The Violence against Women, Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence (Wales) Act 2015, was really the legacy of our friend, Carl Sargeant, although it fell to me to take the Bill through the Assembly. As the Assembly’s official note of the Bill’s passage makes clear, I took over the Bill on coming back into government on the 12th September 2014.
I had served on the Assembly’s Communities, Equality and Local Government Committee which had started its examination of the Bill. I knew from the evidence coming in that there was a lot of unhappiness at the content of the Bill at that stage. I also knew that Lesley Griffiths and Carl Sargeant, whose work had led up to it, also wanted to see it strengthened, as did a variety of organisations in Wales. The Police and Crime Commissioner for South Wales, Alun Michael, got in touch with me about it at an early stage. Carl and Lesley and I had informal chats about it. Leading Labour party figures like former Minister Sue Essex texted me to say that we could achieve something much more ambitious for Wales. Julie Morgan AM told me that Labour women in her constituency wanted to see it strengthened.
There was a coalition of women’s organisations campaigning to strengthen the Bill. Cathy Owens of the consultancy Deryn was acting as their spokesperson. She described the Bill to me in an email on my first day back in Cabinet as ‘ an absolute dog’s dinner.’ Cathy then sent me a three-page memo on the deficiencies of the Bill as she saw them. She was immensely complimentary about the work done by Carl and his special adviser, Sophie Howe, over several years, but very concerned that the Bill had been watered down. She was worried that the bulk of matters which women’s organisations in Wales had campaigned for had not been addressed in the Bill. These issues included the independence of an Adviser or Commissioner on violence against women and girls; the need to strengthen the educational proposals, and the need to improve what was said about the commissioning of services.
Amongst her many concerns, but only one of them, was the title of the Bill. Cathy explained why this was important:
‘Also, the name. Why are we banging on about the name? It’s important.
‘The officials think that they have to include everyone, and have become so all inclusive that they think by even mentioning women in the Bill, it will be against equality principles. Rubbish. With VAW being so prevalent, we have to start tackling VAW specifically, or we won’t make any progress.
‘Everyone else has VAW or VAWG policies. Even Theresa May and Boris Johnson have VAW policies.
‘As the strategies and the adviser will be called after the weird gender-neutral name, it means we are actually enshrining a position so that a future Welsh Government can never have a VAW strategy, never have an External Adviser on VAW, let alone a Commissioner.’
Cathy specifically asked me to see if I could challenge the advice from lawyers and others. She said:
‘Can you press back on the lawyers and officials about the gender-neutrality? Are they really saying you cannot legislate for women in this country, in the same way as you can for other groups like children, carers, older people, disabled people?’
I decided to see what I could do to strengthen the Bill, with the help of my special adviser, Alex Rawlin. I had meetings with officials and with lawyers. Some of these were rather tense and strained as I tried to get the lawyers to follow through ministerial intentions. I had a meeting with the First Minister on the issue on 25 September in which I outlined my plans. Following that meeting, the Head of the First Minister’s Office sent round a summary of our discussion, recently released to me under FoI, noting that I had told the FM that I was developing an amendment to the Bill specifically referring to violence against women and girls.
At my first appearance as Minister before the CELG Committee a week later on 1 October, I was able to announce:
The Welsh Government recognises that gender-based violence has a disproportionate impact on women and girls. I have spoken to the First Minister about this issue and I can confirm today that we intend to introduce a Government amendment at Stage 2 to add a new section to the Bill, which will probably be entitled ‘Violence Against Women and Girls’. This section would require those exercising the functions of the Bill across the bulk of its provisions, along with all other relevant matters, to have regard to violence against women and girls. The new section would apply to local authorities, local health boards, Welsh Ministers and the ministerial adviser.
Jocelyn Davies AM asked me about the title of the Bill at that meeting. I responded as follows:
You ask about the title of the Bill. I have not reached any final conclusions on that yet, but I am open to suggestions, and we will look at that. You will understand that the Presiding Officer has a clear view about titles of Bills, particularly once introduced. Therefore, there may be a conversation that we would all need to have with the Presiding Officer about that, were we to seek to make any changes to the title. The title, obviously, has to reflect the content of the Bill. However, we are only at Stage 1 at the moment, so there is plenty of time, it seems to me, to consider these matters further.
I had further discussions with the First Minister about the title of the Bll and its contents, and I was able to announce at the Bill proceedings in the Assembly on 25 November that we would be bringing forward an amendment to change the title of the Bill:
In view of the new section on violence against women and girls, I will also be considering a possible change to the short title of the Bill. This will need to adhere to the Presiding Officer’s determination on proper forms of Assembly Bills. I will update the committee on this in due course.
Despite this, I found a note from the FM’s Private Secretary in my ministerial box in early December saying that the FM wasn’t clear why a change in the title was being proposed – ‘he thought this was ruled out months ago’. I texted Carl Sargeant that evening. Like me, he thought the question had really been posed by someone in the FM’s office, not the FM himself. My entire private office helped me put together a reply to the FM’s question, going through past documents and pointing out that we had involved him in our thinking on this all the way through. Indeed, my speech for the 25 November debate had been contained in a Legislative Folder that he had seen. It was an example of the irritating and unnecessary internal obstructions we endured throughout this Bill. I have asked for the correspondence with the First Minister’s office to be released under FoI, but it is currently being withheld on the grounds that it refers to legal advice. The actual exchange between my office and the FM’s office was a political exchange, not a legal exchange, and does not in my view need to be withheld, so I have appealed that.
Subsequent proceedings saw us strengthening other sections of the Bill, including commissioning and the educational elements. Further discussions with Opposition Members, notably Plaid Cymru’s Jocelyn Davies, in the latter stages of the Bill, led to us strengthening it even more.
I am glad that in his recent New Statesman article, the First Minister praised the Violence against Women Bill as ‘ground-breaking’, even though, as he told the BBC in December last year, he had disagreed with the change of title when I proposed it:
The first minister said there had been “a dispute over the title of a bill, the Violence Against Women Bill, where he took one view and I took a different view”.
We should regard the passage of the Violence against Women, Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence (Wales) Act 2015 as one of the many legacies of Carl Sargeant, and I was pleased to see his son Jack referring to this legacy in the Assembly on Tuesday:
Jack Sergeant AM:
Thank you to the Government for bringing forward this statement today. With permission, I’d just like to put on the record that, four months ago today, we lost a true advocate for women’s rights and someone who stood up for women’s suffering, domestic abuse and sexual violence. I don’t think there’s any one of my dad’s suits that doesn’t have a white ribbon pin badge on, and I’m very proud to be standing here today in the Chamber wearing mine.
Getting the eventual Act right required a lot of negotiation, and it was a shame how much wasteful internal energy at times had to be spent on this. This was not ‘a petty dispute about the title of a Bill’, as the First Minister told Adrian Masters on ITV Wales on 5 December. The issue of the title itself was meaningful, not petty, and was regarded as significant by women’s organisations across the length and breadth of Wales. But we got there in the end, and my predecessors the late Carl Sargeant and Lesley Griffiths deserve great credit for their hard work and support.