Clause 7 - Co-operation to improve well-being

Children Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee am 8:55 am ar 19 Hydref 2004.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Vice-Chair, Conservative Party 8:55, 19 Hydref 2004

I beg to move amendment No. 210, in

clause 7, page 5, line 35, at end insert—

'(3A) In making arrangements under subsection (3) a children's services authority shall (where parents each have responsibility for a child but are separated) have regard to the rights and wishes of both parents.'.

Photo of Joe Benton Joe Benton Llafur, Bootle

With this it will be convenient to consider the following:

Amendment No. 221, in

clause 7, page 5, line 35, at end insert—

'(3A) In making arrangements under this section a children's services authority shall, where persons with parental responsibility of a child are separated, take all reasonable steps to facilitate the implementation of any court order relating to access or in the absence of such an order the child's access to each parent.'.

Amendment No. 222, in

clause 8, page 6, line 46, at end insert—

'(l) the judiciary and magistracy (subject to the provisions of section [Judicial responsibility for children's welfare]).'.

New clause 42—Presumption of equal parenting—

'(1) The Children Act 1989 (c.41) is amended as follows:

(2) After section 1(1) after ''the child's welfare shall be the court's paramount consideration'', add—

''(1A) In respect of subsection (1)(a) above the court shall, unless a contrary reason be shown, act on the presumption that a child's welfare is best served through residence with its parents and if its parents are not living together, through residence with one of them and through both of them being as fully and equally involved in his parenting as possible.''.'.

New clause 44—Judicial responsibility for child welfare—

'(1) In all proceedings affecting access to children, the courts shall have regard to the desirability of a child having appropriate access to parents, siblings and grandparents.

(2) Nothing in this section shall affect—

(a) a court's power to impose a custodial sentence where appropriate; or

(b) the Home Secretary's power to deport an alien.'.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

As the sun peeps through the steely south London sky, it is a great pleasure to welcome you once again to the Chair, Mr. Benton. I intend to gallop through these amendments, but if I leave anything to the imagination, I am happy to take interventions.

Amendment No. 210 would ensure that when parents separated, children's services authorities would take account of the wishes of both parents in relation to any decisions taken about the children. I

shall give two examples of how that would have made my life, and those of some of my constituents, easier in recent months.

The first example relates to school choice. There is no guidance to local authorities about whose choice of the child's schooling they should take account of when parents are separated. In my constituency, there was a family whose parents did not live too far apart, and the child shared access to both parents. One school was conveniently situated between their homes and another was well away to one side of the home of one parent and so much less convenient for the other parent. If the child had been educated at the second school, it would have been more difficult for them to have access to the second parent.

The form for the parent to indicate a choice of school went home with the child when they were staying with the first parent, who chose the school further away from the home of the second parent. That made it difficult for the second parent to be involved in the schooling of the child to the extent that they would have wished. The local authority could say only that, because it got the form from the first parent, it could not take account of the choice of the second parent, because only one choice could be exercised for each child. I would like to amend the clause to require public authorities to take account of the wishes of both parents in such circumstances.

The second example is of a child living hundreds of miles away from my constituency with a parent who is separated from her spouse. In that case, the second parent is unable to obtain information about the child's schooling, because the school has been told that he has no parental rights—it has not inquired of him whether he has any parental rights—and it has refused, for example, to pass on letters from the second parent to the child, and to pass on reports to the second parent.

I see the Minister of State shaking her head as if to say that those things should not happen. I accept that they should not, but sadly they do. It may be unnecessary to amend the Bill in the way that I propose to take account of the second case, but it is helpful to underline the issues. On the first example, there must be an explicit requirement for the local authority to take account of the wishes not only of the parent who happens to reply first, but of both parents.

Amendment No. 221 would place a similar requirement on children's services authorities in respect of parents having access. The placing by one parent of impediments to the other parent's access to the child is one of the gravest concerns surrounding separation. The amendment would require a children's services authority to

''take all reasonable steps to facilitate the implementation of any court order . . . or in the absence of such an order the child's access to each parent.''

Of course, that would apply not where parental access and responsibility had been denied by the court but where it had been permitted.

Amendment No. 222 would require the judiciary to have regard to the needs of children. It includes the judiciary in the bodies with responsibility for making

arrangements to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. That relates in particular to my new clause 44, which simply says that the courts should have regard to the desirability of a child having appropriate access not only to parents but to siblings and grandparents. I say ''appropriate'' access because clearly the extent of access to siblings and, in particular, grandparents may be less than that which is appropriate for parents. None the less, it is now recognised as important that children should have access to their grandparents where that is reasonably practicable.

I tabled the new clause because in recent adoption proceedings the interests of the child who was up for adoption were, rightly, paramount, but the courts appeared to have no regard to the needs of his sister, who remained with the original family. I have read the judgment—which I understand I should not have done—and it is clear that it did not refer to the needs of the sibling. That is wrong and something that we should take account of in the Bill.

New clause 42, in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), would establish

''the presumption that a child's welfare is best served through residence with its parents'' and the presumption—it is a presumption only, but it is a starting point—that a child should have equal access to each parent. That is not unreasonable. The new clause does not in any way insist that a child be divided between each parent, but it says that a child's interests are well served if he has access to both parents.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Children)

We are coming to the nub of a very important issue. Which principle does the hon. Gentleman believe should have paramountcy? I ask because we cannot have two paramount principles. Should the paramount principle be the interests of the child or the rights of parents to equal time with each child?

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

New clause 42 is clear about that. It states:

''In respect of subsection (1)(a) . . . the court shall, unless a contrary reason be shown, act on the presumption that a child's welfare is best served through residence with its parents''.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Children)

We cannot have two paramount principles: one must be more important than the other. Clearly, there will be sub-interests, but I am simply trying to establish with the hon. Gentleman, as I shall with the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, which principle is paramount: the interests of the child or the rights of parents to access. It is important that the public be clear about what the Conservative party is saying.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

The new clause says nothing about the rights of the parents to access. It speaks of the child's right to have access to its parents, which is an entirely different position from that proposed by the right hon. Lady. However, I will answer her question. The need

of the child is paramount, not the need of any parent. Too many children are deprived of access to one of their parents, and the courts should therefore take account of the natural need of children generally to have access to, and residence with, each parent. There is no doubt about which is paramount, but the presumption should be that there is equality of access by the child to each parent.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Children)

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that in more than 99 per cent. of cases that go to court an order for contact with both parents is made? In those circumstances, how can he allege that the courts are not working in a way that assumes that the interests of the child are best met by maintaining contact with both parents?

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

I make no allegation against the courts at the point of issuing contact and access orders, but I do in respect of the enforcement of those orders.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Children)

If the hon. Gentleman says that the paramount consideration must be the interests of the child and then goes on to accept that in most cases it is in the child's interests to maintain contact with both parents—which is why in over 99 per cent. of cases the courts decide to grant access—what does he suggest we do to ensure that parents comply with the court order above and beyond what is currently in law and what we suggest in our Green Paper?

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

I do not propose to stray into the Government's consultative document on access. If my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham wishes to cover that matter he will do so.

First, in the 99 per cent. of cases that the right hon. Lady mentioned the presumption is not of equal access, but simply of access. Secondly, there is the other 1 per cent. In far too many cases children appear to be losing access to one or other of their parents, despite court orders. Establishing the presumption of equal access as a starting point on the basis of which the court should take decisions would signal that both parents have a role in the upbringing of a child which, in the absence of other evidence, should be reasonably equal. It should not be a question of one parent having 13 and a half days a fortnight and another parent having half a day in McDonald's if it is raining, or in the park if it is not.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

I will not wax lyrical about the state of the weather this morning, Mr. Benton, or try to make out that I went to the same school as you, which seems to be the way that we start our sittings at the moment. Let us get straight to the meat of the business. This is an important issue, as the Minister has acknowledged. It will get a much greater airing outside this Room, and it needs an airing on the Floor of the House. We will endeavour to give it that attention on Report because many hon. Members have an interest in the subject.

We tabled new clause 42, which has many features in common with the amendment in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner), because we wanted to put it on the record that the law

needed to be changed in that way, as we signalled on Second Reading. We have already committed ourselves to certain undertakings as election pledges, on which we will elaborate later.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Children)

I know that the hon. Gentleman is anxious to move on to other matters but, as he says, the issue is of huge importance to all our constituents. Does he accept, as the hon. Member for Isle of Wight did, that the interests of the child are paramount, and that there cannot, in law, be two paramount principles? Does he believe that the paramount principle should be co-parenting, 50:50 parenting or shared parenting? I am slightly confused as to what the Opposition are suggesting. What is the paramount principle and, if the hon. Gentleman accepts that it is the interests of the child, what is wrong with the current law?

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

The Minister pre-empts me by parroting her single line about the paramountcy of the welfare of the child. We all subscribe to that principle, as enshrined in the Children Act 1989, and we do not suggest that it should be overturned.

The Minister is being completely disingenuous in trying to make out that the paramountcy of the child's welfare and maximising accessibility to both parents are in some way mutually exclusive. It is in the best interests of the welfare of the child that it has as much contact time as possible with both parents. That is the principle at stake. Trying to distil the matter into a war of words helps no one. It certainly does not help the 60 per cent. of fathers who have split up from their partners and lost contact with their children within two years of those proceedings. Nor does it help the 150,000 children who are affected by divorce each year.

When a child has lost permanent contact with one parent because the parents no longer live together, we do not want them to lose contact with the non-resident parent as well, as is happening in the majority of cases. That is the point that we are trying to make, and the Minister's comments do not help the situation.

The Green Paper turfed out all the recommendations that, as the Minister knows, had been approved by the Department for Constitutional Affairs and had the backing of most of the equal parenting bodies in the UK. When they reached her Department, those recommendations were mysteriously overturned in favour of a complete fudge. The Minister should accept that the presumption that all separated parents have a right to substantial parenting time with their children should be enshrined in law.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

In a moment. Currently, the law does not entitle a perfectly fit parent to any time whatever with their child. Meanwhile, the other parent has all the time that they want with the child, because possession is nine-tenths of the law. That parent is permitted to maintain total control over parenting, and they can use that control to block the access of the other parent and the grandparents, thereby starving

the children of the oxygen of contact that they so badly need. [Interruption.] I am afraid that, whether the Minister likes it or not, that happens in too many cases.

Too many court proceedings and court orders are completely flouted. Non-custodial parents are required to prove that it would be in the best interests of their child for them to be granted contact. Unless there are overriding circumstances that mitigate against access, such as a history of violence or harm, it should be assumed that, as a parent, they have rights of access to that child if it helps the child's welfare, as in most circumstances it would. The two considerations are not mutually exclusive, as the Minister tries to make out.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

I shall give way first to the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson), and then to the Minister if she still wants me to do so.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Llafur, Lancaster and Wyre 9:15, 19 Hydref 2004

In recent years, 28 children have been murdered in the most appalling circumstances during contact visits, many of which were ordered by the courts. Does not the hon. Gentleman fear that the approach that he suggests will encourage courts to make more contact orders in inappropriate cases? If he shares my concern about that, what does he think should be done?

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

The 28 children out of 150,000 each year who have died as a result of contact orders is 28 too many—we would all agree with that. We need to ensure that when there are clear risks, as may have been true in some of those 28 cases, the contact mechanisms and practice are better monitored and regulated. That is the solution. To tar 150,000 children as potential murder victims of non-resident parents is an insult to the 99.9 per cent. who are perfectly respectable parents. It also denies too many of the children the contact with their parents that is, as we keep saying, in the best interests of their welfare.

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Ceidwadwyr, Hertsmere

Obviously we have to be careful to safeguard children, but is it not true that if there is any suggestion or evidence that the child is at risk, as the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre said, from a parent seeking contact with them, the presumption would be displaced? It is only a presumption, and it can always be displaced if there is evidence.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

That is right, which is why we have all agreed that if a child could be harmed by a legal presumption of contact, that would be a criterion for barring the parents. Nobody disputes that. The Bill is about producing better monitoring and protection orders for children, whether they are in a split family, with single parents or still living with two parents. I shall now give way to the Minister, who is bursting.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Children)

I am indeed bursting, because the Opposition are either being disingenuous or deliberately dishonest, and that needs to be exposed. As the hon. Gentleman well knows, the courts assume that contact with both parents is in the interests of the child. Case law establishes that clearly. Does he accept that point, and if so, what is he trying to achieve by establishing a second, conflicting principle in law that equal contact with parents should have the same paramountcy as the child's interests? Case law already establishes that it is in the interests of the child to see both parents.

Photo of Joe Benton Joe Benton Llafur, Bootle

Order. Can all hon. Members keep their interventions as terse as possible? They are becoming a bit lengthy and more like contributions than interventions.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

I completely agree, Mr. Benton. I have not made any interventions this morning.

The Minister is now accusing us of being dishonest, but it is she who is being disingenuous. If the system were working swimmingly and 60 per cent. of fathers in such a position were not losing contact with their children, the Government would not have had to issue a Green Paper, fudged though it is after the dropping of the early interventions project, which was signed up to by many organisations but was then mysteriously squashed in her Department. It would have gone a long way towards addressing these problems. We are trying to ensure that all fit parents—most of them are—are treated as equal in terms of the rights and responsibilities attached to parenthood.

I want to return to a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight earlier, which has not been discussed, and I will do that briefly later. I really wanted to make progress this morning, because there are other parts of the Bill, especially clause 9, that I am keen to talk about in more detail and that will not be debated elsewhere as our current subject will be. The Minister, other hon. Members and I could argue about it through all of our Committee sittings, but the fact that it has been introduced in a new clause has given it a paramountcy that was not intended for this Committee. That is not the Minister's fault, just a result of how the proposals have been rejigged. We proposed new clause 42 to put on record our determination to change the law to achieve a legal presumption of equal parental access. We will publish further details about mediation and other points, and will have a proper debate on the Floor of the House.

Nothing in new clause 42 suggests displacing the paramountcy of the child's welfare. It does not mention parents' rights; children are not possessions and chattels, as we debated at great length in the Adoption and Children Bill when we discussed people's rights to adopt. We agreed that there was no such thing as a right to adopt, only the right of the child to have a second chance at a decent upbringing. Nothing in the new clause undermines the paramountcy of the child's welfare. It would give a legal presumption a greater basis in law, which is essential for progressing contact cases. Those that

come to court take far too long, and ultimately the judge will say that the non-resident parent has lost contact with the child and therefore it is all too late.

The legal presumption, which is based on common practice in other countries, such as the United States, and especially Florida, will speed things up and make it more difficult to frustrate the contact process. That must be in the interests of the child's welfare, on which we agree.

Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Opposition Whip (Commons)

I think that we would agree that court proceedings often take a long time and frustrate parents' ambitions to maintain contact with their child. These are complicated issues and the hon. Gentleman is trying to simplify them. However, when one parent makes accusations of abuse, which the other parent sees as vexatious or a way of precluding contact with the child, the case needs to go to court to be considered in an expert way, in order to safeguard the child's interests.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

I do not disagree with anything that the hon. Gentleman said. As hon. Members on both sides of the Committee said at the outset, this is a complicated, large and important issue, which goes well beyond the confines of the Committee, or indeed the Bill. We want to put the matter on the record because we do not understand the Government's case against our proposals, other than parroting the ridiculous claim that there is a conflict between the paramountcy of the child's welfare and according that child's parents equal access, in so far as that is possible and practicable.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Children)

We are moving toward some agreement. We agree that the paramount principle should be the child's interests. The hon. Gentleman argues that there should be a presumption that both parents maintain access to and contact with their child, with which we would also agree. That is set in case law. Does he agree with Bob Geldof that the courts should operate on the principle that children should spend an equal amount of time with both parents, which is in the child's best interests? Does he agree with Bob Geldof, yes or no?

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

The Minister is smarting from the lashing that Bob Geldof gave her in a television programme transmitted a few days ago. He has some very strong views on the subject and I have discussed it with him.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

In the strict definition of equal access, in terms of timing and so on, clearly that would not be the case. The Minister is leading us down a winding, dead-end, cul-de-sac, red herring thingy. She and I probably do not have equal time with our children; hers—without wanting to cast any aspersions—are, I think, a little older than mine. Although I live happily with my wife on the days when I am not in Parliament, I cannot claim that she and I have equal time with our children, much as I would like it to be otherwise. It would be completely

impractical to try to replicate something that does not exist in the perfectly happy marriage that I enjoy now, in the same way, I trust, as many other hon. Members. That is not the point. The Minister is trying to ascribe a purist case to somebody, which is not strictly appropriate. The principle of both parents having equal access to their children and equal time with them is absolutely right, but in practice it will not be the case. It must be legally enshrined that if they could make that deal about access, they should be able to.

The other point that I have been trying to return to, which is not mentioned anywhere in the Bill and is germane not only to the equal parenting issues that we are discussing at far greater length than I had wished, is that of sibling contact. That point is raised in an amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight.

We have discussed the importance of families and the fact that they should play a greater role in determining the welfare of the child. Particular considerations must be paid to siblings in the example of a family of looked-after children in which the siblings are separated and go to different families, areas and schools. That must surely be avoided if possible, because we must try to retain any semblance of normality and stability for children if they have lost a parent for whatever reason. I strongly endorse the point that my hon. Friend made about siblings in one of his amendments.

We will not resolve the issue in a half-hour debate in Committee. The Minister, myself and other hon. Members have staked our ground, and it is ground that will be revisited.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Llafur, Lancaster and Wyre

I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Does he accept, in staking out his ground, that if he is going to emphasise further to judges the benefits of contact, he will have to deal with what is regarded in the Green Paper as a patchy introduction and use of the Children Act sub-committee guidelines on contact and domestic violence? If he is going to go beyond the rather pious platitudes with which he responded to my previous intervention, he will come up hard against the judiciary, which already makes bad decisions about contact.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

I apologise to the hon. Gentleman if my responses were in any way pious. That is not an angle that I tend to use, particularly when dealing with him in Committee.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

Putting ''good-natured'' in front does not make the use of ''pious'' any more acceptable, but I accept the hon. Gentleman's semi-climbdown. He has blown the Minister's case by saying that the courts are not working. A lot of senior members of the judiciary sign up to many of the changes that we have proposed. Some of them even sign up to the changes that Sir Bob Geldof mentioned.

We shall return to this subject, but I do not want to push the discussion any further at this stage. If we do not press the amendments further at this stage, I hope that the whole House will be able to return to the subject on Report and deal with it in its entirety.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Children)

I know that the hon. Gentleman is anxious to move on, and I do not want to prevent him from making a contribution on further important clauses, and clause 9 in particular. The reason for this exchange was to try to expose the dishonesty of the Opposition's proposals. What has emerged is that we both agree that the paramount principle in determining how to establish contact and residence after a separation must be the child's interests. I again give Opposition Members the opportunity to deny that if they wish.

We also agree that, in most cases, it is in the child's interests to maintain contact with both parents. When courts pursue cases of access and contact, it has been demonstrated that they try to maintain contact with both parents. They issue contact orders, which ensure that both parents are kept involved.

In that case, is the law wrong? No, so I see no purpose in Opposition Members trying to change the law. They are trying to be politically expedient and to capture votes from extremely distressed people, who go through utter hell when their marriages split up and they try to maintain contact with their children. That is the essence of the dishonesty in the position of the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Vice-Chair, Conservative Party 9:30, 19 Hydref 2004

On a point of order, Mr. Benton. Is it in order for the right hon. Lady to describe my hon. Friend as dishonest? She referred to ''the essence of the dishonesty'' in his remarks.

Photo of Joe Benton Joe Benton Llafur, Bootle

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair comment. I ask the right hon. Lady to withdraw that phrase.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Children)

I will withdraw it, but—[Hon. Members: ''No buts.''] I will withdraw that particular turn of phrase.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

That was a very grudging withdrawal if ever I have heard one and it reveals the complete bankruptcy of the Government's approach. The amendment has nothing to do with expediency. The Opposition have had a great deal to do with the subject of access over the past year, and it is because the right hon. Lady's door has been closed to hundreds and thousands of distressed parents that they have come to us to ask us to take up their cases. She has singularly refused to do anything about that other than to produce a fudged Green Paper in response to the summit that we held. That will not solve the problem. She should not try to accuse us of opportunism or dishonesty, because those charges lie at her own door.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Children)

The hon. Gentleman has neatly given me the appropriate word. I shall talk about opportunism, if that is parliamentary language, Mr. Benton; I apologise for using unacceptable terms.

Everyone recognises that divorce and separation is painful for all parties involved. It is most painful for the children and, of course, it is painful for both parents. The question is whether the law is wrong and should be changed. The Opposition suggest that, by changing the law, they could in some way assuage the distress that is caused when parents who have split up get involved in such a bitter dispute that they cannot between themselves sort out the best way to manage access and contact so that both maintain contact and a meaningful relationship with their children and the damage caused to the children by their splitting up is minimised. That is where I think that there is a bit of opportunism in what Opposition Members are doing. They suggest that there is a solution in law beyond where the law currently exists that would somehow make things better in very distressing circumstances. Hon. Members on both sides of the Committee recognise that many mothers, fathers and children are deeply damaged and feel huge bitterness about how their relationships have been destroyed through separation and divorce.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I think that everyone agrees that the implementation of the current law is deficient in terms of serving the paramount principle and picking up the rights of both parents. Can the Minister give us an indication of the timetable on which she hopes to proceed with the Green Paper to tackle the problems that everyone accepts exist?

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Children)

The hon. Lady takes the debate on and, in the interests of time, I should probably do so too. We all recognise that there are problems with implementing the law. The question is how we can try to improve matters for the 10 per cent. who end up in the courts; for many of them, the outcome is unsatisfactory. We are attempting to do that in three ways. First, we are encouraging more mediation and conciliation before people enter the court system. We have a number of propositions relating to that. If I may say so, the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham was utterly wrong to suggest that we have dropped the early intervention project. We have developed it through a multi-agency steering group, working with all the interested parties. We have renamed it the family resolutions pilot project, and it is now up and running in three areas of the country. Its purpose is to find conciliation as a mechanism for deciding the difficult issues of contact and residence without having to resort to judicial processes. The project exists and has not been dropped. If it works, we will want to ensure that it becomes common practice throughout the country.

The second way is by speeding up court processes. We all agree that, all too often, the courts take far too long. There are many reasons, and the problem is not the courts' fault. The process itself takes too long, so the question is how we can speed it up to get a faster

resolution. The third issue is to try to provide a wider array of mechanisms to ensure the proper implementation of contact orders once they have been established.

I hope that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham agrees with me, although he is yawning now, because I believe that this is a more important debate than some of those on other clauses. He is wrong to imply in what has been said publicly outside the House that he accepts the principle put forward by Fathers 4 Justice, Bob Geldof and others that there should be a presumption that we can divide the time that children spend with their parents so that they spend half of it with their mother and half with their father. That may happen in certain cases, and there is nothing in the current legal framework to prevent parents from deciding to do that, if it is appropriate in particular family circumstances.

What is wrong to me, and I would have hoped wrong to the Opposition, is for us to have a presumption in law that children's time can be divided half each between their mothers and fathers. That puts the rights of parents above the needs of their children and before those parents' responsibilities to their children. If the hon. Gentleman is not saying that, he is, at best, being misinterpreted by Fathers 4 Justice and others who imply that he is. I believe that the propositions in our Green Paper take us in the right direction.

Let me say something else to the hon. Gentleman. Very often there is political disagreement among the parties about how the state should intervene in family life. I am surprised that, when we are talking about the breakdown of a relationship between two adults, he believes that there is an appropriate court mechanism of intervention that can magically sort out disputes between adults about what is in the best interests of their children. There is not such a magical court resolution. However we redefined law—although I do not believe that his proposals would redefine the law—and certainly if we redefined it as Fathers 4 Justice want us to do, we would end up with more disputes, litigation, misery for children and anger among parents.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

I am afraid that the Minister has not listened to a word that has been said and is being disingenuous in how she is trying to misinterpret us. What we are trying to achieve—it has nothing to do with Fathers 4 Justice, an organisation that I have had nothing to do with—is to cut down on lengthy court cases and legal actions, which are in nobody's interest. The presumption enshrined in law, which will be clear to both sides and tell them what they can get away with, is designed to avoid the lengthy court actions that the Minister says that she also wants to avoid.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Children)

It is the hon. Gentleman who is disingenuous. Assuming that a presumption enshrined in law will change in practice what is already in case law is simply wrong. The presumption already exists in case law, but it has not reduced the time it takes to

consider such cases. The other measures in our Green Paper are practical ones that may achieve our shared objective of reducing the time taken in court.

I agree that the state cannot sort out relationships that go badly wrong. There is no role for the state in trying to intervene beyond trying to offer mediation and conciliation, which is the route that we are taking. That is the disingenuity and the opportunism of Opposition Members.

I will now make progress, which I know that the hon. Gentleman wants. I turn to the other amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Isle of Wight. Amendment No. 222 has the same focus as new clause 44. The hon. Gentleman talked about contact with grandparents and other relatives. We all know that grandparents and other relatives are important to children who see them as important figures in their lives. The amendment would introduce the assumption that contact with other relatives is always desirable. I am sure that he did not intend that, as it may not always be the case. Where a child is in care or has been freed from adoption, the assumption that contact with relatives is desirable would be inappropriate.

The amendment would also mean that, in any proceedings affecting contact with a child, the courts would have to consider the desirability of contact with parents, grandparents and siblings. That could apply to many types of proceedings, such as those relating to domestic violence. If a court were in the middle of dealing with a case of domestic violence between a child's parents, it is hard to see how it would be appropriate for it to have to start considering the issue of contact with grandparents.

The amendment would require that the court widen its net when considering all cases relating to contact. Therefore, when parents bring a contact case to the courts, the desirability of contact with all other relatives would have to be considered contemporaneously, even if there was no indication that such contact was an issue. That would be an unnecessary burden on the courts and an unwelcome distraction for parents in dispute, at a time when we want to achieve what the hon. Gentleman said he wanted to achieve, which is to reduce delay and increase effectiveness in contact hearings.

Amendment No. 210—I apologise for rattling through these amendments—requires a children's services authority to

''have regard to the views and wishes of both parents.''

Again, we accept that a children's services authority should take into account the views and wishes of all parents within the geographical area it covers. That is why we accepted the amendment tabled in another place. Clause 7(3) requires that the authority must have regard to the importance of parent and carers when making its co-operation arrangements.

Amendment No. 210, however, is inappropriate because those arrangements are focused on the strategic level of planning and commissioning and on the relationships and working practices held between agencies and their staff rather than matters concerning individual families. The hon. Gentleman referred to

parents who argue about schools. We hope that parents whose primary concern is the interests of their child would not get involved in such disputes. In the second case that he mentioned, the school must tell both parents. I obviously do not know the circumstances of the individual case.

Finally, I turn to amendment No. 221, which requires the children's services authority to take steps to facilitate the implementation of court orders relating to contact. In the minority of cases where there is an issue around implementation, we already have family assistance orders for up to six months, during which time the family will be assisted by a Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service officer or a social worker. We are currently consulting on additional proposals that are set out in our Green Paper on how we can improve the support that is offered to families after a court episode. I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman is entirely aware of them, and I suggest that he looks at them.

The other important role here is that played by the child contact centres where we have consolidated and increased investment. It would, however, be wrong and entirely impracticable to require children's services authorities to intrude into the lives of the 3 million children who will experience parental separation during their childhood. Although we are happy to offer more support to children and families, I am unconvinced that a statutory duty, as suggested in amendment No. 221, is appropriate.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Vice-Chair, Conservative Party 9:45, 19 Hydref 2004

Although my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham has dealt fully with new clause 44, I shall also discuss it briefly. I cannot believe that the Minister should believe that we believe what Bob Geldof believes—[Laughter.] That was as snappy as I could make that statement, which may bode badly for the rest of my remarks.

It is, of course, impossible to divide a child in two either physically—thank goodness—or temporally. No one except Bob Geldof appears to be proposing that. I shall outline the Minister's misunderstanding. She said that we agree on paramountcy and on the interests of the child—we do. She also said that the courts try to maintain contact—they do. However, the courts do not try to maintain equal access by the child to each parent, or anything approaching that. If they did, there would be far fewer fathers and children who, for thirteen and a half days of each fortnight, did not see each other.

I say to the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre that, as I think that the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw) said on Second Reading—he is not in his place—[Interruption.] Is he not serving on the Committee? Regrettably, because some fathers choose to wipe out the evidence of their mistakes by murdering their children, it is absurd to suggest that any requirement on the courts to take further account of the needs of each parent is designed or is likely to lead to the murder of more children.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Llafur, Lancaster and Wyre

I am sorry to prolong the debate, but I did not suggest anything of the sort. I said to the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham that if the Opposition seriously want to advance the proposition, they must deal with the fact that the judiciary already fails to protect children in cases involving contact and domestic violence. No one has managed to produce any evidence that the Opposition take that issue seriously.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

May I be blunt? As the hon. Gentleman alleges, the judiciary may fail in cases of contact and domestic violence. However, as the Minister appears to have accepted by introducing the Green Paper, it fails a great deal more in enforcing contact for children with their parents in cases in which court orders to that effect have been issued.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

The judiciary could have taken a more proactive role in enforcing the orders that it made. Its greater failure lies in that breach—in denying to children, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham so elegantly put it, the oxygen of contact with each parent.

I shall now move on to discussion of the other amendments, and thank the Minister for dealing with them expeditiously and carefully. I accept that the three amendments are drawn too widely, which I think was her implication. I am happy to consider family assistance orders and new clause 44 in more detail as I do not wish children's services authorities to intervene when arrangements are working well. I flag up the fact that children's services authorities, or those who work for them, occasionally make things worse by appearing to take one parent's side in some cases. The Minister is keeping a straight face in response to that remark.

I accept that the amendments need to be considered in more detail; I am sure the Minister accepts the spirit in which they were tabled, which is to enable greater access for children to their parents, and to their siblings and grandparents. She is nodding and I thank her. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

I beg to move amendment No. 22, in

clause 7, page 6, line 19, at end insert—

'( ) Contributions and payments may include goods, services, accommodation or other resources.'.

Photo of Joe Benton Joe Benton Llafur, Bootle

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 41, in

clause 12, page 10, line 38, after 'payments', insert 'or non-pecuniary contribution.'.

No. 42, in

clause 12, page 10, line 39, after 'expenditure', insert 'or other commitments'.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

These are simple, straightforward amendments that have practical considerations, and I shall not dwell on them. An amendment on the same lines was accepted in the other place.

Amendment No. 22 would affect co-operation to improve well-being under the children's services authorities by defining payments not just as cash. People who sign up to be partners of the children's services authorities will not necessarily contribute to them financially. They will provide goods and services and, in particular, the time of their professional staff. As drafted, the clause refers to payments and expenditure, which appears to exclude the use of professional time and other services that may be provided by the partners.

Amendments Nos. 41 and 42 are to clause 12, which relates to the local safeguarding children boards and refers to payments. The amendments would ensure that the definition of ''payments'' is extended to include non-pecuniary contributions or other commitments.

The amendments are straightforward: they broaden the definition in the Bill. The Government agreed with the principle elsewhere in the measure—I am not sure precisely where—and I therefore hope that the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman), will accept them. It would make it much clearer for the partners of the local children's services authorities and local safeguarding children boards that they would not be faced with an unexpected bill, and it would allow them to contribute in other ways.

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of Health

Clause 7(7) specifies a pooled fund, which is usually taken to mean money accumulated for a particular purpose; the provision does not need to be broadened as suggested by the hon. Gentleman. A fund is unlikely to use tally sticks or bartering to further its objectives.

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman, however, that people who contribute to the fund need to be able to contribute a wider range of resources. The parts of the Bill that already make that clear are clause 7(6)—on page 6, lines 10 to 12—which allows a broad range of resources to be contributed, and clause 12(2), which allows a range of resources for local safeguarding children boards. I hope that he will agree that the Bill as drafted takes care of the matters raised, and that he will seek leave to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

I am grateful for the Under-Secretary's clarification. On the basis that we are not talking about tally sticks and bartering, but about the professional services that I have mentioned, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Joe Benton Joe Benton Llafur, Bootle

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

New clause 3—Co-operation over provision of services—

'(1) This section applies to each of the following—

(a) those persons or bodies to which section 8 applies;

(b) the governing body and head teacher of a maintained school, an academy or an independent school;

(c) any health provider commissioned by a primary care trust;

(d) registered social landlords.

(2) Each person and body to whom this section applies shall—

(a) cooperate with other such persons and bodies to whom this section applies; and

(b) ensure that any person providing services pursuant to arrangements made by the person or body in the discharge of their functions co-operates with other such persons and bodies to whom this section applies,

so as to improve the well-being of children and to ensure that the welfare of children is safeguarded and promoted.'.

New clause 5—Co-operation with other bodies: Wales—

'(1) This section applies to each of the following—

(a) those persons or bodies to which section 23 applies,

(b) the governing body and head teacher of a maintained school, an academy or an independent school,

(c) any health provider commissioned by a Local Health Board,

(d) registered social landlords.

(2) Each person and body to whom this section applies shall—

(a) co-operate with other such persons and bodies to whom this section applies; and

(b) ensure that any person providing services pursuant to arrangements made by the person or body in the discharge of their functions co-operates with other such persons and bodies to whom this section applies,

so as to improve the well-being of children and ensure that the welfare of children is safeguarded and promoted.'.

New clause 17—Co-operation of schools—

'Governing bodies of schools maintained by local authorities, academies, city colleges and independent schools must—

(a) co-operate with the children's service authority covering the area in which they are located to improve the well-being of children for whom they are responsible, and

(b) ensure that the welfare of children for whom they are responsible is safeguarded and promoted.'.

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of Health

If it is all right with you, Mr. Benton, in the interests of making progress, I will not comment on clause stand part until I have heard the debate. I will reserve the right to come back to it later.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

On a point of order, Mr. Benton. Can I now propose new clauses 3 and 5? I am slightly confused that we are taking the clause stand part debate as a written item on the ordering of amendments, but I have been surprised by many things on the ordering of amendments in this Committee so far.

Photo of Joe Benton Joe Benton Llafur, Bootle

Clause 7 stand part is the lead item for discussion. Included in the grouping are new clauses 3 and 5, so it is permissible to speak to them but we shall vote on clause 7 stand part.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

I am grateful for that clarification. We have little objection to clause 7 other than the proposed technical amendments, on which I have sought clarification from the Under-Secretary. It is absolutely essential that the children's services authorities have the confidence and structures to bring together partners to improve all child protection processes.

On that basis, we have tabled new clauses 3 and 5, which are supported by a number of children's organisations and by the Local Government Association. They would include schools as part of the co-operation process in the Bill. I know that the

subject was taken up in another place and that a Minister assured noble Members that such provisions were covered under the Education Act 2002. However, the fact that schools are not included sticks out like a sore thumb, hence the phraseology of new clause 3—the principle is repeated for aspects of the Bill concerning Wales.

The new clauses would place a duty on all agencies operating at a managerial and service-delivery level to co-operate to safeguard and protect children and improve their well-being. They are primarily probing amendments. Great changes are happening in school structures under the Government's five-year strategy for children and learners, which proposes increased autonomy for schools, and I do not disagree with that. However, that could lessen the influence of the children's services authorities, with which the duty to co-operate lies. Without a mandatory duty for schools, as well as the children's services authorities, to co-operate, the levers may not be sufficiently effective to ensure that schools work with other agencies to improve the well-being of children.

There is also the question of how children's trusts will operate. Again, that is part of evolving processes that the Government are setting up. Arrangements to co-operate will, in certain circumstances, be made through children's trusts, yet they will not be required to co-opt schools and other partners as part of those partnerships. We are concerned about that.

Tools such as joint area reviews will help to bring about cultural change, but their impact will be limited. For example, inspections may happen only every four to six years, and the integrated inspection framework does not make it clear what mechanisms can be invoked if schools do not contribute effectively. Those tools do not provide strategic players with sufficient leverage to ensure that, with immediate effect, professionals work together when a child has difficulties that require the services of more than one agency.

We are trying to emphasise the essential role of schools and educational facilities, which are now diverse, in the partnerships that will provide the solution to the problem of better safeguarding children and early intervention and protection. After all, a vulnerable child probably has more contact with schools and teachers than with any other professional referred to in the Bill. If the child does not attend school, obviously there are other problems, but great play can be made of the role of schools.

We also include health providers and registered social landlords. Again, there is great concern about the failure to include all health providers in the Bill as part of the partnerships. We shall return later to amendments that we have tabled with the aim of defining and broadening the remit of health providers, because the definitions in the Bill are narrow. We spoke about the role of registered social landlords earlier, when we wanted people's housing and accommodation to be among the welfare considerations in the Bill.

I shall not speak at greater length, because the new clauses are quite self-explanatory and have been aired in another place already. We simply seek assurances from the Minister as to why those partners are not included in the Bill. I hope that that will go beyond just referring back to the provisions of Education Acts or whatever.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 10:00, 19 Hydref 2004

I support the comments that have been made, because there is deep concern that the Bill does not explicitly refer to schools, housing and the deliverers of health services. Having read carefully the debate in the other place, I felt that the Government would probably firmly reject new clauses 3 and 5. However, that is not to say that I do not support them strongly, so I have tried to think about what the real problem is.

Picking up on the points about schools, I want to mention the increased autonomy that many of our schools have. I am thinking of city academies, and indeed independent schools, which one does not feel are really tied into the promotion of well-being and the safeguarding of children. I therefore attempted, not in the best possible way, to write new clause 17. Inevitably, maintained schools do have that responsibility, but it needs redefining in light of the five-year plans and increased autonomy. Independent schools seem not to be brought into the framework at all. In the case of academies and independent schools, can we be sure that a school that is motivated by achieving high academic results will pick up and work in the best interests of a vulnerable child? Sometimes the quickest and easiest way of dealing with the situation is to have the child removed but without necessarily picking up on support services.

Although I accept that the new clause has imperfections, I ask the Minister to respond to the concerns relating to all three issues that have been identified, and in particular those about the role of city academies and independent schools and how they will be brought into the loop and co-operate with one another for the well-being of children and the safeguarding of their futures.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

The hon. Lady referred on Second Reading to children not being in school. I notice that she has not made any reference to that in her new clause. Will that appear elsewhere?

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman misinterpreted my comments. There are obviously alternative ways of educating children, and I am aware that most local authorities have strong checks on home education. Ensuring that everything is fully safeguarded has been mentioned, including by some organisations. However, I want to focus on mainstream schooling, which is an important area that has been ignored in the Bill. I know from my local authority that education at home is supported and inspected carefully.

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of Health

The principle of clause 7 is to place a duty on certain key partners to co-operate in furthering the interests of children and delivering the

outcomes that children have told us are appropriate. It is a key component of the Bill and should stand part of it. However, I can understand the motivation of Opposition Members in proposing new clauses 3 and 5. Although education authorities, for example, are included as key partners in the Bill, I understand the concern that schools that have some autonomy might not co-operate.

I disagree, however, with the proposal that the best way of dealing with that is to create an exhaustive list of the people and partners who must try to work together—it is not possible, because we will always forget somebody. One example is that in the list in new clauses 3 and 5, pupil referral units have not been mentioned. If we tried to produce an exhaustive list in the Bill, it might appear to exclude anyone we forgot about, so I do not think it is the way forward.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

I hear what the Minister is saying, and the same argument has been made before when debating parents. However, does he not think that schools, which I think we agree have the most contact potential with the children, and health providers, which are not limited to hospitals, are such general terms that they deserve special treatment, even if that may mean leaving something else out?

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of Health

Special treatment, yes. It is difficult to argue that special treatment can be implicit rather than explicit, but that is what I am arguing. They get special treatment in the Bill and are covered by its provisions, but that is done without naming each individual school.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that schools will be a vital layer. After all, schools are where most children have the bulk of their contact with public services. However, the way to ensure that they are fully engaged in the agenda is to ensure that we are producing self-confident schools that understand their responsibilities under ''Every child matters'' and the Bill. We can use tools such as amending the legal framework for school inspections to take account of the duties, and we can involve the school improvement partner to ensure that they are also aware of the duties. There is a range of things that we can do, other than trying to include every possible partner in the Bill, that will be far more effective in delivering the outcomes that the hon. Gentleman wants.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Does the Minister not agree that a pupil referral unit would almost certainly come under the maintained sector and therefore be covered by the list? In the context of schools, with a reference to the independent and maintained sectors, I do not think that much will be missed out.

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of Health

The hon. Lady has just made my point for me. The Bill, as it stands, encompasses pupil referral units. That is implicit in the wider duties specified in the Bill, and there is no need to name every single partner.

In supporting the amendments, the hon. Lady made the point that we should try to think of every possible partner and include them in the Bill. We disagree on that. I do not believe that it is necessary to take that

approach; it is better to try to create a network of support for all the partners through the inspection and other improvement processes that are in place. I agree with her that it is necessary to ensure that all the partners work together on the agenda, but I do not agree that they need to be included in the Bill.

All schools already have a welfare duty for all their pupils, so it is not necessary for any particular group of pupils to be specified in the Bill, as proposed in new clause 17.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 7, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.