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Mr. Luff: I will not speculate on that point, because I know of cases in which mothers have invented such allegations to enhance their cases for trials or even to make their children afraid of their father. Anecdotes and speculation will do us no good at all. We must stick to the facts, which are often elusive in such cases. That argument can be had both ways.
We are discussing the failure of relationships. The increasing number of relationships that break down makes the matter more important with each year that passes. Between 150,000 and 200,000 parental couples separate each year. It is estimated that 28 per cent. of childrenmore than one quarter and almost one thirdare personally affected by divorce by the age of 16. Those of us who were brought up in the '50s and '60s regard that as an extraordinary statistic. In our years at school, hardly any of our friends had parents who were separated or divorced, but I know from my children's experience that it is commonplace for children in their class to have separated parents. That is a real problem, and this House should assert that marriage is the best way to bring up childrenI am sure that the Minister agrees with thatand that couples should make greater efforts to stay married. There is social pressure to regard marriage as another disposable commodity, which it is not. If we could restore the primacy of marriage and keep more relationships together, today's debate would be much less important, because many fewer children would be affected.
I freely acknowledge that good outcomes are still possible for children after the divorce and separation of their parents. A good outcome was not possible for me because my father died, but in cases involving separation and divorce, which we are discussing today, the father or mother is still there to provide love and care for the child in a co-parenting relationship, if a framework exists to make that possible.
When parental separation is badly handled, conflict is often played out around or through children. I can think of current high-profile cases in which that may be true. Where children lack a safe and secure environment, the impact on them is immensely damaging. Mothers and
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fathers must be careful about their true motives when fighting custody and contact battles through their children. Children who have been fortunate enough to enjoy effective parenting in which their fathers have been actively involved in their lives experience better educational outcomes, better relationships with the police, law and order and crime and better protection from mental health problems.
Time presses on, so I shall concentrate on the views of the Solicitors Family Law Association, which fears that the heightened language in the current debate, some of which we have regrettably heard this evening, has made it much more difficult for people to find a way forward to resolve difficult cases. It is possible to return the debate to the middle ground in the interests of the children of families who separate, but that requires more action from the Government than they are currently prepared to concede.
As far as I am aware, the SFLA is not an organ, tool or mouthpiece of the Conservative party. It has been committed to minimising conflict between separating parents for more than two decades and I have huge respect for what it has to tell us about its experiences. It played a leading role in developing mediation services to settle family disputes and, through its code of practice, it promotes a constructive approach that encourages parents to resolve their differences outside the court system, wherever possible. In my constituency, I have always been deeply impressed by SFLA members' views.
Thankfully, as we have heard today, most parents who make arrangements involving their children do not involve the courts, but a growing number do. The SFLA rightly believes that those applications to court could be avoided and its useful report, "Practical Steps to Co-Parenting", makes several useful recommendations that it and I believe would help to improve the legal framework for parental disputes. It says:
"There is no magic solution to some of the difficulties experienced by families caught up in legal disputes over childrenthe challenge of solving many of the toughest problems often falls outside the scope of the courts and relates more to ongoing bitterness between couples following relationship breakdown rather than to issues capable of judicial resolution."
In other words, this lies largely outside the political arena and inside the intensely personal one. There is a limit to what we can achieve, but I believe that we could do more to create the framework that is necessary to achieve the outcome that the SFLA recommends.
The SFLA says that it is talking only about the extreme cases, but I believe that those are representative of a much deeper pool of unhappiness, perhaps involving many disputes that, as it acknowledges, do not come before solicitors but lie untested by the courts. As I hinted earlier, I know from my own personal experience that such cases exist.
I point out to the Minister that the SFLA seems to support the principles that lie behind the Opposition motion. She should reflect earnestly on the important fact that the core of our motion equates to the first recommendation of the SFLA's report.
and discusses forms of co-parenting that are not crude 50:50 relationships, but structures in which co-parenting can work effectively and properly. It talks, as did the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre, about the need to listen clearly to children and ensure that they are not dragged into disputes in the courts or required to attend court. It has a host of practical suggestions that require legislative change to create a more desirable outcome. I find the Government's complacency disappointing.
The president of the family division, the right hon. Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, rejected the arguments for an outright presumption. Giving evidence to the Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs, she said:
"we can only have one presumption that the welfare of the child is paramount. If you have two presumptions, which takes precedence? . . . the word 'presumption' is different in the law than perhaps it is for the public. If you have a legal presumption, you have to apply it, except in exceptional circumstances. The legal presumption is the welfare of the child."
The Minister had her rant attacking us for partisan reasons, but there is a strong consensus out there that something must be done to change the situation to make a better framework for children. I know that she shares a passion for children, but I hope that that is not too coloured by a passion for her political party.
Vera Baird (Redcar) (Lab):
The hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) would not let me intervene on him. I was very concerned to hear him suggest that we have to mediate between two extremes: Fathers4Justiceor whatever they call themselveswho throw things at people and do demonstrations, and victims of domestic violence. It therefore does not surprise me one bit that he finds it impossible to understand why I object very powerfully to the motion. The motion is ludicrous. It would damage the interests of children and it damns the Tories who foolishly added their names to it as incompetent even at jumping on a bandwagon. First, it removes any reference to the
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welfare of the child. It refers to the "interests" of the childI guess that that is a narrower concept but I do not understand why the Tories believe that they need to demote it. The motion states that
It is not possible, by writing a motion, to change facts. It is not in a child's best interests in every case in which parents have separated for them both to be "fully involved". It is not possible for that to be so. Let us take the most benign example that I can offer to try to make the point that is being missed or deliberately ignored. What about circumstances in which one parent is very sick? It is in neither the parent's nor the child's best interests for that person to be fully involved in the child's upbringing. It is better for the parent to have, if possible, long-term treatment, to recover and, in due course, to return and reintroduce themselves. [Hon. Members: "Pathetic."] Opposition Members say that that is pathetic but it is the most benign example that I can devise to try to help the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), who opened the debate, to appreciate that there are circumstances that are not even malign in which it is ludicrous to suggest that it is in children's best interests for both parents to be
Let us take the slightly less benign example of a parent who is an habitual drunkard. The person's actions may not at all endanger the safety of the child but it is not in the interests of the child for that parent to be "fully involved" in its upbringing. It would not be in the interests of a child for a parentfemale or malewho suffers from the effects of drug addiction to be "fully involved" in its upbringing. In every case, the court must make a decision about the amount and quality of involvement. That is as applicable to the husband as to the wife.
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