Vicky Atkins was the first MP from the 2015 intake to become a minister, and had been preparing assiduously for doing so. She asked loyal questions of the Prime Minister and beavered away on the Home Affairs Committee and the joint committee examining the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill. But it was obvious that this very capable backbencher wanted to join the government – and that she was very likely to do well as a minister. Today’s Home Office questions marked her first outing on the frontbench in the Commons – and therefore the first glimpse of what someone who has been auditioning to be a minister is going to be like now she’s got the part.
Atkins was greeted with a huge cheer from her colleagues as she stood up to answer a question. She didn’t seem at all nervous, which you might expect from a former barrister specialising in fraud.
What was interesting about Atkins’ responses was that she adopted some of the tone of her predecessor Sarah Newton on the areas that she now covers. The new minister is responsible for the Domestic Abuse Bill, which she described today as being at the centre of the Queen’s Speech. The Bill is expected to introduce a legal definition of domestic abuse and set up domestic abuse commissioners. But there currently isn’t any promise of more money, even though refuges and other support services are closing. Previously Newton dealt with anyone who pointed this out by suggesting that they were being a bit too churlish about a bill that everyone wanted to succeed (thus suggesting she didn’t really understand that part of ensuring that something succeeds is pointing out any obvious flaws before it is implemented). Atkins today told MPs that she hoped the legislation would be something around which everyone could coalesce, which suggests that she may adopt the same approach of arguing that anyone who has a quibble with the detail of the Bill isn’t working in the cross-party spirit of consensus that is needed.
Of course everyone wants to fight domestic abuse: the problem is that there are going to be disagreements if the government does not offer more funding for a struggling sector alongside the Bill. There may also be controversies over the legal definition, which is much trickier politically than might first appear. There will be some social conservatives who think that emotional abuse and other non-violent forms of controlling victims aren’t something the state can really get involved in, even though domestic violence starts with controlling behaviour and moves on – if the perpetrator thinks he can get away with it – to physical abuse. Atkins is the just the sort of sharp minister you’d want working on this kind of legislation, and it’s handy that she has come so well-prepared for the job. Once she gets down to the details, she will see that creating legislation on this matter around which everyone can truly coalesce will require a great deal of wit and skill, as for it to succeed, it needs a minister who can successfully argue for a lot more money, and who can face down those who have a poor understanding of this criminal offence.