Moved by Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay
That this House do not insist on its Amendment 9B, and do agree with the Commons in their Amendments 9C, 9D and 9E in lieu.
9C: Page 57, line 36, at end insert the following new Clause—“Contact centres Report on the use of contact centres in England(1) The Secretary of State must, before the end of the relevant period, prepare and publish a report about the extent to which individuals, when they are using contact centres in England, are protected from the risk of domestic abuse or, in the case of children, other harm.(2) “The relevant period” means the period of 2 years beginning with the day on which this Act is passed.(3) In this section “contact centre” means a place that is used for the facilitation of contact between a child and an individual with whom the child is not, or will not be, living (including the handover of the child to that individual).”
9D: Page 59, line 8, after “72” insert “, (Report on the use of contact centres in England)”
9E: Page 60, line 32, at end insert—“( ) section (Report on the use of contact centres in England);”
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Wolfson of Tredegar much regrets that he is not able to move this Motion himself; he is giving evidence to the Justice Select Committee in another place. As I am sure noble Lords will appreciate, this is another important part of his work and accountability to Parliament. He is very grateful to noble Lords who have engaged with him on this issue since our last debates on the matter.
Since then, the elected House has disagreed with Amendment 9B—as it did with the previous Amendment 9 —by a significant majority of 133. Noble Lords will recall that Amendment 9B would require the Government to introduce a set of national standards for child contact centres and services to which organisations and individuals would be required to adhere. This would, in effect, be a form of indirect accreditation which the previous Amendment 9, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, and debated on Report, explicitly sought to establish.
When we debated Amendment 9B last Wednesday, my noble friend Lord Wolfson was very clear that there is nothing between the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, and other noble Lords who have supported these amendments, and the Government when it comes to our commitment to the protection of vulnerable children and the victims of domestic abuse. These are absolute priorities for Her Majesty’s Government. That is why we have listened intently during the passage of this Bill to the arguments made both in your Lordships’ House and in another place and have acted to strengthen the Bill in a significant number of ways. That is also why we have established the expert panel on harm in the family courts, and why we are now acting on its recommendations better to protect domestic abuse victims in the family courts. Where we have been persuaded of the case for change, we have acted, and will continue to act, in the interests of victims.
In this instance, the problem we face is one of evidence, as we have stressed previously. We have explained in detail the safeguards that are in place in relation to child contact centres and services in both public and private law and the steps that are being taken with the President of the Family Division and the chief executive of Cafcass to reinforce existing expectations. I hope noble Lords will forgive me for not repeating the detail of those safeguards again on this occasion, as I hope my noble friend has covered them in adequate detail previously and I believe that our time would be better served by outlining the steps the Government now propose to take.
As I say, my noble friend is very grateful for the constructive way in which the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering and other noble Lords have engaged with him and others on this matter. We are also grateful for the evidence provided to the NACCC in support of Amendments 9 and 9B. While we remain of the view that the evidence provided so far is insufficiently robust to justify new statutory requirements, we are also keenly aware of the limited time which has been available to investigate this matter systematically in order to build a more convincing evidence base—a point made last week by the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, in her concluding remarks.
We are also drawn heavily towards the comments made by my noble friend Lady McIntosh last Wednesday, when she suggested that the Government might investigate the evidence available themselves rather than the NACCC which, as she rightly said, should focus its efforts on the protection of children. We agree. We accept that if there is a demonstrable problem here, the risks to children are real. But if a demonstrable problem does exist, we would also need to understand fully how prevalent it is and how it manifests itself in order to understand how we can address it effectively and proportionately. Without this research, any measures seeking to address the perceived problem may not be effective and may have unintended consequences. It is for this reason that the Government have tabled their Amendments 9C to 9E, which were agreed by another place yesterday, in lieu of Amendment 9B.
Amendment 9C would place a duty on the Secretary of State to prepare and publish a report about the extent to which individuals are protected from the risk of domestic abuse when they use a contact centre or, in the case of children, other harms. The amendment draws the definition of a “contact centre” widely to include any place used to facilitate contact between a child and an individual with whom they do not or will not live. The scope of the amendment goes beyond a formal child contact centre accredited by the NACCC to include more informal arrangements, in order to address the issues at the centre of noble Lords’ concerns.
The amendment requires that the results of the review be published within two years of the Bill being passed. I want to make it categorically clear that this timescale, which some might argue is too long, does not mean that the Government are not serious about this review. It is already clear that it is not easy to gather evidence in this area, and it is important that we take time to investigate thoroughly in order to reach meaningful and robust conclusions. We will proceed with the review as quickly as possible after Royal Assent and publish its findings. I also give the Government’s commitment to act appropriately in response to those findings.
I am sure that noble Lords will understand that, before the review is launched, there is more work to do on establishing its precise terms of reference, scope and exact timescales. We will want to consult with experts in this area—including, for example, the NACCC, the judiciary, Cafcass, local government and victims’ groups—before reaching final decisions on these points.
However, I reassure your Lordships, particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, and my noble friend Lady McIntosh, that the scope will be sufficiently broad to cover both private and public law and circumstances where parents may decide to approach those providing child contact services outside court proceedings. It will also include an external consultation to gather information from key parties.
I repeat the commitment my noble friend Lord Wolfson gave in our debate on
In developing the terms of the review, I also commit explicitly to engaging further with the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, and my noble friend Lady McIntosh. The Government would welcome the noble Baronesses’ input in establishing the review, given their commitment and interest in this area, and I am sure that they will have valuable evidence to contribute—all the more so, given the additional time that the review will afford.
In conclusion, I hope your Lordships’ House will agree that in bringing forward our amendments in lieu, the Government have shown their commitment to giving this important issue the detailed consideration it deserves. We can build a robust evidence base concerning the scale of any problem with regulating those providing child contact centres, so that we can reach a fully informed decision on any further steps which may be necessary. I put on record again our appreciation of the dedication shown by the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, and my noble friend Lady McIntosh on this subject. I ask them and the rest of your Lordships’ House to accept the Commons amendments in lieu and to agree Motion A. I beg to move.
My Lords, I will speak to Amendment 9C and its consequential Amendments 9D and 9E, which the Government have tabled in place of my original Amendments 9 and 9B, which had support across this House.
I am most grateful to the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson of Tredegar, who has met with me and colleagues across the House and spoken with us on several occasions about this issue. He clearly has listened to our concerns. We are of course disappointed that our amendments have not been accepted but appreciate that this is such an important Bill that we must not jeopardise its passage at this stage in the Session. I have the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Trafford, ringing in my ears from an earlier meeting at which she expressed just this fear.
I have three questions for the Minister. First, can he confirm that the term “contact centre” means the people who work in a place or use a place for facilitating contact between a child and the person they are not living with? A place could be an empty building or open parkland. It is the way that a place is used by people that matters—and it was the people involved who were the subject of my Amendment 9B.
Secondly, can the Minister confirm that the spirit of Amendment 9B is encapsulated in proposed new subsection (1) of the government amendment, where it is stipulated that a report must explicitly tackle the extent to which individuals are protected from the risk of domestic abuse or, in the case of children, other harm. All we have asked is that, as outlined by Sir James Munby in his statement in support of our previous amendment, the
“standards in child contact centres and services are consistent and high, and domestic abuse and safeguarding is appropriately handled through high quality staff training to protect those children and families who find themselves involved with the family justice system.”
These vulnerable children must have the same standard of safeguarding as other children, such as those going to childminders, those in nurseries and those aged 16 to 19 in education.
Thirdly, can the Minister confirm that the judicial protocol on child contact will be actively promoted across all family courts to ensure that it is properly used in practice?
Jess Phillips MP, shadow Minister with responsibility for domestic violence and safeguarding, recounted in the other place yesterday that she has heard of case after case where there is poor practice, bad handovers and perpetrators can access victims. Now, all this evidence must be gathered in one place. It must be clear and publicised to whom such evidence is to be addressed, as some people reporting may feel intimidated at drawing attention to a problem, particularly in small and somewhat closed communities.
All those involved in this debate will, I am sure, be entering a date in our diaries two years hence when we expect the report to be published. We all hope sincerely that no disasters will happen between now and then. We all believe that there is a loophole that must be closed. Let me be clear: I welcome the proposed investigation by the Secretary of State and greatly appreciate all the work the Minister has put into this to date. In the meantime, we appreciate the government Amendments 9C to 9E.
My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, and thank her for all the work and passion that she has shown in bringing this series of amendments to the House. I am also grateful for the support shown across the House, especially by the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, and others on all Benches. I also thank and pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Wolfson of Tredegar in his absence. Without his particular personal interest in the issues before us we would not be where we are today. I therefore ask my noble friend Lord Parkinson to pay fulsome thanks to him.
It is important to welcome the fact that there will be some movement. I say that especially as vice-president of the National Association of Child Contact Centres and co-chair of the All-Party Group on Child Contact Centres. However, I regret that, under the terms of the amendments before us in the name of my noble friend on the Front Bench, it may be two years before we see any change whatever. It is welcome that all of us across the House are united in wanting to ensure that children can continue to see absent parents in the event of a family breakdown in safety.
However, I regret that there is no sense of urgency, such as that which we have seen with the Private Member’s Bill that will go through in this parliamentary Session, which makes sure that there are national standards and safeguards for all those working with 16 to 19 year-olds. It is bizarre and slightly concerning that they are being treated preferentially as compared with those in a younger age group, infants and those possibly up to the age of 18, seeking to meet parents in child contact centres and settings.
It is important that we establish that contact centres and services, as outlined by the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, are subject to the same basic minimum safe- guarding, training, DBS and criminal checks, and enhanced checks as all others working with children, including childminders and nurseries. The Bill will leave the House today with the addition of these amendments, which I welcome in so far as they go, but it does not go as far as it should.
“The government’s reservation to support Baroness Finlay’s amendment, which has been drafted in partnership with the National Association of Child Contact Centres, would be a missed opportunity to address an anomaly in safeguarding children and improving standards in general and specifically in regard to domestic abuse…The amendment is seeking is to ensure the same standards of safeguarding, accreditation, checks and training for all child contact centres and services whether in a public or private setting, and on the same basis as those who work with children as child minders, in nurseries and now with 16-19 years olds in education.”
Perhaps the most disappointing omission in the Government’s amendments is that we have failed to alert them to certain essential facts. DBS checks already apply to those setting up contact centres through an accredited service. However, if one is not accredited, one can go ahead without getting DBS checks. Therefore, amending the regulations will not move matters forward. That applies also to enhanced DBS checks. About one-third of families who attend child contact centres are self-referrals, so they have no-one to guide them to an accredited centre unless they go on to the NACCC website. Also, in tune with what the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, said, the weight placed on the judicial protocol means that guidance will need to change to the equivalent of a requirement to ensure that it can support the expectation being placed upon it. The essential fact is this: if there is no one to check whether someone has DBS certificates, how would anyone know whether they have them or not?
I simply end with a question to my noble friend. If evidence comes to light within the two-year period he has allowed for the review, which is welcome, will the regulations that the Government are empowered to apply through the Ministry of Justice be put in place? Secondly, why is a higher bar being asked for in the evidence required for the younger age group of infants to 18 year-olds than that required in the Private Member’s Bill introducing safeguards for 16 to 19 year-olds? However, I welcome the movement that has been made and hope that we can work together with the departments concerned in this regard.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baronesses, Lady Finlay of Llandaff and Lady McIntosh of Pickering, for their tenacity in protecting the interests of vulnerable children and abuse victims. Their knowledge and experience have fuelled their tenacity and insistence that a solution be found. The noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, has used his great experience in the family courts, and I have had, if not exactly the same level of experience, raw enthusiasm in backing the cause.
However, that would have all been to no avail if the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson of Tredegar, had not only seen what we were trying to achieve but gone the extra mile in seeking a solution, despite the fact that we did not have all the incontrovertible evidence he sought. I am sorry that he is not in his place, but I know that the Minister will pass on these remarks. When we suggested that the Government, not the NACCC, should obtain the evidence, he has come up with the amendment, which I hope the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, will be minded to accept, to go and get the evidence. The widening of the definition of a child contact centre will catch many informal organisations—those that we are most concerned about—in the net.
All that any of us wants is to protect our children at a most difficult and vulnerable time, to ensure that unskilled and even unscrupulous people do not get anywhere near those children, and that those children are received into a welcoming environment manned by skilled, trained and compassionate people. We are not there yet and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, said, the movers of the original amendment will be setting two-year reminders in their diaries after the passing of the Bill, so the Government can expect timely reminders if the report has not appeared as the deadline looms.
My Lords, I too pay tribute to the tenacity of the noble Baronesses, Lady Finlay of Llandaff and Lady McIntosh of Pickering. Although I have experience in the family courts and was aware of the child contact centres, I was not as well briefed on this issue as I am now, given the noble Baronesses’ backgrounds on this matter, particularly the legislative history of the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh.
I should also pay fulsome tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, who is relatively new to our House. We met him a number of times; he has properly engaged on the issues and expressed scepticism, which is sometimes helpful to people moving amendments. He has come up with a solution. Although, as the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, said, it may fall short of what we were hoping for, it nevertheless provides a road ahead for addressing the concerns that he expressed. He has potentially come up with a proper solution for the various loopholes in the child contact centre system, if I can put it like that.
As the noble Lord, Lord Parkinson, said in his introduction, the Government’s problem was one of evidence. As we repeated in numerous meetings, it is very difficult to get evidence of contact centres that come and go, perhaps operating in particular communities and essentially functioning under the radar. I am glad that the Government appreciated that point to the extent that they are willing to take on the responsibility of seeing whether this is a real problem and whether appropriate measures can be put in place to protect children who go to these child contact centres.
The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, asked three good questions for the Minister to answer. The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, went on to quote Sir James Munby’s support for the earlier amendments. Sir James Munby has unequalled experience in these matters, so the Government should listen to what he says.
In conclusion, the noble Baroness, Lady Burt of Solihull, and I have sat on a lot of committees together over the last couple of years and she has always been sensible in her support of the noble Baronesses, Lady Finlay and Lady McIntosh. As she said, I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, accepts the Government’s amendments and that we continue to work together for the next couple of years to ensure that the Government follow through on their promise to review the existing provision.
My Lords, first, I thank and agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, and the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, in paying tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, and my noble friend Lady McIntosh for their tenacity in pursuing this issue in the interests of vulnerable children. We have all been mindful of that throughout these discussions and are grateful to them. I am also grateful to noble Lords for their tributes to my noble friend Lord Wolfson. I will pass on their thanks and appreciation, and I know that he would have liked to have been here to see the conclusion of this important matter. But I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, for saying that my noble friend went the extra mile. That has been the Government’s approach to the Bill throughout and, even those provisions that will not be in the Bill have launched some important work, which will continue to bear fruit and help victims of domestic abuse, whether legislatively or not.
The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, asked three questions on which I hope I can provide reassurance. Her first was about whether contact centres mean the people who work in the place. Yes, we are going to review the way that a place is used, rather than a building, which may be empty. Her second was about the spirit of the amendment. Again, yes, we want to build an evidence base through the review that assesses the need for regulation, along the lines that the noble Baroness proposed. Her third was about promoting the judicial protocol. That protocol is being updated and will be communicated by the judiciary, not Her Majesty’s Government. That will provide an opportunity for its promotion but, as I am sure she and other noble Lords understand, that is a matter for the judiciary.
My noble friend Lady McIntosh asked some questions about the review. As I say, we want to establish a robust evidence base about the scale of the problem, so that we reach a fully informed decision about any further steps necessary. We would welcome her input and that of others into establishing the terms of the review. We will also be engaging the judiciary, among others, so the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, about Sir James Munby is well heard.
That has answered all the questions raised. Again, we are very grateful to all noble Lords for their engagement on this and hope that it is a sensible resolution. I hope that noble Lords support Motion A.
Motion A agreed.