Bishop of St Albans supports Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence (Ratification of Convention) Bill

On 10th March 2017 the House of Lords considered at Second Reading the Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence (Ratification of Convention) Bill, a Private Member’s Bill that originated in the House of Commons, sponsored in the Lords by Baroness Gale. The Bishop of St Albans spoke in support of the Bill.

The Lord Bishop of St Albans: We on these Benches also give our wholehearted support to the Bill. I have been following this issue for some while—indeed, I have participated in previous debate and tabled some Questions. I congratulate Dr Eilidh Whiteford in the other place and the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, on the hard work that they and others have done in getting the Bill so far, and the many agencies involved in getting it to us today, including IC Change.

In the face of a number of cutbacks and closures of women’s services and refuges, we need a step change. Surely we should be giving a lead in this vital area. Violence against women—indeed, any violence—is a tragic evil: tragic because its effects can be so devastating, long lasting and widespread; and evil, not simply because it is violence, but because it is a violence which seeks to deny a fundamental human dignity, which I believe comes from being created in the image of God, given to all human beings. Whatever form that violence comes in—whether that be rape, forced marriage, psychological or political abuse—gender-based violence against women invariably attempts to reduce them to passive objects. It seeks to deny them the status of personhood.

As a safe place of counsel within every local community, the Church often finds itself on the front line, listening to the stories of women who have faced violence and do not know where else to turn. It is one of the greatest and hardest privileges of priesthood to listen to a woman telling her story of abuse. Indeed, sometimes it is a man, although it has rightly been pointed out that this is overwhelmingly an issue for women. We must not underplay that. Of course we want to make sure that men are given protection, but this must not distract us from this important Bill. We hear someone telling their story of abuse, sometimes tentatively for the very first time, sometimes only just beginning to realise that actually, for all sorts of social and familial reasons, they have colluded with it and are only now beginning to realise that it is simply wrong, and we then need to help them find the right sort of support, which is profoundly difficult, particularly in rural communities. I pay tribute to the many organisations working with churches and helping us up and down the country to respond to violence against women, those churches offering premises or funding for refuges and, in particular, the Christian charity Restored, whose work in training dioceses and clergy is invaluable.

The noble Baroness, Lady Gale, has already rehearsed some of the statistics, and I shall not repeat them, although I note how horrific they are when one pauses to look at what is still going on. I am also aware that there are other areas here which have not been picked up. In the past, I have tabled Questions about, for example, how many young women under the age of marriage in this country are being taken abroad, married and coming back to this country. It turned out that we have no idea how many such young women are coming back having been married under laws overseas—sometimes possibly polygamously; we simply do not know. A number of areas here are causing great concern.

In recent years, the Government have made substantial progress on legislating against gender-based violence, and I pay particular tribute to our Prime Minister, who I think all sides of the House will agree has worked tirelessly in both her current capacity and as Home Secretary to address many key legislative areas—legislation to combat forced marriage, female genital mutilation, modern slavery, coercive and controlling behaviour and stalking. The UK has one of the strongest legislative frameworks in the world. The Prime Minister’s work as Home Secretary to improve police reporting of and response to domestic abuse is also to be commended—indeed, celebrated.

However, in that context, it is regrettable that the Bill is required, given Her Majesty’s Government’s repeatedly stated commitment to ratifying the convention. In answer to a series of Written Questions back in 2014, after the convention had come into force, the Government informed me:

“Justice Ministers are currently considering the extent to which we need to amend the criminal law of England and Wales for compliance with Article 44 prior to ratification of the Convention”—[Official Report, 27/11/14; col WA 3233.]

Yet, three years later, it seems as though Justice Ministers are still “considering”. That delay in ratification is, ultimately, a failure in political will. If we were being charitable to Her Majesty’s Government, we could say that there have been one or two political distractions over the past year. However, I hope that the new reporting requirements contained in the Bill will encourage Her Majesty’s Government to throw their weight unreservedly behind the legislative changes required for ratification—particularly the issue of extraterritorial jurisdiction.

Not only will ratification of the Istanbul convention bolster the domestic framework for combating violence against women, acting as a tool by which civil society can hold the Government to account on the provision of resources to combat gender-based violence; our ratification of the convention also has an international dimension. As the Joint Committee on Human Rights put it,

“the delay in ratifying the Istanbul Convention could harm the UK’s international reputation as a world leader in combating violence against women and girls”.

Ratification of the convention would be the clearest signal of our commitment to ending the injustice of gender-based violence. It would commit us to sharing best practice internationally, and it would strengthen the Istanbul convention itself as a marker by which other countries might be held to account.

I sincerely hope that Her Majesty’s Government give this Bill a swift passage through your Lordships’ House, and that they follow the passage of the Bill with an equally swift timetable for ratification of the Istanbul convention.

Baroness Sherlock (Lab)…. It has been a pleasure to hear speeches from the Liberal Democrat and Bishops’ Benches. I look forward to the Conservative Benches being just as encouraging when the Minister speaks…..

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Williams of Trafford) (Con): My Lords, first, I wish to take a moment to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, for taking this Bill through the House and for the very constructive conversation that we had this week about it. I single out for special praise the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans. It is always nice to hear men contribute to a debate that is mainly about women. I say at this juncture that the Government have given their full backing to the Bill and we wholly support its aim of ensuring that we deliver on our commitment to ratify the Istanbul convention….

…. This Government have put prevention at the heart of our approach. We have significantly strengthened the law since we first published our first call to end violence against women and girls—VAWG—strategy in 2010, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans pointed out. We have criminalised forced marriage and breach of a forced marriage protection order in England and Wales. The right reverend Prelate made an interesting point about forced marriage and girls being taken out of the UK for this reason. The joint Home Office and Foreign and Commonwealth Office Forced Marriage Unit provides support and advice to victims, those at risk and professionals. The FMU’s most recent statistics were published yesterday and show that in 2016 advice or support was provided in 1,428 cases; 371 of those, or 26%, involved under-18s. The unit handled cases relating to 60—

The Lord Bishop of St Albans: I am sorry to break in but I think I made a slightly different point. However, I am very grateful to have those statistics and will ask for them each year. I think the question is that we have no proactive way of working out why, for example, people are going through immigration to see whether there is any way that we can find out more information about that. It is simply an unknown problem. That was what I was trying to push the Government on. Can the Minister comment briefly on that?

Baroness Williams of Trafford: I am very happy to comment on that. The right reverend Prelate makes a very good point about how we should be proactive about these things as opposed to being reactive. One of the things on which we have taken significant steps over the last few months and years concerns our intelligence at the border and training border staff to look for possible cases of people trafficking or forced marriage. There is a whole host of things that immigration staff are looking out for to prevent some of these things happening. I am glad that the right reverend Prelate brought up that issue. In addition to that, we have fast-tracked female genital mutilation protection orders and have introduced a new mandatory reporting duty for FGM.

Baroness Gale: My Lords, I thank all noble Members of the House who have taken part. I especially thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, for his contribution and all the wonderful work he has done in this field. I also thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans for speaking about his experiences of listening to women who have suffered domestic violence and for bringing that to the House. I mention the two male Peers who spoke because we need women and men to take part—this issue is not just for women, as other noble Lords have pointed out….





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