Increased support for marriage and civil partnerships

Part of Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill [Lords] – in the House of Commons at 6:30 pm on 17th June 2020.

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Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice 6:30 pm, 17th June 2020

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.