16 June 2004

S2M-1464 Family Law

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Murray Tosh): The next item of business is a debate on motion S2M-1464, in the name of Cathy Jamieson, on "Family Matters: Improving Family Law in Scotland", and two amendments to the motion.
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Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): Let us hope that the debate extends understanding throughout the chamber. I welcome the debate because we must safeguard the interests of children and promote family stability. It is time to reform family law so that it reflects the reality of many families in Scotland. Those are worthy principles with which no one could disagree.

The minister made some important points. She pointed to the need for services to be available to all families in distress. We will not resolve all the issues in this area of public policy simply by legislating. She touched on the fact that family counselling and mediation services are not well co-ordinated, on which I want to speak at some length. There are considerable gaps in the way in which we deal with such matters. Tomorrow we will debate at stage 3 the Antisocial Behaviour etc (Scotland) Bill. It is a widely held belief in the Parliament and beyond that better support for families at the earliest possible point when social distress becomes manifest is crucial to achieving stability in families—we will debate that subject further tomorrow.

I want to illustrate some of the issues by referring to a meeting that I had on Monday with a representative of the Family Mediation Scotland network in my constituency. Family Mediation is a voluntary organisation that is very much on the front line. One of the most important services that it provides are contact centres for families that have broken down, where parents who can no longer meet each other can remain in contact with children who would otherwise be disconnected from one or both of their parents. The contact service in Aberdeenshire and Moray is a successful service that has been running for approaching four years. However, it is a paradox that when we are saying that family mediation is a vital part of the infrastructure to support family values and families that are in considerable difficulties by taking the stress out of relationship breakdown, the centres in my constituency are virtually on the point of closure because of lack of funding. The minister might say, quite properly, that £0.25 million was provided recently to develop a better national infrastructure for family contact centres and family mediation generally. However, the reality is that that does not deliver services on the front line, which is where they are needed.

Child contact centres have no legal status and no definition in Scots law. Their development to date has been ad hoc, which the minister's opening remarks reflected. However, they support an important principle of Scots law and of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Executive's social research unit's report, "Building Bridges? Expectations and Experiences of Child Contact Centres in Scotland" notes that the service provided by

"Child Contact Centres ... although not a formal part of the Scottish legal system ... was widely regarded as critical".

Although the primary focus of the debate is on reforming the law, I hope that in summing up the debate the minister can give hope to child contact centres in my constituency and elsewhere that a lifeline is around the corner, because the corner is approaching very rapidly indeed.


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