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Lord Simon of Glaisdale: The continuation of society being the purpose of marriage, one asks this question. The contract of marriage being a special one and one to be construed fairly, whatever an individual's faith, in the terms of the citation of the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, it is a type of contract and arrangement which obviously envisages from the outset the introduction of a third party; namely, a child. As soon as a child is born, the family alters its character. When we talk of the irretrievable breakdown of marriage, I believe that we have always tended to look to the spouses only, but if we look to the wider family, including the child, is it possible to say that the marriage has broken down irretrievably as long as the parents can fulfil their duties towards the child and their responsibility to the being they have brought into the world?
On the last occasion one noble Lord spoke of the parties being locked in a loveless marriage, again only looking at the spouses, but when there is a child can it really be described as a loveless marriage? I believe that practically every family shows love for the child and the child reciprocates. It is very rare that a family with children can properly be described as loveless.
The damage to children can arise in three different ways which are very difficult to separate statistically. First, there is the acrimony between the parents which
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leads to the divorce. Some weight has been put on that. The noble Earl, Lord Russell, honoured us by giving us his personal experiencethat the separation and divorce were a relief from the tension of the preceding acrimony. However, responsible parents will guard their children from the tensions of their own differences, if they exist. As the possibility of remarriage approaches, the acrimony is apt to increase. On the other hand, the acrimony is decreased if the parties have considered beforehand that the children come first and have given thought in advance to their responsibilities to them. The parents may perhaps decide to make the best of what seems to be a bad mistake. They may make that choice in the interests of their children.
We have had the anecdotal evidence to which I have referred and which cannot possibly be isolated, but there is anecdotal evidence on the other side. I remember a colleague of mine saying to me, "My brothers, sisters and I suffered greatly because our parents were on very bad terms with each other, but we knew that, where our own interests were concerned, they would come together immovably". Certainly, he grew up into a very well adjusted man.
In any case, however, anecdotal evidence must always be measured against the statistical evidence, which is overwhelmingly that the children of broken homes suffer grievously. My noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor summed up the assessment of such research in the following terms:
"Research work has shown that there is a significant excess in the signs of emotional disruption among children of broken families, not just in the short term but, apparently, on into adolescence and even adulthood. The research points to increased delinquency, increased ill health and a greater likelihood of divorce in spouses who themselves were the children of broken homes".[Official Report, 31/1/91; col. 800.]
That summary of research has been brought up to date. In particular there has been some important research by Exeter University which tends to show that it is not the preceding tension that does the real damage, but the separation and the divorce. No doubt included in thatI think that they are difficult to measureare the strains that I have suggested which inevitably arise on remarriage after divorce, as was vividly illustrated when we considered the Child Support Act.
The Bill's provisions on mediation are welcome. They could well mitigate the harm that is done to many children. Mediation was at the very centre of our proposals for a family court, on which, unfortunately, we were rebuffed by the Government. However, surely it is better not to engage in damage limitationvaluable though it isbut in obviating the cause of the damage.
I do not propose to take any of the amendments to a Division because this is a subject that has not been sufficiently discussed and is one on which I should welcome the views of your Lordships, as I am sure would everybody. The question that we are now facing is whether we believe that children should come first and whether we believe that their welfare should be
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considered before there is a divorce. This gives us the opportunity to show forth our commitment not only with our lips but in our legislative lives. I beg to move.
Lord Simon of Glaisdale: I am very much obliged to the noble Baroness. I did not speak to Amendment No. 146 advisedly because it is really only a drafting amendment. It need not be considered separately. The important amendments are those numbered 6, 7, 8 and 10, to which I have referred.
Lord McGregor of Durris: I support the noble and learned Lord's amendments in the hope that they may stimulate the Government and the Committee to reconsider this aspect of the Bill. I wish to add to what the noble and learned Lord said only that it is notorious that very large numbers of immature children have experienced their parents' divorcealmost 3 million between 1971 and 1990, and some 153,000 in 1990 alone. The current trend in divorce suggests that one in four of all children will share that experience in future.
The Children Act 1989 requires the child's welfare to be treated as the paramount consideration in family matters. I find it odd that we retain statutory powers to regulate the circumstances in which childless adult spouses may obtain a licence to marry again, but impose no special requirements in respect of immature children under the age of 16 in relation to remarriages. The case for providing that the court should have discretion to withhold a decree unless it is specified that the divorce is in the interests of the children is irresistible. Only the court is in a position to make an assessment of what the interests of the children in the future are likely to be in such circumstances.
On the first day in Committee, a good deal was said about the messages that this place should be sending to the general public by means of the Bill. Might not we send the message that in a period when most parents control their own fertility, the birth of their children should be regarded as being intended, and therefore carries a peremptory obligation to care for them until their maturity? That obligation should not be lifted in divorce unless the court believes that the interests of the children will be best served by the divorce. I support the amendments tabled by the noble and learned Lord, because they point in that direction.
Baroness Elles: I support the amendments tabled by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, supported by the noble Lord, Lord McGregor of Durris. I have tabled an amendment but I do not intend to put it to a Division today. I agree that it is a matter that needs to be debated in this place, especially in view of the diverse statements made during Second Reading. Many noble Lords thought that the Bill would be in the interests of the children; that if they are living in a family of conflict, divorce should be quicker
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and children should not have to live in a home where there is conflict. There are many views on that topic which I hope will be put forward today.
Having been married for 50 years, and having children and grandchildren, I, too, of course have many anecdotal stories that I could tell about relationships of children and grandchildren whom I have known through the years, and also from doing voluntary social work. I therefore declare that whatever might be my private views on family and moral values, they are not my primary objectives during today's debate. My primary objective is to contribute towards ensuring that the happiness of children and their future prospects are not marred by some of the elements which appear in the Bill, where no protection has been given to the children of marriages which are about to break down.
The size of the problem is well known to the Committee. The noble and learned Lord has already touched on that point. Apparently every day 630 children are affected by divorce proceedings. There were 176,000 in 1993. There are well over 2.5 million children on income benefit, as revealed in an Answer to a Question tabled recently by the noble Earl, Lord Russell. Although not all of them, of course, are living in one-parent families, the vast majority will be.
The social effects are also well known to the Committee. They have been discussed many times in this place. Crime, vandalism, drugs and child sex abuse are frequently shown to be connected with broken homes. The reason I tabled my amendment to raise the age to 18the noble and learned Lord proposes the age of 16is to deal with the question of the young homeless. So many of the young homeless are between the ages of 16 and 17. When we have asked, "Why don't you go back home?", how many times have we heard them say, "I have no home to go back to. My mother does not want me, because her boyfriend does not want me in the house"? Money is not the answer to the problem. More than money is needed to deal with that problem.
The results of a national survey of young people between the ages of 14 and 25, which have recently been released by the Home Office, show that one of the most important keys to whether they started to offend and carried on offending was their relationship with their parents. The report stated:
I cannot quote the paper because it is not yet available in the Printed Paper Office. The survey was published in various newspapers on Friday. But that would seem to be obvious common sense, based on the practical experience of so many Members of the Committee who are involved with voluntary organisations. Unfortunately again there is no reflection of that in the Bill.
A glance at some statistics supports those observations: four-fifths of children in care come from broken homes, and only one quarter of persistent young offenders live in two-parent families. Those two-parent families include of course step-parents and
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mothers living with a boyfriend and so forth. They are not two-parent families with the natural biological parents. In tribute to so many one-parent families who bring up their children and manage in some extraordinary way to overcome the problems, I must say that what we are saying today is not meant to cause offence to those who make tremendous efforts and produce wonderful young people. That does them much credit.
It is surprising that in the White Paper entitled Looking to the Future there was little to show that there was any new approach towards safeguarding children's interests. They have been almost ignored. Yet there is overwhelming evidence from the various studies and research that children living in families of high conflict are still better off than those who have been forced to live in one-parent families.
Research has been done by the National Child Development Study, the Centre for Family Research at Cambridge University, Supporting Families by David Utting and a whole host of others. I hope that, if I quote some research studies, my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor will not make quite the derogatory remark he made to me the other day when I referred to the no-fault research being carried out in the USA. He implied that there was not enough evidence from which to draw conclusions. Perhaps I may support what I said the other day by informing the Committee that Connecticut, which has had no-fault divorce for 20 years, is now reintroducing fault because it has seen what has happened to the number of divorces resulting from no-fault divorce.
Of course they are significant. They are also common sense. What is even more significant is that there is no reference to all the other findings in the report which show conclusively that it is infinitely more harmful to children to be brought up separately and to go through not merely the trauma of the divorce but the post-divorce period where they suffer all the other problems, to some of which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, referred.
"than those in reordered families. The assumption is that parental conflict will cease following divorce, but that is not true. In some families divorce instigates conflict which will continue into the post-divorce period".
Detailed examples are given in the report, which is strongly recommended reading. Those examples show low self-esteem, deep unhappiness, health problems, especially psychosomatic problems, low educational
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attainment, school changes, home changes and fewer possibilities for employment and career prospects and future family relationships. It continues:
In many cases where the mother introduces a boyfriend, or partner, or eventually a stepfather, the young people no longer feel that they have a home to go to. One of the most important adverse factors, as was emphasised in the report, is the loss of a parent and its consequences. Even if the parent who left the home clearly might have appeared to be the guilty party or was violent, the children of the marriage always resented and regretted the departure of that parent. As was reported by Dr. Richards of the Cambridge Centre for Family Research, when children were asked what they would like:
If this Bill is to support the institution of marriage it should be making provision for safeguarding the interests of children within marriagethe victims of their parents' conductbut there is no evidence of that so far in the Bill. If it is true that among the objectives of my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor is to cut down or restrain rises in the cost of legal aid for divorces, he can do no better than to recognise that the retention of family structure would produce considerable benefits to the Exchequer. The cost in welfare alone as a result of divorces approaches £3.2 billion a year. Even at that low level of argument on costs, surely it would be of infinite benefit to the country if such expenditure were not going to help divorced parents in their separate lives.
There is nothing on the face of the Bill which enforces, or seeks to enforce, legal obligations as between husband and wife in relation to their children. I do not mean moral obligations but the obligation to provide together a common and stable home background. I wonder whether the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor can give any comfort as regards what he intends to do about helplines and reconciliation before the stage of statement is reached, because there is no evidence on the face of the Bill. Regrettably, the Bill appears to many of us not as a family Bill but as a further step to increase poverty, poor education, homelessness and, through a lack of stable parental relationships, the number of children in care and young offenders
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