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Presumption of equal parenting

'(1)   The Children Act 1989 (c.41) is amended as follows.

(2)   After section 1(1) (paramount consideration is welfare of the child) insert—

"(1A)   In respect of subsection (1)(a) above the court shall, unless a contrary reason be shown, act on the presumption that a child's welfare is best served through residence with its parents and, if its parents are not living together, through residence with one of them and through both of them being as fully and equally involved in his parenting as possible.".'.— [Mr. Grieve.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Grieve: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The purpose of the new clause is to amend the Children Act 1989 to provide a subsidiary measure to that in section 1 of the Act dealing with the child's welfare being of paramount consideration, so as to make it absolutely clear that the intention—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. The conversations that are breaking out throughout the House are making it difficult to hear the hon. Member who is addressing us.

Mr. Grieve: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The intention behind the new clause is to make it clear that, subject to the welfare of the child being the paramount consideration, it should also be the case that a presumption exists that a child should live with their parents and that, in the event of the breakdown of a family relationship, both parents should have as equal and full a possibility to provide input into their child's life. The proposal was the subject of what I regret to say was a rather ill-tempered debate in Committee. I am slightly surprised that that should be the case because I would have expected the Minister for Children, Young People and Families to support the sentiments underlying the new clause.

The position is extraordinary. Part I of the Children Act states that, when a court makes a determination,

a matter on which I have absolutely no dispute. Sections 2 and 3 of the Act restate our common law principles, slightly amended, that it is the parents who have parental responsibility for their children. I am sure that the Minister would not disagree with that, otherwise we would have a situation akin to "1984" in which children can be arbitrarily removed from their parents at birth. Yet when we come to part II, dealing with the important issue of how a court approaches divorce, or indeed when
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we come to the parts of the Act that deal with care proceedings, the principles set out earlier in the Act are, surprisingly, not provided for at all. The issue—that the child's welfare is the paramount consideration—is simply left in the air.

That is why we have proposed the new clause. I make it clear to the Minister, for the avoidance of doubt, that it does not seek in any way to undermine the principle that the court should have paramount regard to a child's welfare, but it does seek to provide a framework within which the child's welfare interests are defined.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): It is a great shame that we do not have sufficient time to explore the issue properly but in stating clearly that the child's welfare is paramount—the hon. Gentleman has done so without equivocation, for which I am grateful—and in putting forward a proposal that one doubts will take us further than case law in terms of its effect, rather than its intention, does he agree that the most fruitful area for looking at more effective arrangements might have been the early interventions programme, which the Government have failed to implement as part of their family resolutions and which would have provided a pre-court arrangement?

Mr. Grieve: I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman and I share his regret at the fact that the Government have not implemented the early interventions programme. We need such a programme; indeed, it is essential. However, I also believe that until we alter the principles in the statute, we cannot start driving home the message that people must co-operate to ensure that on the break-up of a marriage, both parents have the real possibility of a full and fruitful relationship with their children, so that they can have an input into their lives.

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): Does my hon. Friend accept that however welcome his comments are, the reality is that, regardless of the law's intention, the courts are biased in favour of the mother?

Mr. Grieve: I appreciate that that may have been a problem, but there has been considerable movement on that front. What is undoubtedly true is that the resident parent currently has a stranglehold over the ability to enable contact with the non-resident parent to work, be it the mother or the father. In many cases that might not be a problem, and the parties involved might be able to co-operate. But for the 10 per cent. of cases in which the parties involved are not willing to co-operate, there is no framework, despite the judiciary's best endeavours, through which to put relentless pressure on the resident parent to co-operate properly with court orders. So although one might get a contact order, it becomes meaningless, or contact is reduced to such a tiny level that is soon fizzles out, as inevitably it must. We have to address that.

Mr. Dawson: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Grieve: I am sorry but I cannot; I want to give the Minister time to respond.

New clause 5 goes some way towards redressing the balance, and establishes a framework that in no way undermines the other parts of the 1989 Act. Indeed, on
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considering how to amend that Act, I initially contemplated tackling part II, but I concluded that it did not require reform; rather, what needed amending were the general principles. I hope that the Minister will accept the new clause in that spirit, and I look forward to hearing a positive response from her.

Margaret Hodge: I have only three minutes to deal with new clause 5, but I should point out that I am absolutely delighted that we have flushed out the position that the Opposition are attempting to take. This is an extremely difficult, high profile, contentious and controversial issue, and the Opposition have tried to jump on a bandwagon. At best, they are being disingenuous; at worst, they are being opportunistic. In my view, they have tried to exploit many fathers' quite proper frustration and misery at not seeing their children by raising false hopes—that is particularly true of the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May)—and have led people to believe that they would legislate for equal parenting and 50:50 residence. We have exposed that opportunism—

Mr. Grieve: Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Margaret Hodge: No, I will not. This is another of the ill-thought out, hastily constructed and opportunistic policies that are designed to gain support from any quarter on any issue, in order to save a dying party. What an appalling way to exploit genuine human distress and misery.

We recognise that although the current system has the paramountcy of the interests of the child at its heart, it is not working as well as it should. That is why we have published a Green Paper, and why we are pursuing the "family resolutions" pilots that are up and running in three places. We know, as the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) himself knows, that under existing case law, in 99.2 per cent. of cases that go to court, contact between children and both their parents is maintained. We agree with the Opposition that the child's best interests are served by both parents maintaining responsibility for that child where it is safe for them to do so. We want to speed up the system and to introduce more mediation and conciliation. We also want to give the courts a wider array of appropriate enforcement measures to ensure that parents comply with court orders. What we will not do is to be populist in the short term against the interests of children in these very difficult situations, and we will not exploit emotions—

It being quarter past Four o'clock, Mr. Deputy Speaker proceeded to put the Question already proposed from the Chair, pursuant to Order [this day],

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—

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