My Lords, as you would expect from this House, a wealth of wisdom and experience has been shown. Some of the prime movers in some of the most important cases of recent years are right here and have spoken in support of the Bill. There has been support from right around the House, including from the Bishops’ Bench—what more does one need?
Before I address the government response, the main worries expressed by those who have spoken were about prenups. The Law Commission looked into this very thoroughly. There is actually a draft Bill appended to the most recent Law Commission report on this. If one is looking for consensus, one could pick up that Bill, already drafted, and run with it. I think it has a little too much uncertainty in it but there is no lack of consensus on the need to have prenups and the fact that they will not do any harm.
The other note of contention—not so much about discretion and statute, because we have that in every area of the law—was about the weaker partner. This brings me to something that I can only touch on lightly, which is how we see women today. In most other countries where they have a system like the one I have put forward, women actually feel less discrimination and have better childcare and more equal pay. There is a close relationship with the insistent message from some lawyers and judges—and, regrettably, some younger academics who are reinventing the wheel—that women are victims and women are suffering.
We changed the divorce law to “irretrievable breakdown” in 1969 and the message should have gone out to women then that, “You cannot expect to stay married because if your partner wants out he will go and there is nothing to stop him”. It is a bit late now to say, “If you are a housewife and you have given up your career to look after your children, a man will have to keep you”. He may not have any money. He may remarry to someone who is equally deserving. In our society now the Government say that women should take half of all positions on boards, should form half of the judiciary and should be in the Supreme Court—women should be running the world. I agree with that but you cannot at the same time say, “It’s all right. You will be kept. You don’t have to pursue a career. You are a victim”. We have to get away from this victim mentality and see women as equals.
To the Government I say: lack of consensus has never stopped the Government pursuing a reform if that is what they want to do. We can all cite many examples of that. I put forward a suggestion this year that we should have a Select Committee on family law, which would have brought the attention of the House to bear on these matters and maybe produced a consensus, but I am sorry to say that that notion was turned down in favour of what I have previously described as some motherhood and apple pie Select Committees in this Session.
The guidance that the Minister referred to has never been cited in a case—it has not achieved any sort of consensus, as the noble Baroness, Lady Shackleton, pointed out—nor has the guidance which is put forward for litigants, or they would not be weeping in court, as I have seen them do, and spending so much money. It has not worked. The Government are missing the point if they think that that guidance is going to help. Anyway, what sort of condition is the law in when you have to set it to one side and turn instead to guidance put together by the Family Justice Council? It is not binding and it has not helped.
The Minister said we need evidence. We have a wealth of evidence from the whole of the western world: Europe, America, Canada and, most notably, Scotland. It has worked there since 1985. The evidence in the report Built to Last shows that no more women are going on social security than before. The evidence is there. England is an outlier. This is not a situation to be proud of. Why not get on with it? The more years that go by, the worse it will be. The money that is wasted on legal costs would rescue many middle and lower-income couples from the penury that they might otherwise face on divorce. So I am not satisfied with the government response. I think they will find that the public are not satisfied with their response. When this is covered in the media, they will find that the weight of opinion is against the “make do and mend” attitude that we have just heard.
On that note of severe dissatisfaction, I ask the House to give the Bill a Second Reading.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.
House adjourned at 2.20 pm.