Examination of Witness

Domestic Abuse Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 3:45 pm ar 4 Mehefin 2020.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Dame Vera Baird QC gave evidence.

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Llafur, Westminster North 4:04, 4 Mehefin 2020

We will now hear from Dame Vera Baird QC. When you are settled, please introduce yourself formally to the Committee, and then we will move on to the questions.

Dame Vera Baird:

My name is Vera Baird. I have been the Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales since last June.

Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Shadow Minister (Home Office), Shadow Minister (Domestic Violence and Safeguarding)

Q There has been a huge amount of talk about commissioners in here today—it’s been commissioner, commissioner, commissioner—so it is good to have another one in front of us. As well as your role as the Victims’ Commissioner—I think other people are going to ask you about that and about how the two roles will work in tandem—I want to ask you a couple of questions about some of the experience you gained from being a police and crime commissioner. That is a vital resource, but we have not been given any evidence by the police today, which is potentially not great.

Quite a big part of the Bill is about domestic abuse protection orders. I know that when you gave evidence to the Joint Committee, you had some concerns about how, certainly in the pilot, they were being used—about whether they were onerous and whether police forces were likely to use them versus bail options. Could you go into that a little bit for us?

Dame Vera Baird:

We put it in written evidence to the last Bill Committee. Yes, we did have some concerns about DAPOs. What is very desirable, and admirable in the Government, was the decision to pilot DAPOs so that we can work out the pros and cons of different aspects of them.

There are a number of things: civil, criminal, by the complainant, by the police and by a third party without the complainant’s consent—that one worries me immensely. There is obviously a great range of things. The very positive thing about DAPOs is the addition of the capacity to add positive requirements on a DAPO. Used well, I think that could have a quite transformative effect, although I suspect it will have to be very proportionate. One would want to say that this is a route to getting good-quality perpetrator programmes in terms of the conduct of a perpetrator who has got a DAPO with a positive obligation to go on a perpetrator programme, but I doubt whether that would be proportionate actually. I suspect that all you could do is to require him to go and have an assessment for a perpetrator programme. I am not a great civil lawyer; in fact, I am not a great lawyer at all.

Dame Vera Baird:

You have advantages I don’t have.

Dame Vera Baird:

Years ago, there was a conditional caution for women. The condition on the caution was to go to have your needs assessed at a women’s centre. I was worried that that was not sufficiently strong, but it clearly could not be much more. You cannot order somebody on a 10-year course or a five-month course as a condition of something small like a caution. In fact, it didn’t matter in that particular example, because the women’s centre, once it has assessed someone’s needs, will keep someone to get them through. I do not know if the same is going to apply here.

I am guessing that the Government must have looked at this and that the positive requirements will have to be in proportion to the fact that it is an order about curbing your conduct of a fairly minor kind. Although it looks as if it might open the door to early intervention with perpetrators to put them on a positive way out, I am not sure whether that is not over-optimistic. But that is how I greeted that aspect of DAPOs when they first came out.

What I think is problematic about them is whether they will be enforced. Quite a small percentage of domestic abuse cases have DVPOs in the first place. They are used really very rarely. It is somewhere between 1% and 2%. One suspects it will be the same again in connection with DAPOs. Why would it be different? I do not suppose the third-party provision or the individuals provision is going to multiply it by 10. The Government have some quite optimistic views about how many of these would be granted. It is not just that they are not used, but that they are not enforced when they are broken. That calls them into question.

Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Shadow Minister (Home Office), Shadow Minister (Domestic Violence and Safeguarding)

Q So you think there needs to be a review process, and you welcome that it is a pilot.

Dame Vera Baird:

I do, and I definitely want it to be piloted. They have to reconcile that position between an individual getting one and there being some positive attachment. Somebody is given the responsibility to supervise that positive attachment, but if it happens to be, “Go on a perpetrator programme while you’re still staying with her,” she needs to have a voice in that as well. There are a lot of complexities, but when I have reflected on it, they are better than DVPOs. One hopes that they will become the go-to and that DVPOs will disappear.

Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Shadow Minister (Home Office), Shadow Minister (Domestic Violence and Safeguarding)

Q It will take time. Let us stick with the idea of perpetrators, not necessarily of domestic abuse but of other crimes, whose criminality could be linked to their victimisation through domestic abuse. Having run a women’s centre for many years for female offenders, I am only too aware of the levels of domestic abuse of women in that particular estate. Their victimhood is one of the most important things about that. Do you have anything that you think needs to go into the Bill, or into the amendments that may be proposed, to look at how we change the way we see victims in the criminal justice system?

Dame Vera Baird:

I do. The definition of domestic abuse now shows the multifaceted nature of control and that it is used, specifically, to exercise control. We are now getting a broader understanding that that is the nature of domestic abuse and that it makes a person incapable of doing something without the consent of the perpetrator, who has so undermined their self-esteem that they have lost all will to do their own decision making.

You have to acknowledge that, in the same way that a victim will not go to the supermarket without being told that they can, or if they are told that they are cannot, and will not talk to their mother if they are told they cannot, they can also be told to commit criminal offences. Some 60% of women in custody have been victims of domestic abuse, and many of them are victims of domestic abuse as they are committing offences, so it speaks a very loud story about how victims can and are being used in that way. Those women have done relatively small things—probably dealt small amounts of drugs on behalf of their perpetrator—and a great deal more damage has been done to them than anything they have done in terms of their criminality.

There is an urgent need, in my view, to parallel that understanding, which the definition clearly shows is about undermining will and gaining full control, to have a defence that offers a person in that position the opportunity to say to the court, “I would not have done this if I hadn’t been compelled to do it.” It is analogous with section 45 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015, where there is absolutely such a defence for a relatively low level of criminality, and no one would ask for more. In terms of the difference between the way in which people who are victims of modern slavery are, as it were, enslaved, and the way that victims of coercive control are totally controlled, I cannot draw a cigarette paper between the two—not that I smoke.

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Llafur, Westminster North

Thank you. So that people can indicate, if they are not on the list, I am now going to call Minister Chalk, then I have Mike Wood, Christine Jardine, Peter Kyle and Liz Twist.

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

Q Dame Vera, there are so many questions I would like to ask you, but I will ask just a couple if I may. To pick up on the point that you just mentioned, you are of course the Victims’ Commissioner, and you therefore want to stand up on behalf of those who are victims of crime, correct?

Dame Vera Baird:

Yes.

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

Q Given the point that you just made, we always have to bear in mind that people can be victims of crime perpetrated by women as well as by men, yes?

Dame Vera Baird:

Yes, of course.

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

Q We have to make sure that there remains confidence in the criminal justice system so that those who are victims of crime, whoever commits that crime, get justice. That is important, is it not?

Dame Vera Baird:

Of course it is, and the interaction between a victim and a defendant is often present in a range of material ways.

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

Q Can I ask you about something that we have not talked about too much but that I think is very important—domestic abuse protection notices? The Bill puts a lot of power in the hands of the police to say to someone, “Right, I suspect that you are putting someone at risk of domestic abuse.” On the basis of not a lot of evidence, they can effectively say, “Right, I’m applying a notice. If you breach that, it’s arrestable, and you are going to be inside until you get before a magistrates court.” We think that is appropriate, strikes the right balance and is necessary. Do you have any concerns? Does that strike the right balance? Does it go too far?

Dame Vera Baird:

It seems to me to strike the right balance. There is often the need for an urgent move to be made to remove the risk, and that seems quite right to me. I lament very strongly the loss of pre-trial bail conditions. They are a simpler way to do it than a notice like this, so please do restore pre-trial bail to the police.

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

Q Thank you for that, and thank you for the point you made about the notices, because they are robust. It is helpful to have your views on that.

The final thing I want to ask about briefly is special measures directions and the ability for people to give their best evidence. Do you welcome what is in the Bill to allow vulnerable people to feel more comfortable about the court process, and to do themselves justice when they are before a court speaking about something that may be very traumatic for them?

Dame Vera Baird:

But it does not go nearly far enough, Minister. You have extended special measures in criminal proceedings so that they are automatically available for a domestic abuse victim—absolutely excellent —but in family proceedings, and indeed in civil proceedings, people who are vulnerable or intimidated are just as vulnerable or intimidated as they are in criminal proceedings, and just as much in need of giving their best evidence. I really have no understanding of why you do not just extend special measures to all courts. They are subject to proper identification of vulnerability and a process that follows, and the judiciary have the final say. It seems to me that that is far and away the best thing to do. It is very straightforward and simple, and can give people that advanced assurance that they are going to be able to give their evidence in a protected way. That is obviously what you are aiming for by extending them to domestic abuse victims in criminal cases.

Photo of Christine Jardine Christine Jardine Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Women and Equalities)

Q You were talking about victims of domestic abuse. In dealing with victims of domestic abuse, how often do you come across evidence of it being a misogynistic crime? How often are they victims of some sort of misogyny? Do we need to look at how the two interact?

Dame Vera Baird:

That is a very interesting point. There may be that situation, but it has not made itself—if I can put it this way—systemically evident to me. Lyndsey was talking about the MARAC, and we had a thing in Northumbria called MATAC, which was a MARAC for perpetrators. You could see men who had left behind a trail of damaged women. They were not high-level and dangerous, but they were repeat. They got on extremely well with their mothers, who took them in every time, and the next girlfriend along the line, who took them in every time. Indeed, they had no difficulty with female probation officers, female staff and so on. I do not know whether there is an evident link between the two, but I see domestic abuse more as a determination to control that individual than as a piece of evidence of general misogyny.

Photo of Christine Jardine Christine Jardine Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Women and Equalities)

Q Something that has come up several times today is children as victims of domestic abuse. Do we need an explicit recognition of the fact that a child does not actually have to be the victim? Being a witness de facto makes them a victim of the abuse, and that goes forward through their lives. Do we need some sort of recognition of that?

Dame Vera Baird:

Yes. I am quite clear that children in a family in which there is domestic abuse are victims of domestic abuse, not bystanders or witnesses. In my view, that needs to be made explicit in the legislation. People have already talked about what could follow—better support, welfare, services and so on. It would also bring them into the Victims’ Commissioner’s remit, where they ought to be.

I think that change would also weaken children’s invidious position in the family courts, where it is possible to find that domestic abuse has been perpetrated by partner A on partner B, but that partner A, the perpetrator, is none the less parenting well. However, if it is understood that a child is a victim of A’s perpetrating violence—or domestic abuse without violence—on B, it will be much harder for the court to find that the person who has victimised them is parenting well. I am very troubled by the presumption of shared parenting that seems to trump practically everything else in the family court. I am very hopeful that, if one expressly makes children victims, that will undermine the strength of that presumption.

However, I hope—far more strongly even than that—that, at some point in the development of the Bill and its passage through Parliament, the Family Law Panel will report, and that what it suggests can be taken into the Bill’s provisions. In a way, to go ahead with this Bill without waiting for the outcome of that review is to miss a key opportunity. Let us face it: this is a once-in-a-generation Bill. They only come up that often, so it should be as comprehensive as possible and should certainly include some recommendations from that review.

Photo of Mike Wood Mike Wood Ceidwadwyr, Dudley South

Q Dame Vera, there have been suggestions that the remit of the domestic abuse commissioner may be changed to being a rather different, more general violence against women and girls commissioner. What are your thoughts?

Dame Vera Baird:

I would have preferred it to be a VAWG commissioner in the first instance, and indeed would still prefer it to be there now. One thing that is very evident—this is obviously not a criticism of the domestic abuse sector—is that the sexual violence sector is underplayed in the context of domestic abuse, which is a much bigger numerical problem, and is seen as something more linked with violence, but actually almost inevitably involves sexual exploitation and abuse.

If you want to abuse your intimate partner, a key tool is to sexually abuse them so that you undermine them even further. Had it been a VAWG commissioner, I think it would have meant that there was a better opportunity to bring forward the sexual violence sector, and to see the organisations in it as very important and needing the same sort of systemic funding that the domestic abuse sector is now beginning to get, particularly following this Bill, if the Government extend the statutory duty, as I know many people have suggested. That will be good for the sector, but the sexual violence sector needs funding just as effectively, so I think a VAWG commissioner would have been good.

I do not know why, but, in a sense, the Bill seems to me, from a sort of small p political point of view, to be slightly hung in the past. I understood why it was kept narrow, and that it was to cover only domestic abuse and only a domestic abuse commissioner, while the Government did not have a majority; if it became bigger, and therefore more controversial, because extra clauses and amendments were put on it, or if it widened into VAWG, there was not a majority to get it through. But now there is a huge majority to get it through. You can afford to take on all these exquisite ideas that are coming to you and have done all day. I really think you should pause and think about doing that. I am in such a hurry to get it home, so that it can help, but all the same, there are many more things that you could do with the Bill—many more.

Photo of Mike Wood Mike Wood Ceidwadwyr, Dudley South

Q Following on from that, I want to raise an issue about funding. Obviously, you worked extremely effectively with the designate domestic abuse commissioner to help get covid funding to victims groups, both within the domestic abuse sector and more broadly. I thank you for everything you have been doing on that.

Touching on an issue that Jess raised earlier, how do you see the future relationship between the two roles, working together to magnify their effectiveness rather than duplicating each other’s work?

Dame Vera Baird:

I think we have got off to a flying start, really, because it has all been condensed and magnified by the presence of covid. We had to get our heads together and do what we could. If we can have a close continuing relationship—after this experience, I see absolutely no reason why not—then, because we are sponsored by different Departments, we might be able to bring the Departments closer together in the interests that Nicole and I share. That would be a great boon, because one of the things that slowed up the delivery of funding to the charities that I think are now getting it is the difficulty of tying up funding from one Department with funding from another; you need a package that joins the two. I am hopeful that we might be able to play that role, too.

At the moment, there are no clashes of interest, and I cannot envisage any. The domestic abuse commissioner has a call at 11 o’clock on Monday with helpline providers and people in the domestic abuse sector where much of the talk is undoubtedly about victims of domestic abuse. At the same time, I have a call with all the victims hubs that the PCCs fund, and much of the time we are talking about victims of domestic abuse. There is a clear overlap, but we can tell the difference.

I may take a bit of licence here; perhaps I should not, but Minister Chalk helped me to mention the overlap between victims and defendants, which persuades me to talk a little about perpetrator programmes, which I am keen to see. That on the face of it does not look like a Victims’ Commissioner issue, but it is one because you always need to invest in victims’ services within a perpetrator programme. I would really like to emphasise how important it is never to take funding from the victims sector to give to perpetrators but, on the other hand, to fund separately a proper system of perpetrator programmes that get people early on.

The phoneline at Respect has had a large increase in calls during covid, I think because when people are boxed up with their own inclinations, they are frightened by them and able to reach out. That is one cohort of people. At the completely opposite end is a cohort of people currently dealt with by the Drive project, who are very different indeed. You need to have a whole matrix of tools in the box to ensure that at whatever stage a perpetrator is brought out to be changed, you have got that whole system to fit them into the right place. That is also a bit missing from the Bill. Having said positive things about DAPOs and how they may go forward, I would have wished for more expression of an urgent need to have a systematic programme for perpetrators.

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Llafur, Westminster North

Thank you. I will call Liz Saville Roberts, then Peter Kyle, Virginia Crosbie and Liz Twist. We are finishing at 4.45 pm, so if there is a moment—[Interruption.] No, we are finishing at 4.30 pm, so we have almost no time at all. I am really sorry; this is a shorter session.

Photo of Liz Saville-Roberts Liz Saville-Roberts Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Women and Equalities) , Plaid Cymru Westminster Leader, Shadow PC Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

Q You talked about the coercive and controlling nature of relationships. In the past we have talked about the need for a domestic abuse register. I know there is resistance, but given the reality of victims’ experiences and the fact that DAPOs, notices—to a degree—and certainly the domestic violence disclosure scheme keep the onus on the victim to act, what can we do to move gradually towards a register? I know there is resistance from the police, with concerns about the additional workload, but we need to change the culture. That came up with the MARAC earlier on. What do we need to do to bring a register forward?

Dame Vera Baird:

I am not over-keen on the idea of another register. What would probably be good for the kind of serial but not necessarily high-risk perpetrator I mentioned would be to get them into multi-agency public protection arrangements. It is probably better to think in terms of an institution that is already present, and get perpetrators into that, than it is to invent another separate way of recording the fact that they are a perpetrator.

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Llafur, Westminster North

I’m afraid that is the end of the session. I apologise for that; I was in the half-hour session groove. Thank you for giving evidence.