Children and Adoption Bill [Lords]

Part of the debate – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:30 am on 14 March 2006.

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Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children) 10:30, 14 March 2006

I speak of seniority of parliamentary experience, not necessarily age, I hasten to add.

I am delighted to be joined on the Front Bench by my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke, who had an excellent debut when she wound up on Second Reading and who has had to become an expert on things all things to do with children. I am pleased to welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Jeremy Wright). He brings his experience as a lawyer and barrister to the Committee, which means that, unlike in his previous career, he may speak for a long time but not necessarily be paid for it. I welcome also my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson). I understand that he is a Standing Committee virgin, so I hope that the Minister will be gentle with him. He will of course be kept in good order by my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Evennett), who is doing the whipping. I am slightly disappointed that the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) is not among our number. She played a vociferous role on Second Reading and has tabled amendments. Her presence will be felt, if not physically.

The subject is familiar territory to many of us. Those of us who served on the Committee that considered the Adoption and Children Act 2002 will see that some things that appear in this Bill are perhaps left over from that legislation, which is a good Act. It has achieved much on adoption and contains references to inter-country adoption, which forms part of this Bill. I am pleased that the inter-country adoption parts of the Bill are to be debated first, because coming at the end of the Bill they did not have the airing that they deserved in the upper House. They raise important issues and if we put them at the beginning of our deliberations we can do them the justice that they require.

I am also very pleased that the programme motion does not contain any knives. In the various pieces of legislation to do with children with which the Minister   and I have been involved in recent months and years, we have shown that strict guillotines and knives are not required to promote good healthy debate in Committee, let alone on the Floor of the House. We intend to concentrate on aspects of the Bill that we think deserve a greater airing. The absence of knives enables us to do that for the benefit of all members of the Committee.

As you are aware, Mr. Hood, we are concerned that we do not have as many days in Committee as we had anticipated and requested through the usual channels. However, I understand that if our deliberations take longer than the four sittings allocated, we may be able to extend them into next week. I am grateful for the indication by the Government Whips that that facility will be available, even if it means that we will further detain you, Mr. Hood, and Mr. Hancock.

I am also concerned by the substantial number of amendments that have not been selected for debate. By my reckoning, 20 Conservative amendments were not allowed, against 18 that were. I have never served on a Committee where so many amendments have not been selected, especially as the vast majority of them were debated in the upper Chamber. I hope that we can rely on a bit of licence from the Chair to refer to areas germane to the amendments that we had hoped to debate. Those matters will be relevant to clauses, and perhaps we can discuss them at the appropriate time, through the facility of the clause stand part debate.

We concentrated on the word “reasonable,” as associated with the mentions of contact, and it is not, strictly speaking, one of the things that we are going to debate. There are other such issues. I particularly hope that we can encompass within our debates on clauses this morning the amendment on private foster arrangements that I championed in previous Bills. It has not been selected, although it was debated in the upper Chamber. The provisions on inter-country adoption have a direct link to private fostering and the potential for it to expand. In the additional time that we might have to discuss the subject by giving priority to the international adoption clauses, I hope that I can refer to private fostering and the Bill’s implications for it.

Inevitably, much of the Bill is very complicated, as are most Bills that amend existing legislation—large swathes of the Bill are about amending the Children Act 1989. Much of it does not just tinker with odd words here and there and insert additional lines, but goes to the fundamental principles of what we think is a serious weakness in the whole system of contact in the courts. We therefore think that the system needs to be turned on its head and for the Bill to contain references to a presumption of reasonable contact, rather than presuming that that is what the courts are doing already and taking it as read.

If there were not a serious problem with the way in which the courts operate and children are treated when families break up, we would not have the Bill. Clearly there is a problem, which the Government have acknowledged and we have sought to highlight for some time. We therefore need to ensure that the Bill not only addresses that problem, but addresses it with   effective practical solutions that will make a difference. Having a nice debate about the problems within the court system and coming up with a few solutions that are pretty toothless will not solve the problem, although it may assuage the consciences of Ministers who have been lobbied about it for some time.

I am also concerned that we should not address these amendments as legal anoraks. There are quite a few lawyers on the Committee. I am not a lawyer, I hasten to add. My training is in Mesopotamian archaeology, which is eminently more useful for parliamentary matters than training as a highly paid lawyer. There has been a feeling among people who view themselves as victims of the court system that there is a cosiness between the legal professionals and those concerned with the court, and that as long as the system appears to be working okay for them, then it is okay for everybody else.

The problem is that too many families are being failed by the system. We often quote a figure, which the Government challenge, and the figures vary. However, whether it is 40, 30 or 28 per cent., an awful lot of non-resident parents lose contact with their children within two years of a family break-up. That has enormous implications for the welfare of those children, let alone the sanity and well-being of the parents who suffer from traumatic and acrimonious splits. That is why we want to spend a lot of time on the need for the presumption of reasonable contact to be written into the Bill.

Reasonable contact needs to be properly monitored and the whole court system needs to be speeded up so that if there is a dispute between parents, it is resolved as quickly as possible. The longer a dispute drags on, and the longer the children involved are frozen out of their relationship with the parent who does not have custody, the more likely it is that that relationship will suffer. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that non-custodial parents are not up to looking after the children if that contact is lost and the children feel isolated from them.

We are all agreed, and I sure that you agree, too, Mr. Hood, that there is no better environment—