I beg to move,
That this House has considered grandparents’ rights of access to children.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I am pleased to be able to bring this important debate to the House today, because the issue of grandparents being unable to access their grandchildren affects families right across the UK. I have received a significant amount of correspondence from my own constituents. They write to me after family breakdowns and changes in circumstances, seeking guidance on how to go about reaching out to their grandchildren or having legal access.
I adored all my grandparents from both my mum’s and my dad’s family and have fond memories of them from when I was growing up. It is a sad reflection on us that we have not managed properly to reflect in legislation the hugely important role that grandparents play in society. My own dad adores his grandchildren, Finley and Neve, and they adore him back, so whenever I am contacted by constituents, I naturally refer to my own family and simply cannot imagine how hard not having contact must be for everyone involved.
As many hon. Members will know, this is never a straightforward issue to resolve. Distance between grandparents and their grandchildren can come about in a number of ways: marital breakdown, bereavement and family disagreements, to name but a few. For the grandparents and the children from whom they are separated, it can be an incredibly distressing time. The issue has been discussed previously in the House in debates on private Members’ Bills, in Adjournment debates and, indeed, in conversations with colleagues on both sides of the House.
I heartily congratulate my hon. Friend on raising this important issue in the House today. Like me, he has received many communications showing the real emotional turmoil that many grandparents feel when they are estranged from their grandchildren. Does he agree that it is always an error when, as is sometimes the case, grandchildren are used as weapons in messy divorces?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. I agree that this situation can be very distressing, and it is obviously wrong for children to be used as weapons by anyone, in any situation. It is very distressing for everyone involved. Often, with the constituents who come to see me, I see only their side, their version of events, and not that of the children involved, but I can tell from my own family that it would be very distressing for the grandchildren not to see their grandparents. This is an issue that does not go away and that does not have a simple solution, no matter how much I wish that there were one. In debates such as this, it is important to remember that the rights of the grandchildren matter as much as those of the grandparents. Children should be given the opportunity to visit their grandparents if they wish to do so.
I would like to use the opportunity provided by the debate to praise the charities and organisations that aim to help grandparents who have become estranged from their grandchildren, often through no fault of their own. One such charity is GranPart, which operates in my constituency of Northampton South and aims to help grandparents in the county with advice and services that allow them to try to reconnect with their grandchildren, or at least to share their experiences with others and share best practice in order that people can try to reconnect with their own families. I have attended the monthly meeting and listened to some of the distressing stories of how grandparents have ended up losing contact with their grandchildren. Sometimes that is because arguments have gone too far; sometimes it can be due to families separating; and sometimes people never really understand the reasons why.
Some people have written to me to suggest that the situation could be changed with a few minor amendments to the wording of the Children Act 1989. That primarily means adding in a reference to a child’s extended family as well as to their parents. That minor change could ensure that grandparents were given rights to see their grandchildren that were similar to the rights of any parent in order to help to secure the child’s welfare, and ensure that grandparents were not negatively impacted by any change to a child’s family situation. However, I can envisage situations in which that could lead to conflict. In most families, the primary responsibility for bringing up children lies with the parents, and I would not wish to see parental responsibility confused in any way by giving additional rights to grandparents that superseded the role of a parent or, as my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) said, that could be used as a weapon in any disagreement.
My hon. Friend will recall that on 31 January my constituent, Lorraine Bushell, and the Hendon grandparents support group had a lobby day here in Parliament. One issue that they raised was not that grandparents should have a specific right to access to their grandchildren, but that the child should have a right, as in France, to have contact with their extended family.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. I do recall the event that was held here. I think that it was held in a room not far from this Chamber, and the room was packed to overflowing. Many hon. Members were present to lend their support to the campaign and to receive the advice and information on best practice that was offered on the day.
My hon. Friend will be dismayed but not surprised to learn that at my last advice surgery I, too, saw grandparents who were suffering in this way. Their plea was for a change in thinking, a change in culture, because they had been advised that their only recourse was through the courts, and they did not want to put their grandchildren through that or to create further tensions within the family.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her intervention. I have had similar constituency surgeries, at which similar stories have been relayed to me. I am also grateful for the previous intervention, in which my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) talked about the law in France. That point should be considered, and I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister will come to it when he responds to the debate. I understand that the law in England and Wales gives the family court the power to make various orders about children, including about with whom they can spend time. Grandparents would be required to seek the permission of the court before applying, but that would probably be allowed if deemed to be in the child’s best interests. Perhaps—this is an issue for the Minister to address—that could be reconsidered to give grandparents an automatic presumption for the family court.
When grandparents lose access, it can be even more difficult if they do not have any access to information about the children or know their whereabouts. In the same way as my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) described, a lady came to my surgery and told me that she did not know where her grandchildren were living or what they looked like any more and she had no access to information about them. She would have loved to have had contact with her grandchildren, but it also kept her very worried that she did not have any information about them and did not even know whether they were safe and being looked after. In that situation, I was able to write to Northamptonshire County Council and say that if any information was able to be passed on, I would be able to do that. It replied simply that the children were safe.
There are sometimes obvious safeguarding reasons why information cannot be shared, but I think that the matter could be looked at again to see how the law can ensure safeguarding while also allowing grandparents to have basic information about their grandchildren just to reassure them that they are safe and well. I hope that, after the election, the issue of grandparents’ access to children can be taken forward by working together to ensure that the voice of grandparents, too, is taken into account when working with families. I will now draw my comments to an end. I look forward to hearing from other hon. Members and from the Minister.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Northampton South (David Mackintosh) on securing it and on introducing it so well. This issue is clearly of importance to those of us who are in Westminster Hall today, and I believe that it is also of importance to other hon. Members who unfortunately, for whatever reason, have been unable to make it to the Chamber or, indeed, are preparing for the election, which two weeks ago none of us was aware of. This issue comes up at advice centres. It comes up at my advice centre back home as well.
I declare an interest—because I am of that age—as a doting grandfather. Looking round the Chamber, I am not sure whether everyone is a grandparent, but I know that you, Mr Streeter, have achieved that goal. When I held my eldest son Jamie in my arms some 29 years ago, I thought that nothing in this world could top the pride and love that I felt as I looked into that perfect little face. I was wrong. There was a little girl who made her way into this world and into a special place in her grandfather’s heart that had never been touched before. My little Katie is eight years old. When I thought there was no more room left in my heart, little Mia came along—she is just three years old—underlining the fact that there is nothing more enjoyable than time with grandchildren. There is also the fact that, as we all know, they can be handed back whenever they get a bit stroppy. That is one of the great advantages of being a grandparent.
The fact of the matter is that we are here today in Westminster Hall to debate this issue because we want to ensure access for grandparents. I am lucky; I have access to my grandchildren. I am very fortunate. I am also fortunate that most of my family and friends are in the same position.
I am absolutely convinced that the hon. Gentleman is a magnificent grandfather in many respects and an archetypal grandparent. This is a two-way thing. Both my grandmothers are still alive, and they are both 91 years old. One of them virtually brought me up from what was effectively a broken home. The relationship and bond that we formed is something that has carried me through my entire life. I cannot imagine anything worse than not having access. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the right of children to have access to their grandparents is so important?
I fully and totally agree with that. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and for the words he put forward. I do not think anyone in the Chamber would not have the same opinion. There is something special about a grandparent’s relationship with their grandchildren, and I do not say that just because I am one. My mother is still living. She is 85 years old, and will soon be 86. As a great-grandparent, she dotes on the wee children. She always wants to hear what they are doing. That bond develops at a very early stage, even between my grandchildren and their great-grandmother. It creates a nice warm feeling. Unfortunately, there are many who long to see their grandchildren and are denied that opportunity. That is the reason for this debate today.
I am hoping to get away on a holiday this summer—probably for the first time—with my wife and the grandchildren. The memories made on that trip will be the stuff of dreams, because that is how dreams are made. The photographs will be special, and I will be able to spend quality time with them with no pressure. One way of ensuring that there is no pressure is to leave that mobile phone at home, because then you are incommunicado for a certain period of time. I can do that because my son and his wife are happy for me to be with Katie and Mia as much as I want.
I do not take that for granted, when I see so many grandparents shut out of their grandchildren’s lives, whether that is due to marital break-ups, a spin-off from the breakdown of a relationship, people moving away, or grandchildren being used as a tool against the grandparents. The guidance on access for grandparents to their grandchildren states that access should initially be sought through agreement with the parents or carers of the child, as the hon. Member for Northampton South outlined in his introduction. However, where such an agreement cannot be made, the grandparent can seek the leave of the court and, if successful, apply for a child arrangements order to agree access. That is all very well, but it is not as simple as that. It is not easy to do when parents are estranged, and unfortunately children are often used as a weapon, which is very painful.
As a grandparent, I can only imagine being cut out of my beautiful granddaughters’ lives. I would certainly do everything in my power to facilitate Katie and Mia visiting, no matter what, but if that was not possible and could not be achieved, I would have to go to court for access, which is expensive and soul-destroying when grandparents’ rights are so restricted. The hon. Gentleman made a salient point in his final few words about the pain that going to court causes not only to grandparents and parents but to children. They cannot quite understand what is going on or what all the arguments and fights are about, but they know that something is wrong and that they are the piggy in the middle, if I can use that terminology, being pulled from all sides. All sides may genuinely love their children or grandchildren, but access can be denied.
It is good to see the Minister in his place, and we look forward to his response. More must be done to support access rights. If that means enacting legislation to enshrine clearer rights for grandparents—that is what has been suggested by the hon. Gentleman and in interventions, and it is what I would look for, too—then that is what needs to happen. The Government enjoy the fact that one in four working families rely on grandparents for childcare, which saves the Government money in tax credits and childcare vouchers; it follows that grandparents should receive the benefit of Government notice and attention. That is what we are here today trying to achieve—that their rights are protected should the unthinkable happen. If today’s debate moves that process on and enables legislative change to come in the next Parliament, and if the Minister is able to respond in a suitable way, I would speak strongly in support. A nanny tax credit and such things are great, but it is clear that more support is needed for those who are not able to see their grandchild or grandchildren.
I fully support the motion and look to the Minister to ensure that, when the new Government are in place after 9 June, they take the issue on board and take steps to clarify further the rights of grandparents in the UK as a whole. On behalf of grandparents who do not have access to their grandchildren, I say passionately that that would be a step in the right direction.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I thank and congratulate the hon. Member for Northampton South (David Mackintosh) on bringing such an important issue before Parliament. His speech set out the various considerations associated with this sensitive issue.
Grandparents can enrich the lives of children and provide support to parents trying to balance work and home life. They can also be the only people who tell parents off—I remember it was great hearing my mum’s mum telling her off—and often grandparents are the ones who stick up for the children and give them treats and things. The importance of grandparents in the lives of children cannot be stated often enough. Many people who have been lucky enough to enjoy a close and loving relationship with their grandparents accept that it is one of the best experiences a person can have, as the hon. Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) said.
However, family relationships sometimes break down. Having worked in family law, I am well aware of the pain and distress that frequently accompanies family breakdown. At its most extreme, it results in children being taken into care. Where there is a responsible grandparent available who can step in and avert that outcome, that is surely to be welcomed. A more frequent occurrence, as hon. Members have said, is grandparents becoming detached from their grandchildren when the parents separate. When that happens, grandparents who have been a central part of the child’s life can feel understandably excluded. It is quite right that they should have some form of redress to apply for access.
The current means used to decide where a child lives and with whom they have contact is child arrangements orders, which were introduced by the Children and Families Act 2014 to replace the previous framework of contact and residence orders. A child arrangements order can determine where a child lives, who a child spends time with— those persons are named in the order. It also details who they can make phone calls to, who they can visit and what activities they can do with a named, specific person.
Under the present system, the grandparents have to seek leave from a court to apply for a child arrangements order, and only if they have lived with the child for three years. The application generally requires leave from the court. That can cause a lot of problems. The stipulation of having stayed with the child for a minimum of three years can exclude various different arrangements, such as those applying to grandparents who have not specifically spent three years with the child, but are on the scene and see the children and provide a lot of support.
Over the past number of years, it seems that the number of grandparents applying for rights of access has gone down. That is unusual, bearing in mind that a lot of grandparents want to have access to their grandchildren. One reason is that they have to jump through the hoop of applying for leave, then going through the process, which can be quite costly and time-consuming. Many grandparents are not able to avail themselves of the process.
The Labour Government produced a Green Paper in 2010 with the intention of removing the requirement to seek the leave of the court, and a family justice review was set up in March 2010. That provision was supported by the coalition Government, who ordered a review in November 2010. However, they took the view that the need for grandparents to apply for the leave of the court before making an application for contact should remain. That is a plausible explanation for why the number of grandparents applying has reduced.
Obviously, everyone wants to prevent vexatious claims from grandparents or people doing it for malicious purposes—we want to ensure that those who go for it do so with the best motives at heart—but I am sure that if people in the legal profession put their heads together, they could come up with an acceptable halfway house. Perhaps we could offer free legal advice to grandparents about their options, or make the process simpler and speedier.
That is a helpful way to deal with these things. Arbitration or mediation has been found to work in many scenarios—whether for the divorce settlements of couples who are separating or for access to children, even if the person is in employment. We could explore that option, which is not expensive and is much more straightforward.
As I said, I am sure that if legal professionals and others in the system put their heads together, they would come up with a system that is much more flexible and responsive to grandparents’ needs and enables them to see their grandchildren without enormous legal obstacles and hoops that they have to jump through. This is not a party political issue: everybody accepts that grandparents have a very important role to play. I am sure the Department can come up with a more flexible, less costly solution that requires grandparents to jump through fewer hoops.
We have had a very constructive, warm-hearted debate. I think we all found it moving to hear the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) talk about the love they feel for their grandchildren and the very special role that grandparents can play. The hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) talked about her grandmother telling her mother off and what fun that was. I think we all recognise that. Extended family life is important to all of us.
The hon. Member for Strangford made a good point about mediation. I did some family law cases as a barrister, and I have often thought that mediation can lead to the settlement of a family dispute or the breakdown of a relationship with less confrontation and heartache for everybody involved, so I think that was a very wise point. Comments were made about the pain of family breakdown and the court hearing. All of that is very well taken.
I cannot make any announcements today because we are in purdah, but I have previously said that, assuming the electorate allow it, we will introduce a Green Paper later in the year on family justice, which will provide the opportunity to look at these issues and a number of others that hon. Members touched on. Having said all that, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South (David Mackintosh) on securing this debate on an issue that is vital and, as he said, complex. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter.
The sorts of experiences that we are discussing—heart-breaking stories, as my hon. Friend put it—were recognised at his meeting with GranPart in Northampton, an organisation in which I know he takes a particular interest, as well as talking to his constituents more generally about the issue. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) what constituents have told her about the issue. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord), who said that he has a strong support group in his constituency, that children should not be used as weapons.
I am sure that most children see their grandparents as important figures in their life and benefit tremendously from a positive relationship with them. For many children, loving relationships with grandparents enrich family life. As was mentioned, grandparents often play a key role in the raising of their grandchildren, particularly with so many parents at work these days, and I recognise that grandparents can be a great source of stability for children when parents decide to separate. They can provide a sense of continuity in traumatic circumstances at a time when children are fragile. Sometimes, when parents are unable to meet their children’s needs, grandparents can take on full responsibility for their care.
After parental separation, in many cases, grandparents continue to enjoy relationships with their grandchildren, although the circumstances are obviously different as the parents live apart. However, there are some cases in which grandparents are prevented from seeing their children, with no good reason. The Government recognise the immense distress caused to grandparents and children when parents separate. In such difficult circumstances, which are similar to bereavement, children often feel a greater sense of loss: they have lost not only a parent, but grandparents too. I am sure that some hon. Members and hon. Friends who have spoken in this debate will recognise such scenarios from the constituency experiences that they have described.
High-conflict cases involving disputes over children can have an impact on those children. Parents can end up viewing grandparents as being on the other party’s side, which can become a barrier to their continued involvement in their grandchildren’s lives. Grandparents, too, can be tempted to see the other parent as the enemy because they feel that their son or daughter has been wronged. That is part of the difficulty, unpleasantness, hurt and distress of a break-up, and such feelings of hurt are fully understandable, but if the children are exposed to that sort of adult conflict, it is damaging for them. That is why the current law does not provide for any automatic decisions, but gives the court great flexibility.
On grandparents in private law disputes, when grandparents’ informal attempts to secure ongoing involvement in their grandchildren’s lives fail, they have the option of asking the court to intervene. They might not want to; as my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne said, they might feel that there has been enough hurt and distress in the family without going to court and facing it all again. The Children Act 1989 includes arrangements that help grandparents to re-establish relationships with their grandchildren when things go wrong, but a court process is involved. Family courts can make a child arrangements order to determine with whom a child is to live, spend time or otherwise have contact, and when and where such arrangements are to take place.
A child arrangements order will usually provide for direct face-to-face contact, such as long or short visits and overnight stays where appropriate. It may also provide for the child to have no contact with a person or specify that that contact is to be indirect, through emails, telephone calls, letters or cards. There is a lot of flexibility in the court’s powers to make a child arrangements order, but the welfare of the child is the paramount consideration when the court considers any matter that relates to their upbringing. That is in contrast to any perceived rights of any adult family members.
Whether the court will order that a grandparent should have involvement in a child’s life will depend on a number of factors. Where one or both parents oppose such involvement, the court will apply the factors in the welfare checklist in section 1 of the 1989 Act. It may ask the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service to produce a welfare report on the beneficial impact of grandparent involvement and on any risks of harm from ongoing parental opposition to such involvement and from the exposure of the child to the resulting conflict. That report may include the ascertainable wishes and feelings of the child; obviously, the older the child is, the more important those are considered to be.
It is open to anyone, including a grandparent or other family member, to apply for a child arrangements order. However, the situation is not the same as that for parents; as has been said, grandparents and other family members usually need to obtain the permission of the court before proceedings can begin. This may appear to be an extra hurdle, but experience suggests that grandparents do not usually experience any difficulty in obtaining permission if their application is really about the interests of the child. Permission to apply may be sought at the same time as making the application itself, just by ticking a box—there is no extra fee, process, or hearing.
The leave requirement is designed not as an obstacle, but as a filter. The idea is to sift out applications that are not in the child’s best interests, such as vexatious applications. I reassure hon. Members that the law sets out clear objective criteria for the court to determine these issues. There are exceptions; not every case requires leave. In certain circumstances, grandparents do not have to apply for permission. Under section 10(5) of the 1989 Act, a grandparent may automatically be entitled to apply for a child arrangements order if
“the child has lived for…at least three years”
with them; the three-year period
“need not be continuous but must not have begun more than five years before, or ended more than three months before, the making of the application.”
A grandparent may also apply under section 10(5) if they have the consent of both the parents or
“the consent of each of the persons named”
in an existing child arrangements order, in which case there is no need to obtain leave to apply.
I referred to the fact that many grandparents look after their grandchildren when they are out of school and the parents are working. Has the Minister had a chance to consider whether the childminding that grandparents do could be part of the solution that we are trying to find? If the grandparents are making a constructive contribution, such as by childminding, will the Government look at whether we can use that as a method of coming to an agreement?
That is certainly an interesting thought. Of course, I cannot say what the next Government will do. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are in the funny—well, the important and democratic—period of seeking re-election. [Interruption.] Very, very important, yes. We must not take the electorate for granted, and one Parliament cannot bind another, but if the Green Paper process goes ahead, which I hope it will, all these issues can be looked at in that context. A history of having minded the child in the way that the hon. Gentleman mentioned is an important factor.
I think we would all agree that disputes over children can be very complex—a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South. Parental disputes over children can also affect wider family relationships, and the relationship between the children and their significant relatives can be vulnerable to an unpleasant breakdown involving a lot of distress. No one would want to rekindle distress or make it worse for the child.
Research has provided some insights. A study funded by the Nuffield Foundation, a charity that aims to improve social well-being, gives some insights into how easy it can be for wider family members to become embroiled in conflicts over children. The study was of 197 case files from county courts in England and Wales in 2011, and its primary aims were to understand the detail of different types of childcare arrangements set up during litigation at county court level and to shed some light on how the different types of county court orders then in existence were used and understood. Some 12% of the cases examined were not disputes between parents but involved non-parents, such as grandparents or other relatives who were caring for the children, and three of the cases concerned applications from grandparents to have contact.
Although the sample size was small, the findings shed light on how some grandparents can become directly involved in conflicts that can negatively influence their grandchildren. The findings also demonstrate the considerable lengths to which the court will go to facilitate a child’s involvement with their grandparents, and the court’s difficult task of weighing up the benefits and risks of such contact. I think we would all agree that the principle of grandparents being part of a child’s life is a very important one, and the research shows that the courts take it seriously too.
I will say something about public law cases because grandparents play an important role in them. It is a principle of the 1989 Act that local authorities should support the upbringing of a child by their family wherever possible, if it is the most appropriate way to safeguard the child’s welfare. Local authorities can apply to the court for a care order when they believe that a child has suffered or is likely to suffer risk of significant harm. The care order allows the authority to take over the welfare of the child. Local authorities must seek to give preference to placing looked-after children with wider family members first, if it is not possible to return them to the birth family and, if that is not possible, with a friend or another person connected with them. The court can appoint a special guardian as a permanent alternative to long-term foster care or adoption, and that is often a family member such as a grandparent, or a friend.
In conclusion, the courts recognise the importance of children maintaining relationships with their grandparents following parental separation. Family courts are cognisant of that when considering applications relating to child arrangements. However, such cases are not straightforward, given the tensions and ongoing conflict that can often arise when parents separate, and for that reason, as I am sure hon. Members will agree, the welfare of the children must continue to be the paramount concern.
We have had a good debate and some good points have been made. If the Green Paper process goes ahead, as I hope it will, there will be an opportunity for us to consider the matter more fully and for organisations that have particular viewpoints to make a contributions.
Thank you, Mr Streeter. I will be brief. I thank the Minister for his response and all hon. Members who have taken part. I know that my constituents who have experience of this type of separation from their grandchildren and are watching the debate will be grateful that the matter has been talked about here in Parliament and will look forward to the Green Paper process hopefully continuing in the autumn.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered grandparents’ rights of access to children.