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Mrs. May: Is the Minister trying to tell us that she is against the legal presumption of co-parenting because she thinks that it acts against the paramount interests of the child, or is she saying that she is against changing the law to introduce it specifically because it is already there?
Margaret Hodge: I am saying that it is unnecessary, I am saying that it is misleading, and I am saying that it would confuse. The right hon. Lady did not take up my challenge to demonstrate that there was bias in the courts' administration of the system, as she pretended. I have no evidence of such bias in the legal system.
Case law has established that unless there are cogent reasons against it, children are entitled to know, have the love of, and enjoy companionship and time with both their parents. That is why contact is refused in
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fewer than 1 per cent. of cases heard in the courts. We already have a legal framework that recognises that children's interests are best met by the maintaining of a relationship with both parents when that is safe.
Mr. Dawson: Surely the strength of the existing system is that it looks to the best interests of each child. Co-parenting would impose a particular model on a particular relationship without attention being paid to individual needs, developmental stages, specific family circumstances and numerous other factors.
Margaret Hodge: I agree with the point that my hon. Friend has made so eloquently. The proposed amendments to the statute add nothing to the existing arrangement that both parents, where they have parental responsibility, are equal before the law. What those amendments do is hoodwink some parents into believing that things will change.
I must say, with regretbecause there has been cross-party agreement on the issue in the pastthis is low-level politics at its worst. It is a desperate quest for votes on a false and meaningless prospectus. It could also divert us from tackling the many problems that we know exist, not in the legal structure but in the way in which the current system works in practice for many parents. We are trying to tackle those problems with our Green Paper, our programme of reform and our draft Bill, which will be discussed in the current Session. The Tories' proposed measures would also confuse everyone involved by failing to assert thatas my hon. Friend the. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) saidthe welfare of the child can and must remain the principal overriding concern.
Mr. Grieve: The Minister will recall an amendment that I tabled to the Children Bill, which maintained the principle in clause 1 that paramount consideration should be given to the welfare of the child, but proposed another clause providing that unless the contrary could be shown, the courts should act on the presumption that the child's welfare is best served through residence with its parents; if its parents are not living together, through residence with one of them; and through both of them being as fully and equally involved in parenting as possible. How could that interfere with the paramountcy of the child's welfare?
Margaret Hodge: Again, the hon. Gentleman has used the word "equally". I understand that to mean dividing children equally between their parents. [Interruption.] If the hon. Gentleman did not mean that, perhaps when he winds up the debate he will tell us in what way his proposition alters current case law and the way in which courts approach the issue.
In embarking on our reforms, we have acknowledged the existence of legitimate grievances that we need to address. As the right hon. Member for Maidenhead said, there are a lot of angry people who feel wronged and frustrated by the system. I agree that our legal processes take too long, and I agree that all too often the contexts in which decisions are made are too adversarial. Some non-resident parents, usually fathers, are unable to maintain a relationship with their children because of deliberate actions taken by the resident parents. There are some mothers and children who feel
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at risk because of the violence of the father, and there are some fathers who also feel at risk. At the same time, there are real limits to the efficacy of any action that the state can take to resolve the entrenched conflict and deep suspicion that characterise a number of the situations that require resolution through the courts, and we should not pretend otherwise. Far from believing that we are the best parent in this context, I believe that the right hon. Member for Maidenhead believes that she is.
What we can do, what we are doing and what we will continue to do is to try to support, through both conciliation and mediation, ways in which parents can resolve their disputes in the interests of their children. We want to support parents, to divert them from litigation in the court and to help them settle their differences outside the court. We have proposed concrete real-world reforms, which the motion fails to do. For example, we are revising our parenting plan materials, which the right hon. Lady chose to decry. They are there to help parents, with clear advice and information, to think through realistic options in a co-operative way to settle issues on contact. This is not about the Government, with so-called "guidelines on parenting time" attempting to dictate from the centre what works, when we cannot know the circumstances of any individual case. We want to show in practice the sort of contact arrangements that work well for children of different ages and in different circumstances, without trying to be prescriptive, as the right hon. Lady would have us be about individual cases.
That is why we want to ensure the availability of another initiative that the right hon. Lady decried: the availability of a telephone advice service that will provide practical support to parents when they need it. That is why we want to introduce more mediation, building on the successful expansion of publicly funded mediation cases, which are now helping about 5 per cent. of separating couples to reach agreement. That is why we want to support good practice among lawyers in this sector, with improved accreditation of solicitors who provide advice on family matters, and by encouraging lawyers to work more collaboratively, with the aim of securing a resolution outside courts, rather than a win in the courts.
That is why, far from abolishing the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, we want to make greater use of its officials to promote the resolution of contact issues through conciliation, as is already happening successfully in the courts in Essex. To suggest, as the Opposition have, that we have abandoned what was known as the early interventions initiative is simply a travesty of the truth. What we have done is reflect on the experience from Florida and other jurisdictions with a group of experts.
What we have done is adapt those proposals to create our own family resolutions pilot project, so that it works in the British context. We have not failed to implement the scheme. We have simply sensibly tailored it, so that it has the chance of working in our courts.
The right hon. Lady says that the Government have put the project in place. Perhaps she
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will explain why it was that, in November, an official in the families in change team for vulnerable children at the Department for Education and Skills sent letters making it absolutely clear that
Margaret Hodge: The right hon. Lady may not accept this, but it seems total common sense that we adapt a particular scheme to meet the British circumstances and the British courts. Perhaps it will help if I give an example. In Florida, early intervention is compulsory. In the United Kingdom, our family resolutions pilot project is not. Our scheme reflects that difference; it has been deliberately changed to reflect the difference.
In our view, the family resolutions project will work only if people want to engage with it. There is, of course, a clear expectation among the judges, legal advisers, court staff and the welfare organisations that the normal procedures involve participation in the scheme, except in cases of domestic violence. Far from the scheme having failed, we have only just embarked upon it. We will see how it goes and decide on national roll-out after we have evaluated how successful the intervention is.
Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): The Minister is being more specific now. Can she explain how the scheme that she will bring forward differs from the one that she inherited from the Department for Constitutional Affairs, which is a rather more interesting question than how it differs from the Florida experiment?
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