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Article 7 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child states that each child has the right as far as possible to know his or her parents. The best way to ensure compliance with Article 7 is to ensure that the child has a record of who his or her parents are on the birth certificate. I suggest that only in the most extreme circumstances should this article be breached. The noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, is looking extremely worried. However, I think that it is important to be conscious of the fact that there are different perspectives on the role of fathers.

Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope: I am listening intently.

Baroness Meacher: On the financial side, inclusion of the father on the birth certificate will encourage him to pay child maintenance if that becomes appropriate. As I am sure we are all well aware, it is difficult to persuade a father who has been excluded since the child's birth from any recognition of his role as father to contribute financially to that child's upbringing, particularly if he feels, perhaps correctly, that this has been extremely unjust. He may be deeply hurt and feel that his life has been ruined. Up and down the country, many fathers have that view.

Even more important, US research into child development and the role of the father shows that the child of an involved father is likely to have a better educational outcome, a higher IQ, better peer relationships, fewer behavioural problems, lower criminality and substance abuse, more capacity for empathy, more satisfying adult sexual partnerships, and a higher self-esteem and life satisfaction. These results are supported by a whole string of studies in Britain and Germany. Not surprisingly, if a father's paternity is established and recognised, the father is much more likely to be involved with the child and will reap all the benefits of that involvement.

Let us consider the greatest social problems that we face today in this country. They are, precisely: poor educational performance, particularly for boys; youth crime; behavioural problems in schools; and substance misuse. All these social problems will be ameliorated if we begin to value fathers and encourage fathers' involvement in parenting. My perception is that it has been politically correct to focus on the rights and

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interests of mothers sometimes to the exclusion of fathers. I feel that I am doing something very politically incorrect in standing up and saying what I am saying today; yet I feel that it needs to be said.

In my view, we are all paying a heavy price for 20 years or more of a drip-drip erosion of respect for the role of the father in the family. Again, I applaud Part 4 of the Bill and hope that it will be an important step on the journey back to a better balance in recognising the central importance of both the mother and the father in a child's well-being. Having brought up four children and having nine grandchildren, I respect the value of the mother in a child's life but I also respect the value of the father.

If more unmarried fathers sign birth certificates and therefore obtain parental responsibility, a few more fathers will need their exercise of parental responsibility to be restricted by the family court through the existing procedures. I recognise that there will be a need for that but, rather than being a problem, this can have a positive effect in that more unmarried fathers who are considered a risk to the mother or child will be pulled into the family court and all the evidence will be looked at in totality. Evidence of any abuse will then be examined. In some cases, it will be found that the mother's allegations against the father are absolutely unfounded. Indeed, I understand that some solicitors encourage mothers to make allegations in order unfairly to preclude a father from involvement with a child. In some cases, the mother may be the real problem but in others a father will have significant problems and contact will need to be restricted. I am only trying to say that we need to be absolutely fair and to look at all the evidence.

I turn to the specifics of the amendment. It proposes that the registrar will not enter the father's name on the birth certificate on the basis of a declaration by the mother that she will have reason to fear for her safety or that of the child if the father acquires parental responsibility. Such a major decision, which in most cases is likely to cause profound detriment to the well-being of the child, should be evidence-based. The NSPCC rightly considers that there needs to be some protection for the children of mothers who make such a declaration to a registrar. The NSPCC proposes that if a mother makes a legal declaration to the registrar, it must be supported by an approved professional, who should be included on a list of duly approved professionals on whom registrars can call to support such a statement. I am inclined to suggest that two separate opinions should be necessary before a father can be excluded from a birth certificate. The gravity of this decision should, in my view, be properly understood and respected.

I support the general principle of the amendment-that in a very small number of cases the inclusion of the father's name on the birth certificate may indeed be inappropriate. My point here is that strong safeguards are necessary to ensure that such a provision is not abused by a small number of dysfunctional mothers to the considerable detriment of the child.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: Perhaps I may ask the noble Baroness what evidence she has of fathers seeking to be on birth certificates but being blocked by mothers.

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I do not doubt that there is occasionally such a case but in my experience most single mothers are desperate to involve the father because they put the child's well-being first. I am not referring to divorced fathers here, because they are locked in and are very highly committed to their children's well-being, but it is the young, more casual father whom the mother might well seek to involve in the life of the child but who does not want to know. He feels that he has been trapped, and it is only if his own mother comes into play and tries to inculcate some sense of paternal responsibility that there is any chance of the child having a father in his life. I do not disagree at all with the noble Baroness's general propositions; I simply wonder to what extent they are evidence-based and what evidence she has not only that mothers, on the basis of ill-founded allegations, exclude fathers but that fathers seek to be included but are blocked by the mothers. If I could think of five such examples over 10 years, I would be amazed, but I can think of 500 times that number of women who are desperate to involve the father in the life of the child but cannot encourage him to take part.

Baroness Meacher: My evidence comes from the family court-in particular, from judges.

Lord Northbourne: The noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, has to admit that some mothers are embittered by having been abandoned by the father and are prepared to do anything to make life hell for him. The noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, was extraordinarily brave to make that politically incorrect statement. It is the sort of thing that I might have wanted to say myself but did not dare to because my situation is a little different.

Is it right that this crucial decision should be made irrevocably on day one? I do not understand, and I shall look at the situation again before the next stage of the Bill. Perhaps the Minister will be able to help me. There ought to be the opportunity at any stage in the child's life for the father to come forward and say, "I really am the dad of this child and I want to take responsibility", and for the courts to say, "This is a good guy now. He may have been hell when he was 18, but now he is a good honest fellow and he certainly should be accepted as the father". Is it true that this decision is irrevocable?

Lord Taylor of Holbeach: This has been a very interesting debate. The noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, has taken the argument on a stage further, which has been very useful. She has opened up the debate considerably. It is a complex issue, and it shows how people's motives in human relationships are complex and that it is very difficult to provide a legislative framework that is also just and truthful about what is actually happening.

Last Thursday, my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale spoke to the first tranche of amendments to Schedule 6, which are tabled in our names. He touched on domestic violence, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, has now returned. Those amendments, as my noble friends made clear at the time, sought to probe the list of exemptions to the duty to supply information so that both parents of a child can be registered as such.

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In that sitting, my noble friend suggested that the exemption in the case of a mother who fears for her safety or that of her child should the father be contacted, while a highly commendable aim may be the wrong way to go about it. His point was that domestic violence ought to be combated using law enforcement and the social services, rather than hampering a child's right to know the identity of both parents. The Minister responded that it would not be right for the state knowingly to put a mother and child into a situation in which they were at risk. Of course that is correct, but she went on to make the exact point that the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, and the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, are addressing. The Minister said:

This is the scenario that is worrying the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas. She has expressed the concern that where the father approaches the registrar to be registered as the father rather than being approached for confirmation, there is no protection for the mother should she feel that there is a risk to her or her child. She will simply be able to confirm or deny that he is the father. I agree that there is a loophole in the Bill; if the whole process is on the mother's initiative, as it is under the Bill, she has the right not to give information, citing fear of violence as her reason. That will be enough to keep the father out of the process. However, the same is not true if the process is on the father's initiative. There is a case for evening up the two approaches so that the outcome is the same.

I hope that this debate has provided ideas about how we might improve this part of the Bill.

Baroness Turner of Camden: My inclination is to support these two amendments, although I was very interested in the contribution made by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, about the rights of the father. As I understand it, the amendments are intended to protect the safety of the woman and the child. Unfortunately, we live in a period in which there has been quite a lot of domestic violence and a lot of concern about what happens to children and women in those circumstances. Under the amendments, the provisions would apply only in quite extreme cases in which it was established that there was a real danger to the woman and the child. We need to have something in the Bill that gives protection in those circumstances, and I shall be interested to hear what my noble friend the Minister has to say in that connection.

4.15 pm

Baroness Crawley: I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, who moved the amendment, the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, the noble Lords, Lord Northbourne and Lord Taylor of Holbeach, and my noble friends Lady Hollis and Lady Turner. We have heard a strongly argued debate that reflects passionately held views, and I preface my remarks by underlining the point that this Government do not and never have wished to place vulnerable women and children in harm's way.

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Anyone looking at the record of our genuine attempts to bear down hard on the perpetrators of violence will recognise that.

I thank the noble Baroness for tabling these amendments. However, their effect would be that in cases where a father came forward to register but the mother had made a declaration stating that she feared for her or her child's safety as the result of the father acquiring parental responsibility, he could not be named on the register. The only exception would be where a court had already awarded him parental responsibility for the child. Amendments 178A and 178B are related to the initial registration, while Amendments 178C and 178D refer to re-registration. These amendments seek to prevent an unmarried father being named on his child's birth certificate and therefore from acquiring parental responsibility if the child's mother fears risk of harm to her or her child as a result.

I recognise that this is an issue of real concern to many noble Lords, but I can give the assurance that the safety of both mother and child are of the utmost concern to this Government, and I hope that I can explain very clearly why I believe that the provisions in the Bill should not be amended in this way. The Bill as drafted is intended to ensure that a mother is not put at risk of harm by state intervention. Our provisions allow a mother to claim an exemption if she fears for her safety or that of her child if the father is contacted in relation to the registration. Some men might regard that contact from the registrar as a provocative act which could rebound with negative consequences for the mother and the child. We cannot permit a situation where the state knowingly acts in a way that actually creates a risk of harm for the mother or her child. However, we are deliberately not preventing fathers coming forward to register of their own free will because we do not believe that allowing them to do so is a process that in itself puts the mother and the child at risk.

Turning to the amendment, we have not been presented with any convincing evidence that registering a birth and acquiring parental responsibility makes a man violent or exacerbates existing violent behaviour. The link between the two has not, we believe, been shown and the examples that we have been given do not stand up to close analysis. If a man represents a danger to a mother and child, it is a very serious matter whether or not he is married to the mother or has parental responsibility for the child. Whatever the marital or parental status of the man, it is a situation that needs to be dealt with quickly and effectively quite independently of the birth registration system.

There are existing methods, such as restraining orders and ultimately custodial sentences, to deal with the menace that this minority of men presents. Chief Constable Brian Moore, on behalf of the Government, is looking at ways to increase police and court powers to intervene in domestic violence cases, particularly when it comes to violent perpetrators who are serial offenders and who move from partner to partner. Noble Lords may be interested to know that his review will report in the autumn. However, we need to be clear that parental responsibility does not give men rights to harass mothers or their children; it does not

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give them rights of residence; and it does not give them automatic rights to contact the child or to remove the child. Joint birth registration is primarily about children's rights.

For too long there have been significant inequalities in the birth registration system between the rights of children of married parents and the rights of children of unmarried parents. The children of married parents have both parents' names on their birth certificate and both their parents have parental responsibility for them. Children of unmarried parents do not have these rights; their fathers do not have parental responsibility for them unless their mother agrees or their father is granted it by the court.

We now have a situation, as noble Lords have mentioned-I think it was the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, who gave the figures-in which 45,000 children in each successive year do not have their father's name on their birth certificate. That is a very sad situation. The current birth registration system places obstacles in the way of an unmarried father who wants to take responsibility for his children. The mother can, quite without reason, prevent him signing the birth register or acquiring parental responsibility.

Registrars do not ask married mothers whether they prefer not to have the father's name on a birth certificate or whether they would prefer to limit the father's parental responsibility; that is a decision for a court to make. Registrars do not want to take on a quasi-judicial role of deciding who is and who is not fit to exercise parental responsibility. Let us not demonise all unmarried fathers-I know that noble Lords have not done that. If we want more responsible fathers, we have to give them the chance to take on parental responsibility and acknowledge their children from the outset. In most cases, this benefits children and parents. As with married fathers, courts may act to restrict their parental responsibility.

The Government believe that the birth registration system is not the appropriate place to deny any parent fundamental legal recognition. Instead, we should focus on properly investing in measures to support couples who are separated or separating, seek to prevent domestic violence and support victims where violence and abuse occurs. The Government are already doing much to support couple relationships and stable, positive family relationships, and strategic grants are being given to help to build capacity and infrastructure in a range of voluntary organisations. For instance, over the next two years we are providing more than £7 million in funding to a number of third-sector organisations, such as Relate, working directly with families experiencing relationship conflict.

Moreover, the removal of parental responsibility is so significant, as noble Lords have said, that it is absolutely right that the decision should be taken by a court. This is clearly an emotive issue; it is not straightforward, as the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, has said. Although I understand the motivation behind the amendments, the Government do not believe that they will achieve their desired effect. If it genuinely is the case that parental responsibility puts children and vulnerable parents at risk in some way, then it is crucial that we take a proper look at the evidence for

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this so that we can consider how best to address any problems in a coherent way. If there is evidence out there that can be brought forward, we will be happy to look at it between now and the next stage. However, we do not believe that the evidence that we have looked at is robust enough.

A number of noble Lords raised questions. The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, spoke about the problems of disclosure of personal information if the father has parental responsibility. Having parental responsibility does not allow a person access to sensitive information; for example, the mother's home address. In cases where a mother is at risk of violence, mechanisms already exist for preventing the disclosure of sensitive information and for ensuring that it is not recorded in the first place. The Data Protection Act and the Human Rights Act operate so that information about the mother, such as her address, is not disclosed inappropriately.

The noble Baroness said that the Bill gave no protection to mothers who are victims of domestic violence. Domestic violence is a sensitive issue that needs to be addressed swiftly and independently of the birth registration system. We have not yet been presented with evidence that parental responsibility creates a risk of harm for mother or child. We therefore need to look in the round at what we can do to protect all women from domestic violence, as the Home Office consultation on violence against women and girls is doing.

The noble Baroness said that achieving parental responsibility might encourage domestic violence. According to the British Crime Survey of 2007-08, women who are divorced or separated are at greater risk of domestic abuse than women who are unmarried. "Separated" refers to women who are still married but who have separated from their husbands. Therefore, in the case of both separated and divorced women, the father would have parental responsibility. Of women who have experienced domestic abuse, 18 per cent are separated, 11 per cent are divorced, 9.7 per cent are single, 4.6 per cent are cohabiting and 3.1 per cent are married.

The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, also referred to the information that someone with parental responsibility might obtain from their child's school, which is very important in the area of protecting children. Focusing on parental responsibility is a bit of a red herring in this respect. All natural parents, whether or not they have parental responsibility, have the same rights in relation to their child's school. For example, all natural parents receive information from the school such as copies of pupil reports, arrangements for discussions with teachers and attendance records; and they receive information about participation in activities such as voting in elections for school governors and so on. So being named on the birth certificate does not open up that right which already exists for all natural parents. By enabling unmarried fathers to acquire parental responsibility, we are not changing the information that they are already entitled to receive from their children's school.

The noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, asked about the issues for registrars when it comes to protecting women and children at risk of harm. Registrars, like other officials who come into contact with the public,

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can have a role in helping to identify and support those at risk by, for example, sign-posting them to services that can help. Registrars already have some experience in this, as they are trained to identify and assist those who may be victims of a forced marriage. I did not realise that before being briefed. This includes training to spot signs of a possible forced marriage and ensuring that women are made aware of relevant support services. Registrars are alive to the fact that they may be called on to look closely at some of the people who come in front of them.

4.30 pm

The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, asked whether the decision not to register a father is irrevocable; the answer is no. Re-registration of a birth registered only by the mother is possible at any time. So it is possible to add the father's details. There is a little more bureaucracy after 12 months, but it is possible. With that, I hope that noble Lords will be a little more reassured and withdraw their amendments.

Baroness Thomas of Winchester: I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate, particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, who put a different perspective on it. It is important to see this problem from all points of view. As the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, said, in all circumstances we have to consider the whole situation in the round. We cannot say that in all cases the father is bad and the mother is good; that the mother always tells the truth and the father has to be disbelieved. The noble Baroness is quite right to say that all situations are different.

However, I also strongly support the points of the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, who said that in most cases there is a great deal of hidden domestic violence and that women probably do not own up to as much of it as goes on.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: Does the noble Baroness also agree that if the evidence is based on judges' comments, which almost invariably come from cases dealing with divorce, then that is not what we are talking about? We are talking about unmarried partners and that is a very different situation. As I say, I have very little evidence that unmarried partners are being denied access in the way that they would want. Divorce cases, which are where the judges' evidence comes from, are very different; they are all about the division of assets-who keeps the property, who has access to the kids and so on-and are completely different from the situation with unmarried partners. In their cases, you are very seldom dealing with assets; for the most part, you are dealing with very young men, who usually walk away from their responsibilities, unfortunately.

Baroness Meacher: The evidence that I have is not about divorce; it is about child custody cases.

Baroness Thomas of Winchester: There is one matter that concerns both me and Gingerbread. The noble Baroness said on Thursday, and has repeated today, that:

"We cannot permit a situation where the state knowingly acts in a way which puts the safety of a mother or her child at risk".-[Official Report, 2/7/09; col. GC 152.]

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