Parliament is a pretty odd place at the best of times but right now it’s surreal. Govt keep changing their minds on how we vote, how we speak, and what parliament can do to hold them to account.
At one point I had to intervene on a Tory MP who was ranting in the chamber that there were few opposition MP’s on the benches, ‘why’ he was asking? I listed a series of MP’s who desperately wanted to participate in debates but weren’t able because govt instructed them to stay home for public health reasons and then forbade them from speaking via video link. That is why they weren’t there! See what I mean…surreal! We’re being shouted at in parliament for doing what government is instructing us to do!
So despite this madness I’ve been trying my very best to get stuck in on the big issues.
My life for the last month has been dominated by the Domestic Abuse bill. As I’m shadow minister in the Justice team now, that also means that I play a formal role in steering new laws through parliament.
To make a law in this country, it must have its ‘second reading’ which is usually the big bust-up over legislation that makes it to the news. After that it goes to the ‘committee stage’ where a group of MP’s from each party (proportionate to the political make-up of the Commons) heads to a committee room and we begin to scrutinise the new law line-by-line.
We do this for six hours per day, three days per week. For every small section of the bill, government ministers explain why they think it works, then shadow ministers explain why they either support, oppose, or want to change it. Often we have amendments tabled against it that we try and win support for. We can call a vote any time on our amendments. As you can imagine, its really tiring as you have to make loads and loads of speeches every day and the debate can rage too-and-fro on some issues for a long time and in huge detail – sometimes debate can last for an hour over use of just one word. But when it comes to making a law a single word can be hugely important.
The Domestic Abuse Bill is a good law. It creates a new commissioner to give voice to victims and survivors. It gives new powers to police, and reforms some of the ways family courts operate to make them fairer and less harmful to victims.
We support much of this but there were key things we wanted to change for the better. Jess Philips and I were the shadow ministers speaking for the opposition. We sought to give extra rights to migrant women who are excluded from protection under this bill. This means that someone who is here legally, is working and married to a Briton but awaiting their citizenship to be processed does not have any right to protection or support under our law should they suffer violence or abuse. The police could intervene but could not refer them to a refuge as there is no funding for counselling, legal support, or anything else.
The new commissioner for domestic abuse reports to the Home Secretary, Priti Patel. I tried to change this so the commissioner has more independence and reports directly to parliament, just like the children’s commissioner does. This is really important – not least because it is pretty odd to have a commissioner for abuse reporting to a Home Secretary for whom there are two active investigations into her abuse behaviour!
Amidst all the debate and discussion it looks like we could win some concessions from government. We want the ‘rough sex’ defence to be outlawed. This is when someone is murdered yet the perpetrator, as happened recently, claims the victim actually asked to be assaulted during sex. It is insane that this legal defence exists. Also, the rights of children in abusive families are not recognised in this bill. Even though the committee has now completed we’re still negotiating with government to make some changes before the bill moves forward.
There was one stand-out moment for me. Most of you will know that I have campaigned for changes to family courts ever since I became an MP and started to meet survivors of abuse, both women and men. It is still possible for an abuser to self-represent themselves in family court and then call your victim as a witness and then ask nasty, disturbing, and threatening questions of them. As a senior judge said, this was continuing the abuse from within court.
Three years ago, after a massive campaign and two front-page stories on the Times, government finally promised my that the law would change. The promised again and again, they even gave me the amendment, but it never quite happened.
But, here in this bill in Section 5 page 38 line 10 are the words I have longed to read. Finally, the thing I have campaigned on for so long was there in front of me, in law, and I was the shadow minister steering it through parliament…all my Christmases came at once! It was an amazing moment for me to stand and speak to it. I’ve posted a photo of the section I’m referring to, when you read it just think of all the abuse victims who will no long er face the torture of being questioned in court by their abuser thanks to that one sentence!
It doesn’t end there. Now committee stage has finished, in a few weeks time it will return to the main Commons chamber for ‘report stage’ when all MP’s will debate any changes to the bill. Jess and I will have the chance to try and amend it again at this stage by making our case to all MP’s, then on the same day it will have ‘final reading / Third Reading’ which is a short debate to wrap it up followed by a ‘yes / no’ vote of every MP.
Then it goes to the House of Lords who do the same, providing another chance for arguments to be made and changes to be made, but any changes they make must be agreed by MPs. And that’s how you make a law!
I know this sounds complex and longwinded, but bear in mind this is passing a new law that affects people’s lives and determines the circumstances we send someone to prison, so it’s worth all the minute and exhaustive effort and detail and discussion.
I may live to regret this, but if you want to follow what I say and how I vote in parliament this is the best page. It gives you all the stats on my voting and speaking record, and if you sign up it sends you regular emails letting you know the debates I speak in and exactly what I am saying in parliament on your behalf https://www.theyworkforyou.com/mp/25418/peter_kyle/hove
I’m just leaving parliament now, heading back to Hove on the train with my facemask on. I can’t wait to get back!