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Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare: My Lords, I support my noble friend Lady Young and am proud to have my name on the amendment. I have listened to every stage of the debate and this is the first time I have spoken. I hope that noble Lords will forgive me if I say that, although I am fairly new to the House, I believe that my noble friend Lady Young has given the example to everyone of exactly how to fight a cause when you believe in it, at every single level. I am proud to be on her side.
At the same time, I am very grateful to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor. During the past few weeks he has given way on two or three matters on which I felt strongly. One thing has become obvious to me at every level. The sincerity of feeling in the debates is something I have rarely seen in any Chamber anywhere in the world. It is possibly because so many of us speak from personal experience. I cannot match the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, who is coming up for 50 years of marriage; or indeed my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter, at 59 years of marriage. But, at a mere 30 years, I have an opinion to give, and indeed look forward to joining them both.
I have two sons, one aged 21 and the other 23. I take up a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Jakobovits, on Report. The most important argument to emerge from this debate is surely that we should be working on the importance of how hard it is to get married, not how easy it is to get divorced.
As I am sure many noble Lords remember, at school the child of a divorced pair in the class was somehow a strange and rare object. Now my sons tell me that I am strange because I have been married for 30 years. That is where the message is wrong. That is what the noble Baroness, Lady Young, means by "the fabric of society"
Most of the arguments have been rehearsed very competently this afternoon. However, I should like to answer one or two of my noble friends and others who did not agree with our argument. We heard the noble Earl, Lord Russell, use the word "drawback". He told us the story of how sitting on a suitcase had made a couple realise they wanted to remain married. That might have happened in the 13th month, or the 14th, 15th, 16th, 17th or 18th month; and they might have spent the rest of their life regretting that they had made the wrong decision.
We heard the noble Lord, Lord Irvine, say, with all the brilliance that we hear from lawyers, that this is a compromise. Of course it is a compromise. Many of us on this side wanted something a damn sight tougher and knew we could not get it. This afternoon we are trying to get through the House a proposal not only in which we believe, but on which we think we might be able to carry people with us. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Irvine: do not kid yourself; the noble Baroness, Lady Young, and I would have liked to table an amendment that was a damn sight tougher, but we realised that we would never get it through the Chamber, and all we would win, among a few of us, was an academic moral argument. I say to the noble Lord: yes, the amendment is a compromise. But it is one in which we believe and on which we hope people will join us in the Lobby. We want to push the period from 12 to 18 months.
My noble friend Lord Peyton made a very sincere and moving speech. Whenever one talks at a personal level it rightly seems to capture the whole House. I say to my noble friend that if both sides agree that there should be a divorce, we are not standing in their way. We are saying: if one person still believes there is an outside chance, let us give them another six months to find out. That is our suggestion.
I say to my noble friend Lady Faithfull: has she never heard of marriages where one party is shocked to discover that the other wants to leave; and then that same person changes his or her mind at a later date? I agree with my noble friend that for a great percentage of people another six months is tiresome. But for those few for whom it is not, and whose marriage might be saved, this amendment is worthy of your Lordships' consideration.
For the children, and for that marvellous concept that comes up again and again, "the fabric of society", I say to noble Lords who are still considering the matter: perhaps 18 months will save a few thousand marriages. Perhaps it will help a few thousand children. It is not a large number. It will not change the whole world. But I ask those who have still not made up their minds: for those few thousand, I hope you will join the noble Baroness, Lady Young, in the Lobby.
So far as children are concerned, we have our convictions--and somebody else will tell us one day whether we are right or wrong. I believe that the consequences of this amendment could be for very many children an extension of misery. My noble and learned friend Lord Simon said that marriage cannot die while the children are alive. I can show him children who look back on the day the marriage finally died as a point of relief.
The only good thing about this amendment is the clarity of its objective. It seeks to force a couple to remain married when at least one partner finds life with the other intolerable. We cannot even say on that basis that it is to force them into a happy marriage. I say "at least one of them" because much has been made of one partner. In these circumstances an extra six months of compulsory matrimony--an attractive proposition!--is a devastating weapon in the hands of one party in a vicious and bitter divorce. Can Members of this House realise the extent to which the children will be prayed in aid when there is one partner who does not want the divorce? It is not because the marriage can be put together; they have already tried that. People do not come down to breakfast one morning and say: "You remember that row last night; I'm seeing the lawyers today". As the noble Lord, Lord Eden, said, it grows and festers to the point where people can take it no longer.
I ask the House to consider the situation of the typical family in those circumstances. They live in a very small house. They have a couple of children. The children do not go to boarding school; they are in the house seven days a week, and are there over the weekends when the family can have that "happy time" together from Friday night right through to Monday morning. It is not coincidence, as is well-known, that one of the great times for divorces and final breakdown of marriages is Christmas--because it is a time when they cannot stand each other any longer. The children are there. And what do noble Lords think in that circumstance Mummy and Daddy do in the evenings and over breakfast? What is the conversation? Do they chat about cricket, or the new exhibition at the Tate? No. They resurrect the argument, accusations and bitternesses that they have been resurrecting day in, day out for months before. They pick over the corpse of the marriage like a couple of crows with a dead rabbit. Is that what we want a further six months for?
I never claim to be particularly modest and remain regularly amazed that people do things in a different way than I would have done them but it has never occurred to me that I had a role to play in the marriages of my closest friends, let alone hundreds of thousands
The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, this is an extremely important amendment. I recognise, as my noble friend Lady Young made clear, that there is a considerable element of compromise in this proposal. My feelings in favour of compromise will not entirely have escaped your Lordships over the years when I have had an opportunity of addressing the House on legislation. However, when it comes to a matter of this kind, I must try to examine the effects of that compromise on others. I have sought to do so.
This Bill did not come forward without a great deal of consultation. One of the questions, as those who read the consultation paper will recall, was whether the period for reflection and consideration should be longer where children are involved than otherwise. The result of that consultation was decisively against that proposition.
My noble friend Lady Young gave some figures, and I am not sure that they are central to this issue. However, I should perhaps place on record that in the 1993 OPCS statistics on page 79, your Lordships will find that the number of divorces that took place within six months was 52,852, and those that took place within six months to one year amounted to 78,408. When one adds those together It comes to 131,260 out of a total of 164,668 divorces. That means that 79.7 per cent.--or around 80 per cent. of divorces in round figures--were obtained within a year or less. The Bill, in proposing a minimum period of one year, is a considerable change in the divorce legislation in that respect.
We must bear in mind a second point when considering the amendments. The Bill proposes another fundamental change in the divorce law arrangements; namely, that the arrangements for children and property are, with a few exceptions in the relevant schedule, to be made generally speaking before the divorce is granted. That means that the year is a minimum because, depending on the circumstances, the arrangements may take longer than a year to finalise.
That led my noble and learned friend Lord Ackner to say that, in practice, this amendment may not make much difference. He anticipates that the arrangements for children particularly would take longer than a year in any event and therefore that the amendment does not lengthen the period unduly. My point is a point of principle. Where the arrangements require longer than a year to make, it is right that the divorce should be postponed until those arrangements are in place. That is the appropriate difference between a marriage where there are children and a marriage where there are no children. The arrangements may take longer; it is appropriate that those arrangements should be made and therefore the Bill, as presently drafted, takes account of that.
The third point relates to the question of whether the court wishes to invoke powers under the Children Act. If the court considers that the divorce should be postponed on that account, then it can do so. Therefore the Bill, as presently drafted and without the amendment, contains clear provisions which enable the court, in appropriate circumstances, to lengthen the period required for divorce to take account of the fact that there are children. The amendment seeks, irrespective of the circumstances, to lengthen the minimum period in all cases, whatever the circumstances may be, to a minimum of 18 months.
Reference was made to the article in the Tablet by Cardinal Hume. Your Lordships will remember that one of the considerations that he mentioned specifically, as a factor tending to reduce the length of the period, arose where he was talking about considering whether the period should be extended. He said,
That was an important factor in the Cardinal's approach to this matter. I have given effect to certain of his views in relation particularly to the hardship bar when I proposed to your Lordships, and your Lordships passed on Report, considerable relaxation in that respect.
This is a difficult issue. However, your Lordships are not wise, as a matter of principle and judgment, to distinguish--from the point of view of irretrievable breakdown--between marriages involving children and marriages that do not involve children so long as there are appropriate arrangements for taking account of the existence of children and seeing that they are properly regarded before the divorce is granted in any event.
We have had a full debate on these matters. I want simply to refer your Lordships to two letters that I received recently. One is from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. That is a society with considerable experience, recognised in public general statutes, in this area. The letter is dated 11th March and is from the director and chief executive of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. I think it only fair to read it to your Lordships. It states:
I have also received a letter on the notepaper of the Children's Society, which is a voluntary society of the Church of England and the Church in Wales. It is signed by the senior director of Barnados, the chief executive of the Children's Society and the chief executive of NCH Action for Children. I should say that my wife happens to be a member of the Council of Barnados, but so far as I know she had no part whatever in the letter which will probably come as much of a surprise to her as it did to me. The letter states:
I want to make two other points. I should like to revert to what my noble and learned friend Lord Ackner said about the "Panorama" programme because it draws attention to a very important area of possible family breakdown. That occurs before there is any question of divorce arising. The desire for divorce may come out of that, but it arises at an early stage. I believe that the clause that has been put into the Bill to provide for research into these matters and for grants in respect of marriage support services will do a great deal to try to deal with these matters.
It often happens that the young couple at that stage do not realise their need for help. The sooner help comes, the more likely it is to be effective. One does not want matters to fester on to a divorce if it is possible to avoid that. I should like to emphasise that the Bill seeks to put that matter at the very heart of the consideration of family law in this circumstance--that support should not be related only to divorce but should be much more generally available. Your
The second point I want to make is that I am firmly of the view that marriage is at the very heart of our society. I believe that the Bill has an important part to play in protecting that position and in increasing the beneficial effect of the precious ordinance of marriage in our nation. I believe that the Bill is important for that reason.
The precise matter that has been focused on very much in the Bill in relation to children is the point about relations with both parents following on divorce. Your Lordships will have to consider very carefully whether prolonging the period of uncertainty, when the parents may well be in positions in which they are seeking to advance their own particular situation, one against the other, is likely to increase the chance of that all-important relationship. This is a difficult issue. My own fundamental idea is always to try to seek as much consensus as possible but I believe that seeking to attain consensus by accepting the amendment would be, from my point of view anyway, a betrayal of the interests which have been brought to my attention as fundamental for those children who are affected by the sad phenomenon of marital breakdown. Therefore, I invite your Lordships not to support the amendments, much as I admire and share the objectives with which they have been moved by my noble friend Lady Young and those who have supported her.
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