Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Grieve: New clause 8 is identical, apart from one line, to new clause 32, and I am conscious that other Committee members will want to speak to it. I shall not take up much of the Committee's time, because it is largely self-explanatory.

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This is a good time to consider the extent to which we should take special precautions in respect of children's contact and residence with one parent who has been abusive towards another. This is a controversial area in a number of respects. First, allegations of abuse are sometimes brought against one parent by another specifically to influence the outcome of contact and residence proceedings. We should not lose sight of that. Secondly, as we have already discussed, breakdowns of relationships can cause people to behave in ways that they may subsequently greatly regret. The fact that they do so does not in itself mean that they are unsuitable to either reside or have contact with their children. We must also bear that in mind with great care.

Having established those two facts, we need to face up to the reality that there are occasions when the behaviour of one parent towards another may provide compelling evidence about their suitability to have contact or residence. We know also that where there has been a history of abuse, it may pose considerable problems in the context of future contact or residence of children with the abusive parent.

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman correctly refers to the issue of disputes between adults in these painful cases. Does he share my concern that the views of children are often not heard or given enough credence in courtrooms?

Mr. Grieve: That is a difficult issue. Generally, the view has been taken that the courtroom setting is a bad place to get a child's view or opinion. That is why it is generally delegated to the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service to try to ascertain that opinion outside a courtroom setting. How good CAFCASS may be at achieving that is utterly dependent on the competence and experience of the person doing the assessment.

In my professional career, I have regarded reports by CAFCASS or its predecessor with either delight or despair, depending on the way in which the assessment was carried out. Only last Friday at my surgery, a parent, perhaps improperly in the light of the issue of privilege, showed me a copy of a CAFCASS report about which they were complaining bitterly. Having read it, I thought it was a poorly drafted document by any standards. I have always taken the view, however, that bringing a child to court and asking them their opinion was a mistake. When I was first at the Bar, judges used to invite children in such cases to come to his or her room and have a chat, but I am not sure whether that helped matters much.

The new clause sets out a mandatory risk assessment checklist. I would hope that, in cases in which there has been abuse of one parent by another, the judge and the court would automatically run through such a checklist when deciding what to do. Most of the points raised are fairly obvious, but what is obvious and what happens in reality are not necessarily one and the same. There is an argument for having a mandatory risk assessment checklist, not because it must inevitably lead to the outcome of denying contact or residence with a particular parent, but because it might provide a useful tool to

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concentrate the court's mind on the essential issues that need to be considered in such circumstances.

I would not have been willing to sign my name to new clause 32 and to ask that it be considered unless the checklist made it absolutely clear that the fact that there has been abuse by a parent does not necessarily mean that that person is unsuitable either for contact or residence. I want to emphasise that point in speaking to new clause 8. I am conscious that other hon. Members will want to speak to it and to provide different angles, and because it is so closely linked to new clause 32—it is virtually identical—I should like to conclude my remarks and listen to what they and the Minister have to say about it.

Mr. Dawson: I should like to begin with new clause 33, which needs to be taken with new clause 32, which, as the hon. Gentleman said, is almost identical to new clause 8. New clause 33 is vital to protect children. I deeply regret that the checklist in new clause 8—or new clause 32—is necessary. However, the deaths of at least 23 children during contact visits in recent years will focus our minds seriously on the issue. I regard that new clause as the most significant amendment to come before this Committee.

I shall go through some of the cases. Three young children were asphyxiated by their father on a contact visit in March 2003. The four Mubiangata children were found dead in their father's burnt-out car after a contact visit. Tony Bangs, aged 12, was strangled by his father during a contact visit, and during his father's trial, it emerged that the father had also planned to murder his other two sons to take revenge on his wife for leaving him. In 2000, Daniella Hirst, aged two, was killed by her father during a contact visit in Lincolnshire. Saba and Zeeshan Zaidi, aged seven and six, were also killed in 2000 on a contact visit. The list is long, tragic and appalling. We must do everything that we can to stop adding to that dreadful list. The fact that contact and even residence orders are being made in respect of individuals with a record not only of domestic violence, but of offences against children, surely reveals that something is very seriously wrong in this country.

According to research undertaken by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and Women's Aid, among 178 Women's Aid organisations across the UK last year, 18 cases were uncovered in which unsupervised contact orders had been made in favour of fathers who had criminal records of schedule 1 offences—offences against children. In my previous existence, I took part in removing children from parents who endangered them by putting them in contact with schedule 1 offenders. The Committee and the whole House are entitled to ask what family courts are doing to address those issues.

We know that there are huge links between the issues of child protection and domestic violence. A Department of Health study of women's mental health undertaken last year acknowledged that almost three quarters of children on the at-risk register live in households where domestic violence occurs. The issues are completely interwoven, but the evidence is that family courts are ignoring the impact and severity of

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domestic violence on family life and especially on children.

We know that the Government are concerned about the impact of domestic violence on children. They have introduced not only this Bill, but the soon-to-be-implemented section 120 of the Adoption and Children Act 2002, which makes the witnessing of domestic violence a criterion for the assessment of significant harm. We know from research conducted by the university of Leeds for the Department for Constitutional Affairs that allegations of domestic violence feature in 23 per cent. of contact and residence cases. Yet, in 2002, the courts granted 61,356 contact orders and refused contact on only 518 occasions—0.8 per cent. of cases.

We know that section 1 of the Children Act 1989 sets out the fundamental principle:

    ''When a court determines any question with respect to . . . the upbringing of a child . . . the child's welfare shall be the court's paramount consideration.''

We also know that that paramountcy principle has been compromised by subsequent case law; the 1995 Appeal Court judgment re O ruled that contact is almost always in the interests of the child. Actually, it is not. It is certainly not in the interests of more than 0.8 per cent. of children who come before family courts.

The children who reported to the recent Women's Aid ''Listening to Children'' campaign, which I hosted and the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Paul Goggins), attended in Portcullis House last month, did not think that contact was in their interests. Kirsty, who is aged 15, did not think that it was. She told us that domestic violence makes her feel like she wants to kill herself. Chloe asked why the courts force children to see their dads when they are frightened of them. Another child asked, ''Why can daddy take me out of school and do I have to go?'' A very young child, for whom someone spoke their words, simply requested, ''Stop daddy from finding me.''

Research quoted in the Oxford university family policy briefing on child contact with non-resident parents indicated that it is the nature and quality of parenting that is crucial, not contact:

    ''The mere presence of fathers is not enough . . . To the extent that men remain involved in parenting after separation, or assume parenting practices they have not done before, they have a positive influence. As in intact families, the most effective way they can parent is by providing authoritative parenting . . . It is these aspects of parenting, encompassing monitoring, encouragement, love and warmth, that are consistently linked with . . . well-being''

The messages of research are that we do not need to force on children contact with violent, abusive, potentially lethal parents, because it will almost always be in their best interests not to do so. How could it be otherwise? A survey of 130 abused parents conducted by Bristol Women's Aid in 1999 elicited the disclosure that 76 per cent. of the 148 children involved had been abused sexually, physically or

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emotionally or had been neglected or even abducted during contact visits.

Let us keep things in proportion. Contact is important, safe contact is a child's right and the loss of contact on separation of parents can be a painful and damaging experience. To quote again from the Oxford university research:

    ''Contact has potential value in terms of developing the child's sense of identity, preserving links with the wider family and providing an additional source of support for children. In ordinary circumstances a parent with an established relationship with the child should not have to prove that contact is in the child's interests. It does mean however that care needs to be taken not to overestimate the presumed benefits of contact either where there is no pre-existing relationship or where there are known risks. Where there is abuse or neglect, exposure to domestic violence or severe parental conflict, contact can be extremely damaging to children.''

There were 23 deaths of children and more than 12,000 cases of domestic violence, yet contact was refused on only 518 occasions in 2002, the most recent year for which we have figures.

3.30 pm

The Government have identified links between witnessing domestic violence and significant harm, and there are indubitably links between the violent abuse of women and the violent abuse of children. These vital amendments are the most important that we can make to the Bill. They do not set out to stop contact; they set out ways in which the voice of the child can be heard and, above all, they set out to make contact safe. They would allow courts to distinguish between private law cases involving domestic violence and those cases in which it is not alleged. They would require courts to ensure that children will be safe before making any order of residence or contact to a parent who has been violent. Nobody who is concerned about the importance of maintaining good contact with both parents should oppose these amendments, nor should any father's group demonstrating anywhere about contact. Above all, nobody from a Government who demonstrate, time and again, their commitment to the protection of children should oppose them either.

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