I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
I take this opportunity to mention my appreciation for the help and support freely given by my hon. Friends during the Committee which was of inestimable benefit while we were dealing with a difficult and complex issue.
To put the new clause into context, it is necessary to look at what the Bill has set out. All mothers—regardless of whether they have been married or not at any time—have parental responsibilities and rights. Few dispute that where there are rights, there must be responsibilities. Indeed, the Bill has put a new emphasis on parental responsibilities.
There is widespread agreement that rights are needed to be able to exercise responsibilities. But where there are responsibilities, there must also be safeguards. The law should come to the aid of those mothers and children who are subjected to violence, abuse and intimidation far more than it does at present.
The Bill is clear about the protection of fathers' interests. Any father married to the mother at the time of conception has automatically gained parental responsibilities and rights. An unmarried father may acquire such rights by agreement with the mother, failing which he can take his case to court. We pointed out in vain in Committee that a mother may agree under duress, and that there is no protection in the Bill to overcome that. A man and a woman can be extricated from an unwanted marriage which has been imposed under duress, but nothing can be done to overcome duress in a shared parenting agreement. We must remember that the parents involved could be very young, as the Government's own amendment No. 116 reinforces.
The Bill contains a process whereby an unmarried father can take his case to court if the mother refuses agreement. That is not in the least disputed by Opposition Members. It is right that where a father is unreasonably denied parental responsibilities and rights by the mother, the law should provide a remedy for that father. It is for the child's benefit that that should be so. I also sympathise with those anguished fathers who have written to me and who are at present denied access to the children they love. They are looking forward to restoring happy relations with their children under the provisions of the Bill, even if there is no hope of restoring good relations with the mother.
The Bill contains provisions for rights for fathers who have been unreasonably denied them. But what of those cases where the mother's disagreement is entirely fair and reasonable and where we would doubt her sanity and her sense of responsibility for her children if she agreed to share rights and responsibilities with the father? The Bill does not provide for that situation. It is no answer to say that the mother can state her case in court. It is not clear whether either party would receive legal aid in such a case, and as men generally earn a lot more than women—especially women who are bringing up children—the woman would be put at an immediate disadvantage.
The new clause seeks to provide some initial safeguards and says that unless there are exceptional circumstances, a father cannot apply to the courts any earlier than three months from the date of the baby's birth. This would safeguard the mother's interests in a similar fashion to that involved in adoption law, which allows a mother time to think and decide following the birth of her baby. It cannot seriously inconvenience the father to be made to wait for a mere three months, and many a father of a newborn baby might jocularly wish that he had no responsibility for the infant and that the mother had to carry out all of the less pleasant tasks associated with baby care.
The second provision of the clause is that, again unless there are exceptional circumstances, a father should not be able to apply to the courts if, during a number of years—the amount of which I am happy to let the Secretary of State lay down—he has had no active part in providing or caring for the child. While safeguarding fathers who do care for their children, this provision would safeguard mothers and children from the kind of man they could well do without. What excuse could there possibly be for a father who sends no money or items in kind to help with his child's upkeep, sends no letters or cards and makes no effort to carry out his fatherly responsibilities?
In Committee, the Minister rather fancifully envisaged wandering sailors as such a case, but even sailors have access to modern communications and shore leave, which—as far as I know—has not yet been withdrawn. However, to allow for the rarer possibilities in life—a father who is sunk in a coma in a country where no one speaks English, perhaps—I have allowed for exceptional circumstances. It would be for the courts to decide if those circumstances were sufficiently exceptional.
Subsection (2) of the new clause should cause no one any difficulty. It ensures that the court must satisfy itself that when it grants parental rights and responsibilities to a father, those rights will be exercised in such a manner as to avoid the father having knowledge of the mother's whereabouts if she does not wish him to have that information.
Sadly, we learnt while the Committee was sitting of a mother who was killed by her ex-husband while their young son hid in fear. The husband had obtained her address from the reporter to the children's hearing on three separate occasions. The Minister has agreed to ensure that, in future, such information will not be disclosed during or following the children's hearing if the mother does not wish it to be disclosed. It is only logical to extend the protection of women's safety to the courts in cases such as I am discussing now.
Finally, subsection (3) of the new clause provides further and necessary protection against violence, intimidation and abuse. If a father abuses the parental responsibilities and rights which are granted to him by the court and is convicted of an offence involving violence or abuse against children or has had a protection order enforced against him, his parental rights and responsibilities will terminate pending any further application by him to the court for restoration of his responsibilities and rights.
It is as plain as the nose on anyone's face that a father who is guilty of such offences is hardly demonstrating fitness for parenthood, and the law should take account of that without delay. As matters stand, such a father could be convicted of the most appalling crimes against children or the most extreme violence against his former partner, but retain his parental rights and responsibilities until further court actions are taken—perhaps many months later. Mothers can obtain interdicts, but the kind of man about whom we are talking will as readily break his ex-partner's neck as break an interdict.
The Bill provides for parents who have responsibility for their children, regardless of marital status. But recognition of the rights of responsible and loving fathers who do not live with their children must not carry the price of added difficulties for parents who have demonstrated daily their commitment by living with the child and caring for his needs, day in and day out.
Domestic violence, unfortunately, is not rare in Scotland. Scottish Women's Aid received more than 25,000 requests for information, support and safe refuge in 1993–94. Yet the Bill makes no mention of domestic violence. If the welfare of the child is to be paramount—as I believe it should be and as the Bill rightly stresses—the law of the land must protect the rights of the child and the parent who cares for him or her from violence and abuse, and the fear of violence and abuse.
If the Government refuse to accept this new clause tonight and call upon their colleagues once again to come into the Lobby and vote it down, unheard and unexamined, it will stand to their eternal shame. I commend the new clause to the House.