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Grand Committee

The Committee met at half-past three of the clock.

[The Deputy Chairman of Committees (BARONESS GOULD OF POTTERNEWTON) in the Chair.]

Children and Adoption Bill [HL]

(Third Day)

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Baroness Gould of Potternewton): I believe that everyone is aware of the procedure in Grand Committee, but I have an announcement to make. There will be an adjournment of the Committee to allow the noble Earl, Lord Howe, to be present in the Chamber for the Statement on preparations for an influenza pandemic. The usual channels have agreed that the Committee should adjourn for the duration of that Statement. Accordingly, once the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie of Luton, begins his winding-up speech on the Regulation of Financial Services (Land Transactions) Bill, we shall adjourn. We shall resume five minutes after the end of the Statement.

Clause 3 [Contact orders: warning notices]:

Baroness Barker moved Amendment No. 71:


"(2) The court shall ensure that the notice is sent in a form and language appropriate to the recipient.""

The noble Baroness said: The reason for the amendment is to probe what the Government intend to do about the form of language of notices issued under this provision. The scope of the notices issued if the Bill were to become law would be considerably wider than those that have been issued in the past, so enforcement notices that dealt with matters such as fines or unpaid work, in addition to issues such as imprisonment or transfer of residence, are important. Sometimes people who are involved in such proceedings may be in a state of anxiety, which makes it difficult for them to approach information given to them, even in written form, in a calm and detached manner.

Furthermore, it is not uncommon for people who have learning difficulties to be in that position. We wish to ask the Government, given the wider range of actions that they propose, what they will do to ensure that the form, content and language of such notices is suitable to recipients. I beg to move.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Lord Adonis): The noble Baroness raises an important point. We need to look further at this and we shall be happy to do so, perhaps with a view to coming back with further changes on Report. We would welcome further discussions on this point.

The current position is that bilingual translator services are permissible in courts for those for whom English is not a first language. Translation services will
 
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normally be arranged by the person's solicitor, who should also explain the practical impact of the court's order to their client. Under this arrangement, the cost of translation is currently met by legal aid for those who are eligible for that support. This applies as a matter of general practice and so would extend beyond solely the contact orders covered by the Bill. If for any reason translation services were not available, the courts would be highly likely to adjourn the hearing so that a translator could be present in order to protect the rights of the parties to a fair hearing.

However, the noble Baroness asks whether the courts should themselves arrange translation and not simply leave it to a party or a party's solicitor. That point is well made. We will look at it further and may come back with further changes in the light of that consideration.

Baroness Barker: I thank the Minister very much for that reply. When we on these Benches penned the amendment, we most certainly had in mind people whose first language is not English, but we were also aiming at a much broader target including those who simply find court terminology and jargon extremely difficult to follow. As a great supporter of the Plain English Campaign, I was again going in to bat for clear instructions. But as the noble Lord has responded in the way that he has, it is worth noting that in the Bill we are trying to introduce people to concepts with which they may be unfamiliar. In some languages it is difficult to put across the concept of voluntary work. I say that as someone who has spent a long time in the voluntary sector trying to do just that.

I thank the Minister for his answer but I say to him that a great deal of work needs to be done on this and it is not simply a technical matter of translation. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

On Question, Whether Clause 3 shall stand part of the Bill?

Baroness Morris of Bolton: In speaking to Clause 3, I shall speak also to Clauses 5, 6 and 7, and later my noble friend Lord Howe will address Clause 4. Although we oppose the Question that Clause 3 stand part, we support the idea of letting parents know the possible outcomes of a refusal to allow contact. We hope that knowledge will deter them from doing so. That is exactly what we are suggesting throughout our amendments, and it is why we on these Benches are advocating early intervention and compulsory dispute resolution. Perhaps we can prevent some cases going to court if the parents are told—"warned" may be a better word—in a pre-court hearing that if they go down route X, they can expect outcome Y and the main loser will be their child, and if they are made aware of the baseline for reasonable contact. If the Minister can support the idea of warning notices on contact orders, can he not support this through early intervention?

Clause 5—and I know that I am speaking about issues that we have not quite covered in detail—gives the court the power to order the payment of
 
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compensation for financial loss incurred as a result of failure by a party to comply with a contact order. Compensation would be ordered only after an application by a party to the contact order proceedings had been made to the court and only if the other party did not have a reasonable excuse for failure to comply. I invite the Minister to outline his response to the recommendations made by the Joint Committee on the draft Bill—namely, that it should be made clear that both resident and non-resident parents could apply for financial compensation under the proposed conditions.

Without a clause stand part debate, I would not be able to congratulate the Government on taking this opportunity to make some alterations to family assistance orders, which they had failed to do in the draft Bill. Family assistance orders used correctly are a very important tool. The need for support for parents is critical, and the earlier the better. Our opposition to Clause 7 is consequential to our opposition to Clauses 4 and 5.

In opposing the Question that Clauses 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 stand part of the Bill, I am reminded that, at a meeting last month, the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, commented that we seemed to be opposing the whole Bill. That is because we are of the firm opinion that the Bill could have done so much more. It fails to reform the family law system; it fails to recognise co-parenting; and it fails to enshrine the concept of reasonable contact. It is all stick and no carrot. Noble Lords should see our clause stand part debates as the political equivalent of our tearing our hair out in despair.

Clause 3 agreed to.

Clause 4 [Enforcement orders]:

Earl Howe moved Amendment No. 72:

The noble Earl said: This is a probing amendment to clarify the applicability of the new enforcement orders in relation to breach of contact orders made under the Children Act 1989 before the coming into force of Clause 4 of the Bill. If there is applicability in that sense, the amendment is designed to seek information on the procedure for attaching warning notices to existing contact orders. It is unclear whether the new enforcement orders will be able to be made in relation to breaches of contact orders or varied contact orders made under the Children Act 1989 before the implementation of the provisions of the Bill.

Clause 3 provides that the court is to attach a warning notice to contact orders about the consequences of failing to comply with an order. Clause 4 provides that a court may not make an enforcement order unless the person against whom it is sought has received a copy of a warning notice under new Section 11I. No such notices will have been attached to earlier existing contact orders, so we are seeking clarification of the position on enforcement of those orders. I beg to move.
 
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Lord Adonis: In speaking to Amendment No. 72, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 83, 101, 112 and 121 which deal with the point that the noble Earl has made. We recognise that there is an important issue about the applicability of warning notices and enforcement orders in respect of orders made under the Children Act 1989 before the Bill comes into force. The four amendments that stand in my name on the Order Paper seek to meet those concerns.

First, the amendments ensure that an enforcement order or an order for financial compensation cannot be made following a breach of a contact order unless a warning notice setting out the consequences of breach was given to the person in breach or the person was informed of the terms of the warning notice before the breach took place. Secondly, they provide that a further or more onerous enforcement order cannot be made following the breach of an enforcement order unless a warning notice setting out the consequences of breach was given to the person in breach or the person was informed of the terms of the warning notice before the breach took place. Thirdly, the amendments enable applications to be made for warning notices to be attached to contact orders already in existence—indeed, all new warning orders will have such warning notices attached anyway. This will ensure that existing orders can be made subject to the provisions of the Bill where applications are made for that to take place.

We believe that these amendments meet the concerns that the noble Earl has raised but, as a matter of natural justice, we do not believe that it is possible to serve enforcement orders unless a warning notice has been issued or there is a warning notice attached.


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