Award of Parental Responsibilities and Parental Rights to Father

Part of Orders of the Day — Children (Scotland) Bill – in the House of Commons at 7:15 pm on 1st May 1995.

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Photo of Malcolm Chisholm Malcolm Chisholm , Edinburgh Leith 7:15 pm, 1st May 1995

The rights and responsibilities of unmarried fathers have been one of the more contentious aspects of the Bill, not least among organisations representing single parents. As most of those organisations have now arrived at a consensus on the new clause, I hope that the Minister will acknowledge that by accepting it. I suppose that the reason for the disagreement is that the rights of fathers, mothers and children do not always coincide, and ultimately, a balance must be struck.

The Bill advances the rights of fathers through the provision of voluntary agreements with mothers on joint rights and responsibilities. I hope that the Government will widely advertise that provision, so that the large number of couples who are not married but have a stable relationship can readily enter into such an agreement.

Nevertheless, we cannot just accept that all fathers should automatically have those rights. A child born of rape is merely the most extreme instance of how unsatisfactory that would be. Sometimes, a father's rights can conflict with a child's rights—for example, in the case of a father who has treated his child unsatisfactorily.

A constituent recently told me that the court had ruled that her child's father was to be allowed see her child, but that the child, who was five years old, had not seen that stranger before, and suddenly had to start going out with a strange adult every week. Such cases are sometimes not taken into account. I do not say that that father should not have the right to see his child, but the rights and feelings of the child should have been taken into account in the court order. Subsection (1)(ii), which mentions the time interval, takes that consideration into account. That is relevant to the child as well as to the mother.

Consideration of the time interval is becoming more common. One of the side effects of the Child Support Act 1991 is that some fathers who have never taken an interest in their children are saying, "If I must provide financially, why shouldn't I see the child?" Sometimes it is not for the best of motives, but to get at the mother. The new clause takes the time interval on board.

More commonly, a father's rights may conflict with those of the mother. The new clause seeks to protect the mother's rights, and makes three specific proposals.

First, where there is disagreement, a father should not apply for parental rights too soon after the birth. Three months is a modest proposal. We could have proposed a longer period, but I hope that we can all agree on three months.

I hope that the reasons are obvious to the Minister. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mrs. Fyfe) had to spell out the reasons in Committee, as she was one of the few women on the Committee. In the first three months after giving birth, a mother obviously has more important things on her mind.

The second proposal is that the mother should have the right to have her place of abode kept secret. The reasons for that are obvious.

The third and most serious proposal, which responds to a genuine worry of many women's and single-parent organisations, is to terminate the rights of a father who is violent. The provisions of subsection (3) go at least some way to meeting that objective. Some people want the provision strengthened to cover fathers suspected of violence. As it stands, no one can say that the provision is not fair to men, because a conviction is required.

People who were worried about some of the Bill's provisions have united around the new clause, and I hope that the Minister will accept it accordingly.