Today the House of Lords begins debating the much-welcomed, and much-delayed, Domestic Abuse Bill.
Five days of detailed discussion of 191 amendments are expected, with broad cross-party support expected on many, from the call for the creation of a specific offence of non-fatal strangulation (on which the Government is fairly likely to give way), and on full provision of services to victims who have No Recourse to Public Funds (on which I fear in the Hostile Environment we can expect to see little or no progress).
Unfortunately, the first big debate will be over an amendment on which there is considerable disagreement, a call to incorporate acknowledgement of ‘parental alienation’ in the Bill, although on many other amendments there will be concerted voices from all sides calling for the government to strengthen the Bill.
Now I know there’ll be some people who misunderstand what the Green Party is all about, who’ll be wondering why I (and my fellow Green Peer, Jenny Jones) should spend significant time and effort on the Domestic Abuse Bill. Those would be the people who fail to understand that the Green Party represents a complete political philosophy, a different philosophy to others in the House, not being ‘just about environment’.
As a Green, the obvious place to start to form a view on ‘parental alienation’ was with the evidence, so I asked the invaluable House of Lords Library for a survey of the peer-reviewed research. This reflects one of the key principles of Green political philosophy: to start with and rely on the evidence – as we do with everything from the climate emergency to criminal justice, as befits a philosophy that developed in the latter half of the 20th century, and unlike the far older viewpoints that currently dominate the House. I know I surprise fellow peers by trying whenever time allows to cite the sources – usually peer-reviewed – on which I’m relying, and I hope that one day Hansard will allow the attachment of such to its record (more efficient than reading out journal titles and authors’ names).
And the conclusions of that evidence – the concern that the concept of ‘parental alienation’ had been overdeveloped – was clear. One of the key sources was a complete issue of the Journal of Social Welfare and Family Law, in which the introduction states:
“experts in the field of domestic and family violence have expressed serious concerns regarding the recourse to the concept of parental alienation by family court and child protection services. In the context of domestic and family violence, women may have well-grounded reasons to want to limit father-child contact... However, with a ‘parental alienation’ lens, women’s and children’s concerns are likely to be seen as invalid and as a manifestation of the mother’s hostility and alienating behaviours.”
And it matched what had been my initial reaction when I engaged with the issue, for the examples presented by those calling for recognition of what they call ‘parental alienation’ are almost invariably that of a resident parent, the mother, turning her children against their father, allegedly with unfounded claims of abuse. This is very much a gendered claim – that what women are saying can’t be trusted and relied upon. (The pervasiveness of this is also very evident in the conclusions of the brilliant Cumberlege Report into medical devices and practices causing harm to mostly female patients and not listening to their concerns, which drove much of the debate around the Medicines and Medical Devices Bill.)
Feminism is built into Green political philosophy. We developed in parallel, as two of the new political movements from the 1960s, and listening to women and other marginalised groups – and acknowledging that there are still far too many institutional barriers that mean they are not heard – is at the heart of Green philosophy.
The third way in which Green political philosophy fed into my thinking about this amendment was in a broader way – trusting individuals, believing their capacity to make choices and decisions for themselves – a foundation in the libertarian basis of Green thought. Inherent in the claims of ‘parental alienation’ is the assumption that children can be turned against one parent by another, an assumption reflecting the hypodermic syringe theory of communication, that a message delivered will be fully absorbed, believed and acted upon.
This is a false consciousness argument – a claim that people don’t understand their own circumstances and situations – something that I’ve encountered in another highly gendered political argument around law on sex work, with claims that sex workers advocating for decriminalisation are brainwashed into misunderstanding their own lives.
Trusting individuals includes trusting and listening to children. (Failure to do that has been a huge issue to in many tragic recent sexual abuse scandals.)
Lowering the voting age to 16 is a longstanding Green Party policy, but I regularly speak to school and community groups much younger than that (our Under-18 Young Greens are an impressively growing and very impressive group) who have very clear views and understandings that they’ve developed by themselves, through their own thought, research and consideration. The exam-factory model of schooling to which successive governments have been so attached has not succeeded in destroying this. And so I believe – very strongly – that children need to be consulted and listened to by courts and professionals when decisions are being made about their lives.
This brings me to a final element of Green political philosophy: acknowledging that we are all shaped by our own lives and experiences, and being open about and declaring these. There is no such thing as an unbiased observer, whether that is in science or social science or politics.
I do also speak about this from personal experience. As a child I was subjected to an attempt, from a grandparent, to alienate me from other members of my family. And I rejected that, turned against it, understood what was being done to me and resisted it. So, in today’s debate, I will be relying on the evidence, but also reflecting my own life understanding, in speaking against the inclusion of ‘parental alienation’ in the Bill.