House of Commons
Tuesday 20 June 2006
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
message from the queen
double taxation relief
The vice-chamberlain of the household reported Her Majesty’s Answer to the Address, as follows:
I have received your Addresses praying that the Double Taxation Relief (Taxes on Income) (Botswana) Order 2006, and the Double Taxation Relief (Taxes on Income) (Japan) Order 2006, be made in the form of the drafts laid before your House on 20 April 2006.
I will comply with your request.
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
National Performance Targets
The data are not held centrally. However, we are committed to reducing the number of national targets. That number has reduced from 28 in 1996 to 20 for the current three-year planning round.
If the Secretary of State cannot answer the question directly, does she accept that the need for constantly collecting information and reporting on targets is a significant contribution to the doubling of management staff since she took office, as opposed to a 30 per cent. increase in medical staff? Is she aware that if management staff had increased at the same pace as medical staff, there would be 12,000 fewer and the NHS would have saved about £500 million a year—a large part of its deficit?
No, I do not agree, and the hon. Gentleman is absolutely wrong. The proportion of the NHS budget that is spent on management and senior management has gone down. It was 5 per cent. and it has gone down to below 4 per cent. in the latest figures. There are 10 nurses now for every manager, as there should be. The hon. Gentleman’s implication that good health care does not require good management is nonsense. I have great respect for him and he ought to know better than to suggest that.
In respect of reducing national performance targets still further, will my right hon. Friend be cautious about reducing performance targets in relation to mental health, since there is evidence already that mental health is regarded as a rather low priority by many primary care trusts? For example, the Milton Keynes PCT is targeting mental health services in trying to get within budget.
I understand my hon. Friend’s concern about the impact of the overspending in a minority of organisations on the rest of the service, including on mental health services. The Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton) this morning launched a further document on the improvements that we need to continue seeing in mental health services specifically. I think she would agree that simply adding constantly to the number of national targets is not always the best way to ensure that local staff and local hospitals can respond in the best way possible to the needs of their local community, and ensure that they are delivering the best health care within the substantially increased budgets that we have given them.
How does the Secretary of State justify the Oxford Radcliffe Hospitals NHS Trust losing 600 NHS posts, including managers? She might like to reflect on the fact that on Sunday some 5,000 of my constituents, along with Labour councillors and representatives of Unison, the Transport and General Workers Union and the GMB, all gathered together to express concern about what is happening to the health service in Oxfordshire, and to the Oxford Radcliffe Hospitals NHS Trust in particular.
Of course I understand the concerns that the hon. Gentleman raises, which are reflected among his constituents and among the staff and their unions. Let me reassure him, and particularly the staff, who face a very anxious time, that the Oxford Radcliffe and any other hospital in a similar situation will do everything it can to avoid compulsory redundancies and to support staff to be redeployed, where necessary, to new jobs. Does the hon. Gentleman accept, however, that with medical technology changing, and with huge and unacceptable variations in the quality of care and the value that is given to patients by different hospitals, it must be right to expect hospitals to use new medical technology and best practice to become as effective as possible in their use of resources? That means difficult decisions in some places, but we should have the courage to take them, and he should have the honesty to support them.
At the previous Health questions, I raised a problem involving staff at NHS Direct. I was promised a meeting with a Minister, but it has not taken place and I cannot understand why. In addition, the chief executive of NHS Direct has still not responded to my correspondence. I wonder whether the Secretary of State will ensure that a meeting takes place quickly. Jobs are going down the road, which is not good enough, and it is time for the Department to be put into order.
I am extremely sorry that my hon. Friend has received neither a reply nor a meeting, although I understand that my noble Friend Lord Warner, the Minister with responsibility for health service reform, had to attend a debate in the other place when that meeting should have taken place. Another date and time that suits my hon. Friend will be organised as quickly as possible, and I will ensure that that meeting happens and that he gets a reply to his letter.
The Secretary of State will be aware that the monitoring of performance targets is undertaken not only by NHS staff, but by patients’ groups. Will she therefore urgently investigate the case of Queen Mary’s hospital in Sidcup, which has had problems with hygiene in the past and which has reportedly cancelled two inspections by its own patients’ forum—it has told the patients’ forum that it cannot investigate hygiene by using torches to look under beds? Will she investigate that refusal to participate?
Of course I will examine that specific case, of which I was not aware. The Healthcare Commission routinely inspects all health care providers to make sure that they are raising standards to the highest possible level. The hon. Gentleman has made the extremely important point that inspecting and reporting on the quality of care, which requires a certain amount of management time, is essential if we are to give patients the best possible care, which is what we all want.
I support good management in every establishment. Good management has contributed wonderfully to the stupendous improvements that we have enjoyed in our health service in recent years. [Interruption.] I am pleased that those who have not enjoyed the great care that we get in our hospitals have avoided the experience, but if they had had the great misfortune to be ill, they would have been cared for magnificently in our NHS. My local hospital trust meets its performance targets, which still need to be refined. I say that where there is bad management, it should be cured hospital by hospital. The blanket approach has resulted in my local authority paying £500,000 for a benchmarking exercise, which cannot be explained simply by the current cuts.
My hon. Friend rightly refers to the exceptional improvements in many aspects of NHS care. Indeed, he might have been thinking of the improvements in accident and emergency that have got rid of those appalling trolley waits, which was a direct result of our target. The benchmarking exercise to which my hon. Friend refers is one of many ways in which every hospital can examine its own performance to see where it can do even better and improve its care to patients. My hon. Friend supports such improvements, and we will ensure that they continue.
Ministers have received a number of representations on the availability of those drugs in the context of the drugs’ ongoing appraisal by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence. I have also recently met representatives of the Alzheimer’s Society, the Royal College of Psychiatrists and the Royal College of Nursing to hear their views.
In those meetings, did the Minister note the strong feeling among patients, carers and clinicians that the early prescription of these drugs leads to a higher quality and longer life? All those people believe that early prescription slows long-term decline—what is the Minister’s view?
I am aware of those strong feelings. It is crucial that the appraisal process is carried out properly, and, as my hon. Friend knows, the process is still ongoing. Independent clinical experts should be the ultimate arbiters, but it is also right that the strength of feeling among patients throughout this country is voiced through their parliamentary representatives, which my hon. Friend has done today.
Is it not morally wrong that people with dementia are prevented from having the relatively inexpensive drugs that will prevent their dementia from getting worse? Preventing people from having those drugs is a false economy, because when dementia deepens, the cost of looking after the patient is much greater.
The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence was set up to take on the difficult questions that we face in judging the clinical effectiveness of treatments against their cost-effectiveness. The hon. Lady would perhaps be the first to complain if that judgment was being made by Ministers. It is important to make it clear that existing patients will not be affected and will continue to receive these treatments. However, we all want the process to be conducted fairly and, ultimately, an independent judgment to be made on the evidence.
Having been to local meetings of people concerned about the use of these drugs, I know that it is a huge benefit for people to able to have them in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. When my hon. Friend speaks to NICE, will he ask it to consider the contribution that the drugs make to a more independent, less stressed, and perhaps even happier life?
The NICE process has been undertaken with unprecedented thoroughness. My hon. Friend refers to the early stages of the disease, and the use of drugs at that time is precisely the issue that is being examined in depth and will be considered during the appeals process. I am sure that the strength of feeling that she represents will be heard, but ultimately it is right that an independent judgment is made by experts in that illness.
May I declare an interest in that I am patron of the east Cheshire branch of the Alzheimer’s Society and therefore take a huge and close interest in this subject? Does the Minister accept that society has a duty to enable those who suffer from Alzheimer’s, even those in the early stages of the disease, to have the best quality of life that is available to them, and that that means the use of the most advanced drugs? Will he ensure that the best drugs are available to give those with Alzheimer’s the best quality of life that this House would wish them to have?
Of course, there will be no division between Members in wanting to ensure that people get the best quality of life that they can. That is precisely what NICE is considering in terms of the difficult judgment that must be made. As a former Chair of the Health Committee, the hon. Gentleman will know that a balance must be struck between the available resources and the benefits that this treatment can offer. We have collectively asked NICE to investigate these difficult questions for us, and we all have a duty to support it through this difficult process and ultimately to consider fairly its recommendations.
Does it worry my hon. Friend that if the NICE guidance is implemented there will be less support in future for patients in the early stages of Alzheimer’s? Can he at least give assurances about the things that matter to those patients and their carers: early identification of Alzheimer’s cases; more support for the patient, the family and the carer; and more research into finding treatments that will be effective in the early stages of the disease?
I can certainly assure my hon. Friend on his last point. Research into those matters is hugely important. Of course, I am not a clinician, which is why it is important that the NICE appraisal process carefully considers questions about the early stages of Alzheimer’s and makes its judgment on whether there is evidence to support the arguments that he and other hon. Members are making. It is right that that process should be allowed to run its course, and it would be wrong for me to prejudice it. I am pleased that my hon. Friend and other hon. Members have expressed their points of view, and I am sure that they will be heard beyond this House.
Despite what the Minister says, he will have to accept that NICE has confirmed that these drugs are clinically effective but that people will now have to wait longer before receiving them. That is not only harsh but contradicts the Government’s own policy of early diagnosis and intervention. Given that, last year, the Government asked NICE to re-examine whether its model of cost-effectiveness took full account of the complexities of this case, particularly the impact that withdrawing those drugs would have on carer time and quality of life, is he completely satisfied that NICE has addressed those specific concerns; and if not, what further action does he propose to take?
The hon. Gentleman must accept that the appraisal process that NICE has gone through is extremely detailed and that it has examined all the available evidence. Indeed, the appraisal process continues—it is right that it should do so and that the questions that he identifies are properly considered. However, is it right for us to second-guess the independent experts? Is it right that we should set up NICE only to undermine—
The main source of data on childhood obesity is the health survey for England. According to the latest survey, 19.2 per cent. of boys and 18.5 per cent. of girls aged two to 15 were classified as obese. We are unable to provide estimates for morbid obesity in children, as there is no specific definition above which a child can be considered morbidly obese.
Does not that show that we have a virtual epidemic of obesity that affects our young children? However many positive messages parents and schools try to convey about exercise and eating healthily, the real problem is that advertisers pump out negative messages day after day about eating junk food and having drinks that are not good for children. Will my hon. Friend make representations to Ofcom to ban advertising junk food to children, not only during the day but during the programmes that they watch, including “Coronation Street”?
My hon. Friend is right to highlight concerns about obesity in children. He is also right to make the point about parents making informed choices. That is why we have worked to encourage the industry to introduce front-of-pack labelling and asked for the consultation about the promotion of high fat, high salt and high sugar foods to children. The consultation ends on 30 June, so everyone has time to make their views known. The options include a 50 per cent. reduction in the number of advertisements that promote high fat, high salt and high sugar foods and drinks to children. There is a healthy debate on the issue and I urge everyone inside and outside the House to make their views known.
Given that, over the past decade, childhood obesity in some groups has nearly doubled and that British children are getting fatter faster than children anywhere else in Europe, does the Minister share our alarm at February’s National Audit Office report, which suggests that poor co-ordination, inadequate leadership and a tendency to apply myriad initiatives that lack a credible evidence base can be blamed for the complete failure of that important aspect of Government public health policy?
Of course, the problem has been developing over the past 20 years. Children do less exercise, the Playstation is often more important than the bicycle and parents obviously have to make choices. The NAO report made some suggestions for improvement, and several matters have been improved since it carried out its first research. We now have clearer guidance to clinicians on outcomes at general practitioner surgeries, we have provided a weight loss guide and obesity care pathways to primary care clinicians and we are examining options for treatment programmes. That is happening as well as all our work with the food industry on labelling, reformulation and, of course, promotion. The hon. Gentleman would agree that the subject is complex. The Government, the health service and the food industry have a role to play but so have the public in making the right choices for children.
Provision of complementary and alternative therapies on the NHS is a matter for primary care trusts and local NHS service providers. The Government believe that decisions on individual clinical interventions, whether conventional, complementary or alternative, are for local determination.
I hear the Minister and sympathise with his philosophical position. However, therapies such as acupuncture and Alexander technique are proven to be effective and cost-effective, but access on the NHS is difficult, with hurdles all over the place. What steps will he take to ensure that such therapies, which are proven to work, are available on the NHS to people who want to use them? Will he ensure that comparisons between conventional medicine and alternative therapies are made on the basis of sound science rather than of prejudice?
The hon. Gentleman knows that we have provided more information about the available complementary therapies. Recent figures show that around 50 per cent. of GPs are making such therapies available to patients and evidence shows that people are getting access to those services. Of course, they should always be based on the evidence available and a balance must be struck. However, locally, the matter is for clinical decision and it would be wrong to mandate such treatment or to rule it out from the top down. It is for doctors to decide.
The Minister is absolutely correct in saying that, when NHS budgets are under such severe pressure, patients, clinicians and taxpayers are best served only by treatments whose efficacy can be shown to be based on solid evidence. Is it not the case that too many homeopathic and other treatments are not subject to the rigorous testing that is routine for pharmaceutical products? As a result, they can produce known adverse effects, or show no demonstrable or discernable benefits whatever. Is not that a bit of a con?
I agree that such treatments or therapies should be prescribed or made available to patients on the advice of a clinician, and that that judgment should be made in the best interest of the patient. When there is doubt about the evidence base for a treatment, people should err on the side of caution.
There is a great deal of controversy in the health service about the benefits or otherwise of alternative therapies, but, given that some people feel strongly that they have substantial benefits, should not the Government give primary care trusts some form of guidance on this issue? Perhaps it could take the form of a code of best practice to advise on how best to provide treatments to which many people attach the greatest possible importance.
The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point. There are obviously strong views at either end of this argument. Some people are passionately in favour of the availability of complementary medicines, but some senior clinicians recently wrote in the newspapers that they were very much opposed to them. It seems to me that the right ground in this case is the middle ground—
Gloucestershire Strategic Health Authority
Allocations to the West Gloucestershire, Cheltenham and Tewkesbury, and Cotswold and Vale primary care trusts totalled more than £561 million in 2005-06—an increase of about 30 per cent. over the past three years.
I thank my right hon. Friend for her response, and I apologise for the typo in the question. It should of course say “Avon, Gloucestershire and Wiltshire strategic health authority”, but that somehow got lost in translation. It would, however, be much easier if we were just dealing with Gloucestershire. The letter that the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint), sent to the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson), whom I see in his place, concluded by saying:
“However, we would expect the new organisations to inherit the liabilities and obligations of predecessor organisations.”
If that is the case, would it not be appropriate to have complete transparency within a strategic health authority such as Avon, Gloucestershire and Wiltshire, so that we can understand exactly where the deficits have come from? There is a great deal of unfairness involved in offloading deficits on to areas that have not created them, and the people involved believe that they are quite within their rights to feel let down.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the need for transparency, but there was no such transparency in the past. Underspending areas, often in much poorer parts of the country, were constantly bailing out overspending areas of the NHS, which were often in the better off and healthier parts of the country. We are creating the transparency that my hon. Friend mentioned, as well as asking each strategic health authority to ensure that its area returns to balance. Where an organisation is overspending, and particularly if it is going to take more than a year to get back into balance, other organisations will have to hold back on the improvements that they want to make. However, that all needs to be open, transparent and understood. In particular, the organisations that are overspending need to take decisions—difficult though some of them will be—to ensure that they give their patients the best possible care within the substantially increased budgets that we are continuing to give them.
In the letter to which the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) referred, which followed a two-hour Adjournment debate that I had last week, the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint), attempted to explain the position with regard to the recovery of the financial position. There is a great deal of confusion surrounding this issue, however. The question to which we are trying to get an answer is: do trusts have to achieve a month-by-month balance towards the end of this year, or do they have to have a full-year balance, including the historic deficits? If the Secretary of State could answer that one question, it would clear up an awful lot of confusion. The answer will determine the degree and the level of the cuts that the primary care trusts will inflict on everyone.
I had an opportunity to read the report of the two-hour debate—an extensive and excellent debate—on the health service in Gloucestershire to which the hon. Gentleman referred.
The national framework that we have set out is quite clear. We will return the NHS as a whole to financial balance by the end of March next year. Within that, we would like all overspending organisations to achieve a monthly balance between income and expenditure, again by the end of March next year. Some will not be able to do so, but overspending in one organisation will have to be matched by underspending in another.
The proposals for Gloucestershire and the wider region have not yet been finalised. Not only is local consultation taking place on the proposals that are being made, but discussions are continuing between the strategic health authority and my Department so that we can be satisfied that the proposals will achieve the best possible patient care and return the region to balance as quickly as makes sense. I know that the hon. Gentleman and other Members representing the area will continue to participate in those discussions.
Does the Secretary of State realise that primary care trusts in Gloucestershire are currently planning not only to recover deficits and restore balance this year, but to do so after having their budgets top-sliced so that Gloucestershire is contributing to deficits in Avon and Wiltshire as well? That could have substantial consequences for services in Gloucestershire. As the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) is aware, the closure of Stroud maternity unit is being contemplated. Will the Secretary of State tell us whether she intends the PCTs to go beyond restoring financial balance and initiate a cut such as that closure?
I have made it very clear that we expect each of the regions to establish financial balance. Within that, there must be discretion for specific areas and organisations. I have spelt that out, and we repeated it most recently in the report on the financial situation that I published alongside the chief executive’s report.
What the hon. Gentleman has said reflects the fact that not only has there been overspending in Gloucestershire, despite substantial increases in the budgets, but there are even larger problems in Avon and Wiltshire—many of them deep-seated problems that have been continuing for years. For far too long, those organisations have expected other parts of the NHS to bail them out.
None of the proposals has been finalised. The plan for Stroud maternity unit needs to be considered on the basis of what will give women the best and safest maternity services within the budget that is available to that health community. I hope that instead of continuing to pretend that an unlimited sum is available and difficult decisions never have to be made, the hon. Gentleman will support the NHS in every part of the country, helping to ensure that it can provide the best possible services for patients and the best value—
Thank you, Mr. Speaker.
The Secretary of State is trying to resolve the situation in a single year. The point is that Gloucestershire is prepared to try to resolve its financial deficits; what it objects to is having to contribute this year, on top of that, to the resolution of deficits in other places some of which have been around for years, and will be around for years.
I return to the question. We have asked the Secretary of State repeatedly to avoid short-term, financially driven cuts that will be to the long-term detriment of the service. In her manifesto, she said
“By 2009 all women will have choice over where and how they have their baby”.
Thousands of women in Stroud and related areas want to be able to choose to have their antenatal care or delivery at Stroud maternity unit. Will the Secretary of State promise that in 2009 they will be able to exercise that choice?
Those are decisions that need to be made locally and on the basis that the best and safest care is provided to all patients, within the available budget. As I understand the current proposals, Gloucestershire SHA will contribute some £6.5 million to the regional reserves, with somewhat more being drawn down in that county to compensate for the overspending in its health service. In the maternity services, continuing support will be given to providing home births for those women who choose them and for whom they are safe, although midwife-led care must also be available as part of the broader service. Those difficult decisions will be made locally, in the context of the Government’s very generous national settlement.
In the White Paper that we published in January, entitled “Our Health, Our Care, Our Say”, we set out proposals for making further improvements to end-of-life care, so that many more people are able to choose where they are cared for at the end of their lives, and where they die.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. There is no doubt that there is good practice in the hospice movement and in some parts of the NHS, and that there are good palliative care consultants, but will she say what steps she is taking to ensure that the lessons learned, and the expertise developed, in those settings are shared with other parts of the NHS? In particular, how is that experience being used to help those dealing with patients who wish to spend their final days and weeks in their own homes?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Part of what we are doing is to establish everywhere end-of-life care networks that draw on the expertise available in some parts of the NHS and in the Marie Curie cancer care programme. We will continue to develop the training programme that has ensured that many more community-based staff are trained in palliative care. We must ensure that more palliative care and hospice services are available, both in the community and in people’s homes. In that way, the majority of people who would prefer to die at home or in a hospice will no longer be forced to die in hospital, which is where most people die at present. That is another example of the shift of care from hospitals into the community, which is the best care that we can offer patients.
I thank the Secretary of State for the help that the Government have given recently to plug the short-term funding gap for children’s hospices. Will she say something about how we can get together with the Association of Children’s Hospices to develop a fair, sustainable and long-term funding policy for hospices?
The hon. Gentleman raises an extremely important point, and I am delighted that we have been able to make that funding available over the next three years, beginning in this financial year. It will ensure that the children’s hospices will be able to continue their excellent work. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will continue to work with the children’s hospice movement to ensure that the right services are provided for terminally ill children, whether that be in a hospice or in their own home.
I also thank my right hon. Friend for the £27 million that has been announced for children’s hospices, but end-of-life care is not just about making the end of life as caring as possible. It should also be about exploring all possibilities to prolong quality of life. Will she agree to meet me as soon as possible to discuss the case of my constituent, Kath Withington, who has been denied the Tarceva drug, even though her consultant and GP recommended it? People who may be in their last months or weeks should have access to all the treatments that might prolong their lives.
I am always happy to meet my hon. Friend but, on the more general point, it must be right that we ensure that NICE evaluates drugs, and that the drugs it recommends are available right across the NHS. However, we must not try to substitute ministerial decisions for NICE’s recommendations. We played our part in establishing NICE, and in speeding up the evaluation of the growing number of new drugs now available.
The Secretary of State speaks of palliative care being provided in the community. Much of it is provided in small community hospitals, such as Steppingley hospital in my constituency but, unfortunately, many such hospitals are under threat of closure or have already closed due to NHS deficits. Is not the best way to give good, compassionate, end-of-life care in the community to make sure that the beds and nurses are there to provide it?
The greatest need is for palliative care to be available in people’s own homes, because that is where the largest number of people would choose to die if they were given the choice, as I believe they should be. In the case of community hospitals, yes, there are parts of the country where the local NHS is looking at the number of community hospitals and at whether they can be better organised. In the White Paper, we made it clear that they should not be making short-term decisions, because of current financial problems, which may have to be reversed in future years; they should look instead at how to make the best possible use of existing, and new, community facilities to ensure that they are getting the best care for patients, much of which can now be delivered outside hospitals—not only in community hospitals, but also in patients’ own homes.
Kensington and Chelsea Primary Care Trust
Since March 2005, Health Ministers have received two letters in respect of the management of Kensington and Chelsea primary care trust’s deficit, both of which came from my hon. Friend. In addition, the chief executive of Kensington and Chelsea primary care trust met Sir Nigel Crisp, the former chief executive of the NHS, on 16 December 2005.
My hon. Friend is aware that Kensington and Chelsea PCT has an ambitious programme for recovering a deficit that is rooted—in this case—in past financial mismanagement under previous managers. My concern is that in addition to the underlying deficit the PCT is subject to the top-slicing that applies to all London PCTs. In the interests of transparency, and because that additional pressure is causing difficulty for social and mental health services, will my hon. Friend explain how much has been generated by top-slicing in London, where that fund is being held and when PCTs and others will have the opportunity to learn how that resource will be ploughed back to help authorities struggling with their deficit?
The strategic health authority was asked to come up with an appropriate plan for London, to deal with the overall situation, and it was felt right that Kensington and Chelsea contribute 3 per cent. of its budget to help tackle the deficit. My hon. Friend is right to say that the consequences of the contributions made by that PCT and others should be open and transparent. The SHA should make absolutely clear how much money it has received from the process, how it intends to spend the resources and the consequences for patient care throughout London. I urge her to engage in dialogue with the SHA about how that information can be put into the public domain as soon as possible.
Eye Examinations (Children)
Free sight tests are available under the NHS for children under 16, and for those in full-time education aged 16 to 18. Sight tests allow the opportunity to review all aspects of eye health, including investigations for signs of disease. Information about the extensive arrangements for providing help with NHS optical services and other health costs is set out in leaflet HC11, “Are you entitled to help with health costs?”.
Last year, 2.8 million children received an NHS eye test, which is less than a quarter of the almost 12 million children who are entitled to a free eye test. How does the Minister think those figures reflect on her Department’s ability to implement its promises and ensure the good health of our children?
That does not necessarily mean that all children need an eye test. It would be a waste of money if we expected people to have eye tests when they do not need them. We provide every parent with a personal child health record, which gives them information about what to look for in terms of their child’s eyesight. The booklet “Birth to five” is provided for all first-time parents and gives advice and information. As part of the national service framework, we want to develop an orthoptist-led programme for pre-school vision screening, which ensures that eyes are working and developing normally. In those ways, we are making sure that when children have a problem, or are perceived to have a problem, they receive an eye test as required.
I accept the fact that all children may not need eye tests, but may I ask whether the Government have ever conducted any surveys to make sure that no children have fallen though the net, as they obviously will not know whether they need an eye test? In my childhood, such testing used to take place in schools.
My right hon. Friend is right about the measures that we should put in place to see whether children require a more extensive eye examination, which is why, as part of the national service framework for children, young people and maternity services, we have developed, as I said, an orthoptist-led programme of pre-school vision screening to check whether children’s eyes are developing normally and whether there are any developmental problems that require a more extensive eye test. That is a better screening procedure, but if parents have any worries, they can use the information that we give every parent after the birth of their child to make sure that they follow up any problems. If they are in doubt, they should seek an eye test, which, of course, is free.
There is a lot of talk about preventive medicine, but I do not remember a generic campaign on the need for regular eye tests ever taking place. If we wish to make an early intervention in eye disease or an early diagnosis of systemic disease, and if we are concerned about road safety or industrial safety later in life, eye tests are essential. Is it not time that the Department of Health encouraged everyone—and not just children—to have regular eye tests?
Of course we encourage them to do so. The research results of the last national campaign, I believe, did not receive a good evaluation, so we offer targeted support. As I said, every parent receives a personal health record for their child that includes information and advice so that they can find out whether there are any problems with their vision. All new parents receive a booklet, “Birth to five”, which explains problems to which they should be alert, including problems in their child’s vision. The national service framework, too, deals with pre-school screening and vision development. Our approach is targeted, and it includes a review of local optical services that gives primary care trusts a greater role in identifying people who do not take up the opportunity to have their children’s eyes tested so that they can target communities where such tests are needed. I hope that that review will give PCTs greater opportunities and flexibility to work with opticians and others to provide the service that the hon. Gentleman would like.
After an eye examination, some children may need an eye operation, but hospitals in different parts of the country are paid different rates by their PCTs for performing the same operation. Why do we need those differential rates, as costs are uniform and there are national contracts on pay and conditions for consultants, nurses and all other staff in “Agenda for Change”?
Those different rates are the primary reason why we have looked at the tariff, as we wish to make sure that there is a level playing field for health services. Clearly, we can look at the issues that my hon. Friend has raised, but may I add that we introduced free eye tests for everyone over 60? I am pleased to say that, for people of advancing years, the wait for cataract surgery is three months or less.
I have to say that that was an extraordinarily complacent answer. If we do not test children’s eyesight, how can we know the extent of the problem? There is poor take-up of eye tests among school-age children, and, after their eight-month check, only 50 per cent. of children have their eyes checked before starting school, so it is more likely that sight defects will emerge as the visual system develops up to the age of seven, which can lead to permanent visual loss and subsequent problems keeping up at school. Why, therefore, did the hon. Lady’s Government fail to support Conservative amendments to the Health Bill in another place, which would have ensured that all children receive a proper eye examination before they start school?
I am not sorry that the hon. Gentleman does not like my answer, because I would not expect him to do so. I thought that I gave a comprehensive answer, as I explained the information that we give to parents, the pre-school screening programme that we have developed, and the local services developed by PCTs based on need. We are thus meeting the needs of both children and adults in the community. I am incredibly short-sighted and use both contact lenses and glasses, and my children, too, wear glasses. As a parent, I acted when the problem emerged, and we must make sure that parents have the right information so that they can act. Pre-school screening will help, but I do not see the sense of paying for unnecessary, full eye tests if they are not required.
When I was at school, it became obvious to me, and to the teachers, when I needed to be sent for an eye test. I was sent for a test after being moved from the back of the class further and further forward, until I got right up to the chalk board; no one sent me for one before then. However, I am still disappointed in some respects. How much research has been done into the effects on young developing eyes of old-style cathode ray tubes and new LCD and plasma screens? If tests have been done showing that long exposure to such screens has a detrimental effect on young eyes, can we let parents know as quickly as possible, because many of them would like to limit exposure to that risk?
I will write to my hon. Friend with any information that I can supply on what research has been done. However, it is common sense to say that too much time spent in front of a screen is not good for anyone—not only for their eyesight but for their general well-being, given the lack of physical activity. Less is more, I would say.
Pennine Acute Hospital Trust
The 2005-06 provisional out-turn figure for the Pennine Acute Hospitals NHS Trust is a £56,000 surplus. However, I am aware that the trust faces a challenging financial situation in the current financial year, and it is in discussion with the strategic health authority on how to achieve efficiency savings.
On 7 June, the Secretary of State said that
“overspending occurred in better-off areas”—[Official Report, 7 June 2006; Vol. 447, c. 254.]
Can the Minister explain why the Pennine acute trust, which covers Rochdale, Oldham and north Manchester and has huge health service needs, is predicting an overspend of £28 million, despite, as she said, having balanced its books last year?
Obviously, the trust will have benefited from the massive investment that has gone into the NHS generally. However, one of the trust’s problems has been higher than average costs associated with delivery of services. That is why it is getting particular help in looking at how it can make efficiency savings. When payment by results is introduced, difficulties will arise unless it can reduce some of its current costs by making some of the changes to service delivery that have been made in other parts of the country, so that services are delivered in the most effective manner without patient care being compromised.
The Pennine Acute Hospitals NHS Trust is the second largest hospital trust in the country, serving four district general hospitals and covering 10 constituencies and a population of some 700,000. In addition to the problem highlighted by the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen), there are two or three more that need to be considered, including the reconfiguration of that very large trust and board appointments. I want to put on the agenda the independent Appointments Commission and the problems that it is raising in different parts of the country. I should be glad if my hon. Friend expedited the meeting that we have requested for the 10 hon. Members served by the Pennine Acute Hospitals NHS Trust.
I know that my hon. Friend has pressed the case on his constituents’ behalf about the issues that he has just raised. His persistence has led to a meeting being arranged within, I think, the week, and I look forward to discussing all the issues that he has raised with him and his colleagues.
Nearly half the NHS has signed up to the health trainer scheme. Currently, 228 NHS health trainers are recruited to the programme, of which 206 are now in, or have completed, training. I was delighted to launch the Hull health trainer partnership in March with my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Ms Johnson).
I thank the Minister for that answer. Will she join me in congratulating Hull on the pioneering way in which it has looked at the role of the health trainer? It has not just moved health professionals into the role of health trainers, but has recruited people from the local community who can really get alongside those groups that it has been hardest to reach in the past.
I endorse my hon. Friend’s comments. I met Paula Tomlinson, who is a Hull health trainer, in Hull and when she attended an event at No. 10. She said:
“People are starting to recognise us as Health Trainers and are coming forward with lots of things that are affecting their health, not just physical health but also mental health too. People are recognising the support we can give and trusting us.”
I am pleased that there are plans to get customer care assistants working in the scheme, and also community wardens. We are looking to them being part of a wider group of health trainers, in addition to those within the health services.
We continue to invest in training—more than ever before. Health trainers are a support for people in communities who need additional help with healthy choices for their lifestyles. I am really pleased that we are going to be on target and to have 1,200 of them in the NHS in the next year or so. That is a credit to those who care as much about prevention as treatment.
Is it not the case that, in the long term, this initiative not only promises to be cost-effective and to save the health service money, but to offer long-term improvements in health care for our population?
I think that it does. There is a substantial amount of evidence that underpins the interventions of NHS health trainers. We have “Health Behaviour Change: A Guide for Practitioners” and various other pieces of work. We have had health psychologists in the Department working with us to ask why those most in need of our support are sometimes deterred from seeing GPs or others. The initiative is about a practical way to tackle the health inequalities that exist in too many of our communities. So far, it seems to be working well, but, of course, we will evaluate the programme as it develops and expands.
Will the Minister tell us the likely impact that the new immigration arrangements will have on the number of medical students being recruited and encouraged to come to the United Kingdom, given that they state that permits will be for only two years?
I am not sure that that question has anything directly to do with health trainers. I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman about what health trainers are about. I understand that extensive consultation is going on with the different organisations that are concerned about the matter.
Nurses (Gateshead, East and Washington, West)
In 1997, there were 1,131 nurses employed in the NHS organisations in the Gateshead, East and Washington, West area. The current figure is 1,462. That is an increase of 29 per cent.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. That is excellent news. I am sure that she will be aware that I recently tabled a written question about the number of nurses nationally in various periods since 1979. I was astonished by the answer, which proved categorically that in nine years we have done much more than the Tories did in 18 years to increase the number of qualified nurses in my constituency and nationally. Does she accept that when people ask where the money goes, we should shout from the rooftops that it goes on increasing staff numbers and pay, which is a major part of recruiting? Does she also—
As it happens, I could not agree more with my hon. Friend, particularly about shouting from the rooftops about some of the changes that have been made and the improvements in the pay and number of nurses. It is important to add one other thing: we have also managed to reform the way in which nurses work, giving them extra responsibilities and making sure that there are new posts, such as nurse consultant posts. All that means that—when she talks about recruitment and retention—under a Labour Government, we have made it easier not only to go into nursing, but to stay in nursing. We can all be proud of that.
The Secretary of State for Health announced a review of progress on reforms to the control of entry system for NHS pharmacies in England in a written ministerial statement on 13 June 2006, along with a wide-ranging three-month public consultation.
I think the Minister for that answer. He will realise that it is sometimes difficult and expensive for smaller community pharmacies to set up in business. When the review takes place, will he ensure that as much help as possible can be given to such pharmacies, perhaps in particular by looking again at the exemptions to the control of entry regulations and allowing pharmacies that comply with those exemptions to open for 80 hours a week, instead of 100 hours, so that people can continue to get their medication from not only supermarkets and large chain pharmacies, but smaller community pharmacies?
The hon. Gentleman may be aware that the issue provoked considerable debate in the last Parliament. The proposal at the time was for the Office of Fair Trading to take away all controls of entry to pharmacies. The Government adopted a different approach by retaining the ability of primary care trusts to control their pharmacies’ position, but did not rule out innovation in local pharmacy services when possible. It is my guess that the arrangements have served us quite well, but we will find out when we see the results of the review that has been commissioned.
School Record Keeping
Protecting children is paramount. In January, my predecessor asked Ofsted to investigate vetting practices in schools, colleges and local authorities. Ofsted has today published its report, which is available in the House of Commons Library. I thank the chief inspector for this thorough and diligent piece of work.
The report shows that all those involved in the recruitment of staff are committed to child protection, that they almost always demonstrate good practice, and that, crucially, vital checks on prospective employees are being carried out—there were 700,000 last year alone. However, Ofsted is equally clear that not enough is being done in our schools and colleges to keep proper records of what, when and against whom checks are being made. We will act quickly, but carefully, to tackle the failings that Ofsted has identified.
We are writing to all schools and local authorities today to set out clearly the measures necessary to strengthen the system. Copies of those letters will be placed in the House of Commons Library. I am asking all schools to make sure that they have the records that they need to demonstrate that they have checked the identity, qualifications and any criminal record of their staff. To be absolutely sure that that happens, I will lay regulations to that effect.
Secure, reliable and up-to-date records must be maintained in an accessible location. If schools do not have a record that a check has been made, a further full Criminal Records Bureau check will have to be conducted and a record kept. My Department and the CRB will work together to ensure that that takes place as speedily as possible. I want similar processes to take place in colleges, so we will work with the Association of Colleges to take that forward. To ensure compliance, Ofsted will check that adequate records and systems are in place as part of its regular school inspection regime.
Ofsted has also reported that there were complications associated with recruiting teachers from overseas. Head teachers currently seek a certificate of good conduct in addition to proof of qualifications and identity. As Ofsted points out, when there is any doubt, schools err on the side of caution and do not appoint the applicant. That has to be the right approach, but I am announcing today that I will go further than Ofsted recommends and lay regulations to ensure that schools and local authorities also complete a CRB check on all staff recruited from overseas. The procedures for overseas staff must be exactly the same as those for UK-based staff.
Agency staff also need particular attention. Supply agencies are under a duty to ensure that the staff that they supply are properly checked and suitable to work with children, including CRB and list 99 checks. That should not depend on a request from the school. I am asking for this information on agency staff also to be included in the exercise that each school must undertake to establish clear records. To make all of this clear, we will tighten regulations so that schools are legally required to obtain confirmation from agencies that CRB checks have been carried out, and to keep a record of this, just as they do for permanent staff.
The Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill, currently before the House, will go further still, making it a criminal offence for supply agencies to supply staff without having made the appropriate checks. I know that head teachers already have a very heavy workload, but these are matters that we all agree are paramount. The local safeguarding children boards and directors of children’s services will provide schools with local support, ensure that the right training is available and keep the Department informed of progress. I will be more assertive, to use the words of Ofsted, in influencing head teachers and governors to undertake the online safer recruitment training, as Ofsted has recommended.
The report also says that schools, colleges and local authorities need clearer guidance. We have been preparing revised guidance, which we will put out for consultation in the next few weeks. That will ensure that all schools and colleges have the information in one place. It will make their responsibilities crystal clear, while clarifying issues such as arrangements for employing staff while checks are being completed and processes for volunteer staff, including school governors. We are writing to directors of children’s services and the Learning and Skills Council to ensure that this revised guidance is properly implemented.
I would like to update the House on the list 99 review, following progress since my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West (Ruth Kelly), last made a statement on 1 March. First, I remind the House that she introduced a number of measures in response to public concerns that arose in January. As well as commissioning the Ofsted report that I have just mentioned, she announced that she would make it mandatory for all schools to check all new employees against the CRB; would accept advice from Sir Roger Singleton’s panel of experts on decisions to put people on list 99, as a precursor to the independent barring board to be introduced in the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill, subject to the will of the House; and would widen list 99’s scope, so that anyone convicted of cautioned for a sexual offence against a child would be automatically included on the list, as well as anyone convicted of a serious sexual offence.
The House will recall that there were a number of cases where Ministers or officials had decided not to include an individual on list 99. I can tell the House that all but one of those has been reassessed by the police as not posing any threat to children. Of the one individual who is being considered further, he has been visited by the police, is not working with children and has not been identified as an immediate cause for concern.
My right hon. Friend referred also to 32 cases of individuals who were on the sex offenders register, but had not previously been referred to the Department by the police. All of those individuals have now either been, or are being, thoroughly investigated—22 have already been barred and the remaining 10 are still being investigated. They have all been visited by police, are not working with children, and remain subject to the ongoing monitoring that is associated with inclusion on the sex offenders register. Sir Roger Singleton continues with his work, for which I thank him, and I will keep the House updated on progress.
All Members of the House are equally strongly committed to guarding and protecting our children from those who seek to harm them. We need eternal vigilance to protect children from those whose nature is to manipulate and deceive, and it is our responsibility to ensure that the system is as robust as possible and that any failings are addressed as soon as they are identified.
With today’s changes, the system will be stronger still, producing greater trust and confidence in our schools and colleges, to ensure that our children are safe and secure. Those whom we represent expect nothing less.
I welcome the new information from the Secretary of State and the publication of the Ofsted report, which the Government rightly commissioned six months ago. We also welcome the further measures that he is announcing today. However, does he agree that parents have genuine cause for concern from the Ofsted report?
The report surely shows extraordinarily poor standards of record keeping in our schools, but the problems go way beyond that. Indeed, for the Secretary of State to entitle his statement “School Record Keeping” does not really do justice to the scale of the problem, responsibility for which must be shared throughout the world of education. Local authorities are criticised in the report, and there is clearly an enormous loophole with teacher supply agencies. The report says that
“in effect, agencies do not have to carry out CRB checks on staff unless schools request that they do. This is not tight enough.”
Incidentally, it is absolutely extraordinary that the Department for Education and Skills, which is dependent now on teacher supply agencies, seems to have no idea how many there are. The report states:
“The exact number of teacher supply agencies is not known, but one official from the DfES estimated the number to be 300 and another estimated it was 1,500”.
That is surely something that we will wish to pursue on another occasion.
As well as local authorities and teacher supply agencies, the Department is strongly criticised for unclear and confusing guidance. Let me quote again from the Ofsted report:
“Recent communications from government clouded matters relating to CRB and there is some confusion. Guidance is not sufficiently comprehensive to give local authorities and schools a clear steer about their respective responsibilities.”
The picture painted by the report is very worrying indeed, yet the previous Secretary of State said that:
“we can give the public an absolute assurance that the process is as robust as possible to ensure that the risk to children is minimised.”—[Official Report, 19 January 2006; Vol. 441, c. 978.]
Does the Secretary of State agree that his predecessor did not have the information to make that assertion? Does he feel able to repeat that assurance today, in the light of the information in the report? I fear not.
Of course, we must be careful about how we talk about this very sensitive subject—I know personally of the dangers of vigilantism and lynch mobs because of the notorious riots in 2000 in Portsmouth, which is very close to my constituency—but the only way to restore public confidence in the system is for lessons to be learned. The Secretary of State was quite right that schools must take their responsibilities more seriously. Local authorities must provide clear guidance and support and do their fair share of record keeping. However, whereas the report makes five recommendations for schools and two for local authorities, it makes six for the Department for Education and Skills. Therefore, the Department must take its share of responsibility for the confusion described in the report. It rushed out guidance on 19 January and then issued another letter to clarify that guidance on 26 January—no wonder schools were confused.
Often in the House, we warn about the dangers of floods of instructions and initiatives from Whitehall. That is not mere political rhetoric—the report shows what happens when schools are deluged with sometimes contradictory guidance. The Department’s letter of 19 January listed no fewer than 11 separate items of guidance, dating back to 1996. One of those items in 2002 specifically said that, because of the backlog of cases, teachers could go ahead and recruit staff without the completion of normal checks with the Criminal Records Bureau. That advice was necessary because of a backlog of cases, but may I ask the Secretary of State about his announcement today that schools without proper records will need to do new CRB checks? That could cover 90 per cent. of schools. Can he say how many schools will be affected? Is he confident that the CRB will be able to deliver? He also announced Criminal Records Bureau checks on teachers from abroad. Will he tell us how those checks can be effective in view of the difficulties of obtaining information from some other countries?
The additional measures that the Secretary of State has announced today are welcome, but does he not recognise the dangers of yet more complexity? What schools need is simple, straightforward, consolidated guidance, instead of having to turn to so many different documents. We will strongly support the Secretary of State if that is what he finally achieves, but is there not a danger of confusing schools with yet more short-term instructions, together with yet more consultation on draft guidance, which will mean schools facing months, if not years, of continuing uncertainty?
Why has the Department been so slow in implementing the Bichard report, which is two years old this week, especially when we were told two Home Secretaries and two Education Secretaries ago that it would be implemented urgently? What we need above all is a single authoritative list of those not suitable to work with children. Only when that is achieved will the concerns of parents finally be tackled.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his welcome for the report and my statement. I agree that parents should be genuinely concerned about today’s report, which I do not think makes comfortable reading. Of course, my predecessor commissioned the report precisely because we wanted to be sure not just that checks were being made, but that there was a clear record of such checks. In that context, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that it is reassuring when Ofsted says that it is “highly likely”—not just probable or likely, but highly likely—that those checks had taken place. The simple fact is—I shall respond to the hon. Gentleman by emphasising that the procedures apply to 100 per cent. of schools—that unless we have a clear record of staff being identified, qualifications being checked and any criminal records being established, we cannot be absolutely sure that all the checks have taken place.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned agency staff. If I understood him correctly, he was talking about the number of agency staff, but Ofsted referred to the number of agencies and no one was absolutely clear about that. There may be some ambiguity in that agencies spring up all the time. He said that agency staff formed a large proportion of the schoolteacher population. They comprise 3 per cent., of which only 1 per cent. come from the traditional recruitment agencies of local authorities. About 2 per cent. would classify themselves as agency staff, but they are known to the school—perhaps ex-teachers who have retired but been called back in—and the school trusts them implicitly. The total is 3 per cent.
The hon. Gentleman referred to DFES guidance and I completely accept the criticism. We cannot stand at the Dispatch Box and say that it is absolutely right for schools, local authorities and colleges to be criticised, but not the DFES. Six recommendations were made, which the DFES will follow. Some were fairly minuscule—like me being more emphatic or assertive with certain education authorities, which I will be—but others were very serious. The fact that the guidance was not viewed as being clear amounts to a very serious recommendation that we must act upon. I fully accept that.
I want to make the point that we are talking about a situation of continuous improvement. I accept that there may be a danger of having too many pieces of guidance, which should be brought together. In January, the tremendous concern led to a desperation to act very quickly, but my right hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West did a tremendous job in just 10 days of putting people’s minds at rest. We now have the ability to reflect carefully on the recommendation and try to be clearer in our guidance.
I have to be clear about another important aspect of schools going through the checks: we are asking for 100 per cent. of schools to go through the process. The report showed that in 55 out of 58 schools, records were not kept in an accessible place for Ofsted to see in order to demonstrate that staff had been clearly identified and their qualifications or any criminal record checked. That must now happen. What we are saying to schools is that they may well have that information, but they need to compile it on the register. If the schools do not have the CRB check, the individual teacher or member of staff may have it. The staff will all receive a copy of their CRB check, so the school should ask them for it. If not, perhaps the local authority has it. If they cannot find the CRB check by those methods, they will need to go through the CRB checking procedure again. I realise the amount of work that that will place on schools. We have to do it as quickly as possible, but we must be sure that we do not disrupt the system. Nevertheless, schools, head teachers and everyone in education will agree that that needs to be done. The Ofsted report must be treated seriously, and to do so we must ensure that those records are put in place.
I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State has come to the House and made the statement so promptly. I also welcome the Government’s decision to set up the Ofsted review, which would inevitably open up the Government to some criticism. It was the right decision and we on the Liberal Benches welcome that. My predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), always tried hard to work constructively with the Government on the issue because it is so sensitive and so difficult. I will try to continue with that tone. However, I have a number of concerns, to which I hope the Secretary of State will respond.
The right hon. Gentleman recognised the need for consolidated guidance and I hope he will achieve that, but does he recognise that the problem for schools is guidance overload? It can be difficult for schools to discern the difference between new guidance and old guidance that has been updated. In addition to issuing consolidated guidance, as I hope he will, will he look in general at the way in which the Department issues guidance to schools and ensure that it is always clear and that schools can see what is new and what is old?
The Secretary of State recognised that many supply teachers are provided not through agencies, but through informal contacts with schools because they are retired or because, after an initial contact with an agency, a school may develop a relationship with a particular supply teacher so that they can come in at short notice. Will his guidance deal specifically with that and make it clear who is responsible for ensuring that CRB checks are kept up to date and carried out regularly, particularly for short notice cover?
The right hon. Gentleman said that he wanted existing regulations to apply also to further education colleges. That is to be welcomed, especially as I hope that the Government will encourage more young people to use the services offered by FE colleges, but that opens up a gap in the system. Will he be clear that the regulations will apply to both teaching and non-teaching staff at colleges, as already happens with schools, and that the CRB checks required will be enhanced, not just basic? There appears to be a discrepancy with the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill, and I should be grateful if the Secretary of State would look into the matter.
The Ofsted report highlighted ambiguities in the way in which guidance is issued to schools that control their own employment practice, such as foundation and academy schools. Will the guidance make it clear who is responsible for checking foundation or trust-appointed governors? As we heard when we debated the Education and Inspections Bill, the Charity Commission is responsible for CRB checks on trustees for new trust schools, but who will be responsible for ensuring that those checks are kept up to date and carried out regularly? That is not clear.
Very large numbers of people are likely to come on to a school campus to provide out-of-school clubs under the extended schools programme. Who will be responsible for undertaking CRB checks, and who will pay for them—the school or the voluntary group? What support will head teachers get to help them to cope with the enormous increase in the burden of paperwork for those schools?
Lastly, Ofsted highlighted difficulties for head teachers in reporting soft information about staff causing concern, because of employment law. It is right that head teachers should be cautious about that. What changes will the Government make to the system to boost confidence and make sure that delicate and difficult information is passed on correctly so that it can be used appropriately?
We will make every effort to work constructively with the Government and I hope they will be open with us at all stages about the information that they have.
I thank the hon. Lady for her constructive approach, which the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) also adopted. Consolidated guidance would be excellent, and I will do everything I can to ensure that we have not only clear guidance, but consolidated guidance. The teaching unions to which I have already spoken are concerned that teachers are getting so much guidance that it is difficult to keep up, which was also an implied criticism made by Ofsted.
The responsibility for CRB checks in foundation schools, voluntary aided schools and voluntary controlled schools always comes back to the school. A local authority might make checks, too—it has a responsibility to keep proper records—but that does not detract from the belt-and-braces approach by which the school should make sure that a proper check has taken place. The school is where parents will ask teachers and head teachers for reassurance and where Ofsted will conduct its inspection, and the matter comes down to the school on every occasion.
I will look into the point about colleges—I think that an enhanced CRB check is required, but I will write to the hon. Lady because there are complications around colleges that do not exist in schools. Similarly, the provision on extended schools was a specific recommendation by Ofsted, which we need to examine, but it seems to me that the responsibility for CRB checks once again lies with the school, although providers of services in the extended hours will have an equal responsibility. Nevertheless, Ofsted has highlighted that point and we need to respond to it.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the report is good, that it should be taken seriously and that all our systems must be improved? I am delighted that that seems to be his attitude, but does he agree that that approach must be balanced by common sense about what is really going on in our schools? I hope that he, like me, believes that children in this country are taught in safe environments by expert teachers whom everyone in the community can trust. Over many years, there have been very few incidents of children being actively at risk in our country. Will my right hon. Friend join me in getting the balance right because some elements in our media will whip up hysteria, which is dangerous, damaging and frightening for parents and everyone involved in education?
The whole House will agree with my hon. Friend, who has a distinguished record in this area. Since January, the House has handled the issue in an exemplary way and has not suggested that children in this country are in jeopardy to an extent that is not reflected in reports, and least of all in today’s report. I also think that it would be strange and unusual if the media were not to take a deep interest in the matter. We are discussing the safety of children when they are at their most vulnerable, which is why, as my hon. Friend has said, we must maintain a balance, but I have no complaints about the press and the media maintaining a careful focus on the issue.
Has the Secretary of State discussed the proposals with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to ensure that they are implemented in that part of the United Kingdom, too? That is especially important because recently it has been revealed that many schools do not record teachers’ criminal records. Indeed, it is sometimes only when a teacher moves from one school to another that a CRB check is carried out. Will the Secretary of State say whether teaching unions have expressed opposition to schools keeping records of teachers’ criminal records?
The provision applies to Northern Ireland and I will discuss it with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. We are meeting teachers and all other interested parties—I shall avoid the dreadful term “stakeholders”—tomorrow to go through all those ideas, but the initial reaction, which I have seen, to the Ofsted report was measured. Everyone in education understands the importance of checking. Schools will not be checking criminal records—they will be checking with the CRB whether checks have been carried out and recording the fact that that has happened. Everyone in education is clear that that is the right way forward—they might have some concerns about the detail, but the principle is widely shared.
I echo the plea for balance made by my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) and welcome the Secretary of State’s statement. In view of what I have said about apparent loopholes in legislation, can he assure the House that the issue of a local authority member who is on the sex offenders register is being considered and will be incorporated into the guidance that is about to be issued?
I believe that the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill will tackle that, but I will take my hon. Friend’s point into account and consider what interim measures we need. Many of these measures, such as the Singleton body, pre-empt what will be in the Bill.
Given that Ofsted inspections are not necessarily that frequent—indeed, it is good if they are not—does the Secretary of State think that it would make sense for the local authority to have a duty to make checks across all the schools within its boundaries more regularly?
The hon. Lady makes an excellent point that I have been considering myself. My initial view was that local safeguarding children boards should oversee this, but perhaps local authorities should be involved as well. We certainly cannot wait until the next Ofsted inspection to ensure that the records are in place. I am still thinking through who would be best to oversee this.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement, which strikes the right balance between doing what needs to be done and avoiding unnecessary panic. May I ask him particularly about safer recruitment training? Should undertaking that training be a requirement of appointment for a head teacher, or at least for the chair of the governing body? Since the prime responsibility of a school is to ensure that its children are safe, should not we make it a condition of appointment that all heads undertake such training?
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. That was not Ofsted’s recommendation—it asked me to be more assertive. I suppose that I could be more assertive by introducing regulation; I will consider that. My own view is that we should regulate only where it is absolutely necessary—
How many countries have long-standing and accurate registers of the kind that we would accept? Does the Secretary of State see problems as regards teachers who came to this country from overseas some years ago without the benefit of any such register or check? What is his advice to schools that employ such people?
The right hon. Gentleman raises an important and difficult issue. Twenty-one countries are part of the Criminal Records Bureau wider international check—the overseas information service. Fortunately, among those 21 are seven of the eight countries that give us the most teachers, including South Africa, New Zealand and Australia. Curiously, America is not one of them. That allows for a checking mechanism. The certificate of good conduct is a method that has been used, but Ofsted has found a couple of cases involving local authorities where those records were not as stringent as they should have been. We need to work harder in these areas. Ofsted said that everyone to whom it spoke errs on the side of caution. That is absolutely right. There need to be identity checks on overseas staff, whichever country they come from, to be absolutely sure that they are who they say they are and that their qualifications are accurate. They will now have to undergo the CRB check. In several countries, records are not good. We need to work more closely with the Home Office and the Foreign Office, and with our international partners in the European Union and elsewhere, to ensure that we get this right. It is a reciprocal process, because British and UK people go abroad to teach, and everyone needs to be assured that there are proper checks.
Having had some experience of a distressing case in my constituency, I congratulate the Secretary of State on his announcement, which might have prevented the case from occurring. He said that head teachers had a heavy work load, which is a fortiori the case in small schools. Will he reassure the House that the arrangements will be effective but not administratively burdensome? Could the local education authority play a role in providing the necessary secure intranet access? As the hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather) said, small schools often have arrangements with individuals locally. What is the minimum amount of time between the use of occasional cover staff that would be necessary to trigger a further check?
My hon. Friend is right that teachers have a heavy work load. Nevertheless, I am sure that they will be convinced of the need to implement the proposals. We will provide help, not only through the local education authority, but from the Department and the local safeguarding children boards. Assistance will be available. Together, we can ensure that we act quickly.
I welcome the moderate and measured tone in which the statement has been made and my question is in the same spirit. The Secretary of State mentioned one of the criticisms of the Department. Will he identify the other four or five and say what he is inclined to about them?
Yes. Four recommendations are that we should: provide clear guidance; make a clear and specific statement about checks on school governors, which I mentioned; provide clearer guidance on schools’ responsibilities when employing staff from abroad or through supply agencies, which I covered in the statement; and provide guidance on suitable employment practices for those who are not checked or are awaiting checks—that refers to “sight and sound”. If a school is waiting for a CRB check on a teacher, other member of staff, or a volunteer who is helping children to read, the rules are clear: that person must stay within sight and sound of another teacher and not be left alone. The fifth recommendation is to speed up the handling of cases of misconduct that are reported to us and the sixth is the one that I mentioned about my being assertive.
I thank my right hon. Friend for the prompt and sensible response to today’s Ofsted report, but will he reassure hon. Members that pupil referral units and home hospital education services—indeed, any organisation involved in educating and training our young people—will also have to keep those records?
Will the Secretary of State clarify his statement about requiring schools to check with supply agencies that the CRB check has been done? I ask because there is a case in my constituency of a vulnerable adult for whom an agency supplied a carer. The CRB check was given over the phone and it subsequently transpired that the worker had a heroin record. When the responsible adult phoned, the records had disappeared. Will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that, when supply teachers go into schools, they bring with them a copy of their CRB check so that the school can have physical proof before a teacher starts work?
Yes, I can confirm that. The hon. Member for Havant also referred to agency staff. The Ofsted report states that the six agencies that it visited all checked with the CRB. It made the point that there was some confusion in schools, for the reasons that the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) mentioned. Schools thought that someone else, perhaps the local authority, was checking, and there is no stringent requirements on them to do that, although we believe that the 1973 Department of Trade and Industry regulations, updated in 2003, make it clear that all agencies must undertake a criminal record check. The words that schools must take
“all other reasonably practicable steps to confirm that the work-seeker is not unsuitable for the position concerned”
must refer to checking with the CRB. For the absence of any doubt, we will put that in Education Act regulations so that the schools must seek proof to complete the register, on the compiling of which Ofsted has insisted.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his statement today. Will he seriously consider the difficulties that we might get into with supply teachers and peripatetic teachers? Local colleges use many part-time workers. Will he revisit the role that the local education authority can play in this scenario? Many supply teachers work in schools within one local authority area and rarely stray across the border, so the authority could be the one central key player in this regard.
My hon. Friend is right, although many local authorities have their own supply agencies. He also mentioned colleges. I referred in my statement to working with the Association of Colleges to find a system that we can be sure will replicate in colleges the action that we are taking in schools. In schools, it is clearly the responsibility of the school; in colleges, the situation is more complex, which is why I want to tackle the issue with the Association of Colleges.
While we may draw some comfort from the number of countries with whom we have effective reciprocal arrangements, does the Secretary of State accept that clause 7 of the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill provides that it is an offence for someone who is barred to seek, secure or apply for an engagement working with children? Would it not be appropriate to extend that prohibition to anyone from overseas who has committed a criminal offence that would have secured their barring in this country?
Point of Order
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Yesterday at Home Office questions, I asked the Home Secretary whether he had read a report by the head of finance of the Association of Chief Police Officers, which warns that police force amalgamations will contribute to a funding gap equivalent to the loss of 25,000 police officers. The Home Secretary replied that he had not read the report, but that he had
“discussed it in detail with the authors”.—[Official Report, 19 June 2006; Vol. 447, c. 1061.]
He also said that the example that I had given was the “worst and most extreme” option. The author of the report is Dr. Tim Brain, the chief constable of Gloucestershire, who yesterday confirmed that at no time has the Home Secretary discussed the report with him. Indeed, he has not met the Home Secretary. He also confirmed that the figure of 25,000 police officer losses cannot be regarded as worst case.
The Home Secretary has already had to apologise to you, Mr. Speaker, and to the House for providing misleading information relating to foreign national prisoners. He has also made the extraordinary concession to the Leader of the House that Home Office answers are not always factual. I appreciate that the Home Secretary’s serial incompetence is not a matter for you, Mr. Speaker, but is it not a serious matter when he, even inadvertently, misrepresents a report that is of the greatest concern to all hon. Members and our constituents? Will you offer him an opportunity to come to the House to correct his mistake?
I think that the hon. Gentleman is trying to put the matter on the record. That is one thing, but he will understand that the Chair cannot be drawn into these arguments. There are occasions on which a Minister is due to come back and rectify a matter, but the hon. Gentleman has not only pointed out a mistake that the Minister has made; he has made an attack during a point of order. The best thing that I can do is not to be drawn into the matter at all.
Orders of the Day
Children and Adoption Bill [Lords]
[Relevant documents: The Fourth Report from the Constitutional Affairs Committee, Session 2004-05, HC 116, on Family Justice: The Operation of the Family Courts; the Government’s response thereto, Cm 6507; and the Sixth Report from the Committee, Session 2005-06, HC 1086.]
As amended in the Committee, considered.
New Clause 3
Parental responsibility prior to adoption abroad
‘(1) At the end of section 84 of the Adoption and Children Act 2002 (c. 38) insert—
“(8) Subsection (4) does not prevent an application being made if the court gives leave to make it.”
(2) At the end of section 141 of the Adoption and Children Act 2002 (c. 38) insert—
“(7) Rules made in respect of proceedings under section 84 of the Act may prescribe—
(a) conditions in respect of which the court must be satisfied before granting leave under subsection (8); and
(b) for the court to permit the applicants to take the child who is the subject of the application out of the UK for such period or periods and subject to such conditions as the court thinks fit.”'.—[Annette Brooke.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 2, in clause 9, page 13, line 21, leave out subsection (3) and insert—
‘(3) Before making an order in the case of a country or territory which is a Convention country, the Secretary of State shall consult the Hague Conference.'.
No. 1, in page 13, line 29, at end insert—
‘(c) the central authority in the country or territory to which restrictions are to apply.'.
No. 22, in page 13, line 33, at end insert
‘to include regular reviews on why that declaration should still apply'.
No. 4, in page 13, line 38, at end insert—
‘(9A) The Secretary of State must establish an appeals procedure to consider appeals against the decision to impose special restrictions on adoptions from abroad.'.
No. 23, in clause 10, page 14, line 17, at end insert
(c) prescribed organisations involved in adoption.'.
We are back here discussing these matters after a three-month gap. That is a long time and I am not sure why we had such a long break from our deliberations on the Bill. We discussed new clause 3 briefly in Committee in a clause stand part debate. The new clause was not actually tabled, and I wanted to revisit it to ensure that all the issues were covered.
In Committee, we learned that only about 300 international adoptions a year involved the United Kingdom. The new clause refers to something even more unusual: foreign adoptions of United Kingdom children. It is supported by both the British Association for Adoption and Fostering and the Intercountry Adoption Centre. In Committee, I said that I firmly believed that the child’s interests should be paramount. In her response, the Minister said
“we have come to the settled position that the 10-week provision is right, striking the balance between safeguarding children and having a requirement for adopters”.—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 14 March 2006; c. 38.]
I respect that as a general position, but feel that there should be discretion to take into account special circumstances that, in some cases, might lead to a different judgment in relation to the child’s best interests. As some of us will argue later this afternoon, the child’s best interests must be served by examination of each individual case. That is what the new clause attempts to secure.
Section 84 of the Adoption and Children Act 2002 provides for the High Court to be able to make an order granting parental responsibility to applicants who are not domiciled or habitually resident in the United Kingdom when they wish to take a child out of the country for the purpose of adoption. Section 84(4) imposes a requirement for the child to have lived with the applicants for at least 10 weeks before an application may be made under the section. A similar provision in section 46 prescribes various minimum periods for which the child must have lived with the applicants before an application may be made for an adoption order, but the section also allows for the court to give leave for some applications to be made before the usual period has expired. The requirement for the 10-week minimum period is of course designed to safeguard the child, and to ensure that the child and adopters have time to become acquainted with each other before the jurisdiction. However, as the applicants will by definition be habitually resident in another country, it will often be not merely difficult but impossible for them to live in this country for a minimum period of 10 weeks with the child before making an application, possibly having to remain here for still longer pending the outcome of the application.
It is most likely that, when someone wants to adopt overseas a child from this country, there will already be some connection—probably, but not necessarily, a blood relationship. In some circumstances, the child may already be well acquainted with the proposed adopters—for example, having spent holidays with them—but the existing provision in the Adoption and Children Act does not allow any flexibility or exercise of discretion. The new clause and amendments would allow flexibility, but permit rules of court to provide further safeguards if that were thought necessary.
It is important to bear it in mind that section 84 applications can in any event only be made in the High Court. It is not suggested that a final order under section 84 should be made before the child has lived with the applicants for at least the 10 weeks required, nor that it would always be appropriate or helpful for the child to be permitted to leave the country with the prospective adopters without a period of living with them. But if the court is to be able to achieve the outcome that best meets the child’s needs, it is essential that it can consider all the circumstances and form a view on whether sufficient other safeguards are in place to permit the child to leave the jurisdiction. Without that, some children may be deprived of the possibility of secure family life with members of their extended family, or with adopters who share aspects of their heritage and culture, given that the 10 weeks may constitute an impossible barrier in some cases. I do not believe that it should be waived solely on the ground that it is an insurmountable barrier, but we need flexibility in such situations to make sure that the child’s interests are best served.
In most cases, a child would be placed overseas with someone related by blood, but in others the child would be placed with a person living abroad who was not a close relative. For example, the restriction on removing a child under section 85 of the 2002 Act applies to any child who is a Commonwealth citizen or habitually resident in the UK. The legislation that applied before the 2002 Act was introduced imposed a similar restriction in respect of children who were British or Irish citizens. Some children may be habitually resident in this country who not only are nationals of another country but have strong links with that country. For them, it would be most appropriate to be adopted in that other country.
In other cases, according to the BAAF, a local authority has tried to place a child with a family who have already adopted his or her older sibling but who have moved abroad. In extremely rare cases, the risks posed by a birth parent may be so great that one reason for seeking a placement outside UK jurisdiction is to ensure the safety of the child and of the proposed adopters. In proposing new clause 3, I am asking not for anything absolute but for flexibility, so that judgments made in the High Court are in the child’s best interests.
I am sure that the Conservative spokesman will present the arguments for the remaining amendments in the group in great detail, but I want to place it on record that my party is broadly supportive of all of them. As I said in Committee, I am sure that every politician and member of the general public is concerned about trafficking in children and other unethical practices, but we must also consider the plight of children in some countries in the developing world. We must focus on the welfare of the child and have regard to the UN convention on the rights of the child, so that the best interests of the child can be served. That may be achieved by allowing the child to live with a family in this country.
It is easy to understand and support the action that the Government have taken on Cambodia, but the remaining amendments in the group would help to provide a more balanced approach. In no way do they run counter to the best interests of the child, and their arguments for an appeals process, a review and recourse to the Hague convention seem compelling.
Today, I read again the Hansard report of our Committee proceedings, and I note that the Minister made various pledges to provide more information on the very high cost of overseas adoption. I hope that the House can be updated on when that information might be available, if is not so already.
As the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) said, here we are again, at last—almost three months after we ended our discussion of the Bill in Committee. However, we are now able to deal with the large amount of business that was left unfinished then.
I have a deal of sympathy with new clause 3. Many technical deficiencies have emerged from the woodwork since the Adoption and Children Act 2002 came into force. We all supported that very comprehensive legislation, but the Government would do well to address some of the implications that have flowed from it. One area of difficulty arises from the problems with placing a UK child with adopters—such as suitable relatives, for example—in another country, where that is in the best interests of the child. However, to meet the terms of the 2002 Act, families may be required to spend as much as several months in the UK. That would appear to be excessive, and not in the interests of the child. That would be wholly impractical for some prospective adopting families from overseas who had work commitments or other children at school in their home country, so I certainly have some sympathy for the hon. Lady’s proposal. I shall be interested to hear the Government’s response and to learn whether they acknowledge that there is a genuine problem and whether they are prepared to accept the new clause or to revisit the problem, perhaps in regulation if that is possible.
Similar problems have emerged for British expatriate workers who adopt while they are in China. I do not know whether the Minister has been lobbied on the matter, as I have; my letter to her former colleague remains unanswered. The British adoption support group for China has been formed to deal with the problem that the Chinese authorities apparently require the British Government, through the Department for Education and Skills, to issue an approval letter to all prospective adopters to guarantee that the adopted children will be granted citizenship and UK passports. I think that is quite right, but the Department for Education and Skills will grant approval letters only to adoption applications filed by UK-registered adoption agencies and local councils, to which expats have no access because they are obviously not habitually resident in the UK while they are working overseas. In the spirit of the new clause, will the Minister undertake to look at the problem and, at the very least, to reply to my letter, which is now more than two months old? I know that she has received direct representations from expats working in China who have come up against that problem.
The other amendments are familiar to Members who were in Committee. Amendment No. 2 deals with the procedures whereby the Secretary of State can seek to suspend inter-country adoptions from a particular country. We agreed with that proposal in Committee; it is a tightening up exercise that the Secretary of State already has power to institute, but the amendment would bring the process into mainstream legislation and make it easier for the Secretary of State to take action where it is deemed that a country’s procedures for adoption fall well short of the expected standards. There may be suspicions of child trafficking, for example, as was the case with Cambodia, which is one country—if not the only one—on the suspended list for inter-country adoption.
There is some merit in our status, and that of several other countries, as signatories to the Hague conference convention. The amendment would cover countries that have signed up to the rules set out in the convention and that should, therefore, be entitled to be subject to a slightly different process. For some reason, the Minister has declined to respond to that suggestion in the past, asserting:
“There may be situations where a requirement to consult could have unfortunate implications for the welfare of those children by triggering a rush to adopt.”
However, inter-country adoption is, by its very nature, a slow, cumbersome and often expensive process for most adoptive parents, so that fear is rather overdone. Surely, as part of the process, we should have as much openness as possible about the fact that suspension is being considered, allowing adopters going through the process to make alternative arrangements or to reconsider their application. It would be helpful to include in the Bill a provision that a convention country and its authorities should be one of the statutory consultees.
Amendment No. 1, too, deals with the process used to put a country on the banned list. I am sure that we all agree that, before banning or suspending a country from inter-country adoptions, the Government should consult all interested parties as widely as possible. As well as the Department of Health in the UK and the Welsh Assembly, as stipulated in the Bill, the Government should speak to the relevant body or Government Department in the country that is to be placed on the suspended list. The Bill is deficient, as it fails to make that requirement. What is the Government’s interpretation of the phrase, “contrary to public policy”, in clause 9? Proper and transparent consultation is required if we are to suspend countries for the right reasons. We must monitor their suspension and make sure that prospective adoptive parents who are trying to adopt in that country are kept in the loop and informed of their entitlements.
It is a big step to put a country on the suspended list, as that prevents UK citizens from adopting children from that country. Cambodia, for example, has about 670,000 orphans under 18, which is 5 per cent. of its population. Some 30,000 of those orphans are children under 15 who are orphaned by AIDS. The UK has a role to play adopting children who cannot find suitable homes in their own country, so it was a big decision to add Cambodia to the suspended list, just as it will be a big decision to add other countries in future. The process must be clear, transparent and properly accountable.
Amendment No. 22, too, deals with the process for keeping countries on the suspended list. It stipulates that there should be regular reviews of the reasons for the regulation of a suspended country to determine whether they still apply. We teased out a little detail from the Government on Report, but we need to know how much evidence they require to prove that the system in a prospective country for adoption is not working properly and that child trafficking, not genuine adoption, is taking place. What burdens and parameters of proof will be set? At what stage will a potential adopter be forced to abort the process of adoption from a country that is added to the list, and when can it be resumed if that country is removed from the list? Again, transparency is required if we are to make sure that everyone is happy and satisfied that the Government have taken appropriate action.
The penultimate amendment in this group is amendment No. 4, which stipulates:
“The Secretary of State must establish an appeals procedure to consider appeals against the decision to impose special restrictions on adoptions from abroad.”
Clause 9(9) says:
“The restricted list and the reasons are to be published in whatever way the Secretary of State thinks appropriate for bringing them to the attention of adoption agencies and members of the public.”
We have granted the Secretary of State an enormous blank cheque, as the provision does not specify how he will make that decision, how it will be communicated and consulted on, and how it can be reversed if the situation changes. It is therefore right to have proper checks and balances in the Bill and to establish the appeals procedure that amendment No. 4 seeks. The Bill must establish an appeals procedure to consider appeals against decisions to suspend, and against decisions not to permit individual applications to proceed, thereby ensuring transparency in all aspects of the decision-making process. It should be possible to bring together a group of people—independent of the Government, the agency and the applicants—with the relevant knowledge and expertise to form a properly constituted, working appeals procedure. We have raised this issue in Committee, but I hope that the Government will respond more favourably at this stage.
Finally, I turn to amendment No. 23, which would require the review process to include prescribed organisations. The Bill stipulates that the Government should consult only the National Assembly for Wales and Government Departments in Northern Ireland. But as we said in Committee, there is a whole host of other agencies and organisations in the UK involved with adoption—headed by the British Association for Adoption and Fostering, with which we and the Government are well familiar—that have something to say, rightly, and a good deal of expertise that needs to be consulted.
We need to make sure that, if these important decisions are to be made barring adoptions from certain countries, they are taken on the basis of considerations that are entirely dictated by the welfare of the children involved, and not on the basis of political considerations or of the state of diplomatic relations with certain countries. They must be based purely on what is in the best interests of the children who are prospectively to be adopted. That is why we are asking for a wider remit to consult other organisations whose only interest is promoting the cause of adoption for children for whom adoption is in their best interests, and which are without any political slant or international prejudices that might colour the Secretary of State’s decision.
The five amendments in my name and of other Opposition Members are constructive amendments aimed at improving the nature of this part of the Bill, which we support and have done all along. We are trying to put more detail in the Bill, which should provide more safeguards for those involved in the international adoption process, in the interests of transparency and fairness and ultimately, therefore, of the children whom this part of the Bill is all about.
This group of amendments seeks further clarification on our proposals for inter-country adoption and I welcome the opportunity to provide it. The amendments cover a wide range of related topics, including the process for imposing special restrictions on particular countries, the determination of the fee for inter-country adoption casework—although that issue has not been touched on in our debates, it is dealt with in the amendments—and arrangements for safeguarding children adopted abroad from this country. They raise different issues, and I will try to deal with each in turn.
As they stand, sections 84 and 85 of the Adoption and Children Act 2002 prevent children from being removed from this country for the purposes of adoption abroad unless certain conditions have been met. The aim of those provisions is to help to prevent the abduction of, and trafficking in, children, and to ensure the development by affected children of secure attachments with their prospective future legal parent. I am sure that Members will agree that we should do nothing to weaken that safeguard unless we are satisfied that it is absolutely necessary to do so.
New clause 3 would allow the current minimum cohabitation period of 10 weeks to be waived, as the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) said. I did not serve on the Standing Committee, but the hon. Lady did, and I am sure that she will recall that we explained the rationale behind the requirement for an appropriate period of cohabitation in section 84 and why that means that the period of cohabitation must take place in the United Kingdom. However, I shall briefly rehearse some of that rationale.
Until an order is made under section 84, the local authority retains parental responsibility for the child, and hence remains responsible for the child. In the parallel situation of a domestic adoption, no application for an adoption order may be made unless the child has been living with the prospective adopters for 10 weeks. A similar requirement therefore applies to applications for an order under section 84, which allows the local authority to monitor and assess the placement and to step in immediately and directly if there are any problems. That is part of our reason for not wanting the 10-week period to be waived. Obviously, the local authority would not be able to monitor or take action as directly or as immediately if the child were outside the UK. The requirements in section 84 therefore give the same safeguards and protection to children placed with prospective adopters who intend to adopt the child outside the UK as are given to children placed with domestic adopters.
Various reports and information must be made available to the court when considering an order under section 84, including reports and information arising from a review of the placement. It is important that the court has information on the success, or otherwise, of the placement before making an order that authorises the prospective adopters to remove the child from the country, and to distance the child, in every sense, from its birth family. The proposed measure would limit the information available to the court, and a report of the assessment of the placement is a significant, if not pivotal, piece of information.
Having carefully considered the arguments previously put on this issue, we continue to believe that it would not be appropriate to water down such an important safeguard. There can be no justification for a lower standard of safeguarding for children placed for adoption outside this country than applies for domestic adoptions. We therefore do not support the new clause. I understand that last December the period in question was six months, and it has subsequently been reduced; it is now 10 weeks. We feel that that is appropriate and proportionate, and we do not as yet have any evidence to the contrary, although we would always consider such evidence, if it were offered.
Amendment No. 1 would require the Secretary of State to consult
“the central authority in the country or territory to which restrictions are to apply”
before making a declaration. The Hague convention requires contracting states to designate at least one central authority to discharge functions in respect of inter-country adoption. As it stands, clause 9 requires the Secretary of State to consult the devolved Administrations in Wales and Northern Ireland before making a declaration of special restrictions. Adoption is a devolved policy area, and that requirement is entirely reasonable, as a declaration will have a direct effect on those countries. Such consultations are undertaken relatively often and are not a significant cause of delay.
One of the concerns that caused us to introduce the Bill is child trafficking, which appears often to be fuelled and assisted by corruption and improper financial gain. That was one of the specific areas of concern that led to the introduction of a temporary suspension of adoptions from Cambodia, which I know was thoroughly discussed in Committee. Sadly, corruption and the lure of improper financial gain will be present in some countries that may be placed on the restricted list at all levels up to, and including, the central authority. Indeed, in some cases the central authority could even be the main cause of such problems.
In such circumstances, consulting the central authority could pose significant risks to children by triggering a rush—the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) mentioned this—to process adoptions much more quickly, before the special restrictions are introduced. We are not suggesting that that will be a feature of all situations where a country is placed on the restricted list. Indeed, information gathered from the central authority may be of significant value in a number of cases. However, a requirement in primary legislation to consult in each and every case is clearly not appropriate, so I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will understand that we cannot accept the amendment.
Amendment No. 2 would require the Secretary of State to consult the Hague conference on private international law before making an order to impose special restrictions on a country that had ratified or acceded to the Hague convention. I assume that the intention is for the Secretary of State to consult the permanent bureau, which acts as the secretariat to the Hague conference, rather than the 65 member states that make up the conference. When concerns are raised regarding a Hague convention country, they should indeed be raised with the permanent bureau, which would generally expect to act as a mediator to help to resolve the situation. It can and does do that. In 2003, the permanent bureau convened a meeting of contracting states to discuss with Guatemala how concerns about adoptions from that country could be addressed.
We have a good working relationship with the permanent bureau and we understand that it would both expect and—importantly—be happy to be consulted. I can therefore reassure the hon. Gentleman that amendment No. 2 is not necessary, because we already use the mechanisms of co-operation managed by the permanent bureau. However, for the same reason that relates to amendment No. 1, there might conceivably be cases in which we will need to act quickly and do not want to risk the delay of consulting the permanent bureau. We would therefore not want a statutory obligation to consult in all cases—in case one of those exceptional circumstances should arise.
Amendment No. 4 would require the Secretary of State to establish a procedure to consider appeals against the decision to introduce special restrictions. It is only right that there are appropriate checks and balances on the powers of the Secretary of State, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that they are in place without the need for the amendment. First, following the recommendation of the House of Lords Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, clause 9(4) was amended to provide that the Secretary of State’s declaration that special restrictions will apply shall be made by order. That means that the order that declares that special restrictions are to apply is subject to the usual parliamentary scrutiny and could be annulled under the negative procedure in Parliament.
Secondly, when special restrictions are in place, it would also be open to anyone to make representations to the Secretary of State, which he would have a duty to consider. Clause 10 requires the Secretary of State to keep the special restrictions under review and, if he no longer has concerns over practices in the relevant country in connection with adoption, the restrictions must be removed. The consideration of representations would form part of the review of a restricted country and consideration of its removal from the restricted list. Thirdly, the introduction of special restrictions is an administrative decision made by the Secretary of State and, as such, will be subject to the supervisory jurisdiction of the High Court. Application for a judicial review is therefore also available as a course for challenging the Secretary of State’s decision to introduce special restrictions. As we know, that has happened; there has been a challenge in the past.
Clause 11 already provides a mechanism for individual prospective adopters to argue that their application should proceed, despite the special restrictions. Cases will be decided on their merits after consideration of the prevailing circumstances and the best interests of the child concerned. Several examples of that were fleshed out in Committee. Given all the protections that are in place, there is no need to add a statutory framework for appeals.
I am happy to say that amendment No. 22, which would require regular reviews of decisions to impose special restrictions, is not necessary. Clause 10(1) will explicitly require the Secretary of State to keep under review whether any country on the restricted list should remain as such.
Yes, clause 10(1) will indeed oblige the Secretary of State to keep the matter under review, but it will not oblige him to publish his findings. We do not know the form that the internal review might take. We are trying to make the point through the amendment that a much more transparent system is needed so that people who wished to adopt, or whose prospective adoption was interrupted by a suspension process, could be kept fully in the loop. The amendment would mean that everyone could be assured that the reasons for suspending a country were valid while the suspension was in place.
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. It is in the interests of the Secretary of State and all of us to ensure that these matters are in the public domain and are fleshed out as far as possible. The Bill’s provisions are sufficiently strong for us not to require anything further in statute. The hon. Gentleman asked a specific question about China, to which I will ensure he gets a quick response. I understand that the Department for Education and Skills has been in dialogue with its Chinese counterparts and we are hoping for a conclusion to be reached sooner rather than later.
Amendment No. 23 would require that before revoking a declaration of special restrictions, the Secretary of State would have to consult prescribed organisations involved in adoption, as well as colleagues in Wales and Northern Ireland. As I have said already, there are good administrative reasons why consultation with the devolved Administrations is appropriate when making or revoking declarations of special restrictions. There might well be occasions when organisations involved in adoption that might know something about the circumstances in the relevant country would be consulted before revoking a declaration, but that will not be necessary in every case, so we should not put a blanket provision in the Bill. There is a commitment that such consultation will take place when we can glean additional information that will give us more knowledge of what is happening on the ground to assist the Secretary of State to make a decision.
As I said at the outset, I am grateful to the hon. Members for Mid-Dorset and North Poole and for East Worthing and Shoreham for giving me the opportunity to clarify our position on an important, yet not uncomplicated, set of provisions. I hope that I have been able to offer sufficient reassurance about our intention to be transparent, which is especially important in this area of work, and our use of the provisions. We will be guided at all times by the objective of safeguarding children, which we all support. On that basis, I hope that the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole will withdraw the new clause.
I will not press new clause 3 to a Division. I take heart from the Minister saying that the matter can be kept under review because I am sure that if the appropriate agencies have such evidence as is feared, they will feel able to contact the Minister directly. I am not entirely convinced that the transparency and openness will be as great as Opposition Members would like, but, with those few comments, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.
New Clause 4
Presumption in favour of co-parenting
‘After section 1(1) of the Children Act 1989 (c. 41) insert—
“(1A) In respect of subsection (1)(a) the court shall, unless a contrary reason be shown, act on the presumption that a child's welfare is best served through residence with his parents and, if his parents are not living together, through residence with one of them and through both of them being as fully and equally involved in his parenting as possible.”'.—[Tim Loughton.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: New clause 9—Reasonable contact: no order principle—
‘After section 1(5) of the Children Act 1989 (c. 41) insert—
“(6) The “no order” principle in section 5 shall be construed subject to section 1A of this Act whereby it shall be presumed that making an order for reasonable contact with the parents is, in the absence of good reason to the contrary, better for the child than making no order at all.”'.
New clause 11—Provision as to family assistance orders—
‘In the circumstances where a family assistance order is made, the officer concerned will proceed on the presumption that the child's interests are best served through reasonable contact with both his parents unless good reason to the contrary is shown.'.
New clause 12—Reasonable contact: welfare checklist—
‘After section 1(3)(g) of the Children Act 1989 (c. 41) insert—
“(h) the desirability of reasonable contact between the child and the non-resident parent in the absence of good reason to the contrary.” '.
New clause 13—Presumption of reasonable contact—
‘After section 1(1) of the Children Act 1989 (c. 41) insert—
“(1A) In respect of subsection 1(1) above and subject to the welfare of the child, the court shall act on the presumption that the child's interests are best served through reasonable contact with both his parents in the absence of good reason to the contrary.” '.
New clause 16—Extended family: desirability of contact—
‘After section 5 of the Children Act 1989 (c. 41) insert—
“5A Extended family: desirability of contact
(1) Where an order with respect to a child is made by the court the court must take into account the desirability of contact between the child and his extended family.
(2) Subsection (1) will not be taken into account by a court if it conflicts with any welfare requirements in Section 1.”'.
New clause 17—Non-resident parents—
‘After section 1(3)(g) of the Children Act 1989 (c. 41) insert—
“(h) the importance of sustaining a relationship between the child and a non-residential parent.” '.
New clause 18—Statutory objectives—
‘(1) In discharging their respective functions in connection with any proceedings in which the court is considering whether to make provision about contact with a child—
(a) the court;
(b) the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service; and
(c) the parties' legal representatives (if any)
must, so far as is reasonably possible, act in a way that is compatible with the objectives set out in subsection (2).
(2) The objectives under subsection (1) are—
(a) the welfare of the child;
(b) reduction of the risk of harm;
(c) reasonable contact; and
(d) post separation parenting.
(3) The welfare of the child applies in all respects as set out in section 1 of the Children Act 1989.
(4) “Reduction of the risk of harm” means that the safety of children and other persons involved in contact arrangements should be assessed and planned for and the danger of violence should be minimised.
(5) “Reasonable contact” means the promotion of ongoing contact between a child and his parents and other family members to an extent that is reasonable having regard to the facts of the individual case.
(6) In having regard to post separation parenting the court, the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service and the parties' legal representatives (if any) shall promote the desirability of co-operation between parents in the making of arrangements for any child contact.
(7) In applying these objectives the court, the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service and the parties' legal representatives (if any) shall have regard to the contribution that mediation may make to achieving them.'.
New clause 19—Applications for contact orders (grandparents and family carers)—
‘(1) In the event of an application to a court for an order permitting contact with a child by—
(a) a grandparent of the child; or
(b) a relative with whom the child has lived for a period of at least one year,
the application may be made without the leave of the court.
(2) The period of one year mentioned in subsection (1) need not be continuous but must not have begun more than three years before, or ended more than three months before, the making of the application.
(3) The Secretary of State may by regulation amend section 10 of the Children Act 1989 in accordance with the provisions of subsections (1) and (2).'.
New clause 24—Presumption of reasonable contact in the absence of good reason to the contrary—
‘After section 1(1) of the Children Act 1989 (c.41) insert—
“(1A) In respect of subsection 1(1) above, subject to good reason to the contrary and where the safety of the child is not an issue, the court shall act on the presumption that the child's interests are best served through reasonable contact with both of his parents whether or not he is resident with either parent.
(1B) In determining what “reasonable contact” is in respect of subsection (1A) the court shall have regard to the desirability of—
(a) contact facilitating a positive and fulfilling relationship between the parent and the child;
(b) frequent contact;
(c) contact lasting for lengthy time periods;
(d) contact with siblings; and
(e) contact with extended family.”'.
New clause 25—Default contact arrangements—
‘Schedule (New Schedule 1) (which makes provision for default contact arrangements) has effect.'.
New schedule 1—Default contact arrangements—
1 (1) This Schedule applies where two persons having parental responsibility for a child under the age of 14 years are at the commencement of this Act living or thereafter commence to live in separate households from each other.
(2) In this Schedule the “resident parent” means that person with parental responsibility for a child specified under sub-paragraph (1) who is principally resident in the same household as the child; the “non-resident parent” shall mean the other person, with whom the child does not reside.
(3) The provisions of this Schedule are entirely without prejudice to the responsibility of the resident and non-resident parents in any case to which this Schedule applies to make such agreed arrangements for contact with the child as they may decide are appropriate in the child's best interests.
(4) In any case to which this Schedule applies in it shall be the responsibility of both the resident and the non-resident parents—
(a) to endeavour to reach agreement as to such arrangements for contact or,
(b) if they are to give effect to the default contact arrangements set out in paragraph 4 below, to endeavour—
(i) to ensure that the default contact arrangements operate smoothly;
(ii) to reach agreement as to the detailed implementation of the default contact arrangements; and
(iii) to reach agreement as to such variations to the default contact arrangements with regard to dates, times and delivery and collection arrangements as may be appropriate to suit the circumstances and commitments of the child, any sibling of the child, the resident parent and the non-resident parent.
(5) On any application to a court for contact with any child the way in which the resident and non-resident parent have each discharged the responsibility set out in paragraph 1(4) shall be a circumstance which it shall be relevant for the court to consider.
2 In any case where the resident parent and the non-resident parent commence living in separate households after the commencement of this Act they shall be deemed to have agreed upon such separation to the arrangements for contact between the child and the non-resident parent set out in paragraph 4 below (“the default contact arrangements”) and such arrangements shall be put into effect from the date of such separation unless and until either—
(a) the resident parent and the non-resident parent have agreed alternative arrangements for such contact; or
(b) a court otherwise orders.
3 In any case where the resident parent and the non-resident parent are already living in separate households at the commencement of this Act they shall be deemed to have agreed at the date of such commencement to the arrangements for contact between the child and the non-resident parent set out in paragraph 4 below (“the default contact arrangements”) and such arrangements shall be put into effect unless and until either—
(a) the resident parent and the non-resident parent have agreed alternative arrangements for such contact; or
(b) a court otherwise orders.
4 The default contact arrangements to which paragraphs 2 and 3 above refer shall be as follows—
(1) In the case of an infant under one year old, the child shall visit the non-resident parent every Sunday between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.; and the resident and non-resident parents shall share responsibility for transport of the child between their homes.
(2) In the case of any child who has attained the age of one year but is not yet in full-time education, the child shall—
(a) stay with the non-resident parent on alternate weekends from 10 a.m. on Saturday until 5 p.m. on Sunday;
(b) visit the non-resident parent from 2 p.m. until 5 p.m. every Wednesday;
(c) stay with the non-resident parent for seven weeks' holiday per year, on dates to be agreed between the resident and non-resident parents or, in default of such an agreement, determined by a court; and
(d) the resident and non-resident parents shall share responsibility for transport of the child between their homes.
(3) In the case of any child in full-time education who has not yet attained the age of fourteen years, the child shall—
(a) stay with the non-resident parent on alternate weekends from after the child finishes school on Friday until 6 p.m. on Sunday;
(b) visit the non-resident parent from 4 p.m. until 6 p.m. every Wednesday;
(c) stay with the non-resident parent for seven weeks' holiday per year, of which at least ten days shall be in the Christmas school holidays, ten days shall be in the Easter school holidays; and the balance in the summer school holidays, the precise dates to be agreed between the resident and non-resident parents or, in default of such agreements, determined by a court; and
(d) the resident and non-resident parents shall share responsibility for transport of the child between their homes and/or the child's school.
5 This Schedule shall not apply in circumstances where allegations of child abuse are made in such form as the Secretary of State may by order prescribe.'.
We come to the guts of the main part of the Bill. In the absence of any signs to the contrary, I shall speak, first, generally to the thrust of the new clauses before going into detail.
New clause 4 goes to the heart of the principle that we think should be set out in the Bill. If the Government agreed to the principle that is enshrined in the new clause, they would, at a stroke, remove the major objections to why the Bill, in its current form, will not work and why it will prove to be a damp squib, as we have warned all along. The principle is clear: it is that a child’s welfare and interests are best served by both his parents being as actively involved in his upbringing as possible unless there are good reasons to the contrary that pose a risk to the safety of that child. That rider runs through every amendment that the Opposition have tabled to the Bill throughout all stages of its consideration.
The new clause and the associated new clauses are not about parents’ rights. We have not once addressed the Bill in terms of parents’ rights. The new clauses are not about treating a child as some accessory or commodity whose ownership should be tightly defined and whose diary should be artificially prescribed on a rota basis between each of his parents. The new clauses are not about compromising the paramountcy of the welfare of the child as set out in section 1 of the Children Act 1989, some 17 years ago. That piece of legislation is as relevant and valued today as it was when it was first debated in the House.
Surely a child’s welfare is best served by maximising the time—preferably quality time—that is spent with both his parents. That is complementary to, and not contradictory to, the paramountcy of the welfare of that child. The new clauses represent none of the things that they have at times been caricatured to represent by the Minister and her predecessor, who was guaranteed to launch into a frenzy every time the issue of co-parenting was mentioned.
I do not disagree with the principle of a child’s welfare being met by contact with both parents. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that in new clause 4 his definition of a child’s welfare is prescriptive? For example, it reads that the presumption is
“that if his parents are not living together”,
the child’s welfare is best served through residence with one of them. A child’s need for quality parenting from both parents could be met by residence for three days with one parent and four days with the other. I am suggesting to the hon. Gentleman that perhaps the new clause demonstrates the difficulty of trying to define in the Bill in a prescriptive way how a child’s welfare needs might be met. It is something that might be better met by a court’s decision.
I appreciate the hon. Lady’s point. I appreciate also her longstanding interest in and great involvement with this Bill at all stages. However, what she is suggesting would be rather more prescriptive. What we have put in the new clause is broad ranging. It sets down a principle that can be applied to other aspects of the Bill.
I do not want to say that a child should spend three days with one parent and four days with the other, or vice versa, or any computation of that. We have never once tried to do that. That would be extremely prescriptive. New clause 4 and the other similar new clauses set out the principle that should be applied throughout this Bill and which should be used to amend the Children Act 1989. It underlines the fact that it is in the best interests of the child to spend as much quality time as possible with each of the parents. As new clause 4 says, those parents should be
“as fully and equally involved in his parenting as possible.”
In using the word “equally”, we are in no way trying to prescribe that they should spend 50 per cent. of the time with their children. That would be absolutely wrong; it would not be a reflection of real life, as the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) will know from her experience and as I do from mine. I am afraid that there is no way that I spend 50 per cent. of the time, divided between myself and my wife, with my children, regretfully. That is the nature of hon. Members’ jobs, and it is the same for many other people’s jobs. To try to replicate a 50:50 division of time after a couple had split up would not properly reflect the nature of a parent’s relationship with a child when a couple is together in a united family. We have been at great pains to try to ensure that new clause 4 is not prescriptive, but it is fundamental to the principle behind our whole approach to the Bill.
The early-day motion on parenting time presumption, tabled by the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), goes to the root of the issue and has received extensive cross-party support. I welcome the new clause, but would the hon. Gentleman not acknowledge that the use of the word “equal” will, no doubt, allow various debates to ensue? Would not a word such as “comparable” give a more appropriate impression of what he is trying to achieve?
I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s involvement in the discussion and the fact that he is one of the 116 Labour signatories who have made early-day motion 128—tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), me and other hon. Members—one of the top three most supported early-day motions in this Parliament. Before I come to that subject, I want to refer to his mention of the word “equal”. We do not talk about equality in that respect; we use the phrase
“as fully and equally involved…as possible”.
That should not be taken to mean 50:50—that would not be a reflection of reality, as I was at pains to point out to the hon. Member for Stockport.
The principle of new clause 4 lies behind early-day motion 128, which was launched more than a year ago and has now been signed by 345 hon. Members of all parties—a clear majority of hon. Members. It has been signed by 116 Labour Members, 157 Conservative Members and 50 Liberal Democrat Members—although, sadly, not the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), who speaks from the Front Bench. Many Democratic Unionist party Members, all Ulster Unionist party Members and a goodly number of Welsh nationalists, Scottish nationalists, Social Democratic and Labour party Members and even Respect have added their names to that early-day motion.
At the eleventh hour in the passage of the Bill, if the Government are really serious about improving the life chances of some the most vulnerable children in our society, as the Minister for Children and Families put it on Second Reading, it is time—long overdue—that she took note of the views of the House as expressed in that early-day motion. I hope that, if we press the new clause to a vote, we will see a rather fuller Chamber, reflecting the commitment that hon. Members made when they signed that early-day motion and when they responded to their constituents through various organisations that lobbied them to say, “Yes, we support this principle.” We now expect them to put their money where their mouths are, because the problem is getting worse, not better.
Every year, between 150,000 and 250,000 parental couples separate. One in four of the 12 million children in this country will experience the separation of their parents at some point, and 68 per cent. of them will be aged 10 or less. As a child, I was in that position, as I am sure were many other hon. Members. For many children, the future in the family is sorted out amicably and does not require the interference of court proceedings, mercifully. We are told that 90 per cent. of cases are settled without recourse to the courts, but that figure disguises the fact that many non-resident parents are forced to submit to unsatisfactory, unfair or non-existent contact arrangements, because of the fear of long-drawn-out and expensive court procedures. That is why around 40 per cent. of non-resident parents lose contact—or lose meaningful contact—with their children within two years of a family breakdown. Of those who go down the legal route, because they feel that they have to, that number has mushroomed. The number of applications for contact going through the courts has ballooned from 17,470 in 1992 to 70,169. A study by Oxford university that was cited in Committee postulated that there may be 2 million non-resident fathers in the population, as 80 per cent. of children in separated families live exclusively or mainly with their mothers.
Clearly, the current law is not working as a deterrent to acrimonious court action. We believe that it needs to be turned on its head—hence new clause 4, which does precisely that, backed up to varying degrees by other new clauses and amendments. What could be more sensible than new clause 4, which simply seeks to enshrine in statute what we are constantly told the courts seek to achieve in practice—that
“a child’s welfare is best served”
through both parents being
“as fully and equally involved in his parenting as possible”?
From that basic premise, each parent can set out his or her stall on a level playing field and decide how time and attention can best be spent with his or her child. No arguments about rights will happen if we start from an equal basis.
We have some very good parents in this country, but we also have some lousy ones. We have some dedicated, loving, attentive parents not living with their children who are too often frozen out of reasonable contact arrangements with their children; and we have some lousy parents who are living with and responsible for their children who too often use them as pawns in an acrimonious dispute with a former partner, particularly when they hold the strongest cards. Too many of those parents subsequently become serial breachers of contact orders with impunity, which is why the Bill was necessary in the first place.
Family breakdown is rarely, if ever, the fault of the child, but too often the child becomes the victim when arrangements are not settled sensibly and amicably. The principle set out in new clause 4 was endorsed by the noble Lord Adonis, the Minister in the other place, when the Bill was debated there on 29 June 2005. He said:
“We fully support the position established in case law that children normally benefit from a meaningful relationship with both parents following separation, so long as it is safe”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 29 June 2005; Vol. 673, c. 251.]
Let us therefore have that built into the Bill. The principle was also supported in the Green Paper, which said that after separation both parents should have a responsibility for and a safe meaningful relationship with their children, so long as it was safe, and it pointed out that that was the view of most people in our society. I entirely concur with that.
We all know the statistics about the benefits of maximising contact with non-resident parents, who tend to be the fathers. The children achieve more academically; they are less likely to get into trouble with the police; they become more sociable; and they have better health outcomes. Effectively, the new clauses and amendments are a statement of the bleeding obvious—[Interruption.] They need to be stated directly in the Bill because, as it stands, it will not work properly.
I have dealt with new clause 4, which sets out the principle. New clause 9 is—[Interruption.] I believe that I used parliamentary language and I have not been hauled up for it, but I think that we have got the point from what I said.
New clause 9 is a technical amendment to section 1 of the Children Act 1989, which is designed to extend the basic principle that in the absence of evidence of any likely harm being caused to the child, contact is better than no contact. New clause 11 is designed to extend the reasonable contact principle to family assistant orders. New clause 12 amends the welfare checklist in the Children Act and deals with the accusation that our amendments would undermine the paramountcy of the welfare of the child. I would contend in any case that we can have a hierarchy of presumptions about what is best for the welfare of the child. We have argued all along that maximising contact with parents is integral to promoting the welfare of the child. The welfare checklist in section 1, which is so important to the 1989 Act, already contains considerations about physical and emotional needs, the effect of changing circumstances and the capability of the parent, so surely desirability of contact complements that list, rather than undermines it. That is why new clause 12 is such an important addition to the amendments that we propose.
New clause 13 mentions again the desirability of reasonable contact under section 1 of the Children Act. “Reasonable contact” is a phrase that we used frequently in Committee. In many cases, unfortunately, the corresponding amendments were not selected for debate, but reasonable contact goes to the heart of what we are suggesting. That is why new clause 24 aims to define what constitutes reasonable contact.
New clause 24 states:
“In determining what ‘reasonable contact’ is in respect of subsection (1A) the court shall have regard to the desirability of”—
and we give five considerations of what constitutes reasonable contact. They are, first,
“contact facilitating a positive and fulfilling relationship between the parent and the child”.
All of us can take a view on what that means. It clearly sends a message that reasonable contact needs to achieve something and is based on quality, not just quantity.
Secondly, the court should have regard to the desirability of “frequent contact”.
A nice long letter once a year, a Christmas card, a birthday card or an annual visit is not frequent contact. That would not constitute reasonable contact. The third consideration is that contact should last for lengthy periods. A couple of hours snatched on a wet and windy seafront on an autumn trip does not constitute reasonable contact, unless it is ongoing.
The fourth consideration is contact with siblings. This is an aspect on which many hon. Members focused in Committee, especially my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson). Siblings and extended family, which is the subject of the fifth consideration—brothers and sisters or, more frequently, grandparents of children in a family that has split up—become the victims and are frozen out of future relationships with those children. That is not in the best interests of the child’s welfare and is also not fair to the grandparents and the siblings, who in many cases have played no part in whatever led to the breakdown of that family unit. New clause 24 is a useful addition to define what we mean by reasonable contact, which is essential to the success of the Bill.
New clause 16, following on from the theme that I have just outlined, would amend section 5 of the Children Act to reinforce the desirability of contact with the extended family, particularly grandparents. Just because a couple decide that they no longer want to live with each other or continue a marriage, the children should not be deprived of meaningful contact and a meaningful ongoing quality relationship with grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins, who can provide some degree of stability and continuity in what can be a very turbulent period, especially for young children. Their role is perhaps even more important at a time when a family unit breaks up than it was when a loving father and mother were present all the time for those children.
My hon. Friend is making an important point about grandparents, who are so vital and can often be an anchor when parents unfortunately split up. That is why it is so important that the children maintain their relationship with grandparents. We strongly endorse that.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s support. That point found support on both sides of the Committee. After my parents split up, my relationship with my grandparents was important—I particularly enjoyed my frequent visits to Eastbourne pier, where I became a fruit machine junky, although that is another story for another day.
I will not go into detail on the new clauses tabled by other hon. Members. New clause 17, tabled by the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole, is similar in many respects to our own attempt to amend the welfare checklist, and as such it merits our support.
New clause 18, tabled by the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney), concerns the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service objectives on welfare. It has some merit, and I will be interested to hear what he has to say. Newclause 19 deals with access by grandparents, which I have already mentioned and which we support.
I have severe reservations about new clause 25 and new schedule 1, tabled by the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole on behalf of the Liberal Democrats. The new clause and, in particular, the new schedule, which details the arrangements, go completely against the concept of non-prescription that we have tried to promote throughout the Bill. To try to set down in statute, whether it be by default or otherwise, prescriptive arrangements on how a child’s time should be broken up risks treating that child as a commodity and undermines a lot of the good work on bringing about cordial arrangements between parents that are in the best interests of the child. For example, what would happen if a child who is supposed to spend every other Saturday afternoon with their father had a school football match? Must the child opt out of the football match in order to satisfy their father’s or mother’s part of the deal?
I am sure that new clause 25 was tabled with the best of intentions, as is the case with so much of what we get from the Liberal Democrats, but it is entirely unworkable in practice and would be dangerous if it were added to the Bill. If the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole is minded to push new clause 25 to a vote, she should not come to us touting for support, because she will not get it.
None of our amendments is rocket science. The concept of shared parenting being enshrined in statute is being looked at in a number of other countries and several US states: it was an undertaking of the new Canadian Government; it is being examined in the Senate in Italy; a considerable amount of work is currently going on in Australia; and, as we speak, the Senate in Brazil is considering a new law establishing joint custody for children as the first option after divorce—the new law has already been passed by the federal deputy chamber.
The idea is not new in this country. As I said in Committee, the previous Conservative Government considered amending the law along those lines in the Family Law Act 1996, section 11(4) of which states:
“the general principle that, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, the welfare of the child will be best served by-
(i) his having regular contact with those who have parental responsibility for him and with other members of his family; and
(ii) the maintenance of as good a continuing relationship with his parents as is possible”.
I would also mention the Children (Scotland) Act 1995, which enshrines the desirability of maintaining personal relations and direct contact with non-resident parents on a regular basis.
Why cannot we have that here? Many people with children’s best interests at heart have been calling for it for many years. We have consistently called for these amendments throughout every stage of the Bill’s progress in this House and in their lordships’ Chamber. They would set out for a separating mother and father what the norm will be, what will be expected of them, and what will happen to them if they do not respect the judgments made. It is as simple as the principle that one is innocent until proven guilty. Someone who is a good parent should be deemed to be such unless and until it is proven reasonably that they are not. We want to establish the principle that it is a norm that reasonable contact should be assumed after a split because that is in the best interests of the child in the absence of evidence to the contrary.
If the Government are serious about wanting to deal with the problems that many of our constituents face, and about producing worthwhile legislation that will do something about them instead of just talking about it, headlining the problem and ticking the boxes, they should add these new clauses to the Bill. They are fundamental to its workability and go to the heart of the problem. On that basis, I wholeheartedly commend them to the House.
New clause 18 stands in my name and in those of the hon. Members for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) and for Ceredigion (Mark Williams). New clause 19 also stands in my name.
Debate on the Bill, in this House and outside, has largely been polarised around two issues and two groups of people. One group is keen to prevent an obstructive parent from stopping the other parent having contact with the child, while the other is worried about domestic violence and abuse being insufficiently recognised in court proceedings to make a parent allow contact between the child in their care and the parent who is not resident with the child. In new clause 18, I attempt to rise above those polarised points of view and say that there is merit in both arguments, but not in one to the exclusion of the other. I hit upon the idea that if the Bill were to have statutory objectives added to it, we might be able to reach an agreed solution. Sadly, it seems that I have fallen between the two stools, and neither have I attracted the support of the Minister. However, I will explain why I think that it is a good approach.
Statutory objectives are quite rare, but they have been seen to work in other areas of the law. A good example from a completely different area is that of the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000, which has four statutory objectives in regulating the Financial Services Authority. That authority has been able to adopt a risk-based approach to regulation that has been beneficial for this country’s financial services sector, which is probably the most successful in the world. I decided that in trying to resolve disputes about contact with children, the courts, CAFCASS officers and those in the Welsh service who deal with preparing court cases involving parents who are in dispute, and the legal representatives of those who want to go to court, should all have regard to four statutory objectives, namely:
“(a) the welfare of the child;
(b) reduction of the risk of harm;
(c) reasonable contact; and
(d) post separation parenting.”
As the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) said, the first—the welfare of the child—comes from the Children Act 1989, a successful measure that has stood the test of time. Its aims of putting children’s interests first have been successful. Section 1 states that
“the child’s welfare shall be the court’s paramount consideration.”
Nothing should interfere with that resounding statement that children’s interests come first.
The polarised arguments about preventing obstructive parents from getting in the way of contact in, for example, new clause 4, try to solve the problem by attacking the paramountcy of the child’s welfare. New clause 4 would force the court to presume that the child’s welfare includes so-called co-parenting. That is far too narrow. Section 1(3) of the Children Act contains a welfare checklist, which sets out all the issues that courts should take into account when deciding what is in the child’s best interests. They include all the relevant matters that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham set out for our consideration.
I am following the hon. Gentleman’s argument closely, but does he believe that it is incumbent on him to define robustly the paramountcy principle, given that the Bill does not do that? It continues to be a panacea, which children’s charities, the Government and others use. Should it not be properly defined for us to go forward?
With the greatest respect to the hon. Gentleman, for whom I have great respect, especially for his views about grandparents in the sort of proceedings that we are discussing, I believe that he is wrong. As I said, the Children Act has stood the test of time and thousands of courts have made decisions about contact in the light of that measure. The welfare of the child and its paramountcy is well understood and applied correctly by the courts.
The presumption of contact is well established. Those of us who served on the Committee often heard reference to a report by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of court administration, “Domestic Violence, Safety and Family Proceedings”, which said that in all the practice sessions that it had observed in the inspection, the presumption of contact was evident. Indeed, paragraph 3.9 of the report worryingly stated:
“and there was consistent evidence that inappropriate assumptions about contact were made, rather than assessments about whether there was any risk associated with domestic abuse cases.”
The presumption of contact is therefore alive and well and the report alerts us to the fact that it applies to an inappropriate extent and that, in some cases, there might be danger for children and parents in allowing contact to proceed.
That brings us to the statutory objective that I propose—to reduce the risk of harm. The other great polarised debate is about whether there should be no contact if there is any risk at all of abuse to the child or the other parent. Again, I believe that it goes too far, but until the House of Lords included clause 7, the Bill contained no provision for the court even to ascertain whether any harm was being done.
The statement that preceded our proceedings was about schools checking whether staff employed there might pose a risk to children. What about courts? They order somebody to allow contact. Surely they should consider whether there is a risk of harm. Clause 7 provides that if there is suspicion of harm, CAFCASS will undertake a risk assessment, but the Bill includes nothing about what anyone does with it. Under clause 7, at least it will go to the court, and the court will have the power to make orders. My statutory objective about reducing the risk of harm would at least remind the courts that, when they receive a risk assessment report, something ought to be done with it.
The fourth of my statutory objectives deals with parenting relationships after a separation. This brings me to a report to which the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham and I both referred with approval in Committee. It is an excellent report by the University of Oxford, “Family Policy Briefing 3”, produced in January 2004, which gives advice to policy makers such as ourselves. Its final section, “The way forward”, warns us to be cautious about making any legislative change at all. It states:
“Introducing a presumption of contact is…problematic”
“case for amending the Children Act may be stronger in relation to domestic violence”.
The report goes on:
“Post-separation parenting is a very neglected area…There would be widespread support for a programme aimed at improving service provision”
to promote better relationships between parents after they separate. That is why my fourth statutory objective would be beneficial in the longer term. This is a longer-term issue.
I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s speech. Will he enlarge on who exactly would provide the support for the parents in those circumstances? It is patently clear that, in its present form, CAFCASS would be unable to take on any burden over and above what is being placed on it by the Bill.
I mentioned earlier the problems associated with polarised debates. There are lots of reasons why contact does not proceed, including obstructive parents, delays in the investigations associated with court proceedings, and a lack of resources for those who are supposed to give the kind of support about which the hon. Gentleman is asking.
I note that CAFCASS is developing a change to its approach to court proceedings, so that it can make more active interventions at the beginning of a case. In that way, it could facilitate early agreements and make use of the provisions in the Bill for contact activities. It would therefore be easier to solve problems at the beginning. “Sort, not report” is the strap-line that it uses. Instead of writing a report that could take 12 weeks to deliver, it will try to act more quickly to solve the problem. So perhaps a change of approach from CAFCASS, with good leadership and reasonable resources, is the way to ensure that there is support during court proceedings, when judges look for support for the directions that they give.
I want to move on to new clause 19 in a moment, but for completeness I want to mention a charity in my constituency called Stafford PAIRS, which stands for “preventing abuse in relationships”. The charity is strongly supportive of risk assessments in cases of domestic violence or abuse. One of the partners to that charity, a worker with Women’s Aid in Stafford, told me that, of 18 clients with whom she had dealt since October 2004, three had expressed suicidal feelings because of the pressures of being compelled through court proceedings to allow the other parent contact with their child after domestic violence had caused the breakdown of the relationship. I want people to appreciate the other side of the argument.
New clause 19 is a procedural amendment that would allow grandparents the same opportunity to ask a court to allow contact that a parent has now. Parents are entitled to apply to a court for a contact order, but grandparents are not. The new clause proposes that grandparents should have the same right to join in proceedings to ask the court to consider whether a contact order should be granted in their favour. I leave it to the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham to explain why relationships with grandparents are beneficial to grandchildren. I merely say that grandparents should be given the opportunity to show that to the courts, and that court orders would then follow.
New clause 19 also proposes that other family carers—not parents or grandparents—who have cared for a child for at least a year ought to be at least in the same position as a foster carer who has cared for a child for a year, and should be able to apply to the court for a contact order. The new clause is a procedural device to put such people on the same level as those who already have similar rights under legislation.
As I seem to have little support from Members on either side of the House or from the Government Front Bench, I am not hopeful that my new clauses will make progress, but I believe that if the Bill is to prove a lasting success when enacted, we must do more both to ensure that children maintain contact with both parents, and to root out cases of domestic violence earlier.
I have great sympathy with most of what was said by the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney). I sincerely believe that we need to find a solution. Our starting point is the United Nations convention on the rights of the child, which states that a child has the right to direct and regular contact with both parents unless that is contrary to the child’s best interests. It is strange that we are struggling—by “we”, I mean the majority of the House—to find a solution that will put something in the Bill without risking the safety of the child or undermining the child’s paramountcy.
It is generally acknowledged to be in the child's best interests to sustain a full relationship with both parents, but obviously it will not be if there is a risk of harm, or in relationships involving extreme conflict, which can be immensely damaging for a child caught in the middle. I do not think that we should be too prescriptive. I shall be explaining an unusual proposal when I have dealt with the others.
I genuinely believe that every case is different, but we need to have more in legislation than we have at present. Parents should be able to assume that contact should take place in most cases. I am sure all our surgeries have often been visited by grandparents in great distress. I should like the Bill to incorporate a provision applying in particular to grandparents and the extended family, and I hope that the Minister will be able to give us some comfort. A number of suggestions have been made today and we have rehearsed many of the arguments that were presented in Committee. What exactly is the problem?
One of the conclusions of the Constitutional Affairs Committee’s fourth report of the Session 2004-05, entitled “Family Justice: the operation of the family courts”, was
“We consider that a clear statutory statement of this principle would encourage resident parents to assume in most cases that contact should be taking place.”
Such a provision would set the scene, or the culture, to which we should move. The percentage of intractable cases is relatively small, but the outcome of some that are settled out of court is not ideal, and I would not wish to suggest otherwise.
The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) said that a birthday card was not enough. Every time he makes that point it tears at me somewhat. I only wish that we had evidence of how often that is the case, and in what circumstances. Certainly, we hear of such cases, but we usually get only one side of the story and not all the details.
New clause 4 contains the term “legal presumption”. I made it clear on Second Reading and in Committee that that is a problem for us. The Select Committee considered the arguments carefully and it is interesting that Resolution—the new name for the Solicitors Family Law Association—suggested in written evidence that there should be a second, lower order, presumption, although part of that suggestion was retracted in subsequent oral evidence.
I am saddened but not entirely surprised to hear that the hon. Lady has problems with the phrase “legal presumption”. Will she explain why 50 of her colleagues have signed early-day motion 128, which refers specifically to the need to have a “legal presumption of contact”? Are they misguided, or not on message? Will they surprise her with how they vote if the new clause is pressed to a Division?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, which was not entirely surprising. All hon. Members are genuinely concerned about parents losing contact with their children. I am sure that every word of the early-day motion arouses sympathy, but any proposal that would put the phrase “legal presumption” on the face of the Bill requires a great deal of thought. Some very eminent people have said that conflict could arise if there are two legal presumptions. That deserves much serious consideration, given that five or six children’s organisations have said that they share that concern.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady, who must find it painful to be in a minority in her party. She is right to say that we, as legislators, have a responsibility, and our first responsibility is to be consistent. Most members of her party are prepared, for cheap gratification, to assuage the concerns of those who are genuinely affected by the problem that we are discussing by agreeing to sign up to early-day motion 128, but will they support the new clause in the Division? That is what is important. I despair at the duplicity of the Liberal Democrats, who claim to support a proposal in principle but who utterly fail to do so when it really matters.
Perhaps I should just pass on that intervention. We will support the Select Committee recommendation—which has been accepted by a number of people who gave evidence to the Committee and were involved in the discussions—that a statement should be inserted into the welfare checklist required under the Children Act. For my version of the provision, I have chosen the wording recommended by the Select Committee—that the courts should have regard to
“the importance of sustaining a relationship between the child and a non-residential parent”.
It is important that we find wording that will not cause conflict between two legal presumptions. To pursue something that might lead to a dangerous outcome is far more damaging than feeling that one has signed one’s life away because one has signed an early-day motion. When people sign an early-day motion they do not expect every word of it to appear in legislation.
Our proposal is important to us; there should be such a legislative statement. I was attracted to the new clause proposed by the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney), as its ingredients included all the issues that we want to raise. We need provisions that will move us forward rather than saying, “No, no, we cannot put anything on the face of the Bill”, but we must give them due consideration.
It is interesting that the Government picked up the suggestion for an addition to the welfare checklist as an idea that they would investigate. It was supported by the scrutiny Committee for the draft Bill, but the Government said at one stage that it was not appropriate because it would be relevant only to private law and not to public law. I cannot follow that argument, because one would not need to take such a checklist into consideration in a public law case. I would have thought that there was a way round that point and that it need not be the problem that has been suggested.
All Liberal Democrat MPs are concerned that children and parents retain contact where it is safe to do so, but we need to find the right route. I look forward to the response of the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda). New clause 4 is slightly different from the provision on which we voted in Committee, but if he can reassure me that it is perfectly safe, we could vote for it. However, on such an important issue, when we know that children die if wrong decisions are made—
I am confused about the official Liberal Democrat policy on co-parenting and the early-day motion signed by about 85 per cent. of the parliamentary party. I am also confused by the fact that the hon. Lady says that she will look to the Minister to agree, or not, to the Conservative new clause. What does she think of our new clause and will she support it? Or is this a case of something that fits neatly into a “Focus” leaflet but is not followed through in a vote in the House?
That is the most demeaning point that could be made in a serious debate. Conservative Members may think that this is an issue to be put out in slogans and leaflets, but I think that children’s interests come first, first and first. That was a shocking intervention that reduced the level of discussion. Children’s lives and, at the other end of the scale, relationships with parents are at stake.
I want to move on to our new clause 18, which people are right to say looks prescriptive, although I have in the past argued against too much prescriptiveness. The new clause was tabled in a very different form in Committee, but was not selected because it was not sufficiently detailed. We therefore faced a dilemma, as it would have been far more appropriate to discuss the principle behind it in Committee than to do so on Report. We do not mind if the Minister ignores the detail of our proposal, but we would like him to engage with its basic concept and the need to place a strong emphasis on mediation and efforts to find solutions. The provision is not perfectly worded, but it makes provision for a risk assessment to be carried out if there is an accusation of domestic violence. It applies to parents who have reached the end of the line, cannot be reconciled and are waiting for a slot in court. Opposition Members often say that it is a tragedy that 40 per cent. of parents lose contact with their children after a dispute. If a parent has to wait a long time before their case comes to the court, they may not be welcomed by the child because there is an automatic break in the relationship. One could argue that the solution is to ensure that the case comes to court more quickly—I wish that I believed that we would achieve that in the immediate future—but the latest report by the Select Committee makes it clear that we still do not have enough full-time judges, and that there is a long time to wait. Our proposal would not kick in until it was crystal clear that the situation was intractable and that there were no safety issues.
I have practised in family law for 25 years and the problem results partly from the lack of full-time judges. However, there are not enough experienced CAFCASS officers so that, in north Wales, for example, there is a terrible delay of three months or even 16 weeks before a report is produced.
I wish that we could solve all those problems, but we will not do so immediately or in the next year—it will take much longer.
Once that dreadful position is reached, the non-resident parent is prevented from seeing the child altogether, even though the safety issues have been resolved. We have proposed a default contact arrangement for parents, who could make variations to suit themselves but, none the less, they will have contact with the child. Our new clause therefore includes a little of the Opposition’s “no order principle”, but the difference is that it takes account of the individual cases. We have proposed an interim arrangement until they can fight their battle in court, as we want to try to keep continuity of contact with the child. I am surprised that, given everything that they have said about wanting contact, the Conservatives have started to ridicule our proposal. I am, however, prepared for the details to be ridiculed, because it was difficult to express the concept in an acceptable form on the amendment paper. I genuinely wanted to discuss the issue in Committee, because I thought that we could find a way to progress that idea.
I hope that I have made myself crystal clear. We have not attempted to provide a rigid arrangement but an interim arrangement while people wait to go to court. Once it is in place, the parents may agree to work things out between themselves, so that the situation does not become intractable. There has never been a suggestion on my part that the new clause be pressed to the vote, because I am aware of its inadequacies. The concept, however, is important and I hope that the Minister will respond in the spirit in which it was proposed. I take the matter seriously, as we need to tackle the gap which, hon. Members will concur, may lead to one parent losing contact with their child for life. An arrangement that is a little rigid and lasts a few months may be a price worth paying to stay on the path to keeping contact.
I wish to speak to new clause 4, which I tabled with my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), before touching on new clauses 13, 16 and 19. I will resist the temptation to say that it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), and merely observe that the Liberal Democrats are Olympic medal winners in sanctimonious and patronising equivocation. At the election, the Conservatives will expose their cynicism and duplicity in every constituency. It is not about playing politics; it is about making local undertakings and doing something completely different when the votes come in.
New clause 4 deals with the presumption in favour of co-parenting and reasonable contact. We all believe that the child’s welfare is best served by residency with their parents or, if they do not live together, residency with one parent. Reasonable contact allows both parents to be fully involved in parenting. Having participated in the lengthy proceedings on the Bill, I believe that there has been too much heat but not enough light. I broadly support the Bill with some important caveats, but it is a missed opportunity. It could have united children’s charities and Families Need Fathers; it could have united parties from all parts of the House. However, after the trench warfare of the past year or so in the other place, in Standing Committee, and on Second Reading, consensus has been lost. The Government have set their face against concessions, and are guilty of intransigence, inertia and discrimination, particularly against non-resident parents of both sexes.
New clause 4 does not undermine the paramountcy principle—indeed, it enhances it. My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) has a strong record in extolling the virtues of co-parenting and the importance to the future of children in this country of having—if at all possible, and with the caveat that the safety of the child is always paramount—both parents involved in their upbringing.
The Government are using the paramountcy principle as a rock on which all appeals to flexibility and logic, and the experience of real life, are smashed. The paramountcy principle is an opaque panacea; it is not set down in legislation and it is used by Ministers and Back Benchers to stop any discussion, even of the hierarchy of paramountcy.
This issue is about human rights, fairness and equity, and equality of gender. I will not take any lectures from the Liberal Democrats because, like many Members in all parts of the Chamber, I know from my surgery casework how this issue affects and undermines families. It is important that we bear it in mind that we are talking not about dry, dusty, arcane legal principles, but people’s lives and futures, and their children.
Frankly, I cannot understand why parents who were fit and proper parents when they were married, or together in a non-married relationship, are deemed suddenly to cross a line and to become unfit parents, and are therefore not permitted to see their children—under the auspices of family courts or otherwise. No Minister has explained that to any of us. Why are they any less good, loving, caring parents? Ministers need to address that issue.
Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, one of the pre-eminent experts in family law in this country and president of the family division, recently said:
“There is, of course, no doubt that some parents, particularly mothers, are responsible for alienating their children from their fathers without good reason and thereby creating this sometimes insoluble problem. That unhappy state of affairs, well known in family courts, is a long way from recognised syndrome requiring mental health professionals to play an expert role.”
Baroness Ashton stated in a letter of 14 July 2006 to Baroness Morris of Bolton:
“We accept that in many cases this”—
the presumption of co-parenting—
“is true and indeed this position is supported by case law, which states that children generally benefit from a meaningful relationship with both parents after separation so long as it is safe and in their best interest.”
In further case law, the judge ruling in the 1997 case R v. B said that
“to deprive a father who bona fide wishes to have contact with his child of that contact is a drastic step. The court’s general policy is clear: contact between a child and its natural parent is something which should be maintained wherever this is practical”.
So Ministers are clearly setting their faces against case law, which raises the important and apposite question of why they are doing so. But is it case law in respect of reasonable contact? It is probably not, because reasonable contact is not enshrined in current legislation; only contact is. That is of relevance to an important point that my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham made earlier. A postcard every month or every year, or a telephone call, is not reasonable contact. The Minister should address that issue in his concluding remarks.
It might be appropriate at this stage to refer to the comments made in the briefings of children’s charities such as the National Children’s Home and Barnardo’s, and in particular the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. As I said on Second Reading and in Committee, I deprecate their comments because they are based on an unfair analysis, they are complacent and partial, and they support the discrimination inherent in the Government’s position.
Let us make no mistake: the Government’s approach to the family law system is failing non-resident parents—men and women—as well as extended family members. I quote Sir Bob Geldof, who, as Members know, has written on this subject. In “The Real Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name: A Sometimes Coherent Rant”, he wrote:
“Upon separation, the system is slow and delay occurs immediately. This allows the status quo to be established. As the process labours on it becomes impossible to alter. This is unfair. It is nearly always possible for the resident parent (let’s face it, the girl)”—
not very politically correct, but they are his words—
“to establish a pattern. It is then deemed in the child’s interest not to break this routine. But at the cost of losing sight and touch of their father, we must really examine all our assumptions without fear. Then we can move to building a more equitable system benefiting all equally.”
The paramountcy principle is not stated anywhere and is used with impunity to defend the current situation. A key institutional issue is that certain vested interests would be challenged by changes to the current system. It is not only children’s charities that have such vested interests; so, too, do the National Association of Probation Officers and some elements in the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service.
New clause 4 would strengthen, rather than weaken, the paramountcy principle. Throughout the Bill’s passage—in the different stages in the other place, in Committee and in the Chamber—I have yet to hear one convincing, coherent and persuasive argument against such a new clause, and certainly not from the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), whose presence on the Front Bench is much missed.
The arguments advanced are based on myths. Child abuse is just as likely from a stressed sole parent or their partner as from a non-resident parent. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran) makes faces from a sedentary position, but that is the case. Recently, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents concluded, in an analysis of children’s injuries, that more malicious injuries were inflicted by mothers than by fathers. Indeed, an NSPCC report published in 2000, which that charity currently conveniently disregards, entitled “Child maltreatment in the United Kingdom: a study of the prevalence of child abuse and neglect”, stated that
“most violence occurred at home (78 per cent.) with mothers being primarily responsible in 49 per cent. of cases and fathers in 40 per cent. of cases”.
When this matter was debated at length in the other place, Lord Northbourne made some key points that bear repetition about the success of co-parenting and maximum conflict resolution—the subject of new clause 22—and the early intervention parenting plan, with which new clause 1, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, deals. In Florida—for which we could equally substitute Canada, Australia and other states in the United States—the system, which uses the attributes proposed in our new clauses, is working. Families are staying together, children are safe and we are seeing reasonable shared parenting and reasonable contact—without casting aside the paramountcy principle and the safety and welfare of children. The provision is about gender equality and the rights of children to enjoy the love of both parents, as long as it is safe for them to do so. I look to the Minister to rise to the challenge and talk about the paramountcy principle and the paucity of the arguments that were used by the Government at all the stages of the Bill.
The hon. Lady knows that I am talking sense, despite her heckles.
New clause 10, on reasonable contact, seeks to amend the Children Act 1989. At the moment, as I said, we have contact set down in legislation, but not reasonable contact. If hon. Members do not like the word “reasonable”, they might prefer “meaningful”. The words are interchangeable. The new clause requests the court to have regard to the issue of reasonableness, but it is important to make the point that inserting the concept of reasonableness does not fetter the discretion of the court. Despite the debate in the other place and in this House, we are not talking about something that is necessarily wedded to a time-bound formula. We are talking not about equal being 50:50, but about equal being fair. We have some lawyers here today. The concept of reasonableness is easily understood by lawyers and it would be practically understood in the family courts. I cannot understand why the Government should disregard our new clause.
In 2004, Lord Justice Wall, as quoted by Lord Adonis in the other place, said:
“Unless there are cogent reasons against it the children of separated parents are entitled to know and have the love and society of both their parents…the courts recognise the vital importance of the role of non-resident fathers in the lives of their children”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 11 October 2005; Vol. 674, c. GC6-7.]
The Government pay due regard to case law, the position of Ministers and the settled opinion of a wide variety of groups that are stakeholders in the debate, but they cannot go that final step in accepting the reasonable amendment of inserting the word “reasonable” in the Bill.
We have to ask ourselves whether the Children Act really meant contact to be a postcard, a snatched telephone call or a trip to McDonald’s for 30 minutes? When we enacted that landmark legislation under a Conservative Government in 1989, did we really mean to enshrine in legislation that level of contact? The answer is, no, we did not. Surely it is right that the family courts should be predisposed towards reasonableness and that the burden of proof should lie in favour of more reasonable contact.
There is one thing on which I will agree with the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke). [Interruption.] Steady on. There is a human rights issue in respect of our obligations to the United Nations. At present, the United Kingdom is de facto in breach of the UN convention on the rights of the child, because it can be argued that it prevents reasonable access to children’s parents.
I will talk briefly—I hope—on grandparents’ rights, which is the subject of new clause 19. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) for his reasonable, cogent and well argued new clause. I am sorry that, in some respects, it looks as though the Government are going to ignore that and ignore the huge welter of evidence from our postbags and surgeries that an injustice needs to be righted with respect to grandparents.
Two of my constituents who are grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. Jennings, have found themselves responsible through no fault of their own for the care of two very young children at a time in their life when they are on reduced incomes and when they are least able to look after them. They have absolutely no assistance whatsoever. They wrote to Ministers some considerable time ago, but they contacted me today to say that they still have not had a reply. Does my hon. Friend agree that perhaps we should be looking at providing more assistance for grandparents, not less?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I am sure that the Minister is listening closely with respect to the correspondence entered into by her constituents.
In Committee, we did not have as long as we would have liked to debate the issue of grandparents’ rights and the diminution of those rights in respect of the family court, so you will forgive me if I put the importance of new clause 19 into context, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Again, this is a debate about the value society places on people who do a fantastic job in caring for their family, whose love is unconditional and who feel excluded from the decision-making processes in family courts in particular. Let us make no mistake: grandparents are role models and good carers. They are a bridge between the past and the future. The case for reform in relation to the issue raised by the hon. Member for Stafford is compelling. How can it be right that many grandparents, often on low incomes, in or near retirement, become the sole carers for their grandchildren, but, in taking on that vital role as foster parents, do not have the same rights as unrelated foster parents in terms of their income, benefits and allowances? That issue was brought to our attention by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mrs. Dorries).
The issue is not party political in that respect. I repeat that the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) has done an excellent job in keeping the issue at the top of the agenda with his studies and the reports that he has produced about grandparents in his constituency on the Wirral and the difficulties that they have making ends meet as foster parents. I commend to the House a report produced by the families and social capital group at London South Bank university last summer, “An Evaluation of the Grandparent-Toddler Groups Initiative”, which shows the positive impact that grandparents have on very young children and the work that they do in saving the state significant amounts of public money.
Again, the obsession with the paramountcy principle is being used to block reasonable access by grandparents. I do not believe that that is right. I cannot believe that the Government have not made a more compelling argument against getting rid of the requirement to seek leave of a court to apply for a contact order. I read the reports of the Standing Committee and the Second Reading debate and I could not find a coherent argument against that from the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston. The Government seem to have decided that no amount of argument—even by people as eloquent as the hon. Member for Stafford—will prevent them from carrying on as they are now, which means continuing to be unfair to grandparents vis-à-vis non-family carers. When I say grandparents, I mean extended family carers as well. The irony is that primary legislation is not needed. The measure could have been enacted by secondary legislation two or three years ago. There is a consensus across the House. I would like the Minister to look at that point and to make the case for why the measure has not been enacted.
We face some key challenges on the question of grandparents, although I think that the argument is coming our way. People realise that it is wrong to discriminate financially. It is wrong that the 1989 Act has not been implemented properly in respect of the financial circumstances of grandparents and the presumption that grandparents and the extended family should be considered as carers before others. I am thus delighted to support new clause 19, which was tabled by the hon. Member for Stafford. I am proud to be associated with the campaign of the Grandparents Association and others. They have done an excellent job.
Let us work on a cross-party basis. I will be delighted if the Minister says that the power of my rhetoric and my eloquence and soaring oratory has convinced him of the right thing to do. We would need not a new Bill, but good sense and the political will to right a profound wrong. I hope that he will make my day and that of the hon. Member for Stafford by agreeing to do that—[Interruption.] I notice that the Minister for the Cabinet Office, the former Chief Whip, has not moved on to new pastures and is still heckling from the Front Bench. However, I conclude by repeating my support for the new clauses that I have mentioned.
I fear that the consensus that we have achieved so far today might be about to come to an end. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) put some statistics on the record, so I thought that I would kick off by doing the same. He might not entirely agree with the figures, but they come from the Office for National Statistics. About three quarters of non-resident parents have some direct contact. Around three quarters of non-resident parents have either direct or indirect contact at least once a week, and less than 10 per cent. of non-resident parents have no contact with their children at all. It is also worth saying that less than 1 per cent. of applications for contact are refused by the courts. Those statistics give some of the context for the debate that the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) wanted to put on record.
The new clauses and new schedule in the large and varied group are united by a desire to promote contact between children and both their parents, or other relatives, following parental separation. Some of the measures raise specific points to which I will turn in due course, but there are fundamental points of principle that run through all of them.
First, I make it absolutely clear that it is our view that children will nearly always benefit from a continued and meaningful relationship with both parents following separation, so long as that is safe and in their best interest. I believe that we can all agree on that, and the debates in Committee made it clear that hon. Members on both sides of the House are united behind that position. Our view is that the legislative framework that we have in place, which is centred on the excellent Children Act 1989, is the right one. The paramountcy principle is clearly laid out in that Act, which says clearly and without qualification that when deciding any question affecting a child’s upbringing, the welfare of the child should be the court’s paramount consideration. I do not think that there is any disagreement about that either.
The worry that hon. Members on both sides of the House have expressed is about what is happening in practice. We all regularly hear sad stories from our constituents in our surgeries. Such cases are the motivation behind many of the measures in this group of new clauses. The vast majority of the measures would insert provisions into the Children Act to direct the courts to promote, or presume that there should be, contact with both parents, but that causes us much concern. We have examined the matter closely, but, quite simply, we cannot find a form of words that would send such a signal to the courts without moving the focus of legislation away from the fundamental principle that the welfare of the child is paramount. Any shift in favour of a presumption would be a move towards a legal model under which a court would have to start by assuming the specific position that as much contact as possible is in a child’s best interest. It would have to take that position independently of considering the facts of a particular case and move away from it only in exceptional circumstances. Such an approach would be very different from starting by considering an individual child and ordering what is best for that child, which is the legal position that we have at present. I believe that that position is right.
However, that is not to say that everything is perfect—that is something on which I agree with the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham. We share the concern that there might be a need for a change in practice and a shift towards better support for families to help to ensure that both parents remain involved in parenting. Such an approach would require a shift that was more cultural than legislative.
I hope that I have explained not only our general concerns about the measures, but our sympathy for the intentions behind them. Some of the measures raise specific difficulties that I shall now address.
The aim of several of the measures is to try to avert cases from going to the courts by giving parents an idea in advance of what a court would be likely to order. The problem of trying to do that is illustrated graphically by new schedule 1, which new clause 25 would insert in the Bill, in which the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole has made a valiant attempt to set out what default contact arrangements might look like. As hon. Members will have noted, new schedule 1 is extremely detailed. I am sure that the hon. Lady accepts that it is easy to imagine the objections that would come in from parents about why the arrangements would not be appropriate in their individual case. Even more concerning is the fact that the new schedule would apply to people who had never been anywhere near a court, so it would represent a rather inappropriate intrusion by the state into the lives of private individuals who have not turned to the courts at all.
Although new clause 9 is essentially about a presumption of contact, it would have the very odd effect of changing the no order principle in the Children Act 1989. That principle, as it stands, says that a court should not make an order unless it is satisfied that doing so is better for the child than making no order at all. That is self-evidently a sensible position, but new clause 9 would drive a coach and horses through it by saying, in effect, that a court should make an order for “reasonable contact”, even in the absence of any evidence that doing so would be better for the child than making no order.
New clause 11 would require the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service and local authority officers to proceed on a presumption of reasonable contact when carrying out family assistance orders. Such a requirement would be odd in the context of orders that are intended to support children and families. The role of an officer carrying out such an order is to “advise, assist, and befriend”, usually in the context of directions given by a court, not to make assumptions about what may or may not be in those people’s best interests.
New clauses 12 and 17 would insert presumptions of contact into the welfare checklist. I am impressed by the innovation of the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham because he seems to have come at the Bill from every angle to try to find a way of getting his point across. Such measures would be an especially inappropriate way of proceeding. As was explained in Committee, the welfare checklist is a list of things to which courts must have regard when making their decisions. It includes matters such as any harm that the child may have suffered, the ascertainable wishes and feelings of a child and the capacity of a child’s parents to look after the child. All those factors are relevant, but do not direct the court one way or another about what it should decide. There is thus a clear and stark difference between the approaches. A presumption of contact would be a very strange addition to the checklist in this context. A further problem would be that the welfare checklist applies in public law cases, such as care proceedings, although I do not believe that the hon. Gentleman would wish such cases to be covered by new clause 12.
New clauses 13, 4, and 24 express in different ways a simple presumption of contact. I have said already that we are concerned that all the new clauses would move away from the paramountcy principle as the centre of children’s law, which we would consider to be deeply undesirable.
New clause 24 makes some attempts to explain what “reasonable contact” means, including the worthy sentence that it should facilitate
“a positive and fulfilling relationship”
We can all agree with that as a goal, but I do not believe that a statutory presumption is the best way forward.
New clause 16 extends the principle of a presumption to the extended family. I know that it reflects the concerns of grandparents in particular, to which I shall return in a moment. Grandparents are sometimes tragically excluded from their children’s lives as a result of a conflict between parents. That is unjust and it can have a terrible side effect, given the pain that individuals feel at the end of a relationship. It is, however, not something that can be solved by a presumption that would serve only to weaken the paramountcy principle.
New clause 18 comes at the problem from yet another perspective. I have discussed the clause—we had a discussion outside the Chamber—with my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney), who was a little downhearted earlier on because he did not see me giving in on this issue. I know that my hon. Friend’s aim is to find a way through the difficulties that I have set out, namely avoiding conflict with the paramountcy principle. He does so by setting out, instead of a presumption, a set of objectives that the court should have in mind when making provision about contact with the child. These are worthy objectives, including reducing the risk of harm to the child and promoting contact between the child and the child’s parents and other family members.
Unfortunately, as I said to my hon. Friend when we met, the new clause does not avoid the danger of upsetting the paramountcy principle. It would effectively alter the starting point of the court, away from whatever is best for an individual child and towards making orders that would fit with the objectives set out in new clause 18.
Finally, there is new clause 19.
My hon. Friend kindly refers to our discussions, so he knows that I do not agree with his conclusion. However, putting that on one side, he talks about a change in culture. Will he at least give the commitment today that there will be adequate resources for contact activities, risk assessments and the education that is necessary so that parents understand their responsibilities?
I give that commitment to my hon. Friend. If he is patient, I may give him other commitments as well. I know that when we spoke he was keen on the work that has been done, which has been agreed by Baroness Ashton. That involved a closer look at the breakdown of contact in the 99.2 per cent. of cases where contact is awarded. It would be good to see how that work progresses. I gather that we now have the academics in place who will undertake that work. I am sure that they could feed back into that work for future guidelines, which I am sure that CAFCASS and other organisations would wish to take on board.
New clause 19 focuses on the important issue of contact with grandparents, and the need for them to seek the leave of the court to apply for contact orders. The Government recognise the value of grandparents and the significant role that they and other relatives play in children’s lives. Where there is a requirement for the court’s permission to apply for contact, that exists to filter out applications that are unlikely to succeed, and which may not be in the child’s best interests. It prevents children from becoming involved unnecessarily in court proceedings. The underpinning rationale for the three-year period is to ensure that a solid degree of commitment has been shown to the child.
I think that I have made the point on new clause 17 already. I will be happy to provide further information to the hon. Lady in writing. It does not sound as if I have satisfied her with the conclusions that I have come to on that new clause.
On grandparents, the courts will consider whether to grant leave at the same time as the first hearing in contact proceedings. Thus, applicants are not required to pay two sets of fees and the requirement does not create delay. We have considered the issue with great care. On balance, I think that the requirement for leave and a three-year period is an important safeguard. However, having listened to the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson), and having had good discussions with my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford, I can undertake to review cases of grandparents who have to seek leave of the court. I am happy to do that and to engage in some further work in that area.