Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill [Lords]

[back to previous text]

The Solicitor-General: Although I have said that there will be consultation on the guidance, I do not think that it is proposed that the reviews should be held in public. We do not want lessons to be learned just by those sitting round the table, however; we want them to be learned more widely. There is the question of how to draw to one side sensitive information that might involve identification, or confidential information relating to people who are still alive, so that that can happen. Certainly, we need to ensure that lessons can be brought to Ministers' attention, and that they can make what they learn public without treading on sensitive, personal matters. Matters warrant that description not because they relate to the protection of the reputation of agencies, but because they relate to people who are still alive and entitled to confidentiality.

On confidentiality, I do not think that data protection is the problem, because the Data Protection Act 1998 allows information to be shared when it is for the avoidance of crime. The legislation is sufficiently wide. However, professional confidentiality

Column Number: 140

is a major problem. Different professions have a different sense of the confidentiality requirement—and not just in the context of people in the family who are still alive: some professionals believe that they must protect the confidentiality of somebody even after that person has been killed. We have had situations in which somebody has said that she went to her GP six times, but the GP will not tell us what happened because it is confidential. Others will say, ''She might have had a right to confidentiality, but now she is dead, and we want the opportunity to learn lessons.''

The issues of professional confidentiality and the obligation to disclose are very difficult and are at the heart of this subject, as they are at the heart of child protection. A great deal of work is taking place in the Home Office, between Departments, and between professional organisations on how to resolve the obligation to disclose and the obligation to maintain confidentiality. In addition, the president of the family division, Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, and I are chairing a working party on the disclosure and exchange of information between the civil jurisdiction of the family courts and the criminal courts. We are working on that issue all the time.

Everybody needs to ask themselves the question, ''What in my judgment is the best thing to do in this case? Should I keep things secret because of my professional confidentiality? Or is it worse to keep a secret when it might put somebody in more danger?'' The important thing is for people to feel that they are confident about making judgments in each and every case. I know that that is much easier said than done.

The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham raised the question of costs and mentioned the regulatory impact statement. In Cardiff, it was estimated that the external consultant cost £6,000, but that was quite apart from all the extra work that the agencies had to put in. When I was in Walsall last week, the West Midlands police told me that they anticipated that any review that they led would be part of their mainstream work. The review is about learning lessons and risk prevention, and so they would expect it to be a good opportunity to have the wash-up that they would have anyway, and get other agencies in. When I asked the Crown Prosecution Service to carry out a review after a domestic homicide, it wrote to all the agencies and asked them to write back with what they knew. It then held one meeting. We will have to see how things go. I do not think that there will be a national blueprint. We have some examples from the Metropolitan police, one from Cardiff and one or two from other areas. We will have to determine which models are best.

It is difficult to identify the cost, as there will be great variation. Depending on the complexity of the case, the review might not be a high-cost activity. On the other hand, it could be extremely costly. We will just have to consider each one. It is difficult to come up with an average, because the cost will depend on the case and on how local people organise the review. We will put the overarching framework in guidance, but we want people to work out at local level how best to put it into practice.

Column Number: 141

Mrs. Gillan: I appreciate that the proposal is embryonic and that we are moving towards the framework and the ultimate guidance, on which the Solicitor-General will consult. However, I want to satisfy myself that there will not be financial impediments to thorough reviews. It goes without saying that many organisations, particularly local authorities and police authorities, believe that they are short of money. If the Secretary of State were to authorise a particularly complex, large and costly review to be carried out with, say, a local authority taking the lead, I would not want there to be a financial barrier. Instead, I would hope that the Home Office or some other Department would offer a financial resource on which that body could draw. Otherwise, the review might be found wanting because of its excessive cost. That was the sort of assurance I was seeking from the Solicitor-General. I do not think that it is unreasonable.

The Solicitor-General: For the most part, the reviews are not about people looking for new information but about people getting together and sharing information about their involvement; that will be the nature of the reviews. I agree with the hon. Lady when she says that the aim is to spend to save. Investing people's time after a homicide will save lives, but the estimate is that it will also save money. The idea is to learn lessons and intervene earlier, and to identify risk factors and stop their escalating. The analysis done by Cardiff shows that earlier intervention saves repeat calls to the police and repeat victimisation. We are not yet clear on what the costs or savings will be; we will have to keep an eye on that.

It was said at one point that only the Home Secretary will be able to initiate reviews. That is not the case. Only the Home Secretary can direct, but anyone can initiate. For the most part, the Home Secretary will not direct, because someone somewhere in the local system will have said, ''We need a review.'' It would be depressing if, having established that that was the way in which people should go about it, that does not happen and the Home Secretary has to direct. Anyone can initiate a review, whether or not they are one of the organisations identified in the Bill.

3.45 pm

My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) mentioned the role of the voluntary sector and told the Committee that the review in Cardiff was carried out by the NSPCC and the police. I pay tribute to their conduct of the review, which I have considered and examined thoroughly. Under this legislation, anyone can take the lead in such a review. If it were a wildly inappropriate choice, the Home Secretary might direct somebody else to take the lead, but we do not expect that. Where voluntary agencies are well placed to take the lead, are trusted by the all other agencies and are the preferred option, they might take the lead on their own, or in partnership with a statutory agency as happened in Cardiff.

My hon. Friend also said that statutory agencies have larger budgets. We are talking about 130 cases a year, which is not a huge number. For a police force, that might take a relatively small proportion of their

Column Number: 142

overall budget, but for a small voluntary organisation, such as Victim Support in a small town, the cost might be a huge issue if it participated or took the lead. Voluntary bodies are financed in many different ways by many different organisations, and we shall have to see how we respond to ensure that they play their part. It is essential that Victim Support, Women's Aid, women's groups and other community groups that might have a role to play in these reviews can come forward and not be restricted by money.

Mr. Walter: I am slightly confused. The Bill contains a list of the bodies that can participate in the reviews, but the Solicitor-General is saying that anybody can initiate a review. What status would the review have if it were not conducted by one of the bodies on the list?

The Solicitor-General: If the local agencies felt that a review was necessary in a domestic homicide case and they all thought that the local NSPCC, which is not listed in the clause, was the best body to lead it, that could be decided. The clause is about the Home Secretary's powers to direct, so it is not exclusive. Anybody can initiate a review and any organisation can lead it. It is simply a question of whether the Home Secretary can direct. He is only directing the organisations in the list, although he might be able to amend it if need be.

The hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) mentioned the Greater London domestic violence project. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to it and, in particular, to Davina James-Hanman and all who work in it. They have done a great deal of work, especially with the Metropolitan police, who have stepped forward on this issue in a way that would have been inconceivable 10 or 15 years ago. I am not sure what the hon. Lady was quoting from, because I did not recognise it.

Sandra Gidley: I was quoting from that organisation's submission to ''Safety and Justice''.

The Solicitor-General: I think that the project does fantastic work, but the risk assessment that emerged from the Metropolitan police reviews of domestic homicides in London identified six risk factors. We all spend a lot of time thinking about domestic violence and most of us here are well informed about domestic violence. If I asked members of the Committee and you, Mr. Benton, to name the six risk factors for domestic homicide, we would probably quickly produce the same list, but the system has to understand those risk factors and we have to build an objective case for them.

One of the six risk factors—the times when women are particularly vulnerable—is pregnancy or a new baby. It is depressing that that should be one of the risk factors. Another is honour killings, which I have already mentioned. Another is if stalking or sexual offending is involved. Another dangerous time is around separation or divorce. A fifth is where there is repeat violence that is escalating in severity. I cannot remember the sixth.

If we were asked to guess the risk factors, we might guess those correctly, but we have to institutionalise an understanding and ensure that it is rational and

Column Number: 143

objective. We all have a hunch: we could all say, ''Oh, we know that anyway''. But the system does not know it, and we do not know it with any objectivity. It is important that we try scientifically to identify risk. Family and friends need to know that a review is taking place and they need to be able to contribute. I have said already that there will not be a national blueprint about who could lead the review, but it could be done from the voluntary or health sector.

Coroners are likely to come into the picture only after a homicide. The reviews are for the agencies to understand what they could have done before the homicide. However, to the extent that coroners might receive information that may not have appeared anywhere else in the system, it will be important to work out how such information can be shared with the homicide review. I will look into how we shall ensure that that channel of communication is open.

I hope that I have dealt with the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) about people who want to step forward. The point is that we must make it known that the review is taking place so that people who are not under direction know that they can participate.

The hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) asked why the Home Secretary would need to amend the list. There are two reasons. First, definitions change and names change; the National Offender Management Service may change the name of local probation boards. We can be certain that most of the names in the list will change shortly. Secondly, organisational structures also change; we are seeing that in relation to children. Sometimes the substance of an organisation will change. We may have missed something obvious from the list, which we will work out later on.

I have answered the question about who can trigger a review: anyone can.

I was asked about social services. They come under local authorities. We have not specially mentioned them, but they need to be especially involved. They will be important contributors to the reviews not on all, but on many occasions.

Although we have been discussing the awful issue of people being killed, usually by a husband or boyfriend or former husband or boyfriend, and the awful issue of children being killed at the same time as domestic violence takes place, we can be optimistic that we can help and that clause 7 will be part of helping to bring about a culture change so that we do not just wring our hands and say, ''Domestic violence: well, it's been going on since Moses came down from the mountain, and there's nothing we can do about it,'' and walk away.

We in the Committee all feel that domestic violence is something that should not happen in the 21st century, and we cannot let it continue unchallenged. The clause is part of the carrying out of the report's conclusions. For many people, it has been a surprise to hear that two women are killed every week, and they say, ''Good heavens, is it really

Column Number: 144

two?'' As a result of domestic homicide reviews, they will know not only that two women are killed but the circumstances in which they were killed, and they might think about how they, too, could be part of preventing that. The reviews will be important as part of the culture change in the country and will create change in the agencies, so that everybody feels that they have a role to play in the prevention of escalation. We need to prevent the escalation of violence, which leads to so many tragic—and, many now believe—preventable deaths.

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2004
Prepared 24 June 2004