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Baroness Pitkeathley: The Minister may expect me to respond to the issue of resources with regard to contact centres. It is true that the National Association of Contact Centres does wonderful work in the voluntary sector and is supported by a great many volunteers, but those services need to be commissioned and supported by staff such as CAFCASS employ. Therefore, any additional resource for the whole range of contact centres will also need to be supported by additional resource for the further work that will involve CAFCASS.
The Earl of Listowel: I thank the Minister for his encouraging and helpful response, particularly bearing in mind what I have learnt on my visits about the immense benefit that children experience when they have some contact with even a very difficult parent. In particular, I remember hearing about the difficulty for girls growing up without contact with a father, perhaps hearing only bad news about their father, the low sense of self-esteem that they can experience and the propensity to teenage pregnancy among those girls. What the Minister says is helpful and encouraging and I look forward to studying it. I thank all those who have contributed to this small discussion. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
"(1) This section applies to any contact order under section 8 of the Children Act 1989 (c. 41) made before, and in force on, the relevant date.
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(2) For so long as a contact order to which this section applies continues in force on and after the relevant date without being varied, the circumstances in which a notice under section 11I of the Children Act 1989 (c. 41) is to be attached to the contact order include
(a) where an application for such a notice to be attached to the contact order is made by a person who, as regards the order, falls within any of paragraphs (a) to (d) of section 11J(5) of the Children Act 1989 (c. 41);
(b) where, in any family proceedings, a question arises with respect to the contact order.
(3) Where the person proposing to apply under subsection (2)(a) is the child with respect to whom the contact order was made, subsections (6) and (7) of section 11J have effect in relation to the application under subsection (2)(a) as they have effect in relation to an application under section 11J for an enforcement order.
(4) If a failure to comply with a contact order to which this section applies occurs while the contact order continues in force as described in subsection (2), each of sections 11K(1) and 11P(1) of the Children Act 1989 (c. 41) is to have effect, in relation to the failure, as if for paragraphs (a) and (b) there were substituted "a notice under section 11I relating to the contact order."
(5) In this section "relevant date" means the day on which sections 3 to 5 come into force."
"PARENTING TIME PLANS
(1) The Secretary of State must issue guidance for separating parents called parenting time plans ("the guidance").
(2) The guidance must outline the kind of contact orders the court is likely to impose in a range of circumstances should parents be unable to reach agreement regarding contact with their child.
(3) Before publishing guidance under subsection (1), the Secretary of State shall consult and seek approval from
(a) child development experts;
(b) the family courts of England and Wales;
(c) any other person who appears to him to have an interest in the issue.
(4) The Secretary of State may not issue the guidance unless a draft of it has been laid before, and approved by resolution of, each House of Parliament.
(5) The Secretary of State may, from time to time, revise the guidance.
(6) A revised version of the guidance does not come into force until the Secretary of State lays it before Parliament.
(7) Where either House, before the end of the period of 40 days beginning with the day on which a revised version of the guidance is laid before it, by resolution disapproves that version
(a) the Secretary of State must, under subsection (5), make such further revisions to the guidance as appear to him to be required in the circumstances, and
(b) before the end of the period of 40 days beginning with the date on which the resolution is made, lay a further revised version of the guidance before Parliament.
(8) In determining any period of 40 days for the purposes of subsection (7), no account is to be taken of any time during which
(a) Parliament is dissolved or prorogued, or
(b) both Houses are adjourned for more than four days.
(9) The Secretary of State must arrange for any revised guidance under this section to be published in such a manner he considers appropriate."
The noble Baroness said: Our amendment relates to parenting time plans, which differ from the plans proposed by the Government, although my noble friend Lord Howe and I are at a loss to see how they differ from the Liberal Democrat amendment. We look forward to being enlightened by the noble Baronesses, Lady Walmsley and Lady Barker. We believe that the plans should be formed on the basis of reasonable contact between parent and child. While we agree that every case is unique, we also argue that there is a lot of common ground between cases, and with the large number of judgments made in the family courts each year, we believe that contact cases need a firm basis from which to start.
Given the experience of countless cases over the years and based on the premise of reasonable contact, it would be possible to give a general indication of likely court orders should parents be unable to reach an agreement. As we have gathered, it is the presumption of reasonable contact from which all our amendments flow. This is our central proposalour guiding star; for, without reasonable contact, the same facts can lead to different outcomes under different presumptions.
As Conservatives, we are not usually in the business of being prescriptive; and indeed we would envisage flexibility around the circumstances of the individual case. After all, any presumption can be displaced, given the circumstances of an individual case, but parenting time plans would provide an accepted starting point by setting the base line.
At the moment, evidence from the family courts does not show when the level of contact is too low. In reply to my noble friend Lord Howe last week, the Minister said that he doubted that any court had imposed a contact arrangement of only one postcard a year. If that is what the Minister really thinks, he needs to take a serious look at the family law system. In one case, a father was allowed to send one birthday card a year to his children. How could he develop a meaningful relationship with them in any sense of the word? That is not even face-to-face contact. Indeed, in one case, a father asked a welfare officer if she supported the idea of him having a meaningful relationship with his daughter; she said that she did. He then inquired how that could happen if he was hardly ever allowed to see her, to which the officer replied, "She can conceptualise you".
I believe that roughly 10,000 judgments are made a year on overnight contact. Based on that mass of information, surely the Secretary of State can formulate guidelines. Let us say that for the majority of cases the non-resident parent should expect a significant percentage of their child's parenting time over a year; it does not have to be every Thursday or every blue moon. I stress that it would be a guideline, and not prescriptive. Ultimately, what is reasonable will determine the outcomethe actual contact. But those guidelines will give hope to the non-resident parents and a real expectation that their child's right to a reasonable relationship with them will be recognised.
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I concede that it will be impossible to cover all circumstances, but we can provide a start, whereby parents can see that, if they do not agree among themselves, their child may lose a meaningful and important relationship with one or other of their parents. Our concern with regard to the current parenting plans proposed by the Government is that, although they highlight the complexity of the issues that need to be considered in a separation, they also highlight areas of conflict, and they do not provide a base line from which negotiations can start. They refer to money, yet the current legal system will allow for financial resolutions of a divorce to be agreed before the child contact order has been allowed. How does that disjointed approach aid a separating family? Our suggested plans would be used in a parent pre-court dispute resolution and mediation session, which we have already discussed. The amendment allows for the guidance to be amended and changed and ensures that it is drawn up in consultation with the relevant stakeholders and is subject to the approval of Parliament. We see this not as a one-set-of-rules option but as a starting point, which will allow reasonable and significant relationships to develop. I beg to move.
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