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Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con):
It has not been easy to conduct this debate in a rational framework. I regret that because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) and the
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hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) highlighted, the starting point was not some Conservative party view but the view of the Solicitors Family Law Association that the substantive law relating to contact between children and their parents after divorce needed to be changed in order to achieve what I think is the commonly held intention of ourselves and the Government. Contact should be facilitated to ensure that both parents, if they are willing and capable after divorce, continue to provide a substantial input into their children's lives, which is thought to be desirable.
The Government have got themselves into the most enormous tangle on the issue of presumption. Indeed, the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) added to the general hysteria when we were confronted with statements that any tinkering with the existing law would bring down the entire edifice of child protection.
Let me deal with the Children Act 1989. It starts with a statement about the welfare of the child and says that the child's welfare shall be the court's paramount consideration. Yet sections 2 and 3 have no difficulty in providing and defining that parents in marriage have responsibility for their children, and there seems to be no incompatibility between that and the paramountcy of the child's welfare. If the logic of both the Minister and the hon. and learned Lady is taken to its conclusion, those sections should not appear, because it would be for the state to determine, at the outset of a child's life, whether parents could have that responsibility. Let me say to the hon. and learned Lady that nothing in those sections says what makes a good parent. She can look elsewhere in the legislation and find the circumstances in which the state may choose to intervene, but sections 2 and 3 make no such reference.
Why is it that, although sections 2 and 3 operate to provide for parental responsibility before divorce, after divorce it suddenly becomes impossible to introduce any further definition of what constitutes the child's best welfare interests and their paramountcy in section 1? That is the issue that divides the Minister and me. It is extraordinary that we cannot have a sensible debate on the subject. We are suggesting that it would greatly help parents to understand their responsibilities after divorce if, in addition to the paramountcy of the child's welfare, it were also provided in law and in statute that every facility should be made available for co-parenting when that is possible. I simply do not understand why the Minister cannot engage in a rational debate on that subject.
Mr. Dawson: Where, in what the Opposition have suggested tonight or in any other policy that they have espoused, is there anything to address the issue of children being murdered on court-ordered contact?
Mr. Grieve: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will bear with me for one moment. It is possible for a child to be killed by its parents when they are both married and living togetherin fact, it happens horribly frequently. We have to consider such matters in the House, but it does not make the smallest difference to the issue that we are trying to raise about the desirability of contact with responsible parents after separation or divorce.
Peter Bottomley: Would it not have helped the debate a great deal if the Minister and those who have been giving her valiant and needed support had understood that article 8.2 of the European convention on human rights makes it plain that, where there is a conflict of interest between the parent and the child, the child's interests come first? Why cannot they open their minds to what my hon. Friend is saying?
Mr. Grieve: I could not agree more. It troubles me greatly that we have been unable at any stage to have a proper debate, even outside the framework of the House. When I went to a conference in Manchester that was addressed by the Minister, she spoke first, and even before hearing a word that I had to sayindeed, I did not have the opportunity of saying it, because the meeting was disruptedshe trotted out the same condemnations about our somehow interfering with the tablets of stone on this issue. I disagree with her entirely.
Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): Will the hon. Gentleman confirm, fairly and squarely, that the principle of co-parenting is clearly subordinate to the welfare interests of the child, and their paramountcy, as set out in the motion? If we could have that clearly on the record, we would be very happy.
Mr. Grieve: I have been saying that until I am blue in the face. I said it when we debated my amendment to the Children Bill, I said it repeatedly to the Minister and I say it again tonight. It is disgraceful that she should yet again seek to suggest that that is not our position. That characterises the Government's approach to this issue from start to finish.
There are other matters of which we are critical. We made it clear that in our view, in addition to a necessary change in the law, the early interventions project would be an extremely useful tool for facilitating a process through which the adversarial might be removed from disputed contact matters, allowing for resolution through mediation. That would require making mediation compulsory, and it appeared that the Government were willing to go along with that. However, they pulled back at the last minute, and as several Members have rightly pointed out, they then deceived the public about what they had actually done. When the hon. Member for Shipley (Mr. Leslie) winds up the debate, I hope that he will take the opportunity to address that issue, because I remain completely mystified as to why the Government have changed their stance. That said, in a moment I shall speculate about one reason why that might have happened.
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My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) was right to say that having two parents should be treasured, welcomed and valued. That really ought to be our starting point, rather than that of the hon. and learned Member for Redcar. As I listened to her comments, I began to conclude that she does not believe in the value of two parents. The only way of interpreting her rabid attack[Interruption.] It was a rabid attack, and the only interpretation of it can be that she does not believe whatsoever in the value of two parents.
I very much hope that the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service recovers from what has been a disastrous start, but frankly, the Minister cannot escape the fact that it is perfectly legitimate to raise the question of whether alternatives are available. CAFCASS might have a public law role in futureindeed, although there have been failings, that is the one area in which it has demonstrably produced benefitsbut I am at a loss to understand the Government's desire to maintain its role in private law cases, given that those employed to do the work are clearly ill suited to it. That is a legitimate subject for debate, and it is quite wrong for the Minister to attack us on that issue.
I want to give the hon. Member for Shipley time to wind up, so I shall finish with this thought. The Government repeatedly refuse to consider any alteration to primary legislation. I do not understand why, except for the worrying conclusion that I have come to, which is that the Government's adherence to the belief that the state always knows best means that they are very reluctant to concede any more responsibility to parents when marriages come to an end, and that they probably regret the existence of parental responsibility clauses in the original Children Act 1989. That is a major philosophical difference between us, and we intend to debate it repeatedly with the Government, because it is essential that the public realise the direction that they are coming from and, much more worryingly, in which they are going.
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