The problem for so many parents who are desperate for proper contact with their children is that the Government have been willing to talk about co-parenting but unwilling to put it into practice. They speak the language of reform, but do not deliver. In rejecting our proposals for co-parenting, they have clearly demonstrated that their Green Paper was simply all talk.
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Children who go through divorce have already lost out, and we must not add to their distress by putting them through a court process that results in them forfeiting one of their parents as well. On 27 April 1989, the Minister presenting the Bill that was to become the Children Act 1989 affirmed:
I do not believe that anyone, on either side of the House, could take issue with those laudable sentiments. However, we must ask ourselves whether any parent can be said to participate fully in the life of a child whom they hardly know. Can parents share in the upbringing of children whom they see for only two hours a fortnight? Does a brief visit for a morning a couple of times a month help children to thrive? Are we seriously suggesting that the growing army of "McDonald's parents", whose only contact is a fortnightly lunch in a fast-food restaurant, are parenting their children in the correct way? I do not think that any parent worth their salt would accept that. They regard such arrangements as inadequate. Moving from common sense to professional discourse, we see that child development specialists do not accept that suggestion either.
The Children Act cannot be said to encourage parents to continue to share in their children's upbringing when, as every MP knows, it commonly takes years of agony in the family courts to get contact increased. The Act does not deliver on its intentions. There is a simple explanation for that, which is wrapped up in the simple word "contact". Perhaps I should remind the House what "contact" means in the context of a family law dispute. Contact is any contact at all, no matter how short or infrequent. An order for one hour's contact a week is contact. An order for one hour a month under supervision is contact. Contact confined to a contact centre is contact. That is why I am asking the House to support our calls for a drastic and fundamental change in the way in which we approach children and separation in the family justice system.
Case law provides for a presumption of contact, but it does not provide for a presumption of reasonable contact. Such a presumption is, however, innate in the Children Act. The stated and agreed objectives of that Act cannot be delivered without the presumption of reasonable contact, which is why we are calling for a presumption of co-parenting, and the right of both parents to be fully and equally involved in the lives of their children.
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Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD): I have been listening carefully to the right hon. Lady, both today and in the interviews she has given on this subject. In trying to decide whether to support her proposals, I need to establish whether, in a case in which safety was not an issue, if a court received clear advice that reduced or no contact was in the best interest of the child, the court would be able to follow that advice. Or would it, under the right hon. Lady's proposals, be required to maintain contact even if it were not in the best interest of the child?
Mrs. May: The courts would indeed be able to follow that advice, although I suspect that the number of cases in which safety was not an issue and in which contact would not be in the best interest of the child would be very limited. The problem is that the current system does not enable the parent without residence to build up the loving bond and relationship that the Children Act 1989 implied.
Some people say that we are simply pandering to the demands of militant dads' groups, and radical groups such as Fathers 4 Justice. The Minister nods. Let me make it absolutely clear that my party does not in any way condone the actions of such militant groups. We do, however, understand the pain and hurt of a group of parents who are being denied a relationship with their children. We do not advocate splitting a child down the middle 50:50, but we do believe that the child has a right to proper contact with both parents.
Sadly, normal parents and grandparents are being prevented from caring for their children and grandchildren, or in some cases prevented from seeing their children and grandchildren at all. That is why we propose the presumption of co-parenting and the right for both parents to be involved in bringing up their children, ensuring that the law serves the best interests of the child. Children deserve to see both parents.
If the Minister does not accept that the law is biased against non-resident parents, I shall give her an example of how it operates. Two weeks ago, I visited Lancashire where I met a group of women living in a women's refuge. There were women living togethernot through choice, but because they were fleeing violent partners. One of the young women explained that she did not have her children with her because the court did not consider a refuge a suitable place to bring up children, so the children were with their violent father. That, I think, is a prime example of how the system discriminates against non-resident parents. All too often, the resident parent is allowed to deny access, safe in the knowledge that they will be able to frustrate the other parent for years in the courts before contact is resumed.
If the Minister does not agree with my view that such delays are commonplace, let me tell her about a constituent who came to my advice clinic a few weeks ago. He had been denied access to his three-year-old daughter. When he sought advice from his solicitor, he was told it was likely to take nine months before his case was heard. That is nine months' separation in the life of a three-year-old child. With a child so young, a week is
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a long time in their development. Imagine how damaging to those precious parent-child bonds a separation covering almost a third of the child's life could be.
We have unveiled a strategy for radical institutional change to end the misery of the family courts. For parents who have reached the stage of issuing legal proceedings on contact, our proposals include a number of court-backed mechanisms, including clear guidelines prepared by child development experts in conjunction with the judiciary to outline the range of beneficial post-separation arrangements; mandatory information sessions to make the court-backed guidelines available to parents before the hearing; mandatory mediation before the first hearing, conducted in the knowledge of what the courts are likely to order if they cannot reach an agreement; and family courts working to expert guidelines acknowledging that the child's needs are best served by "frequent and continuous" contact with both parents. In short, we are offering a certainty and a predictability for parents and children in a time of huge upheaval.
Mr. Dawson: I am interested in what the right hon. Lady is saying. I do not dispute the good intentions on both sides of the House, but will she please tell me how the delicate, careful and constructive work that needs to be done in any system of the sort that she envisages would be done if, as is reported today, she is proposing the complete abolition of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service?
Mrs. May: Indeed, it would be done by trained mediators. That is one of the issues with CAFASS: its staff are not trained mediators and a lot of people involved with it come from an entirely different background. Precisely because these matters are sensitive and precisely because it is necessary to be able to act sensitively, it is important that those who do this work are specifically trained in it.