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Surely a child’s welfare is best served by maximising the time—preferably quality time—that is spent with both his parents. That is complementary to, and not contradictory to, the paramountcy of the welfare of
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that child. The new clauses represent none of the things that they have at times been caricatured to represent by the Minister and her predecessor, who was guaranteed to launch into a frenzy every time the issue of co-parenting was mentioned.

Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab): I do not disagree with the principle of a child’s welfare being met by contact with both parents. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that in new clause 4 his definition of a child’s welfare is prescriptive? For example, it reads that the presumption is

the child’s welfare is best served through residence with one of them. A child’s need for quality parenting from both parents could be met by residence for three days with one parent and four days with the other. I am suggesting to the hon. Gentleman that perhaps the new clause demonstrates the difficulty of trying to define in the Bill in a prescriptive way how a child’s welfare needs might be met. It is something that might be better met by a court’s decision.

Tim Loughton: I appreciate the hon. Lady’s point. I appreciate also her longstanding interest in and great involvement with this Bill at all stages. However, what she is suggesting would be rather more prescriptive. What we have put in the new clause is broad ranging. It sets down a principle that can be applied to other aspects of the Bill.

I do not want to say that a child should spend three days with one parent and four days with the other, or vice versa, or any computation of that. We have never once tried to do that. That would be extremely prescriptive. New clause 4 and the other similar new clauses set out the principle that should be applied throughout this Bill and which should be used to amend the Children Act 1989. It underlines the fact that it is in the best interests of the child to spend as much quality time as possible with each of the parents. As new clause 4 says, those parents should be

In using the word “equally”, we are in no way trying to prescribe that they should spend 50 per cent. of the time with their children. That would be absolutely wrong; it would not be a reflection of real life, as the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) will know from her experience and as I do from mine. I am afraid that there is no way that I spend 50 per cent. of the time, divided between myself and my wife, with my children, regretfully. That is the nature of hon. Members’ jobs, and it is the same for many other people’s jobs. To try to replicate a 50:50 division of time after a couple had split up would not properly reflect the nature of a parent’s relationship with a child when a couple is together in a united family. We have been at great pains to try to ensure that new clause 4 is not prescriptive, but it is fundamental to the principle behind our whole approach to the Bill.

5 pm

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): The early-day motion on parenting time presumption, tabled by the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), goes to the root of the issue and has received extensive cross-party support. I welcome the
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new clause, but would the hon. Gentleman not acknowledge that the use of the word “equal” will, no doubt, allow various debates to ensue? Would not a word such as “comparable” give a more appropriate impression of what he is trying to achieve?

Tim Loughton: I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s involvement in the discussion and the fact that he is one of the 116 Labour signatories who have made early-day motion 128—tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), me and other hon. Members—one of the top three most supported early-day motions in this Parliament. Before I come to that subject, I want to refer to his mention of the word “equal”. We do not talk about equality in that respect; we use the phrase

That should not be taken to mean 50:50—that would not be a reflection of reality, as I was at pains to point out to the hon. Member for Stockport.

The principle of new clause 4 lies behind early-day motion 128, which was launched more than a year ago and has now been signed by 345 hon. Members of all parties—a clear majority of hon. Members. It has been signed by 116 Labour Members, 157 Conservative Members and 50 Liberal Democrat Members—although, sadly, not the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), who speaks from the Front Bench. Many Democratic Unionist party Members, all Ulster Unionist party Members and a goodly number of Welsh nationalists, Scottish nationalists, Social Democratic and Labour party Members and even Respect have added their names to that early-day motion.

At the eleventh hour in the passage of the Bill, if the Government are really serious about improving the life chances of some the most vulnerable children in our society, as the Minister for Children and Families put it on Second Reading, it is time—long overdue—that she took note of the views of the House as expressed in that early-day motion. I hope that, if we press the new clause to a vote, we will see a rather fuller Chamber, reflecting the commitment that hon. Members made when they signed that early-day motion and when they responded to their constituents through various organisations that lobbied them to say, “Yes, we support this principle.” We now expect them to put their money where their mouths are, because the problem is getting worse, not better.

Every year, between 150,000 and 250,000 parental couples separate. One in four of the 12 million children in this country will experience the separation of their parents at some point, and 68 per cent. of them will be aged 10 or less. As a child, I was in that position, as I am sure were many other hon. Members. For many children, the future in the family is sorted out amicably and does not require the interference of court proceedings, mercifully. We are told that 90 per cent. of cases are settled without recourse to the courts, but that figure disguises the fact that many non-resident parents are forced to submit to unsatisfactory, unfair or non-existent contact arrangements, because of the fear of long-drawn-out and expensive court procedures. That is why around 40 per cent. of non-resident parents lose contact—or lose meaningful contact—with their children within two years of a family breakdown. Of those who go down the legal
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route, because they feel that they have to, that number has mushroomed. The number of applications for contact going through the courts has ballooned from 17,470 in 1992 to 70,169. A study by Oxford university that was cited in Committee postulated that there may be 2 million non-resident fathers in the population, as 80 per cent. of children in separated families live exclusively or mainly with their mothers.

Clearly, the current law is not working as a deterrent to acrimonious court action. We believe that it needs to be turned on its head—hence new clause 4, which does precisely that, backed up to varying degrees by other new clauses and amendments. What could be more sensible than new clause 4, which simply seeks to enshrine in statute what we are constantly told the courts seek to achieve in practice—that

through both parents being

From that basic premise, each parent can set out his or her stall on a level playing field and decide how time and attention can best be spent with his or her child. No arguments about rights will happen if we start from an equal basis.

We have some very good parents in this country, but we also have some lousy ones. We have some dedicated, loving, attentive parents not living with their children who are too often frozen out of reasonable contact arrangements with their children; and we have some lousy parents who are living with and responsible for their children who too often use them as pawns in an acrimonious dispute with a former partner, particularly when they hold the strongest cards. Too many of those parents subsequently become serial breachers of contact orders with impunity, which is why the Bill was necessary in the first place.

Family breakdown is rarely, if ever, the fault of the child, but too often the child becomes the victim when arrangements are not settled sensibly and amicably. The principle set out in new clause 4 was endorsed by the noble Lord Adonis, the Minister in the other place, when the Bill was debated there on 29 June 2005. He said:

Let us therefore have that built into the Bill. The principle was also supported in the Green Paper, which said that after separation both parents should have a responsibility for and a safe meaningful relationship with their children, so long as it was safe, and it pointed out that that was the view of most people in our society. I entirely concur with that.

We all know the statistics about the benefits of maximising contact with non-resident parents, who tend to be the fathers. The children achieve more academically; they are less likely to get into trouble with the police; they become more sociable; and they have better health outcomes. Effectively, the new clauses and amendments are a statement of the bleeding obvious— [Interruption.] They need to be stated directly in the Bill because, as it stands, it will not work properly.

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I have dealt with new clause 4, which sets out the principle. New clause 9 is— [Interruption.] I believe that I used parliamentary language and I have not been hauled up for it, but I think that we have got the point from what I said.

New clause 9 is a technical amendment to section 1 of the Children Act 1989, which is designed to extend the basic principle that in the absence of evidence of any likely harm being caused to the child, contact is better than no contact. New clause 11 is designed to extend the reasonable contact principle to family assistant orders. New clause 12 amends the welfare checklist in the Children Act and deals with the accusation that our amendments would undermine the paramountcy of the welfare of the child. I would contend in any case that we can have a hierarchy of presumptions about what is best for the welfare of the child. We have argued all along that maximising contact with parents is integral to promoting the welfare of the child. The welfare checklist in section 1, which is so important to the 1989 Act, already contains considerations about physical and emotional needs, the effect of changing circumstances and the capability of the parent, so surely desirability of contact complements that list, rather than undermines it. That is why new clause 12 is such an important addition to the amendments that we propose.

New clause 13 mentions again the desirability of reasonable contact under section 1 of the Children Act. “Reasonable contact” is a phrase that we used frequently in Committee. In many cases, unfortunately, the corresponding amendments were not selected for debate, but reasonable contact goes to the heart of what we are suggesting. That is why new clause 24 aims to define what constitutes reasonable contact.

New clause 24 states:

and we give five considerations of what constitutes reasonable contact. They are, first,

All of us can take a view on what that means. It clearly sends a message that reasonable contact needs to achieve something and is based on quality, not just quantity.

Secondly, the court should have regard to the desirability of “frequent contact”.

A nice long letter once a year, a Christmas card, a birthday card or an annual visit is not frequent contact. That would not constitute reasonable contact. The third consideration is that contact should last for lengthy periods. A couple of hours snatched on a wet and windy seafront on an autumn trip does not constitute reasonable contact, unless it is ongoing.

The fourth consideration is contact with siblings. This is an aspect on which many hon. Members focused in Committee, especially my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson). Siblings and extended family, which is the subject of the fifth consideration—brothers and sisters or, more frequently, grandparents of children in a family that has split up—become the victims and are frozen out of future relationships with
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those children. That is not in the best interests of the child’s welfare and is also not fair to the grandparents and the siblings, who in many cases have played no part in whatever led to the breakdown of that family unit. New clause 24 is a useful addition to define what we mean by reasonable contact, which is essential to the success of the Bill.

New clause 16, following on from the theme that I have just outlined, would amend section 5 of the Children Act to reinforce the desirability of contact with the extended family, particularly grandparents. Just because a couple decide that they no longer want to live with each other or continue a marriage, the children should not be deprived of meaningful contact and a meaningful ongoing quality relationship with grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins, who can provide some degree of stability and continuity in what can be a very turbulent period, especially for young children. Their role is perhaps even more important at a time when a family unit breaks up than it was when a loving father and mother were present all the time for those children.

Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): My hon. Friend is making an important point about grandparents, who are so vital and can often be an anchor when parents unfortunately split up. That is why it is so important that the children maintain their relationship with grandparents. We strongly endorse that.

Tim Loughton: I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s support. That point found support on both sides of the Committee. After my parents split up, my relationship with my grandparents was important—I particularly enjoyed my frequent visits to Eastbourne pier, where I became a fruit machine junky, although that is another story for another day.

5.15 pm

I will not go into detail on the new clauses tabled by other hon. Members. New clause 17, tabled by the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole, is similar in many respects to our own attempt to amend the welfare checklist, and as such it merits our support.

New clause 18, tabled by the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney), concerns the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service objectives on welfare. It has some merit, and I will be interested to hear what he has to say. Newclause 19 deals with access by grandparents, which I have already mentioned and which we support.

I have severe reservations about new clause 25 and new schedule 1, tabled by the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole on behalf of the Liberal Democrats. The new clause and, in particular, the new schedule, which details the arrangements, go completely against the concept of non-prescription that we have tried to promote throughout the Bill. To try to set down in statute, whether it be by default or otherwise, prescriptive arrangements on how a child’s time should be broken up risks treating that child as a commodity and undermines a lot of the good work on bringing about cordial arrangements between parents that are in the best interests of the child. For example, what would happen if a child
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who is supposed to spend every other Saturday afternoon with their father had a school football match? Must the child opt out of the football match in order to satisfy their father’s or mother’s part of the deal?

I am sure that new clause 25 was tabled with the best of intentions, as is the case with so much of what we get from the Liberal Democrats, but it is entirely unworkable in practice and would be dangerous if it were added to the Bill. If the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole is minded to push new clause 25 to a vote, she should not come to us touting for support, because she will not get it.

None of our amendments is rocket science. The concept of shared parenting being enshrined in statute is being looked at in a number of other countries and several US states: it was an undertaking of the new Canadian Government; it is being examined in the Senate in Italy; a considerable amount of work is currently going on in Australia; and, as we speak, the Senate in Brazil is considering a new law establishing joint custody for children as the first option after divorce—the new law has already been passed by the federal deputy chamber.

The idea is not new in this country. As I said in Committee, the previous Conservative Government considered amending the law along those lines in the Family Law Act 1996, section 11(4) of which states:

I would also mention the Children (Scotland) Act 1995, which enshrines the desirability of maintaining personal relations and direct contact with non-resident parents on a regular basis.

Why cannot we have that here? Many people with children’s best interests at heart have been calling for it for many years. We have consistently called for these amendments throughout every stage of the Bill’s progress in this House and in their lordships’ Chamber. They would set out for a separating mother and father what the norm will be, what will be expected of them, and what will happen to them if they do not respect the judgments made. It is as simple as the principle that one is innocent until proven guilty. Someone who is a good parent should be deemed to be such unless and until it is proven reasonably that they are not. We want to establish the principle that it is a norm that reasonable contact should be assumed after a split because that is in the best interests of the child in the absence of evidence to the contrary.

If the Government are serious about wanting to deal with the problems that many of our constituents face, and about producing worthwhile legislation that will do something about them instead of just talking about it, headlining the problem and ticking the boxes, they should add these new clauses to the Bill. They are fundamental to its workability and go to the heart of the problem. On that basis, I wholeheartedly commend them to the House.

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