New Clause 3 - Pilot scheme on early intervention

Part of Children and Adoption Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:15 pm on 21 March 2006.

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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.