The very first person who turned to me for help when I became and MP was a woman who had just fled her abusive relationship and felt that she had nowhere else to turn. Since becoming an MP I have had the chance to meet, support, and listen too many people who have endured unimaginable horror within their own home and each one rocks me to my core. It is mostly, but not always women what I have met and who have suffered.
There was one aspect of abuse that surprised me the most and it was one that I had no previous knowledge of. This is how the family courts are being used by convicted rapists and abusers to continue their brutalisation of extremely vulnerable women. In criminal court, people convicted of a crime cannot represent themselves and cross examine their victims. This is for very obvious reasons. But in the family court this is not the case. They can and it is an unvarnished and unrelenting nightmare for all those who have to suffer it.
What is worse, due to the almost total cut to legal aid, more and more abuse survivors have no choice but to defend themselves without any representation at all. I was angry to the point of fury about this. And, as I said in my speech, I was ashamed that I got to this age before knowing this was happening within our own legal system.
That said, this year we scored a rare and wonderful victory. Back in September 2016 I co-sponsored a Commons debate on domestic abuse where I raised this issue. After that I began working with the fantastic Guardian Journalist Sandra Laville to uncover the full horror of what was happening. My team in Hove, including Stella who leads on our casework, were also very involved so we could fully expose what was happening in family courts.
The result was a series of Guardian front page stories over Christmas which informed the public for the first time the impact that this terrible problem was having on abuse survivors. Incidentally this affects men and women in same sex unions too. The Government, as they do, panicked in the face of this publicity and an ‘anonymous source’ said that the minister would so something.
So I wrote to Speaker Bercow and asked him to grant me an ‘Urgent Question’ this is where an MP can summons a minister to the commons to answer an Urgent and pressing issue. It’s pretty rare to be granted an urgent question and as it was the first day back after Christmas I was not hopeful. I’ve applied 6 times before (for trains!) but never been given it, but it was amazing and I was totally over the moon to get the call saying the speaker had granted me the UQ
And here’s the good news: by the end of the session the government had agreed that cross examination of victims by their abusers will be ended. They agreed to a review that will be concluded by Easter, and they agreed to introduce primary legislation to outlaw the practice. In short the law will be changed and it will be done soon. Our campaign on this specific point has won!
It also showed what politics is about: listening to people, caring for them, and acting to make a change. Change can come, it is possible, and by working together as a group with abuse survivors, myself as MP, Journalists and frontline abuse support groups (thankyou Rise and Woman Aid), we can get the law Changed and make life better for those who need it most.