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I was fortunate to secure an Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall on grandparents' access to grandchildren. The House, and certainly the Minister, will not indulge me if I rehearse the arguments that I deployed in that debate. Suffice it to say that grandparents, especially paternal grandparents, should not be the de facto victims of family breakdown. In that context, I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), who has done so much to keep the issue at the top of the political agenda, like all matters relating to welfare.
I hope that the Minister keeps her word on grandparents and that she will consider the lack of grandparents' legal rights following family disintegration. I hope that she will reconsider section 23 of the 1989 Act, which imposes on local authorities a statutory duty to look first at friends and family in respect of care for children, section 8, which forces grandparents to overcome two hurdles to gain access to their flesh and bloodleave to apply, then a court or care orderand section 17, regarding financial assessment for family and friends acting as carers.
For the most part, I welcome the Bill. It builds on the foundations established by the 1989 Act, which have stood the test of time. I commend the work of colleagues across all parties in the other place. Today, we have an opportunity to help in a small way to prevent the misery and heartache caused by family schism and heartbreak for thousands of children. Let us make the best of that duty and responsibility. With some small caveats, I ask hon. Members to support the Bill on Second Reading.
Vera Baird (Redcar) (Lab): I was pleased to hear the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) say that he broadly welcomed the Bill. Although he followed his leader in getting outraged at the NSPCC, he did not follow his leader who said at various points in his speech that the Bill was a wasted opportunity and that it was woefully inadequate. He did not quite say that it needed pulling limb from limb and putting back together again, but his comments were not very far from that. If that is the considered view of the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton)I do not know that it necessarily ishe is on his own.
The Bill has been through pre-legislative scrutiny. There were a large number of eminent, distinguished, knowledgeable and experienced people from the Conservative side on the Committee and all agreedthere was no dissent, and there was no vote even on the Committeethat the Bill was a benevolent and good measure, subject to the odd caveat, as the hon. Member for Peterborough wisely said. I, in common with the Committee, of which I was privileged to be a member, and most of the Lords in the conversations that they had about the Bill, welcome it.
The Bill's emphasis on early intervention, support, re-tasking CAFCASS away from just reporting on the history and making recommendations to becoming
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more involved in resolution at an early stage, and the availability of a range of optional projects to help support the right attitude to contact is obviously the right model. Clearly, that must all be properly resourced or it will not work. The Bill offers a sympathetic and rational way forward.
I have three areas of concern, one of which arises from comments from the Opposition, rather than from the Billthat is, the suggested presumption that there should be joint parenting. I accept entirely that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham did not speak about an equal split, but if he is speaking about a legal presumption that both parents should be heavily engagedco-parenting, as the hon. Member for Peterborough saidthat worries me immensely. There is a very real difference between that and what Labour Members were discussing when he was speaking and graciously taking interventionsthat is, an underlying assumption in the courts which, believe me, does exist and has existed as long as I have been involved in the family courts, that the welfare of the child requires as much contact with both parents as possible. That is a common-sense assumption which underpins what the courts seek to do. However, that is a far cry from a legal presumption in the Bill which states that it is presumed that there will be co-parenting.
A legal presumption can be of two kinds. It can, for instance, be an absolute one, which means that it cannot be knocked over, whatever happens. On the other hand, a legal presumption can be rebuttablethe words are archaic, but we lawyers love themwhich means that it can rebutted, but the onus is on somebody to unsettle what is otherwise an edifice of uncrackable law. If one gives such rights to parents, then one is giving rights to bad parents as well as to good parents, and one is also ousting the welfare of the child as the paramount principle.
If we talked about the issue for a long time, nobody would disagree that both parents should be kept involved, if possible. However, if we were to drive the courts into a framework that disciplines them to say, "These people have rights which we cannot easily get round", we would subvert the paramountcy principle and might put children in danger.
Tim Loughton: I am sure that I am not going to agree with the hon. and learned Lady on this point. Why is this issue so different from the rest of the law, in which there is a presumption of innocence until one is proven guilty? Why can there not be an assumption that a parent is a good parent until they are proven not to be, given all the checks and balances in the courts, which this Bill will reinforce? Why would such a presumption undermine the welfare of the child?
The explanation why such an approach would undermine the paramountcy principle is straightforward. In a situation in which it is not the child but the parents who are battling, the parents are obviously expressing what one might conjure up as the right of the child to have contact with dad, but it is dad who is fighting for that right, so it is his right. Once one makes that the presumption, the welfare of the child cannot be paramount, so the presumption must be ousted in some other way. In that case, one must bring to the surface the danger to the child in order to rebut
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the presumption, which self-evidently means that the presumption of paramountcy is not coming first. I would never agree to that proposal, which is not only technically nonsense, but wrong. It could be extremely dangerous, too, because it would oblige courts to give too many rights to bad parents, which is not what any of us want.
Tim Loughton: Why are they wrong in America, Australia, Canada and Italy? And how has that wrongness manifested itself in gross harm to the welfare of children, because I am not aware of the evidence on that point?
Vera Baird: The hon. Gentleman is not comparing like with like. I am unaware of any legal system that includes a legal presumption of the type to which he has referred. The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) discussed the ability to put a presumption into the welfare checklist, but that is not a legal presumption. Most family law systems in societies resembling ours will be based on such a presumption, which is not a legally binding presumption of the kind mentioned by the hon. Member for East Worthing and ShorehamI hope that he eventually gets why he is wrong.
Child contact is a child-protection issue, and there are dangers. This Government, more than any previous Government, have recognised domestic violence as a serious issue that has been hidden for many years, that is very hard to get the measure of and that is seriously under-reported. That point applies to male domestic violence, too, which the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham and I have discussed before. I talk about domestic violence against women because the vast majority of domestic violence involves women, but there is domestic violence by brother on brother, father on brother, brother on father, gay partner on gay partner and women on men. In every situation it is a hidden problem that needs teasing out, because, as it is wrapped up in a relationship, it is not easy to speak freely about it.
In this connection, though, it mostly concerns women. The statistics suggest that 750,000 children witness domestic violence annually. Seventy-five per cent. of children who are on the at-risk register for their own safety live with domestic violence, and up to 66 per cent. of children suffer physical violence from a perpetrator who is attacking the mother but also at some point attacks the child. In the criminal justice system, the point where the parties separate is now well recognised as being one of enhanced danger when the violence tends to increase because the perpetrator appreciates that he is losing his grip and tries to use even greater force to bring the person back into the fold. However, that is not half as well recognised in the family sector. When domestic violence is recognised in family courts, it is generally regarded as having come to an end when the couple has split, not as a continuing issue. It is often undervalued because it is perceived as a tactic in a fight.
The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, whom I know does not think as his words suggest, talked about the need to be rigorous and punitive about false allegations in court. Everybody agrees with that, but he cited only false allegations of domestic violence.
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That is a slightly partisan view. Of course, in heated situations where there is a child to play for, more unscrupulous parents make all sorts of allegations against one another, but there is not a high incidence of false allegations about domestic violence, although there is a great deal of it.
Those of us who sat on the Joint Committee that scrutinised the draft Bill had the benefit of the scrutiny unit statistician's figures about a whole range of related issues. In the year for which he gave us figuresI think that it must have been 200304out of 40,000 contested custody cases, 13,000 concerned issues of safety, of which 5,500, or nearly half, concerned child abuse or neglect and the other 7,000 or so domestic violence. It is therefore utterly vital that the child's welfare is paramount and that that cannot be changed. I am pleased that the Government cling to that position and will continue to do so. The question is whether the Bill goes far enough to guarantee the safety of the large number of vulnerable children and domestic violence victims who are present in the statistics.
The Government would say that those worries are adequately addressed by the welfare checklist in the Children Act 1989, the extension of the definition of "harm" to include impairment due to seeing or hearing ill-treatment of another, and the new family court application forms that try to ensure that domestic violence is put at the top of the list so that cases can be verified and dealt with at the outset. However, the joint charities grouping, which consists of a large number of pressure groups concerned with children, including the NSPCC, suggests that there is no clear requirement to ensure that contact is safe. We recommended
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