Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): I agree with the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) that the matter is not necessarily susceptible of bold solutions and that it is one of great sensitivity. The proposals in the Opposition motion so ably moved by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) are not bold and dramatic solutions, but sensible and pragmatic ones that address a real concern.
I was disappointed to hear the old canard of opportunism being raised by the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath). In his concluding remarks, the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre said that the subject was a matter of genuine concern. The House exists to debate matters of genuine concern and we fail in our duty if we do not. This is not opportunism. It is our solemn responsibility as Members of the House of Commons to debate matters of genuine concern, so I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead on proposing the motion.
Mr. Heath: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Does he believe that the debate on such a matter of genuine concern would have benefited from the consideration of the Constitutional Affairs Committee, which is currently taking evidence?
No, absolutely not. Today's debate does not preclude a further debate on the Select Committee's considerations. On a matter of such importance, the whole House of Commons has a right to express its view and I hope that that will inform both the Government's consideration of the responses to their Green Paper and the Select Committee's considerations. The debate is
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part of a process, not an endgame and I hope that all members of the Select Committee will listen to the debate and understand that the passions that have been aroused stem from the importance of the issue. It is part of a process that I welcome. It is timely and not inappropriate at all.
I also disagree with the idea that, just because an issue is important, we should be able to reach a consensus on it. Consensus often proves most elusive on the most important questions, precisely because they are so important and people bring their own perspectives to them. It may be impossible to reach a consensus on the subject of our debate, but there is a consensus that the interests of the child lie at its centre. That is good, but our solutions that flow from that consensual idea could be radically different.
I regret the tone of the Minister's speech in her response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead. There are differences between the parties and they need to be explored honestly, but I am afraid the Minister sought to fan the flames of party hatred, rather than engaging in serious debate. When she reads her remarks afterwards, she will realise what a regrettable speech she made this evening. I come to the Chamber in a spirit of consensus, seeking to explore an issue honestly, but I was inflamed by her partisan remarks. "Physician, heal thyself" is my response to her accusations that my right hon. Friend sought to score party points during her remarks.
Vera Baird: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Is it not clear that if one replaces the paramountcy of the welfare of the child with mere priority, and elevates the parents' rights to contact, one is realigning the balance of importance in these decisions against the interests of the child? That is unwise, is it not?
Mr. Luff: I disagree profoundly with the hon. and learned Lady, for reasons that I will come to later. That is one of the key points that I wish to make. I think that she is wrong, because the paramountcy of the child's interests obviously depends on having proper parenting behind that child. The access to parents lies at the heart of the paramountcy. Those are not contradictory but supplementary notions. I cannot understand the point that she is trying to make.
I wanted to speak in the debate for two reasons. First, I wanted to make a point that needs to be made and to which I attach great importance for reasons that I will explain: families and children genuinely need fathers. I regret the gender-specific nature of that observation, but it needs to be said. My motive for speaking in the debate, as the House will see, is that I believe that families need fathers.
I take the point made by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome which I took to mean "or harmed". I think that that is a semantic, not a substantial point. The hon. Gentleman makes a fair and reasonable point that I hope that my Front-Bench colleagues would accept in a manuscript amendment, if they could. Certainly my support for the motion incorporates the view that he expressed. It is a useful but small point.
I enter the debate with some reluctance because the issue is a minefield. I am not a lawyer, and unlike the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre, I am not a former social worker. My experience comes not from any professional expertise, but simply as a member of the human race.
I regret the polarisation in this important debate. There are some, as we have heard from some remarks from the Government Benches this evening, who give primacy to the perfectly understandable and reasonable concern about the brutality that men too often show to women and children. That is an important feature of the debate. There are others, such as Fathers 4 Justice, the selfishness of whose very exploits speaks volumes about the character of the men themselves and leads one to doubt some of their claims. There are two extremes that often polarise debate and prevent the search not for a consensus but for an honest debate about the issues raised.
Mr. Luff: I will not give way again, not because I do not want to but because we have only about another half an hour for the debate and I strongly suspect that the hon. and learned Lady will have a chance to speak later and rebut my points if she so wishes.
I speak for a variety of reasons. The first is a strictly personal motive. I was brought up in a single-parent, single-child family. My father died when I was eight and I make no secret of the fact that I missed him very badly. My childhood would have been richer and more fulfilled had I had a father to share it with me. My mother was a wonderful and very loving woman who gave me every opportunity that she could within her abilities, but I know that my life would have been better had I had a father to see me through to my adult years.
I speak also because of my painful constituency experiences. Children without fathers have a diminished opportunity in respect of role models because of the regrettable scarcity of men in the teaching profession in first and primary schools. That is a real issue. I should love to see more men teaching in such schools.
I have given up asking children the standard question that I used to ask about where they live because, too often, the answer is that they live with their mother on certain days and their father on other days. It is a painful answer to get from a child of seven or eight.
Anger is an occupational hazard for politicians. One needs to feel anger to correct the injustices that one sees all the time. In my constituency surgery, there are two sorts of casework that really anger me. First, there are the occasions where I see mothers who have been wronged by fathers who have just walked out on a
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relationship, on their children and on all financial and emotional responsibility. It is a scandal and I am ashamed of my fellow men every time I come across such cases. But I also see the scandal, alluded to by the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre, of fathers denied access to their children by their ex-wives and partners using every manoeuvre imaginable to deny them access and that is equally painful and objectionable.Recently in my constituency surgery, I have had cases of abuse of children by the non-resident father, so I know that that also is a real issue and that makes me extremely angry too. I have seen fathers' lives ruined by the actions of mothers who have deliberately connived to deny fathers access to their children. I am thinking of one couple in particular. The father chose not to use the courts to make an issue out of his ex-wife's monstrous behaviour out of love for his children. I respect and admire him, but his continuing pain is clear.