Margaret Hodge: The family resolutions pilot project was developed by the Department for Education and Skills working with colleagues in the Department for Constitutional Affairs to ensure that it was amended to reflect British circumstances. That seems such a common-sense approach that I cannot for the life of me understand why Conservative Members seek to mislead people, if I may say so, by suggesting that we are not pursuing an early intervention to prevent people from entering into litigation, which often only worsens matters.
Mr. Dawson: There is nothing more strange than the Opposition in search of a conspiracy theory, but have not Australia and Canada taken American models and adapted them to their circumstances, almost in exactly the way that this Government have, reflecting the fact that no one has a monopoly on best practice and that we are all trying to learn from each other?
We all recognise that there is much we can do to improve the court processes. If parents have to wait for months, attitudes become even more entrenched and the possibility of an agreed resolution between the parents diminishes. That is why the judges, under Dame
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Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, are seeking, for example, to improve the listing of cases, are looking to provide greater judicial continuity and are ensuring a rapid return to court if things continue to go wrong.
That is why we want to change the role of CAFCASS so that its officials spend less time writing lengthy reports for court hearings and more time using their expertise, knowledge, skills and training to promote conciliation between warring parents and to ensure that the voice of the child is heard as arrangements are determined. That is why we are proposing a range of additional levers for the courts to ensure that both parents put their children first and comply with court-ordered contact arrangements.
That is why we are, for the first time ever, ensuring proper funding of contact centres and ensuring the expansion of services that support children in enjoying contact with their parents. Indeed, we hope that many of our children's centres and extended schools will provide the facilities to enable parents to maintain contact with their children in safe surroundings.
The issues that we are addressing are vital. They touch the lives of tens of thousands of children every year. Thankfully, the vast majority of parents settle these issues without recourse to the courts, so that the children's interests are better promoted and protected, but the last thing these children need is a cosmetic change to the law. What they do need are real and substantial reforms to try to make the system work better for them. What they want is for their voice to be heard.
Children want, in most cases, to maintain a loving and continuing relationship with both parents. They do not want to choose between the love of their mother and that of their father. Children do not want to become a weapon in their parents' armoury as they pursue bitter vendettas against each other. Nor should those children become a weapon in the political armoury of political parties as they seek votes. That, I regret to say, is what I believe the Opposition are attempting to do. Either they want to change the law to give precedence to parents' rights over children's interestsa step that would clearly be wrongor they are content with the current legal framework that recognises the paramountcy of the child's welfare and acknowledges that it is best promoted by maintaining contact with both parents, in which case we do not need a change in the law. The Tories should not con parents by pretending that they are doing that.
If the Tories really wanted improvements for children and for separating or divorcing parents, they would support our amendment. They would engage constructively in the discussions on our proposals in the Green Paper. They would support our programme of reform; our moves to promote conciliation and mediation; our reforms to improve the workings of the courts; and the proposal that we will publish in the form of a draft Bill to ensure better compliance with court-ordered contact. They would stop trying to play politics in this complex and highly emotionally charged area of people's lives and recognise the need for a commitment to genuine action on children's needs. They would vote with us tonight. I urge every responsible Member of this House to do just that.
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Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I have to say that this has been a less than edifying occasion so farI rather feared that it might be when I saw the subject tabled for debate. I suspected a slight odour of bandwagon about it, which is unfortunate. The sensitivity of the issuea point made by the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May)means that it is perhaps inappropriate for the sort of politicisation that we have heard so far this evening. If anything requires consensus, not only between political parties but between all those who operate within or are consumers of the system, it is this. As has rightly been said, we are dealing with extraordinarily difficult issues for people who have to go through a court process at their most vulnerable time, and the interests of children come into play throughout. We need a system that is simultaneously robust and caring for the concerns of all involved. I do not believe that the debate so far has suggested that such consensus is there to be had.
Mr. Grieve: I am very grateful. Of course I agree that it is very desirable to achieve consensus, but sometimes it is not possible and there are legitimate differences of approach. He may agree, however, that we should be capable of having a rational debate and not one that is constantly undermined by a series of assertions that people are trying to derive some cheap political advantage.
The timing of this debate is unfortunate, as we have not yet had responses to the Green Paper, which is a serious piece of work and deserves our proper attention, and because the Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs, so ably chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), is even now taking an abundance of evidence and is yet to reach conclusions. His plea to both sides of the Chamber not to close down options until that process was complete was entirely appropriate. Sadly, it went unheard by those on both Front Benches.
Let us set out some parameters for the debate. My colleagues and I stand foursquare behind the principle of the paramount interests of the child. We do not resile from it for one moment. Interestingly, the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) made it clear that he shared our position, but that was not reflected in responses to interventions in the opening speech of his colleague, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead, which is regrettable. Regardless of what we believe to be the best interests of the child, that should surely be our starting point, and the child should not be treated as just one of the goods and chattels up for disposal between the separating parties.
It is reasonable and proper to say that in most cases the child's interests are best served by parenting involving both parents, if there are no other factors that
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create a barrier to that. In that, I have no difficulty in supporting the Conservatives' basic contention. It is also important to note that it is always better, if at all possible, to proceed by conciliation and mediation rather than a divisive and confrontational process. However, I note the words of Lord Justice Munby, whose views I have learned to respect on these matters, in his evidence to the Constitutional Affairs Committee:
"In an ideal world one would hope that parents could reach an agreement on these matters without outside assistance. We do not live in an ideal world. If outside assistance is required, then mediation is infinitely preferable to the court process. There will be an irreducible number of cases which have to come to court."
Mr. Dawson: In asserting the importance of children being able to have good-quality contact with both parents, does the hon. Gentleman also accept that we need to pay great attention to the risk of abuse? Does he agree that we are sometimes too glib in simply acknowledging the relevance of abuse without facing up to the fact that we are not good at recognising it and that sometimes courts order contact that results in children dying?
I came to the debate predisposed to support the motion moved by the right hon. Member for Maidenhead, but I have to say that on occasions she made it rather difficult for me to do so. I was concerned at her assertion that the vast majority of cases leave the father outwith a satisfactory conclusion. I do not believe that that is supported by the evidence. There are certainly manytoo manycases in which the fathers are very worried about the outcome and the arrangements for access, but I cannot accept that such cases are the vast majority. I hope that she may reconsider that.
We had a debate about paramount interests as against priority. The hon. Member for Beaconsfield has satisfied me on that point in a way that the right hon. Lady did not. It was unworthy to say that the Government's position is that two parents are not in the best interests of the child. That is not their position. To characterise and caricature the position of either side in this debate is profoundly unhelpful. We need a sensible and mature debate.
The child's safety is an insurmountable problem when it comes to access, and we should recognise far more often the problems that sometimes arise in respect of child abuse. I would go further and say that it is a question not simply of the child's safety, but of risk of harm in the wider sense of the word.
Let us consider a case involving prolonged domestic violence, occasioned by a father on a mother. There is no question about the loving relationship between the father and the child, but the father has behaved in an appalling and violent way towards his spouse. It is not
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hard to see that such behaviour could have an enormously detrimental and harmful effect on the child, so it would be entirely proper for the child to take the view that, although their safety was not in doubt, there was a risk of harm if the father had access to the family home and they had to re-live an earlier experience.