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Mr. Dawson: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that there is also a significant correlation between domestic violence and physical, sexual child abuse?
Mr. Heath: Yes, I do, and as the hon. Gentleman knows, we debated that issue in the context of the recent domestic violence legislation. But that does not alter my view that one does not have to prove abuse of the child to believe that there is a risk of harm to the child, depending on the circumstances that may prevail. That is my significant issue with the Conservative motion, although I do not believe that they intend to discredit such situations. We are talking about the words used, rather than the intention behind the motion.
Vera Baird : Even if we do not embroil ourselves in the relationship between domestic violence visited on the parent and harm inflicted on the child, one can still make the valid criticism of the motion that I think the hon. Gentleman is making: that there will be a legal presumption of parenting unless there is a risk to safety. Let us consider a parent who has not bothered to get in touch with the child for 15 years, and who has not seen it since it was small. Throughout that time, the parent has carried with him, and will re-present, a presumption that he must be entitled to parenting. The sudden re-visiting of that parent upon the child is likely to be harmful to the child, even though it will not constitute a danger in safety terms. Is that not one of the major flaws with the motion, which, I am afraid, is simply cheap Jack?
Mr. Heath: I understand the circumstances that the hon. and learned Lady describes, and that is why the courts have to assess the circumstances individually. However, it is not an entirely sound argument against the principle of a secondary presumptionrather than a paramount presumptionthat contact with both parents will usually be beneficial to the child and in the interests of its welfare. Indeed, this is what somewhat alarmed me about the Minister's speech. She was so intent on rubbishing the Conservatives' motion that she did not countenance the perfectly respectable argument in favour of such a presumption. The Solicitors Family Law Association, which surely has a proper and legitimate interest as a practitioner in this field, made that argument cogently. In giving evidence to the Select Committee, it said:
"The existing presumption that arrangements for post-separation parenting arrangements should be based on the interests of the child should remain in force. However SFLA believes that there should also be a statutory presumption that children should have contact with both parents post-separation, unless there are reasons that militate against this, such as safety concerns."
The difference is that the SFLA uses safety as an example, rather than describing it as the sole factor.
Mr. Heath: That is my criticism of the Conservatives' motion, which the hon. Gentleman will hopefully now tell me is not supposed to be interpreted in that way.
Mr. Grieve: The hon. Gentleman has encapsulated very well what the issues should be, and in my view, the motion, as worded, does that. However, I am always prepared to acknowledge that words are capable of being changed, which is why I invited the Minister to look at the intention behind the motion and the debate. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, in a sense, the Minister almost made the point herself? She acknowledged that in most cases, it is desirable that a child have contact with both parents. Surely that is the logical first step towards saying that there should be a presumption in favour of such contactsubject, of course, to the overarching presumption in favour of the child's welfare.
Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: the only issue should be the hierarchy of presumptions. We must be absolutely clear that the child's welfare is paramount, and subject to that presumption, other factors come into play. I see no reason why we must choose between asserting that presumption to the exclusion of all else, or rejecting it. We need to be sensible about the arrangements emerging from this ongoing debate on the future of our family law system.
Mr. Luff : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Mr. Heath: I have given way lots of times, so this had better be the last.
Mr. Luff: Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern at the apparent implication of the intervention of the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird)? She seemed to suggest that a father who realises that he made a mistake in abandoning his child 15 years ago should be denied access to it. Surely the child would welcome the father's coming back and wanting to give it loving care and attention.
Mr. Heath: The child might do, which is the key point. What the court then needs to determine is whether such access is in the child's interest, without assuming that it is or is not.
Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman and I are at one on this issue.
I have one final criticism of the opening remarks of the right hon. Member for Maidenhead. She said that she was "unveiling" this policy, as if the need for such reform were a great revelation to the Conservative party alone. However, there is a developing consensus in this ongoing debate, and everything that the Conservatives proposed today has already been discussed. The right hon. Lady's speech was an
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unfortunate politicisation of what should be a non-political issue. All the parties should be seeking the right way forward through mediation and conciliation, rather than through confrontation.
I want briefly to canter through the deficiencies in the current system as I see them. First, the delays associated with the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, despite its re-birth, are unacceptable. According to the SFLA, first appointments currently take between 10 and 12 weeks, whereas the president of the family division has suggested that they should take a maximum of four to six weeks. Such delays are simply unacceptable, given the grief that accompanies separations.
The way in which such matters are assessed in court gives rise to some significant and central issues. I very much look forward to hearing the views of the Constitutional Affairs Committee, which I believe will illuminate the defects within the operation, rather than within the statute, that are at the core of many of the frustrations so often expressed today.
It cannot be right for children to be drafted into what amounts to a conflictall too often an extremely bitter conflictbetween parents as if they were simple bit players or pieces of furniture to be squabbled over. We must develop arrangements that allow the child's voice to be heard clearly and separately from the parental squabble. A court must be able properly to determine what is in the best interest of the child from the testimony of children themselves. I believe that that is an important principle.
We need an arrangement whereby both parents, if willing and able to do so, can through co-operation properly provide for the physical, emotional and financial support of the child. That is why the early intervention scheme, which we have debated, was so important. I am sorry, but I do not accept what the Minister for Children, Young People and Families says about this. She is trying to conflate two different schemes and claim that one is a very good development from experience overseas. It may well be, but it does not replace the early intervention scheme, which was developed in this country on the basis of consensus within the community of interests, particularly professional interests, involved in these matters. It needed statutory backing in order for it to work and it involved changes in court procedures, which the family intervention scheme does not. They are totally different things. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) said in an earlier sedentary intervention, it is all very well saying that a cow is an adapted sheep, but try getting wool from it. They are two different creatures.
The Government would be well advised to look again at the real advantages of an early intervention scheme. The continuity of interests in respect of professionals, the capacity for court intervention and the capacity to identify differences and reconcile them before it becomes necessary for a court to make an order are all very much in the interests of the child and, indeed, of the contesting partners.
My last point is about legal aid, which no one has mentioned. It is crucial. We already know the difficulty in many parts of the country of identifying family law solicitors who are available to work for people on these
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matters. There is a diminishing cohort of professionals, with solicitors often finding it unattractive for their practices to do publicly funded work. Yet in the context of the Green Paper and the development of law in this sphere, we should not be aiming to enhance only what is done in court, but what is done before the court stage, where legal aid can be crucial. We need an expansion, not a diminution, in the availability of legal aid.
As I said, this evening's debate has not been of the highest quality. [Interruption.] That may well include myselfit is for others to judgebut it worries me when I hear something that smacks of opportunism and over-simplification on the one hand, and complacency and reaction on the other. I will advise my right hon. and hon. Friends to support the Conservative motion today, because there is more in it that we support than we reject, notwithstanding my trenchant criticisms of some aspects of it. I will reject the Government motion because it smacks of self-congratulation and I do not believe that they have got it right. Much more work needs to be done. It is sad to reduce matters to slogans, when the subject is so complicated and so important to so many people's lives. Frankly, we should do better.
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