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Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, not me, anyway.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that I take very much to heart his strictures on not believing everything one reads in the press? Under those circumstances, is it right for us to believe the reports we have seen in the press about the new ambassadorial service initiated by the EC, where it has representatives in various parts of the world posing as ambassadors and called "Your Excellency", which is costing about £100 million a year?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, we have ranged a little wide of the Court of Auditors and the audit of its accounts by Coopers & Lybrand. The

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European Union is represented in many parts of the world and it is important that it should be, because it represents Europe collectively when it comes to important matters like trade.

Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill [H.L.]

2.58 p.m.

Lord Hylton: My Lords, I understand that no amendments have been set down to this Bill and that no noble Lord has indicated a wish to move a manuscript amendment or to speak in Committee. Therefore, unless any noble Lord objects, I beg to move that the order of commitment be discharged.

Moved, That the order of commitment be discharged.--(Lord Hylton.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Family Law Bill [H.L.]

2.59 p.m.

Read a third time.

Clause 1 [The general principles underlying Parts II and III]:

The Lord Chancellor moved Amendment No. 1:

Page 1, line 16, after ("affected;") insert--

("(ii) with questions dealt with in a manner designed to promote as good a continuing relationship between the parties and any children affected as is possible in the circumstances;").

The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, this amendment, which adds a new paragraph to Clause 1, requires that one of the principles to which the court should have regard when exercising its functions under Parts II and III is that marriages which are to be brought to an end should have questions dealt with in a way which is intended to promote as good a continuing relationship between the parties and any children affected as possible.

I have tabled this amendment as a result of a most helpful point made by the noble Lord, Lord Robertson of Oakridge, at Report stage. The noble Lord drew attention to the continuing needs of children. I am entirely sympathetic to his point that the current draft of the Bill, without this amendment, might be seen to imply that children's needs and problems can be disposed of when the marriage is brought to an end. I have therefore brought forward this amendment which indicates that, when exercising functions under Parts II and III, the court or any person concerned in these matters should have regard to the principle that where a marriage must be brought to an end, questions should be dealt with in such a way as to promote the best possible relationship now and in the future between the parties and, crucially in my view, any children affected, as the circumstances allow.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Robertson of Oakridge, for drawing attention to this point, which enables us to put early and fundamentally into the Bill

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a matter which has concerned your Lordships again and again during our discussions. Your Lordships will remember that my noble friend Lady Elles drew attention to the fact that in many cases these days fathers completely lose contact with their children after divorce. That is extremely bad for the children. Therefore, it is important that attention should be focused on this issue when the divorce is being considered. I beg to move.

Lord Robertson of Oakridge: My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord for moving this amendment and for his kind words. The amendment deals with a point that I raised at Report stage and means that all who are concerned with children who are affected by divorce will have to look beyond the divorce settlement. I hope that your Lordships will accept the amendment.

Baroness Elles: My Lords, I join the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, in thanking my noble and learned friend for picking up this point which is a theme that has run through all our debates on the Bill. On behalf of all of those children who will be affected by divorce, I thank my noble and learned friend for including this provision in the Bill.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

The Lord Chancellor moved Amendment No. 2:

Page 1, line 18, leave out ("it") and insert ("the marriage").

The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, this amendment is consequential on Amendment No. 1. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 2 [Divorce and Separation]:

Baroness Young moved Amendment No. 3:

Page 2, line 4, at beginning insert ("Subject to the requirements of section 7(3)(a) and (b)").

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in moving this amendment, I should like to speak also to Amendment No. 5. Amendment No. 3 is a paving amendment to Amendment No. 5. I am conscious that we are returning to one of the central proposals in the Bill. The amendment would have the effect of extending from one year to 18 months the period for reflection and consideration where there are children in the marriage or where one spouse does not wish to divorce. It will leave the period at a year for couples both of whom consent to the divorce and where there are no children of the marriage. I should make it clear that in this case by "children" I am using the definition that applies in all other parts of the Bill.

As I said on Report, the amendment is a compromise. I hope that my noble and learned friend will agree that it does not in any way go against the principle of what he is seeking to do in the Bill. It is a compromise because I recognise that by extending the year to 18 months in particular circumstances it goes further than some would like, but, on the other hand, it does not go as far as I know that quite a lot of other people would like. The principal aim of the amendment is to buttress marriage, which is what I believe fundamentally that we should be doing in this Bill because it is so important for the whole fabric of society.

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I have said before that my great concern about the Bill is the message that it sends out. Divorce at the end of one year, even against the wishes of one spouse who may not want it, is not in my view a good message to send out. Now that your Lordships have voted for the abolition of the concept of fault, the period of time before divorce is even more important than it was originally.

I believe that this amendment has the support of a number of people whose opinion I value. Perhaps I may start by quoting from what Cardinal Hume said in his article in the Tablet on 20th January, in which he wrote:

    "Whatever the truth of this"--

referring to fault--

    "it is necessary to find effective ways of underlining the seriousness of the marriage contract. One obvious possibility is to lengthen the so-called waiting period. The Bill, as I understand it, proposes that either or both parties should be able to apply for a divorce after a 12-month period for reflection providing that they declare that the marriage has irretrievably broken down ... here again there are a number of factors to be considered--not least the effect of prolonged uncertainty on children, but I do myself wonder whether a period as short as a year is sufficient to establish that a marriage has irretrievably broken down".

It is only right to say that my amendment also has the support of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London. In addition, I have today received a letter of support from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chichester and from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester. I believe that the right reverend Primate the Archbishop of York also supports the amendment.

If there is one thing on which we are all agreed, it is that there are too many divorces. When deciding on the length of time for reflection and consideration it is very much a matter of judgment as to how the arguments fall between having a period of one year or a period of 18 months. I believe that an 18-month period is important for one reason above all others: it provides a longer opportunity for reconciliation. Noble Lords on all sides of the House have stressed the importance of reconciliation and of the opportunity for reconciliation. Extending the period to 18 months in those cases where one spouse does not want a divorce or where children are involved provides a longer opportunity for reconciliation to take place.

We know that 27 per cent. of divorces in England and Wales are based on separation and take between three and six years. Some 16.3 per cent. of all fault-based divorces take more than a year. Therefore, some 43 per cent. of all divorces now take more than a year. In dealing with the so-called "quickie" divorce, we are in fact speeding up divorce for a very large proportion of all couples who seek divorce in England and Wales. The situation in Scotland is different. Some 60 per cent. of divorces take place on the basis of separation and take some two years, and in Northern Ireland 73 per cent. of divorces take place on the basis of separation and take at least two years. By definition, therefore, the length of time in at least two parts of the United Kingdom is considerably longer. I believe that it is not without significance that the divorce rate is lower in both Scotland and Northern Ireland.

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We also know that between 20,000 and 30,000 couples each year draw back from divorce before it is granted. Surely we should encourage more to do so. At any rate, according to Relate, the organisation concerned with marriage guidance, 50 per cent. of divorced men regret the fact that they ever divorced. Should we not be helping those people by offering them more opportunity for reconciliation?

The Lord Chancellor's MORI poll showed that 60 per cent. of the respondents who answered the question about the time limits supported a period of 20 months, which is approximately what I have said.

Since Report, I have been able to obtain some information from countries within the EU. We have often been quoted--I believe it to be true--that we have in England and Wales the highest divorce rate in the EU--a rather doubtful distinction. It is clear from the table I have that the difference between divorces where there is mutual consent and where there is no consent is considerable. In Germany, for instance, with mutual consent it is one year's separation, and without consent it is three years' separation. In Spain, with mutual consent it is one year's separation, and with no consent two years' separation, or it could be up to five years' separation. I shall not read out the entire table, but I can assure noble Lords that a considerable degree of difference is set out as between couples who consent to a divorce and those who do not. As we all know, their divorce rates are lower. We should look at some of those figures and ask why that should be the case.

When we debated this matter previously, a great deal of emphasis was placed on children. Much of the argument centred on the fact that it was said that a year of uncertainty in a child's life is a long time, and that it is better to end the uncertainty--to have the divorce--rather than to continue the uncertainty for up to 18 months.

The more I have reflected upon that argument, the more I have wondered whether it is as true as it appears. What we know for certain is that there are few children for whom divorce is positively beneficial. Indeed, we know that 30 per cent. to 40 per cent. of fathers lose contact with their children two years after the divorce. Only this morning I was at a conference where I was told by a headmaster of a school of 500 pupils in the north that only 10 per cent. of the children had fathers. That is a terrible situation in which to find ourselves. Is it surprising that we worry about the state of the fabric of society when one sees those children growing up without the influence of a father? What is hardly surprising--I am sure we have all read it--is the report, which was widely noted in the press, of Mr. Chris Woodhead, the Chief Inspector of Schools, which shows how badly a great many white, working class, as they are described, boys are doing in terms of examination results. If we looked into it I am sure that we would find that they are the children of divorced parents and are without fathers. Those are facts which we must consider.

When noble Lords consider the amendment they must weigh up the balance of interests of many people: the husband, the wife, and the children. We must determine

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how much time we should give that extra chance of reconciliation to see whether we can bring together the husband and the wife.

We have to determine what is the effect of divorce on children. The pain of the child does not end with the divorce, it goes on. If we can prevent the divorce, we can ameliorate at least some of the pain. It is the divorce itself, not the procedures, which affects children. It is often the acrimony involved. There are later amendments which try to buttress marriage and do something which I believe my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor wishes to achieve, as I do--less acrimony than there is at present.

I believe that it is right to extend the period of one year to 18 months for reflection and consideration. That would apply where there are children. It would provide a greater opportunity for reconciliation. It would help those couples who are uncertain. It would, in particular, help those couples where one spouse does not want the divorce, to see whether they cannot find some way of coming together.

I accept that where both parties consent to a divorce and where there are no children, a year is the right time. I am content to go along with that, but where other people are to be considered, especially the children, a year is a short period in which to consider whether to take the extremely important step of divorce--of ending a marriage--with all the consequences that that entails, not just to the two people who are divorcing but to the children.

In weighing up this matter, we must consider the effect that all this will have on the fabric of our society. I said at the beginning of the Second Reading of the Bill that I regarded it as the most important piece of legislation this Session. Its effects are profound and far-reaching. I can speak only for myself, but I have never weighed so carefully all the arguments and considered so hard and so long about anything because the effects for us all are profound. That applies wherever we may live.

The amendment gives us an extra six months, which is not a long time. It offers a better chance to hold more marriages together. That is something which I believe to be right in the Bill; it is right for the couple concerned and the children; and it is right for society as a whole. I beg to move.

3.15 p.m.

Lord Irvine of Lairg: My Lords, I ask of these amendments the same question that I have asked of other amendments designed to make divorce more difficult to obtain: what sensible purpose is being sought to be achieved? The noble Baroness describes the amendments as a compromise. Compromise is only sensible if it serves a sensible purpose. Apparently it is accepted that a year for reflection and consideration is sufficient where there are no children, but 18 months is said to be necessary where there are children.

I start from the basic position that it can make no sense to compel parties to remain married if the marriage is dead. The law cannot compel parties to

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remain together. Even if it could, which it cannot, compelling them to live together against their will would cause greater harm to the innocent children.

The law can deny divorce; it cannot compel people to live together. Once that is recognised, I ask: what is the point of denying divorce where there are children until 18 months has elapsed? I believe, as I believe the noble and learned Lord believes, that one year is sufficient for the state to be satisfied that a marriage has broken down irretrievably. I believe that to be equally so where there are children and where there are not.

To deny divorce does not prevent breakdown. Therefore, where there are children of marriages and where there may be innocent children of new relationships outside lawful marriages, I see no point in denying the regularisation of these new relationships after lawful marriages have broken down irretrievably.

I know, and I acknowledge, that these amendments are well meaning but I believe them not to be well judged. Therefore, I oppose them.

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