Attendance at Information Meetings

Clause 8 – in the House of Commons at 9:45 pm on 17th June 1996.

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Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Parliamentary Secretary (Lord Chancellor's Department), Assistant Whip (Law Officers) 9:45 pm, 17th June 1996

I beg to move amendment No. 36, in page 6, line 6, leave out `the party or parties attending with relevant information' and insert `, in accordance with prescribed provisions, relevant information to the party or parties attending'.

Photo of Miss Janet Fookes Miss Janet Fookes , Plymouth Drake

With this, it will be convenient to discuss Government amendments Nos. 41 to 44.

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

Amendments Nos. 42, 43 and 44 were tabled in response to hon. Members' concerns. My predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Evans), agreed in Committee that he would further consider the inclusion of references to support for victims of domestic violence, to the availability of legal representation and to the provisions of the legal aid scheme in the list of matters on which information would be provided at information meetings held under clause 8.

It has always been the Government's intention that information about legal aid, legal services and protection from violence should be made available at information meetings, but concern was expressed that the list in primary legislation should not become over-detailed.

In proposing the amendments, however, the Government are seeking to address the strong concern felt by Opposition Members, by many Conservative Members and by people with experience in the field, who believe that the need to provide information about support for domestic violence and about the availability and workings of the legal aid scheme should be emphasised on the face of the Bill.

I have met representatives of the Women's Aid Federation, and I understand that they strongly support an amendment to provide information on what protection is available against violence and on how to obtain support and assistance. I believe that the amendments will improve the provisions of clause 8.

As has been emphasised on many occasions, the Government intend to pilot the workings of the information meetings. The list in primary legislation of the information that must be provided is not exhaustive and the Lord Chancellor has the power to add other provisions in regulations. It will be necessary to establish through the pilot exactly what information should be made available, the nature of its presentation, the content of any written information that should be given to parties and the necessary provisions to ensure that information giving is of the highest standard.

Amendments Nos. 36 and 41 ensure that the Lord Chancellor can set and maintain standards in relation to the quality of information and information giving. The information meeting is an important introduction to the divorce process. It may provide the assistance that couples need to re-evaluate their relationship and to take steps to save their marriage. Consequently, it is vital that the information meetings and information givers meet an approved standard.

Photo of Mrs Barbara Roche Mrs Barbara Roche , Hornsey and Wood Green

This is my first opportunity to congratulate the Minister on his promotion to the Front Bench. In Committee, he served with great distinction as a member of the Whips Office, so he will recall that I proposed a number of amendments relating to information meetings. We are pleased that the Government, at this extremely late stage, have come round to our way of thinking and are fleshing out the purpose of information meetings.

Such meetings are a radical departure in family law and must be treated carefully. As much information as possible about the pilot projects should be given to the House so that it can make a proper evaluation, because it is charged with the heavy duty of passing the legislation. Couples will often be required to attend information meetings when they are in difficult situations, so they may find the experience traumatic. In Committee, we proposed that meetings should be held in a location compatible with the dignity of marriage. Although such a provision is not part of the Government amendments, I hope that the Minister will reflect the spirit of my comments and make sure that pilot project meetings take place in suitable surroundings.

Understanding is also important, which means, in a multi-ethnic, multi-culture Britain, the provision of information in ethnic minority languages. I shall be interested to hear the Minister's comments on that.

It is important that information meetings are conducted in such a way that those attending them feel safe, enjoy privacy and are respected. We welcome the fact that information about access to legal aid will be provided. We welcome also the Government's climbdown. Having been a Whip myself, I know that it made sense for the Minister to hold that office, because he had the opportunity to hear the Opposition's recommendations in Committee. As soon as he became a Minister, he decided to implement them.

Amendment agreed to.

Photo of Miss Janet Fookes Miss Janet Fookes , Plymouth Drake

With this, it will be convenient to discuss Government amendments Nos. 38 to 40.

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

The amendments make minor drafting changes to tidy up clause 8 and assist in giving effect to amendments Nos. 36 and 41 to 44.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendments made: No. 38, in page 6, line 13, at beginning insert 'is'.

No. 39, in page 6, line 15, leave out 'a person who'.

No. 40, in page 6, line 21, leave out 'and'.

No. 41, in page 6, line 24, at end insert—

'(d) for information of a prescribed kind to be given only with the approval of the Lord Chancellor or only by a person or by persons approved by him; and
(e) for information to be given, in prescribed circumstances, only with the approval of the Lord Chancellor or only by a person or by persons approved by him.'.

No. 42, in page 6, line 34, at end insert—

`() protection available against violence, and how to obtain support and assistance;'.

No. 43, in page 6, line 36, at end insert 'and representation'.

No. 44, in page 6, line 36, at end insert—

`() the principles of legal aid and where the parties can get advice about obtaining legal aid;'.

No. 104, in page 6, line 40, at end insert— `() A meeting with a marriage counsellor arranged under this section—

  1. (a) must be held in accordance with prescribed provisions; and
  2. (b) must be with a person qualified and appointed in accordance with prescribed provisions.'.—[Mr. Streeter.]