Mr Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), who demonstrated why he was excellent as a Children and Families Minister; he brought his experience to bear in this debate. I thank in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mary Macleod) for bringing this important debate to the House today. Notwithstanding the fact that the recess is almost here, it is a pity that there are not more hon. Members in the Chamber to participate, given the importance of the issue.
Two women each and every week die as a result of domestic violence. In the past year, an estimated 1.2 million women in England and Wales have experienced domestic violence. Domestic violence can be suffered by both men and women but, statistically, men are overwhelmingly the perpetrators and women are overwhelmingly the victims. This speech is dedicated to women who have suffered domestic violence, but it is especially dedicated to my constituent Christine Chambers, who was brutally murdered, with her daughter Shania, in 2012 by her ex-partner after years of physical and psychological abuse.
Much of what I have to say is reflected in an excellent report by Women’s Aid entitled “Women’s Access to Justice”, which was produced for the all-party group on domestic and sexual violence and is in addition to input that I received from Paladin, the National Stalking Advocacy Service and the Sara Charlton Charitable Foundation.
I begin by commending the Home Office for the steps that it took last year to redefine the definition of domestic violence to include coercive control. Unfortunately, coercive control often goes hand in hand with physical abuse. However, without a legal framework to support the new definition, there is a limit to the impact it can have on victims of domestic violence. In ongoing intimate relationships, the law prohibits only physical abuse, despite the change in definition.
Many victims of domestic violence say that physical violence is not the worst part. There is a gap that allows the pattern of controlling behaviour and intimidation to remain outside the reach of the law. In simple terms, the law does not conceive of victims—mostly women—as victims of ongoing abuse, but sees them rather as victims of isolated events involving physical violence. As a result, women become entrapped in abusive relationships and no one goes to prison without the physical evidence of an isolated incidence of physical violence with enough injuries.
Research by Women’s Aid shows that the majority of women in abusive relationships reported violence to the police only after it had been going on for between six months and five years. Even once women report abuse, it is treated as a single incident without taking into account a pattern of behaviour, as I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mary Macleod). As such, it is often treated as a low-level misdemeanour, and a man who has been violent on one occasion is punished in the same way as a man who might have committed dozen assaults against his partner. That is unacceptable.
Given the lack of statutory framework, the current remedies focus on changing the victim’s behaviour rather than addressing the perpetrator. Because of the lack of freedom often experienced by victims, those remedies are limited in their effectiveness. I firmly believe that criminalising all aspects of domestic violence, including coercive control, would increase public awareness of the problem and send a strong message that controlling and psychologically abusive behaviour in a relationship is not acceptable. It would also ensure that courts could take into account a pattern of behaviour, which would allow the appropriate response.
According to studies, early intervention would reduce domestic violence by some 80%. Countries such as Spain, France, Portugal, Sweden and the US have already taken steps to enact laws with reference to intimate partner violence that offers a wider criminal definition than physical violence. The effects have been significant, and have saved lives and money. Stalking laws allow the justice system to take into account patterns of controlling behaviour after a relationship has ended, but not enough is done to prevent controlling behaviour from escalating during a relationship. We should be calling for a change in the legislative framework so that patterns of controlling behaviour and psychological intimidation are targeted far earlier, to protect victims better.
I strongly believe that domestic violence needs to be criminalised in a way that allows the controlling and psychological aspects of it to be recognised. By developing our current legal system to close the gap between the current response and the way in which we should respond to domestic violence, we will be able greatly to reduce the suffering and oppression of victims. In many cases, victims have commented that the control and psychological damage exerted on them by their partners was far more harmful than any physical abuse.
The main concern of the various women’s groups I have spoken to is that coercive, abusive and intimidating behaviour are tools used by a perpetrator to exert control. When a victim finally gathers the strength to leave, the abuser may feel as though the only way in which they can reassert control is through physical violence, and in the worst case death, as tragically happened to my constituent Christine Chambers. For that reason, we must do more to criminalise psychological abuse at an earlier stage. I would like that to be given greater recognition in the criminal justice system to stop ongoing abusive behaviour and save victims much sooner than is currently possible.
I want to make a number of recommendations to the Minister on behalf of the groups that I met. First, there should be better data collection. Many advocacy groups have said that the Government are failing to collect vital statistics relating to domestic violence. They have suggested that the Government should review data collection procedures as a first step to building a greater understanding of domestic violence. Secondly, we must improve training and awareness. All front-line police officers and justice officials should receive domestic violence awareness training to bring about a change of culture in the way in which victims, particularly women, are treated. Thirdly, legislative loopholes must be closed. The Government should review the current legislation on domestic violence to close legislative loopholes by, for example, giving consideration to criminalising coercive control and patterns of abusive behaviour.
Fourthly, we need more effective prosecutions. Law enforcement agencies should move away from evidence that is based solely on victim testimony. The police should begin to build a case against a perpetrator the moment they walk through the door, through better evidence gathering. Finally, we must develop a more victim-centred approach. Governments should work to break down barriers to justice, increase information and communication with survivors about their cases and invest in better court facilities and technology. If the Government implemented those changes, I believe that they would have taken the steps required better to protect victims of domestic violence.
Too many women have suffered already, and we must take steps to ensure that no more women have to suffer at the hands of a partner or ex-partner. I would like to end by thanking Polly Neate and Clare Laxton of Women’s Aid, Laura Richards, the founder of Paladin, and Antonia Packard and Rhea Gargour of the Sara Charlton Foundation.