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Beverley Hughes: I agree that the hon. Gentleman should have received those evaluations, and it was our expectation that he would. I apologise and I shall certainly pursue the matter, because I accept that he should have received them.
Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): May I endorse the point made by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton)? I certainly have not received notification of the evaluations' publication; indeed, I did intend to ask the Minister about them in my speech.
Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar) (Con):
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Would it not
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help the good conduct of our deliberations if somebody printed off copies of those important documents, so that Members can read them before they participate in the debate? Surely that would make for a better debate.
Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. While I can well understand hon. Members' desire to see those reports, it is outside the remit of the Chair to make that order. But I understand the point being made.
Beverley Hughes: I accept the general point being made and as I said, the documents have been published on the departmental website today, some four weeks in advance of when we expected to publish them. They are important and they will prove particularly important in Committee, where we will discuss the detail of what works and what does not. But as I said, I shall investigate why the Opposition spokespeople were not sent copies, which they should have been.
As I said, both pilot projects are important in helping us to understand what works best for parents in avoiding the need to go to court. Where a court order does prove necessary, clause 2 offers a new power to ask the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service to monitor that order and to make sure that it is followed. If it is not, the court will hear about it. As many Members know from the experience of their constituents, in some cases, after the long and difficult process of a court dispute, a contact order is made only for it to be ignored. We have all heard sad stories of non-resident parents being unable to spend any time with their children, despite such contact having been directed by a court order, which is often obtained only after considerable struggle. We also know of cases where a non-resident parent is not complying with a contact order by not providing the contact that their children may well greatly need.
Courts often find themselves with no realistic way to deal with this problem. The only sanction at their disposal is to hold the person breaching a contact order in contempt, leading to a fine or committal to prison, but they are understandably reluctant to do that because of the impact on the child concerned. The courts have told us that they need broader powers to address this problem realistically, and to respond to the circumstances of particular cases. In 2002, a committee chaired by Lord Justice Wall produced a report entitled "Making Contact Work", which called for these powers. The Bill responds to the recommendations made in that report.
In addition to providing the ability to require participation in contact activities, clauses 4 and 5 provide new powers to respond to breaches of contact orders, in line with the recommendations in "Making Contact Work".
Will the Minister clarify the following point, which I may not have understood fully? On enforcement of a contact order and the imposing of a subsequent penalty, community programme-based punishments have a slight drawback, in that they might not be in the best interests of the child. Can such punishments be imposed under the terms of the Bill, and are they in fact permissible?
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Beverley Hughes: The hon. Lady is to some extent confusing contact activities with the responses that a court can make to breaches of contact orders, such as requiring unpaid community work of some kind. Clause 1 deals with activities that can be directed, but which are intended specifically to facilitate compliance with a contact order prior to that point.
Clauses 4 and 5 will give the courts access to enforcement orders, allowing them to direct those in breach of an order to undertake unpaid work. They will allow the courts to order compensation to be paid from one parent to another in circumstances where the breach of an order causes genuine financial loss. One example is the cost of a holiday that had been planned with the child concerned.
Tim Loughton: I have two questions for the Minister. First, how many breaches of contact orders have resulted in the penalty of contempt of court, which she says the courts are reluctant to use? Secondly, the Minister said that a financial penalty is proposed to replace contempt of court, but what will happen when a parent with custody who is on benefits and relies on maintenance payments from a former partner is not able to pay that penalty? Will the proposed penalty be in the best interests of children who rely on maintenance payments to meet their basic living costs?
Beverley Hughes: I do not have the figures to answer the hon. Gentleman's first question, but I shall give them to him after this debate. On his second question, we are proposing not a financial penalty, but a means of redress for parents who can demonstrate that they have paid out money to have contact with a child in respect of a special arrangement that has subsequently been aborted by the non-compliance of the other parent. It is important to describe that as a financial loss rather than a financial penalty. We are not proposing what might be called a fine, but that a financial loss can be repaid. All the circumstances under which compensation orders are made will be taken into account by the court, and that will include the direct or indirect impact on the child. We believe that the provisions will give the court greater flexibility in dealing with those who fail to comply with contact ordersa flexibility that the courts have told us that they genuinely and urgently need.
Tim Loughton: I am grateful to the Minister for giving away again, but we need to tease out some detail, although I am sure that we will do so in Committee. It does not really matter whether we call this proposal a fine, a penalty or compensation. Let us say that a parent with custody has frustrated a contact order with the result, for example, that a holiday with the non-resident parent costing £500 is aborted. The Minister has suggested that, in those circumstances, the court would direct the parent with custody to pay compensation of £500. However, what will be the penalty if that parent relies on maintenance or is on benefit and cannot afford to pay? What is the next stage of the process?
The court will consider all the circumstances of each case. If a compensation order for a certain amount of money is made, the court will take account of the ability of the non-resident parent, in the case set out by the hon. Gentleman, to pay the money.
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The court will put the arrangements in the compensation order. If the money is subsequently paid, the court will reconsider the matter and decide what action to take. It will look at all the circumstances in the round, including whether the contact order has subsequently been complied with in full. The details of each case are for the court to decide.
The provisions in this part of the Bill have been asked for by the courts. They want the flexibility that will allow them to act against those who breach contact orders, without that having a disproportionate effect on the child. We all understand how important that is. When they make contact orders, the courts have a single guiding principle in mindthat the welfare of the child is paramount. That principle is set out in section 1 of the Children Act 1989. It underpins all our policy and is the foundation of this Bill.
Ms Keeble : When assessments for contact orders are made or breaches of contact considered, will my right hon. Friend the Minister sayeither now or laterwhat attention will be paid to domestic violence? Such violence affects 66 per cent. of all CAFCASS cases, and parents with care often breach contact orders because they are worried about a child's safety in the care of a violent former partner.
Beverley Hughes: I hope that my hon. Friend will bear with me, as I shall come to that important point in a moment. It was raised in the other place, and I am sure that it will be the subject of detailed discussion in Committee.
Vera Baird: My hon. Friend the Minister is very generous in giving way, although I think that she is getting bored, so I will not bother again after this intervention. In connection with enforcement, is it possible that people found to have denied an ordered contact without a reasonable excuse could be required to allow compensating contact? Such an approach might be suitable when the person involved is short of money, and would give the deprived parent an extra allotment of time with the child. That approach has some good points, although it contains the curious notion that one parent can be punished by giving the child to the other. Is that an idea that merits further reflection?
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