Harriet Harman

Member of Parliament for Camberwell and Peckham. Mother of the House of Commons.

National Family and Parenting Institute

Commonwealth Club, London

Speech by Minister of State for Constitutional Affairs

Harriet Harman MP
5 October 2006

Check against delivery - This is the prepared text of the speech and may differ from the delivered version.

Thank you for organising this meeting today, and thank you all for coming. What I will be talking about and discussing with you is one of the most important and difficult issues for people in their daily lives.

Family patterns change, but what doesn't change is the disappointment when a relationship that was intended for life breaks down, and the challenge for parents as they try and help their children make sense of it all.

And it is also one of the most difficult issues for government. The task of Government is not to lecture about the nature of marriage, but to give practical support. And that is what we have sought to do is to provide support without interfering and moralising.

And I'd like to warmly thank the National Family and Parenting Institute for the part that you play in this important family policy agenda. I have to admit that I was filled with foreboding when Jack Straw proposed the setting up of the Institute when he was Home Secretary in 1997. I feared it was going to be a finger-wagging organisation telling us all what a failure we are in our relationships, how bad we are as parents, to make family breakdown even more miserable by blaming those who are suffering from the shattering of their hopes and dreams and assure us that we are ruining our children. But I was wrong. Under the leadership of Mary McLeod, you have done none of those things. Instead you have been a focus for debate and deliberation about the rapid changes in family relationships and what the public policy response should be.

I want to take the opportunity today to

    * Identify the changes that are taking place in family life
    * Set out how the government seeks to help those whose relationship is breaking down and
    * Say how we are seeking to build confidence in the family justice system

Government policy on the family was pretty straightforward in the past. Ensure the man could work and the wife would look after the children and elderly relatives. Once you'd made your bed you lay in it. Once married you stayed married.

People who get married still want to stay married. But people now see marriage as a personal relationship as much as it's an institution. People no longer have to stay together if the relationship has broken down. The marriage break-up rate peaked in 2002 but fell sharply in 2005.

And to the change in family structure - with one in three marriages still ending in divorce - we can now add greater cultural diversity, international mobility, and the end of the comfortable certainties about the respective roles of men and women within the family.

Government cannot make men and women happy together in their relationships. But what government can do is to

    * Help those in marriage difficulties who want to stay married succeed in doing so
    * Ensure when a relationship has broken down that the family justice system tries to help it be as amicable as possible
    * Ensure a fair division of the family assets - not just for the sake of fairness but also to protect children from poverty
    * Protect children and
    * Protect women who are vulnerable to violence which is most prevalent around separation and divorce.

The family justice system now has as one of its objectives not just judging between warring parents, but also encouraging separating parents to work out the finances and the arrangements for the children amicably. So before legal aid is granted, the Legal Services Commission requires the applicant to have considered mediation. Through the Legal Services Commission we now invest £14 m in family mediation - up from around £500,000 in 1997. And this year we introduced the Family Mediation Helpline, for those who want to find mediation services in their area. The number of couples receiving publicly funded mediation has gone up from 400 in 1997 to 14,000. Mediation helps - even if it cannot help a relationship survive it can smooth the path for a less acrimonious break-up. And our evaluation shows that 61% of the total number of family mediations were successful - and by that we mean that people came to an agreed solution rather than needing to go to court.

The changes in the structure of the legal profession that we are introducing will mean that family solicitors will be able to work in partnership with professionally trained Family Mediators. Making solicitors a focus for amicable solutions rather than conflict. And new laws which will come into force under the Children and Adoption Act will ensure that every applicant to the family court will have had to consider mediation and give the court the power to direct the couple to a meeting about mediation before the case goes any further.

We want to tackle child poverty and one of the greatest threats to the income of child is family breakdown. Despite all the reports that we read in the papers about men being taken to the cleaners by their greedy wives, the harsh reality is that after relationship breakdown while men's income increases on average by 14%, women's falls by 17%. And the children are usually with the woman.

We have increased financial support for children and for working mothers - who are still on lower incomes than men. Since April this year a family with two young children and a full-time earner on £15,800, receives over £105 per week in Child Benefit and Child Tax Credit, more than double the equivalent support in 1997-98.

So for example, a working mother with one child working 16 hours on the national minimum wage receives £63 in Working Tax Credit and £44 in Child Tax Credit per week.

Our Sure Start projects help support parents when the new baby comes along - which can be a time of exhaustion and stress as well as great happiness. And to try and ensure that children are not brought up in a household where they never see anyone going out to work, we have introduced the New Deal for Lone Parents. And the Government is spending £17m this year through the Children, Young People and Families Grant Programme which provides grants for organisations such as the Family Welfare Association, Marriage Care and of course NFPI.

But the courts still have a job to do in ensuring that children do not lose out because of the financial inequality between men and women after separation. While most men pay towards their children after separation, a shameful 30% of fathers do not pay maintenance and leave the children to be supported by the mother struggling on her own and shirk their responsibilities leaving it to other taxpayers to protect their children from poverty.

And to ensure fairness in retirement for divorced women, when I was Secretary of State for Social Security in 1998 we introduced legislation for Pension Sharing on divorce.

It is ironic that some claim that the most important way the government could support marriage is by tax relief for married couples. The fact that women are so much worse off after divorce shows that money is not the key determinant for people staying married. Much better to invest public money in supporting children, both before and after divorce. And to invest in helping those who want to stay married get the mediation they need and ensure the courts play their part in encouraging amicability rather than acrimony.

We estimate that over 1million people every year who now find themselves in the family courts. The Family Courts make decisions of great importance in people's lives that affect them forever.

    * Ordering and enforcing contact between a child and its father can sustain that important bond a child needs with both parents
    * Taking a child into care can save a child's life
    * Ordering a husband out of the family home can save a woman's life.

These are decisions of huge importance. If the courts get it wrong it can be no lesser injustice than a life sentence - both for the parent and the child.

That is why it is of such concern that there is a lack of confidence in the family courts. Fathers complain of bias against them and a failure to enforce contact orders. Mothers complain that the court orders them to give contact to dangerous fathers who threaten violence against both the mother and the child. And the courts are accused of taking children away from loving families and placing them for adoption. And at the same time the courts are accused of leaving children too long with parents who are a danger to them.

The courts sit in private, so when they are criticised, rebuttal of those criticisms has to depend on assertions from within the system. But gone are the days when simply because you were a judge that the public would accept what you do and the conclusions that you reach. That is the same for any institution now. Public confidence in any part of the legal system is necessary for its own sake and also because

    * It is necessary if people affected by court judgments are to accept them
    * It is necessary if the work of those in the professions involved with the family justice system in properly valued and respected and
    * It is necessary if the system is to attract, on a sustained basis, the financial resources it needs to do such important work.

Public confidence depends on public scrutiny. Justice not only has to be done but be seen to be done, including in the family courts. And the public are reluctant to see resources go to what they can't see and don't trust.

Greater openness will mean a greater understanding of the work of the family justice system.

While privacy is necessary to protect families seeking justice - it is not necessary to protect the courts. The courts have nothing to hide.

We are proposing to allow the media in to the courts (subject to the judge ruling in any particular hearing that this is not in the interests of justice) and that they should be reportable subject to anonymity.

We will need to ensure clear rules and tough enforcement for those who overstep the mark. Families need confidence in the outcome of the case and the public needs confidence in the system. The interests of families and the public interest are not in conflict. They are the same.

I regard the protection of children and making decisions that cannot be agreed between warring parents as of the greatest importance. So I'm delighted to be able to work with you, in my capacity as Minister for Family Justice in the Department of Constitutional Affairs.

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