Schedule 6

Welfare Reform Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:00 am on 3rd March 2009.

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Registration of births

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I beg to move amendment 36, in schedule 6, page 91, line 42, leave out paragraph (d).

Photo of Jimmy Hood Jimmy Hood Labour, Lanark and Hamilton East

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Amendment 37, in schedule 6, page 91, line 46, leave out ‘reason’ and insert ‘reasonable grounds’.

Amendment 105, in schedule 6, page 91, line 47, after ‘child’, insert ‘or other children living with her’.

Amendment 103, in schedule 6, page 94, line 2, at end insert—

‘(c) where the mother acknowledges the person as the father of the child, but has reason to fear for her safety or that of the child if the father were to acquire responsibility by virtue of section 4(1)(a) of the Children Act 1989’.

Amendment 104, in schedule 6, page 98, line 19, at end insert—

‘(8) This section does not apply where the mother acknowledges the person as the father of the child, but has reason to fear for her safety or that of the child if the father were to acquire parental responsibility by virtue of section 4(1)(a) of the Children Act 1989’.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

It is worth saying at the beginning that the amendments standing in my name and those of my colleagues—amendments 36 and 37—are probing amendments. They attempt to understand the intentions that underlie this schedule.

The lead amendment leaves out paragraph (d) of proposed new section 2B of the Amendments of Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953. That paragraph is within a set of conditions where it would not be required for the mother to provide the registrar with information relating to the father—she would be able to declare that certain conditions were in place. The particular condition I am suggesting should be left out is,

“that the mother does not know the father’s whereabouts.”

It seems to me that not knowing the whereabouts of the father should not affect whether the mother is required to declare that the person is the father of the child. I completely agree with paragraph (c),

“that if the mother does not know the father’s identity” she clearly is not able to notify the registrar who the father is. However, not knowing his whereabouts does not seem a very good reason for not notifying the registrar who the father is. She does not have to know his whereabouts to know who he is.

I bring the matter up because with the inclusion of paragraph (d), the requirement effectively becomes completely voluntary. It places no particular burden on the mother at all and there is a very clear get-out clause. I want to understand what purpose the Government have in introducing the paragraph. There is clearly a signal about the importance of fatherhood and getting both parents registered, which is welcome and significant. The other aspect—brought up in the early stages of this Committee’s proceedings in an evidence-taking session by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley—was about the importance to the child of knowing who both their parents are, and knowing who the father is.

During the question and answer session it seemed to me that the Minister did not really grasp to the fullest extent the point that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley was making. If it is important to the child to know who both the parents are, allowing the mother not to disclose, or not putting an obligation on disclosing who the father is just because the mother does not know his whereabouts, does not seem a terribly powerful reason. It would be helpful if the Minister set out the purpose of this part of the Bill and stated what the Government are trying to achieve. Are they looking at the child’s right to know who its parents are, and/or are they looking at sending a clear message that fatherhood is important and fathers should take responsibility? In that case it is linked partly to the child maintenance provisions. If it is important for the child to know who its parents are and important to send out this message, there seem to be far too many reasons why the mother can avoid disclosing who the father is.

Amendment 37, which is in the same vein as amendment 36, refers to paragraph (f), the condition that

“the mother has reason to fear for her safety or that of the child if the father is contacted in relation to the registration of the birth”.

The amendment replaces “reason” with “reasonable grounds”. The motivation for probing on that is twofold. First, in an evidence-taking session the hon. Member  for Sheffield, Heeley made the point that if the Minister included this provision because of the importance of the child’s knowing who its parents are, any danger posed by the parent is not in itself relevant to identifying who they are. Clearly, steps may need to be taken as to whether that parent has legal access to the child; but purely knowing who they are is not really relevant.

The other concern about having paragraph (f) as an exclusion clause is that, given the way human relationships sometimes work, I would not want to see a situation where a mother was able to avoid naming the father, giving as a reason an unjustified fear for her safety or that of her child, and effectively use that as an allegation against the father. Those are the grounds for removing the word “reason” and inserting “reasonable grounds”. A court would have to judge what “reasonable grounds” meant, which is the usual test of what a reasonable person might think in those circumstances.

The purpose of the amendment is to probe the Minister on those two concerns. If she would set out the Government’s objective in bringing forward this clause and schedule, and what it is trying to achieve, we shall be able to move somewhat further forward.

Photo of Paul Rowen Paul Rowen Shadow Work and Pensions Minister 11:15 am, 3rd March 2009

The Liberal Democrats support the principle of joint registration. We know that only one parent is named in about 7 per cent. of all births registered at the moment, and we believe that we should encourage and seek as far as possible for both parents to be registered on the birth certificate.

However, we have some concerns about the phraseology of the schedule and the clause, which is very much based on there being a violent relationship and the registration of the birth being used by the father to get at the mother or the child. Amendment 105 seeks to extend the provisions in the Bill to not just the child who has been registered, but any other children who may be living with the mother, where the mother can give a reason for not registering their birth. There are instances where fathers have used the ability to get contact with a child to get at the mother. I am asking the Minister what safeguards she will put in place against that.

To remind the Minister, she said on 12 February that

“if it is reasonably thought that the father is of such character that the very act of contacting him would lead to aggression towards the mother or the child, it is right that the state should not do something that would probably have such an unfortunate outcome.”——[Official Report, Welfare Reform Public Bill Committee, 12 February 2009; c. 85, Q154.]

I totally agree with those sentiments. With amendment 105 we are seeking to broaden the exemptions within the Bill so that the father is not enabled to get to another child. We believe that we should not just be concerned about the safety of the child whose birth is registered.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

Will the hon. Gentleman clear up what he thinks about the question that I brought up about his amendment, which refers to section 4(1)(a) of the Children Act 1989, and about his concerns about a father requiring parental responsibility? That section of the 1989 Act simply says that, on the application of the father, the court may order that he shall have parental responsibility for the child. Given that the court has to do that, there seem to be perfectly adequate safeguards. If the mother  has legitimate concerns about the safety of the child in question, or that of her other children, or indeed her own safety, all that evidence can be put before the court, and the court can take all that into account when it is making orders about the relationship and the legal rights that the father will have over that child. That is perfectly adequate without the hon. Gentleman’s amendment.

Photo of Paul Rowen Paul Rowen Shadow Work and Pensions Minister

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but his comments actually relate to amendments 103 and 104, which I was just about to come to. I am seeking assurances from the Minister about how this will operate. I am sure hon. Members will be aware that, in the week just prior to a birth and immediately after a birth, a mother—particularly one who is subject to domestic violence—might be very vulnerable. Given that the Bill proposes that registration has to take place within 42 days, we are seeking with amendments 103 and 104 to apply an exemption.

Again, it is the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Gingerbread and Family Action that are concerned about how the clause will operate. The father could use that registration to seek parental responsibilities and use that as a threat to the mother. I appreciate that, at the end of the day, the father will have to go through the courts, or the mother will have to go through the courts to prevent that access, but the concern here is that, at this stage, if the mother has already been subject to domestic violence, she would be very vulnerable.

We support the principle of joint registration but we do not feel that, at the moment, the exemptions in the schedule go wide enough. We would like to be reassured about cases involving a vulnerable woman on her own who may have been subjected to domestic violence, and a father who exercises his right to be registered on the birth certificate and uses that as a lever to get to her and her family. That is the situation we are concerned about, and we are aiming to ensure that, without the full recourse through the courts—I am sure that the hon. Member for Forest of Dean would appreciate that going through the courts is often a difficult and traumatic business, particularly for a young mother on her own—

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

The hon. Gentleman has not read section 4(1)(a) of the 1989 Act clearly enough. It is the father who has to apply to the court to get parental responsibility for the child, not the mother. It is the father who has to kick off this process, and the mother will then be able to put relevant information before the court to inform the court’s decision. But it is not the mother who has to go to the court and start the process off.

Photo of Paul Rowen Paul Rowen Shadow Work and Pensions Minister

I appreciate that, but my concern is about young mums who have recently given birth being put through that process. It could be used as a lever, as a stick with which to get at those mothers, who might have been subjected to domestic violence in the past. While the hon. Gentleman or I—in a very stable mental condition, hopefully—would not have a problem with defending ourselves through the courts, it would be more difficult for someone who has been subject to domestic violence. We are seeking safeguards to ensure that the application of this joint registration will not be used as a lever to get at the mother. We would like to be  reassured that this clause and schedule have been thought through. Certainly, a number of charities—Gingerbread, the NSPCC and Family Action—have concerns about how they are worded.

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Labour, Sheffield, Heeley

I do not want to discuss the issues in as much detail as we did in the evidence session, but it is important that we are clear that we are talking about two separate things. I have a great deal of sympathy with the comments of the hon. Member for Forest of Dean, but not with those of the hon. Member for Rochdale. The Government need to be fundamentally clear whether they accept that in principle, wherever practicable, a child has the right to know, through its being recorded on their birth certificate, who their birth parents are.

We are very clear in adoption legislation that at the age of 18 a child may go back and find out who their birth parents are. What is different in this situation? The practicalities of doing this are important. I agree that knowing where a person is may pose a problem, but should that be a reason not to seek to register the name of the father on a birth certificate?

I have campaigned for many years and spoken a great deal on the issues of domestic violence, but it is enormously important to separate birth registration from the mechanisms by which we protect mothers and children from violent fathers. We have processes through the court which allow people to take out injunctions. Over the last few years we have dramatically improved the processes to protect families and children. This should not prevent registration of a father’s name on a birth certificate.

Unlike the hon. Member for Rochdale, I am concerned that the exemptions are too widely drawn. Our view needs to be that, wherever possible, the father’s name should be on the birth certificate; where there is a need to protect a family, because there may be a threat of violence, that should be pursued through other legislation, not this legislation.

Photo of Kitty Ussher Kitty Ussher Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions

We have heard some of the debate on this issue—a wide range of views have been expressed in the Committee. With your permission, Mr. Hood, I should like to begin by explaining the case for change before coming to the specific points that hon. Members have raised.

The current system is far too complicated. It works very well for married couples because they can register the name of both parents—it is presumed that the married couple are the parents of the child. At present unmarried couples have two alternatives. They can both go down together, which may be logistically difficult if one of them works. It is pretty hard if they do not know that both have to go down together, which our departmental survey shows is often a problem. It is also hard if they are estranged, or if they are not in a relationship. The alternative is to get a solicitor’s declaration on the part of the parent who does not go down to the registry office, which is also not the easiest thing to do. It is perfectly possible that, even where the mother is completely relaxed about the father’s being on the birth certificate, the system we have created puts hurdles in the way of the father being on the birth certificate, even if he wants to be, regardless of the rights of the child—which my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley clearly stated are also important.

We want to tilt the balance towards the father and towards the child. It is worth understanding that this will not mean that 100 per cent. of children in the future will have both parents on their birth certificate, but it will mean that fathers and children will not be denied that right—in the father’s case, to be on the birth certificate; in the child’s case, to have both parents on the birth certificate—due to apathy or complexity of our own making.

It is also worth clarifying that fathers can always request to be on the birth certificate, regardless of what the mother does or says—all the mother has to do is confirm that they are the father. There is now a simple system, where the father is known, for him to go on the birth certificate without having to attend: the mother states who the father is and where he is, a note is sent asking him to confirm that he is the father and then both names go on. We feel that this will lead to more children having both parents on the birth certificate and more fathers being on the birth certificate of their children. The purpose is not that fathers will then be chased by the Child Support Agency, because, to be blunt, that can happen anyway. The mother simply tells the CSA the father’s details and the procedure is kicked off. The father need not be on the birth certificate for that to happen.

The simple ceremony of birth registration—anecdotal evidence shows that this is quite important and some evidence shows that it has an effect—means that fathers will feel more empowered about taking a positive role in their children’s lives. Although it will not be the case in every circumstance and across the board, it will help fathers to do that—not by means of tracking them down, but simply by involving them in their children’s lives. That was one of the conclusions of a recent review that we did on the child support system.

I shall now discuss the specific amendments, in the order in which the points were made. The hon. Member for Forest of Dean is right to query that a father’s name should not be recorded if his whereabouts are not known. We are trying to avoid a situation where the mother states the name of the father and then that seems to acquire some kind of validity simply because it is recorded somewhere by the state through the registry office system. There is no reason to presume that it is true just because the mother has said it. We take the view that no data are true unless verified. In this case, they cannot be verified unless the father actually says, “Yes, I am the father”. I would be extremely nervous about having a system where, 30 years down the line, the child, as an adult, finds out that the mother has given a wrong name, either by accident or design, and presumes that it is true because it is written in a book in a registry office, when we have had no way of ascertaining that it is. Our approach is that no data should be recorded unless they are verifiable. They have no status unless they are verified. That is why, if the registry office has no way of checking whether the data are correct, they should not be recorded and there is therefore no need for them to be provided.

The registry office is not the CSA. The CSA uses all sorts of methods to track people down on the basis of partial information. But we are not proposing through these clauses to give extra powers to the registry office  to do so. That would be entirely inappropriate. The mother can always tell the CSA the partial information. If that then leads to the father being tracked down such that he is then in a position to verify whether he is the father, the mother can always provide that information to the registrar at a later date. And, of course, it is worth bearing in mind throughout that it is illegal—it is perjury—for the mother to give false information at any stage, and that will be made clear to her when she goes to register her child. That is why we think that the whereabouts are an important part of this legislation.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) 11:30 am, 3rd March 2009

I am just checking that I have not misunderstood the clause. We do not all seem to be arguing about the same thing. New section 2B, about the duties of the mother to give information to the registrar, does not relate to what the registrar then has to enter into the register. The Minister is quite right that information should not be entered unless it is verified, but subsection (7) clearly states:

“No information relating to the father is to be entered in the register merely because it is given by the mother”.

What we are talking about here, and what my amendment goes to, is whether the mother has to provide the information to the registrar. It does not talk about what the registrar then does with it.

At the moment, the clause says that the mother has to provide certain information relating to the father to the registrar unless she makes certain declarations. One of those declarations is on the father’s whereabouts. If my amendment was accepted and that piece was taken out, it would not mean that the registrar was in any way compelled to enter the information. The mother would still have to tell the registrar who the father was. Clearly, if no one knew where he was and the registrar was unable to contact him, the father would not verify the information and would not be entered as the father on the birth certificate. But the mother would still be compelled to put that information forward. That is all that my amendment does; the argument that the Minister has outlined does not really show why the Committee should reject my amendment.

Photo of Kitty Ussher Kitty Ussher Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions

I see absolutely no point in providing unverifiable information. Either it is recorded somewhere—[Interruption.] Yes, I agree it will not be on the birth certificate, in which case that gives it a type of validity that is completely uncheckable—or it is not written down, or it is written down and put in a file. That seems to be creating administration without any possible result at the end. There is no point in providing unverifiable information. At best that could lead to unnecessary paperwork, at worst it could lead to a future situation where that record is discovered and could provide misleading information about an individual’s parentage. That is why I reject the amendment—it seems completely superfluous.

Mr. Harperrose—

Photo of Kitty Ussher Kitty Ussher Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions

I will allow the hon. Gentleman one more attempt at this question.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I am extremely grateful to the Minister and for the tolerance of the Committee. The issue goes back to the purpose of what we are trying to get at. It was said that it is important for the mother to declare to  the registrar who the father is because it is important for the child to know who its parent is. If there are lots of reasons why the mother does not have to do even that, then the chances of the registrar being able to verify that information—and verify it by the father—become increasingly slim.

I do not understand why not knowing the father’s whereabouts is a good reason for the mother not to have to disclose the information. Clearly, not knowing the father’s identity is a good reason because the mother has no clue who he is—that might say something about her behaviour but it is not very useful to the registrar. If she does not know the father’s whereabouts, she should still have to declare who he is. The registrar then has the opportunity to verify that information. It seems that we are second-guessing whether that information is verifiable and making it likely that there is another child who does not know who one of his birth parents is. The Minister’s argument does not make sense.

Photo of Kitty Ussher Kitty Ussher Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions

I am very sorry that the hon. Gentleman thinks my argument does not make sense; it makes perfect sense to me that information is of no value in this context unless it is verifiable. If it is not, then we should not be collecting it. It is simply bureaucracy gone mad. If the hon. Gentleman wants to press that amendment to a Division I will be delighted to explain to the registry service why lots of bits of paper will have to be filled in for absolutely no purpose. That situation would go against what some of his colleagues say about cutting red tape; it certainly goes against what we think about that and about spending taxpayers’ money unnecessarily.

It is not the purpose of the registry function to become a private detective agency, to use partial information to go out and proactively find people. That is the role of the CSA; different legislation applies. The registry registers things and information is not valid if it cannot be verified. That applies to both sides—if the father rings the registry and says, “I am the father of this child,” the mother has to verify that that is the case.

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Labour, Sheffield, Heeley

If a mother says, “John Brown is the father of my child and he lives at this place,” the registrar writes off to try to verify that. There is a process in which the information is held and something is happening to it. If the mother says, “John Brown is the father but I do not know where he lives at the moment,” that information would be held somewhere. The registry would be getting information which it could not immediately put on to a document. I am with the hon. Gentleman here; I do not see why a mother not knowing the father’s whereabouts is a good reason for not providing the information.

Photo of Kitty Ussher Kitty Ussher Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions

I return to the point that I have made several times; I am sorry if I am not making myself clear. In this context information is not information unless it can be verified by both parents—I see no point in collecting it if it cannot be. If further details of the parent’s whereabouts come to light later, the process can begin again and the child can have both parents on the birth certificate.

However, the two situations are entirely different. If the mother says, “Yes, it is John Brown and he lives at this address,” then that information is collected in order to be able to write the letter to confirm the father, and it  is entered in the register. If she says: “The father is John Brown and I think he might live in Edinburgh,” or, “I do not know where he lives,” then there is absolutely nothing that the registry office can do—so there is no point in collecting that information. Perhaps we can agree to disagree on the matter, but it seems entirely clear to me. Should the information become available later, of course, or if John Brown gets in contact and says, “This child is mine,” then that will be checked with the mother. Obviously these are hypothetical situations. John Brown is doing well here.

Amendment 37 seeks to probe why we use the words

“the mother has reason to fear for her safety”.

The hon. Member for Forest of Dean was proposing changing “reason” to “reasonable grounds”. This perhaps, comes back to what the role of the registrar is. It is not the role of the registrar to perform some kind of quasi-judicial function in determining whether the mother is behaving reasonably. There is obviously a legal understanding of reasonableness. It simply gives the opportunity for the mother to make a declaration that she has reason to fear for her or her child’s safety if the father is contacted, and that is sufficient.

Were we to accept the amendment, it would the discretion of the registrar would come into play. We do not want that to happen. It is for the courts to decide the concept of reasonableness, not for the clerks who work in the registry office. We are giving the mother the ability to state that she has reason to fear. If that is not true she is committing perjury, which is obviously illegal and that will be made clear to her. We think it is something that will be taken seriously.

Perhaps this is the appropriate moment to discuss the extremely welcome contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley. She asked whether the child has the right to find out who both their parents are. I think they do, but the state should not create a situation that leads to violence against that child. Perhaps where we disagree is about its being an absolute right. I think the right can be overwritten in some very specified circumstances.

I want to make it absolutely clear that it is extremely important to people—for their own identity and understanding of their sense of self—to know who their parents are. We should do everything we can to make that as easy as possible. As I think I said at the evidence session, what concerns me is a situation—this cuts to a point raised by the hon. Member for Rochdale—where the very act of contacting could lead to violence. It is not that the father is generally a violent person, but the act of contacting almost makes the state complicit in increasing the risk of violence against the mother, the child or other children. Where we know that is likely, or where the mother genuinely fears it, I do not think we should be doing that. It is quite simple but there may be a difference between us on that point. In those circumstances, if the father wants to put his name on and go through the appropriate procedure to do so, the mother cannot prevent it. The key question is whether the act of verifying will lead to greater violence.

I can give a hypothetical example of a scenario of the type we are trying to avoid. A woman becomes pregnant and the man says, “I do not want you to have the child”. It is a violent relationship. It gets to a situation where he says—and one would believe he means it—“If you have  the child I will do x and y to you, I will come and get you and I will come and get them.” It is a nasty relationship and a horrible situation. She lies and says, “This relationship is over. I am never going to see you again, I will not have this child; goodbye”. She then exercises her right to choose and decides she does want to have the child. Perhaps she goes to stay with family to do that. She has the child and then she has reason to fear that if the father finds out, there will be violent reprisals against her. If the state does not take it upon itself to contact the non-resident parent there could be no more violence at all from this unhappy incident. I do not think the state should put that mother, that child and any other family members at risk of violence by the act of contacting. That is where the difference is.

If the person was violent anyway and it was not in the child’s interest for them to have parental responsibility—regardless of anything else that was going on—the courts would be able to deny parental responsibility. That would apply regardless of what was on the birth certificate.

The process can be enacted extremely quickly. There is an expedited legal procedure, which means that it can happen—in some cases—within 24 hours. There was slight confusion on the part of the hon. Member for Forest of Dean. If a father is on the birth certificate, he will have parental responsibility unless the courts deny it, and that applies whether or not they are estranged.

Photo of Paul Rowen Paul Rowen Shadow Work and Pensions Minister 11:45 am, 3rd March 2009

That was very much the point I was seeking to make. At the moment, the mother can deny the father the right to register his name on the birth certificate. This procedure alters that and, by so doing, the father automatically acquires parental responsibility. Previously, the father would have had to go to the courts proactively, but now he will acquire those rights and it will be for the mother to go to the courts.

I am thinking of a scenario involving a father in an estranged couple exercising his responsibilities. There might well be disputes about registration of the family name or religion. According to figures that I have been given by Refuge, more than 30 per cent. of all violence starts or gets worse during pregnancy. Whereas, at the moment, the onus is on the father to go to the courts, with the change under schedule 6, it will be on the mother. I am asking the Minister to have another look at the workings of the measure. Without further safeguards, we will find that vulnerable women will be forced either to accept what the father is doing—a lot of women will be in that position—or to go through the courts to obtain some protection.

Sometimes there will have been a clean break and the mother will have moved away. She may be trying not to have any contact with the father, but if he exercises that right, he can use it as a lever to get at her. There are real concerns there, and if the Minister agrees to look at how the process might operate, I am sure that a lot of people will be reassured. Perhaps we can make some changes at a later stage to give these women the protection that they deserve.

Photo of Kitty Ussher Kitty Ussher Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions

That is a useful point. It might be worth bearing in mind that, if the two people are married, even if they are separated, the father automatically acquires parental responsibility, so the mother would  have to go through the courts to protect herself. We are saying that if a man proactively says, “I am the father,” he would be in the same position as if the couple were married.

I am not going to look at this again because I think we have the balance right and that existing legal protections through the courts are sufficient to address the problems. Prove me wrong, but I think that putting the man on the register is not the act that is going to make him a dangerous person. In a sense, the dangers are already known and the procedures for protecting a family are already known and can be commenced at an early stage. If an unmarried father is unfit to exercise parental responsibility, it is for the courts to restrict or remove that responsibility. The difference is whether the state is proactively doing something that means that violence is more likely, which is where we should be drawing the line.

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Labour, Sheffield, Heeley

The Minister has effectively just outlined the point I have been making. The issues of violence are there anyway, so the processes for dealing with violent people should be the ones that operate, rather than allowing holes in the rights of children to have their parents registered.

Photo of Kitty Ussher Kitty Ussher Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions

The difference is whether the act of the state proactively creates a violent situation, or whether the violence is already there because there is knowledge of the birth. We are trying to create an exemption for a situation in which the father does not know about the birth, but the act of telling him about it would create violence. That is different from a violent parent seeking to get parental responsibility and trying to use the birth certificate as one way to achieve that, when it is right for the courts to restrict such a thing. We have probably debated this sufficiently, but I should be happy to take further interventions if another Member would like to keep going.

Through amendment 105, the hon. Member for Rochdale wants to expand the family unit that the mother may fear could be harmed beyond the mother and child to any other children. We reject the amendment because, practically, it is difficult to envisage a situation in which other children would be at threat, but the child in question and/or the mother would not. We feel that the exemptions as drafted are sufficient to take all these situations into consideration.

Photo of Paul Rowen Paul Rowen Shadow Work and Pensions Minister

I would like to outline to the Minister a couple of scenarios relevant to amendment 105 that have been given to me by Gingerbread. The first is where a woman moves to a different area, unknown to the man, following allegations of sexual abuse by him against a teenage daughter. I know that there are a very small number of such cases, but there is a fear that the man could use the process of registration to find out where the family had moved to. The second scenario is—

Photo of Jimmy Hood Jimmy Hood Labour, Lanark and Hamilton East

Order. Interventions should be short, not second speeches under the guise of an intervention.

Photo of Kitty Ussher Kitty Ussher Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions

Gingerbread obviously has a list of examples, so why do I not commit to having a conversation with the organisation after the conclusion of the Committee?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I would like to return to the subject we are arguing about—this is where the Minister fundamentally misunderstands my proposal. The provision is about the duty of the mother to notify the registry office. She is still perfectly able to notify the registrar of unverifiable information—she is allowed to tell the registrar who the father is, even is she has no clue where he is on planet Earth. We are simply talking about whether she has a duty to tell the registrar. She would be perfectly able to give the registrar lots of information that the registrar could not verify, but might be able to verify in the future. This is simply about whether she has the duty to tell the registrar. It goes down to how important we think it is that children know who their birth parents are.

Birth registrations should be about registering births. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley is quite right that protecting children and mothers from violence can be achieved through the courts and a whole bunch of other forms of protection. As the Minister said, it should not be the function of the birth registration system to start arguing about whether there are child protection or domestic violence issues—it is simply about who the parents of a particular child are. If the mother has a duty to notify the registrar of information about the father so that information can be recorded and, hopefully, verified at some point in the future, the number of exemptions that relieve the mother of that duty should be very small, or there should be none at all. The mother should have to provide the information—the only exemption that makes any sense at all is where she does not know who the father is, because clearly she would not be able to communicate any information. I thus do not follow the logic of the Minister’s arguments about amendment 36.

On amendment 37, we have had a good debate about threats of domestic violence—they are clearly very important and, fortunately, real in only a relatively small number of cases. The right way to deal with them is to look at other processes, whether that is the criminal justice system or the system of injunctions. When discussing violence, the Minister did not address how we should deal with that within the child maintenance system. The issues that she talked about are related to whether the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission is told who the father is, and that then intervenes, which may then lead to a whole bunch of other issues. Until relatively recently, a mother was compelled to involve the Child Support Agency, or its successor, if she was on benefits, whether she wanted to or not. That might have led to all these complicated issues. The Minister would have been better to keep these provisions short, sweet and crisp, and focused on the notification of birth registrations, without over-complicating things. However, given that we have had a good debate, I will not press my amendments to a Division, although we may well return to the issue on Report.

I want to close by commenting briefly on the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Rochdale. I take his point about circumstances in which the father already had parental responsibility, but his amendments are concerned with situations in which the mother might

“fear for her safety...if the father were to acquire responsibility” by virtue of the relevant provisions of the Children Act 1989. The father in that situation does not have responsibility from that source already; it is something that he must go to court to get. There is already a procedure to cover such circumstances.

Photo of Paul Rowen Paul Rowen Shadow Work and Pensions Minister

As the Minister said earlier, a change is being made to the law, and once the registration takes place the father will not have to go to court to get parental responsibility. That is the issue that I am concerned about.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

No, the problem is the way in which the hon. Gentleman has drafted his amendments, which specify only certain circumstances in which the father might acquire responsibility by virtue of the 1989 Act. If the father already had parental responsibility, the situation would not be a valid reason for the mother not to make the declaration in the first place. The hon. Gentleman’s intentions might be appropriate, and the Minister might have confirmed that his concerns are valid, but the amendments are not well drafted and do not achieve the objective he intends them to. They are not very sound. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I beg to move amendment 38, in schedule 6, page 94, line 19, leave out subsection (3).

The amendment relates to the provisions on scientific tests to determine paternity, which make it clear that those tests would happen with the consent of both parties. My amendment would omit the measure that specifies that the regulations may not require people to participate in the tests and makes it clear that they are voluntary. My reason for probing the Minister on this is two-fold. First, if the tests are purely voluntary, I am not quite sure what proposed new section 2E of the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953 Act adds to anything. It seems to me that without the provision it would be perfectly possible, when there was doubt about paternity, for the mother and father to get a test and establish that the father was indeed the father of the child. The mother could notify the registrar and the father could confirm the information. It would seem that that could all be done perfectly well without the provision, so if the Minister can explain why it is in the Bill, that would be helpful.

Secondly, I want to probe a little about the reason for not including the possibility of compulsion. I am not sure that I am in favour of it, but I want to find out why the Government, having drafted the new provisions, which are quite long and complicated, felt that compulsion was not required. That brings me back to the question of the importance for the child of knowing who its parents are. Why does the Minister not think it appropriate that, in a situation in which the mother says one man is the father and he says he is not, it should be possible to order a test to clear the matter up? There are circumstances when that happens, such as court cases involving assets, money, wills and legacies. The courts can order tests to determine paternity, so it seems that it would be perfectly possible to do so in the matter of registering a birth so that the child could know who its parents were. That principle is accepted in a range of other contexts, and I wondered if the Minister could outline why the Government did not think it appropriate for the purposes of birth registration.

Photo of Kitty Ussher Kitty Ussher Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions 12:00 pm, 3rd March 2009

I am happy to provide the explanation that the hon. Gentleman wants. The principle is that when there is a dispute, it is dealt with through the  courts, and that when we can make things easier in a co-operative environment, we can do so through the registry office. We do not want to make adversarial a process that is designed to assist parents and facilitate birth registration. We will provide parents with information about tests and we can explain the advantages of co-operating but, on reflection, we do not think it right for the registry office to insist on tests if parents or putative parents have a bitter dispute about parentage. As the hon. Gentleman rightly says, there are many contexts in which that might happen.

If the situation is adversarial, there are court provisions to resolve it—that is the best way to do that. When the situation is not adversarial, it is right that the registry office is able to offer advice and facilitate the taking of a paternity test to make it easier for the parents to resolve the matter. In a voluntary situation, the measure is a simplification that makes it easier for parents to resolve the issue. If the situation is adversarial, we take it out of the registry office and leave it where such situations are always resolved: in the courts.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I am grateful to the Minister for that explanation. It is still not entirely clear if the proposed new subsection enables the registry to do anything that it could not do already. There seems to be nothing preventing the publication of literature to explain how paternity tests work and how one might go about getting one. The Minister does not seem to have set out what this chunk of the Bill achieves or what it changes about the registration process. It might just be me, but I do not think that she made that clear—perhaps she will have another go.

Photo of Kitty Ussher Kitty Ussher Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions

I am happy to have another go. This is simply about having a process that is recognised by the registry office, which is why it needs to be in legislation. At the moment, the registry office has to go through a court for the registrar to be able to accept paternity. This measure enables a civil process that would make it far easier to resolve the matter in a non-adversarial situation. We need to have that in law so that the registrar can accept the results without having to go to a court. It is a simplification measure, and the hon. Gentleman’s party has always said that it is in favour of simplification.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

The situation is still not clear. If the mother and the father agree, having had the test, that they are the mother and the father—this is a voluntary situation—I am not sure what the registrar has to accept. It is not the result of the test, because if the result was disputed, there would be an adversarial court process, as the Minister said. If the situation is amicable, the test is purely factual—it says who the father is—and parentage is agreed, so both parents can say that to the registrar and the process can continue. The measure does not add much except more words to the Bill; it does not give the registrar any particular powers.

Photo of Kitty Ussher Kitty Ussher Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions

Okay, I will give the hon. Gentleman one example, although I do not want to get into specifics: a man says, “That child is mine” but mum says, “Actually, I’ve had a few partners and am not quite sure”. Do we have to go to court to sort that out, or can the registrar recognise parentage?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

This is still not clear. That case does not seem to bring us further forward, but I will not detain the Committee. In that case, once the mother and father were clear about the result of the test, they could say that to the registrar. However, we have talked considerably about the issue, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment made: 114, in schedule 6, page 98, line 40, leave out from ‘child’ to end of line 41 and insert—

‘( ) where the alleged father acknowledges that he is the father of the child, require the alleged father to give prescribed information to the registrar, and

( ) where the alleged father gives that information to the registrar,’.—(Kitty Ussher.)

This amendment relates to the process for re-registering a birth to include the father’s details. Where a man acknowledges to the registrar that he is the child’s father, it ensures that he can be required to provide the registrar with the information needed to re-register the birth.

Schedule 6, as amended, agreed to.