Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): It seems to me that one of the glaring omissions from the categories of people who might be involved with a review is social services. They will more than likely have been involved in such a case before the sad death.

Mr. Walter: My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is not really for me to answer to it. When the Solicitor-General responds, she might say that ''local authorities'' covers social services. However, the point is made that there are bodies that ought specifically to be included in the reviews. As I said, despite the reservations that I have expressed, I support the clause.

The Solicitor-General: A number of very important points have been made in a helpful debate, and I will seek to answer them all one by one.

The guidance is not yet written. The guidance mentioned in the extract from debate in another place that the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham quoted was guidance about reviews into child deaths. However, I can respond to her point positively by saying that when the guidance issued under the clause is written there will be wide consultation because we want to get the guidance right and we want everybody to buy into it. Buying into the sort of process that we are discussing is not achieved simply by changing a law. It is necessary to build it, bit by bit. The consultation on the guidance is part of that general work, which will be done throughout the voluntary sector and all the statutory agencies.

Mrs. Gillan: I am delighted to hear that the right hon. and learned Lady will consult on the guidance. That will also be widely welcomed by the organisations that have briefed Committee members. However, will she ensure that there is sufficient time for the consultation? Many recent Home Office consultation

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processes have been truncated. I would like an assurance that the statutory guidelines set by the Government themselves at 12 weeks will not be breached in this instance.

The Solicitor-General: I can certainly assure the hon. Lady that the guidance will not be rushed out. By the same token, I hope that later she will not complain that we did not get the guidance out quickly enough. One of the reasons why the Bill did not come before the Commons sooner is because we wanted to consult everybody; we wanted everyone to have an opportunity to suggest what should go into it. We were therefore a tad disappointed when the hon. Lady asked what had kept us so long from bringing the Bill before the House. I assure the hon. Lady that we were not resting on our laurels; we were consulting and we will do that on the guidance, too. We will consult extensively, not only with those to whom the guidance will apply, but with all the other people who might not be brought within the Act but whom we want to participate. We want everybody to understand what is going to happen. Families, friends and organisations will know because they will have heard the discussions about the consultation. They will know that the change is happening and that they may have a role to play. It is important to get that right and it is important to consult on it. It is no good achieving a state of perfection in Committee and in legislation unless we also achieve change on the ground.

As for the conclusion of reviews, it will probably depend case by case, but I think that the hon. Lady is right that, even where the agencies have discussed something, evidence may come up in a criminal case that of which they had not been aware and which changes their understanding of the situation and their conclusion. I do not think that, once concluded, reviews will be put on the shelf. The agencies will be expected to learn lessons from the moment that they start discussions. If there are further lessons to be learned, they will have to be fed back into the review process.

The hon. Lady asked about Scotland. She was absolutely right—not having people to brief her or organise her research is not doing her any harm because she made a very good point. People go backwards and forwards across the border and, if the homicide occurs in England or Wales, there will be questions about information that may have arisen in Scotland, and vice versa. Next month—and, if not, in September—representatives of the Crown Prosecution Service and I will discuss with my good friend and colleague the Solicitor-General for Scotland, Elish Angiolini, her colleagues and various agencies how we work across the border not only on domestic homicides and the reviews thereafter, but on many issues.

A number of points were raised about the cultural aspects of the cases in question. It is important that people do not shrink from that issue, as it needs to be considered and understood. There needs to be greater understanding of the extra difficulties for victims who come from abroad, have no friends or family, do not speak from English, or do not go out to work but stay in the household. The lesson that agencies need to

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learn from victims in that situation is that they need to be extra alert and that they must seize the opportunity to help people who might have difficulty escaping from domestic violence.

In relation to the perpetrator, I think that we should have no sensitivity at all to the cultural aspect. Grievous bodily harm is grievous bodily harm, whether it takes place in an Irish household, a white middle-class household, an Asian household or an African household. Whether the crime is manslaughter, murder or malicious wounding, the penalty for all perpetrators must be the same. The law must apply equally to everybody. We have no cultural sensitivity to the perpetrator, but we have exceptional cultural sensitivity to the victim to help us understand how we can protect victims in the future.

In the homicide reviews carried out during the last two years in London, the Metropolitan police have identified six risk factors. Of those, family honour being at issue is one of the risk factors for homicide reviews, so they are making it clear to the police in London that they must be alert to that and respond to the issue positively rather than feeling that they do not know how to handle the situation.

3.30 pm

Sandra Gidley: Is that the same risk assessment that, when used retrospectively, showed that two murders had been assessed as low risk? Does the right hon. Lady accept that there may be a danger that while it is easy to spot the high risk, it could be easy to become complacent about the low risk and that we must guard against that?

The Solicitor-General: Obviously, one of the review's purposes is to identify and to try to distinguish those cases in which there is a serious risk of escalation. I will get to what those factors are and where there is a very high risk. I have referred briefly to the cultural aspects.

A number of colleagues asked how lessons are to be learned. If all the agencies sit down with the voluntary sector and talk about a case, and the GP, the representative from A and E and someone from the school comes and the police and the prosecutors are present, people will immediately learn in terms of how they work together. The very fact of having the review is therefore a step forward from where we are now, which is that everyone disappears and no one comes together.

Mrs. Cryer: As the Solicitor-General said, when we set up domestic homicide reviews, we will all sit around a table and talk about cases? Would that have included Heshu's lecturers from her college of further education, because they are not part of the local authority?

The Solicitor-General: It absolutely would. That needs to be made widely known when a review is being conducted so that there will be two aspects: first, people have to see whether they have any knowledge of the family or the circumstances; secondly, others might be aware that they have something to contribute to the review but are not one of the agencies. As my hon. Friend said, at that point they have the

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opportunity to say, ''I know that you're having a review on this and I would like to say that you might not have known that she came to see her tutor.'' All the people invited to participate in a review should come forward.

Those who have not been invited, possibly because people did not know that they had had any involvement, need to be made aware, by its being made widely known that there is a review, so that those who are not directed to come forward can do so and give their information to the review. That might mean a trade union representative from a woman's workplace: the employee may have said to her trade union representative, ''I daren't say that I'm off sick again but I can't face coming in because I have to go and see the doctor about my broken rib.'' There are all sorts of circumstances.

Lessons will be learned by people getting together and discussing matters. Partnership working is extremely important. Hon. Members have said that one of the objectives of learning lessons is to deal with the frustration and despair of bereaved relatives who think that what has happened to them could happen all over again. It helps if there is an element of restorative justice. I remember a domestic homicide case in which the relatives wanted the law changed on provocation. The woman had been killed because she said to her husband that she had feelings for a karate instructor, and he was convicted not of murder but of manslaughter by reason of provocation. People think that even if they can never bring back the person they have lost, they want lessons to be learned and things to move forward. The domestic homicide reviews will contribute towards that.

Mrs. Gillan: The restorative justice element is exceedingly important. Given that a coroner's hearing is held in public, is it the Government's thinking that there would be public pronouncements on the reviews? Would the findings be publicly available?

 
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