This week we scored a rare and wonderful victory. I’ve been so moved and motivated by meeting victims of domestic abuse by the fact that so many are cross-examined by their convicted abusers in family court. It is a grotesque perversion of the justice system.
Back in September I co-sponsored a Commons debate on domestic abuse where I raised this issue. After that I began working with 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 is happening in family courts.
The result was a series of Guardian front page stories over the Christmas period which informed the public for the first time the impact that this terrible problem was having on abuse survivors. Incidentally, this affects women and men and people in same-sex unions, Government, as they do, panicked in the face of this publicity and ‘an anonymous source’ said the minister would do 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 wasn’t hopeful. I’ve applied six times before (for trains) but never been given it, but I was amazing and totally over-the-moon to get the call saying the Speaker had granted me the ‘UQ’.
I’ve posted the video of my UQ and the minister’s response. What you don’t see here is that also a couple of dozen MP’s also came into the chamber to support me and ask follow-up questions. I had worked hard to inform MP’s what I was trying to achieve even though I only had an hours notice. And there are a lot of MPs who have been campaigning on this for a long time, like Angela Smith, Jess Phillips and also Conservative MP Maria Miller.
And here’s the good news: By the end of the session the government had agreed that cross-examination of victims by their convicted 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!
There is much, much more to do and I’m not saying that everything in the family court and the way we deal with abuse will be fine. It will not. We must do so much more to spot and intervene on abusive relationships, more to support victims whatever their gender or circumstance, and we must fight to get Legal Aid reinstated so poor and vulnerable people have the protection of the law and are not disadvantaged by it. But this is a brilliant first step.
It also shows what politics is all 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 (thank you Rise and Woman Aid) we can get the law changed and make life better for those who need it most.
This was a good week and a good start to the year. Thanks so much for reading and contributing to this page, I really do wish you a very Happy New Year. All the best, Peter