Angela Smith MP

Working hard for you

claire

Domestic Abuse 2nd reading (The Story of Claire Throssell

I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), who concentrated on and spoke eloquently about the impact of domestic abuse on children. I, too, want to concentrate on putting children first and will focus my remarks on how domestic abuse is considered in the family courts.

 

Members will recall the debate I secured on this issue in September 2016. In my speech, I referred specifically to a tragedy suffered by my constituent, Claire Throssell, as a way of illustrating as powerfully as I could the need for reform. Claire is with us today, sitting in the Under-Gallery, and I welcome her to the debate. I make no apology for recounting again in this Chamber her account of what happened on that dreadful day when her boys were murdered at the hands of their own father. I only wish the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) was in his place to listen.

“It took just 15 minutes on the 22nd October 2014, for my life and heart to be broken completely beyond repair. I had warned those involved with my case that my happy, funny boys would be killed by their own father; I was right.

My boys were both with their father on that October day, and at around 6.30 pm he enticed Paul, nine, and Jack, 12, up to the attic, with the promise of trains and track to build a model railway. When the boys were in the attic, he lit 16 separate fires around the house, which he had barricaded, so my sons could not get out and the firemen could not get in.

Only 15 minutes later…the doorbell rang at my mum’s. (We were staying there temporarily after the separation).

 ‘It’s the boys, they must be early,’ my mum said—but I knew that wasn’t right. The boys would have run into the house and straight into my arms; they always did after a visit to their dad. They were frightened of him—he was a perpetrator of domestic abuse. The statutory agencies involved in our case knew this.

I opened the door. Blue lights were flashing.

‘There's been an incident at your former home; the boys have been involved in a fire…’

Running into the hospital, the first thing I saw was Paul receiving CPR. A doctor, drenched in sweat and exhausted, told me they were withdrawing treatment.

I held Paul in my arms. I begged him to try, to stay, to not leave me.

He looked at me, smiled, and the life left his beautiful blue eyes. His hair was wet with my tears as I kissed his nose. Then Paul, my boy, was taken out of my arms and into another room. There was no further chance of touching him; his little body was now part of a serious crime enquiry.”

I can never read those words or hear them—and I know the Minister feels the same because she has sat with me and listened to Claire—without feeling the enormous loss Claire has suffered. But Claire is brave. She has chosen not to turn in on herself but rather to embrace love as a means of dealing with her tragedy. She has chosen to protect all children, if she possibly can, by making sure that the law is changed.

By that, I mean reform of the family courts. We need access to special measures in those courts to separate survivors from the perpetrators, as well as special protection rooms, entrances and exits, and screens and video links. Clause 53, in part 1, provides for that to apply in the criminal courts, but we need to amend the Bill to ensure that it is extended to the civil and family courts.

Jess Phillips

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Does the hon. Lady agree—and Claire’s case speaks to this more loudly than almost any that I have ever heard—that the presumption of access by an abusive parent has to end?

Angela Smith

I completely agree. Indeed, I was about to say exactly that.

We need to extend the ban on cross-examination by perpetrators to the family courts, because the Bill does not do that at present, and, more than anything else, we need to change the culture of the family courts. Claire’s children died after their father won the right to unsupervised contact. The domestic abuse that she had suffered from Darren Sykes was not taken seriously by any agency, or by the courts themselves. It was assumed that his children would be safe in his care. The judge who made that judgment is still practising in the family courts in Barnsley.

The research on this indicates clearly that a man who abuses his wife or his partner is more likely to abuse his children. We, therefore, need to end the assumption of contact when there is a risk to a child from domestic abuse, as called for by Claire and by Women’s Aid, and we need a ban on unsupervised contact when a father is awaiting trial, or is on bail, for domestic abuse offences. The Bill, as it stands, does not deliver such a provision. We also need to ensure that the definition of domestic abuse in the Bill includes coercive control as a source of harm to children. That point has been made by many other Members today.

The Bill needs to be amended along those lines if it is to be fit for purpose. That is the legacy that Claire has campaigned for—a positive legacy that would stand as ​a tribute to her children—and, in the name of Jack and Paul, we have a moral responsibility to secure these protections for all our children. Let us not miss this golden opportunity to secure the change that we need.

I support the Bill, but it can be better, and I hope that the Minister will agree when she sums up the debate.