The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie): I regret the tone adopted by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) in summing up this Opposition day debatein fact, only Conservative Front Benchers seemed to participate in itbecause traditionally all parties have broadly agreed on such issues.
I think that it is important to review the fact that, historically, we have had bipartisanship in this arenafor example, in respect of the welfare of the child being paramount, which is a principle enshrined in the Children Act 1989. As we have heard, that Act was introduced by the previous Administration with all-party support. We should reflect on other countries that have emulated that example, with Australia and Italy looking to learn from it, viewing the Act almost as a model that has stood the test of timeand we would want to defend that view.
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Secondly, there has traditionally been all-party agreement that children benefit from a meaningful relationship with both parents, as long as it is safe for the child. No one disputes the value to a child of having an input from two loving parents, if possible. If there was a good relationship between the parents before separation, it should continue and be supported.
Thirdly, there has historically been agreement that mothers and fathers should have equal standing before the courts. Contact issues, all other things being equal, should be gender neutral. Residence and contact considerations should be driven by the child's needs and best interestsfor example, in respect of access to friends, family, learning activities and so forth.
Fourthly, there has hitherto been agreement between the parties that nothing should jeopardise child safety. Tragically, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) pointed out, there are still too many cases where relationships break down because of domestic violence or, even worse, because of fears for the safety of the children. Today's The Sun campaign to stop child abuse highlights why we should never hesitate to investigate allegations of violent behaviour, to bring issues to the forefront in any case involving the Children Act and implement the section of the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004 that closes the loophole whereby perpetrators jointly accused of murder have hidden behind silence.
I am sorry to say that there are some issues on which the Government disagree with the Opposition tonight, principally their proposal for a statute law rewrite to place greater emphasis on the rights of parents. I am not quite sure about the extent to which that is a serious proposal. The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) spoke of a drastic and fundamental rewritea wholesale reversal of policywhereas the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) called it a modest, pragmatic change.
We need to view the matter from the right perspective. Nine out of 10 couples sorted out contact arrangements with no court involvement. When the one in 10 cases goes to court, contact is overwhelmingly granted. Only in 1 per cent. of contact applications is contact refused. Our worry is that if courts are made to give higher priority to parents' rights, it can only erode the current process, which focuses above all on the child's rights. Difficult though it may be, it is right that a child's considerations should come before those of the parents. That point was most eloquently made by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar (Vera Baird), who highlighted the difference between priority and the concept of paramountcy.
The Minister referred to the number of cases where contact is granted by the court. Yes, it is granted in those significant number of cases, but the issue is about the degree of contact granted and about the way in which, notwithstanding the granting of contact orders, the parent with residence is all too often able to use the system to prevent the other parent from having access and contact. We believe that it is right for both parents to have a full and proper relationship with their children.
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Mr. Leslie: Surely the right hon. Lady would not want to dictate the nature of the contact in all cases. It is different in some cases than in others. Surely we should allow the courts to look into the circumstances on a case-by-case basis and allow them to make a judgment about the contact that is appropriate in the light, first and foremost, of the child's best interests.
It is right that we have debated the issues of equal parenting, co-parenting and the circumstances in which they arise. Labour Members worry about the concept because we do not feel that it is possible somehow to dictate that there should be equal apportionment of time between one parent and another. We need to be much more sophisticated in the way the law is applied. Of course, a child's interests are usually best served by a continued relationship with both parents, but the children must come first, not the parents' needs.
Mr. Leslie: No, I do not have time to give way. Children are not possessions to be divided for the satisfaction of the parents. The child's life matters most, and that includes access to school, friends, family and so on.
If the Opposition just wanted to mention in law the probability that both parents should have contact, it would take us no further forward because that is already the legal assumption. However if the Opposition want to go further than that, it would serve only to dilute the paramountcy of the child's interests. That is our concern and that is why we do not believe that there should be a change in the law.
The Conservatives would replace the concept of contact with parenting timethat is in their motion. That might be superficially appealing, but it could also be misleading. Contact is not just for parentsit could also be for grandparents, siblings and others. We can debate the issue, but we disagree with the Opposition on that point.
It is important that we develop many aspects of policy in this area, and, after wide consultation, the Green Paper was published in July. We want easier access to legal advice on relationship breakdown, and we can do that through existing hotline arrangements[Interruption.]
I thank the Minister for giving way and I am grateful for the tone in which he is conducting the
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debate, which is very helpful. I do not understand his anxiety about a change to the statutory framework. Does he agree that if that change had the benefit of explaining in clear terms to parents what is expected of them in normal circumstances after divorce, it would be of great value in facilitating contact? Does he agree that that could be achieved without diminishing the paramountcy of the welfare of the child?
Mr. Leslie: The fact that we have been debating the issue, and the confusion generated by the suggestion from the Opposition, shows that adding that extra unnecessary element into statute would not take us any further forward. It is not necessary. The case law already establishes that point and any change in statute as they propose would be pandering to those people with an anecdotal misconception of how the law is framed. The law usually allows both parents to have contact arrangements and, in the vast majority of cases, that happens.
The next steps for Government policy include more legal advice and better practical encouragement of mediation and dispute resolution. We want to move away from the adversarial court processes, which can often exacerbate acrimony between separating couples, to a position that encourages settlement and agreement. We want more effective court case management and better timelinessas the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) urgedand we want to consider enforcement, for which the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) called in his comments. We need better enforcement of contact orders to ensure that they are followed through and abided by. We also need stronger protection for children from harm. It would not be right if we ignored those fundamental issues today.
There are guiding principles in this area. The welfare of children must always be paramount. The legal position that both parents, mother and father, are equal before the law in Children Act proceedings is enshrined in law. We should have a bipartisan approach to this issue in future. That is very important, and we always supported the Children Act. There is much to divide politicians today on many different issues, but surely we should be able to find some agreement on this point. Sadly, the courts need to intervene in 10 per cent. of contact cases. That does not mean that the courts are wrong; they must be guided, first and foremost, by what is in the child's best interests, and I ask the House to support the amendment.