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Margaret Moran: Of course I concede that there are instances of violence by the mother in the circumstances under discussion, although research has shown that that is infinitely less frequent than violence by the father. The new clause is gender-neutral. We are all endeavouring to prevent violence and harm to a child from either parent. Domestic violence by men against women is more prevalent; one in four women are likely to experience some sort of domestic violence during their lives.
The courts seem to believe that the Children Act 1989 contains a strong presumption of contact almost always being in the best interests of the child, but that needs to be balanced against the possible risks to the child's safety. I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work that she is doing, in conjunction with her ministerial colleagues in the domestic violence inter-ministerial group, to address such serious issues as the lack of definition and standards for supervised and unsupervised contact.
I warmly welcome the work that is being undertaken to ensure that proper contact centres are available when and where they are needed, given that only 12 per cent. of contact centres currently offer supervised contact, and most are run by excellent and worthy, but possibly less experienced, volunteers. I also strongly agree that we need to ensure consistency in court practice and make it clear to the courts that the welfare of the child means just that. I welcome the amendments and I hope that we shall have continuing dialogue on how to ensure that every measure is taken to protect our children in these circumstances.
Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): I support the Government's amendments, and I do so briefly, mindful of the fact that we have 94 amendments and one new clause to deal with before 3.45 pm. A later group of amendments also deals with parent contact and I hope that if we do not reach that, this important subject will be revisited in another place.
In Committee, we supported the intentions of the amendments. The Minister did a lot of work subsequently into how they could best become part of the legislation. I am glad of that, and I welcome the resulting Government amendment No. 26 and Government new clause 6. I also fully appreciate the great experience of and work done by the hon. Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran) in furnishing her own amendments. They are based on much detailed work, and I am sure that the pressure that they have brought to bear has enabled the Government to move further along the road, although not as far as many of us would have wished. However, it is a good start.
We are all aware of horrendous cases of domestic violence and its effect on childrenthe subsequent break-up of families, homelessness problems and the psychological effects on children who are scarred for many years thereaftermany of which we heard about in Committee. We heard many alarming accounts of the
I, too, congratulate the women's refuges, the Women's Aid Federation and the Children's Society on their intensive, sensitive and effective lobbying. I declare an interest as patron of Brighton's women's refuge, which does a good job in my part of the world.
I particularly welcome the fact that the amendments extend the definition of harm to include the damage done to children witnessing the results of domestic violence between parents in the home without their having to be an eye witness to that domestic violence. That is domestic violence, although not in the strict sense of the definition that we have had. It is right that the Minister has taken account of that because it all constitutes ill-treatment and abuse, which has devastating effects on children who may then end up being the subject of adoption orders.
I know that there will be problems of definition in the courts. I, too, have spoken to family division judges who have said that it is already a problem. However, the amendment and the new clause send out a clear statement of intent to judges and to the courts that the Government take the problem seriously, as do we. It is right that those factors should be taken into account when considering contact orders and what is best for the child's welfare, which is, after all, what is at the heart of the Bill.
As the Minister says, the amendment goes further than the Northern Ireland model and much of this will also have a bearing on the sort of adoption support services that are structured within the Bill. I echo the concerns raised by the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), who was an active member of the Committee, including his concerns about the staffing of CAFCASS, which has been a problem and to which reference was made in Committee.
This is the first time that domestic violence has been legally recognised as a child protection issue, and I associate myself with that development. I realise that much work remains to be done and that we need to go a lot further, but that is for a more specialised piece of legislation dealing primarily with the subject. I hope that, in due course, the Government will revisit the subject, giving a greater airing to the complicated problems of domestic violence. The amendment and the new clause are a good start. They have the Opposition's full support and I congratulate the Minister on them.
Sandra Gidley: I want to join the love-in and congratulate the hon. Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran) on highlighting the issue so effectively in Committee. As a result of her work the Minister has been brought on board and introduced the relevant measures.
I was initially pleased to add my name to the extensive new clause 10, but that has been withdrawn because it needs considerable further work. I hope that that will be done in the other place, but I do not know whether there will be sufficient time.
In most cases, I agree that the interests of the child are best served by maintaining contact with both parents, but, unfortunately, as it stands, the system fails to protect children from abusers who are known to them.
The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) mentioned the lobbying that has taken place. I suspect that all hon. Members have been deluged with mail from charities and women's refuges. One cannot fail to be moved by some of the cases. Many of the letters were the same, but there were some heart-rending personal stories, including cases of children who have been murdered during unsupervised contact. That sounds melodramatic, but the 1999 survey of parents found that 76 per cent. of the children of parents interviewed had been abused in some way during the contact visits ordered by the courts. The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) broke those figures down even further. That is a powerful message that we must keep sight of.
In many ways, it is a great sadness that it is necessary to introduce the amendment at all, because it means that in the past we have failed. In particular, we have failed children who are too vulnerable to take care of themselves. Since being elected it has been a huge sadness to me to hear from parents who have just gone through a divorce. Invariably, children are used as pawns in an unattractive game in which the parents score points against each other. It is not uncommon for a parent, or even a grandparent or set of grandparents, to make serious allegations about the behaviour of the other party, which may be unfounded.
It is essential that strenuous efforts are made to establish the truth. I cannot emphasise that enough. If someone gets it wrong, it means that an innocent parent is being prevented from seeing their child. The balance is a fine and difficult one, but it is up to us to try to strike it. The question is vexed. We must protect our young without creating a climate where we encourage ever-escalating litigation and counter-litigation.
I support new clause 6, which improves the definition of harm in the Children Act. It is essential that we highlight the fact that domestic violence is unacceptable. Writing this speech, I was worried that if I banged on about men beating up women I would receive letters from men saying, "Hey, what about us. We get beaten up by our wives as well." But we must acknowledge that domestic violence against women is a bigger problem, and I make no apology for saying that today. However, any violence is unacceptable.
If children regularly witness domestic violence, they believe that it is the norm. Children believe that their immediate environment is the usual one and they have no experience of a kinder world. It is essential that this self-perpetuating cycle is broken and we must do all that we can to achieve that. I welcome new clause 6.
Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset): I welcome the amendment and the new clause. I congratulate the hon. Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran) on all the work that she has put in on the subject. I have been pleased to be associated with her in tabling amendments in Committee and new clause 10, which we have now dropped.