Children’s Access to Parents

– in Westminster Hall at 1:00 pm on 13th December 2011.

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Photo of Charlie Elphicke Charlie Elphicke Conservative, Dover 1:00 pm, 13th December 2011

I am delighted to have secured this important debate. Week in, week out, our constituency surgeries are all too often full of parents who are struggling to see, have contact with or access to their children. Evidence suggests that around 3 million children in the United Kingdom live apart from a parent, and 1 million of them have no contact with the non-resident parent three years after separation.

In recent years, the number of court applications, and the number of backlogged cases in the system, have increased. In 2005, there were 110,330 court applications, compared with 122,330 in 2010. The CAFCASSChildren and Family Court Advisory and Support Service—case load has also been growing: in 2007-08 there were 39,432 cases, but in 2010-11 there were 43,759. A massive delay in family court cases is not in the best interests of children or parents.

Although the numbers of court applications and cases in the CAFCASS backlog look slightly better than last year, they are still far too high and I suggest that mediation would be a faster and better way forward. Mediation is cheaper at £752 per case compared with £1,682 for full court proceedings, and on average it takes 110 days, while court cases take 435 days. Some 95% of mediations are complete within nine months, while only 70% of court cases are over within 18 months.

In such circumstances, time is of the essence to provide stability for the child and their parents, and to ensure the protection of the child’s welfare and that there is closure and a settlement regarding how they will be looked after, with arrangements for parental contact and access. It is important that such situations are dealt with quickly, and from paragraph 115 onwards the Norgrove report promotes mediation, which is to be welcomed. My only caveat, however, is that the report goes on to state that if people do not like the results of mediation, they should still be able to apply to the courts. I do not agree; one needs closure as soon as possible, and parents who are busy arguing with one another should not be allowed further bites of the cherry.

A key issue is the right of children to see their parents following a separation. It is not an issue of dads’ rights, or fathers’ rights, or about those of the mother; it is about the fundamental and basic rights of the child. I believe that child welfare is best served by ensuring that children know and have a relationship with both parents after separation. Too often, parents sink their children’s rights in a sea of acrimony when they split up, which must be fundamentally wrong.

Photo of Andrew Percy Andrew Percy Conservative, Brigg and Goole

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. He is right to say that such cases should be about the rights of the child, but does he agree that those rights also extend to a child’s right to see their grandparents?

Photo of Charlie Elphicke Charlie Elphicke Conservative, Dover

The right of grandparents to see their grandchildren is important, although not, I hasten to add, in the teeth of the unity of both parents if the grandparents are, shall we say, of the more interfering busybody variety who destabilise families. In general terms, however, a relationship between a child and their grandparents is positive and should be encouraged. It is not good if one parent who has custody of the child tries to frustrates that relationship, just as they should not try to frustrate the non-resident parent. My hon. Friend is a passionate advocate of grandparents’ rights, and once again he makes a powerful and forceful point. If there is acrimony between families, it is flatly wrong for parents to inflict their mutual loathing, which too often exists in a relationship breakdown, on the child.

In its conclusions in paragraph 109, the Norgrove report states:

“The child’s welfare should be the court’s paramount consideration, as required by the Children Act 1989. No change should be made that might compromise this principle. Accordingly, no legislation should be introduced that creates or risks creating the perception that there is a parental right to substantially shared or equal time for both parents. For that reason and taking account of further evidence we also do not recommend a change canvassed in our interim report that legislation might state the importance to the child of a meaningful relationship with both parents after their separation where this is safe. While true, and indeed a principle that guides court decisions, we have concluded that this would do more harm than good.”

The most important words are,

“no legislation should be introduced that creates or risks creating the perception that there is a parental right to substantially shared or equal time for both parents.”

The difficulty with the report is that it confuses the issue of time with that of an emotional bond. An emotional bond—love and affection—is not about the amount of time spent with someone. A person could have a best friend from university they have not seen for years. When they next meet, however, the friendship will pick up as if it had been only five minutes and that is because a relationship exists. The person may not have spent much time with their friend over the intervening years, but they know and have a relationship with them. That, in essence, is what we must ensure for our children, because they have the right to know both their parents and to have a relationship, reasonable access and contact with them following a separation.

The Norgrove report has confused those two issues. A relationship is not about time but about that bond, that sharing between parent and child, and the love and affection that goes with it. A clear social message needs to be sent out, which is why I have tabled the Children (Access to Parents) Bill, and why I secured this debate. A relationship is not about the amount of time spent together but about the bond created, and that lies at the heart of my case.

We need action because 1 million children do not see both their parents. Society has changed and is still changing, and social change means that over the past few decades, both parents have become more actively engaged than was previously the case. One study showed that parental involvement by fathers rose 200% between 1974 and 2000, and the change in work patterns seen over recent decades suggests that there is more joint parenting. According to research that I requested from the House of Commons Library, the number of men in part-time work has risen from about 500,000 in 1985 to 2 million today, while the number of partnered mothers in work rose from 52% in 1986 to 71% in 2010. That suggests that parents are sharing work and bringing up their children, and all of us, particularly the younger Members of the House, know that the work-life balance includes more juggling and sharing of parenting and parental responsibility.

Photo of Dominic Raab Dominic Raab Conservative, Esher and Walton

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this extremely important debate. He has mentioned some of the latest data but is he aware of recent research by the insurance company Aviva showing that the number of stay-at-home dads has doubled in a year? That is part of the trend that he mentions.

Together with taking on more of the burden and responsibilities of parenting should come more of the rights. I agree with points raised earlier about the rights of the child, but there is also an issue of securing paternal access. I have heard cases in my constituency surgery where although an access order has been passed by the court, it is flouted, sometimes dozens of times, by the other partner. Does my hon. Friend agree that we must take a firmer, clearer look at enforcement action against recalcitrant partners?

Photo of Charlie Elphicke Charlie Elphicke Conservative, Dover

I thank my hon. Friend for that powerful intervention. I will come later to the key issue of orders being flouted.

Parents share work and the bringing up of children, and that should not end at separation. It should not be a case of falling off a cliff; it should not suddenly be the case that children never see one of their parents any more. That is a mad way to proceed and it is destabilising for the child. The welfare of the child is best served by ensuring a continuing relationship with both parents.

The same is true in respect of educational attainment. In December 2010, the Fatherhood Institute published a report showing that better school results, better behaviour, lower criminality and less drug abuse are associated with children having the type of relationship with both parents that I have described. That is why it matters that the child has the right to know both parents and have a relationship with them through reasonable access and contact. It is essential to the rights of the child, the welfare of the child and the success of the child.

My hon. Friend made a powerful and telling point: too often, court orders are flouted. One sees this from the Norgrove report and the sixth report of Session 2010-12 of the Select Committee on Justice. People say, “Oh, there’s no need to change anything. We can see from the court figures that it all looks perfectly fine. In only a couple of hundred cases is contact denied.” However, the reality is that even if orders are made, they are just ignored. Even if people go down the route of a court process, they may be forced into abandoning it simply because of how long it all takes.

That is why a change in the law should send a social message as much as a legal message. I urge the Minister to reject the aspect of the Norgrove report that I have described and to support a change in the law. We need that change to send a clear message to the courts, but also to all parents who, as my hon. Friend Mr Raab said, deny their children the right to see and know both their parents through reasonable access and contact. That right should be enshrined in law. I hope that if I end my contribution now, it will allow a little time for my hon. Friends the Members for Harlow (Robert Halfon) and for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) to speak.

Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Conservative, Harlow 1:12 pm, 13th December 2011

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Ms Osborne. I congratulate my hon. Friend Charlie Elphicke, who has expressed the feelings of millions of people throughout the country in what he has said. As ever, his speech contained an enormous amount of research and interesting facts.

I will speak for only a minute or so, because other hon. Members want to speak. I want to talk about just two things. First, there is a father in my constituency of Harlow, Mr Colin Riches, whose children have been denied access to him. It is a tragic case, which shows why the law must change. Secondly—this relates to what my hon. Friend Andrew Percy has said—I am campaigning on behalf of the Grandparents’ Association, whose headquarters is in my constituency. We are asking for children to have the legal right to letterbox access to their grandparents. Put simply, that is the right to send and receive cards at birthdays and Christmas.

I have worked with Mr Colin Riches to table an e-petition—No. 23102—and I have raised his case many times in Parliament with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and others. The crux of his e-petition is this:

“Shared parenting should become the natural position in the UK. It’s in the best interest of the child. The law should be there to protect children’s relationships with both parents. It needs to show children that both their parents are treated with equality. So that children who have been cared for by both parents and grandparents do not suffer the pain of a living bereavement.”

I welcome the fact that the Government are looking into this matter, most recently through the family justice review, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Dover. That review was a ratchet in the right direction, because it accepted this point:

“More should be done to allow children to have a voice in proceedings.”

However, although I welcome some of the review’s contents, it does not go nearly far enough to help families such as that of Colin Riches.

I have had a very positive letter from the Minister—by chance, it arrived today—regarding my constituent, Mr Riches. In that letter, the Minister mentions that the review stops short of recommending a change in the law, because of the risk that a change could both encourage litigation and compromise the key principle of the Children Act 1989. As has been said, however, the law is clearly balanced too far in one direction—it is weighted against fathers and grandparents—and we need a change in the law to redress the balance.

I am nevertheless grateful to the Minister for his sympathetic response to my letter. He says that the Government will

“explore possible options for strengthening the expectation that both of a child’s parents should continue to be involved with the child’s care, post-separation”.

Will the Minister meet me and Mr Riches to discuss these issues more fully?

Secondly, I want briefly to ask the Minister about the work of the Grandparents’ Association. Last Thursday, I joined my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole at No. 10 Downing street to hand in a petition with more than 7,000 names calling for children to have the right to letterbox access to their grandparents—the right to send and receive cards on special occasions. That is a very small but symbolic thing, especially in the run-up to Christmas. Sadly, throughout Britain today, thousands of children are denied any access to their grandparents, even on birthdays and during the holiday season, which is often caused by family conflict.

Again, to be fair, the Government are considering the issue. I had a very positive response from the Leader of the House last week, when I raised the matter at business questions, but if the Minister could give a clear commitment to examine the issue, it would be hugely welcomed by grandparents in my constituency, the Grandparents’ Association and millions of grandparents up and down the land. It would be a tiny gesture, but it could transform the lives of many families. Ultimately, this is about the right of children to know who their family are and to have a chance to communicate with them. In the context of what the Government are doing to support the family, surely that is the right thing to do. Both the issues that I have raised fit with what we said in opposition, so I very much hope that we will be able to do something in the months and years ahead.

Photo of Sandra Osborne Sandra Osborne Labour, Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock

Order. Not all hon. Members have given notice that they want to speak. I am sure that they will want the Minister to have adequate time to respond.

Photo of Andrew Percy Andrew Percy Conservative, Brigg and Goole 1:17 pm, 13th December 2011

I apologise for that, Ms Osborne. I will make this an extended intervention. I just want to agree with the words of my hon. Friend Robert Halfon, who delivered the petition to No. 10 Downing street, and to give two quick examples from my constituency. I have two ongoing cases of constituents who have lost access to their grandchildren. In the first case, that was, very sadly, through the death of the daughter. In the second case, it was through a daughter’s new relationship with someone who exercised considerable influence over her. Consequently, the children left the country before legal processes could be put in place by the grandparent. I have met my hon. Friend the Minister to discuss this matter before, and I would welcome an opportunity to discuss it with him again. Those of us who are campaigning for grandparents’ rights fully accept the rights of parents, but at the end of the day this is about the rights of children, and those rights should extend to including grandparents. I hope that the Minister will meet us—I will end there, having taken less than a minute.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education 1:18 pm, 13th December 2011

I will try to get through as much as possible of my speech in the time left to me, but I start by congratulating my hon. Friend Charlie Elphicke on securing the debate. I agree with virtually everything that he said and with other hon. Members who raised points as well. The whole point of mediation is that it is quicker and cheaper, and we are of course examining that through the various devices being promoted by the Ministry of Justice and with which the Department for Education is involved.

I agree with the points made about grandparents. Part of establishing greater stability for children who find themselves in a broken family is that grandparents often offer an anchor of continuity when parents split up. I am sympathetic to those points, and we are looking at various ways to make sure that, wherever possible, grandparents remain engaged. Too many of them do not, as I know from my constituency.

This is a highly emotive issue, and one that is important to the well-being of hundreds of thousands of children and young people. As my hon. Friend the Member for Dover mentioned, an estimated 240,000 children experience the separation of their parents every year. Overall, more than one in three children will see their parents split up before their 16th birthday. That is a huge number, and I am afraid it is a reflection on society today.

There is great pressure on the courts at the moment, not least on the public law courts, post Baby P, which is having a knock-on effect. It is therefore absolutely right and urgent that we sort out some of the often acrimonious cases in the private law courts. My hon. Friend is absolutely right when he talks about parents sinking a child’s rights in a sea of acrimony. In too many cases, parents use their children as pawns, and the instability and emotional pressure that causes for children cannot be good for them. For all concerned, but particularly for the children, we must make sure that we do a lot better.

Just about everyone agrees that a child’s welfare is best served if both their parents are as actively involved in their upbringing as possible, unless there are good reasons for their not to be involved, and the child’s welfare would be undermined—that must remain the safety net. All the evidence tells us that children genuinely benefit from a relationship with both parents, with the potential for each to make different contributions to their child’s development. Yet, as we have heard from my hon. Friend, many children grow up with little or no relationship with one parent—usually, although not exclusively, the father.

This is a topical issue. My hon. Friend mentioned his Bill, which had its First Reading in March. Since then, the family justice review has carried out its consultation, and it produced its final report last month. It is right that we consider the issue of a child’s contact with their parents in that wider context.

I would just make two points. The Norgrove report, excellent thought it is, is a Government-commissioned report, not a Government report. The Government will, I hope, produce their response to it in January. I am working with colleagues from other Departments, including the Ministry of Justice, to reflect on many of the issues that have arisen from the Norgrove review, with which we are very familiar.

Some of the review’s concerns about having a presumption in favour of shared parenting were based on its visit to Australia. However, I think there were concerns about the Australian experience because, too often, the focus was interpreted as being about equality of time. As we know, we cannot carve up a child’s existence on the basis of some spurious 50:50 split in terms of time. As Members of Parliament, we probably know that better than others. We are not good role models as parents. If, heaven forbid, I were to split up from my wife—she has tolerated my being an MP for 14 and a half years—it would be bliss if I was expected to spend 50% of time with my children, because it does not happen now. However, we need to be realistic and not to base things on artificial equalities in terms of time.

There is, however, a much broader issue about the culture of parenting. The culture has shifted away from the traditional view that mothers are primarily responsible for the care of children. Increasingly, society recognises the valuable and distinct role of both parents. My hon. Friend Mr Raab mentioned the Aviva survey, which pointed to the increasing existence of stay-at-home dads and dads’ wish to be much more involved in their child’s upbringing.

The Government are doing much to encourage that societal change, promoting fathers as equal parents and encouraging them to be fully involved with their children from the earliest stages of their lives. Co-operative parents, both actively involved with their children, are more likely to continue that pattern after separation, and a co-operative, flexible approach is more likely to lead to contact arrangements that actually work. In that, I include the important role of grandparents.

As we know, however much education and awareness-raising we carry out, many parents separate in a hostile environment that fosters selfish perceptions. I am not seeking to downplay in any way the trauma of relationship breakdown, particularly where children are involved. Rebuilding a new life after separation or divorce can be one of the hardest things any of us will face. It is a sad truth, though, that the outcome, all too often, is that loving parents are frozen out of their children’s lives, and those who stand to lose the most are the children themselves.

My hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton spoke about the serial flouting of contact orders in too many cases. Too often, the resident parent can use the weapon of delay to freeze out a non-resident parent, such that a large portion of non-resident parents lose contact with their children altogether within two years. Whatever changes we do or do not make to the law, we need better enforcement of what exists now. That is absolutely essential, and I have been holding conversations to that effect with colleagues in the Ministry of Justice and the family courts themselves.

A relatively small proportion of families—about 10%—end up seeking help from family courts to resolve disputes about contact. These are the most complex and difficult cases, often involving multiple problems. The examples mentioned by my hon. Friends the Members for Harlow (Robert Halfon) and for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) reflect some fairly acrimonious marriage breakdowns.

We should not kid ourselves that the remaining 90% of separating parents, who do not seek help from the courts, are happy with the degree of their involvement in their children’s lives. Of course, many manage to put their children’s needs first and to reach an amicable settlement, but far too many non-resident parents feel they must accept unsatisfactory or unfair contact arrangements, because of the fear of long, drawn-out and expensive court procedures. That is why up to a third of non-resident parents have no meaningful contact with their children. Once that happens, it can be almost impossible in some cases to resume contact, particularly where young children are concerned. At every stage, we must remember that the most important part of this whole equation is the child. The delay and continued uncertainty caused by an acrimonious dispute going through the courts over a long period can only be damaging to the child.

That is a tragedy, and one the Government intend to address. Our vision is to establish a clear expectation that, under normal circumstances, a child will have a relationship with both his or her parents, regardless of their relationship with each other. We want to achieve that by creating a climate in which separating parents are able to see through their personal differences and to recognise the importance of their both remaining involved in their child’s lives. For those who need support to focus on their children’s needs, there will be a range of interventions to facilitate the making of practical and lasting agreements.

This will be a society where family courts are a last resort, used to determine only the most difficult cases, particularly those where there are welfare concerns. This court system will be transparent and accessible to those who need it, with no perceptions of bias based on sex or resident or non-resident status. Children will feel that their views count and are listened to, and the minority of parents who take their dispute to court will do so in the knowledge that it is only in exceptional cases that a child will not be able to maintain ongoing contact with both parents. Crucially, parents will adhere to court orders in the knowledge that action to enforce breaches will be swift and decisive—if I am reading quickly, it is because I am determined to get to the end of my speech.

Whether the Government achieve that vision is only partly in our hands. We cannot prevent acrimonious break-ups or change the way individual families choose to organise their lives. However we must do everything we can to improve the system so that it gives children the best chance of growing up under the guidance of two loving parents.

As I have said, the family justice review panel reported last month. It paints a grim picture of the experience of families in a private law system that is too slow, too expensive and too emotionally damaging for children and parents. The panel’s view is that shared parenting is best encouraged through education rather than legislation. It proposes a range of measures to encourage out-of-court dispute resolution and to support parents in putting their children’s needs first. Such pre-court processes would focus on giving parents effective tools to resolve their problems and change their behaviour. They would include mediation, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dover has said, parenting information programmes and the drawing up of parenting agreements. Most of us would agree that those are sensible. In addition, an online hub would, in the first instance, provide information and advice on a wide range of issues faced by parents. The Government are carefully considering the panel’s proposals for reform and will respond to them early in the new year. However the rationale behind these pre-court plans—more support for parents to make child-centred agreements, and fewer parents going to court—fits with the vision I outlined earlier.

I turn now to the nub of my hon. Friend’s proposal, which is legislation to promote shared parenting. As we have heard, the family justice review opposed such a move. It is concerned that any such changes to legislation risk creating the perception of a parental right to shared time with their children. It has also taken on board the concern that legislation could be seen as undermining the fundamental principle under which courts operate—the principle in the Children Act 1989 that paramount consideration is given to the welfare of the child. As I have said, I have some concern about that.

This debate has been raging for some time. Five and a half years ago, I myself argued in the House for an amendment to the Children and Adoption Bill that would have inserted a presumption in favour of shared parenting into the 1989 Act. The concerns that gave rise to that have not diminished today. It would be wrong for me to try to pre-empt the Government’s decision, but I can say that we are looking closely at all the options for promoting shared parenting through possible legislative and non-legislative means.

The debate is often polarised around two issues. On the one hand, we have the frustration that an obstructive resident parent can stop the non-resident parent seeing their child. On the other, there is, understandably, considerable pressure for robust safeguarding processes to ensure that potential welfare issues are properly identified and that care arrangements are safe. Ultimately, both concerns centre on harmful impacts on children, and any solution we come to must maintain a clear focus on the welfare of the child.

The Children Act 1989 is a landmark piece of legislation, and we approach any debate about amending it with the utmost caution. We are clear that the paramountcy principle, which has universal support, must not be diluted.