Children and Adoption Bill [Lords]

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Jeremy Wright (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con): I endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham said when he outlined the reasons for the amendments and want to take another of his comments further. My first concern is whether a presumption of reasonable contact is in some way in opposition to the principle of the paramountcy of the welfare of the child. Fundamentally, it is not. Indeed, I would argue that the presumption of reasonable contact enhances the paramountcy of the welfare of the child.

As my hon. Friend said, the evidence is clear that good, reasonable or meaningful contact—whatever one chooses to call it—is very much in the interests of almost all children. Therefore, the presumption should be, in the interests of the welfare of that child, that reasonable contact should play its part. There is no conflict; indeed, quite the reverse. What we propose will enhance the welfare of the child.

I wish to assist the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole if I can. I understand that I am in a vulnerable position on this Committee, having been a jobbing lawyer.

The Chairman: The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham was not looking at you.

Jeremy Wright: Yes, my hon. Friend was very kind not to lay a party affiliation on what he said, but I am sure that the criticism applies equally to me.

To assist the hon. Lady, one of the advantages in the construction of legislation is not that we assume that the court will not make sensible decisions, but rather that the legislature can direct the mind of the court in a particular way. The intention of the amendments is to persuade the courts to think about contact in the context of reasonable contact rather than just any contact at all. It is exactly the same in the criminal law when we talk about concepts such as reasonable force. The idea is to persuade the courts to think about reasonable force instead of any force at all on precisely that basis.

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Ann Coffey: I am not a lawyer, but could the hon. Gentleman explain something to me? If we have a presumption of reasonable contact when the court is making contact orders, but at the same time we have a principle of the paramountcy of the welfare of the child, and if those things are in conflict, having been given the same weight in the Bill, where does that leave the principle of the welfare of the child being paramount?

Jeremy Wright: I simply do not accept that those things would be in conflict.

Ann Coffey: The hon. Gentleman is a lawyer, is he not?

Jeremy Wright: I have already pleaded guilty to that.

The inclusion of reasonable contact in the welfare checklist puts those concepts together to ensure that there is no conflict. That is the whole point of the amendments. I hope that the hon. Lady will consider them again and accept that there is no conflict, or intention to create a conflict, between the two concepts—quite the reverse. We are trying to enhance the welfare of the child by including the concept in the amendments.

My last point is simply to underline what my hon. Friend said about reasonableness, which is a concept beloved of jobbing lawyers. It is beloved for a good reason, and that is that it cuts in all directions. Reasonable contact does not mean just reasonable contact for the absent parent. It also means contact that is reasonable for the resident parent and the child. All members of the Committee should be heartily in favour of that concept.

Beverley Hughes: This debate goes to one of the core differences—perhaps the core difference—between the positions adopted by the Opposition and the Government. We all want to ensure that, whenever it is appropriate in the interest of children and can be done in a way that supports them practically, both parents—resident and non-resident—have good contact so that they have a meaningful relationship with their children if the parents separate. We are all united to the same end and I feel strongly that children need both parents, including fathers. In my ministerial position I have taken a strong line in promoting that.

It seems from the points made by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham that we have a significant difference on the measures that need to be introduced to make contact work for both parents. He started with a basic premise about contact at the
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moment. He led us to believe that contact was not working in many cases and said that the Government’s response is punitive enforcement rather than making contact work. He cited an increase in applications for contact orders as testimony that contact is not working. However, I do not accept either the logic of his argument or the remedies that he is suggesting to make contact work better, although I support that objective.

It is true that there has been an increase in the number of applications for contact orders, but it also true that more than 99 per cent. of those applications are granted. It is also true that many of those applications are repeat applications and many are for enforcement. That leads us to our diagnosis of the problem and what needs to be addressed. We do not yet know what the fundamental problem is, which is why we are instituting the research. However, it may not be that the courts are ordering too little contact for the resident parent, but rather that the contact that is being ordered is not being complied with. Parents may come back for enforcement orders to get the resident parent to comply with orders that have already been made. That supports the Government’s diagnosis and remedy. Enforcement is the key issue. I strongly refute at the outset the hon. Gentleman’s two contentions.

This group of amendments tries in a raft of different ways to address the problem of reasonable contact by placing a presumption at the heart of the Children Act 1989.

Tim Loughton: Much of what the Minister has said merely repeats the statistics that I gave her. [Interruption.] I think we agree about the statistics because we used the same sources, but why are more people flouting contact orders?

Beverley Hughes: I do not believe that it is proven that more people are flouting contact orders—

Tim Loughton: The Minister just said so.

Beverley Hughes: No, I did not say “more”. I said that it is accepted that too many parents need to return to court to enforce orders that the courts have already decided on. That suggests to me that the important problem that we need to address is not necessarily that the courts are ordering too little contact in those orders, which was the conclusion that the hon. Gentleman came to from his analysis—

It being twenty-five minutes past Ten o’clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned till this day at One o’clock.

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