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Ms Taylor: I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. Does he accept or agree with the Cleveland family mediation service that if mediation is to be effective and is to be a useful tool, it should be used well before a divorce comes to court? Does he agree that it should be taken out of that arena? There is a hothouse of sensation once there are court proceedings. Mediation is much more effective before those proceedings. I would be grateful to hear the hon. Gentleman make a statement about how valuable that approach could be if it were to be supported, as it were, in the Bill.
Tim Loughton: I completely agree. I do not need to say any more. I have been making the point that the hon. Lady has outlined. It is something that works. The more that we can take such proceedings out of the court procedure, the more likely the process is to succeed. I do not think that any of us would dispute that.
I have concerns about CAFCASS, to which I shall briefly return. The Minister said that she would fund CAFCASS with increased resources. Yet its budget for this year is frozen, which effectively means a £4 million shortfall. That is at a time when more work is being imposed on CAFCASS. There are still difficulties although I accept that there have been improvements in overcoming the time delays for allocating officers to cases. However, the courts are still congested and it takes far too long before cases are scheduled and come through.
We agree with the proposal to ask CAFCASS to take on greater work with risk assessments and various other things, but none of it, however well-intentioned, will work unless properly trained, well-resourced professionals at the coalface put them into operation. The same holds for properly trained social workers who undertake preventive and monitoring work in the field and enable cases to come to court. I have attended far too many family courts where good social workers had
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not worked on the case when it first came to court. I was in court one day when not a single social worker had worked on the case when it first came to court.
Mr. Stewart Jackson : May I echo the point that my hon. Friend is making so eloquently? A reply dated 27 February to a question that I had asked in correspondence said that as of 30 November, 16.5 per cent., or one in six, private cases dealt with under the auspices of CAFCASS were unallocated. To develop the point made by the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird), I am concerned that the extra work programmes that we are imposing on CAFCASS may put it in a difficult position.
Tim Loughton: My hon. Friend has made a very good point. If the measure is to work, the professionals must be given the tools that they need. CAFCASS is concerned about its budget, and whether it can maintain the progress that it has made since it experienced a significant transformation.
As for court transparency, a great deal of resentment is caused by proceedings in camera. Many decisions are difficult to comprehend, so there is a need for courts to open up as we look forward to the consultation paper promised by the Government. The Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs said before the election:
"A greater degree of transparency is required in the family courts. An obvious move would be to allow the press and public into the family courts under appropriate reporting restrictions and subject to the judge's discretion."
A less radical proposal would be to make it a rule that all judgments are published in family cases unless there are exceptional circumstances. Judges already have such a power, but many choose not to exercise it. We would therefore like to see the Government's proposals on opening up the court system, as they would provide reassurance for many parents who feel hard done by. Recently, Mr. Justice Munby made a strong plea for more transparency, suggesting that the current restrictions may even breach the European convention on human rights:
In Committeeassuming that the Committee of Selection selects me as a Committee memberI will go into greater detail about the frustration of contact orders but, as I said earlier, the Bill lacks teeth. Defiance of contact orders should be monitored by the court system. We should not just rely on the non-resident parent crying foul before we initiate and pay for legal challenges. Serial frustrators are able to play the system, ultimately leading them to be in contempt of court, although the relevant powers are rarely used. Prison is not a practical option, and electronic tagging, I am glad to say, has been dropped. There are problems with the payment of compensation, and I would like the Government to consider the proposal on compensatory contact time, which we support and which was mentioned by the hon. and learned Member for Redcar. Whatever measures are put in place should be on a sliding scale so that the offender has many opportunities to reform their behaviour and comply with the contact orders, subject to checks and balances if they are scared to do so because of domestic violence and other threats.
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Penalties must be realistic, and there should be a perception that they can and will be imposed if the offender continues to flout the contact orders.
False accusations, usually of domestic violence, are sometimes made. I am not seeking to undermine the fact that domestic violence takes place, but parents may fabricate claims of domestic violence, and we should come down hard on such claims. We certainly need to speed up investigations of claims of domestic violence. Some interesting work is under way in Australia, where serious consideration is being given to a proposal to compel people to pay costs for vexatious complaints.
Finally, on the subject of inter-country adoption, it is perfectly legitimate to adopt overseas and, in many cases, such adopters perform a humanitarian role. I share concerns about cases of child trafficking, particularly, it was claimed, after the tsunami. There were claims of such cases in Cambodia, which is why a decision was made on that country. We should clamp down rigorously on anything that constitutes the trafficking of children. Procedures were tightened in the Adoption and Children Act 2001, and we supported those measures. I am concerned, however, about the imbalance in adoption numbers. In the past 10 years, about 3,000 children have been adopted overseas, of whom 1,441almost halfcame from China. Many of those children, I suspect, were baby girls. Should we concentrate so much on a country with a questionable social stance on baby girls? The next largest contributor was India, where 235 children were adopted; followed by Guatemala, where 205 children were adopted; then Russia, where 177 children were adopted, and Thailand, where 171 children were adopted. I am in favour of inter-country adoption where appropriate, but I question the imbalance in the countries from where children have been adopted in recent years.
Another problem arises from the fact that, unlike many other western countries, we lack an inter-country adoption agency. How much evidence of trafficking will be required to trigger the suspension of a country from inter-country adoption arrangements? Why are the rules not working if we are clamping down properly on child trafficking? We need to act in the best interests of the child, and I certainly welcome the provisions that allow for special exceptions in individual cases. We are concerned, however, about the scale of charges for work on inter-country adoption. Such a proposal was not included in the draft Bill, and inter-country adoption is already an expensive and bureaucratic business. The British Association for Adoption and Fostering has expressed concern about the Government charging for a service:
"It is hard to see why one group of UK residentsprospective intercountry adoptersshould be singled out for payment of a fee for the provision of a service such as this . . . Any suggestion that public money should only be spent on safeguarding the welfare of children indigenous to this country is surely repugnant both morally and in the light of our international obligations.
We should clamp down on inappropriate inter-country adoption but, equally, we should be wary about encouraging private fostering arrangements by the back door. As we seem to do on an annual basis, we will table an amendment on the registration of private foster
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carers. Such registration was not included in the Children Act 2004, although there was a fallback suggestion that it might be introduced. We will therefore revisit the issue, and dust down our amendments on private fostering registration.
The Bill is a short one, but it includes a great deal of detail. Some provisions are contentious, particularly those on contact orders. It received a great deal of scrutiny in the other place, but it remains a highly unsatisfactory Bill. Many parts are fundamentally flawed, and it is a missed opportunity. Above all, it fails to do what it could and should do, so we are letting down too many children who have been let down by an acrimonious split in a family. We had an opportunity in the Bill to give them a second chance of a meaningful relationship with both their parents, and for most children that is the best start in life that we can give them.
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