Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): As my right hon. Friend knows, in the most difficult cases, the court will make orders for supervised contact, or contact at contact centres, yet there is a woeful lack of those. As this issue moves forward, particularly when she comes back to the detail, will she look at that matter? In Northamptonshire, for a variety of complicated reasons, there has been low take-up at the centre that serves that area. In my town of Northampton, all the
2 Mar 2006 : Column 419
contact centres are provided on a voluntary basis. It is important in these difficult cases that there is proper provision for safe, supervised contact, and safe contact centres.

Beverley Hughes: I agree. We need to think creatively about how we can extend provision both for unsupervised and supervised contact centres. The Government have already put considerable resources into that. Since 2000, some £5.3 million has gone to the sector, and in the last spending review a further £2.4 million was provided to develop 14 new centres for supervised contact in England. There will be a further sum totalling £7.5 million for 2006–08 to support that. The development of extended services in schools and children centres offer us enormously creative possibilities for contact to take place, probably non-supervised contact. I have already been to children centres that are being used for non-supervised contact and access. We need to ensure that we use those facilities to the full for the benefit of parents.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): In my constituency, we have some contact centres that are run by the voluntary sector. They have some funding but are worried that the funding is drying up and will be moved away to Government-funded centres.

Beverley Hughes: That is not the case. Much of the money that I mentioned is going to the local level. Contact centres for supervised access that are run and managed by voluntary agencies have a great role to play. It is not the case that that money is simply for Government or local authority-run centres. By and large, they are run in partnership with voluntary agencies. We want that to continue because they have great expertise. Many parents find the concept of supervised contact undertaken by a voluntary agency more palatable than the concept of supervised contact at a centre run by a local authority or by the Government.

Margaret Moran (Luton, South) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend accept that many of the contact centres that have received Government funding come within the ambit of the national charity for contact centres but that some fall outside that, are still run by the voluntary sector and are not receiving the investment to which she referred? Will she examine that matter to ensure that all contact centres have the same high-quality supervision and training for staff? My contact centre in Luton is run by the WRVS, and very good it is too, but I fear that some contact centres simply do not have the quality of staff and training that are desperately needed in such difficult circumstances.

Beverley Hughes: I take my hon. Friend's point. The role that staff play in those situations, particularly for supervised contact, can be critical for the parents and children concerned. It is very important that they are as high quality as we can make them. I will certainly look at that matter.

Where the court is involved, we have to ensure that whatever intervention we make does not entrench conflicts any further. The Bill will be critical in achieving that and in maintaining the focus on the child. It offers the court new powers to facilitate contact, and to enforce contact when that becomes necessary.
2 Mar 2006 : Column 420

Clause 1 offers the court the power to direct parties to participate in "contact activities", ranging from parenting classes to domestic violence perpetrator programmes, and explicitly including the power to require attendance at an information session with a mediator to explore the benefits of mediation. We believe that those activities will help parents to begin to face up to the difficulties, and the conflict, behind their disagreement over contact arrangements. That can be key to helping the court to reach a resolution without the need for fully contested proceedings.

Vera Baird (Redcar) (Lab): Clearly, the ability to refer to such groups is valuable and can help in the most difficult cases, but I am far from sure that the resources are currently available at most courts for such projects. How will the Department go about finding what is out there already and ensuring that the gaps are plugged, so that, for example, domestic violence perpetrator programmes will be available at literally every court if they are needed?

Beverley Hughes: My hon. and learned Friend raises an important point that we are considering actively. We are piloting various forms of activity to which we think that we can direct parents. We are trying to promote through local authorities the provision of parenting classes. We accept that the support parents need when they are separating is rather different from the support that they may need when they are not separating but trying to cope with the behaviour of their children. We are looking with local authorities at the availability of what is likely to be required and trying to ensure that, when courts wish those activities to take place, they will be available. That involves a variety of local agencies, including local authorities and the probation service.

Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): I listened very carefully to the right hon. Lady's opening remarks and the lesson to be learned from the lack of success—I will not say failure—of the family resolutions pilots is surely that without an element of compulsion, the desired objectives simply will not achieved. Such an approach will not work on a voluntary basis alone.

Beverley Hughes: The hon. Gentleman raises a fundamental point. The model and culture in this country has been based on the understanding that unless people come willingly to the table to participate in sensitive activities such as mediation, they almost certainly will not work. But he is right to draw attention to the fact that we want to encourage as many people as possible to avail themselves of the undoubted benefits that voluntary dispute resolution practices can bring to separating parents.

As the hon. Gentleman may know, we have published today the evaluations of the family resolutions pilot project to which he refers, and of the in-court conciliation project. Although the findings are, as he suggests, mixed, both projects have provided very important information on what parents value and find helpful, and on what works well and what does not. In both projects, certain approaches demonstrated good success rates in helping parents to reach consensus and to avoid further dispute in court. We all know how important that is to outcomes for children. So although
2 Mar 2006 : Column 421
the results are mixed, we will take the positive findings and try to build them into further development of voluntary dispute resolution. But forcing people down that road is a very serious step that is likely to be counterproductive. As I said earlier, we are making it possible for courts, through directed activity, to insist on a session with a mediator to explore the benefits of mediation, but it would be a step too far to force people to participate in mediation itself.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): Did I hear the Minister say that she is publishing today the findings of the family resolutions pilot and if so, would it not have been slightly more helpful to have had them ahead of this debate, particularly given that the project finished last September? I accept that the best form of mediation is that to which people come willingly; otherwise, it does not really work. But where one party fully embraces the mediation route, the other flatly refuses it and the case therefore goes to court, what is the penalty against the person who has decided not to participate, or the reward for the person who has gone along with the court's wishes?

Beverley Hughes: Although the project finished a few months ago, we received the evaluations only very recently. Indeed, I understand that the original date of publication was the end of March, so we have been able to bring it forward to coincide with today's debate; but it was not possible, given the original timetable, to publish beforehand. [Interruption.] I understand that the evaluations have been published today on the departmental website and are available. After the debate, I shall clarify for the hon. Gentleman's benefit precisely where he can find them.

Tim Loughton: That is not very helpful to the House. If the Minister thinks that vital information that is germane to this Bill may be available on her Department's website, she should, at the very least, out of courtesy and respect to those participating in this debate, have ensured that Front Benchers were notified that the document was available before we made our submissions to this debate. Would that not have been common courtesy?

Next Section IndexHome Page