New Clause 3 - Pilot scheme on early intervention

Children and Adoption Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:00 pm on 21 March 2006.

Alert me about debates like this

‘(1)The Lord Chancellor shall run a pilot scheme better to protect the post-divorce and post-separation family ties of children by providing for intervention before the court makes a contact order with respect to the child.

(2)The order shall designate courts to participate within the scheme.

(3)When a designated court is approached to make a contact order, the court must provide to the parties—

(a)a set of guidelines, indicating in broad terms the levels of contact appropriate in the main categories of cases, in the absence of good reason to the contrary, accompanied by an enjoinder to maintain reasonable contact wherever possible,

(b)the date of the first hearing,

(c)an instruction to attend a meeting with a court-appointed mediator to develop a parenting plan which must include the amount of time each party will spend with the child,

(d)an explanation that parties who do not file the agreed parenting plan must then—

(i)attend a parent education meeting, and

(ii)attend contact-focused dispute resolution and mediation

as decided by the court appointed mediator, before the parties may continue with any application for a contact order, and

(e)a statement that litigation should be a last resort.

(4)Parties who do not wish to ask the court to make a contact order may also make use of the mediation and education facilities of the pilot scheme.

(5)The court shall take into account the willingness of each parent to participate in the scheme.

(6)The pilot scheme must start no later than six months after this Act receives Royal Assent and must run for no longer than two years.

(7)The Lord Chancellor must direct the President of the Family Division to report to him as to the operation of the pilot scheme.

(8)The report under subsection (6) must include an assessment of the extent to which the pilot scheme has achieved the objectives set out in this section.’. —[Tim Loughton.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Photo of Jimmy Hood Jimmy Hood Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

New clause 17—Allocation of cases—

‘(1)In any family proceedings in which a court has power to make an order with respect to a child, when allocating proceedings the court shall, upon receipt of an application relating to a child, have regard to—

(a)minimising delay to proceedings, and

(b)minimising the cost of proceedings, as far as is reasonably practicable.

(2)In deciding how to allocate proceedings in accordance with subsection (1), a court shall have regard to the availability of—

(a)mediation provided by an independent third party,

(b)mediation and conciliation provided in court,

(c)court time for the early determination of any disputed questions that arise within the proceedings, and

(d)the range of provisions available for providing the court with further information before making any decision.

(3)In deciding how to allocate proceedings in accordance with this section, a court shall have regard to any risk assessment provided in accordance with section 16A of the Children Act 1989 (c. 41) and shall, in the absence of such an assessment, consider whether to request such an assessment before proceeding.

(4)Rules of court may be made in order to set out the procedure for arranging hearings and making decisions in accordance with this section, including—

(a)the making of any application to a court,

(b)the arrangements for any hearing,

(c)the timing of hearings,

(d)the notification of any decisions made to the parties involved and others, and

(e)any other matter ancillary thereto.

(5)At any stage in any family proceedings to which this section relates the court may, upon the application of any party or of its own motion, arrange a further hearing to consider further the arrangements for the allocation of the case.’.

New clause 24—Contact orders: meeting with mediator—

‘After section 8 of the Children Act 1989 (c. 41) insert—

“8AContact orders: meeting with mediator

Applications for a contact order under section 8 must be stayed, unless by order of the court, until the applicant has attended a meeting with a mediator and the mediator has certified that mediation is not suitable to resolve the issue which is the subject of the application.”’.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

New clause 3, which stands in my name and those of my hon. Friends, is quite important. It is concerned with the thorny issue of the early interventions pilot, about which there still remains a mystery. Perhaps we shall get to the bottom of it in the Minister’s response.

To recap, a group of eminent practitioners put together the early interventions pilot a few years ago. It was submitted, fully designed, to the Government on 8 October 2003 and addressed the problem of how to avoid disputing couples going to long, drawn-out   and acrimonious legal cases. The pilot was founded on the presumption of reasonable contact and was designed largely by English lawyers and judges. It was based on the 1997 guidelines of the Association of Family Court Welfare Officers, which sought to promote a presumption of meaningful and reasonable contact—reasonable being a word that we have sought to insert in the Bill in numerous places. The guidelines were developed following a 1995 complaint against a report of the family court welfare service, the body that preceded the children and family court advisory and support service. In that case, it was shown that officers of the family court welfare service had not acted under strict guidelines, so their professional body drew up extensive guidelines based on the presumption of meaningful and reasonable contact. Building on those guidelines, a lot of work was carried out by a group of practitioners on what became the early interventions project.

To illustrate the calibre of that group, let me list the members who prepared one of its proposition papers. The chairman was district judge Nicholas Crichton, who is well known to many hon. Members for the innovative family court that he runs in Wells street in London’s west end. I have witnessed it at first hand; it is a model of how the system could be speeded up. The pre-planning group that he chaired included Dr. Hamish Cameron, a consultant child psychiatrist; Audrey Damazer, clerk to the justices of the inner London family proceedings court; Diane Elliott from the Institute of Family Therapy; Joan Hunt from the Oxford family policy unit; Brian Kirby from CAFCASS; Ruth Smallacombe, a mediator of Family Law in Partnership; the then chief executive of CAFCASS and Veronica Carter, formerly chief clerk in the Official Solicitor’s Department; so the early interventions project for the resolution of private law family disputes enjoyed fairly heavyweight input.

That proposal went forward. It contained some eminently sensible, practical and workable suggestions and was based on a heavyweight conference held in March 2002 at the Royal Society, involving involved many judges. That was entitled “Early Intervention—Towards a Pilot Project”, and was chaired by Mrs. Justice Bracewell, who gave a keynote address that supported what became the early interventions project.

In October 2003, the proposals went to the Department for Constitutional Affairs. However, somewhere between the DCA and the Department for Education and Skills, in which the Minister for Children and Families is based—she has as part of her remit this whole area, including the control of CAFCASS—the early interventions project disappeared. Its existence was later denied. It was said that the pilot had never existed, or that it was the family resolutions pilot project by a different name.

The trouble is that it was not the same thing in practice. In September 2004, the Government put into effect the family resolutions pilot project, which was to last a year. They anticipated that there would be several thousand takers for this new attempt at keeping acrimonious cases out of the courts. The pilot   ran in three centres—Brighton, London and, I think, Sunderland—but there were not thousands of cases. By the time it ended in September 2005, there had been only 62 referrals from the three areas over the year. Barely half those cases completed the programme. Nearly a third of referrals dropped out before the first session, and a small number dropped out later. Nearly three quarters of non-completed cases were due to parents not attending the sessions. Most cases took longer to complete the programme than the target 12 weeks.

We were promised an appraisal of the family resolutions pilot project. Coincidentally, on the morning of the Bill’s Second Reading, unbeknown to Conservative members of the Committee, the findings of that project were produced. Fortunately, that came to light on Second Reading, during which we had to request the Minister to furnish the Front-Bench Members involved in that debate with the findings. Late in the day, we eventually got those findings, which I now have in my hand. I will not go back over the arguments as to why we got them so late in the day. Certainly, they make interesting reading.

To say that the project has been damned with faint praise is perhaps an underestimate. The best comments that we could get on it were:

“The overall effectiveness of the pilot was variable. On some issues it was hard to make a judgement.”

One conclusion was:

“The pilot has not produced a clear blue print for the future development of services, but it has provided a number of important pointers for future developments within the family justice system and beyond.”

In short, the project was a complete, total and unmitigated disaster. As an article in The Guardian on 30 May said:

“In short, it’s a waste of time.”

It need not have been a waste of time if the Government had stuck to the original intention of seeing through the early interventions pilot project, into which a lot of work had gone.

We want to be helpful to the Government. Their family resolutions project has failed, and we need to get it back on track. I suggest that we do that by seeing through the original project, and that is what new clause 3 is based on. It will designate courts to participate in the scheme. Those courts will issue a set of guidelines to parents involved, suggesting appropriate levels of contact in various cases, in the absence, of course, of good reason to the contrary; there must always be that safeguard. The court will clearly set the date of the first hearing and will give an instruction that the couples should attend a meeting with a court-appointed mediator to develop a parenting plan. In another new clause, my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke has set out ideas for parenting plans.

The instructions will also explain that those parents who do not go along with the parenting plan will have to attend a parent education meeting and

“attend contact-focused dispute resolution and mediation.”

That is set out in subsection (3)(d)(ii) of the new clause. It also makes it clear that

“litigation should be a last resort.”

Subsection (5) is crucial to the scheme, saying:

“The court shall take into account the willingness of each parent to participate in the scheme.”

That pilot project requires a degree of compulsion. We think it essential that the warring couple be pointed in the right direction and be required to go through a number of preliminary stages, so that they exhaust every opportunity to come up with a solution to, and resolution of, their differences in the interests of the children. That can then form the basis of an agreement, which means that long drawn out acrimonious legal cases are avoided.

As we have discussed, mediation cannot by its essence be based on compulsion, but we believe that it should be compulsory for a couple, and certainly for the initial stages. If they still opt out, and if one opts out in particular—this is the rub—the court should take account of that when making a subsequent judgment if the legal processes are continued with because no other course of action is available. In effect, brownie points should be available to those parents who comply with the suggested process.

In everything that the Government have designed for their voluntary and rather limp mediation process, my fear is that if one parent shows good will and wants to go along with mediation but the second parent sets his or her face against it from the start and wants nothing to do with it, the process will fall and court proceedings be carried forth. However, surely the person who wanted to go the extra mile with mediation should receive some recognition of their willingness to do so. Under subsection (5) of the new clause such a scheme would account for people’s willingness to go along with what is seen as a better way of avoiding court conflict.

We are suggesting doing what the Government should have done in the first place, which is to establish a pilot. We want not to set down in law what must happen, but to set the framework for a pilot. At the end of that, which would presumably last for a year or so and could be based on a sample pattern similar to that of the family resolutions pilot project, but hopefully with more people taking it up at the outset, we can make a proper assessment of what will work. There is a lack of research in this country and in others on why contact orders fail and what we can do to improve the system, to ensure that when they are granted, or, preferably, when pre-court agreements are made, they are fair to all sides, and all sides will go along with them.

New clause 3 seeks to restore what the Government were apparently looking to put in place and what I think they wanted to put in place, but which went astray somewhere between the DCA and the Department for Education and Skills and was replaced by a thin, pale imitation. However, what was originally proposed would have stood a much better chance of succeeding, and on that basis I am pleased to propose that new clause 3 be added to the Bill.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney PPS (Mr Elliot Morley, Minister of State), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 12:15, 21 March 2006

Someone contacted me recently and asked whether I would be so kind as to tell them who had put me up to new clause 17, and provide them with a copy of the briefing that I must have been given to enable me to speak to it. I was happy to tell that person that new clause 17 is entirely my own work and that there are no such people and no such briefings, although I acknowledge with grateful thanks the help of the Committee Clerk in ensuring that I put it technically in order.

New clause 17 represents my response to the twin obstacles to contact in the cases of obstruction that I identified on Second Reading. They were the possible deterrence of cost when one side does not have the benefit of public help with their costs and the delay in proceedings that makes the outcome a foregone conclusion if it takes too long to get a court decision. That is why new clause 17(1) makes clear references to the court’s responsibility to minimise costs and delay. How does the court do that? My argument is that, quite apart from my previous point about always considering mediation even before court proceedings begin, the court should, when we reach the stage of an application’s having been made, take early action to allocate cases appropriately.

Reading the evaluation of the family resolutions pilot project that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) mentioned, I was impressed with the reference to a case in Newcastle county court, where the CAFCASS officers immediately respond to applications to the court. Within two weeks they write a report to the court, which is available at the first directions appointment, with a summary of what they have found out ahead of that appointment. New clause 17 asks what is to be done with all that good work, the results of which the judge will have. That is why I suggest in subsection (2) that all the options are there for the court to consider and that it should decide which of them to use. The options exist already or will be put in place under the Bill.

In relation to previous amendments, I said that the court should always consider the effects of risk assessments and subsection (3) of the new clause reminds the judge to have regard to any risk assessment at the allocation stage. That does something to overcome the Minister’s objection to amendment No. 38, because the court can make a decision on allocation based on a risk assessment that has been received and, if there has not been one, the court has simply to remember to decide whether a risk assessment is needed before proceeding further.

I have also set out that the rules of court can then decide the procedures that people have to follow. Because of the dynamic nature of such situations, it is important that, having made an allocation, the court considers whether it needs to return to it later, and that is set out under subsection (5) of new clause 17. To know whether the new clause would have the right effect, it is worth considering a couple of findings to which we have referred more than once in our debates to see whether they point in the same direction.

The University of Oxford family policy briefing 3, which the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham drew to our attention last week, stated that a number of matters could be taken into account, the first of which was that

“Caution is needed about legislative change. The case for amending the Children Act may be stronger in relation to domestic violence ... Introducing a presumption of contact is more problematic.”

The briefing reminds us that

“Post-separation parenting is a very neglected area” and that there

“would be widespread support for a programme aimed at improving service provision.”

It also states:

“However policy develops it is vital to keep the focus on the needs of children”.

All of us can agree with those objectives.

Having regard to the hon. Gentleman’s recent comments, I do not know whether what I am about to say is controversial, but the evaluation of the family resolutions private project contains some valuable recommendations, the first of which is that the

“family justice system should develop a range of parenting interventions including basic parent education and higher conflict education and therapeutic interventions.”

It says that, alongside parenting focus, there need to be processes for dispute resolution and child involvement. It recommends that a small number of demonstration projects should be set up and tested. Those are recommendations, but within the text there are some helpful comments, one of which was to the effect that it would be worth exploring the possibility of enabling solicitors to refer parents to parenting groups whether or not an application had been made to the court. That would be a useful addition to the present powers.

The project also said that programmes that acquire strong inter-professional support and become the standard local operating procedure may be almost as effective as compulsory schemes. That was my point last week when I referred to interventions such as mediation. We do not have to make them compulsory under law if we set up a system that is regarded as the routine of which everyone makes use because it is helpful.

I accept that my new clause would not do all those things. Indeed, I think there is frustration in the room that the Bill does not cover those matters and that a lot is left to the trust of Ministers to carry out. As the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham said about the early interventions projects, we sometimes feel a lack of involvement and knowledge about what has happened to something that we thought was a good idea. I still feel we need to do something with the Bill that gives Parliament a little more influence over such matters and allows for the sorts of things to which I have just referred. They may not be contained in the amendments before us today, but there is still time for us to get it right.

Photo of Mark Williams Mark Williams Shadow Minister (Wales) 12:30, 21 March 2006

There is widespread agreement in Committee that pre-contact order mediation is something that we value and applaud. New clause 24   tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole and me would make a meeting between parties compulsory. We understand the need to encourage parents to consider mediation before taking matters to court and to keep the child’s welfare at the forefront of their minds. However, the point at which we deviate, I guess, from the Conservatives, is on the question of the need for mediation to be compulsory. We believe that there must be willingness on the part of both parties if mediation is to be valued.

We agree with the Conservatives about new clause 3(1) and the inadequacies and inconclusiveness of “Making contact happen or making contact work?” We believe that there should be a new pilot scheme, but the focus of our work is that mediation must be voluntary if it is to be truly effective. I see a flurry of watches, so I shall sit down.

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Children and Families)

I shall remember in future that the hon. Member for Ceredigion can be made to sit down simply by waving a watch at him.

I hope that I can deal with the points that hon. Members have raised on the new clauses tabled by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham and my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford.

To paraphrase the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, he suggested that there had been some kind of mysterious shift, or hijacking, and that what was the early interventions pilot suddenly became the family resolutions pilot. His thesis was this: “Now look, with the evaluation, which they did not even let us have, what a mess it is.” That is a paraphrase of his speech and rather more succinct than he managed, but I shall try to deal with his points.

I shall break the matter down into the suggestion that the early interventions pilot was hijacked in some way, and changed mysteriously by civil servants into something else, and the points about the family resolutions pilot. The events happened before my time as a Minister, so I am not speaking from personal experience, but I have looked into what happened, because of what I have heard said about it. I assure the Committee that there was no hijacking of a fully formed early interventions pilot that would have been wonderful, so that it could be watered down and changed into something else that did not receive such a glowing evaluation even if it did provide some value.

It may be easiest if I make the points that Mrs. Justice Bracewell made when she gave evidence to the Constitutional Affairs Committee inquiry on family justice and the family courts. She was deeply involved, as were other judicial figures such as District Judge Crichton, to whom the hon. Gentleman referred, who runs a slick operation at Wells street, which I have visited and had a look at.

First, Mrs. Justice Bracewell said that both she and District Judge Crichton were key players in supporting and implementing family resolutions pilot schemes, which she said had received judicial support and enthusiasm from figures such as them. She continued by saying:

“It was unfortunate in retrospect to change the name from Early Interventions to Family Resolutions, although there were sound reasons for doing so. This change caused misunderstanding   in that supporters of the Early Interventions project wrongly concluded that a different scheme was being piloted and that the aims and ethos of the Early Resolutions project was being abandoned in favour of some less effective scheme.”

She was on the steering committee for the implementation of the family resolutions pilot project, and said:

“The Family Resolutions project has not been produced in-house by civil servants. There has been judicial input throughout and the result is a team effort.”

I assure the Committee that there was no sudden transformation of what had been a perfect scheme, perpetrated by civil servants somewhere between the DCA and the DFES. Before the pilots started, the steering committee that was implementing them had studied what was happening in various jurisdictions and designed a scheme that it believed to be suitable for our jurisdiction. That is all that happened. I hope that Mrs. Justice Bracewell’s words reassure the hon. Gentleman to some extent. We shall see whether they do when he winds up.

As to the impact of the family resolutions pilot project, it is true that, at 62, the number of cases that underwent the pilot in the three areas—he did recall those correctly—was disappointingly low. We had hoped that there would be a pool of 1,000 or so parents with cases at those three places who could be asked if they wished to take part. The potential figure for those who might wish to take part was derived from the recorded number of contact applications to the family courts in those three pilot areas over the previous three years.

In fact, as it happened, the number of applications in the year of the pilots fell. It was lower than in the previous three years and so the pool was smaller. Participation was not compulsory and that is the point at issue in new clause 3. Of course, once referred parents were on the pilot they were not obliged to stay. If they managed to get a settlement that was suitable for their family, we were not going to suggest that they should stay the course to the end and not get their consent order. Cases were unsuitable where there was domestic violence, harm and abuse, and we know that there have been such allegations in 25 per cent. or so of cases. That will have contributed to the figure, but I do not resile from the fact that the numbers of participants were disappointingly low.

The new clause sets out a further set of pilots, which relates in part to what my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford said. He was right to identify that cost and delay are among the factors that deter parents and family members from participating and so perhaps not dealing with such issues as swiftly as they might otherwise be able to do. I congratulate my hon. Friend on new clause 17, which, even if it has had some assistance from the Clerk, is a pretty decent bit of drafting compared with what we sometimes see.

The early interventions pilot clause, if I can call new clause 3 that, was moved by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham. We have already rehearsed some of the arguments about proposals for compulsory arrangements in advance of court   hearings and how that might engage article 6 of the European convention on human rights. We have also rehearsed the idea that such a new clause might constrain the court’s freedom to consider each case on its own merits with the paramountcy principle firmly in mind.

We have also had some discussion about the idea of contact guidelines ending up as default templates for dividing up time. I have made it clear that we do not want to impose such things. Although parenting plans might be helpful in making suggestions, we do not want to start being prescriptive.

We think that the findings from the evaluation, mixed though they are, will help us to develop the content and format the contact activity provisions in the Bill. The provisions are about trying to support parents in understanding more the importance and value to their children of continuing contact with both parents, and ensuring that post-separation parenting can be supportive as possible for the children concerned for their benefit. We are all singing from the same hymn sheet in that respect. I suppose there is a difference in how we might go about it, as we have acknowledged before.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

I am grateful for the detailed response from the Minister. We have not this morning discussed the thorny issue of the paramountcy of the welfare, although it has come into virtually all our other deliberations. How does the Minister think a new scheme that is a pilot and seeks to bring early resolution and to keep parents and discussions of their children out of the courts could in any way undermine the paramountcy principle? Will she give some examples of where that would happen if the new clause were put into effect?

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Children and Families)

We have discussed such issues before. The hon. Gentleman’s suggestions would require compulsory mediation ahead of court appearances, and would put the concepts of reasonable contact and of dividing up the child’s time between parents in a formulaic way ahead of the court making a judgment on the basis of the individual circumstances of the case. That is when we run into the dangers that I mentioned in respect of the hon. Gentleman’s proposals.

One reason why the family resolutions pilot project differed in design and implementation from the early interventions proposals is that this country’s jurisdiction is different from those in countries where early interventions have been tried. The steering committee that dealt with the project was intent on making it fit into our framework of children’s law and courts—there was no attempt to water down the way in which the pilots worked. I hope that we can learn lessons from the project and improve the interventions that we make for families in deep conflict. I do not rule out the possibility of another pilot project in future, but it would not be sensible to specify such things in legislation. We have undertaken to continue looking at the lessons that can be learned and will do so.

On new clause 17, let me compliment my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford on his drafting skills. We see the importance of a lot of what he suggests, but it is not necessary to put a new clause in the Bill to introduce a power to change the rules of the court. The rules made under the Children Act already include matters such as the making of applications and will be updated and revised to accommodate any new provisions that the Bill makes law. There is already a rule-making power in section 104 of the Children Act, so it is not necessary to put some of the new clause into the Bill.

On my hon. Friend’s point about costs, I can say that facilitating the early resolution of cases and encouraging resolution without full court hearings is the best way to reduce costs and delay for the parties. Although costs will ultimately be determined by the issues in dispute and the amount of legal work that must be done, taking the sting out of some of the bitter disputes that end up taking a long and winding route through the court will clearly be important in reducing delay and cost.

My fear about new clause 24 is that it would introduce compulsory mediation by denying access to the courts in any case where, following an initial meeting, a mediator does not rule out mediation. There is a rather neat sidestep, which might work, to avoid the point about article 6 of the European convention on human rights and preventing access to the court. However, we still have concerns, which we rehearsed earlier, about compulsory mediation. We do not believe that it is possible or right to force people to mediate against their will; indeed, in some circumstances, it might be unsafe to do so.

An amendment identical to the hon. Gentleman’s new clause was debated in the other place and the primary concern was to offer a level playing field between privately and publicly funded applicants, because the latter are under a greater obligation than the former to consider mediation. As my noble Friend said in that debate, the issue is worth considering and could be addressed by altering the application form that is used to apply to a court for contact orders. That will then require people, including those who are unrepresented or privately funded, to state on the form whether they have discussed using mediation or gone on to use it. If the court is not satisfied with their answer, the Bill gives it the power to direct the person to attend a meeting with the mediator to consider whether mediation might be useful. My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford has made several points about the value of mediation, with which we all agree. The point at issue, however, is whether it should be compulsory.

To conclude, new clause 3 would unnecessarily restrict the court’s discretion to consider each case on its merits. New clause 17 is extremely worthy, but I hope that I have been able to reassure my hon. Friend that we are doing what we can to prevent delay in the system and that there are improvements, so his new clause is not needed in addition to the Bill. New clause 24 would tend to cause delay and, more fundamentally, introduce compulsory mediation. We   have had our debates about that, and cannot support it for the reasons that we have given. With those points in mind, I hope that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham might consider withdrawing the new clause.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children) 12:45, 21 March 2006

I am grateful to the Minister for giving a fair degree of detail in her response to our proposal. Before I respond to her points on new clause 3, I will say that I have sympathy with the new clause tabled by the hon. Member for Stafford, particularly its aim to minimise delay to proceedings, which is such a big problem and which exacerbates many other problems once a dispute has arrived in the court system.

I am rather frustrated by the Minister’s failure to entertain the principle of what we are trying to put forward. The point of the new clause, and one of our main contentions of the weakness in the current system, is that the way in which the system works is not clear enough. Time is the enemy of resolution. Far too many warring couples go to court unaware of how the system will work and what penalties might be invoked against them if they frustrate the system. There are also those who are a bit more savvy and are intent on using the system to frustrate the claims of an ex-partner. That is why we have said all along that the ground rules must be made absolutely clear and as up-front as possible. When ex-partners arrive at court, they should be left in no doubt as to what they can expect, what is expected of them and what will happen if they do not go along with the rules.

If early intervention were mandatory, and parents knew exactly what was expected and that the early intervention project was mandatory and was for the benefit of their child, that would resolve early many issues that would not then need to go to court. I repeat that the early intervention project was put together by a great many people with far greater knowledge and experience in the field and in the legal world than I have, with those principles at heart. Caroline Willbourne, the Family Law Bar Association’s designated expert on contact issues, wrote in November 2004 in Family Law:

“The Early Intervention project, as formally submitted, was fully specified, properly designed and costed. And it commanded across-the-board professional support.”

She went on to state that the family resolutions scheme, based on the “every case is different” approach, was the complete antithesis of early intervention.

The early intervention scheme had a large number of heavyweight experts behind it and was properly thought out with everything eminently clear from the beginning for all participants to see and take note of. It set out clear guidance on how the procedure should take place. I fully appreciate that that was before the Minister’s time in the Department, but a better explanation should have been given to all who put a lot of work into the early interventions project as to why, where and how it went off the rails. Those who were involved, including Mrs. Justice Bracewell, were sold a pup. They were told that the two projects were identical in all but name. Clearly, what resulted in the   family resolutions pilot project was very different from what had originally been intended in the early interventions pilot. No one is in any doubt that at some stage the former was dropped and the latter produced somewhere.

The early interventions pilot was, to a large degree, based on some of the early resolutions work in Florida, where the success rates are rather interesting in terms of the number of cases that are resolved before a long, drawn-out court process. The Minister’s assertion that the family resolutions pilot project involved a disappointingly low figure is an understatement if ever there were one. She gave various excuses why the anticipated pool of around 1,000 couples turned out to be no more than 62, but, by any measure, the difference is enormous. In that year, it seems, people in Sunderland, London and Brighton lived together in rather greater harmony and resolved any disputes about their children without recourse to the courts. Why such harmony broke out in all, or parts, of those places at that time, I do not know. Perhaps the Minister can enlighten us if she really claims that that is a reason why those figures were such a complete, unmitigated disaster.

The Minister says that the new clause would not help the situation, but has not addressed the detail of the suggestion. She also says that it would unnecessarily restrict the power of the courts to consider each case on its merits, but I remind her that we do not seek to put it into the Bill in open-ended form. The intention is purely to run a pilot. If, at its end, it is as unsuccessful as the family resolutions pilot project, the Minister can rightly go back to considering another solution. We are trying to come up with a   helpful suggestion of how we can progress this matter without tying the Minister’s hands entirely. The early interventions pilot was not given a proper trial or fair wind.

I am grateful for the Minister’s praise of our drafting skills. I have to say that the drafting of the new clause is not down to me; my hon. and noble Friends came up with it. The new clause clearly sets out how the courts should embrace the scheme, produce a set of guidelines, specify the date of the first hearing, and instruct couples to attend a meeting with a court-appointed mediator. It also sets out what should be done if a parenting plan is not agreed: parties should attend a parent education meeting, and contact-focused dispute resolution and mediation. It also sets out that a statement should be given that litigation should be a last resort. All that is set out clearly. Anybody coming to court with such a dispute, when faced with all that, would be left in no doubt of what was expected of them, and what would happen if they did not go along with the preferred action.

I am very disappointed that the Minister has not looked more favourably on what was actually her idea in the first place. We shall not push the motion to a vote at this stage, but I would certainly like to come back to the new clause on Report, because we think it fundamental to sorting out many of the problems that the Bill aims but fails to sort out. For the time being, I reluctantly beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

It being One o’clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned till this day at Four o’clock.