UK Family Law Reform

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Children and Adoption Bill debate

20 Jun 2006 : Column 1282

Tim Loughton: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Of course, as well as those who do not sign early-day motions for reasons of personal choice, there are Ministers, who cannot sign them. That means that a vast majority of free-thinking Members put their pens to the motion. Only 146 of those 345, however, were prepared to go into the Lobby this evening, when it really mattered. That speaks volumes about the attitude of certain Members.

The Minister said that, taken as a whole, the Bill offered improvement in life chances for some of the most vulnerable children in our society, and elsewhere. We, of course, support that intent. She also said that the House was united in wanting to maintain good contact with both parents, and we agree with that too. However, she could not resist tagging on a condemnation of the Opposition’s approach, which she said compromised the paramountcy of the child’s welfare.

The Minister made that remark even though we have made it quite clear that the welfare of the child was the ultimate consideration in every case. We would not have proposed any of our amendments if we thought that the paramountcy of the child’s welfare would be compromised. She called us misguided, but at least we are misguided with integrity.

I am encouraged that the Government acknowledge the problems that result from the increasing numbers of families who split up. There are 12 million children in this country, and one in four experience the repercussions when couples separate. The Government also acknowledge the need to do something to beef up the penalties against serial flouters of contact orders, and to monitor contact proceedings.

The Government recognise, too, that something more must be done to prevent couples from going to court in the first place, as that is what leads to the long-drawn-out, expensive and acrimonious legal action that is the reason for this Bill’s introduction. That is why proactive mediation is so important. All the Opposition amendments have been predicated on the need to safeguard the welfare of children, but the problem is that Ministers too often seem to be hiding behind the paramountcy principle that was introduced—by a Conservative Government—in section 1 of the Children Act 1989. It remains relevant and valuable to this day, but Ministers use it as an excuse for not taking the serious and radical action that would go a long way to addressing the problems that we have all acknowledged. Instead, they go through the motions, posturing, ticking the boxes and claiming that problems will be sorted out.

The Bill is full of good intentions and warm words, but it shies away from the radical overhaul of the legal system that is so vital. On Second Reading, I said that it was a “toothless fudge”—a rather mixed metaphor, I admit, but we gave the Government the benefit of the doubt. We argued long and hard—on Second Reading, in Committee and on Report today—for serious improvements that would have given the Bill real teeth and firmed up the fudge. However, this Minister and this Government have singularly failed to engage in the debate. They have failed to take on board—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I must remind the hon. Gentleman that the Third Reading of a Bill is about its content as it is, not as he might wish it to be.

Tim Loughton: I am grateful, Madam Deputy Speaker, as my point is that the Bill, which has not been amended as we would have liked, shows that the Government have missed a major opportunity. As a result, it has ended up being a dud that is difficult for us to support.

Under the Bill as it stands, serial breachers of contact orders will continue to offend because they will continue to think that they are able to get away with doing so. Courts will be reluctant to award fines that may cause children to suffer, and will not be obliged by statute to treat both parents on a level playing field. People who breach contact orders will know that the longer they can spin out legal procedures, the more worn down the non-resident partner will become, and thus the less likely he or she will be to carry on with a claim in the courts. Moreover, mediation without some form of necessary encouragement will not work when entrenched partners who refuse to take part in the process—regardless of the feelings of the other partner—know that their refusal will not count against them later in court. All of that could have been addressed in the Bill by a simple but fundamental change to the law, to recognise the desirability of presuming that a child’s interests are best served by maximising quality time spent with both parents—always subject to concern for the safety of the child.

In rejecting the Bill, we do not reject the principle but rather the complete failure of the Government and the Minister to engage in constructive debate to produce a workable piece of legislation that really addresses the problem. We support better mediation: the Bill will not produce it. We support more effective and meaningful penalties against non-compliance—a sliding scale: the Bill will not produce it. We certainly support the inter-country adoption measures and safeguards, as we have made clear all along, but they are just a small part of a bigger, flawed Bill.

The Bill will do little to achieve better mediation and the need proactively to keep couples away from the long slippery slope that acrimonious court action can be. The Bill will not provide a real deterrent to serial breachers of contact orders, who know how to play the system and how to wear down a former partner. Above all, in its current form, the Bill will not achieve a level playing field for separating parents making arrangements for their children based on respect for a child’s right to maximum quality time with both of his or her parents, on the presumption that it is in his or her best interests to achieve that, barring any genuine risks to his or her safety.

The Bill is a major missed opportunity. We have engaged in constructive debate over the last year and we have given the Government the benefit of the doubt. I fear that they have failed to respond. They certainly failed to take on a single one of the amendments that we proposed to the House in good faith. Despite the good measures that the Bill achieves on inter-country adoption and the good intentions it professes on mediation and on enforcement against breach of contact orders, we fear that it will not work. On that basis, it will not achieve what it set out to do. The Bill is a dud and sadly—very sadly—I must urge Opposition Members to vote against it, because it will not do what it was supposed to do.

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