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Mr. Pickles: My hon. Friend is making some very good points, and he should not be upset that we interrupt him because we want further information from him. My hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) made a point about other family members who could be involved, but I have noticed the corrosive effect of the secrecy of the courts on social workers. There is a rather patrician view that they do not need to explain their reasons for taking decisions about the placement of children. Does my hon. Friend share my concern?
Tim Loughton: My hon. Friend makes a very good point, and I shall briefly refer to a call for greater transparency in the court system, as that would go some way to address people's concerns about what may be going on. Decisions may be made for perfectly good reasons, but they are not explained properly and can then be misinterpreted and subject to all sorts of other problems. I will mention that in a minute.
Too many contact orders are breached, which is not good for the parents and the extended family, but, above all, it is not good for the children themselves. Everything we do in our approach to the Bill, as with all other children's legislation, will be guided by the principle that the welfare of the children is paramount, which is set out in the Children Act 1989 and is still relevant today.
What are we trying to do with the Bill? It is in everyone's interests to promote stable family life and, wherever possible, to maximise the amount of meaningful quality time spent with both parents,
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whether or not they are living together. However, it is not a question of the rights of parents to have access to their children, but rather that the child has a right of maximum access to his or her parents, unless there is an overwhelming case that doing so would be harmful to that child.
The best blend of both parents is what we need to achieve. It is rarely, if ever, the fault of a child that his or her parents separate, and children should not suffer even more as a result by not having equal access to both parents. Surely, that was the principle set out by Ministers in the Green Paper, which said:
"We fully support the position established in case law that children normally benefit from a meaningful relationship with both parents following separation, so long as it is safe".[Official Report, House of Lords, 29 June 2005; Vol. 673, c. 251.]
There is much research to support the greater role of fathers in the lives of the children and the benefit that that brings to the child. Figures on the amount of time that fathers spend with their children reflect our country's social development. Compared with 30 years ago, men spend eight times as much time with their children. In the 1970s, the fathers of young children spent less than a quarter of an hour a day involved in child-related activities. Recent surveys show that, on average, the fathers of under-fives now spend an hour and 20 minutes on child care activities during the week. Our society has changed greatly over the past 20 or 30 years, as has the relationship that female and male parents have with their children.
Research overwhelmingly highlights the fact that children whose fathers have been actively involved in their children's lives achieve more academically, have more satisfying relationships in their adult lives and are less likely to get into trouble with the police. Indeed, if fathers are involved, children are less likely to have a criminal record by the age of 21. Pre-school children who spend more time playing with their dads are often more sociable when they enter nursery school. Children benefit equally, if not more, from their mothers, but I am making the point that both parents have an equal role to play and can have an equally beneficial effect on their children by maximising such contact where it is appropriate to do so.
The Government need to do more to enable both parents to play an active role in the upbringing of their children, yet there is a cohort of dejected non-resident parents predominantly, but not exclusively, fatherswho are being prevented from doing so often unfamiliarly and without good reason. That does not diminish in any way the fact that there are some very difficult non-resident parents, particularly fathers, who may have threatened violence and may have a detrimental effect on children, but they are the minority.
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"that the court shall, unless a contrary reasons be shown, act on the presumption that a child's welfare is best served through residence with his parents and, if his parents are not living together, through residence with one of them and through both of them being as fully and equally involved in his parenting as possible."
I emphasise that that should happen where the safety of the child is not an issue. We also propose that contact with the non-resident parent should be frequent and continuing and that it should be reasonablenot a 50 per cent. share of the time or anything as prescriptive as that. We believe that the system needs to be fundamentally overhauled and effectively turned on its head. There should be a presumption of shared parenting and dissenting parents should have to put forward a coherent case explaining exactly why the right of the child to maintain reasonable and substantial contact with both parents should not be respected. Safety and welfare considerations should be duly weighed up by the court. I repeat that, in all that, the welfare of the child is paramount. Surely the welfare of the child is complemented, not contradicted, by maximising contact and interaction with each parent.
Margaret Moran : The implication of the hon. Gentleman's argument seems to be that, at present, the majority of cases do not involve a presumption of contact. Is he aware of the report of Her Majesty's inspectorate of court administration, which states that the presumption of contact with both parents is so overwhelming that children are being put at risk because of it? In that light, his argument does not seem sustainable.
Tim Loughton: I do not agree with the findings of that report, which was based on a rather small sample. The findings did not seem to match up with the material that was being used. The allegation that the hon. Lady has madeI have heard it beforeis exceedingly unrepresentative and unhelpful.
We are not suggesting a prescriptive arrangement, or an artificial 50:50 time split that is monitored by a stop watch, as I have said. We have made submissions to the Government on how better contact could be achieved in relation to the study that is being carried out by the Minister's colleague, Baroness Ashton. Our proposals are not unique. For example, best practice jurisdictions across the United States are light years ahead of the UK and are yielding some interesting and positive results. Such legislation is common in many US states. In Canada, the new Conservative Government pledged in their election manifesto to amend the Divorce Act
"to ensure that in the event of a marital breakdown, the Divorce Act will allow both parents and all grandparents to maintain a meaningful relationship with their children and grandchildren, unless it is clearly demonstrated not to be in the best interests of the children."
Australia is amending its Family Law Act in more than 300 places to introduce the concept of parental equality. Australian judges will have to consider equal time sharing and give written reasons for any departure from equality. A mediation service is being proposed to take account of children's views. Most recently, Italy has followed suit. However, the UK Government apparently have some difficulty getting their head around the concept.
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The fundamental principles behind our amendments met with widespread support in the other House and, at one stage, even secured the support of the Liberal Democrats. Liberal Democrats voted in support of the principles during the passage of the Children Act 2004 through the Commons, but reneged when it came to the crunch.
Annette Brooke : Does the hon. Gentleman concede that that very unpleasant debate was held before the publication of the significant Constitutional Affairs Committee report and the responses to the Green Paper, and also that the Liberal Democrats on that occasion said quite clearly that there was much of the wording with which they agreed and much with which they did not agree, but that neither did they agree with the Government's position? I think that that is quite clear. Will the hon. Gentleman tell the House why his party has changed its mind on abolishing the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service?
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