HC Deb 17 July 2003 vol 409 cc150-3WH
8. Ms Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley)

If the Government will make a statement on measures in place to ensure incidents of domestic violence are considered when decisions are taken on arrangements for children having contact with parents. [125470]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. David Lammy)

The Children Act 1989 ensures that the welfare of the child is paramount in all decisions on contact. Guidelines were issued in 2001 to ensure that incidents of domestic violence are considered when decisions on contact are taken. In addition, we will amend the contact and residency application forms to allow for details of domestic violence to be raised early on in the application process.

Ms Munn

I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. However, like me, he will know that far too many children are killed during contact visits and mothers killed when an ex-partner comes to pick up a child for such a visit. Will my hon. Friend consider reviewing the guidelines and ensure that proper reviews take place into the deaths of children in such situations so that lessons can be learned and more robust procedures can be put in place? The deaths of young children and women in such situations must stop.

Mr. Lammy

I know that my hon. Friend has tremendous experience in this area. We are surveying the guidelines—the last survey was conducted at the end of 2002—and we hope to come forward with initial results shortly. The survey on the practical effect of the guidelines comes to an end in 2004, but we know that they have already had an effect on case law and a Court of Appeal decision. Furthermore, we want to see a multi-agency approach to the guidelines to ensure that the situations that my hon. Friend outlined in her question are avoided as far as possible.

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden)

I am most grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for drawing our attention to not blurring the edges of these important questions. I had hoped to put this point on Question 1, which was tabled by the hon. Member for Rochdale (Mrs. Fitzsimons), because the issue of guidance to judges on child contact is important but fairly specific. The hon. Member for Rochdale may be able to catch your eye, as the issue has crept into other questions, which has the effect of blunting the impact of the focus that we must give it.

The Green Paper on domestic violence states that the guidelines issued to courts on parental contact are being reviewed, and we have just heard the Minister say that they are being surveyed and that amendments may follow at the end of the monitoring period. However, that is against the context of a 50 per cent. increase in the number of contact orders since 1999—a startling increase from 41,862 to 61,356 last year. The surveying process is taking place against a background of a huge number of extra contact orders being granted.

As a constituency case revealed to me only this week, appeals by the non-violent parent for supervision to be in place before the contact goes ahead still seem to go unheeded. It is an incredible anomaly that a person convicted of a schedule 1 offence is not allowed to drive a school bus but can be granted unsupervised contact with the child that he or she has abused. This is a real issue of child protection: can we really afford to wait another year? What immediate action are the Government taking to protect children currently in such contact arrangements?

Mr. Lammy

The hon. Lady makes her points with some passion, because she is right—this is important. However, we issued guidelines, which are having an effect, and it is right for the Government and the agencies involved to draw empirical evidence on that effect. The hon. Lady will also know that it is for the courts to determine the contact arrangements for children, which they will want to ensure take place in a safe environment. The circumstances will depend on the particular case.

We issued the guidelines relatively recently and we must now see that they have an effect. Although I understand the urgency with which the hon. Lady makes the point, it is right that the Government should act sensibly and properly on the basis—

Mrs. Spelman


Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest)


Mr. Lammy

This is an important issue, on which we do not want to make partisan points. [Interruption.]

Ms Debra Shipley (Stourbridge)

It is not a partisan point.

Mr. Lammy

I say to Opposition Members that it is this Government who have acted.[Interruption.]

Ms Shipley

I agree with the hon. Lady.

Mr. Deputy Speaker


Mrs. Spelman

Thank you for allowing me to respond, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The constituency case is urgent; it means that in 48 hours' time the mother will have to take the child to a centre with no supervision, to which circumstances the Government apparently have no answer. Since 1998, 15 children have been killed as a result of contact arrangements. That is quantifiable; it is a fact. A survey in 1999 found that 76 per cent. of children ordered by the courts to have contact with abusive or violent parents suffered in a variety of ways, ranging from physical and sexual abuse to neglect. Research undertaken by Christine Harrison of Warwick university shows that too often the views of the child who does not want to have contact with the violent or abusive parent are simply overridden. What assurance can the Minister for Children give that the wishes of the child in these contact arrangements will be given greater priority?

The Minister for Children (Margaret Hodge)

My hon. Friend tried to give some assurance. The hon. Lady was correct to say that we need to increase the number of supervised contact centres. That is an urgent issue that we hope to address in the context of how we look at, and take forward, the work that has been done by Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Services. We are already investing additional moneys: £2.5 million has gone in from the children's fund specifically to increase the number of supervised contact centres.

One of the advantages of the new organisation for which I now have responsibility is that we can start considering whether we can develop contact centres, for instance in some of the sure start centres and in other facilities that we provide for children, young people and families. [Interruption.] Indeed, if the hon. Lady will listen, I can tell her that I was at a meeting this morning at which we discussed what opportunity there would be in the new environment to get a coherence of services.

The hon. Lady raises an issue of huge importance and I draw her attention to the amendment in the Adoption and Children Act 2002. When consideration was taken of care and supervision orders, after the definition of "harm" in subsection (9) we inserted additional wording to include, for example, impairment suffered from seeing or hearing the ill treatment of another. We now need to put in place the regulations to support that amendment to ensure that we act appropriately in circumstances of domestic violence.

Existing legislation should ensure that those taking decisions on behalf of children listen to the children's voice. I take very seriously the concern expressed by the hon. Lady that that is not sufficiently taken into account and I will take it on board in the work that I do in future.

Mrs. Lorna Fitzsimons (Rochdale)

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I apologise to you for missing a previous opportunity to speak by a smidgeon as I made the mistake of going in to the Public Gallery rather than the Members' Entrance. I am grateful to you for giving me a second opportunity to speak.

Following the vexed issue of contact orders in the review, is the Department prepared to countenance that the presumption should be changed? Currently, the presumption is that it is in the children's best interests to have contact. However, I contend that it is not and the deaths of children and mothers also suggest that it is not. First, are the Government prepared to change that presumption in law? Secondly, while the review is being carried out, could the guidance ensure that if it cannot be guaranteed that there will be supervised, safe contact, the presumption should be that there is no contact?

Mr. Lammy

My hon. Friend will know that debate on this issue is taking place not just in the United Kingdom, but in other parts of the world. In New Zealand, for example, the authorities make the presumption that my hon. Friend desires. However, the Children Act 1989 is the law in the UK and is based on the best interests of the child. The groups operating in this area take different sides in the debate, some wanting the presumption to be that there is no contact, and others wanting to ensure that there is contact. We will continue to listen to those points of view, but the evidence suggests that, wherever possible, contact with both parents is important and necessary, and supports the emotional development of the child. I accept that it is a difficult area, but that is the Government's current position on the matter.

Sandra Gidley (Romsey)

I have to take issue with the Minister about his earlier reply. He claimed that the Government guidelines that were introduced in April 2001 were having an effect, but they are not. In 2001 only 713 contact orders were refused, and that number had decreased to 518 in 2002. I am therefore not sure where and in what way the guidelines are having an effect, and I would be grateful if the Minister could clarify that. In a wider context, the Association of Chief Officers of Probation estimated that domestic violence is involved in 16,000 cases annually in which a court welfare report is ordered. Do the Government therefore believe it to be right that contact is refused in only 518 of those cases?

Mr. Lammy

As I said, it is right that we act on the basis of the evidence put forward. The hon. Lady makes a relevant point. We will examine the matter and consider the analysis to see how we are progressing. It is also right that we invest extra funds in contact centres and work with the national association to ensure that standards and provision are improved, and that we can look forward to a better future.

The hon. Lady will also know that the development of contact centres occurred in the 1980s. We only reached a significant point in 1988, when the association was set up. She is right to say that the issue is urgent. The Government take it seriously I hope that those extra funds are beginning to have an effect, and I accept the hon. Lady's point about considering the guidance quickly.

Margaret Hodge

I simply wish to add that all hon. Members recognise how difficult those judgments are for those who have to make them. On the one hand there are all the negative aspects arising from children having witnessed abuse or having been victims of abuse by the parent seeking contact, but on the other hand we know that maintaining contact with both parents is an important way of providing the best opportunity for a child to grow up healthy and well. Those two aspects must he balanced, and the answer must be in constant updating of the training of those who have to take those difficult decisions and, as the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) said, in emphasising the voice of the child in informing the decisions. I hope that no one goes away from this afternoon's discussions believing that these issues are simple and easy to resolve.

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