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

If I understand the hon. Gentleman correctly, he seems to be talking about public law. The Bill concerns private law cases; I believe such arrangements would be outwith the scope of the Bill, and it would be wrong to include them. He primarily wants to deal with private law issues on separation, which, because of the way in which the new clause is drafted, would extend into the public law sphere. I understand his general points, but it is not appropriate to include his new clause in the Bill. The courts need to consider cases on the facts and to focus on the needs of individual children. They should not make presumptions that cut across paramountcy and do not reflect the individual child’s needs.

The hon. Gentleman made a few points with which I would like to deal. He referred to the debate that we had in Westminster Hall, which I know reflected concerns among the grandparents’ lobby and among those from more extended families, of which I have an understanding. He said that the need to apply provisions under section 10 of the 1989 Act are biased against extended family members and he was supported in that regard by what my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford said.

We believe it is important that non-separated parents are protected against section 8 applications by grandparents and other extended family members. We are trying to make provisions for those who have to deal with contact issues and matters relating to the   conflict involved in break-ups. My Department has extensive discussions with grandparents’ groups and other family organisations and we are not aware of any evidence that the leave to apply hurdle is proving an obstacle to grandparents in cases where parents have separated.

I have heard voiced before the concern that relatives are unfairly blocked from seeking contact because they have to seek the court’s permission to apply. I am perfectly willing to consider individual cases that are brought to my attention and I understand that hon. Members would not want to name individuals in the Committee. It is perfectly open to them to contact me outside the Committee.

Grandparents and others must seek the court’s permission before applying for a contact or residence order. The intention is not to set an unreasonably high hurdle, but to put in place a safeguard to prevent inappropriate and vexatious applications. In practice, applications for permission to apply are normally made simultaneously with an application for contact—that is my understanding of the situation—meaning that there is no added delay, and they are almost always granted. However, it is appropriate that this theoretical hurdle exists so that cases where an application might involve a child in court processes unnecessarily can be prevented.

I have heard it said that there is an increased cost because grandparents might have to seek separate permission to apply and pay court fees twice. They do not have to pay court fees twice. The applicant only pays a single fee and they would not have to pay a separate fee for the contact application and the application for permission to apply: it can be done at the same time. I am obviously willing to hear from Members outside the Committee about specific cases where their experience is different. The hon. Member for Peterborough made a reference to a cost of £250 to £1000, which sounded like legal costs to me. We all have to pay lawyers if we go to court; that is an unfortunate fact of life. Although there are some Committee members who have done rather well out of it—including, in a previous life, me, not to put to fine a point on it. [Laughter.] I am not about to argue that lawyers should not be paid—not a popular thing to say—but when I was practising, I at least tried to discourage people from going to court if there was any opportunity to avoid it. There is no doubt that costs can add up once adversarial court proceedings begin. I cannot comment on whether people have had to pay more lawyers’ fees, but it is quite possibly true.

The hon. Gentleman referred to our earlier Westminster Hall debate about those issues, and suggested that I had made some time-limited undertakings to him. I shall have to read them to ensure that I meet whatever time limits I set myself in that debate. I am not in a position to answer that point, but I shall undertake to deal with it outside the Committee.

On the basis that the new clause has unintended consequences for the legislation, I hope that the hon. Gentleman is willing to withdraw it. I emphasise that I thoroughly understand and concur with his concerns   that grandparents and suitable members of the extended family should be able to stay in touch with their grandchildren and relatives after the separation of parents, even if the situation is difficult. We support that.

The provisions in the legislation are not confined simply to parents, whether resident or non-resident; they could also apply to other family members who have an interest in the child’s life. They could apply to grandparents and members of the extended family. The hon. Gentleman ought to remember that the Bill applies in that sense.