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I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Marriage will always be one of the most vital institutions in our society, but we also have to face the sad reality that marriages sometimes breakdown. No one sets out thinking that their marriage is going to end. No one wants their marriage to break down. None of us is therefore indifferent when a couple’s lifelong commitment has sadly deteriorated. It is a very sad circumstance, but I believe that the law should reduce conflict when it arises. Where divorce is inevitable, this Bill seeks to make the legal process less painful, less traumatic. It does not, and cannot, seek to make the decision to divorce any easier. The evidence is clear that the decision to divorce is not taken lightly or impetuously. Indeed, it is typically a protracted decision based on months, if not years, of painful and difficult experience and consideration. The sad reality is that it is often too late to save a marriage, once the legal process of divorce has started. Once that decision has been reached, the parties need to move forward constructively. The Bill focuses on that very legal process.
My wife and I have been married for 33 years and my mum and dad and were married for almost 61 years. The sanctity of marriage is very important. Does the Minister not agree that more funding must be allocated to counselling services to provide trained help for those in marriage difficulties and to prioritise saving a marriage where there is still the will to do so but perhaps not the means to do so? The waiting list for free counselling with Relate stands at seven weeks in some areas of the country, and families cannot afford to pay for private counselling. Relate and counselling are so important in trying to save a marriage.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He cuts to one of the most important issues in the debate about divorce, and I absolutely agree with him on the merit of organisations such as Relate and the work that they do to support marriages that have run into difficulties. However, it is the sad experience that, by the time a decision to issue a divorce petition has been made, matters have gone beyond that, to a great extent—not in every case, but in my view, in the vast majority of cases.
The Government are working hard to support initiatives such as the troubled families programme and, in the last Budget, to invest more money into proper research into effective family hubs where work can be done to support families in conflict who are struggling and having difficulty keeping together. The work of the Department for Work and Pensions in the £39 million reducing parental conflict programme, even at this time of covid, is an example of the Government’s strong commitment to supporting families. We believe that the family is a vital component of what it takes to be a civilised society. It is the source of stability, safety, love and all those things that we should be cherishing as a society.
We are in the final year of that £39 million, and there is no guarantee as to what will happen in the next financial year. Could the Lord Chancellor reassure us that he will be a doughty champion with the Treasury and at the Cabinet table to ensure that that programme is renewed, reinvigorated and properly funded?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I can make the assurance that I, in my position as Lord Chancellor, will do everything I can to reinforce the important messages about the values of family. As a Conservative, they are particularly important to me, but I know that Members of all parties in this House share those values and from their own experiences believe in the family.
I want to add this comment: it is because I believe in the family that I think these measures are the right approach. Some people might think that is contradictory, but I do not believe so, because I think it is our responsibility in the legal process to try to reduce conflict, because conflict leads to emotional difficulty. It can lead to damage. It can lead to serious consequences, not just for the adults in the relationship but, let us face it, the children, too. We owe it to them to minimise in our legal processes, rather than maximise, the damage that can be caused.
One of the most important things for ensuring that families, when they do sadly break up, do so in an ordered way is an ordered financial process. We are one of the few countries in the world that I know about that does not have a process for pre and post-marital contracts. Does my right hon. and learned Friend not agree that this would have been the perfect opportunity to have brought in the wording that the Law Commission has already provided? It is sitting there and could be put into the Bill. Rather than leaving the courts to dictate the issue, this place should be dictating the issue. Will he consider that?
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend, who served for a considerable period in the Department I now have the honour of leading. He is right to talk about the financial consequences of breakdown. It is important to note the commitment made by my noble and learned Friend Lord Keen in the other place by way of a letter dated
I am extremely grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for giving way. The Law Commission also recommended that rather than reducing the time that people can get divorced within from two years to six months, it should be reduced to nine months. Given his willingness to concede on the previous point, will he at least look at that again?
I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend. I know that he, like me, is a doughty champion not only for the family, but the need to reduce conflict. I know that he makes his point passionately, but I would argue that the way in which this Bill is constructed makes the so-called quickie divorce a thing of the past. The minimum terms that we are talking about provide an equality of approach that will no longer discriminate in favour of those couples who perhaps have the means and the wherewithal to either separate and live separately or to employ the sort of lawyers who can, shall we say, get things done in a more expeditious way.
I stress to the right hon. Gentleman that the six-month term that has been naturally focused upon is a minimum. There will be divorces that take longer than that for reasons of complexity relating to each relationship. The point is that there will not be divorces that can take place in as quick a time as eight weeks, as is currently the case.
Reform of divorce law is supported not only by the lawyers, judges and mediators, but by the Marriage Foundation and, importantly, by evidence from academic research. It is evident that the law does not do what many people think it does. It cannot save a marriage that has broken down, nor can it determine who was responsible for that breakdown. Allegations made in a divorce petition by one spouse about the other’s conduct give no advantage in any linked proceedings about arrangements for children or financial provision for a spouse, yet the current law can perversely incentivise conflict. It requires an applicant for divorce or for the dissolution of a civil partnership to provide details to the court of the respondent’s unreasonable behaviour if their circumstances mean that they need to divorce before a two-year separation period. The incentive at the very start of the legal divorce process to attribute blame can only serve to antagonise parties at the most difficult time in their lives. Moreover, the court in practice has limited means by which to inquire into such alleged behaviour and must often accept what is said by one spouse at face value. This can be a source of real resentment for the other spouse.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on what he has said so far. This is an important Bill that we look forward to supporting. Does he agree that this legislation is needed all the more because of the huge backlog in the court system right now, and that, alongside the important measures that he is introducing, we really need some Government heft to support our legal system and clear away that backlog?
The hon. Gentleman is right to talk about the caseload, which covid has exacerbated. He will be reassured to know that the senior judiciary and Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service are working every day to expand the current capacity, to open more courts as we move away from the peak, and to look at alternative capacity in order to get as many cases running as possible and to deal with what must be an agonising wait for many families and victims. I would say—and I know that the hon. Gentleman would agree—that this Bill is not about the immediate crisis. It has been brought forward after long consideration, and has been dealt with very carefully in the other place. Indeed, it went through most of its stages in this House during the last Parliament, and represents an important milestone in the evolution of our approach to the sensitive and difficult subject of divorce.
I was talking about the perverse position whereby the current attribution of blame does not benefit anyone or serve society’s wider interests. Instead, it can create long-lasting and often bitter resentment at the outset, precisely at a time when couples need to work together to agree arrangements for their children and their finances. Furthermore, the simplistic allocation of blame to meet a legal threshold does not really reflect the reality that responsibility for a marriage breakdown may be shared. Marriages sadly end for a multitude of reasons. Existing law does not reflect that reality, and the truth is that we have stretched the law for a number of years in order to set out behaviour particulars sufficient to satisfy the court and obtain a divorce—a form described by the former president of the family division, Sir James Munby, as intellectual dishonesty.
I accept the immense good faith with which my right hon. and learned Friend brings this Bill to the House, but does he share my concern, sadness and pain for the grandparents involved in any situation where there is family separation?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to remember the wider family concerns, and the difficult position that grandparents—often on both sides of the divide—face when it comes to issues of contact and the welfare of much-loved grandchildren. He is right to remind us that that is a real dimension of the situation.
I have to be honest with the Lord Chancellor: I am troubled by his Bill, but I am not yet entirely sure why and I am listening for him to give me a reason. It almost feels as if we are trying to prevent something from pulling apart by seeking to bind it together even tighter—almost “What the law has bound together let no one put asunder.” Does he agrees that, as a society, we should invest more heavily in relationships, in preparation for marriage and in conflict resolution? I remember myself and Mrs Brine doing that, which is why we are so happily married—17 years next week. If that were the case, maybe fewer relationships would fail.
My hon. Friend makes the point extremely eloquently that all of us are concerned about the institution of marriage. Those of us who value it and who are part of it can see its benefits, but we are concerned to see a decline in its use—a decline in committed relationships. This Bill will not solve those problems. It will not stop those problems. This is a Bill about the legal process. I do not pretend that, through this legislation, we can solve some of the sociological issues that he raises, but he is right to look through the telescope the right way. My worry is that, however well-intentioned those who are properly concerned about the details of the Bill might be, we are in danger of looking through the telescope the wrong way if we focus our attention on this process, as opposed to what might happen at the beginning.
I am grateful to the Lord Chancellor, and I support the Bill. Is it not an important argument, which I hope my hon. Friend Steve Brine will take on board, that it is clear from research by practitioners and academics that the requirement to allege fault does nothing to protect the institution of marriage or alter the divorce rate or the breakdown rate? That is exactly why it is right to look through the right end of the telescope, not the wrong one.
My hon. Friend will recall his Court of Appeal appearances, where the tribunal might have said, “Mr Neill, that’s your best point. You needn’t go any further.” He makes an important point on the issue of blame; it does not help anybody when it comes to these issues.
The clear purpose of the Bill is to reduce conflict, because conflict does not help when it comes to the legal end of a marriage. That can only be to the advantage of divorcing couples and their children, because children’s best interests are most clearly served by the reduction of conflict and the co-operation of divorcing parents who work together to ensure that they co-parent effectively. The Bill will help couples to focus on a more constructive way of collaborating in making future arrangements that are best for their family—in essence, looking forward rather than backward.
I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for giving way a second time. The acid test is: as a result of this legislation, will there be more divorces or fewer? It is my contention that if we make something easier, people are more likely to do it.
I understand entirely my right hon. Friend’s concerns. The number of divorces has declined in recent years, but that perhaps goes back to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester about the beginning of it, because the number of marriages has declined in proportion since 1972, just under 50 years ago. Taking the long view, one should focus upon the beginning of the process—the nature of the commitment, the solemnity of that commitment and the importance of that relationship and that commitment—rather than the detail of the end process.
This Government’s proposals will apply equally to married couples and civil partners. While I conveniently refer to the concept of marriage and divorce, the principles and effects apply equally to civil partnerships and their dissolution. Husbands, wives and civil partners will no longer need to produce or face a real or perceived catalogue of failings in respect of their most intimate relationship. There is a strong common view underlying the proposals in the Bill, built upon the foundation of a significant evidence base.
Of course, it is not necessary to make any allegation under the present law—people do not have to prove fault if they rely on separation. In addition to the present grounds for divorce, why do we not go down the Scottish route of having a no-fault provision, perhaps of a year? In Scotland, all but 5% of divorces are no-fault. Why do we not have a moderate measure such as the one in Scotland?
As ever, I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his constructive approach. He quite properly seeks to make a comparison with a nearby jurisdiction—a next-door jurisdiction—but I believe that taking a more comprehensive approach will cure problems for the long term. Rather than encouraging a piecemeal approach to divorce reform—in other words, coming back to it in very short order—we are creating a Bill that will, I believe, endure for a considerable period of time.
Let us remember that the evolution of divorce law has involved significant moments in parliamentary history: there was the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 and the Divorce Reform Act 1969, which of course led to the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973, which brought together a lot of the legislation on such issues. These things are not done, and I do not think they should be done, from Parliament to Parliament; they should have a longer shelf life, bearing in mind the gradual evolution of the law in this area.
I will just make some progress. I will of course allow for interventions in a proportionate way, remembering the time pressures that we are all under.
The Bill purposefully does not seek to change the other aspects of divorce law for financial provision—I dealt with that issue in my response to an intervention from my hon. Friend Mr Djanogly. It is more than half a century since the Divorce Reform Act 1969 gave rise to the current law. There is only one legal ground for divorce or dissolution—namely that the marriage has broken down irretrievably—but existing law requires that the petitioner must satisfy the court of at least one of five facts before the court will hold that the marriage has broken down irretrievably. Three of those facts—unreasonable behaviour; adultery, which does not apply in respect of civil partnerships; and desertion—rely on the conduct of the respondent. Two of those facts rely on the parties’ separation—namely two years, if both parties consent, and otherwise on the basis of five years’ separation.
Around two out of five divorces in England and Wales currently rely on the two years’ separation fact. The parties must have been separated for at least two years before the presentation of the divorce petition. However, that route to divorce can be used only if the respondent consents; if the respondent does not agree, it is a five-year wait before the divorce can be granted.
Around three out of five petitioners for divorce rely on the conduct facts—that is, unreasonable behaviour, adultery or, in rare cases, desertion. In only around 2% of cases does a respondent indicate an initial wish to contest a petition. Such initial opposition can often be driven by strong disagreement with what has been said about them by the other spouse in the petition. Of those contested petitions, each year a mere handful proceed to a trial at which the respondent’s case is heard. It is abundantly clear that marriages are not saved by the ability of a respondent to contest a divorce, because marriage is—has to be—above all things a consensual union.
I set out at the beginning that the current law incentivises many divorcing couples to engage in proceedings that quickly become acrimonious, even if it had been the intention to divorce amicably. Research shows that spouses are often surprised when told by a solicitor that they must either choose to wait a minimum of two years to divorce or be prepared to make allegations about the other spouse’s conduct. Although this is no longer the world of the staged scene of adultery in a hotel so criticised by the great A. P. Herbert, former Member of Parliament in this House and the author of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1937, it is right that we pause for thought about a situation wherein the law and circumstances are stretched in a way that does not help anybody, least of all the lawmakers themselves. It is a great poetic irony that A. P. Herbert went on to write the smash-hit musical “Bless the Bride” some years after he helped to author that major reform to the law of divorce, but perhaps that story itself makes an eloquent point: those of us who seek to make changes in this sensitive area of the law can, in the same breath, absolutely celebrate the institution of marriage and the values that surround it.
I have found the reason I referred to. I think the unease that many feel about this legislation is the timing of it—the so-called lockdown break-ups. I can understand why that is a sensitive issue at a sensitive time on what the Lord Chancellor rightly says is a sensitive matter. What would he say to those who oppose this legislation on the grounds that it is a difficult time to be introducing so-called quickie divorces?
First of all, no time is an easy time. This is a sensitive matter at all times. Secondly, these are not quickie divorces. We are regularising the position to end the so-called quickie and to equalise the position with regard to minimum terms. We must, I believe, accept that divorce is a sad and unhappy consequence of relationship breakdown, not a driver for it.
I thank my right and learned hon. Friend for giving way. I am listening hard to what he is saying in the hope that he might be able to persuade me to support his Bill. I know that he brings it forward with exactly the right motives. He talks about the evolution of our divorce laws and the long-term view and so on, but will he accept that over the past 30 or 40 years, each time that we have made a change, we have said that we are putting in safeguards and putting additional support into mediation or whatever it had to be, but the trend has continued in the same direction? This Bill has been labelled, for better or worse, the quickie divorce Bill and labels stick. Will he accept that that gives the wrong signal to society?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend on his last point.
This is not—I repeat not—a quickie divorce bill, and he is right to say that we in this House owe it to all our constituents to send the right message. Let me put it straight—this is a matter that he might not agree with: I do not believe that issues of reform of the process of divorce are germane to the issue of marriage itself. The question that was posed by my hon. Friend Steve Brine is indeed the right one, about society’s attitudes to relationships, the values that are inculcated in young people, and the level of understanding and insight into the nature, degree and complexity of the commitment to join in union, whether it is marriage or civil partnership. All of those are actually the relevant issues to the future of marriage and this Bill will not, should not, and does not have a consequence for those issues.
As someone who is tragically going through the divorce process and has had to put blame on my partner when I would have preferred to have had a no-fault divorce, I ask my right hon. and learned Friend to reaffirm the message that this is, in no way, a quick decision. As someone going through this process, I can say how painful it is. It was not a decision that I came to easily, but this type of legislation would not require the burden of guilt to be applied to one person or the other.
My hon. Friend has shared a difficult and sensitive experience with the House, for which we are grateful, and he puts it extremely powerfully. This is not about blame or guilt; it is about acknowledging the fact that the causes of divorce are very complex and will evolve often over a long period of time. I am grateful to him for his powerful contribution. No one benefits, least of all the children of the relationship, from the requirement for parties to dredge up the past in order to end a legal relationship that is no longer beneficial or functioning. It is not in the public interest and cannot be right that the law would encourage one parent to be pitted against the other, when we all know the deeply damaging impact that parental conflict has on children.
Indeed, the limitations of the court process are not particularly well understood by the public. Under existing law, the legal fact that many people choose as their route to divorce bears little resemblance, as my hon. Friend says, to the reality of why a marriage has broken down. A respondent may have behaved despicably, yet a petitioner may reluctantly decide to rely on two years’ separation through fear of abusive repercussions should he or she allege unreasonable behaviour. Likewise, a petitioner may, from a desire not to have to wait for two years, feel compelled to embellish the unreasonable behaviour of a respondent beyond what one might ordinarily expect in normal marital discord. The concept of unreasonable behaviour is also purely subjective, so that what is unreasonable to one spouse in a marriage may not be at all unreasonable to another spouse in a different marriage.
I need to make some progress, because I am conscious of time.
The lack of transparency and objectivity means that a spouse who is trying not to cause unnecessary hurt risks not meeting the legal threshold. That has consequences, for example, for victims of domestic abuse and can lead to the manufacture of blame between couples who might have grown apart entirely amicably.
What we are creating is a level playing field. Our equal-handed approach will allow all couples to use the same legal process and will not favour couples who can afford to live apart before their divorce. Vulnerable parties will no longer have to work out whether they can afford to be separated for two years, or face the danger of presenting conduct particulars in respect of an abusive spouse. Our proposals remove many obstacles currently faced by victims of domestic abuse in the legal process of divorce. Victims will not have to place themselves in danger by detailing their abuser’s conduct; they will not have to remain in a legal relationship for a further two or more years in order to rely on a separation fact; and they will not have to fear an abusive spouse exerting their control by contesting the divorce. This position has to be changed, and divorcing couples must be given every opportunity to avoid conflict.
In developing our proposals, we have reflected on a wide range of views, including from the profession, the judiciary and couples themselves, that emerged during our consultation process and from evidence given during consideration of the Bill in the previous Session of Parliament. We have also considered and continue to consider carefully the views of those who oppose reform, although, with respect, I think that there is something of a disconnection between what some think the current law does and what it actually does.
With all that in mind, I will talk briefly about the measures in the Bill. The two stages of divorce and dissolution are maintained. The current decree nisi and decree absolute become a conditional order and then the final order. Always, the intention is to make the process more understandable and more accessible to everyone who seeks to use it, but we have retained the two-stage process because it ensures that a divorce is never automatic; rather, the decision should be considered and intentional at each stage. The reform will retain irretrievable breakdown as the sole legal ground for divorce and dissolution, but replace the current requirement to evidence that with a conduct or separation fact, as outlined in the statement of irretrievable breakdown. Indeed, the statement itself will be conclusive evidence that the marriage or civil partnership has irretrievably broken down; it therefore removes the possibility of contesting the decision to end that relationship, which currently only 2% of spouses do. Importantly, and for the first time, couples will be able to make a joint application where the decision to divorce is mutual. That will create a level playing field for joint applicants and encourage them to work together from the very beginning of the process.
As I have said, the new minimum period of 20 weeks is all part of the drive to create an equal, level approach. It ends any suggestion of so-called quickie divorce. In addition to the 20-week minimum period, the current six-week minimum period between conditional and final orders will remain, so six months is a minimum, not a maximum or absolute time limit. As is currently the case, a conditional order may not be pronounced unless the court is satisfied in relation to service on the respondent.
We are aware of the concerns of hon. and right hon. Members and the Law Society about the question of delayed service where this is done by the applicant’s spouse, and we will of course work with the Family Procedure Rule Committee on that point, and indeed on the point about making sure that divorce does not end up being a complete surprise to a respondent who perhaps knew nothing about service. We will, through the Family Procedure Rule Committee, make sure that those important concerns are dealt with.
Our proposals allow time for the applicant to consider the practical implications of the important decision to divorce. We estimate that, under the new law, the legal process of divorce will take longer for about four fifths—80%—of couples, after taking account of the projected impact of the take-up of the streamlined, digitised divorce service. That means that the question of quickie divorce is one that is wholly refuted, I believe, by the provisions and, indeed, the evidence that underlies this new reform.
The Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend Alex Chalk, will, in his summing up, deal with other points that arise through the Bill. I know hon. Members will have read its provisions and it would perhaps be idle of me to go through all of them in order. This is not a long Bill, but it is, I concede, a significant one—no, I do not concede; I make no apology for the fact that it is a significant Bill, because we are talking about the lives of people we represent, and about making this sensitive and difficult process an easier one.
Importantly, apart from maintaining the balance, we will retain the existing triple lock that requires an applicant to confirm the decision to proceed with the divorce at each of the three stages, meaning that divorce will never be, to coin a phrase, automatic. First, the applicant must apply for the divorce; secondly, they must, after the end of the minimum 20-week period, confirm to the court that it should make the conditional order; and, thirdly, following the expiration of a further minimum six-week period, the applicant must apply for the final order of divorce.
This, I believe, is a measured Bill, which we shall implement in a measured way. I pray in aid the spirit of one of my predecessors, the great Tory Lord Lyndhurst, who, as my right hon. Friend Sir John Hayes will know, was no lover of reform. But at the end of his long and distinguished parliamentary career in the other place, he spoke passionately about the rights of women and the abandoned party in Victorian marriages, and paved the way, as a Tory, for the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857. He is a predecessor whom I invoke today, and in whose spirit I move the Second Reading of this Bill.
I thank the Secretary of State for his speech introducing this important piece of legislation. Labour welcomes this Bill, which offers a common-sense approach that continues to respect the institution of marriage and civil partnerships, but avoids unnecessary antagonism and costs for people dealing with an often incredibly difficult time in their lives.
Sir James Munby, the former eminent president of the family division, has described the current divorce laws and procedures as “hypocritical” and based on “intellectual dishonesty”. As Sir James pointed out in his damning judgment in the infamous case of Owens v. Owens, the requirement of many couples to evidence unreasonable behaviour can lead to farce.
It was 30 years ago now that I studied Evelyn Waugh’s “A Handful of Dust” for A-level English, and as the Secretary of State might recall, in the case in Waugh’s novel, the character Tony is forced to spend a platonic weekend in Brighton with a sex worker to fake evidence to allow his divorce. That, of course, was set in the early period of the 20th century. It is surprising that it has taken that long to update these laws.
Divorce is an unhappy event in the lives of many. It has a profound effect on families, and on children in particular. It is important that the law does not force couples into an adversarial contest when a breakdown in a relationship occurs, but allows and encourages them to resolve matters in a constructive way. The Bill modernises the law, which has been fundamentally unchanged for more than half a century, so that it better reflects the realities of a breakdown in a relationship, better protecting the most vulnerable who attempt to come out of an abusive relationship and simplifying the process of ending a marriage or civil partnership without undermining its social and cultural importance.
The divorce process today is archaic and confusing to most people as they enter into an emotionally fraught process. The law forces parties who are going through a divorce to choose between evidencing one of the three fault-based facts about their partner: unreasonable behaviour, adultery or, less commonly, desertion. If neither party is willing to make such an application, the parties must separate but remain married for a period of two years, or five years if one party disputes the divorce. The option for couples today is entering into a lengthy and costly adversarial legal proceeding, or delay and legal limbo.
Both routes lead to difficulties for all and a real risk of harm to others. Couples who enter the process amicably can be quickly pulled apart by the law. There is an incentive for each party to make accusations about the other’s conduct, and that cannot be right. Some couples can easily live apart and bide their time, but for others, moving into separate accommodation without a finalised divorce and any financial settlement is impossible. That is why so many charities and campaign organisations that work with victims of domestic abuse have called for reform in this area for many years.
The new law will allow and promote conciliation and compromise. That will be of real help for families and children of broken relationships. Importantly, it will reduce legal costs that can quickly reach eye-watering sums, quite unnecessarily.
I am so pleased to see the right hon. Gentleman back on the Opposition Front Bench. He is a dear old friend, but he is quite wrong about this. These provisions declare at the outset that the marriage is irreconcilable. If that happened at the end of the process rather than the beginning, he would be right; an opportunity for reconciliation, and perhaps rethinking, as a result of counselling might be possible. That is not the case with the proposals we have before us tonight.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. Ever since I first came into this House, it is true: we have had a sort of friendship across the aisle. I say that with a degree of humour, to which I know he is disposed himself. He raises an important issue, but I think the point is that the Bill allows for a period in which couples can reflect, and for mutuality between partners. We in this country are taking an important step, whereby two adults contemplating the breakdown of their relationship can reflect and pause, or come to a mutual agreement and step away from some of the antagonism that the system used to create.
First, the new law does not force couples into an adversarial dispute, but allows for an account of the breakdown in the relationship to reflect nuanced reasoning. That is provided by a simple statement. Importantly, for the first time couples will be able to make this statement jointly. In many circumstances, this will help couples to work together constructively to put a legal end to a relationship that is already broken. Indeed, the new law means that couples will now have the option of a joint application for divorce—a welcome and sensible new provision that must be good for children in particular.
This approach strikes the right balance between respecting the profound role marriage and civil partnerships play in our society, while also allowing for amicable resolution to relationships ending. This is not the introduction of shotgun divorces. The process will still take time, providing for reflection and perhaps a reunion. The new law has been welcomed by many relationship and family charities, such as Relate, which has long called for reform in this area. The minimum time for the application to a final divorce will be 26 weeks, which Relate has welcomed as providing the time to reflect, to give things another go if appropriate, and to access counselling and mediation. In reality, of course, couples have often contemplated and discussed separation for a long time before legal proceedings begin.
Secondly, the Bill ends a reliance for amicable couples unwilling or unable to make allegations about one another to separate and remain married for a further two or sometimes five years. This leaves couples in limbo, married but unable to make other arrangements. The current law is often counterproductive to any hope of reconciliation, as it can put off couples from moving back in with one another for fear of having to start the separation process once more. This can also be incredibly dangerous. Women’s Aid has highlighted the barrier for many women leaving abusive relationships, which is compounded by current divorce law. With over half of survivors of abuse shown to be unable to afford to leave the family home and with the decline of refuge accommodation, women are forced to rely on fault-based facts in any divorce proceedings, making accusations in litigation that can often increase their risk of harm. Indeed, figures show that 77% of women killed by their partners are killed in the year following separation. The current law also drags out the process of separation, which can affect the vulnerable in society. Many women have reported that lengthy divorce proceedings, and the adversarial nature of them, have given an opportunity to abusers to continue to torment them. It may be claims of a lost marriage certificate, not attending court or issuing spurious cross-allegations, but a perpetrator can prolong proceedings, causing more harm. Some people’s circumstances require a faster conclusion to the legal relationship. The Bill will go some way to helping them.
More broadly, the law as it stands discriminates against those on low incomes. For some who can afford to live separately, a no-fault divorce is perfectly viable, but others must make accusations of the other’s behaviour if they cannot afford such an arrangement. The Law Commission recognised that all the way back in 1990, stating:
“It is unjust and discriminatory of the law to provide for civilised ‘no-fault’
ground for divorce, which, in practice, is denied to a large section of the population.”
This Bill rights that wrong and it is long overdue.
Thirdly, the Bill removes the opportunity to contest a divorce. However, in reality, even now a party cannot simply argue that they want to remain in the marriage, but must identify a legal reason why the divorce must be refused. The law as it stands does not prevent disputes or help to bring about reconciliation, but instead only serves to aggravate a conflict that can be manipulated by perpetrators of domestic violence to further torment a partner. The Bill safeguards important procedural challenges—jurisdiction, fraud, coercion—but it will prevent the unnecessary dragging out of traumatic proceedings.
Finally, the Bill modernises the language of divorce. While a modest reform, many family practitioners in this area speak of their clients’ bewilderment at terms such as decree nisi and decree absolute. More accessible phrasing is important. It is a reminder that the law must serve all people, not just those who are legally trained.
Therefore, Labour welcomes this Bill, but these reforms must be put into context. The cuts to legal aid over the past decade mean that parties do not receive any support—none at all—in divorce proceedings, whatever their financial circumstances. In the year immediately preceding the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, 58% of parties were recorded as having legal representation in family cases that had at least one hearing, but that has reduced to just 36%, which means more people are acting as litigants in person during the divorce process. If a separation is acrimonious, the lack of legal advice can make an already stressful situation even worse. In courts across the country the effects of that are being felt: hearings take longer; more are emotionally heated without a focus on the law, because there are no lawyers representing the parties; and the process is more burdensome and stressful for all concerned—the judiciary, who have to hand-hold the parties through the process, and the parties who have to represent themselves.
The lack of legal advice can also lead to delay. Despite the Government introducing online divorce applications, the average time from the first stage to completing the divorce was 58 weeks last year, an increase of three weeks. The delays have effects on the couples, who often want to get on with their lives but are held back by a lack of early legal advice. Without such professional advice, the process for the parties, their families and, in particular, children, is inevitably emotionally strenuous. As Baroness Hale said, upon leaving the bench:
“It’s unreasonable to expect a husband and wife or mother and father who are in crisis in their personal relationship to make their own arrangements without help”.
She has also highlighted something else that is not fair, which is the potential for an imbalance in resources because of the lack of access if, for example, there is a wealthy applicant and a respondent without access to funds. Some studies suggest that legal fees for divorces can cost £8,000, on average. That is simply unaffordable for large groups in the population, but there is no legal aid provision at all. Ironically, the legal aid system introduced by the Attlee Government with the aim of guaranteeing access to justice was initially focused on divorces, where numbers rose exponentially after the war; after a decade of a Conservative Government, it is not provided for at all in these circumstances. The Bill will certainly help couples going through this process, but further investment in legal aid is necessary to ensure that justice is being done fairly for all. I hope that the Secretary of State might say something about the position on legal aid during the course of this Bill, but Labour supports this Bill and will support the Government in the Lobby.
This is an important Bill and I support it, because I am a practising Anglican and because I take marriage seriously. If I thought it undermined marriage, I would not support it, but I genuinely do not think it does. I do not believe that anyone embarks upon a marriage intending it to break up—I did not with my first marriage, but it did. As my wife and I were both people of faith, that created heartbreak for us, as it would create concern for many of my right hon. and hon. Friends who have concerns about the Bill, but the sad reality is that divorce often comes at the end of a lengthy period of breakdown and is not, of itself, the catalyst.
It behoves those of us who wish to have a civilised justice system to make it possible for that sad reality to be dealt with in as civilised, compassionate, swift, and humane way as possible, not least if there happen to be children from the marriage, or where one of the parties might be vulnerable, financially or in other ways.
The requirement to prove fault as one of the facts to show irretrievable breakdown unhappily does not help that process—hence my intervention on the Lord Chancellor —and regrettably it imports, at the very beginning, a degree of antagonism into a legal process. Indeed, it goes further than that, as Sir James Munby, a distinguished former president of the Family Division observed, because it almost encourages people to be intellectually dishonest and to game the system. It cannot be right that all too often—I say this having spoken to many practitioners in the field—the first discussions between the two parties’ solicitors will be along the lines of, “What is the minimum allegation that my client can make against your client, that will meet the test but will not cause undue offence?” That is a pretty painful, and rather sad and dishonest process for people to have to go through, and it detracts from what ought to be the real point of saying, “Can we make sure that the parties are left in the best possible position, either financially or in terms of the children?” Removing that degree of antagonism, delay, and cost seems to me a civilised thing to do.
It is neither humane nor particularly Christian to trap people in an unhappy marriage, particularly if one of the parties is unable to move out of the matrimonial home and that prolongs matters. I therefore welcome the Bill, and it is significant that it is supported by Resolution, which represents 6,500 family law practitioners. The Bill is also supported by every senior member of the judiciary with experience in the family field, and it chimes with my experience as a young barrister, when I did some family work before moving on to other spheres of activity.
Finally in support of the reasons for the Bill, I say this. If there is to be protection, it is important that the Lord Chancellor retains the protection in paragraph 10 of the schedule for the financially vulnerable claimant, given that under the Bill, conduct can be taken to the courts when assessing the appropriate measures to take. The right place for any conduct to be considered is when working out arrangements thereafter; we should not be creating an antagonistic start to recognising the breakdown of the marriage, yet that has happened. If conduct is relevant—often it is not—let us consider it in the right place, and that is what the Bill does.
Finally, I will pray in aid someone whom I quoted in an earlier debate on a Bill almost exactly like this one during the previous Parliament. That Bill was not opposed at Second Reading, and I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends will reflect before opposing this Bill tonight. Sir Paul Coleridge, chairman of the Marriage Foundation, and a former High Court judge of the Family Division, practised family law throughout the whole of his career—again, he happens to be a practising Christian. His conclusion was that the current situation is an intolerable block on people’s ability to move on with their lives. Waiting for the five or two-year period of consent does not reflect the fact that if there has been a lengthy breakdown, people may already have met other partners or be hoping to have new families and move on. Indeed, he went further than that and said that we now have a system that drives people to lie to the court if they are not prepared to wait for two years or longer. That is wrong—we cannot have a justice system that encourages that. Sir Paul Coleridge said:
“An intelligent process to end unsustainable marriage is good for the reinvigoration of the most important social arrangement yet devised for mankind.”
That is a broad and humane view, and I endorse it in the House.
I rise to join my colleagues on the Front Bench in supporting the Bill, which recognises the tragedy that happens when a relationship breaks down. The last thing anybody wants is for the state to be a barrier to people being able to move forward from that. I also rise on behalf of a small number of young people—indeed, Ministers could be advocates for them—who are those affected by their parents’ status of divorce, and the way that we see marriage within broader public policy making. We do not often get legislation on marriage, so I hope the Minister will forgive me for taking the opportunity to make this plea when discussing the Bill. He talked about sending signals. I think we are quick to jump to send signals to the parents and we must not, at the expense of the children, damage the children’s lives.
I am talking about, in particular, the group of children who may not only face their parents becoming divorced but then might also lose a parent—and, in particular, their entitlement to support under our current system through the bereavement support system. There are 2,000 families every single year who face the horror of losing a parent, whether through a terminal illness or a sudden death. Indeed, in our current circumstances, there may be families right now who are facing this situation through the horror of the virus that has taken over this country. Those families discover that because of their status under our current legislation, they are not entitled to support, so the children face destitution.
Many of us will have seen these families in our constituencies, given the 3.5 million people who choose to have children and decide not to get married. I know that marriage is something people feel very strongly about in this debate. There are also families where, when the parent gets divorced, those same entitlements are lost to the child. We are unusual as a country in attaching the entitlement to support to the parent rather than the child. When we talk tonight about the financial situation that divorce might create and how we might support families, I ask Ministers please not to forget these children and not to forget the opportunity that we might have through this Bill to learn from other countries which have what they call orphans’ pensions.
Five families every single day find, when a family member dies, that their child cannot seek to benefit from the entitlements built up through the state pension. It is the same for children of divorced parents if a divorced parent dies; the child loses that entitlement. I think of families such as the family of Laura Rudd. She was not married to her partner, who went out for a jog and did not come home, and her son Noah has been left destitute as a result. Children in my constituency also face that experience.
It would be very easy simply to reflect that when we want to support marriage we do that with the parents—with the consenting adults—but the way in which our financial system works serves to penalise children for the choices that their parents may make. I know from listening to this debate that that is not the intention of Ministers, but it is the outcome of the way in which we see marriage, and thereby the laws around divorce.
Ministers talk about supporting families, so will the Secretary of State work on this with his colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions? Will he use the opportunity of legislation that looks at divorce, families and the entitlements that parents might have with their children and not miss the chance to right a historical wrong? Indeed, when he talks to his colleagues in the DWP, they will tell him of legal cases—human rights cases—that have recognised the discrimination as a result of bereavement support allowance against children of parents who are not married, or who have divorced. The Government have been asked to address this issue for over a year now, and yet we have not had a resolution to it. That is because of the way in which we construct marriage within our public policy making.
This Bill will help to support people in that terrible moment when they find that their relationship cannot continue any longer. That is a tragedy for all concerned. It is a tragedy whether people have spent many years together and decided not to marry, or have married and decided that their marriage should break down. But in all of this, we all have a concern for the children. It surely cannot be the intention of any decent Government to put into destitution children who suffer through no fault of their own the double tragedy of a parent dying and a relationship breaking up. I therefore ask Ministers: please do not miss this opportunity finally to do something about bereavement support allowance and to make sure that we support every child in every family so that no child is penalised for the choices of their parents.
This Bill is aimed at minimising conflict between separated couples to make divorce not easier, but kinder. Divorce will take a minimum of six months, with an average of four out of five divorces taking longer than under the existing law.
The Family Law Act 1996 identified funding for relationship support services as a necessary part of divorce reform—an approach that has been sustained by successive Governments since the Denning report of 1947. In 1999, the then Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine, said that the three objectives of the 1996 Act were, first, supporting marriage; secondly, saving saveable marriages; and, thirdly, where marriages had sadly broken down, bringing them to an end with minimum distress. I will always stand up and fight for people, whether they are married, never married or divorced. I also passionately believe that marriage is one of our most important and valued institutions, which we neglect at our peril. The benefits of a couple pooling their resources, time and energy are fantastic.
On the first objective of supporting marriage, marriage rates are at their lowest level since records began in 1862. Even more worryingly, the Marriage Foundation points out that 87% of mothers from higher income groups are married, compared with only 24% of mothers at the bottom of the income scale, so the marriage gap is widening, which is a social justice disaster. We need marriage for the many, not the few.
The Bill is silent on marriage and relationship support, which is not good enough, given that there is no assurance of funding for this work after the end of this financial year. We know from research concluded after the 1996 Act that one in 10 marriages was saved at the point of divorce by offering counselling, and that half those offered counselling took it up and better managed the divorce process. Much greater provision of the separated parents information programme is something that we owe children, to reduce the distress that many will experience when the divorce process is badly managed. Prevention is always better than cure, which is why the provision of marriage and relationship support services is so vital. We should celebrate much more the work of the Relationships Alliance and its constituent members—Relate, Marriage Care, OnePlusOne and Tavistock Relationships. They are all on the frontline, battling for social justice and a better society.
Local authorities such as Rochdale, with its relationships champions programme, which I visited, lead the way among local authorities. Charities, voluntary groups and faith groups, such as Toucan, with its “build a happier, healthier life together” work; the inspirational Nicky and Sila Lee, with their marriage preparation course and marriage coursework; and Soulmates Academy, run by the redoubtable Jonathan and Andrea Taylor-Cummings, all do brilliant work and should be commended.
The Government need a cross-departmental programme to bring the work of the brilliant antenatal charity Dads to Be into every NHS hospital, not only the three that it operates in at the moment. We should ensure that marriage registrars provide signposting to the very best marriage preparation; that all GPs are as good as the very best in signposting to relationship support; and that brilliant charities such as Explore, which does such excellent work in our schools in giving children good role models for what healthy, happy, committed and respectful relationships and marriages look like, are supported. All these individuals, groups, churches and other faith organisations are doing brilliant work on the frontline and deserve our thanks and support.
As we look to rebuild our economy after the ravages of covid-19, it is not only economic matters that need our attention but the fractured and hurting relationships that we need to repair to a healthier, more respectful and more committed state. Next month, it will be 19 years since I made my maiden speech in the House. On that occasion, I spoke of the importance of the family and of strengthening family relationships, and it grieves me that the situation has got worse, not better, in those 19 years. I stand here saying the same as I said to Labour Governments in those first nine years and to coalition and Conservative Governments since: we need the political will—together across this House, from all our political traditions—to put this issue higher up the political agenda. It is a social justice matter, and it is for everyone. I implore the Government to take it seriously, and to remember that we stood on a manifesto that said strong families are the key to a strong society.
I very much enjoyed the speech by Andrew Selous, who gave us all food for thought, and I welcome entirely the spirit in which this debate has taken place so far. I do not know whether I ought to declare an interest, because after 21 years of marriage, I am sadly in the process of going through a divorce.
The primary concern of everyone who has children and is going through such an unhappy incident is the impact that it will have on their children. I think that the current legislation does lead to unnecessary additional conflict and blame, so the Government are right to pursue this important legislation at a time when they are extremely busy.
In speaking in this debate, I am carrying on in the family way, because my great-grandfather, A. P. Herbert, was the original author of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1937. Some unkind remarks may be made to the Minister in Committee, but A. P. Herbert would have thought of that as a very easy ride, compared with what was said in 1937 when he brought that legislation through. The Secretary of State was right to stress that wanting to assist couples to split in as amicable and blame-free a fashion as possible does not in any way undermine what marriage is all about, or fail to recognise the crucial role that that institution plays in our society.
It is important to recognise what the current process does. It not only moves couples down the route of having to find blame and conflict, but includes the role of the court—the state—in deciding whether or not people should be married. The state does not consider that it has anything like the same level of responsibility for deciding whether a couple get married in the first place—if they meet at 4 o’clock and decide at 8 o’clock that night that they want to be married, the state considers that none of its business. So why, if a couple come to the conclusion that they should no longer be together, should the state consider that it is its business to investigate whether they are right?
I will leave it there, but I welcome what the Government and my right hon. Friend Mr Lammy said and the spirit in which this debate is taking place. I hope that we will all keep in mind the need to ensure that couples who sadly reach the conclusion that they must separate are able to do so in as amicable a fashion as possible.
The law should have majesty; it should be awesome. May I ask the Secretary of State to resist this fetish for translating everything into newspeak?
There is fault in divorce. We all know that. It is a question not just of unreasonable behaviour, but of abominable, disgraceful and outrageous behaviour. But I accept the principle of the Bill—namely, that by trying to attribute fault, we vastly magnify the bitterness and unpleasantness of the conflict that divorce creates. We have all experienced in our surgeries those parents who continue to use their children as weapons in prosecuting a continuing war against their former partners. The removal of fault will not remove that entirely, but I am confident that it will certainly diminish it.
My problem with the Bill is with respect to the streamlining and potential shortening of the process. The difficulty I have is this: by making divorce more straightforward and easier, it becomes the first resort, rather than the last. It becomes the easy and quicker way out, vastly reducing the potential for counselling and reconciliation. We should remember that divorce is the swiftest route to poverty. Of the people who might come through the door during one of my morning surgeries, if you scratch the surface of their problem—whether the problem presents as debt, housing, education or access to children—nine times out of 10, divorce and family breakdown are the root cause. And the easier we make divorce, the more we shall have of it.
I have been married to the Conservative party for a very long time, and I have no intention of divorcing her, but I have to say that she drives me to distraction. I do not know why I do not have a calm partner who can get on with doing the things we do best, such as providing a smaller state, lower taxes and strong defence. Why do we always think that we have to adopt an extreme liberal agenda? This Bill is part of a liberal agenda, because it is saying is that we can remove the ultimate pain by making things easier, but that simply does not happen very often in life.
We could have brought in a moderate measure. No one has to allege fault under our present law. If there is a separation, no fault is alleged. As I said in my intervention on the Secretary of State, we could have done what the Scots do—how sensible they are—and brought in a provision that, in addition to the existing provisions, someone would simply have a no-fault divorce after, say, a year. But no, we are rushing this through. We are saying that people can get their divorce after six months. They will not even have to prove proper service. They could be divorced within a matter of weeks. Really, the Secretary of State has to do better in reassuring us, because the message we are sending out tonight is that we are engaged in making quickie divorces easier, and I am not sure that that is the right message for us to be sending out, particularly at this time of family stress during lockdown.
In the last Parliament, this Bill was promoted by David Gauke. How much we all miss him! He carried out a consultation, but he ignored what the consultation said. We know that 80% of the people who were consulted opposed this measure. In another poll, 72% said that if we were to bring in compulsory no-fault divorce, people would get more blasé about divorce. I return to the point made by my right hon. Friend Sir John Hayes: it is obvious that if we make something easier, it will happen more often. That point was also made by my right hon. Friend Sir Desmond Swayne. I assure you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that this is the lesson of history. If we bring in compulsory no-fault divorce in a six-month time frame, the result will be more divorces. And, as my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West said, the best way to propel women into poverty is through family breakdown and divorce. We already have one of the highest levels of family breakdown in the world, and now, rather than putting more money into supporting marriage and sending a message that we support marriage, we are sending a message that we want to make divorce even easier. Is that the sort of message that we want to send out to people?
Hon. Members might think that this is an obsession of the right, but listen to Hillary Clinton. She said:
“For much of the 1970s and 1980s, many believed that a bad marriage was worse than a good divorce. Now, however, we know that children bear the brunt of failed marriages…Divorce has become too easy because of our permissive laws and attitudes.”
That is not me speaking; that is Hillary Clinton, hardly an icon of the socially conservative right. But how wise she is! I assure you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that the result of this Bill will be more pain, more suffering, children seeing less of—usually—their fathers and more women propelled into poverty. Is this really what we want to achieve? The Secretary of State could have given some concessions. He could have said to my right hon. Friend, “I hear what you say, and I think perhaps I will be prepared to look again at the provision of six months.” He could have said that he was prepared to do what the Law Society suggested or to do what the Government were going to do 25 years ago, when I opposed a similar Bill, and have a one-year provision. But no, he is ploughing ahead. Everybody will get their divorce in six months. He could have told me, when I intervened on him, that he was prepared to think again about keeping some of the existing provisions. After all, there are many religious people—and maybe many who are not so religious—who would like to be given a reason why they are being divorced. Many people feel that marriage is a most important thing in their life. But no, the Secretary of State is ploughing ahead with the most extreme and most radical measure he could dream of. This is one of the most radical and most extreme divorce laws in the whole of the European continent. Why are we doing this now? Why are we not prepared to compromise? Why are we not prepared to give an unequivocal message that we believe in marriage and will support it to the hilt?
I accept the virtue of this Bill on its own terms. The Lord Chancellor has said that the Bill is concerned only with divorce, and if we are concerned only to make divorce smoother and less painful, I accept the Government’s case. However, I do not judge the Bill just on its own terms. It is not just about divorce, it is about marriage, and that is the crucial difference that I have with the Government.
What will this Bill do? Its practical effect is simply that couples will not have to wait for two years for a no-fault divorce, but will have to wait for only six months. I can appreciate that two years must feel like an eternity for someone who wants to move on with their life, but I suggest that the damage done to society and future generations by this Bill will be far greater than the distress of some people waiting 18 months longer, because what is really proposed is not just the speeding up of no-fault divorce, but the effective abolition of the marriage vow.
What is the difference between marriage and any other romantic relationship? It is this: people promise, in front of their friends and family and in a legally binding commitment, not to walk out. That is basically what it is, and it is an enormous promise. It is why the wedding service has these portentous words: marriage is
“a solemn, public and life-long covenant…No one should enter into it lightly or” unadvisedly but reverently and soberly. This Bill proposes to abolish all of that—centuries upon centuries of precedent, upon which our society has been built—to say instead that the vows do not have to be kept; that it is not solemn, public and lifelong, but trivial, private and as long or short as people want it.
At the moment, a marriage can end only when the facts—the word “facts” is in our current law—show that the marriage is really over, either because of fault or a separation of at least two years.
If it is six months in 2020, is the hon. Gentleman concerned that in 2025 or 2030 it could be a handful of months?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Indeed, there is already provision in the Bill to reduce the six months in exceptional circumstances, and we know where that could tend in future.
The reliance on objective facts is now being abolished in favour of a subjective declaration that one party wants out of the marriage, and that effectively means that the vows made at the beginning have no legal force and no moral value. That is why the Bill is about more than divorce.
Much has been made of the hypocrisy that fault-based divorce involves, with people claiming all sorts of things to prove the breakdown, but in trying to remove hypocrisy at the end of the marriage, we are introducing hypocrisy at the start. In the attempt to improve the integrity of the law, the Government are undermining the integrity of marriage.
I fear that this Bill is a great surrender. There were other ways to achieve the ends that the Government seek, namely to let people move on with their lives sooner than two years. We could have judicial separation after six months, so that people can settle their affairs before a divorce, including moving out of the family home. We could have the Scottish system, which is the same as ours, but with shorter periods—one-year separation for no-fault divorce by consent, two years for unilateral divorce. If we really want to reduce the conflict at the end of marriages, we should reform the law around financial provisions, as one of my hon. Friends said earlier, and improve child custody arrangements. These are really the sources of conflict, not the terms of the divorce.
All that said, I accept that this Bill is going to pass, although I hope the Government will consider some changes. They include extending the notification period from six months to 12 months; only starting that period once both parties are aware of it; making the declaration of irretrievable breakdown come at the end, not the beginning of the notification period, so that it is a meaningful period in which people can change their mind and reconciliation can be effected; and, to that end, agreeing proper funding of family hubs and couple counselling, which hon. Members have raised, including once an application has been made, because, contrary to myth, counselling can be effective, even at this late stage. I appreciate that the Bill reflects changing attitudes to marriage. I regret those changing attitudes, and I think my right hon. and learned Friend regrets them. Indeed, I think everybody does. In this place we need to lead the culture, not to follow. I hope that Ministers will reflect on the cultural effect of the Bill and think again.
I very much agree with many of the sentiments that have been expressed in the Chamber tonight, but I wholeheartedly support my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor in bringing this legislation forward. I want to explain why, with particular reference to the impact that conflict in relationships has on children. It seems to me that it is a fundamental tenet of the rule of law that it intends to ensure fair dealings between people, and where that is absent, that conflict is clearly going to have a much wider impact.
Department for Work and Pensions estimates show that currently 12% of all children, and as many as 21% of children in workless families, have parents who are in a distressed relationship. The Government’s national programme on reducing parental conflict has given many organisations, including some of those mentioned by my hon. Friend Andrew Selous, and the Early Intervention Foundation, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services and the Local Government Association, the opportunity to assess the impact on children of parental conflict—something hitherto little researched, but of increasing interest to local authorities that are the lead agency in supporting children in family breakdown situations.
When we look at the evidence garnered from this research, it is clear that the country’s divorce hotspots are not obviously linked to any other form of persistent social issue that we recognise. Those divorce hotspots across the country are represented by politicians of all colours, and they are areas both of great affluence and great poverty. That research demonstrates consistently, however, that the co-parenting relationships of the two adults are incredibly important for children’s outcomes in life. Whatever measures we can take in this House to support those co-parenting relationships, such as support for families and counselling where difficulties strike, are really significant.
The research also identifies that it is the conflict between the parents, rather than the break-up itself, that is most significant in the child’s experience and development. That is a crucial reason to support this Bill; when that decision is made, regardless of the issues that have been highlighted about the duration and the context of a relationship, the Bill makes it possible for separation to occur in a more civilised manner. That will enable the co-parenting relationship that supports those children’s life chances to be preserved intact as far as possible, and that should be a key concern for Members who are looking at the interests of future generations.
“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.
When my party won an 80-seat majority in the election, I knew that it was about much more than getting Brexit done; it was also about responding to the working-class community’s desire for an alternative to the liberal agenda which has dominated politics for so long. So it is with deep regret that I see this Bill brought to the House tonight. We need a Government prepared to back communities, build families and cement social solidarity, and this Bill is injurious to all those objectives.
The biggest shake-up of divorce law in half a century is based on a misunderstanding of what marriage is and the human ideals from which marriage derives its meaning. This Bill reduces marriage to the legal status of a tenancy contract—one that can be dissolved at minimal notice by either party, without any expectation of permanence or any explanation.
Hegel said that marriage is a “substantial tie” that “begins in contract” to “transcend” contract, by abolishing the separation between the parties. Hegel’s point can be put more simply: essentially, a marriage is not a contract but, as my right hon. Friend Sir Edward Leigh said, a vow. That is why it has such great significance to us and why it is traditionally surrounded by so much ceremony. Roger Scruton put it this way:
“That we can make vows is one part of the great miracle of human freedom;
and when we cease to make them, we impoverish our lives by stripping them of lasting commitment.”
It is through our ability to limit and constrain ourselves that we express our true freedom.
Life is not a dreary succession of consumer choices, but a journey marked by moments of transcendental significance, and marriage is one such commitment.
Our existing law is founded on the ancient understanding of what marriage is: a vow. Progressive activists for the Bill, such as the Lord Chancellor’s old ally, David Gauke, say that alleging fault increases acrimony in a divorce, but that notion is based on a misunderstanding of marriage. Changing the law may cheapen marriage, but it cannot change the idealism in which the commitment of one human being to another is founded. Acrimony is almost bound to follow the breaking of such a vow. Regardless of what the law may say, enmity is not a product of the process, but a characteristic of human relations when they break down, and to pretend otherwise is to attempt to deceive this House and the people who vote for us. The current law reflects these facts of life and reflects the significance of the vow that has been made. Fault necessitates expectation.
It is said by the supporters of this Bill that the divorce process can damage children, but that is only if parents seek to involve children. One thing that is absolutely certain is that divorce itself damages children, and if we make something easier, it will happen more often.
I agree, and the Bill essentially turns divorce into an administrative formality, removing the breathing space that allows around 10% of divorces that are initiated to be averted. About one in 10 divorces that are started are never actually completed, and that is because of the time available for counselling, for reconciliation, for reconsideration and for trying again. The Bill removes that opportunity. It removes protections for individuals whose spouses seek to terminate their marriage in times of hardship or illness. For many, the changes could mean that faithful, committed husbands lose access to their children, while women cruelly abandoned by errant husbands will have no way of marking that betrayal and no reason offered for why their marriage has ended.
What is most disappointing is that the Government ignored their own consultation. Some 83% of public respondents opposed change. The Bill provides a 20-week period at the start of proceedings, which Ministers say will allow time for reflection, but 20 weeks is not long enough to settle the matters of property or to secure the welfare of children. In any event, the Law Society points out that most of the 20-week period could pass without one respondent to the divorce even knowing about it. Unbelievably, the Bill does not require the applicant to serve a notice on the respondent at the start of the 20 weeks. When that matter was raised in the House of Lords, Lord Keen gave a lukewarm response. He is never the most persuasive Minister. I say it is a basic injustice that must be remedied, not by the Family Procedure Rule Committee, as he suggested, but on the face of this Bill.
We are in perhaps the most challenging time that anyone can remember, yet we bring forward a Bill with such insensitivity that we challenge not only the stability of families, but the very nature of marriage itself. Divorce marks the end of a partnership—the death of a love. As a family ends, all of society is a little weaker. The Lord Chancellor will come to regret this Bill because it is fundamentally un-Conservative. As it makes divorce easier, it makes marriage less significant and will make it less valued, and that is a price that no one here can afford to pay.
One of the greatest assets of becoming a Member of Parliament is that you can speak on matters that you have experienced first-hand and matters that have affected you deeply. For those who have actually experienced a long, protracted and acrimonious divorce, it leaves an indelible mark on them and, in many cases, on their families and children forever.
I want to speak today on this Bill because it resonates with me personally. I have wrestled, as many Members have, with the potentially difficult connotations that this law has specifically around the devaluing of marriage, which I absolutely do not want to see happen at all. However, as the Lord Chancellor set out, the Government have brought the Bill before us with a specific aim: to ease the unnecessary conflict for couples and children.
Growing up, I experienced my family going through divorce not once but twice: once when I was a toddler and again in my final years of school. This is not the arena to open up those experiences, but this is none the less a policy area in which I am passionate to see the law improve. I am able to speak on behalf of so many people who are affected by the current system, and for the children and families affected by the deep and lasting trauma that a difficult divorce leaves, and I am fully supportive of the ability to change the law and make it better.
I am 100% committed to the values of marriage. Perhaps witnessing that painful divorce was the driving force behind my wanting to have such a happy and fulfilling marriage with my wife and my children. That is one of my proudest achievements and even my wife, who disagrees with me many times, would probably say that it is one of my better achievements. It has been going for 10 and a half years—I know I do not look old enough to have a 10-and-a-half-year marriage. For so many people, that is not the case. To continue to bind people together for years in an irretrievable situation just exacerbates the pain for the parties.
It is a good decision to deal with the consequences. Any ability to remove some of the outdated requirements to allege fault or show evidence of separation will promote a less antagonistic process. However, as some people have said, although removing the ability to lay blame may expediate the process when one party will not accept that there is a problem, we have to balance that carefully with the values of marriage.
As many Members have said, all marriages are worth fighting for. We must not make them overridingly easy to exit, so I am pleased with the measure that ensures that there will be a minimum of 20 weeks from the start of proceedings before someone can give confirmation to the court that the conditional order may be made. Together with the existing six-week period, that will mean that the legal process for obtaining a divorce under the new process will take a minimum of six months. That comforts some of the concerns that I had.
In the breakdown of a marriage, the accompanying ancillary relief procedures are often the bitter and acrimonious parts of the divorce. Like many Members, I would welcome some kind of compulsory marriage guidance within the six-month window to act as a brake—to provide reflection and, indeed, evidence that a marriage has irreversibly broken down.
Given that the Government carried out a consultation and more than 70% of respondents indicated a concern about where Government policy was going, is the hon. Gentleman as concerned as I am that when it comes to practice the reassurances being given by the Government will be cast aside as casually as the consultation process was?
I take the hon. Gentleman’s concerns into consideration but, as has been set out, the overriding ambition in all this is not to quicken up the divorce process but to take away some of the exacerbating issues that cause pain and suffering in the breakdown of a marriage. That is the essence of the legislation that the Lord Chancellor has brought to us.
At the very core of the legislation is the goal of minimising conflict and promoting a more amicable resolution. I do not believe that, given the consideration necessary to get married, the measures before us will end up culminating in a speedier divorce process. I think of the absolute difficulty of going through that pain to end up in such a position. It will do more good to help to alleviate the deep conflict that can arise. Above all, if implementing the Bill can do anything to significantly lessen the damage to children’s life chances, I will wholeheartedly support the Government.
I welcome hearing the wide-ranging views from across the House, but I absolutely wholeheartedly support the Government and my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor. When I say that it is time to modernise, I am not doing down marriage in any way whatever. When a person enters into a marriage, they do so thinking about the lifelong impact that it will have on them. The same applies when they take the tragic decision to divorce. They come to realise and understand the pain and suffering that it will cause them, their partner, and, obviously, any children that they may have. The decision is not taken lightly in any shape or form.
It is important that we move away from the blame culture. I have heard many comments in this Chamber tonight that, somehow, divorce is damaging to children. As someone who was six months old when their parents divorced, I do not feel damaged. I was very lucky and appreciate that, while some had acrimonious relationships, I was able to access my mother and my father equally. I am aware that that is not always the case for others, but to use the word “damage” is quite extreme and it can be easily thrown around. I do not like to see that word being used so lightly.
The Bill is an important step forward. One of my hon. Friends made a really good point when they said that we were moving with the times.
Like my hon. Friend, I would call myself a strong social conservative, but who is arguing from a socially liberal perspective. He puts me in a difficult spot. What I would say is that although marriage is indeed ancient and should be treated with respect, courtesy and recognition, we also have to understand that we are in a very different cultural time. There does not always need to be infidelity. There does not always need to be one person to blame over another. Sometimes, tragically, the relationship simply does not work. In such instances, it should be for the individuals to make a decision that allows them both to part ways in a non-acrimonious way, without causing harm.
On the length of the proceedings, for people to be going through a divorce beyond 12 months, and in some cases for two years, does not allow either party to move on. It is keeping them trapped in something that they fundamentally no longer wish to be a part of. Therefore, we must understand that, with this law, six months is a positive step forward, because it allows those who, on a personal level, wish to take a step in a new direction to do so. Although I understand that this measure is contentious, and that, for some, it will be seen as challenging the institution of marriage, I also think that it will create less acrimony and mean that we have a more harmonious society, which, ultimately, means that the impact on children will be more positive.
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.
I am grateful to all Members who have contributed to this debate with such powerful speeches. A wealth of insight and poignant personal experience has been brought to bear, and this debate on such an important issue has been enriched by it. I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) and for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker) and Mr Perkins for sharing their experiences with the House.
Before responding to the points raised, let me make some brief introductory remarks. Marriages and civil partnerships are vital to society as a way in which couples can formally express their commitment to each other. I support marriage. The Government support marriage. This Bill is not anti-marriage; rather, it is anti-bitterness. In those sad cases where a marriage has irretrievably broken down, the Bill removes unnecessary and artificial flashpoints to reduce the scope for pain, recrimination and, crucially, harmful impact on children. We must accept the reality that some marriages do end. The Bill replaces a broken system which for decades has not operated as its framers intended. I note that it is supported by Resolution, which represents over 6,000 family justice professionals in England and Wales who have to grapple with the current framework every day.
One of the principal problems of the current statute is that it incentivises conflict. It does so in relation to those who wish to divorce before a two-year separation period because of the specific need to particularise the respondent’s unreasonable behaviour and to do so in a way that fits a 50-year-old statute’s prescriptive categories. The trouble is that words have consequences; they can do damage, so that where once there was grief, anger comes; where once there was sadness, bitter resentment follows. The academic study, “Finding Fault?” found that 43% of those identified by their spouse as being at fault disagreed with the reasons cited in the petition. That resentment is not just damaging for the parties themselves; others, particularly children, can be harmed by it too, because it toxifies the atmosphere in which a couple then approach negotiations over arrangements for children and finances. No wonder the president of the Law Society has said:
“For separating parents, it can be much more difficult to focus on the needs of their children when they have to prove a fault-based fact against their former partner…
Introducing a ‘no-fault’
divorce…will change the way couples obtain a divorce—for the better.”
Leaving aside the issue of fault, will my hon. Friend commit to looking, during the passage of this legislation, at increasing the six-month period, at dealing with the issue of both parties being notified at the outset of the divorce, and at ensuring that there is properly funded counselling and support for reconciliation? If he looks at those things, I think he will satisfy some of the critics of this Bill.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question, and I pay tribute to the characteristic clarity and eloquence with which he made his representations. Although I cannot give any commitment to specific points, he has made powerful points. On behalf of the Government, I commit to continuing the conversation in Committee.
Part of the problem is that the court has limited means to investigate the circumstances. Having marched the parties up to the top of the hill by requiring petitioners to make allegations, the system rarely inquires into whether those allegations are true. It simply does not have the means to do so. In fact, just 2% of cases are contested, and only a handful progress to a contested court hearing. For more than 40 years, English and Welsh courts have not routinely held divorce trials to prove the allegations set out. That is because most people nowadays recognise that marriage is a voluntary union. When consent disappears, so, too, does its legitimacy.
That lack of inquiry is a problem because allegations may bear little resemblance to reality, but they are presented as established facts. The scope for injustice is obvious. To satisfy the statutory provisions, minor incidents may have to be dredged up and artificially repackaged as a pattern of behaviour. A respondent who, in truth, is a perfectly reasonable individual will have their behaviour branded unreasonable. Conversely, a respondent may have behaved despicably—a point made by the Lord Chancellor —but because of the fear of repercussions, a petitioner may seek to rely on two years’ separation instead. At the end of it all, in the eyes of the law, the culpable respondent will never have been publicly rebuked, and will exit the relationship apparently blameless.
All too often, the law does not do what people think it does. That is not just the Government’s view. Sir Paul Coleridge, a former family judge and chair of the Marriage Foundation, no less, said that the current system
“is, and always has been, a sham”.
“based on hypocrisy and lack of intellectual honesty”— a point powerfully made by the Chair of the Justice Committee, my hon. Friend Sir Robert Neill. The same is true of academia. Professor Liz Trinder, who has conducted extensive research on the divorce process, has branded the current arrangements “a meaningless charade”.
I want to address the points that have been made with great force by my hon. Friends the Members for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) and for Devizes (Danny Kruger), and my right hon. Friends the Members for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne) and for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes). To paraphrase—I will not do justice to the way in which they expressed it—the concern that they have raised is that the Bill will undermine the institution of marriage by making divorce more attractive. That is an important argument, and it has to be addressed.
The point is that it is a very sad circumstance indeed when a marriage breaks down, but some marriages do end. The legal process of divorce is not the driver for a marriage breaking down; it is the consequence. That is the point that my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor was making about the telescope. Petitioners do not issue speculative applications for divorce. In the overwhelming majority of cases, they take that step only after reaching a settled conclusion. In those circumstances, we must do all we can to mitigate the pain experienced by the couple and their family, especially the children. We cannot have a system where the legal process works to exacerbate acrimony and suffering where divorce is simply the process of bringing a legal end to a personal relationship that has ceased to function for both parties.
The point that is so often made by practitioners is that very often, individuals are surprised by the convoluted and artificial process that they are presented with. International evidence shows that long-term divorce rates are not increased by removing fault from the process of obtaining a divorce. In short, divorce and dissolution are a sad reality, but one that is sometimes unavoidable. This Bill prevents hardship and misery, and it will help people at a vulnerable time. I commend this Bill to the House.
Hon. Members should now be familiar with the Division process, but I ask all hon. Members other than Front Benchers and Tellers to leave the Chamber by the doors behind me. I will not give the instruction to lock the doors earlier than probably 28 minutes after I call the Division.
Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second time.