HL Deb 14 October 2004 vol 665 cc25-7WS
The Attorney-General (Lord Goldsmith)

My right honourable friend the Solicitor-General has made the following Ministerial Statement.

Further to my Statement to the House on 24 March 2004 (Official Report, Commons, cols. 885‒93) concerning the disclosure of court papers to the Minister for Children, and with the agreement of my noble friend Lady Ashton and my right honourable friend the Minister for Children, I would like to make a further Statement as to how the Government propose to change the law in relation to disclosures to and by Members of Parliament of information relating to family court proceedings concerning children.

The Government have concluded that the legislation governing the rules on the disclosure of information relating to family court proceedings concerning children is too restrictive and requires amendment and clarification. The amendments designed to achieve this were tabled to the Children Bill by my right honourable friend the Minister for Children on 7 October. They will, of course, be considered in proceedings on that Bill in the usual way.

In developing proposals for changes to the law relating to disclosure of information relating to family court proceedings concerning children, policy development has been based on a primary principle of the welfare of the child, supported by four further considerations, which are:

  • providing for the sharing of information between those with a legitimate need for that information;
  • the proper functioning of Parliament and the facilitation of the discharge of MPs' and Peers' functions;
  • the legitimacy of the law (the match between the law and what actually happens); and
  • the proper administration of justice in family law cases.

The Government's main aim in considering amendments to the law is that the welfare of the child must be the paramount concern. We recognise that parties to family proceedings and others may have a legitimate interest, in limited circumstances, in sharing information. Our broad policy intention is to permit the disclosure of information relating to family proceedings where it is necessary to allow:

  • parties to a case to obtain appropriate advice and support;
  • MPs and Peers to undertake their official duties and Ministers to exercise their functions:
  • statutory agencies, such as the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and social services, to obtain access to relevant information for child protection purposes;
  • complaints to be made to supervisory bodies and investigations to be carried out;
  • statutory bodies to undertake their regulatory and investigative functions; and
  • approved research to be undertaken.

This list is not exhaustive. Further background is given in the written policy statement which has been placed in the Libraries of both Houses by my noble friend Lady Ashton and my right honourable friend the Minister for Children, which explains the effect of the Government's amendments and sets out the Government's thinking on this issue and the proposed way ahead if the amendments tabled are agreed to by Parliament.

Briefly, the proposed amendments would do three things. First, they would amend Section 97(2) of the Children Act 1989 to limit the criminal offence of publication of information which identifies or is likely to identify a child as being involved in family proceedings, or the address or school of such a child, to publications to the public or section of the public. Secondly, Section 12(4) of the Administration of Justice Act 1960 would be clarified to make it clear that where rules of court specify that certain disclosures can be made, such disclosures would not be a contempt of court. Thirdly, a series of amendments would be made to current rule-making powers to clarify that rules can be made specifying the circumstances in which disclosures may be made.

Honourable Members will recall that I undertook to consult the honourable Member for Beaconsfield, the shadow Attorney-General, on this matter. I have also consulted the honourable Member for Torridge and West Devon, the Liberal Democrat spokesperson on legal affairs. I have also kept the Speaker and the Chairman of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges informed.