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What is important is that minimising conflict and reducing the use of court procedures wherever possible should be a priority, but in cases where the safety of children or domestic violence are an issue, court proceedings will usually be necessary to protect vulnerable children and adults from risk. As the Green Paper says, in 35 per cent. of cases, there are concerns about domestic violence. Such cases do not want enforced early mediation; they need court intervention with strong measures for legal protection.
It is important to remember that in domestic violence cases the power balance between the parents is not equal, because one lives in fear of the other. In this situation, the family justice system would collude in putting children in danger if it sought to promote mediation, as was suggested, at an early stage or to promote contact and early resolution of disputes without assessing the risks and ensuring safety.
Risk assessment did not cross the lips of the hon. Member for Maidenhead in her opening speech, which is a big disclosure of how little she understands the problems of domestic violence in contact. It is essential to ensure that contact is safe before it is enforced. From that point of view, I query whether the Green Paper is strong.
I want to refer to a paper produced today, "Twenty-nine Child Homicides", which tells a significant story. It examines 29 children in 13 families who were killed as a result of contact or residence arrangements in England and Wales in the past 10 years. What is perhaps the most significant single fact to make clear, echoing the need for
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the practices of the family courts to be examined, but emphasising the way in which they need to be examined, is that in five of the 13 families in which there were deaths, contact had been ordered by the court. That is perfectly clear from a letter from the relevant Minister.
The brief facts of one of those events are that the father was on bail awaiting trial for injuring the mother during a violent incident. Family court welfare officers recommended that contact arrangements for the two children should not include overnight stays. Despite that, the mother's solicitor encouraged her to make a compromise, and the judge made the decision on contact contrary to the recommendation in the welfare report. The children were killed by their father during an overnight stay.
We cannot mess with the paramountcy of the welfare of the children. We cannot reduce paramountcy to giving some sort of priority, and elevate to predominance a right to co-parenting. Do the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) and the hon. Member for Maidenhead really mean what they have said tonight, or are they just shamefully jumping on the bandwagon, on the backs of people who for the time being might have caught the public imagination, but who do not have a great deal of strength of fortitude in the case that they put forward? My view is that neither the hon. Lady nor the hon. Gentleman mean the ludicrous and unfair consequences that would follow from what they have said. I conclude that it is a disgraceful attempt to bandwagon.
Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): I think that the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) will, on reflection, regret having made what was a largely intemperate and, if I may say so, grotesquely arrogant speech from a lawyer who seeks to parade her superior knowledge of the law over the rest of us. This is not a court of law; it is the House of Commons. I am sorry, because she made some interesting points and raised some genuine concerns, but I fear that she spoilt that when she dismissed the case made by my right hon. Friendthe fact that she is a right hon. Member appears to have escaped the hon. and learned Lady the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), whom I congratulate on moving the motion extremely well.
In fairness, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead only picked up on the consultation document produced by the Minister for Children, Young People and Families. It is an interesting document, which exemplifies some concerns about an issue which we all regard as extremely sensitive and difficult. About 15 key concerns are set out at paragraph 18 of the document. Interestingly, the first is:
A further concern expressed in the document is that court-ordered contact is poorly enforced. As Members of Parliament, we are all familiar with such cases. The
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failure of court-enforced orders is a particular grievance of fathers, as my right hon. Friend pointed out. Interestingly, at the end of their document the Government propose to legislate at the earliest possible opportunity to provide additional enforcement powers. I do not think there is as much disagreement between the two sides as has been suggested by the attitude of some speakers.
I am sorry that the Minister did not feel able to say "Although we do not agree with every word of the motion, we agree with it substantially, and certainly do not disagree with it enough to vote against it". That would have been a better approach. The Minister did say something with which I agree: that family break-up was a serious problem. I believe that the implosion of the nuclear family is the most serious issue in Britain. We all see in our constituency livesin our surgeries, and in our correspondencea trail of human misery, which is getting worse and which we ought to be addressing.
I think the Minister said that nearly one in five babies was born in a home with no father. If she did not say exactly that, she gave a similar statistic about another aspect of family breakdown. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) was right when he said that families need fathers. He told us that he had had no father. That does not mean that every family without a father will produce a dysfunctional child. My hon. Friend is manifestly not dysfunctional, and my own father lost his father when he was seven and was brought up by his mother. It is not the case that every single-parent household is incapable of bringing up children, but we know that the dysfunctional family is a serious problem because we see it in our constituencies.
My hon. Friend also spoke of the importance of marriage. It is a great shame that we are not doing more to promote the cause of marriage and to keep marriages together. We have talked about mediation and co-parenting, issues that apply very much to marriage. In 1998, the Government produced a document called "Supporting Families", in which they rightly proclaimed that marriage was
Although the Home Office was then under the stewardship of the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), whom the current Home Secretary has denounced for having left it in a "giant mess", that was a bold and correct assertion. It is a pity that more has not been done to promote the cause of marriage, to underpin it with fiscal benefits and to proclaim it as the best relationship in which to bring up children. The evidence for that is overwhelming.
Sadly, I have not time to go through all the points that have been made, but I should like the Minister, if she has not already done so, to read the Hansard report of last Tuesday's Westminster Hall debate on this very issue. Members on both sides of the House took part in the debate, and there was much common ground. My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) made a particularly telling point. The only point I shall make now, however, concerns evidence from the Office for National Statisticsagain, not an organ of the Conservative party.
About four years ago, the ONS produced a report on the prevalence of mental disorders in young people. It found that the prevalence of conduct disorders in boys
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aged 11 to 15 was three times higher in single-parent households than in married households. An even more stunning finding was that the statistic for cohabiting households was almost the same as that for single-parent households. That does not mean that every cohabiting couple or every single parent is in that category, but it does point to incontrovertible evidence that marriage is the best arrangement for raising children, as the Government themselves have stated.
What have the Government done about it? They have done precious little, which is very disappointing. They are prescriptive about what we should eat and do for our healthdo not smoke, do more dieting, do more exercise, do this, do that. Of course, it is perfectly right to criminalise those who are engaged in the traditional and ancient pursuit of hunting but, when the evidence shows that marriage is overwhelmingly the best form of raising children, they decide not to press that because they do not want to upset people who are in other relationships.
I know that what I am about to say is controversial, but given that the official policy proclaimed by the Home Office is resolutely in favour of marriage and that the Home Secretary is responsible for the implementation of that policy, I cannot see how the present Home Secretary can maintain his position, which I personally regard as untenable. I think that he has deliberately and publicly tried to undermine another man's marriage. What message does that send to the rest of society? What message does it send to people who are trying to bring up their children"If the Home Secretary can engage in this, why shouldn't I as well?"
I am sorry to say that, but this is an important matter because public policy issues are at stake. We all understand the Home Secretary's personal anguish but, unless we become a completely amoral and secular society in which anything goes, we must accept some moral code and send a signal to those parents whom my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire talked about earlier.
This debate is coming to a conclusion. I believe that my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead is absolutely right in bringing the motion to the House tonight. There should be a presumption that both parents should have access to their children. Although the hon. and learned Member for Redcar was right, she spoilt her case by choosing extreme examples. Clearly, a man who is a complete drunk is not a suitable person to have the kind of access that we are discussing. The Government agree that that is the case, but there should be a presumption that both parents should have responsibility for bringing up their children. We must find ways to involve both parents. We should consider more often early intervention and mediation before separation, rather than afterwards. I see the Minister agreeing with me. On that note of agreement, I shall resume my seat and support my right hon. Friend in the Lobby.
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