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Family Justice

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): I announce to the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

7.15 pm

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): I beg to move,

The subject is a highly charged and immensely sensitive issue for us to debate. We are dealing with not only matters of law but people's feelings and lives. Most important, we are dealing with the lives of children, who look to us as politicians, to the courts and, most fundamentally, to their parents to protect them.

Family justice has become clouded with purple powder and people dressed as Batman, but we must not forget that the fundamental reason for debating the issue is to ensure the best outcome for our children. I accept that all hon. Members aspire to that, yet the stark reality is that too many children lose contact with parents who love them and too many families are torn apart, often spending miserable years trapped in our family court system, which offers little light at the end of a long tunnel.

Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, president of the family division, admits that 40 per cent. of children lose all contact with the non-resident parent in two years. Sadly, there are some cases in which one parent simply walks away from the family, but there are also many cases in which one parent finds the system weighted against them. All those cases involve children who have lost a parent and parents who have lost a child whom they love. The bonds are easily broken and difficult, if not impossible, to mend.

If the figures are true, we have a fundamental problem with the way in which our family justice system serves the children whom it purports to protect. Perhaps we now come to the first misconception of the Government's approach. The amendment refers to the need to ensure that the interests of children are paramount. I am sure that the Minister will repeat that. Our motion states that we are committed to protecting the child's best interests and that, when safety is not a factor, both parents should be actively involved in the child's upbringing. Let me be clear: we do not believe that the two proposals are mutually exclusive. We are determined to protect children from abuse and we are not prepared to jeopardise safety. However, we
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believe that the child's best interests must come first and that it is in those best interests for both mother and father to be involved in the lives of their children. Unlike the Government, we do not believe that one precludes the other.

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre) (Lab): Given that, sadly, domestic violence remains drastically under-reported, given that child abuse often goes unnoticed or unheeded and given that the voices of children are not satisfactorily heard in our family justice system, how does the right hon. Lady intend to ensure that children are protected?

Mrs. May: The hon. Gentleman is right that we have cause for concern about domestic violence and child abuse. However, child abuse does not happen simply when there are divorced parents. Sadly, it can happen in a variety of circumstances. The campaign that The Sun launched today with the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children highlights the many cases of child abuse that occur. We are not suggesting that, where one partner has been the perpetrator of domestic violence or child abuse, they should have the automatic right of access that others should have. The hon. Gentleman must accept that there are many cases going through our courts today involving fathers—and, in some cases, mothers—who have been estranged and prevented from having contact with their children, not because of domestic violence or abuse but simply because the system allows a parent to use their child as a weapon or a prize, and to deny access to the other parent.

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

Mrs. May: No, I will make a little more progress before I give way again.

Why, in the vast majority of cases, is a parent who is deemed fit to look after, care for and protect their child until the moment they decide to divorce suddenly forced to beg the court for time with that child? We believe that that illustrates the fundamental flaw in the family court system.

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

Mrs. May: I want to make a little progress. I will happily give way to the hon. Gentleman later.

Mr. Dawson: This is absolute nonsense.

Mrs. May: The hon. Gentleman may mutter that from a sedentary position, but I suggest that he reads the e-mails and letters in my postbag, and listens to the cases that come into my constituency advice clinic. They involve fathers who cannot have proper contact with their children because of the operation of the family justice system.

I am happy to support the view that the Government express in their Green Paper on parental separation. The hon. Gentleman might be interested to know that the Green Paper states:

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Those are not my words. That is a direct quote from the Government's Green Paper. We also emphatically agree with the Government's description of what should happen in court:

Vera Baird (Redcar) (Lab): It is perfectly clear that the Conservatives' motion would not only demote the paramountcy of the child's welfare and make it a mere "priority" but introduce a legal presumption that any parent should be entitled to contact, irrespective of what they had done, as long as they did not present a danger. Is that really what the right hon. Lady intends? Will she explain why she is specifically removing the paramountcy of the child's welfare?

Mrs. May: I admire many of the speeches that the hon. and learned Lady has made in the House, but the comments that she has just made are not worthy of her. If she reads the motion, she will see that we continue to give priority to the best interests of the child, and we expressly state that we are talking about cases in which safety is not a concern.

Vera Baird: The right hon. Lady is seeking to judge me harshly; I assume that is for reasons of self-defence. It is perfectly clear that the word "paramount" has been removed from the Conservatives' motion. "Paramount" means that the welfare of the child must come top, first and in front of everything else. "Priority" is a much softer word; it suggests that the interests of the child must take priority only over some things. I shall ask her a straightforward question: does she intend to demote the welfare of the child to below the legal right of any parent to have contact? That is what the motion says.

Mrs. May: The answer to the question whether I intend to demote the interests of the child is no. If the hon. and learned Lady reads the motion, she will see that we are not doing that.

The difference between my party and the Government on this issue is that the Government consider that it is not in the best interests of the child to have proper contact with and access to both parents. I consider that the best parent for any child is both parents, and we intend to put a system in place that will allow such access.

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