It is approaching time for me to have a rest from blogging for a few weeks and so this will be my last comment until September. Before I head off however I thought it might be useful to consider where we are in the process of change, who is onside and who is not and what the challenges might be ahead of us.
I was alerted to the potential for ongoing struggle by the letter to David Cameron from Alan Beith MP this week. Chair of the Justice Committee, Sir Alan decided that the Prime Minister should be reminded of the decisions that the Justice Committee Report on The operation of the Family Courts had actually made. Focused entirely upon the Justice Committee’s opposition to the insertion of a legislative statement into the Children Act 1989, Sir Alan goes on in his letter to say
‘In coming to this conclusion we heard evidence from a number of organisations on both sides of the debate. Like the Family Justice Review, we concluded that the idea of promoting shared parenting by changing the wording of the Children Act 1989 was seriously flawed.’
Alan Beith goes on to list ten points which he feels is enough evidence to ensure that the government should change track on its intention to change the children act. He also says that
‘We have yet to be provided with any evidence or argument that properly counters the evidence we and the Family Justice Review considered before concluding that there should be no changes to the current legislation.’
and goes on to say
‘We do not consider that the current draft clauses avoid the pitfalls of the Australian experience….’
Which makes Sir Alan sound pretty darned certain that he has got his facts right and like someone who is on a mission to press home a point or two. Am I the only one who at this point, begins to smell a rat?
On May 2nd 2012, Professor Patrick Parkinson from the University of Sydney, gave a presentation at the Palace of Westminster at a seminar organised by the Centre for Social Justice. Entitled ‘Meaningful Reform to The Children Act 1989 – Learning from the Australian Experience’ this presentation takes the controversy over the proposed changes to the children act in the UK and addresses each of the points of concern with careful consideration.
It should be noted that Professor Parkinson is no light weight in this arena and significantly, he does not approach this issue from the perspective of fathers rights or mothers rights. Professor Parkinson is a specialist in family law and child protection and is well-known in Australia for his work concerning child protection. This is a man who knows what is necessary to protect children from harm, he is a man who has had extensive knowledge of the family law changes in Australia and, having heard him speak on a previous occasion, I can comfortably say that he is a man who has a grasp of all of the issues facing families going through separation.
Professor Parkinson gave a measured presentation on May 2nd, in which he discussed the Norgrove review and its ‘heavy reliance’ upon the Australian experience. Professor Parkinson’s drew attention to the evidence that Norgrove used in his report to justify backtracking from his original proposal that there should be change within the children act. Evidence which came from Australia according to Norgrove who writes in the final report –
‘We have also been particularly struck by further evidence, received from Australia, where a similar provision for a ‘meaningful relationship’ was made in their 2006 family law reforms. Evidence has shown increased litigation and that the change has contributed to damage to children because the term ‘meaningful’ has come to be measured in terms of the quantity of time spent with each parent, rather than the quality of the relationship for the child.’
Professor Parkinson’s response to this paragraph, in his presentation, was as follows –
‘The problem with this statement is that it simply cannot be supported by any available evidence. Indeed, as far as litigation rates are concerned the evidence is completely to the contrary. There has actually been a sharp fall in litigation over children since 2006.’
Which not only makes a mockery of the Family Justice Review version but deals neatly with the core arguments in Alan Beith’s letter to the Prime Minister which are that more parents not fewer, will end up in the family courts if there is a change to the children act.
Now I might be slightly over suspicious but whenever an MP or a member of the House of Lords writes to the Prime Minister or the Guardian on matters to do with family separation, I always wonder whether what the motivating force is behind it. Sir Alan has every right of course to write to the Prime Minister and, if he so wishes, make that public in order to ensure that the debate is transparent. However, there are some powerful advocacy services in this country, not all of them using entirely straightforward means to push their arguments home. If the motivation behind Sir Alan’s letter has the slightest whiff of gingerbread about it, transparency might be the last thing achieved.
Professor Parkinson was explicit in his presentation about Gingerbread and the way in which they have (mis)represented the issue of changing the children act. Speaking about the Gingerbread argument that any such change would be the thin end of the wedge, he said that –
‘thin end of the wedge arguments need to be evaluated on their merits. If that is a concern, then it could be dealt with by inserting a sentence in the legislation to the effect that the law provides no presumption either in favour of or against a shared parenting arrangement, as is done in other jurisdictions.’
As Gingerbread are currently involved in efforts to mobilise a coalition against co-operative/shared parenting, I somehow doubt that Professor Parkinson’s helpful suggestion will be taken on board. I foresee a growing movement against shared parenting appearing this autumn, spear-headed by Gingerbread and making use of MP’s and members of the House of Lords, using the same mass lobbying tactics employed over changes to Child Maintenance. Gingerbread may tell us, in pursuit of funding, that they support co-operative parenting, their actions on the ground tell us something else entirely.
Aside from Alan Beith’s letter to the Prime Minister there have been other significant happenings in the field of family separation, the new Child Maintenance Agency is about to be launched replacing the old Child Maintenance Enforcement Commission. The i news paper this week discussed the launch and the issue of doubling the payments that unemployed fathers would be forced to make as well as the issue of chasing old debts. Given that unemployed fathers without the main care of their children do not receive any kind of financial recognition for their parenting in benefit payments, the doubling seems to me, to be unnecessarily harsh, harking back to the old days of the Child Support Agency when dads were bad and in need of punishment.
It will, no doubt, please Gingerbread however, whose spokesperson Caroline Davey, in the same article, spoke of the principle of making sure that old debt was paid by the avoidant father. In Gingerbread land, where all mothers are poor and children, without exception, are starving, the only way to tackle family separation is through pursuit and punishment of errant dads. This powerful lobby group is not going to stop its efforts to make sure the old labels of good mum and bad dad are stuck firmly back in place and my guess is that the autumn will see the parental rights groups lining up once again for battle.
And so as the summer holidays approach it is time for a break from family separation, although living in a separated family as I do, I will be doing what most of us in this situation do at this time of year. This year I will be coordinating family get-togethers, aiming to include everyone, trying to please the old folk as well as the young folk, often failing miserably, because in reality we are negotiating with at least three different family systems that the most sophisticated diary could not cope with. Mostly I will be hoping that somewhere, at some point, we might just touch that magical place where the schisms and fissures fall away and we find ourselves all together in the shared physical and emotional space that we have carved out as belonging to us. When we do it will be worth it but to get there it takes the most phenomenal effort and a whole load of compromise, co-ordination and care.
Come autumn then, when the anti cooperative parenting lobby gears up in full, Professor Parkinson’s words should be the spur to our continued struggle to ensure that the possibility of children maintaining a meaningful relationship with both parents and their wider family becomes real.
‘One of the main lessons from Australia is that there is benefit in moving away from court-centric approach to family justice in favour of a community centric approach to family relationships. Legislation needs to be drafted with that emphasis in mind.’
As Professor Parkinson’s presentation shows, the anti co-operative parenting lobby are going to use fogging, misrepresentation and a wider range of other tactics to resist and derail change. And so the focus of those of us who believe that co-operation is possible, needs to be firmly upon the change that we can drive through our society and the support that we can provide to help more families work together.
Co-operative parenting isn’t easy and community support for it is going to be essential if more children are going to benefit from it. The single parent lobby would like to see the project fall at the first hurdle if possible so that they can prevent the changes that the government are pushing through. If ever there was a time for the rest of us to work together, that time is now.
Key points for UK thinking – from Professor Parkinson’s presentation
1. Emphasise the importance of maintaining children’s relationships with both parents and with others who are important to them.
2. Avoid presumptions about time.
3. Avoid bifurcation in the law of parenting after separation
PS: After I published this post, the news that David Norgrove will Chair the new Family Justice Board had just emerged. Can I feel the co-operative parenting project coming under threat? you bet I can. Can I see a watered down version of what is really needed being brought in? Yes. Can I see the misrepresentations and the obfuscation and the continuation of the blatant anti father policy by the likes of Gingerbread et al, very definitely. Will it stop me continuing my work with separating families . No. Will I stop speaking up and speaking out on it. Not any time soon. See you in the Autumn.