‘(1) Section 22 of the Family Law Act 1996 (Funding for marriage support services) is amended as follows.
(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.”” .—(Fiona Bruce.)
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.
Question put, That the clause be added to the Bill.
The Committee proceeded to a Division.
I now have to say something, because we are moving into new territory. The Speaker announced yesterday that we will be using the new system in the voting Lobby, recorded by pass readers. I will not give the instruction to lock the Doors earlier than 25 minutes after this Division has now been called, although I expect that time to be reduced as the new system beds down. I urge all hon. Members to be patient during this process and, in particular, to observe the requirements of social distancing. I ask all hon. Members, other than the Front Benchers and Tellers, to leave the Chamber by the Doors behind me. Members should join the queue to vote in Westminster Hall to vote. Members should enter the Lobby and swipe their pass on one of the pass readers.
The Committee having divided: Ayes 31, Noes 400.
Question accordingly negatived.
The list of Members currently certified as eligible for a proxy vote, and of the Members nominated as their proxy, is published at the end of today’s debates.
Schedule agreed to.
The Deputy Speaker resumed the Chair.
Bill, as amended, reported.
Bill, as amended in the Committee, considered.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
I thank hon. and right hon. Members from all parts of the House for their careful scrutiny of the Bill throughout its passage. I am deeply grateful to all those who have contributed to the debate in Committee today and on Second Reading last week. I acknowledge that there have been some dissenting voices on reform of the law—first, as a matter of principle—and differing opinions as to precisely how to reform it, but I am happy to make it clear that those contributions have been of no less value than those that have supported the purpose of the Bill and its approach to reform. We have been fortunate to have these debates enriched by the variety of viewpoints expressed.
During the passage of the Bill, Members have rightly raised questions about its potential impact on families, but I believe that it actually has marriage and families at its heart. It is for that reason that I believe so strongly in the measures contained within it. While no one wants marriages to break down, the proposals in the Bill are based on the very sad reality that some do. When they do, the law should seek to reduce conflict and to create the best opportunity for the parties to agree future arrangements. It is not for the law to try to keep a couple in a loveless marriage, and nor can the law in practice adjudicate on who was to blame for its breakdown. That is an intensely private and personal matter between the couple themselves.
This is a measured Bill that will bring much-needed reform. It is reform that many of its supporters believe is long overdue. It will allow parties to move forwards, not backwards, and it will deliver a legal process that reduces conflict and its impact on children while safeguarding the importance of marriage.
During its passage through both Houses, the Government have listened with interest and care to the issues raised. In the other place, there was debate concerning the law on financial provision on divorce and concerns that it, too, can drive conflict. Some Members in this place have also made that important point. My noble and learned Friend Lord Keen gave assurances that the Government would conduct a review of that area of law, which has remained unchanged for nearly 50 years. That is a substantial undertaking where we will need to be led by the evidence, which is yet to be gathered, and it is thus not a matter for this Bill.
We have also listened to concerns about the start point of the new 20-week minimum period prior to the conditional order of divorce, and we have given an undertaking that we will work with the Family Procedure Rule Committee to consider how court rules may provide for a requirement on applicants to serve notice within a specified period. We listened to concerns from the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee about two delegated powers in the Bill that would allow the legal minimum periods for divorce orders and dissolution orders to be amended. Those powers will now be subject to the enhanced scrutiny procedure via the affirmative mechanism.
Beyond the Bill, many detailed changes will be needed to divorce procedure, court IT systems, online information and guidance. We will take the opportunity to look at ways to improve signposting to the services that can help couples when facing the prospect of a divorce and during the subsequent legal process. We recognise the value of relationship support and mediation services, which can play a vital role in addressing relationship breakdown. The Chancellor announced £2.5 million to fund research into how best to integrate family services, including the emerging family hub model. The Department for Education will ensure that strengthening relationship support is part of that research programme, so that vital work is completed in that area.
It is important to take a moment to focus on what the Bill does not do. I believe that that is necessary because I have been concerned about certain misconceptions that have arisen about it. First, it is not a quickie divorce Bill—quite the contrary. It will, for the first time, provide a new 20-week minimum period between the start of proceedings and the conditional order. Secondly, the Bill does not undermine marriage. It is a Bill to reform the legal process for divorce once the sad stage of irretrievable breakdown has already been reached.
Thirdly, the Bill does not in any way undermine the hugely valuable and vital mediation, counselling and relationship support services that can and do assist reconciliation. Finally, the Bill definitely does not come at the wrong time. Its current stage is the culmination of a lengthy process.
I apologise for missing the start of my right hon. and learned Friend’s remarks. I do not know whether he had a chance to watch any of the Committee stage, but looking at what his predecessor said on the Bill, there seems to have been a slight hardening of the Government’s stance in relation to counselling provision. The previous Lord Chancellor was open to that, but it seems that my right hon. and learned Friend is not quite as keen or does not think that there are so many possibilities at that stage. Could he address that specific point?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his continuing interest in, support of and commitment to issues relating to the family. They are values and views that he and I share. I take the view that this legislation is not the vehicle to deliver the sort of services and support that he and I want to see. This is very much about the end of the process, as opposed to what he and I think needs to be done well before that, to support families to help themselves, to enrich family life and to ensure that every proper assistance is given to couples who perhaps do not have the benefit of wise advice from parents or other support circles and might be dealing with the problems and challenges of every relationship alone, and who, frankly, could benefit from the wherewithal and the support that I know he believes in so passionately.
For that reason, I take what I would regard as a more direct and straightforward approach. I make no apology for that. I think it is important to be direct about these issues and not to conflate legislative process with policy progress. My commitment to my hon. Friend and to all others who are legitimately concerned about these issues is that, as a Government, we will work harder to co-ordinate, to bring together the strands of policy that sit with various Departments and to ensure that we have a family policy that is fit for the 2020s, in the way that he wants to see. I look forward to that continuing dialogue with him.
As I was saying, the Bill does not come at the wrong time, because its current stage is the culmination of a lengthy process that was delayed by a general election and a new Parliament. Its timing has nothing to do with the current covid-19 emergency. The Bill’s reforms will not come into force on Royal Assent, because time needs to be allowed for careful implementation. At this early stage, we are working towards an indicative timetable of implementation in autumn 2021. As I have said, the Bill will deliver much-needed reform in respect of which there is clear, strong and broad consensus. I again thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions. I commend the Bill to the House.
I thank colleagues who contributed to the robust debates we have had on Second Reading and in Committee. The Opposition are pleased to support the Bill at its final stage. We are correcting an outdated notion that the only reason two people should get divorced is if there is some blame to be laid. We know that that is not always the case in every relationship. Sometimes marriages break down over time—not always because one great wrong has been committed by one party, but because people change, situations change, and compatibility at one time is not always permanent.
It will always be a difficult time in any relationship for two people to acknowledge that the marriage is over, but it is still best for them to part ways. The best role that we as law makers can play in such a situation is to make sure that they are able to part quickly and amicably. This is not just in the best interests of the spouses; it is crucial in limiting the emotional pain felt by children left in the middle as their parents’ marriage is split apart. The Bill will help to limit the turmoil of divorce because it acknowledges that sometimes there just is no fault.
I have enjoyed the specific discussions on the amendments and new clauses and on how the Bill could be improved. Although the proposed changes did not make it into the final Bill, I hope Members will agree that there was real merit in many if not all the issues raised. On some cases, such as families in which the parents are unmarried not getting benefit payments, I hope that the Government will go away and reconsider their position.
I was a little disappointed that the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, Alex Chalk, did not have sufficient time when he summed up to address the issue of legal aid. I hope the Government will take that away and look particularly at the issues when there is financial abuse in a relationship.
As I have said, we have made great progress with the Bill in recognising how modern marriages, relationships and families are; it would be a great shame if we failed to recognise that across other policy areas. We do not oppose Bills for the sake of it; we want to do what is right. Today, we have achieved real progress that will have a real and positive effect on people at one of the most vulnerable points in their lives.
It is pleasure to see the Lord Chancellor in his place. I am sorry if the queue—or perhaps short legs—meant that I arrived just as he was getting to his feet. I did not get the chance earlier, but I pay tribute to the work of the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend Alex Chalk, who dealt with the Committee stage with great skill and commitment.
I welcome the Bill because, as I said on Second Reading, I am a one nation, mainstream Conservative who believes that it is as well to legislate for the world as it is rather than the world as it should be. That is what we have done with this Bill. Ultimately, a law that does not reflect the way people live their lives falls into disrepute. We are avoiding that situation with this legislation. I know that that is genuinely painful for a number of Members in this House, but it is also genuinely painful for anyone to go through the matter of divorce.
I was glad that my right hon. and learned Friend gave the indication that he did to my hon. Friend Andrew Selous, because he raised an important point about how we deal with assisting people through this most difficult of situations. I know of my hon. Friend’s good faith in this matter and that he will pursue that; many people have much sympathy with that point.
I wish to say one other thing. We will rightly remove the question of the need to prove fault and the contention and antagonism that that causes. I hope that we can now concentrate on the question of financial orders and children, and that we make sure that that can be done as expeditiously as possible. The other thing that could perhaps remove antagonism in the process is access to early legal advice.
I have always taken the view, as the Lord Chancellor knows, that we perhaps took too much out of legal aid funding in some areas; the removal of legal aid support for early advice in matrimonial matters was, I think, an error, and it does no harm to admit that. The Justice Committee has called in a number of reports for it to be reinstated. I accept that this Bill is not the vehicle for it, but I hope that, when the Lord Chancellor has discussions with the Chancellor and others, he will bear in mind that that would be a sensible, humane and civilised thing to do. In practical terms, it will be much better if mediation can be used to resolve many of those matters once the process of divorce is dealt with in a much less stringent manner, and it has been demonstrated clearly in evidence to our Select Committee that the best gateway to mediation and a much more collaborative approach to achieving resolution is through early access to a lawyer, because the lawyers are the gatekeepers of the mediation process. Money spent on that would, I submit, be money well spent both in terms of savings of court time and burdens on social services when having to resolve confrontational custody and child-related applications, and in terms of society as a whole. It would also be the decent thing to do. With those comments and with the knowledge that my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor will take them on board, I commend the Bill the House.
Introducing Third Reading, the Lord Chancellor said that this is not a quickie divorce Bill. It is a quickie divorce Bill—six months sounds pretty quick to me. The Lord Chancellor said it does not undermine marriage. This Bill does undermine marriage, because it can be dissolved without people giving any reasons at all—indeed, it forces people to get divorced without giving any reasons. The Lord Chancellor said it does not undermine reconciliation. Well, it certainly does nothing for reconciliation.
The amendments we proposed were moderate. We simply asked for more time—from six months to nine months or one year. All our amendments have been swept aside by the Government. In the last vote, we asked for more money to be given for reconciliation. The Government brought the full might of their machine to vote down our amendment—a very moderate amendment. Divorce costs us £50 billion a year, but we are spending only £10 million. In his introduction, the Secretary of State said that the Bill is not coming at the wrong time. It is the wrong time—precisely the wrong time, when relationships are under so much strain.
We have a fundamental principal objection to the Bill. The Bill furthers the claim that the present law is based on hypocrisy. Leaving aside the fact that no one has to allege fault, this is part of a liberal point of view that getting rid of any sort of moral compass in society and any pain means that society will suddenly become painless. No doubt the next argument used by our Government will be that our present abortion laws are based on hypocrisy, because anyone can get an abortion but they have to give a reason, so why not have abortion on demand all the way through? Or they will say that our present laws on euthanasia are based on hypocrisy, because in reality we all know that many people are not kept alive and their lives are quietly ended painlessly, so let us have euthanasia. We will have abortion on demand and euthanasia on demand, and we have divorce on demand.
I tell right hon. and hon. Members that if they get rid of pain, if they get rid of all moral compass, they will find that it is not the process of divorce that causes the pain; it is the fact of divorce and the fact that we have one of the highest rates of marital breakdown in the world. It is a bad Bill, it is a quickie divorce Bill, it comes at the wrong time, and we do not agree with it.
I am not a lawyer and I make no apology for that. We who are elected here come from all sorts of backgrounds, and whatever our background, we are equal and our voices should all be heard.
I heard what my hon. Friend Sir Robert Neill said about fashions and all of that. When I was first elected to Parliament, Margaret Thatcher was the Prime Minister and Lord Hailsham was the Lord Chancellor. I fully accept that the world was different then. When I and people like me compare what our party is doing now to what it did then, it is a bit of a shock. If I fast forward to when Lord Mackay of Clashfern was Lord Chancellor—a wonderful Lord Chancellor, who is very much on the ball these days, even though he is over 90—and remember the position he took in 1996, I share his worries.
As I said earlier, I do not think this debate is about saying that people should not live together, or that it is about celebrating marriage. Regardless of how my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor has explained the situation, I am worried that my party is giving out a message, and when messages are put out on social media and in the newspapers, that is what people grab. I am just a little worried that, although my right hon. and learned Friend, to whom I listened carefully, has reassured us about reconciliation and all other matters, it may just make a margin. I go back to what I said, to pick up on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, that yes, people change, but at the end of it all, human beings are human beings and relationships are relationships. It is a big step to get married, and the fallout of divorce is truly shocking. The Minister, who did a wonderful job in summing up, responded to the amendments earlier, but I repeat that I would much prefer fewer people getting married, if marriage is no longer going to be fashionable, than see divorce increase.
The final thing I would say to my right hon. and learned Friend is that I think the whole House wants him to succeed with this legislation, but if he is wrong and I am right, and we see more divorces, I would be very interested to learn how the Government will deal with that situation. Obviously, I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend is right about what he wants to achieve, but I have been here and listened to many Ministers state things before, and of course there is a huge gap between their saying something and learning how it impacts five, 10, 15 or 20 years later. I just hope that on this occasion I am wrong.
I intend to speak only briefly, but I would like to reflect a lot of the wisdom that my hon. Friend Sir Robert Neill has brought to bear not only on this Bill, but on other Bills, such as on the Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill the other day.
I speak as a supporter of marriage, but also as a supporter of the Bill. I think that, wherever possible, divorce needs to be amicable, and we need to remove blame as a necessity. In earlier stages of the legislation, we heard some hon. Members, including from my recent intake, speak personally of the pain they are going through at the moment with the blame levels in divorce. I disagree with my right hon. Friend Sir Edward Leigh. I think the Bill does help remove some of that pain by removing some of the blame, and we are doing an important thing today in removing that.
I conclude by saying that I support the Bill, and I am glad the Government have brought it forward. As somebody with grandparents who have been married for 66 years and parents who are rapidly approaching their 40th wedding anniversary, I hope they continue, but I also hope, for others who are not in such a lucky situation, that the Bill will help remove some of the burden on them.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed, with amendments.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Earlier, the deferred Division on abortion legislation for Northern Ireland was announced, and the votes were Ayes 253, Noes 136. My mathematical calculations indicate that there were 261 abstentions. My understanding would be that many of those people abstained because they felt the Northern Ireland Assembly should have been the body that looked at this. If we add the Noes, who voted against the abortion legislation in this House, and the abstentions, it comes to a figure of 397 out of 650. My point of order is: has the House expressed its true wishes in relation to this legislation?
I thank the hon. Member for his point of order. The short answer to that is yes: we only count the votes of those who actually vote. We do not know what lies behind those who abstain.