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(a) consider the arrangements for the implementation and operation of the new scheme for children's cases under the Children Bill ; (
(b) draw together the management information requirement for operating and evaluating the effectiveness of the new scheme ; and (
(c) assess and monitor the resource consequences of the arrangements."
Column 560It will meet regularly and its first task, in addition to overseeing the implementation of this Bill, will be to decide on the detail of its work.
The programme will cover the areas of the substantive law I have already mentioned--domestic violence and rights to occupy the family home, financial provision and adoption. It will consider the linked issues of conciliation and divorce law reform, as well as the arrangements for providing support services such as guardians ad litem, welfare officers and the role of the Official Solicitor in family cases.
I hope that the House will see that the Bill makes formidable progress towards achieving a single and properly supported specialist family jurisdiction and in many aspects goes as far as is possible given its scope and progress in related areas, such as reform of the substantive law. I also hope that I have shown that there is little, if anything, in principle, as the debate will highlight in a moment--
Mr. Vaz : I am grateful to the Solicitor-General for giving way again and for setting out the criteria for the rolling programme. We are almost there in terms of an agreement. What is the timetable for the working party to consider establishing a unified family court system? Will it be one year or two? The Solicitor-General's list did not answer that. Will it be established at the start of the review or at the end? Will it happen before this Bill comes into effect?
The Solicitor-General : It is important to emphasise that this is a rolling programme. The programme will not start and stop. Many aspects are already under consideration. The Law Commission work is already well under way and it reports next year. The implementation of the provisions in the Bill will commence as soon as it reaches the statute book and much thought about its implementation has already begun. The programme will make progress in the immediate years ahead. To try to put an overall timetable on it would be foolish, but I emphasise that the programme is rolling and it will continue to roll.
I hope that I have shown that there is very little, if anything, in principle between what those who seek a family court want and what could be achievable through the Bill and the programme to which the Government are committed. I suspect that successive Governments have been impeded in making progress in the family court issue over the years by the tendency to see the problem in institutional rather than functional terms and, therefore, to see the answer in setting up--at a stroke--some new gleaming steel and glass institution with different coloured robes called a family court without recognising all the steps necessary that would be involved and, most especially, the necessary reforms to the substantive law.
Our approach examines the problem in terms of functions and its component parts and then moves step by step to reform the many matters that will make up progress to a rationalised and improving system of law and procedures dealing with family disputes and breakdowns. I believe that that is the right way to approach the matter and the Bill makes a real advance.
Column 561Members on both sides of the House. On Second Reading, apart from the Ministers who spoke, all hon. Members who referred to family courts supported the principle very firmly indeed. In Standing Committee we had a comprehensive discussion and hon. Members-- apart from the Ministers--clearly and firmly supported the principle of family courts.
The hon. Members for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims) and for Stockton, South (Mr. Devlin) spoke particularly effectively about family courts, and I am sure that they will do so again if they catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I remind the House of the views expressed by the hon. Member for Stockton, South who said, with a great deal of support from hon. Members on both sides :
"The Government will never have a better opportunity than they have now to introduce the long overdue system of family courts."--[ Official Report, Standing Committee B, 8 June 1989, c. 423.] The hon. Gentleman was right then and if he repeats those views he will be right tonight.
The Solicitor-General will be aware that I do not speak through any personal malice when I state that, notwithstanding his commitment to a working party which could have been announced earlier on Second Reading or in Standing Committee, the hon. and learned Gentleman gives me the impression that his proposal has much more to do with persuading Conservative Members not to support new clause 1 than it has with establishing the principle of family courts. I am sorry to have to tell the Solicitor-General this, but his proposal represents a pathetic little mouse of an offer in terms of realising family courts. It is a tragically lost opportunity.
Mr. Vaz : Does my hon. Friend share my disappointment about the fact that the Solicitor-General has announced this working party and the rolling programme, but he has not given an effective starting or finishing date? The programme has no timetable, so it is not much of a programme.
Mr. Clarke : I agree with my hon. Friend. The House will be aware that when my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) specifically asked the Solicitor-General whether he had a timetable in mind, he received a negative reply.
In the Government's new clause 18 there is no indication of the criteria that will be applied to decide where cases should begin their journey through the courts or the mechanisms which might be put in place to ensure their effective transfer. If some hon. Members mistakenly believe that the Solicitor-General is offering us something that is new, we should attach more importance to what the Solicitor-General said earlier when he said that the proposal was the best use of existing resources. All the advice that we have received is that the existing resources cannot begin to solve the problems and the objective of family courts could not be achieved within the limitation of existing resources.
Far from establishing family courts or offering hope for their realisation, the proposal might be an impediment to their creation. It is not simply a matter of the emperor having no clothes ; if this proposal is the best that the Government can do for family courts, it seems that we have not yet had sight of the emperor. Even the promises about the Law Commission do not offer us that prospect.
Column 562Hon. Members will be aware of the history of this issue. Much time has been wasted in trying to achieve a form of family courts and many people will be extremely disappointed with the Government's statement tonight. We all recognise the input made by our former colleague, Mrs. Rene e Short. She chaired the Select Committee on Social Services which reported in 1984 declaring that it was very enthusiastic about the prospect of establishing family courts. However, just as important, that Select Committee deplored the introduction of such a measure by dribs and drabs. My heavens, if the Government are making any kind of offer tonight, I am afraid that it represents dribs and drabs as against the very clear commitment made in new clause 1 that the measure would be introduced within 18 months.
The report produced by the Select Committee under the chairmanship of Mrs. Rene e Short was influenced by the Scottish system which had been in operation for several years. Scottish Members will not pretend that we accept that the children's panels in Scotland represent everything that we want to achieve ; they do not. The remarkable aspect of their activities is that, after 17 years, they are beginning to consider how they can develop on what has already been achieved. It is staggering that after all this time, and despite the Scottish experience identified by Rene e Short, there is no element of informal hearings or family courts elsewhere in Britain. The Solicitor-General outlined the difficulties of adapting English law to the informal system that we support but, if it was not beyond the wit of the Scottish legal system to adapt and introduce a version of family courts and children's panels, surely the English and Welsh legal systems are not so hidebound that they could not achieve the same objective if there were the will.
Prior to the introduction of children's panels in Scotland I sat as a magistrate in the juvenile court. The major change represented by children's panels in Scotland should not be underestimated. I recall children of seven and eight years of age being paraded before great formal courts for having gone into a superstore and lifted a tin of luncheon meat when they thought no one was looking. The fear of being before such a court and its aura were appalling. As one who experienced and deplored that system and saw a dramatic change when family courts in the shape of children's panels were introduced, I have no doubts about the advantages of the new system, and I believe that the experience of those involved supports that submission. We do not have to look to other parts of the United Kingdom as we discuss an English and Welsh Bill. Both Conservative and Opposition Members stated clearly their enthusiasm for the established success of family courts in Canada, New Zealand, the United States of America and Australia. We welcome informality, and accept that such courts already demonstrate that the welfare of the child is paramount. Above all, we welcome the non-adversarial nature of family courts and the genuine conciliation that is possible, as opposed to
reconciliation--important though that may be.
Where children are involved as witnesses, people are brought together in an informal setting and made to feel that they have a vested interest in the success of the agreement reached. That historical success should not be underestimated. Too often today professional lawyers see themselves as winners or losers. They seek a clear decision one way or the other and, sadly, when a child is involved,
Column 563the prize to be won or lost is the welfare or future of that child. In view of the evidence that we have heard today, surely that is unacceptable.
Yet again, the Solicitor-General asks us to wait. This time he told us that a commission will be set up and in due course--at a date unknown, unless he clarifies it later in the debate--will produce a report. With great respect --
Mr. Clarke : I was referring specifically to the proposal for a working party. The Solicitor-General referred several times to a rolling programme. He did not give the impression that action would be taken urgently.
We have had the advantage of the recommendations of the Finer report for 15 years. Is that not enough time? How much longer are people--especially children and families--expected to wait? We have heard far too many excuses from the Lord Chancellor's Department, I accept, on whose behalf, the Solicitor-General is expected to speak. Five years ago we were told that there was uncertainty about costs. Three years ago we were advised to wait for the civil justice review--yet another review. Now we are asked to see how the legislation works out. Why?
There is tremendous support for the concept of the family court. Baroness Faithfull, who follows our discussions with great interest, put up a noble fight. She is supported by the Family Courts Campaign, which is also to be highly commended. If their collective efforts as well as those of Barnardo's British Agencies' for Adoption and Fostering, British Association of Social Workers, Children's Legal Centre, Children's Society, Family Rights Group, National Children's Bureau, National Children's Homes, and a host of other informed bodies, has met with so little success, we are entitled to conclude that the influence of the Government's barristers is out of all proportion to their numbers and wisdom.
The Solicitor-General referred to the view of the president of the Family Division. There is a degree of vested interest, which does not suggest that the views of consumers have been taken on board. The Government's response to the call for family courts is woefully inadequate, and nothing that the Solicitor-General said changes that. It reveals a wilful misunderstanding of the nature of the path that the Government are being urged to tread.
Lord Denning said :
"While our substantive law has changed beyond all recognition our procedural law remains embedded in the past a hotch-potch of courts and procedures that have never been brought up to date."
Yet the Government's new clause 18 simply renames the domestic panel of the magistrates court and the business transacted there. It does nothing more than seek to establish concurrent jurisdiction for the five courts that deal with family matters and perhaps leave a marker for rules and regulations to facilitate transferring cases between the courts. The same criticism is true of Government amendment No. 353.
The Solicitor-General may feel that we are treating his commitment with some scepticism, but the Government's position reminds me of St. Augustine's prayer :
"Oh Lord, make me chaste, but not yet."
Column 564We have heard "not yet" for too long. The Opposition's new clause offers an alternative, unified system that would be served by adequate conciliation services and seeks to develop expertise among the judiciary, administrators and professionals. Above all, it would be organised to gain public confidence.
It is not without significance that the Society of County Secretaries has claimed :
"With a family court in being, we cannot see that the Cleveland situation could have developed."
The case for family courts is overwhelming and before we return the Bill to another place we should seize the opportunity that it offers in the interests of millions of our children. They are everybody's children. It is not simply a case of dismissing children who might appear before present courts or future family courts as being naughty or difficult--somebody else's children. They are the children of Great Britain. They are entitled to a sympathetic ear and, in many cases, entitled to make their contribution to solving the problems that are being discussed. We are considering their futures.
Not to deal with this matter in a positive way would be to betray the honest bipartisan approach that has characterised the passage of the Bill in both Houses. It would also represent a betrayal of the intelligent and thoughtful work of the Committee and of the other place. It would be a betrayal of the professionals who are active in this matter, and a betrayal of the expectations of the House and of the citizens whose interests we seek to promote. In that spirit I commend new clause 1 to the House and look forward to its unanimous approval.
Mrs. Elizabeth Peacock (Batley and Spen) : I and many other people in this country have studied family courts for many years. They will play an important part in future family welfare. Each year, there are about 670,000 petitions and applications on what may be termed family issues. That means that more than 2 million people come into contact with some aspects of family law each year. That contact is almost inevitably confused and confusing, because proceedings can take place simultaneously in several courts. My hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General referred to that point in his opening remarks. For example, a wife who is married to a violent man may bring proceedings in the magistrates court for an exclusion order and, at the same time, petition for divorce in the county court. The local authority may already have taken care proceedings in the juvenile court and may have made the woman's children wards of the High Court. That demonstrates how complicated such issues are.
The variety of jurisdictions can only lead to unreasonable delay, and lawyers incur unreasonable costs during such delay. It is vital for a family court to encompass many jurisdictions and gather them together in a coherent body. Perhaps the Government should change their priorities. My hon. and learned Friend is wrong to want to perfect the substantive law before setting about reforming the procedure. I listened carfully to what my hon. and learned Friend said about that matter. However, a lawyer spends more time and incurs more cost in manipulating procedures, often on his client's instructions, than in considering the substantive law. In an adversarial system, the procedure provides a lawyer with most of his armoury. If we remove procedural problems before we deal with substantive legal problems we may obtain
Column 565questionable legal results. That could be a drawback, but at least a result will be reached and all parties will know where they stand. The Government have set out their intentions, and we must work realistically around them to enable future reform to take place. The important question that we should ask my hon. and learned Friend is how long we must wait for the working party and for its recommendations to be implemented. Cost is always a vital factor in reform, particularly in relation to family law proceedings. I am not one of those who consider that a family court would lead to a cost saving--it most certainly would not-- nor do I believe that its introduction could be achieved at a relatively small cost. It will require a large amount of money to do the job properly.
Perhaps a new court system will be required--preferably a three-tiered system. A vital appointment in that three-tier arrangement would be a family court registrar, who would be the entry point for all family cases. He or she would allocate business to a basic working tier or to an upper tier that deals with appeals or first instance cases of exceptional importance. A body of judicial officers would also be needed to man the new court system. They would all need to be fully trained in aspects of law, adjudication, conciliation and so on.
There must be a mix of judges, family professionals and magistrates. The latter group would be of great importance, as the great majority of family court officers will have been magistrates. Magistrates have experience of adjudication and the community, which will be necessary in the new system that I propose.
I disagree with those who argue for the exclusion of magistrates because of their lack of understanding of the real world. That accusation could have been made many years ago, but it certainly does not apply to magistrates today. Although I have sat as a magistrate, I am not doing so at the moment, so I am not thinking about my own contribution. However, I certainly have experience. Since being appointed in 1975, I have had experience with the juvenile bench, domestic court proceedings and adoption proceedings. Perhaps just a little of what I learnt during those years brings me to my present-day conclusions.
New, separate buildings to house the family court would be required. That is essential to give the new system an identity of its own, which is what we all want, and to give the parties involved a clear appreciation of its new role. There must also be some provision for conciliation in a family court, and the bench must perform a more inquisitorial role than at present. I recognise that there is danger in both approaches. Parties could be regarded as clients rather than as parties to a legal dispute. However, although the court must perform a legal function, the introduction of comprehensive in-court conciliation may help to lessen some of the tensions that arise in family matters. Over many years we have paid insufficient attention to conciliation and, in some cases, reconciliation.
In-court conciliation began in 1971. Although it has become more of a buzz word in recent years, it is not particularly new. It has some faults, the greatest of which is that parties may regard it as part and parcel of the adversarial process. Also, parties may feel under pressure to reach agreement. In New Zealand, where the court
Column 566performs an inquisitorial role, parties who refuse to attend conciliation are encouraged to think again. Perhaps that is not such a bad idea in our present society.
However, such drawbacks as I have recognised are preferable to the indecision that results from out-of-court conciliation, because agreements are not legally binding and are often made on incomplete facts due to lack of financial information. In-court conciliation must be a vital element in any family court system. It would be nonsensical to set up a new system without it.
We could have an extremely long debate on family courts, as they are an important part of this legislation. Hon. Members discuss legislation affecting children and families perhaps once every decade. We must ensure that, when we legislate for the welfare of children in this decade, we get it right. We have a great responsibility to make sure that the legislation will ensure good provision for future family life and children in particular.
Mr. Robert Hughes : When I intervened in the Solicitor-General's speech to ask whether family courts would deal with the issue of so-called "transracial" adoptions, he helpfully advised me that the Law Commission was looking at the whole issue of adoption. If I heard him aright, I think that he said that the report was expected next year. I do not know whether that time scale is the optimum one for receiving such a report, but in my view we must move much faster and further than we are at present.
I am gravely concerned at some trends in fostering and adoption practice. The first priority must always be the needs of the children ; their needs must be paramount. I understand and accept that many adoptive parents-- perhaps the majority--wish to adopt a child in their own image, as the saying goes. However, that is not necessarily always the case.
I know of a couple who have successfully adopted a child of mixed parentage. A few years ago they saw an advert in either The Observer or The Guardian seeking a foster home, with a view to adoption, for a girl of mixed race who was then in a children's home in the care of the local authority. I believe that the couple did nothing at the time, believing erroneously that the child would soon be placed with a satisfactory couple and be well looked after. However, a year later virtually the same advert appeared in whichever newspaper it was. The child was still in care--still living in a children's home, with apparently no prospect of fostering or adoption. The couple wrote to the local authority concerned, expressing their interest and explaining their experience and background.
They were astonished and astounded to receive a reply stating that they could not be considered because they were white and the authority's policy was to place such children with black families. The reaction of that family was unprintable and, in recounting their story to the House, I would be out of order if I attempted to repeat that reaction.
As far as is known the girl is still in the care of the local authority and still in a children's home. I believe that that is intolerable, that it is not good social work practice, and that it is certainly not in the interests of the child. I do not accept--indeed, I entirely reject--the theory that such practice helps to foster a non-racial society. I do not accept
Column 567that the race of a father or mother irrevocably classes a child in the narrow way that social work practice mistakenly assumes in such an arbitrary fashion.
Anyone who has knowledge of adoption knows and understands that there are difficulties when a child is adopted. At some time adoptive children may-- and will--suffer an identity crisis and encounter real difficulties when they discover that their father and mother are not their natural parents. So-called "transracial" adopted children do not undergo more severe crises than adopted children who might be adopted in, as is sometimes said, the image of the parents. The problem at the moment is that the social workers involved--I acknowledge that are concerned--go to extremes to try to justify their policies. I accept that they are sincere, but I believe that they are disgracefully mistaken. Some of the ways in which they seek to denounce those who, like myself, argue in favour of the adoption of mixed- race children by parents of any colour--white or black--are intolerable and disgraceful and do not help in the serious debates that we should be having.
Every family may have times of trauma when bringing up children. Anyone who has had natural children knows that that happens in ordinary families. The problems of adopted children can be dealt with just as easily and just as readily by concerned parents, irrespective of whether they are adoptive or whether they are the "right" racial mix, according to the social workers. The only factors to be taken into account in this matter are the needs of the child. If the race classification argument that is sometimes forced down people's throats in the public debate on this came from South Africa, the people who oppose "transracial" adoptions would throw up their hands in horror and cry that this is an apartheid society. If we believe--as I do-- in a truly non-racial society in this country, it is grotesque that any social work practice should seek to classify children by race and so determine social work policy.
The needs of the children should always be paramount and the children should always be put first. An abstract theory should never take precedence over the real needs of real children and their relevance to today's society and real world.
I hope that the Minister who replies to the debate will make it perfectly clear that the Government will press ahead rapidly with a proper code of social work practice. I hope that that will be one of their first priorities when drawing up the details of the ways in which the family courts will operate. I hope that that will feature as one of the first details when they flesh out the bones of what is now an inadequately drafted new clause.
Mr. Devlin : First, I thank the hon. Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke) for his kind remarks, supporting what I said in Committee. It is interesting to note that new clause 1, tabled by the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends, has the exact text of the all-party amendment that I tabled in Committee with the support of five other hon. Members, from all three parties. I notice that some of those hon. Members are present.
At the same time, I commend new clause 30 to the House. It gives a much more detailed treatment of the topic and has found its way miraculously into new schedule 9A. It has received 37 signatures, including from most of the hon. Members who have signed new clause 1.
Column 568The reason why I am in some difficulty in supporting the hon. Member for Monklands, West and his colleagues tonight is twofold. First, the subject matter of the amendment is redundant, having been covered as far as possible by the new clause moved by the Government. Secondly, those parts of the intention of the new clause that are not covered by Government amendments are beyond the scope of the Bill, with one notable exception. Therefore, I am slightly surprised to see that what was a probing amendment in Committee has now returned as new clause 1. It must have been tabled before Her Majesty's Opposition had considered the Government's further proposals. It was a great honour and privilege to carry this provision as a banner for the Family Court Campaign in Committee. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe), the hon. Members for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz), for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell), for Southport (Mr. Fearn) and for Ynys Mo n (Mr. Jones) joined me in tabling that amendment in Committee. We were further supported by effective interventions from my hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims), the hon. Members for Eccles (Miss Lestor), for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding), for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe), my hon. Friends the Members for Salisbury (Mr. Key), and for Batley and Spen (Mrs. Peacock) and from the hon. Member for Monklands, West. In other words, 13 out of 18 hon. Members serving on the Committee supported the amendment. I remind the House that the other five were the two Ministers, their Parliamentary Private Secretaries and the Government Whip. In an effort to persuade us to withdraw the amendment, my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General announced that the Bill was the beginning of a rolling programme of reform. Many of us therefore look forward to some announcements tonight that will tell us that in the Queen's Speech further reforms will be put before us. Furthermore, my hon. and learned Friend argued that fuller Government proposals would be presented on Report. I believe that they are now included in new clauses 18, 23 and 28.
The reason why the establishment of a family court is long overdue is not only that such an improvement was suggested 15 years ago in the Finer report but that since then the full statistical horror of cases involving children has been magnified. Since June, when we last discussed this matter, Relate--formerly the marriage guidance council--has published last year's figures. They show that 149,000 children were caught up in divorces last year. Nearly 1,000 per week were under-five. Divorce costs the country about £35 million per day in fees, court costs and social security payments. Last year 151,000 marriages ended in divorce. Whilst that process is extremely painful for the adults involved, it is often the children who suffer most, regressing whilst parents go through the difficulty of getting their own lives back together. Each year, of the 30,000 cases of physically, mentally or sexually abused children, a good section of the abuse is perpetrated by the mother's boyfriend, the stepfather or even stepbrothers. Duplication, alternation and confusion abound in our court system, yet millions of people have a pressing need for the reform of procedure proposed by the Opposition.
The Finer report, published all those years ago, proposed a unified family court to eradicate the hotchpotch of conflicting legislation and different jurisdictions. The new court was to adopt an inquisitorial
Column 569rather than an adversarial approach. It was to be based on six principles--that there should be impartial adjudication according to law, a unified system of family law, the provision of the best possible conciliation facilities, a team of professionally trained social workers, that there should be a close relationship with social security law and that the whole thing should be organised in such a way as to gain public confidence.
In 1979 further proposals were made by the Law Society, in 1982 by the Justices Clerks Society, in 1984 by the Association of District Registrars and County Courts. In 1984 the Select Committee on Social Services went further and said :
"The introduction of a family court system could offer the possibility of a significantly better deal for children and parents."
The hon. Member for Monklands, West has not only stolen my amendment, but he has stolen my speech as he mentioned that the Cleveland affair might have been prevented by a family court system. I will not repeat that point nor the list of organisations supporting the Family Courts Campaign because they are far too extensive to mention. Looking back over the past 15 years it is clear that a strong case was made right from the start. The Government sought to avoid the need for action with a variety of ruses and excuses. First, they spoke about cost, then they said that what was asked for was too vague. They also said that there was no precedent. Now they say that they are already planning such a court system, but, tonight, they say that it is beyond the scope of the Bill.
At last in this Bill we have made some essential headway towards our new system of justice for families. Since the Whips are wandering around bullying people I shall quickly examine the Minister's proposals which he has said
"go further and are drafted more carefully than the amendments."--[ Official Report, Standing Committee B, 8 June 1989 ; c. 451.] I note that my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) is approaching, but I shall not give way to him. I can assure the Opposition that I have not had my knuckles broken nor have I been offered a holiday in the Bahamas to avoid making this speech. New clause 18 sets up family proceedings courts and family proceedings panels. They would be the newly reconstituted magistrates court part of the family court. The rest is left to the Lord Chancellor to make orders with respect to what that court can do. The next new clause that the Government rely on is new clause 23, which is pregnant with good potential, but one that may not be carried into execution. The procedure can be altered, parties can be redesignated and the whole new classes of evidence can be demanded. A registrar can deal with initial applications, just as we suggested, and ex parte proceedings rules can also be made. New clause 28 goes further with respect to procedure to be adopted. I appeal to the Solicitor-General to use the clauses as imaginatively as possible to ensure the effect of what the Family Courts Campaign is calling for is carried out.
Altogether the Government have done an excellent job with the clauses to meet many of the demands of the family courts campaign--or as many as they think are possible at the moment. Rab Butler once reminded the House that
"Politics is the art of the possible."
Column 570The Government, however, could do a great deal more and they could go a great deal further, but perhaps not in this Bill. New clause 30, which is supported by many hon. Members, must show them the way forward.
However, I shall measure the Government's proposals so far against the original six recommendations of the Finer committee so that I can draw attention to the obvious gap that I see. There is no doubt that the Government proposals will continue to provide an impartial adjudication according to law. Those proposals, as well as the Bill in general, which I remind the House, deals with children only, moves us much closer to a unified system of family law with new amendments. Trained social workers working with the courts find their place in the Bill. Public confidence will undoubtedly be enhanced by the greater powers given to parents, grandparents and, of course, children.
The gap--here it is--is in the provision of the conciliation service alongside the new procedure. During the summer recess I attempted to find out from the Attorney-General, the Lord Chancellor and even from the Prime Minister what the future of conciliation services will be. The answer, if one can call it that from the usual Civil Service stonewalling, is that with the report of the Newcastle study project under review and with, in any case, the Law Commission re-examining and reporting on the law of divorce next year, there is no answer just yet. Unfortunately, as I said in my earlier intervention, in the meantime our excellent conciliation service in many parts of the country--I mention Cleveland specifically--will go to the wall for lack of funding. However, conciliation is a fundamental of any family court system which the Government may later attempt to establish. In the meantime, it is also a successful tool in the resolution of disputes.
Let me recap the findings of the New Zealand conciliation service--19 per cent. of those who went to the conciliation service resumed the marriage, 39 per cent. reached full understanding, 16 per cent. went back for guidance and 26 per cent. only reached no agreement. The Relate figures show that, in English terms, 200 children a week under the age of five could be saved from the pain of parental divorce if there was a properly funded conciliation service in this country.
Even if I am in an optimistic mood today, it seems that the Government are moving slowly down the road to proper conciliation services just as they are progressing to a family court. The excuses, however, are the same. On 8 June in Committee at column 465 the Solicitor-General argued about the cost of the service and in the next paragraph he deployed the vagueness argument. In column 466 he argued that there was no precedent. In a letter since received from the Prime Minister and from the Lord Chancellor I hear that we are already planning something. So long as the Solicitor-General or the Attorney-General argue that such conciliation services are beyond the scope of the Bill we should look forward to some serious and far-reaching reforms to be introduced in the next Queen's Speech. What has my hon. and learned Friend offered us tonight? He has offered to gather together all the officials from all the relevant Departments into one splendiferous committee, which will consider all the aspects of family law. It will consider the implementation of the Children
Column 571Bill and evaluate the efficiency of the Bill and look at the resource implications of change. It will consider conciliation and the law relating to divorce. It will also consider the support services. Has anyone in the House any idea how many civil servants will be involved in that exercise? It will have to run into hundreds. Has anyone any idea how long it takes hundreds of civil servants to make up their minds about anything? It will take absolutely years. We are talking about another 15-year rolling programme before we get the matter back before the House. I ask the Solicitor-General whether that rolling programme will roll out in the life of the Government. Unless the Solicitor -General can come up with a more satisfactory timescale, I may have to go back to supporting the Opposition in their amendment.
What is on offer now after 15 years is that the civil servants have won. If the choice tonight is between the will of the House and the will of a huge committee of civil servants from all the different Departments discussing until kingdom come what the future law of the family will be, I shall support the will of the House.
Mrs. Rosie Barnes (Greenwich) : I shall speak briefly in favour of a policy of speedy implementation of family courts. A less adversarial judicial system for family matters has been advocated for many years. While I welcome the minor shift in the Government's mood in this direction, I, along with many others, feel that this is an invaluable opportunity, perhaps the only opportunity for a decade or more, for the Government to take it much further and commit themselves wholeheartedly to the full establishment of family courts.
The Bill unifies the law relating to children. As the White Paper, "The Law on Child Care and Family Services" of January 1987 stated : "it would not be sensible to make decisions on most of the Child Care Review's recommendations concerning jurisdiction in advance of a decision on the family court issue".
The Bill, which has consolidated much of the law relating to children, provides the right opportunity to make a decision on family courts.
One of the most important elements of this issue that has been much debated tonight is conciliation, which has been extremely effective in other countries. Not only is it highly desirable in itself, but it can lead to massive savings in legal aid. Earlier this year the Lord Chancellor's advisory committee on legal aid reported that a family court could make savings of up of £14 million in legal aid. Although I accept that to introduce family courts would have considerable cost implications in other spheres, this element must not be ignored. Both branches of the legal profession and all those working in the area of family breakdown have long been convinced that family courts are the only economic, effective and appropriate way of dealing with family law matters. It is difficult to understand the Government's reluctance to embrace this measure wholeheartedly. We have skirted around it for far too long and should move rapidly towards a commitment in this direction. I look forward to hearing what sort of time scale is proposed for this long, rolling, decision-making process about which many of us are cynical.
Mr. Roger Sims (Chislehurst) : My interest in the cause of family courts is long standing and is on record. In our discussions in Committee I referred to the fact that the appearance of the Finer report, with its advocacy of family
Column 572courts, coincided with my election to the House in 1974, and that soon afterwards I convened a conference on the issue. I hasten to assure the House that I have no intention of repeating my Committee speech here. In response to pleas over the years from me and others, the Government have consistently taken the line that they must first get the law right and then they can alter the structure of the court.
Let us at least give the Government some credit for not waiting until they have got the law right or until the Bill is enacted but have decided to start the process now. They have decided to adopt an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary approach or, to use my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General's expression, a rolling programme. Certainly, my hon. and learned Friend has announced some important steps this evening. I should like to have heard a lot more, but we have to be realistic and we cannot ignore the fact that a family court would have to cover a number of issues that are not the subject of the Bill and could not feasibly be added to it. Certainly, I have no criticism of Opposition Front Bench spokesmen seeking to raise this issue again, despite the fact that we discussed it fully in Committee. Apart from anything else, it has given my hon. and learned Friend the opportunity to expand on the remarks that he made to the Committee, and his contribution was most helpful. However, it would be a pity if the Opposition were to divide the House on this matter, which I understand they are considering. Apart from incommoding a number of hon. Members on both sides of the House, it would undermine the bipartisan approach to the Bill which has been a feature of our proceedings and to which the hon. Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke) referred.
My hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General referred to the interdepartmental working party and what it is to do. I am sure that he will understand that, while we realise that it cannot specify a timetable, there is a suspicion that a working party is a vehicle for inaction rather than action. I hope that before the end of this debate he will assure us that this rolling programme will roll and not simply creak.
Many of us would like to see many more suggestions included within the proposals. However, what my hon. and learned Friend has suggested this evening is certainly more realistic than the over-ambitious measures understandably advocated by the Opposition Front Bench. My hon. and learned Friend has explained why he has not incorporated conciliation services into the new pattern which he has outlined. However, I endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Devlin) said about the value of such services which have been running for a number of years.
In my area of Bromley we have one of the pioneers of the conciliation services. There are now 50 services affiliated to the National Family Conciliation Council. A feature of those services is that they have all been set up on a local basis, all been a product of local initiatives and every one of them is now struggling for funds.
I am aware that the Newcastle project report is under consideration but my hon. and learned Friend will remember that the report states :
"conciliation generates important social benefits and rationalisation of it is a priority need."
I hope that the rolling programme will consider this matter as one of urgency. The danger is that, meanwhile, the conciliation services might wither, which would be disastrous.
Column 573I plead with my hon. and learned Friend for adequate interim funding. He does not have to commit himself as to what form the conciliation services will take in the final structure of the family court, but it is important that they should be preserved in their present form. I urge him to support them as much as he can.
Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones (Ynys Mo n) : Hitherto the Government have been reluctant to give us a firm view on the establishment of a family court. In Committee we were able to recap the way in which successive Governments, but mainly this Government, have sidelined the issue, principally because it would cost money to set it up. In the past 15 years there have been a report, two consultation papers and an interdepartmental committee.
I recall a former Cabinet Minister telling an after dinner audience that when he was in trouble on a policy matter he would go to Cabinet to demand that it set up an interdepartmental committee. Therefore, it hardly inspires confidence when the Solicitor-General tells us that there is to be yet another interdepartmental working party. However, let us not be churlish, because pressure from the family courts campaign and other groups has paid off in some respects. The Government have had no alternative but to respond in view of the growing and increasingly well-argued case for the family court. Let us examine some of the Government initiatives which were conveniently set out in their response to the report by the Social Services Select Committee. First, they say that the Children Bill creates concurrent jurisdiction in the High Court, the county court and the magistrates court, which will hear proceedings under this Bill and in cases of adoption. The Lord Chancellor, we are told, will have power to provide for the allocation of cases within the hierarchy of the courts, and the Government hope to arrange for judges and registrars with expertise in this field to be responsible for the conduct of such cases.
We have also heard that, with regard to magistrates courts, a family proceedings court is to be established and magistrates are to have special training. There will be more reliance on the use of written documents--I welcome that approach--and magistrates will be expected to have read them before the hearing and to give reasons for their decisions. In other words, the court is to have a more active role in the conduct of cases.
Procedure in the courts is to be streamlined, and cases involving disputes that may have started in different courts will be merged so that they can be dealt with together. All these measures are to be welcomed, although a note of caution must be entered, in that the Government say that most care and supervision-related cases will be suitable for hearing by the family proceedings court--that is, by lay magistrates. One cannot escape the conclusion that that is done for reasons of cost--it is much cheaper to administer justice through the lay magistracy. The view that I have always held is that family courts should be a unified court with lay magistrates sitting either with a judge or, in some cases, a registrar.
Although there are powers to transfer cases between courts, some delays are inevitable as some administrative procedures will have to be carried out by at least two sets of court officials. However, all the Government's