Power to the grandparents: Tories to hand out sweeping legal rights to keep families together
By James Chapman
Last updated at 9:12 AM on 26th October 2009
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Millions of grandparents will be given sweeping new legal rights if the Tories win the next election.
The law will be changed to ensure they do not lose contact with their grandchildren after a family separation, divorce or bereavement.
They will also be put at the front of the custody queue if their grandchildren face being fostered or taken into care.
If the Tories win the next election the law will be changed to ensure grandparents do not lose contact with their grandchildren (Posed by models)
The changes were revealed by Shadow Cabinet minister David Willetts, who speaks for the party on the family, in an interview with the Daily Mail.
He said it was a scandal that there was currently 'little or no' recognition of the vital role grandparents play in society.
Research suggests they are increasingly relied upon by their children for help with childcare and finances, and by teenage grandchildren for advice and support they may not get at home.
Grandparents currently have no rights to keep in contact with grandchildren after a parental split.
Shadow Cabinet minister David Willetts said grandparents' rights must be improved
Almost half face the heartbreak of being cut off completely and never seeing the youngsters again. Those whose sons are involved in a split fare the worst.
On custody, Mr Willetts said local councils would be required to put grandparents at the 'top of the list' of potential carers if parents were deemed no longer fit to look after them, or in the event of a family tragedy. In one recent controversial case, social workers decided to re-home two children with a gay couple after their mother's parents were judged 'too old'.
Edinburgh Council took the decision even though the grandparents had cared for the boy and girl while their daughter fought a heroin addiction.
There was an angry reaction from the public, politicians and church leaders, who accused social work chiefs of 'politically correct' posturing.
The Tories are also considering making it easier for grandparents to qualify for childcare tax credits for the informal care they give their grandchildren, though pressure on the public finances may delay such a move.
Currently, tax credits are extended only for formal care such as a nursery or childminder.
The blueprint to boost grandparents' rights will be part of a major family policy paper to be published by the Tories in the next few months. It is also expected to give more details of how the party plans to recognise marriage in the tax and benefits system.
Mr Willetts said: 'Grandparents are fantastically important members of strong families and they do an increasing amount, particularly in terms of childcare. Lots of parents rely on the support they give.
'They also help with the family finances, where there are big flows of support from grandparents to parents and grandchildren.
'And, very interestingly, they are often a good source of advice for teenagers. There is fascinating research about which members of their family they would talk to about a problem, which showed grandparents often scoring above parents.
'But there's little or no recognition of the role of grandparents in the way the Government has constructed its family policy. A Conservative government would change that.'
Mr Willetts pointed to a study which found that childcare by grandparents saves parents an estimated £3.9billion a year.
Separate research, by HSBC, found that 16 per cent of grandparents in their 60s and a third of those in their 70s give financial support to grandchildren.
Some 27 per cent of children aged 11 to 16 say they can share things with grandparents which they cannot talk to their parents about. The figure rises to 35 per cent for their maternal grandmothers.
A recent study found that childcare by grandparents saves parents an estimated £3.9billion a year
Research also suggests a strong link between the involvement of grandparents and the well-being of children, teenagers in particular. Contact with children after their parents split is currently controlled by the 1989 Children Act. It gave step-parents of more than three years the right to apply for contact, but did not extend the same right to grandparents.
They have to apply to the courts even to be given permission to request some sort of contact, a lengthy and expensive process.
The Tory plan may raise concerns that access agreements will become over-complicated - for instance, where a mother has to agree to maintain contact with both an ex-husband and his parents.
But Mr Willetts said the courts would continue to be able to decide what was in a child's best interests.
He said: 'The legal framework at the moment is that the interests of the child must come first and of course that is right.
'But we must improve the rights of grandparents to have access to children.
'The courts should at least have to consider whether there should be continuing legal rights to access in the event of family breakdown. 'It's also wrong that only half of local authorities have a policy that families should be considered as a first option before a child is fostered or taken into care. Grandparents must have a right to be the legal guardians of the child.'
In a wide-ranging interview, Mr Willetts, who is also responsible for Tory policy on universities, detailed plans to provide a temporary 10,000 more university places amid fears that talented school-leavers will end up on the dole because of a shortage.
The scheme would be funded by encouraging graduates to repay student loan debts early by offering them a 10 per cent discount.
WE COULDN'T EVEN SEND A CARD
When Helen McDonald's son and daughter-in-law split up, she and her husband Bill, above, were completely cut out of their grandsons' lives.
The couple had been very close to the boys, then 14 and nine, taking them to museums, National Trust properties and on countryside holidays. Mr McDonald taught them to swim and ride a bike.
Bill and Helen McDonald spent two years and thousands of pounds fighting for access to see their grandsons
But after the marriage breakdown their mother refused to let them see or even speak to their grandparents.
'It was terrible,' said Mrs McDonald, a 64-year-old retired nurse from Kilmarnock. 'We were cut out of their lives, just like that. I cried for months.
'We couldn't even give them presents. I sent the elder boy a birthday card at his school, but the headmaster returned it, saying his mother had ordered he was not to receive anything whatsoever from us.'
The couple spent two years and thousands of pounds fighting for access. But the happy reunion finally happened only after the older boy, now 16, phoned to say he was coming to stay.
'The courts did absolutely nothing,' said Mrs McDonald. 'Social services refused to believe anything we said and lawyers just wanted to take our money and then say nothing could be done.
'But when our grandson said he wanted to see us no one could stop him because the child's wishes are paramount. It opened the gates for his younger brother to stay, too.' The McDonalds now see the boys regularly.
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1222926/Power-grandparents-Tories-hand-sweeping-legal-rights-families-together.html#ixzz0V2VauwRp