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Lord Adonis: The noble Baroness has ranged much more widely than her amendment to look at the whole issue of the Family Resolutions pilots, which, as I said last week, are currently being evaluated. We believe that they will have very useful lessons and serve as models for how we take forward the contact activity set out in Clause 1. It is a matter of fact that the take-up on the pilots was less than we would have wished. However, we believe that we have a sufficiently large evidence-base to be able to make proper assessments and that they will inform the developments of contact activities under the Bill, including—I stress this again—information about mediation, which builds on a substantial mediation infrastructure built up in recent years which we believe will be of great benefit to separating couples and their children.
 
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The amendment would make it compulsory for courts participating in the pilot to refer all parties in a contact case to a court-appointed mediator. In turn, it would be compulsory for all parties to a contact case to accept referral to such a scheme. The amendment would also legislate for the use of parenting plans.

As I have said repeatedly, there is a good deal to be said for mediation and we want to see its take-up significantly expanded. Information on mediation is a key contact activity, as set out under Clause 1. However, the amendment would constrain the court's freedom to consider each case on its own merits. In particular, it does not take account of the fact that cases involving issues of harm, abuse or domestic violence would not be suitable for the pilot scheme proposed in the amendment, as it would not be appropriate for those parties to attend mediation. The proposed amendment could also leave the Government open to a charge of denying parties in a contact case their rights under Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights, because the amendment requires that the pilot activities take place before a court hearing can be had.

For those reasons, the amendment itself is not desirable, but, in so far as the noble Baroness was seeking to probe our intentions on the use of mediation, I can, once again, assure her that we wish to see more extensive use of mediation and we believe that the Bill as framed would have that outcome.

Baroness Pitkeathley: Perhaps I may intervene regarding alternative dispute resolution, because we would be in error if we considered that the alternative to dispute resolution was either the Family Resolutions pilot or the pilot proposed by the noble Baroness. There are many other forms of alternative dispute resolution that CAFCASS, in separate offices and with skilled officers, is promoting at the moment. We are absolutely determined to learn from those and to promote them elsewhere.

Baroness Morris of Bolton: I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley, for that and also thank the Minister for his detailed reply and I look forward to reading its technicalities in Hansard.

We are coming at this from two very different ends. We believe that if early intervention is mandatory and parents know that that is what is expected for the benefit of their child when they split up, it will resolve many issues early that will not come to court. The Minister also mentioned abuse and we feel that such issues will be highlighted at a very early stage and could be referred for a special resolution. All the professionals in the family law system say that time is the enemy of resolution. The amendment would signpost to everyone what was required at the beginning.

In many respects, whatever went wrong between the early interventions project being delivered to the Department for Constitutional Affairs and Family Resolutions—I take on board the noble Baroness' point about different methods being used in different places—there has been a tragedy. If we had run an
 
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early intervention project, as run successfully in many other countries, the outcomes of which the Minister spoke could have been very different. As Caroline Willbourne, the Family Law Bar Association's designated expert on contact issues wrote in the November 2004 issue of Family Law:

Family Resolutions, based on the "every case is different" approach, was the complete antithesis of early intervention.

This is where we need to concentrate our resources—we were talking about early intervention in social work in our debate on Thursday. I urge—implore is too strong a word—the Minister to rethink and consider running a project upon the lines originally intended. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Morris of Bolton moved Amendment No. 124:


"REMOVAL OF CHILD FROM JURISDICTION
The Secretary of State shall lay before Parliament proposals to strengthen the efficacy of the Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, done at the Hague on 25th October 1980."

The noble Baroness said: Abduction is a sad and drastic development in contact arrangements after relationship breakdown. The Hague Convention is a multilateral treaty that seeks to protect children from the harmful effects of their abduction and retention across international boundaries by providing a procedure to bring about their prompt return.

Under Section 1 of the Child Abduction Act 1984, it is a criminal offence for any person connected with a child under the age of 16, to take or send the child out of the UK for a period exceeding one month without the consent of any person who has parental responsibility of the child. However, I understand that real concerns have been expressed about our implementation of our duties under the Hague Convention and the use of the International Child Abduction and Contact Unit. Are we properly understanding the scale of this problem and are we addressing it effectively?

There is no doubt that we need proper statistics to understand the scale of the problem. In the UK, we have no idea how many children are abducted in this way by a parent in a given year. An incident reported to the police must come within the legal definition for it to be recorded. That means that offences of child abduction will not include victims over the age of 16. Parental abduction will be recorded only if the child is taken out of the UK. Therefore, domestic abductions are excluded and recorded only if the incident lasts longer than one month. We understand that many left-behind parents do not report their child's loss to the police. In other words, studies based on police records do not give us an accurate picture.
 
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In 2003, the Foreign Office started keeping a record of the number of cases of international parental abduction that it handles. But they do not keep a record of how many children are involved, their ages or sex. So its statistics do not help to build the accurate picture that we need. I understand that the Department for Constitutional Affairs keeps statistics only on the number of Hague Convention cases that it handles—again, there is no record of the number of children involved, their ages or sex. The NGO Reunite has some figures which are slightly more helpful as they include the number of children, but not all left-behind parents contact Reunite.

Then there is the added complication that there is no way of knowing if there are duplications in those three sets of statistics. This lack of proper statistics is the subject of a report by PACT due out next month. This will show that there is a distinct difference when we compare the situation in the UK with that of the US, where there has been considerable effort by the federal Government to tackle the problem of missing children whether they are throwaways, runaways, abducted or a victim of family abductions. But in the UK, we have no clear set of definitions and no national statistics.

If we cannot establish the nature and scale of the problem, it is impossible to plan effective programmes and preventive policies. The Department for Constitutional Affairs should take a much more hands-on role to help left-behind parents. In a recent case, the ombudsman clearly condemned the Department and directed it to offer better advice and help to future left-behind parents. Again, the situation in the UK is in sharp contrast to that in America.

What measures have the Government taken to ensure parents of children abducted abroad are given full and appropriate legal advice? The roles of the Department for Constitutional Affairs and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office should be much more clearly established. They should better co-operate with each other, as well as with NGOs and the police. For the moment, it is still very difficult for left-behind parents to know what to do and where to go.

Abduction is the most dramatic strand of parent alienation. Abduction risks grave damage to a child's welfare and mental wellbeing. The Government must take all available steps to ensure that these distraught parents receive the help and the advice which they so desperately need. I beg to move.

6.45 pm


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