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10 Jan 2001 : Column 262WH

Violent Parents

12.30 pm

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North): I am grateful for the opportunity to debate this important subject. I am also grateful to the Women's Aid Federation and other agencies who have given me advice and information on this subject. Since the announcement of the debate--Ceefax carried a short piece registering the fact during the Christmas holiday--several journalists have telephoned me and, to my astonishment, two women who are not my constituents managed to track me down. They said that they had seen the item, and told me their stories. I hope that raising the issue in a public arena will help them and other women in a similar position.

I want to start by putting a human face on the problem of contact orders between children and violent parents. We are considering the assault and murder of children by an estranged parent, sometimes during contact that has been ordered by the courts. Recent press cuttings make quite horrific reading. Under the heading "Father and Son found dead" the Lincolnshire Echo recounted in March 1999 the story of a 26-year-old man and his two-and-a-half-year-old son who were found gassed in the father's car. The killing happened when the child was on a contact visit with his father. A neighbour said that the father was a lovely bloke who would do anything for anyone.

In August of the same year, The Western Mail reported the killing of seven-year-old Daniel and three-year-old Jordan Philpott by their father during a court order contact visit. The contact was ordered despite a background of violence. In March last year, the horrific killing of Shazia and her children, Saba, aged seven, and Zeshan, aged six, when she was handing them over to her ex-husband for a contact visit received national attention. A month later, Christopher and Oliver Fairless, aged nine and six, were killed by their father. He suffocated his sons and then killed himself during his first contact visit with the children. He was facing assault charges involving his ex-wife and her father. In October last year, the Lincolnshire Echo reported the discovery of the body of a two-year-old girl at a local beauty spot. The child had not been seen for three days since going out with her father as part of a custody arrangement. The paper simply reported that a man had been arrested and was helping the police with their inquiries.

That is a horrific catalogue of killings, but it is taken from just a few clippings. It is by no means a comprehensive survey of what has happened to children during the past two years. Two things especially surprise me. First, the events were reported in only local papers--no national record seems to have been kept of the killings. Secondly, I was surprised that such an appalling list of multiple murders has not attracted more national attention. The children were not killed by a maniac or mass murderer but by one of their own parents during a contact visit, and mostly during arrangements that had at least been sanctioned, if not ordered, by the courts.

Many cases do not end in such complete tragedy, but the consequences are traumatic enough. One such case is that of a constituent who came to me in desperation

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because her ex-husband was trying to get access to his daughter. The man had barely seen the girl before because he had tried to strangle the mother when she was five months pregnant, then walked out of the family home, cutting the phone lines on his way out. Two years later, a letter arrived from his solicitor asking the mother for contact with the child. After nine court appearances, she found herself facing prison for contempt of court for refusing to provide court-ordered access. Like many other women, she was put under heavy legal pressure, being told that she was destined to go to prison if she continued to refuse contact, but knowing that if she agreed to the contact, she would be exposing her young daughter, her two older children and herself to further attack. She had a last-minute reprieve, but she fears that her ex-husband is still pursuing her--he sent her a wreath shortly after the final court hearing.

I had thought that that was a one-off case, but when I looked into the issue I discovered that it was not, and I applied for an Adjournment debate to put the issue on the public agenda. Fortunately, the scale of domestic violence is being recognised. A third of all divorces are due in part to domestic violence, but the problem seems to be barely taken into account when determining contact. In 1997-98, of 36,144 applications for contact heard through the family courts, orders were granted in 32,868 cases, and refused outright in only 656.

Research by Women's Aid shows that two out of three parents who fled their homes after domestic violence were further abused as a result of contact, and that 76 per cent. of children physically abused by a violent parent were abused again during a contact visit. Risk assessment for contact was poor. In a fifth of cases, the former partner had a criminal conviction for violence against the parent with care of the children, but despite that, three quarters of them managed to get contact with those children. In fact, the parent was more likely to get contact when there was a record of child abuse. Three quarters of abused parents said that their partner's violence toward them was not considered by the court to be convincing enough to refuse contact. Perhaps worse, it was felt that 83 per cent. of children, especially those under five, did not have their views taken into account in decisions on contact.

Things have moved on since the Women's Aid research in terms of working out ways to deal with this awful problem, although the solutions have not yet been put into effect. Following a series of especially compelling cases, the Children Act sub-committee of the Advisory Board on Family Law has put forward a report and some guidelines to be taken into account in deciding on contact, and those are welcome.

In cases that have involved domestic violence the court should consider the conduct of both parents towards each other and towards the children, especially the effect of the domestic violence that has been established on the child and on the parent with whom the child is living; whether the motivation of the parent seeking contact is a desire to promote the best interests of the child or is a means of continuing a process of violence against or intimidation or harassment of the other parent; the likely behaviour of the parent seeking contact during that contact and its effect on the child or children concerned; the capacity of the parent seeking

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contact to appreciate the effect of past and future violence on the other parent and on the children concerned; and the attitude of the parent seeking contact to their own past conduct, especially whether they have the capacity to change and behave appropriately.

At present, those recommendations are only guidelines. They have not been promulgated or circulated, and it does not appear that they are being used evenly or are recognised by some courts or lawyers dealing with contact cases. I gave the list of recommendations to my constituent for her final court case and urged her to give them to her lawyers to raise them in court, which she did. In fact, while her lawyer knew about the guidelines, they had not been raised in any of the previous nine hearings. It seems that the judge might not have known about them, because after they had been raised, the court was adjourned for the judge to consider them. After his consideration, the judge said that although my constituent was in contempt, her fears were reasonable, and, as she was reasonably in contempt, she was not jailed. A public report on the case is not available, because it was heard in the family court. That is another problem, because the secrecy that surrounds the hearings plays into the hands of the abuser. Dina Rabinovitch dealt with the issue in an excellent way in The Guardian yesterday. Many of the concerns raised in that article are familiar, from both my constituent's stories and the accounts that I have heard from Women's Aid and other agencies.

My constituent's ex-husband could bully her through the courts over a two-year period, and one of her many concerns in the whole matter was that if she went to prison--which she was quite prepared to do, because she felt so strongly--apart from leaving her children in a dire state, it would be done in a cloud of secrecy. It is shocking, in this day and age, that a woman can be sent to prison and her family split up, and that she could face the loss of custody of one of her children, with no recourse to a public hearing.

Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon): I am glad that my hon. Friend has raised this disturbing issue. However, she has not mentioned contact centres. I wonder whether she is arguing for the courts to adopt the most prudent approach if there is a history of violence. Nor has my hon. Friend mentioned mental health, yet some of the cases that she has outlined could pose potential mental health difficulties. Should not those risk assessments take account of mental health?

Ms Keeble : I shall speak later about how those problems might be dealt with, but I have mentioned only a few of the many guidelines issued by the Advisory Board on Family Law, particularly those that should be considered when deciding whether a parent should have contact. If contact is agreed, a whole host of arrangements have to be made about where it should take place. The real difficulties are that there are not enough contact centres and that the staff are not given proper training.

Two contact centres were suggested to my constituent. One was run by the Women's Royal Voluntary Service, but the people who work there were extremely badly equipped to deal with a violent and fit young man. The other was a court welfare centre, which

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said that it was not prepared to have her ex-husband there because he was too violent and the staff could not deal with him. Heaps of issues are involved. I want to focus on the initial consideration of whether the parent should have contact; and the parent could be of either gender.

The experience that my constituent has had to endure--many others continue to suffer it--makes it essential that those guidelines are implemented by all courts; it should not be done only at the discretion of certain judges or barristers. We must also properly monitor what happens as a result of contact orders, and use that information to improve risk assessment and to plan and provide proper support for victims--and for abusers who want to deal with their difficulties. That includes considering such matters as where contact can take place and whether proper contact centres should be provided throughout the country.

Having the guidelines sent out as an official direction to the courts would certainly be a step in the right direction. However, it would be better if those guidelines were enshrined in legislation by amending the Children Act 1989. I have two reasons for suggesting that. First, it would help to ensure parity in implementation, so that all abused parents knew that the same assessment would be made of their abusers' behaviour in court before that person was given access to the children. Given that abused parents and children are forced to flee from pillar to post, it is especially important that, wherever they go, they know that they will have equal access to the same justice.

Secondly, an important principle is at stake here, and it should be properly discussed. Many of us assume that it is better for children to have contact with both their parents. It is said that it keeps them in touch with their roots, gives them a sense of identity, ensures that they have two parental role models and so on. I have always assumed that to be the case, but the evidence shows that it is not strictly true. There are times when it may not be better for children to be in contact with both their parents: in some circumstances, it could lead to their death. It is a fact that society would rather not face, but we must deal with it if we are to prevent the continuation of that catalogue of horrific crimes continuing.

Those issues must be aired publicly so that measures can be put in place to ensure that the risks to children and abused parents are better assessed, that facilities are available if there is to be supervised contact and that staff are properly trained. Abusing parents and their partners must understand that if they want contact with children, they will need to change their behaviour, but that such change is possible, and that there are services to help them achieve that.

For that reason, I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to ensure that the best practice guidelines are adopted, implemented and sent out in a direction to the courts, and that the Children Act is amended to enshrine the guidelines and ensure that the appalling slaughter of the innocents comes to an end.

12.45 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary of State, Lord Chancellor's Department (Jane Kennedy) : At the outset of a ministerial response to an Adjournment debate, it is a customary courtesy to thank the hon. Member who

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has raised the issue. On this occasion I do so absolutely sincerely. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) for initiating the debate, which allows me an opportunity to state how progress is being made, and to confirm that I share many of the anxieties that she and other hon. Members have highlighted today. We remain concerned about the issue and continue to work hard on it. I congratulate her on the way in which she presented her case.

The importance of the subject is demonstrated by the fact that this debate follows an excellent debate that took place in November last year. I was sorry not to be present on that occasion, but I have read the Hansard report, including the speech made by my hon. Friend. I took part in a debate on the subject in June last year, when my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South (Ms Moran), chairman of the all-party group on domestic violence, initiated a debate.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North has highlighted, domestic violence is not only an important subject, but a horrifyingly common problem. I do not believe that it has been treated sufficiently seriously by society and the courts, and incidents have been dismissed as "domestics"--events of no importance to anyone outside the family. Lingering traces of that view may still be with us today. However, as this and earlier debates have shown, it is not a view held by the Government or by any party in the House.

My hon. Friend and I have corresponded on the subject and had an exchange of views through oral questions in December last year. I am aware of the constituency case that she mentioned, and I am pleased that it has had a satisfactory outcome to date, largely thanks to her efforts. As a Minister, I am at somewhat of a disadvantage in this debate. My hon. Friend has ably demonstrated that the most persuasive way of tackling the subject is to put names if not faces to the bare statistics. As a Minister, I cannot do that, or comment on specific cases and the decisions that the courts take on them.

I concede that there are cases in which children are killed by one or the other parent during a contact visit. There is no disputing that. Each case is an appalling tragedy. When it occurs against a background in which a court has ordered contact with a previously violent parent, it is clear, in retrospect at least, that the court has made a bad decision. It may not always have been easy to know that at the time, however. Courts do not deliberately order contact when they think that there is a risk that death will result.

It is also worth bearing in mind that the number of children killed by their parents, though appalling--each case is appalling--is relatively low. My hon. Friend said that there was no national record, but we keep statistics. In 1999, 56 children were killed by one or other of their parents. Statistics do not record which parent committed the murder, although it might be worth mentioning in passing that there are certainly cases in which mothers kill their children. Also, the statistics do not record whether those children were killed during contact visits.

It seems probable that most of the children killed during contact visits are killed by a father, but this would follow from the fact that it is usually men who have contact with their children while women typically secure residence.

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My hon. Friend cited research conducted for Women's Aid, which seemed to show that the courts make bad decisions in an astonishingly high proportion of cases. I think that the title of the research paper is "Unreasonable Fears?" and that the work was conducted by Lorraine Radford and Sarah Sayer. I greatly admire the work that Women's Aid does on behalf of abused women and their children, but the research needs to be examined carefully and in the correct context. The study was not a survey of the decisions that the courts make in all contact cases, so research findings such as the one that

The research dealt with 130 survivors of domestic violence, 129 of whom were women. It recorded their perceptions of what had happened during and after their cases. Those findings are important but they do not tell us what happens in all cases. The findings that my hon. Friend read out could be put in another way. The survey found that in only a fifth of the cases covered had the former partner been subject to a criminal prosecution for domestic violence, but that in a quarter of them the former partner was refused direct contact with the children. That suggests to me that the courts try conscientiously to do what is best for the children, and attempt to assess risk to them in making decisions about contact.

In cases where there had been convictions for domestic violence we would, rightly, expect the courts to be extremely cautious, but clearly not all violent spouses are also violent parents. Still less do they inevitably go on to attack or murder their children during contact visits.

Ms Keeble : I do not have the figures to hand, but does my hon. Friend agree that substantial work has been done by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, and others, showing that while not all those who are violent to their partners also attack their children, the children are witnesses in the vast majority of cases of domestic violence--something like 70 to 90 per cent? Therefore they understand the violence and in a substantial number of cases are also at risk.

Jane Kennedy : That is a valid and valuable point.

My hon. Friend also talked about the secrecy surrounding the court hearings. Family court cases are not secret, but they are usually heard in private. The parties can apply for an open hearing if they wish, but may not always necessarily be made aware of that. The hearing of family cases in private is intended as a protection and is expressly compatible with article 6 of the European convention on human rights, which is intended to protect people and families from public intrusion into their private life. We should bear in mind the context in which courts work.

My hon. Friend also made a point about how, generally, we all accept that it is important for a child whose parents have separated to maintain contact with

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both parents, whenever that is possible and advisable. The courts can and do impose conditions on contact orders, limiting the times and places when contact can take place and, if necessary, requiring it to be supervised. My hon. Friends the Members for Northampton, North and for South Swindon (Ms Drown) will know of the good work that is done by contact centres, which allow contact to take place when for some reason it cannot happen at home, and by some more specialist contact centres which provide the supervised contact that did not happen in the two cases mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North.

Ann Keen (Brentford and Isleworth): Is my hon. Friend prepared to consider what happens in other countries? For example, in Cyprus if the children are in the house--not necessarily in the very room, but perhaps asleep or hiding--when the perpetrator is attacking their mother, he is charged with abuse of the child as well. That is a completely different outlook on children in situations of domestic violence.

Jane Kennedy : I am interested in that example, but the question of our policy on new criminal charges is a matter for colleagues in the Home Office. I will ensure that they are aware of the points raised by my hon. Friend.

Ms Keeble : Following on from the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ann Keen), my understanding is that an assault is committed when someone makes another person apprehend violence. The person does not actually have to be hit, because that would be battery. Will my hon. Friend ask the Home Office whether it is possible, even under existing legislation, to take action against a parent who attacks the other parent when the children are also in fear of being hit?

Jane Kennedy : Both points made by my hon. Friends are important, and I will ask my colleagues in the Home Office to respond. They will see the record of this debate, and I will ensure that a response is forthcoming, because those points are valid.

The Government value the work of contact centres, which play an important role in assisting the courts in contact cases involving allegations of domestic violence. The court may consider ordering supervised contact for the purposes of assessment, and the parties, often using the court welfare service, may arrange for contact to take place at a contact centre with facilities for supervised contact. We are aware of the need to develop contact centres and to extend their work, so we are further supporting the work of those valuable organisations. In a written answer today to a question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones), I detail the breakdown of more than £500,000 in grants made by the Lord Chancellor's Department to contact centres. I do not have time to go into the detail now.

The Women's Aid research illustrates another important point: in most cases involving allegations of domestic violence, there will probably be no criminal conviction on which the courts can rely. Inevitably, they must weigh up contradictory claims, some of which are

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certainly untrue. I am sure that my hon. Friends accept that we could never agree to a situation in which one parent had only to make an allegation of violence against the other to deny that parent contact with their children.

Having said that, I have accepted that the courts, like the rest of us, are not perfect and make mistakes. In the leading case on this subject, the Court of Appeal said that, in the past, courts have not placed sufficient weight on domestic violence in child contact cases. That is why, like my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North, I welcome the guidelines proposed by the Children Act sub-committee of the Advisory Board on Family Law under Mr. Justice Wall. They may not have been available in the nine hearings of the case referred to by my hon. Friend.

At the conclusion of the judgment in the four appeal cases, Lord Justice Waller emphasised the key points, two of which I draw to the House's attention. He says that it follows that alleged domestic violence is a matter that ought to be investigated and on which findings of fact should be made, because, if it is established, its effect

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on children exposed to it and the risk to the residential carer are highly relevant factors in considering orders for contact and the form that those orders should take.

Lord Justice Waller also said, however, that there should be no presumption against contact simply because domestic violence is alleged or proved. He said that domestic violence should not be elevated to a special category: it is one highly material factor among many that may offset the assumption in favour of contact when the difficult balancing exercise is carried out by the judge applying the welfare principle and the welfare check list set out in the Children Act.

I know that my hon. Friend is keen to see the matter enshrined in legislation. As I said earlier, we considered making a practice direction and we are still actively considering the best way to make progress. An alternative method might be to amend the family proceedings rules and introduce guidelines in that way. However, going down the route suggested by my hon. Friend would be much slower and less productive--

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair) : Order. Time is up.

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