Award of Parental Responsibilities and Parental Rights to Father

Part of Orders of the Day — Children (Scotland) Bill – in the House of Commons at 7:30 pm on 1st May 1995.

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Photo of Mrs Maria Fyfe Mrs Maria Fyfe , Glasgow Maryhill 7:30 pm, 1st May 1995

I thank my hon. Friends who made important and valuable points in the debate.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. McKelvey) mentioned the direct experience disclosed to hon. Members by Scottish Women's Aid. Only that organisation has daily experience of dealing with the sort of problems that we are discussing.

My hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Connarty) rightly pointed out that joint registration of births is not widely taken up. It is taken up by very few indeed. That is an important aspect that we should consider in terms of ensuring that both parents have responsibility for the child.

We must allow for fathers to overcome unreasonable objections by mothers, and the Bill at least provides a safeguard for fathers in that position. But it is surely right to try to protect the interests of mothers who are being unreasonably put upon by the fathers.

As some hon. Members have said—I have some sympathy for this argument—three months from the date of the child's birth is possibly a little on the short side. I would happily let it go longer than that. The Minister objected that any length of time is objectionable, because it would interfere with the father's rights. He said nothing about the mother's right not to be persecuted in that way. She might still be lying in a hospital maternity bed, suffering from the mental and physical after-effects of the birth—or possibly from post-natal depression. In any case, it is only reasonable that the law should take account of that, as it does in respect of adoption.

It has been pointed out that I was one of the few women on the Standing Committee. Indeed, I could point out that I was the only mother on the Committee, the only person with direct experience of what it is like in the days immediately after a child is born. It says something about our legislature that there are so few women, mothers or otherwise, able to take part in considering legislation in the discussion of which I should have thought such direct experience could play a useful part.

I am grateful to my hon. Friends who have come to support the debate. It is noticeable that, from the Government side, not a single Back Bencher took the opportunity to take part in the debate. Indeed, for most of it, the Government Benches have been as empty as they could be, with the bare minimum of hon. Members on them. That will be noticed by women up and down the country and by the sort of good, decent, honourable men who want the law to serve both women and men fairly and well.

I thank the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) for his support. We can take up the point about the wife's address in this way. It is very possible that a former partner looking to exercise rights and responsibilities after the passing of many years could find out the wife's address, but she might quickly remove herself from that address to avoid contact with him.

The Minister said that it might be difficult to ensure that the husband or ex-partner never acquires the address. That is not a sensible objection, because, while the husband or ex-partner might find out by other means, the law should ensure that at least no one in court will give the information away. A simple request by the woman involved that she does not want the information to he given should be sufficient if she has reasonable grounds to fear for her safety and that of the child. Of course the information can be given away in another way, but that did not stop the Minister saying that he would provide similar safeguards in the case of children's hearings. By the same logic, he should support this proposal.

I am glad that the Minister will further consider the matter. I am disappointed that he is nevertheless going to reject new clause 2 on the grounds that he has stated, because subsection (1) restricts the father's rights only in the most reasonable and tiny way possible. If he feels that new clause 2(3) should go further, I would agree.

My hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) spoke of the reality in the refuges. I wish that there were more women in the Chamber now who had that direct experience; I do not have it. I was fortunate enough to be married to a man who never dreamed of treating either me or the children violently or abusively. That is, of course, the experience of the vast majority of women.

It would do the House and the country good if the experience of women in refuges could be described in the Chamber. Unfortunately, such experience is lacking. We who are here have to try to speak up for those who are not here to speak for themselves. We have tried to do that, and it is a shame and a disgrace that the Government are not more responsive tonight.