New Clause 3 - Pilot scheme on early intervention

Part of Children and Adoption Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:30 pm on 21 March 2006.

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Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Children and Families) 12:30, 21 March 2006

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.