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MP welcomes proposals in new Children and Families Bill

25th February 2013

Jonathan Djanogly welcomes the Children and Families Bill in particular the changes to family law which will reinforce existing work to unify legal, judicial, social services and educational aspects into a single family justice service and thereby speed up the process for children taken into care.

Mr Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): I welcome the Bill. It is a Bill of many parts.

I intend to concentrate on the clauses that deal with family law. The core issue is the need to deal with the long-standing failure of the legal, judicial, social services and educational systems in order adequately to safeguard those of our children who need to be taken into care. The present arrangement is costing the taxpayer some £950 million a year, but is straining to keep up with increased demand. In 2007 it involved some 19,650 children, but by 2011 the number had risen to 29,492. In 1989 the average case took 12 weeks, but by 2011 the figure was 54 weeks. I know that by last year it had fallen to 48 weeks, and I was pleased to hear the Minister say that it has fallen again to 47 weeks—that is a great improvement—but there is still a very long way to go.

In the event, the reform approach supported by most parties was that adopted by the Norgrove family justice review, which finally reported in November 2011. We owe sincere thanks to David Norgrove and his team for their sterling work. As the report pointed out, there have been at least seven reviews of family justice since 1989, and more money would not be the answer even if it were available. What we need is fundamental reform.

The core of the Norgrove report attempts to pull together the disparate strands of the overall service. It aims to ensure that the best interests of children are met and to provide them with a voice, to unify the service into a family justice service sponsored by the Ministry of Justice, and to provide effective leadership. When I was a Minister, I encountered as poor a managerial situation as I have seen in any field and in any sector, complicated by regional variations and the lack of any proper measurement of performance. In some regions of the country, the judges were being blamed for delay on the part of the lawyers; in others, the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service was being blamed for delay on the part of the judges. However, that was mainly anecdotal, as we had no reliable measurements of success or failure and no recording mechanism.

It is important to emphasise that the implementation of family justice reform has not waited for this legislation, which forms only part of the overall picture. Indeed, I note that the vital aspect of the introduction of a single family court is proposed in the Crime and Courts Bill. It provides for an applicant to have, in future, a single entry point, avoiding what can currently be a complicated choice between the different family courts. It should also mean that the right level of judge is allocated to the case.

As the Minister noted, much of the framework of the family justice reforms has already been put in place over the past two years. For instance, the Bill’s key 26-week time limit for the completion of care and supervision proceedings would probably mean little if we had not already set up a national Family Justice Board to orchestrate a cross-agency strategy at the centre and local family justice boards to review performance at court level, backed up by new performance figures—starting from last year—for each and every court. The key point is that if the 26-week limit is not reached, we will know where and by how much it has been missed, the reasons for the delay and the patterns of poor performance in an area. In other words, it should result in more positive action and less of the old blame culture. I would be interested to hear from the Minister whether that is happening on the ground.

I am afraid, however, that the Government must play a part, too. For too long, policy has floated without effective leadership among the Department for Education, the Ministry of Justice and the judiciary, resulting in delay, confusion and the detriment of children’s best interests. When I was at the MOJ, I and my opposite number in the Department for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), who I am pleased to see in the Chamber, partly addressed that significant failing by holding regular meetings with the president of the family division. I hope that that joint working continues and that the new Family Justice Board will now be included.

A good working relationship with the judiciary is key to the implementation of these measures, but we must also appreciate that the Norgrove review proposed, and the Government agreed, that CAFCASS should be moved to the MOJ or Her Majesty’s Courts Service within the MOJ. Will the Minister advise the House on the timing? From my experience, although he might not agree with me, I would recommend that the Children’s Minister should be moved to the Ministry of Justice from the Department for Education in contemplation of that operational shift. Government must fall into line with everyone else and unify policy and delivery for children as far as possible.

The 26-week time limit represents the iconic change that family justice must undergo, which will involve nearly halving the average time. Even our best courts are nowhere near meeting the target. I note that some judges and practitioners are saying that the limit is unfair or unachievable for one reason or another, but we must stay resolute—I say that in the knowledge that pre-legislative scrutiny has already marginally diluted the time-limit clause. We need more effective management and better joint working by agencies backed up by targets and monitoring. We must drive the delay down; the children deserve no less. It was therefore entirely appropriate that the Government insisted on keeping the 26-week limit in the Bill and that is why I strongly support other aspects of part 2, including the measure to ensure that timetabling is child-focused. There can always be another report, but we must ask whether a delay is in the child’s best interest.

The 26-week limit is a target to be worked towards. It will not be reached overnight, but we need tough targets if the courts are to get down to it. Ultimately, the judge makes the decisions in the court and they need to be better managed than they have been in the past. In that regard, I recognise the sterling work on the modernisation of judges’ working practices carried out by Mr Justice Ryder.

We should also note that for too long family law has been the poor relation of criminal law, and the lack of time given to family cases has meant that judges have had to go back to their criminal work. Judges need to spend more time considering the causes for delay and why the service has been worse as a result.

Finally on the subject of private family law, I have long been a great supporter of mediation and I therefore wholeheartedly support the mediation information and assessment meeting requirement in the Bill. Although that has been supported by a pre-action protocol for more than a year, I hope that placing it in statute will mean that those parts of the country where the courts have overlooked the need under the PAP to go to mediation first will now have to take note. In my view, the Government were correct to be cautious about the proposal by the Select Committee on Justice that judges should make decisions based on the merits of compliance. Mediation is an alternative to judges and I am delighted that its use is increasing. It is cheaper and quicker than court, and as both parties need to buy into the process, its settlements are often better observed and less divisive than court judgments.

There is a long way to go in improving family justice in this country, but I believe that the Bill, along with other things that are now being done, helps to set us off in the right direction.

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