Provision of Marriage Counselling

New clause 13 – in the House of Commons at 3:31 pm on 17th June 1996.

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'.—(1) The Lord Chancellor or a person appointed by him may secure the provision, in accordance with regulations made by the Lord Chancellor, of marriage counselling.

(2) Marriage counselling may only be provided under this section at a time when a period for reflection and consideration—

  1. (a) is running in relation to the marriage; or
  2. (b) is interrupted under section 7(8) (but not for a continuous period of more than 18 months).

(3) Marriage counselling may only be provided under this section for persons who would not be required to make any contribution towards the cost of mediation provided for them under Part IIIA of the Legal Aid Act 1988.

(4) Persons for whom marriage counselling is provided under this section are not to be required to make any contribution towards the cost of the counselling.

(5) Marriage counselling is only to be provided under this section if it appears to the marriage counsellor to be suitable in all the circumstances.

(6) Regulations under subsection (1) may—

  1. (a) make provision about the way in which marriage counselling is to be provided; and
  2. (b) prescribe circumstances in which the provision of marriage counselling is to be subject to the approval of the Lord Chancellor.

(7) A contract entered into for the purposes of subsection (1) by a person appointed under that subsection must include such provision as the Lord Chancellor may direct.

(8) If the person appointed under subsection (1) is the Legal Aid Board, the powers conferred on the Board by or under the Legal Aid Act 1988 shall be exercisable for the purposes of this section as they are exercisable for the purposes of that Act.

(9) In section 15 of the Legal Aid Act 1988 (availability of, and payment for, representation under Part IV of the Act), after subsection (3H) insert— (3I) A person may be refused representation for the purposes of any proceedings if—

  1. (a) the proceedings are marital proceedings within the meaning of Part II of the Family Law Act 1996; and
  2. (b) he is being provided with marriage counselling under section (Provision of marriage counselling) of that Act in relation to the marriage.".'.—[Mr. Streeter.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Miss Betty Boothroyd Miss Betty Boothroyd Speaker of the House of Commons

With this, it will be convenient to discuss Government amendments Nos. 18, 104 and 52.

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Parliamentary Secretary (Lord Chancellor's Department), Assistant Whip (Law Officers)

I start where I should start—with a fulsome tribute to my immediate predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Evans), whose stewardship of the Bill was exemplary and who was largely responsible for its strengthening in Committee.

The amendments respond to concern that couples should be encouraged to access marriage counselling and other marriage support services that may help a couple to save their marriage. There has been cross-party support for such amendments, but I particularly thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) for seeking to ensure that those amendments are based on voluntary access to services rather than compulsion—which we and the marriage support services believe is likely to generate more effective referrals and a better chance of counselling proving successful.

I pay tribute to the various organisations that comprise the marriage support services not only for their advice during consultation and in preparing the legislation, but for all that they do in supporting couples in crisis. Marriage support services make a major contribution to the well-being of society, for which the House thanks them.

The Government are committed to providing a system that gives couples information, access to services and time to consider whether their marriage can be saved—and to ensuring the best possible use of available resources. The amendments go further than any previous Government have in providing support for marriage.

Amendment No. 18 seeks to give explicit force to that commitment, by stating that the parties to a marriage that has broken down will be encouraged to take all practicable steps to save it by counselling or otherwise. The importance of counselling is thus given explicit emphasis, but is not to be regarded as exclusive. The Government are endeavouring to provide the basis for a continuum of information and services for couples at all stages in their relationship. That provision will cover not only couples who may, sadly, be considering divorce, but couples who are deciding to marry, as well as assistance early during a problem in a marriage—before the difficulty becomes a crisis.

Considerable concern has been expressed in debate about adequate attention being given to the funding of measures that seek to prevent a couple's relationship difficulties reaching the stage at which they consider divorce. Amendment No. 52 requires the Lord Chancellor to have particular regard to such services when making grant-in-aid payments for marriage support services and research.

Photo of Mr Tony Marlow Mr Tony Marlow , Northampton North

There is an implication that such services will cost money. How much will they cost, and where will that money come from?

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Parliamentary Secretary (Lord Chancellor's Department), Assistant Whip (Law Officers)

My hon. Friend is right to make the point that the Government do not believe that a problem will go away by throwing money at it. I am sure that he agrees that investing in healthy marriages will save the country money in the long term. Bearing it in mind that the legislation will not come into force for two years, we do not yet know precisely what the take-up will be, but it is important to invest in strong and stable marriages.

Such services could include marriage preparation initiatives, work at major turning points in a couple's relationship, such as the birth of a first child, and information about services provided at places where people might otherwise go for information, so that take-up of marriage support services can be encouraged. That provision will support the work of the interdepartmental working party—not a glamorous title, but an important project that has highlighted early intervention as a priority. The working party has today issued a consultation paper on how best to deliver those services. The results of that consultation will inform the funding of pilot projects that have particular potential for reducing the incidence and costs of marriage breakdown. We have also announced that research will be undertaken into the problems faced by couples at different stages in their relationship, so that we can match services to need more effectively—which will involve funding additional to existing grant-in-aid provision.

Clause 8, which concerns the information meeting, already specifies that information must be given to couples about counselling and support services. It provides for couples eligible for non-contributory legal aid to be encouraged to take up an explanatory meeting with a marriage counsellor. The amendment seeks to ensure that such meetings will be held with suitably qualified staff and that standards can be set and maintained. The amendment enables the circumstances in which such meetings are held to be prescribed, to ensure that the funding for such meetings is used appropriately—that there is value for money.

New clause 13 is designed to encourage the take-up of marriage counselling during the period of reflection and consideration. Such a service would be voluntarily entered into. The information meeting will ensure that couples are aware of such services and will be encouraged to access them where they may be of assistance, but the Government do not believe that such a service will be effective if it is compulsory. That view is shared by marriage counselling services.

The amendments ensure that service standards can be set and maintained, by giving the Lord Chancellor, or a person appointed by him, the power to attach conditions to the funding of marriage counselling. That may include standards of training or other qualifications. I should emphasise that such services will be focused on marriage counselling and not on any other form of counselling that does not have the couple's possible reconciliation as a primary objective. That service will be supported by additional funding. Before the arrangements are finalised, such arrangements will be piloted extensively, to ensure that the service is effective and that standards can be assured.

The amendments provide a structure that is designed to support strong and stable marriages. In this country, there has never been such a framework to support marriage and I urge the House to support the amendments.

Photo of Mr Paul Boateng Mr Paul Boateng Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Minister (Lord Chancellor's Department)

Labour Members welcome the Government's conversion, albeit relatively late in the day, to the view that marriage guidance and counselling, and establishing a framework within which that might take place, are important. When I look at Conservative Members and my hon. Friends around me, I recall the Second Reading debate, when some of us expressed regret that the Government had, at that time, missed an opportunity to set the Bill and the debate on it within the context of what the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Basil Hume, has described as the larger project of supporting and strengthening the institution of marriage and of the family. It has, therefore, been the task of hon. Members on both sides of the Committee that considered the Bill to seek to focus the minds of the Minister's predecessor and of the Government on the importance of establishing the framework, to which the Minister referred.

The framework has been established. A place has been found for marriage guidance, counselling and a specific focus on reconciliation. Concern remains, and with good cause. One sees whence that cause emanates when one bears in mind the intervention of the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow). Concern remains about the commitments on resources in this sector. Without clear, adequate funding guarantees, there is no way in which it will be possible for organisations such as Marriage Care, Relate and others, to which I pay tribute and which are doing valuable work in this sector, to contribute to the success of any such framework. We want the Minister to give, in no uncertain terms, that guarantee to establish the initial infrastructure, without which information meetings encouraging people to move towards reconciliation, where it is appropriate, will be of little avail. We want a clear commitment that that infrastructure will be established, but, more than that, at this stage of our deliberations, we want the Government to come clean about the cost.

At the outset of the consideration of the Bill—both here and in the other place—the claim was made that it was cost neutral. Some of us have made it crystal clear that that simply cannot be the case. There is no way in which the Bill, either as it was originally constituted or as it is now—it has improved in some respects, and the Government amendments show one particular area of improvement—can be funded within the existing budget.

We shall shortly be required to make a decision not simply on this new clause, but on the future of the Bill. There is no way that we can do that on Third Reading without at least some guidance on costs from the Minister and a clear sign that the Government no longer hold to the absurd proposition that the Bill is cost neutral. We want to hear from the Minister—indeed, we are entitled to hear—in quite unequivocal terms how much he thinks this measure will cost and whether he has moved away from the position taken by his predecessor and the Lord Chancellor, that the Bill is cost neutral.

In the context of this group of amendments, the Opposition are sceptical about the clarity and depth of commitment to reconciliation and to the saving of marriages that can be saved. Unless the Minister can give the necessary guidance on costs, that scepticism will be entirely justified, because we shall not see the resources necessary to give these amendments the force and power that are vital if they are to achieve that which they set out to achieve.

With that caveat—and it is a real caveat—we broadly welcome the new clause and associated amendments.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh , Gainsborough and Horncastle

I welcome this group of amendments, not least because they are the result of a commitment given to me in Committee by the previous Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Evans). Therefore, I would be extremely churlish if I did not welcome them. They are extremely important amendments that will markedly improve the Bill. All along, one of our objections to the Bill has been that it seemed simply to oil the wheels of divorce. We thought it terribly important to ensure that in the new divorce process—which will be based not on fault, but on a period of time elapsing—there was some encouragement towards marriage counselling. We have achieved that aim, and the necessary important provision will be included in the preamble to the Bill.

We achieved that concession early during the Committee's proceedings. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng) for what he said in Committee, because, without his support, it would have been impossible to achieve a majority and so encourage the previous Minister to accede to the amendments. It was rather more of a struggle to achieve funding for marriage guidance. I understand that, because the Lord Chancellor's Department had to clear it with the Treasury.

We have already achieved agreement that, after the initial information meeting, it will be possible for the parties to have a free meeting with a marriage counsellor. My hon. Friend the Minister rightly stated that there were some arguments about whether that requirement to see a marriage counsellor should be compulsory or voluntary. Originally, the hon. Member for Brent, South and I tabled amendments to make it compulsory. However, I accepted what the previous Minister told us—that marriage guidance counsellors did not want to be part of a compulsory mechanism, but wanted the entire process to be voluntary. What we have achieved is that when people go along to the information meeting—which will be a proper, one-to-one meeting—they will be at least encouraged to see a marriage counsellor, and that meeting will be free.

These latest Government amendments are significant achievements, because when the whole process starts and someone makes a statement of marital breakdown, the funding for marriage reconciliation will be on exactly the same basis as the funding for mediation.

Our concern has always been that some excellent organisations, such as Relate, which traditionally have been marriage guidance organisations, will ride in behind the Bill, because a huge new pot of gold will be poured into mediation, and that they will be encouraged to shift resources from marriage counselling—which we all support, but which has received a paltry £3 million a year—to mediation. There is nothing wrong with mediation if the divorce will definitely happen. It is better to have mediation than to have lawyers arguing about costs.

It would be wholly wrong if we had a market-driven approach that encouraged those organisations to put their resources into mediation rather than into marriage counselling. The amendments are terribly important, and I very much hope that they will be welcomed by marriage counselling organisations.

I welcome what the Minister said. Having heard the Minister and the hon. Member for Brent, South in this—so far—short debate, I think that, in future, there may be cross-party support not only for a divorce Bill but for a marriage Bill. People in the Republic of Ireland must wait for a time before they are allowed to marry. Perhaps we should, as Cardinal Hume said, put as many resources into marriage and into encouraging marriage counselling at the beginning of the process as we are now putting into the end of the process, when it may be too late. That is for the future. Perhaps the Government will consider introducing a marriage Bill in the next Session. It would be a very popular Bill.

It would be wrong to be churlish. It is a pity that we could not have achieved this extra money for marriage counselling before we had to consider the Bill—but this is the Bill that we have. I very much welcome what the Minister said today.

Photo of Mrs Diana Maddock Mrs Diana Maddock , Christchurch

These amendments represent a huge step forward by the Government. People who have worked in marriage counselling in the past know its value only too well. Like many other hon. Members, I have met local Relate groups and have heard how important they think counselling is. When I was first elected as a Member of Parliament, I took part with other hon. Members in a series of hearings about the family for the United Nations Year of the Family. We heard clearly how important it is to get in there and to give support at the early stages when things go wrong.

Therefore, like many of my Liberal Democrat colleagues, I welcome the Government's recognition of counselling. As has been said, that recognition is not before time. There have been many discussions and much pushing over this matter, and it is good to see cross-party support pushing the Government forward into a sensible position.

I share the concerns of the hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng) about costs. It is good to hear the Government talking about putting money towards the Bill, but I am worried that they have not considered the matter carefully. I shall listen carefully to the Minister's comments.

The Minister's earlier clarification that counselling will be voluntary is important, and it has been vital in achieving cross-party support. Certainly, the view of all those who work in this area is that we cannot force people into counselling, but that we must ensure that they have access to it and that they can afford it.

The hon. Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) talked about the importance of preparation for marriage. I should like us to give much more emphasis to marriage preparation in schools. Marriage preparation should be in the national curriculum, and I look forward to when that happens.

I welcome the provision, as do many of my hon. Friends on the Liberal Democrat Benches.

Photo of Mrs Jill Knight Mrs Jill Knight , Birmingham, Edgbaston

I have one or two questions about this matter. I am quite worried about where counsellors will come from. To my certain knowledge, in some areas, it is impossible to make an appointment with a marriage guidance counsellor in under a year. How will we find all these extra marriage guidance counsellors? Unless we know that they can be found, perhaps we are being a bit hypocritical in passing a law that says counsellors shall be there, as if one could spirit them out of the ether. I do not think that that is possible.

I have been worried about Relate ever since it decided that it was not so much interested in marriage, and dropped the term "marriage guidance" from its name. I have yet to be persuaded—I should very much like to be—that Relate counsellors really are interested in ensuring that careful thought is given to the end of a marriage. I am not at all sure that Relate is so concerned, as are some hon. Members, about the institution of marriage.

If counsellors are to be spirited from the Church, I must admit that I should like to know a bit more about the clergy or their associates who may be giving advice. In recent years, there have been some rather extraordinary statements from Church people, who—even by example—do not always support and believe in marriage, in the manner that some of us would very much like.

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I strongly support the idea that we must do more in preparation for marriage. The hon. Member for Christchurch (Mrs. Maddock) was quite right that attention should be paid to that in schools. I should like it if we could have talks with the BBC, ITV and other parts of the media, which daily send the message that marriage no longer matters and that living with people is the acceptable thing to do. Youngsters watch television so carefully, and they take their pattern of life from it.

Before youngsters ever get to the point of marrying, there should be much more careful thought about how to show them that marriage is an aim of enormous importance to our country and to our society, and that it is not something that they can take on lightly. As has been said in another context, I would much rather have a fence at the top of a cliff than an ambulance at the bottom. I hope that attention will be paid to that most important fact.

Photo of Dr Jeremy Bray Dr Jeremy Bray , Motherwell South

Dealing with marriage counselling services is not quite as simple a matter as merely passing a few amendments in the House or even finding some money for it. The underlying problem lies in the great muddle and confusion in our society about the nature of marriage. I should have thought that the only way to make coherent proposals in legislation would have been for the genesis of the Bill to be a commission on marriage rather than a Law Commission report dealing with the processes of divorce.

Many questions are outstanding, such as how these counselling services will be provided, how the organisation will be developed and what concept of marriage—as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Dame J. Knight) said—will be presented. What about the undertakings in the register office ceremony? What will be the nature of those undertakings? Will counselling play any role in the preparation of such marriages? For marriages that take place in church, what will be the role of the Churches in preparing for marriage and in subsequent counselling services?

Having spoken to Church leaders, I do not think that Churches have thought out those questions, and I do not think that counselling services have thought them through at all—because they have not been asked the questions by the Government. They have not been asked, "Why are marriages breaking down, and what can be done about it?"

If we had started in that manner, we would have had a rather different Bill. But this is the Bill that we have—so what do we do about it? I unreservedly welcome the amendments, but I must tell the Minister that it will not be quite such an easy matter. I hope that he will approach it in real depth when he considers how the organisations and the concept of marriage are to be developed properly.

Photo of Mr John Patten Mr John Patten , Oxford West and Abingdon

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on tabling the new clause and related amendments. He has certainly hit the ground running since he assumed his new responsibilities.

I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng), who asked where the resources are to come from, which is a proper question to ask. I also listened carefully to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Dame J. Knight), who asked where the counsellors are to come from. I should like to probe a little further and ask: who is to counsel the counsellors? Who is to safeguard the standards of counselling available under the Bill?

First, I should like to hear from my hon. Friend the Minister what mechanisms the Lord Chancellor's Department, under the guidance of my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor, intends to set up within the Department to screen the counselling organisations and counsellors, whether paid or voluntary. Of course, I pay tribute to the many voluntary counsellors, especially those from Church organisations, through to those from professional organisations and back again, who so selflessly give of their time. Some people might think, however, that the rot set in at some organisations when they adopted more politically correct titles such as Relate or Marriage Care. I stood at the Bar of another place and heard the phrase "couple counselling" falling from the lips of a noble prelate.

We must be extremely cautious if we are to provide large sums in the search for a small band of counsellors, some of whom might not be wholly committed to the sustaining of marriage and might be more concerned with couple counselling, or whatever it is fashionably called.

Secondly, I also urge my hon. Friend the Minister—I hope that he finds time to deal with this point when he winds up the debate—to give an idea of when the proposals that we are now debating, should they be accepted, will be brought into effect. There is not much point in the Government tabling amendments, which, although welcome, still give rise to unanswered questions such as, "Where are the resources coming from?" and, "Where are the counsellors coming from?" and which contain the suggestion that all will be well, if they may not come into effect for many years. In other words, I suggest that none of the Bill's provisions should be put into effect until those relating to marriage counselling have been introduced, because the first will fail without adequate and proper provision for the second.

I shall look forward to hearing what my hon. Friend has to say, while I congratulate him on the excellent amendments.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley , Eltham

I think that my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Mr. Patten) is advocating something that would be harmful. It is perfectly plain to everyone who has been following the Bill's progress in another place and in this House that at present 75 per cent. of divorces go through in about six months after the application has been lodged. If we delay implementation of the Bill, we shall not get the benefit, which will have a significant impact on the number of divorces, of requiring people to wait for at least a year, if not longer, from the moment of application. I have quoted elsewhere the evidence from Canada, where a minimum provision of a year has led to one divorce application in five being withdrawn by the person who made the application. To throw away that benefit—the time for reflection and possibly for reconciliation, although not necessarily by counselling—will lead to more divorces and potentially to more unhappiness in people's future marriages, should they commit themselves to a further marriage.

Counselling is an important issue. It would be taking an un-Conservative view to say that all marriage counsellors have to be either state funded or state approved. There are many areas of independence in which Parliament and Government should have a limited role. If we—rightly—make provision for marriage counselling, we ought to allow a good deal of freedom. Many marriage guidance organisations are Church based, but do not provide services only for members of their own faith.

Hon. Members are perhaps divided, although not along party lines, on what the Bill actually does. I take my lead from His Grace the Duke of Norfolk, who spoke wisely in another place, saying that he was glad that the Bill was called not the Divorce Bill but the Family Law Bill.

It is worth reminding the House of words written 30 years ago, before political correctness could be accused of infecting any of our Churches. The report entitled "Putting Asunder" states: We were persuaded that a divorce law founded on the doctrine of breakdown would not only accord better with social realities than the present law does, but would have the merit of showing up divorce for what in essence it is—not a reward for marital virtue on the one side and a penalty for marital delinquency on the other; not a victory for one spouse and a reverse for the other; but a defeat for both, a failure of the marital 'two-in-oneship' in which both members, however unequal their responsibility, are involved together. So we arrived at our primary and fundamental recommendation: that the doctrine of the breakdown of marriage should be comprehensively substituted for the doctrine of the matrimonial offence as the basis of all divorce". If we are concerned about marriage counselling, and if we are looking for reconciliation and to provide couples with the opportunity to decide to continue their marriage, if that is their choice, we ought to tread lightly.

The suggestion that people involved in marriage guidance support the idea of extra counselling because it means extra work for them is to undervalue the commitment, which is often voluntary, of people who, through Church or secular organisations and whether because of some sense of humanity or faith, give of themselves and their time to try to help save the marriages of others and help reduce the avoidable disadvantage, distress and handicap that often occur when a relationship turns out to be less than perfect and when the commitment of marriage, which may have been entered into wholeheartedly, is fractured.

We should not make too much of marriage guidance organisations changing their names; instead, we should be concerned about the continuity of those involved in them. Members of my family have been involved in marriage guidance for the past 50 or 60 years and, on their behalf, I would take it as a gross insult to hear it said that they are the victims of political correctness. They want to increase people's happiness and help their marriages if possible. If marriages end other than in death, they want to try to ensure that it happens without rancour or harmful effects on others.

Photo of Mrs Jill Knight Mrs Jill Knight , Birmingham, Edgbaston

It is not easy or cheap for an organisation to change its name; indeed, it is very complicated. Does not my hon. Friend think that there must have been a reason for an organisation to drop the word "marriage" from its title? Is not that significant; or have I and others got it all wrong?

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley , Eltham

I would not want to accuse my hon. Friend of getting anything all wrong, but there are different perspectives. I do not want to go into too much detail on that point, because I want to get more deeply involved in other matters later.

I think that I was the first hon. Member to introduce a debate on family policy and strengthening the family. That was in 1978. I think that I also introduced the second debate in 1982. The aim of helping families and establishing a family policy is shared by hon. Members on both sides of the House, but it is wrong to read too much into a change of name. Many voluntary organisations have changed their name over the years, but we should remember that the vast majority of people involved in counselling want to help marriages last and understand the distress of people who come along for counselling. Perhaps it would be useful if more people went to counselling even before they began to consider divorce.

Photo of Mr Andrew Rowe Mr Andrew Rowe , Kent Mid

I understood that one of the principal reasons why the Marriage Guidance Council changed its name to Relate was that so much of its work consisted of teaching in schools and helping people to create relationships other than within marriage—not household relationships, but helping people to overcome bereavement or to get used to retirement, for example—and it thought that its original title was far too narrow.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley , Eltham

We can agree that most of the work undertaken by organisations such as the Jewish Marriage Council or what were the Catholic Marriage Advisory Council and the Marriage Guidance Council is to help people who want their marriages to have a chance of lasting.

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Parliamentary Secretary (Lord Chancellor's Department), Assistant Whip (Law Officers)

We have had an interesting and helpful debate, and I am grateful to all those who have spoken in support of the new clause. I should like briefly to respond to a number of points that have been raised, as we have a long way to go.

Once again, the hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng) raised the important issue of costs. I am tempted to say that we believe that the Bill is cost neutral, although it is not as cost neutral as it used to be. However, that would be daft.

First, it must be obvious that if there is mediation—and one person is representing two people—instead of legal proceedings where each party has a lawyer, only one person is being funded and there is clearly a saving to be made. Secondly, we believe that the Bill will achieve a reduction in conflict and litigation generally in the divorce process. Therefore, we anticipate further saving. However, our funding commitments will entail further resourcing, which will be provided.

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My right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Mr. Patten) asked about the time scale. We have two years before the implementation of the provisions. It is not my expectation that the Bill will reach the statute book without the marriage guidance provisions being firmly in place. We have two years to ensure that funding is available, and I can give the House an assurance to that effect. We shall be in government to make sure that our assurances are met.

Many hon. Members have mentioned the importance of marriage and the family. Let me stress that the interdepartmental working party on family and marriage is going out to consultation today, seeking ideas as to how exactly we can intervene earlier to support family and marriage. When I have put the Bill to bed this evening—I hope, tucked up safe and sound with the overwhelming support of the House—it will be my highest priority to make sure that the working party does an excellent job in the next 12 months, to elicit ideas as to exactly what we can and should do to support marriage and the family at an early and positive stage.

Photo of Mr David Alton Mr David Alton , Liverpool Mossley Hill

I am grateful to the Minister for what he has just said, and I agree with him entirely. He will know that new clause 16, in my name, has not been selected for debate. It deals with family impact statements. Will he give the House an undertaking that he will refer that idea to the working party and review group? If civil servants and Ministers had to incorporate an impact statement when legislation was being drafted, we would have a better idea—just as we do in local government with environmental impact statements—as to the possible effect of everything, from cuts in child benefit to making divorce easier or more difficult. We would have an idea of the possible effects on the family, not least on the 750,000 children in Britain who no longer have access to their fathers.

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Parliamentary Secretary (Lord Chancellor's Department), Assistant Whip (Law Officers)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Family impact statements are certainly worth consideration, so I can give him the assurance that he seeks. However, I am not sure that the working party is quite the right forum for his proposal.

Let me make it clear to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Dame J. Knight) that the working party will have to consider what more can be done to prepare young couples for marriage and to make marriage stronger—or at least to make them understand what they are taking on. I draw upon my experience of taking young couples through a pre-marriage counselling course organised by my local church. My wife and I were involved in that for a number of years and we found that, out of an average crop of six young couples, only four would opt for marriage and two would decide that it should be either not then or not at all. We considered it to be a success rather than a failure if a couple found out before marriage that perhaps they were not right for each other. I support that concept entirely.

My hon. Friend the Member for Edgbaston asked where all the counsellors would come from. The system has two years to develop, and it is for the counselling industry— to use an inappropriate description—to respond. Counselling organisations know that funding is available and we want them to come forward, just as private nursery schools will take advantage of the excellent nursery voucher scheme that the Government have introduced.

Photo of Glenda Jackson Glenda Jackson Shadow Spokesperson (Transport)

Is the Minister saying that money is available now for the training of additional counsellors, so that they will be ready to take on all the new customers at the end of two years? Is there money for training, and where will it come from?

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Parliamentary Secretary (Lord Chancellor's Department), Assistant Whip (Law Officers)

I shall certainly consider that point and come back to the hon. Lady.

In my experience, Relate is committed to the concept of marriage, and I understand that it is part of the principles of that organisation to believe in marriage. I agree that marriage counsellors who do not believe in marriage are like ministers of religion who do not believe in God.

The hon. Member for Motherwell, South (Dr. Bray) raised some important matters that the working party will address, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon raised a number of important points about standards. Wherever the Lord Chancellor's Department, or any organisation empowered by it, enters into a contract with marriage counsellors, we shall ensure that standards are in place that will satisfy my right hon. Friend's concern.

Finally, my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley) raised an important point about the voluntary sector. I agree with him that many excellent voluntary organisations give counselling advice, and they are worthy of our support.

Photo of Mr Paul Boateng Mr Paul Boateng Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Minister (Lord Chancellor's Department)

I am afraid that the Minister's response to my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson) gave the game away in respect of the Government's thinking—or the lack of it—in relation to funding. He has said on Report that he will take on board the additional expenditure that is necessary in order to fund the training and provision of counsellors during the two-year implementation period. He promised to give that some thought. My hon. Friends the Members for Hampstead and Highgate, for Barking (Ms Hodge) and for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche) have raised the subject time and again during our deliberations on the Bill. We have raised it on Second Reading and in Committee, and now we have been told that it deserves some thought.

The Government and the Department concerned must have given some thought to how much it will cost to get the bare framework in place for counselling. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Dame J. Knight) mentioned that in some parts of the country it takes a year to get an appointment with a counsellor. What is the Government's commitment, how much will it cost and where will the money come from? The Minister's notion that he is in a position to give a commitment in relation to some unspecified amount to be incurred by way of expenditure in the next two years—although he does not know how much it will be—demonstrates lack of thought and a lack of clarity in the Government's thinking on those matters. It really is not good enough, and it is clearly a matter that we shall have to take into account during our deliberations on the remaining stages of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.