New Clause 1 - Extended family: welfare checklist

Part of Children and Adoption Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee am 12:00 pm ar 21 Mawrth 2006.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Children and Families) 12:00, 21 Mawrth 2006

I shall do my best to stay in order and within the scope of the Bill. It is important that we try to do that.

The new clause would require the court, whenever it considers a disputed application for a section 8 order under the Children Act 1989, to have regard to

“the desirability of contact between the child and his extended family”.

I agree with hon. Members who have stated that contact with grandparents and other members of extended families can be hugely valuable to children in the aftermath of a family break-up. Contact of that nature can help to provide much-needed stability and support at a time of great turbulence, uncertainty and difficulty for children who are having to deal with their parents’ break-up. I am sure there is no disagreement about that across the Committee.

There are several difficulties with the new clause, the most important of which concerns its phrasing. It refers to the desirability of contact in the absence of evidence to the contrary. The hon. Member for Peterborough asserted that he did not think that would have any impact on the paramountcy principle. However, because of the way in which the proposal is worded, it would effectively create a legal presumption. As the hon. Gentleman does not set any limit on what he means by “extended family”, the court would have to presume that contact with all relatives, however distant, is desirable unless it is presented with strong evidence to refute that.

I understand the impulse, and I heard the hon. Gentleman and other Committee members say that they wanted to discuss slightly different things. The wording of the new clause is simply not compatible with a starting point that considers the welfare of the child in their individual circumstances and ordering what is best for them, as the 1989 Act currently provides.

A second problem is the location of the new clause, amending as it would the welfare checklist, which applies not only in private law cases and disputes, but in public law, for instance in relation to care orders. The new clause would require a court considering whether or not to take an abused child into care to presume that contact with their wider extended family—the concept is not at all delineated; we might be talking about an extremely extended family—would be desirable. Of course, it might be desirable in a public law case; a child whom a court is considering taking into care might greatly benefit from continuing contact with their birth family extended beyond their   parents. However, it is not appropriate to force a court to presume that in advance of considering the evidence.

The practical difficulties with the wording of the new clause mean that I am unable to accept it. I am also worried by the lack of clarity to which I have alluded. The new clause does not set out where the “extended family” comes to an end. Certainly, most children should have contact with their grandparents and most probably do. They get great value from that, as do their grandparents. Most children should also have contact with aunts, uncles, cousins and relatively close extended family, but not all will necessarily be in touch with more distant relatives. It might well not be in their interests for an extremely distant relative to have a right to contact as the new clause suggests. It is not appropriate for us to put into the Bill an undelineated phrase which could be so extensive, as that would destroy clarity and cause all kinds of confusion. It is also unhelpful that the provision would apply in public law cases.