Previous SectionIndexHome Page

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Maria Eagle): I agree with the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller) that we have had
2 Mar 2006 : Column 492
a very interesting and constructive debate. I congratulate her on what I think is her first effort at the Dispatch Box, which was extremely accomplished.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): The first of many.

Maria Eagle: No doubt it is but that is not a matter for me to decide.

I congratulate hon. Members on both sides of the House who have participated in an extremely stimulating, wide-ranging and well-argued debate. It is apparent from their speeches that they approach the issue with a passionate commitment to try to ensure that children caught up in the divorce or separation of couples, and the bitterness that sometimes results, are not harmed too much by that experience. There is no doubt that that commitment was apparent even if it was also apparent that there may be one or two slightly different approaches to how best to achieve that. That is no different from the tone adopted when the Bill was debated in another place and during later proceedings on it. The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) was right to say that proceedings on the Bill have been going on for some time. That lengthy deliberation is only correct because we need to get things right; the future of the children whom we are trying to assist depends on our doing so.

The debate did occasionally descend into slightly bad temper and we had a couple of somewhat vehement spats between the hon. Members for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) and for Mid-Dorset and North Poole. There was also a spat involving the hon. Gentleman and the NSPCC, which was of course unable to defend itself. However, it will doubtless find an opportunity to do so when the debate is over.

I want to sort out what I believe to have been a genuine misunderstanding—it does not happen very often—between the usual channels. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham suggested that the Government are trying to avoid giving the Opposition the time that they want for consideration in Committee, but I assure him that that is not the case. There has been a genuine misunderstanding, in that the usual channels on our side gave what was asked for, but I assure him that the Government intend to be flexible and to provide more time in Committee if required.

I shall deal with some of the points and broad themes that were raised, although I will not have time to deal with them all, given that most Members spoke at great length. It is clear that contact with both parents is in the interests of the child if it can be done in safety; indeed, there is general agreement in all parts of the House on that point. I would argue—as my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) argued, perhaps more eloquently than I ever could—that case law already suggests that the courts start from the position that contact between a child and their parents is generally in the child's best interests.

The different perspectives expressed on the Floor of the House disagreed on the question whether such contact compromises the safety of the child in some instances, or the paramount interest of the child's welfare, given that such contact often breaks down. The Children Act 1989 does of course contain the
2 Mar 2006 : Column 493
paramountcy principle, and the Government and I believe it incredibly important that that principle, which was established with the support of Members in all parts of the House, be retained. We heard from my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar an excellent exposition on what changing the presumptions would mean in legal terms. It is undoubtedly true that many fathers are unable to spend the time with their children that they would like to spend, and it is right that we offer them support and encourage a positive relationship between children and both parents after separation. The Bill attempts to ensure that we do just that by providing the courts with more flexibility in enforcing contacts that they have ordered, on the basis that they are in the interest of the child. That is what the Bill is about.

However, we need to be clear that any presumption—even if couched as a principle in the absence of evidence to the contrary—represents a different legal model from the one enshrined in the 1989 Act. To place something else on a level with that which is supposed to constitute paramountcy is incompatible with the paramountcy principle. I am certain that we will continue to have legalistic and non-legalistic arguments on this issue—from lawyers and non-lawyers—as the Bill proceeds through the House, but the Government do not want to do anything to compromise the paramountcy principle.

In the main, Members in all parts of the House had something positive to say about mediation. The issue was raised of whether voluntary mediation is best, or whether mediation could—or even should—be compulsory. It is clear that voluntary mediation is best: one can lead a horse to water, but one cannot make it drink. Can we really expect people to be forced to mediate if they are not in the mood? Requiring mediation before a case can proceed, for example, could simply result in further unnecessary delay if the parties are already well-entrenched in their respective positions and are in no fit state to see that mediation might actually help. However, the Joint Committee considering the draft Bill recommended that the court should be able to direct people to attend an initial meeting with a mediator, and I think that that would be appropriate.

The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole asked whether information about mediation was available other than in the form of leaflets. She asked whether a video was available, and I can tell her that the Government are even more modern than that, having produced a DVD on the subject. We are moving into the modern world, and the courts will have to do the same.

The hon. Member for Basingstoke said that some 40 per cent. of non-resident parents lose contact with their children within two years of separation. I have heard that figure before, but I am not sure of its provenance. I hope that the hon. Lady will be able to let me know, perhaps during the Committee stage. However, the omnibus survey by the Office for National Statistics suggests that about three quarters of non-resident parents who have been separated for between two and three years have contact with their children at least once a week, and that fewer than 10 per cent. of them have no contact at all. In respect of longer separations, the survey suggests that about 20 per cent. of children have no contact with a non-resident parent
2 Mar 2006 : Column 494
after two years. That is still far too many, but it is fewer than the hon. Lady suggested, and we might have to return to the matter in Committee.

I am glad that hon. Members on all sides of the House mentioned the positive role played by grandparents and other members of the extended family. I agree completely with that, and note that the Bill can apply not only to resident or non-resident parents but to grandparents as well. It is not restricted to parents, so I hope that it will assist in all of these matters.

The question of resources for CAFCASS and the courts was raised. I can understand that, but the Government have always made it clear that they should have adequate funding so that they can fulfil their responsibilities under part 1 of the Bill. My right hon. Friend the former Minister for Children, who is now Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform, said as much in evidence to the Joint Committee. She stressed that the Bill's provisions will be implemented only when we are satisfied that appropriate resources are available.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) and the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) both spoke about how the work loads of the family courts and of CAFCASS could be reduced. We have high hopes that the Bill will enable us to shift resources from too much report writing to more proactive and helpful interventions. I know that CAFCASS is very committed to ensuring that that happens.

The hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) was extremely ingenious in managing to talk about public law and domestic adoption in connection with a Bill that deals with private law and inter-country adoption. I congratulate him on that, and I am, of course, aware of the case that he raised. I would take an extremely dim view if any local authority sought to remove children from parents simply because they were learning disabled. Some of the legislation for which I had the honour to be responsible in the previous Parliament will come into force in December, and make it even more difficult for public authorities to behave in that way than is currently the case. There is an increased awareness of these matters, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will continue the campaigns on behalf of his constituents for which he is known.

In conclusion, it is clear that we will have a lot more to say in Committee. We might even have a little more time in which to say it, given the accidental error in the programme motion that meant that only four sittings were originally provided for. I look forward to that discussion, as I believe that hon. Members of all parties have a genuine interest in making things better for the children of divorcing and separating couples.

That is certainly true of the Government. If every child in this country is to matter, we must make sure that those whose families separate do not suffer the consequences—that is, lack of development and self-esteem, and an inability to do their very best in future life. We are all in favour of that, and I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.
2 Mar 2006 : Column 495

Next Section IndexHome Page