Beverley Hughes on the Coalition’s flawed family justice proposals
At today’s Committee debates on the Children and Families Bill, Labour Peers will turn their attention to the family justice provisions – matters that come into play when children go into care or when parents break up, and custody and welfare decisions have to be made. All of this can have a significant impact on a child’s future.
When parents separate, children inevitably have to be based with one parent (the resident parent) and have contact with the other (non-resident), in practice usually but not always the father. And yet it can be difficult for some children to keep up the contact with their non-resident parent, either because the parents’ relationship is acrimonious or because the level of contact decided by the court is low.
Clause 11 of the bill requires courts to presume contact and involvement in the child’s life by both parents, unless there are good reasons why not. We agree that there needs to be greater priority given to fathers by the courts and professionals, but we also want to ensure the over-riding principle of the child’s welfare is not diluted. So, we’ll propose that the quality of the child’s relationship with both parents now and in future is a factor the court has to take into account in the ‘welfare checklist’ of issues to be considered before decisions are made.
Continuing our strong support for children maintaining close family ties even when things go wrong, we’ll also seek to ensure that courts consider contact between siblings when agreeing plans for children in care. Ministers say they support this in principle but have so far resisted our amendments to insert sibling contact into existing legislation. Current regulations clearly aren’t working when 63% of the children in care lose contact with brothers or sisters also in care; and we’ll continue to fight for recognition of siblings in primary legislation.
The government also wants to impose a rigid 26-week time limit on care proceedings. While we also want to reduce delay and drift in the system, we will try to amend the bill to ensure sufficient flexibility in complex cases. All of the necessary relevant information needs to be considered, and any arbitrary guillotine risks disadvantaging the children involved.
Looking ahead to the rest of the Committee stage, next week sees scrutiny on Part 3 of the bill where complex new arrangements are proposed for children with special educational needs (SEN). Right from the outset Labour will be challenging the decision to restrict the reforms to children with SEN and exclude all other disabled children – something that ran contrary to the promises of the then Minister, Sarah Teather.
Baroness Beverley Hughes is Shadow Children and Education Minister in the House of Lords
Published 16th October 2013