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Baroness Denton of Wakefield: My Lords, I can safely say that this Government have a commitment to
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consult and inform parents on all our education legislation. However, I shall come back to the noble Lord in writing on this matter in order to give him absolute reassurance.
Both noble Lords expressed concern on the issue of corporal punishment. The purpose of the article in this order is to bring Northern Ireland into line with the relevant legislation in Great Britain. The article provides that corporal punishment in an independent school should not contravene Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights which outlawed treatment or punishment which is inhuman or degrading. It would not be appropriate to go further than that in terms of actually prohibiting corporal punishment at independent schools in Northern Ireland, where it is a matter of parental choice that pupils should attend such schools. The independent schools sector is extremely small. There are only about 20 small independent schools attended by under 1,000 pupils, and there is ample alternative provision for those pupils in the grant-aided sector should parents so wish.
The noble Lord, Lord Holme, asked about religious education. It is important that we should look at history and religion in order to allow people to understand different views and arguments. Not only are we required to adhere to the statutory core syllabus for religious education, but parents have a right to make a formal complaint if they are unhappy about the way religious education is being taught or to withdraw their child from religious education and collective worship in exercise of their conscience. We are very aware of the different views. In history, which is also communities building up an understanding of each other, Key Stages 1 to 4 are currently being revised and updated. The new programme will be operated from September 1996. One hopes that future generations will benefit from opportunities met.
We have all learnt lessons from the past in Northern Ireland. I assure the noble Lord that the Government are not neutral on integrated education whether for new schools or the transformation of existing ones. The Department of Education for Northern Ireland has a statutory responsibility to encourage and facilitate the development of integrated education. Immediately the integrated schools have satisfied the department as to their potential by ability, they receive 100 per cent. recurrent funding.
As the noble Lord pointed out, we see growth in this area. It is steady, but there is evidence that it is successful. We have made our financial commitment very visible. Spending on grant-maintained integrated schools has risen from £6.7 million in 1993-94 to £12.7 million in 1995-96.
I shall read Hansard carefully and if there are any points that I have missed in my reply I shall write to the noble Lord. This order is introducing changes to the education system in Northern Ireland which will be for the good of the education service as a whole and will ensure that the children and young people of the Province continue to receive a high standard of education of which parents, children and the
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Government are rightly proud. We are grateful to the people who nurture the youngsters in the Province and who give them the right to look forward to a bright future. We all work constantly towards that. I commend this order to your Lordships.
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, before the Minister sits down, may I coax her on two matters which both the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, and I have raised? Does she not agree that a parents' meeting cannot do the job of an audit, and neither can the inspectors? Our concerns remain unsatisfied on the question of audit. I would welcome a firm commitment, even in writing.
Can the Minister offer in a sentence or two the intellectual, moral, social or educational justification for the distinction between a parent who pays and who has his child hit and a parent who does not pay and whose child is not hit?
Baroness Denton of Wakefield: My Lords, I shall deal with the second question first. I was not suggesting that there was a distinction between them. I was suggesting that there was provision in grant-maintained schools for parents who choose specifically not to have their child subject to corporal punishment. In the independent schools, which are not supported by government, there is a choice for the parent. I was saying that and not that the Government were saying that there was a right to pay or not to pay. As regards an audit, I shall consult my colleague and write to the noble Lord.
The noble Baroness said: I am moving Amendment No. 18A on behalf of my noble friend Lord Ashbourne who, unfortunately, is unable to be here today. The purpose of the amendment is to consider cases where divorce is permitted only where both parties consent to it. I raise this point because one of the issues that has been exercising the minds of many of us is that under the terms of the Bill, unlike the 1969 Act where divorce is available without the consent of one spouse after five years, divorce will become available against the wishes of a spouse at the end of a year, which is a very short time.
It seems to me that in our discussions there has been broad agreement that where both parties agree to a divorce, particularly where no children are involved, it is a relatively straightforward matter. However, when it comes to a divorce in which children are involved, bearing in mind the great concern expressed by noble Lords of all parties in earlier debates, the amendment is helpful. It is not an amendment I wish to press, but I have received much correspondence expressing great concern about divorce being available after a year against the wishes of one party.
It was said at Second Reading that we have the highest divorce rate in the European Union. I have no doubt that the statistic is correct although I have not had an opportunity to check. Of course, divorce could be more difficult to obtain in other European Union countries which is why their divorce rates are not as high as ours. I do not know whether that is the case.
I know of a case in Switzerland which, I recognise, is not in the European Union. One party could not divorce without the consent of the other. It was very many years before the divorce finally came through on the death of one of the parties. There is clearly a great variation in legislation. If we are worried about the increase in divorce and the easiness of divorce, the matter should be considered.
It may help the Committee if I speak also to Amendments Nos. 19, 29, 165 and 166 which deal with a completely separate point. Amendment No. 19 replaces the concept of marriage breakdown with the concept of a state of failure. That is more than a semantic point. I recognise that the concept of the irretrievable breakdown of marriage has existed in law for a very long time. But it is a completely fatalistic philosophy. I thought that Christians believed no human situation to be irretrievable; perhaps I am wrong.
In real life, couples can be reconciled even after periods of difficulty in their marriage relationship. The language of marriage breakdown also removes responsibility from the couple itself. The marriage, rather than individuals, is held to be at fault. I recognise that it is dangerous to use the word "fault", but that is how it is interpreted. As we know, every year there are some 20,000 to 30,000 more petitions for divorce than there are divorces. That at least suggests that many people come to the edge, then consider the whole thing and withdraw at the last moment.
Under the Bill, one or both parties to the marriage must make a statement of marriage breakdown. Under Clause 4, that act alone is sufficient to prove
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irretrievable breakdown of marriage. The only proviso is, of course, the waiting period of one year under Clause 7. The White Paper states:
I have tabled Amendment No. 19 and the consequential Amendments Nos. 29, 165 and 166 because I think that the fatalistic language of the Bill could be improved by indicating that in difficult situations we should encourage people, wherever possible, to consider reconciliation and not to see everything as immediately at an end. I beg to move.
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