Monday January 25th 2021Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB)
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, for raising this crucial issue. There are four amendments in this group, and I would like to speak to Amendments 15 and 172.
Amendment 15 underlines the importance that the noble Baroness has rightly attached to recognising in the Bill the developing child in the womb. Amendment 172 seeks to place a requirement on the Secretary of State to make provisions for publicly funded trauma-informed and attachment-focused therapeutic work to be made available to all parents of children aged under two years old, where those children are victims of or otherwise affected by domestic abuse.
In parentheses, I also support Amendments 20 and 179 relating to the functions and powers of the domestic abuse commissioner and the Secretary of State.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, reminded us, at Second Reading the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Trafford, said—and I wholeheartedly agree with her—
“No age group has been left out of the debate, including the unborn child and the foetus”.—[Official Report, 5/1/21; col. 124.]
She went on, though, to say that noble Lords
“rightly drew attention to the devastating impact that domestic abuse can have on children and young people. I talked about the foetus earlier—those adverse impacts start when that child is in the womb. Growing up in a household of fear and intimidation can impact children’s health, well-being and development, with lasting effects into adulthood—in fact, all their lives.”—[Official Report, 5/1/21; col. 129.]
The noble Baroness, Lady Williams, is undoubtedly right. Her words reinforce the arguments of the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, about the importance of naming the unborn in the Bill, which is what Amendment 15 seeks to do.
As it stands, the Bill’s definition of children does not adequately capture the child in the womb or acknowledge that they too can be victims of domestic abuse. As Amendment 15 recognises, and as other noble Lords have said, there are currently significant baby blind spots in the legislation; “a child”, as a catch-all term, does not adequately encapsulate the unborn’s unique experience of abuse in utero.
As the Bill stands, there is no requirement on the commissioner to encourage best practice in the identification of domestic abuse affecting the unborn, and likewise no requirement on the Secretary of State to issue guidance on how domestic abuse affects the unborn. This lacuna leaves a large gap in our approach to domestic abuse policy. The unborn experience of domestic abuse in utero can live with a person for the rest of their life. As the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, said, it has been suggested that 30% of domestic abuse begins during pregnancy.
We can come to a fuller understanding of the issue by looking at it from a positive, rather than negative, perspective. I once participated in an inquiry chaired by the late Lord Rawlinson of Ewell, a celebrated Queen’s Counsel and former Attorney-General. The inquiry examined sentience in the womb. It concluded that, rather than being born as a blank slate or the first page of a new book, at birth a newborn baby already has surprisingly extensive experiences of the surrounding world. It was interesting to hear the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, recount his own personal experience of the impact of an experience he had while in the womb.
Yehudi Menuhin, the renowned violinist who became a Member of your Lordships’ House, once said he first learned his love of music in his mother’s womb. Indeed, his mother was once told, “Madam, your womb is a veritable conservatoire.” Significant research has shown that listening to and experiencing music stimulates the brain of a baby in the womb and assists the growth of brain structures. Some studies suggest that babies remember music they listened to in the womb for months after being born. Music during pregnancy can have a soothing and uplifting effect on the pregnant woman, but also a positive influence on her unborn child. The womb can be a child’s first concert hall.
Conversely, as intimated during our debate, the Rawlinson inquiry also heard evidence of the effect of negative experiences on the development of a child in the womb and the long-term sequelae. Sadly, the unborn can experience any number of physical traumas when a perpetrator targets the baby violently while still in a mother’s womb. The research also indicates that domestic abuse during pregnancy is associated with poor obstetric outcomes, including low birth weight and pre-term birth.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, intimated, a mother’s emotional state has a direct influence on foetal development. As we have heard, stressors can negatively disrupt neurodevelopment in utero, which in turn impacts the cognitive functioning and emotional regulation of the child. This can be a life sentence. For all these reasons, I hope that Amendment 15 will be accepted.
I will also speak briefly about the importance of Amendment 172 about access to support for parents. The whole Bill is for naught if there are no provisions to allow people to get the help they want and so often desperately need. This admirable legislation is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to develop a step change in our response to domestic abuse. The reality is that the vast majority of victims—an estimated 70%–never set foot in a refuge and remain at home or in alternative housing. They must therefore have access to support that can actually change behaviour. We must recognise that these first days and weeks of life are also an effective time for intervention. Surely we want to be pragmatic with this Bill.
Like others, I was struck by an evaluation of the For Baby’s Sake programme, led by King’s College London, which provides trauma-informed and attachment-focused therapeutic support for parents. It found that support at this first moment—to which we can all point and say, “That is when I began to be me”—can harness parents’ motivation and empower them to make changes for their baby and themselves. The noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, alluded to this in her excellent contribution earlier.
The Committee should note that a SafeLives report highlights that 80% of survivors said they think interventions for perpetrators are a good idea. A main conclusion from Breaking Down the Barriers: Findings of the National Commission on Domestic and Sexual Violence and Multiple Disadvantage was the call from survivors for trauma-informed support to break traumatic cycles.
Trauma-informed and attachment-focused therapeutic work is about meeting parents where they are, not where we would want them to be. This therapeutic work should be publicly funded and accessible to all parents in the same way that we offer universal mental health support through the National Health Service. Amendment 172 is therefore about changing the cultural and social landscape around domestic abuse for the next generation. If we only fund refuge and not intervention, we miss a crucial piece of the puzzle in breaking the cycle of domestic abuse.
Amendments 15 and 172 provide the right architecture and structure, a firmer and surer foundation, for making the womb and early days a less dangerous place in which to be, and they help to create an environment in which the baby is loved, cherished, and nurtured. On a personal level, having recently seen the picture of a new, soon to be born, grandchild in the womb—a magical glimpse, now routinely provided by science, of the infinite beauty represented by the delicate formation of a unique, new human being—I am especially pleased to be able to add my voice to those supporting the noble Baroness and her cross-party supporters.