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New Clause 22 — Mediation pre-child contact order where the safety of the child is not an issue

Orders of the Day – in the House of Commons at 8:45 pm on 20th June 2006.

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'Before section 8 of the Children Act 1989 (c.41) insert—

"7A Mediation pre-child contact order

(1) The President of the Family Division shall—

(a) keep a register of mediators,

(b) make regulations about the qualifications and conduct required for registration as a mediator under this subsection.

(2) No person may act as a mediator for the purposes of this section unless he is on the register.

(3) Before the court makes an order under section 8 about contact in cases where the safety of the child is not an issue, it must give a direction requiring each party to attend a meeting with a mediator arranged in accordance with the direction for the purpose of—

(a) enabling the mediator to explain the facilities and options open to the parents regarding parent education, parenting plans, dispute resolution and mediation in relation to disputes over child contact, and

(b) enabling parents to resolve the dispute about contact by reaching an agreement for the child to have reasonable contact with both parents.

(4) A party's failure to attend the mediation must stand on their court record and may form part of the basis on which the court makes an order under section 8.

(5) The mediator must give a certificate and report to the court when, in his opinion, the parties have—

(a) reached a satisfactory solution, or

(b) have failed to reach a satisfactory solution and it is clear to the mediator that they will not.

In either event, the parties may then continue with any application to the court for an order under section 8."'.— [Mrs. Maria Miller.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Shadow Minister (Education)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 15, in clause 1, page 2, line 10, at end insert—

'(5A) Any information or advice given under subsection (5)(b) about making arrangements for contact with a child by means of mediation shall be given by an accredited mediator.'.

No. 14, in page 2, leave out line 14.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Shadow Minister (Education)

Given the lateness of the hour, it is right to say now that we intend to press for a vote after debating this group of amendments. I shall speak to new clause 22 and the two amendments.

New clause 22 deals directly with mediation and I draw the House's attention to two aspects. First, it will require each party taking part in the proceedings to attend a meeting with a mediator arranged in accordance with the court's direction and, secondly, failure to attend mediation will stand on the person's court record. We believe that that is important to ensure that the system works for the best interest of the child. Strong encouragements should be in place to ensure that mediation occurs before the divorce process starts and there should be sanctions if the mediation does not take place.

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Chair, Constitutional Affairs Committee

I am pleased that the new clause was tabled, because the Select Committee recommended that the parties should be required to attend a mediation meeting. What is not clear—perhaps the hon. Lady could quickly make it clear—is whether the provision goes as far as to say that people have to go through the whole process of mediation. No one who spoke to the Select Committee recommended that. It was felt that compulsorily introducing the parties to the possibility of mediation was as far as the element of compulsion should go.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Shadow Minister (Education)

The right hon. Gentleman makes a good point. The new clause is not intended to make mediation compulsory. It is not possible to do that, but we can make mediation a routine part of accepted practice in court proceedings. If the mediation does not take place, it is right to take note of it. There should be some acknowledgement that mediation is a good process to go through. We tabled the new clause because we believe that it is in the best interests of the child to try to resolve these situations without the acrimony that often pervades court proceedings. Indeed, a strong argument can be made for the beneficial effects of mediation. Agreements reached in the shadow of the court can often be pressurised and, if they break down, it is certainly not in the child's best interests.

The benefits of mediation are well catalogued. Members will recall from debates in Committee that just five hours of mediation can promote sustained contact between absent parents and children many years beyond the separation and divorce. Indeed, the University of Virginia conducted a study into that very aspect and it provides compelling figures. It found that, after 12 years, 30 per cent. of parents who attended mediation were in weekly contact with their children, in comparison with 9 per cent. of those who had been through litigation and not participated in mediation. Those are important figures that I hope will help the House to understand why we feel that mediation should be a routine part of the procedures of divorcing parents who are going through these processes.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney PPS (Rt Hon David Miliband, Secretary of State), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The hon. Lady knows from Committee that I strongly support mediation, but the first part of new clause 22 calls for the setting up of a register of mediators. Does she accept that the register already exists? In fact, there are already two registers of accredited mediators, so the new clause is not needed.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Shadow Minister (Education)

That is a matter that the hon. Gentleman has obviously considered in detail in respect of other aspects of the Bill, but I shall confine my remarks to the pertinent point that we need mediation to become part of the process.

I am mindful of the time, so I shall pick up on a few of the points that the Minister detailed in Committee. She set out three main arguments against the inclusion of a mediation clause in the Bill. She said that it would contravene article 6 of the European convention on human rights and remove the right of access to the court, which would make such a provision unacceptable. She then made two judgments that I found interesting—that mediation would delay proceedings rather than always yielding a benefit, and that some people would feel pressurised by the mediation process. I am not sure that those arguments hold water.

The new clause does not make mediation mandatory, so it would not hinder access to the courts. I am not sure that that argument blocks our way. In her remarks in Committee, the Minister was prejudging the appropriateness of mediation. The evidence that I presented earlier shows the long-term benefit not just to the parents but, much more importantly, to the children, who retain longer contact with their parents over many more years.

In conclusion, a quote from a National Family Mediation briefing concisely sums up our feelings on the matter. It states:

"To exclude the possibility of mediation whenever any indication of concern about domestic violence has been made is to withdraw at the outset one means of securing an appropriate level of contact between children and their divorcing parents and deny parents the ability to continue to parent their children. NFM contends that an indication of concern about domestic violence should not preclude the possibility of mediation."

As the House has heard, it is not just the Opposition who believe that mediation should form a much firmer part of the process. That view is shared by outside bodies that have great understanding of these matters.

We intend to press the motion to a Division because there is clear evidence that mediation can create better long-term outcomes for our children. At present, the availability of mediation is, at best, patchy. By amending the Bill, we would make mediation a routine part of divorce, hopefully take the sting out of the tail of some of the more acrimonious situations in which families find themselves and, ultimately, ensure better outcomes for children. Time does not allow a full debate on the two amendments in the group, so I shall bring my remarks to a close. [Interruption.]

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Chair, Constitutional Affairs Committee

In a sentence, on a matter that affects the welfare of many children caught in difficult and desperate situations, which I would have hoped was of concern to hon. Members, even those standing below the Bar, the Select Committee strongly recommended that there should be an element of compulsion to embark upon the possibility of mediation, and recently recorded that participation in the family resolutions pilot project was so poor that the project had to be accounted a failure because there was no element of compulsion about it. Those seem to be strong reasons for including a provision along these lines in the Bill.

Photo of Beverley Hughes Beverley Hughes Minister of State (Children, Young People and Families), Department for Education and Skills, Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Children, Young People and Families)

Mrs. Miller was so familiar with the debate in Committee that she able to read—mostly, but not entirely, correctly—the arguments that I advanced to show why we could not accept the amendments. I accept that the amendments arise from a desire to promote family mediation, which we want to do, but I do not believe that compulsory family mediation is desirable or likely to be successful.

Contrary to the comments of the hon. Lady, amendment No. 14 and new clause 22 provide for compulsory mediation. As we explained in our previous debates on the matter, we have serious concerns about the effects of compelling mediation, rather than encouraging it in the strongest terms and providing for parties to have an information session about mediation. We think that is the right way to go.

The hon. Member for Basingstoke got one of my reasons right, which is that her amendment potentially contravenes the Human Rights Act 1998 on access to the courts. However, the main issue is that requiring parties who are not willing to sit in the same room to—

It being Nine o'clock, Madam Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Question already proposed from the chair, pursuant to Order [2 March].

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.

The House divided: Ayes 164, Noes 261.

Division number 267 Orders of the Day — New Clause 22 — Mediation pre-child contact order where the safety of the child is not an issue

Aye: 164 MPs

No: 261 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name


Nos: A-Z by last name


Question accordingly negatived.

Order for Third Reading read.

Photo of Beverley Hughes Beverley Hughes Minister of State (Children, Young People and Families), Department for Education and Skills, Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Children, Young People and Families) 9:12 pm, 20th June 2006

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

The Bill is important and will have considerable implications and benefits for many families. It is therefore important that we can say that our debates at various stages of its passage have been constructive and valuable and, above all, have shown the commitment throughout the House to improving outcomes for children.

The measure tackles some difficult issues—for many families, the most difficult and emotional that they will face: the break-up of families, parenting children and, in difficult circumstances, adopting children in other countries. It has received rigorous scrutiny from hon. Members of all parties at all stages. I am grateful for the chairing of our discussions today and for the equally kind but firm chairmanship in Committee.

I thank the hon. Members for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) and for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), who led the debates from the Opposition Benches, and their hon. Friends. I also thank the previous Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend Maria Eagle, now Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, for the valuable part that she played before moving on to other things.

I especially thank the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, my hon. Friend Mr. Dhanda, who showed today how well he has grasped the detail in a short time and responded to amendments and hon. Members' points with consideration and thoughtfulness. I hope that hon. Members appreciate that. He is not in his place to hear that tribute because he needed to have something to eat, but I want the record to show my appreciation of him.

I also want to thank all my hon. Friends who have taken part so actively in the debate, and all the Clerks and officials who have supported us so well. It has been apparent that all Members have approached these issues with great diligence, and with great commitment to getting the detail of the Bill right. I want to thank them for doing that, and to pay tribute to the spirit in which they have done it. Finally, I should like to express my gratitude to the members of the Joint Committee that gave the Bill its pre-legislative scrutiny, who were responsible for some important changes before the Bill reached the Floor of the House.

I have already said that the Bill addresses some fundamental issues. As we have seen again today, some fundamental differences have been expressed during the debate, particularly on the question of whether the Bill should make explicit reference to the need for reasonable contact and so, in our view, compromise the principle of paramountcy of the welfare of the child. I believe that Opposition Members share our aim of providing for the child's best interests above all else, but we have fundamentally different views—they have been explored somewhat graphically on occasion today—on how that should best be achieved. We are united in the view that the courts will want to enable children to maintain good contact with both parents. In our view, however, compromising the principle of the paramountcy of the individual child's welfare is not the right way to achieve that. Notwithstanding the rather intemperate remarks of the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, I hope that he and his hon. Friends on the Conservative Front Bench will accept that we have come to our view with careful thought and integrity, just as I accept that he has done to his, however misguided I believe it to be.

From a child's point of view, the break-up of a family is a devastating experience in most cases. Most children want their parents to stay together, almost at any cost. So when parents have decided that that is not possible, the first and overriding priority must be to safeguard the child's welfare, her emotional and psychological health, her experience of being loved by both parents, and her ability to draw strongly on the contribution that each parent can make to her health, growth and development.

The Bill gives the courts the power to do what is right for children. It offers them the flexibility to support the 10 per cent. of separating parents who turn to them, by helping to facilitate contact at the start of proceedings, and by giving them options about how to enforce it when things go wrong, but focusing always on the interests of the child. Thanks to a very welcome amendment in the other place, the Bill also now introduces an important new measure to safeguard children involved in court proceedings by requiring a risk assessment when CAFCASS has cause to suspect that a child might be at risk of harm. This is equally a Bill about inter-country adoption, and about putting in place the right arrangements to help children in difficult circumstances in other countries to find a home in ours.

This is a Bill that has at its heart the principle that every child matters. It deals with some of the most vulnerable children in our society and abroad, and I believe that it will make life better for many of those children. I welcome the support that the vast majority of measures in the Bill have received from Members in all parts of the House. I think that our debates have dealt with some of the important issues of detail, and that some have led to improvements.

I commend the Bill. I am sure that its implementation will make a significant difference to many children and families.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children) 9:20 pm, 20th June 2006

Perhaps my few comments, with the support of other speakers, will take us past the 9.45 pm watershed after which it will be safe to summon colleagues back for a debate that may or may not happen.

I, too, thank the various Members and staff who have aided our deliberations. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Mrs. Miller, who has performed a tour de force on the Front Bench throughout the Bill's passage. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Rugby and Kenilworth (Jeremy Wright) and for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson), both of whom served on the Committee, and of course to our assiduous Whip, my hon. Friend Mr. Evennett. To be fair, I should also congratulate the new Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, Mr. Dhanda, on dealing single-handedly with the entire Report stage, apart from two minutes before 9 pm. For him to do that after being thrown in at the deep end was no mean feat, given that this is a complex and controversial Bill that has been around for a year, since well before the hon. Gentleman's promotion. He had a very quick dinner, but some of us did not have any dinner at all. There are those who did not have any lunch either, but that is another matter.

This has been a long journey. Back in 2004, we saw the Green Paper "Parental Separation: Children's Needs and Parents' Responsibilities". Back in January 2005, we saw the next steps progress report. Soon after that, we saw the draft Bill. Before the last election, the draft Bill was presented to a pre-legislative scrutiny Committee in a rather truncated form. On 29 June 2005, almost a year ago, the Bill started its passage in the other place. It came to this House on 14 November, and ended its Committee stage at the end of March. Three months later, we are finally finishing Third Reading. It seems to take rather a long time for some Bills, particularly those dealing with children, to progress through both Houses, and there seem to be large gaps between the ending of their Committee stages and the start of their Report stages. This is not the first time that that has happened.

Meanwhile, there has been an extraordinary development in the shape of early-day motion 128, which has been mentioned several times today and which was signed by a majority of Members of Parliament of all political persuasions. The signatures of 345 Members appear on that motion, which supports us on the principle and presumption of reasonable contact being in the child's best interests.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

The figure is rather more significant than my hon. Friend suggests. A good many Members, including me, do not sign early-day motions as a matter of principle, but profoundly supported the thrust of that motion.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Of course, as well as those who do not sign early-day motions for reasons of personal choice, there are Ministers, who cannot sign them. That means that a vast majority of free-thinking Members put their pens to the motion. Only 146 of those 345, however, were prepared to go into the Lobby this evening, when it really mattered. That speaks volumes about the attitude of certain Members.

The Minister said that, taken as a whole, the Bill offered improvement in life chances for some of the most vulnerable children in our society, and elsewhere. We, of course, support that intent. She also said that the House was united in wanting to maintain good contact with both parents, and we agree with that too. However, she could not resist tagging on a condemnation of the Opposition's approach, which she said compromised the paramountcy of the child's welfare.

The Minister made that remark even though we have made it quite clear that the welfare of the child was the ultimate consideration in every case. We would not have proposed any of our amendments if we thought that the paramountcy of the child's welfare would be compromised. She called us misguided, but at least we are misguided with integrity.

I am encouraged that the Government acknowledge the problems that result from the increasing numbers of families who split up. There are 12 million children in this country, and one in four experience the repercussions when couples separate. The Government also acknowledge the need to do something to beef up the penalties against serial flouters of contact orders, and to monitor contact proceedings.

The Government recognise, too, that something more must be done to prevent couples from going to court in the first place, as that is what leads to the long-drawn-out, expensive and acrimonious legal action that is the reason for this Bill's introduction. That is why proactive mediation is so important. All the Opposition amendments have been predicated on the need to safeguard the welfare of children, but the problem is that Ministers too often seem to be hiding behind the paramountcy principle that was introduced—by a Conservative Government—in section 1 of the Children Act 1989. It remains relevant and valuable to this day, but Ministers use it as an excuse for not taking the serious and radical action that would go a long way to addressing the problems that we have all acknowledged. Instead, they go through the motions, posturing, ticking the boxes and claiming that problems will be sorted out.

The Bill is full of good intentions and warm words, but it shies away from the radical overhaul of the legal system that is so vital. On Second Reading, I said that it was a "toothless fudge"—a rather mixed metaphor, I admit, but we gave the Government the benefit of the doubt. We argued long and hard—on Second Reading, in Committee and on Report today—for serious improvements that would have given the Bill real teeth and firmed up the fudge. However, this Minister and this Government have singularly failed to engage in the debate. They have failed to take on board—

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Order. I must remind the hon. Gentleman that the Third Reading of a Bill is about its content as it is, not as he might wish it to be.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

I am grateful, Madam Deputy Speaker, as my point is that the Bill, which has not been amended as we would have liked, shows that the Government have missed a major opportunity. As a result, it has ended up being a dud that is difficult for us to support.

Under the Bill as it stands, serial breachers of contact orders will continue to offend because they will continue to think that they are able to get away with doing so. Courts will be reluctant to award fines that may cause children to suffer, and will not be obliged by statute to treat both parents on a level playing field. People who breach contact orders will know that the longer they can spin out legal procedures, the more worn down the non-resident partner will become, and thus the less likely he or she will be to carry on with a claim in the courts. Moreover, mediation without some form of necessary encouragement will not work when entrenched partners who refuse to take part in the process—regardless of the feelings of the other partner—know that their refusal will not count against them later in court. All of that could have been addressed in the Bill by a simple but fundamental change to the law, to recognise the desirability of presuming that a child's interests are best served by maximising quality time spent with both parents—always subject to concern for the safety of the child.

In rejecting the Bill, we do not reject the principle but rather the complete failure of the Government and the Minister to engage in constructive debate to produce a workable piece of legislation that really addresses the problem. We support better mediation: the Bill will not produce it. We support more effective and meaningful penalties against non-compliance—a sliding scale: the Bill will not produce it. We certainly support the inter-country adoption measures and safeguards, as we have made clear all along, but they are just a small part of a bigger, flawed Bill.

The Bill will do little to achieve better mediation and the need proactively to keep couples away from the long slippery slope that acrimonious court action can be. The Bill will not provide a real deterrent to serial breachers of contact orders, who know how to play the system and how to wear down a former partner. Above all, in its current form, the Bill will not achieve a level playing field for separating parents making arrangements for their children based on respect for a child's right to maximum quality time with both of his or her parents, on the presumption that it is in his or her best interests to achieve that, barring any genuine risks to his or her safety.

The Bill is a major missed opportunity. We have engaged in constructive debate over the last year and we have given the Government the benefit of the doubt. I fear that they have failed to respond. They certainly failed to take on a single one of the amendments that we proposed to the House in good faith. Despite the good measures that the Bill achieves on inter-country adoption and the good intentions it professes on mediation and on enforcement against breach of contact orders, we fear that it will not work. On that basis, it will not achieve what it set out to do. The Bill is a dud and sadly—very sadly—I must urge Opposition Members to vote against it, because it will not do what it was supposed to do.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Minister (Education), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 9:32 pm, 20th June 2006

I, too, start by thanking the Officers of the House and Chairmen who have already been mentioned. I particularly thank my hon. Friend Mark Williams who stood in for me in Committee during the brief time when I was unable to attend. I also thank the Chairman of the Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs; he and his Committee have produced two reports that were pertinent to our discussions.

I pay tribute to the former Minister, Maria Eagle, now the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I am sorry that she was ill during the Committee stage, but I am pleased that she seems to be fully recovered. We should pay tribute, too, to the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, Mr. Dhanda. It was remarkable and refreshing to hear him answer our points in a clear, non-confrontational and helpful way. I would like to say that I look forward to working with him on future Bills, but this is my fourth Bill this Session and I am reaching saturation point, having also been a member of the Standing Committee considering the Education and Inspections Bill, so I hope that the Minister for Children and Families will let us consolidate children's measures for a while—perhaps we could do lots of good work in our many all-party parliamentary groups rather than spending our time on Bills. I thank the Minister who has been exceedingly courteous and helpful throughout our proceedings.

We need to focus on children and, as I said earlier, we have been in danger of straying into the realm of what parents want. Recently I received a letter—not from someone in my constituency—and I got to the third page before the child was mentioned. That really made me think; it was all about "I, I, I" and "I want this", which is worrying. That is part of our culture, so we must make sure that we put our children first. It is a sad reflection on society that children, who are entirely innocent parties, are dragged into conflict and suffer a great deal.

We must move forward in a number of areas. The Bill does not go far enough, but I do not disagree with any of its measures, so it would be extremely churlish to vote against it. External problems must be addressed, and we should not overlook the fact that the Bill is only a small part of the equation, as CAFCASS, the family courts and the judges are all important. It was not appropriate to support new clause 22, but we have said all along that there should be a compulsory meeting on mediation, even if the couple had to meet the mediator separately—in different rooms if necessary—provided that there were no domestic violence issues. I am sorry that an amendment was not tabled to that effect, particularly as the Bill identifies a compulsory meeting before mediation as a contact activity. I do not see why mediation should not begin earlier, and I am sorry that we did not include such a provision. I did not manage to table a suitable amendment, despite giving the matter a great deal of thought, although proposed subsection (3)(a) of new clause 22 is almost perfect for my purposes. We should not be complacent, as the failure of the family resolutions pilot project, in which there was low participation, cannot be ignored. I am sure that we all wish to avoid expensive, harmful and hurtful court procedures, and early intervention is a much better option.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Minister (Education), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I am grateful, Mr. Speaker.

The changes to CAFCASS are connected to the Bill, because they are part of the changing culture. I am deeply concerned, however, that the service does not have enough resources for contact activities, monitoring and family assistance orders. I hope that finance will be monitored, but excellent work is under way. The Select Committee pointed out that family courts should be more open. That has begun to happen, and it will help to reduce conflict. However, we need more full-time judges so that processes can be speeded up. I tabled an amendment in an attempt to address the gap before a case comes to court, when contact is often lost for good.

I welcome the fact that research is under way, but it is late and we have not yet experienced its benefits. I hope that a review will follow, as we need to revisit the issue. I am disappointed by the absence of a legislative statement that does not conflict with the paramountcy of the child's interests. We must take on board the views not just of non-lawyers but of the many members of the legal profession who have pointed out that the inclusion of conflicting presumptions is a serious problem.

Contact with parents and grandparents is all-important. Despite my great disappointment that there is not some form of legislative statement, I hope that we will work on that. The Minister has promised a review of the grandparent issue—

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission

Order. I remind the hon. Lady that she is going back to her old ways. May we get her to stay within the terms of the Bill?

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Minister (Education), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for drawing my attention to the fact that I was straying.

Having made all my points, I conclude by saying that, overall, we support the basis of the Bill. As I have said, it is churlish to vote against a Bill if there is nothing in it with which one disagrees. The Bill has some good provisions—particularly on adoption, contact orders and enforcement—so we will vote with the Government, but that does not mean that we think it is perfect.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet 9:41 pm, 20th June 2006

You, Mr. Speaker, better than most, will understand that those of us with other duties in this House sometimes have difficulty in participating as much as we would like to do in all aspects of legislation. I have studied the Bill on paper—only on paper, not in the Chamber—and followed its processes in the House of Lords, on Second Reading in this House, in Committee and, finally, this evening. It is with a very heavy heart—I say this curiously, in a sense—that I rise to support my friends on the Front Bench, because there is much of merit in the deliberations behind the Bill and, indeed, in the Bill. However, the fact is that, on its Third Reading, it is still deeply flawed. After all the effort that has been put in—I believe with good will—by both Government and Opposition Front Benchers in both Houses, that is tremendously sad.

It is one of the difficulties of these Houses that after a Bill starts in the House of Lords and is passed on to the House of Commons—where it is studied and read—has its Second Reading, its Committee stage and its Third Reading, it has nowhere else to go other than on to the statute book, or out. I sense that tonight, there might have been a willingness among Members in all parts of the House to send the Bill somewhere else and to think again. However, and as you have pointed out, Mr. Speaker, this is a Third Reading debate, so this is the full stop and, as things stand, we have nowhere else to go.

As my Front-Bench colleagues have suggested, the fact is that elements are missing from the Bill. You, Mr. Speaker, admonished Annette Brooke, who spoke for the Liberal Democrats, for commenting on what were almost Second Reading issues. Of course, we have to comment on what is in the Bill, but we must also comment on what is not in it and on the opportunities missed, to use the phrase coined by my hon. Friend Tim Loughton.

There are issues relating to the rights of parents and grandparents that have not properly been touched on. It might surprise you to learn that I am not yet a grandparent, Mr. Speaker, but I wish I was. However, like most of us, I have constituency advice surgeries to which grandparents come to plead a cause. If the Bill is about anything, it is about children, and such grandparents can offer an opportunity to children who are the subjects—I hesitate to say victims—of broken marriages.

I suppose that, at this point, I ought to place my own interest on the record. I am a divorcee and I have a daughter who is the victim—if that is the right word—of a broken marriage. Happily, my former wife and I managed to work together to look after our daughter. My current wife was a single parent—the father of her child was murdered. I adopted my eldest son. I feel quite strongly about these matters. The relationships—and the contact—between people and their children are vital, but the most vital issue is the children.

To come back to the point about grandparents, we are missing an opportunity. The Bill does not say that grandparents have rights. We were talking about mediation. You were otherwise engaged, Mr. Speaker, but, in a brief intervention just before the last guillotine, my hon. Friend Mrs. Miller sought to indicate the breadth and the depth that mediation might embrace. However, that is not in the Bill. We ought to be talking about creating opportunities for people to get together, not to fall apart.

In the interests of the children, we ought to be talking about how we can maximise the contact between the two parents—if we believe, and I think that the House still does, that fundamentally children need two parents and the love, affection and attention of two parents. We cannot achieve that by compulsion; we can achieve it only by the getting together of willing parties. We will not get willing parties together by forcing them into funnels of courts of law, where they are represented by people who may think that they are presenting the interests of children, but who are in fact presenting the interests of two separating people. Children need the support of a flexible system.

I am very sorry. I believe that the Minister is committed to the cause. I happen to think that my hon. Friends on the Front Bench are committed to the cause. I wish that the Bill could go somewhere other than to a Third Reading vote to say yes or no, but it cannot. The Bill is flawed. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham has said, it is an opportunity missed. On that basis, with a very heavy heart, I will have to oppose a Bill that has much merit in it, but does not go far enough.

Photo of Stewart Jackson Stewart Jackson Conservative, Peterborough 9:48 pm, 20th June 2006

I am pleased to be able to conclude the Third Reading debate. [ Interruption. ] It is gratifying to know that I am the cause of such hilarity on the Government Front Bench—particularly on the part of the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Mr. Plaskitt. This is a serious issue. We have had a good debate on Report and at Third Reading. I reiterate the comments of my hon. Friend Mr. Gale that we could have had a great deal of consensus at Third Reading. We could have been united across the House on the fact that we all care about the future of our children and their family lives and prospects, and that we all care about fairness and equality between men and women. We all understand the tragedy that people's lives do not go as they planned and that they split up and separate, and there is animosity, bitterness and hatred. We could have taken the opportunity to do something about that by sending an important practical signal.

I said in Committee that kind words butter no parsnips. I was right, because although we have heard a lot of kind words from Ministers, we have not seen solid proposals. I congratulate the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, Mr. Dhanda, on his appointment and welcome him to the Dispatch Box. We go back some way from our days in the London borough of Ealing. His career has taken off, and although mine is on a slower trajectory, I hope to catch up.

Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton Conservative, Congleton

It is only a matter of time.

Photo of Stewart Jackson Stewart Jackson Conservative, Peterborough

I hear what my hon. Friend says.

We wanted consensus. We have done our best to ensure that good sense and practical experience inform the debate. We have received an undertaking from the Minister on reviewing the situation on grandparents' access, which was addressed by new clause 19. There will also be a review of the paramountcy principle and an examination of how that works in the family court system. We have done our best, and I thank hon. Members such as Mr. Kidney for doing their best to achieve consensus. We are committed to the changes that were proposed by the amendments that we tabled, and we wait for a Conservative Government to enact those changes.

Question put, That the Bill be now read the Third time:—

The House divided: Ayes 291, Noes 132.

Division number 268 Orders of the Day — New Clause 22 — Mediation pre-child contact order where the safety of the child is not an issue

Aye: 291 MPs

No: 132 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name


Nos: A-Z by last name


Question accordingly agreed to.

Bill read the Third time, and passed.