With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following: Government amendment No. 29.
Amendment No. 103, in page 5, line 21, leave out subsection (11).
Government amendments Nos. 30 to 35.
Amendment No. 8, in page 5 line 34, at end insert—
`(14) The Lord Chancellor may make rules prescribing the circumstances in which the court may order the abridgement of the period for reflection and consideration.'.
I am delighted to move the amendment. It is perhaps the shortest amendment on the amendment paper, but that does not reflect its importance. It is the only way in which we can keep faith with all those who have worked to produce the Bill over 10 years, with all the consultation and procedures, and with the way in which hon. Members voted during the Committee stage on the Floor of the House.
The amendment deals with the period of reflection and consideration, which was thoroughly debated in Committee on the Floor of the House. I speak against the background to the drafting of the legislation, over a long time, of 75 per cent. of divorces going through in seven months, of 20 per cent. going through by agreement within two years and of 5 per cent. going through within five years.
My experience is that, when confronted with a variety of choices on a free vote, hon. Members make a clear and understandable decision. When the House voted on the two-year period, it decisively rejected it. I was a Teller for the other two votes, and as such was able to see how hon. Members voted in the Lobby. In expressing their feelings that there should be a difference between marriages where there is agreement on ending it and those where one of the parties disagrees, hon. Members voted for an additional six months. Despite that, the measure was carried by only four votes. None the less, it was a free vote and those who sought to make more of it, particularly the newspapers, did the House a great disservice. A free vote is a free vote: there is no such thing as a Conservative vote, a Labour vote or a Cabinet Ministers' vote. In a free vote, there is only one vote—that of the individual casting it. The earlier debate was genuine and the House decided on that differentiation.
In Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) and other Committee members made the argument, which I accept, that if one is to try to save a marriage, the right time is the beginning of the process, not the end. My hon. Friend succeeded in persuading the Committee that after the information session, three months should be allowed—some people call it a cooling-off or waiting period—for the couple to absorb the information that they have been given and to make arrangements for counselling, with a view to reconciliation. Again, the Government have introduced a forward-looking new clause on the value of counselling. The emphasis was wholly changed by offering an early opportunity to couples who could achieve reconciliation.
All that happened in the knowledge that most marriages do not suddenly come to an end, but instead die over a considerable period. The act of seeking information to obtain a divorce is not an instant decision. People do not wake up in the morning and say, "Good gracious me. I think I will go and get divorced." In the majority of cases, that action comes at the end of a protracted and difficult time. We took the view that if there was the hope of saving any marriages through reconciliation, it was worth taking the chance.
The effect of the three-month extension, which was not known to hon. Members in Committee on the Floor of the House, was to extend the 12-month period agreed by the House to 15 months and the 18-month allowance to 22 months. National Family Mediation made it clear that, after the information meeting, couples will have three months to consider. After two weeks, the other party will be notified—then follows the statement and the period for reflection and consideration, which is currently 12 months and 18 months. Securing the divorce order takes one month, which makes 22 and a half months. The NFM pointed out that such delay will do nothing to benefit mediation or reconciliation. In many cases, it could make matters infinitely more difficult because it appears to be a case of marking time.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will comment on the effect of a 22-month delay, which in many cases cannot be good for the welfare of the children involved or helpful in planning for their future.
I accept that point, which was made by many organisations that deal with children and divorce. I make no bones about being opposed to the original extension. I was happy with 12 months, and was a Teller in the Division to try to maintain that period. However, I am also a democrat and totally accept the will of the House. It voted for 12 months and 18 months. I only emphasise that the House did not know at that stage that it was intended to extend the period, with all the consequential problems to which reference has been made.
My amendment will maintain the original overall period that the House found acceptable when the matter was debated in Committee on the Floor of the House. More important, the original time allowed continues to receive the support of many hon. Members who opposed the extension.
I regard this legislation as critically important. I do not know how many times my hon. Friend has taken part in a debate on the Floor of the House involving a free vote on particular information. When a Bill is altered in Committee, it is surely right to think again.
The original documents, Green Papers and endless consultations that contributed to the Bill took 10 years. They all supported the 12-month period, but most of the people involved have accepted the will of the House to provide an extension to 18 months in certain cases. If my amendment is not accepted, the two-year period that the House emphatically refused to endorse will get in through the back door. We must keep faith with court welfare officers, mediators, conciliators and the legal profession, who know much more about the effect of time spent on processing divorces than many hon. Members.
My hon. Friend, who played a distinguished role in Committee, mentioned a variety of experts. Does my hon. Friend think that those experts have, over the past generation, given the House wise advice on divorce law trends and the steady liberalisation that has occurred over the past 30 years?
Those experts, who are deeply concerned about existing divorce law, have fully participated in the discussions augmented by the Government to secure approval for the Bill. The experts accepted the Lord Chancellor's original proposal that 12 months was adequate but, following the vote on the Floor of the House, they accepted the six-month extension. They did not have a chance to be consulted or to consider the extension to 15 and to 22 and a half months.
I understand that my amendment is the subject of a free vote for Conservative Members. The guide to this evening's voting produced by the Whips Office makes it clear that there is a free vote, but it refers to an amendment that
seeks to reduce the 18/12-month period to 15/9 months by incorporating the three-month waiting period.
Any hon. Member who has not followed the Bill or served on the Committee might not appreciate that those are three extra months added in Committee. It is neither my intention nor that of the amendment to reduce the original period for reconciliation for which the House voted. My intention is to maintain that period and to keep faith with the House in the way that it voted when it had all the information available.
During the passage of the Bill, we improved it by introducing conciliation as a final attempt to save marriages. There is broad consensus on that. The other aspects that introduce mediation are welcome, but one unintended consequence of the new move to have conciliation is that we have prolonged the period during which people would have to be together to take the process of divorce through. One of the consequences is that there will be more litigation. The period is too long and runs counter to the purpose of the original legislation: to reduce litigation in those difficult circumstances and to use mechanisms such as mediation and conciliation.
I respect the democratic will of the House to go for 18 months, but one of the reasons why I support the amendment is that, if we leave the Bill with the additional, unintended three months—with 21 months between a decision to go for divorce and the final divorce—it will be worse for children and for families. The Bill's whole purpose is to improve matters for children and families during the difficult circumstances when a partnership breaks up. Some people will view the Bill as preserving marriage at any price and the cost will be too high for both the children and the family.
I draw hon. Members' attention to the Children Act 1989. Section 1(2) says something that is of importance in our deliberations tonight on this free vote:
In any proceedings in which any question with respect to the upbringing of a child arises, the court shall have regard to the general principle that any delay in determining the question is likely to prejudice the welfare of the child.
We accepted that during the passage of the Act, which, again, had the support of hon. Members on both sides of the House. It is important to act swiftly in determining children's future, yet, if we do not accept the amendment, we shall delay outcomes for children.
Twenty-one months is a lifetime for a child. Hon. Members' own children see the six weeks of a summer holiday and the year from one birthday to the next as a very long time. We are saying to children that we wish to add another three months to the disturbance and horrors that they go through when their parents' marriage is breaking down.
It is only fair and right to say that there is much disagreement with that view from people who were, as I was, a child of parents who divorced. It was my dearest hope that my parents would not divorce. Every week that they stayed together, I was happy that we were still together and still a family. From my bitter experience, it was not the case that I wanted the whole thing over then and there, perhaps not seeing my father, or whatever arrangements might have been made. It is not automatically the case that all children want the marriage to end.
With the greatest respect, let me say that the hon. Lady is misunderstanding me. Of course every child wants his parents to remain together, but if the marriage has broken down and divorce will ensue, on the whole, for most children—although perhaps not for the hon. Lady at that time—it is better that the marriage be brought more swiftly to an end so that they can deal with certainty. In the longer run, dealing with the uncertainty of not knowing whether parents will stay together can be more traumatic and more damaging for children than having to deal with the certainty of knowing, sadly, that the marriage has broken down. Of course it is true that a happy household, with two parents living happily together, is what we all want for all our children. Sadly, that is not always what children have.
Will the hon. Lady reflect that, when their parents split up, many children feel enormous guilt? They feel in some way that they are responsible, although of course they are not. We should not allow that feeling to ensue for a longer period. An additional three months in a child's life is a long period. It would do lasting damage to many children. The first reason why I support the amendment is that I genuinely believe that, where a marriage has irretrievably broken down, it is in children's interests that there is certainty and that children then learn to live with the certainty of their parents splitting up.
Tonight, we have talked a lot about the victims of domestic violence. I am delighted that the Government have accepted our amendments to protect women who have been subject to domestic violence, but such violence is an issue here as well. Many women who go to a refuge will not pursue an injunction to prevent their husbands from re-entering their lives or abusing them again, but will start pursuing the route to divorce. They should not have to wait 21 months to achieve the certainty of divorce. It is a tough decision for a woman to make when she is feeling weak, trampled upon and vulnerable. To make women wait the additional three months is a disbenefit for those vulnerable women who are victims of domestic violence.
When the men who are the perpetrators of violence in the marriage suddenly realise that their wives will go for a divorce and that, this time, a bunch of flowers will not resolve the issue, they frequently become even more violent and perpetrate greater abuse—
I do not dispute the fact that men are violent in marriage—30 years of professional practice has taught me that—but my hon. Friend should accept that there is growing evidence that a number of women are violent in marriage. The problem is that if the couple are kept together for too long, the violence is transmitted to the children.
I accept that; indeed, I made that clear earlier when my hon. Friend was not present. Some women are violent towards their husbands, but the reality is that nine out of 10 incidents of domestic violence involve men abusing their wives. Every week two women are murdered by their husbands. One in four murders in Britain is committed by a man against a woman. The enormity of the problem is clear.
As we said in Committee, the issue of child abuse is extremely grave. Indeed, the House discussed it earlier this afternoon. However, it does not help the problem of child abuse to lock women into relationships where they are abused by their husbands and their children witness that and, quite possibly, are being abused themselves. Men who abuse their wives are equally likely to abuse their children. On the ground of domestic violence, it is imperative that we support the amendment to try to contain, in the way originally intended, the length of time it takes a wife who has been subjected to domestic violence to achieve a divorce.
I want to give three or four other examples to show why extending the waiting period by three months could be detrimental to our original intent. A couple may have been living apart for a long time but have not pursued divorce for whatever reason. One of the partners then becomes terminally ill and wishes to make a will and settle his or her property in a way that ensures that it does not go to the estranged husband or wife. If we yet again extend the time that it takes to achieve a divorce, we shall make it difficult for people in their final days in this world to ensure that their wills suit their intent.
I have to admit that I would not have amended the Bill in the first place. Like others who have spoken, I accept the democratic will that there should be an 18-month period between starting divorce proceedings and achieving divorce. I am supporting this amendment to ensure that that period is not extended to 21 months, adding a further three months to the period from when people first want a divorce to when they can finally obtain one.
I shall give one final instance of when things could go wrong. Many people who divorce go on to form successful second marriages—second marriages are not always unsuccessful relationships—and those couples may have more children. If they must wait 21 months to secure a divorce, we may unwittingly end up with couples having one or two illegitimate children who are born during the process of securing a divorce.
Once a marriage has irretrievably broken down, it is in no one's interests—it is certainly not in children's interests—to prolong the waiting period, simply to hang on to the marriage. I support this amendment because it is in the interests of children and families to do so. In considering the Bill, I put their interests above all others. I hope that other hon. Members will do the same.
I do not often find that my mental processes depart very significantly from those of my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Sir J. Lester), but today I feel that he has slightly misinterpreted the significance of what the Standing Committee did in introducing this special, additional three-month period.
I take my position from the advice given to us in the very helpful letter from the former Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department, who has now gone to the Welsh Office. In his letter of 22 May, he made it very plain:
Acceptance of these amendments"—
that was the three-month extension, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe referred in his amendment—
was a response to the general concern which has been voiced on all sides of the House about allowing time for parties to contemplate the possibility of reconciliation before the divorce process itself is started and encouraging the use of marriage support services as a means of preventing irretrievable marriage breakdown.
In other words, the period added on is not to be thought of as an extension of the divorce proceedings, because it is not. It is a preliminary, to see whether divorce proceedings should be started at all.
To use an analogy from the world of racing, it is not as if we were turning an 18-furlong race into a 21-furlong race. On the contrary, it is a matter of deciding whether a horse that is due to run in the 18-furlong race should be entered for the race at all, or whether it should scratch before it comes under starter's orders.
Essentially, we are introducing this period of marriage guidance counselling to prevent the horse from coming under starter's orders. That is where the best interests of children—who are so much the concern of the hon. Member for Barking (Ms Hodge), and whose concern for children we so much appreciated in her speech—are served. The horse bearing the child may be scratched before the race begins, and that is exactly what we are trying to secure.
I am sorry, but I shall not give way to interventions; I do not want to hold up the House for long.
My hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe is misinterpreting the significance of the three-month period. The three months are not an extension of divorce proceedings, but an attempt—through the use of professional counsellors, on a one-to-one basis—to examine with a couple, singly or together, whether they really want to go forward with the proceedings. It is not a part of the mediation process, which is a part of the divorce proceedings; it is to discover whether proceedings should be started at all.
I very much hope that the distinction will be borne in mind and that my hon. Friend the Minister will accept that we are not trying to slip in an extension to the divorce proceedings. We are trying to ascertain whether it might be possible to scratch some of the parties running in this horrific race.
For the reasons that I have outlined, I cannot support the amendment.
I take a different view from that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Alison) and support my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Sir J. Lester), who proposed that the reflection period should not be added on to the 12 or 18 months. I have to tell the hon. Member for Barking (Ms Hodge) that this does not apply only to marriages where children are involved—it applies whether or not there are children involved. I agree with Lord Habgood that we should not have different laws for marriage, depending on whether or not children are involved. We should ensure that children's interests are fully taken into account before parents can separate and be free to marry again.
I shall speak briefly to amendment No. 103. In Committee of the whole House, we debated whether there should be an extension of six or 12 months on top of the 12 months set out in the Bill by the Lord Chancellor. In reviewing the debates on what is now subsection (11) of clause 7, I found very few references to children. In that debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) said:
Children want their parents to stay together. We would wholly reject any amendment that would reduce the waiting time to less than 12 months."—[Official Report, 24 April 1996; Vol. 276, c. 505.]
There was no significant debate on whether what is now subsection (11), in association with subsection (13), has it right.
Reference has been made to the Children Act 1989. It is worth recalling the success of that Act, which has contributed to a dramatic reduction in the number of children taken into care. Those of us who believe that children should be with their parents wherever possible will regard that fact as a significant success, and one that shows that it ought to be possible by law to remove incentives for families to break up unnecessarily. People who criticise the Act cannot have studied its impact. One of the principles of the 1989 Act is that uncertainty should not remain in children's lives. I agree.
Clause 7(13) states:
If this subsection applies, the period for reflection and consideration is extended by a period of six months, but without invalidating the application for a divorce order.
There are two sets of circumstances in which subsection (13) comes into play. The first, which I think was the main point that we considered in Committee of
the whole House, is when one of the parties involved in an application for a divorce applies to the court within the prescribed period for time for further reflection. That was the House's decision, and I think that we should accept it. When it goes back to another place, I think that it should also be accepted there. It is a way of getting agreement that most of us would go for.
The second is where the children come in. Amendment No. 103 would omit subsection (11), which states:
Where any application for a divorce order is made, subsection (13) also applies if there is any child of the family under the age of sixteen when the statement is received via the court.
Subsection (12) states:
Subsection (13) does not apply if'—
I leave out paragraph (a) as it is not relevant to my argument—
(b) the court is satisfied that delaying the making of the divorce order would be significantly detrimental to the welfare of any child of the family.
I think that we should reverse that, and say that there should be a six-month extension if the court is satisfied that it would be beneficial to the welfare of a child.
That argument did not take place in Committee of the whole House, but I do not think that, after 9 pm, after a fairly full day on Report, it is right to think that, in two or three minutes, probably under pressure from the business managers even though there might be a free vote, we can rehearse all the arguments.
I simply ask that we put this idea to the other place when it considers the amendment we have made and ask whether it might reverse the impact of subsection (12)(b) combined with subsection (11) and make it an option for either party to a marriage to apply for the extra six months if it would be beneficial for any child involved. We should not assume that, whatever the circumstances, it would be in the child's interests to add on six months.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that that part of the Bill does not allow adequate consideration for the rights and welfare of children. Let me say for the record that I agree with him entirely.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. For those who have not read our Committee proceedings, I recommend the contributions by the hon. Gentleman, who brought his expertise to the way in which the law works in the interests of children.
We can improve on the changes that were made by the House. Although I did not support the addition of six months, I am perfectly willing to accept it, as I have no strong views on the matter. However, we should not automatically assume that, because of the presence of a child under 16, an extra six months on the time in which a divorce can be granted would necessarily be in the interests of that child.
If the House of Lords takes the opportunity to decide whether that presumption should be reversed, when the Bill returns to the House, we should consider that decision with open minds and not look on it as one of the battles over whether divorce law should be reformed. We should put the interests of the child first and make the change accordingly.
I should have stuck to Nottingham, as I probably would have been right.
Joking apart, the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Sir J. Lester) is absolutely right. Hon. Members are concerned about what will happen to children. Whatever we support in the Bill, we all agree that the welfare of children and families is paramount. However, we disagree as to the best way of legislating with that in mind.
The hon. Member for Broxtowe was absolutely right to say that it is wrong to draw out divorce proceedings. I take a different point of view from that of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Dame J. Knight). My parents divorced, and I could not wait to get away from the endless arguments. It depends on the family how quickly the children may want their parents' marriage to end.
The evidence from a wide range of bodies, and all the research carried out when the Bill originally went to the House of Lords, shows that, on balance, it is better for children if the process is not drawn out. That applies particularly to young children, as 22 months is a long time in the life of a one-year-old.
I made the same point when we discussed the Housing Bill. We are bad at tying up all the different legislation that applies to children. As two hon. Members have already pointed out, what we are doing tonight may not be consistent with the Children Act. The same applies to other legislation. I support the amendment. It is right that the House should have the opportunity to vote on it again. It is in the interests of children and of co-ordinating our legislation.
I shall be brief, as we debated the matter at considerable length in Committee.
The right hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Alison) likened the measure to a horse race, and said that we should find out whether the horse is fit enough before the race starts. Frankly, that is not a good analogy.
The problem was raised in Committee more than once. Most couples who divorce do not make a sudden decision after a Saturday night tiff. They have often spent a long time trying to resolve their problems before they find out that it is impossible. When they reach the stage of conciliation and decide to separate for the benefit of the children and for their own peace of mind, legislation should assist that process. It should not encourage them to divorce, but should provide the facilities—through conciliation or whatever—to do so in the shortest possible time. I am absolutely convinced from my own experience—never mind that of my family and my constituents—that, the longer the process continues, the worse it is for the children.
I echo the point that has just been made. In a child's life, 21 months is a long time. The process is agony, and does not help the child at all. I have had discussions with the Solicitors Family Law Association in Sheffield, which is absolutely certain that, despite the fact that an 18-month period has been accepted, a 12-month period would be right. Any extra time would not solve any problems but would place greater burdens and pressures, especially on children.
Does my hon. Friend accept that, in the criminal courts, for example, the delay of the trial of a 13 or 14-year-old by 21 months would almost certainly be ruled an abuse of process? The criminal courts recognise that speed is essential in cases involving children.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. He is absolutely right. He knows the law a darned sight better than I do. I am not a lawyer, and therefore speak with much more freedom, if not emotion, on the subject.
I know that the Sheffield Solicitors Family Law Association works very hard to try to ensure that couples and their children genuinely go through a process of conciliation and thoroughly understand the implications involved. I respect it for that. It would find its task more and more difficult if the period was extended. It says:
The 12 month period originally proposed struck the right balance between supporting the institution of marriage, giving couples time to consider their decision to divorce, and allowing them to plan their future lives.
21 months is too long a period for the couple and their children to be left in limbo. The effect of the extended period would be that people would issue proceedings as early as possible to start the clock ticking, thereby threatening any prospects of reconciliation.
I totally agree with the logic of that argument. I hope that the amendment will be supported.
For once in my life, I disagree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Selby racecourse (Mr. Alison). The whole purpose of the change in Committee was to ensure that the first three months of the process after the information session was an opportunity for the couple to consider, in the light of the information that they had received, whether they were taking a step that they really wanted to take. If that process was effective, there is no doubt whatever that, over the following six to nine months, progress would be made, and, by the end of the nine months, they would decide that they did not want to go ahead with their proceedings.
If progress had not been made, and the situation was either static or deteriorating, the idea of lengthening the period still further seems absolutely fatal to the chances of further amicable relations after a divorce, and would be absolutely horrendous for the children. While the process is dynamic, there is everything to be said for giving every form of encouragement and support. Once the dynamism has gone, the idea of lengthening the process purely in order to have it on the statute book for some almost sadistic reason seems misguided.
I do not intend to speak for long, since I have already made most of the points that I want to make. I declare an interest as a practising lawyer, although rarely in the matrimonial field these days. From experience, it seems that, the longer the warring parties are kept together, the greater the problems for children. Indeed, from countless children's reports before juvenile courts and so on, it is apparent that, where children have, as it were, been the subject of a battleground, their period of intense distress, upset and anxiety has been during that battle.
I voted for the Second Reading of the Bill. I voted for the 12-month period, but we were beaten on that. I hope that those in another place will bring some common sense to bear. If we were to make the children suffer for any prolonged period, we would not be serving their interests.
The Bill should have been about children. Regrettably, it is not. It is very badly drafted; it is an appalling mess. If it proceeds any further, I hope that those in another place can do something to improve it, because it needs much improvement. Surely the child's interest is first, and surely the child's disturbed period should be kept to a minimum. I therefore urge the House to support the amendment.
My hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Sir J. Lester) correctly outlined what the House decided on the last occasion: that the period for waiting and reflection should normally be 18 months, unless there is consent and there are no children. We in no way seek to extend that period. The time for waiting and reflection will still be 18 months after the statement of marital breakdown.
However, after the House made that decision, a series of amendments were tabled in Committee, not least by the hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng) and me. He thought that there should be encouragement to marriage counselling at the information meeting, and a period of at least 28 days after that encouragement before a statement should be filed. I took the view that there should be a longer period of three months. The Government accepted the proposed three-month period, but that period runs after the information meeting and before the statement of marital breakdown.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Alison) said, information meetings will often result in divorce not being proceeded with. They may be held many months before divorce proceedings are taken. The then Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Evans), stated:
It has been suggested in some quarters—and, indeed, by the hon. Member for Brent, South—that the introduction of a three-month cooling-off period would necessarily lengthen the process to 21 months. However, parties engaged in the process of divorce tend to have taken their first legal advice 12 months or so before initiating the process, so there is no direct correlation between the time at which they first seek advice and the time at which it is decided to start the process of divorce."—[Official Report, Standing Committee E, 7 May 1996: c. 156.]
The problem with the amendment is that it will shorten the times for waiting and reflection from 18 months and 12 months, as they are at present, to 15 months and nine months. It could have a bad effect in forcing couples to tie up their affairs more quickly than they would otherwise want.
Lord Ackner, who is a leading practitioner in family matters, has explained that, in his experience, if there are contested proceedings on ancillary matters, it can take up to 18 months to sort them out. The amendment could put undue pressure on the parties. On those grounds, and because we accept the verdict of the House that the time for waiting and reflection should be 18 months—no more and no less—I hope that the House will reject the amendment.
We visited this issue at some length in Committee with a view to ensuring that there was a dedicated space during which it was possible for the parties to concentrate on reconciliation. We have considerably improved the Bill in that respect. We have created the opportunity, for those parties who seek it, to find pathways from the information session to one-on-one counselling, with the specific objective of saving marriages that can be saved. I am satisfied that, in so doing, we have fulfilled our responsibility, which was shared by all hon. Members on Second Reading, to strengthen the Bill on reconciliation for saving marriages that can be saved.
We took another decision on the Floor of the House on the length of the period for reflection and consideration. The House had the options of 12, 18 and 24 months. Like the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Sir J. Lester), I took the view that 12 months was right. The majority of Labour Members, on a free vote, took a similar view. However, the House came to a different view and chose 18 months. I respect that. This is not the time to revisit the matter or to seek to go behind that decision. However, we must reflect on the implications of the three months that have been added specifically for the reconciliation exercise that we have created.
I take the view, and the hon. Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) knows it, that three months is too long. I was concerned about the 28-day option in the light of the House's decision to go for 18 months. I would have preferred 12 months and then 28 days, or two months for the specific reconciliation period. However, the House took a particular view, and it would be quite wrong for us to create, in effect, a period of 21 months on the basis that that somehow underwrote our commitment to marriage.
It would be wrong to think that, by creating an additional hurdle, albeit a time hurdle, we would be bolstering marriage. We would not be doing that, because the reality of human relations and the process as we know it, whether we are lawyers who practise in the field, have been through it ourselves or have friends who have, is that there is only a narrow window of opportunity by which to save a marriage, and that it occurs at the very beginning.
That is why we emphasise this matter, and I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle for his role in that. At that stage there is a chance to save the marriage, but beyond that time, the sooner it is brought to an end, consistent with the need to put in place proper, just arrangements for children and finances, the better. Extending that period, which in effect we would be doing if the amendment were passed, does not serve any purpose at all.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Broxtowe for moving the amendment. It is a free vote, and hon. Members will do as their conscience dictates. I shall vote for the amendment, and I urge my colleagues to do likewise.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Sir J. Lester) on moving the amendment. I agree with its logic. It will be decided on a free vote, but it was important for my hon. Friend and for the hon. Members for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng) and for Barking (Ms Hodge) to remind the House of the substance of the debate when this matter was discussed in Committee of the whole House.
I did not serve on the Standing Committee, but I can see the logic of it adding a specific cooling-off period of three months between the information meeting and the act of filing the statement for divorce. But surely the intention was that that should be a concurrent and not a consecutive period.
I say to my right hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Alison) that I understand from the then Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Evans), that there was no intention that this should be a consecutive period. If there was a misunderstanding, I apologise on behalf of the Government. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnor for his sterling work in Standing Committee.
I cannot let this pass. If it was not the intention of the Minister, why on earth did he not make that clear at the time? I have read from the Official Report the passage in which the Minister supported my amendment and slapped down the arguments of the hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng). That passage is in column 156 of Hansard, Standing Committee E. The Minister had a chance to reject my amendment, but he accepted it.
Perhaps the Government changed their mind. I know not why, but they are entitled to do that or to try to get the Bill through Parliament, which is another matter. They should at least accept that, in Standing Committee, they accepted my amendment in its entirety.
A technical explanation may be that the Committee of the whole House debated clause 7 here and not in Standing Committee. I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett-Bowman), who intervened on that subject during this brief debate, that we could not make the consequential amendment, for technical reasons, because the Committee was not empowered to do so. Only the whole House on Report can address the issue.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) for quoting the column reference of the Standing Committee debate. It is made absolutely plain that the hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng) said that we would have to revisit the question of whether the period is 12, 18 or 24 months, or whether it is 15 months for reflection and consideration. It was flagged up in Committee by the hon. Gentleman that we would be coming back to the issue on Report. He said:
I look forward enormously to the debate on Report."—[Official Report, Standing Committee E, 7 May 1996; c. 156.]
It is open to the House on Report to decide whether it is matter of adding in the period for reflection, but not necessarily adding it on.
My right hon. Friend has been very kind, but he is telling us something that I am finding it difficult to be convinced by. My hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Evans), the previous Parliamentary Secretary, wrote to all colleagues on 22 May, sating that amendments were accepted in Committee to provide that a statement of marital breakdown could not be made until at least three months had passed from the time when the party making the statement had attended the information meeting. By no means can that be construed as concurrent to the beginning of the divorce proceedings.
My hon. Friend went on to state that acceptance of the amendments would allow time for parties to contemplate the possibility of reconciliation before the divorce process itself started. I do not see how one can have the doctrine of concurrency when so clearly defined is the proposition that the process of reconciliation should be consecutive.
I will not be able to persuade my right hon. and hon. Friends who oppose the amendment. It is important that the House addresses the issue on its merits, which are clear, in my judgment. The House considered carefully whether there should be a total period of 12 months for reflection and consideration, with an additional cooling-off period of three months between the information meeting and the filing of a statement of marital breakdown, during which time guidance, reconciliation and mediation might become available.
The amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe would allow a further nine months for reflection and consideration. This is a free vote, and I shall personally support the amendment.
I briefly wish to refer to amendment No. 103. I am not sure whether my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley) wishes to press the matter to a vote, but it is important briefly to address his argument.
My hon. Friend argues that the House did not have the opportunity of separating the two issues in the debate—the automatic extension of six months if one party objected, and the separate test if there were children under the age of 16. He said that he wanted to remove the second test, leaving only the automatic extension of six months if either party objected. I am bound to say that the House did have an opportunity to consider the issue, and voted for the amendment—on a free vote—by 200 to 196. The amendment was inserted into the Bill, and my hon. Friend is now seeking to amend it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Dame J. Knight) spoke for many when she said that the period of 18 months where children are involved is important. Her arguments were that many children want parents to stay together, but they want the parents to understand their obligations. Parents should be asked to make that extra effort. If I may encapsulate her arguments, they were that many children want parents to stay together, that children want parents to understand the obligations that they have taken on, and that parents should be asked to make that extra effort.
I appreciate that there are arguments on the other side. I have cited the support of the marriage and children's organisations for the arguments of my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham, and we have already passed new clause 12, which provides alleviation in certain circumstances—a new clause to which the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) spoke.
In all the circumstances, although it is a free vote, I take the liberty of saying that, if that amendment is pressed, I will not support it.
I need to say two things. First, to protect my hon. Friend the then Minister regarding what happened in Committee, I raised this question with him immediately, and he made it clear in his speech replying to the debate that it would be perfectly acceptable to return to this matter on Report. Any idea that he was committed to this being an addition rather than a part is wrong, and obviously it is up to him, on a free vote, to express what he feels.
Secondly, I believe my right hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Alison) misunderstands. I supported the changes proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) because I understood that it was important to have the three months at the beginning; but he may underestimate the purpose of the Bill, which has a period for reflection and consideration that was never available before. Throughout the period of the proceedings, people are able to reflect and consider. Help is available, and they can withdraw their divorce proceedings at any time during the entire period.
|Division No. 146]||[9.46 pm|
|Adams, Mrs Irene||Butler, Peter|
|Ainger, Nick||Byers, Stephen|
|Ainsworth, Peter (East Surrey)||Caborn, Richard|
|Alexander, Richard||Callaghan, Jim|
|Allen, Graham||Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)|
|Anderson, Ms Janet (Ros'dale)||Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)|
|Armstrong, Hilary||Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)|
|Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy||Campbell-Savours, D N|
|Ashton, Joe||Canavan, Dennis|
|Atkinson, David (Bour'mouth E)||Cann, Jamie|
|Baker, Nicholas (North Dorset)||Carlile, Alexander (Montgomery)|
|Baldry, Tony||Carrington, Matthew|
|Banks, Tony (Newham NW)||Channon, Rt Hon Paul|
|Barron, Kevin||Chapman, Sir Sydney|
|Battle, John||Chidgey, David|
|Bayley, Hugh||Chisholm, Malcolm|
|Beckett, Rt Hon Margaret||Churchill, Mr|
|Bennett, Andrew F||Clapham, Michael|
|Bermingham, Gerald||Clark, Dr David (South Shields)|
|Berry, Roger||Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)|
|Biffen, Rt Hon John||Clarke, Eric (Midlothian)|
|Boateng, Paul||Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Ru'clif)|
|Body, Sir Richard||Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)|
|Boswell, Tim||Clelland, David|
|Bradley, Keith||Clwyd, Mrs Ann|
|Brandreth, Gyles||Coe, Sebastian|
|Brooke, Rt Hon Peter||Coffey, Ann|
|Brown, N (N'c'tle upon Tyne E)||Cohen, Harry|
|Browning, Mrs Angela||Connarty, Michael|
|Burden, Richard||Cope, Rt Hon Sir John|
|Corbett, Robin||Hogg, Norman (Cumbernauld)|
|Couchman, James||Hoon, Geoffrey|
|Cousins, Jim||Hordern, Rt Hon Sir Peter|
|Cox, Tom||Howarth, Alan (Strat'rd-on-A)|
|Cummings, John||Howarth, George (Knowsley North)|
|Cunningham, Rt Hon Dr John||Howells, Dr Kim (Pontypridd)|
|Currie, Mrs Edwina (S D'by'ire)||Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)|
|Curry, David (Skipton & Ripon)||Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)|
|Dalyell, Tam||Hughes, Roy (Newport E)|
|Davies, Chris (L'Boro & S'worth)||Hunt, Sir John (Ravensbourne)|
|Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)||Hunter, Andrew|
|Davies, Ron (Caerphilly)||Hurd, Rt Hon Douglas|
|Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'dge H'l)||Illsley, Eric|
|Denham, John||Ingram, Adam|
|Devlin, Tim||Jack, Michael|
|Dewar, Donald||Jackson, Glenda (H'stead)|
|Donohoe, Brian H||Jackson, Helen (Shef'ld, H)|
|Dowd, Jim||Jackson, Robert (Wantage)|
|Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth||Jamieson, David|
|Dykes, Hugh||Janner, Greville|
|Eastham, Ken||Jenkin, Bernard|
|Eggar, Rt Hon Tim||Jenkins, Brian (SE Staff)|
|Etherington, Bill||Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)|
|Evans, John (St Helens N)||Jones, Ieuan Wyn (Ynys Môn)|
|Evans, Jonathan (Brecon)||Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C)|
|Fabricant, Michael||Jones, Lynne (B'ham S O)|
|Fatchett, Derek||Jones, Martyn (Clwyd, SW)|
|Faulds, Andrew||Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham)|
|Field, Frank (Birkenhead)||Jones, Robert B (W Hertfdshr)|
|Fishburn, Dudley||Jowell, Tessa|
|Fisher, Mark||Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald|
|Flynn, Paul||Keen, Alan|
|Forman, Nigel||Kennedy, Charles (Ross,C&S)|
|Forth, Eric||Kennedy, Jane (L'pool Br'dg'n)|
|Foster, Rt Hon Derek||Khabra, Piara S|
|Foster, Don (Bath)||Kilfoyle, Peter|
|Foulkes, George||Kirkwood, Archy|
|Fraser, John||Knight, Mrs Angela (Erewash)|
|Freeman, Rt Hon Roger||Knight, Rt Hon Greg (Derby N)|
|Fyfe, Maria||Knox, Sir David|
|Galbraith, Sam||Lait, Mrs Jacqui|
|Galloway, George||Lester, Sir James (Broxtowe)|
|Gapes, Mike||Lestor, Joan (Eccles)|
|Garel-Jones, Rt Hon Tristan||Lewis, Terry|
|Garrett, John||Liddell, Mrs Helen|
|Gerrard, Neil||Livingstone, Ken|
|Gillan, Cheryl||Lloyd, Rt Hon Sir Peter (Fareham)|
|Godman, Dr Norman A||Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)|
|Godsiff, Roger||Loyden, Eddie|
|Golding, Mrs Llin||Luff, Peter|
|Goodlad, Rt Hon Alastair||Lynne, Ms Liz|
|Gordon, Mildred||McAllion, John|
|Gorman, Mrs Teresa||McCartney, Ian|
|Graham, Thomas||McFall, John|
|Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)||MacKay, Andrew|
|Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)||McKelvey, William|
|Grocott, Bruce||Mackinlay, Andrew|
|Gunnell, John||McLeish, Henry|
|Hain, Peter||Maclennan, Robert|
|Hampson, Dr Keith||MacShane, Denis|
|Hanson, David||Madden, Max|
|Harman, Ms Harriet||Maddock, Diana|
|Harvey, Nick||Mahon, Alice|
|Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy||Mandelson, Peter|
|Hawkins, Nick||Marek, Dr John|
|Hayes, Jerry||Marland, Paul|
|Heald, Oliver||Marshall, Jim (Leicester, S)|
|Heathcoat-Amory, Rt Hon David||Marshall, John (Hendon S)|
|Hendry, Charles||Martlew, Eric|
|Heppell, John||Maxton, John|
|Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael||Meacher, Michael|
|Hill, Keith (Streatham)||Meale, Alan|
|Hinchliffe, David||Mellor, Rt Hon David|
|Hodge, Margaret||Michael, Alun|
|Hoey, Kate||Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)|
|Hogg, Rt Hon Douglas (G'tham)||Milburn, Alan|
|Miller, Andrew||Smith, Chris (Isl'ton S & F'sbury)|
|Moonie, Dr Lewis||Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)|
|Morgan, Rhodri||Soley, Clive|
|Morley, Elliot||Speed, Sir Keith|
|Morris, Estelle (B'ham Yardley)||Spellar, John|
|Morris, Rt Hon John (Aberavon)||Spencer, Sir Derek|
|Moss, Malcolm||Spicer, Sir James (W Dorset)|
|Mowlam, Marjorie||Spring, Richard|
|Mudie, George||Squire, Rachel (Dunfermline W)|
|Mullin, Chris||Squire, Robin (Hornchurch)|
|Murphy, Paul||Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John|
|Needham, Rt Hon Richard||Stevenson, George|
|Newton, Rt Hon Tony||Stott, Roger|
|Nicholson, Emma (Devon West)||Strang, Dr. Gavin|
|Norris, Steve||Straw, Jack|
|O'Brien, Mike (N W'kshire)||Streeter, Gary|
|O'Brien, William (Normanton)||Sutcliffe, Gerry|
|Olner, Bill||Taylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)|
|Oppenheim, Phillip||Taylor, John M (Solihull)|
|Ottaway, Richard||Taylor, Matthew (Truro)|
|Pawsey, James||Temple-Morris, Peter|
|Pickles, Eric||Thomason, Roy|
|Pickthall, Colin||Thompson, Sir Donald (C'er V)|
|Pike, Peter L||Thurnham, Peter|
|Pope, Greg||Tipping, Paddy|
|Prentice, Bridget (Lew'm E)||Touhig, Don|
|Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)||Townsend, Cyril D (Bexl'yh'th)|
|Prescott, Rt Hon John||Trickett, Jon|
|Primarolo, Dawn||Turner, Dennis|
|Purchase, Ken||Waldegrave, Rt Hon William|
|Quin, Ms Joyce||Walley, Joan|
|Radice, Giles||Wardell, Gareth (Gower)|
|Randall, Stuart||Wells, Bowen|
|Rathbone, Tim||Wheeler, Rt Hon Sir John|
|Raynsford, Nick||Whitney, Ray|
|Rendel, David||Wicks, Malcolm|
|Renton, Rt Hon Tim||Wiggin, Sir Jerry|
|Robertson, Raymond (Ab'd'n S)||Williams, Rt Hon Alan (SW'n W)|
|Roche, Mrs Barbara||Williams, Alan W (Carmarthen)|
|Rooker, Jeff||Winnick, David|
|Rooney, Terry||Wise, Audrey|
|Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)||Wolfson, Mark|
|Rowe, Andrew (Mid Kent)||Wood, Timothy|
|Sainsbury, Rt Hon Sir Timothy||Worthington, Tony|
|Scott, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas||Wray, Jimmy|
|Sheerman, Barry||Wright, Dr Tony|
|Shephard, Rt Hon Gillian||Young, David (Bolton SE)|
|Shore, Rt Hon Peter||Young, Rt Hon Sir George|
|Sims, Sir Roger||Tellers for the Ayes:|
|Skinner, Dennis||Mr. Peter Bottomley and Mr. Elfyn Llwyd.|
|Smith, Andrew (Oxford E)|
|Aitken, Rt Hon Jonathan||Butcher, John|
|Amess, David||Carlisle, John (Luton North)|
|Arbuthnot, James||Clappison, James|
|Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)||Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey|
|Atkins, Rt Hon Robert||Congdon, David|
|Atkinson, Peter (Hexham)||Conway, Derek|
|Banks, Matthew (Southport)||Coombs, Simon (Swindon)|
|Banks, Robert (Harrogate)||Dafis, Cynog|
|Bates, Michael||Davis, David (Boothferry)|
|Batiste, Spencer||Day, Stephen|
|Bendall, Vivian||Deva, Nirj Joseph|
|Bonsor, Sir Nicholas||Dixon, Don|
|Booth, Hartley||Dorrell, Rt Hon Stephen|
|Bowden, Sir Andrew||Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James|
|Bowis, John||Dover, Den|
|Boyson, Rt Hon Sir Rhodes||Duncan, Alan|
|Brazier, Julian||Duncan Smith, Iain|
|Bright, Sir Graham||Dunn, Bob|
|Brown, M (Brigg & Cl'thorpes)||Durant, Sir Anthony|
|Bruce, Ian (South Dorset)||Evans, David (Welwyn Hatfield)|
|Burns, Simon||Evans, Nigel (Ribble Valley)|
|Burt, Alistair||Evans, Roger (Monmouth)|
|Evennett, David||Page, Richard|
|Faber, David||Paice, James|
|Fenner, Dame Peggy||Paisley, The Reverend Ian|
|Field, Barry (Isle of Wight)||Patnick, Sir Irvine|
|Forsyth, Rt Hon Michael (Stirling)||Patten, Rt Hon John|
|Fox, Dr Liam (Woodspring)||Pattie, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey|
|Fry, Sir Peter||Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth|
|Gale, Roger||Pendry, Tom|
|Gallie, Phil||Porter, David (Waveney)|
|Gardiner, Sir George||Powell, Sir Ray (Ogmore)|
|Gill, Christopher||Powell, William (Corby)|
|Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles||Redwood, Rt Hon John|
|Gorst, Sir John||Riddick, Graham|
|Grant, Sir A (SW Cambs)||Robathan, Andrew|
|Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)||Roberts, Rt Hon Sir Wyn|
|Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth, N)||Robinson, Mark (Somerton)|
|Hague, Rt Hon William||Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne)|
|Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)||Rumbold, Rt Hon Dame Angela|
|Hardy, Peter||Shaw, David (Dover)|
|Hargreaves, Andrew||Shepherd, Sir Colin (Hereford)|
|Higgins, Rt Hon Sir Terence||Skeet, Sir Trevor|
|Hill, Sir James (Southampton Test)||Smith, Sir Dudley (Warwick)|
|Horam, John||Smyth, The Reverend Martin|
|Howard, Rt Hon Michael||Soames, Nicholas|
|Hughes, Robert G (Harrow W)||Spicer, Sir Michael (S Worcs)|
|Jessel, Toby||Spink, Dr Robert|
|Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey||Sproat, Iain|
|Jopling, Rt Hon Michael||Steinberg, Gerry|
|Kellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine||Stephen, Michael|
|Kirkhope, Timothy||Stewart, Allan|
|Knapman, Roger||Sumberg, David|
|Knight, Dame Jill (Bir'm E'st'n)||Sweeney, Walter|
|Kynoch, George (Kincardine)||Taylor, Sir Teddy (Southend, E)|
|Lang, Rt Hon Ian||Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)|
|Leigh, Edward||Thornton, Sir Malcolm|
|Lidington, David||Townend, John (Bridlington)|
|Lord, Michael||Tredinnick, David|
|McAvoy, Thomas||Twinn, Dr Ian|
|Macdonald, Calum||Vaughan, Sir Gerard|
|Maclean, Rt Hon David||Viggers, Peter|
|McLoughlin, Patrick||Walden, George|
|McNamara, Kevin||Walker, Bill (N Tayside)|
|Maitland, Lady Olga||Wallace, James|
|Marshall, David (Shettleston)||Ward, John|
|Martin, Michael J (Springburn)||Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)|
|Merchant, Piers||Watts, John|
|Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)||Widdecombe, Ann|
|Mitchell, Sir David (NW Hants)||Wilkinson, John|
|Moate, Sir Roger||Willetts, David|
|Molyneaux, Rt Hon Sir James||Wilshire, David|
|Monro, Rt Hon Sir Hector||Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)|
|Montgomery, Sir Fergus||Winterton, Nicholas (Macc'f'ld)|
|Nelson, Anthony||Yeo, Tim|
|Neubert, Sir Michael|
|Nicholls, Patrick||Tellers for the Noes:|
|Nicholson, David (Taunton)||Mr. Michael Alison and Mr. David Alton.|
|Onslow, Rt Hon Sir Cranley|