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Earl Howe: To reject the proposition that there should be no statutory presumption of a reasonable meaningful relationship between parents and child is to say that parents should not be allowed to have reasonable contact with their own children, even if there is no good reason why they should not do so.
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That is the implication of the noble Lord's position and of the position taken by the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth. I invite them both to reflect on that.
Baroness Howarth of Breckland: I shall challenge that. The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, said this more eloquently than I can, but I continue to be concerned about the definition of "reasonableness". If we begin to put ourselves into the courts and the judges look to the president of the Family Law division for guidance, then we are in danger of specifying times. Children are simply not packages to be divided up. We hear of children who have to leave their father's home at four o'clock in the morning in order to get to school the next day, and we hear of children talking about living out of suitcases. Those situations already exist under the present arrangements and they are unsatisfactory for children. That is why we are looking to ensure that that kind of situation does not continue.
Baroness Howarth of Breckland: I believe they are unreasonable and that is why I do not think that we should have that kind of statutory position. We need better practice right across the board, and we need to ensure that, whatever action we take, the child's interests are paramount. It has already been pointed out that courts do not always get it right, but we have to work towards getting more cases right. In my view, that means ensuring that more children have appropriate access to their parentsaccess which does not affect their emotional development. That is what we are looking for.
Earl Howe: I would not disagree with that for one second. I say to the noble Baroness that to build in a statutory presumption of reasonable contact would fetter the court only to the extent that it would prevent the court accepting a poor or bad reason to deny reasonable meaningful contact between the child and both his parents. That is the only sense in which it would fetter the court. It would certainly not override the paramountcy of the child's needs. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, that it would be for the court to decide what was reasonable in individual cases, and that decision would be embodied in terms of units of time, as it typically is now.
"We fully support the position established in case law that children normally benefit from a meaningful relationship with both parents following separation, so long as it is safe and in their best interests for that to happen".[Official Report, 29/6/05; col. 251.]
If that is not a presumption, I do not know what is. It is a presumption of meaningful reasonable contact. The noble Lord is arguing that that presumption should
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not be built into the Children Act. I cannot for the life of me think why he is resisting itit is the goal that we all want to attain.
Lord Adonis: I think that we shall return to this matter. However, the noble Earl needs to be clear. Unless I have completely misunderstood everything that he said yesterday, he wants significantly to change the presumption. He wants courts to have to take account of a statutory presumption that one-third contact should be awarded to one of the parties.
Earl Howe: The amendment introduced by my noble friend proposing a one-third split as a minimum was a means of airing this whole issue of what a court might find as reasonable. The Government's own Green Paper spoke of 100 nights of contact for the non-resident parent. That figure is not plucked out of the air. The Government themselves came up with the notion of 100 nights a year. If the noble Lord cares to look at the Green Paper, he will see that there is a reference to it.
This was one way of focusing the Minister's mind on the idea of reasonableness. Do not let us get hung up on the idea that it should apply in every single case or that the Opposition think that it should. Every case will be judged on its merits. The point is that if you have a presumption of reasonable contact, you need a good reason to deny the non-resident parent meaningful contact.
The Minister told us that the Family Resolutions pilot had now ended and would be evaluated. The original intention in the Bill was that the contact activities provided for in Clause 1 would be dependent on the new infrastructure which Family Resolutions would have set up nationwide. Family Resolutions will not now do that, so where does that leave Clause 1? What can the Minister tell us about these programmes, classes, and information and advice sessions? Does he have a list of what they will comprise? Are plans for any contact activities in preparation and, if so, which ones? Does he have a list of accredited providers of contact activities? In other words, does anything yet exist to give substance to the Clause 1 provisions? Perhaps I could ask him to expand on that area.
Lord Adonis: I shall come back to the noble Earl and write to Members of the Committee on where we are with regard to the arrangements. But as the provisions in the clause have not yet taken effect, one would not expect the plans to be well developed.
Lord Northbourne: In order to clarify matters for Report stage, would the noble Lord be prepared to write to me and to other Members of the Committee explaining exactly what the instruction to the courts is at present? If it is not reasonable contact, on what basis are the courts instructed to make their judgments? If it is simply the well-being of the child, surely, as I said
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earlier, a whole range of different situations could equally be for the well-being of the child. Are the courts guided by some kind of research? Who guides the courts and on what principles are their decisions based at present? I am not asking for an answer now.
Earl Howe: I am disappointed that the Minister said that he does not expect the plans to be very far advanced. The project which was supposed to usher in all these contact activities is defunct. The Minister's statement that it is being evaluated is a euphemism for what has happenedthat is, it was plainly a flop and further expenditure on it has been deemed unjustifiable. So, I say again, where does that leave these parenting plans? To what scheme are they to be attached if nothing remains of the pilot project? The situation is quite extraordinary.
"(2A) An individual falls within this subsection if the contact order so made (or the contact order as so varied)
(a) requires the individual to allow contact with the child concerned;
(b) names the individual as having contact with the child concerned; or
(c) imposes a condition under section 11(7)(b) on the individual."
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