Members of the Standing Committee will remember that we spent much time discussing mediation. Those discussions were helpful because several hon. Members had considerable experience of mediation schemes, either from a national perspective or from their role as constituency Members. Mediation is an important part of the Bill.
The Opposition were concerned about the suitability of mediation in cases of domestic violence. The amendments seek to ensure that mediation does not take place where violence to the parties or their children is involved, and that it is voluntary. They would ensure that the parties are informed at information meetings that mediation is not suitable in such cases so that the picture is clear from the start.
In Committee, it was felt that we did not want a two-tier system where some people would be able to get legal advice because they could afford it or were eligible for it, while people who did not fall in into either of those categories might feel that the only thing that they could use was mediation, which might not be suitable in all circumstances. The amendments would ensure that mediators screen all potential clients to establish whether violence is an issue between the parties, that that is kept under review throughout mediation and that mediation is safely terminated if it becomes apparent that violence is an issue.
The issue concerns those who are involved professionally with mediation. Research by mediation agencies shows that it is both unsafe and inappropriate in most cases in which there is a history of abuse. Sadly, as has been said, in far too many marriages there are incidents of abuse, in most cases—not exclusively, but in most cases—involving abuse of the wife. A background of violence and threats can significantly affect the victim's ability to contribute effectively or to negotiate a fair settlement. Experience with the Children Act 1989 shows that many women feel pressured into agreeing to joint meetings, or even mediation, with their abusers because they fear losing their children if they do not. Research shows that that has happened in numerous cases, even though joint meetings are not compulsory.
It must be made clear to the parties in divorce that mediation is unlikely to be the best method of resolving arrangements fairly and safely when there is violence. It must also be made clear to mediators that they have a duty to investigate the possibility of harm to, or ill-treatment of, a party to ensure that parties are not inappropriately referred to mediation and denied access to legal aid or representation.
Some women escaping violence may choose third-party mediation, but the amendments seek to ensure that there is a clear choice and that people know what the situation is. As the Minister knows, that was extensively canvassed in Committee. It is one of the most important issues dealt with by the Bill. The Opposition believe that the amendments are crucial to ensure that there is a level playing field for the victims of violence, both women and children. I look forward to the Minister's reply.