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Baroness Lockwood: I too support the amendments. Like other noble Lords, I believe that the interests of the child are absolutely vital and therefore should be given more prominence under the Bill. The first of the two amendments brings the views of the child to the attention of the court at an early stage in the proceedings. Under the Children Act 1989 the interests and the views of the child are ascertained at a later date in the proceedings. Surely it is better that the child's views are known at an earlier stage when one hopes that there will be moves towards a reconciliation or, if not, when conciliation is taking place.
I also support the second amendment, which provides for representation of the child if necessary by an officer. That is important because I too believe that there will be occasions when the child's views can best be represented by an independent person on behalf of the child, irrespective of the views of the parents.
A further important point is that the amendments meet the requirements of the European Convention on the Exercise of Children's Rights, which we have ratified. It requires that the views of children should be ascertained when important matters affecting the future of the children within the family are being decided.
The Earl of Onslow: We are in danger of getting into a slight muddle. If two people are hell bent on divorce it does not matter whether little Tommy, aged seven, says, "I do not want my parents to get divorced". It seems to me that the road down which we ought to go is to say that the interests rather than the views of children should be taken care of. It would be totally wrong to say, "We cannot have Mr. and Mrs. Bloggins getting divorced because their little Tommy doesn't want them to". That seems to me to be very nearly where the amendment is leading.
What I think would be sensible and reasonable, however, would be to try to move mediation a bit further down the line of reconciliation or to take it into account, and then it might be possible for the conciliator to use the child's views in its own interests--because it must
Earl Russell: It is a paraphrase, if I may say so. I agree with most of what the noble Earl said, but perhaps it applies rather more to yesterday's amendment of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, than it does to today's the amendment of the noble Baroness. I support the amendment of the noble Baroness.
Lord Murray of Epping Forest: I find myself rather more optimistic than the noble Earl, Lord Onslow. It is surely not impossible that if there is a clear and definite obligation laid by the Act on the need to take account not only of the interests but of the views of a child, and that is explicated and spelt out, it may be just possible that it could make the warring parents address themselves to this enormously important aspect of their marriage and pay just a little more attention to it. If, by putting this on the face of the Bill, we produced in only a handful of cases a balancing factor which perhaps tipped the couple away from divorce, then I believe that that in itself would totally justify the amendment, which I would very much support.
It is important, as the noble Baroness emphasised, for the court and the mediators not only to take into account the interests of a child but also its views. The child should be told what is happening and given support where necessary and also advice. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, said that it is a matter of argument as to who can best provide the advice. I tend to think that specialised officers would be better than the Official Solicitor, but that is a matter for discussion.
We should recognise that this is not a divorce Bill. It is not just a matter of the divorce of the parents. This is a family law Bill. I would emphasise that the children themselves are at least as important as the warring parents and should have their proper place in the context of this Bill.
Lord Elton: Your Lordships have not so far looked at Amendment No. 118 which falls within this group. It requires a child protection agency to provide help and advice to children of divorced parents, who find themselves disadvantaged by the terms laid down by the court. I do not suppose that we are meant to crawl over that too closely and ask at what stage a child may find itself disadvantaged, but I think it would be proper to ask why we are treating children as all being the same. How is the agency to give advice to a child of, say, three or of three months and how will that differ between a child of 13 or 17? These are practical and important
Coming back to the original Amendment No. 35, if the amendment really laid on the parents a duty--which clearly in moral law they already have--to consider the interests of the child there would be no harm in it at all and it would be very much a matter of apple pie and mother love as being something which one could not criticise. However, it does require the parents to have regard to the views of a child if it wishes to express them; and again, of course, the child may be of any age, even an infant. I hope that your Lordships will remember what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, said and the light thrown on this by my noble friend Lord Onslow. Many of us who support this Bill do so precisely because it gives a narrow avenue in which it is possible to some limited extent to protect children from the devastating effects of being mixed up in a divorce.
In that system the very hardest thing a loving parent has to do is to tell the child what is happening and get the child's view on it without involving the child in the battle, because inevitably a divorce represents a period of enormous strain and very often of powerful conflict. If we actually make an enactment which requires the child to be drawn into that conflict without any reference in it to any necessity to protect that child from the emotional damage which can result, without thinking through the role of any third party, I believe your Lordships would be acting irresponsibly. I hope that we can look at this with great care and certainly not rush ahead today.
Baroness Hamwee: I also support the noble Baroness's amendment. In doing so perhaps I might repeat some of the concern expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Elton, but perhaps in slightly different words. As I understand the noble Baroness, she is suggesting that it is not possible to have regard to the views of a child without supporting that child through the process and making certain that the real views are expressed, which may not necessarily come out in the first words that are used. It is more than simply asking one question and listening to one answer.
My concern is, taking up what the noble Lord, Lord Elton, said, the approach involving a welfare officer and whoever else it may be. This is so important and the balance is quite difficult to achieve, I suspect, between ascertaining the views of the child and avoiding the child feeling responsible for the outcome because of its expression of views. I am certain that the noble Baroness has that kind of concern very much in mind.
I am not sure whether the noble Baroness has spoken to the amendment relating to the Information Act, which comes later in this group, Amendment No. 91. I tend to the view that it is better not to put on the face of the Bill the precise mechanism that is required, if only for the reason that methods of providing information are changing very fast. There may be some children in the year 2000 who will only be able to deal with
Lord Stoddart of Swindon: I should like fairly briefly to support this group of amendments because I think that so far we have not sufficiently taken into account the interests, and certainly not the views, of children. I think we have to bear in mind that once a child or children have arrived the marriage then does not simply belong to the husband and wife; it belongs to the family. Therefore, there is certainly an argument for taking the views of the children into account where possible and, indeed, for taking into account formally the interests of the children. I believe that the amendments direct our attention to that important aim.
I have to tell the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, that there is great deal of evidence to show that children would prefer a marriage to remain intact, even though that marriage may well have some conflict within it. I see that the noble Earl wishes to respond. I give way.
The Earl of Onslow: I am much obliged. I completely agree with that view. My parents were divorced. The one thing that I did not want them to do was to divorce. I am sure that that is what children think, but it may not always be in their interests. I am advocating the argument that it is their interests rather than their views which should be taken primarily into account.
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