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Earl Russell: It will give the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, no surprise to hear that I cannot support this group of amendments. I gave my reasons for that in the debate on Amendment No. 4, moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, on 11th January. The Committee as a whole may be relieved to hear that I am not going to repeat them. I shall confine myself to remarks that have been made today.
The noble and learned Lord took up some of the remarks that I made on 11th January and argued, if I understood him correctlyI will check the Official Report againthat none of the points would have
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been necessary if people were responsible. But the noble and learned Lord's argument did too much. If people were responsible the vast majority of the legal system would be unnecessary. I am afraid we know all too well that it is not.
It seems to me that the opponents of the Bill are on a fork and they must tell us on which prong of it they wish to rest if the argument is to be developed further. We need to know whether they want to prevent divorce or separation. If they want to prevent divorce they must explain why it is better if the couple are living apart but cannot regularise the position by divorce than if the law recognises the situation as it is. If they want to prevent separation they must undertake the challenge of explaining how they are going to make the couple live happily ever after. That, of course, is a very stiff challenge indeed.
That is relevant to the point that the noble and learned Lord made about statistics. The problem with all divorce statistics is the difficulty of getting a control group. I do not believe that anyone disputes that it is better for children to have two happily married parents than it is to have any of the reasonable and likely alternatives. If there is any child for whom that is not so I suspect that that child is a masochist and therefore not likely to give grounds for general legal rules. What we really want to know is the comparative effects on children of having divorced parents, parents who are separated but not divorced, or parents who live together but are unhappy.
The noble Baroness, Lady Elles, mentioned the existence of research bearing on that topic. I have heard of the existence of such research but I have not yet had the opportunity to see it or managed to track down its place. If the noble Baroness could give me a reference I should be happy to read it before we come to the next stage of the Bill. When I look at that research I shall want to check the definition of the sample. It seems to me that if one looks at couples whose relationship has placed a strain on the children a good many are couples who would never admit to being in any way unhappily married. In fact, some of them believe that they are blissfully happily married. They just happen to have a competitive relationship and the competition happens through the children. On occasion they may enjoy that very much but children do not always enjoy it nearly as much. In that way it is very hard indeed to obtain a control group for any proper scientific academic study. I will study that question with care when I look at the research to which the noble Baroness referred.
I am extremely glad that the noble Baroness raised the issue of child poverty. The statistics that she quoted about the proportion of children on income support are worrying. It is about one-quarter of all children in the British Isles. But that is made up of four groups; the divorced, the separated, the widows and the never-married single parents. Those groups get to that position by many different routes but they all have a common problem. It might be better to think of tackling the problem directly by a solution that deals with all of those groups rather than by trying to block the entry of one group to the sample, leaving all the others unhelped.
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I hasten to reassure the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor that I am not about to make a social security speech. His noble clansman of Ardbrecknish knows my views on that subject perhaps rather better than he would like. I will mention only the words, "childcare disregard, nursery education, flexible working hours and the problem of childcare in general", including the opportunity for men, if they wish, to take part in it on equal terms. Those are the areas in which solutions should be sought and that is the way in which I should tackle that problem. I will not develop that point now because I have done it often enough.
The Lord Bishop of Liverpool: I too wish to give great weight to the interests of children. I would not support Amendments Nos. 6 or 7. Amendment No. 8 may be helpful but I wish to hear the explanation of the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, as regards her amendments relating to children.
In no way do I wish to argue against the damage that is done to children by divorce but one cannot by law protect children from the place of acrimony. The researchers produce their evidence and they do not always agree. I come down on the side that the greater damage is done when parents have divorced. However, without question a great deal of damage is done when children live within a home that is full of bickering and bitterness. We cannot say simply that that is not the case. Alas, parents do not always protect their children from acrimony. Parents cannot fool their children too much of the time.
At several points in the Bill we must recognise the limits of what law can do in changing peoples' behaviour. Many members of the Committee will have heard the interview given at the weekend by Cardinal Hume. It followed an article that he wrote in The Tablet magazine. I pick up the matter at the moment at which he was talking about the rise in cohabitation. He says:
Were we to accept the amendment, which would make divorce impossible for parents with children under the age of 16, what would be the effects? Just as Cardinal Hume was saying about the judgment that must be reached as regards the length of time over which divorce may be agreed, we must make some sort of judgment as to how much notice people will take of it. Not everybody will wait to be married. The noble Baroness, Lady Elles, spoke of the mother living with her boyfriend. It is very likely that that is not a case of a woman who has gone through the divorce courts. Is it not the lesser of evils that when there has been that breakdown, the couples should work through divorce with insistence upon a proper concern for the children?
The cardinal has been widely quoted as expressing concern about the length of time and the view that perhaps 18 months is a better time than 12 months. It
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should be clear to the Committee that in the article he continues to support the Bill but hopes that it may be strengthened in some respects. He saysand it is very clearthat a prudential judgment must be reached as to what is the best length of time over which the decision as regards divorce should be made. There cannot be a clear theological message.
I was very sorry that I was not able to be here for Second Reading. I read what the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor said about those working with children who were consulted on the matter. Members of the Committee will be aware of the support for the Bill of many agencies supporting marriage and children and their welfare. The noble and learned Lord said that those who work with children point outit is a thought I would commend to the Committeethat although 12 months may not seem long to us, it is a very long time indeed for a young child living with uncertainty. A lengthy period would prolong the agony not only for the adults but for the children. Children are not always fooled. When they know that a relationship has lost the love and trust between people, damage will be done as assuredly as it is done through divorce. Given the effect that the law can have on behaviour, I doubt whether we should be wise to go further than insist that the interests of children are firmly taken into account.
Lord Moran: On Second Reading I suggested that in all ordinary circumstances it should be unthinkable that parents with children under the age of 16 should be divorced and put their own gratification before the welfare of their children. Therefore, I have great sympathy with the arguments of my noble and learned friend Lord Simon of Glaisdale and the noble Baroness, Lady Elles.
All the evidence we have seen shows the misery and the lasting ill effects on children whose parents divorce. There are also serious social consequences. I believe that today the requiem mass is to take place for the headmaster who was so tragically killed by a gang of youths. Gangs of that sort, which are an increasing menace on our streets, are all too often made up of children of broken homes.
It is too drastic to prohibit divorce altogether for parents with dependent children. There must be an escape hatch for extreme cases; for example, a woman who finds herself married to a husband who is a drunken bully or something of that sort. But surely we should do all we can to discourage the divorce of parents with young children who simply want to make a change and go off with someone else. Therefore, I suggest that the Government might take account of what has been said and see whether a way cannot be found to make divorce much more difficult for couples with children under 16 than for childless couples, perhaps by giving the courts more discretion, as suggested by the noble Lord, Lord McGregor of Durris.
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