I want to move on to our new clause 18, which people are right to say looks prescriptive, although I have in the
past argued against too much prescriptiveness. The new clause was tabled in a very different form in Committee, but was not selected because it was not sufficiently detailed. We therefore faced a dilemma, as it would have been far more appropriate to discuss the principle behind it in Committee than to do so on Report. We do not mind if the Minister ignores the detail of our proposal, but we would like him to engage with its basic concept and the need to place a strong emphasis on mediation and efforts to find solutions. The provision is not perfectly worded, but it makes provision for a risk assessment to be carried out if there is an accusation of domestic violence. It applies to parents who have reached the end of the line, cannot be reconciled and are waiting for a slot in court. Opposition Members often say that it is a tragedy that 40 per cent. of parents lose contact with their children after a dispute. If a parent has to wait a long time before their case comes to the court, they may not be welcomed by the child because there is an automatic break in the relationship. One could argue that the solution is to ensure that the case comes to court more quicklyI wish that I believed that we would achieve that in the immediate futurebut the latest report by the Select Committee makes it clear that we still do not have enough full-time judges, and that there is a long time to wait. Our proposal would not kick in until it was crystal clear that the situation was intractable and that there were no safety issues.
Mr. Llwyd: I have practised in family law for 25 years and the problem results partly from the lack of full-time judges. However, there are not enough experienced CAFCASS officers so that, in north Wales, for example, there is a terrible delay of three months or even 16 weeks before a report is produced.
Once that dreadful position is reached, the non-resident parent is prevented from seeing the child altogether, even though the safety issues have been resolved. We have proposed a default contact arrangement for parents, who could make variations to suit themselves but, none the less, they will have contact with the child. Our new clause therefore includes a little of the Oppositions no order principle, but the difference is that it takes account of the individual cases. We have proposed an interim arrangement until they can fight their battle in court, as we want to try to keep continuity of contact with the child. I am surprised that, given everything that they have said about wanting contact, the Conservatives have started to ridicule our proposal. I am, however, prepared for the details to be ridiculed, because it was difficult to express the concept in an acceptable form on the amendment paper. I genuinely wanted to discuss the issue in Committee, because I thought that we could find a way to progress that idea.
I hope that I have made myself crystal clear. We have not attempted to provide a rigid arrangement but an interim arrangement while people wait to go to court. Once it is in place, the parents may agree to work things out between themselves, so that the situation does not become intractable. There has never been a suggestion on my part that the new clause be pressed to the vote, because I am aware of its inadequacies. The concept, however, is important and I hope that the Minister will respond in the spirit in which it was proposed. I take the matter seriously, as we need to tackle the gap which, hon. Members will concur, may lead to one parent losing contact with their child for life. An arrangement that is a little rigid and lasts a few months may be a price worth paying to stay on the path to keeping contact.
Mr. Stewart Jackson: I wish to speak to new clause 4, which I tabled with my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), before touching on new clauses 13, 16 and 19. I will resist the temptation to say that it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), and merely observe that the Liberal Democrats are Olympic medal winners in sanctimonious and patronising equivocation. At the election, the Conservatives will expose their cynicism and duplicity in every constituency. It is not about playing politics; it is about making local undertakings and doing something completely different when the votes come in.
New clause 4 deals with the presumption in favour of co-parenting and reasonable contact. We all believe that the childs welfare is best served by residency with their parents or, if they do not live together, residency with one parent. Reasonable contact allows both parents to be fully involved in parenting. Having participated in the lengthy proceedings on the Bill, I believe that there has been too much heat but not enough light. I broadly support the Bill with some important caveats, but it is a missed opportunity. It could have united childrens charities and Families Need Fathers; it could have united parties from all parts of the House. However, after the trench warfare of the past year or so in the other place, in Standing Committee, and on Second Reading, consensus has been lost. The Government have set their face against concessions, and are guilty of intransigence, inertia and discrimination, particularly against non-resident parents of both sexes.
New clause 4 does not undermine the paramountcy principleindeed, it enhances it. My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) has a strong record in extolling the virtues of co-parenting and the importance to the future of children in this country of havingif at all possible, and with the caveat that the safety of the child is always paramountboth parents involved in their upbringing.
The Government are using the paramountcy principle as a rock on which all appeals to flexibility and logic, and the experience of real life, are smashed. The paramountcy principle is an opaque panacea; it is not set down in legislation and it is used by Ministers and Back Benchers to stop any discussion, even of the hierarchy of paramountcy.
This issue is about human rights, fairness and equity, and equality of gender. I will not take any lectures from the Liberal Democrats because, like many Members in all parts of the Chamber, I know from my surgery casework how this issue affects and undermines families. It is important that we bear it in mind that we are talking not about dry, dusty, arcane legal principles, but peoples lives and futures, and their children.
Frankly, I cannot understand why parents who were fit and proper parents when they were married, or together in a non-married relationship, are deemed suddenly to cross a line and to become unfit parents, and are therefore not permitted to see their childrenunder the auspices of family courts or otherwise. No Minister has explained that to any of us. Why are they any less good, loving, caring parents? Ministers need to address that issue.
There is, of course, no doubt that some parents, particularly mothers, are responsible for alienating their children from their fathers without good reason and thereby creating this sometimes insoluble problem. That unhappy state of affairs, well known in family courts, is a long way from recognised syndrome requiring mental health professionals to play an expert role.
We accept that in many cases this
is true and indeed this position is supported by case law, which states that children generally benefit from a meaningful relationship with both parents after separation so long as it is safe and in their best interest.
to deprive a father who bona fide wishes to have contact with his child of that contact is a drastic step. The courts general policy is clear: contact between a child and its natural parent is something which should be maintained wherever this is practical.
So Ministers are clearly setting their faces against case law, which raises the important and apposite question of why they are doing so. But is it case law in respect of reasonable contact? It is probably not, because reasonable contact is not enshrined in current legislation; only contact is. That is of relevance to an important point that my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham made earlier. A postcard every month or every year, or a telephone call, is not reasonable contact. The Minister should address that issue in his concluding remarks.
It might be appropriate at this stage to refer to the comments made in the briefings of childrens charities such as the National Childrens Home and Barnardos, and in particular the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. As I said on Second Reading and in Committee, I deprecate their comments because they are based on an unfair analysis, they are complacent and partial, and they support the discrimination inherent in the Governments position.
Let us make no mistake: the Governments approach to the family law system is failing non-resident parentsmen and womenas well as extended family
members. I quote Sir Bob Geldof, who, as Members know, has written on this subject. In The Real Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name: A Sometimes Coherent Rant, he wrote:
Upon separation, the system is slow and delay occurs immediately. This allows the status quo to be established. As the process labours on it becomes impossible to alter. This is unfair. It is nearly always possible for the resident parent (lets face it, the girl)
to establish a pattern. It is then deemed in the childs interest not to break this routine. But at the cost of losing sight and touch of their father, we must really examine all our assumptions without fear. Then we can move to building a more equitable system benefiting all equally.
The paramountcy principle is not stated anywhere and is used with impunity to defend the current situation. A key institutional issue is that certain vested interests would be challenged by changes to the current system. It is not only childrens charities that have such vested interests; so, too, do the National Association of Probation Officers and some elements in the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service.
New clause 4 would strengthen, rather than weaken, the paramountcy principle. Throughout the Bills passagein the different stages in the other place, in Committee and in the ChamberI have yet to hear one convincing, coherent and persuasive argument against such a new clause, and certainly not from the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), whose presence on the Front Bench is much missed.
The arguments advanced are based on myths. Child abuse is just as likely from a stressed sole parent or their partner as from a non-resident parent. [ Interruption. ] The hon. Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran) makes faces from a sedentary position, but that is the case. Recently, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents concluded, in an analysis of childrens injuries, that more malicious injuries were inflicted by mothers than by fathers. Indeed, an NSPCC report published in 2000, which that charity currently conveniently disregards, entitled Child maltreatment in the United Kingdom: a study of the prevalence of child abuse and neglect, stated that
most violence occurred at home (78 per cent.) with mothers being primarily responsible in 49 per cent. of cases and fathers in 40 per cent. of cases.
When this matter was debated at length in the other place, Lord Northbourne made some key points that bear repetition about the success of co-parenting and maximum conflict resolutionthe subject of new clause 22and the early intervention parenting plan, with which new clause 1, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, deals. In Floridafor which we could equally substitute Canada, Australia and other states in the United Statesthe system, which uses the attributes proposed in our new clauses, is working. Families are staying together, children are safe and we are seeing reasonable shared parenting and reasonable contactwithout casting aside the paramountcy principle and the safety and welfare of children. The provision is about gender equality and the rights of children to enjoy the love of
both parents, as long as it is safe for them to do so. I look to the Minister to rise to the challenge and talk about the paramountcy principle and the paucity of the arguments that were used by the Government at all the stages of the Bill.
New clause 10, on reasonable contact, seeks to amend the Children Act 1989. At the moment, as I said, we have contact set down in legislation, but not reasonable contact. If hon. Members do not like the word reasonable, they might prefer meaningful. The words are interchangeable. The new clause requests the court to have regard to the issue of reasonableness, but it is important to make the point that inserting the concept of reasonableness does not fetter the discretion of the court. Despite the debate in the other place and in this House, we are not talking about something that is necessarily wedded to a time-bound formula. We are talking not about equal being 50:50, but about equal being fair. We have some lawyers here today. The concept of reasonableness is easily understood by lawyers and it would be practically understood in the family courts. I cannot understand why the Government should disregard our new clause.
Unless there are cogent reasons against it the children of separated parents are entitled to know and have the love and society of both their parents...the courts recognise the vital importance of the role of non-resident fathers in the lives of their children[ Official Report, House of Lords, 11 October 2005; Vol. 674, c. GC6-7.]
The Government pay due regard to case law, the position of Ministers and the settled opinion of a wide variety of groups that are stakeholders in the debate, but they cannot go that final step in accepting the reasonable amendment of inserting the word reasonable in the Bill.
We have to ask ourselves whether the Children Act really meant contact to be a postcard, a snatched telephone call or a trip to McDonalds for 30 minutes? When we enacted that landmark legislation under a Conservative Government in 1989, did we really mean to enshrine in legislation that level of contact? The answer is, no, we did not. Surely it is right that the family courts should be predisposed towards reasonableness and that the burden of proof should lie in favour of more reasonable contact.
There is one thing on which I will agree with the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke). [ Interruption. ] Steady on. There is a human rights issue in respect of our obligations to the United Nations. At present, the United Kingdom is de facto in breach of the UN convention on the rights of the child, because it can be argued that it prevents reasonable access to childrens parents.
I will talk brieflyI hopeon grandparents rights, which is the subject of new clause 19. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) for his reasonable, cogent and well argued new clause. I am
sorry that, in some respects, it looks as though the Government are going to ignore that and ignore the huge welter of evidence from our postbags and surgeries that an injustice needs to be righted with respect to grandparents.
Mrs. Nadine Dorries (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con): Two of my constituents who are grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. Jennings, have found themselves responsible through no fault of their own for the care of two very young children at a time in their life when they are on reduced incomes and when they are least able to look after them. They have absolutely no assistance whatsoever. They wrote to Ministers some considerable time ago, but they contacted me today to say that they still have not had a reply. Does my hon. Friend agree that perhaps we should be looking at providing more assistance for grandparents, not less?
In Committee, we did not have as long as we would have liked to debate the issue of grandparents rights and the diminution of those rights in respect of the family court, so you will forgive me if I put the importance of new clause 19 into context, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Again, this is a debate about the value society places on people who do a fantastic job in caring for their family, whose love is unconditional and who feel excluded from the decision-making processes in family courts in particular. Let us make no mistake: grandparents are role models and good carers. They are a bridge between the past and the future. The case for reform in relation to the issue raised by the hon. Member for Stafford is compelling. How can it be right that many grandparents, often on low incomes, in or near retirement, become the sole carers for their grandchildren, but, in taking on that vital role as foster parents, do not have the same rights as unrelated foster parents in terms of their income, benefits and allowances? That issue was brought to our attention by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mrs. Dorries).
The issue is not party political in that respect. I repeat that the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) has done an excellent job in keeping the issue at the top of the agenda with his studies and the reports that he has produced about grandparents in his constituency on the Wirral and the difficulties that they have making ends meet as foster parents. I commend to the House a report produced by the families and social capital group at London South Bank university last summer, An Evaluation of the Grandparent-Toddler Groups Initiative, which shows the positive impact that grandparents have on very young children and the work that they do in saving the state significant amounts of public money.