Children and Adoption Bill [HL]

– in the House of Lords at 3:19 pm on 29 June 2005.

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Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Schools), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Schools) 3:19, 29 June 2005

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

Although promoted by the Department for Education and Skills, most of the Bill in fact relates to the courts, so I am grateful to have the assistance of my noble friend Lady Ashton, especially for Part 1.

The Bill is about better serving the needs of children. Part 1 promotes improved arrangements to facilitate contact with children—for example, following parental separation. Part 2 promotes further protection for children who are or might be subject to inter-country adoption requests. Those are highly sensitive matters, and the Government are glad that they have already received your Lordships' close attention through the valuable work of the Joint Committee on the draft Bill, chaired by my soon-to-be noble friend Clive Soley. We are grateful for the work of the Joint Committee and have taken on board a number of its key recommendations in the Bill.

Of today's 12 million children, perhaps 3 million will experience the separation of their parents at some point during their childhood. Although many parents separate amicably and handle the subsequent parenting arrangements well, we know that all too often conflict arising from separation can have terrible consequences for children. About 90 per cent of separating parents make provision for bringing up their children, including contact arrangements, without recourse to the courts. It is of course best for such arrangements to be made consensually, and we are giving additional support to encourage that outcome, including better information, specialist legal assistance and mediation services. However, about one in 10 cases goes to the courts for resolution of matters including the arrangements for contact between the parties and children. The Bill gives the courts a wider and more effective range of options to deal with those situations.

The principle guiding our policy is simple: the interests of children come first. The Bill extends the Children Act 1989, enacted under the previous government, which states in its opening words that,

"when a court determines any question with respect to . . . the upbringing of a child . . . the child's welfare shall be the court's paramount consideration".

The provisions of the Bill on the facilitation of contact and the enforcement of contact orders have their origins in recommendations of the judiciary. Four years ago, the Children Act sub-committee of the Lord Chancellor's advisory body on family law, chaired by Lord Justice Wall, examined the problems faced by the family courts in resolving disputes about contact with children after parental separation. Lord Justice Wall's report highlighted, first, the inadequate powers available to the courts in resolving disputes about contact, and, secondly, the inadequate powers of the courts to enforce contact orders, once made, when they are not observed by one of the parties.

Although the courts may hold the offending parent in contempt for breaching a contact order, that can lead only to a fine or imprisonment. Since those penalties often damage the child directly, and often substantially, the courts are rightly reluctant to impose them. As Lord Justice Wall's report put it,

"fines and committal are not only crude methods of enforcement; they are wholly inadequate as a means of addressing the problem of contact orders which have not been implemented . . . [and there must be] legislation widening the powers of the courts to enable them, in addition to imposing fines or ordering imprisonment, to make a whole range of orders designed to meet the circumstances of the individual case".

That is precisely the objective that the Bill seeks to attain. It does so by implementing many of the specific recommendations made by Lord Justice Wall to give the courts more flexible powers, including powers to refer parents to appropriate classes, programmes or counselling and powers to impose community-based penalties to enforce contact orders once made.

Clause 1 allows courts to make contact activity directions even before a contact order has been made. Contact activities can include parenting classes, programmes, counselling and information sessions on mediation, the last of which was recommended by the Joint Committee on the draft Bill. Clause 1 would also allow the courts to direct parties to attend a domestic violence perpetrator programme in cases where the safety of one of the parties or the child is at issue. Domestic violence is a serious issue in a significant proportion of contact disputes, and the Bill gives the courts additional means to address it. The option to require people to undertake contact activities would also be available to courts later in proceedings and may be required as a condition attached to a contact order.

On contact activities, let me deal with the issue of family resolution pilots, since, if I may say so, they have been intemperately cited, in advance of any evaluation, by the shadow Children's Minister in the other place as a "complete and utter disaster", which makes the Bill a "complete and utter farce" and dooms it to failure.

Let me be clear that the Bill ranges far wider—perhaps I should say "completely and utterly wider"—than the specially designed information, guidance and counselling sessions that form part of the family resolution pilots. The provisions on the enforcement of contact orders and on inter-country adoptions have no relation whatever to the pilots; and even in respect of contact activities, the range of activities made available under the Bill—for example, domestic violence perpetrator programmes—go far beyond the scope of the pilots.

In respect of the pilots specifically, it is true that the numbers going through the pilot activities in the three courts concerned have been small, significantly smaller than envisaged in the design of the pilots. Yet, it is certainly not the case that the judges and magistrates in those three courts regard the new information, guidance and counselling sessions as failing. On the contrary, having met Judge Nick Crichton, the district judge at the Inner London Family Proceedings Court, the main family court serving London, who deals with difficult cases day in and day out, I can report to your Lordships that he believes the new options included in the pilots to be extremely valuable. They concentrate the minds of parents much more effectively on the needs of their children in making contact arrangements, rather than on a legal battle to be won or lost.

Furthermore—this is a crucial point in relation to the Bill—Judge Crichton told me that a major problem with the pilots was precisely the fact that the family courts did not have the power to require parents to undergo such contact activities when they believed that it would be in the best interests of parents and children to do so; and that without the power of compulsion in the Bill, it would continue to be difficult to persuade many couples who are in a state of bitter tension and dispute to undertake sessions that could help them address the needs of their children more effectively than through a protracted legal battle. I submit that such views from judges and magistrates on the front line demand respect. I am sure that they will receive it from this House.

Clause 4 provides the community-based enforcement powers that Lord Justice Wall recommended. Where a contact order is breached, courts will be able to impose an enforcement order requiring the party in breach to undertake unpaid work. The orders will be administered through the Home Office's existing arrangements for community penalties, giving the courts a wider range of enforcement powers that can be imposed without punitive fines or depriving children of their parent's care for days at a time.

Clause 5 will also allow courts to make orders requiring financial compensation to be paid by one party to another where the breach of an order results in financial loss, such as the cost of a holiday that has already been paid for.

Following the recommendations of the Joint Committee, Clause 6 reforms family assistance orders. We have not gone so far as to remove the requirement that people consent to those orders being made, as suggested by the Joint Committee. Clause 2, however, allows the courts to require the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service to monitor compliance with contact orders, a process that will not require consent.

The Government appreciate that there are those who believe that the contact provisions in the Bill should be framed differently. As I said at the outset, the Bill remains founded on the principle underlying the Children Act 1989, passed under the previous government, that the interests of the child should be paramount when determining a question relating to the child's upbringing. The Bill does not direct that presumption of a particular contact arrangement should weigh against what would otherwise be the court's judgment on the best interests of the child.

As the House knows, there are those who propose that such a provision should apply in respect of contact with both parents, but that is not a position that the Government believe it right to impose. Contact with both parents is, of course, generally the outcome of contact proceedings. We fully support the position established in case law that children normally benefit from a meaningful relationship with both parents following separation, so long as it is safe and in their best interests for that to happen, but each situation is unique, and we do not believe it right to restrict the ability of the courts to make an unfettered judgment about the best interests of the child on the facts of each case. In that respect, we agree wholeheartedly with Fathers Direct, a leading fathers group. In its response to the consultation on the Green Paper which led to the Bill, it said:

"The problem is not the law. It is that the implementation of the current law is not bringing about the intended outcome, namely, the best interests of the child. . . . The problem of how we support families in separation is far more complex and diverse than can be solved by one dramatic gesture".

Part 2 of the Bill deals with inter-country adoption, which affects comparatively few people in this country—there being around only 300 cases each year where children are adopted from abroad. For those children, it is a fundamental life change, and it is our duty to ensure that the process is as safe, compassionate and efficient as possible.

Our legal system already provides fully for the welfare of adopted children once in this country, and noble Lords recently improved the position through the Adoption and Children Act 2002. However, in the past we have not given such attention to the procedures applying in respect of children adopted from abroad before they are brought into this country. Clauses 8 to 11 address that. They provide a statutory power for the temporary suspension of adoptions from a specified country that may be invoked where the Secretary of State has concerns about the adoption system in that country. The power is likely to be used only rarely in response to serious concerns such as evidence of child trafficking or of parents being paid or coerced to give up their children for adoption.

As the House knows, though such cases are rare, it is not a hypothetical concern. Last year, the Government felt obliged to impose such a suspension using the Crown's discretionary common law powers in response to acute concerns about the adoption process in Cambodia. That decision is currently a matter of legal proceedings, so I will not elaborate on it much now. Suffice it to say that similar situations could well recur, and we believe that it is better for the framework for the suspension of inter-country adoptions to be made explicit in primary legislation rather than requiring prerogative powers.

Clauses 8 to 11 extend to England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Inter-country adoption is a devolved matter, and we understand that Scottish Ministers plan to include provisions relating to inter-country adoption in Scottish legislation in due course.

The provisions in the clauses are intended to protect the welfare of the children involved, not to penalise prospective adopters or to impose general restrictions that fail to meet the needs of particular children. That is why we have made provision in Clause 10 for cases to be allowed to proceed in spite of any suspension at the discretion of the Secretary of State or appropriate devolved authority.

Clause 12 allows the Secretary of State to charge an appropriate fee for the processing of inter-country adoption applications. Prospective adopters are receiving a direct and personal benefit from that service, and we believe it reasonable for adopters to contribute to the administrative cost of their case where they are able to make such a contribution. However, the clause also gives the Secretary of State power to reduce or waive the fee, and we intend those powers to apply in particular to adopters from lower income households. I am aware that concerns have been raised about the provision by the British Association for Adoption and Fostering and others. I have written to them to explain in more detail how the system will operate, and I will place copies of that letter in the Library of the House.

Two final measures in the Bill relate to inter-country adoption. Clause 13 amends Section 83 of the Adoption and Children Act 2002 to make it harder to circumvent restrictions on bringing children into the UK. Section 83 of the 2002 Act states that, where the external adoption order was effected less than six months before the child is brought into the UK, the adopter must meet certain conditions, such as being assessed and approved by an adoption agency. In some cases, the restrictions are being circumvented by UK residents adopting children and then leaving them in the care of a person in the other country until six months has passed, to avoid meeting the conditions. The Bill discourages people from circumventing the restrictions by extending the time limit in such cases from six months to 12.

Clause 13 clarifies that a child brought into the UK for adoption is not also classified in law as a privately fostered child. That prevents an overlap of functions for local authorities, who otherwise might find themselves subject to two different sets of duties in respect of the same child.

In conclusion, I repeat that the Bill is largely inspired by the judiciary, based on its everyday experience in seeking to resolve difficult, often traumatic separation disputes and to promote the interests of the children concerned. Lord Justice Wall and his committee described the current arrangements for resolving contact disputes and enforcing contact orders as,

"seriously deficient and, in our judgment, the system needs urgent and radical change".

That was also the judgment of the Joint Committee that examined the Bill and is one that the Government share.

Although the Bill will not of course settle all contact disputes, it will resolve more of them better and faster to the benefit of all concerned and, first and foremost, to the advantage of the children involved. If it achieves that objective, it will be one of the best endeavours of this new Parliament. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Adonis.)

Photo of Baroness Morris of Bolton Baroness Morris of Bolton Spokespersons In the Lords, Education, Family & Children, Health, Deputy Chief Whip, Whips, Vice-Chairman (Candidates), Conservative Party 3:35, 29 June 2005

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, for his clear introduction of the Bill. We appreciate the meeting we had last week with Ministers. It enabled the Bill team to give us an overview of its thinking, sprinkled with the characteristic enthusiasm of the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton. I should hate noble Lords to think that just because only my noble friend Lord Howe and I are batting for Her Majesty's loyal Opposition today we are the only ones interested in the Bill. Other noble friends who are interested could not take part in the debate today but will take part later in Committee.

Everyone in the House is searching for the most practical, effective and, above all, compassionate arrangements for contact and adoption. Child contact and international adoption are two immensely sensitive areas that are often highly charged. Someone who works in the family law world said to me last week, "Across my desk each day goes the heartache of Britain". We are dealing not only with matters of law but with people's feelings and lives.

The sentiment behind the Bill has driven many debates in your Lordships' House. There can be no doubt of the political will on all Benches to support the best interests of the child—support that stretches back well before the arrival of the UN and Hague conventions on the rights of the child.

I am particularly pleased, therefore, that the Bill has started in our House. But what a missed opportunity. I do not doubt for one minute Ministers' determination to find the best possible solutions to a problem that has been too long recognised—a determination that we share—but I regret to say that the Bill will not deliver those vital solutions. It will not solve the problems of so many broken families who depend on our goodwill and on our wisdom to offer them a better future, a future with real hope. So I hope that Ministers will be able to put politics aside and accept our constructive criticism in the way it is intended. Together, we can build acceptable legislation to deliver those necessary solutions.

The introduction of Part 1 proves that the Government continue to recognise the premise set out in the Green Paper that,

"the current way in which courts intervene in disputed contact cases does not work well".

But the Government then fail to address the intrinsic problems devastating thousands of families across the country.

Up to 200,000 children each year experience the emotional distress of their parents' separation or divorce. Two out of three of those children are under 10 and one in four is under five. One in every five children is likely to have to go through their parents' separation or divorce before they reach the age of 16. Parents who cannot resolve their issues outside court are faced with a long battle in which the child is often used as a pawn, with 40 per cent of children losing all contact with the non-resident parent within two years.

Where the safety of the child is not an issue, the best parent for a child is both parents. We will seek to amend the Bill to include the legal presumption of co-parenting where it should be a given that all fit parents will have the right to substantial parenting time to build up and sustain a loving relationship with their child. This should be backed up with compulsory mediation. If a parent is considered a fit parent when they are married or living together, there is no reason in a normal case why this assumption should change just because they separate or divorce.

I have great sympathy with the situation in which many CAFCASS officers must find themselves. They have to report on two people who, but for the break up of their relationship, would probably never come to the attention of the state; two reasonable people in all other respects but each facing a time of emotional crisis for which none of us would be well equipped. So the challenge for the CAFCASS officer is to see the real person.

I am very lucky—I have been married for 26 years—but I mused on what a CAFCASS report might say about me if I ever found myself in the position of countless of our fellow citizens. It would probably say, "Works away from home, involving long and anti-social hours; appears more interested in everyone else's children than her own; and spends long, hot, summer week-ends indoors writing speeches". I see the Ministers nodding. They would probably get the same report. It would not be a good report and yet I am not a bad parent.

The truth is that very few of us could withstand the close scrutiny of the report writers. We have a system which, by its very nature, turns the normal into the abnormal.

The whole argument revolves around the understanding of the word "contact". Within a family law dispute, it means any contact at all, no matter how short or infrequent. It could in theory be just a postcard, not even face-to-face contact. Case law provides the presumption of contact but it does not provide for presumption of reasonable contact.

We believe that where there are no child safety or other legal issues, a separated or divorced parent is not just entitled to contact with his or her child; he or she is entitled to reasonable and substantial contact. We propose that this be given legal power with a presumption of reasonable contact.

The interests of the child are paramount, of course—no one disagrees with that principle, given its legal force in the Children Act 1989. But we believe the interests of the child are best served when they have substantial access to both parents.

Of course there are those parents at one extreme who will simply abandon their responsibilities after separation or divorce. There are others whose circumstances will not permit other than a less than ideal level of contact. All this is the way of a hard world—the realities for so many of us. However, a presumption of reasonable contact will set the agenda for those so often in raw emotional turmoil who are brought fearfully into the legal process—anxious beyond measure that, with their failed relationship, their children too will be lost to them. They will at least be given a reassurance by a presumption of reasonable contact that the courts will do all that is humanly possible to maintain and nurture that precious link with their children. And with access through both parents comes access to the extended family.

Grandparents deserve a special mention. They are often unpaid childminder, cook, taxi driver, nurse, marriage guidance counsellor and overdraft facility. And yet, overnight, their relationship with a much cherished grandchild can be ended. They are the innocent party in all of this. Another benefit of the presumption of co-parenting is that they will not lose all contact with the grandchild they love so much simply because a son or daughter's relationship breaks down.

We had hoped, along with many others, that following the Green Paper Parental Separation: Children's Needs and Parents' Responsibilities, and the overwhelming evidence from other countries, the Government would have adopted, or at least run a pilot scheme on early interventions. Instead, we have had the costly and flawed Family Resolutions Project. Now we have a Bill that simply looks at ways of enforcing what already happens and seeks to deal with the process and not the problem.

We will seek, during the course of the Bill's proceedings, to persuade the Government of the merits of the early intervention scheme and to look at setting up an independent pilot. To run such a pilot would not require primary legislation—just a different starting point and a leap of faith.

We would like to discuss those foundation principles in more detail during the later stages of the Bill. We will also want to discuss the proposals on mediation and enforcements, although we were glad to see that the Government removed the option of electronically tagging errant parents. We want to discuss some of the issues raised by the Joint Committee's excellent report, and we would like to look at an area not covered in the Bill—that of child abduction.

I am conscious of time and will save detailed debate until Committee. I would, however, like to highlight our main concern with regard to Part 2 of the Bill. We broadly welcome the main provisions in Clauses 9 to 11 and accept the need for a clear and transparent procedure to be in place if adoptions from other countries into the UK have to be suspended. But we are concerned that this does not in any way seek to deter inter-country adoptions. Of course we must be constantly vigilant about the horrors of child trafficking. However, the foundations put in place by these clauses are completely undermined by the fact that restrictions on inter-country adoption can be circumvented by private fostering.

We share the concern of the British Association for Adoption and Fostering about the powers in Clause 12 enabling the Secretary of State to impose a charge for work done in connection with inter-country adoption cases, especially as it was not a matter raised in consultation on the draft Bill. I understand from the Minister that these costs could be around £800 or so and would be "administrative". Considerable financial costs are already incurred by parents who want to adopt children from other countries. It would be tragic if this provision led to a decline in adoptions.

We also agree with BAAF that this,

"additional financial burden . . . may run the risk of a minority seeking to circumvent procedures, thereby putting children at risk".

There is an acute shortage of UK-born children available for adoption. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of displaced children in eastern Europe, Africa and elsewhere are crying out for a home. We should not deprive them of a chance of a new life in Britain because we have established what is effectively a tax on compassion.

In conclusion, I should like to return to the issue of child contact. So many of those who come unwillingly before the family courts—unable to resolve the many consequences of their fractured relationships, and, with their issues between one another, unable to compromise over their children—are thoroughly decent people. They are people crying out for and deserving—each one of them—all the help that can be given to them. The state has an important role to play, but it should not be the overriding one. A parent's role in bringing up their children is paramount. Courts and mediators must bend to allow parents to exercise their responsibilities for their children. And the state must be ever vigilant, lest the state needlessly takes those responsibilities to itself.

It is part of the easy currency of today's politics to talk about discipline or the lack of respect in our young. The remedy, we are told, is to ban hoodies and target potential criminals from the age of three. But where do our children learn discipline? Where do they learn respect? Above all, it is from their parents, from within their families. Families are the very foundation for the good and just society which we all desire.

We are all familiar with the uncomfortable statistics on the problems posed for children without proper parental structure and without a role for their father. The current arrangements risk the downgrading of the family and above all of fatherhood. We allow that at peril to future generations. It is our job in opposition to highlight all the concerns and issues surrounding proposed legislation. This is of particular importance when dealing with the sensitive issue of children and their welfare. I hope throughout the course of this Bill that we can work from our cross-party wish to protect the child's benefits, to help families and to form a workable piece of effective and efficient legislation, anchored in common sense. Perhaps then we can help mend at least some of the heartache of Britain.

Photo of Baroness Sharp of Guildford Baroness Sharp of Guildford Spokesperson in the Lords, Education & Skills 3:48, 29 June 2005

My Lords, I, too, would like to join the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, for his excellent introduction to this Bill. I would also like to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, for a very useful meeting at which we discussed the main tenets of the Bill.

We on these Benches are broadly supportive of the Government in what they are trying to achieve in this Bill. As the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, explained in his introduction, 25 per cent—some 3 million out of 12 million children in this country—are now brought up with parents who are separated or have never been together. In 90 per cent of those cases, the issue of child contact is settled amicably or at least with mutual agreement. It is in only 10 per cent of cases that that is not so.

Research from the University of East Anglia and a lot of other research indicates that among these 10 per cent of cases the parents are often very young, poorly educated and on low incomes with extremely young children. Partly because of their lack of education, they often find it difficult to communicate, not only with each other but also with those who try to help them. There may be a deep lack of trust between the parents, often a history of violence and very low-level parenting skills. Frequently in these cases there is already worry about the vulnerability of the children.

In other words, the 10 per cent of cases that reach the courts are ones in which the families frequently need sustained support and help with problem solving. It is from that 10 per cent that the 40,000 annual applications to the courts over child contact come, and the 70,000 breaches of child contact orders. The sad part about the current situation is that the only recourse for enforcement of those orders is through contempt of court, and the remedy comes through fines and imprisonment, which does nobody any good, let alone the children involved.

As the Minister stressed, this Bill represents the Government's attempt to find a different way in which to resolve these issues. We welcome that. We agree with them that if possible the issues should be resolved through mediation, but we also agree that mediation cannot be made compulsory. We welcome the acceptance since the draft Bill that the welfare of the child should be the court's paramount consideration. That is now written into Clause 1. However, we regret that Clause 4, on contact orders, and Clause 5, on financial arrangements, does not make children's welfare paramount but only directs the courts to take it into account. We welcome, too, the dropping of any suggestion that curfews or electronic tagging are appropriate.

In relation to compulsory mediation, we agree with the conclusion in paragraph 94 of the fourth report of the House of Commons Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs, published earlier this year, on family justice. The report said:

"Where it is safe to do so"— and I want to come back to the concept of when it is safe to do so—

"(and subject to the court's discretion) we believe all parties should be required to attend a preliminary meeting with a mediator".

In other words, they should be given the opportunity to explore mediation but not forced into it. On that matter we depart from the views of the Official Opposition. We do not believe that mediation can be made compulsory, nor do we believe that we can legislate for how much contact time should be given to each parent. The noble Baroness, Lady Morris, talked about reasonable contact time but did not define what she meant by "reasonable". Presumably, that will be something that we shall explore in greater detail in later stages of the Bill.

Since many of these families have little concept of what mediation is and need, as indicated, help with problem solving, we also agree that the move towards mediation should be supplemented, and, indeed, often preceded, by compulsory referral to programmes which provide information about the services available and counselling about the range of issues, from parenting skills to anger management, including perpetrator programmes in cases where there is violence. They should have help and advice about how best to tackle the issues that confront them. Linked with that aspect is the proposal that when contact orders are breached community service is a more appropriate "punishment" than fines or imprisonment, especially if that community service helps to promote better social and parenting skills. Again, we support the proposals.

We think it unfortunate that the preliminary results of the family resolution pilot project, initiated last September in three areas—Brighton, London and Sunderland—have been leaked. As the Minister explained, it seems that they are not really appropriate as comparisons because there was no element of compulsion. There may have been a very low take-up, but there was no compulsion to participate in the programmes provided. There is a major difference between the pilots and what is being proposed in the Bill, where there is both compulsion to attend these programmes and an element of compulsion to participate in preliminaries to mediation, while not pushing them into mediation as such.

As I say, although broadly speaking we support the aims and the process proposed in the Bill we have a number of reservations about Part 1. First, as regards contact and the safety of children, given the frequent history of violence in those cases that come to court—CAFCASS indicated at a recent conference that violence was an issue in about 60 per cent of the cases with which it dealt—we feel very strongly that any contact activity should be subject to careful and separate risk assessment to minimise possible risk, especially to the children involved but also to the individuals themselves, particularly women. We are concerned that the Bill as it stands contains no measures to require the courts to assess risk and ensure that contact is safe. The Joint Committee recommended in paragraphs 45 and 101 that before making contact or enforcement orders the court should explicitly be required to consider the safety implications of making such an order both for the child and for the parent.

Moreover, the safety issue needs to be revisited over time because for many families the situation is not static. New partners often emerge on both sides and the situation may well need to be reassessed regularly to take account of such developments. The issue of safety needs to be considered at the outset and revisited. At later stages of the Bill we shall put forward amendments to cover both those points.

Secondly, the need to have regard to the child's own wishes and feelings should be included in the Bill. In view of the prominence given to that issue in the Children Act that we considered last year and in the Education Act that we passed in the spring, it is unfortunate that that issue is not mentioned in this Bill. We shall put forward amendments to ensure that those considerations are included within the scope of the Bill, if possible.

My third and final point on Part 1 concerns resources. I understand that if the proposed procedures succeed in cutting dramatically the number of court cases the saving could be substantial given the size of legal fees these days. However, both committees that considered the Bill in draft form, the Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs and the Joint Committee on the draft Bill, commented with disbelief on the Government's firm conviction that the proposals would not require more resources, at least in the first instance. The Government are placing much emphasis on the role of the staff of CAFCASS, on the National Offender Management Service—formerly the Probation Service—and on local authority social services. Indeed, the LGA has said that if the contact enforcement orders that are proposed involve a great deal more work for its own staff—it cannot see that they can avoid doing so—it will need more resources.

As Relate, one of the voluntary organisations involved, states in its briefing in relation to those who are involved in contact activity,

"these people need to be highly qualified therapeutic professionals able to work with a range of emotional responses that will be evident during the programme. The risk of not providing this level of professional staffing is enormous".

But as we all know, these people are scarce. We need programmes of training to ensure that there are sufficient people coming through the system to implement the proposals in the Bill. Certainly we welcome it, but people and resources are very real issues.

Finally, I should like to say a few words about Part 2 of the Bill, the international adoption element, with which my noble friend Lady Barker will be dealing at much greater length. Again, broadly speaking, we support the Government. It is essential that any adoptions made across borders accord with the standards that we set for ourselves nationally. Above all, it is vital that we safeguard potential adopters and adoptees from any element of child trafficking. It is rather sad that, as with the Children Act, the Government seem so reluctant to state in the Bill their adherence to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. It would be good to see us pledge to uphold those standards in the context of the legislation. Once again, it seems that the Government cannot quite bring themselves to do so.

Photo of The Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich The Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich Bishop 4:00, 29 June 2005

My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, for his clear introduction to the Bill. In broad terms I welcome the Bill, which takes into account much of what came out of the report on the draft Bill earlier this year. Clearly, it is important to see the Bill in context as only part of the wider provisions aimed at helping separating parents while also addressing some of the issues of inter-country adoption.

It is good that the Bill affirms a commitment to the principle that the welfare of the child is of paramount importance in determining any questions related to its upbringing, as outlined in core primary legislation. There are, however, some questions about the degree to which the provisions in the Bill are based on legal and court procedures rather than making more use of processes that are less legal in nature. I know that the Bill is aimed at dealing with the court procedures, but there is a question about whether other measures would enable some cases not to have to go through the courts.

During the passage of the Family Law Act 1996 and since, there have been constant reminders, not least from these Benches, that it is vitally important that there is proper support for all aspects of supporting adult relationships. Most of that is delivered by the voluntary sector, which has to compete for resources against legitimate demands from other aspects of work with families. Picking up the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, I remind the House that it is vitally important that we see the significance of work that helps to reduce the number of separating families who have to resort to legal and court procedures and the importance of proper resources for that work.

The good news is that the vast majority of separating parents sort out their own situation, and only about 10 per cent resort to using the legal processes. But there is a fundamental underlying question of the extent to which processes that are largely legal in nature are best able to serve couples. Clearly, there are situations in which the stage is reached at which a legal solution is the only way through. However, research commissioned by the Department for Constitutional Affairs that was published earlier this year gave an insight into the reasons why parents go to court, what their expectations are, and whether those expectations are met. It shows that issues of child welfare were not necessarily the driving force behind the conflict. Parents are often angry about other things—financial support, mistreatment or abandonment. Because the courts could not listen to such complaints, parents channelled their anger and hostility into the one issue that the courts could listen to—namely parenting.

In March, the Constitutional Affairs Committee issued a report that concluded that there must be a clear and unequivocal commitment to removing as many child contact and residence cases as possible from the family courts system, with more disputes being dealt with through mediation. Picking up what the noble Lord said in his introduction, I hope very much that the low take-up of the mediation scheme that was recently piloted by the three family courts in London, Brighton and Sunderland will not deter the Government from looking further at the questions of mediation and compulsory mediation.

I was interested in what the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, said about compulsion. It feels as though there is a question about the point at which compulsion is used. No doubt there is experience in other places, not least America and Norway, on that. It would be interesting to hear more in the winding-up.

The second part of the Bill acknowledges the principle of inter-country adoption and outlines the procedures to help to safeguard the welfare of the child. However, drawing on the experience of PACT—Parents and Children Together, the Oxford diocesan adoption scheme which handles 60 out of the total of 360 cases annually in this country—I understand that it is a costly and lengthy business, and is not easily available to people on limited incomes. I heard what the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, said about that.

Concern has been expressed, not least by the British Association for Adoption and Fostering, about the introduction in the Bill at this stage of a power to impose a charge for work done in connection with inter-country adoption cases. As has been said, that was not a matter for consultation when the draft Bill was published. Until now, there has been a duty on the local authority to ensure a child's welfare by carrying out welfare supervision once a child has been brought into this country from a non-designated country. The Bill would introduce a change which would enable local authorities to pass on the cost of the processing of the welfare supervision to the applicants. I understand that that could be in the region of £2,500. The question is how enforceable that would be, and whether it could leave the child more vulnerable.

A telling point made by the Inter-country Adoption Centre is that the cost may mean that people have the funds to adopt only once. That could mean that the child they adopt is destined to be an only child or the only child adopted. Where the inter-country adoption is a transracial adoption, it would generally be felt to be in the child's best interests to have a peer with whom to share a common background.

The Bill builds on the outcome of evidence given earlier this year and brings forward a number of good provisions. However, it raises questions about the extent to which processes in this sphere should be focused so closely on legal procedures. It also raises some underlying questions about whether proper and sufficient resources can and will be made available.

Photo of Baroness Gould of Potternewton Baroness Gould of Potternewton Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 4:08, 29 June 2005

My Lords, I was privileged to be a member of the joint scrutiny committee that considered the draft Children (Contact) and Adoption Bill. However, in my remarks, I want to concentrate purely on Part 1 of the Bill.

It would be fair to say that the majority of witnesses who appeared before the scrutiny committee welcomed the Bill in principle, even though a number of witnesses felt that aspects of it needed further consideration. There is no denying that the implementation of the Bill will make a real difference to children and families experiencing parental separation. It is obviously desirable that children have the right to regular contact with both parents following separation. No one would argue against that principle. The circumstances for that contact must be safe and secure, however. Direct contact has to be in the best interests of the child, with every possible measure taken to guarantee the safety of the child when the courts are considering the granting of residence and contact orders.

The system still fails to protect children adequately from abusers who are known to them. The Green Paper, Parental Separation: Children's Needs and Parents' Responsibilities, recognised that there are concerns about children's safety in at least 35 per cent of the 10 per cent of cases that get to court. The links between child abuse and domestic violence are well established, and domestic violence does not stop when parents separate. Over a third of all domestic violence occurs post separation. My noble friend Lady Thornton and I have raised this issue on a number of occasions in your Lordships' House. We have done so because contact is a particular danger point.

The survey carried out in Bristol in 1999 found that 76 per cent of the children of 130 abused parents were said to have experienced abuse during contact visits ordered by the courts, yet 39 per cent of those women had been threatened with imprisonment for refusing to comply with the contact order. So we must identify any risk at the earliest possible opportunity in the proceedings and the risk assessment should be taken whenever necessary throughout those proceedings.

The House of Commons Constitutional Affairs Select Committee and the joint scrutiny committee both recommended that there should be an extension of the welfare checklist in the Children Act 1989. Although that proposal was not included in the Bill, it is encouraging that the Government are prepared to consider the recommendation further by sending a positive signal to the courts that children generally benefit from a meaningful relationship with both parents after separation, so long as it is safe and in their best interests. However, the welfare checklist does not give weight to the child's wishes, views and experiences. Would it not be possible for mechanisms to be put in place for the courts directly to hear the views of the child or children involved?

The courts' ability to impose contact activities—be they voluntary mediation, information sessions, counselling or guidance sessions—when there are breaches of contact orders by either parent are of course welcome. Particularly welcome is the Government's acceptance that such activity could include perpetrator programmes aimed at those who have been violent towards their partners. However, the courts need to exercise caution regarding the degree of change expected from attendance at such programmes.

Whatever provision is made by the courts, there must be a guarantee that the arrangements are immediately available. It is no good if the courts take a decision and someone has to wait some months before he can begin the contact activity. That might mean the provision of extra resources for the organisations concerned.

There were also differing views from witnesses at the joint scrutiny committee on whether there would be any savings from this procedure. Some felt that, as more people might feel they could obtain better results, the procedure would increase court activity. As the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, said, the Local Government Association is concerned that if local councils are to be responsible for setting up an increased number of contact activities, they should receive extra resources to meet the cost.

Extra resources need to be made available for child contact centres. I appreciate that extra assistance has been given over the past few years to the National Association of Child Contact Centres to improve standards and that centres that are members of the NACCC are being encouraged to receive accreditation. However, that does not cover those that are not members. Can my noble friend indicate what is being done to ensure that all such centres become accredited members of the association?

The joint scrutiny committee spent a long time discussing the consequences of non-compliance and the action that should follow. They had two concerns: first, in respect of the type of enforcement order that could be imposed; and, secondly, on the continuing welfare of the child. On the first point, the committee was concerned about the definition of unpaid work. It is therefore helpful that the Government's response indicates that the National Offender Management Service will be responsible for determining the nature of the community activity and that that will not involve working with children.

The other concern on this aspect was the suggested curfew requirement and the possibility of electronic tagging to monitor compliance with the curfew. We were particularly concerned about the effect of such actions on the child and that it would clearly be seen as a punishment. It is encouraging, therefore, that the Government have responded by removing both curfew and tagging from the Bill.

I am, however, disappointed that the Government have not responded so favourably in respect of the welfare of the child. It seems to me that the first step in any case of non-compliance should be to find out why the contact order has not been complied with, and, further, for the courts to consider whether the order in current terms is consistent with the court's responsibility to protect the welfare of the child.

The Bill states in Clause 1 that,

"the welfare of the child is paramount", in considering whether to make a contact order. It must be right that that principle is followed throughout the whole of the proceedings. However, as the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, said, that principle seems to have been diluted in Clause 4 by the Bill directing courts to take into account only the welfare of the child. That is not sufficient. For instance, as cited by the NSPCC, the imposition of fines, which may seem an innocuous activity, may push children and their parents into poverty, thus causing disadvantage to the child.

While I appreciate that the court will be dealing with a breach of a decision of a court, I still do not understand how, as has been suggested, making the welfare of the child paramount at that stage will fetter the court's discretion and scope to enforce sanctions. I do not understand the logic of that argument. As the right reverend Prelate said, this is clearly a legal Bill. As I am not a lawyer, perhaps I have failed to understand something about the workings of our courts. I would appreciate clarification on why we cannot make the child's welfare paramount throughout the Bill.

That is my major concern about the Bill. Nevertheless, it is right for the Government to have introduced this legislation to assist the 10 per cent of separating families who seek the courts' help to settle safely the arrangements for their children. I trust that the Bill will have an easy passage through your Lordships' House.

Photo of The Earl of Listowel The Earl of Listowel Crossbench 4:16, 29 June 2005

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, who eloquently called for the welfare of the child to be thoroughly imprinted through the Bill. I support her remarks about the importance of better resourcing of contact centres and recognising the work that they do.

The right reverend Prelate referred to concerns about overlegalising processes in this area. I was reminded of what happened with the establishment of the Child and Family Court Advisory and Support Service. Members of both Houses expressed concern that that service was placed in the Lord Chancellor's Department and, as the right reverend Prelate may be aware, a very sad haemorrhaging of guardians from that service followed because of the poor and insensitive management of that new setting. It is due to the very hard work of the two deputy chairmen who are to speak today that that is being redressed.

I note what the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp of Guildford, said about offenders and about the number of young parents on low incomes, often from difficult backgrounds, involved. We know, I think, that about 40 per cent of men in young offender institutions are fathers. They are highly overrepresented. We also know that an important means of preventing re-offending when offenders leave prison is ensuring that they sustain their family contacts.

I welcome this opportunity to look extremely carefully at the sensitive arrangements for ensuring that children can have contact with their parents wherever it is safe for them to do so, and vice versa. It is crucial. Children in local authority care were consulted by the advocacy charity Voice for the Child in Care and asked for their views for a blueprint of the best way forward for foster care and residential childcare. Their first priority was the quality of relationships and sustaining relationships with their siblings, their foster carers and their families wherever possible. We must bear that in mind. We should also remember that we are not just talking about parents and children but about siblings.

I welcome the clear layout of the purpose of the Bill given by the Minister and, in particular, the determination that it should achieve better outcomes and more and better resolutions in a positive direction of these controversies.

My concerns are fourfold. The first is the context. Contact centres are not properly resourced. We are striving to achieve contact through this Bill, yet improperly resourced centres may, with the best will in the world, be letting down parents and relationships may be collapsing as a result.

I turn to enforcement. Of course one wishes the law to be followed properly, but these families are in very complicated situations and the parents often have very complex relationships.

Your Lordships may be acquainted with individuals who have a string of destructive relationships. One must be careful that the courts and the state do not in some way become that sadistic "other" person to some of these parents by being drawn into overly punitive reactions to their behaviour. As noble Lords will understand, this is an extremely sensitive area.

In terms of the voice of the child, throughout the passage of the Bill we need to ensure that we thoroughly involve the feelings and wishes of children and that the interventions are effective.

On compulsion, some time ago I had a very interesting conversation with the noble Lord, Lord Warner, when he was head of the Youth Justice Board. He said that compulsory parenting orders were effective. There was a lot of concern that such compulsory orders would be ineffective. But many parents welcomed them. He described them as a very cost-effective and effective way of preventing young people re-offending. Perhaps that needs to be borne in mind in this matter.

I turn to the detail of my concerns. On a previous occasion when such legislation came before your Lordships' House the scarcity of provision and the geographical lottery of availability of contact centres was made clear to me. I welcome the additional investment made by the Government in the mean time.

On Saturday I visited a contact centre run by the Welcome group. I was shown the play area outside and saw one father playing ball games with his twins and other fathers playing with their children, and a waiting room with a parent in it. I spoke with a volunteer co-ordinator. She expressed to me the difficulty of retaining volunteers—most contact takes place at weekends and that is a difficult time to recruit volunteers—and the vital importance of supporting and training volunteers for this important work. There is uncertainty in some of these centres about their future and therefore uncertainty of volunteers in terms of investing in training.

We must ensure that in the future there is proper investment in these centres. I look to the Minister for reassurance that there is a plan to build continually and to support the work of these centres.

I have probably said enough about enforcement. On the voice of the child, perhaps the noble Baroness will say in her reply—or perhaps she will write to me—to what extent children involved in contact were consulted in the process of developing this legislation. During the passage of the Bill I would welcome some investigation regarding consultation with children who have experienced contact on their views on this legislation and their advice and experience.

We need to know more clearly what exactly the interventions will be. Several noble Lords have alluded to that matter. I welcome the opportunity to look extremely carefully at the mechanisms for promoting better outcomes for children in this area.

I have a point to make on contact, which brought the matter home to me. A parent may not have had contact with his child for nine years before seeing him in a contact centre. At the centre the parent is supported by volunteers in making the contact. So we need those volunteers to be extremely well supported to make such things possible and not for a father not to see his child for another nine years because the contact does not work.

How would your Lordships feel if the only opportunity you had to see your child in his childhood was inside a building? Most contact centres are in church halls with no exterior play area. How would your Lordships feel if you gained contact and then, because the building was cramped and because of the lack of expertise of the workers there, you came across the resident parent, there was an altercation and you lost access to your child? We need to consider extremely carefully that part of the Bill. With that, I look forward to the Minister's response.

Photo of Baroness Howarth of Breckland Baroness Howarth of Breckland Crossbench 4:25, 29 June 2005

My Lords, I was privileged to be a member of the scrutiny committee, along with the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, and I commend its report. However, the Bill is bigger and more complex in its implications than its size might suggest. We should view it much as we did the previous Children Act 2004, which was small, and which I described as having a big heart—this one has a big spirit. It must be viewed in the matrix of Every Child Matters, not in isolation from all the other things going on, because that gives a better view of where we were are taking the services and what we hope to achieve.

Whatever the outcome of family disputes and however well adjusted the children become, the events around the breakdown of their parents' relationship will have a profound effect on their lives—for many, one from which they will not easily recover. I have listened to the distress of many children during my years as a social worker and on the telephones of Childline—the one place where children will tell of their pain and experiences just as it is. Those experiences have served to increase my resolve that it is not only the resilience of children that will see them through that anguish—as the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, said, it is real pain—but the framework in which we deal with their families and the support that they receive in the outside world.

I underline the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, that, throughout all of this, the children's voice must be heard. We in the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service have undertaken to consult children throughout the process: we may not be there yet, but we will get there.

The Bill also deals with many aspects of international adoption, to prevent the trafficking of children. Because of my interest in public law as deputy chair of CAFCASS, I intend to concentrate on those aspects of the Bill. However, I hope that other noble Lords will use their time to talk about the vital issue of protecting family life in countries where it is even more fragile than in this one. I am not against international adoption, but I work in an international organisation where it was recently said to me, "We are not producing babies for the barren countries of western Europe". Real issues need to be considered there.

I will not repeat the statistics, except to say that in 2003–04, of the 40,000 applicants to court concerned with contact, 7,000 were the result of alleged breaches of contact orders. It is worth reminding ourselves that less than 1 per cent of applications for contact are rejected. If you read the newspapers, you would believe that it was continually rejected. That is not so. That small number, together with cases in which contact is frustrated by the resident partner, are contentious. In the past, the only recourse that judges had to ensure access for children to the non-resident parent—usually the father—in the face of resistance by the resident parent—most often the mother—has been the threat of imprisonment or fine.

Recently, there have been cases in which the judge has ordered a change of residence in favour of the other parent, but that is not always practical or appropriate. So, as I said, I welcome this small but important Bill, based, as it is, on the belief that children have a right to contact with both parents unless that contact is dangerous or detrimental to their development—the safeguarding principle, to which I will return.

Research demonstrates that, unless there are dangers, children benefit from contact with both parents. They have more emotional stability; do better educationally; and so have a better start in life. So I congratulate the Government on finding their way through some difficult issues but, most of all, for resisting the idea of 50:50 shared time. I hope that the noble Earl, Lord Howe, will tell me whether "reasonable contact" is a more polite way of talking about 50:50 shared time. All plans for such children should be based on a professional assessment of their needs, not the demands and wishes of adults. Children are not possessions to be shared out with the chattels on the breakdown of a relationship; they have a right to a view. I hope that the Minister will confirm that that remains the Government's position.

Research also shows that the emotional and behavioural problems of children exposed to domestic violence can have life-damaging repercussions. Some children need to be rescued from violent fathers who, as a result of their behaviour, have forfeited the right to contact with their family. The Joint Committee recommended that the Bill should require the court to consider the safety implications of contact decisions and not require activity unless it was safe to do so. It is a pity that we do not have the outcome of the report of Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Court Administration, being conducted in CAFCASS, on domestic violence. It might do something to fill the gap identified in research by Women's Aid and Barnardo's.

The new family court application forms, gateway forms, are having some impact and show that early intervention is helpful, but they increase the workload of CAFCASS and it may not be sustainable. We must ensure that, from the outset, courts address safety issues. Recent damaging case law illustrates that the welfare checklist is not enough. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, that it is essential that we do all in our power to ensure that courts do not place children in danger.

Balancing those situations takes the utmost skill and care. We remember the story of Solomon, faced with two women claiming the same child. He held the child up, took his sword and offered the women half each. The true mother, by begging him to spare the child even if it meant giving him up, identified herself, and the child was returned to her. Workers in CAFCASS will recount family dynamics that have surely tested the organisation, where warring parents are not prepared to give an inch of ground. As the right reverend Prelate said, most are not terribly interested in the child; they are interested in the war. They are decent people, but they have had extraordinary, damaging experiences; they are not straightforward individuals who will be able to find their way through.

Some parents locked in dispute will do all that they can to frustrate contact, even when it is in the child's best interests. I do not think that the search for remedies has proved easy. I am delighted that the Government have set aside curfews and tagging, measures that would have been guaranteed further to enflame family contact. You can imagine comments such as, "Look what your dad has done to me". However, there still might be merit in a time and place order, which might be explored further through the process of the Bill.

You would expect me to be convinced that programmes, classes, counselling and sessions of information and advice were more likely to have an impact on changing behaviour, but, as many noble Lords have said, there is a shortage of those services. They need to be long enough to be effective, and they are costly. Will the Government look again at reviewing those services throughout England and Wales and ensuring that enough are available? The real saving in the lives of children and healing of families would be huge.

The development of enforcement orders remains a challenge to the imagination. It will be difficult to find something more meaningful than cleaning graffiti—although that might be one answer—that does not involve the parent in too much disruption and that meets cultural and religious criteria. We all know that involvement with other people's children, however attractive the idea, is not an option. Financial compensation orders for failed holidays and outings will be welcome and useful in certain circumstances, but many defaulting parents will be unable to pay.

As has been said several times, it is worth reminding ourselves of the characteristics of the families in question. Disproportionately, compared with others, they are young, on a low income and have very young children. The parents' communication is limited; they lack trust, empathy or flexibility. The longer section of the East Anglia report tells you of very disrupted families. Many have already been brought to the attention of social services, and many of the characteristics of the individuals we see in private law are not so different from those whom we see in public law, before the courts, because they are being removed from their children and there is that kind of dispute.

So although I welcome all the measures giving more flexibility to the court in resolving such complex problems, I consider that more will be achieved by direct intervention in families, as envisaged in Clause 6, through family assistance orders. Ongoing advice and assistance—family casework—by a local authority or CAFCASS social worker for a reasonable length of time will have a greater impact not only on the contact situation but on family life. Interesting research carried out by, I think, the National Association of Probation Officers shows that, where there was intervention, contact with fathers increased during work with those families.

To undertake such work, we require social workers with high levels of skill and competency. They need wisdom and judgment, as well as an organisation and government department that supports them in their difficult task. They must understand the law, child development, mental health, family dynamics, partnerships, budgeting and more. Yet, CAFCASS, the largest individual employer of social workers, does not feature in the Children's Workforce Strategy report. Are the Government taking seriously the training requirements, recruitment issues and ongoing development costs of that group of staff? Although the workforce strategy tells us that £250 million has been invested to support the social care workforce as a whole, CAFCASS has barely enough resources to meet service demand, so there is little left over for training days. Would that be tolerated by teachers?

I was going to touch briefly on the scrutiny committee's point about removing the section of the Bill that provides that a court must take into account the welfare of the child, but the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, has covered that. I simply say that I hope that even in situations of contempt our great institutions would not see themselves as greater than the sad child at the centre of the conflict. The recommendation of the committee remains valid.

The Bill will help to make services for children and their families caught up in private law proceedings more responsive and flexible. It would be even better if families could be helped to resolve their differences out of court. If resources are available and will stretch, CAFCASS will try to achieve that. If parents engage in the process, it will work only if we assume the highest standards of assessment, are rigorous about safety and have a system capable of sustained care and support of families by well resourced and trained workers. We are still some way from that aim.

Under the determined and remarkable leadership of the noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley, and with other members of the CAFCASS board and the CAFCASS team, we are committed to making this work in the interests of children. It is a huge task. We can achieve it only by working in partnership. In a society where, sadly, more rather than fewer children seem likely to need the help of court family social workers, we simply cannot contemplate anything but success. As the Bill takes us forward into a new phase of work, we need the Minister's assurance that the Government comprehend the size and complexity of the challenge. I doubt whether I would have taken the job if I had understood the size and complexity of it when I was asked. My long experience as a social worker tells me that if we can get this right it will have a profound effect on the individual lives of thousands of our children.

Photo of Baroness Pitkeathley Baroness Pitkeathley Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 4:38, 29 June 2005

My Lords, in rising to make my contribution I declare an interest, of course, as chair of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, which is always known as CAFCASS; although I am happy to say that it is not quite so frequently now known as "disastrous" CAFCASS, "failing" CAFCASS or "hopeless" CAFCASS. We are making progress there, although I might echo some of the words made by the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, about the size of the task.

I have to say that taking on the job of chair of CAFCASS is not the easiest thing that I have ever done in my life, but I would also have to say that it is one of the most worth while. On a personal level, it takes me back to my roots as a social worker, a childcare officer, working with children at the most needy period of their lives. At a public policy level, it focuses on those vulnerable children and their families where they come into contact with the law—either public law or, as is the focus of most of this Bill, in private law.

As others have said, it is very important that we see the Bill in its context as part of the wide range of measures on the Every Child Matters agenda, enabling the voice of the child to be heard, understood and acted on, and making the safety, happiness and satisfactory development of children central in public policy. The Government are to be congratulated on the way they are tackling these important issues, as are government departments on how they are working together in facing these challenges, as illustrated in the Bill where Ministers from two different departments are taking it through your Lordships' House.

I should like to acknowledge the help and support I have received as chair of CAFCASS from Ministers and officials in both the Department for Education and Skills and the Department for Constitutional Affairs, my board. Noble Lords will appreciate how fortunate I am to have as deputy chair the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth. We are grateful for the support we have received since our appointments in what can be described only as unusual circumstances.

We are also grateful to the scrutiny committee for its work, of which both the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, and my noble friend Lady Gould were members. That work had a beneficial effect on the draft Bill, especially as the committee worked under great pressure of time. We are delighted that the Government have taken note of its recommendations on contentious issues such as tagging, and we hope that they will similarly take note of the strong words on resources set out in its report, a point to which I will return later.

The Bill we are considering today is of immense importance in preserving family relationships in the face of separation and divorce, and follows the consultation paper, Making Contact Work, and the Government response to it acknowledging that the way the courts currently intervene in disputed contact cases does not work well. It proposes to improve access to existing information, specialist legal advice, piloting a collaborative law approach, encouraging mediation, extending in-court conciliation services, and improving case management and follow-up. The additional enforcement powers are an integral part of the new approach, but as we consider the Bill both in general and in detail, it is vital to remember in particular two points.

The first is that this represents just one part of the Government's proposals to support parents and children in cases of parental separation. As we have heard many times, around 90 per cent of parents do not make court applications. Only a minority use the courts and our aim must always be to increase the number who do not need to use this legislation. Courts, however they develop, will never be the best place to resolve complex family disputes, where emotions run high and attitudes become entrenched the longer things drag on. So we must focus our energies on alternative dispute resolution, on preventing disputes arising in the first place, and on enabling parents to understand their lifelong responsibility and commitment to their children, no matter what happens to the relationship between the two adults concerned.

We must remember too that we are attempting to make major changes to a system which at present essentially focuses on resolving disputes between adults to make it one where the interests of the children are paramount. The change will not be a simple matter, especially since research shows that the problems faced by the minority of families which apply to the courts are far more complex and extensive than simple disagreements over times and amounts of contact. They are likely to have major communication difficulties, a complete absence of trust, huge amounts of anger and often some form of violence or abuse.

These problems cannot be resolved by courts that require input of a different kind, focusing on education, social policy, the relief of poverty; that is, problems of the kind on which the Government are attempting to focus their policies. As other noble Lords have said, they also need to focus on making the voice of the child as strong as possible. It may be that stronger direction could be provided for that during the passage of the Bill through this House.

I am happy to say that CAFCASS has placed particular emphasis on child participation, on hearing the voice of the child, and that it has recently appointed a children's rights director. The family resolutions pilot project, in which CAFCASS has been closely involved, has attempted to take a new approach to addressing these problems. But as we have heard, the response thus far has been disappointing in terms of take-up. Because referral is not mandatory, families much in need of a resolution approach have had a chance to sidestep the process and thus to focus on what they think they want—that is, a fight between the parents—rather than being forced to concentrate on the needs of the children.

In addition, some of the families most in need of conciliation work, where there is a history of domestic violence or repeated court appearances, have been excluded from the pilot project. But, as the scheme is a pilot, the opportunity is there for the Government to use it as one and to now consider whether mandatory referral to mediation even stronger than the compulsion elements contained in the Bill at present might produce more satisfactory results. I hope they will at least consider such an approach and that the Minister will give her view on this.

As we must remember the limitations of the Bill, so we must remember the limitations of existing systems and be prepared to change radically the ways in which those systems operate. CAFCASS is ready to do so—the record of the new CAFCASS board, its hardworking chief executive, Anthony Douglas, and its staff is evidence of that—but we cannot deliver a new approach without two things: first, a change in working practices by the courts and judiciary; and, secondly, adequate resources.

I very much endorse the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, about the CAFCASS workforce. I am often awed by the skills of many of the CAFCASS workers. I can assure the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, that their skills go far beyond the ability to write reports. I have every confidence in their ability to make accurate judgments about her, or anyone else's, parental abilities—or, indeed, mine as a grandparent.

But we have to consider these changes in working practices and, as I say, we are prepared to do that. In her evidence to the Scrutiny Committee, the then Minister clearly acknowledged this when she said:

"We will only bring this legislation in when we are clear that the resources are available and that requires both the judiciary and CAFCASS to stop doing some of the things they are currently doing".

The committee responded by asking for a detailed explanation of how both CAFCASS and the Courts Service can expect to meet their increased remits within existing costs. I must emphasise that CAFCASS is fully committed to these new proposals and believes that our skilled and experienced workforce will be able to deliver on the expanded role envisaged for us.

We already have examples of how the courts, voluntary sector organisations and CAFCASS are working closely together to be more effective in how they offer a child-focused service. But, in some areas, the demands on CAFCASS officers for reports, repeat reports and endlessly rescheduled court hearings are not abating and we cannot within existing resources change our way of working while these demands continue. In addition, the increased complexity of some of the most recalcitrant cases takes up more, not less, time.

In addition to the responsibilities for compliance and suitability which the Bill imposes on CAFCASS officers, CAFCASS will also administer reformed family assistance orders with an extended maximum duration of 12 months. To take forward our extended role in facilitating and supporting contact where it is in the best interests of the child, and to provide family support workers, we shall need to diversify our workforce to provide workers who can invest time in building the confidence and trust of families.

We see this as an opportunity to ensure that staff skills are further developed and targeted appropriately. It sits alongside our continued thrust towards problem solving, dispute resolution and focusing on children. We welcome this being a shared responsibility with local authorities and have already taken major steps towards working more closely with colleagues in local authorities and the voluntary sector in both public and private law.

While the majority of private law cases with which we work do not meet the thresholds which would give them access to support from social services, we know that many of the families share problems of debt, poverty, mental health, drug and alcohol misuse. The proposals in the Bill would facilitate referrals to specialist agencies, providing specialist programmes which would help the changes in attitude necessary to make contact work.

The capacity to follow up contact orders for a limited period will allow us to ensure that where contact does not take place this can be followed up. This may mean bringing the matter back to court but it could also mean putting more robust arrangements in place as planned. Examples that we already have in place are using family support workers or volunteers to be present at handovers or taking children to contact if this cannot be achieved by family or friends.

While recognising that enforcement of contact may be necessary because it is of such critical importance in a child's life, we are of the view that enforcement of contact and support of a family are not easy to combine and steps should be taken to see that the two roles are kept separate.

I conclude by repeating that CAFCASS welcomes the Bill and the opportunities it offers. However, such development of new services, with the training and staff support they require, do not come cost-free, even if those costs are mainly transitional and not long term. We were very glad to see the Government's acknowledgement of this in their response to the Scrutiny Committee report; they recognised the resource implications for CAFCASS and that some costs will be incurred before savings accrue. I hope that the Minister will confirm this in her response.

CAFCASS has not had an easy history, as is well known. We have addressed, and continue to address, many of its problems. We are grateful for the support we have received from successive government departments and from our colleagues and partners, many of whom, as I know only too well, have had to suspend disbelief over a long period. We are getting there, but I am well aware of how much remains to be done in changing culture as well as systems. The new legislation provides us with a great opportunity to change private law for the benefit of children and families. If we have the tools, in the form of resources and skills, we can finish the job.

Photo of Lord Northbourne Lord Northbourne Crossbench 4:51, 29 June 2005

My Lords, I give a cautious welcome to Clause 1. I have no specialist knowledge of inter-country adoption and I do not intend to speak at all about it.

I am sure that all noble Lords taking part in this debate are well aware of the importance of what the experts call "attachment" in the upbringing of children. I find the word rather cold and clinical; I prefer a concept such as "long-term forgiving love" as the kind of relationship which is so important for children.

There are three kinds of love that are important for a child: the love between the mother and the child; the love between the father and the child; and the love between the mother and the father. The third kind—the mother-father relationship—is important for two reasons. First, it affects the child's personal sense of security in the family. Secondly, it acts—or should act—as a model for a loving, forgiving relationship from which the child can learn. Sometimes a surrogate father or mother, often in the form of a grandparent or step-parent, can fill the gap when the mother-father relationship is dysfunctional or lacking for some reason. Indeed, other extended family members can fill the gap as well.

I am sorry that the Bill does not address the important issue of the role of grandparents and step-parents. About 1 million of the nation's children live in stepfamilies, and I suppose that something like 100 per cent of them have grannies.

Clause 1 was obviously drafted as a response to the problems of access, which were highlighted by the antics of a pressure group acting for fathers. It did rather a good job, in my opinion, but that is another point. I am concerned about justice for fathers, but, as almost all speakers have emphasised, the well-being of children should be paramount in our consideration of what should happen when families break down.

I hope that I shall not be out of turn if I draw attention to some of the more fundamental changes which will be needed if we are seriously to address the damage done to children by family dysfunction and breakdown, or by the decision of some parents not to make a commitment to a stable, long-term parenting partnership in the first place. The noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley, referred to the importance of reducing the scale of the problem if we are to be able to cope with it.

Research confirms experience in telling us that children who grow up without a stable two-parent family are more likely to have problems in school and in later life. We also know that domestic violence, family dysfunction and breakdown cause emotional trauma for children. We know that relationships within families matter crucially to children. Family structures also matter; some structures make good relationships easier and some make them more difficult. Family structures affect the way that parents and surrogate parents relate to and have good contact with their children, so we should not ignore the importance of family structures.

Successive governments have shied away from recognising those problems because family life and the bringing up of children is, for our society, a very private affair. Parents resent unwanted interference. They want to feel in control. But that does not mean that parents do not want help when they need it, or when they want it. It does not mean that the state could not do more to prepare children for family life and for their future parenting responsibilities.

Today, some 27 per cent of all the nation's children are growing up in single-parent families. According to the latest figure that I have, at least 700,000 of those children have lost all contact with their father. Between 250,000 and 300,000 families separate each year. Domestic violence is on the increase. A very recent report—I received it only yesterday—by Parentline Plus suggests that, by 2010, divorce, separation and re-partnering will be the norm, yet estimates show that at least 50 per cent of remarriages which form a step family also end in divorce, and that 25 per cent of step families break down in the first year.

Has the time not come when we as a society, as a nation, need to decide whether we want to accept these trends as inevitable, despite the unhappiness that they cause and the damage they undoubtedly do to so many of the nation's children—not to mention the unhappiness of the parents themselves? Or do we take our courage in both hands and consider working towards a policy that would encourage fewer broken families and support stable two-parent families—a policy that would enhance the quality of that lifestyle thereby making it more attractive to more people? Is that a credible alternative? I believe that it is. Almost all parents, as they hold their first child in their arms, want to be good parents. They want to do their best for that child and live together in a happy family.

There are many things—all of them beyond this Bill—that could and should be done to solve the problems that we are addressing in this Bill and that could be done without too much intrusive intervention into the private life of the family. I do not want to delay the debate this afternoon by going into any detail on the many things that could be done, but I will briefly mention five.

The first is relationship education in schools, which was mentioned by the right reverend Prelate. At every age from five to 15, children should be learning from appropriately trained teachers interpersonal skills appropriate to their age—communication skills, emotional literacy, how to form and sustain good relationships with peers and adults and how to discuss and negotiate without anger. Those and other similar skills are what they will need as citizens. They will need them in work and when they come to form a family.

Secondly, parents and prospective parents need to understand more clearly the responsibilities that attach to bringing a child into the world. That should include responsibility for the social and emotional well-being of the child as well as material support. They also have the right to know what help is and is not available from the state. The NFPI has suggested that a parenting compact between the state and parents might be a good idea.

Thirdly, much of the subsequent argument between parents could be avoided if they understood better at the time of committing themselves to parenthood what each was expecting of the other. Of course, marriage is one way of partially achieving that, but for those who cannot or do not want marriage, should there not be some alternative kind of memorandum of intent which could be entered into, either at the time of the birth of the child or, one might hope, before it?

Fourthly, a blitz is needed to improve the physical environment in which many committed two-parent families are bringing up their children today. The issues considered in that regard should include housing, poverty, debt, health and all the other things that they need. Today we are taking advantage of willing and dedicated parents by not giving them the support that they need.

That leads me on to the final and most important point. In my view, there is a need for government and society to recognise and celebrate those parents who are making a genuine commitment to do their best for their child. We need to recognise and celebrate the public service that such committed two-parent, stable families provide for the nation, and recognise and reward them accordingly. If we have an interest in having more such families, we have to make that lifestyle choice more attractive to young parents than other lifestyle choices.

Those are just examples of the many things, which are tremendously non-contentious, which we could and should be spending resources on doing. Today as a society we are obsessed with the safety and academic achievement of our children, which are both extremely important. But let us not forget that social and emotional well-being are also crucially important. The child's family normally holds the key to the child's successful social and emotional development.

Photo of Baroness Thornton Baroness Thornton Labour 5:01, 29 June 2005

My Lords, I last spoke on this issue during the passage of the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004. I started my remarks then by apologising to noble Lords who lived through the passage of the Adoption and Children Act 2002, saying that they might experience a sense of déjà vu about what I was about to say. Partly in echo of the remarks made by my noble friend Lady Gould, my remarks today will be a case of déjà vu, déjà vu. The issues that I want to raise today concern children's safety during contact procedures.

In common with many noble Lords, I welcome the commitment made by the Minister from the outset, including in Clause 1 of the Bill, that the welfare of the child is to be the courts' paramount consideration. Indeed, I congratulate the Joint Committee on its very serious consideration of that issue. But I am worried that the fine objective expressed at the beginning of the Bill is not reflected throughout. I am not alone in that concern; it has been expressed here today by other noble Lords, and, I have to report, by many children's organisations with which I am in contact, and by Women's Aid. It is children's safety-proofing that I and others will seek to bring to bear in the Bill as it progresses through your Lordships' House.

I am particularly concerned that in Part 1, in Clause 11E(2) of Children Act 1989 the words "and safe" are not included in relation to contact and the active direction of it. There are many other places in this Bill where the inclusion of really very simple words—and similar words—would do a great deal to ensure the safety of children and parents.

There are still children, and sometimes parents—usually mothers—who are being harmed and even killed during contact arrangements. We know that that is a very small number, and a small number of a small percentage—that is, 10 per cent—who find themselves before the courts. But the death of even one child at the hands of a violent parent is one too many. If Women's Aid and the NSPCC are still expressing their concern that children have been harmed or abused as a result of contact arrangements after several years of attempting to deal with this issue, I suggest that we still need to take it very seriously indeed.

During a hearing of the Select Committee, on parental contact, Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss was asked about judges allowing Schedule 1 offenders to have unsupervised contact with their children. She replied:

"We do not always know they are Schedule One offenders at that time".

That is not good enough. It is totally unacceptable that the family justice system still does not have reliable procedures for checking properly whether or not a parent is likely to be a risk to their child and for assessing and managing that risk.

I am also concerned that there seems to be no UK research into the reasons for non-compliance with contact orders, so the proposed measures seem not to be evidence based and therefore must beg the question, will the measures be beneficial to children? Indeed, as many noble Lords mentioned, why are children's views still not being sought at the outset? As has been said by several noble Lords, I am afraid that that is probably a question of resources. That really will not do.

During the course of the Bill's passage I shall address in detail issues concerning promises and commitments made by the Government over the past three or four years. For example, how effective are the new family court applications? What effect do measures to monitor Section 120 of the Adoption and Children Act 2002 concerning the safety of children's contact with violent parents have?

In 2003 the Department of Health stated:

"At least 750,000 children a year witness domestic violence. Nearly three-quarters of the children on the 'at risk' register live in households where domestic violence occurs".

Three years ago, in the Adoption and Children Act the Government recognised the damage that witnessing violence does to children. This Bill takes us a further step along the road to ensuring that contact should be made safe, but I believe that it does not yet achieve that. That is the task before us during the course of this Bill.

Photo of Baroness Barker Baroness Barker Spokesperson in the Lords, Health 5:06, 29 June 2005

My Lords, we have had a debate of extraordinary quality. As the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Bolton, said, the Government should be grateful that the Bill has started in this House, as they have at their disposal a wealth of experience that, I suggest, it would cost them a fortune to buy. Whatever form the legislation takes when it leaves this House, it will be immeasurably better as a result of the input from noble Lords in all parts of the House.

I begin with a remark that may seem slightly controversial: this is a Bill about adults. It is not wholly right that Part 1 concentrates on adults; however, it is absolutely right that Part 2 should concentrate on adults. I mention a point raised in BAAF's briefing that may seem rather small but which is relevant: the title of the Bill is wrong. I preferred the Bill's title as announced in the gracious Speech; that is, the Child Contact and Inter-country Adoption Bill. That is what the Bill is about, and that is what it should be called. Throughout this afternoon's debate it has been apparent that we are addressing a complex problem. Various noble Lords have discussed all kinds of areas that are not addressed by the Bill, which is primarily about the role of the courts and contact. Therefore, I suggest that the Government should rethink that matter.

We are returning to an issue that has been the subject of successive legislation over the past decade. From the proposals introduced under the previous government in 1995 by the then Lord Chancellor, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, to this Government's Bill of 2005, there has been recognition that the legislative framework concerning the well-being of children and families following separation and divorce is not satisfactory and needs reform. Valuable work has been done, from the response of the Lord Chancellor's Department in 2002 to the consultation paper Making Contact Work, to the Green Paper Parental Separation: Children's Needs and Parents' Responsibilities and the subsequent paper in January 2005. What has happened is a process over time of further understanding and refinement of court practices relating to why contact does not work. It is one further step along that road—not to defining what is reasonable for a family on separation, but to refining a framework to enable them and the courts to determine what is reasonable for them. I go back therefore to what I said before: we need to focus clearly on the ambit of the legislation.

The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, was right to echo the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton of Upholland, in her evidence to the Joint Committee to the effect that we are all severely hampered because we do not know the reasons for the breakdown of contact orders or why they do not work. In her submission to the Joint Committee, the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, talked about the fact that research into gateway orders would not come in until 2006. At the moment, we are at something of a disadvantage. It would be a strong temptation in the absence of reliable research to impose on the legislation our impressions of what reasonable contact should be.

It is clear that there has been a great deal of progress on the way in which contact disputes are dealt with, and the increased use of mediation and conciliation is to be welcomed. We welcome the Government's attempts to encourage mediation, and we agree that for the reasons outlined by my noble friend compulsory mediation will not work but it is important to encourage people to go to the initial sessions to find out what it might mean.

Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss's said this to the House of Commons Constitutional Affairs Committee:

"the trouble with mediation is it is means-tested, so if you are on Legal Aid you get it free but if the other parent is not legally aided, and quite often the father is not, he is going to have to pay several hundred pounds to go to mediation, and if he is not very keen it is not really an encouragement for him to do it".

The speech made by the right reverend Prelate in particular shed a great deal of light on the subject for me. He said that in many cases what was being discussed was not really child contact but all the other issues over which parents were at war. It is important to note that mediation services should be there and should, as the noble Baronesses, Lady Pitkeathley and Lady Howarth of Breckland, said, be sufficiently resourced to enable people to deal with the other issues that are fought out under the guise of contact.

In the time available to me, I shall concentrate on risk assessments, which is one part of Part 1. My noble friend alluded to those. I have listened hard to what many noble Lords have said about cases where there is suspected domestic violence. It is essential that the risk assessment process be sufficiently robust to ensure that all matters of domestic violence can be investigated and can either be dealt with or dismissed. It is important for resident parents who have a genuine fear to have it acknowledged and brought to court. Equally, it is important that fathers who face such accusations, which are not true, should have the wherewithal to defend themselves and to have those accusations dismissed.

My honourable friend in another place Annette Brooke told me the other day of a constituent of hers who had been to court repeatedly to challenge just such accusations. Having spent £30,000 and being able to afford to go no further, he is now left with no way of seeing his children. That cannot be right. Risk assessment is not necessary in every case. It should not be an instrument of tactical delay but should be easily available when necessary.

More important, risk assessment should be sufficiently flexible and sensitive to discern whether an incident of violence has happened as a direct product of the strain of separation; is part of a pattern of behaviour that might be repeated in future and might be of harm to a child; or is simply a product of anger against a former partner. It is essential that we have assurances in the Bill about risk assessment so that that will happen.

I want to speak briefly about Part 2. During consideration of the Adoption and Children Bill, I expressed the view that, whatever one's opinion of the desirability or otherwise of inter-country adoption, it was inevitable—it would happen. Therefore, it is preferable that the process be properly regulated and safe for children.

I take some issue with the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Bolton, and her characterisation of inter-country adoption. Such adoptions happen for a number of different reasons. Frequently, it is about people adopting children from within their extended family or extended friendship ties. More often than not, it is nothing like that. The noble Baroness said that there was a shortage of babies for adoption in this country, but it is not so. There are thousands of children in this country waiting for adoption, but they are older children who have a number of problems.

I understand entirely that people who wish to adopt may have made the decision that adopting such a child is not what they can or should do and therefore choose to go abroad to adopt babies. That is why it is right that Part 2 be about adults, not children. Let us bear it in mind that the legislation will cover countries such as the USA. It is not simply about people who, for humanitarian reasons, go abroad to adopt children in need.

The procedures for suspending adoptions from other countries need to be clear, transparent and fair. It is absolutely right that, where there is reason to believe that the adoption procedures in another country would fail the needs of children, there should be the power to suspend them. However, the process of inter-country adoption is extremely long. If noble Lords talk or listen to people who have been down that path, they will know what an extensive and expensive process that it is. Therefore, it is right that there is the power in Clause 10(2) to allow exceptions in individual cases, particularly those in which adoptions have started and the process of restricting the country subsequently comes along.

People who go down the route of inter-country adoption often find themselves facing barriers over which they have no control. Procedures in other countries take a long time, particularly where systems are not as robust as here. More often than not, inter-country adopters, who have to have a home study from social services departments in this country, face extensive delay while those under-resourced departments focus on the needs of children in this country. I therefore ask the Government to explain in detail how they will publicise their intention to place a country on a restricted list, advise adopters of the decision and publicise the circumstances in which discretion to make an exemption could be made.

A number of noble Lords raised the subject of fees. I simply ask the Government why they are necessary. That is the only question to which we need an answer on that.

I agree with BAAF that extending the time limit from six to 12 months, as proposed in Clause 13, is a good thing. It will stop people evading some of the rigours of adoption procedures in other countries. However, there is again a case for exemptions. If people were working abroad, entered into a process of adoption perfectly reasonably under the laws of that country and were suddenly recalled to this country, it would be wrong to make the children face 12 months of disruption before that process went ahead.

Finally, I wish to make two points in the time available to me. I shall talk about private fostering, and the noble Earl, Lord Howe, is permitted at this point to put in his iPod and pull up his hoodie, because he has heard me say this so many times. Until such time as we have a private fostering system that is properly regulated in this country, we will continue to run up against problems that sometimes are masked as inter-country adoptions but more likely are about trafficking. Recently, we have seen reports about the number of children in this country who simply disappear as the result of a badly regulated system for private fostering.

I have a final question. The Civil Partnership Act was passed last year. Can the Minister say whether the Bill recognises the fact that we may be dealing with contact between civil partners?

Just as with the Adoption and Children Act 2002, we are dealing with one of the most difficult, personal tragedies that there can be in life. It is not our job to seek solutions or remedies for those problems. We simply cannot do that. It is our job to provide a framework in which adults and courts are enabled to do what is right for children. That is our path.

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe Spokespersons In the Lords, Health 5:21, 29 June 2005

My Lords, this has been, as I think we all expected it would be, a lively debate. I am sure that the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, and the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, will be as grateful as I am for the many thoughtful contributions that we have heard from all parts of the Chamber. I am sure, too, that they will have been struck by the mixed reception that the Bill has received. There was a warm welcome from some noble Lords, but a decidedly muted one from others. The criticisms are not a reflection on them personally, but they are criticisms that they will need to take seriously on board. That critical line is one which, I regret, I feel compelled to reinforce.

Perhaps I may begin with a simple proposition. Legislation that is presented to Parliament, no matter what its content, should aim to do one thing—to make a world a better place, to put it in the broadest of terms. If we were to try to sum up what we wanted to do to make the world better for those parents whose marriages were breaking up, we would say this. We want to help children continue to see and spend time with both their parents, wherever violence is not an issue. We want to help parents to see their children. And we want to help parents and children avoid the destructive, expensive and drawn-out trauma of litigation.

Step one of that process—and here I agree totally with the noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley—is the avoidance of litigation. If we can persuade people that it is not in their interests to go to court and not in their children's interests either, and if we can persuade them to reach a workable agreement about the way their children are cared for and to stick to it, the result is likely to prove much more beneficial for the children's long-term emotional adjustment. The consistent theme running through all research on this issue is that when both a mother and a father play a significant role in parenting, their children will be better adjusted, do better at school, form stable relationships and stay clear of the criminal courts. Society benefits directly from fathers and mothers fulfilling their individual roles as parents.

What does the law say? The clear underlying premise of the Children Act is that both parents have a shared responsibility for the upbringing of their children. All of us say "amen" to that. By rights, then, the Act should enable and facilitate non-resident parents to see their children. But, typically, the opposite happens. We know that 40 per cent of fathers lose touch with their children altogether within four years of separation. Most fathers do not want that to happen, but it does, despite the Children Act.

The family courts are not meant to be adversarial, but in practice they are. And they are slow. In court proceedings, women are usually awarded residence. The mother resists the idea of the child having substantial contact with the father. A father wishing to contest this may secure some form of agreement at the start, but later on find that his former wife, for no good reason, reneges and shuts him out. He wants to go back to the court and he may do so once—perhaps more than once—but he is deterred by costs, by the realisation that the mother has the whip hand in being able to cut off contact, and by the simple fact of time passing. Once a status quo is established, it is that much harder for a non-resident parent to overturn it.

However, that parent will find himself in a most invidious and peculiar position. Let us suppose that it is a father. However loving, warm and successful the relationship he has had with his child, he effectively has to prove to the court that contact—that is, meaningful contact—is in the child's best interests. You have to prove that contact that has been halted by parental separation should be restarted.

Frequently, that is a difficult mountain to climb. Under the Children Act, the child's best interests are prayed in aid in a manner which typically favours the resident parent. One hearing follows another. The most ordinary of human aspirations—to have a child stay overnight—can take several years of litigation to attain. Where it ends is often in precious little contact between non-resident parent and child. The system has well and truly failed.

Against that background, if we look at what the Bill proposes, it is difficult to see how it will even begin to address the problems I have described. In fact, it is difficult to see how it will do anything that is useful or constructive. What is "contact activity"? It is certainly not contact with children. It is, in practice, yet another barrier put in the way of a parent before the contact application can be pursued.

What are these so-called classes and information programmes? If you are a normal affectionate parent, you do not have to be taught how to love your child or how to have a meaningful relationship with your child. You do not need to go to a state-imposed class in order to express your feelings about not being allowed to see your children. I say to the Minister that this is utter madness. In fact, it is worse than that. If Ministers believe in evidence-based policy, what is their evidence that the provisions in the Bill will make a hap'orth of difference to the fathers who are denied time with their children? What can Ministers tell us about the content of these classes and programmes and the people delivering them which will give us any confidence whatever that they will serve to bring about shared parenting and avoid protracted litigation? I doubt whether they can tell us anything because the evidence simply does not exist.

We are supposed to applaud the fact that the Bill contains penalties for parents who breach contact orders. I am prepared to accept that they may have their place in some cases, but what real constructive good will come of them? What good will be done by making a mother serve a community penalty? Again, we need to remind ourselves of our objective. The objective is not to punish the mother for not letting her see your children. The objective is to set up a legal system, as the Government promised, which will let you see your children in the first place. Where are those changes to the legal system? They are not in these punishments. Punishments will not help fathers and they will serve only to antagonise mothers.

To revise the legal system and to make it work, you have to think out of the box. We say that there are several key ingredients for doing that. One is to build into the legal framework a rebuttable presumption of meaningful shared parenting time. That would not amount to a prescriptive formula, and absolutely would not be an automatic 50/50 split. The aim of the presumption would be to deliver reasonable contact for a non-resident parent in the absence of good reason to the contrary. So, instead of a father having to prove that spending time with his child is in the child's best interests, the burden of proof runs the other way. For shared parenting to be denied, it has to be shown that it would not serve the child's best interests for the court to allow it. The child's best interests would, of course, remain paramount.

The second key ingredient is to devise a mechanism that will encourage warring parents to face reality before they ever reach the courtroom. If, as parents, people know in advance what order is likely to be made by the court, they should conclude that there is much less point in litigating. We shall propose in Committee that guidelines from the court should be published that would set out, in units of time, what the court regards as reasonable contact in different circumstances. The guidelines are to be there as a template, with a view to focusing the dispute between the parents and getting them to agree a parenting plan. If that does not work, then they move to compulsory mediation.

This formula, together with the presumption of shared parenting, has been the main plank of dispute resolution schemes that have achieved dramatic success in other countries. It is the basis of the early intervention scheme mentioned by my noble friend. There are no endless court hearings; reasonable contact with both parents is established rapidly; and there is a reduction in parental conflict. It is a formula that in this country, despite the express backing of the High Court judiciary, child development professionals and parenting organisations, was killed off by officials in the DfES.

What we have instead is a sham formula. It is a scheme that bears no relation to the promises made in the Government's original Green Paper, and it is a scheme that, in my view, has absolutely no prospect of working. I say that not only because of what it consists of, but also because, even when it is launched, we will not see the necessary resources put into it.

The Minister is not used to me being negative, but I am afraid that I am going to go on. Clause 12 is quite shameful. It gives a power to the Secretary of State to charge a fee to those seeking to adopt a child from abroad. I ask the Minister how mean can the Government get? How mean-spirited to be saying to individuals who want to provide a loving home to a needy child that the government department processing the application is going to charge out its services. How much more proof do we want of the Government's attitude to inter-country adoption as a thing somehow less worthy and less honourable than domestic adoption? It is yet another hurdle and yet another deterrent put in the way of prospective adopters. That was not the intention of the Adoption and Children Act 2002. Nor, I contend, is it consistent with the spirit of the Hague convention, to which this country is a party. Conservatives have always believed in cutting the cost of government, but we were never so mean as to do something like this.

My noble friend Lady Morris referred to the Bill as a missed opportunity. That indeed is what it is. We are desperately sorry that the Government have not chosen to capitalise on the successful experience of other countries, or to listen to those voices of authority in the judiciary and elsewhere who view the provisions of the Bill with acute disappointment. I can only say to the Minister that if the Government finally get their Bill, it will not be for want of the most strenuous endeavours on these Benches to refashion it.

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs) 5:34, 29 June 2005

My Lords, I am very grateful to all noble Lords who spoke in this debate. The noble Earl, Lord Howe, is right: I am not used to him being critical. It will be an interesting experience to take the Bill through your Lordships' House with the noble Earl.

He will not be surprised that I am not going to start taking any lessons about meanness from noble Lords on the other side of your Lordships' House. I do not accept what the noble Earl said in that context. I also do not agree that the way in which the Bill has been received was particularly muted. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, when she described it as a Bill with a big spirit, in contrast to the Bill with the big heart—the Children's Bill, which I was proud to take through your Lordships' House.

Most noble Lords welcomed the Bill while raising their understandable and absolutely appropriate concerns about it, some of which I shall seek to address in my remarks today; others we shall deal with in greater detail as we take the Bill through the House.

I am very pleased to be working with my noble friend Lord Adonis. As he indicated, this is a joint enterprise. It is a Department for Education and Skills Bill, but many aspects of it directly reflect on the work of the Department for Constitutional Affairs, and we shall take the Bill through together.

I agree with what the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, said in her opening remarks about the best interests of the child. Although I do not agree with the remarks of the noble Earl, Lord Howe, I think we all accept that we are striving within the Bill, as so often in your Lordships' House on issues concerning children, to find a way through difficult, complex and often deeply emotional problems in the best way we possibly can for the benefit of our children. Whatever remarks are made, I will see them in that context—that we are all seeking to try and achieve that. I trust that our deliberations in Committee and in the further stages of the Bill will demonstrate that.

The noble Earl, Lord Howe, painted a picture of grief, and a picture that I, like many other noble Lords, recognise from some of the contacts that I have had with, particularly, fathers who are not always fathers, as they try to deal with the issues that have resulted from the breakdown of their relationships. I accept that there are really complex problems. I was surprised that the noble Earl offered me no solutions to that. I will go through some of the issues raised by the noble Earl as I deal with some of the questions raised by other noble Lords.

The right reverend Prelate in his very important remarks talked about children becoming—perhaps I may paraphrase—the "battleground". We know that that can so often happen, and that is why so much of what we seek to do in the Bill is so important.

I agree with all noble Lords who have indicated the importance of not getting to the point of litigation, when people are in total crisis and before the court. The noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, indicated the work that we are doing for children and their families through Every Child Matters. The whole issue of negotiation, conciliation in court work, mediation and so on are critical stages in the process. None the less, we know that for some people there is no recourse other than ending in the court seeking to sort out these issues.

As I have indicated, I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, that, whatever we do, children come first. That is where the Government stand, and we will not move. We have to make sure that we do everything to ensure that that paramount principle is continued. For so many of our children, the obvious answer to that is for good, continuing contact with both parents. That contact will of course change over time because children grow, have different demands on their lives and want different things from parents, whether or not their parents live with them. So it is contact that develops and grows with the needs of the child. That is also very important.

The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, asked me about research, as did the right reverend Prelate, I think. There is some really interesting research that I was privileged to see when I was a Minister at the Department for Education and Skills, which I think the noble Earl will enjoy very much. It is about what children say about contact and not wanting us to be rigid in what we say and assuming that one basis is better than another. That is why I disagree with the noble Earl, Lord Howe.

It is very difficult to create templates for individual situations. It is very important to start from the principle of what is in the best interests of the child. In many cases that may well be as close to 50:50 as you can get. It may be 60:40 or 70:30; it may relate to where the father lives—the mother lives with the child—what the child is doing, his age, which school he is at, what he likes to do in his activities after school, his friendship groups and so on. There are lots of different factors on which the voice of the child is a critical part. I should be very happy to make sure that that research is passed on to the noble Earl.

The noble Baroness, Lady Morris, began a conversation really, which we have continued in our deliberations, about the presumptions of contact. I have already said that in most cases contact with both parents would be best for children, but I do not agree to the presumption of contact being the right solution.

The difficulty is that, as I said, children are most often best served by contact with both parents. We have already spoken about the terrible sorrow that can occur when that does not work out and why we are trying to find ways to ensure that it does. A presumption of contact might lead the court to make more contact orders but does not address the issue of ensuring that those orders are followed. More than anything, what we are trying to do in the Bill is respond to the judiciary—because this is from whence it came—to try to identify ways in which we can do two things.

One is to give the courts more power, more ways to ensure contact within the context of ensuring that that is appropriate and measured, bearing in mind children's needs. The second is a bit more subtle: making it absolutely clear that where contact is safe and has been agreed by the courts, it must happen, because the Government believe that if it is in the best interests of the children, they must come first, whatever the situation between the adults. That is the thrust behind and essence of the Bill.

The Children Act already provides that the courts must order contact in the child's best interest. As I said, that may be limited; in other cases it can be much greater; it can be 50:50. It is not right, as some noble Lords said, to prescribe what is reasonable. It is difficult to find a way to do that. We must go back to the paramount principle: what is in the best interest of this little person who stands before us? What is the best way in which we can support that child to deal with all the things that the noble Earl and the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, mentioned, to ensure that those children grown up happy, safe, secure and able to develop and enjoy life to the full?

Noble Lords also asked who is covered by the Bill. I absolutely agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, that grandparents are a wonderful resource. My noble friend Lady Crawley, as a relatively new grandparent, understands that only too well—especially the monetary aspect. But they also bring wisdom, which is very important. Often, when one talks to those involved in difficult and intractable cases, one finds that the grandparents can play a critical facilitating role.

Grandparents can apply for contact. Usually they simply need the leave of the court; of course, they do not need to go to court if the parents agree to contact. They are important and are within the scope of the Bill. So, too, are step-parents. Under the Bill, the key question is whether the person is a party to the proceedings—whether they are a step-parent or a grandparent is irrelevant as long as they are a party to the proceedings. Under the Children Act 1989, civil partners have parallel rights to apply for orders to those granted to married people. They can apply for contact or residence orders in respect of a child that they have treated as a child of the family—for example, their civil partners' biological child. They can be required to make financial provision and have parallel rights concerning adoption as are granted to married people.

Several noble Lords, not least my noble friends Lady Thornton and Lady Gould, to whom I pay great tribute for the work that they do with children's organisations, have talked at length—and I am delighted that they did—about domestic violence. I serve as a Minister on the group that considers such issues, chaired by my noble friend Lady Scotland. I am absolutely clear that it would not be right for a court to make an enforcement order where a contact order was breached because of a genuine fear that the child or resident parent might suffer harm were it to be followed. That is one reason why the Bill is absolutely clear that an enforcement order cannot be made if the court is satisfied that there is a reasonable excuse, which of course would include a genuine fear of domestic violence.

Noble Lords will not be surprised if I draw attention to the press release today and information in the press from the Crown Prosecution Service saying that we have increased convictions and the number of cases that collapse concerning domestic violence is reducing. I would be happy to help any noble Lord who wishes to visit the specialist court in Croydon.

As I said, we are clear about it needing to be in the best interest of the child. My noble friend Lady Thornton talked about the new gateway forms that have been introduced, which I have here and am happy to copy to noble Lords. They were introduced at the end of January 2005 and enable allegations of domestic violence to be brought to the court's attention right at the start—that is the ambition—of its proceedings, enabling the court to make those decisions about contact after considering the facts.

Generally cases take six to eight weeks before a first directions hearing, and many take about six to nine months to resolve. It is only five months since we started to get those into place, so it is difficult to say how effective they are now. We are trying to get what information we can on the number of forms used. I know that there are concerns to ensure that they are used effectively. It will fall to me to ensure that that happens properly, and I will happily pick that up with my noble friend Lady Thornton, too. We expect reports later this year. There is no question that we want the forms to work effectively.

The noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, raised the issue of damaging case law. As I knew that she would do so, I have been trying to check what it is but I cannot find it. I would therefore be very grateful for the opportunity to talk to the noble Baroness. The Court of Appeal said, in 2000, that family judges and justices need to have a heightened awareness of the long and short-term effects of domestic violence on children as witnesses as well as victims—that is an important statement—with proper arrangements put in place to safeguard both the child and the resident parent from the risk of further physical or emotional harm.

My noble friend Lady Gould argued that the welfare checklist should include mechanisms for listening to the child, and the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, also raised the matter—we have debated the issue previously. I wish to reassure noble Lords that the welfare checklist already provides that, in considering whether to make contact orders and other Section 8 orders, a court must have regard to the ascertainable wishes and feelings of the child concerned, considered in the light of his age and understanding. That is a very clear message that the voice of the child must be heard. I am very pleased that it is there and I hope that it addresses the issue.

My noble friend Lady Thornton was concerned that we should take note of the question of harm in proposed new Section 11E. I have checked the precise position. Our Bill is designed to address the Children Act 1989, of which Section 1(3)(e) refers to,

"any harm which he has suffered or is at risk of suffering".

I therefore believe that we have done what my noble friend wishes us to do, but I will gladly talk to her to ensure that she is happy that it has been achieved.

My noble friend Lady Gould and the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, talked about contact centres. We have £7.5 million of additional government funding for those in 2006–07 and 2007–08—£3 million one year and £4.5 million the next. Those additional moneys are very welcome. I recognise that there is more to do. I had policy responsibility for contact centres. About 300 are members of the National Association of Child Contact Centres—the vast majority. To be a member of the national association, a centre must reach a high standard, which is very important. However, I take the point that there is more to do about coverage. That is well understood by the Department for Education and Skills.

My noble friend Lady Pitkeathley and the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, talked about their roles in CAFCASS. I do not care what they say; we could not have done better than persuade them to become chair and vice-chair of that organisation. The change that they and the chief executive have achieved is tremendous. I pay huge tribute to them for their work, as I am sure all noble Lords would. Anyone who spends time with CAFCASS officials will, like me, stand in awe of their work and their skills.

It was made clear to the Select Committee that the Bill would be implemented only as resources allowed, and we stand by that position. There is no doubt that the role envisaged for CAFCASS in monitoring contact through work with family assistance orders involves the commitment of resources. We hope that making report-writing a smaller part of CAFCASS's work will enable us to redirect those resources too. I understand that the budget is £107 million this year. The noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley, will say that we must do more, but we understand the issues.

I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, feels strongly about the workforce strategy. It is very important in setting out proposals to retain people, to have better leadership and to establish better career pathways, enabling people to move across the children's workforce. CAFCASS, although not singled out, is a particularly important, large and significant employer, and is a critical part of that strategy. I hope that the noble Baroness will see more of that develop over time.

My noble friend Lady Gould talked about unpaid work—community service. Yesterday, I spoke to my noble friend Lady Scotland, who is responsible for community service, and senior officials. The results are looking extremely promising. We talked about how to ensure that this part of the Bill works well and the kind of activities in which people could be involved.

Noble Lords made the point about ensuring that, if someone is asked to carry out an activity, it is safe to do so. It is not necessarily about people who are bitter, angry or unable to work with their own family being sent off to work with someone else. None the less, there are lots of good examples. To give a real example: someone who needs to be at home could address letters for charity or stuff envelopes. There are lots of things that need to be done. People who are able to work with children could read to children in schools. We perhaps more obviously think of traditional activities, such as gardening, painting and so forth. Activities exist and will be assessed appropriately. We have made sure that that happens in a sensible way and accept the issues of safety that go alongside.

The family resolution pilot project has come in for a great deal of criticism, which, in many ways, is a shame. We looked at the Florida project, the California project, and across the world. The Florida project is very different. It fits the American situation within the Florida legal system. Within it, there is compulsion. If there is to be compulsion, there have to be penalties, otherwise there is no compulsion. Those people who keep talking to me about compulsion do not seem to come up with penalties to go alongside. If someone is told that they have to do something and he or she does not do it, then what? If there is no "then what", there is no compulsion.

The project also has a percentage breakdown for contact whereby a four year-old child would probably have a set amount. We resist that for the reasons that I have already given. We do not think that that works effectively, which is why that model, when we looked at it for here, was altered. It is called the family resolution pilot because we thought that the name "early intervention" did not fit. Family resolution was chosen because intervention might take place early in the court process, but it certainly does not take place early in terms of the conflict within the family. We felt that this was a better title, which is why it has that name.

We have chosen to develop the scheme that will be most appropriate for our system. But the first thing to say about a pilot is that it is a pilot. We do not know whether it will work. Yes, we would like to see more families taking it. For the reasons that I have given, we have not made it compulsory. There are genuine issues for organisations, particularly Relate, involved in the pilot. They want to be very clear about the people coming through whose allegations of abuse or violence are not appropriate for them to deal with. There are many ways in which the evaluation of the pilot will enable us to see what has worked and what might be better done.

Certainly, the experience not only of Judge Crichton, as my noble friend Lord Adonis said after visiting him this morning—I visited him last week—but also the experience of the pilots in Sunderland and Brighton is that there is some very interesting work and experiences coming out of them and that there is a lot to do in looking at the evaluation. So let us be a little more hesitant about condemning a pilot for not doing everything that we had hoped that it would do. If it could do everything that we had hoped, it would not be a pilot: we would roll it out tomorrow. Let us look at it calmly, in a measured way, assess what has worked well and decide what best fits the situation for parents.

I know that noble Lords feel that more needs to be done on compulsion. I, too, have talked about the difficulty of how something is made compulsory. It certainly cannot be done without legislation because sanctions would also have to be in place. But pilots are about facilitating group work. It is where parents come to hear and discuss with others the impact of separation on children, as well as learning some of the skills that they need for conflict management. They are about enabling parents to reach durable settlements, not about us imposing arrangements from outside. They are about parents getting there and working in the best interests of their children. That is what we seek to do and to evaluate. Of course, parents will have had other options along the way. The right reverend Prelate rightly raised negotiation, mediation and so forth.

Similarly, with compulsory mediation, most mediators we have talked to would say that it is a contradiction in terms to have compulsory mediation. We are trying to get people to come together voluntarily to agree a solution. Therefore we do not believe that that is the right way forward. But, within the opportunities available in the Bill, we have provided for referrals to an information session to tell people about mediation and explain what they can get out of it. That is a form of contact activity which I was sorry to note was derided by the noble Earl, but an important part of the process is to ensure that people get the best out of the experience, and thus it is permissible under the Bill.

I have talked a lot about the paramountcy principle, and while I shall not go further on it I repeat that we are wholly committed to ensuring that the principle applies for children. But my noble friend Lady Gould, in saying that she is no lawyer, asked me about it. I too am no lawyer, but I shall attempt to explain it to my noble friend.

Enforcement orders address the behaviour of the adult rather than the child. So in looking at what will benefit the child when making a contact order, the critical issue is what would be in the best interests of the small person. But an enforcement order is not made for that reason, it is made in terms of what will make sense for the adults concerned. So while the interests of the child are very important, what matters in terms of ensuring that enforcement happens is what is achieved with the parents. The child's interests are not the overriding issue in this case. My noble friend has given me a completely blank look so we shall have to have a conversation about the issue. I shall ask the lawyers to explain it more clearly to my noble friend. I do not suggest that children are being put further down the list, it is simply that this is a different issue.

The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, proposed five very ambitious points. My difficulty is that I cannot see how to make them work either in government or in law. But, as always, the noble Lord has stressed some critical points about what should happen long before people reach this stage. I am not sure how we could celebrate families and the achievement of bringing up children more than we do, although I agree with him that it is very important. However, I cannot work out how we could develop a national system for it. No doubt the noble Lord will tell me more.

I agree with the noble Lord about the work being done in schools. That is why the PSHE curriculum is so important. At key stages 1 and 2 good relationships are covered. Key stages 3 and 4 cover sex and relationship education. These are compulsory requirements and quite right too. It is also important that we support teachers in their professional development in this area. The National Healthy Schools programme, which we hope all schools will have achieved by 2009, is equally important to that aim.

I want to say a brief word about adoption. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, that there is no crisis in adoption. The majority of children put forward for adoption in this country are aged over four-and-a-half. As the noble Baroness said, many have special needs or are emotionally vulnerable. Although the vast majority of adoptions are conducted here, some take place overseas.

The noble Baroness, Lady Morris, asked me about international child abduction. The UK is a signatory to the Hague Convention and is a leader in the field. We participate in special commissions at The Hague and help share good practice guidance with other countries. Earlier this year we introduced the Brussels II regulations which will further improve the operation of the Hague Convention in the European Union and we provide £100,000 a year to the main abduction charity, reunite, which provides advice and help for parents. I am the Minister responsible in the DCA on these issues.

The right reverend Prelate said that the Bill would allow local authorities to charge for welfare supervision. That is not true. The Bill looks only at the power of the Secretary of State, not that of local authorities. A public consultation on local authorities is just finishing and no decisions have yet been made.

The noble Earl, Lord Howe, was particularly scathing about charging for the administration of the inter-country adoption process. The cost to parents applying for inter-country adoption is around £10,000 overall. We deal with around 300 applications a year and we provide a direct service from the department. When looking across government at how best to utilise resources, we think that, bearing in mind that there is already a cost to parents, it is right and proper to charge something in the order of £800 to £1,000. However, I have made it quite clear that we will waive those charges in cases where it is obvious that the parents cannot afford to pay. So there is no question of jeopardising the welfare of children in this. I am sure that the noble Earl will not be surprised to hear me say that.

We know that there has been an increase in processing times for inter-country adoption cases, a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Barker. We are introducing measures to try to reduce the wait and to improve communications. We will not introduce the charges until we are confident that the process of re-engineering the casework function has been completed. We are also keen to publicise all these issues. Clause 8 requires the Secretary of State to publish a declaration and reason. Not that many people are involved here; we estimate that around 300 people make applications, involving 150 local authorities and six voluntary adoption agencies. We will set out the procedures for exceptional cases in regulations as provided for in Clause 10(3). In this way we will make sure that they are publicised to all those who are likely to be involved and we will discuss the matter further with the noble Baroness.

Private fostering I remember well. With effect from Friday, 1 July the enhanced notification scheme will commence, as provided for in the Children's Act 1989 and through the Children's Act 2004. As the noble Baroness knows, if it does not work we will bring forward legislation.

This has been a very important debate on a very valuable Bill. It is a Bill which, I hope, will draw support from all sides of the House. We are judged as a society by how we treat our children, and the Bill is unequivocal in putting the interests of children first and in trying to address some of the most difficult challenges we face. The situation in which children find themselves is often deeply sad and often extremely damaging. It is the job of the state, the job of the Government, to hold the hand of the child. I commend the Bill to the House.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Grand Committee.