HL Deb 24 April 2001 vol 625 cc84-6

2.44 p.m.

Lord Northbourne asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will amend Section 2(2) of the Children Act 1989 with a view to providing (a) that every natural father is responsible jointly with the mother for the financial support of any child of his and for using his best endeavours to ensure that the child receives the love, care, guidance and education which it needs from birth to maturity; and (b) that fathers who fulfil these responsibilities shall have joint parental responsibility for the child and appropriate access arrangements in cases where the parents do not live in the same household.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Irvine of Lairg)

My Lords, I have acknowledged the noble Lord's commitment in this area before, and I do so again. His concern, which is very well founded, is about the adverse effect of absent fathers on boys and young men. But, with the best will in the world, there is no point in putting every natural father under a legal obligation to use his best endeavours to provide love, care, guidance and education for his child, when the father may have no—or no committed—relationship with the mother, nor, sadly, any feelings of love or responsibility towards the child: love cannot be compelled.

Conversely, attending to the other part of the noble Lord's Question, nor should natural fathers have contact with a child only if they fulfil their financial responsibilities to the child. A child may crave contact with a father who has not fulfilled those responsibilities, and can actually benefit from it sometimes. So the child's welfare is the paramount consideration. The courts will consider the wishes, and the feelings, of the child. I have the greatest respect, which I repeat, for the noble Lord's ideals and intentions; indeed, I believe that he has shared his ideas with my officials both in detail and most helpfully on at least two occasions. However, I just cannot think that this particular proposal could work.

Lord Northbourne

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for that careful reply. Under the circumstances, it may seem impertinent of me to say that hard cases make bad law. I fully acknowledge the difficult borderline cases to which the noble and learned Lord drew attention in his response. However, will the noble and learned Lord accept that over 700,000 boys in our society today are growing up without any contact whatever with their fathers? Do the Government accept the increasing body of research which shows that a child has a better chance of attaining his full potential if he has contact with a caring father, as well as with a caring mother? The burden of my Question is this: do the Government have any plans to try to reduce in any way the number of children who are presently growing up without a caring father?

The Lord Chancellor

Yes, my Lords. I acknowledge that a very large number of young men grow up without the benefit of having a father. Such a benefit is inestimable. Of course, life chances are much greater if one has the advantage of a caring father, but government cannot legislate to bring all good things about.

Lord Tomlinson

My Lords, can my noble and learned friend be quite specific in relation to the following point: should a father who fails to fulfil his financial obligations to a child be deprived of access to that child? Does my noble and learned friend deem that, in any circumstances, to be in the interests of the child?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, the short answer is that the paramount interest is the welfare of the child. Just as a father who does not support the child financially may still benefit the child by having access to him or her, so also it is the wishes and the feelings of the child that matter. As I said, children may crave contact with the father. Therefore, to penalise the father for non-payment of support would also be to penalise the child. However, the discharge of financial responsibilities cannot purchase access. The overriding consideration must be the benefit and the welfare of the child.

Viscount Bridgeman

My Lords, can the noble and learned Lord give the House an assurance that the mentor service, which may be said to act as a father substitute and which has been successfully in operation with a small number of authorities, will be expanded and that the necessary resources will be made available to recruit and train mentors of the highest calibre for this very skilled and important work?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, the noble Viscount referred to an important initiative which is highly relevant to this Question, but it is in its infancy. Expansion and, indeed, consequential funding will depend upon the success of the pilots which I am about to describe.

I believe that the noble Viscount refers to three pilot schemes which have been operational since January to test the effectiveness of mentoring young people. I believe that one is in Birmingham and the others are in Kensington and Chelsea and Salford. They test different models of co-ordinating, recruiting and supporting mentors directly related to the needs of young people. The aim is to establish minimum quality standards in mentoring. Mentors come, for example, from local businesses, higher educational institutions and from the retired community. These people are volunteers. A major objective of government policy is to promote volunteering. They are being briefed, trained and may move on to accreditation by a recognised body. It is too early to talk about the extent of funding. However, I undertake to write to the noble Viscount with as much detail as is presently available of a scheme which is in its infancy.