Five years ago in a room in the Waterloo area one evening I heard the words of a very sad man as he gradually came to realise the full impact of what he had done to his wife and children. He was distressed. He had taken a long time to see what he had put his family through. During a long re-enactment of a series of incidents which led up to him assaulting his wife in front of their children, with me playing his wife (and an agreement that he would not make physical contact with me) and another man playing him, he came to see the incident through his child's eyes. We had placed him just outside the door, so he could hear noises and guess at what was happening to the mum.
In great sadness, he reflected on what he had learnt from this experience. And eventually he said: "I've just seen that everything I thought was good about my relationship was just fake – she was just pretending to smile, to make me happy, because she was scared of me. And my child was scared too. I never really understood what I needed to do, how I should behave, to be a good husband and a kind father. And now it's too late."
This man was not alone. There were 11 other men there in similar situations – and at various stages of realisation about their behaviour and its consequences for themselves and others. I was one of two group leaders working with them. Our aim was completely and totally focused on doing everything we could to contribute to the safety of their partners, ex-partners, future partners and their children. We were part of a team, with other staff working directly with the rest of the family. Often social workers or courts were involved. Many of the men in the room were not allowed to have contact with their children, in order to protect and safeguard their children. Others had lost their homes or jobs as a result of the relationship breaking down. Some were desperate to try to repair the relationship. Some of them didn't realise that it was beyond repair. And for some of them, there could be a chance, but only if they made a lot of changes to how they behaved. But for all of them, it was too little too late. And their partners, ex-partners and children suffered. The community paid, in the cost of noise, criminal behaviour, and the financial cost of the police, social services, housing and courts who had to get involved. Nobody benefits in the long run from abusive relationships – but in the short term, abusers do. They get what they want and their victims often don't know how to get help. Family members and friends don't know what to do.
I have spent my entire adult life trying to prevent these situations from happening. And, as an MP, I am continuing to do that.
Today the second reading of the Bill to make PHSE (Personal, Health and Social Education) compulsory is being debated in the House of Commons. It includes a provision to make sex and relationships education compulsory for all pupils. My name is on it as a sponsor of the Bill and this is another mark along the route of my work and campaigning on this topic for decades.
Before I became an MP I worked for 26 years in various ways on prevention and responses to domestic violence and other forms of gender-based violence and to promote gender equality, particularly in intimate relationships, to help to end all forms of violence against women and girls. Since 1996 this included developing programmes of work to use in schools and training teachers to deliver it, to help develop social skills and knowledge to help children and young people to grow up without the risk of these forms of violence and abuse. In short, to try to eliminate domestic violence in particular. In Bristol, a pioneering city for this work, I collaborated with young people from the National Youth Theatre and with colleagues to make a toolkit with an original film about abuse in a teenage relationship and activities to use to explore this and what might prevent it, called Spiralling. It is still in use in many schools but Bristol has gone on to do so much to promote PHSE and sex and relationships education. In Bristol we have a full time permanent PHSE coordinator who supports this work across the city in as many schools as possible. We provide regular training with a qualification for teachers. We have much to be proud of. But, as the current government removed support for PHSE and funding for the training, we find that some schools no longer prioritise it.
During the last ten years I also worked with abusive men such as the one I describe above. Many of them could not change and we helped to make sure that their partners and children were protected from them – sometimes this meant they ended up in prison or that court orders prevented them from seeing their children.
All the time, I kept wishing that these men had had the chance to learn skills when they were younger. Even more, I wanted to help make sure that all young people knew the warning signs of an abusive relationship – but also what a good, safe, supportive relationship would look like. All things that a good PHSE teacher would cover.
But compulsory PHSE could do so much more.
Many of us will have been horrified by the reports on child sexual exploitation in various parts of the country over the past few years. So often, the girls involved didn't know what to do. Other times, they repeatedly sought help but were met with disbelief and a poor response from adults who should have protected them. Children and many parents suffered as a result.
Once again, compulsory PHSE would make a huge contribution.
Labour made PHSE compulsory and also brought in the violence against women and girls agenda. We achieved a great deal. Much of this has sadly been undone but there was also more to do, which was to make the sex and relationships part of the curriculum compulsory for all.
I hope that the government will think again and support compulsory PHSE and SRE. This is part of safeguarding children.
If I were able to be in Parliament today, instead of having daily hospital appointments for the last stage of my cancer treatment, I would be making the above points as my speech in support of the Bill. I urge every MP in the House of Commons to support the Bill and to do anything and everything we can to make PHSE and SRE compulsory for every child.
Because, as the Labour government used as a policy headline, every child matters.