Controlling or coercive behaviour offence

Domestic Abuse Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 9:45 am ar 17 Mehefin 2020.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

“(1) In Part 5 (protection of children and others) of the Serious Crime Act 2015, section 76 (controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship) is amended as follows.

(2) For subsection (2) substitute—

‘(2) “Personally connected” has the meaning set out in section 2 of the Domestic Abuse Act 2020.’

(3) Omit subsections (6) and (7).”—

This new clause would ensure that those who were previously personally connected are protected from coercive and controlling behaviour (including economic abuse) that occurs post-separation.

Brought up, and read the First time.

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

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

I also do not have a jacket on, but I am not compelled to wear one—I think the only uptick of being a woman in this place is that we can wear whatever we want; it is one of the benefits. I also have trainers on.

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

I will discuss some of the potential foibles of the 2015 Act, which we have already mentioned. I say graciously before I start that Parliament does not always get everything right, and I loathe the culture in which we have to call something a U-turn, when actually evidence and other things change, different things come to light and people change their minds. That is okay, but we are not allowed to do that in politics without it being labelled a certain thing. I totally support the legislation but, specifically in the coercive control measures, there are some errors. In reality, only time and test ever measure these things.

In discussing the new clause, I will focus on post-separation abuse, but I will first talk briefly about economic abuse by way of context, as they are closely linked in this instance. I welcome the inclusion of economic abuse in the definition of domestic abuse in the Bill, recognising how that is often hidden but incredibly destructive as a form of abuse. The Bill now acknowledges and names the experience of the victims and their families, supporting them to find justice by holding a perpetrator to account across a full range of abusive behaviours.

That move has been hugely welcomed, particularly by organisations that work with victims and see day in, day out how perpetrators use economic abuse to exert control, whether to trap the victim so that they cannot afford to leave, or to force them into destitution after they have left, so that they are unable to move on and rebuild their lives. One of those organisations is the UK charity Surviving Economic Abuse, which exists solely to raise awareness of economic abuse and to transform the responses to it.

The term “economic abuse” may be new to domestic abuse legislation, but that form of abuse is certainly not new. One in five women in the UK report having experienced economic abuse from a current or former intimate partner, and 95% of domestic abuse victims report that they have suffered economic abuse. It is widespread.

Economic abuse makes the victim dependent on the perpetrator and limits their choices and their ability to leave. The behaviour is insidious and might not be recognised by the victim. The perpetrator might introduce it as an offer to help, or to take away the worry and burden of dealing with finances, seemingly in a caring way, or they might have simply assumed control through force, threats and coercion.

Through economic exploitation, the perpetrator looks to benefit from the victim’s economic resources and, in so doing, sabotages their economic independence. That exploitation may consist of things such as demanding that the victim alone pays the household bills, while the perpetrator spends their own money on whatever they like. The perpetrator may also build up debt in the victim’s name, through coercion or fraud, or steal or damage the victim’s property, which then has to be replaced. In my experience, the thing that is seen the most is the build-up of debt in someone’s name; certainly that is the thing that people struggle to live with thereafter.

This all has a hugely destabilising impact on the victim’s economic wellbeing and, again, limits their choices and ability to leave. Economic abuse can leave victims trapped and destitute, either while in a relationship with the perpetrator or post separation as they navigate life with inescapable debt, insecure housing and financial hardship. Economic safety underpins physical safety. Building an independent life can, for many victims of economic abuse, feel impossible.

Why is the new clause vital? To answer that question, I want to talk about economic abuse following the end of intimate partner relationships. Economic abuse does not simply stop when the relationship ends. Control continues through joint resources, and in fact the perpetrator can still sabotage the victim’s resources even if they do not know where the victim is. An abuser might wipe out money in a joint account that a victim relies on, or refuse to pay an overdraft so that penalties build up and the victim cannot afford to continue paying it. The end of a relationship does not prevent the abuser from taking away a victim’s home, interfering with their ability to work and earn money, or constantly taking the victim to court in connection with their children. It also does not mean that the abuser suddenly forgets the victim’s personal information, which can be used to apply for credit in their name.

In reality, economic abuse can continue, escalate or even start after separation. Research has shown that economic abuse is actually more prevalent post separation. It is clear why: when other forms of control may have been removed, controlling an ex-partner’s access to economic resources, such as by refusing to pay child maintenance, which we heard about yesterday, or refusing to sell a jointly owned home to free up much-needed money, may be the only way in which the abuser can continue to control the victim—and what powerful and destructive control that can be.

Victims can be left with such significant debts and poor credit ratings that they are unable to move on or rebuild their lives, yet at present legislation does not afford victims the protection that they need. The link between economic abuse and controlling and coercive behaviour is stark. Analysis by Surviving Economic Abuse of successful prosecutions for the controlling or coercive behaviour offence shows that six in 10 involve economic abuse, yet limitations within the controlling or coercive behaviour offence mean that, at present, victims of economic abuse post separation are unable to seek justice.

As a result, the perpetrator can continue to control their ex-partner for years and even decades. That is because, for the abuser’s actions to fall within the controlling or coercive behaviour offence, perpetrator and victim must have been “personally connected”, as defined in the Serious Crime Act, and that definition differs from what we have in the Domestic Abuse Bill, which clearly states that someone has been in a relationship or is no longer. That is clearly outlined in this new and better definition.

Under the Serious Crime Act, two people will be considered as personally connected if they are in an intimate relationship with each other, or they live together and either are family members or have previously been in an intimate relationship with each other. The result is that where a couple are no longer in an intimate relationship and they do not live together, behaviour by one of them towards the other cannot fall within the offence of controlling or coercive behaviour.

That is why the new clause is vital. We know from research and what we have heard throughout the progress of the Bill that coercive control continues after the victim’s relationship with the perpetrator has ended and they are no longer living together. That is particularly true of forms of abuse that do not rely on physical proximity or the continuation of intimate relationships with the perpetrator, economic abuse being the key example.

Surviving Economic Abuse has shared the story of a woman in this position, and I want to share it with Members. Layla—not her real name—was married for more than 20 years to her abuser and has three children. Throughout the marriage, her husband was controlling and coercive, both economically and emotionally. He would do things such as pressure her to transfer money into his bank account and force her to let him use her credit card. He ran up debt on her credit card and, after separation, forced her to release hundreds of thousands of pounds of equity from the mortgage. Layla continues to pay the debts that he has put in her name, including bank loans of £70,000. He continues to use her contact details rather than his own, so she is being regularly chased by creditors for money. She has also been regularly visited by bailiffs demanding payment of the abuser’s debts, which she has to pay.

Layla has been to the police, but they said that

“the continuing economic abuse cannot be considered under the coercive control offence as the perpetrator had left her.”

Where is the justice in that? We must change that and bring the definition of “personally connected” as it is defined in the Serious Crime Act in line with what we have in the Bill, so that victims such as Layla no longer face the possibility of being a victim of economic abuse going unchallenged for the rest of their lives.

The Bill recognises that abuse can continue post separation and that it does not require the abuser and victim to be in an ongoing relationship or living together. Through the new clause, which has been called for by Surviving Economic Abuse and which has support from SafeLives and many other organisations in the violence against women and girls sector, we can bring those definitions in line with each other so that the intentions of the Bill are not undermined by other legislation, and victims are protected by law and can seek justice. The new clause does that by removing the requirement for intimate partners or family members to be living together for the abuser’s actions to fall under the controlling and coercive behaviour offence.

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

I thank the hon. Lady for her excellent and helpful representations. The context is that I entirely agree with the premise of her point. If I can crystallise it, she is in effect saying, “Look, one of the most pernicious ways you can abuse another individual is through economic abuse.” It is worth stepping back for a second to say that, although we recognise that in this room, if we went back as little as 15 years ago, that might have been a moot point. People have come to realise that this is a particularly potent and cruel weapon to use, and that acknowledgement is a thread that is increasingly starting to run through the law.

The hon. Lady rightly points out that the Serious Crime Act 2015 creates the offence of coercive control, but the definition of domestic abuse in this Bill is one reason why it is it such an important piece of legislation. If someone had been asked what domestic abuse was 15 years ago, they would probably have said, “Domestic abuse is domestic violence, isn’t it?” No, because clause 1(3) says:

“Behaviour is “abusive” if it consists of any of the following—

(a) physical or sexual abuse;

(b) violent or threatening behaviour;

(c) controlling or coercive behaviour;

(d) economic abuse (see subsection (4));”

When we turn to subsection (4), it says:

“‘Economic abuse’ means any behaviour that has a substantial adverse effect on B’s ability to—

(a) acquire, use or maintain money or other property, or

(b) obtain goods or services.”

I wanted to take stock of where we have come to, because that will inform some of the points that I make in response.

The final thing that I will say by way of context is that the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill, which I am taking through the Committee of the whole House this afternoon, considers precisely this issue. When we say that a minimum of six months is the appropriate period for people to move on from a relationship, where some have said that it should be longer, one of the important rebuttal points is, “Hold on a minute. If someone needs to move on with their lives, potentially from an abusive relationship, they need to make sure that it can happen within a reasonable period so that the economic abuse cannot be perpetuated.” We absolutely get that point, and I would say—I hope not immodestly—that we have spearheaded it.

I entirely agree with the Surviving Economic Abuse charity raising the issue, and it has done an important public service in doing so. To turn to the specific point, as we have heard, the new clause seeks to address another aspect of controlling or coercive behaviour. As the hon. Lady indicated, there have been calls from Surviving Economic Abuse and other domestic abuse charities and victims to expand the offence under section 76 of the 2015 Act by removing the living together requirement for former partners. As the offence stands, it applies only to controlling or coercive behaviour between intimate partners or former partners and family members who are living together.

It is right to say that other provisions could deal with the hon. Lady’s point—I spent a huge amount of time as a practitioner, and more importantly in this place, looking at precisely that—such as the offences under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, which I looked at this morning to prepare for this debate. Under the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012, we introduced this offence of stalking. Again, 15 years ago stalking was something that people laughed about in workplaces around the watercooler. Now, people recognise that it is a pernicious offence. Why do I dwell on that? Because if we look at what the 2012 Act says—in this place, we never actually look at the wording of the statute; we just mention it briefly—

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

I am sure that hon. Gentleman does look at it.

The 1997 Act was amended to include section 2A, which deals with the “Offence of stalking”. Section 2A says:

“A person is guilty of an offence if… the person pursues a course of conduct… and… the course of conduct amounts to stalking.”

Then, however—this is what I think is brilliant—the 2012 Act goes on to look at the sorts of behaviour that might constitute stalking. Subsection (3) says:

“The following are examples of acts or omissions which, in particular circumstances, are ones associated with stalking… following a person… contacting, or attempting to contact, a person by any means… publishing any statement” relating to that person. It continues:

“monitoring the use… of the internet… loitering in any place… interfering with any property in the possession of a person… watching or spying on a person.”

The reason why that is important is that it sets out the sorts of behaviour that could be stalking, but it is not exhaustive.

The reason why I say of all that is that if someone at the end of a relationship, when the two people are no longer living together, engages in a course of conduct that, to the man or woman on the Clapham omnibus, is a bit like stalking—whether or not that means trying to exert economic control—there is the potential for offences there, and I will come on to them while I am still sympathetic to the point made by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley.

I am particularly mindful of that because in my own county of Gloucestershire—the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle has already mentioned this—Hollie Gazzard was brutally murdered. Those who have been victims of stalking say that it is like murder in slow motion, because of so much of what precedes it in terms of stalking behaviour. My point is that that can include economic abuse as well.

However, Surviving Economic Abuse argues further that stalking and harassment offences, although relevant, are not designed specifically to prosecute the sort of behaviour we are discussing. I accept that, but it is also fair to point out that, because of the way that stalking offences are drafted, it is not beyond the wit of man or woman to conceive of how they could be included, based on the facts of a specific case.

In addition, the new statutory definition of domestic abuse includes ex-partners among those defined as “personally connected” and does not have a “living together” requirement. Therefore, an amendment to the controlling or coercive behaviour offence could be seen as conforming within the definition in clause 1.

However, the case is not clearcut, given that the offence is still relatively new, and there is currently limited data available in support of a change. Because the case is not clearcut, the Government committed, in response to our 2018 consultation on domestic abuse, to conduct a review of the offence, as the hon. Lady is aware.

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

The hon. Lady loves a review, she says sotto voce.

Although Home Office officials have made good progress with the review, I am afraid that it has been one of the casualties of the covid-19 pandemic, which has meant that focus has had to be reapplied to supporting victims of domestic abuse at this time. However, the review is in place, and I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her acknowledgement and understanding of the situation.

We hope to conclude the review by the early autumn, because it is important that we have a sound evidence base for any changes to the offence, but we have heard what the hon. Lady says; the points she made are not improper or unmeritorious, and we invite her to await the outcome of the review. I hope that, in the light of my explanation, and on the understanding that we aim to complete the review by early autumn, the hon. Lady will see her way to withdrawing the new clause.

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

Absolutely, and I feel that I have the ear of the Minister in this particular regard. The case is quite clear to me; in the circumstances he has outlined, he is absolutely right. If he thinks that people do not read the statute here, I should say that they certainly do not in Stechford Police Station.

The reality is, what would the charge be? I find it difficult to think that the copper, in reality, on the ground, is going to say, “Actually, I think this will be a stalking charge.”

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

I grappled with this as a Back Bencher when we wanted to increase the maximum sentence, and for precisely that reason—would a police officer, or the CPS, think it was worth the powder and shot to charge someone with stalking when the maximum sentence was only five years? It is now 10 years, because of the private Member’s Bill. If someone engages in a course of conduct that seriously damages an individual, be it by economic abuse, or by hanging around outside the school gates or whatever, the courts have the power to impose what lawyers pompously refer to as “condign punishment”. That provides a powerful incentive for police officers, who want to do justice in the case, to reach for the lever available to them.

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

I appreciate that, and I hope that that would happen in these cases. However, the cases that I am sure will inform the review that the Minister talks about show people often left without an option, rather than with a plethora of different statutory instruments that they could use. The reality is that lots of people simply get sent away with no further action. However, I take on board what the Minister has said about the review. As everyone knows, I absolutely love a review—for the benefit of Hansard readers, I am being sarcastic. I will await the autumn. In the meantime, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.