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Baroness Morris of Bolton: Although I rise to speak to Amendment No. 55, I should like to say how much I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, that no one will be helped if the work load of an already creaking system is increased.
By tabling this amendment we are in no way abandoning our desire to see much of this Bill changed. Butever pragmaticwe are also concerned with making what may remain in the Bill better. This amendment, suggested by the Law Society, would require the court to consider the time by when a contact activity can be provided and is likely to be completed before making a direction, in order to allow sufficient time to work with the parents or family concerned but also to avoid such directions in themselves causing delay if the facility ordered is simply not available. This is also a probing amendment to highlight the issue of the need for adequate resources for the provision of a framework or range of contact activity services across the country in order that children and their families may benefit from them.
There is an acknowledged need for better facilitation of contact orders. The Law Society and many practitioners in the family law system are concerned that there should be adequate resources for the provision of contact activity services so that children and families may benefit from them with less need for recourse to more lengthy or further court proceedings.
The range of options to assist the implementation of an order needs to be sufficiently flexible to address the problem and the options themselves need to be available. For example, there is no point directing a parent to undertake a parenting programme designed to address intractable contact disputes if the facility is
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not available locally or accessible. In order to avoid directions in themselves causing delay, the Law Society suggests that the court should be required to consider the time by when a contact activity can be provided and whether it can be provided over the likely appropriate period of time in respect of the family concerned.
There is already concern among practitioners on the ground about the capacity of existing resources in some areas to be effective in speedily resolving some contact matters. For example, I understand that CAFCASS is not yet in a position in some courts to provide the additional facilitation and support services to fulfil their intended changing role in resolution; or that indeed supervised contact centre services may be unavailable.
Could the Minister therefore comment on the current spread and capacity of identified providers of different contact activities and what assessment has been made of their anticipated need? I beg to move.
Lord Northbourne: I briefly declare an interestfor many years I chaired the Parenting Education and Support Forum. The forum has, as I am sure the Minister knows, a considerable resource in access to, knowing about and having mapped all those who are providing parenting advice. I recognise that this is a special sort of parenting advice. There is also a national professional qualification, which I think has quite recently been ratified. It seems that it might be useful to know and I will try to find out for the Minister exactly what the position is and whether some subset of professional organisations could be developed which have a qualification in this particular area.
Lord Adonis: I am very grateful for these probing amendments, which give us an opportunity to look at the timeliness of provision and the qualifications of the providers. Underpinning them is a concern about resources and the adequacy of provision. We are committed to supporting development of contact activities and the identification of suitable providers. Part of the £7.5 million we announced in this spending review for the development of child contact services, including child contact centres, will be put towards developing and piloting a range of contact activities. These activities will be targeted towards resolving conflict and dispute and supporting parents in developing the skills to focus on their children's needs.
I will write to the noble Baroness about the range of providers available at the moment. Of course, the passage of the Bill will stimulate significant additional demands, which we envisage the sector being able to meet, not least in terms of the resources that will be available from those who benefit making a contribution.
In terms of the time periods and qualifications in Amendment Nos. 54, 55 and 59, the Bill requires courts to consider three issues before making a contact activity direction or condition. First, the activity it proposes must be appropriate in the circumstances of the case. Secondly, the activity provider must be
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suitable to provide it. Thirdly, the activity should be provided in a place to which the person undertaking the activity can reasonably travel.
Amendment No. 54, moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, would make additional requirements in terms of qualifications. Amendment No. 55, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, would impose time constraints. Amendment No. 59, also tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, would impose qualification conditions. With regard to time, it will inevitably be part of the process for the courts to take account of the available provision of contact activities and assess who is best placed to provide them. A key determinant will be that that provision should be available on a timely basis and that delivery of the activity will follow swiftly. As I have said, the Bill requires that the court must, before making a contact activity direction or condition, be satisfied that the suggested provider is suitable to provide the activity, that it is appropriate in the circumstances of the case, and that it is provided in a place to which the individual could reasonably be expected to travel.
With regard to qualifications, the Bill imposes a requirement on the courts to obtain information about the individual who will be subject to the direction or condition and the likely effects of the contact activity direction or condition on him. That includes any conflict with the individual's religious beliefs and interference with normal working hours, schooling or other education.
A key factor that the court must consider will be that suitable activities are provided in a timely fashion. However, we think it would impose an unnecessary burden on the courts and the providers to specify a precise time period over which the contact activity is to be provided. To do so runs the risk of reducing the flexibility that the Bill provides where the court is expected to have regard to interference with childcare, normal working timeswhich can changeor attendance at an educational establishment. Nor do we want to impose additional bureaucracy on the courts, with endless variations of orders to take account of those changes and leave them in the position of having to amend contact activity directions or conditions because they have been too detailed in the first place.
We are committed to supporting the development of these contact activities and have put in a significant resource already. I hope that the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw the amendment because it would create restrictions on the flexibility it gives the courts.
On the issue of qualifications in Amendment Nos. 54 and 55, we are of course concerned that people who provide contact activities should be properly qualified. We agree that the Bill as originally drafted did not go far enough. That is precisely why government Amendment No. 121, which was moved earlier, gives a regulation-making power for providing financial assistance for contact activity, providing that assistance can be given only for contact activities whose providers have been approved by the Secretary of State or the National Assembly of Wales, as
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appropriate. We expect that this will take the form of an approved list of providers and, of course, the qualifications of those providers will be a key element in deciding that they can go on that list. This will ensure that those who are receiving partial or total assistance in meeting the cost of the contact activity will be undertaking the activity from an approved provider.
The Committee can be assured that we are going a good deal of the way to meet what the noble Baronesses were seeking to achieve in Amendments Nos. 54 and 59 in respect of qualifications. Amendment No. 55 makes a point about time and, of course, the courts will wish to see that provision is made in as timely a fashion as possible. That will be a key issue for them to address.
Baroness Morris of Bolton: I thank the Minister for his reply, and look forward to receiving his letter. It was mentioned during the Select Committee's report and has been mentioned in our deliberations that delay is the enemy of resolving many of these problems. It will be a time constraint only if the resources are not available.
Baroness Barker: I thank the Minister very much for his reply. It would perhaps be useful to Members of the Committee if he set out in writing to me the type of specifications the Government would intend to make for any approved provider, when that information becomes available.
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