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Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): May I begin by commending the Minister for Children and Families, my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), who spoke on behalf of the official Opposition and, indeed, all hon. Members on the tone and manner of their contributions? These are emotional issues and there are many different perspectives on them, but everyone who has spoken today has made a considered contribution. Indeed, I am heartened by the extent of consensus in the Chamber. We are all united in wanting children to be safe, both in their own home with the parent who has custody of them, and with non-resident parents. We are united as well in agreeing that it is in children's interests to have ongoing contact with both their mother and their father, although there will be some exceptions where that is not in the best interests of the child.
The first aspect that I shall consider is prevention, which is not specifically dealt with in the Bill. Again, I commend my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, who touched on trying to prevent couples from splitting up. I also commend the hon. Members for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), who referred to that, and the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) who mentioned the important topic of marriage preparation. We miss that all the time. It is not something for which we can or should legislate, but it is a matter of political will and a matter for greater funding priority than it is currently given.
Is it possible to reduce the workload of the family courts and of CAFCASS, which we have been hearing about? I would argue that it is. There is a growing body of evidence around the world that that is the case. Let us start in America. The community marriage policies that have sprung up there have halvedyes, halvedthe divorce rate in some cities. Modesto in California and Austin in Texas are two examples. The university of Texas has undertaken independent corroboration of the effect of community marriage policies across America and estimates that they have prevented some 31,000 divorces and that the divorce rate across all those community marriage policy areas is significantly lower than in areas without it.
In Australia, there is a concerted effort to tackle the problem. We heard briefly from some hon. Friends about the family relationship centres in Australia, which play a role in making sure that the arrangements are correct for children when parents have separated. They also do important preventive work beforehand to try and help couples stay together and make marriages successful. Those organisations are not run by the state but receive some support from it. Given that the Government are considering reform of the Child Support Agency, it is interesting that the Australian child support agency is involved in helping non-resident parents to be good parents and provides materials to enable them to do that. That is a good example of the way in which, cross-departmentally, across all the agencies of Government, we could do better in this country. In Singapore and Malaysia, both Governments are taking the matter seriously. Similarly, Dubai in the middle east came to my attention recently.
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I am trying to set up a project in my constituency. Last week, we launched our own community marriage policy and, in time, I hope to develop two community family trusts. I know that the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole has an excellent one in her constituency doing very good work in schools. I am envious of that, and want the same in my constituency. I hope that all hon. Members might take more of an interest in such projects, so that we can reduce the flow of parents and children coming into the family court system and reduce the demands on CAFCASS. We have heard from almost everyone who has spoken today that CAFCASS will have great difficulty in coping with the extra demands placed upon it by the Bill.
Mr. Kidney: Does the hon. Gentleman remember that a couple of hon. Members spoke about the new children's centres that are planned for many parts of the country as being places where contact can take place? Does he agree that they could also make admirable focuses for parent support services? In my constituency, Stafford, I have an ambition to get Home Start to be the front-of-house service for supporting parents.
Andrew Selous: The hon. Gentleman is right that children's centres are good forums for support centres for parents, but I am discussing support for couples, which is a slightly different point. Support for parents is important, but almost the most important thing that parents can do for their children is to be kind to each other. If parents do that, it sets a wonderful example to their children and helps them to stay together, which benefits their children.
I am particularly interested in the point that my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham made about the contribution of social workers in Kent. Neither the voluntary sector nor social services have a monopoly in that area, but much more could be achieved through working together.
Mr. Stewart Jackson: Does my hon. Friend support the work of the charity Parent Talk? Last week, I attended an event specifically designed to help parents cope with the difficult job of parenting that that charity put on in a primary school in one of the most deprived areas in my constituency. Support includes videos and booklets to help keep together families which are sometimes in difficult financial circumstances.
When I mentioned the work of community family trusts to the Prime Minister on the Floor of the House on 7 December, he was full of praise for their work, but the projected budgets for them across the country have been released since then, and, as the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole said, they are not good, which concerns me. When the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle) and I debated
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fatherhood in Westminster Hall, she agreed to ask her officials to examine best practice around the world. The Government could do so much more.
Annette Brooke: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will not be surprised to hear that, despite the excellence of the community family trust in Poole, plans are being made to close the office because, although some grants have been achieved from outside bodies, the funding is not sufficient to maintain the current excellent service.
Andrew Selous: I am sorry to hear that. The onus is on local community family trusts to try to raise as much money as they can. Some of the central support for the work of community family trusts has been cut and I hope that today's debate will enable Ministers to review some of those decisions. As the hon. Member for Stafford and others said, it is right that the focus should be on mediation, avoiding cases going to court in the first place and early intervention.
"Schemes to divert parents away from court have been developing, including the scheme led by Judge John Lendermann in Florida whereby parents are given information about the damaging impact of their conflict on their children and invited to work out a parenting plan with the help of a mediator. Other programmes are being developed to help and support parents by teaching about their new roles as collaborative mothers and fathers after separation."
We should be going in that direction in the United Kingdom, and I share the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Stafford that the Bill does not explicitly state how we can do so and whether sufficient funds are available.
Clause 4 deals with the enforcement of court orders, which remains an area of great concern to me. Over the past four and a half years, several constituents have come to me to complain about this. Typically, they are good, concerned fathers who regularly pay their child support as they should, month by month. Some of them have been back to the court 30 or 40 times to try to get their disputes resolved and to have enforced the contact that they have been granted by the court after it has weighed up all the considerations. They have come to me and said that neither the court nor the police have been interested in ensuring that the contact that they were granted is enforced.
That was graphically illustrated to me in my constituency surgery about two weeks ago, when a serving company sergeant-major came to see me. He sat down in front of me and took off the fleece that he was wearing, and right in the middle of his chest was the symbol of his office as a warrant officer in the Armya large crown. He said, "I don't believe in the antics of Fathers 4 Justice"who, it is worth remembering, have physically changed the shape of this Chamber since we last debated these issues. He went on, "I stand for what this country stands for. I am a serving soldier and I have done everything right. I pay all the money that I am required to. I have a court order that has stamped on it the same crown that I wear as the badge of my office, yet it is not worth the paper it is written on in terms of my ability to see my children." That is an absolutely
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scandalous state of affairs for a good, caring father who has every right to see his children, and whose children will be missing out on the input of a good and dedicated father. The tragedy is that the gentleman who came to see me is one of 7,000 non-resident parents every year who find that the court orders that have been granted to enable them to see their children are being breached.
My worry is that it is not sufficiently clear exactly what will happen if these contact orders continue to be breached. When I intervened on the Minister during her opening speech, she said, properly, that the matter would be left to the courts. However, as Members of Parliament, we collectively represent the High Court of Parliament. It is important that we make it absolutely clear that, where people have acted properly, the court has duly considered all the information, the non-resident father clearly has no history of domestic violence or anything similar, and the court has said that contact must happen, that contact is in the best interests of the child and we must ensure as a Parliament that it happens. That is fundamental.
If the constituent whom I spoke about, or any other such constituent, comes back to see me after the Bill has passed into law, I will feel that I have failed him if the contact that the court has said that he should have with his children, and his children with him, is not being granted. I am sure that the Minister understands the seriousness of this. We have to ensure that the law has teeth and that where contact has been ordered it really does happen.
The difficulty will centre on what series of escalating stepsmy hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham mentioned thisis put in place by the courts to bring that about. It is clearly sensible to have parenting intervention programmes to try to convince parents to do the right thing. I like the idea of giving compensatory time. We could also consider fines going from one parent to the other so that the child does not lose out, with perhaps some mechanism to ensure that that money is indeed spent on the child. It is a vital issue. Many non-resident parentsoften fathersgive up their house and the day-to-day care of their children. In many cases, another man moves into their house and lives with their children for most of the time. If the one thing that they have been givena right by a court to see their childrenis flouted, it is a massive injustice for the children and the non-resident parents.
I echo all the points that have been made about grandparents, but why confine the comments to grandparents? Uncles, aunts, cousins and the extended family generally are vital for the development of our nation's children. Many of us have benefited from close relationships with all members of our extended family. Our view of the family is much too nuclear in this country and in several European countries. We could greatly benefit from a more southern European approach. Contact and enforcement is important not only for the non-resident parent but for all those who have loved and cared for children. For many grandparents, uncles and aunts, the children whom they will not see have been an incredibly important part of their lives. We must ensure that the matter is taken seriously for their sake, too.
I want to raise a practical point. We cannot legislate for it, so it properly does not appear in the Bill, but it concerns me and I should like to consider it. When non-
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resident parents travel some way from their homes to see their children, there may not be a contact centre in which to see them. Supervised visits have to take place in a contact centre, but if the visits are unsupervised and there is no contact centre, where do they go? There is an expression, "McDads". In the summer, it may not be so badperhaps there is a park or another place outside on a warm daybut where, physically, do we expect non-resident parents to spend any quality time with their children? I am not looking for state provision from the Minister but I am trying to think of solutions.
Perhaps charities can help. We have heard much about children's charities today. Perhaps the NSPCC or other charities that have been slightly criticised may like to consider the problem. Perhaps churches, faith groups or anyone in a community who has space in their home and a heart for such matters could help. Perhaps arrangements could be made to put non-resident parents and their children with people who would like to open their homes to them. The non-resident parents could relax and play with their children in a familiar, family environment. That would have to be done by agreement and negotiation, but it is an important matter that some of my constituents who are non-resident parentsand non-resident grandparentswho have to travel some way have raised with me. I do not look to the Government for an answerit is properly not within their remitso Ministers can relax. However, I hope that they at least agree that it is an important matter to consider in the context of the care of children with non-resident parents.
Other hon. Members have mentioned delay. "Justice delayed is justice denied" is a common saying about the law. That is nowhere more true than when children are involved. Childhood is finite and crucial. If a parent misses specific stages of a child's development, they are gone for ever. That is a tragedy. Speed is therefore important. Of course, we must get things right but speed is also vital and I hope that that will be taken fully into account.
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