My Lords, I rise to speak to the amendment tabled in my name and kindly supported by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, and the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, which I very much hope the Government will consider positively.
The reason I was sent to this House was my 19 years of work on family and children’s issues. Every day for nearly two decades I stepped through the wreckage of relationships destroyed by one parent poisoning the mind of a child against the other parent. Sometimes the abuser was a man, sometimes a woman. The gender was irrelevant. The horrific irony is that all parties—the abuser, the abused and the child—end up victims in their different ways, with lives wrecked and psychological damage beyond measure. For some the only way out is suicide. The Government say that there is no need to include an amendment as this form of abuse is already covered by implication in the Bill. But why should it be covered by implication and not explicitly?
In Clause 1(4) there is already detailed reference to “economic abuse”, by which one partner or spouse seeks to use money to coerce and control the other. How can economic abuse merit mention when the weaponising of children for the purpose of coercion and control by one parent over the other goes unmentioned? No one has put it better than the distinguished family court judge, His Honour Judge Stephen Wildblood QC, who said
“The problem with Parental Alienation is that it’s not about the child at all. It is about the adults … It’s using children as an instrument of that parent’s skewed emotions.”
In my book, there are few forms of domestic abuse more callous and damaging than that. Are we to draw the conclusion that money matters more than the lives and souls of the victims of domestic abuse—men, women and children? That surely cannot be the case.
This has nothing to do with creating a hierarchy of behaviours, as the Government fear. It is to ensure that through an Act of Parliament the issue of children as the victims of domestic abuse is not buried under a barrage of gender politics and misinformation. This debate needs to be broadened, not narrowed. There is a crying need for the justice system to be better equipped to distinguish between false and authentic accusations of alienation: between children who for good reason do not want to see one parent, and children who have been indoctrinated to say so. As the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, put it in our previous debate:
“A little more time might be spent teaching magistrates, district judges and circuit judges a little more about it”.—[Official Report, 25/1/21; col. 1403]
“It”, of course, is parental alienation.
There is the rub: the dreaded words “parental alienation”. I regret to say that rational debate around this term has been made well-nigh impossible by the controversy and emotion that it attracts. That is why my amendment, instead of using the term, in effect describes what my supporters and I mean by it—that is,
“a parent’s behaviour deliberately designed to damage the relationship between a child of the parent and the other parent.”
Seen in that light, I cannot believe that any reasonable person can object to our amendment.
Of course I have every sympathy for women who fear that men will use parental alienation as a defence against well-founded claims of abuse. The last thing that I want to do is to make life easier for an abusive and dishonest man—to the contrary: I believe that our amendment, far from disarming women victims, will strengthen their defences. But it is plain wrong to assert that so-called parental alienation is a stratagem used exclusively by men against women. For example, Judge Wildblood was reported as saying in 2019 in an alienation case that the children would suffer “significant and long-term” emotional damage, adding that
“the cause of that harm lies squarely with this mother”.
Alienation exists; to deny it would be to deny that the earth is round. More to the point, noble Lords have all seen the petition signed within a matter of weeks by over 1,400 fathers, mothers and grandparents, begging the Government to hear their voices and to include in the Bill a reference to this vile form of abuse. Every day I receive emails asking for that. If that is not persuasive enough, I have an abundance of proof in hundreds of peer-reviewed research papers and scholarly articles, to be found in the written evidence that I have circulated. This body of work comprehensively refutes the so-called expert advice submitted to the Ministry of Justice—advice that says on the one hand that there is no such thing as parental alienation and on the other that it benefits men only.
This is a Bill that, if it becomes law, will deeply determine the well-being and mental health of families across the land for years to come. It is therefore vital that we have complete clarity about its intent and reach. Can my noble friend the Minister agree that the family courts would benefit enormously from having parental alienation defined in law? Can she further agree that the use of children as a weapon in adult conflicts is a form of child abuse and that this matter should fly above all politics and issues of gender, since it equally affects men and women, their children and their wider families? Lastly, can she confirm that parental alienation will remain in the final version of the guidance to the Bill and that Cafcass—that is to say, the experts and not the ideologues—will play a central role in advising the committee that will examine the guidance? I beg to move.
My Lords, the amendments in this group seek once again to put parental alienation both in capitals and in the Bill. The noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, has again outlined her reasons for this. However, I do not hear any difference in objective from the amendments tabled in Committee. Those of us who oppose the amendments believe that adding parental alienation to the Bill is redundant because the alienating behaviours that she referred to are already caught in the definitions of coercive control. Further, the Government have agreed to add a phrase about alienating behaviours to the statutory guidance, which will sit alongside some of the other patterns of behaviour in domestic abuse.
As was mentioned in Committee, there are already problems in our family courts with one parent—often but absolutely not always the father of the child or children—alleging such behaviour. Unfortunately, as outlined in the Ministry of Justice’s harm panel report, fear of false allegations of parental alienation means that survivors and children of abusive and coercive relationships are suppressing evidence for fear that the charge of alienation will be made against them. Indeed, it is becoming such a worry in the family courts that even their solicitors are advising them against such evidence. There can be a history of abusive behaviour, especially coercive control, that is not presented formally to the family courts. This can include violence, restraining orders, criminal convictions and long-term patterns of such behaviour. Perpetrators of such fixated behaviour can often sound convincing and their ex-partners are often terrified of their behaviour, even in a court hearing.
In Committee, the noble Baroness, Lady Helic, and I went through some of the history of the development of parental alienation syndrome, which I will not repeat today, since we are now on Report, other than to say that there is evidence from the family courts of some abuse of a parental alienation defence. There are also some questions to be asked about the role of so-called experts in this area. Practice direction 25B, on the duties of an expert, the expert’s report and arrangements for an expert to attend court, is very clear on the requirements, including registration with a UK statutory body or having appropriate academic qualifications. The expert must also have completed the training. There are concerns from contested cases that some experts in this area might not have met this high bar, so I ask the Minister what checks there are to ensure that all expert witnesses meet practice direction 25B.
That is also why the noble Baroness, Lady Helic, and my noble friend Lord Marks have tabled Amendment 44. We need to ensure that the courts are aware of the implications of a whole range of behaviours, especially in some of these egregious cases where there might have been some controlling, abusive, coercive and even alienating behaviour. The definition of coercive control—after many years of campaigning by organisations such as Women’s Aid and others, it is thankfully now a crime—is
“an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten” the victim. That seems to fit very well the definition that the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, has been seeking. I hope that, on this basis, she will withdraw her amendment.
My Lords, I have supported this amendment on the basis that it shows what the general definitions reveal and include. I do not think that it will be necessary to pursue it, if we have a clear understanding that the sort of behaviour that the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, has described is covered by the phrase “controlling or coercive behaviour”.
There is another important definition that deals with children being used as weapons against their parents. It points out that activity towards a child may well be against the parent. Clause 1(5) says:
“For the purposes of this Act A’s behaviour may be behaviour ‘towards’ B despite the fact that it consists of conduct directed at another person (for example, B’s child).”
I am certain that there are a large number of cases in which one parent, using his or her relationship with the child, seeks to damage that child’s relationship with the other parent. It is a natural weaponising in a conflict, which is apt to come forward in this sort of fighting between parents. When they are antagonistic towards each other, they are apt to try to bring children to their side of the dispute, which strikes me as extremely dangerous.
I believe that the attempt to use one parent’s relationship to damage the children’s relationship with the other parent is an obnoxious type of controlling or coercive behaviour. I verily believe that, if allowed to persist until the end, you will get parental alienation, because the operation of trying to damage the child’s relationship with that parent ultimately succeeds. That is what alienation is: by that means, the child has been successfully cut off from the other parent’s company, love and support. As we show, the law as it stands includes that.
The reason for the amendment is to illustrate that that is so, simply to make it possible to have this debate on Report. There was a tremendous amount of debate in Committee suggesting that parental alienation should not be contemplated. Sadly, I fear that, if the conduct that we have described succeeds, it will continue to happen. The Bill already, properly, includes a definition that deals with the kind of behaviour that underlies attempts to alienate the other parent from their child.
I strongly believe that this broad definition should not be restricted. I felt that the addition of qualifications in other amendments restricted the wide definition presently in the Bill. That is important, because domestic abuse is a large area and the definition manages to encompass it with great success. Therefore, the reason for the amendment is to illustrate that the conduct in question is included in the definition. Once that is accepted, as I hope it will be, the amendment will not be unnecessary.
My Lords, as one would expect, that was a fascinating contribution. In some ways, it answers a lot of my questions. I am completely behind the purpose of this amendment. To my mind, as someone who is experienced but not expert, there is nothing about the phrases in Clause 1(3)(c) and Clause 1(3)(e) that naturally covers alienation behaviour. If one were to describe this in plain English, neither of those concepts would comfortably accommodate controlling behaviour which by its nature takes place remotely. Once you have got into the business of alienation, the two parents, typically, are not together. It is difficult to see what element of control or coercion can be exercised by alienation or how, in the context of domestic abuse, the wide phrasing of
“psychological, emotional or other abuse” could certainly be construed as covering alienation. I hope that the Government will make it clear to me and the public in general, by what they say and do outside the Bill, that alienation absolutely is covered. But I need to see that in clear and unambiguous terms.
My Lords, my support for this amendment comes without the personal experience of the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, or the legal expertise of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern. Like him, I hope that this amendment is unnecessary in reality. I cannot proceed without paying tribute to the noble Baroness for her unstinting efforts to ensure that alienation of children by one parent against another is accorded its proper place in discussion of the Bill. Her efforts and those of the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, have been inspirational.
My concern throughout is for the protection of children and intervention in abusive situations at as early a stage as possible to ensure that their life chances are best fostered. It is well understood by psychologists that perpetrators of controlling and coercive behaviour will often try to separate their victim from outside contact—from friends, family, religious or social groups and even by preventing the means of communication necessary to seek help. As the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, said, perpetrators are often the most confident, plausible and convincing of people. Their victims, by comparison, are often confused, anxious and timid. Both may have deeper attachment issues.
Here we are concerned with a different direction of travel, namely conscripting the innocent as proxies to alienation as part of a contest with a partner. There are doubtless many versions of this, commonly using a weak or compliant adult proxy, but there is one type that warrants special attention and that is the deliberate enmeshing of the children of a relationship by one party as a tool or lever against the other. No other identifiable category so conveniently presents itself as a vehicle for this leverage; no other proxy is so trustingly vulnerable to exploitation or so readily damaged, both in the short and long terms, by such actions.
It may be a self-justification of the perpetrator that it is for the better protection of the children from the other partner, and it merely invites retaliation by precisely the same means. I have mentioned before the perils of a wholly adversarial and corrosive no-holds-barred approach to sorting out these domestic contests. The resident parent is clearly in a strong position to influence, and issues such as access to children and much else may hang on this. The very presence of children may, paradoxically, prevent the sort of clean break that some might wish for. Typically, the children are and remain the biological offspring of both partners. What they receive from ancestors may influence what they pass down to their own offspring in turn. The toxic adversarial circumstances of a relationship breakdown of adults seems capable of rendering them particular harm. Children, as minors, are entitled to the protection of their parents and, where that fails, to the protection of society. In my opinion, society is bound to take note of those impacts on them that might lead to perpetuation of abuse in future generations.
I have been surprised by the degree of antipathy that I have experienced following the parental alienation amendment in Committee. I did not think that this was in the least bit controversial, nor worthy of such sustained criticism. But I have been heartened by the comments of many others—from male and female viewpoints—and I thank them all for the trouble they have taken to write to me.
The first criticism is that parental alienation is not defined, but it is accepted that alienating activity does exist and has long been recognised, so I take it that the use of children as proxies in the process suffers, in this instance, from a liability to multiple interpretations.
Until recently, what we now know as domestic abuse was referred to as domestic violence, so the process of definition and refinement of terms is ongoing work in progress and affords no grounds for inaction. Absence of definition may be a factor for campaigning organisations and in legal circles, but my impression is that psychologists are very clear what it is, how to recognise it and how those involved can be helped. This ties in with the views of those who feel that psychology and judicial process should work more closely and effectively.
Secondly, I was accused of being an apologist for the work of Dr Gardner, who apparently first coined the phrase “parental alienation”. I believe that things have moved on in the last 40 years; the concept of parental alienation has been substantially refined and research by psychologists has moved on accordingly. I feel that that criticism was long ago superseded.
The third criticism is that parental alienation is simply part of a larger category of coercion and controlling activity, a point made in a briefing by the Victims’ Commissioner. However, the particular circumstances of deliberately enmeshing children as proxies in an adult battle are relatively self-contained. There are special parental and societal responsibilities towards, and particular vulnerabilities associated with, this category of young person. Parental alienation has the potential to cause great damage to children’s life chances, and it is identifiable and, in many instances, preventable. I do not see this as another manifestation in the generality of coercion and control, but something much more specific.
The final matter is that parental alienation is used as a tool for abusers to get back at their partners, with potentially significant outcomes. It is not for me to comment on the twists and turns of clever advocacy in the courts or on any perceived deficiency in the way decisions are reached in the best interests of the child. But I hope that in future, progress will be aided by the excellent work of Cafcass, whose resources might usefully be enhanced.
The Ministers were kind enough to arrange a meeting on this matter a few days ago and I thank them for that. I say again what I said then: the matter having now been raised, as was inevitable, doing nothing may be as detrimental as detractors suggest agreeing to the amendment would be. Inaction risks leaving this specific evil in limbo, the subject of further legal battles and causing yet more damage to young lives.
The Government need to act, if not in this Bill then in guidance, so that we identify and name this particular type of alienation for what it is—a form of domestic abuse—and that we furthermore signal that this is no longer a lever to be used in an adult conflict. I finish where I started by saying that I hope that, in the end, it will be found that this amendment is unnecessary.
My Lords, I agree with the Government’s decision to keep a broad definition of domestic abuse. I believe that the coercive nature of alienation is covered in the Bill, so I am afraid that I do not consider this amendment necessary. However, having not spoken on this issue in Committee, I would like to speak briefly to say that, although the amendment is not needed, the issue is real.
I understand the concerns about the way alienation is used by perpetrators, but that does not negate the incalculable harm that was done to my noble friend Lady Meyer and her family and to the many other parents, grandparents and children who have found themselves in a similar position. Her determination to bring a greater understanding and awareness is impressive. It took great courage to stand up in this Chamber and share what is ultimately a very private, very painful experience. That experience should not simply be dismissed and I welcome the fact that work is ongoing in this area, so that we may properly understand this complicated, often devastating problem.
In Committee, having begun examining the issue of claims of parental alienation with an open mind, I focused particularly on the research and expert evidence, including a complete issue of the Journal of Social Welfare and Family Law. Today, I will reflect on what came next. As I expected, having spoken in your Lordships’ House, written an accompanying op-ed and shared both outputs on social media, I got a significant response.
A lot of that response was emotional and angry. That did not surprise me, since we are talking about the most intimate of personal relationships, and I was more tolerant of aggressive tones than I would have been on other topics. But something struck me in many of the responses that I received. It was the use of the word “right”, as in “my right to see my children”, “parents’ rights”, “my right to direct my children’s future”. That crystalised some of the unease that I had felt in reading the academic claims backing a so-called syndrome of parental alienation—explicitly or implicitly, that was where they were coming from.
We live, of course, in what continues to be a patriarchy. Claims laid down for millennia that the father is the head of the household, that, as in ancient Rome—the classical world that some of our current Government seem to so admire—he had the right even to kill any member of it without the law offering any legal protection at all, are extremely hard to wipe away.
Under British law, until 1839 every father had the absolute right to keep control of his children should their mother leave. Even after 1839, only women who had the means to petition the Court of Chancery had a chance of keeping what we would now call custody, and then only if they could demonstrate an absolute moral clean sheet. The father’s morals were irrelevant. If your Lordships want to see how there is nothing new about coercive control, the life of Caroline Norton, whose brave, landmark campaigning won that change in the law, will demonstrate that. The global pervasiveness of this patriarchal ideology was referred to earlier by the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin.
The noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, said in opening this group that the Bill should not be caught up in gender politics. This issue—the entire Bill—is deeply, inevitably gendered, however much the Government might try to deny it. The struggle to get to the situation we are apparently in now, where the wellbeing of the child is predominant in decisions made about that child, was one long struggle against a society run by men in their own interests. But now we are faced with renewed efforts, a fightback for a “presumption of contact”—an assumption that if a child says they do not want to spend time with a parent, the other parent must be turning the child against them.
After entering the debate publicly in Committee, I was contacted by women who told me what presumption of contact and a fear of an accusation of parental alienation had done to them. I want to give them voice, so I will report one such case. I will call her Camilla, although that is not her name. Her account was of seven years of hellish coercive control and physical assault. She remained, at least in part, because the partner concerned told her that he would claim parental alienation if she left and did not allow wide access to the children. She was concerned about what would happen during that access.
After Camilla had left the relationship, she went through court case after court case as he claimed rights to parental access, while not paying the child maintenance that he could have afforded, and alleging that the children’s expressions of a desire not to spend time with him were a result of so-called parental alienation. Such offenders, as the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, said, can be extremely convincing in a public space and in contact with professionals.
For fear of not being believed, Camilla told her child that should anything bad happen when they were with their father, the child should not tell her, but should instead tell an official authority figure. So, that upper primary school age child declared, in front of many peers and school officials at a school gathering, that their father was physically abusing his new girlfriend in front of them. Then, happily, safeguarding apparatuses kicked in, as they should have. A few weeks later that child disclosed, again to people outside the family, that they had been sexually abused by an individual that the father had left them with. It is a horrendous account and one that I will long remember, and I think of the difficulties and pressures on that child.
This brings me to my final point, one that I do not think our debate in Committee really brought out. It is about the impact on a child of being told that they are deluded, or that their mother or father is leading them astray, or lying to them, and that their own impressions, feelings, desires and beliefs about not being with a parent are some kind of false consciousness. When a child says that they do not want contact, they need to be given—no doubt for their own well-being—the chance to explore that with trained professionals and given the time to explain, to discuss and to vent their feelings.
Above all, children need to be listened to. Imagine what it feels like to have stated very clearly to officialdom that you do not want to spend time with a parent, that you have seen them doing things that are illegal or vicious or clearly damaging to other human beings, then being forced by a court to spend time with them anyway.
I was talking about these issues with a friend of mine who is over the age of 80. I was fascinated when she explained how, not through the agency of the court but through community and social pressure, she had been forced to spend teenage weekend days with her father who had separated from her mother years before. She felt that her father did not really want to be there, and she certainly did not want to be there as a teenager, but she did not have agency or control. More than 60 years later those weekends clearly still had an impact on her. We know that agency and control of one’s own self, being listened to and believed, are crucial for well-being.
It would appear that this amendment is not going to be pushed to a Division, so on one level this is academic. That is narrowly true in terms of the progress of this Bill, but in terms of defending a hard-won, long-fought-for principle of children’s interests being paramount in the official approach to custody and access, against the weight of those millennia when the father’s control was absolute or near absolute, this is an important debate. Let us keep the well-being of children as the sole goal—a very recent goal that is both a moral right and one that will give us the healthiest possible society.
My Lords, that was a very powerful speech in favour of the aims of the amendment. At the end of the last debate in Committee when I spoke I said that I was somewhat ambivalent, although I totally supported what my noble friend Lady Meyer was seeking to do. That remains my position to a large degree, although I have come down—if it were a case of this amendment going to the vote, which I hope it will not—of probably being on the side of my noble friend. There is nothing more admirable in life than somebody who dedicates himself or herself to trying to ensure that others do not suffer as he or she has done. The noble Baroness’s campaign, over 20 years or more now, to ensure that other women and men should not have to tread the road she was obliged to tread is wholly admirable and commendable. There is nothing more wicked—and I chose my words with some care—than seeking to corrupt the mind of a child, particularly so that that child is turned against either their father or, more often, sadly, their birth mother.
We have devoted time recently to debating the importance of motherhood—there is nothing more important in the world. My noble friend Lady Meyer has clearly suffered greatly. She does not want others to suffer greatly in the same way, nor do any of us. It is a question of how we achieve her aim without making this Bill more difficult. As I listened to the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, and to my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern, I thought that between them they had got it right. They both signed this amendment but they do not really want it to be necessary.
It is crucial that, when my noble friend the Minister comes to reply, she recognises the enormity of the problem to which my noble friend Lady Meyer has bravely drawn our attention—which cannot have been easy—and promises that we will have guidance to go with the Bill that will make it absolutely clear, beyond any shadow of any doubt, that anyone who indulges in the sort of behaviour indulged in by my noble friend’s former husband is falling foul of the law in a very real way. The corruption of children is beyond the pale in any civilised society, and this Bill—I refer to it again as a landmark Bill, which it is—needs to set the benchmark of how we regard these things for the next quarter of a century or more.
I hope my noble friend who will reply to this debate will be able to satisfy my other noble friend Lady Meyer that her concerns are truly understood and that those who put others through the ordeal which she was put through will be punished for it.
The noble Lord, Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale, who is next on the list, has withdrawn, so I call the noble Baroness, Lady Watkins of Tavistock.
My Lords, I support this amendment in the name of noble Baroness, Lady Meyer. I thank her for all the work she has done to try to minimise the amount of involvement in the Bill necessary to make us all aware of this important issue. The amendment is designed to explicitly ensure that parental alienation is properly defined in the Bill. We have, of course, had indications today that it may be in statutory guidance, and that may be sufficient to ensure that the rights of children to see parents when it is appropriate to do so are adhered to. The amendment is not gender biased. It recognises that either parent, mother or father, may deliberately behave in such a way as to damage the relationship between a child and the other parent.
Parental Alienation UK has outlined a range of behaviours from one parent to another and I want to focus on one: when a parent makes false allegations of abuse, fitness to parent, substance abuse or mental health problems. I have worked with people with severe, enduring mental health problems where, when they have been severely ill and psychotic, it has been inappropriate for them to see their children. However, it is absolutely clear that, with modern treatment and access to supervised contact, most parents at some point should be able to see their children. That is not because of the rights of the parents. It is about the child’s right to know that the parent loves them and wants to see them, even if they are not in a position to look after them on a permanent basis. I believe that, as soon as is practicable, supervised access should be organised for children if they want to see the parent—the one they do not live with—if that parent is well enough to see them.
It is important that children know that both their parents want to stay in contact. If this is the case, the child is in a position, when they become an adult, to decide for themselves how much contact to maintain with each parent. I have heard other noble Lords oppose the amendment and I equally believe that no child should be made to see a parent without supervision if the court has decided that this would be inappropriate. I completely agree that we should recognise the vital role of Cafcass in this situation, but it is demeaning if the other parent of your child destroys letters, mementoes and gifts that you have sent, perhaps while you are too ill to see the child. These kinds of behaviour should be deliberately excluded and parents should be encouraged to try to work together through mediation. It should obviously be for the courts to decide and to determine whether parental alienation is occurring and to make decisions for access between a child and a parent, based always on the best interests of the child.
I believe that those who do not agree with this amendment have the same focus as I and others who are supporting it: to try to ensure that children grow up knowing that they have been loved, where this is so, and that they have been able, where it is safe to do so, to be in contact with both parents. I understand that the amendment may be better written within the statutory guidance and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s opinion on this matter.
My Lords, I have added my name to this amendment and I pay tribute to my noble friend Lady Meyer for the work that she has done and, as my noble friend Lord Cormack said, the effort that she has put in to trying to make sure that the suffering that she has been through is not repeated or, should it be, that the victims have proper protection under the law.
I would be grateful if my noble friend the Minister could confirm what my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay asserted: that the deliberately broad definitions in the Bill, which I know my noble friend has explained to the House, are ground-breaking and deliberately so and provide the widest possible access to justice for victims by having broad definitions under which others can fall. Will “controlling or coercive behaviour” in Clause 1(3)(c),
“psychological, emotional or other abuse” in Clause 1(3)(e), and “conduct directed” at their child in Clause 1(5) cover situations where a parent deliberately damages the relationship between their child and the other parent in order to alienate that child?
For example, a father of African origin wrote to me about his partner, who had been turning their four year-old child against him since they had decided to divorce. The child, previously loving, suddenly did not wish to spend time with him. He said: “My ex made several unfounded allegations of domestic abuse to stop me from seeing my child. Not a single allegation was proven, or true, but she constantly and unjustifiably obstructed my contact with my child. I recall that a year ago my child refused to have a bath that I had run for him. He said his mother told him, ‘Daddy puts witchcraft in the tub’.” He said that the alienation built up over time so that the child now refuses to see him. Can my noble friend confirm that that father would have protection under the Bill?
I have personal experience of other situations where parents were cut out from the lives of their children. The children were being manipulated or weaponised and the wider family cut off from grandchildren and nieces and nephews. I would never want a child to be forced to be with an abusive parent. However, the ex-partner of a friend of mine, who met a new partner from Australia and wanted to move there, decided to try to break the children away from their parent. In that instance, they were told: “Daddy does not love you, because you look like me and Daddy hates me. If you see Daddy, I will get sad. If you see Daddy, he will kidnap you, because he does not want me to be with you any more. If you say that you hate Daddy and you don’t want to see him, I will buy you a bike or take you on holiday.” This is something that has really happened. I hope that my noble friend will confirm that victims of such alienation will automatically be covered under the broad definitions, so that we will not need to press this amendment to a vote.
I hope that the controversy that seems to have been caused by the term “parental alienation”, which has driven the different wording of this amendment, can be settled by being tested in court. I fully agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, when she says that the child needs to be listened to and assessed by professionals. The key is for the courts to be aware that alienation such as in these examples may happen and, sadly, is not a rare occurrence. As my noble friend Lady Meyer said, we have had well over a thousand signatures in a short space of time from parents who themselves have suffered this form of abuse. If the courts are looking for this situation and can bring in experts to assess whether what the child is saying has been driven by fear instilled in them by the other parent unnecessarily, unreasonably, or deliberately to rupture the relationship with that parent, the justice system will be able to differentiate between the genuine cases, where a domestic abuser or abuser of children should not have unsupervised contact with their own child, and cases such as have been described.
Cases have been clearly identified in academic studies and evidence where parents who would otherwise be able to enjoy a relationship with their child are denied that opportunity and the child is denied access to that parent and their family. That can cause lifelong mental and emotional damage to the child and, indeed, to the parent. In some cases, the distress of being broken away from one’s children or grandchildren has caused suicide. I hope that my noble friend the Minister will be able to confirm that this is indeed covered by the Bill and I look forward to hearing what she has to say.
It is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann. That speech was so well articulated, passionate and thought-provoking. I also echo and “Hear, hear” her comments on the exemplary work of the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, on this issue.
I have previously expressed concern that the Bill expands the definition of domestic abuse too widely because I worry that some categorisations of abuse, such as emotional and psychological, are too subjective and broad to guarantee justice. Every time I look, a new category of abuse has been added. We have just heard from the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson of Tredegar, that we now have “spiritual” abuse. Even the focus on domestic abuse is endangered as we stretch what constitutes “domestic” far wider than I think is helpful. My concern is that too much is being thrown at the Bill, meaning agencies and the police will not be able to see the wood for the trees.
I am not going off-topic in relation to this amendment, because I raised those caveats in relation to these issues in Committee. But I am now satisfied, having mulled it over and done a lot of research, that this is one area which the Bill can usefully cover. This abuse is well and truly domestic because it is about parental relationships. If ever there was a concrete example of abusive, coercive control, it has to be in using children against their parents. This form of alienation is a specific form of controlling behaviour that needs to be acknowledged somehow in legislation.
Any of us with any experience of toxic relationship break-ups will be more than aware that, in some instances, the understandable hurt which can lead to nastiness may spill over into weaponising children against one or other parent. When this becomes systematic alienation, it may be useful and necessary for the law to step in. What cannot be denied is that the consequences of being alienated from one’s own children are tragic and devastating, and that people in that situation have little recourse to justice. Think of the consequences: you often cannot see your child or children because of the alienation; your children are told the most heinous accusations against you; their views are poisoned against you.
At the very least, one might expect that supporters of the Bill would be sympathetic to children being coerced or alienated in this way. Instead, there has been an enormous deluge of organised lobbying against this amendment. That would be fine, but it has taken a particularly aggressive and hostile form, as hinted at by the noble Earl, Lord Lytton. I find that worrying in and of itself. One of the main arguments used is that parental alienation is a tool used fraudulently by abusive fathers to gain access to their children. But this very accusation is, sadly, used to demonise those supporting this amendment, who are accused of being apologists for abusive fathers.
The emphasis of the amendment’s opponents is on the danger of false allegations of alienation. I too worry, as I have said throughout discussion on the Bill, about false allegations, especially in relation to such emotive, interpersonal matters. It is one reason why any allegations must not be automatically accepted as truth or fact; they need due process and to be sensitively interrogated. But that is true of all allegations, including those of domestic abuse. If this amendment can be misused for false allegations then the whole Bill can be misused and lead to more of them, but I do not think we should halt the Bill.
In two instances I have known of parental alienation, fathers were falsely accused of domestic abuse by the mothers before being totally cleared of any wrongdoing; the mothers admitted that, in their bitterness, they overegged what they had said. But this was after the fathers’ reputations were trashed, with the children told their father was, effectively, a wife-molesting monster. It caused great misery to be endured by the extended families, in both instances, and affected the well-being of the children. It was totally cruel and very hard to get over.
In such an instance, we are talking not about abusive fathers using this provision but about innocent people being accused—being victims, not abusers. Children are also victims here, because both parents should be equally open to their children, as various people have mentioned. There is something specific about this amendment that needs to be considered. If anything, I would argue we should accept it in whatever form. All allegations of any sort—of coercion, alienation or abuse—should be properly scrutinised in family courts by the criminal civil law, but we must show real care when we accept whoever’s version of events in matters of this nature.
Some scepticism has been shown, both in the lobbying I have received and in what has been said so far, towards the 35 years of clinical, legal and scientific evidence that have backed up this issue of parental alienation. We have already heard people question today what kind of experts these are and whether we can trust this kind of expertise. Yet throughout the Bill, to be frank, we have heard all sorts of evidence cited as fact. Even when it has been contested, it has largely been nodded through and experts have been quoted without anyone querying that. I worry that there is a certain one-sided nature to the hostility to this amendment, when it is reasonable and fair that it is brought into the law.
The noble Lord, Lord Balfe, who is next on this list, is unable to take part in this debate, so I call the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris of Aberavon.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to say it is beyond argument that this is an important Bill. In my professional career, I dealt with many cases of child abuse. I practised at the criminal Bar, not the family Bar. Fortunately, sitting as a recorder, I did not have to try or sentence anyone convicted of child abuse.
It is important to get the legislation right. At my first reading, I thought the Bill was sufficiently comprehensive to deal with any wrongdoing. The steps in the ladder are clear: first, the relationship is set out in Clause 1(2); then we go on to the type of relationship, supplemented in subsections (3) and (4); then subsection (5) deals with indirect behaviour. The amendment’s supporters seek to redefine this, by adding words to give an example of behaviour which is reprehensible. I understand the aims of the proposers and their real concerns. We have listened to the passionate speeches made today. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, has added his name to the amendment. From long experience, I would listen to his words, and the House always does with very great respect.
My fear is that this amendment is over-prescriptive. Putting this into the Bill might limit the generality of the encompassing nature of subsection (5). At the moment, I have serious doubts about whether the amendment is needed at all, as such particularising may limit the thrust of the subsection so far as other conduct is concerned. In these circumstances, having heard all the arguments, I would recommend its rejection by your Lordships.
My Lords, I commend my noble friend Lady Meyer on her courage and resilience in tabling this amendment again today. I first had the privilege of meeting her and hearing her story many years ago, and since then she has been a tireless campaigner on this issue despite, as we have seen both today and in Committee, often intense and personal challenge.
As we have heard, parental alienation is a devastating form of abuse that can extend for decades and have deeply traumatic effects on both the children and the excluded parent. There has, however, been strong resistance to recognising this as a form of abuse. Those who oppose it argue that abusive parents may themselves use the defence of parental alienation to continue their abuse. Surely, though, this is precisely why we have judges. We must have confidence in our courts and our police to make these judgments, just as they have to make countless others every day of the week.
The amendment seeks insert into the legislation the line
“such as a parent’s behaviour deliberately designed to damage the relationship between a child of the parent and the other parent”.
I am hopeful that the Government should be able to confirm that this is indeed included in the definition of coercion, as my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay and my noble friend Lady Meyer have requested. This addition would specifically draw attention to parental alienation while simultaneously giving the family courts a sound basis on which to better distinguish between genuine and false allegations of parental alienation. The amendment identifies parental alienation and protects those who are vulnerable from exploitation of the law.
The dynamics expressed in the amendment are important for a number of reasons. Alienation adversely affects the psychological development of a child in that it prevents a natural, healthy bond and relationship with a parent. A child needs to be nurtured and protected by its mother. Erica Komisar, a leading expert in attachment theory and the neuroscience of motherhood, highlights that children are at a higher risk of social, emotional and developmental issues when the essential presence of a mother is missing. But it is equally important that the child should have a relationship with their father. In a major study by the Journal of Applied Economics entitled The Impact of Income and Family Structure on Delinquency, it was found that when the interactions between a parent and a child diminish, such as in the case of parental alienation, the child perceives a decline in that parent’s benevolence. If the decline is sufficient, the child will accept its implications and move to feelings of abandonment, alienation and a lack of trust. Both the parent and the child are worse off.
Research from the Institute for Family Studies has also found that, controlling for race and parental income, boys raised without their father are much more likely to use drugs, engage in violent or criminal activity and drop out of school, while girls are more likely to engage in early sexual activity or have a child out of wedlock. The consequences of parental alienation can be deep and severe on the next generation.
There can be no doubt that judicial decisions in cases involving children must take account of all aspects of the family dynamic, including all types of abuse. There is a need for qualified professionals to assist the court in assessing whether there is abuse and, if so, its severity and how it should affect child/parent residence and contact arrangements. But the need for expertise in handling these delicate situations should not dissuade us from addressing this often hidden but deeply damaging form of abuse.
The Bill is strengthened if it captures all forms of domestic abuse and improves outcomes for those who are vulnerable to experiencing it, and we look to the Minister today to confirm that the concept of alienation is included within the definition of domestic abuse.
My Lords, I too wish to pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, for her two decades of campaigning after a horrific experience that most people would not be able to turn into such a positive contribution. I wish her, the co-signatories to the amendment and all Members of your Lordships’ House a happy International Women’s Day. It is a celebratory moment, as well as a moment of remembrance which was started over 100 years ago by radical working women.
I also pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, for doing something that seems all too rare in our polarised and sometimes even toxic public discourse. She has listened. I did not participate in this part of the debate in Committee, but I was struck by her speech and by the contributions that were informed by the work of various women’s organisations, and survivor organisations in particular, about the contested or loaded nature of the term “parental alienation”. I am not a psychologist, a social worker or an expert on this topic, but I was moved by contributions from those who are, not least the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle.
It seems that the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, has indeed listened and has attempted in her reformulation to address behaviour rather than syndromes in a precise way that is more appropriate to legislation on difficult issues. I have no doubt that many abusive men will seek to use the term “alienation” as a stick with which to beat the surviving former partner, but, equally, I have no doubt that men and women are capable of weaponising their children during terrible relationship breakdown. I also have no doubt that this is a gendered world and a very unequal one, whether we like it or not, and that this inequality affects women, but also men and boys. It is a very vicious spiral indeed.
I turn now to the precise drafting of both the amendment and the Bill as it stands, because I have to agree with the co-signatory to the amendment, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, and my noble and learned friend Lord Morris of Aberavon. It is absolutely beyond doubt that, to quote the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, to use a child as a proxy in a dispute between parents, to weaponise or manipulate them in the way described, whether the perpetrator is male or female, is indisputably covered by the Bill as it is currently drafted.
I shall briefly explain why. First, Clause 1(3)(a) to (e) covers
“physical or sexual abuse … violent or threatening behaviour … controlling or coercive behaviour … economic abuse … psychological, emotional or other abuse.”
Secondly, and most crucially, this behaviour is covered in Clause 1(5) and is taken as being directed at the victim of domestic abuse even if it is directed at another person, for example the victim’s child. So if you combine the very explicit reference to behaviour that is directed at a child as a means of getting at the victim of domestic abuse with the earlier categories of controlling behaviour or psychological and emotional abuse in particular, there is no doubt in my mind that the concerns of the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, about a parent’s behaviour being deliberately designed to damage the relationship and so on is covered. That being the case, I think it would be a mistake to add a “such as”. That term is always difficult and potentially dangerous as a statutory construction, for the reasons given by my noble and learned friend Lord Morris of Aberavon.
In this particular context, my concern is that if we were to say, at the end of Clause 1(5), “such as deliberately designed to damage”, what about the situation where a child is threatened with violence rather than being manipulated for the purposes of destroying the relationship with the other child? That “such as” has not been included and we do not want to suggest in any sense a hierarchy of abuse or to emphasise the manipulation against another parent through, for example, threatening a child with violence. “If you leave me, I will poison your child against you” is a terrible threat, as are “If you leave me, I will beat up the children” or “If you leave me, I will cut off the children.” These are all terrible evils that in the Bill as currently drafted were intended to be and are addressed.
I hope that the Minister will agree with that construction. I think it is beyond doubt, but it is for her, obviously, as the Minister to say whether I am right. If she agrees with my construction that this is clearly covered, in particular by the use of Clause 1(5), I really hope that, as was indicated by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, will feel able to withdraw this amendment, not because it depends on statutory guidance—that will no doubt be argued about and the detail will be got right; there is more room for all sorts of psychological debates about syndromes, et cetera, but that is not my place—but because the clause as drafted already covers the evil that the noble Baroness has spent so many years trying to address. If the Minister is of that view and puts it on the record, that will be a matter of Pepper v Hart and public record.
With that, I congratulate everyone who has spoken in this debate, particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, for listening and for her courage, and others who perhaps disagreed with her amendment but none the less understand that this is a terrible thing to do to a child. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, that the child comes first from a human rights perspective. This is a terrible thing to do to a child, but it is also a heartbreaking thing to do to a former partner.
My Lords, I support the purpose of this amendment, and in doing so I also pay tribute to the work of the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, on this matter. She has been consistent in her determined efforts to ensure that the impact on children is not forgotten in debates on the Bill and that parental alienation is much better defined than is the case at present. I believe that the Bill would benefit from greater clarification.
It is vital that, among the many difficult and complex issues within the Bill, we consider the impact that parental behaviour can have on their children. Sadly, there are times when the actions of one parent can, over time, damage and diminish the child’s relationship with the other parent.
I decided to participate in this debate because I have witnessed this behaviour and the devastating impact it can have, through manipulation, the loss of self-esteem and confidence, the fear of even correcting a child for misbehaviour in case it results in reporting back to the other parent and, in doing so, perpetuating the abuse and alienation. This can obviously have lasting emotional and psychological effects on the parent but also, importantly, on the child.
As has been stated a number of times, these are complex and sensitive issues, and such instances must be handled with extreme care, bearing in mind the particular circumstances of each individual case. However, when a child is forced into choosing sides in an argument, when the emotional stability and authority of one parent is consistently undermined by the other, this puts the child or children in a potentially traumatic situation. This should be considered a form of abuse and included within the scope of the Bill.
The consequences can include insomnia, depression, lack of confidence as well as long-term difficulties in rebuilding relationships and in relationships with others. This amendment makes it clear that damaging the relationship between a child and a parent is abusive behaviour. By extension, this makes the Bill more thorough in the abuse it identifies and seeks to prevent. I acknowledge the wise advice from noble and learned Lords during this debate, and I hope that the Minister will respond positively to this discussion.
I continue to read, and I continue to listen. The arguments have been well made, and again I pay tribute to my noble friend Lady Meyer for her courage and resilience. It is clear to me that there are difficulties, opinions and alternative views—all that is legitimate. What is not legitimate is that the experiences and feelings of those who have suffered from alienation are either denied a voice or told that this does not happen. It plainly does.
The noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, made a sensible point about the danger of creating a hierarchy of abuse, which I agree with. Can my noble friend the Minister assure me that the genuine and real cases of parental alienation—of which, sadly, there are many—must be heard? It could be a severe form of abuse if mention of parental alienation is not made within the guidance.
My Lords, I have no hesitation in supporting the aims of this amendment standing in the name of my friend, the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, and others. I feel very strongly that we will listen—I certainly will—to what the Minister is going to say, because there are difficulties. I have listened to some of the opposition to the amendment, although there seems to be a very general agreement on the principles. It has now become a very wide-ranging Domestic Abuse Bill, so I really need to be satisfied that the aims and principles of what we are trying to do in this amendment, and what the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, is trying to do, will actually be satisfied without the amendment.
I believe that we should use the Bill to protect children and their victim mothers or fathers from psychological abusive and coercive control. During my 30 years as a Member of Parliament, I had many cases of parents, male and female, coming to see me and telling me in harrowing tones what was happening. They did not use the words “parental alienation”—it is a very Americanised term, which I personally do not like. But I listened to the some of the ways in which they talked, very simply—[Inaudible.]
I think we might have lost the connection to the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, so we will go to the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss.
My Lords, I understand and sympathise with those who have been the victims of a spouse or partner who has turned the children of their family against them—of course it takes place. It is an intensely sad situation, deeply unfair to the children as well as to the victim parent.
As a family judge, I tried a number of such cases, and I have to tell noble Lords that I very nearly wept in court when all efforts to change the children’s attitude had failed. I remain with a vivid recollection of some of those cases. But we need to recognise that there are two different situations: there are the children who witness the abuse of a parent against the other parent or have suffered from hearing it, and there are the children who suffer from the parent who is alienating them from the other parent. That is the background, and it is important that judges understand the context and can differentiate between the absent parent, who by his or her actions has forfeited the right to have a proper relationship with the children, and those who have been wrongly and unjustly deprived of such a relationship.
As I said in Committee, this requires judicial training. I have reflected since Committee on what the training should be and the extent to which it is already carried out, and I have done a little research. In my view, it is already very well provided by the Judicial College, which is chaired by a Court of Appeal judge. It is divided into different committees, and one such committee deals exclusively with family issues.
When I was a High Court judge, I was for several years the chairman of the family committee of the predecessor of the college. Newly appointed judges have mandatory training before they can try family cases, and there is regular, continuing training for family judges and magistrates.
My Lords, I am terribly sorry to interrupt the noble and learned Baroness, but I think she may be speaking to a later amendment, which we will reach in the ninth group. We are currently speaking to the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, on parental alienation.
Although I have the deepest sympathy for those who have suffered this unjust behaviour from the other spousal partner, I do not believe that the amendment, for all its good intentions, should be part of the Bill or should be set in primary legislation. It is telling the judges to do what they do already and will not change the situations on the ground. I do not believe the moral or psychological effect of primary legislation will have any effect on those who behave in such a way, nor help the sufferers of this serious, unfair behaviour. Consequently, I do not agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, that the family courts would benefit. On the contrary, it would give them no support at all. I also disagree with the view of Cafcass and, for these reasons, I do not support the amendment.
My Lords, I was very distressed during Committee on the Bill at the way the House has become so polarised over this amendment. I believe a way can and should be found to do justice to both sides of the argument, for both raise real and serious concerns.
Clearly the term “parental alienation” has become controversial, coming as it does from the United States, where it has been so closely linked with gender politics, so I welcome the rewording of the amendment, where what we are dealing with is clearly defined.
Parental alienation was referred to in earlier debates as a “concept”, or even prefaced, as in the debate this afternoon, sadly, by the qualification “so-called”. But the concept arose on the basis of experience. The fact is that very many people, both men and women, have been alienated from their children as a result of the unacceptable behaviour of their partner or former partner. That it exists I have absolutely no doubt. Do the opponents of this amendment really doubt this?
At the same time, it is clear, particularly from the evidence of Women’s Aid, that some people use the concept of parental alienation to cover up child abuse. I am sure this happens, and I can believe that the greatest number of perpetrators are men.
So we are dealing with two realities, both of which have to be taken into account. In any given case, the evidence has to be heard and assessed and judgment given. This is what courts are for. This is what Cafcass is for. They know what it is and can recognise it for what it is. They have developed the child impact assessment framework to
“identify how children are experiencing parental separation and to assess the impact of different case factors on them, including parental alienation.”
At the same time, they will be well aware that there are cases where this is a cover for child abuse. This, too, they can recognise for what it is.
These are very difficult decisions. I would not like to have to make them myself. But the point is that there are people who are trained to make such decisions, and the courts use them. So I very much hope that the Government will accept this amendment, or at least, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, suggested, that the wording proposed in the amendment is clearly understood to be an example of coercion, and that this is set out equally clearly in statutory guidance.
My Lords, I have listened carefully to the speech of my noble friend Lady Meyer and to those who support the amendment. I recognise their sincerity and good intentions and their desire to do the right thing for the victims of abuse and, above all, for children. But I am afraid I continue to have very serious concerns about the amendment and the ideas it seeks to introduce into the Bill. I do not think it is required to help those victims whom noble Lords wish to help. In fact, I fear that it will do the opposite; it will empower abusers. I am concerned that, despite the change in language, the amendment still rests on the idea of parental alienation and serves as a means of embedding that concept, so open to misuse as a means of covering up domestic abuse, in law. Parental alienation is a flawed model for addressing the experiences of the parents and children the amendment seeks to help.
I agree that parental behaviour
“deliberately designed to damage the relationship between a child of the parent and the other parent”,
in the words of the amendment, is unacceptable, but the concept of parental alienation is so open to misuse in a way that is deeply harmful to children who are victims of domestic violence that we must be extremely cautious. Its lack of rigorous scientific foundation or clear definition means that it does not in assist in addressing abuse. Rather, it has become a vehicle for minimising and evading legitimate allegations of domestic abuse and child abuse by suggesting that child victims, often suffering serious medical trauma and with valid reasons for resisting contact with the abusive parent, have been manipulated by the so-called alienating parent. In the United States, where the concept originated, when a parent claims alienation, courts are more than twice as likely to disbelieve evidence of any type of abuse and almost four times less likely to believe a protective parent’s claims of child abuse. The result is that children are often forced to live with their abuser and are at risk of serious harm, lifelong trauma and even death.
We do not need this imported into our law. I do not wish to diminish or ignore the experiences of those not feel that their relationships with their children have been undermined and damaged by a protective parent. They are victims too, and we must hear their voices. I am also open to being told that I am wrong, and I have sought additional clarification from experts on domestic abuse. They tell me that this behaviour is an example of coercive control. We already have the legal means to tackle it under existing laws on coercive control. The recognition of children as victims in the Bill should strengthen that, as should the very welcome government amendment on post-separation abuse.
A clause to tackle this behaviour already exists, and there can be no case for us introducing any concepts or amendments which come with so many proven risks to children attached. However, there is a strong case, as I shall argue later in my speech on my amendment on training, for the training of judges. Children must have contact with both parents, but not at any price. We cannot dismiss a child’s voice when they disclose abuse.
Before I close, I believe it is important to make one final point. This is not aimed at anyone in your Lordships’ House, but it is necessary as a matter of basic principle. I think it serves to confirm some of what I have said about the dangers of the concept of parental alienation that the behaviour of some of its proponents is aggressive, bullying and abusive. They attempt to silence anyone who disagrees with them. People who have dared challenge parental alienation have faced vitriolic attacks and regular attempts to undermine their career and even see them sacked from their job. Respected experts have been called fraudulent, corrupt, lying and biased. People who have devoted their career to tackling abuse have been described as child abusers.
We cannot ignore those attacks. Since we began to debate the Bill, they have increased. One person who has faced a great deal of harassment tells me that it has significantly escalated and continued on an almost daily basis since the Bill received its Second Reading in your Lordships’ House.
I have spent most of my career working in foreign policy. I have never witnessed behaviour such as this until I became involved in these debates. Many supporters of parental alienation outside this House seek to use abusive behaviour to silence their critics and, in doing so, they serve only to remind us why we have such serious concerns about this concept and why it is imperative that we do not allow it into our laws.
My Lords, I thank the House for its indulgence. I apologise, because my internet connection collapsed completely during the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, and I missed a great deal of what she said.
Parental divorce or separation is the second most prevalent adverse event during childhood. There is plenty of evidence that most children who experience parental divorce do not develop long-lasting problems. Many studies show that children are remarkably resilient. Long-term studies of children in Romania after Ceausescu’s regime, for example, showed that, provided they were adopted into loving, caring families, they returned to an almost normal existence.
Even so, there are certain times when biology conflicts with resilience—for example, when children are first socialising, with puberty, with adolescence and with certain mental conditions. Nor can we ignore good follow-up studies of all ages which report problems. They confirm that, compared with children who remained in two-parent families, young people who experience parental divorce are at increased risk of a whole host of difficulties. These include depression later in life and may involve poor social values and behaviour, lack of empathy and various psychopathological disorders, substance abuse and academic underachievement.
These children and adolescents are much more vulnerable to various pressures, particularly when one divorced or separated parent deliberately attempts to undermine his or her offspring’s relationship with the other parent. This may not always be deliberate and, when it is, it may be difficult to prove in court. There are examples where this is clear cut, with substantial evidence of this kind of damaging behaviour.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, firmly said in her speech, this amendment is unquestionably about child abuse. Research clearly shows that this can have long-term effects on children as they become adults. Moreover, it is possible—although this is more difficult to show in long-term studies—that traits which a child may develop in consequence of this kind of behaviour may be passed on. The child’s own offspring—the grandchildren of the fractured experience—may be affected. There is, incidentally, increasing evidence of a biological mechanism for such inherited behaviour. There is a significant indication that this may be epigenetic—a chemical alteration which influences the way in which the genes function. Evidence is growing that it may be true for one particular set of conditions which are of growing interest in human development.
Autism spectrum disorder—so-called ASD—is a group of neurodevelopmental disorders in which multiple genetic and epigenetic factors definitely play a role. As long ago as 1991, the famous expert, Professor Rutter, pointed out mistaken stereotypes in psychiatric and behavioural genetics. He was decrying the idea that strong effects might mean that environmental influences must be unimportant. In America, Judith Kroll has pointed out that parental behaviour is critical in enhancing or reducing the negative effects on autistic children. This is often a particular problem with one or other, or both parents. Her study is a useful marker to consider.
I want briefly to mention Karey O’Hara’s remarkable follow-up study from Arizona, looking at 240 children over six to eight years. The study showed very clearly quite subtle changes in these children’s relationship with one or the other parent. Mental health problems, drug abuse and risky sexual behaviour were all common. She and her colleagues concluded that children in families with high levels of post-divorce conflict, which could certainly include the sorts of behaviour to which the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, referred, are an appropriate target group for preventive interventions. We know that these interventions work; they must surely be better than recourse to law. None the less, it is an important kind of child abuse because it can occasionally be hidden and difficult to see.
This is a vital discussion on an important amendment, and I am glad that the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, has seen fit to introduce it on Report.
My Lords, in Committee, we heard the very moving testimony of the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, whose children were abducted by their father and kept in Germany with very little contact between them and their mother. It appears that, during that separation, the father turned the children against her. It is a shocking and upsetting case of parental abduction. I pay tribute to the noble Baroness for her campaigning work on parental abduction. A friend of mine in Oslo, who has shared custody, is having the relationship between him and his son poisoned by the mother.
As my noble friend Lady Brinton said, such behaviour is already covered by Clause 1(3)(c) and (e) and subsection (5) of the Bill as it stands in a way that economic abuse is not. Parental alienation amounts to controlling or coercive behaviour and psychological or emotional abuse. It includes, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, has said, conduct directed at another person—for example, the victim’s child.
As the noble Baroness said in Committee, using children as weapons in a war by one parent against the other can equally apply to mothers seeking to alienate fathers as to fathers seeking to alienate mothers. It can inflict damage on both parent and child. I fundamentally disagree with the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, that this a gendered issue.
In Committee, the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, who has a wealth of experience, said that it is important to leave discretion over contact and parental alienation to the judges. She reinforced that this afternoon. As she said, there are two types of case: one where a child witnesses abuse and turns against the perpetrator, and the other, where there is a malicious attempt to turn a child against a parent. Abusive behaviour turns children against abusers.
As with many areas of domestic abuse, the issues here are complex, and there are both advantages and disadvantages to the noble Baroness’s amendment. In Committee, my noble friend Lady Brinton quoted from a Ministry of Justice report which cites:
“Fears of false allegations of parental alienation are clearly a barrier to victims of abuse telling the courts about their experiences.”
The domestic abuse commissioner-designate has talked about
“the potential for the idea of ‘parental alienation’ to be weaponised by perpetrators of domestic abuse to silence their victims within the Family Court.”
The noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, said that the justice system needs to be better equipped to deal with these issues. As my noble friend Lady Brinton said, the House will consider in Amendment 44 whether there should be mandatory training, so that magistrates and judges at all levels might be better trained in this and other areas of domestic abuse. I accept that the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, thinks that the existing training is adequate but, along with the noble Baroness, Lady Helic, we believe that there should be changes to the training of the judiciary, rather than
“behaviour deliberately designed to damage the relationship of a child of the parent and the other parent” being listed as part of the definition of domestic abuse in the Bill. For these reasons, we do not support the amendment.
My Lords, I remind the House that I sit as a family magistrate in central London and regularly deal with these types of cases. I have to say that this has been a better debate than the one we had in Committee. The reason is that many of the speakers showed a greater appreciation of the complexity of these types of cases, which we hear in court. A number of speakers, including those who put their names to this amendment, stated that if the Minister were to make it crystal clear that the term “parental alienation” will be dealt with fully outside of the Bill, then they would think that a good solution to the issue in the amendment. We have also had a number of very eminent lawyers—the noble and learned Lords, Lord Mackay and Lord Morris, and my noble friend Lady Chakrabarti—clearly say their view is that the amendment is not necessary, as long as the issue itself is addressed elsewhere.
We have had a lot of contributions and I will not go through all the speeches. However, I want to pick up a couple of points noble Lords have made, in particular a contribution by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth. He spoke about the distressing and polarising effects of the issue being debated in Committee; I think we have all received a huge amount of lobbying material since then. He also said that he had no doubt that parental alienation exists and that professional organisations such as Cafcass, through its child impact assessment, and the court system try to address the whole range of domestic abuse, including parental alienation.
I want to make one point, which has not been made by any other speaker, and stems from that made by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss. She summarised it, in a typically succinct way, by saying that the effects on the child are twofold: first, the witnessing, either directly or indirectly, of domestic abuse, which is clearly extremely bad for the child; and secondly, the malicious attempt by a parent to turn the child against the other parent. She has characterised that issue accurately, but I have been sitting as a family magistrate for about eight years now and have seen many cases where a parent has admitted, perhaps through a conviction, that their behaviour means they have committed such abuse. I have seen that many times but never seen a parent admit trying maliciously to alienate the child from the other parent. I have simply never seen a parent acknowledge that they have indulged in such a course of action. The court is of course in a very difficult position, so we move on to the possible use of experts, training for the judiciary and the life experience of magistrates and judges who are dealing with these cases.
I come back to where I opened: there has been a greater acknowledgement by the contributors to today’s debate of the difficulty in making these decisions. Of course, I am in favour of more training—magistrates, lawyers and judges are trained in any event, but more training would be welcome. I hope that the Minister will manage to convince the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, that it is not necessary to press her amendment. I personally believe that the issues she has raised and the intensity of the speeches she has given can be properly met through regulations under the Bill.
My Lords, on this International Women’s Day, I pay tribute to the courage of and thank my noble friend Lady Meyer, and other noble Lords, for their continued engagement on this issue. As pointed out by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, parental alienation clearly proved to be one of the most polarising issues in Committee. He challenged us to focus on the areas of agreement and I will try to do that. It was apposite that the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, referred to the comments of the noble and right reverend Lord and said that we had a better debate today than we did in Committee. I agree. We are beginning to develop a shared understanding on where we are trying to get to on this, and to understand what points the amendment is driving at.
My noble friend Lady Meyer has lived experience of this very difficult, deeply distressing and personal issue, and 19 years of campaigning experience to boot in the area of alienating behaviours. I pay tribute to her; in no way do I seek to deny or to minimise the devastating impact that alienating behaviours can have on family life. But we must carefully consider the suggestion that legislation in the form of my noble friend’s amendment is the appropriate response here, and I hope that I can give her comfort on that. I will now outline the aspect of things that I think go to the heart of the Bill and the nub of the point that she is trying to make.
Our approach in Clause 1 is to define domestic abuse by reference to types of abusive behaviours, as pointed out by my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern and by the noble Lord, Lord Curry of Kirkharle—although he agrees with the amendment—and not by reference to the form in which those behaviours may be manifested. We are fearful of creating a hierarchy of behaviours by appearing to give more weight to one manifestation than another, and do not—as my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay said—wish to inadvertently narrow the Clause 1 definition by giving specific examples such as that proposed by my noble friend in her amendment to Clause 1(5), as the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, pointed out. The behaviours to which my noble friend Lady Altmann referred would be in scope; whether the examples she cites would be covered would clearly be a matter for the courts to decide.
As I indicated in Committee, I accept that there are circumstances where alienating behaviours indicate a wider pattern of emotional or psychological abuse. However, where this is the case the definition of domestic abuse in Clause 1—subsections (3)(e) and (5) are particularly relevant, as the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, the noble Baronesses, Lady Chakrabarti and Lady Brinton, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris of Aberavon, said—already applies and, as such, does not need to be further expanded.
To answer the question about statutory guidance asked by my noble friend Lady Meyer, and almost all noble Lords who spoke in this debate, the draft statutory guidance covers alienating behaviours. I am very grateful to noble Lords who have already shared their views on the guidance and we welcome further feedback and suggestions for improvement. There will then be a further opportunity to comment on the guidance when we formally consult following Royal Assent.
One of the strengths of the Bill is that it recognises the impact of domestic abuse on children, considering them as victims in their own right. From the perspective of risk of harm to the child, the relevant legal framework is provided for in Section 1 of the Children Act 1989, together with the definition of harm in that Act. My noble friend Lady Meyer and the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, referenced the Cafcass definition of parental alienation. Although that definition supports our shared understanding of the impact of alienating behaviours on the child, it is an important point of clarification that the Cafcass definition is not one of domestic abuse—we need to be clear about that. Cafcass is clear that there are a number of reasons why a child might resist time with, or be hostile towards, one parent following separation or other breakdown of a parental relationship.
I fully accept that the impact of decisions made by the family courts can be life-changing for parents and children, as my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern illustrated. Any allegations of harm, including alienating behaviours, should be properly and fully scrutinised by the court, as my noble friend Lady Stroud said, and the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, emphasised. It is for the court to decide child arrangements based on the facts of the case and with the welfare of the child as the key concern.
I listened intently to the testimony of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, about historic court practice. I acknowledge that there is work to be done to improve the court process and particularly to ensure that the system better protects victims of domestic abuse and their children. The Government have already committed to addressing long-standing and systemic issues following the findings of the Expert Panel on Harm in the Family Courts, which the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, referred to. Specific commitments already address a number of suggestions made during the passage of the Bill in relation to this amendment: from the need for updated training and guidance across the family justice system to the importance of enhancing the voice of the child. I can assure my noble friend that there is widespread commitment to system-wide reform in this area.
The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, asked what measures are in place to ensure expert witnesses meet practice direction 25b. Under practice direction 25b, experts must comply with the standards set out in the Standards for Expert Witnesses in the Family Courts. I thank the London Victims’ Commissioner for her thorough briefing to Ministers and the President of the Family Division on this. I might add that the domestic abuse protection orders will be available in the family and other courts. My noble and learned friend Lord Mackay was quite right to suggest that a DAPO offers a remedy in these cases.
I indicated at the start of my remarks that the Government need to listen to all sides of the debate when coming to a view on matters such as this. My noble friend will be aware that her amendment faces opposition from those representing domestic abuse victims and survivors. The domestic abuse commissioner designate, past and present Victims’ Commissioners, the London Victims’ Commissioner and Women’s Aid are all opposed to this amendment. It is incumbent upon all of us to understand why.
Adding parental alienation to the Bill could allow it to be weaponised by perpetrators of domestic abuse, as I think I have heard noble Lords say. Perpetrators who are not seeing their children because their former partners are trying to keep those children safe could, for example, allege in turn that they are victims of domestic abuse themselves in the form of parental alienation. I am grateful to those who have raised concerns on this point, and I agree that we cannot allow survivors of domestic abuse to be reframed as perpetrators in this way.
We should further be concerned that fear of false allegations of parental alienation already present a barrier to victims telling the courts about their experiences of abuse and those of their children. I note, as other noble Lords and particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, have commented, that those experiences are evidenced in the harm panel report published last year. This presents a real and serious risk which runs contrary to the purpose of the Bill.
The Bill seeks to improve our understanding of and response to domestic abuse. Although unintended, including parental alienation on the face of the Bill—in whatever terms it is described—risks silencing survivors of domestic abuse and, worse, risks further harm to survivors and their children. I acknowledge the complexities involved in this debate, but I submit that these risks must be avoided.
While I acknowledge the desire of the noble Baroness and others to include reference to parental alienation in guidance, I hope that, in the light of my explanation—and given that the Bill provides for behaviours that manifest themselves in parental alienation—my noble friend will feel happy to withdraw her amendment.
My Lords, first, I would like to thank those who put their names to my amendment: my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay, my noble friend Lady Altmann and the noble Earl, Lord Lytton. I also thank everybody who spoke today, particularly those who spoke in favour of the amendment. It has been a very interesting debate and I thank everybody for participating.
In the light of the conclusions reached, I now realise that my job has not been done whatsoever. There is still a huge misunderstanding about the point of my amendment and what parental alienation—call it what you like—is about. We are talking not about false allegations but real allegations. We are talking about parents who have been abused by the other parent using the child; this is a terrible form of abuse.
Listen to the London Victims’ Commissioner, who has actually been attacking all the mothers and fathers talking about parental alienation; look at the Twitter war that has been going on; it has been very ugly. I am really hurt that people say that you have to listen to the victims, but they are choosing which types of victims. Hordes of parents, some of whom are probably listening now, have been emailing me and signing letters saying, “Please stand for us”. Their voices are not heard.
I am really disappointed that the Government have not listened and understood what I was trying to do. I understand that some mothers are worried that this could be used against them, but, as everybody has said, the courts could make a decision. The courts obviously need a bit more training but because this issue is so complicated, we also need to involve psychiatrists.
There is a deep misunderstanding about what constitutes an alienated—or whatever term you use—child. Usually, those children have been separated from and have no access whatsoever to one of their parents, and their parent is constantly telling them that the other parent does not love them. Some have even been told that their other parent is dead. In my submission I had letters about people who committed suicide and letters from parents of children who committed suicide.
I hope that, as a minimum, the Minister can guarantee that this issue is going to be addressed in the guidance. More debate and conversations need to take place, because it needs to be understood better. In the light of the evidence before me, I will withdraw my amendment, but I very much hope that something will be done. I will probably come back to this issue because I have fought for it for 19 years and I have still not communicated what it is really about. I think I still have a war ahead of me. However, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 2 withdrawn.
Amendment 3 not moved.