Robert Buckland: More prison places, a domestic abuse bill, tougher sentences. How we’re acting on the people’s priorities.

4 May

Robert Buckland is Secretary of State for Justice, Lord Chancellor, and MP for South Swindon.

As I pound the pavements of Swindon, Birmingham and Hartlepool with fellow Conservatives, one of the key messages I hear from people is the burning need for politicians to act on their priorities.  Having been through the worst peacetime crisis in living memory, communities and families up and down our country want to share in the recovery from Covid, get those jabs as part of our world-beating vaccination programme – and get on with their lives.

The people’s priorities are our priorities, which is why, from the day that Boris Johnson became Prime Minister and asked me to be his Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor, we have relentlessly focused on delivering on our justice commitments, as we roll out our pledge to put 20,000 more police officers in place. After over 20 years of direct working experience in the system as a lawyer and part-time judge, I know what has to be done in order to help rebuild public confidence.

Immediately after taking office, we took swift action to ramp up investment in prison building, with over £2.5 billion committed to build an additional 10,000 places, now increased to over £4 billion in the latest Spending Review.

We have installed dozens of new scanners in our prisons, to help combat smuggling and crime. I took decisive steps to end automatic half-way release from prison for serious violent and sexual offenders serving sentences of more than seven years, and increased the range of offences that can be referred to the Court of Appeal for being unacceptably low.

Covid brought unprecedented challenges to the justice system, but with hard work and swift decision-making, we controlled the disease in our prisons, supported our dedicated prison staff and ensured that there was no disorder or dysfunction on the estate. We kept the courts running throughout each lockdown, and were the first in the western world to resume jury trials.

We have used remote technology to run tens of thousands of hearings every week, and have created sixty new Nightingale courtrooms to help deal with the caseload. We have made our courts safer, with investment in perspex and other measures. We have recruited over 1600 extra staff to ensure that the courts run as smoothly as possible.

This is yielding results: the caseload in the Magistrates Courts is being steadily reduced, and in the Crown Court we are now seeing more cases dealt with per week than being received. In the coming year, there will be no limit as to the days the Crown Court can sit, making it clear that our priority is to get cases done so that victims and witnesses aren’t kept waiting. The court recovery plans that I approved last year are bearing fruit, and now we plan to make permanent some of the changes brought about Covid, as we build back stronger.

We did not let the Covid crisis get in the way of the work we are doing to reform justice and to carry out our manifesto pledges. We are reforming probation, with a new national probation service being launched in June, 1000 extra probation officers and a new electronic sobriety tagging programme that is being rolled out across the country.

We have plans to revitalise unpaid work schemes, with an emphasis on visibility and real benefit to local communities. Investment in mental health treatment is being increased, so that alternatives to custody are robust and more likely to work.

During the past year, we passed vital pieces of legislation that mark the beginning of our reforms. The new Sentencing Code makes the law clearer and easier to use, reducing the number of errors and appeals. Helen’s Law is part of our reform of the Parole Board, making it mandatory for the Board to take into account when considering an application for release the applicant’s failure to tell the authorities the whereabouts of their murder victim or the identities of sexually abused victims.

We passed emergency anti-terrorism legislation in the wake of the Fishmongers Hall and Streatham atrocities in order to end automatic early release for a range of terror offences and in the new Counter Terrorism Act, we have lengthened maximum sentences for serious terror offences, created longer licence supervision periods for these offenders and reformed the TPIM (Terrorist Prevention and Investigation Measures) regime to ensure that we are doing all we can to prevent these appalling crimes from happening in the first place.

After I introduced the Domestic Abuse Bill into the Commons just after the general election jointly with the Home Secretary, it has now become law. Yet again, it is the Conservatives who are leading on the protection of the victims of abuse in the home. Those who perpetrate this abuse will no longer be able to cross-examine their victims in person in our civil and family courts, and new Domestic Abuse Prevention Orders will be available to help safeguard more families from this harm.

We have also moved to clarify the law on non-fatal strangulation, so-called “rough sex” defences, revenge pornography and coercive control offences. Conservatives have never hesitated to take decisive action on crime, and our action on domestic abuse is another reflection of this determination.

The new Police Crime Sentencing and Courts Bill, which Labour are opposing at every step, is the next stage in our reforms. We will end automatic halfway release for even more serious violent and sexual offenders, increase the maximum sentence for causing death by dangerous driving from fourteen years to life imprisonment, toughen minimum sentences for house burglary, drug trafficking and knife crime and impose whole life orders for those who commit the premeditated murder of a child. We will increase the maximum that can be imposed by way of curfew hours to further strengthen community sentences too.

Victims of crime deserve a voice, which is why I have introduced a new, clearer and simpler Victims Code which enshrines the need for proper communication and support from the police, prosecution and other agencies. We are going to consult this year on a new Victims Law to further strengthen these important rights.

As we go to the polls to elect 43 Police and Crime Commissioners in England and Wales, the message is clear: elect a Conservative PCC who will work with a Conservative Government that is investing in criminal justice and creating a new framework that will deliver on the people’s priorities.

Arminka Helic: Training on domestic abuse should be mandatory for judges hearing cases involving it. MPs can make this happen.

14 Apr

Baroness Helic is a Conservative Life peer.

For many victims of domestic abuse, the family courts simply aren’t working. Worse than that: they are being undermined and exploited by abusers, as a continuing means of control over their ex-partners. As the Domestic Abuse Bill returns to the House of Commons on Thursday 15, MPs have a chance to fix that – if they approve crucial amendments from the House of Lords.

Three examples give a sense of the problem. A judge said that a survivor “didn’t look like a victim” because she wore make-up to court. A survivor of domestic violence was ordered to respond to two emails a week from her abuser, within 48 hours for each – giving him continued access to and control over her life. One parent was taken to court 27 times in the space of five years by her abuser. Each example shows a lack of understanding and recognition of domestic abuse and coercive control – and shows how the courts can be used to continue it.

There are many cases like this – too many. The family courts’ approach to domestic abuse remains much the same as twenty years ago, and the system is stacked against survivors. The Ministry of Justice’s Harm Panel Review concluded that a “major overhaul” is needed. And it stressed the importance of detailed and specific training on domestic abuse for all participants in the family law system, reviewed by experts, and including a “cultural change programme to introduce and embed reforms”.

That is why I introduced an amendment to the Domestic Abuse Bill in the House of Lords, which makes training on domestic abuse mandatory for judges hearing cases involving abuse. Domestic abuse affects all aspects of a family court case. It shapes how participants appear in court, the evidence they give and how they give it. It is a critical factor in determining the interests at stake and how safe child contact is arranged. If the courts are to do their job, then judges need to understand domestic abuse and coercive control.

Without a good knowledge and understanding of domestic abuse and the insidious ways it works, the other – very welcome – measures in the Domestic Abuse Bill will not be enough to protect victims, as the Ministry of Justice’s own review recognised. New mechanisms are no help if abuse continues to be overlooked, misunderstood and dismissed. That is why training is necessary. It has to underpin all the measures in the Bill – and all our efforts to tackle domestic abuse

The Government says that it will pursue more training without primary legislation. But as the Harm Panel Review identified, current training is not working. Promising more of it will not achieve the reform which is needed. If Parliament does not kick start that reform, victims will continue to be failed.

Ministers have also said that Parliament should not get involved in the specifics of judicial training. That’s why my amendment ensures that it is still the Judicial College which is ultimately responsible for shaping and delivering the training – but it creates a much more robust framework within which they can do that. It works through judicial systems – but makes sure those systems work.

Putting a requirement for training in law means that we can give shape, meaning and coherence to commitments to improved training for judges. We can ensure scrutiny – the best way to guarantee rigour and effectiveness. And we can guarantee that this is a commitment which gets the resources it needs, and that outlasts individual ministers or funding cycles.

By specifying some of the ground that training must cover, we can ensure that it gives judges and magistrates a thorough grounding in all the different ways domestic abuse can influence a court case, all the ways it should be taken into account when considering a child’s welfare.

By involving the Domestic Abuse Commissioner, as well as the Judicial College, the President of the Family Court and the Head of the Magistrates’ Association, we can ensure high quality training, informed by up-to-date evidence-based knowledge, which equips our judges and magistrates with the skills they need to wrestle with these difficult cases, and provide protection and justice to survivors of abuse.

Family cases are some of the most complex and emotionally challenging anywhere in our courts. In the great majority, judges act with wisdom and compassion. Arguing for more training should not be seen as an attack on them.

Greater understanding of domestic abuse among the judiciary should even save time and resources in the courts, with vexatious litigation spotted sooner, and judges better able to prevent abusers from bringing repeated cases as a means of controlling their victims.

My amendment is backed by the Domestic Abuse Commissioner, the National and London Victims’ Commissioners, and lawyers and experts from the family court system and the domestic abuse sector. It is backed by the many survivors who tell me how important training is.

One survivor who contacted me recently described how she was not seen as a victim of domestic abuse, because there were no broken bones, no scars, and because was perceived as a “strong and capable woman”. But we know domestic abuse takes many more forms than just the most visible manifestations of violence. It is no good changing our legislation to reflect that if we do not change practice in the courts as well. That requires training – and that training needs to be embedded in law.

We are almost there. My amendment passed in the House of Lords with support from peers of all parties, but it is now returning to the House of Commons. MPs should listen to the stories which I’m sure they hear from survivors. They should listen to experts from the domestic abuse sector. And I hope they will seize the moment to create a court system which works for victims and survivors, not for their abusers.

Andrea Leadsom: The first 1001 days of a child’s life are critical

27 Mar

Andrea Leadsom MP is chair of the Early Years Healthy Development Review, which has just published a six-point action plan.

Campaigning for every baby to get the best start in life has been my passion for more than 20 years. From founding parent infant charities to help families who are struggling with their new baby, to establishing the 1001 Critical Days Manifesto with cross party parliamentary support, I am profoundly aware that the period from conception to the age of two is the foundation of our lifelong potential as human beings.

Babies cannot fend for themselves at all until they are at least two years old, making them uniquely susceptible to the environment around them. Most families provide the loving attentive care that their baby needs, but for every new family it is a challenging and often exhausting time, and for some, problems ranging from poor mental health to substance misuse, and from deprivation to domestic violence will get in the way.

Better support for every family can transform those earliest experiences, and that’s what the Vision for the 1001 Critical Days will achieve.

Securely attached infants are much more likely to go on to become adults who cope well with life’s ups and downs, build strong relationships at work and at home, and are better equipped to raise their own children.

There is no doubt in my mind that we must invest in universal, joined up Start for Life services, so I was delighted when the Prime Minister asked me last July to chair the Early Years Healthy Development Review.

When we started work on the Review, I was clear that the needs of the baby must be at the heart of everything we do. The coronavirus pandemic has put even more pressure on already struggling families and, just as we need to level up economic opportunity across the country, we need to level up the health and care provision for the very youngest in our society.

Our plan sets out 6 key areas for action:

1. Seamless support for families: a coherent joined up Start for Life offer available to all families.
2. A welcoming hub for families: Family Hubs as a place for families to access Start for Life services.
3. The information families need when they need it: designing digital, virtual and telephone offers around the needs of the family, including a digital version of the Red Book for every new baby.
4. An empowered Start for Life workforce: developing modern skilled workers able to meet the changing needs of families.
5. Continually improving the Start for Life offer: enhancing data, evaluation, outcomes and proportionate inspection.
6. Leadership for change: ensuring local and national accountability and building the economic case for more investment in the start for life.

The implementation phase begins now, and I will continue to lead the work on behalf of the Government for the next year, in close collaboration with local partners across England.

Investing in the 1,001 critical days will have a truly transformational impact on our society, and I am confident that delivering this Vision will help millions of families to give their baby the very best Start for Life.

Ryan Shorthouse and Phoebe Arslanagic-Wakefield: Domestic abuse is everyone’s business

12 Feb

Ryan Shorthouse is the Founder and Chief Executive of Bright Blue and Phoebe Arslanagic-Wakefield is a Researcher there, whose work focuses on the inequalities of remote work, and integration and immigration.

The necessary national response to the threat of Coronavirus has come at high cost in myriad different ways. However, among those paying the highest cost may be domestic abuse victims trapped with their abusers.

Evidence on the trends on domestic abuse during the pandemic is yet to completely emerge, but that which has tells a concerning story. Crime data reported by police forces and collated by the ONS shows an increase in domestic-abuse related offences during the pandemic — in the period of March to June 2020, the police recorded a seven per cent increase in such offences in comparison with the same period in 2019 and an 18 per cent increase in comparison with that period in 2018.

Such figures should be understood in the context that lockdowns have reduced opportunities for victims of domestic abuse to escape, seek help or go to the police, so likely show only a fraction of offences. This is reflected in survey data — after the first lockdown, Women’s Aid found that 78 per cent of survivors surveyed reported that Coronavirus had made it more difficult for them to leave their abusers. Seventy-two percent also said that their abusers had gained more control over their lives during lockdown, demonstrating the dangerous isolation wrought by such measures and the erosion of informal support structures for victims of domestic abuse.

There has also been some evidence that domestic abuse has intensified during Coronavirus restrictions. The first three weeks of the first lockdown saw murders of women reach a ten-year high. Points at which families spend more time together, such as Christmas, are already associated with significant rises in reported incidences of domestic abuse and well-established as a dangerous time for victims.

However, recent research from City University argues that the pandemic exposed rather than created Britain’s domestic abuse crisis, finding that long-term trends are largely responsible for increases in domestic abuse seen in the last year. However, these researchers agree that getting out of dangerous situations has become harder for victims in the context of restrictions, meaning domestic abuse is likely intensifying in severity.

The Domestic Abuse Bill, which has taken years to go through parliament as a result of political disruptions such as Brexit, promises to include the imposition of a legal duty upon local councils to provide safe accommodation for victims and their children, and an expansive statutory definition of domestic abuse. In the meantime, the Government is introducing new ways to reach domestic abuse victims, especially during lockdown. Recently, the Ask for ANI scheme was launched meaning that victims can use the ‘Ani’ code word to discreetly signal that they need help at pharmacies, which remain open as essential businesses.

But employers, not just government, have an important role, especially during this crisis. Indeed, employers – specifically, line managers – are perhaps uniquely placed to act as a vital contact point for victims at the moment, whether that be through a Zoom or phone call. They may be one of the very few points of contact an abuse victim has.

Some are doing lots already. For example, recently commended by Paul Scully, the Business Minister, Lloyds Banking Group has developed a domestic abuse policy for its workforce and launched an emergency assistance service for employees, covering the cost of a hotel and associated expenses in the event of someone from the company needing to flee their home and requiring a temporary place of safety.

There are some sensible first steps employers could take, as Scully points out in an open letter last month, including raising awareness of domestic abuse among staff, communicating clearly what help an employer can provide colleagues who are victims and fostering an inclusive environment where victims feel safe to speak up. Similarly, the TUC advocates that line managers be trained to recognise the signs of domestic abuse in their junior colleagues and peers. Furthermore, staff who deal directly with the public, such as those who work in retail, generally already receive training when they begin their jobs — there is no reason that basic information on spotting the signs of domestic abuse among colleagues and customers cannot be added to this training.

As Victoria Atkins, Safeguarding Minister, wrote for Bright Blue last year, domestic abuse is everyone’s business. Employers, especially at the moment, should realise that includes them.