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Tim Loughton MP: Here’s some legislation on the family we can all rally round - a ‘presumption of shared parenting’

Tim Loughton is the Member of Parliament for East Worthing and Shoreham, and was Parliamentary Under Secretary for Children and Families from 2010 until 2012.

Inevitably, this week’s headlines have been dominated by the controversial vote over gay marriage the media’s delight at being able to trot out the usual hackneyed clichés about Tory Party splits. That conveniently ignores the fact that this was a free vote on a conscience issue and inevitably Conservative MPs, and indeed those from other parties, will have differing views and will be accountable to their own constituents.

Lost in the melee of last Tuesday was the Children & Families Bill unwisely published on the same day. I say unwisely because it contains some really good legislation about improving support for getting more children adopted, shared parental leave and crucially shared parenting. And I narcissistically say good stuff because it reflects the culmination of issues I believe in passionately and had been working on for years as Children’s Minister and previously in Opposition.

The groundbreaking clauses on shared parenting confirm that the Government is to press ahead with changes long discussed by my party which will add a ‘presumption of shared parenting’ to the Children Act 1989. This delivers on a manifesto commitment Conservatives first made in 2005 and I tried to carry through with amendments to the Children & Adoption Bill in Opposition in 2006 only to be frustrated by the then Labour Government.

Many commentators have lazily referred to the proposed changes in terms of ‘father’s legal rights.’ It is important to stress though that this is not about parent’s rights, neither mother’s nor father’s. It is about children’s rights and expectations and the responsibilities of both parents to their child.

All sensible people acknowledges that children do best when they have the fullest possible involvement with both parents either when in a happy family home or after a parental split. Studies show such children are 40% less likely to suffer mental health problems, less likely to become teenage pregnancy statistics and they achieve better at school too. This will not be the same for every child and it in no way takes away from the fantastic job that many single parents of either gender do whether they are single parents by choice or not. But these are the facts.

In over 90% of cases the resident parent after a split will be the mother. Some fathers will walk away from responsibilities to their children by choice and need to be pursued. In the case of a few it may not be safe to remain involved, but for too many their fervent attempts to remain actively involved during childhood can be frustrated by a former partner after an acrimonious split. The children become pawns between warring parents, the court room the combat arena, the taxpayer funds much of the conflict and everyone loses, not least the children caught in the middle. At its worst over a quarter of decent parents are completely frozen out and lose contact with their children within a few years.

Around 90% of separating couples are able to make arrangements for their children without recourse to the courts though contact arrangements will often still be problematic. But we need to make sure that fewer of the 10% who do resort to legal resolution often in very acrimonious and long drawn out proceedings, do so in the future. I want to see a large metaphorical warning sign outside of every family court which says that if you think you can use the court to play winner takes all, to exclude a non-resident parent out of a relationship with his or her kids altogether, then don’t even think about it unless there is a welfare threat to the children which can be clearly demonstrated. Because the presumption is that both parents will be required and expected to play their full role as parents just as when you had the children in the first place.

That is what a presumption of shared parenting enshrined in law is intended to do – keep more warring parents out of court and persuade more of them to act like adults in the interests of their children earlier on. It should also be seen in the context of other ‘beefed-up’ upstream measures such as hard to reject mediation, less access to one sided legal aid and better enforcement measures when contract arrangements are willingly and often regularly breached. When you learn that last year there were only 53 enforcement orders and hardly ever will a judge resort to the nuclear option of transferring residency away from a parent serially frustrating contact, then it is clear how so many dads feel the system is against them.

Of course there will be opponents to such measures as attested by other less balanced headlines talking about divorced parents rights putting ‘victims of violence at risk.’ There are good reasons to keep some separating parents out of the picture on safety grounds and that is why the proposals being put forward now are still completely subject to the ‘paramountcy principle of the welfare of the child.’ That will not stop some of the regular suspects crying wolf despite the fact that I brought all sides on this argument round the table in the Department for Education when formulating the basis of the consultation which reported last year.

Opposition may be particularly vociferous in the Lords where can be felt the influence of a number of retired senior judges who invariably resent anything that treads on the patently buckled toes of their profession’s autonomy in the court room without having to be ‘tainted’ by reading what goes on in Hansard. They also need to justify the huge variations in the way often neighbouring courts deal with contact arrangements and their breach and not least the amount of time cases drag on leaving children and non-resident parents drifting farther apart by default.

Others will point to the Australian experience of shared parenting which went wrong because it dealt in terms of an ill defined ‘meaningful relationship’ between parent and child and soon got bogged down in the minefield of equality of time which resulted in more litigation not less. But as I have stressed this Government’s shared parenting proposals are about keeping more parents out of court in the first place rather than fast tracking them into it.

The working and parenting practices of families who toil hard enough to stay together have changed greatly over recent decades. Fathers are, and want to be, more involved. The undeniable benefits of shared parenting for children even after a split haven’t changed. It is time the law caught up with that, so let’s not miss this opportunity at long last by wallowing too long in the fall out of the gay marriage debate when there is other important work to be done for the sake of our children.

By Tim Loughton MP 10th February 2013

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