Repeal of provisions about defence for controlling or coercive behaviour offence

Part of Domestic Abuse Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 9:25 am ar 17 Mehefin 2020.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Peter Kyle Peter Kyle Shadow Minister (Justice) 9:25, 17 Mehefin 2020

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

It is great to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Bone—welcome back to the Committee. I rise to speak to new clause 25, on the repeal of provisions about defence for controlling or coercive behaviour offence.

Domestic abuse against disabled people is simply not discussed enough. They are hidden victims. When abuse against disabled people is raised, it is usually in the context of adult safeguarding processes, which labels disabled people as vulnerable adults and which disabled survivors and specialists in the field tell us is failing them.

The new clause reflects 10 years’ worth of casework by Stay Safe East, one of only two organisations in England and Wales led by disabled women supporting disabled survivors, and its partner organisations, in an advisory group on domestic abuse and disability. That is two specialist disability and deaf services for a disabled population of 10 million people.

The data on abuse against disabled people is grim. Disabled adults are at least 1.5 times more likely to be a victim or survivor of violence than non-disabled adults. Disabled women are at least three times more likely to experience domestic abuse from family members, be that their partner, parents, siblings, adult children or other family members. Some of the abusers will also be the person’s carer. It is highly likely that those figures are an underestimate, as the only example—the crime survey—is not in an accessible format for deaf and disabled people to participate in, and many survivors cannot access external help.

The rate of domestic abuse against disabled men is also higher than against non-disabled men, but disabled women are more likely to experience repeated, sustained and more violent abuse than disabled men. Disabled children, and particularly disabled girl children, are more likely to experience sexual violence and physical abuse than non-disabled children. What is more, disabled people may have other people in their lives who have a level of control, whether that is unpaid carers or paid carers from an agency, or a personal assistant.

This is the case for disabled women across all communities, of all ages and all backgrounds. Disabled women face specific forms of abuse at the hands of partners, family members and paid or unpaid carers: control of communication; control of medication; restricting access to disability support; using a person’s impairment to control them—for example, playing on their mental health or taking advantage of the fact that they have learning disabilities—forced marriage on the grounds that the partner “will look after you when I am gone”; and constantly abusing women because of their impairment. That, in itself, is a form of hate crime.

Abusers hold the very real threat that, “They will take your kids away from you” over a disabled woman. In the experience of both Stay Safe East and SignHealth, a deaf-led service for deaf survivors of domestic abuse, deaf or disabled mothers are at much higher risk of losing their children through the courts or other domestic abuse. In some cases, the courts opt to place children in the care of an abusive father rather than letting them live with a disabled mother, who is considered a poor parent for reasons simply of her disability, and providing support to keep the children with her.

Unfortunately, disabled victims who are able to speak out against this face multiple barriers to gaining safety and justice. Poor access to refuges or emergency accommodation; voice phone-only contact with many services, which excludes deaf women and those without speech; services not set up to deal with victims who need long-term support; a lack of quality, accessible information or British Sign Language interpreters; no access to counselling—the list is very, very long.

Worst of all is not being believed by police, social workers or health workers because they are disabled women, which is something that is frequently reported by deaf and disabled women who approach the two specialist organisations. A little-known clause, now subsections 76(8) and (9) of the Serious Crime Act 2015, introduced what has been dubbed “the carers’ defence” by disabled survivor groups. It introduced a worrying caveat into what was a piece of legislation to protect victims of abuse, by allowing an abuser who is facing charges of coercive control to claim that they were acting in the best interests of the victim.

That provision was originally brought to the attention of legislators through the efforts of Sisters of Frida, a disabled women’s collective, and Stay Safe East, but it became part of the 2015 Act. Although the clause may have been introduced with the best of intentions, to avoid unnecessary prosecution of carers who were, for example, preventing somebody with dementia from going out alone because they were at risk, there is a real risk that it could be used by abusers to claim that they are acting in the best interests of somebody they are controlling with malicious intent.

That is especially true of people who might be seen to have capacity issues, such as deaf people, people without speech, people with cognitive issues as a result of a stroke, people with learning difficulties and people with mental health challenges. That, of course, is a substantial number of potential victims among those who face the greatest barriers to safety and getting justice.

For example, the parents of a young woman with mild learning disabilities stopped her going out alone, only letting her go to college with a chaperone, on the grounds that she was at risk from strange men. The parents had failed to teach their daughter about safe relationships, had removed her from personal, social, health and economic education lessons in school, and had controlled her friendships with her peer group. The family claimed that they were protecting her. The young woman initially believed that her parents were doing their best for her, but as she grew up she came to realise that she could make her own decisions. It subsequently emerged that, on top of all the coercive control, the family were taking the young woman’s benefits, and there was also physical abuse.

The section gives a clear message to disabled survivors and victims generally: “Your decisions are not your own, and abusers can claim to be acting in your best interests.” “For her own good” is an expression we often hear abusers using, even if they are abusing that very interest, and the courts will let them get away with exercising abuse of power over their victims.

In a context where disabled survivors are the least likely to speak out, and where, if a case does go to court, the chance of a successful outcome for the victim is very low, especially for disabled victims, that is not the message that we want legislation on domestic abuse to give to survivors or, for that matter, the police, the Crown Prosecution Service or abusers. The Care Act 2014 and the Mental Capacity Act 2005 both provide sufficient protection for genuine carers who face malicious allegations. A law to protect victims is not the place for a clause that protects potential abusers.

All too often, concerns about disabled victims are ignored. The Government now have a real opportunity to listen, and we urge the Minister to take full advantage of that opportunity. We are talking about a group with many intersectional and very complex challenges, which provide additional areas for abusers to exert control and abuse.