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Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to participate in this vital debate, which has been marked by good sense, clarity and shared principles, as exemplified by the speech of the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey), who clearly knows what she is talking about. For the record, I will confine my remarks to part 1, concentrating on contact orders and the operation of family courts. Other hon. Members may wish to debate the more thorny subject of inter-country adoptions.
I believe that there is a consensus across the House for us to achieve an outcome that is not only practical and pragmatic, but fair and compassionate, with the paramount consideration being the welfare of children, both in theory and practice in statute. I am pleased to say that there is a political will on both sides of the House to put aside party differences and focus on getting the legislation right. We are, of course, dealing not with dry, arcane academic case law, but with people's lives and the future of our children, whose lives may be fractured or broken by the raw emotion and hurt engendered by the disintegration of their families and
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the growing phenomenon of divorce and separation. As has been mentioned, the trauma and stress of that affects about 200,000 children each year.
Two thirds of those children are under 10 years of age. As my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller) mentioned, 40 per cent. of children lose contact with the non-resident parents, often as the result of bitter and protracted disputes following separation and divorce.
We agree on much in the Bill. In particular, I welcome the Government's commitment on risk assessments in clause 7, which is supported by hon. Members on both sides of the House. There is a demonstrable need for a more effective method of enforcing contact orders. In so far as Parliament can legislate to change people's lives for the betteras Disraeli may have said in another context, "The elevation of the people"that is what we are trying to do today. It may not be Catholic emancipation or the abolition of slavery, but we are trying to improve people's lives and to give adults and children a better future, to ameliorate the tragedy of family disintegration.
We agree that, as legislators, we have a duty and responsibility to balance the best of what has gone before, best practice and an evidence-based analysis of the current system with a realisation that there are significant flaws in what passes for the practice of family law today, which is sometimes perceived as ineffectual and certainly perceived by many people as unfair.
I welcome much of the Bill. I support the insertion of the domestic violence perpetrator programme into the Bill and the introduction of risk assessments, especially given the points made eloquently by the hon. Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran) about circumstances where allegations or proof of abuse are involved. It is right to reform the Children Act 1989 and I am glad that there is recognition that the principle of children maintaining contact with both parents after divorce and separation should be enunciated, even though I might think that is not expressed sufficiently robustly in the Bill.
The recognition that contact orders are meaningless in their practical application without legal sanction is also welcome. Non-compliance cannot and should not be allowed to be tolerated by the courts with impunity. If it is, we risk undermining the whole discharge of family law. The Bill's proposals establish a marker that creates a disincentive for those who would otherwise flout the will of the court. They restore balance to an area hitherto considered wholly biased against the non-resident parent. As has already been said by my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), giving the court a range of options, such as the early intervention projects, is realistic and sensible. Most importantly, it recognises that all families parents and childrenare different and that a one-size-fits-all approach is inappropriate in this particularly sensitive area. It goes without saying that I welcome the fact that Ministers have supported the decision not to proceed with tagging, which would have been a grotesque and gratuitous overreaction.
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The failureor, if I am being charitable, the non-successof the family resolution pilots, which were launched and discontinued at a hugely disproportionate cost and which involved low take-up and a lack of compulsion, should not prevent Ministers from being imaginative, especially when reviewing the efficacy of mediation in the package of measures. However, voluntary measures will once again fail. As I mentioned when I intervened on the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), only a legal obligation enacted by the courts will have the desired effect. Academic evidence from Norway, the United States and other countries has shown that that is the case. I hope that that matter will be debated in Committee at length and in detail.
The wider range of options available to the courts, the improvement in the monitoring of contact andI agree with the hon. Member for Stockportthe enactment of family assistance orders are positive steps. The idea of a legal presumption to promote contact has attracted wide support across parties.
I want to focus on a reasonably small number of areas that concern me and which remain unresolved in the Bill. At the outset I have to saythis may be controversialthat I believe that there is no contradiction between the presumption of co-parenting and the safety of the child or children subject to a contact order. I do not believe that the case has been sufficiently made that a legal presumption is, in general, in any way at odds with the interests of the child or children. I regret that the Government have not sought to strengthen the Children Act 1989 to give legal power to reasonable contact. I will come back to the word "reasonable" later.
Common sense indicates that children desire successful co-parenting after divorce and separation, and are happier and healthier as a result of it. Those children mostly go on to be settled, responsible and decent adults and to be good parents themselves. That is borne out by research by the National Council for One Parent Families in a study by J. Hunt in 2003.
We are attempting to establish, where practicable, a strong and loving relationship between a child and both parents. Noble Lords and Ladies in the other place debated at lengthI believe in relation to amendment No. 2the word "reasonable", which is enshrined in section 34 of the 1989 Act. I would also add "meaningful" as a given. I am glad that the Minister acknowledged in her comments to the Joint Committee the use of the word "meaningful". "Substantial" was mentioned by my colleague, Baroness Morris of Bolton in the other place.
The positions taken by organisations such as Families Need Fathers and children's charities such as Barnardo's and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, notwithstanding its ill-judged and intemperate comments in its briefing notes, need not be irreconcilable. The presumption is an instrument that gives flexibility to the courts to tailor their decisions accordingly. Evidence shows that it would only formalise the current situation, where very few contact orders are not granted. That in no way invalidates the paramountcy principle in respect of the welfare and interests of the child.
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A corollary of this practical approach that the Government have not yet fully acknowledged is the strong argument in favour of a greater role for the child's voice to be heard in court, an argument that some Labour Members have advanced. It is one of the issues in the NSPCC briefing paper with which I agree, so it does not get everything wrong. Perhaps the Minister will touch on why section 122 of the Adoption and Children Act 2002, which provides for children to have a legal and discrete right to be participants and to have separate representation in court, remains unimplemented.
I shall make some tangential comments. There has been consensus but the partisan comments of the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) obscure the issue. We all want children's voices to be taken into account. If an important piece of legislation has been on the statute book for three years and an important section of it remains unenacted, it is surely reasonable for us to ask why that is so.
Mr. Jackson : There might be a causal link, given that the Labour party is in Government and the Conservative party is in Opposition. Three years is surely plenty of time to come up with practical and pragmatic approaches to this point, particularly as it has been said that the issue is very important in the context of the proposed legislation.
There is much evidence including that, for example, from the Family Law Journal, under the auspices of the National Youth Advocacy Service. Far from exacerbating the bitterness that is endemic in legal wrangles around contact order disputes, allowing the child's opinion to be heard acts as a catalyst in helping to resolve even the most long-standing and protracted difficult disputes.
On a broader issue, the paramountcy principle is only implicit in the Billparticularly in clauses 1, 4 and 5and is not as explicit as it was in the Children Act 1989. The Minister may want to comment on that when she replies.
I return to the sensitive subject of co-parenting and child safety. Thankfully, the awful phenomenon of child murder in contact situations is extremely rare. Although that issue is distressing, it must not obscure the case for co-parenting. More particularly, we should resist recourse to stereotypes. There is no definitive evidence that non-resident fathers per se, as a group, are a greater risk to child safety than substitute non-biological partners or non-biological mothers. In this respect, I deprecate the comments of the NSPCC. It has undermined its kudos as a respected children's charity in putting forward arguments that have no basis in fact and no evidential back-up. Let us remember that many of the dreadful crimes that take place involve not natural or biological fathers, but men brought into the family unit in the wake of divorce or separation. They may have very poor or non-existing parenting skills. At present, unlike the natural or biological father, they are unlikely to have been risk assessed.
May I turn to the issue of compensation via community-based enforcement orders for unpaid work and financial compensation based on affordability? I
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remain unconvinced that the Government have thought through the practical consequences of the relevant provisions and their impact on CAFCASS, especially the availability of appropriate financial resources and, just as important, the uniformity of resources and facilities across the country. Under clause 7, CAFCASS officers will have a considerably enlarged portfolio of duties, and it is imperative that that does not impact on existing work flows, which are very demanding. I wish to take issue with the Minister, because there have been significant staffing shortfalls, long delays in assigning officers to children and a £4 million cut in funding. As I said in an earlier intervention, the chief executive of CAFCASS, Mr. Anthony Douglas, wrote to me in response to a written question that I had tabled, confirming that one in six private law cases that dealt with parental responsibility, contact orders and residence were unallocated to a staff member.
I pay tribute to the work done in sometimes very trying circumstances by the professional staff of CAFCASS, but there is dissatisfaction with the organisation, including complaints about inadequate time spent with children and institutional bias against non-resident parents. We should be mindful lest inadvertently we make matters worse. I am glad that the hon. and learned Member for Redcar has flagged up her concerns and cited the thematic review. The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), too, was concerned about the matter. Like other hon. Members, I await further details from Ministers. No doubt, the issue will be debated at length in Committee. Perhaps the Minister will clarify her rather opaque description of a new and robust statutory framework, and the way in which it will affect funding and resources. Above all, we need proper planning, proper training and a realistic business plan for future CAFCASS workflows.
In conclusion, may I make a plea on behalf of non-resident parentsusually fathersand praise the invaluable role of the extended family in child care, especially grandparents who, as the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) will agree, are the unsung heroes of our sometimes difficult and dysfunctional families? Grandparents contribute 60 per cent., or £1.1 billion-worth, of child care, yet they have few if any legal rights. I truly hope that the presumption of co-parenting in the Bill and other provisions will redress the balance in favour of fathers, reduce the bitterness inherent in many family courts cases, and have a commensurate positive impact on children. At the moment, non-resident fathers believe that they are on the receiving end of a slow legal system that tends to accept the status quo as a fait accompli, appears hostile to them as a result of their absence and, we should remember, imposes significant costs on them for having the temerity to seek equity and fairness. The most recent figures show that 7,000 court orders are breached every year. At the very least, notwithstanding the recognition in the Bill that non-compliance with court orders will not be tolerated, there must be an assumption by the state that it is responsible for upholding court decisions. That burden should not fall on the impecunious shoulders of individual non-resident parents.
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