Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Dawson: I am grateful for my hon. Friend's response. I am pleased about his support for the principles of the Children Act 1989, with which I fundamentally agree. However, the problem is that the paramount principle of the 1989 Act, which is that all decisions should be made in the best interests of the child, has been compromised by case law and is being compromised by the judiciary's decisions.

I am talking not only about the re O case from 1995, to which I referred earlier, but about the re H and R case of 1995, which set out a higher standard of proof where allegations of sexual abuse against children are concerned, and the re AvN case of 1996, which set out that the welfare of the child is not paramount in the case of committal proceedings. We have a serious problem with the way in which the judiciary is interpreting that fundamental aspect of children's law in a strong media environment in which genuine concerns about children who have lost contact with their parents for various reasons are being brought to the fore, but also being misapplied to circumstances in which the protection of children needs to be emphasised over and above everything else.

My hon. Friend also does the Committee a service by setting out the clear messages in ''Safety and Justice'' about the investment that the Government are making in contact centres—it is welcome, worth while and important, but it is still not enough, because we do not have effective coverage across the country—and the work that is being done on new forms and guidelines. However, the issue is more significant than that.

In ''Safety and Justice'', the Government say that they would welcome views on whether the arrangements provide the right level of support and safety for all family members. They ask those who think that they do not do so what else should be done. The answer contained in the new clauses does not come from me; it comes from Women's Aid, the NSPCC and a plethora of other organisations that are concerned with these issues and want things to be put right.

I genuinely believe that my hon. Friends have fallen into the trap of holding the ring between what they see as the competing and perhaps equal interests of those who emphasise the benefits of shared parenting and those who emphasise the importance of safe contact. That is not an equal contest. Safe contact is imperative. I am at one with my hon. Friend in wanting there to be excellent contact arrangements for

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all children. No one wants to stop contact arrangements—even those between children and violent and abusive parents—where the child wants to have contact with the parent, but we know from deaths and abuse of children during contact visits that it is imperative that we improve the situation.

I apologise for any embarrassment that I may cause to Labour Members, because I have the greatest respect for my hon. Friends, but I am prepared to press new clauses 32 and 33.

Mr. Grieve: I have listened carefully to the debate and I am grateful that it has taken place. I have also listened with great care to the words of the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre; in due course, he might press the new clauses, as he has suggested.

As a result of listening to the debate, it seems to me that there is a distinction between new clause 8 and new clause 33. They are aimed at achieving slightly different things. The Minister has persuaded me that it is undesirable to be as prescriptive as these proposals are, particularly in respect of new clause 33, which would effectively deny a party who had been involved in any act of violence—in the break-up of a marriage, for instance—the possibility of having contact or residence with their child. That is going too far.

I have had professional experience as a barrister of marital and relationship breakdown, in which people act in ways that they subsequently regret. If their behaviour is wholly out of character and is not particularly directed at the child, but at another person, to say that there is effectively an entire presumption against there ever being residence is to lay down a rule that could turn out to be harmful to the child concerned.

On the checklist, I was partially reassured by what the Minister said. At the same time, it strikes me as an innocuous addition, but he considerably reassured me about how the courts are operating. I therefore beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

The Chairman: Do I understand correctly that you wish to press your new clauses later, Mr. Dawson?

Mr. Dawson: Yes.

The Chairman: They will come after new clause 22.

New clause 17

Register of Orders

    '(1) The Secretary of State shall cause to be prepared and maintained a register of occupation or non-molestation orders made under Part 4 of the Family Act 1996 (c.27) (family homes and domestic violence) in a form appropriate to the purposes of ready inspection by any police constable.

    (2) A court on making an order shall cause a certified copy to be sent to the Secretary of State for inclusion in the register.'.—[Mr. Heath.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

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

If we are going to vote on the previous new clauses, I had better be brief in introducing this one, which returns us rather neatly at the end of our proceedings

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to clause 1 and our discussions about the breach of non-molestation orders. If the procedure is to be effective, the police must have a mechanism by which they can know what orders are in place and therefore when an offence is committed. Otherwise, they could not possibly effect an arrest or thereby set in motion criminal proceedings. From my interpretation of what was said in another place, the Government have already conceded that point, but I hope that the Minister will tell us exactly what is proposed.

My noble Friend Lord Thomas of Gresford tabled a similar amendment in another place requiring that a register be drawn up for each police force. Baroness Scotland of Asthal rightly replied that that would not necessarily be the most helpful process. Anyone who has examined the Bichard inquiry would conclude that national rather than local databases are more likely to be effective. If people move between police authority areas, their previous history will be completely unknown in the area to which they have moved. I have tried to table a new clause that requires the creation and maintenance of a national register of orders, to which each court would be required to send a certified copy when an order is made so that it can be complete and readily accessible to police constables.

During the previous debate, in which I did not participate, one of the arguments advanced by the Under-Secretary was that it would take an inordinate amount of time to discover whether there were circumstances that would inhibit the making of a contact order. The register would help in that regard. If we had the register, there would be no reason for an inordinate delay; it would be extremely helpful for everybody concerned. He has therefore provided me with an additional argument in favour of my proposal.

I am sure that the Minister will not accept my new clause—that is the way of the world—but I hope that he will say that it is the Government's intention to create a national register. Indeed, that was the implication when Baroness Scotland suggested in another place that the Government intended to create a single database of orders. She also suggested that the creation of a register does not need to be a matter for primary legislation and therefore need not be included in the Bill. I accept that, but I argue that it would be better done through primary legislation. The Government have taken that view on other occasions. Indeed, I recall that section 98 of the Courts Act 2003 requires a

    ''Register of judgments and orders etc.''

to be created and maintained.

If it is right to have a national register of judgments and orders to try to ensure that fines or administration orders are maintained, it is more important to have the register that I propose, which is for the protection of vulnerable people. I hope that the Government will, first, confirm that they will produce such a database; secondly, tell us who will do it and how it will be arranged; thirdly, indicate the time scale in which it will be provided; and, fourthly, tell me why it is not helpful for the Bill to refer to it, as it seems entirely pertinent to its intentions and would make it work that much better.

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4.15 pm

Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset) (Con): I support the new clause because I, too, think that it should be included in the Bill. The indications from the Government are that they are minded to create a register of the sort that is proposed, but that they do not see the necessity of putting it in the Bill. The register should feature in the Bill, because that will send a message to those who will administer it that Parliament thinks that it is important.

The mechanisms for setting up a register are probably not too difficult to come by. There are registers of county court judgments, which are easily available to those who want to provide credit. The proposed register could be easily brought into play, and I support what the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome said: it is important that the proposal is included in the Bill, even if the Government believe that they will introduce it anyway. Accepting the new clause would send an important message.

Paul Goggins: I hope that my brief remarks will reassure the hon. Members for North Dorset and for Somerton and Frome and persuade them that the new clause is not needed.

When the Bill was in the other place, my noble Friend Baroness Scotland explained that the Government are already working to create a register of orders. The register's purpose is to ensure the proper enforcement of orders, and it does not require primary legislation. The register will deal with a problem that was raised in response to the ''Safety and Justice'' consultation paper on domestic violence—if someone protected by an order travels to a different area and the respondent pursues them and breaches the order, the police in that area will not be aware of the existence of the order or its terms. A central register would give all police forces access to information about orders and the ability to enforce them wherever a breach occurs.

Our current plan is to create a database that is linked to the police national computer, which would fulfil the new clause's objective of ensuring that information on the register is readily available to all police officers. We have had discussions with the Police Information Technology Organisation, which we expect to submit an outline business case and specifications, I hope by the end of August or at the latest early September.

In respect of subsection (2) of the new clause, rules of court already provide for courts to send copies of non-molestation and occupation orders to the police, and we intend to consider revising the rules to clarify those obligations. Using primary legislation to place the courts under a statutory obligation to provide such documents is therefore unnecessary. The question should not be whether the proposal is included in the Bill; what really matters is that it is put into practice—something that the Government firmly intend to do as a matter of priority. I hope that the Committee is reassured by what I have said.

 
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