The Queen's Speech: More rights for divorced fathers

 

Fathers look set to be given additional rights to see their children after family break-up or divorce, as long as it is in the child's best interests, under reforms set out in the Queen's Speech.

Last year's family justice review warned against introducing a legal presumption of shared parenting, warning it could create an "unacceptable risk of damage to children".

But today's speech announced a consultation on legal options to strengthen the law in England and Wales to ensure that, "where it is safe and in the child's best interests", both parents are able to have a relationship with their sons and daughters after they split up.

The Children and Families Bill also sets out plans to speed up adoption and care proceedings and give more support to disabled children.

The Bill will create a six-month time limit for family courts in England and Wales to reach decisions on whether children should be taken into care and will require the court to take into account the impact of delays on the child.

It will stop local authorities in England from delaying adoptions in the hope of finding a perfect racial match for the child, if there are couples waiting to adopt.

In most cases, the child's ethnic background and that of the prospective adopters should come second to efforts to place the child swiftly in a permanent home, the Bill says. The Government will discuss with Welsh ministers whether the change should be extended to Wales.

The Bill also aims to give families more choice and control over support for children with special educational needs (SEN).

The system of SEN statements for children with disabilities and learning difficulties will be replaced in England from 2014 by a simpler assessment process providing statutory protection up to the age of 25 for those who go into further education, rather than it being cut off at 16.

Parents and young people will be given the right to a personal budget to fund their support, to strengthen their power to make choices about what they need.

Local authorities and health services will be required to plan and commission services jointly for children, young people and families.

Prime Minister David Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said the Bill would "put families front and centre of our national life, with unprecedented support for parents and the biggest reform for 30 years of support for children with special needs or disabilities".

The Bill will also give more powers to the Children's Commissioner for England to protect children's rights, taking over responsibilities from school inspector Ofsted.

Commissioner Maggie Atkinson will be given more independence from ministers and powers to carry out assessments of the impact of Government policy on children.

Children's minister Tim Loughton said ministers want to "clarify and restore public confidence that the courts properly recognise the joint nature of parenting".

Mr Loughton said: "We intend to legislate to stress the importance of children having an ongoing relationship with both their parents after separation, where that is safe and in the child's best interests. We will consulting on legal options shortly."

On the proposed changes to adoption rules, Mr Loughton said: "We know that some social workers spend far too long looking and waiting for the same ethnic match.

"Children's interests always must come first and we can't afford to lose any time in finding them permanent, stable homes, if adoption is the right course for them. Our plans will reduce the time children are living in uncertainty about their future and give them the loving home which most of us take for granted."

Justice minister Jonathan Djanogly said the reform of family justice and child protection was "a critical priority for Government".

"This Bill will particularly tackle the crucial problem of delays, meaning we have a care proceedings system in which delay is no longer acceptable and where there is a much clearer focus on the child and their needs," said Mr Djanogly.

"It will also mean that we make it a statutory prerequisite for separating couples to consider family mediation before starting court proceedings over child arrangement disputes. Family mediation can be quicker, cheaper and provide better outcomes for all concerned."

Children's minister Sarah Teather said: "Parents want to do the right thing for their children but too often the state lets them down. It is wrong that families and young people have to fight the system to get a fair deal. And it is unacceptable that they have to endure endless delays to get the help they need or that they are caught in the middle of services not working together.

"This Bill will mean that children and families get the support they need when they need it most - just after birth; if they have a disability or special educational need; when parents separate; or if they are in care, waiting for adoption."

PA

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