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Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): Will the hon. Lady give the House an assurance that she is satisfied that the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service will have sufficient officers on the ground if supervision is required? I agree entirely with what she is saying and accept wholeheartedly what the Government are doing in that area, but will she nevertheless assure the House that there will be sufficient funding and manning in that part of the CAFCASS operation?
Ms Winterton: When meeting CAFCASS staff, I have been extremely impressed with their ideas on contact centres. Our priority is to ensure that we are using existing funding for contact centres effectively. Many cases involve possible domestic violence or violence against a child, so we have to make sure that proper services for supervised contact are available. We are therefore working with the National Association of Child Contact Centres to make sure that we have a good definition of such contact and eventually, through CAFCASS, can ensure that there are clusters of contact centres in each region.
I accept that we need to undertake further work, but we can make immediate changes with the amendments and secondary legislation. I hope that we will continue to work with voluntary organisations, making use of their experience and expertise to develop our proposals. The amendments send a clear message about the Government's determination to tackle domestic violence and protect children. I very much hope that that message is reinforced by support from Members on both sides of the House.
Mr. Llwyd: I wholeheartedly welcome the amendments, which, if overdue, are based on good research. A 1999 survey of 130 parents by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children found that during contact 76 per cent. of the children were abused; 10 per cent. were sexually abused; 15 per cent. were physically abused; 62 per cent. suffered emotional harm, with which I suspect we are dealing in the amendments; 36 per cent. suffered neglect; and 26 per cent. were abducted. There is therefore a clear need for the amendments, and I am sure that they will receive wholehearted acceptance. The hon. Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran) has campaigned long and hard on this issue, as have other Members.
The Minister said that the thrust of the Bill was to bring a particular area of law into line with the Children Act 1989; the checklist and the proposals in the amendments are both useful and helpful. Experience tells me that some of the most damaged children have witnessed violence being perpetrated on otherstypically, but not exclusively, violence by the father on the mother. Often, those youngsters have not suffered physical violence per se, but have undoubtedly suffered emotional damage. I therefore welcome the amendments and the consequent change to the Children Act.
Margaret Moran (Luton, South): I warmly welcome Government new clause 6 and the comprehensive set of measures being discussed to tackle a difficult and sensitive issue. The Government have taken a landmark decision to recognise in child protection legislation the impact of domestic violence on a child and the harm that a child may suffer as a result of witnessing domestic violence.
The further amendments to which my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary referred require the courts, when they make contact orders, to decide whether domestic violence has taken place and, if so, its present and possible future impact on the child. That is a significant step forward in protecting our children, which is warmly welcomed not just by many hon. Members, but by a coalition of children's charities, including the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, NCH Action for Children, Barnardo's, the Children's Society and the Women's Aid Federation. The wide scope of the measure, which deals with violence and other forms of abuse that may harm a child, is particularly welcome.
The Bill extends the right of contact to unmarried parents. It is right that parents, married or otherwise, should have contact with their children in all normal circumstances, but we must ensure that where such contact takes place, the child's welfare is paramount and the necessary safeguards are in place. I welcome the restatement of that principle in my hon. Friend's remarks today.
The courts must ensure that the welfare of the child is taken seriously. The Government and children's charities recognise that as a major issue. In more than half the cases in which court welfare reports are produced, domestic violence occurs where contact is ordered. The new clause recognises the trauma caused to a child by witnessing ill-treatment.
As my hon. Friend knows, there is concern about whether case law precedents have distorted the intended meaning of the Children Act 1989. I refer to three cases in which that concern has been raised. In re H and R (Child Sexual Abuse) 1995, the House of Lords ruled that a higher standard of proof than the simple balance of probabilities is required in family law cases involving serious allegations of abuse of children. That raises concern about the welfare safeguards in the Children Act.
Similarly, in re O (Contact: Imposition of Conditions) 1995, the Master of the Rolls ruled that contact is almost always in the child's interest. Many children's charities are worried that these cases, alongside A v. N (Committal: Refusal of Contact) 1996, have to some extent resulted in the courts, when making contact orders, attaching insufficient importance to the welfare of the child, and particularly the safety of the child. We therefore need to restate the paramount importance of the child's welfare, and consider further ways of making that clear, whether through regulations, best practice or other measures.
We know from research carried out by the Women's Aid Federation and others that despite guidelines intended to tighten up contact proceedings and to prevent contact where there is evidence of violence or abuse to the child, it still takes place. The courts continue to grant contact, frequently unsupervised contact, to violent or abusive parents. A recent survey revealed cases in which orders for unsupervised contact were granted to schedule 1 offenders and to parents whose behaviour had resulted in children being placed on the child protection register.
In two recent cases, three children were put on the child protection register after one of them was assaulted by the father during a contact visit. Despite that, the court subsequently granted unsupervised contact to the father, and recently there has been another violent incident involving the children. The mother, who was diagnosed as suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome as a result of that man's violence towards her, says that she is not opposed to contact, but has repeatedly asked for visits to be supervised. One child told his teacher that he has nightmares about his mother being killed, and that he wants to die.
In another case that illustrates the point, a woman was advised by her solicitor that there was no point in contesting her violent ex-partner's application for a contact order, because the father and child had the right to see each other. The solicitor gave that advice knowing that the father is a convicted schedule 1 offender. The mother reluctantly agreed to an order that specified unsupervised contact every fortnight.
Similar cases go through the courts all too frequently. I welcome the moves in the new clause and, I hope, in subsequent discussions to consider further measures to ensure the safety of our children and to prevent them from being put at risk of severe harm, violence or abuse.
I hope that when we consider the measures that my hon. Friend outlined, we will examine closely the training of the judiciary. I understand that members of the judiciary are required to undertake only 30 minutes of statutory training in relation to domestic violence, even though more than half the cases with which many of them deal are domestic violence cases. Such minimal training cannot be acceptable for those dealing with such difficult and sensitive cases.
Mr. Andrew Turner: I am pleased that the amendments have been tabled, and like many hon. Members, I have been asked to support them. However, I am concerned about a certain imbalance in the hon. Lady'sand, for that matter, the Minister'spresentation, which tended to emphasise violence by the man against the woman. I am sure that the hon. Lady will accept that the reverse is possible. Will she clarify whether the amendment is designed to cover mental