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The Minister made that remark even though we have made it quite clear that the welfare of the child was the ultimate consideration in every case. We would not have proposed any of our amendments if we thought
that the paramountcy of the childs welfare would be compromised. She called us misguided, but at least we are misguided with integrity.
I am encouraged that the Government acknowledge the problems that result from the increasing numbers of families who split up. There are 12 million children in this country, and one in four experience the repercussions when couples separate. The Government also acknowledge the need to do something to beef up the penalties against serial flouters of contact orders, and to monitor contact proceedings.
The Government recognise, too, that something more must be done to prevent couples from going to court in the first place, as that is what leads to the long-drawn-out, expensive and acrimonious legal action that is the reason for this Bills introduction. That is why proactive mediation is so important. All the Opposition amendments have been predicated on the need to safeguard the welfare of children, but the problem is that Ministers too often seem to be hiding behind the paramountcy principle that was introducedby a Conservative Governmentin section 1 of the Children Act 1989. It remains relevant and valuable to this day, but Ministers use it as an excuse for not taking the serious and radical action that would go a long way to addressing the problems that we have all acknowledged. Instead, they go through the motions, posturing, ticking the boxes and claiming that problems will be sorted out.
The Bill is full of good intentions and warm words, but it shies away from the radical overhaul of the legal system that is so vital. On Second Reading, I said that it was a toothless fudgea rather mixed metaphor, I admit, but we gave the Government the benefit of the doubt. We argued long and hardon Second Reading, in Committee and on Report todayfor serious improvements that would have given the Bill real teeth and firmed up the fudge. However, this Minister and this Government have singularly failed to engage in the debate. They have failed to take on board
Tim Loughton: I am grateful, Madam Deputy Speaker, as my point is that the Bill, which has not been amended as we would have liked, shows that the Government have missed a major opportunity. As a result, it has ended up being a dud that is difficult for us to support.
Under the Bill as it stands, serial breachers of contact orders will continue to offend because they will continue to think that they are able to get away with doing so. Courts will be reluctant to award fines that may cause children to suffer, and will not be obliged by statute to treat both parents on a level playing field. People who breach contact orders will know that the longer they can spin out legal procedures, the more worn down the non-resident partner will become, and thus the less likely he or she will be to carry on with a claim in the courts. Moreover, mediation without some form of necessary encouragement will not work when entrenched partners who refuse to take part in the processregardless of the feelings of the other partnerknow that their refusal will not count against them later in court. All of
that could have been addressed in the Bill by a simple but fundamental change to the law, to recognise the desirability of presuming that a childs interests are best served by maximising quality time spent with both parentsalways subject to concern for the safety of the child.
In rejecting the Bill, we do not reject the principle but rather the complete failure of the Government and the Minister to engage in constructive debate to produce a workable piece of legislation that really addresses the problem. We support better mediation: the Bill will not produce it. We support more effective and meaningful penalties against non-compliancea sliding scale: the Bill will not produce it. We certainly support the inter-country adoption measures and safeguards, as we have made clear all along, but they are just a small part of a bigger, flawed Bill.
The Bill will do little to achieve better mediation and the need proactively to keep couples away from the long slippery slope that acrimonious court action can be. The Bill will not provide a real deterrent to serial breachers of contact orders, who know how to play the system and how to wear down a former partner. Above all, in its current form, the Bill will not achieve a level playing field for separating parents making arrangements for their children based on respect for a childs right to maximum quality time with both of his or her parents, on the presumption that it is in his or her best interests to achieve that, barring any genuine risks to his or her safety.
The Bill is a major missed opportunity. We have engaged in constructive debate over the last year and we have given the Government the benefit of the doubt. I fear that they have failed to respond. They certainly failed to take on a single one of the amendments that we proposed to the House in good faith. Despite the good measures that the Bill achieves on inter-country adoption and the good intentions it professes on mediation and on enforcement against breach of contact orders, we fear that it will not work. On that basis, it will not achieve what it set out to do. The Bill is a dud and sadlyvery sadlyI must urge Opposition Members to vote against it, because it will not do what it was supposed to do.
Annette Brooke: I, too, start by thanking the Officers of the House and Chairmen who have already been mentioned. I particularly thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) who stood in for me in Committee during the brief time when I was unable to attend. I also thank the Chairman of the Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs; he and his Committee have produced two reports that were pertinent to our discussions.
I pay tribute to the former Minister, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), now the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I am sorry that she was ill during the Committee stage, but I am pleased that she seems to be fully recovered. We should pay tribute, too, to the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda). It was remarkable and refreshing to hear him answer our points in a clear, non-confrontational and helpful way. I would like to
say that I look forward to working with him on future Bills, but this is my fourth Bill this Session and I am reaching saturation point, having also been a member of the Standing Committee considering the Education and Inspections Bill, so I hope that the Minister for Children and Families will let us consolidate childrens measures for a whileperhaps we could do lots of good work in our many all-party parliamentary groups rather than spending our time on Bills. I thank the Minister who has been exceedingly courteous and helpful throughout our proceedings.
We need to focus on children and, as I said earlier, we have been in danger of straying into the realm of what parents want. Recently I received a letternot from someone in my constituencyand I got to the third page before the child was mentioned. That really made me think; it was all about I, I, I and I want this, which is worrying. That is part of our culture, so we must make sure that we put our children first. It is a sad reflection on society that children, who are entirely innocent parties, are dragged into conflict and suffer a great deal.
We must move forward in a number of areas. The Bill does not go far enough, but I do not disagree with any of its measures, so it would be extremely churlish to vote against it. External problems must be addressed, and we should not overlook the fact that the Bill is only a small part of the equation, as CAFCASS, the family courts and the judges are all important. It was not appropriate to support new clause 22, but we have said all along that there should be a compulsory meeting on mediation, even if the couple had to meet the mediator separatelyin different rooms if necessaryprovided that there were no domestic violence issues. I am sorry that an amendment was not tabled to that effect, particularly as the Bill identifies a compulsory meeting before mediation as a contact activity. I do not see why mediation should not begin earlier, and I am sorry that we did not include such a provision. I did not manage to table a suitable amendment, despite giving the matter a great deal of thought, although proposed subsection (3)(a) of new clause 22 is almost perfect for my purposes. We should not be complacent, as the failure of the family resolutions pilot project, in which there was low participation, cannot be ignored. I am sure that we all wish to avoid expensive, harmful and hurtful court procedures, and early intervention is a much better option.
The changes to CAFCASS are connected to the Bill, because they are part of the changing culture. I am deeply concerned, however, that the service does not have enough resources for contact activities, monitoring and family assistance orders. I hope that finance will be monitored, but excellent work is under way. The Select Committee pointed out that family courts should be more open. That has begun to happen, and it will help to reduce conflict. However, we need more full-time judges so that processes can be speeded up. I tabled an amendment in an attempt to address the gap before a case comes to court, when contact is often lost for good.
I welcome the fact that research is under way, but it is late and we have not yet experienced its benefits. I hope that a review will follow, as we need to revisit the issue. I am disappointed by the absence of a legislative statement that does not conflict with the paramountcy of the childs interests. We must take on board the views not just of non-lawyers but of the many members of the legal profession who have pointed out that the inclusion of conflicting presumptions is a serious problem.
Contact with parents and grandparents is all-important. Despite my great disappointment that there is not some form of legislative statement, I hope that we will work on that. The Minister has promised a review of the grandparent issue
Having made all my points, I conclude by saying that, overall, we support the basis of the Bill. As I have said, it is churlish to vote against a Bill if there is nothing in it with which one disagrees. The Bill has some good provisionsparticularly on adoption, contact orders and enforcementso we will vote with the Government, but that does not mean that we think it is perfect.
Mr. Gale: You, Mr. Speaker, better than most, will understand that those of us with other duties in this House sometimes have difficulty in participating as much as we would like to do in all aspects of legislation. I have studied the Bill on paperonly on paper, not in the Chamberand followed its processes in the House of Lords, on Second Reading in this House, in Committee and, finally, this evening. It is with a very heavy heartI say this curiously, in a sensethat I rise to support my friends on the Front Bench, because there is much of merit in the deliberations behind the Bill and, indeed, in the Bill. However, the fact is that, on its Third Reading, it is still deeply flawed. After all the effort that has been put inI believe with good willby both Government and Opposition Front Benchers in both Houses, that is tremendously sad.
It is one of the difficulties of these Houses that after a Bill starts in the House of Lords and is passed on to the House of Commonswhere it is studied and readhas its Second Reading, its Committee stage and its Third Reading, it has nowhere else to go other than on to the statute book, or out. I sense that tonight, there might have been a willingness among Members in all parts of the House to send the Bill somewhere else and to think again. However, and as you have pointed
out, Mr. Speaker, this is a Third Reading debate, so this is the full stop and, as things stand, we have nowhere else to go.
As my Front-Bench colleagues have suggested, the fact is that elements are missing from the Bill. You, Mr. Speaker, admonished the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), who spoke for the Liberal Democrats, for commenting on what were almost Second Reading issues. Of course, we have to comment on what is in the Bill, but we must also comment on what is not in it and on the opportunities missed, to use the phrase coined by my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton).
There are issues relating to the rights of parents and grandparents that have not properly been touched on. It might surprise you to learn that I am not yet a grandparent, Mr. Speaker, but I wish I was. However, like most of us, I have constituency advice surgeries to which grandparents come to plead a cause. If the Bill is about anything, it is about children, and such grandparents can offer an opportunity to children who are the subjectsI hesitate to say victimsof broken marriages.
I suppose that, at this point, I ought to place my own interest on the record. I am a divorcee and I have a daughter who is the victimif that is the right wordof a broken marriage. Happily, my former wife and I managed to work together to look after our daughter. My current wife was a single parentthe father of her child was murdered. I adopted my eldest son. I feel quite strongly about these matters. The relationshipsand the contactbetween people and their children are vital, but the most vital issue is the children.
To come back to the point about grandparents, we are missing an opportunity. The Bill does not say that grandparents have rights. We were talking about mediation. You were otherwise engaged, Mr. Speaker, but, in a brief intervention just before the last guillotine, my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller) sought to indicate the breadth and the depth that mediation might embrace. However, that is not in the Bill. We ought to be talking about creating opportunities for people to get together, not to fall apart.
In the interests of the children, we ought to be talking about how we can maximise the contact between the two parentsif we believe, and I think that the House still does, that fundamentally children need two parents and the love, affection and attention of two parents. We cannot achieve that by compulsion; we can achieve it only by the getting together of willing parties. We will not get willing parties together by forcing them into funnels of courts of law, where they are represented by people who may think that they are presenting the interests of children, but who are in fact presenting the interests of two separating people. Children need the support of a flexible system.
I am very sorry. I believe that the Minister is committed to the cause. I happen to think that my hon. Friends on the Front Bench are committed to the cause. I wish that the Bill could go somewhere other than to a Third Reading vote to say yes or no, but it cannot. The Bill is flawed. As my hon. Friend the
Member for East Worthing and Shoreham has said, it is an opportunity missed. On that basis, with a very heavy heart, I will have to oppose a Bill that has much merit in it, but does not go far enough.
Mr. Stewart Jackson: I am pleased to be able to conclude the Third Reading debate. [ Interruption. ] It is gratifying to know that I am the cause of such hilarity on the Government Front Benchparticularly on the part of the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Plaskitt). This is a serious issue. We have had a good debate on Report and at Third Reading. I reiterate the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) that we could have had a great deal of consensus at Third Reading. We could have been united across the House on the fact that we all care about the future of our children and their family lives and prospects, and that we all care about fairness and equality between men and women. We all understand the tragedy that peoples lives do not go as they planned and that they split up and separate, and there is animosity, bitterness and hatred. We could have taken the opportunity to do something about that by sending an important practical signal.
I said in Committee that kind words butter no parsnips. I was right, because although we have heard a lot of kind words from Ministers, we have not seen solid proposals. I congratulate the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda), on his appointment and welcome him to the Dispatch Box. We go back some way from our days in the London borough of Ealing. His career has taken off, and although mine is on a slower trajectory, I hope to catch up.
We wanted consensus. We have done our best to ensure that good sense and practical experience inform the debate. We have received an undertaking from the Minister on reviewing the situation on grandparents access, which was addressed by new clause 19. There will also be a review of the paramountcy principle and an examination of how that works in the family court system. We have done our best, and I thank hon. Members such as the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) for doing their best to achieve consensus. We are committed to the changes that were proposed by the amendments that we tabled, and we wait for a Conservative Government to enact those changes.
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