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Baroness Walmsley moved Amendment No. 32:


"( ) The effect of the contact order on the welfare of the child must be monitored annually for three years from the date of the order and a report made to the Court and the child's views must be sought during the preparation of the report."

The noble Baroness said: I tabled the amendment when I realised that no one—in the past, anyway—seems to have monitored how well the contact orders work. Once the label, "In the best interests of the child", has been attached to the contact order, as it should due to the primacy of that welfare, the family must put it into practice. As the noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley, said yesterday, a contact order that is made when a child is six is not suitable when a child is 13. As I suggested in the debate on the previous amendment, moved by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, the geographical situation might change. I have heard from fathers who had great difficulty contacting their children, because the
 
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mother had moved to the other end of the country. Try as they might, they found it difficult to fulfil their obligations to the child.

So the problem is that no one ever reviews such matters unless there is a real dispute and it returns to court. We all know how reluctant parents are to drag their children into the courts, even if they have the confidence that they will obtain the desired result. I was heartened a few minutes ago when the Minister, stated that in future CAFCASS would follow up how orders were working and that the courts would be able to ask for them to be reviewed. That second part is not new—the courts could always do that. However, in that case, how much follow-up will there be? My amendment suggests that the order should be monitored for at least the first three years from the date of the order, until it has bedded down and is working smoothly.

Will that apply in all cases? How can one predict which orders will work and which will not? How can one predict in which cases the mother might move to the other end of the country or when other circumstances might change that make the original contact order unsatisfactory for the child. For how long will that monitoring take place? I very much welcome the statement that has been made, but I would be grateful if the Minister could tell us a little more.

Apart from monitoring, I mentioned in my speech yesterday that there should be some general research about how well contact orders work out in the interests of the child. I note that Amendment No. 114 in the name of the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, in this group, states that research into contact orders should take place. I support that approach, because combining the monitoring and the research would produce a package that would provide the information to ensure that practice is improved. So I support the noble Earl's amendment.

Can the Minister say a little more about CAFCASS's plans—will that be put into guidance or regulations or whatever? Perhaps the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth of Breckland, can tell us. I beg to move.

4.15 pm

The Earl of Listowel: I shall speak to my amendments in this group, Amendments Nos. 114, 117, 118 and 119. I am most grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley for her support for Amendment No. 114. It is a probing amendment to oblige the Secretary of State to conduct research into contact orders, looking, for example, at their effect on children, and the principles governing the making of them. The purpose of this is that we are now very occupied with outcomes for children. In the Children Act 2004, several outcomes—enjoying and achieving, staying healthy, staying safe—were enshrined in law and it is sensible for us to look further down the line, three or four years perhaps, to see whether the orders are doing what we wish them to do and how children
 
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are benefiting from them. That information could be fed back to judges who could adjust their thinking in response to it.

A question that has been raised on many occasions during the scrutiny of the Bill is the issue of funding. Are the proposals in the Bill adequately funded? Will the monitoring really be possible and effective? Independent research to look at whether resources are being made available to do the job required would be very useful and I would appreciate some indication from the Minister about what might be put in place.

Amendment No. 117 is also probing. It refers to a care plan in contact order proceedings, which is a drafting error on my part; I meant to refer to a contact plan. The purpose of this amendment is to front-load proceedings as far as possible so that at the time of divorce consideration is given by all parties to plans for the residence of, and contact with, the children, which will save trouble further down the path. I understand that, currently, before a divorce can be granted a contact plan is decided on, but that it is not very robust. I would appreciate it if the Minister would look at whether that measure might be reinforced and, in particular, whether there might be compulsion on both parents to meet to discuss this area, as well as encouragement for children to participate in forming as clear a plan about residence and contact as possible at the point of divorce.

Amendment No. 118 is also probing. Its purpose is to seek information from the Government about how they intend to avoid a situation where courts get caught up in a prolonged series of hearings that do nobody any good. I recognise that as children grow it may well be that arrangements need to be changed to allow for that, but I would be saddened if the greater powers that the Bill grants courts over families inadvertently draw them into longer court proceedings.

One is always hearing that the courts are a very blunt instrument in these matters. The Bill sharpens up that instrument somewhat, but we need to be careful that it does not inadvertently lead to courts being drawn more into these proceedings than we would wish. That amendment relates to my final amendment, Amendment No. 119, which again is probing. It states:

The purpose of that amendment is twofold. First, it is to encourage continuity in cases dealing with families of this kind. I was advised by a judge that it is extremely important, if possible, to have one judge overseeing a series of hearings if one wants the best judgment possible. It is also important to have continuity where magistrates are involved. It is more difficult in that case, but it is important.

The second purpose is to develop the degree of specialisation. Thinking first of magistrates, they are asked to take very sensitive, difficult decisions about a family's future but they are currently not permitted to specialise solely in family law; they are obliged to
 
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undertake other cases. Again, it has been emphasised to me by a judge that it would be useful if magistrates could specialise in family cases.

Another very important point stressed to me by a judge is the limit on the numbers of judges specialising in family proceedings. This is a most important point. On the last occasion on which we considered these matters in your Lordships' House, it became clear that there were concerns about the degree of specialism in the judiciary on these matters. I understand that, currently, the main obstruction is that to become a judge, a person practising law must have experience of criminal law. We live in a time when professionals in all fields are becoming increasingly specialist, and it should be possible for a lawyer who practises in family law to become a judge supervising family law cases. That is needed to get the number of judges necessary to provide the continuity and high degree of expertise that would enable a much better response to matters such as reasonable or meaningful contact. All those important questions would be better addressed if the judiciary were improved in that way.

Can the Minister give us some detail about what plans there are for reform of the courts in this area? I look forward to hearing his response.

Baroness Howarth of Breckland: I feel like reminding myself that I am a mere Cross-Bencher, looking at the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, and declare that I have an interest in CAFCASS. I stand here as a Cross-Bencher with that interest, and as a person who is a practitioner in the field who therefore sometimes finds it a little difficult to separate myself from policy. I put myself in that context.

I have every sympathy with the amendment proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley. Speaking from the point of view of CAFCASS, the real worry is the resource-intensiveness of this method of social work, because that is what she is talking about. I would also ask the philosophical question about the intrusiveness of the state into families in every part of an order. Some contact orders quickly settle down; some become difficult in adolescence. It is a complex issue how you get in the right place in the family without becoming a real nanny state. We are all struggling with that. Later, when we talk about early intervention, we will struggle with some of those issues.

However, it is essential that CAFCASS monitors those situations that are seen to be difficult, that have a high degree of aggression and bitterness and where it is clear that the parties will not easily meet the contact order. It has been shown in the work undertaken by staff that there has been a remarkable degree of success in enabling families to come together. Not all families will do that, but CAFCASS has had some success. So if we can provide the resources then success is possible. Later we will be considering family assistance orders that will be all about helping families to work through such difficulties.

It is important that CAFCASS emerges from its past, into the present, and aligns itself with the Every Child Matters agenda so that it can link families in
 
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difficulties with other services. We are working with the Association of Directors of Social Services, so that social services' intervention with some families at a different stage is more incisive and that when CAFCASS deals with such families it does not discover that there has been plenty of contact but no appropriate intervention to help the families in need. I am not talking about families who just have a bit of a row about contact. Many families, as we know from the East Anglia research, have serious needs. So I have every sympathy, but I would prefer the monitoring not to be prescriptive, as the noble Baroness's amendment suggests. We are certainly encouraged to try to proceed with this task and we in CAFCASS should be doing that.

It is also essential that someone looks at research from the point of view of the child. Noble Lords will have seen the document relating to intervention. That and much other research reveals that there is much information about what works in relation to parental contact and whether parents feel good, but there is little about how children perceive contact orders. I know, as someone who has listened to children on the Childline telephones for many years, that children have strong views about this issue and more research would be useful.

Again, funding is the issue. Do we fund front line services where we know we are still not meeting demand or do we divert it into research? CAFCASS would be delighted. We have the material to do that research—so it is a resource issue.

Regarding front-loaded proceedings—again much work is taking place in the central registry—the conciliation work being carried out by the judges is extremely successful, but is taking place in a small number of places and, again, we could move that forward. It links to the points made by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, that training and specialism are difficult areas. I should remind myself and noble Lords that CAFCASS works in the matrix of the courts and social care, so we cannot operate alone. Partnership is crucial. If the other parts of the service do not work CAFCASS gets the blame, although many delays relate to court listings. In fact, you can be told in court, as I have, that, yes, the CAFCASS officer can produce a report by November—and you think, "November!"—and then you are told that the case cannot have a listing until December. You then realise that there are all sorts of complications in the system.

We should examine those areas, but I hope that we do not end up, Minister, with prescriptive amendments that make the position impossible, because we know that at the moment both social services and CAFCASS are not meeting their present requirements. I am not saying anything that we all do not know. There is a personpower problem with social workers, there is a training problem and there is a problem about making the partnership work. What is important, however, is that the amendments are clearly there and pointing in the right direction. I hope that I have helped, and look forward to what the Minister has to say.
 
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4.30 pm


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