for judges and magistrates. It is important for their recovery that victims of a crime are asked how it has affected them.

The Home Secretary slightly confused me when he was talking about victims' compensation; indeed, I am a little disappointed that the Government have not yet published their proposals, as it is rather late in the Bill's progress for their publication. There has been some speculation about the tariff system for fines to provide £25 million for the victims' compensation fund. In general, I welcome the principle that those who perpetrate a crime should pay towards compensating the victims, but I have some concerns.

Earlier, the Home Secretary seemed to be setting out a complex and complicated formula whereby there could be a surcharge of £35 on fines of more than £1,000. He said that the system might be income related, but that would build in further complications. He then said that the surcharge probably would not be appropriate for a first offence and that fines of less than £1,000 might incur a £10 surcharge. He also referred to the Department for Transport's review of the points system.

We are getting into a complex system, albeit for laudable reasons, and the Committee will have to spend a lot of time ensuring that we have an understandable system that works and does not become a bureaucratic nightmare. I am glad that the Home Secretary seemed to be ruling out a £35 surcharge on parking tickets, but I remain slightly concerned that, as the Government seem to have many speed cameras in inappropriate places, some of my constituents could face an added charge—like an additional tax—to support the fund. Those proposals need sorting out; we need much more detail about the Government's thinking.

The importance of women's refuges has been mentioned. A refuge was set up in Poole only a couple of years ago. Councillor Elaine Atkinson, of Poole borough council, has been a great advocate and has worked very hard. She and her committee raise money for the refuge and do sterling work. A problem in Poole is that we have both some of the most expensive housing in the country and a housing shortage. Somewhere to live or to find refuge is extremely important for victims of domestic violence, and Poole is one of the areas where that is a major constraint on people moving out of their home to get away from domestic violence.

Every week, 40,000 people throughout the country are looking for refuge—a tremendous number. Refuges are important, but funding can be haphazard. We have already heard about the unsung heroes—people who have worked hard over many, many years to keep those important institutions going, but there are not enough of them.

My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) made the interesting point that there were no refuges for men. The problem is probably much smaller, but I had not focused on it.

I have some reservations about a commissioner for victims; it seems a little like gesture politics. No doubt, however, the Committee will look into that matter to determine what the Government are doing. I can certainly think of better ways to spend money.

The measure is important. There is much consensus in the House. Through our work in our constituency surgeries, we all realise the importance of the issue. It does not matter whether we are from poor areas or rich ones; people in all income brackets suffer from domestic violence. It must be tackled, and if we get the legislation right it will make a material difference to many, many hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens.

8.15 pm
Ann Keen (Brentford and Isleworth) (Lab)

The first women's refuge in Britain and, I believe, in the world was set up in Chiswick, in my constituency, by Erin Pizzey. I became familiar with the work of refuges in the early 1980s when I was a nursing tutor at West Middlesex university hospital in my constituency and met Sandra Horley, who is now the chief executive of Refuge. Ever since, we have continued to be friends and to work together. I also take this opportunity to pay tribute to the late Jo Richardson, who was the MP for Barking and did so much in this field when it was difficult to do so.

We are seeing unprecedented political activity on domestic violence. It is more than 30 years since the relevant legislation was given such a far-reaching overhaul—it certainly needed one. As a result, abused women and children will be better protected than ever before. It is amazing to think that throughout three decades they have struggled to make their voices heard, campaigning for changes in the law, public attitudes and society's response to domestic violence. At last, those changes are happening and no one working in the field would deny that it is a most exciting moment.

Many of the organisations that I listen to and work alongside ask whether the Bill and other recent legislation, in particular the Children Bill, go far enough. Can we now tell the woman who calls Refuge's national helpline to stop worrying because there are legal remedies for her and her children that will be implemented by understanding professionals? Can we reassure her that society will comprehend and support any decision she makes about her future?

Many workers in Women's Aid and Refuge would agree that we have made major legislative advances. It is also true that, as has been shown in the Chamber today, there is the political will—and the will of society—to end domestic violence. The voices are stronger than ever before.

At one time, it was acceptable to be a drink-driver, but that is no longer acceptable in our society. I believe that we have now reached the stage when our society is saying that domestic violence is no longer acceptable either.

There are other causes for concern, however. I have a particular interest in the denial of benefits to women with no recourse to public funds. I praise the work of the Hounslow Asian women's refuge in my constituency and of the Southall Black Sisters in the neighbouring constituency. They have done so much for so long, like the late Jo Richardson, at a time when it was not easy to talk about domestic violence in communities such as Southall. I hope that we can make representations and that the Minister will look further into the problems relating to benefits.

We need to integrate policies and services for adult victims with those for their children. From my knowledge of such work, and from the explanations of Refuge, it is clear that domestic violence affects women and children in overlapping ways. It affects them together through the experiences they share; it affects them separately through the experiences they do not share and, perhaps most significantly, it affects them in relation to each other. We must not forget that about 50 per cent. of children are also abused by their mothers' partners.

Absolutely staggering figures have come out from the Department of Health and recently from the Royal College of Midwives. Domestic violence is the biggest single killer of the unborn child. Women at risk from domestic violence are four times more likely to miscarry and four more times more likely to have a low birth-weight baby. Foetal morbidity from violence is more prevalent than from diabetes or pre-eclampsia.

As a nurse in the 1980s, when I was learning the profession, I knew the myths that surround domestic violence. I understood how difficult it was for women to be believed and to leave. However, I was somehow part of that, too. When I worked in an accident and emergency unit, I would care clinically for the woman whom I was asked to look after. The police would come into the unit and ask where the domestic was, and I would reply, "I will take you to her." I would care for her clinically and I hope that I cared for her emotionally, but I also made mistakes. I would say, "Why did you let him do this to you? I wouldn't let this happen to me. Why can't you leave?" As a health professional, I was reinforcing the view that perhaps it was the woman's fault.

I remember, in particular, the husband of a woman with a ruptured spleen. He brought me and all the nurses chocolates and wanted to know which ward his wife was on so that he could visit her after she had been taken from the accident and emergency department. We felt that we did not know quite how to deal with this and we did not know where to take the problem. We did not want the husband to visit her on the ward, but we knew that that would happen because the police were not involved and no one was dealing with the fact that he had ruptured her spleen. That was the position in the 1980s, but I am pleased to say that today it is a very different story. We all know how to react.

Other Members have raised issues that I was going to mention. It is important that we consider the perspective of health professionals, but we are still not asking women how the abuse happened to them. They are visiting GPs, hospitals and other health professionals, because they might be abusing alcohol or even have suffered the trauma of an overdose. The health professionals may be dealing with other substance misuse, but nobody ever asks about domestic violence. There may be rare cases in which enlightened trusts, hospitals and primary care teams look at ways of dealing with the problem, but that it is still not good enough. When someone says that they have bumped into a door or fallen down the stairs, other questions could be asked about the bruising.

The bruising may also be psychological, especially to the children involved. I am very concerned about their contact with violent fathers. Only the other week, Refuge told me about the case of a child who had witnessed his father shoot his mother in the stomach. On the father's release from prison, he was granted contact with the child and used to whisper in her ear, "I'm going to get you and I'm going to get your mum." We should involve teachers and social workers and everyone in this wonderful multidisciplinary team that we have today. It is much more enlightened and, without question, it will be able to deal with the support system in the Bill and the work of the Metropolitan police. I praise it for the massive change in attitude and training that has taken place.

We cannot be complacent. Teachers must ask themselves why a child is disturbed. Could it be the result of domestic violence? Why is a child truanting? What is going behind the closed doors in the home? Many health workers are privy to what has gone on behind closed doors and, with that responsibility, they must ask the right questions. Health professionals still ask refuge workers and workers in the domestic violence field why the women do not leave, but that is still the nub of the problem. If the professionals are still asking that question, their training means that knowledge and information has not got through.

We need proper funding, so that we can ensure that every refuge and all those in the profession working with women and children do not ever have to turn anybody away because of lack of funds. That requires co-ordination and the implementation of a proper strategy throughout the whole multidisciplinary team. Otherwise, this brilliant Bill will not be implemented. That is my biggest fear.

I commend the Government and every agency that has worked on this issue, but, in particular, I commend the brave women who have come forward, told of their cases and lived through them to go on to a much happier life.

8.25 pm
Lady Hermon (North Down) (UUP)

I assure you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I have done my maths and will keep my comments short to allow other hon. Members to speak.

I am rather embarrassed, as I believe that I am the only Member of Parliament from Northern Ireland here today. I regret that. Domestic violence is a very serious problem in Northern Ireland and, if the statistics are correct, six people there died as a result of paramilitary violence, but on average six people a year die as a result of domestic violence. If the House were discussing paramilitary violence, I imagine that representatives of the other parties would be present. However, I note with deep regret that they are not present for a debate on domestic violence. As has been said many times before, murder is murder is murder—whether it is the result of paramilitary or domestic violence. The victims were loved by someone and their loss is very sad and should be taken just as seriously whatever the cause.

I welcome the fact that the vast majority of the provisions in the Bill have been extended to Northern Ireland. A fact that is often overlooked in the House is that criminal law is not a devolved issue. Even for the brief time that we had a devolved Assembly and 108 Members sat in Stormont dealing with social security and other devolved issues, criminal law was not among them. Responsibility for criminal law has always remained here at Westminster. Given the results of the Assembly elections last November in which the Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Fein did so well, it is hard to envisage the Assembly rising from the ashes, because that would mean that the First and Deputy First Ministers, who are jointly elected, would come from Sinn Fein and the DUP. It does not take a crystal ball to see that the Assembly will not reconvene until some time in the future, but we live in hope.

While criminal law remains a responsibility of the House, it is a matter of deep concern that, in many aspects, the people of Northern Ireland have been left behind. The legislation on antisocial behaviour that was passed in the House last year did not extend to Northern Ireland. We are only just finishing the consultation on antisocial behaviour orders in Northern Ireland—they are still not available to us. I listened to questions about the implementation and enforcement of ASBOs during Home Office Questions today and thought, "What a luxury to have them." I praise the Home Office for extending the vast majority of the Bill's provisions to Northern Ireland. Domestic violence is a serious problem in Northern Ireland. Last year's police statistics show that reported incidents of domestic violence in Northern Ireland have increased by more than 9 per cent. I emphasise the word "reported" because as all hon. Members who have participated in the debate appreciate, the cases reported to the police represent only the tip of the iceberg, because the vast majority are not reported.

It will have been clear to the Government from my earlier interventions that I am extremely disappointed that the provisions in part 3 of the Bill on the code of practice for victims and the commissioner for victims and witnesses will not be extended to Northern Ireland. The hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) cast doubts on the likely effectiveness of the commissioner, but I think that the proposal is good and long overdue. Unfortunately, however, the Northern Ireland Office is currently resisting the extension of the provisions to Northern Ireland, which is totally unjustifiable.

The reason why the Northern Ireland Office is reluctant for the remit of the victims' commissioner to be extended to Northern Ireland lies in the "Review of the Criminal Justice System in Northern Ireland", which was one of two reviews undertaken after the Belfast agreement was signed—of course, the other was the Patten report on policing. The contents of the review are not written in tablets of stone because when it has suited the Government, they have brought forward measures earlier than the review recommended while omitting other measures.

An entire chapter of the review is devoted to victims, and it examined proposals for an advocate for victims in Northern Ireland. It was concerned that because Northern Ireland was a "relatively small jurisdiction"—that is important, because it is a jurisdiction with 1.7 million people—the proposal to have a separate advocate for victims might merely serve to diminish the stature and effectiveness of the Criminal Justice Inspectorate and cut across the responsibilities of the individual criminal justice organisations. That argument was fairly laudable four years ago when the review was published.

The criminal justice inspectorate, which was cited as the excuse for not having an advocate for victims in Northern Ireland, was established two years ago by the Justice (Northern Ireland) Act 2002, and Mr. Kit Chivers—a good appointment—was appointed as the chief inspector of criminal justice with great fanfare, song and dance and razzmatazz in June 2003. However, on 19 May 2004, at column 1092W of Hansard, I asked how often the Secretary of State had met the chief inspector of criminal justice. I received the answer "not yet". The inspectorate is not even up and running, and we do not expect that it will be in operation until the autumn. That is gravely disappointing.

I am perhaps more concerned, however, by something that Baroness Scotland rightly and properly said in the other House, and I am pleased that the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Paul Goggins), who will take the Bill through the Committee, is back in the Chamber to hear this point. Baroness Scotland said: I need to be clear that the intention of this legislation is to introduce rights for all victims of crime. We are not looking to create a hierarchy of victims, attaching greater importance to some types of victims than others."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 11 March 2004; Vol. 658, c. 1452.] I tell the Under-Secretary that the substantial majority of people of Northern Ireland voted in a referendum for the Belfast agreement. Clause 1 of the agreement said that the people of Northern Ireland wished to remain part and parcel of the United Kingdom unless, and until, a majority voted otherwise. The people of North Down expect to be treated in exactly the same way as those in North Devon.

Given that Baroness Scotland assured the other House that there would not be a hierarchy of victims, the people of Northern Ireland need not only words, but action. To use a horrible phrase, albeit one that describes the situation accurately, they need joined-up government, rather than enormous amounts of time and money being wasted on truth and reconciliation commissions. Such proposals will not bring justice and truth in Northern Ireland, but a lot of pain will be caused to many people. The way forward for the Government and the many thousands of victims of Northern Ireland would be to extend the Bill—lock, stock and barrel—to Northern Ireland as quickly as possible.

8.34 pm
Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab)

It is always a great privilege and pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon).

Domestic violence is now the second most common crime in the United Kingdom. The House can take pride in the fact that not only do we have a Government who are introducing this Bill, but we have many hon. Members—I do not count myself among them, not having been here for long—who have consistently, across many years, spoken up for those who do not have a voice for themselves. Such legislation will help to reduce the occurrence of the insidious incidence of domestic violence that can trap and torment adults and children alike into a personal hell, from which many have traditionally seen no escape.

I suggest that we are speaking for those who do not readily have a voice themselves. Let us put that assertion and the bland statistics behind domestic violence in context. It has been mentioned that in each year of the British crime statistics, in excess of 500,000 people will be subject to domestic violence. That means that if we filled the Chamber to capacity with those people every day, and if we debated the subject every day and listened every day to those who suffer from personal abuse, we would finish that debate not next year, not one year hence, not two years hence, but in April 2007. That is the scale of the problem and the challenge that we face. It also shows the scale of the testimonies of despair, pain and hurt that we would hear. Yet that is only the recorded incidence of domestic violence.

We have one afternoon and one evening, yet in this one sitting we can begin to act for the many silent voices that also haunt the Chamber and this country. Those silent voices haunt the pages of the supplementary questionnaire to the British crime survey, which show that more than six out of 10 women and nine out of 10 men who were subjected to domestic violence did not believe that what had happened to them was in any way a crime. On a related issue, there are the silent voices of more than four out of 10 women who have been subjected to rape, as defined by the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1904, but who do not conceive of themselves as having been raped. There are also the innocent and reluctant observers of domestic violence—the children who stand by and watch. Those are the silent voices behind the pages of what are merely reported crime statistics.

My wife works in an accident and emergency department of a major south Wales hospital. In addition to the expected and accidental injuries that come through the doors every hour of the day and night, there are also the unexpected and the non-accidental. One recent study suggested that in one inner city hospital, more than one in three women who entered the doors of the A and E unit had been victims of domestic violence at some point.

The most abused are often women, making up, as has been mentioned, more than eight out of 10 of those who are at the receiving end of domestic violence. However, they are not the only victims. Some men are also abused. Also, children continue to see one parent abusing another. It is believed that nine out of 10 children are in the same room or the next room during attacks on their parents. One in three will try to intervene. The physical scars of domestic violence, and sometimes the deaths through domestic violence, are often just the most obvious and immediate manifestations of such abuse, but the emotional scars and the repercussions on the mental health of those involved—not least the children trapped in the mayhem—are sometimes difficult to see, but equally long lasting and potentially devastating to the individual's whole life.

It would only be right to highlight the fact that many organisations are involved in changing that domestic environment. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) was one of many who talked of their role in that. Those organisations give options to those who feel that they cannot speak out or escape their predicament and cannot alone mild an alternative future. The refuge centres throughout the UK give assistance not only to women, but to families, so that they can begin the path that ends the violence.

Wales has 31 women's aid groups, including one in my constituency, which provide temporary accommodation. Caerphilly has a year-long pilot project—one of two in the UK—that aims to stop domestic violence and, at the same time, deal with the under-reporting of incidents. Only last month, the first all-Wales helpline for victims of domestic violence was launched in Penygroes. The helpline offers confidential information and support for individuals. In the autumn, we begin a programme that deals with the child victims of domestic violence, who are now beginning to show, as one could foretell, disturbing signs of becoming violent and aggressive themselves.

There is an economic cost as well to domestic violence and abuse. According to the manager of the Cardiff women's safety unit, domestic violence is the biggest cause of murder in south Wales and costs society around £1.1 million each year. Although the moral case for ending violence is paramount, the financial case is also compelling.

So we are making steady progress in Wales, but we have much more to do. As we highlight the issue today, I urge anybody who feels that they are in a situation of violence to seek assistance from the many organisations that can help. The Bill will augment that work by helping to diminish the occurrence of violence and by creating the legislative and, most importantly, as other hon. Members have mentioned, the societal climate in which violence in the home is simply not tolerated.

Today we find ourselves in a position to instigate change; the Prime Minister has rightly described the Bill as a symbol of our determination to rebalance the whole criminal justice system around the needs of the victim". I have confidence in the fundamentals of the Bill and in the parameters and guidance that it sets forth for the judicial system. We stand in an enviable position: we have reached a point where we can, if not end, at least sharply reduce the incidence of domestic violence. I think of provisions in the Bill such as the new police powers that make domestic violence an arrestable offence; the penalties of up to five years in prison; the power to issue restraining orders even when the defendant has been acquitted but where the court believes that there is still a risk of abuse; the extension of the civil law to cover same-sex couples in cohabitation; and the new offence of causing or allowing the death of a child or a vulnerable adult. There is so much good in the Bill that the welcome that it has generally received should be no surprise. The changes will strengthen the law so that those who perpetrate the crimes will be punished, while the victims' rights will be restored to where they belong.

The Bill has been welcomed by many working in the field and across the party political spectrum, as we have seen from today's debate, but as any legislation proceeds, there are always calls for fine-tuning or strengthening of the provisions. The Minister will be aware of those concerns. They have been taken up by many organisations and have been reiterated to me by organisations in south Wales, which are hugely supportive of the Bill but which want the Minister to respond sympathetically to the following issues.

First, how can the Bill ensure that there is safe contact with parents and family when a relationship breaks down? Should that need for safe contact be enshrined in legislation? If not, my constituents ask me, how can safe contact be achieved, particularly in the light of evidence that some children may continue to be put at risk by being put into contact with schedule 1 offenders or those on the child protection register, when sometimes such contact is unsupervised—or even by being ordered to reside with parents who have a history of violence? When the Minister responds to the debate, will he confirm that he recognises that danger, and will he demonstrate how it can be avoided if the need for safe contact is not to be enshrined in legislation?

Secondly, will the Minister explain how adequate provision of services for the victims of violence—services such as advocacy, protection and support—is to be achieved across the UK? I recognise that that will entail partnership and multi-agency working, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North said, but will the Minister expand on the additional funding recently announced for the crime and disorder reduction partnerships, and confirm that that funding is applicable also to Wales?

Although it is true that domestic violence may never be completely eradicated, this Bill offers the legislative framework that will create a climate in which abuse cannot thrive and will not be tolerated. Given that 120 women and 30 men are killed each year by their partner, what better place than here and what better time than now to help to end the daily torment of thousands of our constituents and of many thousands of women, men and children in every part of the UK, and to put to rest the ghosts of domestic violence that haunt this House and houses throughout the country?

8.44 pm
Vera Baird (Redcar) (Lab)

Domestic violence used to be a secret crime committed in the night behind closed doors. It was secret not only because he would not talk about it but because of her shame. It was also private—outsiders who knew or guessed would regard it as a hands-off part of the complex of the couple's emotional relationship. The police took the same view: they thought it was just a "domestic", a nuisance which it was beneath them to attend and which took place, often at the same address, many times.

Those attitudes are not now acceptable from him, the police or her. She needs support, but she must speak out. Domestic violence perpetrators are often serial offenders who leave one battered woman's life in disarray and take up with another. She will therefore serve other women badly by keeping a dark secret. According to the lead of the Association of Chief Police Officers on domestic violence, many domestic violence perpetrators commit other crimes, and it is desirable to bring them to police attention. Considerable damage is done to children who witness domestic violence and even suffer it, because there is a close link between domestic violence and child abuse. For all those reasons, and because women are entitled to live in safety from violence, everyone involved must play a role in ensuring that domestic violence is stamped out.

I therefore welcome the Bill and congratulate the Government on it. It is by no means the first thing that they have done to tackle domestic violence. The list of non-legislative measures is as long as a book, and they have started to change the culture, not least—and I speak approvingly—of the main Opposition party, who did not keep the issue at the forefront of their mind when in government, but have today made some positive proposals. The Bill, however, could be improved. It deals mainly with court proceedings, but few cases are complained about, and fewer reach court. Forty-two per cent. of complainants withdraw their complaint, and the conviction rate is 11 per cent., so there is a need for pre-trial action.

Consider a typical domestic violence complainant in, for instance, Redcar. Redcar and Cleveland women's aid does a fine job on a fine, or thin, budget. Usually in the household, the abuser has the money and, as a rule, is the tenant or owner of the house. He helps with the children, or perhaps his mother helps, so that the woman can go out to work. What will she do for money if she gets rid of him but cannot work? He will have to leave—or worse, she will have to leave, and perhaps go to a refuge. What then? She has never had a tenancy, the children will lose their father, they will be poorer financially, emotionally impoverished and the home will break up. People who regard him as a nice guy are bound to think that it is something that she does that makes him want to beat her up. Can she not just put up with the odd thump, as it has not killed her yet? If, despite all that, the woman makes a complaint, it is imperative that the public authorities pursue it with vigour, yet the joint inspectorate of the Crown Prosecution Service and the police, in a report on domestic violence only a few months ago, made it clear that the police response is patchy and that the CPS interest in those files is sometimes thin. The complainant will not have the personal power to drive the agencies on.

We should remember that the complainant will have been abused about 35 times before she makes a complaint and her self-esteem will have been undermined. It is essential to provide a domestic violence advocacy service to support complainants, overturn the system's lack of enthusiasm and drive the agencies forward. An advocacy system is already operated by specialists at the Redcar and Cleveland branch of Victim Support. Advocates can negotiate on housing—a frequently needed skill, because all too often it is the woman, not the man, who leaves. Alternatively, if she stays, the advocate will help to develop a safety plan, such as changing the locks, arranging for a panic alarm or CCTV—whatever it takes. Advocates can manage benefit entitlements, which change when families break down, and can help to arrange child care and, if necessary, change the child's school. They can make referrals to counselling services, help with the civil courts, and drive on the criminal case. As other Members have said, they are a cheap but important link. Existing UK schemes have shown significant reductions in repeat victimisation, and benefits for the process of family healing after the event. I commend such schemes to the Government, and urge them to consider including provision for one in the Bill.

I shall say no more about women with no recourse to public funds, save to agree that it is a major issue. I shall say no more about contact for domestic violence perpetrators with children, which is an extremely serious issue. I shall say no more about the need for a definition, save that the police and CPS inspectorate pointed out that those two organisations have different definitions of domestic violence. If it is to be monitored properly, there is a need for one. I shall say no more about familial homicide, provisions on which I supported throughout the proceedings on the Criminal Justice Act 2003.

I shall spend the few remaining minutes on the statistic that two women a week are killed by violent partners, and 30 men a year by their battered partners. Many men and women run the defence of provocation. It cuts the conviction from murder to manslaughter, so the sentence is not mandatory life—it becomes discretionary. The Government are undecided whether to change the law on provocation. They should.

In domestic killings, men kill because of anger or sexual jealousy; women usually because of abuse. Provocation means what it says, although in law it is a little more technical than that. Provocation is killing in a sudden and temporary loss of self-control caused by provocation, under which a reasonable person might have reacted in the same way. The point of it is that although the defendant kills and goes too far, his culpability is mitigated by the provocative conduct of the victim.

Originally, that had to be wrongful conduct by the victim, because that is the philosophy behind it, as I have just set out, and it would have turned that philosophy on its head to apply the doctrine in circumstances where the victim had a right or was not wrong to behave as they did. However, there have been cases in which women have been killed and men have said they were provoked to lose their self-control by "nagging". For one man, the final provocation was the way the woman moved the mustard pot across the table. In a case in Leeds, the Crown accepted a plea from a man to provocation manslaughter when he had killed his wife after she merely told him she was going to leave to go to another man.

We must remember that the behaviour is supposed to be that of a reasonable person, but one might think that it is not. A House of Lords case called Smith four years ago stated that when considering whether a reasonable person might have reacted to the provocation in the same way, all the characteristics of the defendant must be taken into account, including anything that might lower his level of self-control. So the defendant's characteristics are put into the reasonable person, who becomes the defendant, and the question whether a reasonable person might have reacted as the defendant did is completely meaningless. In addition, this defence blames the victim who, in those cases and many others, is entirely blameless, and it causes extra anguish and a sense of injustice to the grieving family.

The typical killing by a battered woman is not from anger and does not fit the sudden and temporary loss of self-control model. Eighty per cent of such killings take place while the woman is under attack. She runs into the kitchen and turns and stabs the man once with a knife when he is coming for her. There is no defence of killing out of fear or despair that accommodates battered woman in the way that killing out of anger—provocation—accommodates men. However, there is no less emotional or psychological stress if somebody kills after long tolerance of harsh treatment, in desperation, rather than suddenly, in provoked anger.

One might think that that run into the kitchen and the turn-round under attack is self-defence, but it is excessive. To be a defence. self-defence must be proportionate. If a woman is attacked, perhaps only with fists or boots, even though the man is stronger and has used violence before, if she takes a weapon and lashes out a jury will not acquit on self-defence. Excessive or disproportionate self-defence leads to a conviction for murder, not for manslaughter.

Women are defended on two bates—first, that the act was proportionate self-defence, and secondly—if that fails—that it was provocation. However, proportionality in self-defence requires some measurement; some deliberation. Provocation—that is, the attack by the man—requires a sudden and temporary loss of self-control and a lashing out. The two are quite inconsistent. Women do not kill out of anger. Both defences often fail—hence, violent men get away with murder and battered women are convicted of it. The need for a reform of the law is urgent. The Law Commission has made excellent proposals, which I ask the Government to accept. I intend to propose an amendment.

Just before 1 April, clause 12, which attacks trial by jury, went through the Lords. Last year there were Government plans to scrap trial by jury. In November, the Government dropped proposals that would have allowed defendants to choose trial by judge alone. Critics, myself included, argued that that would soon become no choice at all. The Criminal Justice Act 2003 allows judge-alone trials in cases of jury intimidation, but no restriction on jury trial in serious fraud cases will be implemented without a further vote.

Under the new proposals, the process starts with an appeal when a man has been charged on four specimen counts of 17 allegations. The Lord Chief Justice said that he cannot be sentenced for the 17, although they are identical to the four, because they have been neither admitted nor proved—he can be sentenced only for the four and will have to be tried on every count. The Lord Chief Justice said that that need not be unduly burdensome or unmanageable. The Law Commission, on the other hand, said that it was an intractable problem in cases involving hundreds of charges. The Government accepted that and proposed a two-stage trial procedure. The first stage takes place before a judge and jury in the normal way. with specimen counts; then, in the event of a guilty verdict, there is a second stage in which the defendant is tried by a judge alone on any charge that was linked to the specimen counts. It is thought that many will plead guilty at that stage.

Many, including the Bar Council, see the abolition of jury trials as the thin end of the wedge. I confess that I share some of those fears. I see no difficulty in having a second—or, indeed, a third—trial heard by a jury. If the counts are specimens, the relevant evidence will be admissible in the second stage anyway; and if the person has been found guilty, which is admissible under the 2003 Act, it seems pretty likely that there will be guilty pleas on many of them.

However, my main concern relates to what I readily accept are unintended consequences. If a two-tier system of trial becomes law, people will soon be singing the praises of trial by judge alone. There is no doubt that trial by a judge is speedier and cheaper than a full-blown jury trial. People will ask, "Why do we need 10 of these counts to be tried by a jury if the other 190 are being tried by a judge? Let's do them all under a judge." Once again, it will be the beginning of the end for juries.

This is a good Bill, and given the good will that we have seen here tonight it can be better. However, clause 12 is a bad clause that is unconnected with domestic violence or its victims. I hope that the Government will think again on that, but I sincerely congratulate them on the rest of the Bill.

8.57 pm
Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre) (Lab)

It is a privilege to have the opportunity to take part in the Second Reading of this very important Bill. I commend my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary for his focus on domestic violence and for expressing in the Bill the need to afford adequate protection to its victims.

As we have heard—it hardly needs restating—domestic violence accounts for a quarter of all recorded crime. One in four women experience violence from a partner during their lifetimes. It is a shocking fact that by the time we have begun to discuss the Bill in Committee, another two women may have died as a result of such violence.

We should therefore be pleased that the Government are investing more than £60 million per annum; introducing measures in the Bill to make the breach of non-molestation orders a criminal offence; extending the provisions of part 4 of the Family Law Act 1996 to same-sex or non-cohabiting couples; establishing procedures for holding and undertaking domestic homicide reviews; making common assault an arrestable offence; extending the availability of restraining orders; and supporting the victims of domestic violence—indeed, all victims and witnesses—by establishing a commissioner to serve their interests.

I sincerely hope that during the passage of the Bill there will be no further debate on the relative roles of the commissioner for victims and witnesses and the commissioner for children. It would be hugely to misunderstand the role of the children's commissioner to fail to appreciate that that person will have a fundamentally important task in ensuring that children are able to access all the ordinary avenues of support that are available to them in society. However, to send child victims and witnesses to a children's commissioner, not to the commissioner set up for the purpose, would be to send them down a devalued and child-only cul-de-sac.

I am surprised that such a good Bill does not propose a statutory definition of domestic violence. I wonder how the proposal for a commissioner for victims and witnesses relates to the undoubted need for a national advocacy service for the victims of domestic violence. Like others, I am anxious about the funding and support for refuges. I hope that those important matters can be tackled during the Bill's passage.

We are considering an important measure for children. The Government recognise the appalling impact of their witnessing domestic violence because clause 120 of the Adoption and Children Act 2002 extended the definition of significant harm to include impairment from seeing or hearing the ill treatment of another. It is imperative that the provision is implemented and I understand that that is due to happen in January 2005. I sincerely hope that there will be no delay.

Clause 5 provides for joint liability in cases where a child has died but the prosecution is unable to determine exactly who killed him. That is crucial and I hope that the principles of parental responsibility and that of all adults in the household will be supported. However, it is a significant and serious anomaly that children under 16, who happen to bear responsibility because they are parents at a young age, could be criminally liable when, in so many other ways, they would be perceived as extremely needy children. As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary acknowledged, many are surely supported by other adults in the house, who could well bear responsibility under the clause.

A great deal of emphasis has rightly been placed on the appalling number of women who are killed in this country as a result of domestic violence. Hon. Members should never forget that one or two children a week are killed by parents or care givers. Three quarters of children on child protection registers have experienced domestic violence. It has not been said in the debate that at least 28 children have been murdered during contact visits in recent years. On Wednesday at 12.45 pm in the Attlee Suite, I shall host an event organised by Women's Aid, which child victims of domestic violence will attend to give incredibly brave testimony about their experiences and to question my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary. I commend him for his willingness to listen to children and I hope that all other hon. Members will join him on that occasion. Listening to children and tackling their issues effectively is an important way in which to tackle fundamental aspects of domestic violence.

In the past few decades, there has been a major cultural shift in our attitudes towards domestic violence. However, we need to be bolder and braver in the Bill if we are to make genuine progress and tackle some of the deepest roots of violence in our society. As I have already said twice, it makes no sense to deplore violence without having the courage to give children the same protection from assault as adults enjoy.

I predict that a change in legislation, which sweeps away the mid-19th century concept of reasonable chastisement, will come soon. I firmly believe that, in only a few years, people will look back on debates in the House and regard it as, at best, quaint that some people objected to removing an objectionable provision, failed to ensure the equal protection from assault of adults and children, and opposed introducing a crucial and significant plank of child protection.

I want to speak about contact. As a father myself, I support the right of children to have good contact with both parents throughout their childhood, but I am appalled by the actions of judges who have ordered and enforced unsupervised contact, and in some cases residence orders, to the benefit of violent, abusive and dangerous men. It seems to me essential that we bring about in this Bill a presumption of no contact unless it can be organised safely and the child wants it.

As a strong supporter of the Government's Green Paper, "Every Child Matters" and their statement to that effect, I cannot believe it appropriate that we should debate a Bill addressing violence, crime and victims without dealing with the national scandal and disgrace—a fact that shames every single Member of this House—of the deaths of 27 children in the custody of the state since 1997. This Bill should recognise the fact that children who commit criminal offences are troubled, needy children who need better looking after rather than locking up. In particular, we should use this opportunity to raise the age of criminal responsibility and to ensure that those few children from whom we actually need to be protected go into care rather than into custody. Those children who have, to our shame and disgrace, committed suicide in custody are some of the most tragic victims of whom one could possibly conceive.

Children are twice as likely as adults to be victims of crime, and this good Bill has the potential to be an excellent one if we really place them at the centre of our concerns. We should look to improve the Bill significantly in the ways that I have suggested, link it with the Children Bill that will be before us in a few weeks and ensure that the policies of the Home Office become firmly grounded in the principles of the Green Paper, "Every Child Matters". Let us, for goodness' sake, have some joined-up government.

We should listen to the children who have been through the devastating experience of domestic violence if we really want a perspective that will help us effectively to counter this dreadful and demeaning feature of our society. Some months ago, a young woman called Chloe came to see me and Later sent me a letter and a song—although hon. Members will be relieved that I shall not attempt to perform her excellent song. Chloe perhaps in a preview of Wednesday for my hon. Friend the Minister asks: Why do the courts force children to see their dads when they are frightened of them? Why don't the courts make sure that it is safe for mums and children when they know the dads are violent? Above all, she asks: Who tells the judge off when he don't listen to the children? Let us all listen to Chloe.

9.8 pm

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab)

I feel at a bit of a disadvantage speaking in this debate because of the expertise that hon. Members on both sides have shown in this subject. Their expertise is wider and much more long standing than anything that I can bring to bear on the debate. I appreciate that the Bill does not apply to Scotland, because it concerns a devolved issue. It applies only to England, to Wales and, if the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) has her way, wholly to Northern Ireland.

However, I should like to rare one specific issue tonight, to ensure that it does not get lost in the Bill's passage through Committee. It relates to the particular needs and difficulties faced by women or men with physical disabilities, and the ways in which they can deal with suffering at the hands of a partner, husband or wife who is violent to them or neglects them.

The issue had not crossed my radar until a couple of weeks ago, when I was contacted by the Radio 4 programme, "Woman's Hour", It had picked up the fact that an area of policy might be being ignored—that, while domestic violence was being given an airing and this Bill was being dealt with in the House of Lords, the specific plight of disabled women was not being dealt with. Until I spoke to the programme's researchers, I was not aware of the issue. None of my constituents had come to my office to talk about it, and other Members to whom I have spoken say that it is not on their radar either. The researchers said that many people involved in women's aid and running refuges had not considered it.

There is a lack of knowledge about this. There is also the fear that what is already a hidden problem—for domestic violence happens in the privacy of people's homes—has an extra hidden dimension in the shape of what is happening to people with disabilities. I have some expertise in that I know what it is like to be a disabled person, but I can only imagine what it must be like to feel trapped in a violent or difficult relationship with no means of escape.

The aspects of domestic violence have been well covered today, and are well documented; but I found it difficult to discover any research on the incidence of domestic violence involving disabled women and disabled people in general. I know that a conference was held in the UK a few years ago, but I have not been able to establish whether any action has been taken as a result of the issues raised then. The only research I have been able to find comes from north America. A study conducted by Margaret Nosek and Carol Howland in the late 1990s concluded that abuse of women with disabilities was a problem of epidemic proportions. It is difficult to quantify because the research has not been done, and because victims of such domestic violence are probably less likely to speak out than victims of domestic violence who are not disabled. We know how difficult it is for any victim of domestic violence to find the courage to speak out; imagine how much more difficult it must be for someone with a physical disability.

We should also bear it in mind that domestic violence is not always physical. It often starts psychologically. Sometimes a woman's partner undermines her self-worth, shaking her confidence and making her believe that without him she could not survive in society. Even the most confident women, who work or have their own sources of income, can be undermined by that psychological wearing away of their confidence.

Let us imagine a disabled person who, no matter how forward-looking or involved he or she may be, has found it difficult to establish his or her self-worth. Most people become disabled rather than being born disabled. Someone who has become disabled will be trying to cope with what that means, and with self-image and all that it involves. I was a teenager when it became clear to me that I would grow into a disabled adult. It was difficult enough to face that realisation. Imagine a woman in the same position whose partner cannot cope with the knowledge that he has a disabled wife or partner, and who therefore makes it harder for her to get to grips with her disability.

Disabled victims of domestic abuse face particular difficulties not only in trying to alert others but in getting help, even if they manage to do so. They may be living in relative isolation. I understand what others have said about women living in remote areas, but being a disabled person in any community can be isolating. In some cases, the abuser—who may also be the main carer—may restrict freedom and contact with others. If a disabled woman tried to escape the situation, where could she run to? The local women's refuge is unlikely to be wheelchair-friendly—although most disabled people are not necessarily in wheelchairs—and the aids and adaptations available in the home would be unlikely to be available elsewhere.

A disabled person with complex health needs may have built up a complex support network and in particular a relationship with their GP and the local health service providers which they would be reluctant to leave behind in order to escape the violence. If they are reliant on the abuser for the physical help that they need, it may be difficult for them to suggest that the abuser should be the one to leave the home.

We know that non-disabled women victims of domestic violence often have an emotional and perhaps a financial dependence on the perpetrator, but for someone with a disability that dependence may also be physical, which adds an extra dimension. The abuse may also be in the form of the withdrawal of help—not something that is done to someone, as is the case with most incidents of domestic violence, but something that has not been done. For example, someone may not have been washed or properly fed.

It is important to look beyond the definition in the Bill, which refers only to "vulnerable adults". I understand what my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Ms Munn) said about people with learning disabilities, who have particular problems, especially if they are in a care home, but most people with physical disabilities are in their own home and may have become disabled later in life, so they would not be classed as vulnerable adults unless their disability was exceptionally severe. A woman could be very able, and holding down a job, while happening to have a physical disability.

The Bill will definitely provide better support for victims, and I welcome the appointment of an independent commissioner mentioned by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) and many others. It will be important to have someone responsible for victims' health care, housing and social security needs.

I am also attracted to the idea proposed by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) in an Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall on 18 May and again today, of an advocacy service for victims. Such a service could cater directly for the needs of a disabled person, and would be much more effective than the general help given to all victims. I know that Women's Aid and women's refuges try hard to deal with individuals, but I contend that there is an extra dimension for women with a disability. I wanted to speak in the debate so as to ensure that on Second Reading and in Committee those needs would be addressed and taken on board, and we would start to speak about this subject.

As I said, I am talking about double invisibility: domestic violence is invisible; and the violence that has been meted out to disabled women, and the difficulties that they are living with, are hidden problems that need to be addressed. That will happen only if we talk about the issue, if the Government are aware of it, and if Women's Aid and the women's refuges are aware that there is a group of women whom they need to deal with. That applies to all the other agencies as well. As we have heard, women are often passed from pillar to post, from agency to agency, and that too, can be doubly difficult if a person has a disability. I know that I have concentrated on disabled women—the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome pulled me up for that—but I have done so because women are predominantly the victims of such violence. However, that does not preclude men, and I suspect that there may be more men in that position than male victims in the general population, because in such cases the female partner is in a position to withdraw the help that the man so desperately needs.

I urge the Government to remember the group of people whom I do not believe are properly covered by the Bill, and to give due consideration to the suggestion made by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar about a victims' advocacy service. If they do, we might get properly tailored and directed help to the people who need it.

9.21 pm
Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab)

It is a privilege to speak in a debate with my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg), especially two days running—by which I mean two days running in parliamentary terms. It is appropriate that I seem to be the last speaker before the wind-up speeches from the Front Benches, because what I want to say is merely a footnote to the debate. The serious issues and examples that people have been raising are not part of the area that I wish to cover, except by inference.

I want to flag up a particular concern. Given the time and the nature of the wind-up speeches, I realise that the Minister is unlikely to be able to respond now to what I say, but I hope that it will be considered and that I might receive a letter explaining the Government's position.

When victims of crime, especially victims of domestic crime, have made claims to the authorities about their problems, and when it is decided that, although they might receive some sympathy, no action is to be taken, they should always be given the fullest explanation of why that decision has been taken. If full explanations have to be given, it is more likely that action will be taken.

I realise that in many cases, that may already be provided for in the Bill. There is a code of practice under clause 21, and there will be investigations by the parliamentary commissioner under schedule 4; there are procedures to go through, and one would expect responses to be given. Under schedule 5, there is also a role for the commissioner for victims and witnesses. Unfortunately, as the Bill stands none of that applies to Northern Ireland, but perhaps that could be subject to amendments at a later stage.

The victims charter as updated in 1996 says that where victims have made claims but action is not to be taken, or a case is to be dropped, the police and the Crown Prosecution Service will give an explanation. However, in some cases, especially when Departments are involved, the code of practice on access to Government information can be used to prevent that explanation from being given. Schedule 4(4) points out that the Parliamentary Commissioner will not deal with certain matters. It states that the Commissioner shall not conduct an investigation pursuant to a complaint under subsection(1A) of this section in respect of—

  1. (a) action taken by or with the authority of the Secretary of State for the purposes of protecting the security of the State, including action so taken with respect to passports".
Other possible exclusions are mentioned concerning the ruling of the Government and their agencies, and it is exactly those matters that could be subject to the code of practice for access to Government information, to which I referred. That code of practice should itself be subject to the 1996 victims charter and to previous measures, so that explanations are given and people know where they stand. Such pressure for explanation would mean that action was much more likely to be taken to defend victims, including victims of domestic crime, the details of which have been explained fully by other Members.

9.26 pm
Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con)

This has been a fascinating debate. It is sometimes said that this Chamber is not very well attended, but I am bound to say that, in my experience, if one can be bothered to sit through six hours of debate one learns a tremendous amount. Today has been no exception, because it has become apparent that many Members from all parts of the House have come along to contribute their experiences, including their constituency experiences, and their knowledge to a difficult topic.

As the Minister is aware, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) said earlier, we welcome the Bill greatly in its generality. That welcome is genuine and we will do all that we can—as, indeed, our colleagues did in the other place—to co-operate in the Bill's legislative passage and to ensure that, once it is on the statute book, it makes a powerful contribution to dealing with this difficult problem and, we hope, to reducing the incidence of domestic violence as a result.

There have been some fascinating contributions, and although it is perhaps invidious to single out individual speeches, one or two did strike me very forcefully. My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) appositely pointed out that it is extraordinary that we have more animal sanctuaries in this country than refuges for those who suffer domestic violence. That is indeed an extraordinary state of affairs, and I am afraid that it probably highlights the extent to which we have failed to take this problem sufficiently seriously.

The hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird)—I listened to her contribution carefully and I shall return to it—made some very powerful points. I wholly support her desire for a review of the law of provocation; indeed, I am also in favour of the simultaneous review of the law of self-defence, because in my view the two need to be looked at together. I fear, however, that the Bill might not be the appropriate place to do that. The subject is a complicated one, and in embarking on such a process at this late stage in the Bill's passage—a Bill that has already been considered extensively elsewhere—we might be doing it a disservice. However, if the Minister wants to look at that issue at a later date, he will undoubtedly have the ready co-operation of Conservatives in trying to achieve a satisfactory outcome.

The hon. and learned Member for Redcar also offered an interesting and trenchant critique of the way in which trial by jury of sample counts only has been inserted in the Bill, a point to which I shall return briefly. I do not entirely share her pessimistic view of the intention behind this change, which I can support in some measure. However, I certainly do share some anxiety about the Government's approach as reflected in the text. I shall want to examine that very carefully in Committee.

My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) made a powerful speech about the fact that men, too, are affected by the phenomenon of domestic violence, which should not be forgotten, irrespective of the context in which it takes place. My hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) also made a powerful case, demonstrating how attitudes had changed.

I greatly appreciated the contribution of the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg), who spoke about the experience of disabled people. We know from recent headlines in the press and in one particular case that there is clear evidence that those who are disabled and in a position of dependency on others may suffer serious abuse without it being properly looked into, and I hope that the Bill may make a contribution to dealing with that problem.

I move on now to discuss some of the key issues posed by the Bill and to highlight those areas that seem to require some very careful thought. At the outset, the Government set out to change the law by making breaches of non-molestation orders a criminal offence. We support that aim, but I am anxious that the Government are seeking to overturn some minor changes made in the other place, which sought to ensure that those powers could not be abused in respect of the rights of cohabitants regarding the occupation of property. The Minister may be able to help us; otherwise, we shall have to examine it further in Committee.

Most importantly, as commented on by many hon. Members in the debate, there is the whole question of causing or allowing the death of a child or vulnerable adult. The House will be aware of numerous cases in recent years where it proved impossible to secure a conviction in circumstances where two people were the only two who could possibly have inflicted violence on a child or vulnerable adult. In those cases, one blamed the other, and, because it could not be shown which of the two had committed the offence, both had to be acquitted. The Government have our entire support in seeking to deal with that problem by providing a framework within which it is possible to convict the people who were involved.

The House may wish to bear in mind some problems in the provisions as drafted that might be inevitable in the light of what the Bill is designed to achieve. I do not necessarily complain about it, because it may be difficult to draft the provisions any differently, but clauses 5 and 6 provide for a completely new offence of death by negligence. Those provisions could be applied not only as an alternative to homicide where it was impossible to demonstrate which of two people perpetrated the injuries—the public largely understand that—but could be used where it was simply desired to prosecute someone for having been negligent.

That may not be a bad thing. Under clause 5(1), a parent or adult can be deemed guilty according to certain criteria, whereby he was, or ought to have been, aware of the risk mentioned … failed to take steps as he could reasonably have been expected to take to protect the victim from the risk, and … the act occurred in circumstances of the kind that the defendant foresaw or ought to have foreseen. Doubtless, few in the House would quibble with that. However, it is noteworthy that it does not apply only to the victim's father or mother: it applies to another member of the household, even to one as young as 16 at the time of the act that caused the death. If it involves the mother or father, it could apply, as I read it, to someone under the age of 16. The hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) commented on 14-year-old mothers in her constituency. As drafted, clause 5 provides that, in circumstances where the husband was perpetrating an assault on the child, someone could be committing an offence if they did not report it, even though they were of that age. There are saving provisions in the Bill, because the courts would take into account whether the person had suffered domestic violence and any other circumstances, which would include the age of the person accused.

I highlight those points because we will wish to return to them in Committee. We should be careful not to place in statute provisions that extend further than we originally envisaged. Under clause 5(6), the extent of the negligence could include an attack on a sibling by a young child in the household who was known to have a propensity for misbehaviour. That is a far-reaching provision and I point that out to the Minister to highlight the extent of the change in the law that the Bill will bring about. I hope that we will be able to look at that matter constructively, so that we hit the target we are aiming for and do not legislate in a manner that we did not intend.

The second point of concern was highlighted by the hon. and learned Member for Redcar. The Bill includes provision on specimen counts and trial by jury on sample counts only. That is perfectly appropriate, although it is not specifically related to domestic violence. The hon. and learned Lady and the Home Secretary will remember that last year I argued vociferously at the Dispatch Box against any restriction on the right to trial by jury. I said then that I had read—and, I thought, understood—the Law Commission's proposals on the difficulties that are encountered with indictments on multiple counts. A sample of counts can be tried and, theoretically, if the defendant is convicted, he should be willing to have all the other counts taken into consideration. If he does not, they cannot, under current law, be taken into consideration without his consent. That is the mischief that we seek to tackle, and that is why we take the view that it would be appropriate to try to shorten the process, even if it meant that a judge resolved the issue after sample counts had been tried and convicted before a jury.

We will co-operate with the Government to try to achieve that end, but as originally drafted it appeared that the Bill—perhaps unintentionally—would go much further and lead to a situation in which someone who had been convicted of an offence of a particular type, such as credit card fraud, could be tried by a judge alone on other counts that might relate to a completely separate series of incidents. That was not my intention when I signalled my willingness to co-operate on the issue to the Home Secretary. It is still not my intention and I therefore note with pleasure that after the Bill's passage through the other place it expressly provides, in clause 12(9)(b), that the evidence in respect of each count is admissible at the trial of the sample count". That provides an important and much needed protection.

I am not sure of the Government's position on the issue. It has been rumoured that they intend to reverse that provision and I would regret that. We would be constrained to oppose the deletion of clause 12(9)(b). I hope that we can consider the matter overall, and if the Home Secretary has other ways of approaching the matter by altering the Bill in some other way we will consider them with an open mind. We share the Government's desire to achieve the end I have described and we will work hard with the Minister on that issue. However, we will not allow a situation to arise in which trying a defendant on one count makes it possible to admit a catalogue of other largely unrelated offences to be tried by judge alone. If that is what the Government are trying to do, I regret it and I hope to receive some assurance that that is not the case.

I do not understand why the Government seek to withdraw—I think that is their aim—the question of a person's fitness to plead from decision by a jury. My experience suggests that it is a decision that juries can take easily, in proceedings that take place rapidly but provide, nevertheless, an important reassurance that cuts two ways. The first is that the state will not avoid a trial by locking somebody up, or putting them into a hospital, on the basis that they are insane, to punish them when, in fact, they have not committed an offence and might be perfectly sane. I might describe that as the Soviet Union problem. Secondly, the state might decide to avoid the trial of someone who is palpably guilty of an offence by saying that they are unfit to plead and subsequently releasing them soon thereafter by administrative procedure, or by imposing a community supervision order even though the person should have been tried in the first place.

I do not understand why the Bill, sensibly amended in the other place, cannot be preserved in its current form. I very much hope that the Government will allow it to remain as it is, substantially improved by consideration in the House of Lords.

We now come to what is not yet in the Bill but will be: the victims' fund, which was discussed earlier today. I ask the Minister and the Home Secretary to give us soon details about the provisions for the make-up of the victims' fund. The issue is important for the wider public. I remain without a full understanding of what the Home Secretary envisages. At the Dispatch Box earlier, he gave the impression that certain sorts of offence, such as a first-time speeding offence, would be excluded from the victims' fund levy, but will that apply to someone who is receiving his third fixed penalty speeding notice? Will the differentiation be between the first and the third or whether someone has been summoned to the magistrates court for sentence because it is considered that the circumstances are such that he might be disqualified?

We need some clarity soon. A large number of people in my constituency and elsewhere are deeply dissatisfied with the administration of justice. They see the police, the appointed guardian sheepdogs who should look after them, as incapable of protecting them from predators but extraordinarily efficient at nipping their heels every time they step out of line. My fear is that the Home Secretary's proposal will lead to the problem that the people who pay for the victims' fund will be the generally law-abiding, while the people who never pay a penny will be the serial offenders. That is the risk. Enforcement will be against the softest targets, with the danger of bringing the whole process of the administration of justice into disrepute, which I know is not what the Home Secretary intends. We really need reassurance on that subject.

With those comments, I move from my critique back to my general approval of what the Government are trying to do. Much in the Bill commands support. We shall look carefully at the detail and do our best to improve the measure if necessary. We shall certainly not waste the Committee's time where the job has already been well done. I hope that we end up with an extremely good piece of legislation, but let us try to ensure that we do not put into the Bill things that we subsequently regret.

9.44 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Paul Goggins)

I am grateful to all hon. Members who have participated in this impressive debate. The contributions on both sides have been well informed and reflected a deep level of concern as well as consensus on the main issues. Tackling domestic violence and providing better support for the victims of crime should be a priority for us all, I certainly welcome the tone and the terms in which this debate has been conducted, as initiated by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and reflected in equal measure by the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan). As is customary, in his concluding remarks, the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) raised a number of issues which, I am sure, we will return to with great interest in Committee.

We have consulted extensively on the measures in the Bill, in the documents "Safety and Justice" and "Justice for All", and a number of earlier consultations with victims. The measures to tackle familial homicide build on the extensive work of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the Law Commission. The measures to tackle multiple offending follow directly the commission's recommendations.

This is the biggest overhaul of domestic violence legislation for 30 years, although, as many hon. Members have made clear in the debate, tackling domestic violence is not solely about legislation. As well as bringing in tough new laws to protect victims and prosecute abusers, we need to change attitudes and practices as well as provide emotional and other forms of support.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ann Keen) told the House that the first refuge in the world was based in her constituency. She rightfully paid tribute to the pioneers of that work. My hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche) told us about the first case of domestic violence in which she had provided legal representation. She spoke eloquently about how attitudes have changed since then and how the Bill can take us further forward.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Ms Munn) spoke about the definition of vulnerable adults. She asked whether 16 was the right age to classify someone as an adult in such cases. I have to tell her that the NSPCC and the Law Commission agree that it is the right age, but I have been in correspondence with her and I look forward to further discussions with her on this issue.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) talked about the importance of inter-agency working and she told the House about the domestic homicide reviews that have been carried out in Cardiff. We all pay tribute to her work as the chair of the domestic violence forum in Cardiff. My hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (July Mallaber) spoke eloquently about her local constituency experience. She called for professional training and properly funded support services. The hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) reminded us that domestic violence affects men as well as women, and he rightly emphasised the need for prevention.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) reminded us all of the additional problems that may face disabled people who are subject to domestic violence. I assure her that we are seeking to fill gaps in provision for supporting disabled people.

A number of speakers raised the problems faced by the victims of domestic violence who are still subject to immigration control. The Government recognise that, although the numbers involved are relatively small, these women are in extremely difficult circumstances. We will continue to work across government and with outside organisations to find a long-term solution. Although we want to help the individual women, it is also important that we protect the integrity of the immigration and benefits system.

The Home Office has agreed a one-off grant of £40,000 to Women's Aid to bolster its last-resort fund. These funds are intended to cover the living expenses of women who are making an application for indefinite leave to remain because of domestic violence, and they will help to meet the living costs of those placed in refuges and who cannot be covered by the supporting people arrangements. I am certainly very happy to listen to other practical proposals that may be made in our debates and by the groups that are most closely involved.

Several hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) and my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), raised concerns about child contact. Rather than legislating in favour of mothers or fathers, the Government believe that the current system in which the welfare of the child is the court's paramount concern is right. I look forward to meeting my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) on Wednesday and, especially, to meeting Chloe, about whom he told us. I hope that I will have a convincing answer for Chloe. However, I must tell my hon. Friend that any presumption in favour of either parent would mean that a child's welfare was no longer the decisive factor, which would fetter a court's discretion to decide each case on its merits.

The Government recognise that domestic violence is a key issue, which is why we are introducing new forms for section 8 applications, which relate to contact and residence. The forms will allow domestic violence to be cited at the start of proceedings so that judges are aware of that throughout. We believe that those measures and our ongoing investment in additional supervised contact centres are the best way to ensure that child contact arrangements are safe for everyone.

Several hon. Members talked about advocacy—indeed my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) talked eloquently about the matter. The crime reduction programme has already funded several projects to assess the effectiveness of different kinds of advocacy, outreach and support measures. The results of the pilot schemes are due in the summer. I tell my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore that the crime reduction programme does indeed cover Wales.

In the meantime, the police and the Crown Prosecution Service are working to provide victims with the support that they need so that they feel able to support prosecutions. It was gratifying to hear support from hon. Members on both sides of the House for the way in which the modern police service is addressing the matter more constructively than it did in the past.

Several hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre, argued for a statutory definition of domestic violence. Although that might seem like a good idea at first sight, we take the view that it would be difficult to create a statutory definition that would reflect the full breadth of domestic violence while being easy to keep up to date. However, the Government acknowledge that there are worries about the different non-statutory definitions of domestic violence that are used by different agencies, so we are working with partners towards a single working definition.

Several hon. Members mentioned provocation, including the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar. It is an important and far-reaching issue. We need to be confident that provocation will be dealt with fairly and consistently when it is either a partial defence to murder or a mitigating factor during sentencing. That is why we asked the Sentencing Advisory Panel to examine sentences for manslaughter in cases of provocation and the Law Commission to examine the partial defence. The panel has issued a helpful consultation document, as has the Law Commission. The commission's work has, in particular, confirmed how complex this area of law is. We will need to consider the final recommendations carefully, so it would be premature to try to legislate before the work is completed. I welcome the fact that the hon. Member for Beaconsfield indicated that, when we are ready to tackle the issue, he will be more than happy to co-operate with us.

My hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) raised the important issue of forced marriage. She is never afraid to speak out, and always does so with great knowledge and a deep concern for her constituents' welfare. She suggested a possible amendment to the Bill that would create a new criminal offence of coercing, aiding or abetting someone into a forced marriage. We are sympathetic to that view and are examining closely how to find a practical way forward. I look forward to discussing the matter further in Committee.

Many hon. Members welcomed our proposals to close the loophole on familial homicide. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) cited a specific case from his constituency. As he said, too often in the past people have literally got away with murder in such cases. As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary made clear, we intend to reinstate the procedural measures that we believe will help to identify the individual who actually committed the crime. It would not be a just outcome if a conviction for the new offence is achieved when it could have been shown that one of the defendants is in fact guilty of murder or manslaughter.

We will also seek to remove the explicit reference to domestic violence which was added to the new offence in the other place. I hope that I can reassure those who have raised concerns about the issue that the requirement for an individual to take reasonable steps to protect the victim would, in any event, take into account the terrible circumstances that a domestic violence victim may be in and the pressure that they may be under. However, singling out domestic violence could distort the offence and undermine the responsibility that it rightly places, even on those who are themselves victims, to take action if the life of a child or a vulnerable adult is at stake.

The Bill introduces new measures to ensure that those committing multiple offences will be punished for the full extent of their criminality. That follows extensive consultation and consideration by the Law Commission. Clauses 12 to 16 provide for a two-stage trial—the first by jury to try a sample count, the remainder to be tried by judge alone. The hon. Member for Beaconsfield indicated that we would be in for further discussion on that in Committee, which I look forward to.

The measures on fitness to plead, which, again, we will reinstate, aroused concerns in another place. The change was originally proposed by Lord Justice Auld in response to the concerns of judges that the current system of appointing two juries is both wasteful of court resources and unhelpful to vulnerable witnesses. There is no question of weakening the right to trial by jury. A jury will still have to consider whether the defendant committed the act with which he is charged. No one will be detained in hospital unless a jury has found that he has committed the offence. However, the change will improve the process for the defendant in a number of ways, not least because a jury does not have to give reasons for its decision, so there is no basis for a challenge should the defendant wish to appeal the decision.

Throughout the debate, there has been strong support for an independent victims commissioner and a statutory victims advisory panel. My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) referred to that. I will take him up on his offer of sending him a letter rather than giving him a detailed response now.

We will amend the Bill in Committee to ensure that the victims of mentally disordered offenders have the same right to information as victims of other serious sexual and violent offenders. They will have the right to make representations and to be informed about the conditions imposed on the offender for the protection of the victim. They will be told when the offender has been discharged. That measure will be extended to Northern Ireland.

I listened carefully to the speech by the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) and heard her argue powerfully her view that part 3 should apply to Northern Ireland. Of course, it does not apply because Northern Ireland has its own system. I am sure, however, that there is room for further discussion. She suggested that I might meet the Victim's Commissioner in Northern Ireland. I intend to try to do that, and look forward to her contributions if she serves on the Committee.

A number of hon. Members expressed their views about the victims' funding measures. The Government have, of course, massively increased the amount of financial support we provide to Victim Support. We want to go further, however, which is why we consulted on a package of new measures in "Compensation and Support for Victims of Crime", published in January. We have said that a victims' fund will provide £4 million from the proceeds of crime to improve support to victims of sex offenders.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary made it clear that we will table amendments. I can tell the hon. Members for Chesham and Amersham and for Beaconsfield that the amendments on the victims' fund will be tabled next week and debated towards the end of the Bill. The other amendments on measures related to victims of mentally disordered offenders will be tabled this week. I conclude by commending the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.