Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill [Lords]

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:22 pm on 8th June 2020.

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Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton 9:22 pm, 8th June 2020

“Can’t we just talk about it? Can I just know why?” Silence. Silence because there is no one to answer the young woman with a baby in her arms and a toddler at her feet, who has just received a notice in the post—a notice that says, “I am divorcing you. I am divorcing you in a few short weeks, and I do not have to give you a reason. I am giving you notice to quit on our relationship.” Of course, he could not do this to an employee. Well, certainly not after two years. That would be called unfair dismissal. He would have to give them a reason. He would have to talk. But this is not an employment relationship. It is a marriage, so unfair dismissal does not apply—a marriage entered into with the words, “For richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part”.

I cannot support this Bill. Legislation sends out a message, and the message that this Bill sends out is that divorce will be quicker and easier, regardless of what the Minister has said. This Bill will undermine an important understanding of the assumed permanence of marriage. I want to associate myself with the comments made in the excellent speeches by my right hon. Friends the Members for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne) and for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) and my hon. Friend Danny Kruger, because there is so much more I would like to say tonight that I cannot.

Of course, Government should be investing much more in relationship support—many of us have argued that for years, and this Bill should not be silent on that. The six-month period is simply too short, even as a minimum. I note what the Lord Chancellor says about the Family Procedure Rule Committee, but we need the Bill to be amended to provide for a longer period. There is no requirement, as there is now in divorce proceedings, for proof of service of the statement that the marriage has broken down before the 20-week clock starts ticking. That cannot be right. Technically, as I read the Bill, there could be a divorce shorter than eight weeks. The Secretary of State kept saying that these are not quickie divorces; I disagree. The Bill needs amending in that respect.

Ministers argue that the Bill will “remove the conflict flashpoints” inherent within the current legal process and

“minimise the potential for couples to entrench positions against each other”.

That simply fails to address the fact that conflict exists and is frequently exacerbated during negotiations relating to financial settlements and childcare arrangements, which the Bill does nothing to address. Ask any family lawyer, and they will tell you so. I spoke with one only today, who told me that he knows of no practising family lawyer enthusing about the Bill.

The Government make great play of the fact that removing any reason for a marriage breakdown will improve children’s life chances. This simply does not acknowledge that it is the very fact of parental separation which can be, and often is, an adverse childhood experience with long-term consequences. Moreover, the break-up of a low-conflict family can be just as, if not more, harmful to a child than a high-conflict one. Children who do not see conflict played out in front of them can be more likely to blame themselves when parents separate or assume they cannot rely on relationships, as they are likely to end for no apparent reason, and that family breakdown is more or less inevitable, with the sad consequence of their repeating that behaviour in their own lives.

There is likely to be an immediate increase in divorces—a spike that could last for a decade or more. People experiencing marital difficulties in the coronavirus crisis may be more likely to bail out following the introduction of no-fault divorce, under the impression that divorce is being made easier. Some of those marriages may well be saveable.

Citing fault on a divorce petition is unpleasant, and what is stated may, in some cases, not bear a resemblance to what has gone on. The Secretary of State said that such statements bear very little resemblance to reality. However, the Nuffield Foundation report, on which the Government rely, does not bear that out.