Divorce reforms reject 'shared parenting'

By Colin Brown, Deputy Political Editor

20 July 2004


A Green Paper on access to children by divorced or separated parents to be published tomorrow falls short of demands for equal access by the militant campaign group Fathers 4 Justice.

The Green Paper will propose "frequent and continuous" access by both parents to children in a relationship which has broken down. However, the Government will not propose enshrining "shared parenting" in law, which has been demanded by the campaigners.

Downing Street officials had put pressure on two ministers to present the Green Paper as offering better access for divorced fathers. But the ministers - Harriet Harman, the Solicitor General, and Margaret Hodge, the minister for education responsible for children's policy - are understood to have resisted the pressure.

The Prime Minister's aides were privately pressing for the Government to match the rhetoric of Michael Howard, the Tory leader, who last week called for a change in the law to incorporate a strong presumption in favour of equal rights for separated parents to influence the upbringing of their children, and which would also apply to the extended family.

Mr Howard said a change was vital to ensure that parents did not lose touch with their children after a divorce. He has asked Theresa May, the shadow Secretary of State for the Family, to carry out a review of the Children's Act.

However, Ms Hodge and Ms Harman will make it clear that the interests of children will remain paramount. The ministers were "fighting their corner", a senior Whitehall source said. "They want more enforcement of the existing rules. Downing Street is looking for a knee-jerk reaction to the Tories and they are resisting it. It's all about spin."

The Government has been wary about being seen to give in to the pressure by the militant campaign for equal rights of access mounted by Fathers 4 Justice. Tony Blair was pelted with purple powder at the despatch box by two of the group's campaigners, prompting a full security review at the Commons. Other members of the group held a rooftop protest at York Minster and 12 protesters disrupted a service of the Church of England's General Synod. Gary Birch, a spokesman for Fathers 4 Justice, said: "What we want is what's best for each individual family. But you have got to start somewhere - you have got to have a basic sense of equality."

The Prime Minister's officials, however, were anxious to ensure that Labour was not out manoeuvred by the Conservatives on parental rights in the run-up to the election.

The Green Paper will propose that existing powers to require access to children are more rigorously enforced, including reinforcing the penalties against women who refuse court demands for their former husbands to have access to their children. It will also propose more places where parents can have regular access to children at the centre of a dispute.

Mediation will not be compulsory but would become standard practice, leaving courts to concentrate on the most difficult cases. There are no guidelines on how much time a non-resident parent should have with their children. Contrary to some reports at the weekend, it will not propose a 70:30 division of access in favour of women.

"It will not be prescriptive," another senior official added.