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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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Meg’s speech on learning-disabled adults

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Meg’s speech on the ‘Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill’, given in the House of Commons 14th June 2004.


I, too, welcome the Bill, the first major piece of legislation for some 30 years on domestic violence issues. It rightly puts the focus on victims at the heart of the issue.


The Bill has been welcomed by groups, organisations and my constituents as trying to address an extremely complex problem that brings so much heartache and distress to so many children, parents and families. This process of debate and discussion gives us a real opportunity to address the many issues and to strengthen the protection for all victims.


As chair of the All-Party group on Voice, which focuses on issues concerning learning-disabled adults, a number of issues concern me. I want to devote my speech to looking at things from the perspective of adults with learning disabilities. My starting point is that adults with learning disabilities have the same rights as all adults and that, wherever possible, those should be protected in mainstream legislation. We have an opportunity to put that protection in place in this Bill rather than in other Bills that will come before the House in the near future, such as the Mental Capacity Bill or the Mental Health Bill. We should consider how this Bill can put that protection in place.


Violence against, and the neglect and ill treatment of, women and men with learning difficulties in their own homes is horrifyingly widespread. Perpetrators are too often not brought to justice, which is a scandal and something that must be tackled. The Bill allows us the opportunity to do that.


On the specifics, I am concerned that the definition of vulnerable adult differs from that which has been in use for some time for adults with learning disabilities under the Department of Health Guidance "No Secrets". I understand that the issue is complex because the Bill seeks to deal with a wider range of issues, but it is important and needs further discussion. The Bill identifies a vulnerable adult as someone over the age of 16, whereas "No Secrets" identifies them as over the age of 18. There are issues of compatibility with other legislation to consider. It is possible for someone to be the perpetrator of an offence at the age of 16. However, given that child protection legislation goes up to the age of 18, it would seem more appropriate that children are deemed to be under 18, not 16.


Clause 7 deals with domestic homicide reviews. How does that fit with the requirements in child protection guidance, as set out in chapter 8 of "Working Together: Giving children and young people a say", in which a child who is killed has to be the subject of an inter-agency review? Fortunately it is rare for someone aged 16 or 17 to commit such an act, but if they did, to which guidance or legislation would they be subject? How would the process work? I am not saying that we cannot overcome those problems, but we must consider them. My preference is to have the vulnerable adult as someone who is over the age of 18. People between the ages of 16 and 18 should be deemed to be children and covered by relevant legislation.


I am also concerned about the current definition of vulnerable as set out in clause 5(7). Old age, physical or mental disability or illness do not in themselves make people vulnerable. I have been in helpful correspondence with the Minister on the matter and understand that it is not intended for that to be the only way in which vulnerability is ascertained. However, it suggests to me that there is a need to define vulnerability in addition to the specific attributes.


I also understand that the courts need leeway in judging whether someone is vulnerable. I am concerned that without a clearer definition, or at least a move towards that, there will be only judgments to rely on in determining someone's vulnerability, and that that will not lead to consistency.


The offence in clause 5 of causing or allowing the death of a child or a vulnerable adult is very welcome. I understand entirely that the provisions have been framed to deal with concerns that have been around for many years that two adults can deny having been involved in the death of a child, and nobody is held accountable or brought to justice as a result. I would like consideration to be given to the Bill also covering cases where somebody is seriously injured but not killed. That could be dealt with by the inclusion of a specific offence of causing or allowing serious harm to a child or a vulnerable adult. That would push forward the issue and identify just how serious it is.


Several hon. Members have said that domestic violence has not been given the status that it should be given. We are talking about violence in the home; it could not be more serious. We need to consider the matter seriously. Including such an offence in the Bill rather than trying to deal with the abuse and neglect of people with learning disabilities through other legislation or guidance would be beneficial, because it would recognise that they are people first. All such legislation and guidance is to be welcomed, but wherever possible we should aspire to making such provision in mainstream legislation.


I also want to talk about the definition of households. It seems that I have become a little caught up with the definitions in the Bill, but that needs to be the nature of our discussion because we should have overall aims that we can all sign up to. The current definition is not clear about which premises it includes. There have been many changes in practice concerning learning-disabled adults over the past 20 or 30 years, and they now live in a range of settings, which is very welcome and in line with the Government's aim of enabling such people to live as full and as independent a life as they can. I want to be assured that all learning-disabled adults are covered by the legislation wherever they live. That would require inclusion in the definition of residential homes. I know that there is legislation about care standards and the like, but whether people have protection by right or purely on the basis of where they live merits consideration again.


Even more important is the issue of other supported accommodation for learning-disabled adults. Again, that can encompass a range of settings?just, indeed, as it does for everybody else. Sometimes such accommodation is a group home with some carer support living in; other times it is a group home with no carer support and only people coming in from time to time. It can also be an individual living in a flat in a complex where support is provided. Protection of learning-disabled adults could be improved by the specific inclusion in the Bill of carers. That would ensure the inclusion of learning-disabled adults who had been abused by someone who had responsibility for their support or care but did not live with them.


Hon. Members on both sides of the House will know of horrific examples of abuse and that the ability to explain and to talk about one's experience is often so important to achieving a conviction. We know how hard it is for people without a disability to talk about having been the subject of domestic violence. How much harder is it for those who face the difficulties of a disability? The most vulnerable people are the most at risk, and we should consider whether we can do more to offer protection. By adding the words "or is a paid carer or volunteer" to clause 5(5), we might be able to achieve that. I urge the Minister particularly to consider supported accommodation.


I know that there is a view that adults in such accommodation receive professional support, but the standard of it varies enormously depending on the capability of the residents. I am concerned that the Bill does not provide protection when the person giving the help and support is the abuser. It is important to bear in mind the fact that physical abuse is almost invariably preceded by some form of mental abuse or cruelty, which isolates the victim and prevents them from seeking help. That happens within marital or cohabiting relationships in the home, and it also occurs when people are abused by their professional or voluntary carer. We must recognise that. While the Bill is before us we have the opportunity to address that complex and difficult issue.


The creation of the commissioner is an enormously welcome move. It will ensure that there is someone who focuses on the victim and is able to speak for them. I would like the inclusion of a requirement to consider diversity. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) described the importance of disabled women. We have an opportunity in considering that to consider strengthening the protection of learning-disabled adults. I would like a specific requirement to oversee care settings as well as domestic ones. I am pleased that the Minister has assured me that equality and diversity will feature prominently in the commissioner's terms of reference, even though they will not be defined specifically in the legislation, but we need to bear in mind how difficult it is for people who have a disability, particularly a learning disability, to get justice. Ensuring that the commissioner plays such a role would be most welcome.


As has been said, this debate is not just about legislation; it is about changing culture and attitudes and what we do. How we implement the legislation when it finally comes through is also enormously important. It is important that the police are made fully aware that the legislation refers and applies equally to people with learning disabilities. Victims do not always see themselves as such. One hon. Member?I cannot remember who?gave some statistics that showed that people do not necessarily recognise that they have been the victim of the crime of domestic violence, so it is important that the police who act in such situations take that message fully on board.


There has been concern about whether the definitions of domestic violence used by the police and by the Crown Prosecution Service are the same. The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) raised the difficult issue of whether there should be a specific, agreed definition of domestic violence in the Bill. I accept that that might not be desirable, because it would not allow for change over time in response to changing circumstances, but there is concern that there are different definitions around and that that might even be reflected in different police forces. I am assured that the Association of Chief Police Officers uses a clear definition and that that should be used by all police forces. The Bill provides the opportunity to change practice through tight implementation plans in order to achieve consistency across all police forces.


This is an excellent Bill with many strong points. I welcome the work of the Home Office both in putting it together and in supporting the organisations that provide help for victims of domestic violence, although there is always more to do. I am sure that by working with all interested parties who want a strong and protective piece of legislation it will be possible to achieve a law that will protect more people and make it clear that domestic violence is violence and is not acceptable.




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