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Mr. Grieve: Will the hon. and learned Lady give way?

Vera Baird: No, I have tried hard to convince Opposition Members. They will simply have to hear me out.

One cannot simply write a formula that states that it is always in the interests of children for both parents to be "fully involved" and ignore the commonplaces of daily life with which we are all familiar. It is a stupid formula.

The motion replaces the principle of the paramountcy of the child's welfare by saying that it should have "priority". Priority is a weaker, more conditional word, which has no legal meaning and no significance. In common usage, it means that the interests of the child should be given some advantage over something else. That is all. Compare and contrast that with our amendment, which states that the interest of the child must be "paramount". That unmistakably makes the
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child No. 1. The motion places the child behind the Tories' "legal presumption of . . . contact", vested in every parent, irrespective of what a parent has done or may do, of what a parent is like and of the quality of the contact that a parent can give.

The "legal presumption" would be there always, except when

In contrast with the somewhat meaningless term of giving "priority" to interests, a "legal presumption" has a meaning in law. It means that what is presumed must be ordered, unless—and only unless—the presumption is rebutted by some other party calling evidence, which would have to be substantial and very strong. That would be against the odds, because the presumption in law would be that the presumption was there, so it would be necessary to try to dislodge something that the law said was the ordinary thing. In this case, that would be the presumption that all parents carried with them by right, from the fact of their parenthood, a presumption of reasonable contact, except when the child's safety would be at risk.

That legal presumption, which would be hugely difficult to undermine, would come first. Demoting "paramountcy" to "priority" is clearly part and parcel of demoting the welfare of the child. So, unless there were a threat to the child's safety, not even the fact that the child's welfare might be undermined by contact with either a woman or a man would alter the fact that that parent would have a legally presumed right to reasonable contact, which the Tory courts would enforce against the interests of the child. That is what this proposal boils down to: a legal presumption that would be hugely difficult to move. According to the motion, it would be moveable only in the event of a threat to the safety of a child. Consequently, any undermining of the child's welfare or well-being would simply not be taken into account.

The motion makes it clear that the legal presumption could be knocked over only if there were a threat to the child's safety. I have to ask myself just what is going on in the minds of the Conservatives. An utterly drunk person, male or female, would carry with them as they bedded down for the night in the street a presumption enforceable in law that they could have contact with their children. Of course, letting a drunken parent have contact with a child would pose no risk to the child's safety so long as there was someone else there to safeguard their physical welfare. So, however bad this proposal might be for the welfare of the child, the presumption would be that that parent should have contact. That would be the case even if the teachers, the courts, the children and everyone else in the world said that it would be wrong to have such contact. There would be no provision to stop it, unless it damaged the child's safety.

In short, the motion gives priority to the interests of the parents, over the interests of the children. A parent, male or female, who had not seen their child for 10 years would carry a legal presumption of reasonable contact, and could suddenly appear on the scene, carrying their rights with them. So long as the child's safety were not undermined, they could insist not only on a presumption of contact but on a presumption of co-parenting. They could then withdraw for a few weeks
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from contact with the child whom they had not seen for a decade, and then come back and try to re-enter his life, relying once again on the legal presumption of co-parenting that could not be overturned unless the child's safety were at stake. The child's interests would be given priority only, and most assuredly not equality with the specially entrenched legal presumption available all the time to every parent unless there were a risk to the child's safety.

The hon. Member for Maidenhead mentioned reasonable contact time and again. There is a presumption of contact, and I shall turn in a moment to what the law says about that. She talked about reasonable contact, however, and the right that she would give to parents involves reasonable contact. But what is that, if the presumption involves the rights of the parents and not those of the child? Let us be clear. The motion would not give a child the right of access to both their parents; it would give the parents the right of access to their children. Since the presumption relates to the right of the parents, I assume that the determination of what is reasonable is there for the parents' benefit, too, although one would give the children's interests some little bit of priority. Neither I nor anyone else who has thought about this matter properly would support the demotion of a child's interests to a mere priority and let the determining factor in contact be the legal presumption of a right for every parent.

The motion is worse than that, because it represents not just a presumption of contact; it is a legal presumption of co-parenting. So, try keeping the drunk who is not a threat to the safety of the child out of his right to say which school the child should go to. Try keeping the mother or father who is very engaged with drugs out of deciding where the child will go for his holiday. Try preventing the parent who has not been near the child since that child was little from having his right to co-parent.

It is absurd—dear me, so crazy—to try to jump on a bandwagon of a cause that even at its worst does not for one minute try to go as far as this motion tries to go. The welfare of the children must be paramount. There is no other way of doing this. There can be no legal presumptions that trump that principle. The parents must come second.

It is clear that the principles and measures in the Green Paper, in particular the Government's commitment to ensuring that children can have a meaningful relationship with both their parents following parental separation, are admirable, appropriate and right, so long as it is safe. In most cases of parental separation, it is very important for children to maintain contact with the absent parent and to know that they are still loved by him.

We support entirely the following statement by the president of the family division, which sums up the state of the law:

All children have a right to enjoy regular contact with both parents after separation, provided it is safe for all those involved, adequate measures for protection are in place and it is of sufficient quality to meet the parenting needs of the child.
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Enforcing a right to co-parenting has nothing to do with evaluating in the child's best interest the quality of what can be given by one parent.

Mr. Grieve: Will the hon. and learned Lady give way?

Vera Baird: I know that one of the hon. Gentleman's colleagues wants to speak as well, so I shall not give way.

Equal responsibility for the nurturing and parenting of children by fathers is critical, not only to meet the best interests of children, but, quite frankly, to promote the interests of women's equality in all aspects of life. We want fathers to be good parents if we are mothers because we want there to be equal responsibility. We want to be free to go our own way and to let men also go their own way. Women want men to be good parents, but I share the Government's view that a presumption of 50:50 parenting is absolutely not in the best interests of children.

I have heard the protests from the Conservative Front Benchers, but it is clear that if they are going to talk about equal parenting, which they both have done, they should realise that the common usage of "equal parenting" means 50:50 parenting. They will either have to understand the terminology properly— [Interruption.] They will have to start to learn what the terminology means. There is no point coming here, using a term of art and then saying, "We did not really mean that." I am afraid that this tends to show that they do not know much about what they are talking about.

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