Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Walmsley: I added my name to these amendments because I felt it was important to have this debate on parental responsibilities raised by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne. I feel strongly that children have a right as far as possible to have their parents' responsibilities and duties to them properly fulfilled. I am not sure what the law can do to encourage parents to do that but I know, as someone mentioned in Grand Committee yesterday, that what most upsets children in separation situations is when, for some reason, parents are unwilling or unable to fulfil the contact time that has been agreed between the parents. That must be extremely disappointing to children and they must feel fundamentally that, because the parent does not spend the allocated time with them, they do not care and therefore the children are not loved. For that reason, from the child's point of view, it is vital that the absent parent fulfils the contact arrangements.

To that end, when the courts set out the contact arrangements, it is important that they bear in mind all the factors and that they are workable. In particular, I think of situations that have come to my attention where there is a great geographical separation between the formerly married parents and where the contact arrangements are unworkable. Usually the father simply finds it impossible to fulfil the arrangements and therefore disappoints his child. He does not want to do so but, one way or another, it is not possible for him to do otherwise.

Unless the matter goes back to court, so far as I know there is no way of varying that. We shall come to the matter of monitoring later, but no one checks
12 Oct 2005 : Column GC76
whether all the arrangements are working. Therefore, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for raising this issue because this duty and responsibility to the child is something that we must consider at every stage. Are we making it possible for the parent reasonably to fulfil those?

There is one other little thing. How would the amendments affect sperm donor fathers? Perhaps I should have given the noble Lord notice of that question, but we have to bear it in mind. He mentioned parents who have taken on parental duties and those who, for one reason or another, have not. We have to think about how his amendments might affect sperm donors.

It is important that right from the start we think about the welfare of the child in terms of how it feels about the duties and responsibilities of its parents. Its feeling for its parents can be easily undermined when it feels let down.

4 pm

Baroness Morris of Bolton: In answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, I believe that sperm donors are protected from parental responsibility. They have to be; it could not be any other way.

We welcome the amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne. I cannot overemphasise the importance of all that both he and the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, said. Parental responsibility strikes at the heart of all that we are debating. Sadly, too many children lose contact with one of the parents they love because that parent simply walks away, dumping one life to forge another. Perhaps the remedy starts way before this point, in proper parenting classes in schools, so that people know exactly what is expected of them with the very precious gift of a child. Like the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, we would welcome an insight into the Government's views on parental responsibility.

Lord Northbourne: I am very grateful to both noble Baronesses who have spoken. I had thought about sperm donors; when we are talking about a major issue of this sort, that detail would have to be addressed. There may be others which could and should be addressed.

I am not sure that I should be speaking now, so, having dealt with those points, I shall sit down.

Baroness Crawley: I understand that this is quite informal. I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate. It is important at this stage to debate these very interesting amendments about the role of birth parents in their child's life, their rights and responsibilities, as the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, said. The noble Lord will not be surprised to learn that we are content with the legislation when it comes to defining rights and responsibilities, but if he wishes to write to us about where he believes there is a gap in the legislation on this important point, we would be delighted.
12 Oct 2005 : Column GC77

The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, talked about the important issue of monitoring, as did the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne. Monitoring the welfare of the child is very important. CAFCASS intends in future to carry out post-order follow-up to check how the orders are working. Courts will also be able to ask CAFCASS to monitor compliance with contact orders.

The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, said that the Bill should be clear about the rights of fathers without parental responsibility. The Bill refers only to parents, and no distinction or difference is made whether or not they have formal parental responsibility.

Perhaps I may go through the amendments in a little more detail. I recognise that the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, wishes to underline the benefits to the child of continuing meaningful contact with his parents where it is safe and to ensure that the child can maintain contact with his birth parents. I also recognise that the noble Lord's aim is to protect the interests of the child concerned and to ensure that the court and those who will be directed to a contact activity understand that the whole point of the referral is to serve the best interests of the child.

I think that I can offer the noble Lord some assurance on each of these amendments. Beginning with Amendment No. 31, I am happy to say that Clause 1(8) already makes clear that the welfare of the child is to be the court's paramount consideration when considering whether to make a contact activity direction. That means that the court is obligated to have regard to what benefit the contact activity or direction will be to the interests of the child. It is important to underline that obligation, and I believe that it addresses the intention behind the noble Lord's amendment.

Although it is a minor issue, I should also alert the noble Lord to a more technical fault with the amendment in that it refers to "birth parents". My worry is that the use of this phrase would be overly restrictive and would fail to take account of the possibility that a contact activity can be ordered for any party to a contact case, which, as well as birth parents, might include, for example, other relatives such as grandparents.

I now turn to Amendment No. 35. The amendment as tabled would specify explicitly that a child who is a parent of the child concerned—that is, a teenage parent of a child in a contact case—and who, under subsection (2) of new Section 11B, could be subject to a contact activity direction, could include a natural father who may not have parental responsibility for the child concerned. I recognise of course that the noble Lord's intention was to refer to birth fathers more widely and not just to those under 18. So I shall confine the rest of my remarks to the substance of the noble Lord's amendment, where, again, I hope that I can offer some reassurance.

The Bill already allows for what the noble Lord is proposing. Section 10(4) of the Children Act states that any parent may apply for a Section 8 order. This reference to "any parent" applies equally to fathers
12 Oct 2005 : Column GC78
who do not have parental responsibility for the child concerned and who may therefore apply for contact orders and may be subject to contact activity directions under this Bill. I think that this goes to the heart of some of the rights and responsibility issues that the noble Lord raised. Therefore, I am happy to confirm that the meaning of "parent" in the Children Act and in the Bill includes biological fathers who do not have parental responsibility, as is the case when considering contact orders under the Children Act 1989. There is no distinction in the provisions of the Bill between fathers with parental responsibility and fathers without it.

I hope that, with that clarification, the noble Lord is persuaded that the amendments are not needed and that he will consent to withdraw them. I thank noble Lords for their contributions.

Lord Northbourne: I am grateful to the noble Baroness. I shall have to read what she said but I think that she may well have convinced me that the issue of the definition of "parent" is covered in law.

On the wider issue of Amendment No. 31, I still have some way to go and, once again, I should like to read what the noble Baroness said and perhaps write to her about it. I am anxious that the courts and CAFCASS should be instructed to take into account, subject to the safety, the priority and the wellbeing of the child, not only the wishes but the duties and responsibilities of each parent. I return to the point that I made previously, that within the framework of a perfectly safe arrangement—and there may be two or three arrangements that would be equally good for the wellbeing of the child—there should be a requirement that CAFCASS takes this into account when it is reporting to the courts and for the courts to take that into account. I should be grateful if the noble Baroness would write to me about the qualifications of the people in CAFCASS who produce such reports. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page