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Child Maintenance

Volume 461: debated on Monday 4 June 2007

5. Whether he plans to review issues relating to child contact and access as part of his reforms of child maintenance. (140294)

Does the Minister not realise that, in many instances, fathers are being excluded from the upbringing of their children? Although it was recognised that there were good reasons for separating the issues when the current legislation was introduced, does he agree that every child benefits from access to, and contact with, both parents, and from both parents being involved in their upbringing? Would this not be a good moment to review the legislation and consider shared parenting?

On the hon. Lady’s first point, I agree that it is of course desirable that both parents continue to be involved in the upbringing of the child. We would all subscribe to that idea. However, the point is that relationships break down, and it is then up to the separating couple to decide how they will maintain their relationship with the child or children. Some couples will do that voluntarily and others as a result of being forced to do so by an agreement that is arrived at in court. However, what should not happen is that a dispute between parents results in the child or children becoming a pawn in the settlement of maintenance. The two issues are linked, but in establishing a system of determining maintenance, it is important that they are not linked in the way in which the hon. Lady suggests.

I say to my hon. Friend respectfully that it is not a bad idea to consider that issue as part of the review and reform of the child support process. In doing so, will he consider the case of one of my constituents, Frances Lyttle, who has had a nightmare 10 years since her husband left her with two children? She was in court today, trying to resolve divorce issues. The Child Support Agency is absolutely incapable, and it is so inflexible that its actions are creating an injustice while the courts try to bring about a just settlement.

My right hon. Friend is, I think, talking about contact orders, which are not the responsibility of the Child Support Agency, nor will they be the responsibility of its successor body. She may be aware that the Government have already taken action in the Children and Adoption Act 2006 to try to reinforce contact orders. I repeat that we would not want a tussle between parents over contact to drag in the children and make them a pawn in the argument. That would not be right, which is why the issues are quite properly kept separate. The matter was reconsidered in the context of David Henshaw’s review, and there was no consensus among the groups that were consulted for any change in the arrangements, which is why we have decided to persist with them.

It is not often that I entirely agree with the Minister but, on this subject, I do. As someone who has dealt with the matter as a solicitor and as a Member of Parliament, I urge him to resist calls to link the two issues, because there is a real danger of children being used as pawns by both sides in such an argument. It is important that the issues are kept separate.