Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre) (Lab): I will not support the Opposition motion this evening because I believe that it is dangerous. I debated the issues with the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) in the Committees that considered the Children Bill and the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill. The motion reflects the Opposition's policy of making far too glib a reference to child safety, based on the assumption that recognising and dealing with child protection issues is far easier than it really is.
The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) compounded the error through her determination to rid us of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, which comprises an extremely skilled body of people who play a vital family justice role not just in mediation but in the representationsometimes tandem representationof children in the private law system. If CAFCASS were not involved in working with children in court and the skills of experienced CAFCASS workers were not employed in family resolution projects and the various other initiatives that have been developed to try to resolve matters informally, it would do a great disservice to children.
Mr. Grieve : I appreciate that efforts are being made to put CAFCASS on a new footing, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would agreebecause it is or was the Government's viewthat CAFCASS was a failing organisation. One of the areas in which it was failing was the production of reports in relation to contact, which were mechanistic, long, laboured and inadequate. In those circumstances, I am a little surprised to hear the hon. Gentleman praise CAFCASS. While we may hope for change in the future, signs that those problems have been resolved have yet to appear.
He is far more eminent, skilled and experienced in the family courts than I am. The Committee was highly critical of CAFCASS, which led the Government to decide to sack the chairman and board and to replace the chief executive. CAFCASS has had a new chief executive for only a matter of weeks, but the evidence is that it is taking great steps to address some of the criticisms we made, such as its top-heavy management. More resources are being pushed to the front line. It is premature for the Opposition to start calling for the end of CAFCASS when such radical changes have been made to the organisation.
All of us could avoid all criticism of political opportunism by starting not from where parents areor at least, certain groups of parentsbut from where children are. Children do not have any votes, so we could not be accused of doing anything inappropriate if we started from their position. That position is clear and it is set out in the United Nations convention on the rights of the child. Articles 9, 7 and 5 refer to the rights of the child to be cared for by parents, the parents' right to exert parental responsibility in allowing their child to develop and evolve their capacity, and the child's right to contact unless it is in their best interests not to have contact.
I am dismayed that we seem to be moving away from treating the best interests of the child as paramount, as enshrined in the Children Act 1989. I have said several times that that is fine legislation that sets out fundamental principles for the care of children. A key concept in that Act is not parental rights but parental responsibility. The Government, to their great credit, have developed that concept so that all natural parents of children, whatever the status of their relationship, can take up that parental responsibility.
We should assert the responsibility of the non-resident parent to support their child. Even in what are, goodness knows, appalling circumstances of disharmony, strife, hurt and emotional paineverything that people go through when relationships break downwe should assert above all the responsibilities of people for their children. We should start from that point.
The Government are addressing some of the crucial issues relating to parental contact and the difficulties of parental separation. Families are receiving much greater financial support, as well as advice and assistance. Through the development of Sure Start, family centres and extended schools, parents are being provided with much information about the needs and development of children and about their responsibilities to their children. There is much skilled help to support people in resolving matters informally at an early stage. Sometimes, we concentrate too much on the need to resolve things extremely quickly; people sometimes have to go through a process. In general, however, the more help we can offer people to take up their responsibilities at an early stage, the better.
I am concerned that we are not really getting to grips with domestic violence and its links to child abuse, although the Government have at least started to address the issuethe Opposition ignore it. Child protection is absolutely necessary, and the Government
13 Dec 2004 : Column 1476
have made great strides. From next month, domestic violence will be included in the criteria for significant harm. The president of the family division has developed guidelines on practice to ensure that courts pay much more attention to domestic violence cases. As we know, women are disempowered, but people in domestic violence situations are often doubly disempowered by the abuse that they have undergone. It is sometimes difficult for people to come forward at an early stage to explain the facts of their abuse to strangers, or in a courtroom setting.
It is also difficult for children to have their voices heard. We do not have separate representation for children in private law, although we do not invariably need it. However, messages I have received from members of a range of professions associated with the family courts show that there are real concerns about the need for children's voices to be heard. I look forward to the implementation of section 122 of the Adoption and Children Act 2002, which is due to take place in September 2005 and will strengthen the legislation on separate representation for children in private law. I am pleased to see the development of CAFCASS, to which reference has already been made, and the strong commitment of members of the legal profession to a system of tandem representation by legal and social work professionals in private as well as in public law.
Case law that establishes that contact is almost always in the interests of the child is a serious problem, as it leads judges to overlook the reality of domestic violence. One cannot escape the fact that in 2003 an estimated 16,000 cases involving domestic violence came before family courts, but only 601 contact orders were refused. The availability of supervised contact centres has improved, but the number of such facilities is inadequate. Children in Lancaster who have supervised contact with a parent must travel to Manchester, so I look forward to the day when a children's centre or an extended school can provide such facilities.
In our consideration of the Domestic Violence, Crime and VictimsAct 2004 and the Children Act 1989 we discussed a provision that operates successfully in New Zealand, where there is a presumption in cases in which domestic violence is a factor that there will not be contact unless it can be made safe and the child wants to have it. We ignore the voices of children and non-resident parents at our peril. There is a glib assumption throughout society that it is mainly women who wilfully resist or refuse contact, sometimes to an inordinate extent by moving house, leaving the area and hiding away, thus risking imprisonment and the wrath of the courts. Some people refuse contact for no good reason whatsoever, thus denying the rights of their children to contact with a loving parent, but in many cases where contact is strongly refused there may well be an element of violence or abuse that has not come to light or been exposed. We leap into draconian solutions and adopt simplistic ideas to deal with those situations when we should listen carefully to what women, sometimes men and, above all, children are saying.
There is a social work solution to most of these problems. We make great play of the number of lawyers that we need, but we often overlook the skills, experience and quality of the social work profession. The Select Committee has heard cogent evidence about the way in which courts and judges can work with
13 Dec 2004 : Column 1477
members of CAFCASS to resolve allegedly intractable contact disputes. Professionals have been able to gain the confidence of people who have refused contact by working with warring parents and looking at the needs of the children among all the clamour and confusion. They have been able to challenge parents and, if necessary, return to the family court within 24 hours if contact has been a problem.
We do not need bold, simplistic solutions to respond to the antics of a few idiots who parade themselves around and throw things at us from the Public Gallery. We need careful thought, good work and an appreciation of the difficulties and sensitivities inherent in an extremely complex subject. The evidence is that if we can ensure that courts at different levels work more cogently together, if we can get the legal profession and the social work profession to work together, and if we can base a system on the needs, voices and best interests of children, we have a chance. The Government are proceeding on the right lines. The subject is not one for party political debate, but it is an extremely important subject to which we should all give careful thought and consideration.