Select Committee on Home Affairs Sixth Report




Summary of Home Affairs Committee eConsultation on Domestic Violence, Forced Marriage and "Honour"-Based Violence

The Committee's Domestic Violence inquiry and eConsultation

On 26 July 2007 the Home Affairs Committee announced its intention to conduct a broad-ranging inquiry into domestic violence, including so-called "honour" killings and forced marriage. The full terms of reference of the inquiry can be found at paragraph 1 of the Home Affairs Committee report on Domestic Violence, Forced Marriage and "Honour"-Based Violence.

As part of its overall inquiry the Committee decided[436] to conduct an eConsultation in order to engage a wider cross-section of the public and interested groups than would be possible through the gathering of written and oral evidence alone. In particular, the Committee wanted to hear directly from victims and survivors of domestic violence, so-called "honour"-based violence and forced marriage.

This summary outlines the aims, design, publicity and implementation of the eConsultation. It also describes key data relating to the participants and the numbers of postings. The postings made by respondents to the eConsultation, grouped and analysed under common themes, are contained in the volume of evidence published with this report.

The purpose and value of the eConsultation

Select committees typically collate formal written and oral evidence from interested parties in conducting their inquiries, but this process does not always ensure that the general public make their views known. Evaluation of an online consultation run in 2000 with victims of domestic violence concluded that:

Parliamentary committees, in their vital work of holding Government accountable, hear a good deal of evidence from 'expert witnesses', many of whom have close contact with wider sections of the public, but sometimes what is lacking from that evidence is the direct voice of the public, telling their own particular stories and conveying the mass of expertise that resides outside of political institutions.[437]

The use of online fora to address this gap was endorsed by Parliament's Modernisation Committee in its report, Connecting Parliament with the Public. The Modernisation Committee noted that:

The greater use of online consultation is a good way for Parliament to take account of the views of the wider public...We urge select committees and joint committees considering draft legislation to make online consultation a more regular aspect of their work.[438]

The Committee considered that an eConsultation would add particular value to this inquiry owing to the often secretive nature of domestic abuse. The Parliamentary All-Party Group on Domestic Violence had previously run two successful fora on domestic violence. Womenspeak, aimed at the victims of domestic violence, was run in association with the Hansard Society in March 2000. This was followed by Kidspeak in June 2007 which was run by Women's Aid and targeted children and young people affected by domestic violence.

The Committee was aware that domestic violence, forced marriage and "honour"-based violence are extremely sensitive and difficult issues to talk about. In the case of forced marriage particularly, many people involved do not want their identity, or that of their families, to be known, and indeed could be in real danger if they were publicly identified. The Committee therefore designed its eConsultation very carefully, in order to enable victims and survivors to share their views safely but without having to identify themselves. Their contributions could then be drawn on to illustrate particular issues raised in our overall inquiry, adding to the evidence from informal private sessions and formal evidence sessions with survivors.

The aim of the eConsultation was to receive testimony from people who were currently experiencing, or had in the past experienced, any kind of domestic abuse, whether physical, emotional, sexual or psychological abuse, and whether by a relative, spouse or partner. The web forum was designed to encourage them, and their close friends and family, to discuss their experiences, especially with regard to support from statutory and non-statutory services, gaps in service provision and the effectiveness of current legislation and related government initiatives.

Although responses were primarily sought from victims and survivors, professionals in services which deal with victims of domestic violence were also targeted. In particular, the Committee wished to hear the perspectives of health, housing, criminal justice and social services professionals and their assessment of current service provision. The involvement of all these statutory services is vital to a successful response to domestic violence, but it was not clear how effective these services currently are at identifying and working together to tackle the issue.

The Womenspeak consultation in 2000 ran for four weeks. Feedback from those who managed that, and similar, consultations suggested that this was too short to gather a full range of contributions. Other select committees which had run online consultations recommended six weeks as the optimum time. It was therefore decided that the eConsultation would run for 6 weeks, from 21st January 2008 to 29th February 2008. The site was accordingly established at

Site structure and development

Parliamentary webcentre staff have previous experience of designing and running online consultations for select committees. Accordingly, the webcentre staff took responsibility for co-ordinating the construction and technical design of the site. The Committee's eConsultation represented a change from past parliamentary web fora because of the need to protect the identity of respondents and overcome any reluctance to be involved in consultation that could exacerbate current abuse or identify them or their location to an ex-partner. The key to success would therefore be in ensuring that the forum used all available techniques to promote confidentiality, and explaining this as explicitly as possible to provide reassurance.

In considering these challenges full use was made of the evaluation report from the Womenspeak online consultation in 2000. In addition a consultative meeting was held with Tempero, a commercial organisation which provides moderation on forums for private and public sector organisations. Tempero moderated the Kidspeak online consultation and has particular expertise in dealing with sensitive issues relating to vulnerable people and confidentiality.

Committee staff carefully devised the content and background information for the website, in consultation with the consultation specialist adviser, Dr Nazia Khanum, the inquiry specialist advisers, Davina James-Hanman and Professor Marianne Hester, and a legal adviser from the House of Commons Legal Services Office. Committee staff also worked closely with the parliamentary webcentre staff, who adapted the pre-existing template for parliamentary web-based consultations to create a dedicated online platform to suit the particular purposes of our eConsultation.

A number of specific design features were devised to reassure participants about confidentiality, and efforts were made to make the site look less formal than other parliamentary web pages by using adding a colourful logo unique to the consultation. The weblink for the site deliberately did not specifically refer to domestic violence.

The forum front page consisted of a welcome from the Chairman of the Committee, Rt. Hon. Keith Vaz MP, and from Margaret Moran MP, a member of the Committee. This introductory page contained clear information about what the forum was for and how the information gathered would be used by the Committee.

Also on the front page were simple guidelines on confidentiality and anonymity with links to a number of other pages which gave fuller information including:

an 'advice and support' section with contact information about victim support agencies to signpost readers and contributors in need of help;

explicit reference to the privacy rules and confidentiality policy which were displayed prominently on the front page to reassure users; and

a 'covering your tracks' page with clear information on how to delete the internet history and cache so that use of the site could not be later detected.

There was also a 'quick exit' button on every page, which linked directly to the BBC website home page, so that anyone afraid of being discovered using the site could quickly hide it.

The consultation itself was designed around four key themes which, when clicked on, took the user into the list of postings relating to that theme. Participants were asked to focus their comments around the following questions:

a)  Do victims of domestic violence receive the support they need from public and voluntary sector organisations?

b)  Are there adequate support services for people who are forced into marriage against their will?

c)  What single action would most improve the lives of victims and survivors of all forms of domestic violence?

d)  Are victims of "honour-based" violence helped by public and voluntary sector agencies?

To initiate the debate, Committee staff asked several additional questions under each of the broader headings (see annex). Contributors to the consultation were able to read posts under each of the questions, and then register to reply to existing postings or add their own comments.


Changes were made to the registration process in order to protect the identity of participants. Womenspeak required users to pre-register and be issued with a secure password. This was considered for the eConsultation, but it was felt that such a system would not prevent others from acquiring a password and contributing if they wished to. It would have required a great deal more run-in time to organise registration, and would have been very resource-intensive. There was also some concern that the additional bureaucracy and pre-organisation required, including the period of time between registering and being able to contribute, might discourage participation.

Users were asked to register the first time they used the site, and were prompted to choose a username and password. The registration guidance stated that the username provided must be anonymous (e.g. "Claire1") and the selection of usernames was checked by moderators. Most consultations typically gather basic background information about those registering, such as email address, age, gender or ethnicity. However for the purposes of this eConsultation users were not asked for any personal or contact details at all. It was felt that gathering such information might risk putting vulnerable users off registering for the site and the benefit to the Committee of having such information would not offset this disadvantage. Those registering were, however, given the option to state which of several categories they most identified. These categories were:

a)  Victim of domestic violence

b)  Victim of forced marriage

c)  Victim of "honour"-based violence

d)  Family or friend of a victim

e)  Abuser

f)  Professional stakeholder

g)  Rather not say

h)  Other

To prevent any trail from the website, webcentre staff temporarily removed the standard function on the eConsultation software which sends an automated email response to every user at the point of registration. The loss of email functionality had implications for other eConsultations running at the same time.

Almost three-quarters of participants in Womenspeak said in a follow up questionnaire that the interaction with Members of Parliament had made a difference to their participation. Members of the Home Affairs Committee were therefore keen to take part in the consultation by posting on the forum, to stimulate debate and steer discussion onto the key inquiry questions. It was also important for Members to demonstrate to participants that they were listening to and learning from the responses. All Committee Members were provided with a password and username so that they could log-in and post comments on the forum. The Member's picture appeared beside their posting.

IT access and computer literacy

Access to computers and IT literacy was a major concern for Womenspeak in 2000. Fewer than half of the women who participated were previously familiar with IT. However in 2008, eight years on, rates of general IT and internet literacy are far higher. According to the Family Spending Survey 2007,[439] 59% of households now have an internet connection, compared to 19% in 1999/2000. There are some disparities in the use of the internet by gender, age and ethnicity. Men are more likely to access the internet than women (65 per cent compared with 55 per cent in the last three months respectively). There is also a large divide between the young and the old, with 83 per cent of the 16 to 24 age group accessing the Internet within 3 months prior to interview, compared with 15 per cent of the 65+ age group. Research by Ofcom on media literacy suggests that home access to the internet is higher among minority ethnic groups (64%) than among the UK population overall (54%).[440]

eConsultation publicity gave advice on where participants could get online and drew attention to the safeguarding aspects of the site to encourage victims to participate. The adaptations which were made to protect the identity of participants meant that there were limitations to the extent to which participants could be contacted to be given IT support. As with other parliamentary eConsultations, IT support was available from the parliamentary webcentre via email and the site was adapted to ensure that participants were told that they would be contacted via email if they sought help in this way. Access to IT support was therefore limited to those who felt safe revealing their email addresses. Support organisations were encouraged to facilitate access to the eConsultation and provide IT support, or access to computers, where possible.

eQuality Networks provided a telephone helpline for those wishing to participate, through which respondents could access advice and support in registering and commenting on the eConsultation.


The key to running a successful online consultation lies in raising awareness amongst potential participants in sufficient time to encourage a good level of participation. A range of media were used to advertise the eConsultation in the two months before it opened and publicity was continued while the site was live.

Targeted advertising took place with stakeholders during December and January. Efforts were made to use "snowballing" techniques to reach victims and survivors by identifying key national networks, specialist support organisations, interest groups and other relevant organisations including local authorities, health authorities, education authorities, Citizens Advice Bureaux etc. A list of contacts was generated by existing contacts and a web search to find organisations which specialised in supporting particular groups including men, LGBT, disabled and BME victims.

There is no national network for forced marriage and honour-based violence but there are several well known organisations dealing specifically with these issues which work with the Government at a national level and have extensive contacts. Victims and survivors were contacted via these organisations and through the Forced Marriage Unit. Efforts were also made to contact victims via a bespoke website developed by eQuality Networks and supported by the specialist adviser to the eConsultation.

These stakeholders were contacted via telephone and email by committee staff to provide details of the consultation and outline the measures taken to safeguard participants. They were encouraged to publicise the eConsultation as widely as possible and given examples of how they could do this, including making use of their networks, distributing flyers and displaying posters, and by promoting the web link on their websites, e-bulletins, newsletters and blogs. A full list of organisations is available at Appendix 1, p 163.

Committee staff designed posters and flyers, branded with the logo used on the site, which could be used by support organisations to publicise the eConsultation. These were sent to stakeholder organisations on request. eQuality Networks produced their own poster to publicise the consultation, which was available for download via its website.

Press notices were released at the point of commencement of the eConsultation and while it was running. The eConsultation was successful in attracting significant coverage from television, radio and the press. This included pieces on GMTV, Channel 4 news, local BBC news and radio, BBC Radio 4 Today programme and an article in the Guardian newspaper. Publicity for the eConsultation was also generated through press interest in the Committee's wider inquiry.

Data were collected about the websites through which observers and participants had accessed the eConsultation site. These show that publicity through stakeholder organisations was a successful method of raising awareness of the forum, and are summarised in the following table:

Access point 

Number of hits 

Home Affairs Committee homepage 


Women's Aid 




EQuality Networks 


Foreign and Commonwealth Office 




Fawcett Society 




Management and moderation

In advance of the eConsultation, committee staff worked with the eConsultation specialist adviser and inquiry specialist advisers to identify any particular themes or forms of words which might carry need to be located with particular care. Advisers suggested that, in general, those posting responses would be quite careful about revealing information which could personally identify them. They felt that most perpetrators would have easier ways of finding their ex-partners than via the eConsultation and that, although it may conceivably have been possible for perpetrators to identify victims through their descriptions of what happened, there would be no information by which they could trace the victims.

Guidance notes were produced for moderators which highlighted particular information that should be monitored and edited if necessary. This included names, ages, contact and geographical location details of respondents and support services, potentially defamatory comments about services and comments that could influence on-going or forthcoming court proceedings (contempt of court) or break a court injunction.

The parliamentary webcentre also provided training in forum moderation, and additional support was available from staff of the Committee Office Scrutiny Unit, which had developed expertise in moderating forums for other select committees.

Facilitation of moderation by committee staff

The forum was pre-moderated, with three inquiry staff reading and approving all messages which had been submitted before they were posted on the site. Pre-moderation was crucial, principally for protecting the anonymity of posters, an especially important principle with vulnerable participants. Any information on postings which could potentially identify users (e.g. geographical references, ages of children, specific details of court cases etc) was edited. Where real names had been used messages were posted as anonymous. Messages were also checked to ensure that the basic discussion rules were adhered to. Unlike other parliamentary forums, moderators were unable to contact users with a request to choose an anonymous name, or with an explanation of why postings had been edited or not posted for breaching confidentiality or other discussion rules.

A time limit for posting was given with the aim that all comments would be moderated within 24 hours of posting. In practice this was not always possible due to safeguarding needs and time required to check postings with advisers. One week into the consultation period, having made an assessment of the number and frequency of postings, it was decided that postings would be moderated twice daily at 10am and 4pm and not over weekends.

The specialist advisers were on hand during the active part of the inquiry to offer advice on particular messages. They provided valuable input on monitoring discussion and themes, particularly on identifying any 'cries for help' and ensuring that postings were anonymised sufficiently for respondents not to be identifiable. Moderators were also able to consult, by pre-arrangement, other experts in domestic violence and forced marriage.

The Committee Office Scrutiny Unit and Tempero were on standby to provide additional moderators at short notice in the event that the site was overwhelmed with postings, although in the event this was not necessary.

Moderators were able to make postings on the site in order to respond to queries or encourage debate. In practice there was limited need for moderators to post such messages, although one was made to signpost a respondent to support services re: cries for help. Three postings were reported to moderators by one complainant who felt that they were sexist because they implied that domestic violence is perpetrated only by men against women. The postings concerned were not removed from the site because they did not break the discussion rules. They referred to the support required by women who experience domestic violence and did not explicitly deny that women are also perpetrators.

Committee staff compiled weekly summaries of the postings which were presented, and circulated, to Committee Members.

Profile of respondents

The decision not to collect personal data in the interests of safeguarding the identity of respondents meant that little was known about the characteristics of participants. What data was collected is summarised in the following paragraphs.

In total, 238 people registered to take part in the eConsultation, including three moderators, one administrator and all thirteen then members of the Committee. At the point of registration, participants were asked to categorise themselves according to their interest in the consultation. This is illustrated in the table below (excluding the moderators, administrator and Members):

Interest in consultation 

Number of registered users 

Victim of domestic violence 


Victim of forced marriage 

Victim of honour based violence 

Family or friend of a victim 



Professional stakeholder 


Rather not say 






Of those who had registered, 130 individuals posted a total of 245 messages on the site, including moderators and MPs. Of these:

104 were posted on the domestic violence page, including 2 from moderators and 3 from Members

34 were posted on the forced marriage page, including 1 from a moderator and 6 from Members

20 were posted on the honour based violence page, including 1 from a moderator and 2 from Members

87 were posted on the single action page, including 1 from a moderator and 2 from Members

The table below shows that half of the contributors posted more than one message, and some made as many as six or more contributions:

Number of postings 

Number of posters 









Six or more 



Nine Committee Members, including the Chairman, posted a total of 13 messages. The Chairman also submitted an announcement when the forum closed thanking contributors for their participation.

The 245 postings received through the eConsultation generated a large amount of qualitative data which was analysed manually to extract the key themes and identify relevant material. This analysis is contained in the volume of evidence published with this report.


436   In October 2007 Back

437   Hansard Society Womenspeak Domestic Violence Consultation report, p2 Back

438   Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons, Connecting Parliament with the Public, First Report of Session 2003-04, HC 368, Recommendations 13-14 Back

439   Office for National Statistics (2008) Back

440  Ref



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