New Clause 3 - Pilot scheme on early intervention

Part of Children and Adoption Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:45 pm on 21 March 2006.

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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.