Amendment 91

Domestic Abuse Bill - Committee (3rd Day) – in the House of Lords at 8:00 pm on 1st February 2021.

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Baroness Finlay of Llandaff:

Moved by Baroness Finlay of Llandaff

91: Clause 55, page 35, line 19, at end insert—“(d) ensure all Child Contact Centres and organisations that offer facilities or services for child contact are accredited, to ensure domestic abuse and safeguarding protections for children and families.”

Photo of Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, this amendment concerns the protection of children and the importance of child contact centres being accredited to ensure that. As we have heard in previous debates, the UK has one of the highest rates of family breakdown. This should be a cause of great concern in our society. With nearly 25% of children living with only one of their parents and more than a million who never see the other parent after separation, child contact centres are more important than ever.

The mission of the National Association of Child Contact Centres is to ensure that:

“Parenting shouldn’t end when relationships do”.

All the research on family breakdown has shown that children in general do better when they have contact with both parents. Many children still view a non-resident parent as an important figure and value their effort and commitment to maintain contact. However, we have heard of the damaging impact on children of experiencing or witnessing domestic abuse and the ways in which children can be used to manipulate or abuse a parent. This means that careful consideration must be given to each case when discerning appropriate contact arrangements while ensuring that the voice of the child is at the centre of everything that is done.

The National Association of Child Contact Centres has 350 accredited centres so far across England and Wales. They have been evaluated through an independent standards panel which assesses compliance to the agreed national standards, which can lead to accreditation. However, there is currently no specific provision in law to ensure the same high standards across all child contact centres and services, or across all postcodes. There is no requirement for oversight of centres and services for self-referred cases outside the court system.

Contact centres provide a safe, neutral environment where children can meet and play with family members they do not live with. Many families are referred by the courts to supported contact centres, run by volunteers who keep an eye on the children at the centre, or supervised contact centres run by qualified social workers. In cases where a parent has a history of domestic abuse or other harmful behaviour, supervised contact centres provide a neutral drop-off point so that a victim parent does not have to meet their abuser and interactions between parents and children can be closely monitored.

It is essential that all contact centres are accredited, with high standards of services and safeguarding, to ensure the safety and well-being of children who have already been through so much. Without high standards of training and staff supervision, it is all too easy to miss the early warning signs of re-emerging or escalating problems. I hope that the Government will recognise the importance of child contact centres for families and children who have experienced domestic abuse, and that they will seek to ensure that all families have access to an accredited centre which can meet their increasingly complex needs. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Shadow Spokesperson (Justice) 8:15 pm, 1st February 2021

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay. Her introduction covered all the points that were made in the various briefings sent to me. I am also conscious that the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, is a long-standing expert in this area who has been pursuing the issue for many years. I thought that I would make a different point from that which is set out in the briefings.

I sit as a family magistrate in London. I am also the chairman of the Greater London Family Panel, which means that I have a pastoral responsibility for 300 family magistrates. About six weeks to two months ago, I sent all my colleagues the email address of the NACCC because I thought all that information would be a useful resource for them to use in their work in court. I specifically did this recently, while we have been moving in and out of lockdowns, because one issue that has been coming up in court a lot is the reasons for contact breaking down. We were told many times that the contact centres were not open. The truth of the matter is that it is a mixed picture and some forms of contact have been facilitated by different centres. Using the NACCC website, we have been able to check with the relevant contact centres to see whether what we had been told by the participants in court proceedings was indeed true. In some cases it was not true; the parents had not been facilitating contact when it was available.

I have given a practical example of how useful the information provided by the NACCC can be. I understand that the purpose of this amendment is to regularise and put it on a similar footing to other children-based services. I also understand that there is a long history of trying to regularise the status, if you like, of the NACCC. I am happy to have added my name to this amendment and hope very much that the Minister will give it a favourable response, so that people can be confident that only appropriately regulated services will be available for parents.

Photo of Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Conservative

My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, and pay tribute to his wealth of experience as a family magistrate. I too am delighted to lend my support to the amendment and I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, on introducing it so eloquently. It follows on from a Private Member’s Bill which I sponsored soon after I was introduced into the House. It called for the equalisation of standards for child contact centres; that is, centres offering public and/or private provision.

I am sure my noble friend Lord Wolfson will recall, from his early days in private practice, some of the heartrending cases we have all had to deal with of trying to allow and permit family relationships to continue. That is why I pay tribute to the National Association of Child Contact Centres and declare my interest as a vice-president. I join the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, in paying fulsome tribute to the work it does. I am also an officer of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Child Contact Centres and Services, where we try and bring these issues to the fore in both Houses of Parliament.

This amendment is particularly appropriate to this clause in Part 4 of the Bill, which looks at local authority support. Children are often caught up as innocent victims of domestic abuse but it is essential they maintain contact, in so far as is safe and possible, with both parents in any family situation. What is clear at the moment is that public and private provision in child contact is not equal; it is important to ensure safeguarding is recognised and extended to both. The child contact system, as I understand it, is the only child service that is not nationally accredited or regulated, and addressing this is the purpose of Amendment 91. I accept this clause is looking at the “Support provided by local authorities”, but it is in these difficult situations that a child may have suffered through no fault of their own from the abuse of a parent—most likely, the non-resident parent.

I hope my noble friend Lord Wolfson, other noble friends and the Government will look favourably on this amendment. It seeks to rectify a situation to ensure all child contact centres will work to the highest standards and that those children who are separated from one or other parent, in these particularly sensitive situations, will continue to have access and contact with both parents. It seems entirely appropriate that we consider Amendment 91 against the background of Part 4. In these circumstances, I am delighted to lend my support to Amendment 91 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, and others who have lent their support.

Photo of Baroness Burt of Solihull Baroness Burt of Solihull Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I too was delighted to add my name to this amendment. The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, has already made an excellent case for why all child contact centres should be accredited, and I will not detain the House by repeating those arguments.

I have some difficulty understanding why the Government are reluctant to accept the case for all child contact centres to be accredited. It is not a cost to them, after all, and even if there were a cost attached, I would argue it would be worth it. This is the only example of a child service that does not require universal accreditation or regulation. But it places the child in a potentially dangerous and damaging situation because they may not be supervised by trained staff in an appropriate and consistent environment.

The Government, in a letter to the National Association of Child Contact Centres, confess to not knowing about the nature and extent of unaccredited child contact centres. So, they do not know the size of the problem or the standards that these centres are operating at. Of course, accreditation does not guarantee a child’s or a parent’s safety, but it would ensure safeguarding risks are accounted for. There would be quality and consistency in all child contact centres. We know that children, as well as mothers, get killed. Why on earth would we take the risk of having untrained staff manning unaccredited child contact centres?

The courts and Cafcass should refer children to accredited centres. We have the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, to thank for that. If an accredited centre is good enough for these children, why should it not be good enough for every child? Would the Minister reflect, before he responds, on whether he is willing to take the risk?

Photo of Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Lord Wolfson of Tredegar The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, for introducing this amendment and I recognise, of course, the reasons why she has tabled it. This has been a short but extremely valuable debate on a crucial part of the architecture of the law in this area. I am afraid that I cannot confirm to my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering that I came across cases like this in my practice but I can confirm that, when he sat as a judge, my father always told me that family law cases, which raised issues such as we have been debating this evening, were the most important and often the most difficult that he came across.

I suspect that there is a broad measure of agreement across the Committee. We all agree that the provision of child contact centres is extremely important in supporting families and enabling parents to have contact with their children, while providing a safe environment that protects children and adults from potential harm. When moving her amendment, the noble Baroness made three points of principle from which I do not demur at all: first, the courts must always give careful consideration to the circumstances of each case; secondly, the child must be at the centre of the debate and the focus of what is going on; and, thirdly, we must have high standards. There is nothing between us on any of those points. As the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, set out from his personal experience—magistrates are not professional but, given the amount of time that the noble Lord puts into it, I ought perhaps to have said his professional experience—and, as we accept and know, the National Association of Child Contact Centres, the NACCC, as the sole accreditor of such services in the private law sector, provides an invaluable service, and the same high standards are required in the provision of services in the public law sector.

That said, I question whether statutory accreditation of all child contact centres is, in fact, the best mechanism to achieve the objective of the amendment: namely, to ensure domestic abuse protections as well as the maintenance of safeguarding for children and families. The family court cannot refer families to a non-accredited child contact centre as part of a child arrangements order. In private law cases, a traditional protocol has been in place for nearly two decades, guiding courts to refer families to child contact centres and services which are members of the NACCC and therefore subject to agreed national standards and an accreditation process.

Since 2018, Cafcass and the NACCC have established a memorandum of understanding under which Cafcass will refer to and commission only NACCC-accredited centres and services. Cafcass will therefore not advise any parent to attend a non-accredited centre or use non-accredited services. As set out by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, the Government are keen to work with the NACCC to improve information and signposting to accredited child contact centres as part of an improved range of information and support for both separating and separated parents. In so far as local authorities are concerned, in discharging their statutory obligation under Section 34 of the Children Act 1989—to promote contact between children and their parents and other family members, including siblings and grandparents—local authorities are already subject to legal, inspection and accountability frameworks to protect and safeguard children in their care.

I recognise that local authorities increasingly outsource to external providers to deliver the service on their behalf. This is particularly the case when a local authority child contact centre might be in one location while the child has a foster care placement some distance away. Rather than requiring the child to travel a significant distance to undertake contact, the local authority may consider it to be in the child’s best interest to remain at a location closer to their home. This means that the local authority may outsource a provision to an external provider to deliver the contact on the local authority’s behalf. I hope that provides one answer to the question put to me by the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, as to why the Government do not accept the amendment.

However, even where the provision is outsourced, the local authority, with its statutory duty under the Children Act 1989, remains responsible for ensuring that the services it commissions and are delivered on its behalf are of good quality. It does this through the commissioning, contracting, inspection and evaluation processes. Given the regulatory and compliance mechanisms already established for local authorities, we believe that a requirement of mandatory accreditation for such services would impose an additional layer of costs and bureaucracy on local authorities, which we are particularly keen to avoid at this time. Importantly, we have seen no evidence to indicate that local authorities are failing in their existing statutory obligations so as to justify the imposition of this extra level of compliance through mandatory accreditation of child contact centre provision.

The current system allows for flexibility of provision to meet the needs of the local authority and the children in its care. Different families need different provision—this is not one size fits all. One has to look at the circumstances of the case and the age of the children involved when considering the child contact environment. What is an appropriate environment for one family might not be appropriate for another. Some would thrive in a formal setting, some in an informal setting, and older children are likely to be uncomfortable in settings designed for younger children. Therefore, there is a need for flexibility, and mandatory accreditation has the potential to risk damaging that necessary flexibility. There might, for example, be a problem where the local authority social work team with the duty to provide the contact has decided that a foster carer’s home is the most appropriate place for family contact to take place. If every such placement had to be registered and regulated, above and beyond the current legal, inspection and accountability obligations placed upon local authorities, the process could become too onerous or costly for smaller providers and they might simply stop providing the service. That loss of flexibility would not be in anyone’s interests, certainly not in those of the children and families for whom that setting might have been most appropriate.

However, I come back to the point I made at the start of my remarks: I believe there is no disagreement of principle in the Committee. Should the Government be provided with evidence about the number of unaccredited child contact centres and the problems they are causing, we would be pleased to engage in discussions about how they may be effectively addressed. I believe that as matters stand, any problems that exist with the current process can be addressed using existing mechanisms, rather than by the introduction of additional statutory requirements. However, I am happy to look at any further evidence and to engage in discussions on the basis of that evidence.

I do not know whether that amounts to what the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, hoped would be a favourable response, but I hope it is. In any event, I respectfully urge the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, to withdraw her amendment.

Photo of Lord McNicol of West Kilbride Lord McNicol of West Kilbride Deputy Chairman of Committees 8:30 pm, 1st February 2021

I have received two requests to speak after the Minister, from the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, and the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby.

Photo of Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Green

My Lords, I did not put my name down to speak to this amendment because this is not something I know much about; I was waiting for the next group. However, listening to the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, say that some of these child contact centres are not accredited left me astonished. I listened to the Minister’s explanation very carefully; I thought it was utterly specious from start to finish. I take his point that he does not want to put more cost and bureaucracy on local authorities. Obviously, this Government have stripped local authorities to the bare bones, so I understand if they have no scope for doing any more work. Perhaps this is something that the Government would like to finance. Accreditation is absolutely necessary; it is a safeguarding issue. I just wonder what will convince the Minister. If a safeguarding issue happens and a child and family suffer, will that change the Government’s mind? I find it absolutely incredible. The thought that there is no central body that monitors or collects data is staggering. I urge the Minister to discuss this further with the proposer of this amendment.

Photo of Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Lord Wolfson of Tredegar The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb. It was not my intention to be specious. I was trying to be accurate and constructive. I have already said that I will engage with the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, if she provides evidence that there is a systemic problem with the current arrangements that cannot be resolved by the existing mechanisms. That was a genuine offer. I am sure that the noble Baroness will take me up on it. I will be very happy if she does.

Photo of Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Shadow Spokesperson (Justice)

My Lords, the Minister has invited comments about potential systemic problems. I draw his attention to one group of cases which he did not refer to: people who self-refer to contact centres. They are not sent there by social workers or by the courts, but are self-referring for their own reasons—trying to sort out the issues themselves. They could easily end up at unregulated contact centres, which may well be cheaper, so if the noble Lord is looking for systemic problems, I suggest that this may well be one.

Photo of Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Lord Wolfson of Tredegar The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, for that point. As I said in my response to the main debate, even unaccredited centres are still subject to the various requirements that I set out, but I am very conscious of the noble Lord’s expertise in this area. In a previous answer, I committed to writing a long letter to him. I do not want to add to it now, but perhaps he and I can have discussions, with the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, which include the point he raises. I hope that is helpful.

Photo of Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

I am most grateful to the Minister for his response, and for saying that he will meet me and, I hope, the other noble Lords who have put their names to this amendment and whose experience is extremely important. I find it difficult to understand why the Government do not want to close this loophole. It seems terribly important to ensure that there is adequate safeguarding of children. I have a real worry that the commissioning process is more likely to fail now that there are increasing pressures on local authorities, and that the need to ensure accreditation has become even greater. Sadly, in some areas, the local authority does not have a great deal of choice as to the services that are there, so I would question the flexibility to pick and choose implied in the Minister’s response. I will certainly make every effort, with those who have co-sponsored the amendment, to get as much data as we can for him.

As the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, who certainly knows more about this than any of the rest of us, highlighted, this is the only service which is not nationally accredited. This seems remarkably dangerous. The noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, rightly pointed out that it is self-referrers who may use centres that are not accredited, and they will quite often have alcohol, drug or other problems they are trying to sort out. How they behave towards the children there must be observed carefully by people who know what they are looking for and have been properly trained, and where the whole service has been assessed against some standard criteria. In terms of the commissioning process, I would have thought that it would help local authorities to have those standards against which to check the services that they have on their patch and that they may be putting money into.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Burt of Solihull, pointed out, in a way it is completely at variance with the whole principle of the Bill if we do not include an amendment, with either this wording or something similar, in the Bill. The whole Bill is aimed at decreasing domestic abuse and protecting people from further abuse. It is not meant to be a straitjacket; it is meant to be a really supportive framework. However, if we do not have high standards in that framework, I fear that some of the most vulnerable—that is, the children—will drop through the gaps and we will see more children getting killed.

While for the moment I will withdraw the amendment —I am grateful for the support of everyone, including the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb—I think we will need to come back to this at a later stage. I look forward to meeting the Minister. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 91 withdrawn.

Amendments 92 to 100 not moved.

Clause 55 agreed.

Photo of Lord McNicol of West Kilbride Lord McNicol of West Kilbride Deputy Chairman of Committees

We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 101. I remind noble Lords that anyone wishing to speak after the Minister should email the clerk during the debate. Anyone wishing to press this or anything else in this group to a Division must make that clear in the debate.