Schedule 1 - Enforcement orders

Children and Adoption Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:00 pm on 16 March 2006.

Alert me about debates like this

Question proposed, That this schedule be the First schedule to the Bill.

Photo of Stewart Jackson Stewart Jackson Conservative, Peterborough 3:15, 16 March 2006

Mr. Hancock, I hope that there was no link, given that just before I rose to speak, you were gently admonishing us to be consensual and not to   create any conflict. I shall proceed with alacrity, not least because I have my own child care responsibilities this afternoon with my daughter’s nursery. That is why I am looking at the clock. We are not moving an amendment, so I shall talk briefly about observations rather than any criticisms per se.

The schedule seems to be a bit of a push-me, pull-you creature, because it is an unfortunate mix of inertia and rigidity. I understand the situation that the Government are in because they have had to row back from the consensus in the Joint Committee that electronic tagging was gratuitously unfair, perhaps even unenforceable, and not the appropriate remedy. Therefore, they have sought to move on, and it is a difficult area. As we funnel down through the number of cases mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, we find that it is a relatively small number but nevertheless problematic.

It is in the best interest of children that the issues are settled quickly and there are some aspects to the schedule where that is militated against. I refer in particular to paragraph 8(3)(c), which deals with the responsible officer’s warning in respect of a breach of the order. Twelve months is a long time; there is a lack of urgency on that matter and I am concerned that things would drag on. I am also uncomfortable with the issue of a second order that would add to or substitute for the first order. A disputatious situation could get a lot worse if it were to drag on for 12 months.

I return to the points made earlier about paragraph 9(3) and the word “reasonable”. We can compare and contrast that with the comments of Lord Adonis, who used the word “meaningful”, but the Minister and others have set their faces against the word “reasonable”. I wonder whether there is that much of a logical jump between what is meaningful and what is reasonable. What is reasonable in this schedule is deemed to be anathema elsewhere in the Bill. What is reasonable in this case is defined even more loosely, and I defer to experts across the room who are lawyers, but we are talking about the balance of probabilities.

We can consider the balance of probabilities with regard to reasonableness, but we cannot do that on the presumption of co-parenting, because it would be seen to be completely at odds with the paramountcy principle. If you will indulge me, Mr. Hancock, while I go slightly off the subject, I believe that co-parenting is complementary to the paramountcy principle, not anathema to it. We are also looking at a very loose definition of “reasonable excuse” and the balance of probabilities.

I am concerned about paragraph 9(10)(b). Much has been made by the Minister and Labour Members of not seeking to fetter the discretion of the court. We have come to the end of the process dealing with enforcement orders, but there is an argument to be made about paragraph 9(10)(b), which says:

“is no more than is proportionate to the seriousness of his failures to comply with the contact order and the first order”.

That fetters the discretion of the court in a way that no other part of the Bill does. It is unduly prescriptive, particularly as Ministers have been hostile to the presumption of co-parenting.

My final point about the schedule concerns the section 111 notice and the non-receipt of a breach of enforcement. I am mindful of our debate about pressures on CAFCASS, its work load and the resources and funding issues. However, I would not want it to be used as an excuse for prevarication and further delay to the judicial process in the family court.

Photo of Beverley Hughes Beverley Hughes Minister of State (Children, Young People and Families), Department for Education and Skills, Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Children, Young People and Families)

I do not recognise the hon. Gentleman’s description of schedule 1, which merely uses the framework of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 to make the necessary links between the Bill and that legislation. We are already drawing on that Act to make the provisions work in respect of enforcement orders. For example, the Bill makes provision for CAFCASS officers to communicate mostly with probation officers about the case, the work and the problems involved which have to be accommodated when a person undertakes unpaid work. It provides for the arrangements on breaches of enforcement orders to be consistent, as they are for breaches of probation orders, and it makes the changes that we want, such as reducing the maximum time specified in an order from 300 hours in the Criminal Justice Act to 200 for an enforcement order.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned paragraph 8(3)(c) and what he perceived in the wording to be a potential lack of urgency in acting on a breach. To clarify the matter, the reference to “within the next 12 months” does not mean that nothing would happen for 12 months but that the maximum period during which the unpaid work—for however many hours the order required—can be undertaken is a maximum of 12 months, and any further breach within that period would be acted on. Serious breaches can be referred straight back to court and we would expect that to happen.

The hon. Gentleman probably appreciates that it is not the case that there is a breach of a contact order, an enforcement order and then no further expectations in respect of compliance while that order is fulfilled. One clearly expects an enforcement order to be put in place. Because the proposal is about making contact work, we would expect compliance with the contact order to be concurrent with the unpaid work prescribed by the order.

I cannot recall the hon. Gentleman’s last point, but if he wants to intervene and remind me I will try to respond to him. The reply I have does not reflect my recollection of what he said.

Photo of Stewart Jackson Stewart Jackson Conservative, Peterborough

I am delighted to help the Minister. I am delighted, too, that my speech was so scintillating that she has forgotten the last part of it. I was referring to the section 111 notice in respect of the breach of an enforcement order. I hope that that gently jogs her memory.

Photo of Beverley Hughes Beverley Hughes Minister of State (Children, Young People and Families), Department for Education and Skills, Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Children, Young People and Families)

That was a slightly more helpful intervention than some I experienced earlier. There cannot be a disproportionate response because to   allow that would risk conflict with human rights and other legislation. The claim that I think the hon. Gentleman is making, that proportionality is unduly prescriptive, must be read in that context.

This is a technical schedule. It makes the necessary links between the Bill and existing legislation, and makes the changes that we want in respect of the parameters of enforcement orders. I hope that that will satisfy the hon. Gentleman.

Question put and agreed to.

Schedule 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.