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I beg to move amendment 1, page 2, line 8, leave out “20” and insert “46”
This amendment would extend the minimum legal period for a divorce from six months to one year (with the additional six weeks between the conditional and final orders).
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 2, page 2, line 9, at end insert—
‘(5A) For the purposes of subsection (5), “the start of the proceedings” means—
(a) in the case of an application that is to proceed as an application by both parties to the marriage, the date on which both parties apply for an order under subsection (1), or
(b) in the case of an application that is to proceed as an application by one party to the marriage only, the date when the notice of an application for a divorce order has been received by the other party to the marriage.’
This amendment would define the start of divorce proceedings so that it is clear when the 20-week period would start.
Amendment 3, page 2, line 19, at end insert—
‘(8A) In the case of an application that is to proceed as an application by one party to the marriage only, there shall be no commencement of financial provision proceedings until the end of the period of 20 weeks from the start of the proceedings for the divorce order unless—
(a) the other party to the marriage agrees to the commencement of financial provision proceedings, or
(b) there is an application under section 22 for the court to make an order for maintenance pending suit.’
This amendment would ensure that there are no discussions about financial settlement in the 20 week period unless both parties agree or there is an application to the court for interim maintenance and financial injunctions.
Clause stand part.
Clauses 2 and 3 stand part.
Amendment 4, in clause 4, page 4, line 9, at end insert—
‘(2A) For the purposes of subsection (2), “the start of the proceedings” means—
(a) in the case of an application that is to proceed as an application by both civil partners, the date on which those persons apply for an order under section 44(1), or
(b) in the case of an application that is to proceed as an application by one civil partner only, the date when the notice of an application for a dissolution order has been received by the other civil partner.’
This amendment would define the start of dissolution proceedings so that it is clear when the 20-week period would start.
Amendment 5, page 4, line 18, at end insert—
‘(5A) In the case of an application that is to proceed as an application by one civil partner only, there shall be no commencement of financial provision proceedings until the end of the period of 20 weeks from the start of the proceedings for the divorce order unless—
(a) the other civil partner agrees to the commencement of financial provision proceedings, or
(b) there is an application under schedule 5, paragraph 2(1) for maintenance pending suit.’
This amendment would ensure that there are no discussions about financial settlement in the 20-week period for the dissolving of a civil partnership unless both parties agree or there is an application to the court for interim maintenance and financial injunctions.
Clauses 4 to 8 stand part.
Government amendment 6.
Clause 9 stand part.
New clause 1—Increased support for marriage and civil partnerships—
(2) In subsection (1), for “may” substitute “must”.
(3) In subsection (1)(a), at end insert “, both before and during a marriage”.
(4) After subsection (1)(a) insert—
“(aa) marriage counselling for any partners to a marriage where an application has been made to the court to dissolve the marriage under section 1 of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973.”
(5) After subsection (3) insert—
“(4) Any reference to marriage or marital breakdown in this section also applies to civil partnerships.”’
This new clause would ensure increased support for marriages and new support for couples where an application for divorce has been made to the court.
New clause 2—Report on the impact on divorce applications and marriage support—
‘(1) The Secretary of State must publish an annual report on the impact of this Act on divorce and dissolution proceedings and marriage and civil partnership with the first report to be published no later than 18 months after the day on which this section comes into force.
(2) The report under subsection (1) must include, but is not limited to—
(a) the number of divorce and dissolution applications made under the provisions of this Act by the sex and income of the applicant and respondent, and
(b) the number of children in the relationships subject to the divorce and dissolution applications, and
(c) the number of married couples or civil partners who seek counselling during the divorce process, broken down by geographic location, and
(d) a statement on the support services and marriage counselling available to married couples or civil partners as an alternative to divorce proceedings under this Act, broken down by geographic location.
(3) The report under subsection (1) must be laid before both Houses of Parliament.’
New clause 3—Divorce after one year separation with consent—
‘(1) The Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 is amended as follows.
(2) In section 1(2), omit subsection (d) and insert—
“(d) that the parties to the marriage have lived apart for a continuous period of at least one year immediately preceding the presentation of the petition (hereafter in this Act referred to as “separation for one year”) and the respondent consents to a decree being granted;”
(3) In section 10(1), substitute “separation for one year” for “two years’ separation”;
(4) In section 10(2)(a), substitute “separation for one year” for “two years’ ”;
(5) In section 10(2)(b), substitute “separation for one year” for “two years’ ”.’
The intention of this new clause is to adopt in England and Wales the approach currently available in Scotland allowing a no-fault divorce to be granted on consent grounds in just one year.
New clause 4—Civil legal aid for divorce, dissolution or separation—
‘(1) Schedule 1 to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 is amended as follows.
(2) After paragraph 18, insert—
18A Civil legal services provided in relation to the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 and the Civil Partnership Act 2004.’
This new clause would add divorce, dissolution and separation proceedings to the list of civil legal services qualifying for legal aid.
New clause 5—Legal aid for divorce proceedings report—
‘(1) The Secretary of State must conduct a review of the cost and benefits of providing legal aid for divorce proceedings.
(2) In conducting the review under subsection (1), the Secretary of State must take account of the disparity between men and women in their capacity to afford legal advice in matrimonial proceedings.
(3) The Secretary of State must make arrangements for a copy of the report of the review to be laid before both Houses of Parliament no later than six months after the date on which this Act is passed.’
This new clause would require the Secretary of State to carry out a review within six months of the impact of extending legal aid for divorce proceedings, taking account of any disproportionate effect on women of lack of access to legal aid.
New clause 6—Financial abuse qualifying condition in legal aid family matters—
‘(1) Schedule 1 to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 is amended as follows.
(2) In paragraph 12 (1) (a) after “violence” insert “or financial abuse”.
(3) In paragraph 12 (1) (b) after “violence” insert “or financial abuse”.
(4) In paragraph 9, at the end insert—
““financial abuse” includes—
(a) having money or other property stolen,
(b) being defrauded,
(c) being put under pressure in relation to money or other property, and
(d) having money or other property misused.”’
This new clause would add financial abuse (as defined in section 42 of the Care Act 2014) to the domestic violence condition under which civil legal aid may be provided in a matter arising out of a family relationship.
New clause 9—Review of Act in relation to children’s financial status—
‘(1) The Secretary of State must conduct a review of the financial effects of this Act on families where the marital status (including a current or dissolved civil partnership) of a parent explicitly determines the eligibility for benefits for dependant children.
(2) The Secretary of State must make arrangements for a copy of the report of the review to be laid before both Houses of Parliament no later than six months after the date on which this Act is passed.’
This new clause would require the Secretary of State to publish by the end of this year a report on how this Act will affect the financial status of children and families where benefit entitlement is linked to the civil partnership or marriage status of one or both parents.
Amendment 7, in the schedule, page 19, line 4, at beginning insert—
‘( ) Section 22 of the Family Law Act 1996 (funding for marriage support services) is amended as follows.
( ) In subsection (1), leave out “may, with the approval of the Treasury,” and insert “must”.
( ) In subsection (1)(a), at the end insert “, both before and during a marriage”.
( ) After subsection (1)(a) insert—
(i) marriage counselling for any partners to a marriage where an application has been made to the court for a divorce order under section 1 of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973.”
( ) After subsection (3) insert—
“(4) Any reference to marriage or marital breakdown in this section also applies to civil partnerships.”’
That the schedule be the schedule to the Bill.
This Bill is a bad Bill. It sends out the wrong message at the wrong time. No-fault divorce is really state-approved unilateral divorce. Ministers like to say that it is all about the divorce process and not about marriage. They are wrong. The removal of fault sends out the signal that marriage can be unilaterally exited with no available recourse for the party who has been left. The public get it, even if Ministers do not. In the “Finding fault?” national opinion survey, 71% thought that fault should remain in law. That is a survey on which, in other respects, the Government have relied in bringing forward this legislation. Even in the Government’s own consultation, 80% opposed the proposals, and the Bill was not even in our manifesto.
Making divorce easier and quicker will inevitably change the nature of the commitment that is made when marrying, because those doing so will recognise that it is something that can be exited easily and quickly, without having to prove that the relationship has broken down. Commitment within marriage will become unreliable. People will marry less due to the low expectation of permanence in marriage, and they will cohabit more as the distinction between the two is eroded and what marriage really means becomes confused. No longer “till death us do part”, but “until I give you six months’ notice to quit, with no reason given”.
Asymmetric relationships will increase—that is, people entering marriage with different expectations. That is a recipe for misunderstandings, instability and heartache. I accept that in some cases—though by no means all, or even a majority—faults cited on a petition may bear little resemblance to the actual reasons for a marriage faltering. This appears to be the root of the Government’s reasoning for this Bill—namely, that exaggerated allegations may increase conflict. But herein lies the problem. In seeking to address this issue by removing any requirement to give a reason and by speeding up the process to just six months, the Bill will, in my opinion, create far greater problems. It will fundamentally alter the whole meaning of marriage, with far-reaching consequences. Legislation affects behaviour and culture. That is why we are here. Whether Ministers agree or not, the signal the Bill will send out is that relationships, including marriage, can be transient. Instead of supporting parties when difficulties arise, as we should, the Bill offers an easy way out. That is why I so strongly oppose it.
Stable relationships are good for society as a whole: instability in relationships is the opposite. Unstable relationships are costly for society as a whole. I accept that not all marriages are saveable, but the Bill will accelerate divorce rates, not only with an immediate spike but potentially long term too. Make something easier and there will be more of it. The Bill will result in fewer marriages. Why bother if marriage does not mean that much? Fewer stable relationships will result. It is likely to foster a preponderance of short, even serial relationships in early and mid-life for those who can obtain them, with a sad parallel in the proliferation of loneliness in old age. It will result in less trust in marriage, more insecurity and, critically, more children experiencing fractured families—particularly more children experiencing shocks at the sudden fracturing of a marriage. It will result in quick splits, with some children left grieving potentially for years afterwards. For some, their health, educational and employment life chances will be gravely affected.
Generations to come will pay a high price for the Bill, in terms of emotional and physical health and wellbeing, a loss of wider family relationships—not least between grandparents and grandchildren—and the support and security they bring, and a further weakening of community life, because stable marriages promote stronger communities. When we are unhappy, we are very often less efficient in our studies and at work, and so there will be lower productivity and hence a less prosperous nation with the state—all of us—picking up the financial and other costs involved. In sum, there will be less human flourishing.
So many others, apart from the parties, suffer when marriages break up. There is an epidemic of loneliness in this country today. Why? In many cases, it is fractured families. There is an epidemic of mental health problems in children. Why? In many cases, it is fractured families. Those promoting the Bill should recognise its wider implications, not just provide a quick and easy exit for one or both parties. That is why amendment 1 is so important, and I am minded to test the will of the House on it. It would extend the minimum legal period for a divorce from six months to one year. The 20-week period in clause 1 is far too short. It needs extending, and I urge colleagues to support amendment 1, not least to help reduce the shock for a vulnerable woman with young children, like the one I described on Second Reading, who could be left in a potentially desperate position.
Here is a scenario anticipated by one experienced family lawyer as a result of the Bill. He describes how a man, if he wants to get out of a marriage, can railroad through his application in six months, leaving the woman at the end of that period without anything like adequate financial means. She could then be forced into a poor financial settlement simply to survive. We have talked a lot in this place in recent years about non-violent domestic abuse: would not that really be another form of that? In many cases, the stronger and more financially endowed partner will leave their partner—often a woman, occasionally a man—extremely vulnerable. It is a so-called petitioner’s charter.
Saying that the Bill will reduce conflict surely misses the point. If a man—or woman—can behave unreasonably by walking quickly away without being held to account, giving a reason or dialoguing rationally, why should he behave any more reasonably during negotiations relating to finances or children, which is when the real conflict occurs, as experienced family lawyers tell us time and again? The Bill does nothing to address that. That would have been a better place to focus on in the Bill rather than removing fault.
Amendment 1 would at least give more time for discussion, a longer breathing space an opportunity to take counsel, or at least help to bring a better end to the most important, legally binding and emotional commitment any two people can make to each other, to help them plan for life after divorce and, critically, more time to help prepare any children of the marriage for the impact on them and on wider family relationships. Of course, as I say, not all marriages can or should be saved, particularly where there is abuse, but a great deal more may be salvageable than is commonly assumed. Interestingly, research from the Marriage Foundation has found that
“high conflict warring couples are a rarity among couples who split. The vast majority of family breakdown involves low conflict couples, who are largely indistinguishable”— a year—
“before they split from couples that remain together. Most”— divorce involves previously
“happy couples and therefore comes out of the blue.”
I thank the hon. Lady for her considerable contribution in setting the scene for us. She and I have a very similar outlook on life, as I believe others in this House have as well. Is it her intention to ensure, through her amendments and new clauses, that services to save marriages—Relate and others—are available from the very beginning of a relationship breaking down to almost the end of it, so that every person at every stage will have a chance and an opportunity to save a marriage, rather than let it fall apart?
I absolutely agree—indeed, not just from the very beginning of a marriage, but from before it, as I shall mention shortly when I refer to new clause 1.
I return to the important point that a great many family breakdowns may be a lot more salvageable than is commonly assumed, and therefore help towards that is important. Statistics bear this out: only 9% of married couples who split one year later could be categorised as high conflict couples who reported quarrelling a lot in the year before the split, and 60% of married couples who split were low conflict couples who also reported some degree of happiness. This Bill should have focused on helping to keep them together, not least, as has just been mentioned, by offering every couple going into marriage a pre-marriage course.
Such courses would help couples to appreciate that it is not all plain sailing; to understand what the commitment they are making will involve in practice and how to resolve conflict; to understand that better times do not always follow a break-up; and to equip themselves to persevere through difficulties to better times within their marriage. Such difficulties include the disruption a first child can bring, which is so often a crunch point in a marriage, and the current lockdown crisis, which has understandably exacerbated stress in some relationships. Indeed, lawyers report an increase in divorce inquiries of over 40% at present. The last solution offered by the Government for this should be a quick, spur-of-the-moment escape route.
This Bill is not focused on helping to keep marriages and families together; it does exactly the opposite. That is why new clause 1 is so important, and I am also minded to test the will of the Committee on it. New clause 1 would ensure increased funding for relationship counselling and new support for couples where an application for divorce has been made to a court. The availability of marriage support services in this country is wholly inadequate and requires substantially greater Government investment. This is no doubt one of the reasons why we have one of the highest rates of relationship breakdown in the western world.
It was encouraging that, in the last Budget, the Chancellor committed £2.5 million towards this, but much more is needed. Importantly, it is needed for less well-off couples, who cannot afford the private relationships counselling that better-off people can afford. The Government say that they want to remove conflict flashpoints and reduce areas of conflict in the divorce process. Improved relationship support and counselling would help achieve that. The Bill should have focused on it, and new clause 1 will amend this omission. I was encouraged by the support from those in many parts of the House for this on Second Reading.
The hon. Lady is most gracious in giving way. She will understand and agree with me and probably others that churches offer such services. Is it possible within this legislation, with the extra money that will come through if the new clause is accepted, for the Government to work alongside churches to ensure that relationships can survive?
I thank the hon. Gentleman. Some excellent marriage counselling and, indeed, pre-marriage courses are supplied through church organisations. They are very popular, and I personally think it would be marvellous to see a lot more of them and to see some Government-funded support for them.
Counsellors help parties to understand the implications of what marriage means and, when difficulties occur, of what splitting up would mean for them, their children, and their wider families. They help people to consider what a split will involve practically, regarding contact arrangements and finances, and whether the option of staying together might be something that they could look at. Counsellors give people tools to help work through the problems, since they may not have had a role model to copy in earlier life. Critically, if the divorce goes ahead, such help can assist a couple to navigate their future relationship in a way that is best for the future wellbeing of their children, and that will, hopefully, foster continued co-operation and constructive communication, while avoiding, or at least minimising, unnecessary acrimony and relationship acidity over the many years—often decades—to come, for the benefit of all involved. It might help people who receive such counselling to know two interesting facts. First, in a study that involved more than 1,500 people, Professor Janet Walker found that two years on from a divorce, many people wished they had been warned beforehand of the harsh realities of life after separation, and said that if they had been forewarned, they might have sought reconciliation. Another piece of research from the US in the early 2000s found that people who are unhappy in their marriage are more likely to be happier five years later if they do not divorce than if they do.
I am learning a lot from my hon. Friend, and I am grateful for her contribution. She will be able to inform me better, but one thing that occurred to me is that in the process of divorce—I am talking about friends of mine who have been through this—all the voices are about separation. That could come from the legal profession, to which I mean no disrespect, or from friends who get drawn into separate camps, but there does not seem to be much space for conciliation in the most important contract that two people will ever make. Does new clause 1 seek to address that disparity, and the way that such forces work in those difficult circumstances?
That is exactly its point—very much so. That goes to the heart of the key purpose of new clause 1. Relationship support for couples in difficulty can help them to work together, so that the roots of their conflict can be addressed and terminated, rather than the relationship itself. Investment in relationship counselling would help not just the parties, but their children and wider society. Strikingly, the one provision of the Family Law Act 1996 that was retained is section 22, which enables the Government to provide funding for marriage support services, research into the causes of marital breakdown, and research into ways of preventing marital breakdown. Sadly, in recent years it seems that those provisions have not been used, and no funding has been provided specifically for marriage support. In February 2020 the Government said that between 2014 and 2019 they had invested £46.9 million in relationship support services. With family breakdown costing the UK at least £51 billion each year, surely it is now time to increase support specifically for marriage with this new clause.
On Second Reading, the Lord Chancellor said that he is a supporter of the institution of marriage. I encourage him to take a leaf out of the forward to the consultation response written by his predecessor, who stated:
“I believe that we should do everything we can to try to rebuild relationships before they become irretrievably broken down…This includes, where possible, helping to ensure that relationships can be saved before they are legally ended.”
Will my right hon. and learned Friend pass what might be called the “Gauke test”, by doing everything he can to support saveable marriages and support new clause 1?
Let me turn to amendments 2 and 4. Amendment 2 would define the start of divorce proceedings, so that it is clear when the 20-week period would start. This is an important concern about the Bill. Amendment 2, and amendment 4 with regard to civil partnerships, seek to deal with a serious defect of the Bill. At present, the petitioner for a divorce must prove service on the other party before proceedings get under way. That means that they must prove, on the record, that the other party has received notice and knows that they are being divorced. This Bill contains no such requirement. The applicant can simply lodge his application at court and the 20-week clock referred to in the Bill for proceedings to commence starts ticking.
The Bill needs amending to provide for the 20-week period not to start until the application for a divorce has been received by the other party to the marriage and this has been confirmed at court. Otherwise, as the Bill now reads, one party to the marriage could have far less than 20 weeks’ notice—if, for example, they are away from home, ill, or for some other reason the notice is not effectively served on them—prior to a court making a conditional order, leaving only six weeks left before a final order. Worse still, the Bill, as currently worded, gives a green light to unscrupulous petitioners to ambush their spouse by ensuring that by one means or another, their spouse does not receive the notice of claim filed at court promptly—so-called bombshell applications—because proposed new section 1(3)(b) of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 says that if the 20-week clock has ticked, the court
“must…make a divorce order”.
That can leave as little as only six weeks, or a few days more. It is possible for a devious partner to give a vulnerable spouse little over six weeks’ notice that they are being divorced—as I have said, a petitioner’s charter. That mischief needs correcting.
The Government will say that the Bill limits the opportunity for respondents to delay, control or frustrate the divorce application, and I should be grateful if the Minister would clarify where in the Bill it states that.
On the very good point that people need to know that the proceedings have commenced, what does my hon. Friend think would be good service so that we can be satisfied on that matter?
In my view, it is important to ensure that service is recorded. Service can be made by someone who professionally serves notice and then registers that fact at court. At present, the process of service has to be evidenced before the divorce proceeding process continues any further. All I am asking is that we have the same regulations now.
Even the Law Society, which supports the broad principles of the Bill—to my regret, as I am a member—is supportive of both parties having the same minimum period, so this is a very serious point, which needs to be addressed. As it stands, the 20-week period starting on application is, I believe, defended by Ministers because it makes the process simple. However, in this Bill’s simplicity lies its harshness or, as the noble and learned Baroness Deech has said in another place, its brutality. The shock for many people of being divorced within six months will be hard enough. The shock of being divorced in little over six weeks would be wholly unjust.
The Lord Chancellor has said that he will work with the Family Procedure Rule Committee to address this point. I await the Minister’s reassurance on this, which will need to be very strong to counter my view that this amendment to protect vulnerable respondents needs to be on the face of the Bill.
I now turn briefly to amendments 3 and 5 and new clause 2. Amendments 3 and 5 would ensure that there are no discussions about financial settlements in the 20-week period— or ideally, a longer period if amendment 1 is passed—unless both parties agree, or there is an application to court for interim maintenance and financial injunctions. The point of these amendments is that they give a breathing space for the parties to dialogue. Sadly, there is no requirement for this in the Bill—a litigation- free period in which it is hoped the parties may take counsel and try to establish whether they could be reconciled.
New clause 2 would require the Government to report annually on the impact of this Bill on divorce applications and marriage support. It would require them to report to this place on the impact of the Bill and, importantly, on those who are vulnerable, whether financially or otherwise, including children, and, equally importantly, on the availability and take-up of counselling and support services for those involved in divorce proceedings across the country.
In conclusion, as I am sure colleagues will now be aware, I fundamentally oppose this Bill. It does not promote fairness or justice, as I have sought to explain. What is fair or just about someone being able to just walk swiftly away from their relationship responsibilities, especially if children are involved, with no dialogue and without being held to account? Nothing in this Bill will help to reduce the inherent pain of the ending of so many relationships—of the rejection, the loss, the severance of a relationship that started with so many high hopes. This is a sad day for this House and my saddest in 10 years here.
Put simply, Labour supports this Bill. It is in line with Labour party policy. It sends the right message, we believe, many years later than it should have arrived in this place.
We support reforming some of the archaic and outdated hoops that people have to jump through if they want their marriage to end. People who may never have sought or needed a divorce may not know that there is currently no such thing as a no-fault divorce and that one of the parties must be “to blame” for a relationship ending. They may not know that if there is no blame to be laid, people must spend two years separated before they can file for divorce. They may not know that if one of the parties objects to divorce, the other must remain married to them for five years. That is why we hope that Ministers will reject amendment 1. I will turn specifically to that soon.
Marriage is supposed to be a happy and special occasion where two people come together in front of their loved ones and commit themselves to each other, and then set up their lives together. But we would be naive to think that all marriages will last forever. People change and life changes. Something that may have once seemed perfect will not necessarily be that way forever. There is no reason why, in situations where there is no fault, two people should be forced into a hostile situation where they have to find blame, keeping them married for long periods and preventing them from moving on with their lives.
Of course what the hon. Gentleman says is entirely reasonable—that where there is no fault it is right that that should be acknowledged. Where there is fault, should that be acknowledged, or ignored or concealed, or what?
I think that is a matter for the individuals involved. Adults who are embarking on divorce are supposedly mature people and they should be able to sort these things out for themselves. If they want to blame somebody for some reason, that is very much a matter for them.
It is right that this Parliament is taking action to bring divorce law into the 21st century and recognise that in many cases there is no blame—there is just no desire to be together any more. We should be facilitating peaceful endings of marriages where that is possible. I am pleased that this Bill makes excellent moves towards achieving that.
Yet the Opposition have identified several related matters that we felt needed to be heard and considered. From the list of amendments, I see that some Conservative Members also felt that some changes were needed. I plan to address these in turn. Amendment 1 would extend the minimum legal period for a divorce from the six months in the Bill to a year. Wo did not see what value or benefit this would provide; it would simply force two people together for longer than they need to be.
I think that when people embark on divorce proceedings, it is not because they have just changed their mind overnight—relationships break down over a long period and they get to that point. So extending the period anywhere beyond six months does not serve any great further purpose.
I know that it is up to the Government to defend their Bill, but we hope that Ministers will not give way on this issue. Amendment 1 is not within the spirit of the Bill, and it fails to recognise that, by the time a married couple reach the stage of deciding to file for a divorce, they have already made their decision. It is highly unlikely that they will change their minds simply because they have to wait longer for the divorce to be finalised. We are talking about adults—adults who were deemed to have the ability to consent to get married in the first place, and adults who still have the capacity to consent to end that marriage.
What does the hon. Gentleman make of the surveys that show that up to 50% of people who divorce come to regret it? Does he think that they are merely deluded, or are those surveys wrong? What is his assessment of that?
I will address that later in my speech, but I am in favour of greater support for people who want to see whether they can reconcile their relationship.
Let us not prolong the hurt and difficulty that people inevitably go through when they decide that their marriage is no longer what either of them wants. As the Secretary of State said on Second Reading, a minimum period of six months provides
“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”—[Official Report,
Vol. 677, c. 97.]
We must take into consideration the impact of our decisions on people’s lives. I see no reason why six months would be too short a time for this process to take place. Dragging out the proceedings would not be fair to either party, and it certainly would not be fair on any children involved; we have a duty to take their welfare into consideration too. It would be infinitely better for children to have two parents who separated and divorced quickly and quietly, rather than those children enduring years of something that can be very traumatic and have a lasting impact on them and their future relationships.
“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.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 677, c. 113.]
He was right. Why should anyone’s children be used as weapons for years on end, causing more pain, distress and doubtless illness as well? Let us not delay proceedings even further. Let us acknowledge that, by the time a divorce has been filed, the parties have already made up their mind and should be allowed to dissolve their marriage without having the legal period extended to a year.
Amendments 3, 4 and 5 appear to be an attempt to frustrate the process of a speedy resolution to divorce proceedings. Amendments 3 and 5 would strengthen the hand of the person who has control of the financial resources in situations where there is financial abuse. Maybe I have missed something, but it seems to me that it would do nothing to help the party who does not have the financial upper hand. Financial settlements are needed as quickly as possible to enable a divorcing couple to live apart. If the intent is for divorcing couples to remain living together during the period of the divorce due to financial restrictions on one party preventing them from moving out, this would be ill-advised. It would not lead to some miraculous reconciliation, but will allow for even greater friction, and it would be counterproductive to the aims of the Bill to encourage amicable divorce and separation. The Law Society has said:
“There can be severe, sometimes irretrievable, financial prejudice to an applicant if final divorce is granted before a financial settlement is reached.”
It is important for discussions on financial settlements not to be delayed, which would only delay divorce proceedings and cause further hurt and frustration.
I turn to new clause 1. I do not think anyone can fail to agree that increased support for marriages is a good thing, but we need much more clarity on how it would work and how it would be funded. I certainly do not think it is something that could or should be made mandatory for couples who are petitioning for divorce. The availability of support for people who wished to access it would be welcome, and I am mindful that couples who would like support may not have the resources that others are able to pay for. If the Government are not minded to adopt this new clause, perhaps the Minister could commit to bringing his own plan to the House designed to provide more support for couples petitioning for a divorce, as well as support for couples who want help to try to put things right before they petition for a divorce.
On new clause 2, we would be in favour of a report on the impact on divorce applications and marriage support. This House works best when it is informed by facts and the reality of people’s lives, and the hope is that this report would give us a true insight into the impact of the Bill. I hope the Minister will comment on that.
I probably have a different opinion on this from the hon. Gentleman, but if we are dealing with facts, I understand that there is an evidential base of facts that shows that 50% of people who have divorced, as Andrea Leadsom referred to earlier, wish to have had the opportunity not to have divorced. If there is an evidential base and the facts are there, why not take those on board?
We do take the facts on board. People may feel that they have got it wrong, and we have all seen examples of people who get married, get divorced and get remarried. We have seen examples where people have done that more than once, which is remarkable. People have the choice, but that does not mean we should lengthen the period that people have to wait before they can divorce. It will be particularly interesting to see how many couples opt for no-fault divorces as an alternative to laying the blame at the feet of one person in the relationship.
Some of the impact of this Bill may be unmeasurable, but it does not make that impact less important. For example, we might not know the true impact of quicker and more amicable divorces on children and how that affects their wellbeing and future lives, but I am confident in saying that having two parents apart but happy is infinitely better for a child than having parents stuck in an unhappy marriage for years on end. I hope the Minister will comment on that.
That leads me to new clause 3, which would reduce the time period to allow a divorce with consent from two years to one. I do not believe the new clause is needed, as the provisions within the Bill are better than what the new clause would achieve. It would still require couples to stay married for a year before they can petition for divorce, and it completely ignores the reality in which people live their lives. To be separated, people have to live apart and at least sleep apart, which simply is not possible for many people. Many homes do not have the luxury of extra bedrooms, and I doubt that 12 months on a sofa is very acceptable. Many couples do not have the disposable income for them to live separately and they have nowhere else to go, so I am not sure what benefit the new clause is supposed to have. Allowing a no-fault divorce is infinitely preferable to forcing an unhappy couple to stay married for a year before they can divorce.
New clause 4, which stands in the name of the Leader of the Opposition, me and other hon. and right hon. Members, relates to funds and income. It is undeniable that there is a problem with access to legal aid, not just in divorce, but across a wide spectrum of areas. The huge cuts made to funding over the past 10 years have led to unfairness and a lack of justice across our nation. Without adequate legal aid for divorce proceedings, we have a situation where some people cannot afford to petition for divorce. We are essentially forcing people to stay married to someone they do not want to be married to simply because they do not have enough money to take legal action.
If the Minister agreed to act, he would have the support of the Law Society. In a briefing, it told me that respondents should have sufficient time to respond to a petition and seek advice. It also stated:
“In our evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights in regard to the human rights implications of the Bill, we highlighted that there is the potential for issues under article 14 of the Human Rights Act 1998 due to its potential to have a particularly detrimental impact on women, who due to a range of societal issues are more likely to be less resilient to financial risks…While divorce affords some protections to women at the end of a marriage, they can only make best use of these legal safeguards if they can participate in the proceedings fully.”
It is right and just that we extend legal aid to divorce, dissolution and separation proceedings to allow people to escape unhappy marriages and civil partnerships. While we welcome the provisions in the Bill to make divorce easier, will the Government acknowledge that without legal aid, we are simply making divorce easier for those who have the funds to petition, while little change will be made for those who do not have such funds? I hope the Minister will go away and consider that, as we must do better for those who do not have the resources to use the legal system.
New clause 5 would require the Secretary of State to carry out a review within six months on the impact of extending legal aid for divorce proceedings. We on this side of the House are particularly interested in the disproportionate impact that an absence of legal aid has on women and how Government can help put a stop to that. Does the Minister agree that we should be conducting research to collect facts about the impacts of decisions made by this House and the potential impacts that decisions made by this House could have? With this in mind, I hope the Minister will accept that we must actively seek out areas where a group of people are being disproportionately negatively impacted, and make the necessary changes to fix that.
We know that legal aid is available in some circumstances, but, as we say in new clause 6, we would like to see financial abuse listed as a specific condition under which civil legal aid may be provided in matters arising out of family relationship. If a person is being financially abused, they simply do not have the funds to petition for a divorce. Does the Minister accept and acknowledge this fact? If he does, perhaps we can make some progress. This could be transformational change for those who have been essentially kept from having their freedom by their partners because they do not have the resources to pursue a divorce. Can the Minister tell me now whether he will seek to introduce financial abuse as a part of the domestic abuse conditions that allow access to legal aid? If not, is it the case that the Government do not wish to provide real and tangible assistance to those who are being financially abused and cannot escape an abusive relationship without that assistance?
There are other areas of family law that I would like to be addressed in the Bill, such as the out-of-date, archaic approach which means that families are entitled to bereavement support only if the parents are married. Not only does this fail to recognise that many families have happy and secure lives without the need for marriage, but it means unhappy couples may be discouraged from petitioning for a divorce because of the potential financial consequences. However, it goes much wider than that.
I have a constituent who when living with her partner had a child with him. Sadly, the relationship was not sustained but her partner, who left, kept up regular maintenance payments for his child until his death. Despite having those regular payments, my constituent is denied bereavement support. When I wrote to the Government seeking clarity on this, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Baroness Stedman-Scott, responded by simply saying that marriage was a key part of benefit entitlement. This is an outdated approach, and we must reframe our public policy on it. We live in a society where families come in all shapes and sizes, and we should not be deeming one shape or size as preferable to another.
The chief executive of Child Bereavement UK said:
“The inequality that unmarried parents face in the bereavement system denies them access to this financial support at a time of great distress and anxiety on many levels following the death of a partner…It is a gross injustice that the current system ultimately disadvantages bereaved children, who have no influence over their parents’ marital status.”
For bereavement support when one parent dies to be permitted only if the parents were married is backwards, and I hope the Government recognise that and will take action to right this wrong.
New clause 9, which is in the name of my hon. Friend Stella Creasy and in mine, is an important one. I will not steal my hon. Friend’s thunder, but it is absolutely right that the Secretary of State publish by the end of this year a report on how this legislation will affect the financial status of children and families where benefit entitlement is linked to the civil partnership or marriage status of one or both parents. As I have said, basing benefit entitlement on marital status is outdated and not representative of the modern society in which we live.
Is my hon. Friend aware of the YouGov poll commissioned by Resolution, which represents more than 6,000 family lawyers and family law professionals? It shows that 71% of the population agrees that no-fault divorce is urgently needed to protect the long-term interests of children.
I have seen that particular information. It cuts to the very core of what this is about. It is not just about the two partners in a relationship; it is about the children. Fiona Bruce spoke about the extended family and the need for grandparents to be involved with their grandchildren. It would absolutely break my heart if I were to lose contact with my grandson. It is very important that we recognise that this will actually make life easier for children, which is why we support it.
As I was saying, basing benefit entitlement on marital status is outdated, so I hope the Minister will go away and collect the information to share with the House. The Government have acknowledged that we need to make divorce easier and more straightforward, which this Bill does, but the Government cannot and should not ignore the negative repercussions of the positive changes being brought in with this Bill.
In conclusion, this is a good Bill that will change people’s lives for the better. But there is always room for improvement, especially changes in the spirit of this Bill recognising modern relationships and families as well as legal aid. I hope the Minister will agree that there is much more change needed in this area of family law, but this is a good first step.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Dame Rosie, and to follow Alex Cunningham.
I listened with great care to the speech by my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce. I have great respect for the sincerity with which she expresses her views. I have to say that I profoundly disagree with the fundamental basis of her analysis, but I do not mean that with any disrespect to her or others who take a different view. This is not a Bill on which we should be judgmental, any more than we should be judgmental in relation to divorce itself. The Bill is, to my mind, a sensible one. It reflects reality, which is often painful—painful not least for the parties and for their families. As I said on Second Reading, I start from the proposition—it also informs my approach to these amendments—that nobody gets married setting out to get divorced. Divorce arises only as a result of a great deal of hardship, heartache and heart searching.
In my experience, as a constituency MP and lawyer—I did not predominantly practise family law as a lawyer, although I did a bit at one time, and I have many friends who continue to do it at every level—divorce is not undertaken lightly, any more than any relationship breakdown is undertaken lightly. When it happens, however, it is better that it should be done with the minimum of conflict and the minimum of confrontation. Over the years, we have made reforms to the law of divorce to try to make it closer to the reality of the society in which we live, because, ultimately, that is what law has to serve. In this regard, I support the Bill for attempting, and succeeding in large measure, to do that. So although I understand that the amendments are well intentioned, I cannot support them.
My hon. Friend will, of course, understand from the personal experience of his constituents and from other experience that he has enjoyed that the acrimony he described is often about the dispersal of assets and the custody of children. It is not about the process of divorce; it is about the business of divorce. The custody of children and the agreement about assets will continue regardless of the process. Acrimony is a feature of the human condition, not a legal process.
The only part that I agree with my right hon. Friend about is the fact that acrimony can be a feature of the human condition. I am afraid that I have to profoundly disagree with the rest of his analysis. I regret to have to say that a divorce process that entrenches confrontation absolutely has the reverse effect to that which he suggests. The reality is that the acrimony, sadly, has arisen in the course of the breakdown, which, all too often, may have been a long time coming and may have happened for a number of reasons, which cannot be laid necessarily always at the door of one party or the other. But the law, as it stands, does not fit that reality fairly and sensibly. Whatever its intention, it actually makes matters worse, so I do have to part company with my right hon. Friend on that.
There is much to be said— I will take it out of turn but I think it relates to the principle of this—for the various amendments that relate to improving the attempts to support marriage and conciliation. I understand that and hope the Minister will have more to say about what more we can do in that regard. The truth is that, by the time we get to the issuing of the proceedings for divorce, the horse has bolted. We should do more to prevent that from happening and help couples when they run into difficulties at the beginning, but that is not what this Bill is changing.
Do I detect from what my hon. Friend has said that he is supportive of new clause 1 and amendment 7, which are, in fact, identical in terms of marriage and relationship support? That has always been a feature of this aspect. It was part of the Family Law Act 1996. Is he supportive of what those two amendments are trying to do?
I am supportive of the objective, but I would like to hear the Minister’s comments on whether those are the best means of achieving it in the context of the Bill. I entirely accept what my hon. Friend says about the objective, and he and I share views on a number of issues. I would prefer to see the Bill pass cleanly and then to work constructively with the Government to find means of giving that sort of support, because there are other methods that I think could be used to do that. However, I take on board the importance of the point he makes.
Against that background, it is important that we seek to minimise conflict and that we face the fact that, however much we might wish it were otherwise, a bond that is no longer meaningful to a couple is not best served by forcing them together. That is neither socially desirable nor just; nor is it Christian or ethical in terms of any faith.
My hon. Friend used the phrase “the horse has bolted” in reference to the time the petition is initiated. In fact, in recent years tens of thousands of petitions have been abandoned after being lodged at court; the marriages have remained intact. Is not that something we should celebrate and encourage?
I think it rather depends on the grounds on which the petition is abandoned. If someone was coerced into abandoning a petition, I would not regard it as something to celebrate, to be perfectly frank, as that would be allowing a coercive party to win. That may not be the case in most instances, but that is a reality as well. The evidence also shows that about 10% of petitions do not proceed to their final conclusion, but that is very often because of procedural reasons, and sometimes because of no co-operation on the part of the respondent. With respect, I am not sure that that is the best argument.
Unfortunately, and as has been pointed out, amendment 1 appears simply to delay dealing with an issue that needs to be resolved. It is merely reinserting and increasing the time period. The longer the period goes on, the greater is the likelihood of conflict and hardship, and the greater is the risk that the stronger partner—whether financially or emotionally—in a relationship that has not always been happy and who may have verged on being coercive or been outright coercive, will have all the cards in their hands. The longer it goes on, the more they can push back against the person who is seeking to leave an unhappy relationship and genuinely move their life on. I do not believe the amendment would have the effect my hon. Friend seeks of making the divorce process easier or better.
The hon. Gentleman is making very valid points, which I agree with. Does he agree with me that, especially where domestic violence is involved, that partner has the power to prolong cases for up to two years —in some cases, five years—which has a negative impact on both the abused partner and on the children?
Unfortunately, that is also true. I think most of us will have seen that in our surgeries.
It is also worth saying that the pilot information meetings held under the Family Law Act 1996, which was passed but never brought into force, indicated very strongly that, by this stage, very often people have made a decision and want to move on. In reality, there may be another family, or a new relationship has started. People should not be forced to point a finger of blame. A law that requires that is doing no social or ethical good.
Amendment 3, in effect, restates and retains the fault- based approach. That is opposed by Resolution—an admirable body—and not supported by the Marriage Foundation either. I simply do not think that professionals believe that anything is gained by this approach.
The hon. Gentleman has reiterated that certain professionals will not gain out of this, but is not the unfortunate fact that some professionals in the legal field will set themselves up as the expert in finding the loophole, the expert in the quickie divorce, the person who can get people over the hurdles even faster? As we have seen in other fields, there will be some unscrupulous individuals who market themselves on that basis. That is a problem that the Bill introduces.
I do not think the Bill adds to that problem at all. If it exists, it can exist in any profession and can be dealt with by proper regulation. I suggest to the hon. Gentleman, for whom I have great respect, that the current situation makes that problem worse, because people have to go through what is rightly described by the research from the University of Exeter as a legal farce—a legal ritual of saying, “What is the minimum form of words that your client will accept that will meet the legal test to enable us to get divorced?” That is the sort of thing that can be taken advantage of and it is where the unscrupulous will come in. Removing fault removes the ability for the unscrupulous person to play upon fault, be they a purported adviser or a party to the divorce. Maintaining that approach and resisting these amendments, however well intended, is important and I urge the Government to do so.
It is important to look at the international comparisons. In England, a disproportionate amount of reliance is placed upon fault as the grounds for divorce. There are other grounds for divorce, but because it is complicated at the moment some 60% of divorces in England are based upon allegations of adultery. By that stage, people have split up and are often living apart. There is the business of having to point the finger about who did what. My old pupil master, whom I believe I mentioned on Second Reading, was around when we still had to go through the charade of getting an affidavit from a chambermaid or the receptionist in a hotel to prove divorce. It was a demeaning business and thank God we got rid of that. Maintaining a fault system, which, as I say, entrenches conflict, does us no credit as far as that is concerned.
Does my hon. Friend accept that there is only one ground for divorce, which is irretrievable breakdown, and there are five areas where one can adduce evidence of that irretrievable breakdown? Should we not be concentrating on that one issue: irretrievable breakdown?
It seems to me that that is precisely what the Bill is seeking to do. The problem is the requirement to prove the following facts to support that because, inevitably, that evidential requirement elides into the grounds, and the conflict created by the need to prove one or other of those facts is the difficulty. So I think that the Bill is moving in the direction that my hon. Friend, with his own experience in the law, will probably wish us to go.
So now we are substituting the requirement to prove a fact with someone merely being able to state their opinion and that being accepted as fact. Does my hon. Friend think that is right?
If the ground is made out that the marriage has irretrievably broken down, I think most people would say that there is no merit in seeking to go beyond that. I know it is suggested that there ought to be some finding of fault on the record. This is not a criminal process and I do not think that helps anyone. Ultimately, the court process is not there even to assist someone in a measure of trauma, I have to be blunt about that. That is not what the court process is there for. By all means, help people when their relationships get into trouble and do more than we already do. I would not support the Opposition’s amendment in the form in which it currently appears, but I hope the Minister will have more to say about what can be done to make access to legal advice more readily available to people when their relationships start to fall apart and when divorce looms. Legal aid was withdrawn from divorce overall. I understand the financial reasons behind that and I understand the argument that, if we move to a system where we do not have the level of confrontation, it may not be necessary in many cases, given the other changes—the online portal and other matters—to go down the route of requiring lawyers at every stage.
Would the hon. Gentleman support the idea that information relating to financial abuse should be specifically categorised in the law so that people get legal aid in those circumstances?
That is an interesting point and I would like to see what the Government can come up to deal with that, but I am not convinced that it needs to be in the Bill. I do, though, think that the Government need to look at it, not least because under the existing legislation that is retained there is, very properly, the ability to take conduct into account when dealing with financial matters. To me, that is where conduct ought to be relevant, rather than in proving the fact of an irretrievable breakdown. That is the way I would look at it.
I know that the Minister is particularly alert to these matters, and I hope he will want to think about how we can have greater access to early legal advice for people. Legal aid may be one route for that, but there may be other means that we can use to supplement it. One of the things that was said when we withdrew legal aid from family cases was that many more will go to mediation; that never happened, and the reality is that that is because lawyers are normally the gateway to mediation. Unless someone has some form of legal assistance to go to a lawyer in the first place, they are not going to end up moving into mediation, which is where we want people to be. That is where I am in agreement with the shadow Minister, Alex Cunningham, but I hope that there is another means of achieving what he is looking for in a proportionate way.
I hope I have set out why I think Members will resist the amendments—not because they are not serious issues, nor because every one of us does not want to try get the Bill into the best possible condition, but because they would muddy the waters of the Bill and, in fact, would undermine it in a number of important respects by adding back in much of the confrontational process, and they would cause delay when delay is many people’s biggest concern. In particular, some of the technicalities of the amendments would actually strengthen the arm of the spouse who wants to exert influence on the petitioner either not to proceed with the divorce or, even worse, to settle for an unsatisfactory financial arrangement or an unsatisfactory arrangement for the children.
I do not see how, whatever their intention, amendments that have the practical result of strengthening the hand of the party who is putting pressure on someone at a time like that are in the public interest. For those reasons, I hope very much that the House will not accept the amendments but will take on board some of the legitimate points made by my hon. Friend Andrew Selous and by the shadow Minister, which I think would chime with many people throughout the House, about how best we give people support at such a difficult period in anyone’s life.
First, I associate myself with the comments from my colleague and good friend on the Front Bench, my hon. Friend Alex Cunningham, who gave us a clear outline of where the Labour party and the Opposition are on the amendments that have been tabled.
I rise to speak in particular to new clause 9 and to ask the Ministers to consider the financial status of children. I also associate myself with the comments from Members from all parties about the importance of supporting people with marriage, because it is obviously an issue for people to access support.
New clause 9 speaks to the conversation that we appear to want to have as a House. We should talk about marriage, and we should talk about how marriage and divorce are seen in public policy making, because there are ramifications, and there are ramifications that go far beyond the straightforward question of whether and how people can get married.
I wish to start with a wonderful quote that struck me very strongly:
“People stay married because they want to, not because the doors are locked.”
Those words were said by a gentleman who had a 50-year marriage: the great actor Paul Newman. Many of us are aware of Paul Newman’s marriage to Joanne Newman, which was celebrated throughout Hollywood—perhaps an area to which Fiona Bruce would not look for marriage guidance, and I probably agree with her about that. Nevertheless, when we think about our role as parliamentarians in law, it is worth reflecting that even Paul Newman was married to somebody else when he met Joanne Newman and had three children.
The reality is that sometimes relationships do not work out, and sometimes people choose not to use marriage as a way of cementing their relationship. In the 21st century, it is right that, when we look at legislating on marriage and divorce, we ask ourselves what the consequences of any changes we might make will be for people’s real lives. It is right that we never lose sight of what really matters here, which is the people we represent and their families and day-to-day lives, and what the consequences would be. Indeed, it was Nietzsche who said that it was
“not a lack of love, but a lack of friendship that makes unhappy marriages.”
An environment is created when we say that we are either standing up for or detracting from marriage, because forcing people to stay unhappy or, as some are suggesting with this Bill, making divorce easier and therefore traducing the concept of marriage, misses out something fundamental about this legislation and about how we treat marriage within the legislative process. That is where new clause 9 is coming from.
New clause 9 seeks to take up the test that the hon. Member for Congleton set out in her amendments. She suggested that people will marry less and cohabit more and that somehow, therefore, we need to act against that. My point in tabling this new clause, with the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North, who feels strongly about this too, is that we can lose sight of what really matters here and, in particular, lose sight of the consequences for children. I would wager that the hon. Member for Congleton and I may have differences of opinion on many things, but we would agree that children should matter and that we should never legislate in this place without thinking through the consequences for children.
The challenge here, and the reason why I tabled new clause 9, is that the way in which marriage it is portrayed in our legislative process, in particular how it is explicitly referenced when it comes to benefits, has consequences. It has very real consequences for the destitution of children. I agree with the hon. Member for Congleton that marriage breakdown is hard on children, but imagine a child who loses a parent and how awful that must be for that child. The trouble here is the way in which we think about marriage has consequences for children who are already facing the trauma of having lost a parent.
I hope that new clause 9 is actually a relatively straightforward piece of work, because there is a hangover from the Beveridge report, which sought to support widows, particularly widowed women who lost their husbands and, therefore, were having to look after children after losing the family income. The challenge for this piece of legislation, because I know Dame Rosie would say, “Well, this is a separate issue,” is that when we change the way in which we talk about marriage—or when we change the way in which we talk about divorce, because this will affect the children of divorced parents, too—the knock-on consequences may have severe financial effects for children. If we do not give them a voice in this process, we miss a trick. New clause 9 asks us to do precisely that.
Although the hon. Member for Congleton and I may have different views on marriage, we would find common cause in saying, “Well, actually, we should look and see whether this is going to affect that group of children,” because right now we know that the way the law is cast does affect those children. It affects thousands of people in this country who are already facing the trauma of losing a family member, whether through terminal illness or through sudden death, and who suddenly find that they are not entitled to support because of the marital status of their parents,
The widows legislation was in the Beveridge report, and it was updated in 2001 to take in fathers—some hon. Members will be pleased to hear that, and I would agree that we should not discriminate between fathers and mothers. Having worked on this issue for a number of years, with some fantastic organisations such as the Child Poverty Action Group, the Grieving Parents Support Network, and Widowed & Young, I have heard some horrific stories about families and the impact of the changes upon them.
Crucially, this is based on national insurance contributions. That is why when we change access to marriage or change the rules around divorce, it has a knock-on effect on this particular piece of welfare policy. There are few other areas of policy that I can see that have such an explicit connection to marriage and divorce. The benefit is specifically not available—this is written into law—to partners who were not married or who were divorced. In earlier incarnations, it was also not eligible to parents whose partner was in prison— I am not quite sure why that was—or if the parent marries or cohabits. It was changed again in 2017 to the bereavement support allowance, and it was altered to shorten the amount of time that a family might be eligible to it, not to recognise the families who may miss out.
However, those are the very families about which I am sure the hon. Member for Congleton would say, “Well, actually, they should be getting married, and what we should be doing is having legislation that encourages and promotes marriage.” The challenge that I have here is that unless we recognise that people may choose for their own private reasons not to marry or may be in the process of getting married, we hit those families when we change the law on marriage and divorce. We are talking about a not inconsequential sum of money. Over the course of 18 months it adds up to £10,000, so we can see immediately that for families who lose a parent and a breadwinner, whether through terminal illness, which might have already caused problems for their finances, or through sudden death, the loss of £10,000 on top of the loss of a partner is a huge cataclysmic shock to them and their family. The reality is that in modern Britain one in five parents are raising children who cannot claim this benefit if their partner dies. That is about 2,000 families a year, which is about 3,500 children in total.
Some 49% of cohabiting couples believe that being in a cohabiting relationship gives them legal rights, which obviously is incorrect. The Bill will reinforce some of those challenges. Crucially, that number rises if they have children: 55% of cohabiting couples believe erroneously that, were the worst happen, they would still have the same right as if they had been married to that support which they have, after all, paid for with their national insurance contributions. I think that is why the Government have lost several court cases on this issue, yet we have not seen any progress being made. I believe we have not seen any progress being made because of the idea, to which the Bill speaks, that somehow we must cement marriage to the exclusion of all other concerns within our public policy-making process.
In August 2018, the Supreme Court ruled that denying the widowed parent’s allowance to unmarried parents was incompatible with human rights legislation. In February this year, the High Court ruled that denying the new bereavement support allowance to bereaved parents was also incompatible. Every day that we delay resolving this situation, recognising that how we talk about and legislate on marriage has practical implications for families who face the trauma of losing a parent, there are more children in this position. Indeed, in the current circumstances where people cannot have marriages unless in extreme circumstances—it is only recently that we have seen that—we face the vision of families losing someone to this awful virus and then discovering that they are in a financial crisis moment because they cannot get the support that they reasonably thought they were entitled to, because their family member had paid their national insurance contribution.
Other countries, which have strong feelings and strong legislation on marriage and divorce, have treated the matter differently. Other member states of the Council of Europe and Canada either pay a survivor’s pension direct to the partner or pay what is called an orphan’s pension to the child. They explicitly say, “However strongly we may feel that we want to promote marriage and however strongly we may feel that divorce in itself should not be something that the state is propagating, we do not punish the child for the decisions of the parent. We do not push the child into financial destitution. Whenever we change the law on marriage or divorce, we seek to put the child at the heart of the decisions we make.” If the Minister wishes, he can read the stories of women like Laura Rudd or Joanna Niemeyer from my community in my constituency, or the examples raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North, about the human consequences of talking about marriage and divorce to the exclusion of all concerned, for children who may have to deal with the aftermath.
If my new clause is about anything, it is about understanding the true effect of everything that we are doing. The Minister may say to me, “Well, it would not just cover bereavement support payments.” That is true. We would probably have to look at the married couple’s allowance, which is our previous attempt to promote, encourage and sustain the concept of marriage. I am very mindful that that is not claimed by the vast majority of people who are entitled to it. This is a small change to protect bereaved families. We are not talking about hundreds of thousands of people: a few thousand people every year could be covered by it. If only 1.7 million of the 4.2 million families who are entitled to the married couple’s allowance claim it—one question the review could consider is whether the ways in which the Minister is changing access to marriage and divorce might affect that—then the £20 million we estimate it would cost to put this right could come from that budget and we would not be asking little children who face the loss of a parent to deal with a double financial blow because their parents were not married. After all, when their parents are alive we recognise their relationship in the tax credit system. It is a hangover from a previous era in how we dealt with benefits and marriage. It is right, when we are looking at legislation on marriage, to ask whether there will be a further consequence.
I ask the Minister—I recognise that he may say the Bill is not the right place for this debate—not to forget those children in this debate.
Will he go to the Department for Work and Pensions and say, “It’s been two years since the courts said that this was a human rights breach. That’s thousands more children who have been left out and left in destitution, who have missed out on that money, which their families need at a crucial, vulnerable time”? Whether their parents would choose not to get married because the law is changed to make it easier to get divorced, or whether that would not make any difference, they deserve to be heard in this place, they deserve an answer, and they deserve our support. It is never right to tell a child that the sins of the father should be prosecuted on them, and yet by default the way we treat marriage in public policy will do that to these children.
I know the Minister will feel strongly that the Bill is about recognising sensitive family situations—not about locking doors but about treating people as grown-ups. We should treat people as grown-ups, but not at the expense of missing out on their children. I ask him, therefore, to look favourably—he did not talk about it when we raised it on Second Reading—on the point the amendment makes about the importance of gathering data on the impact and dealing with those human rights judgments, so that we do not have more children being punished for the decisions their parents make, however strongly people may feel. The hon. Member for Congleton seemed to believe that most of the ills of the world were coming from those of us who have chosen not to get married, but I would hope that she would not think that my daughter should be damaged as a result.
I wish to speak in support of the amendments and new clauses tabled by my hon. Friends the Members for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) and my right hon. Friend Sir Edward Leigh. If any more evidence was needed that our Government have lost their moral compass, this Bill provides it. I never thought that I would be asked by a Conservative Government to support a change in the law that gives unilateral access to the courts without any requirement to establish facts. It is completely at odds with the values of justice that I hold and which I think most members of the Conservative party, if not the nation, also hold.
I was a pupil in chambers specialising in family law around the time that the 1969 legislation was introduced that changed the divorce laws to say there was only one ground for divorce, and that was that a marriage had broken down irretrievably. There were five ways in which that irretrievable breakdown could be satisfied on the evidence. The Bill retains irretrievable breakdown as the ground for divorce but enables that to be proved by mere assertion by one of the parties to the marriage without the need to provide any evidence in support, even if the other party profoundly disagrees.
We know that our courts are under pressure, but how can this justify the expedient of removing the requirement to adduce any facts as evidence? Reliance on mere assertion was how we used to deal with witches, and it is still a favourite tool among dictators such as Putin and Erdoğan, who govern by decree. I did not think we were going to venture down that route in this Parliament under a Conservative Government.
I am particularly attracted to the provisions of new clause 3, which skilfully avoids the use of summary justice. It adopts the Scottish approach to separation with consent by reducing the separation period from two years to one. My right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough has told us that some 95% of divorces in Scotland are now on the basis of that provision—in other words, with consent after one year. The Law Commission recommended that instead of one year or six months, the right time would be nine months. The Lord Chancellor has arbitrarily rejected that suggestion. The argument deployed was merely that the approach to divorces in Scotland is piecemeal. I profoundly disagree with that conclusion. I think the approach in Scotland is a much more sensible one, and I do not say that just because I had the benefit of a Scottish university education when I studied Scots law, among other things.
Many marriage breakdowns are temporary and not irretrievable. That is why the issue of evidence for irretrievable breakdown is so important. Sometimes the parties interpret a breakdown as irretrievable, they get divorced and they live to regret it later. Who can doubt that many divorcees on their own during the covid-19 lockdown desperately wish that they had persisted with their marriage? My right hon. Friend Andrea Leadsom referred to some 50% of people who get divorced having regrets about having done so. I suspect that, following this lockdown, that percentage might increase even further.
Further to the statistic that up to 50% of people said they regretted divorcing, the reasons they gave were things like they felt they still loved their partner and that they missed their partner, so for all the huge number of comments that it is all financial, it is very genuinely emotions.
This is a very emotional subject, and we ignore that at our peril.
The Bill and the lack of response by the Government to the criticisms that were made on Second Reading lead me to believe that the Government do not really accept the important role that family life has to play in maintaining social cohesion in this country, with the institution of marriage at its heart. The Government almost seem to be venturing down the same route as those who support cultural Marxism. Are the Government inadvertently collaborators with cultural Marxism in seeking to undermine nuclear families?
“it is often too late to save a marriage, once the legal process of divorce has started.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 677, c. 95.]
but he sought to avoid the concerns of Jim Shannon about access to free counselling for those with marriage difficulties, and he cited the Department for Work and Pensions programme of £39 million on reducing parental conflict as the solution.
The hon. Gentleman mentions my comments to the Secretary of State last week. I do feel that the opportunity for Relate and marriage guidance should be available, as Fiona Bruce said, before the marriage starts but also as the process comes to its end. It should not just be available in the early stages—I understood from what the Secretary of State said that it would only be available early. Is it not important that at all stages the chance to reconcile and save a marriage should be paramount and should be tried in every case?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. My regret is that the Marriage Guidance Council ever changed its name to Relate because I do not think that as many people understand what Relate is actually about. Of course, after the hon. Gentleman put that point to the Lord Chancellor, there was a non-response—I think that is the generous way of putting it. Then my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire intervened and asked about guarantees that the DWP programme would continue, because at the moment it is only funded for the next nine months. Again, there was no willingness to give any assurance from the Front Bench that that programme would be renewed or even that the Lord Chancellor would support such a renewal. That is why I am sceptical about all this.
The Lord Chancellor said that the aim of the Bill is to “reduce conflict”. He described it as being about the “legal process”, not about stopping the decline in the institution of marriage or, as he put it, “committed relationships”. He also conceded that this Bill is not going to make divorce less attractive, and he did not think it was intended for that end. However, surely this is a golden opportunity to expand marriage guidance services and to make them more easily accessible. It is an opportunity that has been missed, and that is why I shall be supporting new clause 1 if it is put to the vote.
Marriage is something that people have to work at, and I think most marriages will have had their ups and downs. The temptation now is that a party to a marriage going through a bad spell can suddenly, arbitrarily, unilaterally and without consulting their spouse terminate the marriage, and then within six months have a divorce, and I think that is highly unsatisfactory.
The Lord Chancellor seems to believe that nobody embarks on divorce other than in circumstances where the marriage has ended. May I draw his attention to the fact that one of the side-effects of this will be to facilitate the development of more sham marriages? A sham marriage can then result in a sham divorce, and sham divorces will be able to follow on much more quickly than they have been able to do hitherto. Ironically, I think this is going to promote sham marriage and all the abuse of our immigration law and other laws that that leads to.
This Bill is essentially introducing what I would call marriage shorthold, a legal agreement that can be terminated unilaterally after six months, without any evidence of fault. Is it not ironic that, while the Government are introducing marriage shorthold, they are seeking to abolish tenancy shorthold? Section 21 of the Housing Act 1988 allows a six-month housing tenancy to be terminated unilaterally after six months, without evidence of fault. What is the justification that the Government are putting forward for ending tenancy shortholds? It is because tenancy shortholds undermine security. What does this lead us to conclude? It leads me to conclude that the Government value housing security above marriage security, and I think that is a really perverse order of priorities.
I suppose, as a supply side supporter, I could be arguing that, in the same way that the supply side reforms in the 1988 Act—I was privileged to be a Minister in the Department of the Environment when we bought it in—had the consequence of increasing the number of tenancies and the availability of rental options, perhaps the supply side changes to our divorce law will have the consequence that people will feel they can enter into marriage more easily because they are going to be able to end it after six months if it does not work out. That is not a justification so far put forward by the Government, but I would be interested to hear from the Minister how he finds consistency in the approaches to shorthold tenancies and to shorthold marriage.
I think this Bill lacks ambition, and that is another reason why I am not going to be able to support it. I think it should be used as an opportunity to help address conflicts in marriage and between married partners, but it should not be designed, as I think it is, to undermine the institution of marriage in itself.
In conclusion, let me just say this. My right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor has repeatedly described himself as a doughty champion of family values, but I think it is significant that throughout the debates we have had on this Bill, he has been remarkably diffident about promoting the positive benefits of marriage, as many of my right hon. and hon. Friends have done during the course of this debate. Unless the Government accept the amendments before the House today—particularly, in my view, new clause 1—there will be no evidence to back up the Lord Chancellor’s assertion of being a champion of family values. Indeed, like a party to a divorce under this Bill, he will have absolved himself of any requirement to establish the facts. What a sad state of affairs that is.
Order. Before I call the next speaker, I remind right hon. and hon. Members that because we are in Committee I cannot impose a time limit, but I am sure that everyone can see from the call list that there are still nine speakers. The debate has to finish at 6 o’clock. I am sure that hon. Members will want the Minister to have a good chunk of time to address the points that have been raised and Fiona Bruce to have some time to respond. If everyone continues to speak for 15 minutes, not everyone is going to get in. I am just pointing that out and will leave colleagues to adjust their speeches appropriately.
I went into politics to make the world a better place. It has been my lifelong ambition since I was a kid to try to improve the world around me. The problem I have with this Bill is that it is just not clear that it does that. When I was four years old, my parents divorced, so I know first-hand what it is like to be the child of divorced parents. I have met so many of these people in my constituency surgeries. There are the estranged wives who say, “He’s a beep beep beep, he’s been horrendous, he does not turn up when he says he will, he’s been a terrible father.” Then the men come into my surgery saying, “She denies me access to the kids, she was unfaithful, she was this, she was that.” I have seen the problem of warring couples. Of course, as many colleagues have said, the children are often the ones to suffer.
Now we also have the more modern case where a couple cohabit and either do or do not have children, with the challenges for them of relationship breakdown and how they solve that. In recent years, since I have been a Member of Parliament, we have introduced civil partnerships for same-sex couples and then for opposite-sex couples, all designed to give people options, but ultimately, in my view, to help people have strong and happy relationships.
What do we do in this place if it is not to try to help people have better, happier lives—and what does that mean? I have heard an awful lot of, frankly, lawyers talking about the problems of this and the problems of that, the legal position here and there, and the financial position and so on, but ultimately this is about human happiness. What all of us in this place know is that human beings need to be together in communities. Just over the past few months, we have tested to destruction the idea of separating people into their single units to be lonely and isolated. We know that people want to be together, and yet what we never do in this Chamber is say, “We stand up for people being together and sticking together and loving each other, and we want to help them in every way we can.”
I really do not know what to make of this Bill, as someone who experienced divorce myself, and whose kids, now in their teens or early 20s, have friends whose parents split up and whose lives have been wrecked by the experience. I know so many people who have been through traumatic relationships. I also know lots of people who have divorced and got back together again—people whose relationships have been severely challenged and they have managed to find a way through it. I cannot see in this Bill any attempt to help them to stay together, to help them to get through a rough period, or to encourage them to stay together to focus on the children. It does not seem to me to do any of those things, which we all absolutely know are in the interests of a stronger and a happier society.
The right hon. Lady is outlining the issues clearly. I understand that when relationships break down there is anger, pain, and hurt, but at the same time there are also children, grandparents, and other family relationships. How important is it to ensure that there is time for people to consider those matters before the final step, which could be a detrimental and backward one, is taken?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, because he brings me to my key point: I totally support the idea of minimising the angst, pain, and further acrimony of a terrible divorce, as that is in no one’s interests—it is not in the interests of the warring couple, and it is certainly not in the interests of any children—but we are not talking about the other side of the coin. We are saying to people, “You can get divorced much more easily”, and that, in my view, is a good thing, because if the relationship is irretrievably broken down, it is right to make the process much easier. However, statistics show that up to 50% of people later come to be sorry about their divorce, and as I said to my hon. Friend Sir Christopher Chope, that is because they still love their partner, or miss them, or because they are lonely. Yes, it might be because they are financially deprived. They might now be in a one-bedroom flat, whereas previously they were in a nice three-bedroom house with a garden. People may regret a divorce for all sorts of reasons, so why would we make this provision for six months? I literally do not get it.
Why not say that a couple can judicially separate after six months—they can move out of the family home, divide up their possessions, sort out arrangements for any children, decide who gets the cat and so on—but that they should at least then have a period of reflection? I simply do not understand. I think all the points have been made, and as a non-lawyer, I do not propose to get into that area, but I just feel that we are missing an opportunity to add to human happiness.
It is a pleasure to follow my right hon. Friend Andrea Leadsom, with whose comments I completely agree. The community I represent contains some of the most deprived wards in England, and the magnitude of some of the social challenges in Blackpool is frankly enormous. When I visit our local soup kitchens, or work with community groups who help the most marginalised in society, I speak to many of those who are reaching out for support. There are, of course, a wide variety of different personal circumstances, and a plethora of reasons why people need additional help. It always strikes me, however, that some form of family breakdown usually lies at the heart of it.
The traditional family is a cornerstone of a strong society, and marriage is the glue that holds families together. Marriage creates a stable environment in which children can thrive, and we know that children born to married parents are more likely to go to university, get married themselves, and find long-term employment. Strong families and marriage provide the support and stability that benefits not just the individuals concerned, but society as a whole. Indeed, it is a sad fact that anything we do to weaken the family unit and marriage by making a divorce easier to obtain will result in greater family breakdown, and there will be more people falling on hard times and invariably presenting themselves for support at those community groups and food banks that I visit in my constituency.
The benefits of marriage speak for themselves. There is so much more that I would like to say on this, but I would like to associate myself with the comments made in the excellent speeches on Second Reading by my right hon. Friend Sir Edward Leigh and my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce, who highlighted many of the points that I would make this afternoon, had I more time.
I have reservations about this Bill and the message that it sends out to society. As a Government, we should be encouraging marriage and supporting the principle of the traditional family. If we introduce compulsory no-fault divorce in a six-month timeframe, the result will inevitably be an increase in the divorce rate and the problems within society that family breakdown creates.
One obvious way of mitigating the impact of the Bill is the provisions in new clause 1, which would ensure increased support for marriages and new support for couples where an application for divorce has been made to the court. Of course, there will be sad occasions when it may not be in the couple’s best interests to stay together, but I am speaking more generally when I say that it is in the national interest for couples to stay together.
Surely it would be an effective use of public funds for the Government to make available grants for marriage support services before marriage and during a marriage—that is, before couples appear before a court seeking a divorce. The estimated cost of family breakdown is £51 billion per year. In stark contrast, the Government’s forecast spending on relationship support in the last financial year was a paltry £10.2 million. So family break- down costs us £51 billion, yet we spend only £10 million trying to fix the source of it. Sadly, I am not sure that will make much of a difference.
A number of Government Members have expressed concerns about the Bill. It would go some way to show the Government’s support for marriage if they were minded to invest in relationship support, counselling and marriage preparation. Those programmes will make a significant difference. The Government’s own commissioned evaluation of relationship support provided in the UK found that counselling and relationship education resulted in statistically significant
“positive changes in individuals’ relationship quality, well-being and communication”, and that couple counselling and certain types of marriage preparation were
“cost effective, providing substantially greater savings to society than they cost to deliver.”
The Relationships Alliance, a group that includes Relate, has published evidence on why good-quality couple and family relationships matter. In that publication, it stated:
“International evidence, including several randomised control trials, shows that relationship counselling or therapy can be effective in improving relationship quality, relationship satisfaction, conflict resolution skills, and wellbeing and mental health.”
Relationship support really does work, and it is clear that it would make a significant and effective difference. Services offered should be local and able to respond to a couple’s needs within days, especially given the minimum timeframe that the Bill currently specifies. I sincerely hope that the Government will see that the proposal in new clause 1 fits with their key policy objectives on divorce law reform, which include sufficient opportunity for reconciliation, and will therefore ensure that marriage counselling is made available to spouses when an application has been made for divorce.
When we had the Second Reading debate on the Bill not so long ago, the Lord Chancellor made the very good observation that if we were serious about strengthening marriages and relationships in this country, we needed to do so through what was termed
“the right end of the telescope”.—[Official Report,
Vol. 99, c. 677.]
I think he meant that we needed to have a greater focus on three areas: marriage preparation; marriage enrichment; and marriage counselling when marriages get into difficulty and relationship support for all couples. I like the phrase used in the Family Law Act 1996, which talks about marriage and relationship support, and as I said on Second Reading, although I am an enormous fan of marriage and always will be, I will always stand up for people who have never been married and those who are divorced as well as those who are married. I think that that would go for all my hon. and right hon. Friends on the Conservative Benches and no doubt across the House.
Returning to the Family Law Act 1996, a previous Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay, was absolutely clear at that time that marriage and relationship support services were an entirely necessary part of divorce reform. That was a good, sensible point, and I do not want this Government, of whom I am an enormous supporter, to depart from that principle. What worries me a little is that the Government’s position appears to have moved slightly away from wanting to try to support saveable marriages. I say that because the previous Lord Chancellor, talking of these reforms, said:
“Sometimes, a marriage will still be reparable at the point at which one spouse seeks the divorce”.—[Official Report, House of Lords,
Vol. 802, c. 1431.]
The current law offers little opportunity for repair, but it was a clear commitment by the previous Lord Chancellor, not so long ago, that we should look at being able to save marriages even when a divorce is potentially imminent.
However, what the previous Lord Chancellor says contrasts with the view of the current Lord Chancellor, of whom I am also a great fan. I believe him when he says that he supports marriage and family life, but he did say 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.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 677, c. 95.]
I am a huge fan of the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend Alex Chalk , and I know that he is personally a great supporter of strengthening marriages and couple relationships, but perhaps he could explain why the Government’s position seems to have hardened a little in this area of marriage and relationship support over the past six months.
Looking at the figures, I note that in 2018 in England and Wales, there were 91,299 divorces. My parents also divorced, so I know the pain and grief that that causes. In some ways, I think it is a greater pain even than a bereavement. We know from academic studies that around 10% of people who engage in marriage counselling services, even when a divorce is starting to be undertaken, decide not to divorce. That would be around 9,000 divorces a year that potentially would not take place, were we to offer services that the previous Lord Chancellor seemed to say were sensible; Lord Mackay of Clashfern said they were an absolutely essential part of divorce law reform.
My hon. Friend is making a compelling argument on an amendment that seeks to make what most sensible people would regard as a modest change to the Bill, which is simply to say that where we can support reconciliation, we will do so. The Government have been offered that compromise, and I am astounded, frankly, that they have not accepted it.
I agree with what my right hon. Friend says.
Eagle-eyed observers of the amendment paper will have noted that new clause 1, in the name of my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce, and amendment 7 are identical. In fact, I have a confession to make to the House: neither my hon. Friend nor I wrote it. In case we are accused of plagiarism, I think it came from Lord Michael Farmer in the other place. It was a good amendment; it was raised in the other place a couple of months ago, and it has stood the test of time. When it was in the other place, I noted that it had the support of Conservatives, a Member of the Democratic Unionist party, the Liberal Democrat Front Bench and the Bishop of Salisbury.
From what the shadow Minister, Alex Cunningham, said today, I think he supports the spirit of the amendment—not perhaps the actual words, but the objectives, as far as I understood him. My hon. Friend Sir Robert Neill, the Chair of the Justice Committee, also said he supported the spirit of the amendment, so I think we have a great deal of cross-party consensus on this issue, which I really hope we can take forward.
New clause 1 and amendment 7 need not actually cost the Government anything. Although “may” changes to “must”, the measure just says “make grants” in respect, effectively, of marriage preparation, marriage enrichment and marriage support, and the same for civil partnerships and more widely for relationship support. However, it does not specify an amount. We are not imposing a financial requirement on a Government who, my goodness me, are already struggling with enormous financial demands on them at the moment, but we are specifying where this work should take place, and on a very good evidential basis.
It was noted in another place, when the Bill was debated there, that support for marriage and relationship support has seemed to depend a bit over the years on the whim of whoever was Prime Minister and whichever set of Ministers were in place. That is a pity because, until recently, there has been cross-party support on this issue. Labour and Conservative Governments, ever since the Denning report of 1947, have seen it as core business, and there is a greatly increased need for it, not least because of lockdown, which has been referred to.
We know that family relationships are under enormous pressure in the pressure-cooker environment of lockdown at the moment. We also know that families coming through lockdown perhaps slightly better than others are often those where there are strong family relationships, and they have helped children and others to cope well. I know that Marriage Care, which contacted me after Second Reading, is having many people come to it asking for support that it and other members of the Relationships Alliance, which my hon. Friend Scott Benton quite properly mentioned, are unable to provide, because the financial means is not there, as Government support in the reducing parental conflict programme is quite narrowly focused on working couples where there is parental conflict—a laudable objective, but not actually wide enough.
Understandably, the Government are always nervous about new requests for spending, but the fact is that when these relationships go wrong, the Government pick up the tab big time. There is no debate about the benefits, the extra housing costs, the mental health support and other health support that will be paid out. We pay that out in our billions without question, so, as my hon. Friend said—and, indeed, as the Lord Chancellor said on Second Reading—let us put a bit more emphasis on the other end of the telescope to try to strengthen these relationships in the first place.
As we—hopefully—emerge from the pandemic, we need to rebuild not just a strong economy, but a strong society. All my hon. Friends were elected only last December on a manifesto that said absolutely clearly that a strong society is built on strong families. As one or two of my colleagues have said, we need evidence of that. That is a grand statement, with which we all agree. What are the actual building blocks to put that in place? I do hope that my hon. Friend the Minister, of whom I am a great fan—I was absolutely thrilled to see him be promoted—will give us some comfort on that, because very many of us really want to see it.
I rise to speak in support of amendment 1 tabled by my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce, and in so doing I take this opportunity to praise her, particularly for all the work that she does in this and so many other areas, and our former colleague, David Burrowes, who also has done a huge amount of work on this issue. Amendment 1 would increase the minimal legal time period for divorce to 12 months, instead of the six months proposed in the Bill, and it is both necessary and sensible.
I toyed with thinking that I would not speak in this debate, because it would be a waste of time. I have been a Member of Parliament for a little while, and I have been a member of my party for more than 50 years, and when I first joined, the view that I have was the majority view. As each Parliament has gone by, I have seen some slippage, certainly among my colleagues, but I am delighted to be speaking now, because I have heard a number of speeches that I have been particularly encouraged by, including from a new colleague, my hon. Friend Scott Benton. What a joy it was to hear my right hon. Friend Andrea Leadsom speak. My goodness am I glad that I supported her in her first attempt to become leader of my party. She addressed a whole range of issues in a succinct way, and I entirely agreed with everything she said.
This is not a debate about whether it is right that people live together and do not get married; it is not that sort of debate. It is a debate about marriage itself. Marriage is very popular in the Amess household at the moment. Last year, one of my daughters got married in America. It was one of these new-style weddings, where it is an open venue. Next week, I have another daughter in America who is getting married. My wife and I cannot be there, and it is saving us a huge amount of money. Next year, we will have another wedding here, which will be slightly over the top. Another daughter was due to get married this year in August, but as with many other colleagues, that wedding cannot go ahead and will be taking place next year.
I have many constituents who have been married for 70 years, and I say to them, “Aren’t you sick of each other?” They say, “No, we still love each other just as much as when we first got married.” I can hear my own father being asked whether he had ever had a row with my mother. He would say, “Only once, and that row hasn’t finished yet.” In my own household, my wife and I never row, because she is right about everything. Well, I give her the impression, anyway, that she is right about everything.
I say to my hon. Friend the Minister—I agree with my hon. Friend Andrew Selous—that I and other colleagues are delighted to see him as a Minister, but, as my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire said earlier, the Bill seems to treat this as a legal matter, and the emotional side just is not there at all.
When the House debates anything that can slightly be termed “moral”, the general public are not enamoured by that, because we as a class of politicians are seen as big-time sinners who should not have a view. I so agreed with what my right hon. Friend said, having represented first the constituency of Basildon, which in those days had the highest number of single parents in the country, and now Southend West. So many of us in our surgeries can see the impact of divorce at a practical level, and it seems crazy that we have people planning for their marriage for a year, two years or three years and it can now end in six months. That is quite extraordinary.
“the legal process of divorce will take longer for about four fifths—80%—of couples”.—[Official Report,
Vol. 677, c. 104.]
There is a crucial caveat in that sentence that the House must be aware of, namely that the Secretary of State is talking about the legal process of divorce—that is only the time from the first application to the final decree. The problem with that analysis is that it does not take into account that the proposals in the Bill operate in a fundamentally different way from the current law.
In the current system the period of two years’ separation with or without fault or five years’ living apart comes before the legal process of divorce, and that accounts for about 40% of divorces. In the proposed system, the period of separation starts after the legal process has begun, so it is disingenuous to compare the length of legal divorce proceedings under the Bill and under the current law.
That is comparing the Pope with Donald Trump, frankly. It is simply not defensible to say that 80% of divorces would take longer under a six-month separation period, when 40% of divorces currently take more than two years.
I hope that the Committee is minded to support the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton. I hope that we will reflect that six months is simply too short a time to consider such life-changing decisions and make arrangements for children, housing, finances and many more things. It is extraordinary that at a time of national crisis the Government are going ahead with a Bill that will water down marriage to a six-month commitment. My noble Friend Lord McColl, who used to be Sir John Major’s Parliamentary Private Secretary—a wonderful colleague—said on Second Reading:
“How will it seem if we propose that people have a general right to expect that they can exit a lifelong commitment in 26 weeks, when we are tied to our mobile phone contracts for 12 months?”—[Official Report, House of Lords,
Vol. 901, c. 1843.]
It appears as if the Government are prioritising the ability easily to leave marriage, which is a bad signal, rather than encouraging some sort of commitment and stability. It seems a very strange time for our party to do that, when couples are unable—I have said this is true for one of my children—to marry due to covid-19 lockdown rules.
I am concerned that the proposals could mean that in future couples would marry in the knowledge that if things did not work out they would not be committed to stay together forever. I do not want the violins coming out for the words, “Until death do us part”—I realise that life is not always like that—but it is amazing how a tiny argument can grow into something much bigger, with terrible consequences for people. I agree with colleagues that we need time for reflection.
“This year-long pause for reflection might be used in many ways but I hope that during this period some will change their minds about going through with divorce.”
Parliament thought that the recommended 12 months was not long enough, and amended it to 18 months—my goodness, how things have changed—where the couple had children or where one party was being divorced against his or her will. The feeling in 1996 was that 12 months was too short, but that is all that we are asking for. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to reconsider the matter.
In conclusion, the Government have introduced many policies to assist families, including measures on flexible working, paid parental leave and childcare provisions, but the Bill does not seem to be family friendly. It makes it much easier for couples to separate without sufficient time for reconciliation. I think that they should be assisted to resolve their problems. My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton led a wonderful delegation to meet the Chancellor of the Exchequer and discuss family hubs, which are a wonderful idea, with a one-stop shop enabling people to seek advice and counselling.
Family breakdown is undoubtedly one of the root causes of poor educational attainment, antisocial and criminal behaviour, and mental health problems. Given that that is the case, simply shortening the process of divorce, rather than helping families to stay together, is entirely the wrong direction to take. I say to the Minister that I am delighted that the UK, over the past 25 years, has had the biggest fall in the number of divorces. Personally, I would like to see far fewer marriages if, as a consequence, there are far fewer divorces. I think that as a result of the legislation the number of people getting divorced will increase.
Order. A reminder that there is pressure on time. There are still quite a few speakers, who would be well advised to take pretty well under 10 minutes to allow everyone to speak. I call Sir Edward Leigh.
I rise to speak to new clause 3, which stands in my name. It would replicate Scottish law, which replaces the two and five-year separation with a no-fault divorce after one year. It is a moderate compromise and I have no doubt that the Government will accept it.
I believe the Government are making a huge mistake. That is not just my opinion; the research is clear that liberalisation and expansion of no-fault divorce, wherever it has been introduced, has led to the most vulnerable in society being worse off. Look at the evidence from Sweden, Canada, and various US states—it all points in the same direction: we will have more divorces, and the worst-off will be hurt the most.
The Brining study in the US showed that 75% of low-income divorced women had not been poor when they were married. The Parkman studies show that, overall, women living in American states with no-fault divorce work, on average, 4.5 more hours a week than their counterparts in states with fault-based divorce. In this country in 2009, the then Department for Children, Schools and Families produced an evidence review that showed that a child not growing up in a two-parent household was more likely to be living in poor housing, to experience more behavioural problems, to perform less well in school, to need more medical treatment, to leave school and home when young, to become sexually active, pregnant or a parent at an earlier age, to report more depressive symptoms, and so on.
We now understand the intent behind the Bill: it is to make divorce easier and to propel more families, and particularly more women, into poverty. We know that, in reality, the Government’s intention is to speed up the divorce process, which they say will make it more efficient, but look at the side-effects I just described. Surely the cure is much worse than the disease? I realise that I am out of alignment with Government policy—a rare event for me—so I want to outline the purpose and rationale of the new clause. I admit it would constitute a rewrite of the Bill, but I think it is quite a moderate rewrite, and it accords with the central purpose of the Bill, which is to encourage no-fault divorce and, like it or not, to speed up the process.
Hon. Members will recall that the current law sets down the five facts that must be established before a divorce is granted. The separation ground does not require proof of fault, so we already have no-fault divorce, but the Government say the period is too lengthy. The problem campaigners have with the current no-fault divorce law is that it takes too long, and I agree. As Baroness Deech in the other place has said,
“the essence of the demand for reform is speed.”
I think the Government should be honest about wanting to speed up the whole process. Ministers do not like to be reminded that they are making divorce easier, but we must be honest: if a process is made easier, human nature being as it is, more people will do it. Of course, for many divorce is an agonising decision, but when married couples are having problems, the quicker and easier it is to get a divorce, the more likely they are to choose divorce, instead of choosing the hard work of talking out their problems.
My parents met at Bletchley Park during the war, and it was a great pleasure to attend their 50th wedding anniversary celebration in 1994, shortly before my father’s death. It was a shock for my sister and me to find some extraordinary and poignant letters written in the 1940s that showed our parents were clearly having enormous problems, but it was just as obvious that they were determined to make a go of it. People might say, “It was a previous generation,” but there were many couples like my parents in their generation. I owe them so much for keeping together and looking after us, and always being ready to help my brother, my sister and me. I am proud of what they did and the sacrifices their generation made, and I worry about what my own Government are doing in sending the wrong signal—sending the signal that marriage is not one of the most precious things in the world.
It has already been said that people can sign up to a mobile phone contract and be stuck with it for two years, in which they have to fulfil the obligations of the contract, but they can have a church or civil ceremony, profess lifelong fidelity before the law, before God, before friends and neighbours, and after just six months walk away. Basically, they just say, “I divorce you, I divorce you, I divorce you,” and that is that. What sort of message is our own Conservative Government sending to society? I believe we should be Conservative with a big “C” and conservative with a small “c”—socially conservative. I know that not a lot of people in Parliament agree with that message, but I have no difficulty with it. People out there understand what is at stake. In one poll, 72% of people said that no-fault divorce may make people more blasé about divorce. We do not need to look at a poll; it is obvious that it will make people more blasé about divorce.
Clause 1 abolishes all five fact grounds and replaces them with a system where one spouse can simply resign from a marriage and get a divorce in six months. My new clause would make a much less dramatic rewrite of the law. We can maintain the fault grounds for those who wish to use them, while substantially speeding up no-fault divorces, but still giving people time to reconsider. Far from giving couples in difficulty more options, this Bill takes them away. Is it a Conservative option to take away options, rather than keep them to provide people with different ways of getting a divorce if that is what they really want to do, and give them more time to reconsider?
We should think of the wife who is faithful to her husband for 30 years only for him to run off. She will have no way of getting a divorce that recognises who was in the right and who was in the wrong—that is taken away. Abolishing fault deprives spouses who wish to obtain a divorce on fault grounds any opportunity of doing so. We should think of the man or woman who is mentally or physically abused by his or her spouse. He or she will be unable to get any recognition of that through the divorce process. This new system will be blind to all suffering and to all injustice. The spouse being divorced against his or her wishes will have zero opportunity of contesting the divorce to try to save the marriage or to slow things down and plan for the future.
But it is even worse than that because, as the Law Society points out, the respondent might not even know that they were being divorced. It will usually be a lady who is divorced by a man who has gone, as my right hon. Friend has described, and they might not know and then they would be divorced by January. That is the harsh reality we are facing and it is appalling that a Conservative Government should impose that on us.
Some of our amendments make it clear that there must be proper service and a reasonable length of time, and the respondent must know that the service is being made. Those are quite reasonable amendments, and I suspect that they will all be resisted by the Government.
My new clause simply mirrors the approach taken in Scotland—quite a sensible jurisdiction, you might think. It would leave open the option of seeking a fault-based divorce, while reducing the separation periods to one year with consent and two years without consent. Just 5% of divorces in Scotland now take place on fault-based grounds, so it is there for the minority who need it, while the majority can choose a no-fault option. This is Scotland. It works and it is not unreasonable. I see no reason why we should not replicate Scottish law, and that is what my new clause does. I cannot understand why the Government have not chosen a more sensible route such as that, as it would be far less controversial. Members will recall that the public consultation on these proposals met with considerable resistance—80% did not agree with the proposals, but they were ignored.
One argument made in support of the Bill has been that the waiting periods for separation encourage or force couples who want a divorce quickly to use fault facts rather than separation facts. If we really are worried about people using the fault grounds to speed up their divorces and allegations of fault increasing acrimony, what is wrong with the Scottish approach, where people can get a no-fault divorce on consent grounds in just one year and where only 5% of divorces now allege fault? Why not make no-fault divorce an option for those who want it, rather than forcing everyone to do it the Government’s way?
Again, we should think of the most vulnerable in society. Let us consider what happens in Sweden, a place that many Opposition Members praise. Even the extremely generous Swedish welfare state has proved totally ineffective at breaking the link between family breakdown and poverty. The incidence of poverty among children in single-parent families is more than three times that in families with two parents. The number of Swedish households in poverty headed by a single parent is more than four times the number of households in poverty headed by couples. It must be emphasised that Parliament does not exist in a vacuum. The laws that we make here will have repercussions in every community in the country. Do we want more children to be disadvantaged? Do we want to see women poorer and working longer hours? Do we want to deprive innocent spouses of having their blame business being recognised in the divorce process? I hope that the answer is no.
We have had a very wide-ranging debate this afternoon with some very impressive contributions from Members. I wish to focus on two particular areas of concern for me, which are my driving motivation for supporting the Government in bringing forward this legislation. They are the significance of fault in the context of divorce and, most importantly from a personal perspective, the impact that it has on children and their future life chances.
On the significance of fault, it is very clear from all the contributions made by hon. and right hon. Members in the Chamber that there is strong cross-party consensus about the importance of supporting effective, strong and stable relationships for the benefit of our society. All of us will have seen in our constituency casework those situations where relationships have broken down. For a variety of reasons, they may well not be the reasons that end up being cited as couples seek to part through the process of divorce. An example of that is domestic violence, which can be enormously difficult to prove. Abuse may have been going on for a long time behind closed doors, but the requirement to demonstrate fault and to demonstrate that through the legal process may lead to other issues being used as a proxy in a way that demonstrates something that is deeply unproductive for people who are seeking to bring an end to a relationship in the best possible interests of each party. For society as a whole, it may lead to us pushing our citizens down a route that forces them to bring about an acrimonious end to a relationship with all the damage that that causes to their family and their wider community of friends and neighbours when there is an alternative available to us that is represented in this Bill. Therefore, it seems that it is a positive step that we will no longer require people who wish to separate to enter into this deeply conflictual and damaging process.
We are already in that place. There was a time when what my hon. Friend says is right—that fault had to be established to get divorced at all. But for a very long time now, we have had a legal circumstance where people could get divorced without fault by being separated, and the significant majority go down that road.
My right hon. Friend makes a very powerful point, but we also need to recognise that the context of our society today is very much of the view that five years is a long time to wait and that the process that is required where fault is established in order to undertake the divorce more quickly is one that inevitably leads to this degree of conflict. Let me move on to the key point—
If I may, in respect of others who wish to speak and time being short, I will move on.
This issue of conflict and the impact that it has on children is at the heart of the concern that I feel and, for me, the significance and the value of pressing ahead with this legislation. The organisations that I have cited previously in the discussions on this issue—the Early Intervention Foundation, Tavistock Relationships and the Local Government Association—have a huge stake in supporting children in our society. They may have a political or a religious affiliation or no affiliation whatever, but all identified that it is not the fact that a divorce is taking place, but the fact that there is conflict in the relationship between those two parents that causes the damage to children and their life chances. For me, that is incredibly important, and it is backed up not just by the evidence on the relationship damage caused by divorce, but, conversely, by very good evidence about the significance of really effective and positive co-parenting. Society, I think, has already moved in that direction. We see many, many examples of non-traditional couples, who are brilliant and effective parents, giving children a fantastic start in life. Of course, many of us enjoy and are positive about seeing that in the context of traditional marriage. However, we need to recognise that, when such a relationship runs into difficulty, the opportunity we can create through this Bill for a less acrimonious separation—to help preserve and support that effective co-parenting relationship between the two separating adults—is incredibly important for the future opportunities and life chances of those children.
Finally, I would like to make the point that I very much support what a number of colleagues have said about the significance and importance of counselling. When people have made the enormously important decision to get married, it is a very significant decision to move away from that, and counselling should be supported and made available as far as possible. However, that is not a reason not to support this legislation.
I am extremely passionate about the significance that the absence of conflict will have for ensuring that children, who could benefit from a constructive co-parenting relationship with adults who have none the less sought to divorce, is available to those children, rather than potentially perpetuating a situation in which acrimonious division between separating parents has a lifelong impact on those children for their futures. For those reasons, I remain strongly in support of the direction that the Government are taking.
Twenty-two years ago, I did a silly thing—I got married. It was not the marriage that was the problem; it was a fact that I coincided it with my wife’s birthday, thinking it would be a money-saving tip. It has been nothing of the sort, and it has caused me hardship on
The truth is that, in 22 years of marriage, the only involvement of the state has been when we signed the register and when we received the marriage certificate. I am fortunate to be one of those who still received a certificate when it was handwritten, and beautifully handwritten at that. The only thing I have received from the Government in support of my marriage is the certificate.
It is true that Parliament has played quite a big part in my marriage. It has not always helped. In fact, looking back, the last three years have made it somewhat stronger. However, I often think of my wife, as well as the many wives, husbands and partners around the House, having to go through a pretty torrid time because of the life that we have chosen.
I have some sympathy with the intention of the Bill, because if it can lead to easing additional acrimony in family breakdown, I would support that. However, I have risen to speak today in support of amendment 1 and new clause 1, basically because I believe there is an argument, as has been said already, for extra time and for extra money. I appreciated a lengthy conversation with the Minister before the debate last week—it was really helpful—and I appreciated and listened carefully to all that was said on Second Reading last Monday, but I believe there is something of an identity crisis for marriage, which has partly been exposed by this Bill.
I guess the question is: who owns responsibility for marriage—is it the Government, the Church or faith groups, the spouses themselves, or close family, close friends and society as a whole? I would suggest that all share some responsibility and some part, but today we are talking about the arrangements made in law when a marriage fails. Because the state sets the rules for the marriage to start and, sadly, at its end, it is my view that the state and the Government cannot shrug off responsibility for marriage itself.
As I have said, in 22 years of marriage, the state’s involvement has only been the certificate and signing the register at the time, and, as I have said, I am one of the fortunate people who received a handwritten certificate. My wife and I have enjoyed the support of the Church, close friends and family. That is not the privilege of many. Even if it was, the state has, over time, increasingly taken a back seat when it comes to helping marriages thrive.
With that in mind, it is imperative that the Government adopt these amendments, to give more time, to offer appropriate support, to give an opportunity for a marriage to be restored before it is too late and to commit much more finance towards tools and proven methods that help to strengthen marriage and family life, to avoid the devastating and acrimonious divorce proceedings that the Bill attempts to address. The arguments on those points have been made well this afternoon.
I will conclude, because I appreciate that time is short. The state taught me maths, English, science, rugby and even the Cornish language. It has never taught me how to have a strong marriage or any other relationship, how to manage my money or how to raise my children. As the Government consider how marriages can be brought to an end when necessary, we should also look at the causes of marriage breakdown and ensure that we provide support in all areas of life, not just academic support. Marriage, raising children and managing money are such a big part of today’s society—a part that the Government could do more to support.
I rise to support the Bill and to outline my concerns about some of the amendments that have been tabled. As a proud Conservative, I fundamentally believe in individual freedoms, and I believe that current divorce laws inhibit that freedom in the broad, vague name of keeping families together. In reality, these laws foster conflict and blame, driving families even further apart and affecting children the most. To be the child of a broken home is not easy, but nor is it easy being the child of parents forced to stay together, witnessing their arguments, the sheer unhappiness and the downward spiral of their parents’ mental health. That can be even more damaging for a child than a divorce, particularly a divorce that can be carried out swiftly and without blame, as the Bill intends, allowing both parents to move on, regain their happiness and provide not one unhappy home but two happy and loving homes for their children.
Nobody enters into a marriage lightly. As my hon. Friend Sir Robert Neill outlined in his typically well-considered speech, nobody gets married setting up to get divorced. Nobody enters into a marriage imagining or hoping that it will fail. Marriage vows often say, “until death do us part”, and that is taken very literally by many, but I believe that the death spoken of in marriage vows can occur without the loss of life; it can occur in the death of a relationship itself. It is a fact of life that sometimes relationships fail—marriages fail. Sometimes this is recognised by both parties, but in some circumstances, only one partner sees it. In those circumstances, the unhappy partner may be trapped in that marriage, with their spouse unwilling to accept it, ready to contest it or even to dither and delay and refuse to sign papers.
Stella Creasy spoke about the importance of considering how the legislation we discuss in this place will have very real consequences for people in our communities. For our constituents—those we are here to represent—our existing outdated divorce laws can have real impacts. Let me give an example. A couple of days ago, I received a Twitter message from a young man thanking me for supporting the Bill on Second Reading, because for over two years, his mum had been trying to divorce his dad, but his dad refused to give consent. He spoke of the devastating impact that this had on his mum and on him, and of the bitterness, anger and hardship of living in a friction-filled home. In this place, we can help those people by passing this Bill.
I personally know people who are deeply unhappy in their marriages and are desperate to separate but are fearful of filing for divorce because they cannot afford the legal costs, should it be contested. Let me make this point really clear: a divorce should not be a luxury item. Our constituents on low incomes—those we are here to represent—should not be priced out of their happiness. Allowing blameless divorces and divorces without contest in the courts reduces the amount of legal representation needed and will help to keep the cost of divorce down.
For some in our society, our existing and outdated divorce laws mean being trapped in abusive relationships. There are women in our country behind closed doors pulling down their sleeves and putting on extra make-up to cover up bruises—women checking their bank statements, fearing that they cannot afford a divorce were it to be contested, and knowing that if it were, they would have to battle through the courts and face potential repercussions from their partner before they can escape. This Bill is for them.
On that note, I cannot support amendments 2 or 4. Giving those in abusive relationships the breathing space of submitting their divorce petition, knowing it cannot be unfairly dragged out by abusive partners, is a way to help them escape that coercive control.
We all know that relationships have the power to make or break a person’s emotional wellbeing. When relationships fail, they can tip a person’s mental health over the edge. Perhaps right now people will be sitting at home, staring at the walls, deeply unhappy and wanting to leave, but not feeling strong enough to handle all the hardship that a contested divorce would present. The Bill is for them.
Choosing whether or not to marry is a very big decision, but choosing whether or not to divorce is, in my opinion, an even bigger decision, and not one ever made lightly. As Alex Cunningham highlighted earlier, people do not have a rainy day in their marriage and immediately decide to divorce. People come to those decisions over time and after serious consideration. Filing for divorce is only the final step in that lengthy decision-making process. I do not believe it is a fair argument to say that a six-month minimum period is too short, because the process of deciding to divorce will start long before those documents are first signed. That is why I categorically cannot support amendment 1 today.
A painful marriage breakdown and divorce will have a heavy impact on people’s lives, in terms of both the legal process and the human process too. We are taught as children that the best way to remove a plaster is to yank it off quickly with a short, sharp burst of pain, rather than the prolonged agony of trying to peel it away slowly. To extend that minimum period for a divorce to be granted would only be to prolong that pain.
Finally, there are couples who have amicably agreed that they want to separate, but neither wants to cast blame on the other. They face a two-year separation before being able to even apply for divorce. They must spend two years apart but are still tied in law and cannot get the closure they both seek. Some couples do not have the financial means to live in separate homes for two years just to satisfy that separation criterion. This Bill is for them.
I was deeply saddened a few weeks ago to hear one of my colleagues on this side of the House declare that to support this Bill is thoroughly un-Conservative. Forgive me, but that is not my understanding of Conservativism. The Conservativism that runs through me, and on which I was fortunate enough to be elected to this place, means giving people the freedom to live their lives, the freedom to love, the freedom to marry—I am so proud to represent the party that introduced gay marriage and equal marriage—and also the freedom to separate where that difficult decision has been made. To leave people trapped in unhappy or abusive marriages and deny them their freedom is not the Conservatism that I know.
C S Lewis said:
“We are all fallen creatures and all very hard to live with.”
Since the fall from the state of grace, the prevailing condition of humankind has been imperfection. Because we are imperfect creatures the relationships we form are imperfect too. They are full of the joys, triumphs, disappointments and disasters that perpetuate through the human condition and that everyone in this place will have known during the course of their lives. So it is preposterous to suggest that a change in the process of divorce will iron out enmity or acrimony. The end of a love is by its nature acrimonious. It is full of disappointment and sorrow, and it will ever more be so. Let us not pretend that we are in a fairy tale, whereby if we change the business of divorce, we will change the content of that doubt and disappointment, for we will not.
As I said in an earlier intervention, the principal cause of that enmity is issues over children, and they will remain. The second cause is the sharing out of assets, and that will remain. Arguably the period of time that currently prevails gives a chance to sort that out, and certainly it gives a chance to take advice, to consider carefully, to contemplate and to reflect. One in 10 divorces that are begun do not end for that very reason—people do think again and when they think again, they often try again.
We are condemning many women, in particular, to a very sorry future, because for the most part it will be women who are left by men—not always, of course, but for the most part—and many will not even know they are being divorced, as the Law Society points out in its analysis of the Bill; divorce will be initiated, and women will learn that they will be divorced in a few months, but they will be given no cause, no reason, no justification and no explanation. That is what this Bill does. Thus I regard it as extraordinary that the imperfections that, as I say, have always been so are not recognised by this House as being bound to prevail regardless of this Bill.
Governments are imperfect, too. I spent 19 years on my party’s Front Bench, many of them as a Minister, so I know how imperfect Governments are. Governments bring legislation to the House that is ironed out during its scrutiny. I do not blame for a moment the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham, because he is a new Minister, a good man and a fine fellow, and he would not be calling the shots on this, but I find it extraordinary that the Government have not compromised.
All the time I was in government—people on both sides of the House will remember this—I used to listen to arguments from both sides to allow legislation to develop and mature through scrutiny and argument. Many times, I would go to my civil servants and say, “Well, the point that the shadow Minister is making is right, isn’t it? We ought to take that on board.” Yet this Government have remained entirely resistant to the measured overtures of the Bill’s critics. We conceded on the point about fault, but all we asked was that the Government think again about the time. The duration could be 12 months, as recommended.
The right hon. Member will be aware that the Government have said that they are going to reduce it to six months, but is he aware that the pilot scheme was able to do divorce proceedings in three months? In other words, a quick divorce could become a really, really quick divorce if we follow the process proposed by the Government.
Yes, if the Government carry on down this road, we will have Las Vegas-style drive-through divorces. The hon. Gentleman is right. The Law Society suggested 9 months, and it was 12 months the last time reform of the law was suggested some years ago, so I am astounded, frankly, that we have come up with six months. It is an imperfect world, but a still more imperfect Government and, most of all, a wholly imperfect proposal, on which the Government have been resistant to amendment or change in any way.
The second thing I want to talk about is learning, because we learn from listening. The Government issued a consultation, and completely ignored the fact that most of the respondents did not want what the Bill now proposes. Most people felt that, even where they believed that the law should be changed, it should not be changed in this way. This is the most radical reform of divorce, with no public appetite for it, which completely contradicts the Government’s own consultation. That is how bad this is. I have seen many pieces of legislation come before this House as I have endured and enjoyed many Governments of many colours, but I can rarely remember a Bill that I would be less likely to vote for than this one.
The Government did consult, and does he agree that, with three quarters of respondents disagreeing with the Government plans, this Government are making people disenchanted about consultations on such issues?
With a mix of assiduity and diligence, for which she is becoming well known in this House, the hon. Lady has fleshed out my argument with the facts that I did not have at my disposal, so I am grateful. She is right. I mentioned that the consultation was not listened to, but she has shown just how much the Government ignored what they were advised by the people they consulted.
The third thing I want to talk about is time. It is absolutely right that we should take time over this sort of legislation, which is challenging by its very nature. The Bill is being rushed through the House at a time when we are enduring one of the worst health crises of all time—certainly, the worst in our memory—and families are under intense pressure and relationships are strained, inevitably. Yet the Government regard this as the right time to bring this Bill before us for consideration? I find that quite extraordinary—quite astounding.
In respect of time, let me say this. My hon. Friend Fiona Bruce, who spoke at the beginning of the debate, is absolutely right that time is necessary so that people can engage with those services designed to encourage the very reflection I recommended. Counselling does matter. Time to think about how you are going to sort your life out, even if you cannot rebuild your relationship, matters. To limit that to a few months—what amounts, in practice, to a few weeks, because of the way the process is now going to work—seems to fly in the face of all experience, given what we hear from those engaged in that process of mediation and counselling.
Does my right hon. Friend not agree, though, that a lot of that consideration is done before the point at which people will initially file for divorce? That six-month period is not really a six-month period, but is more prolonged.
Yes, that is certainly true. Relationships do decline over time. Of course, my hon. Friend is right that in some cases the process of beginning a divorce will not be the start, but a fingerpost to a destination that had been established long before. In some other cases, however, a divorce will come as a complete surprise, because the Bill moves the emphasis towards the person who initiates the divorce and away from the respondent to such a degree that the respondent—usually, in my judgment, a woman—will be profoundly disadvantaged by this legislation.
Mr Evans, what a delight to have you in the Chair and to speak under your benevolent guidance. Finally, let me deal with the matter of family breakdown and children. A lot has been made of that in this debate. We know from all the evidence—I saw my right hon. Friend Sir Iain Duncan Smith in his place a few moments ago—and in particular the evidence from the Centre for Social Justice, that typically children do considerably worse in broken families. In broken families, children tend to do worse educationally and in all kinds of other ways. It is our job as a society to build strong and stable communities which comprise strong and stable families, and the Bill just will not support that objective. We want a better society. That is why we are all here across the House. Marriage is a key component in building that more wholesome and better society which will allow us to bring up children in a responsible and dutiful way to be the citizens of tomorrow.
The Bill undermines marriage, weakens families and risks weakening social solidarity. It is being rushed through the House by Ministers who refuse to listen to measured and moderate argument. If hon. Members do not agree with any of that, they can vote for it. On the other hand, if hon Members think that any of what I have said is meaningful, they should certainly vote against it. In doing so, they will be sending a signal from this House to the people that we care about marriage and, because we care about marriage, we want fewer people to be divorced.
It has been a genuine privilege to hear the speeches today. They have been powerful, poignant and humorous, but above all, on every single occasion, principled. From whichever point of view people have approached this argument, it has been from a position of principle. As I say, it has been an enormous privilege to have heard it.
Before I respond to the amendments and new clauses, let me make some brief introductory remarks. First, there is a suggestion that the Government are somehow diffident about marriage; that is not so. We recognise—and we are not diffident about saying it—that marriages and civil partnerships are vital to society. Why? It is because they are a way in which couples can not only formally express their commitment to each other but, yes, contribute, through stable relationships, to stable communities. I support marriage and the Government support marriage.
The Bill is not anti-marriage, and I respectfully suggest that those who characterise it in that way are not being entirely fair. In essence, the Bill is anti-bitterness. For those sad cases in which a marriage has irretrievably broken down, the Bill removes unnecessary and artificial flashpoints so as to reduce the scope for pain, recrimination and harmful impacts on children. We must accept that some marriages end and, frankly, that some marriages should end, because they can be a vehicle for abuse, heartache, misery or sorrow.
The Bill replaces a broken system that for decades has not operated as its framers intended. It is no wonder, we would submit, that Resolution, which represents 6,500 family justice professionals who work day in, day out in the field, supports it. It is no wonder also that distinguished professionals, be they judges or others, use words such as “hypocrisy”, “sham” and “charade” to describe the process that currently operates. We should not support a system that leads to those sorts of adjectives.
One of the principal problems of the current statute is that it incentivises conflict, and it does so in relation to those who wish to divorce before a two-year separation period because of the need to particularise the respondent’s unreasonable behaviour. My right hon. Friend Sir Edward Leigh made a powerful point: he said, “Look, this is nonsense, isn’t it? You should have to put your money where your mouth is and make the allegations, and they should have to be proven.” If that were the case, I would understand, but that manifestly does not happen; instead, the parties are encouraged to make what are serious and hurtful allegations, without the court having the mechanism to determine their accuracy or lack thereof.
What happens is that individuals find themselves having to accept that they are guilty of unreasonable behaviour or adultery, or whatever it is. Lo and behold: according to the academic study “Finding Fault?”, 43% of those identified by their spouse as being at fault disagreed with the reasons cited in the petition. That leads to resentment, and that resentment is not just bad in and of itself; it is bad because it damages children. If I have one criticism, which I make gently and with diffidence, it is that we did not hear much about the impact on children. They can be harmed because the existing process toxifies the atmosphere in which a couple approach the negotiations over arrangements for children and finances. The president of the Law Society himself said this, which I respectfully suggest bears listening to:
“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.”
The principal objection can be characterised, I hope not unfairly, as follows: “Look, what you’re doing is making it easier, and if it is easier, you’ll get more of it.” That is the principal argument if we boil it down, but that argument presupposes that parties study the terms of the legislation before deciding, with great sadness, to end their marriage. Do they do that? No. That gives the lie to the idea that putting grit into the machine and deliberate friction into the process somehow disincentivises breakdown; instead, after a long period of sorrow, heartache, misery and pain, when they decide to take that step, they come to look at it, and all too often they discover, having spoken to a lawyer: “Goodness me, what on earth is it that we are being asked to do? To come up with some sham idea of unreasonable behaviour or adultery or whatever?” They do not make the decision based on what is in the statute.
On speedy divorce, the difficulty is that there is a statistic available that states that in 50% of divorces that have taken place—that is quite a high percentage—people regret going through the divorce process. The Bill will just make it all the more easy for it to happen.
If that is right—I do not suggest that the hon. Gentleman is wrong about the statistics, although I have not seen the study—surely if we are in favour of reconciliation, we should be in favour of a process that does not so irretrievably toxify relations, so that there may be the chance of reconciliation. Instead, we are accessories to a system that encourages people to sling mud—mud that ultimately they cannot substantiate, which means that people can end up branded as unreasonable without the court having made a finding to that effect. That, in and of itself, reduces the chances of reconciliation.
I say this in the spirit of generosity that characterises my view of the Minister, but we conceded that point about fault. The amendment suggests that the Government support reconciliation, irrespective of the fact that the Bill gets rid of fault. The amendments are incredibly measured and moderate—the Minister must know that.
I do not suggest that any of the amendments are improper or immoderate, but not all of them would have the impact that my right hon. Friend calls for.
My hon. Friend is another example of an extremely principled individual who I know has misgivings about this Bill. I can give him that assurance, but I want to deal with that point specifically in the course of my remarks. He has spoken to me; he has principled objections that I have listened to carefully.
On amendment 1, let me begin by noting what appears to be common ground between all parties—namely, all are agreed that introducing a minimum period before someone can apply for a conditional order is a sensible way forward. Currently—this bears some emphasis—there is no minimum period. Using the online service, a divorce can currently be secured in a matter of weeks—it is currently an average of 17 weeks up to the conditional order, which the Government think is too short. That is why we have prescribed a minimum period of 20 weeks before the conditional order, and six months in total, to allow time to reflect and, in appropriate circumstances, to think again. Crucially, however, as a result of the Bill, that reflection need not take place in an atmosphere that is toxified by hurtful accusations.
I also stress the word “minimum”, because issuing an application does not start a sort of countdown clock, or a ticking bomb that proceeds remorselessly to the dissolution of a marriage; no, it simply imposes a minimum period which, on expiry, changes nothing. The court makes no order, until such time as the further active step is taken to apply for a conditional order. At that point, the marriage still endures, and a further minimum period is triggered. Once again, at the end of that period the marriage does not automatically dissolve; it persists until such time as a further active step is taken to apply for a final order. In other words, it takes three active steps before a marriage can be dissolved. It is no wonder that the impact assessment prepared in advance of this Bill—here I am in the unhappy position of gently disagreeing with my hon. Friend Sir David Amess who gave such a brilliant speech—indicated that around 80% of divorces are expected to take longer as a result of these measures. I respectfully suggest that that gives the lie to the “quickie divorce” label.
My hon. Friend Fiona Bruce wishes to extend the 20-week element to 46 weeks, so that a marriage cannot be legally ended until more than a year after the initial application, averring that it has irretrievably broken down. My first concern is that the amendment would not affect civil partners—that cannot be right, although I do not suppose it was deliberate. On the wider issue of the appropriate minimum period, to make a fair judgment we need an appreciation of the state of relations between the parties that typically prevails at the time a petition is issued—my hon. Friend Dehenna Davison made this point. Is it the case, as my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton said, that applications—which, by the way, cost £550—tend to be issued in a fit of pique after a row, or as she powerfully put it, on the “spur of the moment”, or does the issuing of a petition tend to come at the end of many months, or even years, of sorrow, pain, periods of separation and attempts at reconciliation, counselling, or all of the above? Overwhelmingly, I respectfully submit, it will be the latter. The solemn and grave decision to seek a petition is rarely taken lightly or impetuously. That assessment does not only reflect our lived experience of the world that we bring to these proceedings; it also reflects empirical evidence from the 2017 study by the Nuffield Foundation, which is the only recent large-scale study on this issue in England and Wales.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend.
On that issue, though, the 2017 Nuffield study noted that for people who have come to the hard decision to divorce and have begun the legal process of divorce, only one of 300 cases was known to have ended in attempted reconciliation. We believe that a total minimum period of six months, mindful of the circumstances that prevail at the time that it starts, is the proper—difficult, but proper—balance. We should bear in mind, too, that for those applicants who take the step after years of domestic abuse—again something that we have not really considered in this debate—six months may feel markedly or even unfairly onerous. Some people need to move on with their lives. Let us not forget the point made by Alex Cunningham—that 12 months would be especially harsh for couples who had already been separated for any length of time, not least because of the potential financial hardship. That, as I say, has a particular application for victims of domestic abuse, as they may be left in dire financial straits. Put simply, until they can sort out the divorce—until they can finish the process—how can they then move on with their lives, fund their lives, and fund the lives of their children?
Amendment 2 talks about joint applications. I will not go into that because I simply do not have time, but let me talk about sole applications. This is a really important point, and I have enormous sympathy with it. My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton effectively says that we should start the period when notice of proceedings has been received by the other party. I absolutely get this point. We entirely understand that no one wants to see respondents being ambushed; it would be nonsensical. I listened very carefully to what she said about this so powerfully on Second Reading. I will return shortly to the measures to address the risk. In fact, I will have to do it now because I am running out of time. In short compass, I spoke to the chair of the Family Procedure Rule Committee only this week. We would like, through that committee, to ensure that timings are imposed when people should serve these notices. That is a really good thing.
I anticipate that my hon. Friend will say, “Well, that’s very interesting, but why didn’t you put it on the face of the Bill?” My simple point about that is that overwhelmingly, whether in the criminal jurisdiction, the civil jurisdiction or the family jurisdiction, it is left to the rule committees to provide these rules. Indeed, there are rules for service of claim forms, particulars of claim and so on. It would create a strange imbalance if we had some rules in statute and some in the rules. It would create inconsistency that would be difficult for practitioners as well as, most importantly, for the individuals concerned. However, we entirely sympathise with the point and would want to see it addressed.
Amendment 3 seeks to prevent either party to a sole application for divorce from making any financial applications, pending suit, if the other party agrees to a financial application during the 20-week minimum period. While acknowledging the intention behind the amendment, such a restriction would introduce the scope for significant adverse financial impact on one or both of the parties, and, most importantly, on any children.
There is so much that I would love to go into, but I cannot, and I will have to write to my hon. Friends to give time for my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton to respond. We are unable to accept the amendments or new clauses. The points have been made very powerfully, but we are left with the position that this Bill, in the words of my right hon. Friend Andrea Leadsom, will be pro-happiness because it is anti-bitterness. I commend it to the Committee.
I thank the Minister for his comments about addressing with the Family Procedure Rule Committee the very great concerns that I have regarding shortage of notice. I look forward to hearing from him as to how that issue will be addressed. Obviously I would have preferred it to have been in the Bill, but I thank him for his assurance.
I am sure that the Minister will have heard the grave and fundamental concerns about this Bill, particularly among Conservative Members. By my reckoning, more than half of today’s speakers have spoken with deep concern about the implications of the Bill. Given, in particular, the weight and volume of opposition during this debate on the shortage of funding support for relationships, for marriage and for reconciliation, I am minded to test the will of the House on that issue and, in due course, to press new clause 1 to a vote. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Proceedings interrupted (Order,
The Chair put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (
Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clauses 2 to 8 ordered to stand part of the Bill.