I beg to move,
That this House has considered grandchildren’s access right to their grandparents.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher, and I am grateful for the opportunity to introduce this debate. Since announcing that this debate was happening, I have been inundated with emails, letters and calls from grandparents and grandchildren from across the country expressing their support, and many colleagues from across the House have told me that they have been dealing with cases on this issue for many years. I extend a special thank you to Dame Esther Rantzen and to Jane and Marc Jackson from the Bristol Grandparents Support Group, who first brought the issue to my attention. I thank the Minister, as we have had several conversations about this issue over the past few months.
This is not the first time that this issue has been debated in the House of Commons. A similar debate took place about a year ago. Unfortunately, because of purdah rules close to the election, the then Minister was unable to give the full response that I think he expected to give. A Green Paper was mentioned. I hope that the new Minister—the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Lucy Frazer)—will be able to give a fuller response today. We will ensure she has time.
As I said in a question to the Prime Minister late last year, divorce and family breakdown can take an emotional toll on all involved, but the family dynamic that is all too often overlooked is that between grandparents and their grandchildren. When access to grandchildren is blocked, some grandparents call it a kind of living bereavement. Unlike some other countries, grandparents in the UK have no automatic rights to see their grandchildren, and vice versa. I count myself lucky that I had a very good relationship with my grandparents when I was growing up—I went on holidays with them and saw them virtually every weekend—but I am well aware that not every family is fortunate enough to have that family dynamic.
The estrangement of grandchildren from grandparents happens for a wide variety of reasons: divorce, bereavement, marital breakdown or just a falling out between family members. However the estrangement has come about, rarely is it anything to do with the grandchildren. That is why I have deliberately worded the motion for the debate today so that the emphasis is on children’s rights as well as those of their grandparents. They are the innocent victims in family breakdown. The loss of the relationship with their grandparents is usually the result of a disagreement among the adults, and the children have had no say and no control over the matter.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. I have received volumes of precisely those sorts of comment in the emails sent to me over the past few weeks. It is a compelling point.
Large numbers of children in family breakdowns are left very sad and confused about the sudden loss of contact with their grandparents, which in many cases goes completely and utterly unexplained. The children are then left feeling that they have been unloved by their grandparents or believe that their grandparents simply did not want to see them anymore.
One grandson who was denied contact with his grandparents from the age of 10 said to me,
“as a child, you are powerless to insist that you see your grandparents, however much you may want to. I feel a sense of deep loss, guilt and regret. I truly hope that my grandparents still knew of our love for them, and that we were powerless to do anything.”
Another grandchild referred to their parents’ decision to sever ties with his grandparents after a family disagreement as “an abuse of power”. While grandparents may have friends, partners and support groups to turn to and lean on, young children, as my hon. Friend has said, are often left to deal with the emotional toll of the separation from their grandparents by themselves. The situation undoubtedly also has an impact on the family dynamic and the relationship between the children and their parents.
My hon. Friend is speaking passionately. My constituent, Issy Shillinglaw from Tweedbank, has been campaigning outside the Scottish Parliament for many years, every single week, for the law in Scotland to be changed. Does my hon. Friend recognise that the same issue exists in Scotland and that there is also a jurisdictional issue? Sometimes parents move south or north of the border and there is that extra challenge in ensuring access is achieved in different parts of the United Kingdom.
I am pleased that my hon. Friend has raised that point. I focus today on English and Welsh law, but the laws are very similar in Scotland and Northern Ireland. I know that campaigning groups have been set up to argue the same case as we are making in England and Wales. The jurisdiction element causes great confusion, which I hope the Minister will also address.
I have heard horrendous stories about children being put up for adoption despite the grandparents wanting to care for them. They cannot, however, afford the legal costs to pursue the issue through the courts, which I will come on to in a minute. There are cases where grandparents are denied access to their grandchildren for perfectly legitimate reasons and in the best interests of the child, and I am not seeking to block that. Safeguarding children should be paramount. As the Prime Minister said when I raised this issue in Prime Minister’s questions,
“when making a decision about a child’s future, the first consideration must be their welfare”.
She also stated that
“grandparents...play an important role in the lives of their grandchildren.”—[Official Report, 22 November 2017; Vol. 631, c. 1035.]
With this debate, I am trying to draw attention to the growing number of cases where grandparents are denied access to their grandchildren for apparently little or no legitimate reason.
I have focused on the impact of family breakdown on the grandchildren. I turn now to how the breakdown of relationships can impact on the grandparents. As I said earlier, some of the grandparents who have contacted me have said that being cut off from their grandchildren is like a living bereavement. One grandparent poignantly said that the grief does not have
“the closure or finality of death”.
I do agree. Unfortunately, in the letters and emails I have received the stories go back years and years, and in some cases decades. They are absolutely heartrending. Many hon. Members will have received similar and seen people in surgeries over the past few years. The length of time is horrendous.
Another common feeling is, of course, guilt. Many grandparents feel that they must have failed their children somehow for the relationship to have deteriorated to such an extent, and they are ashamed that they were not able to hold their family together. One grandfather said:
“I have been to the blackest places you can imagine and felt total despair and loss of confidence in myself as a father.”
Hon. Members could be forgiven for assuming, as I perhaps did when I first started hearing about these cases, that some drastic event must have taken place for family breakdown to have happened, but that is often not the case. Too often, the family rift arises from a simple tiff that snowballs out of control. As one grandfather said,
“there is an inevitable feeling that no one cuts people off for no reason but it can happen for the slightest thing, it doesn’t take a full blown argument, just a wrong word or a badly timed comment”.
Another said that,
“a lot of the time, the grandparents have no idea what the problem is”.
I have heard some truly heartbreaking stories from grandparents detailing how their emotional anguish has led them to consider, and in some cases attempt, suicide. One grandmother who considered suicide said that
“the only thing that stops me is hoping that my daughter will have a change of heart and let me be part of my grandson’s life again”.
Sadly, three grandparents known to the Bristol Grandparents Support Group felt unable to continue their lives without seeing their grandchildren. I was shocked to hear from one grandparent who told me that seven members of their support group had committed suicide.
My hon. Friend is right to raise this very important issue. Does he agree that when parents divorce, they do not divorce their children? The law now has a supposition that the parents should both be as involved as possible in their children’s upbringing when cases have to go to court because they cannot be agreed in mediation.
Does my hon. Friend not think that it would be equally appropriate to have a presumption that grandparents should be involved as much as possible in the upbringing of those children, unless—and only unless—there is a problem with the welfare of that child?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising that point—he is very knowledgeable about these issues. I will come on later to the asks and the potential resolutions. He has absolutely hit the nail on the head—that is exactly what we need. That also involves safeguarding. I hope the Minister will respond to that point.
That this is a growing issue is evidenced by the growing number of grandparents support groups across the country. One has been recently established in my patch, in Worcestershire. The Bristol Grandparents Support Group has dealt with more than 6,000 grandparents in the 11 years since it was formed. Unfortunately, one experience that many alienated grandparents have in common is that they have sometimes had a visit from the police. I have heard from a number of grandparents who have tried to send birthday cards or Christmas gifts to their grandchildren and found themselves being visited by the police and accused of harassment. As Jane Jackson of the Bristol Grandparents Support Group said,
“grandparents are living in fear that if they drop a present at the door, then officers will come and march them to the cells”.
Of course, genuine cases of stalking or harassment are extremely serious and need to be dealt with accordingly, but it seems that our anti-harassment laws are being used as a weapon in family disputes. I hope the Minister will tell us how we can overcome that.
What can grandparents who have been cut off from their grandchildren do? If appealing directly to the parents’ good will does not work, the first step is to go through mediation. If that does not work, the next step is for grandparents to apply for a child arrangements order. Increasing numbers of grandparents are taking that route. Ministry of Justice stats show that 2,000 grandparents applied for CAOs in 2016, up from just over 1,600 in 2014. Unlike parents, most grandparents must take the additional step of seeking leave of the court before they can even make the application for the order. I know that is not intended to be an obstacle for grandparents, but clearly it is. I urge the Minister to consider introducing an automatic right for grandparents to seek contact through the courts.
As well as being emotionally draining, the whole process can be time-consuming and costly. Some grandparents have told me that they have spent three years and thousands of pounds going through the process. Time is not always on their side, and many are on fixed incomes and are dipping into their savings and pensions to pay for legal costs, as legal aid is rarely available in those cases.
Once a child arrangements order has been granted, enforcement can be an issue. One grandmother told me that she and her husband spent nine months going through the courts, had three court hearings, and were finally granted an order of contact, but as her daughter chose to ignore it, she had still not seen or spoken to her granddaughter.
What else can be done? I am calling for the Government to introduce an amendment to the Children Act 1989, to enshrine in law the child’s right to have a relationship with their grandparents by adding the words “and extended family” or “and any grandparents” to the section on parental involvement in relation to the welfare of the child, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) said.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this debate. As he is aware, on 31 January 2017, my constituent, Lorraine Bushell, held a lobby day here in Parliament. I welcome the right of the child to see their grandparent, but is my hon. Friend aware that such a procedure already exists in France? We can learn from that country and make it happen for our constituents.
I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. That is a good precedent. Changing the law also changes the culture so that deliberately restricting the access of one family member to another becomes socially unacceptable. The legal change that France has already pursued is very important, as is the social tone that comes with it. That is a very important point.
I, too, am very grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this debate. It is clear from the number of hon. Members here to support him that this issue affects not just his constituents but the constituents of every single Member of Parliament. He mentioned the law. Going through a court process is painful, time-consuming and costly. Will his proposal ensure that families will not have to go through that painful and costly procedure?
I thank my hon. Friend for making that important point. One of the important considerations is the need to ensure that children’s welfare is paramount. Some kind of court action is probably required, but we can make it a hell of a lot easier. I am calling for an amendment to section 1(2A) of the Children Act to provide for the court to presume that the involvement of a grandparent in the life of the child concerned will further the child’s welfare, unless the contrary is shown. It is important to note the phraseology. That kind of amendment would not grant grandparents the right to involvement in the child’s life if a case be made that it would bring harm to the child in question.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this very important debate. I have been supporting constituents in Aberdeen South who have been denied access to their grandchildren, and I have been struck by the role of social media. Facebook posts can be used as a weapon, and grandparents sometimes feel punished by them. Will my hon. Friend join me in calling for UK Government action not just in England and Wales but in Scotland to address these points?
I will indeed stand united with my hon. Friend in calling for similar action in Scotland. This issue affects all nations of the UK, and I hope we can act with one voice.
There are unintended consequences to any change in the law. In the previous debate on this issue, questions were asked about what a change in the law would mean, in terms of clarity about who had the ultimate right over children and grandchildren. The Minister is extremely capable and is surrounded by a very capable team at the MOJ, so I am fairly confident that we can find a form of words that will work. I do not want every single iteration of unintended consequences to prevent us from doing the right thing.
I hope that this debate will raise awareness of the anguish that grandparents and grandchildren across the country feel, and that my brief summary of just a fraction of the cases I have come across demonstrates to the Minister that the status quo is simply not acceptable. I wish to conclude with the words of a grandparent who sent me an email just last night. She very eloquently said:
“My story has been going on for 15 years…The pain I have and still feel is indescribable and affects every aspect of my life…dreading Christmas, Easter, birthdays, mother’s day, summer breaks…all the times when you would hope to see the grandkids. Instead, just pain and heartache—a life sentence. So although at 70 years of age I will probably die before I’m forgiven whatever it is I’ve done, you may be able to help the hundreds of poor souls suffering the same torment.”
I wish to say to that lady that I will indeed do what I can to help, and I call on the Minister to do the same.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) on securing this important debate and championing this really important issue. He referred to my constituent, Jane Jackson, who set up the Bristol Grandparents Support Group and has been campaigning for a very long time on this issue.
I seek to make only a short contribution today, to share the words of Jane Jackson, because her story speaks for itself. She said:
“Ten years ago, I lost contact with my granddaughter after my son’s separation and divorce.
To not see our granddaughter was heartbreaking and, as is often said, a ‘living bereavement.’ Contact was stopped overnight. The last time we saw her, at the age of seven, she told us she had been told to ‘dump her family in Bristol.’ That was the last time we saw her. You go through the stages of grief as you do when you actually lose someone, except you are grieving for someone who is still alive.
Not being able to tell her how much she was loved was beyond words. I just had a constant knot in my stomach, a huge void.
She was my first grandchild, my first granddaughter, and she always will be.
She is the person I first think of in the morning and last thing at night. Does she think we don’t love her anymore?
I have a memory box for her, with all sorts of things in it—pieces of a jig-saw. It includes a tiny bear she gave me that says, ‘The best granny’. I certainly don’t feel that way. There are so many questions and no way to find answers.
The acid drip feed of alienation is a very powerful thing, and I have no doubt that a very bad picture of us has been painted.
The emotions felt when this happens are so destructive.
Because when you become a grandparent, it holds such promise of the future, you being able to watch the new generation growing, giving them your experiences of life and to be a support through the highs and the lows.
I decided I wasn’t prepared to go down a dark spiral of depression and so set up Bristol Grandparents Support Group. I had to turn a negative into a positive.
At my first meeting we had 6 grandparents. To date, I have now been contacted by over 6,000 grandparents across the UK, and we are now a registered charity with groups around the country.”
For Jane Jackson to turn that heartbreaking series of events, which for many of us is difficult to understand, into the positive of establishing a charity such as the Bristol Grandparents Support Group, engaging with those throughout the country suffering similar pain, and achieving such wide reach over so many years, deserves tribute from all of us. I have every confidence that the Minister will tell us how she and the Government in which she serves will seek to make the changes that so many people are rightly crying out for across the country.
I shall finish with an update, which I received from Jane only recently. She said:
“Our granddaughter contacted her Dad a couple of weeks ago and has been messaging me. She is coming to Bristol over the bank holiday weekend, which is going to be very emotional.
The little girl we last saw at age 7 is now a young woman of 17. We now start to build up trust and to start a brand new relationship. She has told me that she never forgot us and knows we love her—words I never, ever thought we would hear. It is early days and it could all change in the wink of an eye, but I have already told her how much she is loved, and that is the most important thing.”
I pay tribute to Jane and to people in her position throughout the country. I wish them the very best for this bank holiday weekend. I support the efforts of right hon. and hon. Members across the House in seeking to bring joy and love back to those who have suffered so much dark and pain in the past.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) for organising the debate and for his excellent and moving speech. I thank the other contributors for their moving speeches too. At a time when politics and public opinion often revolve around Brexit and adjacent matters that are seen as huge, it is important to recognise that our constituents are directly affected by other, personal problems that require our attention, such as grandparents’ access to children.
The bond between children and their grandparents is an essential one, yet, as we have heard, the latter lack clear legal rights to the former. In the event of divorce or family dispute, grandparents need to make an application for permission to see their grandchildren under a court order. At the hearing, the court assesses the relationship between the grandparent and the child. It is heartbreaking that a bond between close relatives has to be deemed to be significant, or not, by a legal entity, especially when the two parties are usually victims of a family rupture.
I have been contacted by a number of grandparents in my constituency who have sought my help after being denied access to their grandchildren. Colleagues have related similar experiences. To that end, I met Marion Turner of the GranPart support group, which is based in Northampton and Milton Keynes. The group offers such grandparents help and support to deal with the pain and loss, and it provides free legal advice from solicitors. The information it provides online and via telephone about the complexities of application for leave of court, child arrangement orders and so on is of great comfort to grandparents at what is a hugely stressful time.
I am grateful for the support given by that group in this matter, but I believe that there is still a need for a justice reform to treat the problem at the root, instead of people having to try to ameliorate the consequences case by case. To that effect, a few months ago my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart), whose constituency neighbours mine, with me and others, sent a letter to the Minister of State for Courts and Justice, who at the time was my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab), calling for a legislative change to allow grandparents to have legal access to their grandchildren. Since then we have awaited developments. I therefore join my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire in asking the Minister—who is now, I hope, of some standing—to produce a long-awaited Green Paper, treating the matter with the attention it clearly deserves.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) on securing the debate. We talked about it last Thursday, when we were away with the armed forces parliamentary scheme. When I heard what he was planning to say, I mentioned that I was keen to come along and support him. I have constituents who think the same as he does, which is why I am here: first, to support him and, secondly, to look to the Minister for her thoughts on how we can make things happen.
The issue is close to my heart. I am thankful for a wonderful daughter-in-law who allows me to bring my grandchildren to church and Sunday school, to tag along at family dinners when time permits and, with my wife, to enjoy family holidays with them. Such occasions with children and grandchildren are always precious, whenever they may be.
Looking to the past, I find that my sons always had a great advocate not only in their mother, who is truly a warrior mum, but in their grandparents, who simply adored them. No breakage in my grandmother or my mother’s house, even of special china or collectibles, was so bad. If it was my children who broke them, their grandparents would said, “Don’t worry about that”—it was not the same when I was young, but that is by the way. Even when it came to writing on the wall, it was never vandalism but artwork, and not a word was said, other than, “That’s all right.”
I was often amazed that the parents who believed firmly in the “spare the rod and spoil the child” doctrine when it came to raising me and my brothers and sister were suddenly converted to saying, “It’s better they are spirited,” or, “There’s no harm in them,” or, my personal favourite, “You’re far too hard on them.” That was grandparents; they see things that wee bit differently. Words that were never applied to me found a home when it came to the boys, and now to the great-grandchildren.
Why is that? It is because the job of a grandparent is to love, to love some more and to love some more again. Hon. Members have referred to that in their contributions. I heartily support what they have said, and what others will say after me—I am conscious that others wish to speak, so I shall not go on for too much longer.
Discipline is for the parents; joy is for grandparents. As a grandparent now, I probably see that better than ever. For that reason, my heart aches when I think of the more than 20 decisions a day being made under the children order behind closed doors in courts in Northern Ireland. It grieves me greatly to see what is happening. Rather than mediation, under legislation in Northern Ireland families battle their way through the courts for access to children and grandchildren. An analysis of data from the family proceedings courts, the family care centres and the High Court found that 10,206 contact and residence orders had been made over the past three judicial years. Those orders can relate to more than one child. That is what is happening in Northern Ireland.
We have that system, which I wanted to speak about if I could in a short time. By comparison, Family Mediation NI, the largest provider of pre-court family mediation in Northern Ireland, received Government funding over the same period to assist only 750 families. That is just scraping at the edge of things. I understand that the Minister has no responsibility for the issue in Northern Ireland, but I wanted to give a Northern Ireland perspective in the debate, because it ties in with what the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire and others have said, and includes Scotland and Wales—throughout the United Kingdom. It is important to put that on the record.
There is no automatic right to apply for visitation for a grandparent, and that must change. We need to legislate to ensure that grandparents have their right to see and sow in the life of their grandchild, which is why I wholeheartedly support the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire and the themes and thoughts raised by other Members in speeches and interventions. I spoke on this issue the last time it came to the Floor—perhaps he secured the previous debate too—and I was later contacted by a lady who was not my constituent but had heard the debate. She thanked me for speaking out on her behalf as a grandparent. She was being denied access solely because of an argument between her son and his former spouse; it had nothing whatsoever to do with her or her family.
In conclusion, as a grandparent and someone who could not imagine life without my grandchildren, I ask the Minister to take the issue into consideration and to take the steps to make the changes necessary to allow grandparents basic rights to family life and love. That is all such people ask for: the chance to love their own flesh and blood, and not to be caught in the middle of a conflict that has absolutely nothing to do with them yet so deeply and irrevocably affects them.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) on raising this important subject. I do not intend to speak for long, because I know others wish to contribute.
My motivation for speaking and interest in the issue stem from the wonderful organisation GranPart that my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South (Andrew Lewer) mentioned, which was set up by Marion Turner in both our constituencies. It is a very important support and self-help group for grandparents who find themselves in this appalling situation. I have gone to visit the group a number of times and have heard their stories. The emotions there are very raw. Some of the cases have only just started, but others have been going on for many years. It has been mentioned in the debate that time is not a healer—some of these cases go on for far too long. I have heard the stories; I absolutely agree with the analysis that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire provided and I support his proposals for reform.
I do not have grandchildren or children, but I was a grandson. I think back to the incredibly important and influential role that my two grandmothers played in my upbringing; I cannot imagine what my life would have been like without them and cannot imagine that similar level of love and support being denied any grandchild. They passed away many years ago, but I still think of them regularly. Particularly in here, if I have a dilemma to resolve, I often ask myself, “What would gran have said?” in this matter. The answer often comes more quickly than if I had not asked that question. To deny any grandchild that support and love is absolutely wrong, where the grandchild is innocent in whatever the dispute is.
From what I have seen in GranPart meetings, the current access arrangements do not work. There are legal ways of getting access but they are too cumbersome and the barriers are too big. Many of the grandparents I have met do not want to go down that road, either because they cannot afford it or because they just do not want the anguish. It is a barrier that should not be there—there is a problem to address immediately.
In the debate last year and other conversations and correspondence that have happened, there has been talk of a broader family justice Green Paper that looks at all aspects of the issue. There are other issues that I am not as familiar with, which also need to be addressed, but I make a plea to the Minister not to delay in making a reform and improvement here, in the context of a broader review of family justice. This is a stand-alone issue.
The grief that grandparents are suffering is here and now. It is real. Surely we have the bandwidth in this place and in Government to address it in isolation. I am not denying that the other matters are important, too, but they can be looked at later on. I ask the Minister to have a separate look at this issue. Again, I thank my hon. Friend for raising this very important subject.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I will not delay the House for too long on this matter, because I have spoken about it in the past. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) on securing this debate. As I mentioned earlier, my constituent Lorraine Bushell had an event here in the Houses of Parliament, when we were joined by Esther Rantzen. At that time, the meeting was packed; today, a number of people are in the Public Gallery to listen to what we have to say on this subject.
I want to make a plea to the Minister: I previously brought this issue to the attention of the Government and I hoped it would be in the Conservative party manifesto. I cannot recall whether it was—but even if it was not, I make a plea to her to make this issue a priority. Many grandparents are of an age that means that time is of the essence. They are not able to go down a legal route; many people would find that difficult not only financially but emotionally. People do not want to go down that route, because whether it is in a divorce court or between families, it is very painful for all those involved.
I raised an issue with my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire that my constituents raised with me: the resolution is not that the grandparents have the right, but the children. The child should have the right to access to their grandparents. We could incorporate that into our law in this country, based upon the legal system in France or whatever. That would allow the possibility for children to be able to have that relationship with their grandparents.
Other Members have made reference to the relationship for them and for their grandparents; we all treasure and remember that relationship. My grandparents are no longer alive, but I often think that being a grandparent is often a second opportunity. When people are younger, perhaps they do not have the time that they would like to spend with their children because they are busy at work. It is a second opportunity to do the things that they were not able to do, perhaps because they did it wrong or they want to do it differently. Who knows? We must not allow this opportunity to go by. I repeat my plea to the Minister to take action on this issue sooner rather than later.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I commend the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) for securing the debate. I am conscious that it focuses on the situation in England and Wales, which is why, as I indicated to you, Sir Christopher, I will keep my remarks short, to allow the hon. Gentleman time at the end to conclude.
I thank grandparents for the work that they do—in particular kinship carers, who are huge part of my constituency. The number of kinship carers who are grandparents is massive. Before taking part in the debate, I reflected on my own experience. My mum and dad split up before I was one year old. My dad was pretty much off the scene from that point. It was probably then that my mother was faced with the dilemma of whether to go and visit her ex-mother-in-law and take me with her. To my mum’s credit, she did that. That must have been quite a difficult thing to do; I respect it and I think we would all want that.
The Members from north of the border, the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) and the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Ross Thomson), mentioned the situation in Scotland. It is only right to put that on the record. The hon. Gentlemen made the point that under the Children (Scotland) Act 1995, grandparents do not have an automatic right to see their grandchild, but can apply for a court order to get that access.
It is important to place it on the record that the Scottish Government are committed to reviewing the 1995 Act; the consultation on that begins this month. I hope that hon. Members will feed into that consultation and encourage their constituents to do so. My only word of caution is that it is paramount that the needs of the child are put first. For example, it is possible that contact with grandparents could allow a parent who has been deemed unfit to see their child to have contact with the child. That raises some child protection issues. I understand the need for us to get this right. I hope that the consultation will tease that out and we can get to a point that balances child safety and the most important thing: people having a relationship with their grandchildren.
I am grateful for the opportunity to sum up on behalf of the Scottish National party and I hope that any remaining time will be given to the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire to make his closing remarks.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) on securing the debate. We have heard touching stories today that demonstrate just how important the relationship between children and grandparents can be. Experiences of our own grandparents in our formative years, and of actually being a grandparent from some of our more experienced colleagues, make it clear that this relationship can be incredibly significant and often unique.
Grandparents can enrich the lives of children and provide one of the closest and most loving experiences a child can have. The relationship can be important in other ways, too. Grandparents can provide vital help and support for parents, particularly in recent years as increasing childcare costs have pushed parents to rely on informal care from family members. It is difficult to overstate the role of grandparents for many families.
Whether through our own experiences or through those we hear in our constituency surgeries, we know that family relationships can simply break down. Of course, the welfare of the child comes first and we should endeavour to ensure that that remains so. But the impact on the grandparent can be devastating. Many are distanced and lose contact, and they are understandably distressed by the experience. That can be made worse when they feel they have no effective form of redress to apply for access.
As it stands, child arrangements orders, established by the Children and Families Act 2014, determine where and with whom a child lives. They determine who can access a child, spend time with them, visit them and speak to them on the phone, and those people are named in the order. However, before applying for a child contact order, grandparents must seek leave from a court. In 2010, the Labour Government produced a Green Paper that considered that legal requirement for grandparents and, acknowledging concerns that it may be an administrative barrier to justice, vowed to assess the extent to which that was the case.
My party lost the 2010 election, and the condition to seek leave from a court was supported by the coalition Government on the basis that it filtered potentially vexatious access claims. Nobody objects to the prevention of claims that may harm a child, but does the Minister agree that an updated review may be important to understanding the impact of the requirement to seek leave, which may be an administrative barrier to justice? The Government promised earlier in the year to publish a family justice Green Paper, which would provide a further opportunity to assess the necessity of that requirement. Can the Minister tell us when that Green Paper will be published, and will she guarantee that the requirement for grandparents to seek leave from a court will be addressed?
For grandparents who succeed in their leave application and then find themselves negotiating an unfamiliar and costly legal system to gain access to their grandchild, the removal of legal aid is a further barrier. Early legal advice is vital to ensuring that grandparents are best prepared to navigate complex legal requirements, yet cuts to legal aid have removed the right to representation in many areas of the family court.
The impact that an absence of advice can have on an application is demonstrated when objections are raised and the process moves to a full hearing. We simply have no way of knowing how many grandparents who find themselves without those vital resources are left unsuccessful or deterred from applying due to a lack of legal access. Does the Minister agree that cuts to vital legal aid present a barrier to justice and may leave grandparents without contact with their grandchildren?
Arbitration and mediation are, of course, more amicable, preferable and cheaper routes, and they have been found to work in many cases, but we acknowledge that family disputes may not be that simple and that, sadly, the courts are sometimes the only appropriate course. It is imperative that we provide a legal system that protects both the welfare of the child and access to justice for grandparents seeking to navigate complex and unfamiliar procedures.
I am sure we were all touched by the stories we heard from hon. Members today; I certainly was. I hope that the Minister agrees that it is incumbent on us all in this place to ensure that the justice system is accessible and open, and absent of obstacles that may prevent loving grandparents from seeing their beloved grandchildren.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) on securing the debate and continuing to highlight this really important issue.
Grandparents play a significant role in family life. There is something special about the bond between a grandparent and a grandchild. The loving relationship that is formed often enriches family life. Grandparents provide stability when it is needed. They can give a sense of history and show how important it is to belong to a family. They can give familial support when it is needed, such as when it is difficult for more immediate family members to be called upon. My grandparents—in particular my grandmother—taught me many things. She passed on her values.
I, too, recognise the work of Marc and Jane Jackson from the Bristol Grandparents Support Group and of Dame Esther Rantzen. As my hon. Friend mentioned, I had the opportunity to listen to their points on this issue at a meeting he arranged with my predecessor when I was Parliamentary Private Secretary to the former Justice Secretary.
Hon. Members have made important and powerful points during the debate, and many have written to me about this subject. My hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar) pointed out that grandparents often support grandchildren when there is family breakdown. The hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew) said that time is not a healer. In his impassioned speech, the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones) described the grief of his constituent, whom I met, and the work that that family has done to support so many other people. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) reminded us of the precious moments that he has had as a grandparent and that grandparents can have with their grandchildren.
My hon. Friends the Members for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) and for Northampton South (Andrew Lewer) mentioned the great work that has been done by a support group in their constituencies. My hon. Friends the Members for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) and for Aberdeen South (Ross Thomson) and the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) reminded us that other jurisdictions are grappling with this important issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) reminded us that the law in France has already moved on.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire told us some terrible stories about the effect on grandparents of an inability to see their grandchildren. He quoted grandparents and grandchildren directly, not only underlining how important the issue is but giving them a powerful voice in this debate. I commend him for doing so. He made an important point that children are the innocent victims in family breakdown, and that the best interests of the child must always come first, which my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon reinforced. My hon. Friends were right to emphasise that point. Children are at the heart of our family laws and our family justice system.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire recognised and made clear the fact that there is a legal route for a grandparent to gain contact with their grandchildren. Under the current legislation, a family court can make a child arrangements order to determine who a child can live with, spend time with or otherwise have contact with. Some 2,000 grandparents go down that route every year. Let me describe how it works. A child arrangements order can provide for face-to-face contact—long visits and short visits, including overnight stays if appropriate. If necessary, it can also provide for contact to be made by other means, such as email, telephone or letter. The court has flexibility when considering whether to make a child arrangements order and, if so, on what terms.
Whether the court orders that a grandparent or other family member should have involvement in a child’s life depends on a number of factors. One or both parents may oppose such involvement. The Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service may be asked to provide a welfare report on the beneficial impact of the involvement of a grandparent or other family member, and any risk of harm from ongoing parental opposition to such involvement and exposure of the child to ongoing conflict. That report can also include the wishes and feelings of the child. As I said, the welfare of the child is the paramount consideration at all times.
Given the dreadful stories we have heard about the impact of this issue on people’s lives, it is clear that the system could work better, and I am keen to look into how we can improve it.
We are fortunate indeed that the Minister has a good deal more time than Ministers normally have to respond, so I would welcome a lengthy response. The system she has outlined—the legal system of going to court—is complex and heart-wrenching. People should not have to go through that. Will she directly address the point my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) made about a presumption, which we hope would avoid the need for people to go to court in the first place?
As always, my hon. Friend makes an important point that he expects me deal with, and I was just about to come to that. He made a very important point about out-of-court procedures. We need to look at the expensive and difficult court procedure, which sometimes increases conflict. That is not just the case when grandparents apply to court; in family law as a whole, courts can provide resolution for people who really need it but also increase conflict, particularly in family situations.
In my contribution I referred to Family Mediation NI, which has the specific task of trying to sort things out before they get to court. It was clear to me from a Northern Ireland perspective that had more money been available to it, many of those cases would have been sorted out beforehand and would never have got to court—I think that is what the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire was saying. If we can get to the point where we can try to mediate and solve problems rather than get into litigation, with all the nastiness that brings, that is where we want to be.
The hon. Gentleman is right. It is critical that we solve these issues early on, before they get to court. We are reviewing legal aid generally, but legal aid can be available for mediation for early legal help. In that context, there is a fees remission scheme in relation to the application to court where the threshold is higher for people over 60. However, would it not be better if people did not go to court at all?
A number of issues have been raised and ideas put forward about how we can improve the system. One, which was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire and by the hon. Member for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero), was about the fact that grandparents have to apply for leave. Some people see that as an additional hurdle, but experience shows that grandparents do not usually experience any difficulty in obtaining permission when their application is motivated by a genuine concern for the interests of the child. That is because a person can seek the court’s permission at the same time as they make their substantive application simply by ticking the box on the relevant form, and there is no need to pay a separate fee. That can be part and parcel of the hearing.
The leave requirement is not designed to be an obstacle to grandparents or other family members; it is meant to be a filter to sift out applications that are clearly not in a child’s best interests, such as vexatious applications aimed at undermining one of the parents involved in a dispute over the child or continuing parental conflict. Leave was examined as part of the independent family justice review led by David Norgrove, which in its final report, published in November 2011, recommended that the requirement for grandparents to apply for leave should remain as it is because it
“prevents hopeless or vexatious applications that are not in the interests of the child.”
My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire also identified the fact that it was unfortunate that sometimes children were placed for adoption, despite the fact that a grandparent might be willing to care for them. Grandparents can apply for special guardianship orders, and the local authority should give preference to placing a child with a family member. He also identified, as picked up by my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), that there should be a change in the law in relation to presumption. We can look at that. He identified, and it is important to recognise, that some people think that elevates the grandparent’s involvement into a right, whereas, as I have identified, the family justice system puts the child, not the grandparent, at the heart of its consideration. As he accepts, there may be some unintended consequences that we will have to look into.
The Minister is rightly highlighting the importance of the child being at the centre. She also said that she is willing to look at some issues again to avoid the involvement of expensive lawyers—I pay all due respect to lawyers; she is a distinguished lawyer herself. However, will she indicate when we might see some of those proposals and ideas come forward from the Ministry?
As a new Minister, I am looking afresh at a number of issues. This point, which has been raised by many people, is one of a number of family justice measures the Department is looking at—this morning I had a meeting on another family justice issue of concern. We are looking at these matters very closely. The challenge is that one size does not necessarily fit all. These are important issues but, as I mentioned, we must also look at the out-of-court settlement procedure. I will look at this issue carefully, working with the Department for Education.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire said at the end of his speech that he wanted to raise awareness. He has done that in the past, and he has certainly done so by calling the debate today. I commend him for his campaigning efforts, and I am grateful to him for giving me the opportunity to respond to this important debate on behalf of the Ministry of Justice. Finally, I send Marc and Jane Jackson every best wish on reuniting with their first granddaughter.
I thank the Minister for that response. Her tone is appreciated across the whole House. I know that she is diligent and that she is looking at a range of things, but I would like this to be quite high on that pile. I am sure she knows I will continue to hassle her until we get a response.
I appreciated several comments the Minister made, in particular the recognition that the system could work better. I recognise that family law is horrendously complex and that therefore there are no easy answers. We will be very willing to work with her and anybody else on ensuring that we look very carefully for any unintended consequences, because we all want to avoid those. We would all love to have a situation where we did not have to have such debates, or to have family breakdowns ending up in court, but the reality is that that does happen, so we have to deal with it. As parliamentarians, we need to ensure that we can help make the processes as easy and painless as possible for all involved.
Finally, I thank many of those in the Public Gallery who are here today, some of whom I know have travelled a considerable distance to be here, and who include representatives from all over the country. I thank them and I thank colleagues. I look forward to making progress on the issue.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered grandchildren’s access right to their grandparents.