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Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): We have had a full and wide-ranging debate. We have heard that children everywhere must cope with increasingly complex and difficult family relationships. Every year, 150,000 children have to deal with the distress and upset of divorce. One in five children are likely to go through their parents' separation or divorce before they reach the age of 16. That is difficult for any child.

Indeed, parental divorce is seen by children as one of their biggest concerns and fears. We need to bear that in mind as we discuss the Bill. We have heard that great importance is put on children maintaining a relationship with both parents after separation or divorce, and that has been accepted by all speakers on both sides of the House. However, the harsh reality is that after only two short years of separation, 40 per cent. of non-resident divorced and separated parents lose contact with their children. That should set alarm bells ringing for all of us.

We have also heard arguments on both sides of the House that reinforce the fact that the Bill does not grasp the full magnitude of the social problems faced by children growing up in this country today. We must not miss the opportunity to get to the heart of the problem, because we face many challenges as we consider this very difficult and sometimes apparently intractable problem.
 
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There needs to be a change in the way in which family law deals with establishing and maintaining contact between non-resident parents and their children, and a change in the way in which we ensure that the law is put into practice. We have heard today that many other countries are considering new and different ways of doing that, and it seems entirely appropriate that we should examine those options in more detail in Committee, to see whether we can learn anything from them. Those countries' legal systems are not dissimilar to our own, so I hope that that would not be a difficult challenge for us to undertake.

There is also common ground between the Government and the official Opposition on these matters. The Government's Green Paper clearly states:

The document goes on to say:

That is important.

It should not be the role of the Government to dictate the relationship between parents and their children, but it is their role to ensure that systems are in place to provide guidance when it is needed. The Bill lacks explicit guidance on the important role that both parents can play in ensuring the well-being of their children. The Green Paper was more explicit about such provisions, but the Bill is not.

As I have said, there is common ground between the Government and the Opposition. We all agree that the child's welfare is of paramount importance, and we must ensure that any legislation designed to support children has that at its heart. We need to debate these matters as they appear to children. I am not a lawyer, and perhaps Members of Parliament should try to speak not as lawyers but as Members of Parliament. I am married to a lawyer, and I know that it is sometimes difficult for lawyers to get out of the habit of speaking as lawyers, but that is an important challenge for us.

First and foremost, we should focus on the everyday, practical problems that children face. We should then let the judiciary decide how they are dealt with, when it comes within its remit to do so. Indeed, the judiciary itself says that family law does not fit easily into the judicial system, and some of the problems that we have discussed today suggest that that perspective is correct.

We have all agreed today that parents play a pivotal role in achieving the best outcomes for children. We have also agreed that the vast majority of non-resident parents want to stay in contact with their children, and we need to keep in the forefront of our minds that, in 90 per cent. of cases, it is perfectly safe for them to do so. However, anyone reading the transcript of today's debate might find that somewhat surprising.

The Bill attempts to encourage contact and to make the sanctions that are in place workable. We cannot help feeling, however, that it merely tinkers at the edges of a more deeply rooted problem. There is a general feeling that a lack of confidence in the family court system has resulted in many parents settling for less contact, or unreasonable contact time, as legal fees and court time
 
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make it difficult or even impossible for non-resident parents to dispute cases. I have encountered many such instances in my constituency, and most Members who are present can probably think of one or two in theirs.

All too often, as others have said, even when parents have not had to resort to the courts, non-resident parents find it difficult to secure the time with their children that they need in order to maintain and develop the parent-child relationship. Difficult situations are often compounded by non-resident parents' living in accommodation that is not suitable for their children to visit, let alone stay in. My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) made that point. A parent who has had to leave the family home    may well be living in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, or other accommodation that is deeply unsuitable for a child to visit.

Lengthy and costly judicial process only serves to exacerbate the problem. As we heard earlier, the Government's own research shows that one in four contact and residence cases lasts more than a year, and a quarter of all cases involve multiple applications resulting from enforcement problems. The system often fuels existing tensions between parents, and a feeling of marginalisation for non-resident parents. Clearly none of that is in a child's best interests.

The law should make clear that we value the contribution of both parents to the future welfare of a child whenever that is safe—and, as I have said, it is safe in the vast majority of cases. If a child's relationship with his or her parent is to flourish and not wither on the vine, time is needed. We must examine ways in which the legal system can become more accessible, and can work better to bring about successful outcomes for children rather than fuelling conflict in already difficult and emotionally charged circumstances. That is why we will seek fundamental amendments to the Bill, including a legal presumption of co-parenting and an explicit statement of reasonable contact, backed up by early intervention and mediation.

We have heard a great many speeches today, which will give us some interesting topics to think about before the Committee stage. My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) made a powerful case for some of the changes that I have talked about. That led to a useful discussion on many issues, including co-parenting and children's safety. I am sure that we shall return to them in Committee.

My hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) made a number of interventions as well as his speech. He made an important point about the invaluable role of extended families, particularly grandparents. As we all know, they have a noted role in child care. I expect that we shall hear more of that next week. I agree that it is important for us to understand grandparents' role in children's lives. We must also ensure that the legal approach, which at present can seem rather hostile to that group of people, is amended so that we can support them more. Perhaps we should take a leaf out of the book of Canada, the home country of one set of my own children's grandparents. I am sure that I shall gain some useful input from them in the next few days.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) focused on adoption, which is an important element of the Bill and should not be
 
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overshadowed by the debate on part 1. He drew extensively from his constituency experience, broadening the debate in a useful and helpful way. My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire raised the issue of preventing marriage breakdown, which I agree should be given more priority, and cited a number of examples in the United States. Divorce rates have been significantly reduced there because the importance of supporting marriage has been acknowledged. My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham made an important point about not automatically assuming that a non-resident parent would be an inferior parent.

Labour Members raised issues that were raised by my hon. Friends. The hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) talked about helping parents to be better prepared for the responsibilities of parenthood, and made a strong case for increasing mediation. Importantly, he questioned the Bill's silence on the issue of delays in court proceedings, which can be corrosive and destructive during the separation and divorce process. We should pick up on that matter in Committee.

The hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) talked about a number of aspects of the Bill, including CAFCASS's capacity to meet the requirements of the Bill as regards risk assessments. Importantly, she touched on the issue of safety and the hidden aspects of domestic violence, of which we should all be aware when we discuss the Bill. It is an important issue.

The hon. Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran), who made a considered contribution, raised the important issue of domestic violence and child care and various other aspects of the Bill, including the importance of clause 7. The hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) touched on the importance of mothers and fathers and the fact they have responsibilities, which, again, we should keep to the fore.

As my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham pointed out, there is a fair amount of agreement in principle on the issue of inter-country adoption, although we have some concerns about the fashioning of the new procedures and will consider that in a little more detail in Committee. We feel strongly that it is perfectly legitimate to consider overseas adoption but we share the Government's concerns about the cases of child trafficking in recent months. However, we must be vigilant that restrictions do not lead to a growth in private adoption.

In Committee, the official Opposition will seek to challenge and to encourage the Government to face head on the scale of change needed to achieve a better result for children, who are all too often caught in the middle of their parents' separation or divorce. We will encourage the Government to be bolder in the Bill to achieve those ends. We know that the Government often have regretted not having the courage to be bolder when seeking solutions to the important problems that are faced by our country. I can reassure Ministers that we will do all we can to ensure that that is not the case in this instance.

5.33 pm


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