Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Walmsley: I thank the Minister for that clear explanation, which I shall read carefully in Hansard. I hope that no one would ever accuse me of short-termism and his comments about the long-term interests of the child being balanced by any short-term disruption of contact with a parent weigh heavily with me. We are most concerned about those, I hope, rare situations when a mother refuses contact, despite a contact order being in place, because she, rightly or wrongly, fears domestic violence and she would rather go to prison than put her child in danger. We are concerned that in such a case a court would look extremely carefully at the allegations. I do bear in mind the comments of the noble Earl, Lord Howe, about the fact that this type of court is not really set up for the finding of fact in such a situation and would rely heavily on CAFCASS officers to advise it. For the moment, I will leave the matter aside. We will consult further and read what the Minister said in Hansard.

Lord Adonis: Before the noble Baroness withdraws the amendment, perhaps I could make a further point for the record, because it is important. Of course, her point about domestic violence is real and of acute concern to us in framing these provisions. That is precisely why, under subsection (3), the court may not make an enforcement order if it is satisfied that the person had a reasonable excuse for failing to comply with the contact order. There can be no more reasonable excuse than a well-founded fear of domestic violence.

Baroness Walmsley: I thank the Minister. We will come to more issues about safety and domestic violence when we come to the amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton. However, in the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Adonis moved Amendment No. 83:


(a) in the case of a failure to comply with a contact order that was varied before the failure occurred, a notice under section 11I relating to the order varying the contact order or, where more than one such order has been made, the last order preceding the failure in question;
(b) in any other case, a notice under section 11I relating to the contact order."

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Earl Howe moved Amendment No. 84:


 
17 Oct 2005 : Column GC135
 

The noble Earl said: This is a simple amendment that raises a question about rights and responsibilities. It was the Prime Minister himself whom I heard on radio the other day—on 16 September, in fact—saying, and I hope that I quote him accurately:

I fully agree. One must reflect that if the legal age for sexual activity and service for the Armed Forces is 16 years-old, surely the potential responsibilities—the Government have suggested enforcement orders against a person who fails to comply with the contact order—should also be set at 16, rather than the 18 years that the Bill proposes. I simply ask the Minister to explain the thinking behind that choice of age limit and whether he has any centre of agreement with the arguments that I have advanced. I beg to move.

Lord Adonis: The noble Earl will be reassured to hear that balancing of rights and responsibilities remains absolutely central to our philosophy in implementing the Bill. However, on the specific issue of whether the sanction should apply to 16 to 18 year-olds, our thinking is this. First, there is an issue of principle, but it is not an overriding issue; there are also practical considerations. The issue of principle is that the Bill adds to the provisions of the Children Act 1989. That Act, along with family proceedings in general, defines a child as a person under the age of 18. We are not seeking in any way to alter the fundamental principle of the Children Act. Therefore, although we are using the mechanisms of the unpaid work system as set out in the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which has an age of 16, we felt it right to modify the provisions of that Act to fit in with the principles set out in the Children Act and therefore consider 18 a more appropriate cut-off point in principle.

However, in practice—which is the crucial argument for us—we need to consider what would happen to children of that age who are also parents, who are an extremely vulnerable group of children. In an ideal world, we might wish that they were not parents at all. The aim of the provision for unpaid work in the Bill is to give the courts a realistic recourse to address the behaviour of adults who refuse to follow orders of the court made in the interests of their children. We are here discussing children who are parents themselves. Our view is that, with parents who are themselves only 16 to 18, it would not be proportionate to impose unpaid work on them when what is far more likely to be needed is education and support about the role that both parents should play in a child's life. The powers provided by the Bill to require participation in contact activities apply to children who are also parents—those aged between 16 and 18—and they seem to us much more appropriate as a range of sanctions and obligations on them, rather than making them eligible for criminal sanctions and unpaid work requirements.

That was not an easy decision to make, because one could argue that one regime should apply to all parents in that condition, but I think that the Committee will
 
17 Oct 2005 : Column GC136
 
accept that parents aged between 16 and 18 are themselves in an extremely vulnerable position and that proper attention to their education and to measures that will promote their own sense of responsibility and development are likely to be more efficacious than criminal sanctions on them. That is why we make the distinction that we do and I hope that that gives the noble Earl sufficient encouragement to withdraw his amendment.

Earl Howe: That is a helpful reply and I shall reflect carefully on what the Minister has said. The obvious rejoinder to it, I suppose, is that a 16 or 17 year-old parent is just as capable as an older person of defying the court order on contact, and why should he or she get away with it? But I take on board the point that the noble Lord made about the vulnerability of parents of that age group. That is undoubtedly correct. No doubt, as he said, this was a finely balanced decision but it is one that will profit from further thought on my part between now and the next stage of the Bill. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

5 pm

Lord Adonis moved Amendments Nos. 85 to 87:

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Baroness Thornton moved Amendment No. 87A:


"( ) the enforcement order is to the benefit of the child about whom the contact order has been made."

The noble Baroness said: In moving Amendment No. 87A, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 88A, 88B, 106A and 111A. The temptation here was to table an amendment which deleted the whole clause, but I decided that I would try to test some parts of it which address not only the issues of the child who is the subject of the proceedings but also those of other children who might be involved in the whole process involved in a potentially new family.

This group of amendments refers to the fact that many lone parents re-partner—a horrible expression—remarry or re-establish new families and that the new partner may bring children into the new family or the couple may have additional children together. Lone parenthood is a stage in the life cycle and we know that, on average, lone parents tend to spend three to five years as such. Therefore, my contention in these amendments is that any measures must take into account the welfare of the other children in these families. I believe that serious consideration should be given to enforcement orders and the impact that they would have on the whole family and on the family finances. Resident parents, many of whom will be the lone parent, belong to the poorest group in our society. Here, I thank One Parent Families for its excellent briefing on these issues.
 
17 Oct 2005 : Column GC137
 

We know that one-parent families struggle more than most groups to retain jobs once they have moved into work. Thus, making them do unpaid work, whether or not they are in work, is likely to add more pressure on their time and finances and, in turn, will impact on the financial well-being of the child in question and other children in the family. I say to the Minister that the Government set themselves the target of halving child poverty by 2010, and measures that affect the financial well-being of one-parent families are likely to hinder their progress towards that objective.

Let me refer briefly to the amendments. The Minister said, during the Second Reading debate and indeed now, that the enforcement orders concern the conduct of adults and that that is why the child's interests are not paramount. I am not convinced that it is possible suddenly to divorce the parent from the child and pretend that somehow the child's interests are not paramount at this point. In support of the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley—domestic violence being one of the reasons why parents may refuse contact to non-resident parents—I believe the safety checklist would go a very long way towards remedying that situation. So we may well return to that issue at some point later in the Bill.

My first amendment, Amendment No. 87A, concerns the welfare of the child. If we believe that the child's welfare is important, let us put a provision to that effect into the enforcement order. Amendment No. 88A addresses the issue of loss of income and taking that into consideration when sentences are being considered. The third amendment addresses the issue of the existence of extended families and taking into account the interests of other children who might be living in the household. The next amendment addresses the issue of equity, which I have raised before. We need to make sure that the compensation for financial loss addresses both resident and non-resident parents equally. I beg to move.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page