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

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.