Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill [Lords]

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:44 pm on 8th June 2020.

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Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Shadow Minister (Justice) 9:44 pm, 8th June 2020

Having listened intently to the contributions made by colleagues today, I can say that this Bill has proved to be a little more contentious that I personally was expecting. It is clear that the Government have more problems with their own Back Benchers than they have with ours. We agree that this is a good Bill. It must be, because it is directly in line with Labour party policy.

We have had a good debate with some really excellent interventions and speeches. In answer to my hon. Friend Mr Perkins, who was concerned about court delays, the Secretary of State spoke of expanding capacity. Given the current backlog, I would be interested to hear a little more about that, so that the benefits of this Bill can be realised. My hon. Friend also spoke about his pride in his grandfather, A. P. Herbert, author of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1937. I am sure that his grandfather would be as proud of him today.

Steve Brine spoke about the values of marriage and expressed concerns about the timing of the Bill, given the potential for lockdown break-ups. Sir Robert Neill, the Chair of the Justice Committee, spoke as an Anglican, a person of faith, who was supporting the Bill because he believes in marriage. He spoke of other organisations, church and secular, that do likewise.

My hon. Friend Stella Creasy talked about how the last thing that families need is the state being a barrier. She went on to speak about children, as many others did—in her case, children who lost a parent but, because of our current system, lose out on the support available to those whose parents were married. I will come back to that subject later. Several Members spoke at great length about children and the impact of divorce on children, but it was Sir Desmond Swayne who spoke of children being used as weapons by their parents in a war against each other. He felt that making divorce easier would lead to more poverty in our society.

This Parliament has a duty to ensure that the decisions we make here and the laws that we create are laws of the real world. In an ideal world, marriage would be the result of two people falling in love and wanting to be together forever and to have that recognised in law. It is a lovely image and it does happen. My own parents have already been married for 66 years, and Evaline and I for 43. In fact, my right hon. Friend Mr Lammy, the shadow Secretary of State, could have been a four-year-old page boy at our wedding. However, it would be naive of the House to think that it happens like this all the time, and it would be ignorant of the House to assume there is always a fault when it comes to the breakdown of a marriage. People change over time and can be very different, apart from the physical signs of older age, from how they were 10, 20 or more years ago. There should not have to be blame on one of the two consenting adults wishing to end their marriage, and as we have heard, it is significantly better for any children involved that their parents are not embroiled in a nasty split.

This Bill is a common-sense approach to the reality of people’s lives and how they choose to live them. The option of not having to lay the blame at the door of one of the parties also means that obtaining a divorce can be simpler for those who are vulnerable or the victims of abuse. Many married couples are close friends and can continue to be friends after a divorce, but a divorce process that requires pointing fingers and blame can cause irreparable damage and prevent a co-operative and constructive relationship that could have been a positive thing, particularly where children are involved.

It is also not good enough that the current law says that, if a couple agree mutually to have a divorce, they have to be separated for a minimum of two years. As others have said, the very fact that one person can lock the other person in a marriage against their wishes for five years from separation by prolonging the process is nonsense. I do not believe that the decision to divorce comes lightly for either spouse. I do not believe that people simply wake up one day and both parties opt for a divorce. This is a deliberate, delicate and difficult decision, born out of months, perhaps years, of anguish before they decide to take the route to divorce.

Yes, I agree with people who have stood up today and said that they think support and counselling services should be stronger, and I believe that, but the law simply should not be forcing people to remain tied to each other for two years just to make sure that divorce is what they really want. If a couple do want to reconcile, that is their private business to do so, and I would certainly wish them well in their search for happiness. However, reconciliation is made even more difficult if they have to blame each other in order to start the divorce process. What must run through our divorce procedures is the aim of encouraging co-operation, and what we have now is a system that encourages conflict. When there are issues to do with financial support and childcare, the last thing we should want for that family is more conflict and unnecessary hurt.

The academic study called “Finding Fault?” found that 43% of those identified by their spouse as being at fault for the marriage breakdown disagreed with the reasons cited in the divorce petition. This is not a fair system and it is certainly not a decent one either. It can also be costly, with thousands of pounds spent on legal costs that could have been retained by the individuals and used to help them to get on with their lives. My right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham outlined in great detail other financial issues that show disadvantage for people at the lower end of the income scale and, of course, the lack of legal aid.

The changes made in the Bill are ones backed by policy makers, judges, stakeholders and the public, but there is more the Government can do to ensure protection for families that are modern in their image. For example, my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow spoke in detail about bereavement support for children where one parent dies and the parents were not married. When I wrote to the Government about this, I received a reply saying that

“A key principle of the National Insurance system is that all rights to benefits derived from another person’s contributions are based on the concept of legal marriage or civil partnership.”

But why? Can the Government explain their rationale further? What impact does this have on families where the parents are divorced? If they are no longer married, is that support lost? I would appreciate it if the Minister who winds up clarified the Government’s position on financial support for families where the parents are divorced, to which they would be entitled were they married.

Families do not look like they did 50 or even 10 years ago. We have moved forward in so many ways. People can marry whoever they love, irrespective of gender. Many children have been given permanent, safe and stable homes by same-sex parents; others have been brought up by unmarried parents who then split up. Why does the system not fully recognise modern families when it comes to these relationships ending? The world has changed for the good, but we need to keep going. How are the Government going to change other areas of family law to ensure that reality is reflected in our laws, and we embrace the many ways that a modern family can be? I know the Bill may not be the vehicle to deliver these particular changes, but I think it is time we did the best for our families.