HC Deb 19 May 1978 vol 950 cc1029-33

'(1) A magistrates' court, on making an order under section 7(2) of this Act regarding the legal custody of a child or at any time while such an order is in force, shall have power on an application made by a grandparent of the child, to make such order requiring access to the child to be given to that grandparent as the court thinks fit. (2) Subsections (5), (6), (7)(b) and (8) of section 7 and subsection (9) of section 9 of this Act shall apply in relation to an order under this section as they apply in relation to an order under section 7(2)(b) of this Act. (3) Where a magistrates' court has made an order under subsection (1) above requiring access to a child to be given to a grandparent, the court shall have power to vary or revoke that order on an application made—

  1. (a) by that grandparent, or
  2. (b) by either party to the marriage in question, or
  3. (c) if the child is not a child of both the parties to the marriage, by any person who though not a party to the marriage is a parent of that child.
(4) Section 11 of this Act shall apply in relation to the exercise by a court of its powers under this section on an application under subsection (1) or (3) above as it applies in relation to the exercise by the court of its powers under sections 7 to 9 of this Act on an application under section 1 of this Act, and any reference to a party to the proceedings in subsection (4) or (5) of section 11 of this Act shall include—
  1. (a) in the case of an application under subsection (1) above, a reference to the grandparent who has made an application under that subsection; and
  2. (b) in the case of an application under subsection (3) above, a reference to the grandparent who has access to the child under the order for the variation or revocation of which the application is made.
(5) Where an order made under section 7(2)(a) of this Act in relation to a child ceases to have effect, whether by virtue of an order or direction of a magistrates' court or by virtue of any provision of this Part of this Act, any order made under this section regarding access to the child by a grandparent shall also cease to have effect. (6) A court shall have power to make an order under this section in favour of a grandparent of a child notwithstanding that the child is illegitimate.'—[Mr. John.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

3.12 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Brynmor John)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Myer Galpern)

With this clause we may take New Clause No. 2—Access to minors by grandparents under Guardianship of Minors Act 1971—and Government Amendments Nos. 31, 41, 47 to 49, 51, 53 to 57, 66, 67, 69 and 78.

Mr. John

I am sure that you will be relieved, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to know that the vast majority of amendments which follow the new clauses are consequential.

This group of amendments deals with cases where a grandparent wishes to see his grandchild but, for one reason or another, is denied access. These cases can be most distressing, as the postbag of most hon. Members shows.

I pay special tribute to the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mr. Rhodes James), who for a long time has championed the cause of grandparents. He has fought long and assiduously on their behalf and they have reason to be glad that they have so diligent a champion.

Last Session the hon. Gentleman introduced a Ten-Minute Bill, which went the way of most Ten-Minute Bills, in the sense that it failed to become law. However, that did not deter the hon. Gentleman. He will know that over the months I have expressed considerable personal sympathy in this matter and, without wishing to claim the rights of parenthood, so to speak, it was I who put into his mind the possibility of a Government measure, namely, this legislation, as a suitable vehicle for tacking on such provisions. I am glad to say that in principle the Government wholly accept the principle enshrined by the hon. Gentleman.

The two clauses as introduced and incorporated in Committee, namely, Clauses 70 and 71, in our view went somewhat too wide. Therefore, New Clauses Nos. 1 and 2 are designed to draw the matter rather more tightly. They are not drawn in a restrictive sense but are aimed at making clear the rights of grandparents, and they seek to draw the fine balance which sometimes exists between the rights of grandparents—rights which are natural and real—to access. At the same time, there is a desire to keep the principle of parental responsibility for children clear and to avoid anything which might, through the threat of proceedings, add to the tensions, worries and disharmonies in a household.

The amendments would allow for access in two categories of case—namely, where the parents have separated or where one or both Is dead. They do not deal with the case in which the parents are divorced, because there is already power under the Matrimonial Causes Act for the divorce court to grant a grandparent access.

The first new clause deals with the case where the parties are bringing matrimonial proceedings under Part I. This is where they are separated and maintenance and custody are being applied for. The new clause provides that where a court makes an order in a matrimonial proceeding relating to the custody of the child—that can, of course, include access—a grandparent may apply for access, either in the course of those proceedings or subsequently.

New Clause No. 2 introduces a new provision into the Guardianship of Minors Act 1971 to deal with the case where matrimonial affairs between the parties may not be the subject of litigation. Nevertheless, one of the parties applies either for custody or for access quite separately and where no matrimonial matter concerns the two parties, very often the only summons is brought under the 1971 Act. There is provision in Section 9 of that Act for any parent to apply for custody or access. Subsection (1) of the new clause therefore allows a grandparent to apply for access, either at the same time or afterwards.

Another possible case arises where a custodianship order is granted under the Children Act 1975. That Act has not yet been brought into force, but this subsection would provide for the circumstances in which a child has been living with a relative or a foster parent. It seems right to anticipate the coming into force of that Act by providing for one of those circumstances and allowing a grandparent to apply for access.

Finally, we have introduced a provision enabling a grandparent to apply for access if either or both of the natural parents is dead. That is contained in subsection (2) of New Clause No. 2 and is inserted in the Guardianship of Minors Act.

The remaining amendments are either technical or consequential, with the exception of Amendment No. 78. That would remove from the Long Title words which were inserted by an amendment in Committee and which are unnecessary, since the Long Title already covers all the amendments relating to access by grandparents.

Mr. Robert Rhodes James (Cambridge)

I thank the Minister of State, the Under-Secretary and their officials for the manner in which they have accepted the principle enshrined in the amendments in Committee, in which I have had a considerable interest for some time. I am also grateful to my right hon. and hon. Friends, on both sides of the House, who were co-sponsors of my Bill and have supported the work that I have tried to do.

My interest began a year ago, with the case of a family of constituents whose son and daughter-in-law had been killed and who found that they were denied access to their grandchildren. The tragedy that unfolded from that case and developed into several hundred other cases was simply that children were being denied the right to see their own grandparents. There was no question of custody or guardianship; people were being deprived even of the right to see one another.

In some cases, grandparents had brought up their own grandchildren for six or eight years and had then had the children taken away; they were told that they could not see them even once a year.

The important point was the establishment of the principle that grandparents had certain rights, the paramount consideration always being the well-being of the children. Some organs of the Press have called this a grandparents' charter. I have always tried to emphasise that my concern is for the children just as much as it is for the grandparents.

I fully understand the difficulty that the Home Office had—it was a difficulty that I had as well—which was to try to establish the principle in the Bill while recognising the reality that there are cases in which parents are unworthy influences upon their children and grandchildren, where children have decided to get away from the shadow of an unhappy childhood of their own and to ensure that their children do not come under what they regard as baleful influences. The difficulty of this balance has caused a certain amount of delay in the enactment of the Bill, but I am satisfied with the amendments produced by the Minister of State.

As the hon. Gentleman emphasised, virtually all cases are covered—separation, death and divorce under existing law—while the basic parental rights of parents over the lives and fortunes of their own children are maintained. I regard this as a modest but humane and compassionate amendment to the law. It affects rather more children and grandparents than is generally realised, certainly if the number of cases with which I have had to deal is any indication.

The amendment offers the opportunity for happiness to a great number of children and their grandparents. It is one that has had the support of hon. Members of all parties. I am deeply grateful to the Minister of State, the Under-Secretary and their officials, as well as to my right hon. and hon. Friends, on both sides of the House, for making possible this change in the law.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.