My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be read a second time. I am delighted to have secured a second reading debate today. I took an early interest in this theme as a Scottish advocate—albeit now non-practising—and in the other place, as shadow Minister for early years and looked-after children for a year.
At the outset, I place on record my admiration for the work of the National Association of Child Contact Centres. NACCC has a hugely important function in the establishment, support and work of nearly 400 child contact centres and services throughout England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The majority of these centres are staffed by highly trained volunteers. We should recognise the work of those volunteers and thank them for all they do. More than 20,000 children use these centres each year. More than 1 million children do not have contact with parents after the breakdown of relationships.
The UK has one of the highest rates of family breakdown in Europe, for which there is immense emotional, psychological, social and economic cost. The Centre for Social Justice estimates the latter at £47 billion a year. NACCC, with Cafcass, is responsible for establishing rigorous national standards for the running of child contact centres in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Before they can begin to operate, child contact centres go through a thorough process of accreditation and are reaccredited every three years. Thanks to the judicial protocol first introduced by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, courts are required to refer families to child contact centres that are members of NACCC and so are subject to the national standards and accreditation process. Those standards and that accreditation protect children and their families in the private law arena. However, for children and their families involved in public law cases, there is no such protection.
This Bill seeks to ensure that all children and their families, regardless of where they live or whether they are subject to public or private law, enjoy the same protection provided by the national standards and accreditation process operated by NACCC and supported by Cafcass, the Ministry of Justice and successive Governments from both sides of the House. Therefore, I believe there is a need to call for regulations to be agreed to ensure that those responsible for commissioning contact arrangements for children and families involved in public law matters tender only with properly accredited suppliers who adhere to the agreed national standards. I look forward to hearing contributions to the debate from the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss; a previous Minister in the other place, the noble Lord, Lord Wills; and my noble friend the Minister in summing up the debate.
I shall give a little background to the Bill. More than 1 million children do not have contact with parents after the breakdown of relationships, yet the importance of children remaining in contact with both parents and their broader families, where it is safe to do so, cannot be overemphasised. The National Association of Child Contact Centres is a charity that supports the establishment and work of 380 child contact centres and services throughout England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The UK has a highly efficient and effective system of centres and services to keep children in touch with their parents and broader families following separation. The UK system is unique, in that of the hundreds of centres that are part of the child contact centre movement, the overwhelming majority are charities run by volunteers.
There are two types of child contact centres: supported and supervised. NACCC has also developed supervised standards to enable contact centres to extend their services to supervising contact in the community. Supported child contact centres are safe, friendly places where children of separated families can meet in neutral environments with the parents they do not live with. The centres also provide safe handover places, thus avoiding flashpoints when families meet who have little other communication. Supported child contact centres also provide opportunities for grand-parents and members of children’s broader families to meet. Child contact centres are there to help facilitate children and families moving to positions where they can make arrangements to see each other without the help of the centres. Drawing up parenting plans with parents who come to the centres, and mediation, are also part of the services provided by child contact centres. Their staff and volunteers are extensively trained. Along with safeguarding, there is a need for appropriate training in mental health awareness; mental health matters for the families NACCC is working with.
Supervised child contact centres offer more specialist facilities when there may be a risk of harm to children, emotional or physical, in meeting the parents they do not live with. This may be because there has been a serious conflict with the parents, actual or alleged domestic violence or abuse, or because a parent has drug or alcohol problems. Supervised centres are staffed by qualified social workers who often provide reports for Cafcass when a family is involved in court proceedings. Families can move from a supervised setting to a supported setting, provided it is safe to do so.
NACCC has been the umbrella organisation for child contact centres for 25 years. Keeping children safe is a key priority for child contact centres. As a result, NACCC has ensured robust quality standards in training staff and volunteers, in developing processes for safe delivery of contact services, and in the establishment, running and management of child contact centres in the best interest of the child. Since 2007, NACCC has established national standards in conjunction with Cafcass, which have been regularly revised under successive Governments, with input and approval from the relevant government departments and Cafcass. NACCC is also responsible for accrediting and reaccrediting child contact centres and for removing accreditation where necessary, recognising the need for high and consistent standards for all children using contact centres. For more than a decade, a judicial protocol has been issued and revised by the president of the Family Division which states that when making contact orders for arrangements for children, courts must refer only to a NACCC-accredited child contact centre.
NACCC also has an independent standards board chaired by Sir Mark Hedley, a former High Court judge in the Family Division, which keeps a continuous watching brief on the standards operating in child contact centres and makes recommendations for improvement. Its patron is Sir James Munby, president of the Family Division. Historically, much of NACCC’s work has been with separated families who have been in private law proceedings. More recently, when the care of children involved in the public law system—looked-after children—is the responsibility of the local authority, child contact centres and services are used. Local authorities have a statutory obligation under Section 34 of the Children Act 1989 to promote contact between children and their parents and relevant others. In 2013, a change in the requirements of special guardianship orders meant that all local authorities are now responsible for supporting contact arrangements for children, subject to special guardianship orders up to the age of 18.
Due to the demands on local authority services, most child contact centres and services provisions in the public sector are outsourced by local authorities to independent child contact services. Currently, child contact centres and services in the public sector run by independent contractors can be set up by individuals and organisations without specific qualifications, and the centres and services that they provide are not subject to accreditation or reaccreditation. That means that those centres and services are not subject to any nationally agreed standards and do not necessarily have the appropriate safeguards in place for children or their parents, so children using those centres may experience different levels of support and standards of care. As the number of special guardianship orders continues to rise, so too does the urgent need to protect children subject to these orders by ensuring that any contact arrangements outsourced by the local authority are subject to the same standards and accreditation that have functioned so successfully for a decade in private law proceedings. That means bringing all child contact centres and services in line with NACCC national standards, specifically those that meet the needs of children who are looked after by a local authority.
The Bill is drafted to support the work of the local authorities, having been drawn up after discussion with local authorities and having had approaches from, for example, a London borough, which felt that such provision would assist in its tendering arrangements. Some local authorities, such as Liverpool and Coventry, already tender with NACCC-accredited providers.
The Bill will ensure that all local authority services, the contact services operated by independent contracting agencies, and fostering organisations will be required to operate to the same high standards and be subject to the same accreditation and re-accreditation procedure. This will ensure that, regardless of where they reside, children can have the same standard of service that ensures safe and meaningful contact with their birth family. This Bill is an opportunity to reform practice by raising standards within our public law contact centres and services, to a level that would be expected from any other children’s services and educational provision. I beg to move.
My Lords, this is an extremely important issue and the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, has done your Lordships’ House a service by bringing this Bill forward and enabling it to be debated. I declare an interest in that my late father-in-law, David Freeman, founded the Freeman Family Centre in the London Borough of Brent, which is run by Barnardo’s for the local authority, and child contact forms a large part of the work there. I am also currently working with Brent and Cambridgeshire councils and St John’s College, Cambridge, on a project to increase the number of care leavers entering higher education.
The National Association of Child Contact Centres does invaluable work; we have just heard a compelling case for this from the noble Baroness and I join her in paying tribute to that work. She has also made a powerful case for this Bill. I recognise the vital role of the National Association of Child Contact Centres in the private law sector and the need for the same high standards to apply in the public law arena. However, I sound a few notes of caution, which I hope the noble Baroness will consider as she makes progress with her Bill and which I also hope the Government will consider.
There can be no disagreement with the proposition that the same high standards of practice in child contact centres that operate in the private law sector should be achieved equally in the public law arena. But is a mandatory accreditation of all child contact centres in the way that this Bill prescribes really the best way to do this? Local authorities discharging their statutory obligation under Section 34 of the Children Act 1989, to promote contact between children and their parents and relevant others, are already subject to legal, inspection and accountability frameworks to protect and safeguard children in their care.
I of course recognise—as the noble Baroness has said—that local authorities sometimes, indeed increasingly, commission an external provider to deliver the service on their behalf when, for example, a local authority child contact centre is in one location while the child has a foster care placement some distance away and, rather than the child having to travel so far for one or two hours of contact, the local authority judges it to be in the child’s best interest to commission an external provider in an area close to the child to deliver the contact on its behalf. However, even in those circumstances of external provision, the local authority remains responsible for ensuring that the services that it commissions and are delivered on its behalf are of good quality, which it does through the commissioning, contracting, inspection and evaluation processes. Given the regulatory and compliance apparatus already in place for local authorities, mandatory accreditation in these circumstances would impose another layer of costs and bureaucracy on local authorities, which are already desperately hard pressed.
Can we be certain of the rewards that would flow from this? What evidence is there of local authorities failing their statutory obligations in a way that would justify the imposition of this extra level of compliance? It is a question not just of the cost of this new level of compliance and the need for it, but of the implications for the flexibility of provision. From the experience of the Freeman Family Centre, I am aware of the difficulties that can often be encountered in providing an appropriate environment for child contact. Different families can need different provision. What is an appropriate environment for one family might not be appropriate for another—some thrive in formal settings, others in informal ones, and older children are often uncomfortable in settings designed for younger children. So there is a need for flexibility in provision.
Mandatory accreditation could—I am not saying that it will—risk damaging that necessary flexibility and the ability of centres and local authorities to adapt provision to the needs of individual families. There might, for example, be a particular problem where the local authority social work team with the duty to provide the contact has decided that a foster carer’s home is the most appropriate place for family contact to take place. If every such placement had to be registered and regulated, above and beyond the current legal, inspection and accountability obligations on local authorities, the process could become too onerous or costly for these smaller providers and they could decide simply not to deliver child contact anymore. This loss of flexibility could damage the children and families for whom this type of setting is most appropriate.
I accept that there could be cases in this diverse marketplace—if you like—where there is lax provision and I understand the noble Baroness’s motivation for bringing this Bill forward. But, if there are problems in the public law environment, it makes the case—at least in the first instance—for more effective enforcement of the existing regulatory provision and not necessarily for new legislation. It may well be that the noble Baroness can address my concerns as the Bill progresses and, in that case, I shall be delighted to support it, as it is clearly intended to ensure the best possible support for families in difficult and testing circumstances—that is something that we all want.
My Lords, I also congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, on bringing this Bill forward. It is important and raises important issues. I need to declare that I was patron of the NACCC when I was President of the Family Division between 1999 and 2005. I may, perhaps, have been to more child care centres—private and supervised—than anyone else in this Chamber. I went to them all over the country and was very involved with the Coram supervised centre, which sadly had to close for the lack of money, and I was partially responsible for the opening of a contact centre in a Baptist chapel in Swansea—so I was involved right round the country.
Child contact centres are enormously important and I just add a few words to what the noble Baroness has said about their importance. Private law centres make it possible for families in dispute to have the children meet the non-resident parent in independent, agreeable surroundings without the aggro that there is if they meet with both parents present all the time. I have a vivid recollection of sitting as a judge in Exeter, being expected to make a decision as to whether the children should meet their father in McDonald’s or the service station on the M5. I murmured, “What about a child contact centre?”, which neither parent had thought about. In those days, such families had legal aid, but now there is no legal aid for child disputes, except very rarely when there is either domestic violence or some exceptional circumstances. So you have the situation where two parents who cannot talk to each other and who bring every possible allegation against each other, go to the judge or the magistrate trying to show either that the child should not be living with the mother—it is generally the mother—or that the father is unsuitable to see the child. At the end of the day the judge, without the help of lawyers but almost certainly wanting the help of a Cafcass officer or welfare officer, will say, “Why can’t you go to an NACCC-accredited contact centre?”. As the noble Baroness said, I suggested this direction first when I was president.
Private law child contact centres matter. A very large number are accredited by the NACCC but, as the noble Baroness said, not all of them. There are valid grounds for saying that there ought to be accreditation of some sort for all private law centres, preferably from the NACCC.
As the noble Baroness said, supervised centres where the children are in care, or very often in interim care, are in a rather different position. In these cases local authority social workers take the view that it is desirable—thank goodness—that the children who are in interim care prior to a decision by a judge or magistrate on whether they remain in care should stay in touch with their parents, and sometimes grandparents. However, that staying in touch generally has to be supervised given the care proceedings. As the noble Lord, Lord Wills, pointed out, it is organised by local authorities through either an outreach or local authority organisation. These childcare centres are equally important.
The noble Lord, Lord Wills, has said almost everything that I was going to say about reservations. However, I share his reservations. A distinction has to be drawn in the Bill between private law centres and public law centres, as it were, where local authorities are in charge and where the children will not see their parents other than under the supervision of a social worker or somebody nominated by a social worker.
There is also the possibility of having informal settings in private law cases. In these cases families who can agree to a certain extent quite like informal settings rather than a named child contact centre. Therefore, the Bill goes a long way towards what is needed and I entirely support the wonderful work of the NACCC. However, it seems to me that the Bill goes a trifle too far. I very much welcome this Second Reading. I think that reservations will be expressed in Committee by the noble Lord, Lord Wills, and me on exceptions to accreditation by the NACCC. Barnardo’s has been in touch with me and, I suspect, with the noble Lord. It has comments on the Bill which should at least be looked at. That is why I have these reservations. However, I strongly support the concept of the Bill and the importance of regulation and keeping up standards. The only question is how far it should go.
My Lords, I join my noble friend and the noble and learned Baroness in congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, on bringing forward this Bill, even if I was not included in the list of speakers to whose contributions she was looking forward. However, as will emerge, that is probably a fair stance for her to take.
I have to confess that I was entirely unware of the existence of these centres until I looked into the background of the noble Baroness’s Bill. Given that they have existed for 25 years that is a fairly shameful admission to have to make. I join all those who have spoken in commending the work that they do, and have done for so long. It is an extraordinary coincidence but in the last few weeks I have engaged with people who are going through this very difficult process of dealing with family break-up and difficult relations between parents with regard to access. In one case, having just begun to prepare for this Bill, I was able to alert the grandparents to the existence of these contact centres and to suggest that they look into whether they might advise their daughter to contact one. Indeed, they have done so in the last few days. In another case, I have seen not only the hardship endured by a father who has had great difficulty in obtaining access but also that endured by his parents. It has been an extremely protracted and distressing event with considerable costs incurred in endeavouring to arrange reasonable contact. The noble and learned Baroness touched on that. Therefore, I am very conscious of the value of these centres and of the problems that can arise.
This morning I spoke to a friend who is a very senior magistrate. She is also familiar with the relevant centre and speaks very highly of the role of such centres in relation to court proceedings. Indeed, she is very much involved with the Anawim women’s centre in Birmingham, which I have visited, and which provides a range of services and support. Therefore, it is clear that there is a need for this degree of support and intervention in what are often very fraught circumstances. However, I take on board the points made by the noble Lord and the noble and learned Baroness.
I think that there are 350 centres in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which suggests, I suppose, that the number in England and Wales will be around 300. Therefore, I am not entirely clear how much of the country is covered by such centres. Like the two previous speakers, while I support the principle of this issue, one needs to look a little more closely at the practical consequences of imposing what might be a slightly over-rigid structure. Certainly, to the extent that the Bill might impose new duties on local authorities, one would expect the new burdens doctrine to apply, and for that to be adequately funded by the Government.
Looking at the organisation’s very interesting website, and getting a flavour from that of how it works, it is clear that it is heavily reliant on donations. It is good that people are donating but one wonders whether there ought not to be more funding by government, either national or local. In the latter case, it would have to be supported by central government because of the financial constraints with which we are all familiar.
Nevertheless, we welcome the debate initiated by the noble Baroness today. I take the point that the two previous speakers have indicated that this matter needs to be explored further. I hope that in Committee a way will be found to accommodate the concerns that have been expressed and thus enable many families to be assisted, particularly the children, who go through very difficult times when family break-up occurs, which can, of course, have significant lifetime consequences and, to put it in another setting, frankly, also imposes extra burdens on health services, education services and the like, which can ill afford them. Dealing with matters in a consensual and sensible way can benefit not only the individuals but society as a whole. Therefore, I am glad that we have the opportunity to give this Bill a Second Reading.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady McIntosh for introducing this Bill and for giving your Lordships’ House an opportunity to debate important issues concerning the use and accreditation of child contact centres and the very important role of the National Association of Child Contact Centres, or NACCC, as I shall refer to the charity in the rest of this speech.
I also pay tribute to my noble friend for hosting a reception in your Lordships’ House last autumn to enable NACCC to raise awareness of its important work and to encourage those organisations present to come forward with new funding. As we have heard, NACCC is a charity working in the third sector with local child contact centres, many of which operate on very modest margins. NACCC now represents just under 400 child contact centres and has established itself as the national umbrella organisation and voice for them.
I thank other noble Lords who have spoken in this debate. I am particularly grateful to the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, for illustrating the important background to how these contact centres began and putting in context just how important they are. The Government thoroughly respect them and agree with that. I know that the Family Justice Minister, Dr Phillip Lee, who attended my noble friend’s reception last autumn, spoke briefly about the role they play. Before I turn to the Bill specifically I will repeat for noble Lords what he said about the role of child contact centres and NACCC and the Government’s support for them.
After the breakdown of a relationship between parents, every effort must be made to mitigate the impact on their children. Wherever possible, and wherever safe, a key part of promoting the child’s welfare is that they maintain contact with both parents. Sadly, too many children lose contact with the non-resident parent. That is why NACCC plays such a valuable role. Its child contact centre network provides safe and neutral venues to allow those crucial parental relationships to be maintained.
Many supported centres are staffed by volunteers—I join my noble friend in paying tribute to all of them—and operate from church and village halls at very modest cost. Supervised contact centres play an important role in providing facilities for supervised contact in cases where the child’s reaction to contact or risk needs more careful management. Dr Lee went on to pay tribute to NACCC and all those volunteers and professionals who provide such a valuable service in its network of supported and supervised contact centres. He also committed the Ministry of Justice to provide further funding to NACCC to support its important work in 2016-17 and encouraged others to provide similar support so that more children and parents can have a meaningful, ongoing relationship in a way that is safe for all concerned.
The Ministry of Justice, and previously the Department for Education, has supported the work of NACCC financially. I noted the comments from the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, on the cost of these centres. We recognise the pressures on the third sector. I wonder whether the Bill is seeking to probe the Government’s commitment to continue funding NACCC. I am not in a position today to make any commitments about that, pending discussions within the Ministry of Justice about priorities and resource allocations. However, I hope that the Government’s support for the work done by NACCC is evident from the comments made by Dr Lee.
On the substance of the Bill, it seeks to impose a new regulatory burden on all contact centres which offer facilities or services in support of child contact, by requiring them to be accredited by NACCC. In other words, no child contact centre would be able to operate if the Bill became law unless it had first achieved NACCC accreditation. The Bill then imposes statutory duties on the family court and on local authorities to ensure that all facilities used by them for child contact purposes are NACCC-accredited.
No one—not least the Government—could object to the principle that child contact centres should operate safely and to appropriate minimum standards so that children and parents who use them can enjoy safe quality time together; I agree exactly with what other noble Lords said today on this. However, the Government have a number of concerns and reservations about the Bill, despite its good intentions.
Clause 1(1) seeks to make NACCC the sole body responsible for accrediting child contact centres. Clause 1(4) then refers to standards set by NACCC yet does not provide any means by which to regulate those standards. It is, in that sense, a halfway house. We see limited merit in an approach which seeks to create a statutory role for NACCC yet leaves crucial matters such as standards unregulated. If the purpose of the Bill is to put child contact centres on a firmer regulatory footing, surely it should also provide a power for regulations specifying those standards, presumably to be made by Ministers. That could then, however, call into question the role of NACCC itself.
I have to say that the Government’s general position is to avoid creating new regulatory burdens unless there is a clear case for doing so.
In respect of local authorities, this Bill would introduce a blanket new duty requiring them only to use NACCC-accredited contact centres. Here I am mindful of what the noble Lord, Lord Wills, said about flexibility. This would be a new burden, and it is not clear what discussions NACCC has had with local authorities about their use of child contact centres, the desirability of using ones accredited by NACCC and why a new statutory duty is thought necessary.
The wishes and feelings of children about where contact should take place are an important consideration. In some circumstances, local authorities may deem it more appropriate to use non-NACCC-accredited facilities which are familiar to the child and where they will feel safe, comfortable and supported. There may also be locations and times at which a NACCC-accredited centre is simply not available to support the contact that is in the best interests of the child. Local authorities may have ad hoc arrangements for supervising contact that involve properly trained staff and appropriate venues, but which are short term, used as the need arises. Surely it would not be sensible to include these in a definition of “contact centre”. The key issue for local authorities is always to ensure that, whatever facilities they use, the child is safeguarded from any abuse, and they already have clear duties around this, as set out in the Children Act 1989. As the noble Lord, Lord Wills, asked, is mandatory accreditation the best way to do this, as they are already subject to legal, inspection and accountability frameworks to protect children in every case?
On the family courts, the Bill seeks to remedy a problem which does not exist. I note that the Bill extends to England only, yet the family court operates across England and Wales. The Bill does not seek to address the position of child contact centres in Wales which may be used by children, parents and other family members as a condition of child arrangements orders made by the family court.
Cafcass, the family judiciary and court users have clear information about how to access NACCC-accredited contact centres. A court user who initiates an application for a child arrangements order must complete court form C100. This contains guidance notes which refer to the national NACCC website if a parent wishes to propose an arrangement involving the use of a local child contact centre.
Whether or not such a proposal is made by a parent, in a significant proportion of child arrangements proceedings Cafcass will be asked by the court to provide advice in the form of a welfare report. That report will put forward recommendations about the nature and extent of any parental or other family member involvement in the child’s life and how that should be facilitated in practice. If the Cafcass officer considers, for whatever reason, that contact should take place at a supported or supervised child contact centre, that recommendation will be to use a local centre that is NACCC-accredited.
Even where Cafcass has not been asked to provide a welfare report, and if the court is contemplating making a child arrangements order involving the use of a child contact centre, judicial guidance in the form of Practice Direction 12B—Child Arrangements Programme makes clear the different purposes of supported and supervised child contact centres and how to find a local centre that is NACCC-accredited, again, through the NACCC website.
We recognise that child contact centres are not accessed exclusively through the courts or local authorities, and that many more parents these days may self-refer or be referred through other organisations such as mediation services or via a solicitor if one or both parties have one. Information is available on GOV.UK about child arrangements and how to deal with disputes, and there is a clear link alongside that content to the NACCC website.
In conclusion, we believe that there are already sufficient measures in place to ensure that Cafcass, the family court judiciary, local authorities, the public and practitioners are signposted to NACCC when the use of a child contact centre is under consideration. The best way to ensure the use of NACCC-accredited contact centres is to signpost clearly to NACCC’s website and the “Find a Contact Centre” search tool, and that does not require legislation or statutory regulation. However, the Government are always happy to consider ways to improve signposting.
I assure my noble friend and this House that the Government’s concerns about her proposed statutory solution do not in any way reflect any lack of appreciation of the risks to children and parents from unsafe contact arrangements. The risks are self-evident from the report into 19 child homicides published by Women’s Aid last year, and this is a matter which Ministers and all concerned take very seriously.
In due course there will be an opportunity to give further consideration to potential broader reforms to the family justice system. The Justice Secretary made it clear in the consultation on court reform in the autumn that the Government are considering what further reforms may be needed to the family justice system. I am sure that the role of child contact centres in helping parents to agree and operate safe child arrangements will be part of that broader dialogue, and no doubt the Government will make clear their intentions for family justice in due course. In the meantime, I thank my noble friend Lady McIntosh for giving us the opportunity to have this debate today.
My Lords, I thank those who have contributed to the debate and, in particular, my noble friend the Minister for her summing up. This has been a welcome opportunity to raise the issues, such as they are, relating to contact centres.
I turn to the concerns and reservations that have been raised. The noble Lord, Lord Wills, brings great experience to this debate—experience gained in the other place, especially as the Minister with responsibility in this area, and experience from his more recent work with contact centres. I think we all agree that the interests of the child must come first. He raised very real concerns, particularly as regards the removal of flexibility and the imposition of regulatory burdens, neither of which are intended in the Bill before us today—indeed, nothing could be further from the intentions behind it. Therefore, I hope that both those issues and the issues raised by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, who has been a pioneer in this field, could be addressed were the House to agree that the Bill should proceed to Committee.
As I said, the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, has been a pioneer in this field and has brought her immense experience to bear in today’s debate. Of particular concern is the role of the judge in circumstances where there may be no legal representation, and I think we will all take note of that. It is a matter of regret that the legal aid provisions are as they are and that they apply in only extremely limited circumstances, although I think we can understand the pressures on the budget.
The thrust and provisions of the Bill are intended basically to draw a distinction between the services provided in the public law and private law sectors and to try to bring them together as much as possible. This has been a welcome opportunity to take note of the standards that apply in the private law sector and to see how they can be transposed, where appropriate, to the public law sector.
No slight was intended to the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, with whom I had exchanged pleasantries prior to coming into the Chamber. I particularly enjoyed his contribution and now regret not having said how much I was looking forward to it. It is a matter of note that, until their friends or close family are involved in family breakdown, many members of the general public are not aware of the excellent work done by the child contact centres under NACCC, so I welcome the noble Lord’s recognition of that.
The noble Lord made a very good point about limited resources. Obviously I realise that there is not a blank cheque as regards requesting more resources, but that was not the intention. He drew attention to the danger of having an over-rigid structure—a point that was well made—and expressed concern about the new duties that might be imposed on local authorities. I do not think there is time for the Bill to pass through both Houses but, were it to reach the statute book, it would be the intention, under the new burdens doctrine, not to increase those burdens. The noble Lord very much brought to bear the sensitivities surrounding breakdown for families and for the wider family. He said that there would be lifetime consequences for the immediate and wider families.
I particularly thank the Minister, my noble friend Lady Buscombe, for her very full reply to the points raised across the House. It was an especial pleasure to be able to host the reception for NACCC and to raise awareness of the excellent work that it does. We were very grateful to the Ministry of Justice and the then Minister—I know that he has not left the department but he has left responsibility for these issues in the Ministry of Justice—for announcing the financial support for 2016-17. That was most welcome.
My noble friend set out the key issues in some detail. The point was well made in the debate that we are not seeking to increase regulation. Through this small Bill we seek to ensure that the standards that work so well in private law should be observed in the public law setting. I think it was the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, who said that sometimes an informal setting may be more appropriate. As long as it is supervised and safe, I think your Lordships would continue to support that.
I welcomed the support shown across the House, particularly by the Minister, for signposting the excellent work of NACCC. I hope noble Lords will see fit to allow the Bill to proceed to Committee, where we can elaborate further on the principles and standards. I welcome having had the opportunity of this debate, and I welcome, too, the Minister’s reference to the broader dialogue that will continue. On that basis, I ask the House that the Bill be given a Second Reading.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.