Adoption and Children Bill

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Mr. Bellingham: The Minister said ''should'' ensure, which implies a degree of doubt. Does she mean that the provisions might ensure that problems do not continue or that they will definitely do so?

Jacqui Smith: I was coming to the action that the Government will take.

New clause 11 provides that a local authority must provide such assistance as is reasonably required to meet the needs of a child who is assessed as needing accommodation to enable him to live with his family. I have some sympathy with that aim, but I shall resist it for the following reasons. First, it imposes a duty on local authorities to provide accommodation in individual cases in a way that is not mirrored in the other services that are provided to children in need and their families, such as home help or day care.

Secondly, the new clause does not deal with the provision of accommodation to children in need whom it is not appropriate to accommodate with their families or as looked-after children. Sometimes authorities need the power to accommodate children away from their families—for example, if they are estranged from their families or if they are

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unaccompanied asylum seeker. Thirdly, amending schedule 2 as new clause 11 would do would be insufficient to cover accommodation. Our legal advice is that, because a judgment held that section 17 did not cover the matter, we may need to amend that section. I am not sure that new clause 11 would achieve what is necessary.

For those technical reasons I ask my hon. Friend not to press her new clauses. I give her a strong assurance that the Government recognise the important issues that the relevant judgments have raised, that we have engaged in consultation across Government and with directors of social services and Shelter, and that we intend to present our own amendments to restore the power under section 17 when we have been able to think about what is necessary to make it effective and considered the possible consequences.

Margaret Moran: With those assurances, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Jim Fitzpatrick: On a point of order, Mr. Stevenson. I seek your approval for a meeting of the Programming Sub-Committee at 2.15 pm to consider a draft resolution, a copy of which has been supplied to you, the Clerk and the Opposition.

The Chairman: Yes, indeed. Such a meeting will be arranged for 2.15 pm.

New clause 12

Parental contact with children after

separation in cases involving violence or abuse

    'After section 8 in Part 2 of the Children Act 1989 there is inserted—

    ''8A Contact orders in cases involving family violence

    (1) Where a court is considering whether to make a residence or contact order in favour of a prohibited person, the court will—

    (a) consider whether the child has suffered or is at risk of suffering harm as a result of abuse or neglect or through seeing or hearing ill-treatment of another person

    (b) assess the risks involved

    (c) take all reasonable steps to ensure the protection of the child.

    (2) For the purposes of this section a person will be defined as a prohibited person if—

    (a) there is a reason to believe that he has caused or is likely to cause significant harm to a child; or

    (b) he is facing charges or has been convicted of a violent offence against any member of his family or a former spouse or cohabitee or associated person as defined by section 62 of the Family Law Act 1996; or

    (c) he is or the court considers he should be prohibited by a non-molestation order or an occupation order or a prohibited steps order or a restraining order or there is an undertaking not to commit acts of violence or intimidation.

    (3) In considering such matters the standard of evidence applied by the court will be the simple balance of probabilities.

    8B Section 8A: Supplementary

    (1) In considering whether the child will be safe if contact or residence is granted to a prohibited person, the court shall, so far as is practicable, have regard to the following matters—

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    (a) the nature and severity of the violence;

    (b) how recently the violence occurred;

    (c) the frequency of violence;

    (d) the risk of further violence occurring;

    (e) the physical or emotional harm caused to the child by the violence;

    (f) in relation to the prohibited person—

    (i) if that person has Schedule one offences (1933) for neglect, physical injury or sexual harm to a child

    (ii) is subject to current section 47 Children Act 1989 inquiries or has been in the past

    (iii) if that person is a banned person from employment with children according to the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2001

    (g) in relation to the child and the prohibited person—

    (i) if the child is on the child protection register

    (ii) if the child is subject to a protection order according to the Children Act 1989

    (iii) if the child is subject to current section 47 Children Act 1989 inquiries or has been

    (h) whether the other party to the proceedings—

    (i) considers that the child will be safe while the prohibited person has contact with or residence of the child

    (ii) consents to the prohibited person having contact with or residence of the child;

    (i) the wishes of the child, if the child is able to express them, and having regard to the age and maturity of the child;

    (j) any steps taken by the prohibited person to prevent further violence occurring;

    (k) such further matters as the court considers relevant.

    (2) A person who has suffered abuse is not regarded, for the purposes of this section, as having caused or allowed the child to see or hear the abuse, or, as the case may be, as having put the child, or allowed the child to be put, at risk of seeing or hearing abuse.''.'.—[Margaret Moran.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Margaret Moran: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

I shall be as quick as I can. I am sure that we all want to hear the remarks of the Minister so that we can get some of the issues on record.

Hon. Members will recall the compelling evidence that we heard from the children's charities Barnardo's, NCH Action for Children, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the Children's Society, as well as the written evidence from Women's Aid Federation of England, all expressing grave concerns about the effectiveness of the Children Act 1989 in respect of child contact orders.

We all agree with the principle of children maintaining contact with both parents following separation in ordinary circumstances and if it is in their best interests. However, I am sure that hon. Members also agree that children's safety and protection should be ensured. There is serious concern that the system fails to protect children from abusers who are known to them. Some children have been killed after the courts granted unsupervised contact to fathers who had abused them. There is widespread concern among children's charities that the Children Act is not effective in ensuring child protection when courts are considering granting contact orders.

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There is a strong presumption in the Children Act and deriving from case law around the Act that contact is usually in the best interests of the child. However, case law also means that the courts often fail to consider the risk of abuse to children in determining contact arrangements. Children's charities believe that the Act needs to be amended to protect children from unsupervised contact with a parent in cases involving violence and abuse, unless the court is satisfied that the child will be safe. That will allow the courts an opportunity to ensure that a thorough risk assessment is carried out before unsupervised contact is granted. That is the purpose of new clause 12.

Sadly, there is ample evidence to suggest that unsupervised contact can put children at severe risk: 76 per cent. of the children covered by the AMICA—Aid for Mothers Involved in Contact Action—survey of 1999 were found to have been abused to some extent during contact visits. As I explained on Second Reading, we know of 15 cases in recent years in which children have died as a result of contact arrangements in England and Wales, and because the Government do not keep statistics, the true number may well be higher. Every one of those 15 children is just as important as Sarah Payne or any of the other murdered children whom we have mentioned considered in our debates. The new clause is intended to trigger action to prevent further tragedies.

We acknowledge that the Government have taken a wide range of measures to protect children. The Sex Offenders Act 1997, which requires sex offenders and violent offenders including schedule 1 offenders to register their name and address with the police. The Protection of Children Act 1999 prevents known offenders from working regularly with children. However, having set up protection for children in those circumstances, it is wrong that there is still a loophole in private law whereby schedule 1 offenders and those known to have been violent or to have abused children are prevented by one piece of legislation from working with children regularly—for example, as school bus drivers—yet they can have unsupervised contact with their children, who are at exactly the same risk of harm.

11.15 am

We believe that that major loophole can be addressed in the Bill. We are unlikely to have the opportunity to deal with it in forthcoming legislation, and the urgency of the situation is such that, unless we take this opportunity, further tragedies will occur. The law does not consistently protect children. The child protection system does not consistently protect them from contact with sex offenders or violent offenders. There are glaring gaps in our protection legislation, some of which we have heard about today; there is certainly a loophole in private law.

Some attempts have been made to close the loophole through improved legal protection. Guidelines were introduced in June 2001, but they are clearly not working, as evidence from the National Society for the Protection of Children and Women's Aid shows. The need is urgent: children are constantly

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placed at risk when the courts grant unsupervised contact. Amendment to primary legislation is necessary to provide the right level of legal protection for children in private proceedings.

The coalition of Women's Aid and children's charities has emphasised that in cases of domestic violence, there is a risk not only of emotional harm to the child but of the child being abused or neglected. Daily we receive alarming reports of children who are ordered to have contact with violent parents and are abused, neglected or traumatised during those contact visits. There are five on-going cases in which unsupervised contact has been granted despite evidence of child abuse. That is not acceptable.

Clause 91 would automatically grant parental responsibility to unmarried fathers who have jointly with the mother registered the birth of the child. That may be of benefit to children, but it extends the possibility of parental contact being granted to violent or abusive unmarried parents. We know of a mother and child who fled to a refuge after being threatened with a gun; the violent father has not been able to find them despite taking out search and locate orders, but once the Bill has been enacted, he can obtain parental responsibility and he will then find it much easier to track them down.

We based the new clause on a provision in the Family Homes and Domestic Violence (Northern Ireland) Order 1998. Under that order, when a court is considering whether to grant a contact or residence order to someone who has had a non-molestation order made against him, the court must consider any harm that the child might suffer through seeing or hearing the ill-treatment of another person. That is a major step forward—indeed, it is essential, because research shows that all domestic violence has a damaging effect on children. We would like to see that reflected for the first time in the Children Act.

However, we are worried that that provision does not go far enough: we need to ensure that the courts are required to protect children from direct abuse or neglect. A case in Northern Ireland involves a woman whose husband is a schedule 1 offender. That man has committed sexual offences against children, but has been granted contact with his children. Contact visits are currently supervised by the mother, despite continuing threats of violence, but he is now seeking unsupervised contact, and the mother's solicitor has warned that it might be granted. We believe that if social services or the police have evidence that a child is at risk, it is essential that the family courts consider it when making contact orders.

The new clause deals also with those who are facing charges of violence against former partners. That is necessary, because the fathers of four of the children who were killed had been granted unsupervised contact despite the fact that they already faced imprisonment for violence offences against former partners. We also include a mandatory checklist to ensure that the courts are taking account of all risk. I hope that the Minister will acknowledge that this serious issue needs to be addressed.

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