HC Deb 01 May 1995 vol 259 cc75-91

  1. —(1) Where a child's father does not have parental responsibilities or parental rights in relation to him and the mother and father have not agreed to provide for the father to have such responsibilities or rights, the father may apply to the court for such rights, provided that, unless there are exceptional circumstances he does so—
    1. (i) no earlier than three months from the date of the child's birth; and
    2. (ii) no later than a maximum number of years to be prescribed by the Secretary of State from the date of the child's birth if during the intervening time he had no active part in providing for or caring for the child.
  2. (2) Before awarding parental responsibilities and parental rights under subsection (1) above, the court shall satisfy itself that arrangements are made for these rights to be exercised in such a manner as to avoid the father having knowledge of the address of the mother if she does not wish him to have such information.
  3. (3) Where a father awarded parental responsibilities or parental rights under subsection (1) above is subsequently convicted of any offence involving violence or of any offences mentioned in Schedule 1 to the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1975 (offences against children to which special provisions apply) or in sections 2A to 2C of the Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 1976 (incest and intercourse with a child by step-parent or person in position of trust), or has had a protection order enforced against him, his parental responsibilities and parental rights will terminate, pending any further application by him to the court for the restoration of such responsibilities and rights.'.—[Mrs. Fyfe.]
Brought up, and read the First time.

Mrs. Fyfe

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

I take this opportunity to mention my appreciation for the help and support freely given by my hon. Friends during the Committee which was of inestimable benefit while we were dealing with a difficult and complex issue.

To put the new clause into context, it is necessary to look at what the Bill has set out. All mothers—regardless of whether they have been married or not at any time—have parental responsibilities and rights. Few dispute that where there are rights, there must be responsibilities. Indeed, the Bill has put a new emphasis on parental responsibilities.

There is widespread agreement that rights are needed to be able to exercise responsibilities. But where there are responsibilities, there must also be safeguards. The law should come to the aid of those mothers and children who are subjected to violence, abuse and intimidation far more than it does at present.

The Bill is clear about the protection of fathers' interests. Any father married to the mother at the time of conception has automatically gained parental responsibilities and rights. An unmarried father may acquire such rights by agreement with the mother, failing which he can take his case to court. We pointed out in vain in Committee that a mother may agree under duress, and that there is no protection in the Bill to overcome that. A man and a woman can be extricated from an unwanted marriage which has been imposed under duress, but nothing can be done to overcome duress in a shared parenting agreement. We must remember that the parents involved could be very young, as the Government's own amendment No. 116 reinforces.

The Bill contains a process whereby an unmarried father can take his case to court if the mother refuses agreement. That is not in the least disputed by Opposition Members. It is right that where a father is unreasonably denied parental responsibilities and rights by the mother, the law should provide a remedy for that father. It is for the child's benefit that that should be so. I also sympathise with those anguished fathers who have written to me and who are at present denied access to the children they love. They are looking forward to restoring happy relations with their children under the provisions of the Bill, even if there is no hope of restoring good relations with the mother.

The Bill contains provisions for rights for fathers who have been unreasonably denied them. But what of those cases where the mother's disagreement is entirely fair and reasonable and where we would doubt her sanity and her sense of responsibility for her children if she agreed to share rights and responsibilities with the father? The Bill does not provide for that situation. It is no answer to say that the mother can state her case in court. It is not clear whether either party would receive legal aid in such a case, and as men generally earn a lot more than women—especially women who are bringing up children—the woman would be put at an immediate disadvantage.

The new clause seeks to provide some initial safeguards and says that unless there are exceptional circumstances, a father cannot apply to the courts any earlier than three months from the date of the baby's birth. This would safeguard the mother's interests in a similar fashion to that involved in adoption law, which allows a mother time to think and decide following the birth of her baby. It cannot seriously inconvenience the father to be made to wait for a mere three months, and many a father of a newborn baby might jocularly wish that he had no responsibility for the infant and that the mother had to carry out all of the less pleasant tasks associated with baby care.

The second provision of the clause is that, again unless there are exceptional circumstances, a father should not be able to apply to the courts if, during a number of years—the amount of which I am happy to let the Secretary of State lay down—he has had no active part in providing or caring for the child. While safeguarding fathers who do care for their children, this provision would safeguard mothers and children from the kind of man they could well do without. What excuse could there possibly be for a father who sends no money or items in kind to help with his child's upkeep, sends no letters or cards and makes no effort to carry out his fatherly responsibilities?

In Committee, the Minister rather fancifully envisaged wandering sailors as such a case, but even sailors have access to modern communications and shore leave, which—as far as I know—has not yet been withdrawn. However, to allow for the rarer possibilities in life—a father who is sunk in a coma in a country where no one speaks English, perhaps—I have allowed for exceptional circumstances. It would be for the courts to decide if those circumstances were sufficiently exceptional.

Subsection (2) of the new clause should cause no one any difficulty. It ensures that the court must satisfy itself that when it grants parental rights and responsibilities to a father, those rights will be exercised in such a manner as to avoid the father having knowledge of the mother's whereabouts if she does not wish him to have that information.

Sadly, we learnt while the Committee was sitting of a mother who was killed by her ex-husband while their young son hid in fear. The husband had obtained her address from the reporter to the children's hearing on three separate occasions. The Minister has agreed to ensure that, in future, such information will not be disclosed during or following the children's hearing if the mother does not wish it to be disclosed. It is only logical to extend the protection of women's safety to the courts in cases such as I am discussing now.

Finally, subsection (3) of the new clause provides further and necessary protection against violence, intimidation and abuse. If a father abuses the parental responsibilities and rights which are granted to him by the court and is convicted of an offence involving violence or abuse against children or has had a protection order enforced against him, his parental rights and responsibilities will terminate pending any further application by him to the court for restoration of his responsibilities and rights.

It is as plain as the nose on anyone's face that a father who is guilty of such offences is hardly demonstrating fitness for parenthood, and the law should take account of that without delay. As matters stand, such a father could be convicted of the most appalling crimes against children or the most extreme violence against his former partner, but retain his parental rights and responsibilities until further court actions are taken—perhaps many months later. Mothers can obtain interdicts, but the kind of man about whom we are talking will as readily break his ex-partner's neck as break an interdict.

The Bill provides for parents who have responsibility for their children, regardless of marital status. But recognition of the rights of responsible and loving fathers who do not live with their children must not carry the price of added difficulties for parents who have demonstrated daily their commitment by living with the child and caring for his needs, day in and day out.

Domestic violence, unfortunately, is not rare in Scotland. Scottish Women's Aid received more than 25,000 requests for information, support and safe refuge in 1993–94. Yet the Bill makes no mention of domestic violence. If the welfare of the child is to be paramount—as I believe it should be and as the Bill rightly stresses—the law of the land must protect the rights of the child and the parent who cares for him or her from violence and abuse, and the fear of violence and abuse.

If the Government refuse to accept this new clause tonight and call upon their colleagues once again to come into the Lobby and vote it down, unheard and unexamined, it will stand to their eternal shame. I commend the new clause to the House.

Mr. William McKelvey (Kilmarnock and Loudoun)

I rise to support new clause 2. I do so because I have studied carefully the documentation that was despatched to me from many sources, but particularly Women's Aid and Kilmarnock and Loudoun Women's Aid, an organisation with which I am often in contact, not for abusing my wife or children but because I take an interest and to assist those women who are under severe provocation from their partners.

The absence of a specific reference to domestic violence would substantially detract from the value of the Children (Scotland) Bill. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mrs. Fyfe) that, if the troops are gathered simply to vote the new clause down without examining it, it will be an indictment of them.

7 pm

Abuse of women and children in society, and certainly Scottish society, is prevalent. It is a matter of concern to all women and all children and it should be of concern to all Members of Parliament. At present, there are almost twice as many children as women in Women's Aid refuges in Scotland. The best interests of those children must be paramount in law. That has been said throughout the proceedings on the Bill.

The experience of Women's Aid in Scotland clearly shows that the breakdown in contact between many fathers and their children is due largely to disinterest on the part of the father or the level of fear created by his abuse of either the wife or the children or, in some cases, both. I am speaking on this occasion about those violent husbands who abuse their wives and children. I am not talking about those husbands who look after the interests of their wife and children but who, for whatever reason, have decided to separate honourably. Their rights are still protected. I think that all of us would agree with that.

The Women's Aid network in Scotland supports the new clause tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Maryhill. The new clause seeks to limit the period within which a father can exercise his right to apply to a court for parental rights. That is quite proper. It seeks to maintain the confidentiality of the address at which a woman resides, if she does not wish the father to have such information. Many Members of Parliament know about the difficulties caused at women's refuges when the husband secures the address at which his wife or former wife is staying and goes to the premises to create a commotion or abuse her.

Scottish Women's Aid supports the new clause, first because it would restrict fathers' rights to claim parental rights after an unduly long absence and, secondly, because it would increase the safety of women and children where they have escaped domestic abuse and the father has access rights. My hon. Friend the Member for Maryhill said that the new clause might help to guard against future fatalities such as that of Jacqueline McFetvich, who was killed last year by her abusive husband after her address was released on not one but three occasions by the reporter to the children's panel.

It is vital that the connection between abuse and parental rights be enshrined in law to the effect that, where abuse occurs, evidence of which would result in a conviction or a protection order, parental rights will go into abeyance. The father will be required to reapply to the court to reinstate those rights under the conditions outlined.

I take this opportunity to explain that I did not have the opportunity or privilege to serve on the Standing Committee which considered the Bill. Due to some recorded mistake, many people have written to me under the impression that I was a member of the Committee. I have to advise them that I did not serve on the Standing Committee, although I chaired the meetings of the Special Standing Committee which took evidence on the Bill. I understand that, by protocol, that does not exclude me from speaking in the debate tonight. I wanted to put that matter on the record lest some of my constituents might think that I served on a Committee in which I never uttered a word. That, of course, would be unforgivable as well as unforgettable.

Mr. Connarty

I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. McKelvey) for the way in which he chaired the Special Standing Committee. It was my first experience of such a Committee. I believe that not many hon. Members who serve on Committees which consider Bills have the experience of taking evidence from the public. Many organisations wrote to us. Many could not be called, because there were too many. The sessions that we held were eased by the chairmanship of my hon. Friend. So his contribution was great, although he was not a member of the Standing Committee which considered the Bill and therefore did not take part in the debates on the clauses.

I also commend my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mrs. Fyfe) for bringing the clause back to the House. We missed such an opportunity in the Committee. If we did not create even this small door to be opened to the possibility of joint parenting agreements by application to the courts, we would not have a chance to restore some of the missed opportunities.

In England and Wales, under section 1 of the Children Act 1989, only 5,000 agreements in any year are signed between the mother and the unmarried father of a child, under which the father is given responsibility for the child. That has grown from 2,500. As I said in Committee, one of the reasons for the low number of agreements is that people think that when they jointly register a child at birth, they automatically assume joint parental responsibility. The reality is that fathers have no rights and, more important, no responsibilities for the child apart from those which the Child Support Agency might eventually slap on them. Fathers think that they have rights because they have gone along with the mother to register the birth of the child. So we have a chance to introduce some joint responsibility in subsection (1) of new clause 2.

Some 30 per cent. of children in Scotland are born outside a married relationship, so there is probably a large number of children at this moment who have no father with a clear responsibility for them and whose father will have no clear responsibility or rights when the Bill becomes statute. I deeply regret that. For the good of our nation, I hope that some Government bolder than this one will take the opportunity to put it into law that when people have joint parenthood, they have joint responsibilities and rights and they are excluded from those rights only by some act of either omission or commission which makes them unfit to take those rights.

I welcome subsection (1) of the new clause. It allows a father who is serious and sincere, and who has been excluded from parental rights perhaps because there have been tensions or acrimony between the mother and the father, to go to court and apply for those rights. The idea that it should not be done early in the life of the child is to be commended because in those months the mother is under tremendous stress. She may be in hospital; she may be in contact with the hospital and doctors for three months and more. Three months seems a reasonable period of application. Some would argue that the period should be longer, until the mother has got over any problems with post-natal depression or any problems with the child. After that, she can cope with an application to share responsibility when the couple may have broken up their relationship.

In Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Galbraith) used the word "waster" to describe the type of father who is apathetic. That is the word used by the Women's Aid organisation about fathers who go away and return on some opportunistic basis, thinking that they would like to have the ready-made family that their partner or former wife has brought up. They claim rights as if they were claiming back a possession. Those people should clearly be forbidden from coming back and demanding rights in that way. That was the intention of my hon. Friend the Member for Maryhill in drafting the new clause in the way that she has.

The idea that fathers should have no knowledge of the address of the mother is important. It is the children who have rights. I have argued all along and continue to argue, and many enlightened organisations correctly argue, that the child should have the right to see both parents. No adults, because of their acrimony to another—unless the other person has been violent or abusive to them or to the children—should deny children that right. I hope that in that spirit the Government will see that we are trying to provide an open door.

Subsection (2), which says that the father should have no knowledge of the mother's address, deals with the concern that there should be no need to contact the former parent. The parent should not be made to come into contact with a former parent whom she does not want to see. That happens in a few cases. We must think and the Government must think about how to do that better. As it is the child and the parent who have the contact, it should not be a trauma for the residential parent. The residential parent should not have to go to a place where it might be necessary to come in contact with the parent who wishes to see the child. It is a question not just of no knowledge but of ensuring that there is no forced contact or contact by error because I think that it was an error that caused the death which we heard about in Committee.

Dr. Godman

I am listening closely to my hon. Friend. He spoke about access. Does he agree that we frequently come across cases in which an absent parent's access to a child is supervised by a social worker or some other person in a place that is away from where the child is living with his mother?

Mr. Connarty

That is a useful intervention because it shows the Government that there is already good practice in this area. The social work department or some other body, although in Scotland it is mainly the social work department, is responsible for uplifting the child and taking him to a mutually acceptable environment. It is important that children are not taken to cold, dank halls in which there is a physical barrier between them and the second parent who comes to see them. The environment should be such that the child and the second parent have genuine access and contact. Even if they are not supervised all the time, the responsibility for bringing the child to the place of contact should certainly lie with a third party unless the residential parent is capable and willing to meet and make contact with the father.

Subsection (3) of the new clause is about positive parenting. The purpose of the new clause is to show the Government that if parental responsibility were automatically shared it would safeguard the residential partner, in the main the woman, from any form of contact with an unsuitable person. All the issues that are outlined in subsection (3) are reasons why a parent should be kept away from the family that he has abused, threatened or committed violence against. Such people should be prevented from re-establishing contact with the child.

These 40 pages of amendments were stuck down on Friday for debate today. To act in that a way on a Bill of such magnitude and importance shows that the Government are half-hearted about what they are trying to do. They are tied up with bureaucratic difficulties and missing fantastic opportunities to use the UN convention on the rights of the child and enact useful and expansive legislation for children.

The new clause puts children first because my hon. Friend the Member for Maryhill has obviously focused on the child. It is interesting to note that the organisation in Scotland which used to be called the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children is now called Children First. It has got the message but it appears that the Government have not. However, if they at least accept this new clause there will be a slight lowering of the barriers that the Government's myopic, weak and half-hearted thinking have put in the way of the kind of legislation that we thought we would get when we set out on this journey so many months ago.

Mr. Wallace

I support the new clause, which should automatically commend itself to the Government. It promotes responsibility because, when a father applies to the court, it is to acquire not only rights in respect of the child but responsibilities. I am sure that every hon. Member has had plenty of correspondence over the past year or more from fathers who were being pursued by the Child Support Agency, many of whom were exercising responsibility through what they were paying for their children.

But responsibility is far more than money, although I am the first to accept that resources and money can go a long way towards improving a family's life style and helping in other ways. There are other responsibilities, many of which are set out in the Bill.

The hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mrs. Fyfe) has struck the right balance in her new clause. It would not apply to cases in which there is agreement between the parties, and provision for such agreement is set out in clause 4 of the Bill. It would relate to a situation in which there has been some reason for blocking the father's attempts to exercise rights and responsibilities in relation to the child. Therefore, the provision to ensure that an application to the court is not made prematurely while a mother is recovering from childbirth—

Dr. Godman

The hon. Gentleman has a vast knowledge of Scottish law, and may be able to help me. When a father makes such an application to a court, presumably the estranged wife or partner would have the right to challenge it. Would she be able to have recourse to legal aid?

Mr. Wallace

Although the clause does not refer to that, I automatically assumed that the mother would have a right of challenge and would be entitled to apply for legal aid.

Provision is made for the address of the mother to be kept from the father when serving the action. I am not sure how that would work in practice because the father would take the initiative, and it is difficult to know how he could serve the action if he did not have knowledge of the mother's address. However, I am sure that court rules could get round that. The intention is proper, and there should be the will to try to find the legal and procedural means to put the intention into practice.

My final point relates to subsection (3). We have had representations from Scottish Women's Aid, which says that, in many cases, an application by a father who may have been absent for some time can be made purely to try to renew abuse or perpetrate some psychological harm. Clearly that is not the intention of the new clause, and the provision in subsection (3) is important to give protection in circumstances where a father seeks to abuse legal procedures.

7.15 pm
Dr. Godman

I doubt whether the new clause will be accepted. I asked the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) whether the estranged partner or wife of a man making an application could challenge it. If she could, and if she had a low income, I take it that she would be able to receive legal aid. Many women constituents of mine who have had to seek refuge from violent partners or husbands have been on low incomes and faced all kinds of problems.

I listened carefully to my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. McKelvey). I happily support the new clause; women have to be protected. It is essential that the address of a refuge should not be divulged to a partner who has committed violence or where the woman has a genuine fear that violence may be inflicted upon her.

Cases in which the address of a refuge has been given to an estranged partner cause me considerable concern. Not long ago, I interviewed a young woman at my surgery who had been subjected to the most appalling violence by her partner. I am not sure that he is psychopathic, but it is very strange that he should inflict such violence on a young woman. At the same time, he has shown only love and affection for his children, who have suffered no violence. The poor young wife has been the victim of his wild, senseless acts of violence.

Where women need to seek refuge, it is essential that they be protected. Many refuges have no security, and once the partner has discovered the address, he can put the fear of God not only into his wife or partner but into other women in the refuge, especially if he turns up at night. I know of one refuge, the address of which was given out readily to husbands who had rightly been deserted by their wives, who were in fear not only of their own lives but of those of their children.

Although a father should have parental responsibilities and rights, it is essential that the woman concerned has the right to seek protection against him, especially, as subsection (3) states, where he has been convicted of any offence involving violence or any offences mentioned in Schedule 1 to the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1975 (offences against children to which special provisions apply)". As I said in an intervention in the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Connarty), it is possible to give violent fathers supervised access to their children without revealing the children's address, unless the children unwittingly give the game away and reveal the address to their parents.

Two constituents of mine can see their children only at a place designated by the social worker responsible for the care of the children concerned. Both the mother and father can see their children only in the company of the senior social worker responsible for the case. My hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, East expressed concern that such meetings should not lead to the revealing of the address where the children are staying. That is perfectly manageable, given the sensible and sympathetic intervention of, say, a social worker.

If the Government will not accept new clause 2, they have a duty to take those concerns on board, particularly in respect of women who have had to seek refuge. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun. I occasionally visit the office of the women who run Inverclyde Women's Aid in West Blackall street in Greenock. The last time that I was in that office, they were receiving calls from Lanarkshire, Grampian and Aberdeen.

Just before I left, a call came in from Cornwall, where a woman with two children needed desperately to put as many miles as she could between herself and her children and her violent partner. So the Women's Aid offices in Inverclyde and Kilmarnock do not deal just with local women, but are often called on to protect women and their children from all points of the compass. It is therefore essential that reporters and others do not reveal the location of refuges. Those who have done so in the past are guilty of irresponsibility towards those women and their children.

I am keen to hear what the Minister will say in rejecting the new clause. My concern is for the children and their mothers who must seek refuge in the growing number of refuges in Scotland and elsewhere.

Mr. Chisholm

The rights and responsibilities of unmarried fathers have been one of the more contentious aspects of the Bill, not least among organisations representing single parents. As most of those organisations have now arrived at a consensus on the new clause, I hope that the Minister will acknowledge that by accepting it. I suppose that the reason for the disagreement is that the rights of fathers, mothers and children do not always coincide, and ultimately, a balance must be struck.

The Bill advances the rights of fathers through the provision of voluntary agreements with mothers on joint rights and responsibilities. I hope that the Government will widely advertise that provision, so that the large number of couples who are not married but have a stable relationship can readily enter into such an agreement.

Nevertheless, we cannot just accept that all fathers should automatically have those rights. A child born of rape is merely the most extreme instance of how unsatisfactory that would be. Sometimes, a father's rights can conflict with a child's rights—for example, in the case of a father who has treated his child unsatisfactorily.

A constituent recently told me that the court had ruled that her child's father was to be allowed see her child, but that the child, who was five years old, had not seen that stranger before, and suddenly had to start going out with a strange adult every week. Such cases are sometimes not taken into account. I do not say that that father should not have the right to see his child, but the rights and feelings of the child should have been taken into account in the court order. Subsection (1)(ii), which mentions the time interval, takes that consideration into account. That is relevant to the child as well as to the mother.

Consideration of the time interval is becoming more common. One of the side effects of the Child Support Act 1991 is that some fathers who have never taken an interest in their children are saying, "If I must provide financially, why shouldn't I see the child?" Sometimes it is not for the best of motives, but to get at the mother. The new clause takes the time interval on board.

More commonly, a father's rights may conflict with those of the mother. The new clause seeks to protect the mother's rights, and makes three specific proposals.

First, where there is disagreement, a father should not apply for parental rights too soon after the birth. Three months is a modest proposal. We could have proposed a longer period, but I hope that we can all agree on three months.

I hope that the reasons are obvious to the Minister. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mrs. Fyfe) had to spell out the reasons in Committee, as she was one of the few women on the Committee. In the first three months after giving birth, a mother obviously has more important things on her mind.

The second proposal is that the mother should have the right to have her place of abode kept secret. The reasons for that are obvious.

The third and most serious proposal, which responds to a genuine worry of many women's and single-parent organisations, is to terminate the rights of a father who is violent. The provisions of subsection (3) go at least some way to meeting that objective. Some people want the provision strengthened to cover fathers suspected of violence. As it stands, no one can say that the provision is not fair to men, because a conviction is required.

People who were worried about some of the Bill's provisions have united around the new clause, and I hope that the Minister will accept it accordingly.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

This has been a useful debate. First, I shall answer the point made by the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) about legal aid. Any party to an action to obtain parental responsibilities and rights can apply for legal aid, and will obtain it if he or she satisfies the usual tests.

The most important point raised in the debate was concern over the safety of women, especially battered women, in refuges. Although I shall oppose new clause 2 on technical grounds, we shall consider an amendment to allow a mother to apply to the court to have her details kept confidential. However, it would be for the court to consider that in all the circumstances of the case.

In respect of whether the woman could oppose or contest any action, the normal rules of procedure will apply, and the application will be served on the mother or would be brought to her attention so that she could oppose it.

The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) asked how an application would be served and whether the normal rules of court would apply if the address of the mother were to be withheld from the applicant. It would be necessary to provide that the rules of court could make arrangements for bringing the application to the mother's notice. As I have said, we will consider the matter further.

Dr. Godman

I was pleased to hear of the Minister's proposed amendment in respect of a court deciding whether a woman's address should be divulged. In the time leading up to the court case, would the address of the woman involved be confidential?

7.30 pm
Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

We shall consider the issue and all its implications, and the hon. Gentleman's point is a key implication.

The difficulty with new clause 2 is that it would place time limits on when a father can exercise his right to apply to the court for parental responsibilities and rights. It would also place a duty on the court to prevent the father from finding out the address of the mother, and also to require the father to reapply for parental responsibilities following any conviction.

Although I have considerable sympathy for the objectives of hon. Members in putting forward such a new clause, I am not convinced that it is necessary. Under the terms of clause 11, any person claiming an interest in the child can apply to the court for parental responsibilities and rights. In considering whether to make such an order, the court will have regard to the welfare of the child as its paramount consideration.

New clause 2(1) would restrict the circumstances in which a father who is not and has not been married to the child's mother could apply. We believe that the only cases in which a genetic father or mother should be prevented from having access to the courts for this purpose are in the circumstances described by the House of Lords in their decision in re D on 9 March 1995, and in analogous circumstances where parental rights and responsibilities have been extinguished by a court. That is achieved by Government amendment No. 127.

In other cases, we believe that it would be difficult, having regard to international obligations, to have a provision that prevents a genetic parent from applying for such an order at any time. I therefore think it would be preferable to allow the genetic parent to apply, but to leave it to the court to determine whether to make an order in all the circumstances of the case.

I am not persuaded that subsection (2) is appropriately drafted. It is not clear whether it envisages that a court would inquire into whether the mother wishes that the father should not have knowledge of her address in every case. I think that that would go too far.

In any event, it would not be practicable for the court to be satisfied that the mother's address would not become known to the father. The court could not necessarily control all the circumstances in which such information might be made known to the father, including by innocent third parties such as the children themselves. I have said that we will look at the issue with a view to considering it further for the next stage of the Bill, although I do not think that subsection (2) is appropriately expressed in its present form.

Finally, it seems discriminatory that new clause 2(3) should deprive the unmarried father automatically of parental rights and responsibilities in the event of a conviction as described, but to make no such provision in relation to the married father—or, indeed, the mother. Arguably, any person with parental responsibilities should be treated equally in relation to the possible risk to the child should he or she incur such a conviction.

For those reasons, I would ask the House to reject new clause 2.

Mrs. Fyfe

I thank my hon. Friends who made important and valuable points in the debate.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. McKelvey) mentioned the direct experience disclosed to hon. Members by Scottish Women's Aid. Only that organisation has daily experience of dealing with the sort of problems that we are discussing.

My hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Connarty) rightly pointed out that joint registration of births is not widely taken up. It is taken up by very few indeed. That is an important aspect that we should consider in terms of ensuring that both parents have responsibility for the child.

We must allow for fathers to overcome unreasonable objections by mothers, and the Bill at least provides a safeguard for fathers in that position. But it is surely right to try to protect the interests of mothers who are being unreasonably put upon by the fathers.

As some hon. Members have said—I have some sympathy for this argument—three months from the date of the child's birth is possibly a little on the short side. I would happily let it go longer than that. The Minister objected that any length of time is objectionable, because it would interfere with the father's rights. He said nothing about the mother's right not to be persecuted in that way. She might still be lying in a hospital maternity bed, suffering from the mental and physical after-effects of the birth—or possibly from post-natal depression. In any case, it is only reasonable that the law should take account of that, as it does in respect of adoption.

It has been pointed out that I was one of the few women on the Standing Committee. Indeed, I could point out that I was the only mother on the Committee, the only person with direct experience of what it is like in the days immediately after a child is born. It says something about our legislature that there are so few women, mothers or otherwise, able to take part in considering legislation in the discussion of which I should have thought such direct experience could play a useful part.

I am grateful to my hon. Friends who have come to support the debate. It is noticeable that, from the Government side, not a single Back Bencher took the opportunity to take part in the debate. Indeed, for most of it, the Government Benches have been as empty as they could be, with the bare minimum of hon. Members on them. That will be noticed by women up and down the country and by the sort of good, decent, honourable men who want the law to serve both women and men fairly and well.

I thank the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) for his support. We can take up the point about the wife's address in this way. It is very possible that a former partner looking to exercise rights and responsibilities after the passing of many years could find out the wife's address, but she might quickly remove herself from that address to avoid contact with him.

The Minister said that it might be difficult to ensure that the husband or ex-partner never acquires the address. That is not a sensible objection, because, while the husband or ex-partner might find out by other means, the law should ensure that at least no one in court will give the information away. A simple request by the woman involved that she does not want the information to he given should be sufficient if she has reasonable grounds to fear for her safety and that of the child. Of course the information can be given away in another way, but that did not stop the Minister saying that he would provide similar safeguards in the case of children's hearings. By the same logic, he should support this proposal.

I am glad that the Minister will further consider the matter. I am disappointed that he is nevertheless going to reject new clause 2 on the grounds that he has stated, because subsection (1) restricts the father's rights only in the most reasonable and tiny way possible. If he feels that new clause 2(3) should go further, I would agree.

My hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) spoke of the reality in the refuges. I wish that there were more women in the Chamber now who had that direct experience; I do not have it. I was fortunate enough to be married to a man who never dreamed of treating either me or the children violently or abusively. That is, of course, the experience of the vast majority of women.

It would do the House and the country good if the experience of women in refuges could be described in the Chamber. Unfortunately, such experience is lacking. We who are here have to try to speak up for those who are not here to speak for themselves. We have tried to do that, and it is a shame and a disgrace that the Government are not more responsive tonight.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 193, Noes 258.

Division No. 139] [7.39 pm
Adams, Mrs Irene Golding, Mrs Llin
Allen, Graham Graham, Thomas
Alton, David Grant, Bernie (Tottenham)
Anderson, Ms Janet (Ros'dale) Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)
Armstrong, Hilary Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Ashton, Joe Grocott, Bruce
Austin-Walker, John Gunnell, John
Banks, Tony (Newham NW) Hall, Mike
Barnes, Harry Hanson, David
Barron, Kevin Hardy, Peter
Battle, John Heppell, John
Bayley, Hugh Hill, Keith (Streatham)
Beckett, Rt Hon Margaret Hogg, Norman (Cumbernauld)
Bell, Stuart Hoon, Geoffrey
Bennett, Andrew F Howarth, George (Knowsley North)
Benton, Joe Howells, Dr. Kim (Pontypridd)
Berry, Roger Hoyle, Doug
Betts, Clive Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
Bray, Dr Jeremy Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)
Brown, Gordon (Dunfermline E) Hughes, Roy (Newport E)
Brown, N (N'c'tle upon Tyne E) Illsley, Eric
Callaghan, Jim Ingram, Adam
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge) Jackson, Glenda (H'stead)
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE) Jamieson, David
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V) Johnston, Sir Russell
Campbell-Savours, D N Jones, Barry (Alyn and D'side)
Canavan, Dennis Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C)
Chisholm, Malcolm Jones, Lynne (B'ham S O)
Church, Judith Jones, Martyn (Clwyd South West)
Clapham, Michael Jowell, Tessa
Clark, Dr David (South Shields) Keen, Alan
Clarke, Eric (Midlothian) Kennedy, Charles (Ross,C&S)
Clelland, David Kennedy, Jane (Lpool Brdgn)
Clwyd, Mrs Ann Khabra, Piara S
Coffey, Ann Kirkood, Archy
Cohen, Harry Lestor, Joan (Eccles)
Connarty, Michael Lewis, Terry
Cook, Robin (Livingston) Liddell, Mrs Helen
Corbett, Robin Lynne, Ms Liz
Cox, Tom McAllion, John
Cummings, John McAvoy, Thomas
Cunningham, Jim (Covy SE) McCartney, Ian
Dalyell, Tarn Macdonald, Calum
Darling, Alistair McFall, John
Davidson, Ian McKelvey, William
Davies, Bryan (Oldham C'tral) McLeish, Henry
Denham, John Maclennan, Robert
Dewar, Donald McMaster, Gordon
Dixon, Don McNamara, Kevin
Donohoe, Brian H MacShane, Denis
Dowd, Jim Madden, Max
Dunnachie, Jimmy Mahon, Alice
Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth Mandelson, Peter
Eagle, Ms Angela Marshall, David (Shettleston)
Eastham, Ken Meacher, Michael
Enright, Derek Meale, Alan
Evans, John (St Helens N) Michael, Alun
Ewing, Mrs Margaret Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)
Fatchett, Derek Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll & Bute)
Field, Frank (Birkenhead) Milburn, Alan
Fisher, Mark Miller, Andrew
Flynn, Paul Moonie, Dr Lewis
Foster, Don (Bath) Morgan, Rhodri
Foulkes, George Morris, Rt Hon Alfred (Wy'nshawe)
Fraser, John Morris, Estelle (B'ham Yardley)
Fyfe, Maria Morris, Rt Hon John (Aberavon)
Galbraith, Sam Mowlam, Marjorie
Galloway, George Mudie, George
Gapes, Mike Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon
Gerrard, Neil O'Brien, William (Normanton)
Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr John O'Hara, Edward
Godman, Dr Norman A Olner, Bill
Godsiff, Roger O'Neill, Martin
Orme, Rt Hon Stanley Simpson, Alan
Pearson, Ian Skinner, Dennis
Pike, Peter L Smith, Andrew (Oxford E)
Pope, Greg Smith, Chris (Isl'ton S & F'sbury)
Powell, Ray (Ogmore) Soley, Clive
Prentice, Bridget (Lew'm E) Spellar, John
Prentice, Gordon (Pendle) Squire, Rachel (Dunfermline W)
Prescott, Rt Hon John Steinberg, Gerry
Purchase, Ken Stevenson, George
Quin, Ms Joyce Sutcliffe, Gerry
Raynsford, Nick Taylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Redmond, Martin Thompson, Jack (Wansbeck)
Reid, Dr John Tipping, Paddy
Rendel, David Turner, Dennis
Robertson, George (Hamilton) Walker, Rt Hon Sir Harold
Robinson, Geoffrey (Co'try NW) Wallace, James
Roche, Mrs Barbara Welsh, Andrew
Rooney, Terry Wicks, Malcolm
Ross, Ernie (Dundee W) Winnick, David
Ruddock, Joan Worthington, Tony
Salmond, Alex Wray, Jimmy
Sedgemore, Brian Young, David (Bolton SE)
Sheerman, Barry Tellers for the Ayes:
Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert Mr. Robert Ainsworth and
Short, Clare Mr. Stephen Byers.
Ainsworth, Peter (East Surrey) Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey
Alexander, Richard Coe, Sebastian
Alison, Rt Hon Michael (Selby) Congdon, David
Allason, Rupert (Torbay) Conway, Derek
Amess, David Coombs, Anthony (Wyre For'st)
Ancram, Michael Coombs, Simon (Swindon)
Arbuthnot, James Cope, Rt Hon Sir John
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham) Couchman, James
Arnold, Sir Thomas (Hazel Grv) Cran, James
Ashby, David Curry, David (Skipton & Ripon)
Atkins, Robert Davies, Quentin (Stamford)
Atkinson, David (Bour'mouth E) Davis, David (Boothferry)
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham) Day, Stephen
Baker, Nicholas (North Dorset) Deva, Nirj Joseph
Baldry, Tony Devlin, Tim
Banks, Matthew (Southport) Dicks, Terry
Bates, Michael Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James
Batiste, Spencer Dover, Den
Bellingham, Henry Duncan, Alan
Bendall, Vivian Duncan-Smith, Iain
Beresford, Sir Paul Dunn, Bob
Biffen, Rt Hon John Durant, Sir Anthony
Body, Sir Richard Dykes, Hugh
Booth, Hartley Elletson, Harold
Boswell, Tim Evans, David (Welwyn Hatfield)
Bottomley, Rt Hon Virginia Evans, Jonathan (Brecon)
Bowden, Sir Andrew Evans, Nigel (Ribble Valley)
Bowis, John Evans, Roger (Monmouth)
Boyson, Rt Hon Sir Rhodes Evennett, David
Brandreth, Gyles Faber, David
Brazier, Julian Fabricant, Michael
Bright, Sir Graham Fenner, Dame Peggy
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter Field, Barry (Isle of Wight)
Browning, Mrs Angela Fishburn, Dudley
Bruce, Ian (Dorset) Forman, Nigel
Budgen, Nicholas Forsyth, Rt Hon Michael (Stirling)
Burns, Simon Forth, Eric
Burt, Alistair Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman
Butcher, John Fox, Sir Marcus (Shipley)
Butler, Peter Freeman, Rt Hon Roger
Butterfill, John French, Douglas
Carlisle, John (Luton North) Fry, Sir Peter
Carlisle, Sir Kenneth (Lincoln) Gale, Roger
Carttiss, Michael Gallie, Phil
Cash, William Gardiner, Sir George
Chapman, Sydney Garel-Jones, Rt Hon Tristan
Clappison, James Garnier, Edward
Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Ru'clif) Gill, Christopher
Gillan, Cheryl Newton, Rt Hon Tony
Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles Nicholls, Patrick
Gorman, Mrs Teresa Nicholson, David (Taunton)
Gorst, Sir John Nicholson, Emma (Devon West)
Grant,Sir A (SW Cambs) Norris, Steve
Greenway, Harry (Ealing N) Onslow, Rt Hon Sir Cranley
Greenway, John (Ryedale) Oppenheim, Phillip
Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth, N) Ottaway, Richard
Grylls, Sir Michael Page, Richard
Hague, William Paice, James
Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archibald Patnick, Sir Irvine
Hampson, Dr Keith Pattie, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey
Hannam, Sir John Pawsey, James
Hargreaves, Andrew Pickles, Eric
Harris, David Porter, David (Waveney)
Haselhurst, Alan Portillo, Rt Hon Michael
Hawkins, Nick Rathbone, Tim
Heald, Oliver Redwood, Rt Hon John
Hendry, Charles Renton, Rt Hon Tim
Hicks, Robert Richards, Rod
Hill, James (Southampton Test) Rifkind, Rt Hon Malcolm
Horam, John Robathan, Andrew
Hordem, Rt Hon Sir Peter Robertson, Raymond (Ab'd'n S)
Howard, Rt Hon Michael Robinson, Mark (Somerton)
Howarth, Alan (Strat'rd-on-A) Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne)
Howell, Rt Hon David (G'dford) Rowe, Andrew (Mid Kent)
Howell, Sir Ralph (N Norfolk) Rumbold, Rt Hon Dame Angela
Hughes, Robert G (Harrow W) Ryder, Rt Hon Richard
Hunt, Sir John (Ravensbourne) Sackville, Tom
Hunter, Andrew Scott, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas
Jack, Michael Shaw, David (Dover)
Jackson, Robert (Wantage) Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey)
Jenkin, Bernard Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge)
Jessel, Toby Shersby, Michael
Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey Sims, Roger
Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N) Skeet, Sir Trevor
Jones, Robert B (W Hertfdshr) Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)
Kellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine Soames, Nicholas
King, Rt Hon Tom Speed, Sir Keith
Kirkhope, Timothy Spencer, Sir Derek
Knapman, Roger Spicer, Sir James (W Dorset)
Knight, Mrs Angela (Erewash) Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)
Knight, Greg (Derby N) Spink, Dr Robert
Knight, Dame Jill (Bir'm E'st'n) Spring, Richard
Knox, Sir David Sproat, Iain
Kynoch, George (Kincardine) Squire, Robin (Hornchurch)
Lait, Mrs Jacqui Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John
Lamont, Rt Hon Norman Steen, Anthony
Lang, Rt Hon Ian Stephen, Michael
Lawrence, Sir Ivan Stem, Michael
Legg, Barry Stewart, Allan
Lennox-Boyd, Sir Mark Streeter, Gary
Lester, Jim (Broxtowe) Sumberg, David
Lightbown, David Sykes, John
Lilley, Rt Hon Peter Taylor, Ian (Esher)
Lord, Michael Taylor, John M (Solihull)
Luff, Peter Taylor, Sir Teddy (Southend, E)
Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas Temple-Morris, Peter
MacKay, Andrew Thomason, Roy
McLoughlin, Patrick Thompson, Sir Donald (C'er V)
McNair-Wilson, Sir Patrick Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Madel, Sir David Thornton, Sir Malcolm
Maitland, Lady Olga Thurnham, Peter
Malone, Gerald Townsend, Cyril D (Bexl'yh'th)
Marlow, Tony Trend, Michael
Marshall, Sir Michael (Arundel) Trotter, Neville
Martin, David (Portsmouth S) Twinn, Dr Ian
Mates, Michael Vaughan, Sir Gerard
Mawhinney, Rt Hon Dr Brian Walden, George
Merchant, Piers Walker, Bill (N Tayside)
Mills, Iain Waller, Gary
Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling) Ward, John
Monro, Sir Hector Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)
Needham, Rt Hon Richard Waterson, Nigel
Nelson, Anthony Watts, John
Neubert, Sir Michael Wells, Bowen
Whitney, Ray Wood, Timothy
Whittingdale, John Yeo, Tim
Widdecombe, Ann Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Wiggin, Sir Jerry
Wilkinson, John Tellers for the Noes:
Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton) Dr. Liam Fox and
Wolfson, Mark Mr. David Willetts.

Question accordingly negatived.

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