Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Annette Brooke: That is my point. The Select Committee concluded that inserting a statement into the welfare checklist offered a possible solution and did not have the dangers associated with having two legal presumptions. It also said that the court should have regard—and this is the critical point—to the importance of sustaining a relationship between children and non-resident parents.

That approach was also endorsed by the Scrutiny Committee. I know that the Government heard that request, and I hope that the Minister will say whether there will be any response to it.We have been told again today, as we have been told repeatedly, that the assumption of reasonable contact is established in case law, but we should try to find appropriate wording—perhaps in the form of something added to the welfare checklist—to give some clarity and guidance.

With reference to the point raised by the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller), what amounts almost to a self-generating bias has been caused by the delays that occurred in the past. It is clear that a resolution is even harder to achieve if a non-resident parent has not had contact with a child for six months or longer. In such cases, the outcome is almost a self-fulfilling prophecy. What can we do? Is it a question only of making the court process more efficient, or can we put in place some mechanism to deal with the problem, where there is no risk of harm? I hope to be able to explore that in greater detail in Committee.

The hon. Member for Luton, South said that it is vital that the views of children are fully considered. My impression is that, in good circumstances, CAFCASS does take account of children's views and deals with them very well. It would be interesting to have some evidence in that regard, but hearsay suggests that that body's response is patchy across the country. I support the NSPCC's contention that the Bill fails to make any provision in respect of the mechanism by which the courts may ascertain the child's wishes and feelings, or ensure that separate representation for the child is available when that child might be at risk and his or her interests are in conflict with those of the parents.

Section 122 of the Adoption and Children Act 2002 has been mentioned already. I have tabled some parliamentary questions on the matter, but it would be very helpful if the Minister who winds up the debate is able to say whether the provision is likely to be implemented in the near future. A great deal of research exists to suggest that taking a child's wishes and feelings into account can lead to better resolution between parents. We must find the best practice in that respect, but I am sure that all hon. Members want that outcome.
2 Mar 2006 : Column 457

Much has been said in the debate about enforcement, although I have not devoted as much of my speech to the topic as the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham did. It is important to consider different penalties, and my earlier intervention was aimed simply at establishing whether a range of penalties existed. The community punishment is obviously preferable to sending a parent to prison, which is a last resort, but the way that it is operated by the probation service means that some parents will find it difficult to make sure that the child's interests are not affected. For example, a parent who is sent on a gardening scheme might have to wear a very visible jacket, and her child might think, "That's my mother doing that."

I am not convinced that the community punishment work would be appropriate in all cases. Will the Minister say whether the provisions in the earlier part of the Bill could be applied as part of a contact order's enforcement process so that, for instance, a person could be sent off to an appropriate parenting course? That would add to the range of available penalties, although all matters to do with contact activities, community service and so on obviously require adequate resourcing. We know that delays have been caused by CAFCASS, but in "Every Day Matters" it seems almost to be putting on a brave face. It says that it does not have enough resources, but that it has proposed new solutions. We have to be concerned that CAFCASS is adequately resourced.

I asked a parliamentary question recently and established that while the average training budget per employee was as high as £644 in one year, this year it had slipped down to £390. If we envisage CAFCASS carrying out a much wider range of activities, including risk assessments, training will be all-important. We have to get it right. There is a great deal of concern about the potential under-resourcing of CAFCASS when it is taking on a changing role.

Finally, on part 1, I concur with the Conservative Opposition that increasing transparency where it is safe and appropriate to do so in the family court system will help to address some of the current grievances.

I shall be rather brief on part 2, not because it is not important, but simply because with the interventions that I have taken I have been speaking for rather a long time. It is absolutely right that we have slightly more focus on adults in this part of the Bill, although safeguarding children is still important. We all know that inter-country adoption happens for different reasons. Frequently, people adopt children from within their extended family or friendship ties. More often than not, such adoptions are nothing like that. There are thousands of children waiting for adoption in this country, but they are older children and they have a number of problems. People choose to go abroad to adopt babies. The proposed legislation will cover countries, I presume, such as the USA. It is not simply about people who, for humanitarian reasons, go abroad to adopt children in need.

The procedures for suspending adoptions from other countries need to be clear, transparent and fair. I supported the decision to take urgent action on Cambodia when trafficking issues arose. The process of inter-country adoption is extremely long. It is an
2 Mar 2006 : Column 458
extensive and expensive process. I have some concerns about the fee issue, which was discussed at length in the other place. I agree with the extension of the time limit from six to 12 months, as proposed in clause 14. It will stop people evading some of the rigours of the adoption procedures in other countries. There is quite a dilemma in terms of time taken and expense, but it is important to get it right. I look forward to debating that fully in Committee.

Baroness Barker moved an amendment in another place to make it easier in appropriate cases for children to be adopted from the UK to overseas, more often than not by relatives. As promised by the Minister in that debate, a meeting has taken place with civil servants. Does the Minister have any update for us on that today? I understand the difficulties of establishing sufficient safeguards for children, but clearly it is important to look at the issue that way on as well.

Baroness Barker said in the other place:

Recently, we have seen reports about the number of children in this country who simply disappear as a result of a badly regulated system of private fostering. I, too, have made my cause the need to make progress to proper regulation of private fostering. That is important.

All in all, there are some important and useful aspects to the Bill and I look forward to a constructive time in Committee, where everyone will listen to one another and we will come up with a safe solution, while acknowledging that there are issues about how the current system operates.

3.9 pm

Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab): I was a member of the Joint Committee that performed the pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft Bill in February 2005, together with my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) and my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw). I am also a member of the Modernisation Committee, which is conducting an examination of how scrutiny of legislation can be improved. A Committee that gives pre-legislative scrutiny to Bills makes a valuable contribution to ensuring that we get the best possible legislation to achieve the outcomes that we want. It enables interested parties, including lobby groups, to give evidence, both oral and written, to the Committee and allows members to look at the legislation, taking into account those comments. It also enables those comments to be more closely scrutinised and challenged by the Committee members.

The Committee takes its task very seriously because members know that the Government will listen carefully to their recommendations. Indeed, the Government accepted 11 of those recommendations, which shows the benefits of the process in improving legislation. I was particularly pleased that the Government withdrew both curfews and electronic tagging as enforcement orders.

The major clauses in the Bill deal with the very difficult area of how the courts can intervene when separating parents cannot agree on the kind of contact
2 Mar 2006 : Column 459
each parent should have with the child of that relationship. The interest of the child must be paramount in a system that still remains mainly focused on the resolution of disputes between adults. Fathers do not have rights, mothers do not have rights: they have only responsibilities.

Each child and their family circumstances are different, and it is not therefore appropriate to approach the welfare of the child from definitions of parental rights or notions or presumptions of equal parenting. However, it is right to start from the basis that children benefit from having a meaningful relationship with both parents. When their relationship fails, it is the responsibility of parents to come to arrangements about contact that are in the interests of the child. Of course, in the overwhelming majority of cases they do. Nine out of 10 separating couples agree informal contact. Of the 10 per cent. who have a formal arrangement, 90 per cent. work successfully. It is that small and difficult minority who cannot agree and who ask the courts to resolve their disputes that the Bill attempts to address. But as the Joint Committee report pointed out, in the small minority of cases in which a parent has applied to court, the problems of those families may be complex and not easily resolved through any enforcement measure.

In her excellent speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran) referred to the research done by the university of East Anglia, which has provided an insight into those problems. The parents involved were often young, on low incomes and with very young children. The parents' ability to communicate with each other was limited and the relationships were characterised by a lack of trust, empathy or flexibility, often with high levels of anger. The disputes presented to the courts did not reflect straightforward arguments about contact, but a range of issues and the courts were typically presented with competing his-and-her accounts. Given that, many of these families need support and a facilitative approach to problem solving sustained over a period of time. I welcome the provisions in the Bill that will enable that to happen, including the ability of the court to make contact activity directions. Although it is not clear what those might be exactly, there are several activities that could relate to the promotion of contact, such as attending advice or guidance sessions, including those that give information about the value of meditation—I am sorry, I mean mediation, although meditation might also be useful.

It would make sense to look at basing those contact activities in the new children's centres. The Sure Start project in my constituency already gives advice and information to parents to increase their understanding of children's behaviour and their skills in managing that behaviour. Attendance at such a session might help parents in conflict separate out their needs from those of their children and help to resolve disputes between parents.

I also welcome the expansion of the role of CAFCASS in facilitating and monitoring contact in that supportive approach, but bearing in mind the complexity of the difficulties of some parents, I am pleased that the Government have responded positively to the Joint Committee's recommendations on expanding family assistance orders, which are underused. With the roll-out of children's centres and
2 Mar 2006 : Column 460
the establishment of new local children's centres, there will be an opportunity to use all available resources to provide families with help and support not only to resolve contact disputes but to enable better outcomes for children.

We must be clear about the limitations of contact activity directions in dealing with the more complex underlying problems where violence and the fear of violence has been a factor in the separation and continues to be an issue in contact. I very much agree with women's organisations that say that abusive behaviour in a violent relationship cannot be dealt with by parenting classes and that the primary responsibility must be to ensure the safety of the child in any contact arrangements. However, even when a court has decided that contact is in the child's interests, there will be situations where a parent persistently undermines the decision and refuses to co-operate for reasons that have little to do with the child's welfare, so I welcome the new enforcement powers, including the court's being able to direct a parent to do unpaid work and make financial recompense. Courts are reluctant to send a parent with care to jail and those new powers, together with a more facilitative and supportive approach, will mean, I hope, that that does not have to happen.

I am sorry that the Government did not agree to the time and placement requirement recommended by the Joint Committee as a form of bridging order between facilitative contact activities and enforcement orders. It would have enabled the court to direct a parent to be at a designated place for a designated time. The Joint Committee saw great advantages in such orders, as the court could direct a parent to stay in their house while the non-resident parent had contact with the child in another place, thus preventing that parent from undermining the contact arrangement.

Finally, I turn to the provisions on restricting inter-country adoption. I welcome the proposals to set up a list of restricted countries that the Secretary of State deems have bad practices relating to the adoption of children, such as not having proper systems to verify that children are orphans or not attempting to reunite abandoned or lost children with their families. The Government will of course need to ensure that they have good information about what is going on in other countries.

As the Minister will be aware, one of the Joint Committee's recommendations was that the Government take steps to establish an inter-country adoption agency, which we believed would enhance good practice and inform the Government about unsatisfactory practices in countries where children are available for adoption. It would also inform the Government when a country should be placed on the restricted list. As has already been said, there are about 300 applications each year to adopt children from a number of countries, with a few countries receiving the bulk of the applications. Home study reports are prepared by almost as many individual local authority or voluntary organisations as there are countries, so the channels of communication to the DFES from so many agencies cannot be as good as they would be with a small number of specialist agencies, which could network with similar agencies in other countries. The overseas adoption helpline, in its evidence to the Joint Committee, made a good case for pump-priming money to be made available to facilitate
2 Mar 2006 : Column 461
the setting up of specialist agencies that would perform a linking or mediation function with the state of origin, and which exist in a majority of countries worldwide.

The overseas adoption helpline argued that the establishment of such agencies would result in a more child-protective system for arrangements for adoption by UK applicants, as the agencies would be accredited by, and accountable to, the proper authorities in the country of origin as well as the relevant central authority in the UK. A network of such agencies would provide a mechanism to monitor adoption practices in situ in those states.

The Government did not accept that recommendation, as they thought it unnecessary. They also pointed to the cost. However, 300 applications a year with a charge to applicants of £5,000 for a home study report indicates that there is already a substantial revenue stream, and the DFES plans to recover some of the administration costs at the rate of a further £800 to £1,000 per head.

In other countries, the costs of inter-country adoption applications, like domestic applications, are borne by the state as it is seen as a service to the child, not to the adopter. We do not take that view in this country.

I would argue, however, that some pump-priming money to set up one or two specialist agencies would be a recognition that, with such complex issues, a degree of specialisation would benefit both the child and the Government. It would also be a good investment for the Government, as it would help to achieve the objectives of the highest practices in inter-country adoption in both this country and the country of origin. I realise that that is outside the Bill's scope, but I hope that Ministers will look at the issue again.

This is a good Bill that will legislate on a difficult issue, and I believe that the Government have achieved a good balance of facilitative and enforcement measures to achieve the objective of ensuring that, as far as possible, separated parents fulfil their responsibilities to their children.

3.20 pm

Next Section IndexHome Page