Award of Parental Responsibilities and Parental Rights to Father

Part of Orders of the Day — Children (Scotland) Bill – in the House of Commons at 5:45 pm on 1st May 1995.

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Photo of Michael Connarty Michael Connarty , Falkirk East 5:45 pm, 1st May 1995

I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. McKelvey) for the way in which he chaired the Special Standing Committee. It was my first experience of such a Committee. I believe that not many hon. Members who serve on Committees which consider Bills have the experience of taking evidence from the public. Many organisations wrote to us. Many could not be called, because there were too many. The sessions that we held were eased by the chairmanship of my hon. Friend. So his contribution was great, although he was not a member of the Standing Committee which considered the Bill and therefore did not take part in the debates on the clauses.

I also commend my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mrs. Fyfe) for bringing the clause back to the House. We missed such an opportunity in the Committee. If we did not create even this small door to be opened to the possibility of joint parenting agreements by application to the courts, we would not have a chance to restore some of the missed opportunities.

In England and Wales, under section 1 of the Children Act 1989, only 5,000 agreements in any year are signed between the mother and the unmarried father of a child, under which the father is given responsibility for the child. That has grown from 2,500. As I said in Committee, one of the reasons for the low number of agreements is that people think that when they jointly register a child at birth, they automatically assume joint parental responsibility. The reality is that fathers have no rights and, more important, no responsibilities for the child apart from those which the Child Support Agency might eventually slap on them. Fathers think that they have rights because they have gone along with the mother to register the birth of the child. So we have a chance to introduce some joint responsibility in subsection (1) of new clause 2.

Some 30 per cent. of children in Scotland are born outside a married relationship, so there is probably a large number of children at this moment who have no father with a clear responsibility for them and whose father will have no clear responsibility or rights when the Bill becomes statute. I deeply regret that. For the good of our nation, I hope that some Government bolder than this one will take the opportunity to put it into law that when people have joint parenthood, they have joint responsibilities and rights and they are excluded from those rights only by some act of either omission or commission which makes them unfit to take those rights.

I welcome subsection (1) of the new clause. It allows a father who is serious and sincere, and who has been excluded from parental rights perhaps because there have been tensions or acrimony between the mother and the father, to go to court and apply for those rights. The idea that it should not be done early in the life of the child is to be commended because in those months the mother is under tremendous stress. She may be in hospital; she may be in contact with the hospital and doctors for three months and more. Three months seems a reasonable period of application. Some would argue that the period should be longer, until the mother has got over any problems with post-natal depression or any problems with the child. After that, she can cope with an application to share responsibility when the couple may have broken up their relationship.

In Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Galbraith) used the word "waster" to describe the type of father who is apathetic. That is the word used by the Women's Aid organisation about fathers who go away and return on some opportunistic basis, thinking that they would like to have the ready-made family that their partner or former wife has brought up. They claim rights as if they were claiming back a possession. Those people should clearly be forbidden from coming back and demanding rights in that way. That was the intention of my hon. Friend the Member for Maryhill in drafting the new clause in the way that she has.

The idea that fathers should have no knowledge of the address of the mother is important. It is the children who have rights. I have argued all along and continue to argue, and many enlightened organisations correctly argue, that the child should have the right to see both parents. No adults, because of their acrimony to another—unless the other person has been violent or abusive to them or to the children—should deny children that right. I hope that in that spirit the Government will see that we are trying to provide an open door.

Subsection (2), which says that the father should have no knowledge of the mother's address, deals with the concern that there should be no need to contact the former parent. The parent should not be made to come into contact with a former parent whom she does not want to see. That happens in a few cases. We must think and the Government must think about how to do that better. As it is the child and the parent who have the contact, it should not be a trauma for the residential parent. The residential parent should not have to go to a place where it might be necessary to come in contact with the parent who wishes to see the child. It is a question not just of no knowledge but of ensuring that there is no forced contact or contact by error because I think that it was an error that caused the death which we heard about in Committee.