Automatically suspend PR rights of parent guilty of murdering the other parent.

Provide a mechanism within existing legislation whereupon a person with parental responsibility (PR) is found guilty of murdering the other parent with PR, has PR automatically suspended throughout the duration of the term of imprisonment of the aforesaid person convicted.

This petition closed on 2 Nov 2022 with 130,179 signatures


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It is acknowledged that there is scope to restrict parental responsibility from a parent through existing legislation, however, this can often be time consuming and for some expensive. The automatic removal of PR will save those, who now care for the surviving children, the added burden of attending numerous court cases to restrict the person holding PR, who would often use these cases as an opportunity to aggravate the process and in so doing cause further distress to the family.


Petition Signatures over time

Debate - Monday 7th November 2022

Parental Responsibility for People Convicted of Serious Offences

Monday 7th November 2022

(1 year, 5 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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16:30
Philip Hollobone Portrait Mr Philip Hollobone (in the Chair)
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I have been advised that the petition debated today was started following the sad murder of Jade Ward last year. Sentencing in that case has now concluded. However, I remind Members that they must not refer to cases that are currently before the courts and should be cautious in referring to any cases where proceedings may be brought in the future.

Mark Tami Portrait Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered e-petition 614893, relating to suspension of parental responsibility for people convicted of serious offences.

Thank you, Mr Hollobone, for giving me the opportunity to take part in this important debate. The petition calls for the automatic suspension of parental responsibility for any parent found guilty of murdering the other during their period of imprisonment. I want to place on record my thanks to Jade Ward’s family and friends and, in particular, Edwin Duggan for their dedication and work in putting together this petition, which has received more than 130,000 signatures. That is a remarkable achievement.

At the heart of this debate is the life and memory of Jade Ward. Jade was an enormously loved mother, daughter and friend. She has been described as the sunshine in the lives of all who knew her. She was bubbly, kind and caring, and truly devoted to her four sons. The last days of Jade’s life were spent caring for her grandmother as she recovered from surgery, laughing with her friends in her garden and providing for her children. These final moments typify the life that Jade led and the kind person she was.

On 26 August 2021, Jade was brutally murdered by her estranged husband, Russell Marsh, in a premeditated attack. On 12 April 2022, Marsh was given a life sentence with a minimum of 25 years in prison. After Jade ended their relationship a week before her murder, Marsh had reportedly told friends that if he could not have Jade, no one could. Marsh was a controlling figure throughout their relationship, who would tell Jade who she could see and speak to, and what she could wear and do. When Jade stood up to him, she was killed as punishment.

Jade was just 27 and lived in Shotton. She had four children with Marsh, who were sleeping nearby as their mother’s life was taken away from her. Jade’s family were horrified to learn that, despite these utterly distressing circumstances, they face the prospect of continued contact with the man who murdered their daughter. Although Marsh will obviously not have custody over the children while he serves his time in prison, despite all his appalling actions, under law, he retains parental responsibility. Jade’s mother, Karen, said that she was “absolutely gobsmacked” to hear that her daughter’s killer could still have a say in the boys’ lives. If you walked down any street today, Mr Hollobone, and told people how the law works on this matter, I think they would be gobsmacked too.

What exactly does the law say about this matter? When a child does not have a parent to care for them, local authorities have a duty to safeguard the child and find an interim or permanent care arrangement. The child’s relatives can seek a court order to care for them, local authorities can initiate proceedings with a view to providing for the child’s upbringing and carers can achieve parental rights through a special guardianship order.

Importantly, where two parties have parental responsibility, one party cannot make decisions unilaterally; they must seek the other party’s agreement. Responsibility is automatically equal so, in law, neither party’s parental responsibility is considered more important than the other’s. That stretches to even the most extreme cases, in which one parent has been convicted of murdering the other.

I understand that Jade’s parents have been told that if they want to take their grandsons on holiday abroad, they need permission from the father. A convicted parent must also be consulted on issues such as where the children go to school and the medical treatment they receive. Effectively, Marsh has the right to veto decisions made by Jade’s parents and pursue a family court hearing.

We can only imagine how traumatic that must be for Jade’s parents. They have already suffered the terrible pain of losing their daughter in that way, yet the process as it stands compels them to interact with their daughter’s killer. It acts as a constant reminder of surely the darkest moment in their lives. As with Jade’s boys, the children are often in the care of the family of the deceased parent. The current process effectively grants the convicted parent the means to continue the control and coercion of the family in the way they did prior to the murder of the victim.

Rob Roberts Portrait Rob Roberts (Delyn) (Ind)
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I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his powerful speech. Does he agree that “re-victimisation” is not too strong a word to describe what would happen to the family in such circumstances?

Mark Tami Portrait Mark Tami
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I agree, because it just does not stop and there is no chance to move on—not that it would ever be easy to move on. It gives the convicted person even more weapons to use against the family of the deceased.

It must be extremely traumatic for the children to know that the person who killed their mother or father knows so much about their lives, particularly if they witnessed the murder. The law surrounding parental responsibility is clearly not fit for purpose and facilitates further unnecessary emotional trauma. It helps perpetrators with a history of domestic abuse to practise their controlling and psychological abuse from inside their prison cell. We often think of domestic abuse as physical violence, which it is in many cases, but at its root is control. It is about the perpetrator controlling their so-called partner, and having control from their prison cell must give them a real buzz.

If parental rights are by default retained, even in the most horrific of circumstances, when can they be restricted? The Children Act 1989 allows the guardian or holders of a residence order to go to a family court to bring a prohibited steps order against a person with parental responsibility, but the onus is still on the family to prove that parental rights should be revoked. It is expensive and time-consuming, and is an emotionally draining process for the families, who have to come to terms with the tragic loss they have just experienced. That is why Jade’s family—Karen, Paul and Pip—and their friends are campaigning to have the parental responsibility of a parent who is found guilty of murdering the other parent automatically suspended.

Sarah Atherton Portrait Sarah Atherton (Wrexham) (Con)
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I am very moved by the right hon. Gentleman’s speech. As someone who brought up a child on my own, I often worried about what would happen if something happened to me. Does he agree that the current system fails to put the child at the centre of the legislation?

Mark Tami Portrait Mark Tami
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I agree with the hon. Lady. I will go on to talk about family courts, including some of their problems and the lack of connection between what happens there and in other courts. In this case, and indeed in many other cases, children can be effectively weaponised by the person who has committed the offence, who can carry on their control and abuse.

Currently, the onus is on the family to prove why Marsh’s parental responsibility should be revoked or restricted, whereas Jade’s law calls for parental responsibility to be automatically suspended in circumstances such as these, putting the onus on the killer to go through the legal hoops of proving they deserve parental responsibility, freeing the victim’s family of the traumatic burden they currently carry. As Jade’s mother said:

“We are going through enough without having him looming over our heads.”

That really sums up the situation we find in the law today.

Unfortunately, Jade’s family are not the only ones. Ahead of the debate, the Chair of the Petitions Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell), spoke to survivors of domestic abuse who are experiencing ongoing issues relating to the retention of parental responsibility by ex-partners. Their experiences highlighted just how far our laws on parental responsibilities and the family court system are failing children and victims of domestic violence.

One issue that came out strongly from the discussions was that violence committed against a parent is not distinct from violence against a child. Indeed, allowing a child to witness or be surrounded by violent behaviour is inherently abusive in itself. A parent’s willingness to subject their child to that surely calls into question their ability to act in that child’s best interests.

Yet women who spoke to the Committee felt that family courts do not recognise that. Despite all the convictions for traumatic sexual, physical and emotional abuse, the threat those men pose to their own children’s welfare does not seem to be acknowledged. Over and over again, the Committee heard that the abuser’s right to be a parent was prioritised over the children’s right to safety. A woman whose former partner was convicted of sexual abuse offences asked what I think is a perfectly reasonable question: why should he be allowed to access their children when he was considered too dangerous to work with or be around other people’s children?

For victims of domestic violence and for families who have lost loved ones to an abusive partner, the criminal justice process is often just too traumatic. Not only are they forced to relive harrowing experiences, but they have to come back into contact with the person responsible for them. One might think that once proceedings have ended and a criminal charge has been made and proven, they could begin to move on, but since family and criminal courts are distinct from each other, victims are forced to restart the emotional and burdensome process to restrict parental rights.

One of the women who spoke to the Chair of the Petitions Committee found the family court system itself to be abusive. With renewed contact with her ex-partner, it became a new avenue through which he continued his controlling behaviour. A common opinion was that family courts are not equipped to deal with traumatic cases of murder and domestic abuse.

Both Jade’s family and the women who spoke to the Committee also emphasised the financial pressure imposed on them by the current system. Pursuing a case in the family court is expensive, and the lack of funding for legal aid is a longstanding issue, as we all know. Victims and their families are forced into thousands of pounds of debt to restrict parental responsibility, or they face compromising on the safety of their children.

Since the beginning of the family’s campaign, the Government have stated that there is already scope for courts to exercise powers

“to effectively remove all parental powers and authority in appropriate cases.”

However, the Government are missing the point. Jade’s family and friends are already aware of the law as it stands and the current process of restricting parental responsibility, but they, and we, are saying that the process is wrong. The onus should be on the convicted murderer to prove they should have parental responsibility, rather than the family having to make the case for why that person should not. Jade’s law would be a simple, common-sense way of shifting the burden away from a victim’s family and friends, who have already suffered the anguish of the murder of their loved one. Jade’s law would put an end to the endless cycle of psychological torment, lengthy and costly court processes and the constant harrowing reminders that the current system puts on a victim’s family and friends.

Let us be clear: Jade’s law does not demand the automatic removal of parental responsibility for cases such as these; it demands an automatic suspension, giving the perpetrator the opportunity to go through the legal hoops themselves to prove that they should be entitled to those parental powers. The perpetrator will have to prove they have changed their ways and admitted to their crimes, and that they have gone on a long journey to have the right to be involved in their children’s lives, not the other way round.

The petitioners recognise that there are nuances. For instance, they recognise that there are specific circumstances where it would be right to exempt someone convicted of killing the other parent from an automatic suspension of parental responsibilities. These would include where a convicted person could prove that there was a history of domestic abuse in their relationship and that, although the murder cannot be condoned, the murder trial concluded that provocation was a mitigating factor. However, the principle of shifting the burden of proof is the key message that we are sending the Government today.

Rob Roberts Portrait Rob Roberts
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The right hon. Gentleman is being generous with his time. To expand on this interesting idea, does he envisage this measure being akin to a parole board, where somebody fights their case for early release, or would there be some kind of additional legal process, such as requiring them to go back to court and fight for their rights?

Mark Tami Portrait Mark Tami
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As I said, I believe the process should be turned round, so that it puts the onus on the convicted person, and they would have to go through the same process that the victim’s family are effectively forced to go through now.

I am delighted that Labour supports this change, but I do not want it to be a party political matter because it is not. I do not think that anyone in this room, regardless of their party, would stand up and defend the current system or say: “It’s absolutely fine. I don’t know what the fuss is about.” As I have said, if we went out on the streets, almost everybody would say, “That seems to be the correct thing to do”. I hope we can move forward across the House and add a mechanism to existing legislation, such as the Children Act 1989, whereby one parent found guilty of murdering the other parent would have their responsibility rights automatically suspended throughout their term of imprisonment—which, again, would impose the burden on the convicted person.

I am not prejudging what the Minister will say, but I am sure his officials will say, as they always do: “This is very difficult. It’s going to take a long time. We can’t do this; we can’t do that”. I have always believed that where there is a will, there is a way, and I am sure that the appropriate legislation can be amended to ensure that this change actually happens. The implementation of Jade’s law would not add additional costs to the public purse. In fact, it might save local authorities money, because they would no longer have to send social workers to visit convicted parents to obtain permission for things. It is a cost-free or even money-saving reform that would relieve the traumatic burden that the families of victims currently carry, and it is the morally right thing to do. To me, it is simple and common sense.

Tonia Antoniazzi Portrait Tonia Antoniazzi (Gower) (Lab)
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I had a similar, horrific case in my constituency that related to the parental rights of someone who was convicted of sexual offences against my constituent’s children. This is a cross-party issue, and I pay tribute to the right hon. and learned Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Lucy Frazer), who at that time made change happen and was very supportive. I urge the Minister to make change happen today for Jade.

Mark Tami Portrait Mark Tami
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I share in those words.

To conclude, I read a statement issued by Jade’s parents after their daughter’s killer was sentenced:

“Jade was the sunshine in our lives, she was the glue that held us all together. She was also a devoted mum who would do anything for her children, a much-loved friend, daughter, sister, aunty, niece and granddaughter. Jade’s whole life was ahead of her, and her death has left a void in all our lives.”

Sadly, it is now too late for Jade. But her children, and others in the same situation, still have their whole lives before them. We owe it to them to ensure that the system is on the side of the victims.

16:52
Sarah Atherton Portrait Sarah Atherton (Wrexham) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank the right hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) and the petitioners for bringing us this important debate. I extend my heartfelt condolences to Jade’s family, and thank them for their bravery in advocating for change at such a tragic time.

Looking at the list of petition signatories by parliamentary constituency, there is clearly a strong geographical centre of support in north Wales and just across the border, with strong pockets of support in Delyn, Vale of Clwyd, Ellesmere Port, Chester and, of course, Wrexham. Some 878 people in Wrexham signed the petition, but I have no doubt that support for its aims extends right across the country, across parties and borders.

Let me touch on a few points. The Government’s initial response states that, under the Children Act 1989, parental responsibility can already be lifted by the court. There is a mechanism in the Act that allows for a member of a child’s family to care for that child if there is no parent to do so on a day-to-day basis. I am pleased that that safeguard and option is already in law, as it should be, but the law could go further.

My concern is that the process of obtaining that legal status is lengthy and expensive, and that, as a direct result of that lengthy process, parental responsibility remains with the perpetrator of a crime until the process is complete. If the process of obtaining what I understand is called a special guardianship order was less time consuming, less expensive and less onerous for family members who honourably try to do the right thing in difficult circumstances, we might not be seeking the automatic removal of parental responsibility.

Although it is different from Jade’s law, I do have some experience with the case of constituent who is trying to obtain an order to take over parental responsibility for their grandchildren in the absence of parents who are present and able to parent. My constituent’s case constituent highlighted to me how difficult and expensive it is to obtain the guardianship of grandchildren.

Obtaining a special guardianship order can cost thousands and thousands of pounds, and that is assuming that the parent gives consent in the first place. That is the exact opposite of what we should be trying to achieve; where a family member is willing and able to take care of children, we should support them to do so, not put barriers in their way. We should not be making it more difficult for children to be looked after by their family rather than the state. First, being cared for by their family is the best and safest option for children, as they already know them and their routines. Secondly, a child being looked after by the state should never be the preferred first option. The process currently makes it easier for children to be looked after by the state, at significant cost, than by members of their family. In my view and that of the constituents of Wrexham, that is wrong.

The safety and wellbeing of a child are always paramount. I was a nurse and social worker for 27 years, so I have first-hand experience of children being removed from their homes and placed in temporary accommodation that lasts year after year. From many years of seeing this, I know that there is no substitute for a child being raised by their family in a safe and loving home. If all necessary safeguards and checks have been done, and this arrangement can be accommodated, it absolutely should be. Of course, there should be a presumption that if one parent murders another, parental responsibility is removed.

My concern with automatically removing parental responsibility is that we need to have processes in place to deal with the gap in care and decision making. At the moment, the process for handing parental responsibility to family members is too laborious, costly and stressful. We need to make allowances for that or make the process easier, so that children are not automatically cared for by the state when they do not need to be. Local authorities need to be more supportive of families applying for a special guardianship order. However, where the state is needed—remembering that health and social care is devolved in Wales—the Welsh Government need to ensure that councils are adequately funded, so that children always have timely and appropriate care and do not fall between the gaps. Where there are family members who are fit, willing and able to make decisions for the children, that option should always be the priority.

16:57
Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair as always, Mr Hollobone. The hon. Member for Wrexham (Sarah Atherton) made some interesting points; the all-party parliamentary group on kinship care has done a lot of work on these issues, which chimes with some of the points she made.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) for opening the debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee, and for sharing the experiences of Jade Ward’s family. There are no words to describe the pain that those close to Jade have been through, but my right hon. Friend did an excellent job of articulating their calls for action. It cannot be easy for those of them present here to have to listen to this debate, but I hope they feel some reassurance. People who have been through difficult experiences often get some strength from the idea that something good may come of the pain they have been through.

It is often assumed that when one parent is sentenced for a serious offence, a legal mechanism is automatically triggered to assure the safety and wellbeing of their children and those looking after them. As we have heard, that just does not happen. When a parent goes to prison and they have parental responsibility, they retain it by default. Care givers must consult them ahead of key decisions concerning the children’s names, where they go to school, their religious upbringing and any medical procedures they undergo before their 18th birthday. Where parental responsibility is concerned, the law does not differentiate between parents who commit non-violent offences and those guilty of serious offences, including murder, rape, sexual offences against children, gang-related violence and so on. As we have heard, that is even the case where one parent has killed the other, or where the parent in prison has killed another family member.

Understandably, the petition is focused on parental or interparental homicide, which is where we should start in terms of reviewing the law, but there are many other cases that involve similar scenarios. Far too many parents have to keep in contact with their abusers for their children’s sake. I say “for their children’s sake”, but that is based on a default presumption that it must always be in the child’s interest for the parent in prison to retain contact, and quite often that presumption is wrong.

The only mechanism a child’s primary care givers currently have to challenge the perpetrator’s right to parental responsibility is through the legal system. A court can terminate a father’s parental responsibility on the grounds of their behaviour, but that happens only in exceptional circumstances, where there is proof that the father’s retention of that responsibility—I say “father” as a shorthand—would be detrimental to the child’s welfare. As I understand it, that has only ever happened four times in England and Wales.

Families are not always willing to put themselves through the extra trauma of attending a court hearing and having to relive the worst time of their lives, with their version of events placed under the microscope yet again. Facing the person who killed or abused their loved one—or abused them—and looking that person in the eye is often very difficult. They might also be fearful that the perpetrator will retaliate in whatever way they can if the court removes the rights, especially if they will be released from prison before the child turns 18. It takes a lot of courage to take a violent perpetrator to court while knowing the risks, and it is easy to see why many would be put off attending court at all. As we have heard, spiralling court backlogs and cuts to legal aid make the process more agonising for the families.

The main thing I want to talk about today is the work of the charity Children Heard and Seen, which supports children with a parent in prison. The primary focus—this is what differentiates it from other charities—is on the interests of the child. A lot of the organisations that work with prisoners’ families focus very much on the rights of the prisoner, and there is an assumption that contact with the family is in the prisoner’s interests; because we know, for example, that such contact means far less risk of reoffending.

It often shocks people to learn that there is no system for recording when a child’s parent goes into prison. Sometimes it is picked up in pre-sentence reports, although the parent will not always admit that they have a child because they worry about them being taken into care. Social services might already be involved with the family, or they might become involved if they suspect that the children are the direct victims of the parent’s crime, such as child sexual abuse, but we often find that social services—once they realise the children were not the victims and perhaps other children were—just disappear from the scene.

There is no system for routinely informing children’s services at the council or the children’s school, or for monitoring the children’s wellbeing during a parent’s imprisonment. The data is also hard to come by. One figure is used quite a lot—that 312,000 children are affected from year to year. I think that is probably on the high side, but it is impossible to tell. Many children are off the radar, despite potentially being at risk, or very vulnerable and needing support.

Children Heard and Seen runs a support group for carers who look after children affected by interparental homicide. It also supports families who continue to experience harassment or coercive control, despite the perpetrator being in prison. That includes domestic violence cases. I have heard from the charity about the strategies that domestic abusers use to manipulate their ex-partners while in prison, from using illicit burner phones to breach restraining orders, to refusing divorce papers and getting friends or neighbours to harass and intimidate them.

Services supporting victims might tell them they are safe once their former partner is in prison, but that is not always the case. Children Heard and Seen says that allowing a violent offender parental responsibility gives them the opportunity to control their child, ex-partner or family from within the prison walls. On the Children Heard and Seen website, there are quite a few blog posts by people who have been affected by a parent or a partner going into prison.

To cite one case, a mother applied for passports to take her children on holiday after a difficult few years that led up to the father’s imprisonment. Because both parents had parental responsibility, she needed his signature to complete the application. He was given the paperwork by the prison officers, but refused to sign it, which meant the family could not travel and the mother lost every penny she had paid towards the holiday. Of course, the father would not have been able to join them on holiday, but it was not about the children at all; it was just another way to pull the strings in his family’s life and exercise control over his former partner, despite the physical distance between them.

A perpetrator of domestic abuse might be restricted from contacting their actual victim—such as the mother, in this case—if there is a restraining order in place. However, if they have children together, it is easy for the perpetrator to use that child as a way to stay present in the abused partner’s life. Little can be done to stop them calling or writing to their children. As has been said, family services often encourage prisoners to stay in touch in such situations, as it is seen as being in the prisoner’s interest. There is also a belief that a child must want to see their parent who is in prison and must be missing them dreadfully, despite having witnessed a lot of abuse at home, and actually being fearful of the parent, and, in some ways, relieved that they have been removed from the household.

The perpetrator can use this contact to say that they will only see the children if the mother brings them to the prison, which, if the child wants to see the parent, is a way of exercising control. They can also make veiled threats through written letters. I cannot imagine how chilling it must be for an ex-partner to have to read out letters from their abuser to their children, in which the abuser may say he is getting stronger in prison and counting down the days until he sees their mum again, or which contain drawings of the children’s favourite film characters holding knives. We need a case-by-case approach, where services work with families to take a more active role in determining when contact is appropriate.

As of 2019, men made up 95% of the prison population. A far higher proportion of men are in prison for serious offences, so it is fair to assume that far more fathers are in prison than mothers. The flipside of that is the extra layer of complexity if a mother is arrested for a serious offence. Societal expectations about a mother’s natural role as a primary care giver can lead to the assumption that they should automatically keep parental responsibility. As I understand it, courts cannot legally terminate a mother’s parental responsibility, although it can, in rare cases, be limited.

It is important to remember the key principle of the Children Act 1989, which is that the welfare of the child is paramount. A child’s right to safety and protection from harm overrides all other legal considerations. How can the welfare of the child be paramount if their imprisoned parent can use contact with them to manipulate or control other family members?

Mark Tami Portrait Mark Tami
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My hon. Friend is making a very powerful case. Although she is talking about people in prison, we have probably all seen instances in our casework—thankfully at a much lower level—where relationships have broken down and children are weaponised by one or both partners. I have always found it very strange that a father might not pay towards the children’s upkeep but still has the same rights as someone who does pay. I do not understand that, although I know why it is the case: the two are not seen to be connected. However, I have always had the view that if someone does not support their children, they should not automatically think they should have exactly the same rights as somebody who does.

Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy
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I entirely agree. I think we have all seen cases where contact with the children will be supervised and the family will have to go to a centre due to the relationship between the ex-partners, because the mother is fearful of being alone in the same room as the father. I have seen so many examples where that has been manipulated and the father does not actually want to see the children, but instead wants to use the visit as a way of putting fear into the heart of the mother, who is bringing the children along.

Until the laws around parental responsibility change, families will continue to suffer. As we have outlined today, suspending parental responsibility for those who commit serious, violent crimes—at least on a temporary basis—would certainly be a start. The right to parental responsibility could then be reviewed and re-established if the families consent and new evidence indicates it would be appropriate.

It is important to re-emphasise that this is not a matter of removing a prisoner’s right to parental responsibility in all instances; it is about protecting children and families caught up in the most extreme circumstances. We need to consider it on a case-by-case basis. Care givers need more input into the process of determining parental responsibility from the start. The police and other authorities need more training in spotting the signs of coercive control within families. Above all, children’s best interests and safety must be put first.

It is difficult to keep up with personnel changes in this Government, but I have had meetings with Justice Ministers and the Minister for Children and Families, and I have raised this issue in various debates. We need data on how many children have a parent in prison. Anecdotally, I know that there is a huge number out there, and unless we can identify how many there are and find a way of recording them, we will never be able to give them the help and support they need.

I again congratulate Jade Ward’s family for fighting for this change. I hope today’s discussion takes us a step further in resolving these issues.

17:10
Rob Roberts Portrait Rob Roberts (Delyn) (Ind)
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Thank you for calling me to speak in this important and solemn debate, Mr Hollobone. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, and to follow the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy). I commend my constituency neighbour, the right hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami), for securing this debate on such a vital issue for our Flintshire community. I will also take this opportunity to butter up the Minister a bit and welcome him to his portfolio. I am sure he is the right person in the right role at the right time to drive this forward and obtain the justice that that family and families across the country deserve.

Crime will always exist in communities. Whatever we do in society and whatever laws we pass in this place, there will always be various crimes of varying degrees of severity. Rarely—thankfully, it is rare—there is a crime that the headline writers say has rocked the community. In August 2021, the Deeside and wider Flintshire community was rocked. This is north-east Wales; this type of thing does not happen in our communities.

The words we use in this place to debate things are important. “Erskine May” tells us that moderate language is of the utmost importance in parliamentary discourse, so I always do my best to keep within the boundaries of that principle. I try to avoid extremes such as “evil” and “hate”. But when Russell Marsh—for the record, that will be the last time I do him the courtesy of using his name in this speech—killed Jade Ward, the egregious act taking place in her home in Shotton, the nature of his crime could quite easily and fairly be described as evil. In the aftermath of that horrific event, Jade’s friends and family, and indeed our entirely community, could certainly be justified in having feelings of hate. It is fair to commend the North Wales police and the court system for bringing him to justice, as he was handed a minimum 25-year sentence in April. For all the delays and issues we hear about in our justice system, the investigation, trial and sentencing took only seven months. I say “only” seven months, but it was no doubt a lifetime for Jade’s family and friends.

Justice was served and was seen to be served swiftly. But was it? Of course, seeing that vile wretch of a human carted off for at least 25 years is justice in one respect, but a lingering problem remains, which we must address. I commend Mr Duggan, the family friend who set up the petition. I am not sure whether he is aware that it attracted signatures from every single one of the 650 constituencies in the UK, from the far reaches of Orkney and Shetland off the north coast of Scotland, down to St Ives in the south of England, on its way to more than 130,000 signatures, including 2,808 from my constituency of Delyn. Considering that Delyn’s numbers for national petitions are normally in their low teens, that is a great indication of the depth of feeling in our community about the issue.

Jade’s sons are now in the loving care of her family. I do not think there is a single person among us who can comprehend not only having to attend the funeral of their child, as Jade’s parents had to, but having to somehow hold everything together in the aftermath and provide a stable, loving home for their grandchildren.

The difficulties of being faced by the nature of the crime itself are compounded by the fact that the perpetrator has rights. We hear a lot about rights in this building, and how one person’s rights are being infringed in favour of someone else’s rights. In this case, the perpetrator’s rights are being held to have, in some way, some relevance. He has to be consulted; he can take decisions about where the children live, go on holiday or attend school. and he is kept up to date on their progress.

Just to be clear, we take away parental responsibility in cases of serious neglect and in cases of serious cruelty. What more neglectful action could there be than depriving four children of their mother? What more cruelty would we need to see than taking a young lady and murdering her in a brutal and vicious way while her children slept in their bedrooms next door?

I read the Government’s response to the petition when it passed 10,000 signatures and I echo the comments made by the Chair of the Petitions Committee, the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell), in expressing my disappointment with that response. I appreciate the statement that we already have the means in existing law to take these steps, but as has already been mentioned several times, that is time-consuming and expensive, and puts even more strain on the victim’s family, who have to deal with an already impossible situation.

In a case in 2013 when parental responsibility was terminated because a father had been convicted of violently attacking a mother, it took years to terminate his rights—something that would have been obvious to anyone with a modicum of common sense about them. In this case, we are talking about a violent murder. It should be an absolute no-brainer that the perpetrator should forfeit his parental rights immediately when convicted of such a horrific crime. There can be no greater cruelty. He should play no further part in the lives of these children. If I had my way, he would play no further part in society for the remainder of his natural life; for what he did, he should have been given a whole life sentence, not 25 years.

People might think that this happens extremely rarely in society, so I did a bit of digging. The House of Commons Library tells me that there were 542 homicides —murders—recorded in England and Wales in the 2020-21 fiscal year. In 414 of those cases, the relationship between victim and offender was known and of those cases, 67 were recorded as being committed by a partner or ex-partner. Assuming that figure carries through to the other cases where we do not know the relationship between victim and offender, that is 87 murders per year by partners or ex-partners where there may be children. To be clear for the record, that is not the number of confirmed cases where parental responsibility is a factor; it is just an estimate of the number of cases where it might be a factor. Potentially, there are 87 cases a year where the nightmare of a murder is compounded by the additional cruelty of the perpetrator controlling from prison the lives of the children. That is absolutely unconscionable. The statistics do not matter though. I would be making all the same arguments if there was just one family or 10,000 families who are affected. Currently, the law allows the status quo to persist unless a long and laborious process is carried out to change it.

A switch of priorities is required. As the right hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside said earlier, put the burden back on the murderer. If someone is found guilty of murder, the suspension of parental rights should be made automatic at the date of conviction. Make him fight to get those rights back, rather than make the victim’s family fight to block him. Social services and the local authorities will already be intrinsically involved by that point, as there will inevitably be months between offence and conviction. The children will already be in the care of the remaining family or in a suitable foster placement, where that is appropriate. The law simply needs to be changed to give social services the power that they would have if, for example, both parents died.

I come back to the opening words of my speech. I try to avoid extremes of language, but in cases such as this one, in which one parent has unlawfully killed another, the perpetrators should be counted, for the purposes of parental responsibility, as having died as well. It seems to be a complete no-brainer that, rather than put the victim’s family through a horrendous process of trying to get parental responsibility removed, re-victimising them and keeping a killer in their lives, we should automatically remove the perpetrator.

We need to bear in mind that according to the Sentencing Council the starting point for the minimum time to be served in prison by an adult guilty of murder ranges from 15 years to 30 years, before taking into account any aggravating or mitigating factors. It is therefore reasonable to assume that the vast majority of cases will lead to a minimum of 15 years in prison for the perpetrator. By the time that sentence has been served, most children are likely to be over the age of 18, so I see no reason not to say that the perpetrator’s parental rights should be taken away at conviction and never restored, unless there is a specific and significant reason to do so. My hon. Friend the Minister can work out what “specific and significant” might mean—we will leave that up to the law writers. Should the children decide upon reaching adulthood that they want to have contact with the perpetrator, that of course remains their right, because there will no longer be an element of control over their lives.

The families of victims have suffered enough; there is no reason to prolong their suffering. I hear what my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Sarah Atherton) said about some of the potential pitfalls that may occur in cases such as these. This is one of those instances where unintended consequences can have wide-ranging implications. We need to keep in mind that the best interests of the children are paramount every time. That said, I believe the change proposed is a simple one, steeped in common sense, that could be made through a relatively short Bill, and I implore the Minister to make it happen with all due speed.

17:21
Ellie Reeves Portrait Ellie Reeves (Lewisham West and Penge) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Hollobone. I thank Edwin Duggan for creating the petition and the 130,000 people who signed it. I also thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) for moving the motion, and the Petitions Committee for scheduling this debate on an incredibly important issue, about which Members have spoken so movingly.

The hon. Member for Delyn (Rob Roberts) talked about the re-victimisation of the families. The hon. Member for Wrexham (Sarah Atherton) talked about the current system failing children. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) talked about the brilliant work of Children Heard and Seen, which is based in her constituency. Every Member across the House has spoken about parental responsibility being used as a form of control and a continuation of abusive behaviour, and about the weaponisation of children.

Finally, my right hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside spoke beautifully about his constituent Jade Ward, and how she dedicated her life to her four sons. He also comprehensively set out the legal framework that underpins Jade’s law. As we have heard, at just 27 years old, Jade was stabbed and strangled to death in her home by her former partner as their children slept. When Jade’s murderer was given a life sentence in April, the judge described the attack as “merciless”. Like my right hon. Friend, I have met Jade’s mother Karen and her father Paul. They are devastated by the loss of their daughter, and their grief is without end, as it is with all murders. A close and loving family, they are determined to give Jade’s four boys the best life that they can, but they are held back in this because Jade’s murderer remains present in their lives through his parental responsibility to the children, even though he is in prison for their mother’s murder.

There can be few things worse for a child than to lose their mother to violence, but that trauma can only be magnified when the person who robbed them of their mother is their own father. While we have no official figures on how many children lose their mothers in this way, we do know that two women are killed by their partners or former partners each week. That is a tragedy, but these deaths are not random; they are not accidents or an uncharacteristic loss of control by a perpetrator. All too often, they are targeted killings taking place in the context of domestic abuse. Indeed, the most common time for a woman to be murdered by a partner is when she tries to leave, usually after years—sometimes decades—of coercive control and physical, mental, emotional and sexual abuse. The act of murder is the abuser’s way of taking back control once the woman has attempted to break free, but it is not always the end of the abuse.

In cases where there are dependent children and the perpetrator has parental responsibility by virtue of being married to the mother or having signed a child’s birth certificate, his rights towards the child remain. Even a life sentence does not put an end to the offender’s parental responsibility. As we have heard, that means he has a say in where those children go to school or if they need medical treatment, or if their carers—often kinship carers—can take them abroad. This offers the perpetrator another means of control through which they can continue their abuse.

In especially harrowing cases, fathers have been able to block maternal family members from gaining residency with the children, with the children sometimes ending up in foster care instead. The fact that, once acquired, a murderer’s parental responsibility cannot be suspended without protracted legal battles is an injustice. What greater dereliction of duty towards a child can there be than to rob them of their mother and burden them with a lifetime of trauma?

The House will recall that every year, on International Women’s Day, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) reads out the names of the women killed by men during the last year. It is perverse that in some of those cases, having removed the mother’s right to life and the right to bring up their children, the father’s parental rights are not automatically suspended.

What about the rights of the children? Many will have witnessed violence and sometimes the murder itself, but at present they must be raised knowing that the perpetrator retains knowledge of and access to their lives. For some that results in fear that they may themselves be in danger, and for others it results in decisions being made not in their best interests, but to deprive them of opportunities out of sheer spite. Children Heard and Seen, a charity that supports children impacted by parental imprisonment, reports that the continuation of their father retaining rights over them is a significant traumatising factor in those children’s lives.

For the families of the deceased, the instinct to protect the children from the person who devastated their family is strong, but so is the feeling of despair that they cannot keep that person from doing further harm. Jade’s law would change that. It would reverse the situation in which the onus is on the victim’s family to prove, through protracted legal proceedings, why the perpetrator’s parental responsibility should be revoked. Instead, parental responsibility would be automatically suspended and the onus placed on the killer to go through the legal hoops to prove that they deserved that responsibility.

Let me be clear: this is not about punishing perpetrators. The criminal courts take responsibility for that. It is about doing what is right for the children left behind, safeguarding their rights, protecting them from further abuse, and trying to give them the best possible means to thrive.

As Jade’s parents have said, they want to stop another family going through what they have been through. I pay tribute to them for their tireless campaigning efforts and for getting this issue as far as they have. Jade’s law is a simple solution that would end the current injustice, and I am proud that a Labour Government would put Jade’s law on to the statute book. Nothing can make up for the loss of Jade, but we can make sure she did not die in vain. We can make this change and ensure that the rights of children and of victims’ families are valued over those of the abuser. I hope that we have the Government’s attention today and that the Minister will also commit to making this change.

17:29
Edward Argar Portrait The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Edward Argar)
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I begin by paying tribute to the right hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) for his work, and to the Petitions Committee for securing the opportunity for us to debate this very important subject. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will allow me to refer to him almost as a conduit for the work that has been done by Jade’s family and by Mr Duggan, who I pay tribute to for his campaigning work on this hugely upsetting and challenging issue. I think it was the hon. Member for Delyn (Rob Roberts) who highlighted that the petition has attracted signatures from every constituency across the country. I do not know if that is unique, but it is a pretty high bar to pass. There were over 100 signatures from my constituency in rural north Leicestershire. That reflects the impact that the issue has had across the country, and the strength of feeling among people from all walks of life. I offer my most sincere condolences to Jade’s family on the loss of their daughter and mother, and to her friends on the loss of a friend, in such horrific circumstances, at the hands of someone whose name I—like the hon. Gentleman—do not propose to use.

The thoughts of everyone in this Chamber will remain with Jade’s family. The right hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside did something quite extraordinary: he managed to articulate the circumstances, their impact, and the feelings of Jade’s family in an incredibly moving and clear way; I am sure I could not have done it. That does not happen as often as it should in this place, especially in the main Chamber, but in this Chamber we sometimes adopt a more measured tone that does more justice to the subjects that we discuss. The right hon. Gentleman’s constituents—this is not about party politics—are extremely lucky to have such a dedicated and caring Member of Parliament representing their interests.

I stand here with mixed emotions. In one sense, it is a pleasure to be back in this Department. For almost a year and half, between 2018 and 2019, I was the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State responsible for victims and witnesses. I worked with my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins) in her role at the Home Office to commission the rape review, bring forward a victim strategy, get rid of the “same roof” rule for compensation, and look at the victims code. We worked closely with victims of violence, particularly in the context of domestic abuse, and coercive and controlling relationships.

Rob Roberts Portrait Rob Roberts
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I suspect that the right hon. Gentleman is about to give us a reason why he is not able to commit to legislation, so I thought I would intervene to give him a few more seconds to reconsider, and to think of extra ways in which he might squeeze this change into a bit of legislation.

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who seeks to gently nudge me. When I held my former brief, working cross-party, I saw the lengths that people will go to in their attempts to manipulate, coerce and control, as the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves), highlighted. Even when a victim or their family are told that they are physically safe because the perpetrator is in prison, that does not address the challenges that they face in feeling psychologically safe. I think the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) highlighted that children are victims too. Those who witness these events, and those who may not have witnessed them but who live with the consequences, are also victims of the crime.

Mark Tami Portrait Mark Tami
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I thank the Minister for his kind comments. Does he agree that in an abusive relationship, victims often start with the perception that the perpetrator really loves and cares for them, and that that is why they have that controlling behaviour? They tell them, “I really care for you, so I need to monitor your mobile phone. I need to know exactly where you are going.” That turns into an abusive relationship. We have all known about relationships that we worry are not on an even keel. This is one of the most tragic cases that I have come across, but there are many other cases out there. This abuse is still there, is still prevalent and, in the worst cases, can lead to what we have seen.

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman’s point about the nature of coercive and controlling behaviour, and of domestic abuse and violence. As he says, we are dealing with highly manipulative people who, in some cases, will seek to make the victim feel as if they bear responsibility. Of course, in no way do they; the only responsibility rests with the perpetrator. He is absolutely right to highlight that point.

The legal issue that we are debating falls under the ministerial responsibilities of my colleague the noble Lord Bellamy KC, who covers matters such as family law, but it is important that I respond to this debate, not just because he is in the other place, but because there is clearly read-across to my responsibility as victims Minister.

The issue of parental responsibility is fundamentally important. It can shape the development of and relationship with a child. As the right hon. Gentleman and others highlighted, under by the Children Act 1989, “parental responsibility” refers to all the rights, duties, and responsibilities of parents or carers towards their children. That includes deciding where the child should go to school, live and go on holiday. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Sarah Atherton) said, the Act starts from a presumption that the child’s welfare and interests are paramount, and, to a degree, from the assumption that a child’s being with their parents, or that there is parental contact and responsibility, is the preferred approach.

As hon. Members have highlighted, legally, mothers and fathers automatically have parental responsibility. Courts can make orders to restrict their parental responsibility where that is in the child’s best interests, and depending on the circumstances, but it cannot be simply removed. I do not propose to reiterate at length the legal context, which the right hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside set out very clearly.

I have listened carefully to hon. Members’ arguments for changing the law so that that a parent convicted of the murder of the other parent has their parental responsibility automatically suspended during the period of their imprisonment. There is no doubt that, legally and emotionally, this is a complex and challenging topic, and I sympathise with the view that more should be done to ensure that the courts can better support bereaved families in such circumstances. I hasten to add that today is only my 11th day back in the Ministry of Justice, but I have reservations, some of which my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham alluded to, about whether an automatic suspension—the reversal that the right hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside talked about—is necessarily the best way of achieving the outcomes sought, given the legal context of the Children’s Act. I will unpick that in a moment.

The hon. Member for Bristol East and I may not have the same political perspective on everything, but throughout my time in this House, her contributions have always been thoughtful and considered, as were her remarks today. I will look up Children Heard and Seen, but I would be grateful if she sent me anything that she wanted to about that charity. In a previous role at the Ministry of Justice, I was responsible for pushing through the female offender strategy, which sought to reduce the use of prison when people—particularly mothers—were given short sentences for minor offences. There is cross-over with the work I am currently doing, so I would be grateful for anything she could share with me.

Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy
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I am happy to do that, and I can give the Minister details of meetings we have had with Children Heard and Seen, attended by the previous children’s Minister and the previous prisons Minister. I agree with what the Minister just said, but he touches on something that Children Heard and Seen rail against. Quite a lot of work has been done, including by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) and my predecessor, Baroness Corston, to try to ensure that women, particularly those with young children, are less likely to be imprisoned, but that, again, is prisoner-focused. The difference between that and Children Heard and Seen is that the latter is not about the prisoner. It is about the children and putting them first, so there is a slight difference.

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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The context for what I said was this: the presumption behind the strategy was that the best interests of the child should be taken into consideration. I am going down the rabbit hole slightly here, but previously, a number of mothers would be sentenced for what would be deemed relatively minor offences—offences in which there was no violence against the person or similar. That would happen in circumstances where the mother had a functioning relationship with their child that was at risk of being broken. We sought to provide a little bit more discretion around that, to understand where it was a functioning relationship, and where it might work more effectively. Over the years, the tool that was being used had become blunt.

The hon. Lady asked how many children have a parent in prison. I do not know how many of my predecessors she has had this conversation with, but I will endeavour to find that data, because it would add to the debate.

Sarah Atherton Portrait Sarah Atherton
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Will the Minister give way?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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I will make a little progress, and then I will come to my hon. Friend. The Children Act 1989, as hon. Members will know, starts from the presumption that the child’s welfare—the interests of the child—are paramount. Courts consider that when making decisions.

There are various safeguards already in place to protect children, and they have been set out by the right hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside. They include the duties of local authorities, and the private law orders available to family members in such circumstances, as well as mechanisms that courts can employ to restrict parental responsibility and prevent repeated and unreasonable court applications, or applications that pose a risk of harm. Courts have discretion, through the permissions hearing, to restrict the ability of a perpetrator—a convicted offender—to use the court process in a vexatious way. Finally, I will set out what more can be done to support families in such tragic cases, and the actions that the Government have taken so far.

Sarah Atherton Portrait Sarah Atherton
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Going back to the female offender strategy that the Minister mentioned, I understand that there will be a pilot unit in Wales—a residential women’s centre. I have been a strong advocate of ensuring that there is some sort of families unit there, so that as women progress towards the end of a sentence, they can be reintroduced to their family and learn parenting skills, and there is a seamless transition to living in the community when they are released. Will the Minister drop me a line on what is happening with the children’s unit? I do not know whether he knows the answer now; if he does, that is great.

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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I will answer briefly to avoid straying too far from the premise of the debate. Although I am no longer responsible for the female offender strategy, I will certainly ensure that the Minister of State for Prisons, Parole and Probation is made aware of my hon. Friend’s point.

As the hon. Member for Bristol East said, we must look at the issues case by case; there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Each case is different. That is one of the reasons why there are reservations about having an automatic presumption, rather than letting the courts consider each case. It is important to note that under the Children Act 1989, the welfare of the child, rather than the views or interests of any adult, is the uppermost consideration in cases that come before the court.

In determining a child’s welfare needs, the court will have regard to the factors set out in the welfare checklist in the Children Act, including the ascertainable wishes and feelings of the child, the impact on the child of any change in circumstances, any harm that they have suffered or are at risk of suffering, and how capable an individual with parental responsibility is of genuinely meeting that child’s needs and best interests.

In tragic cases such as Jade’s, where one parent has been convicted of murdering the other, the responsible local authority has a duty to protect the child and ensure that they are safeguarded from harm. That may include initiating care proceedings to provide the child with a permanent or interim care arrangement. Such arrangements, as has been set out, can include family members such as grandparents being granted parental responsibility for the child, for example through the granting of a special guardianship order by the court.

The process needs the involvement of the court. Under the principles of the Children Act, and also under our law’s underpinning principles, only a court can restrict or change parental rights. When it is in the child’s best interests, and appropriate given the circumstances of the case, there are mechanisms whereby the court can restrict the parental responsibility of a parent, but that must be done through the court.

Rob Roberts Portrait Rob Roberts
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The Minister is being very generous with his time. On that point, he will know better than I do whether there is any mechanism to ask, for example, a bunch of family court judges or High Court judges whether they would be in favour of making the suspension of parental responsibility apply automatically. That would mean that if they hand down a conviction for the murder of another parent, it would automatically form part of the sentence. Could we ask judges that and see what their opinion is, or is that not something that we do?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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I am grateful to the hon. Member. He is kind to presume that I am as expert 11 days in as I was when I had held this brief for many years, but there is a fair amount that I have kept close to. It is challenging. We must recognise the independence of our judiciary and the very clear delineation between judiciary and politics, but we routinely seek the views and advice of the judiciary. In a moment, I will turn to something that we may be able to do in this space.

Mark Tami Portrait Mark Tami
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That sounds all well and good, but it ignores the reality of where we are and what the family have been through. They have suffered the loss of their daughter in horrific circumstances; we have not gone into the detail today. Asking them effectively to go through that again to get something that they rightly, in my view, assumed would be the case anyway puts a hell of a strain on them. In many cases, people might decide not to go down that road, because they cannot put themselves and their family through it.

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
- Hansard - Excerpts

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to highlight that. I would find it difficult to articulate as eloquently as he did not only how horrific the original events were but how horrific the possibility of reliving them, in a sense, by having to go through a court process, is. It may disappoint him, but I will seek to move things forward a little later in my remarks. We come back to that point in the Children Act 1989: the presumption of the role of the court. There will always be an element of that court process necessary under the presumptions that were built into that groundbreaking piece of legislation.

I also highlight that, as I mentioned, under section 91(14) of the Act the court can prevent a parent from bringing or making applications to the court without the court’s prior permission, in particular where their doing so may cause harm or distress to the children or other parties involved in the case. That may not entirely remove the problem, but it gives the courts a route to prevent the vexatious use of the legal process to try to re-traumatise or re-victimise a family. Judges would consider that, and would have the power to prevent such an application where multiple applications were being used to cause harm and upset.

As I said, I have heard the calls today to change the law so that a parent convicted of murdering the other parent would have their parental responsibility automatically suspended during imprisonment. I think the right hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside characterised it as essentially a reversal of the presumption in this case. I have to say I am truly sympathetic, particularly given the case at hand. I cannot imagine anyone not being so, having heard the right hon. Gentleman and being aware of the circumstances of the case. However, the courts have mechanisms both to make orders to give parental responsibility to family members and to restrict it significantly in appropriate cases, but always through the prism of their interpretation of the child’s welfare and best interests. Every family is different, as is each set of circumstances that families find themselves in. Our view is that it is important that courts continue to have the flexibility that the Children Act gives them to make decisions that are tailored to the unique life of every child.

The legal challenge to the concept of automatic suspension is that it risks not aligning with the existing principles underpinning that key piece of legislation—the 1989 Act—and the way it works. There is a genuine risk that if we set up a mechanism to suspend parental responsibility automatically in certain circumstances, without affording the court the opportunity to hear all the arguments or evidence in the case, that would undermine the fundamentals of the framework in the Act. I recognise that in situations where one parent is convicted of the murder of the other, the process of obtaining the legal redress and the orders that I have set out today can be time-consuming, and that making or responding to court applications and attending multiple court hearings on related issues can be psychologically horrendous for those involved and can re-traumatise people who are just beginning to rebuild their lives.

I therefore want to outline an offer: two measures that the Government are taking to improve matters for families in such circumstances. I fear I may not go as far as the right hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside might wish, but I hope it might be a further step forward. I know him to be a reasonable man, so he may, without prejudice and without in any way resiling from his clear view on what needs to be done, take up the offer of these measures—I suspect and hope he will.

First, the right hon. Gentleman highlighted the issue about cost and he will be aware that on 17 October we laid before the House secondary legislation to expand the scope of legal aid to applications for special guardianship orders. That means that when a private individual such as a family member wishes to become a special guardian, they can receive legal aid advice and representation to help. A successful application to be a special guardian will result in that individual having parental responsibility for a child or children.

Secondly, having heard the arguments made today and having read and carefully reflected on the petition and my predecessor’s response to it, I will ask the family procedure rule committee to consider what opportunities there will be for procedures to be expedited or otherwise adjusted so that, in circumstances such as these, applications for special guardianship or other orders as well as applications to restrict parental responsibility can be made with as few procedural burdens, and as swiftly, as possible. It will be for the rule committee to consider that request, but it is a request that we will make. That would have the benefit of maintaining the Children Act and existing legal mechanisms and principles for courts to assess matters on a case-by-case basis, tailored to the child, but it would, I hope, reduce the trauma and burden that those processes can place on people.

In short, we believe that it is right to limit the parental responsibility of those who hold it if that is deemed to be for the welfare and in the best interests of the child, and that it is right that that power is exercised by the courts and that they have the powers at their disposal to make these orders. I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to the debate, and I thank the right hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside for securing it. I suspect he has spoken to many Ministers, but I will consider very carefully the points that have been made. If he wishes to take me up on my offer, I will meet him and Lord Bellamy, who is the lead for family law in the Department. If he will allow me to join that meeting, as the victims Minister, I would be happy to further discuss the points that have been raised this afternoon and how we can best deliver on our commitment to safeguard children while ensuring that their best interests remain the utmost priority.

17:55
Mark Tami Portrait Mark Tami
- Hansard - Excerpts

I thank the hon. Member for Wrexham (Sarah Atherton), my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), the hon. Member for Delyn (Rob Roberts), and my hon. Friends the Members for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) and for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) for their contributions. It has been a good debate and we have addressed a lot of the issues.

Clearly, I would have liked the Minister to say, “Yes, we will do this straightaway,” but I recognise that these things never quite happen in that way. I will certainly take him up on his kind offer of a meeting, and I hope we can move forward.

I certainly welcome the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham West and Penge, who said that a future Labour Government would introduce this change. I hope we can do so before that, because I do not see this as a political issue. The vast majority of people in this House and the vast majority of people out there believe change is needed now. I once again thank Jade’s family and Edwin for all the work they have done to bring this issue to the House today.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered e-petition 614893, relating to suspension of parental responsibility for people convicted of serious offences.

17:56
Sitting adjourned.

Government Response

Thursday 16th June 2022

The court can limit the exercise of parental responsibility, if in the best interests of the child. In the most serious cases this can effectively amount to removing all parental powers and authority.


The Government recognises that in situations where one parent is convicted of the murder of the other parent, the process for restricting parental responsibility from a parent who is imprisoned can be time consuming, and that making or responding to court applications, and attending multiple court hearings on related issues of parental responsibility can often be onerous for those involved.

Current provisions
Under the Children Act 1989, the exercise of parental responsibility held by one or more individuals can already be limited by the court, where to do so is deemed to be in the best interests of the child. The Act also enables the court to prevent individuals bringing multiple unwarranted applications before the court, which can be burdensome and distressing to family members.

Where a child does not have a parent to care for them on a day-to-day basis, members of the family can apply for court orders in private law proceedings, or a local authority might initiate public law care proceedings, with a view to providing for the child’s upbringing. In making such orders the welfare of the child is always the paramount consideration of the court.

In cases where one parent has been convicted of murdering the other, the responsible local authority will have a duty to protect that child and ensure they are safeguarded from harm. This may include initiating care proceedings to provide the child with a permanent or interim care arrangement. A care arrangement can include family members, such as grandparents, aunts or uncles, being granted parental responsibility for the child. Alternatively, a local authority will acquire parental responsibility of the child where the court deems this to be in the best interests of the child.

The court can already exercise powers to effectively remove all parental powers and authority in appropriate cases. The extent to which, and the time period during which such parental rights and powers are limited, are matters for the judge to decide based on the facts of the case.

The court can also exercise powers to prevent an individual attempting to repeatedly bring issues back before the court. Section 91(14) of the Children Act 1989 allows family courts to bar individuals from making further specified applications under the Children Act 1989 without permission of the court. These orders are known as section 91(14) orders. The court can make such an order of its own motion or following an application by one of the parties involved in the private law case.

Once a section 91(14) order is in place, if an applicant subsequently seeks permission to make a relevant Children Act application, the court will generally consider whether the circumstances that gave rise to the barring order have changed. This offers protection to those persons caring for the child, removing the burden and associated distress to family members of having to go back to court multiple times.

Ministry of Justice


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