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The Government have attacked our proposals, and indeed refused to back our amendment on co-parenting, which was tabled as part of the recent Children Act debate. I am sorry that the Minister chose not to comment on the validity of or the arguments about our amendment[Interruption.] The Minister, from a sedentary position says, "Oh yes I did." I have to tell her that a vitriolic attack on my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) does not constitute a proper debate on the arguments in the case in point.
The Minister has rejected our proposals, but this is not the first time that she has chosen to reject sensible and workable ideas to reform the family justice system. In 2002, a package of reforms known as early interventions was developed. These reforms, which include fully defined parenting plans, gained the support of the Family Law Bar Association, the High Court judiciary, the chair of the Solicitors Family Law Association, parenting groups and, most important of all, child mental health specialists.
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When the presumption of reasonable contact is introduced, the system is rebalanced so that the resident parent knows that they cannot use the child as a weapon against the other parent. The result is that the right case outcomes are achieved quickly, instead of the wrong case outcomes being achieved slowly, but that entails a wholesale reversal of procedure. So, this was quite a nut to crack, but the job was done.
Yet within weeks of early interventions being approved, the project was destroyed in Whitehall. I understand that its originators were never approached or consulted. I believe that the early interventions papers never reached the new Whitehall design team. The project was discussed as a "brand name" to be discarded.
Ministers were reassured that the early interventions project was still under construction, albeit under a different name. So, one project was swapped for another in a tableau worthy of "Yes Minister". The family resolutions project, which has just emerged from Whitehall, is the opposite of the early interventions project that was submitted and approved. Family resolutions is not a legal reform at all; it is the same old failing mechanism with a glossy new title.
Family resolutions is a new scheme to continue the existing system. It does not change the legal system; it is a public relations exercisemore spin from the Government. Parents will receive leaflets advising them not to go to court. They will see videos. There will be more "flexible levers" and telephone helplines. Parents will be sent to "anger management classes", presumably to learn how to manage their fury at the Government's failure to provide the family justice system they need, but what they will not get are guidelines on how much parenting time the court expects them to agree on, nor will they get any rights giving them a say in how their child is bought up.
Instead of it taking two months for parents to get a first hearing, it will take five. That is the difference, and there is evidence that the family resolutions pilot project simply is not working, which brings me to the Government's final contradictionthe Green Paper.
The Green Paper was trumpeted as the Government's answer to parents' problemsmore talk from Government, appearing to say all the things that parents trapped in the family court system wanted to hear. I quote the 30 November edition of The Independent:
but fathers will not be given better access rights. The Minister knows it, and I know it. All those anxious parents and grandparents have been misled. The promises made in the Green Paper are incapable of fulfilment.
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yet the Government are refusing our calls for a presumption on co-parenting. Under the Government's scheme, not only will there not be a presumption of reasonable contact, there will be no presumption of contact at all. Presumably, parents who want to see their children will be asked, "Why?".
but let us consider what the Department for Education and Skills itself had to say in a standard letter written this November, when it realised that it could no longer pretend that the two projects are the same:
"The Family Resolutions Project has been designed in line with the Children Act 1989. The Act does not prescribe parenting patterns, nor does it have a legal presumption of contact. These are two ways by which Family Resolutions is distinctive from the Early Interventions project proposed by New Approaches to Contact".
Listening to the Government, the two projects are not only the same, but different. The judiciary, Queen's counsel and Lords of Appeal are still being assured that the Government are progressing the early interventions reforms, which they have scrapped. Yet again, the Government have been shown to be all talk and no action.
I said that this was a sensitive issue: it is a sensitive issue because it deals with the lives of children; because it deals with the loving bond that is developed between parents and their children; and because many children in this country today find themselves separated from a parent or grandchildren by a system that enables the parent with whom the children reside to use the child as a weapon against the other parent. Many people find themselves on the receiving end of a family justice system that does not deliver justice for them or their family.
We have seen from recent statements that the Minister believes that the best parent is the state. We recognise, however, what experts and common sense have always told usthat the best parent for any child is both parents. It is time for a family court system that protects children and respects parents, and it is time for a Government who will deliver it.
I agree with the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) that the issues surrounding residence and contact for separated parents and their children are both contentious and high profile. I agree with her, too, that that is in part for understandable and legitimate reasons. However, I regret deeply the recent attempts by Members of Her Majesty's loyal Opposition to try to gain political advantage on the back of the personal trauma and unhappiness of many families.
We know that more than 150,000 children each year experience the emotional distress of their parents' divorce. We know that two out of three of those children are under 10, and one in four is under five. We know that around one in every five children is likely to have to go through their parents' separation and divorce before they reach the age of 16.
Given those figures, it is also important, in terms of tonight's debate, to acknowledge that most parents who separate and divorce deal with the issues involving parental responsibility, residence and contact between themselves, without recourse to the courts. In fact, nine out of 10 do so.
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