The very first person who turned to me for help when I became an MP was a women who had just fled her abuse relationship and wanted help moving forwards. Since then I have met many women who have survived spousal violence and each one rocks me to more core.
But there is one aspect of domestic violence that I had never before known and that is how family courts are being used by convicted rapists and abusers to continue their brutalisation of extremely vulnerable women.
That is because in the family courts convicted felons have the right to represent themselves and cross-examine witnesses. So, for example, I have met a women who’s partner brutalised, broke the bone of, and beat unconscious who was subsequently jailed for his actions but then said for custody of their child. There, in court, a convicted criminal is able to approach, ask personal questions of, and torment right under the noses of judges and police.
Now I have met so many women who are enduring this I feel ashamed that I have got to my age without knowing this is happening.
Yesterday I co-sponsored a debate on this exact subject in the House of Commons so that I could tell minister and give voice, in the record of the House of Commons, to the women I’ve met who are being abused in this way.
In preparation for the debate I also spent time meeting and listening too family members of people who have lost loved-ones to violent parters. This is the most distressing possible conversation to have but I was determined to do it because so many victims of this crime feel that no-one is listening. I wanted so much to do what I could to give them voice.
I’ve posted my speech here, it’s ten minutes long. Please listen because I give examples of brutality that is going on right here in our own community.
Normally I try to give speeches in the Commons using notes, not a script. But in this case I wanted to be precise so I could do full justice to the people who bravely told me their stories. I was also always aware that a very large number of abuse survivors were watching on TV and in the public gallery of the Commons.
Just a quick note about the Commons on a day like this. People often comment ‘why so few MP’s in such an important debate, don’t they care?’. So let me explain. There’s lots of different types of occasion in the Commons. When legislation is being passed there’s a ‘three line whip’ which means every MP has to be there (and would want to be there anyway). That’s usually on Monday and Tuesdays. We also have debates which don’t impact on laws but put pressure on the government. Most Wednesday’s we have ‘opposition day debates’ where Labour and others choose a topic to debate. There’s a three line whip on these too. If the government were to loose a vote on this they wouldn’t have to change policy or the law but there would be a lot of pressure to do so.
Then we have ‘adjournment debates’ where after the main business in the chamber finishes, a single MP, via a lottery, can have 30mins to talk about any topic and a government minister must respond. This is when you see those photos of the chamber with only 2 or 3 MP’s in it. That’s because other MP’s can’t speak but that’s not the point. Its a vehicle for us backbench MPs to get a government minister to reposed to something that is important to the MP or their constituency. Why do it in the Commons? Well it can look like a conversation between two people and lots of empty benches, but because its in the House its also on the record. It means the minister can be held to account for her or his words. If the minster lies or is wrong or misleads, then they will be held in contempt.
Yesterday we had a ‘backbench debate’. On most Thursday’s backbenchers can allocate time to other backbenchers like me to host debates. To get the time I went before a committee of MP’s and did an X-Factor-like presentation to them and after we’ve all finished they choose which ones they think deserve the time.
We were granted a three hour backbench debate on abuse in the family courts. You’ll see that there weren’t that many MP’s there but please don’t pick on them for it! In three hours only about fifteen MPs will get the chance to speak so if you aren’t one of them you’ll tend to watch on your TV in the office while doing emails, reading, and other work. And as there’s no voting on these debates there’s no ‘whip’ applied so other MPs will choose to be working in their constituencies.
I’m sorry to waffle on about process, but every time I post a clip of photo people comment on how many MPs there are there. The Commons is a funny place with lots of different types of debate. What I wanted most from this debate was to give voice to vulnerable women and to force two government minister to sit and listen and respond. You’ll be pleased to know that after my speech and those of some brilliant other MP’s (please listen to Angela Smith, Jess Phillips, and Keir Starmer too) the minister made a whole series of commitments which we weren’t expecting. So even though there weren’t loads of MPs in the chamber, it worked really well.
Please let me know what you think and please feel free to write to me if there’s anything about this that resonates with you and you’d like me to know about. Thank you so much, Peter
Here is the Link to my House of Commons Debate