Schedule 1 - Enforcement orders

Part of Children and Adoption Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:15 pm on 16 March 2006.

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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.