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Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): Clause 7, the risk assessment provision, is one of the most crucial and difficult parts of the Bill. If the hon. Gentleman has concerns about it, will he explore how it could be made more waterproof?
Tim Loughton: I have no concerns about clause 7. That is the point that I have just made. I said that including provision for risk assessments gives greater security. People who have serious concerns about domestic violence can have them taken into account by the court so that a breach of contact would be justified. I think that the hon. Lady slightly misheard what I said. The risk assessment gives greater security, but if it showed that a person was not at risk, the penalties should be enforced if there was a breach of contact.
Tim Loughton: I had better make some progress, otherwise I shall speak for even longer than the Minister, which will get me into great trouble[Interruption.] I am not criticising her. She generously took many interventions and I am not trying to be churlish. We are having a nice debate. You try to be nice and you get it thrown back at you, Madam Deputy Speakeryou cannot win.
We are determined that the problem of breach of contact should be addressed once and for all, which is why we have done a lot of work to highlight it, through summits held at Westminster, amendments that we proposed to the Children Act 2004 and some key
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undertakings on contact provisions in our manifesto for the 2005 general election. When we scrutinise the Bill in Committee, we shall maintain the resolute and principled stance taken on the subject of contact in particular by those doughty fighters in the Lords for the interests of children, my noble Friends Earl Howe and Baroness Morris of Bolton.
The Bill addresses two major but unrelated issues in respect of contact orders in part 1 and adoptions with a foreign element in part 2, as the Minister said. Although we have some concerns about the fashioning of new procedures for overseas adoption, there is a fair degree of agreement in principle, so we shall concentrate our fire, and our time, on the woeful inadequacies of some of the contact provisions.
Let us consider the problem. Up to 200,000 children a year experience the emotional distress of their parents' separation or divorce. That experience is likely to befall 20 per cent. of children before they reach the age of 16the same experience affected me when I was 11. Members of Parliament are probably not good role models for parents trying to promote stable families. My noble Friend Baroness Morris said that if she was the subject of a CAFCASS report, she would be described thus:
"Works away from home, involving long and anti-social hours; appears more interested in everyone else's children than her own; and spends long, hot, summer week-ends indoors writing speeches."[Official Report, House of Lords, 29 June 2005; Vol. 673, c. 255.]
Not a very good model for stable family life.
Although 90 per cent. of separations are resolved without resorting to dispute in the courts, the remaining 10 per cent. can end up in protracted, messy and acrimonious legal proceedings, as the Minister said. There is much work for CAFCASS to do in producing 28,000 or so contact orders and writing 33,000 court reports, and we have concerns about its resource capability to cope with that work load, while acknowledging the improvements that we are beginning to see under the new board, which, with Baroness Pitkeathley and the new chief executive Anthony Douglas, is doing a good job after a traumatic first few years due to the Government's poorly thought-through conception of CAFCASS in April 2001.
From our surgeries, we are all aware of the pain of non-resident parents who are denied meaningful contact with their children and who often live in reduced circumstances that militate against proper relationships with the children. We see cases of multiple breaches of contact orders by the parent with custody, which require multiple and costly returns to court by the non-resident parent. There are horrendous cases of members of the extended family being shut out of the lives of childrenespecially grandchildren. I stress the important role played by grandparents who feel so much pain when splits go wrong. Grandparents who have given family members great support, acting as chauffeurs, babysitters and bankers, suddenly find after a split that they are left completely out of the equation.
Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab):
I can reinforce the hon. Gentleman's last point. Is it his experience, as it is
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mine, that many grandparents come to MPs' surgeries for advice because they are so completely shut out of the process?
Tim Loughton: The hon. Gentleman is right. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) held a debate on that very subject in Westminster Hall recently. Just this morning, I heard that a loving grandmother in my constituency, whom I know well, and who has not seen her grandchildren for the best part of 10 years, is in hospital due to the stress caused by that. It is unacceptable that extended family members are just as much victimseven more soas the people directly involved.
The number of contact orders does not reflect the amount of contact that is given. We hear the complaint that the contact simply consists of passing on postcards or a Christmas or birthday card, and nothing happens face to face. I fear that the contact often takes place at rather soulless and anonymous contact centres, although I acknowledge that some of the voluntary organisations in particular do a very good job in that respect. I am pleased to hear the Minister mention the greater use of family centres and some of the other new measures that will provide a family-oriented environment, because such places can be depressing and certainly not conducive to allowing the absent parent to spend good-quality time with his or her children.
Too often, the parent with custody can use the children as pawns in an ongoing fight against an ex-partner by taking children away when a holiday has been booked, by denying ex-partners access to school reports or school photographs or by moving to the other end of the country, well away from where the ex-partner lives or can visit because of work commitments. None of that is helpful to children, and there are some extreme cases of people who serially frustrate contact orders and seem to get away with it, time and againhence my concern that any threat against the infringement of contact must be realistic and able to be brought into play.
Mr. Stewart Jackson: Will my hon. Friend comment on the practice that obtains in respect of the existing statutory duty under section 23 of the Children Act 1989, which places a statutory duty on local authorities to consider friends and family first when considering care orders and court orders but is being disregarded in practice by most local authorities?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. We have heard a number of stories where members of extended families and close family friends could effectively step in, in loco parentis, and offer an opportunity, perhaps temporarily, for a stable family upbringing for those children, who are ignored from the equation. In many cases, that is down to the pressure on local authorities but, in too many cases, local authorities do not think that that should be first port of call, although they are obliged to do so. Time and again, when contact orders are frustrated, it causes stress and anguish for parents and an increase in mental illness problems. We are all aware that 40 per cent. of non-
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resident parents lose contact with their children within two years of a family split. That is the most alarming figure of all.
Ms Dari Taylor: Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that not all contact is effective and nor does it produce a stable outcome? There are relationships in every family unit that cause serious problemsa fact that becomes apparent in my surgery, time and again. Does he also accept that, in vexatious situations and when there has been domestic violence, unsupervised contact can often be very undermining to the development of a stable family unit? We can talk about contact and understand its value but we must also put in place controls if those children are to benefit from the stability of relationships.
Tim Loughton: The hon. Lady is right, and I will come in a minute, if I can, to the presumption that the child will benefit from maximising contact with both of his or her parents, as the Minister has said already. In some cases, that is not the norm, which is when special provisions need to be made. We want a presumption that that will be appropriate for most children, but there are certainly cases of domestic violence where contact with a non-resident parent can be counter-productive and where proper supervised contact may be neededit is a case of horses for coursesbut that is not necessary in the majority of cases.
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