Here is a copy of my speech on the Lords’ Amendments to Part II of the Children & Families Bill, Monday Feb. 10th 2014.

To watch the speech, please click on the viewer below, and scroll to 21.15.

“On part 2 of the Bill, I am conscious that I am following my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Jessica Lee), who spoke to the amendment to clause 11. The noble and learned Baroness Butler-Sloss, who moved the amendment, is widely acknowledged as the country’s greatest expert, so it is with some trepidation that I raise the issue. She sought to clarify what exactly the clause means in practical application regarding non-resident parents. My fear is that, in so doing, the clause, which sought to enshrine the right of the child to have a meaningful ongoing relationship with both parents, is watered down. I seek reassurance from the Minister on that point.

The welfare of the child should be the court’s paramount concern, but it should not be the court’s only concern. The legal system must ensure that the child’s welfare comes first, but it should not ignore the welfare of parents, whether a mother or a father. Few people consider the emotional and psychological impact that enforced separation from one’s own flesh and blood can have. The unintended negative consequence of the paramountcy principle is that the feelings of separated parents are simply not considered. That situation must change in the interests of justice for parents. It is also sound public policy and will lead to children being less damaged by their parents’ separation.

However, even considering only the benefits of shared parenting from the perspective of child welfare, volumes of research show that shared parenting is hugely beneficial to children, especially when a father is separated from his daughter. Contact is more likely to decline if the child is female, meaning that young girls pay a heavier price for divorce and separation than young boys, as Dr Linda Nielsen’s recent paper sets out. Indeed, the paramountcy principle applied correctly so that the welfare of the child comes first means encouraging shared parenting, not discouraging or paying lip service to it. That is the core of my concern with the amendment. It appears to erode the positive steps that the clause originally made towards a culture of shared parenting.

Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Con): My hon. Friend is exceptionally well known for her commitment to improving the lives of children, especially those with special educational needs and those caught up in what can be the misery of separated parents. However, does she agree that the major part of the problem is the failure of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service and the courts to intervene and take a genuine stand against obstructive parents who engage in parental alienation and prevent court order access, which damages both the relationship between, and the mental health of, the child and the non-resident parent?

Caroline Nokes: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. CAFCASS has an incredibly difficult job to do, but too often it fails to deal with issues such as parental alienation, and it is important that we consider the problem of poor enforcement of contact orders when non-resident parents are granted access but resident parents ignore them.

The current situation does not work, and both coalition partners gave commitments on several areas relating to family law reform. Some of those issues—mediation and dispute resolution, better enforcement of contact orders and, I hope, reform of court practices—will be genuinely improved by the Bill, but both coalition partners also gave clear commitments on the subject of shared parenting or shared contact. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Minister said that courts are seen as creating winners and losers, and it is vital that both parents feel confident that the court will consider fully the benefits of their involvement.

The Government have worked hard to strike the right balance, called for by groups such as Families Need Fathers, UK Family Law Reform and the Association for Shared Parenting. Clearly, the legislative intent of clause 11 was to bridge the gap between delivering tangible progress on shared parenting while ensuring the paramount need of the child’s welfare was preserved through a presumption in favour of shared contact, providing there was no good reason to oppose it.

I was elected on a promise to seek a legal presumption in favour of automatic shared contact, something that the Bill achieved before the amendment was added, but clause 11, as amended, will not deliver what we promised. I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure me on that point and confirm that I am incorrect in that. There is a whole library of research showing the benefits to a child of a proper, meaningful and ongoing relationship with the non-resident parent. If, as a society, we are genuinely interested in tackling the impact of family breakdown, we must start by encouraging and enabling non-resident parents to remain active in their children’s lives.

The amendment plays into the hands of obstructive resident parents who wish to prevent a child from having a meaningful, ongoing relationship with an absent parent, and puts us back into a situation of winners and losers. Some 10% to 20% of separations—often those that are the most rancorous and upsetting, and in which winners and losers are created—come before the courts. It is right that the court should be bound by the paramountcy principle, but the culture of shared parenting should be driven home, forcing hitherto hostile and oppositional parents to work together in the interests of their child.

I hope that the Minister can provide me with the reassurance I seek. Apart from that, I believe this to be an excellent Bill on which we have all worked long and hard. I support the rest of the clauses and the amendments, and thank him for his attention on these matters.”

 

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