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Tim Loughton: I have some sympathy with the idea of taking children's views into account and have cited the example of Australia, where representations by children are being beefed up. However, putting a young, vulnerable child in a court scenario will create problems in practice, and it may be better to conduct such matters from the home of the parent who has custody. Does the hon. Lady have practical solutions on how best to take into account the views of a child without intimidating them, which may prevent them from providing a balanced view?
Margaret Moran: Those concerns were extensively debated in the proceedings on the 2002 Act. Children's charities have introduced many proposals on how we can ensure that children's voices are safeguarded, that undue pressure is not applied and that the child's voice, rather than that of their parents, is considered. I think that we need to seek the advice of children's charities.
Vera Baird: Does my hon. Friend agree that working out how children's voices can be heard in court is an urgent issue? These days, it is easy for child abuse to take place in a criminal context, but it is impossible to bring action because of the tender years of the child, which means that people of tender years are not protected. It is critical that we turn our minds to the whole issue of bringing children's evidence into court.
Mr. Stewart Jackson: I am making a habit of agreeing with the sensible comments made by the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird). Given that the 2002 Act has been on the statute book for more than three years and that there is ample academic evidence that the voice of children acts as a catalyst to obviating the need for a bitter and long-standing dispute between parents, does the hon. Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran) agree that the Government are remiss in not having acted on section 122 of the 2002 Act? Indeed, perhaps she knows why the Government have not acted.
My hon. Friend is being used as something of a ping-pong ball by me and the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson), who is of course missing the point. This is nothing to do with
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introducing the ability to have a child's voice heard in a technical sensethe problem is how to involve the views and experience of the child so that that becomes credible evidence.
Opposition Members and those in the other place have been extremely exercised by the enforcement of contact orders. I would hate for anyone to misunderstand me on this. I agree that in the best of all possible worlds, it is always best for children to have contact with both parents, but we are dealing not with the best of all possible worlds but with cases where the evidence suggests that there are severe risks to the child. We must therefore build into the legislation every precaution to ensure that contact is safe for those children. We are not dealing with the generality of contact orders. Equally, I agree that vexatious parents who deny contact for their own reasons should have the proverbial book thrown at them. Again, however, we must be absolutely certain that those children are safe before contact is enforced. As things stand, the Bill has no such requirement. That is urgently needed.
We need pre-court checks at the beginning of all proceedings to assess whether there may be safety concerns and a more comprehensive definition of risk assessment in legislation or in regulations. Courts must have regard to any risk assessment and order contact only if it is safe to do so. I fully support perpetrator programmes, provided that they are legitimate programmes run by organisations such as Respect and MALE, which have a long history of understanding perpetrator practice, not short courses that purport to resolve domestic violence and treat perpetrators in one day. We have to be careful about what is meant by proper perpetrator programmes, and we must ensure that the voice of the child is heard.
We do not want to experience further groundhog days as parliamentarians, but this is not only an issue for us but one that has serious implications for the lives of our children. Twenty-nine children have been killed as a result of contact arrangements in England and Wales. Serious case reviews indicate that with regard to five of 13 families involved, contact was ordered by the court, but no court professionals have been held to account for those homicides. Children have paid with their lives for the presumption that exists, and will continue to exist unless we amend the Bill, that contact is almost always in the best interests of the childthe presumption that the family justice system abides by and holds so dear. It is time that that is balanced by a legal requirement that the court must have due regard to risk assessments and be satisfied that that contact will be safe for our children. Nothing less will do.
Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD):
I congratulate Members who have spoken so far on the tone of the debate. We have already had a useful sharing of views and new ideas. That is all-importantafter all, we are all trying to ensure that the best interests of the child are served.
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Our debate must focus on the best outcomes for the child. For me, it is important that the principles in the United Nations convention on the rights of the child are upheld. Many articles are relevant to the Bill. Article 3 states that
under some of the conditions that we have discussed. When there is a possibility of separation from one or both parents, the article states that relations and direct contact should be maintained with both parents regularly, except if that is contrary to the child's best interest. Articles 11 and 21 are especially relevant to the adoption provisions of the Bill.
I welcome some aspects of the Bill. I do not feel quite as negative as the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) about it. Its origins go back several years and there has been a great deal of consultation. The issues that part 1 covers constitute an acknowledgement of the great dissatisfaction with the way in which the legal process has handled contact disputes.
As the Minister for Children and Families said, a multi-faceted approach is important. It is also important to try to increase the proportion of parents who resolve contact issues without recourse to the courts, and the proportion of those who have reached the court process but are supported to find agreed solutions. We must also improve the efficiency and effectiveness with which the remaining intractable cases are tackled. We must appreciate that those casesapproximately 10 per cent. of the total are complex.
To go back a stage further, it is important to recognise the importance of the family unit, with no prescriptive view of the shape that a family may take. The family structure may change for a child, but the important aspect is loving, caring and safe relationships in the family. The preamble of the United Nations convention on the rights of the child stresses
The Constitutional Affairs Committee report that covered matters of importance to the Bill was entitled "Family Justice". Sometimes, experiences in my constituency surgeries make me ask, "Justice for whom?" Do we mean justice for parents or for the children? Somehow, one loses sight of the fact that there was a family unit. We need to proceed in such a way as to retain the importance of the family, even if all its members are not located in the same residence.
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Support for the family generally is important. I declare an interestI wish it were greater than it isas a trustee of Poole community family trust. I do not believe that it will receive any Government funding in the near future. The principle behind community family trusts of working on relationship education prior to partnerships becoming permanentfor example, by working through checklists and especially through providing relationship education in schoolsis excellent.
Such preventive measures are part of what should be a lifetime of family support that can be accessed at appropriate times. When we consider the amount of support that is needed when a breakdown occurs, we realise that such early investment is crucial. Clearly, even in the case of an irrevocable breakdown, if the parents have an amicable split contact arrangements are much easier to tackle.
Part 1 is the result of a process that began way back in March 2001. Following consultation, a report entitled "Making Contact Work" was published in 2002 by the Children Act Sub-CommitteeCASCof the Lord Chancellor's advisory board on family law. Its recommendations covered several issues that we are debating today. However, it was not until July 2004 that the Government published their Green Paper on parental separation, which acknowledged that the way in which the courts intervene in disputed contact cases does not work well. The results of the consultation were published in "Next Steps" in January 2005. We then had pre-legislative scrutiny. That is an excellent process, on which the Government are to be commended. There should be much more of it. The Bill was then introduced in the other place, and we are now debating it today, five years after the process started. It is hardly surprising that people have become impatient.
There has been high drama throughout the period, involving not only the antics of various fathers' groups, but the significant report of the then Select Committee on the Lord Chancellor's Department on the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support ServiceCAFCASSwhich resulted in the whole of the CAFCASS board resigning. Positive changes have emanated from that and we are now beginning to feel confidence in its ability to change the way in which it works, but it certainly faces enormous challenges. CAFCASS has just completed its consultation paper "Every Day Matters", and I shall say more about CAFCASS later. I want to note the significance of that title. It illustrates the importance of dealing with these disputes in an effective but cautious way. However, we have just been through a five-year process. Surely that is too long.
We have already heard evidence of important case studies and seen data from the Office for National Statistics, but do we really know the extent of contact denial or breakdown? The evidence that I have seen suggests that we tend to get different answers, depending on whether we ask the resident parent or the non-resident parent. Obviously, perceptions will differ, but that makes it all the more important to set up the research projects with great care. It is welcome that the Government are setting up a further research project on what happens between a case arriving in court and a final contact order being made. However, that research could well take 18 months, and we shall have completed our work on the Bill long before that. Research has also
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been undertaken on the gateway forms, although I have not come across its findings. Perhaps the Minister will talk about that later. Time is ticking bywe should have commissioned some of this research rather earlier.
We wholeheartedly support the presumption that the welfare of the child must be paramount, as set out in the Children Act 1989. Given that presumption, I should like to address four issues: safety, mediation, contact and enforcement. If I have time, I shall also mention resources and transparency. I concur with what has already been said about the paramountcy principle being included in all proceedings referred to in the Bill. In particular, it should be added to clauses 4 and 5. I agree with the points made by the hon. Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran) on that matter.
The Government have made an important contribution to tackling domestic violence, but can we ever do enough in that regard? In relation to contact and the safety of children, there is frequently a history of violence behind the cases that come to court. A statistic that is often cited is that in 2003, 16,000 cases involving domestic violence came before the family courts, but contact orders were refused in only 601 of them. It is difficult to say whether domestic violence is under-recorded. Many groups feel strongly that it is, and I certainly have a distinct feeling that that is the case. However, others will argue that it is over-recorded.
I am pleased also to be able to congratulate the Government on the fact that the availability of supervised contact centres is improving. However, the provision of such centres is still inadequate and many more are needed. We heard earlier about the inadequacy of provision in Northamptonshire. In Dorset, even if we achieve two contact centres, people will still have great difficulty because there is so little public transport.
I am pleased that the Government responded favourably to the Select Committee's suggestion that more innovative solutions should be considered. The Minister mentioned the use of children's centres and extended schools, for instance. I have no idea whether the resources that the Government are allocating will be adequate, but I sincerely hope that they will.
We have long felt strongly that any contact activity should be subject to careful and separate risk assessment to minimise possible risk, especially to children but also to others involved, particularly women. The Joint Committee responsible for the scrutiny recommended that before making contact or enforcement orders, courts should be explicitly required to consider the safety implications for both child and parent. I am glad that the other place agreed to introduce risk assessments. I look forward to scrutinising the new clause in Committee because it concerns a vital issue. I hope that it can be strengthened.
Why are reports of domestic violence increasing? Are we becoming a more violent society? Have the gateway forms encouraged people to come forward and say something, or are people using domestic violence as part of the unfortunate game, as has been suggested? It is encouraging in many ways that people are speaking out more and acknowledging the issue of domestic violence, but when there is a dispute between two parents on whether domestic violence has occurred, a mandatory risk assessment will be helpful. Both sides will have an opportunity to present their points, and the playing field will become more level.
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The safety issue needs to be revisited over time. That will be difficult because the situation will not remain static. We hope that some of the perpetrator programmes will be successful. There will be additional strains as time goes on, and domestic violence may occur when it has not occurred in the past. Safety issues should also be considered before the mediation route is taken, although mediation must be a priority.
The Government have made a good start. We may have criticisms over which project has been adopted and which has not, but there is much more emphasis on mediation and an understanding that it must be better than warfare and conflict, in which the child becomes a pawn. Mediation should be used as an opportunity to strengthen relationships and to ensure that the outcome is the best for the child and does not merely serve the parents' interests. It might be good for the parent to see the child, but if it involves hundreds of miles of travel for the child, that must be borne in mind. Putting the child first is all-important.
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