Caroline Nokes, MP for Romsey & Southampton North, has spoken against an Amendment to the Children & Families Bill which sought to ‘water down’ the right of absent parents to have on-going involvement in the life of their child. Caroline was joined by other MPs who likewise criticised the amendment.

Caroline, who sat on the committee which scrutinised the Children & Families Bill, criticised amendment 12, tabled in the Lords by Baroness Butler-Sloss, once the most senior family judge in England and Wales. The amendment sought to change Clause 11 of the Bill, which had intended to enshrine an automatic right for a child to be parented by both parents, except in exceptional circumstances.

Speaking during the debate, and on the subject of the welfare of children, Caroline said “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.”

Speaking after the debate, Caroline said “The purpose of the Bill was to produce legislation which ensured the child’s need was the paramount consideration, and included the right to have an on-going, meaningful relationship with both parents. The Bill which left my committee did this, and would have benefitted the child and non-resident parent alike. The Bill which came back from the Lords does not. It removes almost any expectation an absent parent may have of enforceable shared parenting arrangements.

Caroline continued “To deny non-resident parents a meaningful role in the life of their child is not only unjust to the child, and detrimental to the parent, it is also contrary to the best interest of society. The social, financial and emotional cost of family breakdown is too high a cost to bear, and we must do everything we can to encourage families to stay together, and if not possible, to work together after separation. There is much research which shows children, and especially girls with an absent father, deal better with family breakdown where there is an on-going relationship with both parents. We must encourage shared parenting for the good of society, the parents and most importantly, the good of the children.”

Caroline went on to echo the calls of organisations like Families Need Fathers, UK Family Law Reform and the Joint Parenting Association, for the law to reflect the experience of shared parenting in Australia, where cases of family litigation have fallen. “Credible shared parenting organisations make the case overwhelmingly for shared parenting legislation. The Government should listen and not retreat on this issue. Opponents of shared parenting are wrong” said Caroline.

The Butler-Sloss Amendment sought to ensure the Bill does not create an expectation that absent parents can demand a set amount of time with their child. But Caroline said the Bill should create exactly that expectation. “It is interesting those who supported this amendment are those who opposed the use of the phrase ‘shared parenting’ in the original Bill. This amendment was another example of the ‘chipping away’ of what was intended to be at the heart of this clause – an automatic right for the child to be parented by both parents. Unless you clearly establish a legal presumption in favour of absent parents spending a reasonable amount of time with their children, and more importantly, enshrine a right for a child to have a meaningful ongoing relationship with both parents, there will be no change in custody outcomes, and we will have missed the best opportunity in a generation to create a culture of shared parenting.”

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