Holyrood milestone on road to Shared Parenting

The member’s debate at the end of the business day of the Scottish Parliament on January 10th, 2023 felt like a wind of change in attitudes to Shared Parenting.

The debate was on a motion by MSP Fulton MacGregor. He spoke as convener of the Parliament’s Cross Party Group on Shared Parenting which has taken evidence from government and third sector agencies from Scotland and from lawyers, researchers and judges in other countries.

He told MSPs present “The motion  I lodged asserts the need for separated parents to work together, if appropriate, for the benefit of their children. It highlights the lack of support for people who want to engage in shared parenting and calls for public policy to remedy that.”

Fulton has been active in promoting shared parental leave as a recognition that parents have different expectations of each other and children of their parents in modern Scotland.

The point was developed by SNP MSP, Bob Doris. “I agree absolutely with Fulton MacGregor on that point. In that sense, maybe it is an equalities issue. That is why we must ensure that dads are performing a shared parenting role while they are still in the relationship. … When the minister sums up the debate, I would like to hear more about the positive work that we can do before relationships go wrong, because that will empower people to do the right thing once relationships fragment.”

Deputy Convener of the Cross Party Group, Conservative MSP Jeremy Balfour recalled his own professional experience as a solicitor saying court is the last place one wants to go to decide on parenting matters and who gets parenting rights. He praised the initiative of Shared Parenting Scotland in bringing the New Ways For Families programme to Scotland. The programme  aims to engage separated mothers and fathers in managing better the tensions and emotional difficulties with each other so they can avoid damaging their children’s relationship with both their parents.

Liam McArthur, Lib Dem MSP, had unsuccessfully proposed an amendment in the course of the debate that led to the Children (Scotland) Act 2020 that would have introduced a rebuttable presumption of shared parenting when parents separate. In Tuesday evening’s debate he agreed with Fulton MacGregor’s essential argument about the benefits that are being seen internationally, as well as about the concerns that were expressed about the need always to put the rights of the child at the centre of any decision. “Does he believe that the work of the pilot programme and the further international evidence mean that we are closer to being in a position where the presumption of shared parenting might be safely introduced in the Scottish context?”

Fulton MacGregor acknowledged “I think that we are moving in the right direction, but that there is much more to do. I thank Liam McArthur for his work in this area.”

There were 15 MSPs who stayed for the debate at the end of a long day in the Parliament. That is a good turnout for a member’s debate. Seven members spoke including Bill Kidd, Rhoda Grant and Stephen Kerr.

Summing up in her first debate since her appointment as Minister for Community Safety Elena Whitham said, “We want to build consensus in this Parliament and among key stakeholders about how to support parents and children during separation and about how disputes should be dealt with. There may well be differing views and perspectives, but there will also always be common ground in relation to matters such as welfare of children and the reduction of stress and trauma.”

“It is also important to emphasise that we will always support both parents to be fully involved in a child’s life, where that is safe—as a former women’s aid worker, I am pleased that Shared Parenting Scotland’s approach recognises that, where a history of domestic abuse is at play, that must be fully considered, and contact should not be used to further and continue abuse at any point in the process. … Across all sectors and portfolios, we must consider how we look at society as a whole, and think about how families can be supported to ensure that children thrive in an environment in which everyone has their welfare at heart.”

Shared Parenting Scotland National Manager, Ian Maxwell, said after the debate, “We are really grateful to Fulton MacGregor for bringing forward the debate and to all the members who spoke and others who attended. We know there were others who intended to speak but because of the late start had to leave for other commitments. We sense there is real change in the air.”

“In particular we are heartened by the recognition across the parties that we have to find a way of supporting separating parents to take responsibility for the long term wellbeing of their children and the importance of maintaining a relationship with both of them.  Our New Ways For Families pilot is aimed at empowering parents with the skills to see the bigger picture from their children’s perspective and learn how to manage their own emotions as well as understand their former spouse or partner’s.  We are equally heartened by the Minister’s commitment to the need to look at society as a whole and think about how families can be supported.”