My Lords, I begin my remarks by congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Laming, on presenting this Bill to the House. I warmly welcome the opportunity to debate it and I am a strong supporterof measures which assist the prosecution of people who hurt children or vulnerable adults and those who stand by and allow such acts.
Maintaining a wall of silence should not be a way to escape responsibility for perpetrating or allowing truly horrible offences against children or vulnerable adults in their own homes. This issue is one in which I have long taken an active interest. We should all want to do what we can to ensure that those who stand by or carry out abuse are not able to evade justice by passing the buck.
I recall well the background which led to the passing of the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004. I commend the continuing work done by the NSPCC in highlighting the problem of securing convictions when a child dies or is seriously injured by parents or carers. I also want to place on record my appreciation of the work of the Law Commission, whose efforts have done much to bring this debate to where we are today.
Section 5 of the 2004 Act created the offence of causing or allowing the death of a child or vulnerable adult, but the offence is limited to incidents where the victim died of an unlawful act and applies only to those members of the household who had frequent contact with the victim. The household member must have caused the death or failed to take reasonable steps to protect the victim, and the victim must have been at significant risk of serious physical harm. Only those over 16 may be guilty, unless they are the mother or father of the victim.
At the time that the 2004 Act was debated, the Minister made clear that it was important to establish the new offence before consideration was given to extending its provisions. The Act has been widely considered to have worked well in practice and to have operated in the way intended. During the period 2005 to 2008, the offence was used successfully in prosecuting 17 people, including the mother of Baby Peter Connelly and her boyfriend and lodger. In that case, it was clear that one of those three was responsible for the death of the child, but the police were not able to prove which one. In consequence, all three were found guilty of causing or allowing his death. Noble Lords cannot have failed to notice the considerable public anguish which that case aroused in the country. It is not my argument that this Bill should be a response to that concern, but rather that this is an appropriate next step to protect the most vulnerable.
I acknowledge that some have expressed concerns about potentially criminalising those who are themselves vulnerable or victims of domestic violence. I am satisfied that the threshold of “reasonable steps” is adequate to protect people in those circumstances from unwarranted prosecution. I understand that the Crown Prosecution Service is actively supportive of attempts to extend the scope of the offence. Its data suggest that in 2010, in six areas there were as many as 20 cases that could not be prosecuted under existing arrangements, but which might be under the proposed new offence.
This Bill, by amending Section 5 of the 2004 Act, would widen its scope to include situations where children and vulnerable adults have been seriously harmed. The Bill will apply to cases of causing or allowing a child or an adult to suffer physical harm. Itwill apply to members of the victim’s household who have frequent contact with the victim and who should have been aware of the situation or who caused the injury or death. It must be established that there had been a history of violence and that the victim had been subjected to abuse and hence was in danger. It will not be necessary to establish whether the person who is accused was responsible for causing the death or serious physical harm or for allowing the death or serious physical harm.
Widening the scope is still very much in keeping with the spirit and objectives of the 2004 Act, and, I believe, is very much to be welcomed. In total, this represents a healthy package of measures which would be fair and proportionate and would provide strong protection for some of the most vulnerable people. I recognise that this is quite a complicated area in which to legislate and I understand the caution which was applied during earlier debates.
One outcome that I would like to see from this Bill is an improved ability to enable the person who caused the victim’s death to be identified so that they can be prosecuted for murder or manslaughter, if appropriate, but a conviction under Section 5 would not necessarily lead to a further prosecution. The offence could stand alone. I recognise that the measures contained in this Bill were given some consideration at the time that the 2004 Act was debated in this place. None the less, it is proper that we should give them further consideration now, and I offer my support to the noble Lord. We should not tolerate a situation where, on the basis that the victim has escaped death, a successful prosecution is endangered. This could arise, for example, where a victim might be too young to give evidence or might not be able to do so as a result of injury or fear.
I welcome the inclusion in the Bill of a maximum penalty for the extended Section 5 offence. We need to make sure that the punishment for the extended offence is proportionate to the harm caused. It is also appropriate that the definition of serious harm does not include psychiatric harm, as the risk of this would be much harder to identify, and we should not wish to deter people from caring for vulnerable adults for fear of prosecution for failing to foresee a psychiatric injury. I welcome the inclusion of transitional provisions in the Bill that will ensure that there is no retrospective effect for the extended offence. I believe that the proposed maximum of 10 years’ imprisonment for an offence of causing or allowing serious physical harm strikes the right balance, particularly in the context of a 14-year maximum sentence for causing or allowing death and when compared with sentences for other offences of grievous bodily harm.
We should all feel a heavy duty to do what we can to help the vulnerable in our society. Children and vulnerable adults have a right to feel safe and secure in their homes. Those at risk of serious physical harm from members of their own household should be able to look to the law for protection. The Bill is a useful step in that direction. I am pleased to offer the Bill my full support.