Monday 22nd April 2024

(1 month, 4 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Hansard Text Watch Debate Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Question for Short Debate
20:40
Asked by
Lord Farmer Portrait Lord Farmer
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to support parents considering separation, and to promote early resolution of private family law arrangements.

Lord Farmer Portrait Lord Farmer (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords contributing to what I consider an important debate this evening. I will not soft-pedal why we are discussing these issues: parental separation is an enormous and egregious problem, the scale and ramifications of which few seem ready to acknowledge. Parental separation is a recognised adverse childhood experience; by the time British children turn 14 years old, 46% no longer live with both their natural parents. Family breakdown is a major risk factor for children and young people’s poor mental health. Children who experience it are significantly more prone to anxiety and depression. Research from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience also found greater susceptibility to severe mental illness such as schizophrenia. The IFS’s Deaton review on inequality reported that between 1971 and 2019 the percentage of births outside marriage ballooned from 8% to 48%: half of all births take place in inherently less stable, cohabitating couple families, or to parents living apart from the outset. Professor Matthew Goodwin drily comments:

“Britain is now … giving Europe a masterclass in … ‘non-partnered motherhood’—namely, women who give birth with no partner at all”.


In the rest of Europe, 5% or fewer of mothers are in this position, but in Britain and the United States that figure is 15%, so a growing number of children have never experienced life with both their parents. Many then endure multiple transitions, where step-parent figures come and go, further compounding their sense that relationships are fundamentally unreliable or worse. Children living with father substitutes are eight times more likely to be on the at-risk register and 50 times more likely to die of an inflicted injury than those living with two biological parents. Centre for Social Justice research found that they are also twice as likely to get involved in crime. Some 75% of young offenders did not grow up with both parents, and 40% experienced abuse or neglect.

Adults are also deeply and detrimentally affected by family breakdown: it is often a gateway to poverty, loneliness, mental ill-health problems and domestic violence from informal partners. Kiernan and Estaugh’s research found that women are more likely to be physically abused, assaulted during pregnancy and seriously injured by live-in boyfriends than by husbands.

Professor Jan Walker’s research found that many wished they had been warned of the harsh realities of post-separation life. There is no information about sources of support on the online divorce system, and emails from it mention neither mediation nor options for help in agreeing child arrangements. Could the online divorce process signpost people to such support? Moreover, in this age of graduated smoking bans and online regulation to reduce well-evidenced harms, should we not point people to research-based information about how divorce is rarely the end of a painful process but the beginning of a new one, especially for their children?

Family instability is the social trend of the last half century. It gets almost no airtime in government yet is a major contributor to our housing and loneliness crises, among others—massive societal harms exacting huge costs on the taxpayer. Matthew Goodwin again calls out the hypocrisy of elites who are, he says,

“by far … the most likely to get married, have children in marriage, and then stay married”.

Yet they

“downplay the importance of stable families, encourage others to lead ‘fluid’, ‘individual’, and ‘diverse’ lives, and deride anybody who points to the importance of marriage and family as right-wing reactionaries who want to return to the 1950s”.

Their “Do as I say but not as I do” is a classic “luxury belief”, an idea aggressively promoted to bolster their own standing, despite the harms and costs entailed, but which they do not personally pursue.

Sadly, our own Government have undermined the value of commitment in hard times by introducing no-fault divorce to reduce conflict over what was on the divorce petition. However, the reality is that this source of conflict pales alongside that over money and children, and everything else that has to be negotiated when one household becomes two. The interminable wrangling over such issues fuels the immense backlog of well over 100,000 family court cases and the average 45-week wait for private family law cases involving children, despite the Government’s target of 26 weeks. Allegedly, in some areas it is over 60 weeks. All the time conflict, unhappiness and eye-watering costs grow: last year Cafcass alone cost almost £150 million. May I ask the Minister the total costs for that year for family courts and the family justice system? They do not seem to be published.

Our family courts are vital but should be the place of last resort. Before then, every proper assistance should be given to couples, as the Lord Chancellor said during the passage of the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act. His commitment was that

“as a Government, we will work harder … to bring together the strands of policy that sit with various Departments and to ensure that we have a family policy that is fit for the 2020s”.—[Official Report, Commons, 17/6/20; col. 902.]

The vehicle for doing that now is the growing number of family hubs in around 100 of 150 local authorities. I declare my interest as a guarantor of FHN Holding, the not-for-profit owner of the Family Hubs Network Ltd. Family hub networks include and build on Sure Start’s vital early years work. They bring together all the family support in an area for parents with older children and those with special needs.

The independent review of children’s social care and the Children’s Commissioner emphasise the need for integrated, community-based family support in family hubs. Moreover, historically, Michael Young, Labour architect of the welfare state, knew that struggling parents needed support. The Second World War had a long tail of effect on families, particularly the emotional cost of high levels of divorce and separation from parents—trends that have of course continued, as I have already outlined. Family centres were legislated for in the Children Act 1989; Sure Start children’s centres were the first step, and family hubs are the next iteration. However, much remains to do, extending way beyond the next election, for hubs to fulfil their transformational potential.

Since 2006, Australian family relationship centres have successfully signposted families away from the courts by providing mediation and focused guidance. A key message from the academic evaluation was that their work would be greatly enhanced by collocating or integrating help with housing, debt and other support that families need at times of transition. In other words, they would be greatly improved by being part of a family hub network—and our family hubs would be greatly improved if they included an offer akin to that of the Australian family relationship centres.

The March Budget promised £55 million for family courts, including money to support families through non-court dispute resolution. Ministry of Justice documents on earlier resolution of private family law arrangements prominently feature family hubs. Minimum expectations for all government-funded family hubs by March 2025 require support for reducing parental conflict and information for separating or separated parents.

Pioneering local authorities, such as Rochdale, already include evidence-based programmes for parenting when separated, and the Family Solutions Group has a pilot-ready model to further enhance such provision. Even in cases that must go before a judge, much could be achieved during pauses between stages by drawing on services in family hubs that help address entrenched relational difficulties, such as post-separation parenting programmes and support for their children. I ask the Minister again: will the Government fund such pilots and encourage family courts to work closely with hubs?

In conclusion, I have highlighted that family breakdown is the elephant in the room of many social policy problems. Family hubs are well-positioned to prevent and mitigate its considerable harms through early intervention and support. We must now build on the good foundations that the Government have laid in their family hubs programme, and maximise their potential in this vital area.

20:51
Baroness Tyler of Enfield Portrait Baroness Tyler of Enfield (LD)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, on securing this debate, and it is a pleasure to follow him.

I have been involved in this area in various guises since my time as chief executive of Relate, as a former chair of Cafcass, and as chair of the Lords Select Committee conducting post-legislation scrutiny on the Children and Families Act 2014. As I prepared for this debate, I also reflected on my time, a few years back, as chair of the Kids in the Middle coalition of children and families charities and agony aunts, which campaigned for better support for separating families and, in particular, children caught up in parental conflict. In its day, the coalition had direct access to Prime Ministers and Secretaries of States of various hues.

My starting point in these debates has always been the need to provide more support to children embroiled, through no fault of their own, in the middle of serious and damaging parental conflict, and the pressing need for a stronger voice for children in the family courts. We know, and have already heard, that the quality of the interparental relationship has a key impact on children’s long-term mental health and future life chances—in other words, this all really matters.

The majority of separating parents come to an agreement on their own, or with minimal help from relatives and others. Only a minority need extra help, either to come to an agreement outside of court or through the family courts, but there is widespread agreement that this process is just not working properly. Far too many parents find themselves caught up in lengthy court proceedings, which are costly both to them and to the state, and which have a damaging effect on their children.

At a time when the family courts and the judiciary are suffering from a lack of resources and huge backlogs, and as the Government rightly looks to divert family matters away from court where that is safe and possible, I am convinced that early legal advice is critical. It helps people understand their legal rights and responsibilities, and understand where court is inappropriate. Conversely, a lack of clear information and guidance means that opportunities are being missed to resolve arrangements for children earlier. We must move away from a situation where the court is still too often seen as the first port of call and towards it becoming regarded as the last resort.

Respondents to the Government’s consultation last year on supporting earlier resolution of private family law arrangements pointed to a lack of early information and advice leading to disputes escalating, with individuals applying to court without a proper understanding of alternative ways to resolve disagreements, or of the court process. This was also the conclusion of the Select Committee reviewing the Children and Families Act. We argued strongly for the need for early legal advice, as many others have. It is far better to help couples make informed choices to find the route that gives them the best chance of reaching constructive and lasting outcomes on key issues such as family finances and the arrangements made for children. This may be a non-court based approach—sometimes mediation but sometimes other forms of dispute resolution, such as arbitration, collaborative law, solicitor negotiation or therapeutic mediation.

I am also strongly of the view that there should be earlier, easier and possibly even statutory access to co- parenting programmes before an application to court can be made, unless it is not safe to do so. While a co-parenting programme and a MIAM—a mediation, information and assessment meeting—are clearly different, I do not really see why only one, the latter, is compulsory before an application can be made. I was totally persuaded of their value, having sat in on several such separating parent programmes with separating parents present; they pretty much saw the scales falling from their eyes, along with some tears, as they started to understand the impact that their high-conflict behaviour was having on their children. Indeed, I remember one family judge telling me that these should be showing on a permanent loop in the entrance to all family courts. Will the Minister update me on what is happening on both in-court and pre-court parenting programmes?

Mediation can of course help to divert cases from court, helping parties to reach settlement and limiting the burden on court time. However, in some cases mediation is not appropriate. Some couples have genuinely intractable disagreements which require court intervention to settle. I have always been concerned with the Government’s single focus on mediation as a way of reducing the backlog. It sometimes seems as if that is to the exclusion of all other forms of dispute resolution.

My Select Committee, after looking at all the evidence received, was clear that MIAMs had sometimes been ineffective and had low take-up. We concluded that the single focus on mediation, combined with no requirement for the respondent to attend, sometimes coupled with the perception of MIAMs as a form of relationship counselling, had hampered their success. Instead, we felt that many couples would benefit from a source of clear, impartial information on separation, and, if necessary, general legal advice, which could direct them to non-court or court-based resolutions as appropriate.

In our report, we urged the Government to reconsider their proposals to make mediation effectively obligatory. Instead, we recommended that MIAMs and the mediation voucher scheme be replaced by a universal voucher scheme for a general advice appointment, at which point individuals can be signposted to alternative dispute resolution mechanisms, which could of course include mediation. We were particularly swayed in our view by the evidence of the former President of the Family Division, Sir James Munby, and the current President of the Family Division, Sir Andrew McFarlane, who both argued compellingly that mediation was not the only non-court solution. Who knows better than them?

We also recommended that the Government urgently evaluate the impact of the removal of legal aid from most private family law cases, considering where reinstating legal aid could help improve the efficiency and quality of the family justice system. The noble Lord, Lord Bach, and I were very grateful to the Minister for meeting us last March so that we could explain our proposals to him.

Obviously, quite a bit has happened since then, including the Government’s consultation and the subsequent package of measures in their reform programme announced in January this year. We have also had Resolution’s Vision for Family Justice. Most of this I welcome, particularly the focus on helping families to resolve their disputes earlier and without needing to go to court. But I still feel that our central conclusion was the right one: mediation is not helpful or appropriate in all cases; compulsion, in my experience, rarely leads to a good and sustainable outcome; and there are other forms of dispute resolution which will be more appropriate for some. In short, I simply do not believe that a one-size-fits-all approach works. What would make a real difference, I think, is publicly funded early legal advice.

I strongly believe that the private family law system, for those who still need to come to court, should be more investigative and less adversarial, placing the voice of the child at the heart of proceedings and providing additional support for those parents and carers who need it most. Thus I welcome the fact that, in 2022, the Ministry of Justice began piloting a more investigative approach to private law proceedings, in Devon and North Wales. I am encouraged to read that the initial feedback from the pilots suggests that the child impact report helps to focus the proceeding on the needs of the child, allowing the court to focus on the core issues for the child and their welfare, rather than the wider disputes between the parties. To me, that is the very nub of the matter.

Can the Minister give a brief update on the progress of the private law pathfinder models that I have just referred to, as well as on the proposed early legal advice pilot for separating parents, which I know were contained in the reform package? I do not think that they have started yet, but he might be able to correct me on that.

Finally, I want to mention the very important role of family hubs, to which the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, referred. They can have an important role to play, providing good signposting to relationship support and other sources of information and support for separating families. Indeed, I know that some in the sector are calling for family hubs to play an enhanced role in initial triage, with the hub, in essence, becoming the standard first port of call. I for one feel that we should be keeping an open mind on that.

21:00
Baroness Meyer Portrait Baroness Meyer (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, for calling this debate. I am quite disappointed that so few people are here to speak on such an important issue.

I welcome the Government’s reform to help families resolve disputes faster and protect children from lengthy court cases. The programme of measures allowing separating parents to get information, support and early legal advice will no doubt help parents reach an amicable settlement without going to court. It will also alleviate pressure on family courts and free up time for families who really need the court’s intervention.

One of the most pressing issues facing separating families is the time it takes from when the application is lodged to the first hearing and the subsequent proceedings. Not only are lengthy proceedings detrimental to parents’ relationships but they deeply affect children. Research has consistently shown that children suffer profoundly when their parents’ relationship breaks down. Responsible parents will try to ensure the healthy development of their children, which includes regular contact with both parents and their extended families. Sadly, this is not always the case, and the longer the proceedings, the greater the likelihood of parents becoming entrenched in their position, often egged on by their lawyers, who focus on “winning” rather than resolving the case quickly.

As tensions rise, some parents will, consciously or not, transfer their anger and resentment on to the child. Those children will thus find themselves caught in the middle of an ongoing war between the two people they love and need most. Most children will seek the road of least resistance, and rather than face the consequences of speaking out they will simply become the mouthpiece of that parent.

The process of turning a child against the other parent can happen particularly quickly if the non-resident parent is denied or has limited access to the child. I speak from experience: it took only three and a half months under the father’s exclusive control for my eldest son, aged nine, to greet me with kicks and punches the first time he saw me again in a German court. It is therefore essential that children’s fundamental right to maintain a relationship with both parents is maintained—barring exceptional circumstances, of course, but I am not talking about those.

The longer the non-resident parent is absent, the more the damage to the relationship. Can the Minister therefore consider introducing a time-limit requirement for dealing with family court proceedings similar to the statutory limit of 26 weeks for public case proceedings? Would he consider providing clear guidance on court-ordered interim contact, even if it needs to be supervised to counter the negative effect of delay?

It is also clear that all adults, whether female or male, who are victims of domestic abuse must be protected by law. All claims must be considered, particularly as some can be life-threatening for the victims and even for their children. I applaud the work that has been done not only to highlight this issue but to ensure better protection for victims, many of whom live in fear for their lives.

Fifteen years ago, domestic abuse was raised in only a minority of cases. Today, it is raised in 80% of them. Clearly, these claims lead to lengthy proceedings and to the involvement of the police as well as other agencies, but they also lead to more children finding themselves caught in the middle of serious allegations and counterallegations concerning their parents. Does the Minister believe that this is the result of a more violent society, or is it the positive reflection of victims feeling that they can finally be protected? Might some of those claims be the consequence of the LASPO Act 2012, which removed the right to legal aid in family courts unless there was an allegation of domestic abuse? Or is it simply due to a lack of sanction for making false allegations, which may have become a tactic to deny contact to the non-resident parent? Can the Minister tell the House whether the pathfinder project has resulted in accusations of domestic abuse being dealt with promptly, thus avoiding further trauma to the victims, and whether the pathfinding hearings, in which parents are pitted against each other, have put children under undue pressure?

Cafcass officers are experienced in recognising whether a child’s view is genuine, but can the Minister tell the House whether family court judges have received proper training to recognise whether the “voice of a child” is truly his or hers, and not the result of pressure from one of their parents?

The truth is that children are not necessarily best placed to speak about what is in their best interests. Some will not be able to express their own views, either because they have been coerced, or because they feel guilty, or because they are scared of the consequences of speaking out, while others will be so indoctrinated that they may genuinely believe that they were, for example, sexually abused. While I warmly welcome the Government’s commitment to safeguarding the well-being of children caught in the crossfire of parental discord, I want to put it on the record that parental alienation—the coercive control of children by one parent against the other—does exist. I have raised this in the House several times, and I am not alone in doing so.

Children are vulnerable and can easily be used as weapons, whether by a mother or by a father. Some do so subconsciously, but others do so for their own interest, while it is actually and ultimately the child who pays the price.

I know what I am talking about; I have lived through this experience. Through the charity I have run, I have seen many cases and the long-term consequences on children who have been affected. So please listen to what I have to say, not only to others who think they know best but who feel that it is a vendetta of men versus women. This is about children.

21:10
Lord Bishop of Derby Portrait The Lord Bishop of Derby
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, for bringing this debate on this important matter. As I hope noble Lords will know, the Archbishops’ Commission on Families and Households—with which I know the noble Lord was engaged—looked at this subject closely. It is out of this commission that I want to speak this evening. During the commission’s work, the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act became law. Opportunities could be taken through that legislation to ensure that couples separating and considering separating—and their children—are made aware of all the support that could be available to them. Surely this is an area in which pastoral concern must feature heavily, both in our policy-making and in our application of legislation and guidance.

As the Family Justice Review found more than a decade ago, too many families whose relationships disintegrate end up in the court system. While the creation of a single unitary family court was a step in the right direction, there is still much work to do, not least in reducing delays in the family courts. As we have heard, the removal of legal aid for separating couples, except where there are allegations of domestic abuse or where a child is at risk, means that couples may not receive the advice and support they need. The continued availability of family mediation vouchers is welcome but is not necessarily a substitute for the vital legal aid that could be in place.

There is much to be affirmed in the Government’s ambitious package of reforms announced earlier this year, many of which reflect the commission’s recommendations. We hope the enhanced focus on conflict resolution and children’s welfare will enable separating families to access the right information at the right time. Piloting the funding of early legal advice for parents—to help them understand the options available and how to access professional support, and encourage them to reach agreements amicably—is especially welcome.

Despite the high divorce and separation rate, there remains a taboo around relationship breakdown. Such a situation—divorce and separation—is never easy, and we trust that it would not be the first resort for any couple experiencing relationship difficulties. For some, the introduction of no-fault divorce has ended their need as separating couples to apportion blame for the breakdown of their marriage or partnership. This has the potential to reduce animosity and increase the chances of more amicable discussions, particularly around future arrangements for children.

By approaching this subject with openness and providing appropriate support, we may perhaps save relationships, as well as softening the impact for anyone in families where relationships do end in separation. As we have heard again this evening, when parental separation does not occur amicably, the negative effects of continued conflict on children can last a lifetime.

I will draw my brief remarks together this evening by focusing on just one of the commission’s recommendations: that children whose parents are separating need clear, age-appropriate information about the process and to be kept informed throughout. The commission heard that they do not want to be kept in the dark. The evidence is clear that children and young people welcome the opportunity to have their voices heard during the divorce process. The commission also heard from children whose parents have separated that the processes for them should have been—and that their desire for children in the future is that the processes are—transparent, informative, respectful, inclusive, safe and child friendly.

What are the Government doing to monitor how changes in legislation and process are enabling those outcomes for children caught up in this? How are we monitoring that children have access to information that enables the processes in which their families are involved to be transparent, age-appropriately informative, respectful, inclusive and safe? The extension of pathfinder courts may be one example of how this can be done, working with adults and children in a multiagency approach, but what else might work in different circumstances?

Surely the best interests and well-being of children are paramount. I encourage the Government to continue their focus on this important area and consider ways of supporting all involved—particularly the children—through this difficult life transition.

21:16
Lord Davies of Brixton Portrait Lord Davies of Brixton (Lab)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I rise to speak in the gap having heard what has been a powerful and interesting debate—short on numbers but strong on substance. I have a very narrow point to make. On the general debate, the connection between cause and effect is very difficult to establish in this sort of environment. You cannot undertake research with controlled trials; you do not know what the counterfactual is. So one should not leap to conclusions about cause and effect.

As I said, my point is very narrow. It is on pensions. Part of the process is a straightforward and pain-free process of reaching a financial settlement that does not lead to more pain than is required. The law is clear on pension-sharing on divorce but, in practice, it is not implemented to the extent required, because of lack of knowledge and the complications involved.

More work is required to simplify the process. I know that the Institute of Actuaries, of which I am a member, is undertaking work in this area. While we have this opportunity, I stress to the Minister that this is one of the issues that need to be clarified as part of the process of making the resolution of family difficulties as straightforward and pain-free as possible.

21:19
Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Portrait Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede (Lab)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I first thank the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, for tabling this short debate. As my noble friend Lord Davies said, it has been a very interesting and well-informed debate. Secondly, I thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bellamy, for facilitating my recent visit to Bournemouth, where I saw the pathfinder project in action. I remind noble Lords that I sit as a family magistrate, a youth magistrate and an adult magistrate.

The family court system has experienced large case backlogs, delays and issues with judicial capacity for several years now. This includes delays for families and children involved in private law disputes. According to the Government’s latest family court statistics, there were 12,566 new private law applications made to court under the Children Act 1989 in October to December 2023. This was a decrease of 1% when compared to the equivalent quarter of 2022. These new applications involved 18,758 children and it took an average of 46 weeks for private law cases to be closed during this quarter. I agree with what the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, said: this should be reduced to the public law limit of 26 weeks. That, of course, is a desirable aspiration.

The Government’s LASPO Act signalled the death-knell for family mediation. In 2012-13, there were 31,000 mediation assessment meetings and 14,000 mediation starts. By 2016-17, those figures had fallen to 13,000 and 7,700, which are reductions of 61% and 44% respectively. In 2021, cuts to legal aid led to more people representing themselves in the family courts. From 2013 to 2020, the percentage of cases where neither party had a legal representative almost trebled, increasing from 13% to 36%.

Before applying to court, parents are legally required by the Children and Families Act 2014 to prove that they have considered mediation. Parents can prove this either by demonstrating they have attended a mediation information assessment meeting, or MIAM, with a family mediator, or by showing the court they are exempt from mediation—for example, where domestic violence is involved. It is widely known that long-term conflict between separating parents can have a devastating impact on children’s well-being. The trauma has been linked to increased rates of anxiety, aggression and depression, and other serious consequences.

In January 2024, the Government announced new measures to seek to protect children from the impact of lengthy courtroom battles and had a consultation on their proposals. The consultation respondents said that a lack of free legal advice on family law was a barrier to early dispute resolution. To address this, the Government set out various actions they were taking to ensure that the court process remained a last resort when family disputes arose. This included launching a free family law legal advice pilot in specific regions of England and Wales by this summer, 2024, to see if this could assist families to resolve their disputes earlier. The legal advice pilot will be launched to help families agree child arrangements as quickly as possible, addressing barriers to early resolution. I hope the Minister will be able to update us on when this pilot is going to start.

There is also work with Cafcass, the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, to help more families undertake in-court parenting programmes earlier in the court process, as well as making pre-court parenting programmes the norm for families trying to reach an agreement over child arrangements. The noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, spoke to these alternative approaches, in what was a very well informed contribution to the debate.

The role that mediators can play would be bolstered through improved domestic abuse screening and advanced DBS checks, meaning they have the right to vetting and can support children earlier in the process. This, alongside the existing mediation voucher scheme, which has already helped nearly 25,000 families, will mean more couples can resolve their issues without ever reaching court. I ask the Minister for an update on the voucher scheme and for his response to the proposal by the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, and her committee to have a wider range of courses which may be accessed through the voucher scheme. Again, I thought that was an imaginative proposal which needs serious consideration.

The Government stated that, for those who end up going through the court process, there has been the Pathfinder pilot scheme, which, as I mentioned, I visited in Bournemouth. I know it is being rolled out further, in Cardiff and Birmingham. It will be very interesting to see how beneficial it is in Birmingham, which is perhaps the most analogous city to London, if the rollout is to go further. I have some statistics from my recent visit to Bournemouth, and I have to say that they are very impressive. They show a large drop in the number of fact-finding hearings between 2022 and 2023. They show a large drop in the number of court reviews, Cafcass reviews and returns, which is where the arrangements break down and the matter comes back to court. The message I got from my visit to the Bournemouth court was that, by Cafcass doing its work early and getting the voice of the child in the report early, it speeds up the whole process. Speeding up the process means that the arrangements are more likely to stick and to be sustainable. The Government have obviously seen the same statistics, and it is right that they are rolling this out. Cafcass really bears the brunt of this improved process, and I hope that there will be money available for it for this process to be rolled out further.

I turn to noble Lords who have spoken in the debate. I recognise the work that the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, has done on family hubs. That is welcome in as far as it goes, and I listened with great interest to what he said.

I listened to the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, who has great experience—I would say unparalleled in this House—on these matters. She spoke about seeing scales fall from the eyes of parents when she sat in on various programs. I think it must have been a separated parents information program—she is nodding her head. I have done that program as well; it was part of my original training. I have to say that, although I have seen and heard about the same thing, unfortunately what I see in court is where it has not worked, and the battle lines are more entrenched. Although we try to break down those battle lines, nevertheless some couples, unfortunately, want to fight their battles in the court. I recognise the point she made about the influence of Sir James Munby and Sir Andrew McFarlane, and how they want to try to keep private law cases resolved outside court where possible. That is very often a better way.

I remember the speech the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, gave a number of years ago during the passage of the then Domestic Abuse Bill and her very compelling advocacy for the importance of parental alienation. I have to be frank here. I hear these accusations in court fairly regularly, and as a lay magistrate I send them up to a higher level of judiciary. This is a fraught and very difficult subject. It needs to be handled with a great deal of care, and—I will use the word—a little scepticism. I can see the noble Baroness shaking her head, but we have these allegations made fairly frequently and we have to find an appropriate way of dealing with them.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby spoke about the Church of England Commission. One recommendation she spoke about was the need for child-appropriate information to be made available. I do not know whether she is aware, but Cafcass runs a children’s group which informs children going through the process. They are extremely impressive young people; they have presented to family magistrates more than once. It is a very good way of informing children, by other children who have been through the process.

This has been an interesting debate. My noble friend Lord Davies raised an interesting point on pensions. I look forward to the Minister’s response to the questions raised.

21:29
Lord Bellamy Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Bellamy) (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, few subjects can be more important than the one we are discussing this evening, and I rather doubt my ability to do justice to everything that has been said in the 12 minutes allotted to me. I thank my noble friend Lord Farmer for his opening remarks and for securing this debate, and all noble Lords who have spoken. I think we are all agreed that family separation can be extremely stressful and very damaging to the children, particularly if there is a prolonged period of lack of contact, as my noble friend Lady Meyer pointed out. In those circumstances, the Government are actively supporting, and improving support, for parents considering separation, and are adopting a number of measures to promote early resolutions.

The best approach is probably if I update the House on what we are actually doing, following our response published on 26 January to our earlier consultation on early resolution of family disputes. What the Ministry of Justice is doing, of course, is in addition to other work across government, including the rollout of family hubs. Again, I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Farmer in this respect. Family hubs are led by the Department for Education. There is also funding from the Department for Work and Pensions for local authorities to deliver the Reducing Parental Conflict programme.

The House will have heard in the recent Budget that the Ministry of Justice has been awarded a further investment of £55 million, specifically for the family courts. That comes, basically, in three buckets—if I may say so. The first is one that a number of noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, have mentioned. I pay tribute to her, not only for her distinguished past as a former chair of Cafcass and in other respects, but for the post-legislative scrutiny carried out in relation to the 2014 Act, from which we have all greatly profited. However, the three buckets are, first, greatly improved, facilitated, targeted online guidance and information, so parents know where to go and can find out, at a very early stage, all the sources of support out there. There are quite a lot of sources of support, but no one can find them or knows about them—they are not joined up. The first part of the funding will be for a new online resource that will serve as a trusted and accessible source of authoritative information, relevant to the needs of the family and the needs of the parents, providing options—which will include mediation, but not only that because there are other forms of dispute resolution away from court—with the support of guidance and expert organisations in the third sector.

To deal specifically with one of the points raised by my noble friend Lord Farmer, I say that I am quite sure that links between this programme and the family hubs will be an important aspect of it—family hubs among other means of support. Indeed, if the present process for online divorce does not refer people across to the appropriate support facilities, then it should. That is another very important area, and I am very grateful to noble Lords for drawing our attention to it. Specifically, just as we have been discussing in another context a child-friendly version of the victims’ code, I would have thought that a child-friendly part of this newly available information was a specific emphasis on how we keep children informed, not only about what is happening in their case, but the general availability of support for them. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby suggested, I am sure that would also be important.

I am hoping that this will be a major step forward in how we intervene as early as we can in family disputes, combining it, as I say, with the DWP’s Reducing Parental Conflict programme, the family hubs and other programmes that a number of local authorities are already running to support separating couples—or, indeed, couples who have not yet separated but who are going through a difficult patch, which is to go back to an even earlier stage.

We are championing the family hubs that the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, has been such a keen advocate of. There is around £300 million to develop family hubs in 75 upper-tier local authorities. There are now around 400 family hubs altogether, and there is further support for opening further family hubs in another 13 local authorities. That is an ongoing programme, and I hope that it will come to full fruition, in collaboration with the kinds of things that I am trying to explain from the point of view of the Ministry of Justice.

In addition, the second bucket of our new funding is indeed to tackle this point about early legal advice, which is so important and was raised by the post-legislative scrutiny committee and a number of others. What we are doing is piloting; government being what it is, you have to pilot these things these days—you cannot go straight towards just doing it. It is important to learn from the pilot how to do things. I shall come back to that point in the pathfinder context.

The purpose at the moment is to expand, with the additional money that we now have, a pilot for early family legal advice, probably initially in six areas. As noble Lords probably remember, we have 43 areas across the country that have a designated family judge in charge. We can now go to six areas initially; the details are being worked out, but I am hoping that this will be up and running by the autumn. By September we should have something in place. It will be very important, among other things, to promote it and make sure that people know that it is there and that they can access it easily. We had a pilot in the ministry a couple of years ago with support in family housing, which did not work because nobody knew that it was there so nobody used it. It was in Middlesbrough, and possibly Manchester, but it was not successful, so I am very conscious that we have to sell this as well as establish it, and those details are being worked through at the moment.

That is early legal advice. Then there is the diversion when people have had early legal advice, which may lead to more referrals to mediation, or other forms of court dispute resolution. We are continuing to support the voucher scheme for mediation; that demand has been strong, with 27,000 families so far, and has cost £23 million or so. By March 2025, we think that 44,000 families will have used the scheme, so that will continue to support mediation—and, at the same time, we are working closely with the Family Procedure Rule Committee to make the mediation information and assessment meeting, which has been mentioned, more effective. The new rules come into force on 29 April, next Monday. I hope that that will prevent MIAM from being, as it had become in some areas, a tick-box exercise.

Ah, the lights have gone out; I must have said something very controversial. I still have enough light to carry on.

That provision is proceeding, as are pathfinder courts. We of course support Cafcass, but those courts focus on the voice of the child. We have an early child impact report, we have support from domestic abuse agencies, we have a case progression officer and we have other things. It has been notably successful in reducing strife and the Government’s intention now is no longer a pilot, it is a project, and we are going to roll it out across the country. We have done Dorset and north Wales, we are doing Birmingham and Cardiff, but I am pressing very hard for a plan so that we change it across the whole country over the next year or so. My Whip is telling me to sit down, although I am trying enthusiastically to carry on. I will write to those noble Lords whose questions I have not been able to answer in the very limited time I have.

The President of the Family Division describes the pathfinder as the most important change in private family law that we have had for a generation, and that is going to be a very good thing and the right note to end on.

Lord Roborough Portrait Lord Roborough (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, we will now adjourn again to wait for a message on the Rwanda Bill. We will resume at a time to be shown on the Annunciator.

21:41
Sitting suspended.