The “Istanbul Convention”, as of 6 April, has been ratified into UK law. In 2011, the “Istanbul Convention” was ratified by the Council of Europe, aiming to prevent and combat domestic violence. The UK government signed it a year later but delayed its ratification until their own domestic violence law had been passed. In 2015 Parliament passed the Serious Crimes Act, which contained a section to criminalise ‘controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship’. The legislation closed a gap in the law around psychological and emotional abuse that stops short of physical abuse, very similar to that of the “Istanbul Convention”. Therefore, it was arguable that endorsement of the Convention was unnecessary.
The ratification of the Convention was presented as a Private Members Bill, had its second reading in December 2016, and sparked heated debate within the Commons, creating headlines in the media. On the subject of domestic violence, as you would expect, usual suspects dominated proceedings. Phillip Davies MP recited previous arguments to fill up the time, and as is often the case for Davies, he was not covered well in the media. However, that is precisely the problem with this topic, it has become an opportunity for easy political point scoring.
Little attention was drawn to the purpose of the “Istanbul Convention” and its existing problems. This presented an opportunity for a true critique of the document and for the Conservative Party to show they are passionate about this issue. Instead, there were several reports of Davies attempting to filibuster the bill by adding numerous amendments. The Telegraph led with, ‘Philip Davies MP criticised after speaking for over an hour in ‘bid to block’ domestic violence bill’ and the Guardian covered, ‘Tory MP in 90-minute attempt to talk out domestic violence bill’. Was this really the media coverage the Conservative Party needed? This also represents a missed opportunity for Tory backbenchers to shake their negative image. Davies presented a typically emboldened case against the convention but ultimately his attempt to filibuster was extremely naïve. Even Tories turned on him. He had his allies, with David Nuttall MP suggesting the ratification should lapse if it did not reduce violence against women, and that the UK should be exempt from any scrutiny or monitoring on the issue.
The result of Nuttall’s suggestion would be to restrict our efforts to learn how to best combat this issue. Instead, the focus should have been on addressing the legal problems of the convention. As regards criminal law, this is of supreme importance, Evan Stark a leading thinker on domestic violence argues, it ‘opens itself to confusion by calling on states to criminalise “psychological abuse” without clarifying whether this refers to “emotional abuse”’. Furthermore, this was an opportunity to highlight how the convention represents wasted efforts. As discussed, the UK government has made great strides in passing legislation to combat domestic violence. Ratifying the Istanbul Convention, in legal terms, represents nothing new for the UK law. Therefore, one must ask what it is actually worth. It has consumed policy efforts on domestic violence for the past six months, when parliament’s real focus should have been on effective enforcement of existing law. Exerting energy on political point-scoring may work for party politics but it does not truly impact the lives of those who endure domestic violence. The recent law passed against coercive control, whilst new, represents powers for law enforcement to tackle the troubling statistics surrounding domestic violence. Davies did discuss enforcement but focused on enforcement from a supranational body, finishing with ‘I oppose the Bill because it would introduce unnecessary meddling from supranational bodies that we can quite do without’. Not articulating an argument to better enforce existing UK law by UK police was an argument missed by Davies.
This was an opportunity for Tory backbenchers to stop making easy headlines for newspapers and demonstrate that the Tory party truly wants to combat domestic violence. The “Istanbul Convention” was an act of political point-scoring that resulted in Tory backbenchers once again being seen not to care. The arguments presented against it at the time were ill thought through, and did not present a positive voice for the Conservative Party on domestic violence. A missed opportunity for a critique of the recent changes to domestic violence legislation and to challenge the Labour Party on how they want to proceed with this issue.