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The Duke of Norfolk: I say very briefly to the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, that I believe that this Bill will have a very great effect on marriage. I believe it is the turn of the tide and that we are going to see far less divorce and more family life as a result of it. I greatly support the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor in all his efforts to bring this legislation before your Lordships' House and in particular his White Paper.

I turn now to the enormous group of amendments which basically deal with counselling and advice. I want to refer to the totality of the advice that is given to married couples. Unfortunately, at the moment couples tend to get married but the Churches then have less and less effect on their lives. In some ways, we are living in a country that is becoming more and more pagan. Oh that the Churches had more effect after the marriage ceremony! I am speaking not merely about the Church of England, but also about the Popish Church to which I belong. People get married in my Church but do not see enough of their priest or talk about their marriage difficulties with him.

At the moment, marriage counselling is successful in 25 per cent. of marriages. That is an enormous figure. I should like marriage counselling to start with advice being given by the social welfare people and, of course, by the Churches to try to assist the very young before they become engaged. That should continue after the engagement, during the marriage and once there are children. Marriage counselling and help should continue throughout a marriage.

I have heard it said that there are very few people available who can carry out marriage counselling. My eldest daughter is a marriage counsellor. She has passed her marriage counselling exams and interviews. She is an example of one category of person who is most suitable for marriage counselling work. She has four children. They are now on their way, having been to university, or about to go. She has what in America would be called an "empty nest". That is a wonderful phrase. It means that she has the spare capacity with which to help people. Someone who has had a family of four and who has an empty nest not only knows a lot about bringing up families but has the spare capacity to help.

Another group of people who would make very good marriage counsellors are widows or widowers. They know a lot about marriage and they too have the spare capacity. Another group are, of course, the divorced because they often see the sadness of their break-ups.

We should increase the assistance that is given to married couples from the very start to the very end of their marriage. We should do so through marriage counsellors and the Churches. It is essential that state money is provided. At Second Reading we talked about £3.5 billion being the cost of divorce in one year
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with only £3 million being given to marriage counselling. I should like to see an enormous sum of money made available to marriage counselling under the supervision of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor in order to stop the awful increase in the number of divorces and to protect married life and the family life of our young children.

5.30 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Oxford: Some important questions have been raised by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, and the noble Baroness, Lady David. We on this Bench shall listen with interest to what the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor says.

I should like to stress two points from the Bishops' point of view. First, we place great store on the information sessions. They are a crucial feature of the Bill. It is at such sessions that people will be offered information about, and told of, the availability of, marriage counselling and mediation services. Therefore, the context in which the information is purveyed and the people who purvey it are desperately important. It is vital that those who attend the sessions are ready to hear such information.

The noble Duke, the Duke of Norfolk, was looking ahead—to the great value of the Committee—when he referred to a later group of amendments about marriage counselling. It is at the information sessions that the availability of marriage counselling will be made known. If the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor is willing to accept what I say I hope that it will be free marriage counselling. We place great stress on the information sessions. It would be appalling if they became a perfunctory formality. They need to be taken with the utmost seriousness.

Baroness Hamwee: I agree very much with what the right reverend Prelate said, including his points about the need for marriage counselling and the necessary funds. The point was also mentioned by the noble Duke. I have to say, however, that I do not altogether agree with the noble Duke on one matter. I think it is important that counsellors are trained so that they bring their professional expertise, and not their personal experience, to bear as their major contribution to the counselling sessions.

In supporting the group of amendments on information sessions, perhaps I may say that it seemed to me on Second Reading that the word "session" was too prescriptive, despite the way in which the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor explained what those sessions might comprise. The noble and learned Lord said that he hoped to arrange pilot sessions. I use the word "session" although I do not think it a good word to use because it suggests something large and communal such as a group. I do not think that that is helpful. I hope that that is not what is intended, at any rate not for all of those who require information.

The word "session" suggests that, even though it may not be open to the general public, the fact that the session is taking place may be public information. That in itself may lead to considerable difficulties for those who may be attending. Indeed, it may act as a
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disincentive to those who should attend and who are considering what steps they should take next. I refer, for example, to the fact that their attendance at a session may become general knowledge within their own community and to the effect that that may have on the children. Your Lordships have already discussed the effect on children at great length. I am deliberately using an extreme example, but if public figures were involved, tabloid newspapers could "doorstep" the sessions.

It is because of the difficulties surrounding the word "session", without questioning the underlying proposal that information should be made available, that I hope that the noble and learned Lord will reconsider the terminology used to describe the information sessions.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: Perhaps I may advise the noble Duke, the Duke of Norfolk, that although we differ on the effect of the Bill, I hope that he is right and I am wrong and that there will be fewer divorces as a result of it. On this occasion nothing would please me more than to see the noble Duke proved right and myself proved wrong but, unfortunately, I do not think that that will happen.

I agree with the noble Duke that marriage counselling is most important. It always has been important; it still is; and I hope that it will remain important in the future provided that it is directed at saving the marriage. I fear that much marriage counselling does not go that far. I am sure that the noble Duke's daughter would agree with me completely that marriage counselling is about saving marriages, not the reverse.

I hope that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor will not accept the amendment. I sincerely hope that the least that will be required is that the person who is asking for a divorce—and, indeed, the person who is at the wrong end of it—will attend at a face-to-face session with somebody who can give him or her some information.

As the amendment stands, a person embarking upon an important and far-reaching step could rely upon hearsay information. He or she might receive it over the telephone, or someone else might telephone and pass on the information second hand. Under those circumstances, unless the person were to attend the session face to face, he might receive quite the wrong information through third parties. I do not often disagree with my noble and learned friend Lord Archer of Sandwell, for whose abilities I have a great respect, but I fear that in this case I have to disagree with him, because I believe that the amendment he has moved is not merely wrong in principle; it is badly drafted.

The Lord Chancellor: It is a great pleasure for me to find the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, wishing to support a measure in the Bill as against amendments proposed from his Front Bench. That is just an indication of the fact that there is much more common ground between us than a superficial observer of these debates might think. I believe that we are all anxious to do what we can, in practical terms, to support the institution of marriage.
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The provision with which the substance of the amendments is concerned is vitally important. In the ordinary course of events, people whose marriages get into difficulties are in the general structure of our society, and whether they know of the existence of services that might help them may be a matter upon which it will be difficult to ascertain their position.

When someone thinks of approaching a court for the purpose of initiating a divorce process, there at least is a contact that will have to be made. I wish to build upon that essential fact to try to ensure that people do not just obtain the information but that they obtain it in such a way that they understand it. In my conversations with district judges, and in conversations between my officials and district judges, it is apparent that often people who are already quite far into a divorce process do not know of the existence of mediation and counselling services. It is important that before people begin—that is where the information session is placed—they should have as good information as we can give them and that also—this is the motivation behind the reference to the word "session"—there is some attempt to ensure that they have taken that information on board. There is a limit to what anyone can do about that matter, but that is why I have suggested an information session.

The first point is to try to obtain some method by which people do not merely have pieces of paper presented to them, but that some effort is made on behalf of the state to ensure that they have assimilated the information as it affects them.

Secondly, I am anxious about the bias of the information. The noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, suggested that some marriage counsellors are not so much about marriage counselling as about preparing the way for divorce. I think that is a summary of what he said. My understanding is that marriage counselling has a high success rate. I believe, as my noble friend the Duke of Norfolk said, that some 25 per cent. or so of those who are separated at the time of going to counselling are reconciled some six months later, and of those who are still together at the time of going to marital counselling, the majority stay together. That is an important fact. In a sense they have attended earlier in the deterioration of their relationship than the first group, and it would not be surprising that the rate of success is greater. I believe that the earlier the service is available, the better. That is why, like my noble friend the Duke of Norfolk, I attach a good deal of importance to the preparation for marriage, which is referred to later.

The next thing I feel about the sessions is that there should be no bias between the different types of service that may be available. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, referred to legal advice. Legal advice is one of the services about which I would wish information to be available. I also wish information about mediation and marriage counselling to be made available.

One cannot be certain that if one goes to a mediator one will receive a completely objective view about what the lawyer can do. If one goes to a lawyer it is just
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possible that one might not have as full an appreciation as otherwise of what a mediator could do for one without the help of a lawyer. Therefore I thought that if possible I would like the people who offer the services to be able to present them in the information session. I used the word "session" in the sense that more than one interest would be presenting information.

I want unbiased information on the whole range of services available to be given effectively to anyone who is thinking of starting a divorce process. Those are my requirements. What is the best way of achieving them? I think the best way is to try to find out in trials what could be done. Some people may be willing to attend an open session with a number of people. Others would not. It is a question of what is the best method. That is what I want to pilot. My present view is that the Bill, with its new provisions, should not come into force until the pilots are concluded. Obviously I am open to persuasion as the Bill proceeds, but the information session is so fundamental to the whole idea that it is wise to have it in place, with the proper regulations, before the grounds of divorce set out in the Bill become effective law.

I am anxious to secure a phrase in the Bill which emphasises the importance of those provisions of information; the need that they should be effective; and one which still gives me reasonable flexibility to try as many different models as possible. It is fair to say that a regulation-making power is always looked upon carefully by Members of this place. I am anxious not to open it too widely. On the other hand, I believe that what I have said are the essential qualifications—whatever words the Committee might think appropriate—should be considered.

I am loath to depart from "information session", for the reasons I have just given. It may be that we could devise alternatives if the Lord Chancellor were satisfied that in given circumstances they were as effective as face-to-face sessions. Obviously there are some people who might be unable to attend a face-to-face session. Regulations would have to deal with the special circumstances of the housebound and people of that sort who might be in a difficulty. It is the essential quality, the essential nature, of what is in issue that I wish to set before your Lordships. I also attach a good deal of importance to confidentiality. In many cases, the last thing that a person wishing to repair his or her marriage will wish to disclose is that it is in difficulty. Therefore, for some, confidentiality of the information might be important.

I have the impression that a video presentation may be a useful way of presenting the matter to many people, having regard to the extent to which such visual means of communication are used today. That is what I want to try, and I wish to give people the chance to ask questions but not about their own particular circumstances. The last thing on earth that I want the information sessions to do is to pry into the circumstances of the individual who attends, except in so far as he or she wishes to ask about the nature of the services. That kind of discussion will take place at the taking up of the appropriate services. The information
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sessions are intended to be preliminary. That is what I have in mind, and the wording that I have used is designed to encapsulate that. If Members of the Committee can improve on it while still giving the essential quality to the efforts that I have indicated, I shall be happy to consider it.

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