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Jonathan Shaw: Is my right hon. Friend aware that when the Office for National Statistics examined contact arrangements, it found that the best arrangements involved good, frequent contact, and that when people were asked what would improve the situation, they said that it would be more contact. Often, it was mothers, who had residence, who wanted more contact, rather than fathers. We need to keep the issue in proportion.
Margaret Hodge: Indeed. The other research finding is that it is not contact per se that supports children's best interests but the quality of the contact. The quality of the contact is always better when parents can determine how they manage contact outside court processes.
Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD):
The right hon. Lady will know, because she will give evidence to it, that the Constitutional Affairs Committee is currently considering this issue, and that a great deal of evidence is coming forward. What worries me in this debate is both the tendency of the Opposition to assert that certain things are the answer, and the danger that she might feel that she must rule out options
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that ought to be considered, when a great deal of evidence is still coming forward on a matter that affects a lot of people.
Margaret Hodge: I give the right hon. Gentleman my absolute assurance that I would be the last person to rule out any ideas that would enable us to manage these difficult issues with the interests of children at their heart. Opposition Members are failing to put the interests of children first.
Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): The right hon. Lady will recollect that I have previously proposed an amendment that maintained the paramountcy of the welfare of the child but encouraged equal parenting. When I proposed that to her in the debate on 2 November, I said:
Margaret Hodge: We can indeed. It is interesting, however, that the two Opposition Members who are responsible for the debate tonight do not agree. The right hon. Member for Maidenhead said in her opening remarks that she was not in favour of equal parenting, which is commonly understood as dividing children's time equally between their parents. The hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), however, has said that I refuse to acknowledge the importance of equal parenting.
Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): I agree with the Minister that this should not be a matter of deep party political controversy, but she has scored more party political points in her opening five minutes than my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) did in her whole speech? If she really wants a non-partisan debate, I suggest that she reflects on her use of words in this debate.
Nine out of 10 families, when they separate or divorce, deal with the issues of parental responsibility between themselves. That does not mean that there is not pain for everyone involved; of course there is. Nobody wins when the relationship between parents breaks down. Everybody must give up something. There is anguish for all concerned, particularly the children, whose voices are all too often not heard when issues affecting their future are decided. With more parents ending up in the divorce courts, the problems are affecting more families.
Furthermore, there is no doubt that as family life changes, with more parents sharing the day-to-day responsibilities of caring for their children, finding a resolution that everybody feels is fair to them becomes
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more difficult. But in trying to support those parents whose relationship is so embittered that they cannot settle contact arrangements between themselves, we should focus on what we can learn from those who have managed to sort it out without going anywhere near the courts, not try to pretend that there is a magic legal formula which we, as legislators, can invent, and which will make all those involved feel that they have an even-handed and just settlement. Whatever we do or do not do, there will continue to be fathers who feel unjustly excluded from their children's lives and mothers who are frightened for themselves and their children because of their experience of violence in the home. Most importantly, there will be children who suffer because of the conflict between their parents and because they cannot spend all their time with both parents.
If and when the courts are asked to intervene, however, the Government continue to hold the unequivocal view, which was held by the Conservative party when it was in government, that the child's welfare must be paramount. For us, there are no ifs and buts about it. In settling these difficult issues, the child's welfare must come first.
Mr. Grieve: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The right hon. Lady knows well from past debates that I have never made any reference to equal parenting in the context of 50:50 splits. Is it therefore in order for her to mislead the House with further invective, rather than engage in rational debate?
Margaret Hodge: I have just been accused of misleading the House. I certainly did not. According to any common understanding of the term "equal parenting", it means a 50:50 division. If Opposition Members choose to join those who focus on adults' competing rights rather than concentrating on parents' responsibilities and their children's needs, they are taking the wrong route.
Mrs. May: I am grateful to the Minister for finally giving way. She and I have taken part in a number of interviews about this, and she has taken every opportunity to raise the 50:50 issue. My colleagues and I have made it clear that we have never suggested a 50:50 split. Will the Minister now withdraw her statement that that is our party's policy? Will she also tell us how it is in children's best interests for proper contact with both parents not to be resumed?
I will come to that last point shortly, because we believe that when it is safe that should
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happen; but the right hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Beaconsfield must be the only two people in the world who do not interpret equal parenting as 50:50. I agree with the right hon. Lady about one thing, however. It appears that since the summer, Members in the typical modern Tory mould have withdrawn from what I consider to be an extreme position: the view that children should be divided like possessions, and shared equally between their parents. I welcome that retreat, but in calling for us to introduce a legal presumption of something that they call co-parenting, Conservative Members are perpetrating a con on distressed parents who desperately look to others to resolve their bitter conflicts. If co-parenting means an attempt to establish two paramount principles, that argument is conceptually flawed. Either the children's interests come first, or the parents' rights do. The Conservatives should make up their minds and come clean.
Mr. Grieve: As the Minister will know, section 1 of the Children Act 2004 contains a presumption of the paramountcy of the child's best interests, but section 2 provides for a presumption, in ordinary circumstances, that parental responsibility lies with both natural parents. Is the Minister suggesting that whenever a child is born there should be an examination, there and then, of the paramountcy of the child's welfare, and a conclusion that the child should not be with its natural parents who are together? As it stands, section 2 qualifies the paramountcy of the child's welfare.
Let us pursue this argument. If the term "co-parenting" means that Conservative Members believe a child's welfare, following its parents' separation, is best promoted by a continuing relationship with both parents whenever that is safe, all they are doing is restating the existing legal position, established by case law. Pretending that this is something new is simply misleading, and raising false hopes. Case law has established that mothers and fathers have equal standing before the courts, and that both parents are critically important to the child. There is no gender bias in the courts, and I challenge the Opposition to demonstrate that there is.
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