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Amendment 3

Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill [HL] - Committee – in the House of Lords at 5:45 pm on 3rd March 2020.

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Lord Harries of Pentregarth:

Moved by Lord Harries of Pentregarth

3: Clause 1, page 1, line 12, at end insert—“( ) send, to the applicant and to the other party to the marriage, information about—(i) relationship support services, and(ii) mediation services,”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment seeks to ensure that divorcing couples have access to information about relationship support and mediation so that they can think again about the best way forward before being issued a final divorce order.

Photo of Lord Harries of Pentregarth Lord Harries of Pentregarth Crossbench

My Lords, this is a very simple amendment designed to give those divorcing or separating some basic information. It would require a court to

“send, to the applicant and to the other party to the marriage, information about—(i) relationship support services and, (ii) mediation services”.

As I mentioned at Second Reading, the concept of irreversible breakdown as a basis for divorce goes back to the recommendation of a Church of England Commission in 1966, which was accepted by the Law Commission in the same year and passed into law. Since then, however, up to the present time, as we know, it has been necessary to provide evidence of that breakdown, either by a period of separation or behaviour. Thirty years later, the Family Law Bill, introduced by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, in 1996, sought to do away with those tests. I strongly supported that Bill, but it met fierce opposition at the time, although it was finally passed by both Houses of Parliament.

The reason why many people who might otherwise have opposed that Bill did in the end support it, was the key role played by information sessions in the process of divorce. These involved meetings with the divorcing couple, who had the opportunity to avail themselves of relationship support or mediation should they need it. Though, as I say, that Bill was passed, it was not implemented by the incoming Labour Government and was eventually repealed. One reason for its repeal was that the information sessions as initially conceived were judged unable to achieve the objectives for which they were set up. Six pilot programmes were tried but none was judged successful.

It is clear that doing away with the need to provide objective evidence of breakdown is much more widely supported now than it was in 1996—and that is a good thing—and in the light of experience this Bill has much broader support now than it did then. However, we should not lose sight of the fact that while most divorces rightly go through, there are some marriages that can and should be held together even at a late stage of the process, or that might benefit from mediation.

I believe that the role of lawyers is essential in most marriage break-ups. However, the process appears from the outside to be essentially adversarial. A recent film now available on Netflix—“Marriage Story”—shows the process at work. It does not, I am afraid, depict lawyers in a very pretty light. As one lawyer in the film says, “If you start from a place of reasonable and they start from a place of crazy, when we settle we’ll be somewhere between reasonable and crazy”. The point is, of course, that both sides will think that they are reasonable and the other side is crazy. Yet, even in that unhappy story, one has to admit that the wife, in the end, benefited from having the issue settled by a court.

That said, I was talking recently to a friend about the Bill at present before the House. She revealed that she was a lawyer and that her first job in a law firm was dealing with divorces because, as she said, that was the sort of work thought appropriate to women in those days. She tried with her clients first to get them talking and exploring what they really wanted—in other words, she did what the noble Baroness, Lady Shackleton, said all good solicitors should do. Eventually, she was very surprised to be hauled in by her bosses and told that she was being transferred to another branch of the law as she was losing the firm too much money. I assure noble Lords that I did not make that up; it emerged spontaneously out of the blue and I was rather surprised. I quote it not as an anti-lawyer statement—I do not want to be a Daniel in a den of lawyers, because there are so many lawyers in the House that we feel inadequate anyway about not being a lawyer. The point I am making is that there are other ways forward and it is important that a divorcing couple of fully aware of this, even at a late stage.

The noble Lord, Lord McNally, for the coalition Government, told the House in 2013:

“The research concluded that none of the six models of information meeting tested was good enough for implementation nationally. For most people, the meetings came too late to save marriages and tended to cause parties who were uncertain about their marriages to be more inclined towards divorce.”—[Official Report, 23/10/13; col. GC 365.]

I agree that this is likely to be a true reading of the situation, but the phrase the noble Lord used was “for most people”—it is not all people. There is a minority for whom, even at a late stage, there might be a better way forward. Nor is the conclusion the noble Lord drew from the other point as useless as he suggested. It caused, he said, some parties who were uncertain about their marriage to be more inclined towards divorce. The proper conclusion to be drawn from this is that, if it was right for them to divorce, a final chance to have this conviction strengthened is a good thing. We want couples to be clear about what they want after a final chance to consider the options before them.

As I say, I am not arguing for a reinstatement of the information sessions of the 1996 Act. It would be unrealistic to do so. However, what I am proposing is simple and cheap: it simply requires the court to send both parties some basic information which, I imagine, would be provided at no cost by the relationship support and mediation services. Those who receive such information might glance at it and throw it in the wastepaper basket; others might read it carefully and conclude that it is not for them—they are clear that divorce is the right way forward. There will be some, however, who read the information not having properly considered options other than divorce, and who wish to follow this information up.

Society has a big stake in stable marriages and stable civil partnerships. Divorce or separation is sometimes absolutely necessary and essential, but, if there is a chance of a few marriages that would otherwise split up being saved by the simple provision of information, this chance should be taken. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Meacher Baroness Meacher Crossbench

My Lords, I shall speak briefly to Amendment 3. I regret to speak in disagreement with the noble Lord, Lord McColl, for whom I have great respect. I also have some disagreement with my noble and right reverend friend Lord Harries.

Amendment 3 is, like Amendment 1, based on the assumption that, even after divorce proceedings are under way, there is a reasonable number of couples who can be reconciled. My reading of the research on this issue suggests that such reconciliation is rare once divorce proceedings are under way. Nobody starts divorce proceedings unless they are pretty desperate.

Having provided relationship support services as a social worker many decades, never mind many years, ago, I am, of course, a supporter of this approach to marriage problems. However, in response to this amendment, I suggest that a couple would benefit far more from such a service long before either parent considers divorce. A divorce petition is sought only once at least one of the partners is clear that the relationship has broken down irretrievably. It is very likely, although it is not always the case, that one partner will by that time be well involved with a third party and have little interest in perpetuating the marriage. At that stage reconciliation is very unlikely, although of course it is possible.

The most important need of a couple going through the divorce process when there are children of the marriage is for them to be helped to ensure effective parenting throughout the proceedings and following the divorce. I agree with the Resolution position that relationship support needs to be funded and provided long before people take the decision to divorce. Indeed, I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Shackleton, that preparation to prevent divorce needs to start at school. We teach kids geography and history, but it is much more important that we teach sixth-formers the importance of relationships, parenting responsibility, the terrible impact of divorce on children and all the things that are being discussed here today. That is when it should start, and then throughout marriage there should be ready access to advice, support, marriage guidance and the rest of it.

My basic position is that the Bill is perhaps not the right place for consideration of this issue. It has to happen long before. However, I would support an amendment on Report that focused on the need to fund support for effective parenting for divorcing couples. As many noble Lords have said, we know that divorces have terrible consequences for children. If parents can be helped as they go through divorce to be more responsible and careful, that would be a valuable step forward. If successful, such support could avert serious problems—mental health problems and others—for the children of divorced couples in the years ahead. However, I cannot support this amendment.

Photo of Lord Farmer Lord Farmer Conservative 6:00 pm, 3rd March 2020

My Lords, I shall speak to Amendment 21, which is grouped with Amendment 3. It is also about marriage counselling once the application for divorce has been made. My amendment requires the Government to offer relationship and marriage counselling before and during the divorce procedure.

Marriage is the specific relationship form being directly affected by the Bill so it should be the focus of additional support. Much weight has been put on the evidence from research at the University of Exeter funded by the Nuffield Foundation, Finding Fault? It describes itself as the first empirical study since the 1980s of how the divorce law in England and Wales is operating. It is a piece of grey literature—that is, it has not been peer reviewed. The Government very rarely act on single studies, especially those that have not been peer reviewed by academics from other universities, which often challenge the conclusions of whichever study it is. The reliance of the Government and noble Lords on this research is surprising, to say the least. In reality, it is one study with 81 interviews and an analysis of 300 divorces. There was a survey in which around half the participants were divorcees and the other half were nationally representative: 71% of them supported retaining fault, which was ignored. I put that at the beginning of what I am saying because, in the Government’s argument, an awful lot of weight is being put on this research.

In the early 2000s, there was a healthy marriage initiative in the United States. Many of the programmes were focused on unmarried couples. It taught them the basics of commitment and how to resolve conflict and brought many to a point where they perhaps knew enough to separate because they realised the relationship did not have a future, or where both partners felt able to make the formal commitment of marriage. I notice a right reverend Prelate is in his place. The Church of England and many other churches run good marriage preparation courses which go into gritty detail of the problems that marriages can present.

Much has been said about the need to avoid the complexity of the Family Law Act. My amendment does not reintroduce information meetings, but makes it more likely that a couple who see no alternative to divorce, perhaps because both sides of the family have been through it, will, by going through counselling, have their eyes opened to the possibility that times can get better if you stick together. It allows people to reflect on the possible implications of what they are doing. Wealthy people can often access divorce consultants who dispassionately lay out the implications of staying together or splitting up. Many people pull back when they have someone dispassionately explain to them, for example, what has been termed the indissolubility of parenthood—that their relationships with their children, which the vast majority are absolutely determined to maintain, will require them to have ongoing relations with their ex-spouse not only to ensure the smooth running of day-to-day contact arrangements, but to negotiate every future major family event.

Professor Janet Walker led the evaluations of the pilots following the passage of the Family Law Act 1996. She interviewed more than 6,000 people. She commented that funding for relationship services was identified as a necessary part of divorce reform during the passage of the Family Law Bill and remains necessary today. She goes on to say that knowledge and understanding of what works in supporting relationships at times of change, challenge and crisis has also grown, and it is apparent that early intervention to support relationships increases opportunities for relationship ruptures to be repaired and for partnerships to thrive and endure. Therefore, we need to be sure that the opportunity to seek support is provided when relationships begin to deteriorate as well as in the period after an application for divorce is made, when the focus is likely to be on helping couples to reduce conflict and to focus on the ways in which they will continue to parent in a life apart. Relationship support, she says, must be accessible, affordable and available when it is first needed and at any time when families are seeking to repair or manage difficult relationships. In a follow-up study, which involved over 1,500 people, she found that, two years on from divorce, many people wished they had been warned beforehand of the harsh realities of post-separation life. If they had been forewarned, they might have sought reconciliation. They now have to work harder than ever to get on with their ex, given the need to maintain harmonious arrangements around finances and children.

US researchers, in the early 2000s, found that people who are unhappy in their marriage are more likely to be happy five years later if they did not divorce than if they did. Two out of three who were unhappily married but avoided divorce ended up happily married after five years. The problem is that, in our society, it is still stigmatised to ask for help with one’s couple relationship. When he was on “Desert Island Discs”, the American ambassador to the UK, Matthew Barzun, was very up front about the ongoing relationship counselling he and his wife had to maintain a good status quo in their relationship. Let us hope he is an early adopter, but the broad culture is not there yet. Marriage support and counselling can create a context where the root of the conflict can be addressed and terminated, rather than the relationship itself.

Photo of Lord Mackay of Clashfern Lord Mackay of Clashfern Conservative

My Lords, I support both amendments. I want to look at Amendment 21 first; it contains a reference to Section 22 of the Family Law Act 1996 and one of the provisions supported by Professor Walker in the passage that my noble friend quoted. I regard it as absolutely essential that the Government should support families in difficulties. There are plenty of reasons for difficulty in family relationships, perhaps more than there were. But in any case, whether that is so or not, there are still difficulties, and help in overcoming these is essential as early as possible. Amendment 21 deals with Section 22 and the need for counselling in relation to the later stage.

I also support the provisions in Amendment 3, which are a last resort. It is so important that people really consider what is happening and get what help they can before it happens. The idea that it is always too late is not quite right. Sometimes reconciliation can come quite late—and better late than never—which is what Amendment 3 supports. The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, was Bishop of Oxford when the 1996 Act was considered and ultimately passed. I think it was he who put this amendment in form first. The Government fully supported it, as I do now. I also support its continuation, which is in the amendment.

There are some quite interesting amendments. Section 22 of the Act says:

“The Lord Chancellor may, with the approval of the Treasury”.

I am not sure why I had to put that text in the Bill, but it must have been part of the price I paid for getting that section into it, which remains law. The amount provided for it now has fallen. I would like to press on Her Majesty’s Government that one of the most important things for the present is that our family life is preserved and strengthened. I am sure that, as was said on earlier amendments, a good deal of difficulty has arisen from the failure to support family life in the way that the Government should. Therefore, I am very much in favour of Amendments 3 and 21.

Photo of Lord Browne of Belmont Lord Browne of Belmont DUP

My Lords, I am pleased to support Amendment 21 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, which focuses on marriage support services. It requires the Secretary of State to make grants for marriage support services

“before and during a marriage.”

The public policy benefits of marriage are such that this is a very appropriate use of public funds. Indeed, in terms of the public finances, investment in relationships is good value for money. The estimated cost of family breakdown to the public purse is £51 billion a year. In January 2018, the Government said in another place that between April 2015 and March 2017 they had invested £17.5 million in relationship support services. That is a very small sum, given the scale of the costs of family breakdown. It is estimated that Relate’s couple counselling work delivers £11.40 of benefits for every £1 spent. Surely this should make the Chancellor consider upping the Government’s investment in supporting married couples and those in civil partnerships.

Given that Section 22 already exists, one might ask why we should bother amending it. I suggest that there are three main reasons. First, an Answer to a Parliamentary Written Question given just yesterday, ahead of today’s debate, demonstrates that Section 22 is not being used by the Government to invest in marriage support, to allocate grants to gain a better understanding of the reasons for marital breakdown or to gain a better understanding of how to prevent marital breakdown.

Secondly, Section 22 does not currently expressly engage with the divorce process. The England and Wales court data from 2003 to 2016 shows that, across that 13-year period, each year on average 12,702 more petitions were filed than were ever concluded. That amounts to a significant number of marriages saved during the divorce process. We must ensure that some Section 22 money is invested in a very focused way during the reflection period to enhance the chances of reconciliation and save more marriages.

Thirdly, the need for more focused marriage investment during the divorce process will be greatly compounded by the fact that across the 13-year period from 2003 to 2016, when each year, on average, 12,702 more petitions were filed than were ever concluded, there was often up to two years or more for reconciliation. Under the Bill, however, the scope for reconciliation will be greatly reduced because the time for it will be cut significantly. In this context, to make the shorter timeframe for reconciliation deliver better, there will again need to be more focused provision of reconciliation to make the most of the limited time available.

Again, in answer to yesterday’s Parliamentary Written Question, it was suggested that the issue was being covered by the Reducing Parental Conflict programme. This is politically unsustainable for two reasons. First, if the Government think that investing in addressing parental conflict apart from marriage is an appropriate substitute for using Section 22, they have lost sight of the public policy benefits of marriage. The money that Parliament mandated when passing Section 22 was not for the purpose of addressing conflict between spouses only when they are parents and regardless of whether they are married; it was about supporting marriage so that we could benefit to the greatest possible extent from the public policy benefits of marriage through investment in marriage preparation before marriage, through marriage enrichment programmes during marriage and through marriage guidance counselling for marriages in difficulty.

Secondly, if the Government are to radically reduce the time for reconciliation within the divorce process, they need to make the much shorter period available work better. That requires greater and more focused investment in it—hence the importance of Amendment 21.

The simple fact is that the law changes proposed by this Bill will impact only on marriage and civil partnerships, regardless of whether children are involved. Opportunities for terminating marriages and civil partnerships, rather than any other kind of relationship, will be expedited by this Bill. Therefore, a focused marriage-specific provision is required—hence the importance of Section 22—so that, even in the expedited process, proposed marriages can still be saved.

Section 22, which Amendment 21 amends, is also very significant because it allows for the provision of grants for

“research into the causes of marital breakdown” and

“research into ways of preventing marital breakdown.”

Again, Answers to Written Questions suggest that no grants have been allocated for research into the causes of marriage breakdown or research into ways of preventing it. Given the huge cost of family breakdown and the fact that the Government have seen fit to introduce effectively the biggest change to divorce law in 50 years, it is regrettable that they did not inform their approach to divorce law reform with a better understanding of the causes of marital breakdown and ways of preventing it. I end by suggesting that support for marriage should somehow be provided through a programme to help parents, regardless of whether they are married.

Photo of Baroness Tyler of Enfield Baroness Tyler of Enfield Liberal Democrat 6:15 pm, 3rd March 2020

My Lords, I support Amendment 21, which aims to put relationship support funding on a firmer basis. At the outset I should declare an interest as a former chief executive and current vice-president of the relationship counselling charity Relate, and I am also a former chair of Cafcass.

Many of the reforms contained in the Bill are certainly to be welcomed, but—this is a real gap—the Bill is silent on the provision of relationship support, which in my view needs to be available much earlier in the process of relationship breakdown, as well as at the later stages, which we are very much focusing on today. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, has already said, funding for relationship support services was identified as a necessary part of divorce reform during the passage of the Family Law Bill, and I agree with him that it remains just as necessary today. In fact, I should like, very briefly, to take us back to the Denning report of 1947. As Lord Denning said, there should be a marriage welfare service “sponsored by the State but not a State institution”. It should be a function of the state to support marriage guidance as a form of social service. I underline the words “as a form of social service” because they are germane to my argument.

Over the years, successive Governments have taken their responsibilities in this area seriously—to a greater or lesser extent, I contend—to ensure the availability of relationship support services for those who want and need them. It has been my personal experience that some Ministers and, indeed, some Prime Ministers have shown a much greater interest in this area than others: some have really wanted to champion the need for proper relationship support services, while others have taken much less interest. I think that it is genuinely a real problem that proper funding for relationship support—which I see as a core responsibility of government in providing necessary social services—has sometimes felt over the years as if it has come down to the whim of a particular Minister or Prime Minister.

Over the years, responsibility for funding relationship support services has moved between a large number of departments—frankly, having been quite involved in some of those moves, I feel that I could write a book on it. It currently rests with the DWP. Funding over that time has steadily been eroded and now focuses—very narrowly, I think—on interventions to do with workless households and helping to give support where there are high levels of parental conflict. I am not saying that there is anything wrong with focusing on high levels of parental conflict or workless households, but there is a much broader need to support relationships across the rest of the general population. This particularly helps families and children to thrive, which we discussed very eloquently in last Thursday’s debate.

I also feel that having properly functioning families with good relationships within them and trying to minimise relationship and family breakdown whenever we can is so fundamental to so many of the Government’s broader social policy objectives, be they in education, health or employment. It really deserves to be taken a lot more seriously than it sometimes feels that it is. It is clear that early intervention to support relationships—again, the subject of our debate last week—increases the chances for relationship difficulties at the early stages to be repaired. We therefore need to make sure that those chances to seek support are provided when a relationship begins to deteriorate, as well as in the period after an application for divorce is made, when the focus is likely to be on helping the couples to reduce conflict and on ways in which they can continue to successfully co-parent but live apart. Those things can have long-lasting benefits for children, particularly for their emotional well-being.

As has already been said by the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, relationship support must be accessible, affordable and available when it is needed to help families seeking to repair or manage relationship difficulties. This is a really key point for me: relationship counselling must not just be seen as a middle-class preserve. It has to be available and affordable for all, irrespective of income or ability to pay. As far as I am concerned, I have always seen the availability of relationship support services as a social justice issue.

Government funding for relationship support services must be recognised as an essential component of the Government’s new approach to divorce and separation if the aims of this Bill are to be fully recognised. The Government really must take core responsibility for ensuring that there is good relationship support available and not just see it as a fluffy little discretionary add-on.

Photo of The Marquess of Salisbury The Marquess of Salisbury Conservative

My Lords, I rise in support of Amendments 3 and 21 and to provide a brace of bishops. I want to observe the seriousness and the quality of this debate as we as a House navigate the support of marriage as an institution and of couples in keeping their vows while recognising that marriages break down and trying to provide adequately for those circumstances. If the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, is right that support for the relationship support services sometimes depends on the whim of a Minister or Prime Minister, one might hope that the present occupant of 10 Downing Street would take a particular interest in these matters.

On average, the Church of England conducts about 1,000 weddings a week. We have experience of conducting, preparing people for and supporting them in marriages. Quite often, couples that I have prepared say that they want to get married in church because they know that they are standing and making their vows in a solemn and serious place that has significance in the community and before God. They want the support of the community gathered around them. In the modern marriage service, we say, “Will you support them in what they are doing?” The congregation comes back with, “We will”. The role of gathering around a couple to support them in keeping what we know to be quite difficult things to keep is a very significant part of the service. Marriage is a gift of God in creation. A marriage in civil ceremony is, therefore, as big a deal. That means that we need to gather around these couples too and support them in upholding their vows.

However, marriages break down. That is costly in the way that the noble Lord, Lord Browne, itemised; there is a financial cost to society. It is also emotionally costly to the individuals in the couples. This is not done lightly: there is a real cost to this, as well as a financial cost to the family concerned. It needs good support to wrap around it. Tolstoy observed that all happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in is own way. That is a good reason for saying that the support of marriages is complex and that we need to put in relationship counselling provision early on to support that.

Both amendments seem valuable to me for the support that they give individuals but also because they make a point in a Bill that, as my right reverend friend the Bishop of Portsmouth observed at Second Reading, might better be focused on kinder divorce rather than easier divorce. Through these amendments, we would be making a statement about the seriousness and importance of marriage, and the support that needs to be wrapped around it, both at an earlier stage and, by noting the availability of resources, at this last stage before the matter is finalised.

Photo of Baroness Burt of Solihull Baroness Burt of Solihull Liberal Democrat 6:30 pm, 3rd March 2020

My Lords, I am fully in support of having strong support services for couples but, by the time they decide to divorce, I would suggest that that stage is passed and it is already too late for conciliation, as the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, has pointed out.

I totally support Amendment 21 and the comments of my noble friend Lady Tyler. It is just the question of timing that I dispute. Professor Liz Trinder points out that practical help and advice would be of value, and financial help for these services would be most welcome, especially on benefits, housing and child support. In the vast majority of cases, mediation would not only be too late, it could be harmful. The Finding Fault? study found that more than a third of behaviour divorces included allegations of domestic abuse, some of an extremely serious nature. Why would you give the perpetrator a golden opportunity to browbeat—or worse—the victim by suggesting that the marriage may not be over, and present the spectre of having to return to the site of the abuse?

We on these Benches will not support the amendments other than Amendment 21, well intentioned though we believe they are.

Photo of Lord Morrow Lord Morrow DUP

My Lords, I rise to speak in support of Amendment 21 tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern.

The Bill’s family impact test issued by the Ministry of Justice stresses multiple times that a central policy intention behind the legislation is to promote opportunities for reconciliation where that is possible. I admire the stated aim, but this amendment reflects the view that the Bill as it currently stands lacks ambition in this respect. Without funding for essential marriage support services, this policy goal will mean little to struggling families across the country. Families who desperately want to stay together, but are at a loss as to how to move forward, need support. It is one thing to provide an opportunity for reconciliation, but another thing entirely to provide a means of reconciliation.

According to Relate, the UK’s largest provider of relationship support:

“Evidence suggests that low income families are likely to experience increased strains on their relationships because of financial pressures. Their financial vulnerability also means they are less able to afford relationship support.”

This may well be having a very real bearing on family breakdown statistics. By the age of five, almost half of children in low-income households have seen their families break apart, compared to only 16% of children in higher-income households. Funding for counselling services could make all the difference to families who struggle to get by financially—families like Laura’s, on a household income of £16,000 per year, who told Relate:

“I want my husband and I to stay together because I know we truly love each other, as well as for the sake of the family, but desperate situations push people towards desperate measures, such as contemplating divorce. I am trying to stay strong for my family by blocking things out emotionally, which I know isn’t healthy but I have nowhere to turn. What we need is to speak to somebody objective who can help us to find a way forward. I agree there should be more funding for relationship support—healthy relationships create healthy families which in turn creates healthy citizens.”

Unfortunately, loving someone is not always enough and there may come a time where we all need more support and guidance. In a context where the Government are moving to reduce the time for reconciliation by promoting divorce within six months, it is vital that we invest more in marriage support and focus some of that money specifically on the shortened divorce process. This amendment rises to this challenge and is particularly important because, unbelievably, answers to Parliamentary Questions reveal that the Government are not allocating any funds for marriage support through Section 22. This is extraordinary, especially when we consider previous government undertakings in this regard. On 1 February 2017, for example, the Minister in the other place stated that

“the Department intends to continue to work very hard to ensure that marriage gets the support it needs to continue being a strong bedrock for the families and the children for whom we want to secure the best possible outcomes in the future.”—[Official Report, Commons, 21/02/17; col. 389WH.]

It also makes no sense. The Relationships Foundation’s Cost of Family Failure Index in 2018 estimated the annual cost to the Government of family or relationship breakdown to stand at £51 billion—my colleague and noble friend Lord Browne has already referred to this figure—which is up from £37 billion 10 years ago. The scale of this crisis demonstrates that proper investment in marriage support services is long overdue. The move would also be in line with public opinion. ComRes polling from 2017 showed that 76% of British adults believe that extra money should be spent strengthening families.

In this context, where the Government are proposing to reduce the time for divorce and thus reduce the opportunity for reconciliation within divorce, it is especially vital that they now adopt a new approach to marriage support. Providing funding to parents in conflict, who do not have to be married, is no substitute for marriage support, which should not be limited to those who have children. We need a significant, serious focus on marriage support.

When difficulties arise in relationships, giving up often seems easier than going on. This Bill risks making giving up easier, while doing little to meaningfully support those who want to go on. It communicates the message that marriage breakdown is often a sad inevitability and that, if you get to that point, the law will make it easier for you to “get the relationship over with”. I suggest to noble Lords that we can do better than that. Let us be a country that believes in fighting to rescue relationships, so that when they hit the rocks our response is not simply to mitigate the fallout, but to offer a lifeline of support to families in the form of counselling. Amendment 21, and indeed Amendment 3, will help us rise to this challenge. I very much hope that the Government will support this.

Photo of Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown DUP

My Lord, I support Amendment 21 and Amendment 3. Amendment 21 speaks about funding for marriage support services, and says:

“In subsection (1)(a), at the end insert ‘, both before and during a marriage’.”

The reality is that many young people are not really prepared for marriage. Many go into it with great expectations: that everything will be rosy, everything is going to be beautiful, and that they are going to have a great life. They do not realise that the reality of life for everyone can be facing difficulties and hardships—not only financially, but in family circumstances.

There are many reasons for family breakdown and, certainly, each one is a tragedy. There used to be an old statement in our home: “a family that prays together, stays together”. It is also true that a family that talks together can stay together. The tragedy today is that families no longer talk together the way that they once did, because they are talking into an iPhone or an iPad. I was raised on a farm, and when I was a child there was a large family table we sat around and talked together. The reality is that, in the homes built today, you could not do this because the kitchen or living room is so small the family could not get around the same table. So where do they go? They go to their rooms. They used to sit before a computer but it is not like that any more; they just sit with an iPad. I sat in a home recently, where a family was gathered for a family bereavement. There was a young person of 17 years of age there. We were having conversations about the grandmother at the home, the background of the family and their upbringing and the day that young person’s mother got married. That young person heard nothing. We sat for 35 minutes. He did not speak, and neither was he listening because he was completely absorbed in his phone.

The Government should do more to encourage families to talk together. Then, I believe, many of them will stay together. The tragedy is, even within relationships, husbands and wives no longer converse as they used to. If you have a problem, the best way is to share it because a problem shared is a problem halved. Therefore, there should be more preparation for young people before marriage, and during marriage they should receive more encouragement. Certainly, when it comes to the possibility of a family breakdown, society should encourage the family unit to stay together—not to make them unhappy, but to build relationships again.

Photo of Baroness Chakrabarti Baroness Chakrabarti Shadow Attorney General

My Lords, I am so grateful to all noble Lords who spoke about this group. We do not support families by lecturing them, hectoring them or even creating obstacles to divorce. We support families with fellowship, with community, with solidarity and with social infrastructure. As I have said, I would like people to have access to lawyers—we wicked lawyers, but when you need us we are not so wicked—in time times of trouble, but also to counselling and relationship support long before there is trouble and, indeed, all through their lives. I really have taken on board the points that were made by two noble Baronesses at least about timing, because this support should be available very early in life and, as noble Lords opposite have said, perhaps even before people entertain the idea of marriage. That was the reason for supporting the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, in Amendment 3, although I take the points about timing and do not want to delay noble Lords further on this.

I hope the Minister will take the opportunity, in responding to this group, to set out what the Government propose more generally by way of this kind of provision for counselling and relationship support, because it seems, to me at least, all-too scant at the moment.

Photo of Lord Keen of Elie Lord Keen of Elie The Advocate-General for Scotland, Lords Spokesperson (Ministry of Justice)

My Lords, I will begin with Amendment 3, moved by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth. I am grateful to the noble and right reverend Lord, not only for his thoughtful contribution to the debate and the scrutiny of the Bill but for meeting me to discuss his proposals.

The Government share the sentiment underlying this amendment, and the observations of a number of noble Lords that couples considering divorce should have available to them information about the services in question, and that where reconciliation is still possible, the legal process should not dim that prospect. On the second point, the Bill introduces for the first time a minimum timeframe of 20 weeks from the application to when the court can be asked to make the conditional order of divorce. The Bill also retains the two-stage procedure for obtaining a divorce under the distinctive procedure of English law, so that each step on the way to divorce requires an intentional and, indeed, conscious decision to end the marriage.

The Government’s view is that best prospect of saving a marriage is when difficulties first arise, not much later when divorce proceedings have begun. In the University of Newcastle evaluation of pilots to test the information-meeting provision that was central to the no-fault provisions in the now-repealed Part II of the Family Law Act 1996, the report noted:

“If the objective of providing information is to facilitate marriage saving, the evidence suggests that it will be more effective if it is provided while spouses are still together and before they make the decision to live apart.”

The Government share the desire to encourage more couples to resolve any disagreements about children or financial arrangements through mediation, avoiding, wherever possible, the need to seek a court adjudication. For these reasons, the Government do not support this amendment but believe that its laudable ends can be achieved by other means.

On relationship support services, we will work with the Department for Work and Pensions, which is now the relevant department responsible for these services, as the noble Baroness observed, to see what more can be done to improve the information about and signposting to such services, and in places where couples experiencing relationship difficulties can best access that information. That has long been a challenge. I reassure the Committee that the Government are highly motivated to make sure that the signposting of mediation services, in particular, is available. It is not only desirable in itself that couples receive the best information available about mediation; it helps to realise the Government’s stated aim to reduce conflict when a marriage gets into trouble, which is particularly important where children are involved.

Her Majesty’s Courts & Tribunals Service has already created a successful online system for applying for divorce. To allow for implementation of the provisions in the Bill, that system will need to be updated. The Government fully intend to use this updating process as an opportunity to signpost applicants, where appropriate, to relationship support services and mediation services. I cannot at this stage provide operational details but I am happy to make that commitment to the noble and right reverend Lord. We will take this opportunity to ensure that information about mediation, in particular, is given at the earliest stage: when divorce begins and before any ancillary application is made in respect of children or financial arrangements.

Information provided through the online divorce service might be supplied in an intelligent way. For example, information about relationship support might be withheld from applicants or respondents if domestic abuse is flagged up as an issue because we need to consider the needs of vulnerable spouses. If a victim of domestic abuse has applied for a divorce, having mustered the courage to do so, is it right that information should come back from the court suggesting marriage counselling, or if the court sends their abusive partner what may be construed as official encouragement to reconcile? Digital technology will provide us with a useful opportunity to tailor information. We will address how best to protect the interests of victims of domestic abuse, as an example, when developing these systems. In addition to the online system, court forms will need to be updated for those who still need to make paper-based applications. Again, we will use that as an opportunity to signpost services by putting information on the forms.

Finally, Her Majesty’s Courts & Tribunals Service will be consolidating and streamlining information on the website about how to approach the matter of divorce. That will be a first port of call for many people considering bringing their marriage to an end. I hope that the commitments I have given will reassure noble Lords that we will take steps to improve information and signposting to relationship support and mediation, and that we are beginning to address ways in which to do that.

Amendment 21 seeks to amend the existing discretionary power available to the Secretary of State through Section 22 of the Family Law Act 1996, which is a power to provide grants for support services and marriage counselling. The amendment makes it mandatory that such grants be made under this power. That power is 25 years old and it sat alongside an attempt at broader reform for no-fault divorce, with a key objective of saving saveable marriages. The Government now fund these services in various ways—some of them, I suggest, quite innovative.

Section 22 has not been used to make block grants directly to voluntary-sector organisations for some time. Indeed, in delivering the £39 million Reducing Parental Conflict programme, the Department for Work and Pensions has found that making grants to voluntary-sector organisations has not always produced the best results. Working in partnership with local authorities and local providers, often using contracts rather than grants, has proved more successful at reaching those who are most in need of such support.

Amendment 21 would require funding to provide for marriage support services to be available when an application for divorce has been made. As I mentioned, a previous attempt to legislate for no-fault divorce had at its core mandatory attendance at information meetings, prior to making a statement of marital breakdown. The purpose of that meeting included providing the parties with information about marriage counselling. Academic research into various models of information meetings found that they came too late to save marriages and tended to incline parties who were unsure towards divorce. The Government do not believe that making provision for counselling within the legislative framework of divorce is the best way to support marriage. Relationship support at that point will most often be too late.

The amendment also seeks to make grants mandatory for marriage support services to be available at unspecified points before and during marriage. There is a much wider debate to be had as to how government as a whole can address the issues that lead to relationship breakdown. Simply funding marriage support services may not get to the heart of the matter, nor reach the right people at the right time. However, I agree that there is a need to test what works in helping couples stay together, where appropriate. The Government are open to the evidence on this. The Reducing Parental Conflict programme is currently gathering evidence on what works in relationship support. Around a third of the programme’s budget is used to deliver support to families through contracts with specialist suppliers of relationship support services. Funding for different ways to support relationships will be a cross-government issue, to be considered alongside other steps being taken to support families.

I understand the desire of noble Lords to see that the marriage relationship can be supported, but it has to be supported at the right time. That is not at the point of an application for divorce on the grounds of irretrievable breakdown, which is why we do not consider that the Bill is the right vehicle for tackling the wider issues that lead to relationship breakdown. It is targeted at reform to reduce conflict within the legal divorce process. I am obliged to noble Lords for their input to this debate. I understand the desire to ensure that we can address relationship breakdown at the right time. I recognise that a cross-government initiative will be required but, at this stage, I invite the noble and right reverend Lord to withdraw Amendment 3.

Photo of Lord Harries of Pentregarth Lord Harries of Pentregarth Crossbench 6:45 pm, 3rd March 2020

I thank all noble Lords who have spoken to these amendments. I was slightly surprised that my noble friend Lady Meacher was so hostile to my amendment, as it would not require the divorcing couple to do anything and would not in itself delay the process of divorce. It would mean simply that they receive information, treating them as mature human beings who are aware of the information available.

As the Minister said, I had a very useful meeting with him, in which he outlined some ways of making people more aware of relationship support and mediation services through the internet. We talked about the possibility of there being a question on the original application form asking the applicant whether they are aware of these services. Perhaps when he comes back on Report he could spell out in more detail what he has said to the Committee and to me. I realise that this is not a matter for legislation, but perhaps he could put on the record the kind of thing which might appear on either the original application or online. With that in mind, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment 3 withdrawn.

House resumed. Committee to begin again not before 7.30 pm.