Thank you, Mrs Main, for your chairmanship of this debate. I thank the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) for calling the debate, in which I am pleased to take part.
Strong families, stable relationships and fulfilling familial ties between children and their parents, grandparents and extended families are the bedrock of our society, but for too long, regardless of which party has been n power, a narrative of deadbeat dads, mothers knowing best and hapless fathers has prevailed and a damaging culture has become entrenched in some of our institutions.
To be clear, I am not condoning irresponsible fathers who do not pay their child support upon a divorce or family breakdown or, even worse, as I encounter frequently in my surgeries, fathers who deliberately change their employment status from salaried to self-employed in order to escape the radar of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Child Support Agency. That is irresponsible. Nor am I condoning perpetrators of domestic abuse. As a barrister who represented victims of domestic abuse, I saw up front the tragedy that that causes. I am talking about the treatment of fathers in the family justice system when a marriage sadly breaks down.
The truth is that there are 114,000 divorces per year, half of which involve children. There are 1 million children growing up without a father in their lives at all, and 35% of children of non-resident parents do not see that parent at all. That is a tragedy, and it is unfair. The truth is that our justice system treats fathers unfairly. Good dads are systematically shut out of their children’s lives by the system, and 50:50 access is rare. A father is doing well if he gets a couple of weekends and a weekday per month. If he wants greater access, he needs to perform feats or miracles involving the courts, expensive applications, re-litigation of facts and an extended and drawn-out procedure.
The debilitating legal framework presumes that the father’s equal access is a privilege, not a right. That is unjust. The Children and Families Act 2014 went some way to addressing that issue, requiring involvement of both parents to be instilled in child arrangement orders. However, that parental involvement can be direct or indirect, and there is no minimum access of 50:50. In some of the worst cases, the maximum can be a Christmas card or a birthday card every year. How can that be a meaningful relationship between a father and his child?
Another problem is the lack of enforcement against resident parents—who are, in large part, the mothers—who breach those child arrangement orders and stop non-resident parents seeing their children. They can get away with it without any consequence or enforcement. Will the Minister consider some ways of reforming that?
Lastly, we need to encourage more mediation as an alternative to litigation. Many divorces start off amicably and reasonably and end up high-conflict and very expensive, ruining the father and mother both emotionally and financially. That can be avoided, and there are many examples around the world of how. Children need both parents. I hope the Government will take action to remedy this burning injustice.