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Lord Milverton: My Lords, did she?

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Dean: My Lords, I can assure the noble Lord that she did.

The 1980s engendered the "Me first and everything else second" syndrome. Simply blaming marriage failure for the holes in society through which children are falling will not do. The extended family has contracted for a number of reasons. People have greater mobility. They leave their home towns in search of jobs. Lack of housing means that families often have to move far away from the support of grandparents, aunts, cousins and so forth. But housing estate design encourages everyone to think first of their private space and does little to foster neighbourly behaviour and to enable the sort of supportive networks that build up informally through communal facilities. As a local councillor I received phone calls from young single mums, but sometimes from elderly widows or people who were new to the area, about a specific problem but, after talking to the person for a while, the underlying message was, "I am lonely and it is hard to cope on my own". That is very much the case for parents, particularly with young children, whether or not they are single parents (though it can be more so for single parents) if they are isolated and staying at home.

Of course marriage is one way to provide the social framework for love and care, and it is a strong way of providing that. But it is not a panacea for all the isolation, loneliness and fear in our society.

The Government need to take action in a number of areas. Primarily, they must enable the informal support mechanism for individuals to be provided by society. Though this Government have made some moves in

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good faith towards that, a number of elements are still lacking. For example, although the measure of best value that is to be imposed on the delivery of so many local authority services will be able to measure statistically many things, will it be able to measure the value of the school nurse, the health visitor or the outreach youth worker? I do not believe that statistics will ever really be able to measure exactly the contribution of those workers to society and the benefits that they can bring.

No one goes into marriage hoping that it will fail. I firmly believe that everyone who has children desperately wants the best for them. No one wishes to fail their children. So although those with long and happy marriages are to be congratulated, we need a strong society which can support those who are single parents, those who are divorced parents and those who are elderly or widowed while still having a role in supporting their own children. Please let us not make people who have failed in their marriages feel failures to a greater degree because failure breeds failure and that will continue to the next generation.

5.20 p.m.

Lord Milverton: My Lords, I am very happy indeed to be able to join in the debate on the Motion tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, and to indicate my absolute support for it on the basic understanding that marriage, secure and stable, is the best foundation for man and woman in society and for the children. Indeed, it can survive difficulties where love is living both real and true.

First, however unpleasant it may be, we have to accept the inevitable collapse and breakdown of marriages and relationships of those living in partnerships and co-habitation when all reality has disappeared so all is unreality. Acceptance, that one has tried the absolute limit in genuine giving of love and compassion, but the inflexibility of the other one has rejected love. So the inevitability of the unreality comes on the scene. In life we know that love can be rejected in many ways.

As we know, love and compassion is two-way, not one way, involving mind, spirit and body (the physical side, the sexual); not just one without the other two. When this happens the parent left with the children needs all the positive help possible, conducted with sensitivity, patience and understanding. That is where, perhaps, grandparents can be of great help and support. The needs of the other parent will be quite different. Firmness may be needed, together with other approaches, if that person is willing.

Like anything of great value and treasure, love has to be worked at. So if one is not playing the game, the other one is put in a most frustrating position: love can be deadened or killed. It is a two-way system, is it not? The value of this sort of marriage is lessened when love becomes warm then cold and colder. Children sense and feel more than we realise. Social and economic matters are affected by the state of marriage, whether it is of the traditional sort or of those in partnership or cohabiting. As a priest, I have, like any other priest, come across

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those living in partnership or cohabiting. One has to give credit to some of them because they are conducting their lives with a form of commitment.

Secondly--and this is my main point--many marriages need not break down if people could realise afresh the true meaning of love which is more than just the enjoyment of the physical, the sexual. It involves the joyful exchanges through the mind and spirit, enjoying the mutual respect of one another, and so learning from one another, gaining an increase in knowledge, and understanding the joy of discovery. I often used to tell those couples who came to me for marriage preparation counselling that marriage is an endless journey of discovery where each is helping the other grow in maturity and stature. This love and compassion interchange leads to the healthy physical action which gives the sexual word its true meaning. There are some words which we have abused. "Sex" is one as well as "love".

This is how dignity and worth are incorporated in a personality. A mother especially can give her boy (her son) the lead to respect a woman. There is also the lead of a father to a daughter which enables the daughter to be able to respect a man. Indeed, if I remember correctly, I believe that that was mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland. Both of course can help either son or daughter, but I hope that noble Lords will note that I said a father can give special help to a daughter and a mother can give special help to her son.

If a mother finds herself on her own, the task of being mother and father is not easy; indeed, it is tough. If marriage is a genuine giving and receiving between two minds, spirits and bodies, then there is hope for children; but otherwise there is less hope. If the genuine happens, this must help socially and economically with trust and loyalty. That is a sure foundation.

There are other ways to bring up children, but I find it difficult to think of some as being good and healthy. I try to see and understand other ways, but there are natural and unnatural ways if one believes in the doctrine of creation. Surely the unnatural do not help the social and economic pattern of life, do they? Our children need a positive and healthy example. When dignity is present the abusing and/or disorientating of love and sex is checked or prevented. Surely dignity is one thing that true marriages can show and give.

Happy loving marriages are the sure natural foundation for children and for social and economic health. We hope that more and more people will come to understand that. Let us pray and give thanks for those couples who show that, so that more and more people will come to know that joy which, in turn, brings health and joy for the community and indeed the nation.

5.27 p.m.

Lord Burlison: My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to make a few points in this most important debate initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne. Although I am a great believer in marriage as a building block of our society and the bedrock of the family, it is not my intention to moralise on the matters of either marriage or divorce. Nor will I suggest to your

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Lordships' House that I have a magic quick fix formula to reduce the trend that has given us the highest divorce rate in Europe. However, we should not forget that the average length of a marriage in mid-Victorian times was 12 years. Death did then what divorce does now.

I do think there are positive things which we can do to encourage the institution of marriage. I know that there have been many suggestions in the past on how practical help can be given to make the role of marriage stronger and easier to manage. Suggestions such as trial marriages and applying penalties have been mentioned in this afternoon's debate. I must say that I am not in favour of those suggestions, but I recognise that the Family Law Act 1996 can greatly improve divorce and mediation. It is my view that governments do have a role to play in strengthening the main elements of marriage. I am pleased to say that we have a Prime Minster and a Government who, I believe, care about and recognise the values which families see as their priorities to establishing high quality family life. They have already started the process of helping to strengthen the main elements of marriage by their recent moves in the Budget with a better deal for families, increased child benefit, child tax credit changes and new tax rates. These changes coupled with the new minimum wage and the minimum income guarantee will produce the greatest help for so many families who are trapped in the stressful low income area. These are some of the positive steps which the Government have taken to help to ease the economic burdens of running a home and at the same time set down a strategy which I believe will result in the strengthening of the marriage base.

There are other important elements which cause concern, put pressure on family life and affect in particular people on lower incomes. I refer to education, housing and health provision. Most parents feel reasonably secure if they can see a future for their children in these areas.

I suspect that like most noble Lords taking part in this debate, I was brought up by two superb parents in a stable marriage who led by example and who steered me through my childhood with limited resources. I was taught clearly what was right and what was wrong and always to lend a hand to those less well off than myself. I hope that my children grow up with similar values. If they do not, I am sure that both my wife and myself will feel we have failed.

When I am away from this House, I spend much of my spare time with my children. However, like many other parents from a working-class background, I am not a schoolteacher, nor do I possess the teaching qualities of one. Therefore, I am deeply indebted to the teachers of Thomas More Comprehensive School at Blaydon for the way my children are being educated. I am confident that if they fail in their education it will not be the fault of their school, which incidentally was recently mentioned in the Telegraph guide to good schools. I have mentioned the education of my children simply to explain to noble Lords how important it is to working parents to know that their children are receiving a good education and at the same time are being cared for at school. That in itself can lift so much pressure from family life.

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Marriage relationships have changed and they are more varied than hitherto, but that is not necessarily wrong. Chores are shared to a greater extent now by both partners, who often work. Modern marriages place much more emphasis on fathers being involved with the children from their birth and with all the other commitments which go with being a parent.

On every variation in marriage one can take a positive or a negative view. I believe, however, that one of the most important points is to support relationships rather than an institution. We should provide more pre-marriage education. We should place greater emphasis on counselling services for when things go wrong and, above all, we should care for children to minimise the damage that is caused to them. Marriage has changed--if it is to be relevant it must change--and so must our attitude to it.

5.33 p.m.

The Earl of Sandwich: My Lords, the longstanding concern of my noble friend Lord Northbourne is mainly for the children of divided families. As I come into that category I have dared to enter this debate. Who can ignore the research published by the Lord Chancellor's department that the number of under 16s who have seen their parents' marriage break down rose from 9 per cent. in 1960--when I was 16--to 20 per cent. in 1979, and over 25 per cent. today? That is one child in every four. My nephew who now lives with us is another child in that group.

This morning I happened to be in Matrimony Place beside St. Paul's churchyard in Clapham and was there reminded of the high Victorian ideal of marriage which few of us--let us face it--can ever attain, even the noble Earl, Lord Longford. With our rising divorce rates and record teenage pregnancies we are a fallen tribe beside our European neighbours.

I come from a generation which has been cool, if not hostile, to the institution of marriage. Although we have been shaken by the statistics today we must recognise how well the institution itself has survived criticism. I believe this is because it is only a framework. It is a formalised relationship. Although it has been questioned by many since the 1960s, I believe that it is now essential to family life. But it will only last so long as the individuals and conditions allow.

I must say as an aside that, having attended a civil ceremony in London recently where I was a witness to a friend's marriage, I believe much could be done to improve the quality of secular marriages. The soupy music and trite statements by the registrar reminded me more of a crematorium service, which is another ceremony we seem unable to get right. In this respect I agree with the Government's proposals to include a more imaginative personal celebration of the couple's commitment within the ceremony. Is this not what religion is all about? Is it at last becoming politically correct to ask the Churches to advise town halls on how it is done?

Any failure in a marriage is not, however, in the institution--however much we improve it, as this Government certainly hope to do--but it is in us, the

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individuals and society. As the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, said, there are large numbers of children who could ideally expect to have two parents. I am not someone who holds up the conventional family like a torch, and nor is he, because we all recognise that there are wonderful examples of parenting outside marriage. But as one who suffered from divorced parents and who remembers that terrible sense of pain when the letter arrives and you know that their paths are taking them further apart and further from the children, I personally regret the trend away from formal marriage relationships. I welcome the efforts of this Government to reinforce the family and to strengthen the support systems which enable children, especially very young children, to flourish in spite of the difficult conditions around them, and they are difficult today.

But are we doing enough economically? I warmed to the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Sheppard, because I remember only too well a night spent in a parish on the edge of a north Coventry housing estate where deprivation, caused fundamentally by unemployment in the automobile industry, is among the bleakest in the country. When you see the boarded up houses and the damage to property caused by excluded young people despite the best efforts of the Churches, the voluntary agencies, the schools and the local council, you know that these are the conditions in which marriages break down and young people are helpless to overcome frustration and apathy. We should remember that the social fabric in inner cities and some rural areas is frail without the active economic initiative which governments should provide with the help of the private and voluntary sector where possible.

I am sure we all support the basic messages of the Home Office consultation document, Supporting Families. It states on page 30 that,

    "Strong and stable families provide the best basis for raising children".
It continues,

    "Too often parents do not have access to the help ... they need".
For my remaining time I wish to concentrate on the question of access, with reference to the work of Save the Children with ethnic minorities. I regret that the primary focus of the consultation paper is on parents and not children. There is, for example, no mention of the impact of the Government's proposals on children, and no mention of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child which protects children, or of its implementation in the UK.

The new National Family and Parenting Institute is to be welcomed if it properly recognises the diversity of communities and the need to communicate effectively with families with different cultural backgrounds. Can the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor confirm that the institute will consult fully with agencies, such as Save the Children, which work closely with the Bangladeshi and Vietnamese communities? They propose, for example, that the institute should devise more effective methods of evaluating local initiatives and of assessing their impact on children. There should be improvements in functional literacy and training for parents for whom English is not their first language.

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Children from ethnic minority backgrounds may well be brought up in a more traditional framework--as we have heard--which includes extended families and earlier marriage but these do not, of course, always work in favour of the children.

I have digressed into the wider issues of the family outlined by the Supporting Families document because, like the Government, I am certain that more sensitivity by local councils and agencies to the varied needs of families provides a good part of the answer. However, overcoming prejudice and supporting families are not only a government responsibility. I fully respect New Labour's move away from the nanny state towards better parenting and a society which holds individuals, as well as institutions, accountable for the evils which beset our children.

5.40 p.m.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede: My Lords, I, too, should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for initiating this important debate. The noble Lord closed his opening speech by saying that children need their parents, parents need one another, and we need to re-learn how to live together. I agree with those sentiments but I would argue that parents need to learn from examples of today's successful marriages rather than from the Victorian model of successful marriages.

My noble friend Lord Judd spoke of today's democratic family. I would argue that today's democratic family is different and better than the old-fashioned model of a Victorian family. In some ways my noble friend Lord Burlison made the same point. I would argue that in today's family children come first, quite explicitly, in a way that perhaps they did not in some of the older models. Women have far greater opportunities outside the home. That should be celebrated and women should be encouraged to take those opportunities. I would argue that men are taking a far more active role in bringing up their children. Even now, when we talk about changing nappies, men of only 20 or 30 years find it extremely funny. They regard it as something they would never have dreamt of doing themselves, but it is quite normal for fathers of my generation.

In addition, there is a constant time pressure on today's modern marriages and a constant pressure of money. That is why some two-thirds of mothers go out to work today. That is a good thing but of course it is a question of getting the right balance between work and the home. I believe that the key to the success of a modern democratic marriage is balance and flexibility. I know and believe that the Government are doing everything in their power to try to promote that balance and flexibility. Perhaps I should declare an interest here in that my wife is the chief executive of a voluntary organisation called Parents at Work, which is campaigning specifically to get a better balance in the modern home.

The noble Lord, Lord Habgood, made many important points in his speech, particularly when he said that the modern family is a political issue and that it is concrete policies which matter in supporting today's

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family. It is worth very quickly recounting the huge amount that the Government have done to support the family since they came to office. There is the national childcare strategy, nursery places, out-of-school clubs, increased training, early years development and childcare partnership. There has been a huge change in employment rights, particularly for part-time workers, which is of enormous benefit to mothers. There is parental leave, which will probably be unpaid but is at least a step in the right direction. There will be paternity leave, again a step in the right direction. Maternity leave is to be extended from 14 to 18 weeks and there will be family or emergency leave so that people do not have to tell fibs and say that they are ill when they really mean that their children are ill. There is also the working time directive, which I would argue will do much to help today's family.

In addition, there are the tax and benefits changes which have been made in the last two Budgets. These will make a big difference to today's family. There is the children's tax credit, childcare tax credit and the working family tax credit, all of which will be helpful. In addition, the Government are campaigning very actively to encourage employers to understand the business benefits of having flexible working patterns and a family friendly attitude.

Many noble Lords have spoken about their personal experiences and the importance of marriage; all noble Lords, quite rightly, have spoken about how important it is to them. But I, like the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, come from a broken home. That has made me doubly aware of the importance of permanence in bringing up my own family. These types of debate tend to become rather pious unless one acknowledges that families do sometimes go wrong and need to be supported when they do. I am slightly worried about with how much of the generally high-tone of the debate I find myself agreeing. I wonder whether I would have agreed with so much of it before I got married and had my own children.

Finally, the only Peer who is single and who will contribute to today's debate is the noble Lord, Lord Addington. Unfortunately for the noble Lord--or very luckily for the noble Lord--he will be getting married fairly soon, on 27th March. He can take an outside perspective and perhaps a more detached view than many of us who have taken part in the debate.

5.45 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Clashfern: My Lords, I just want to say that the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, very kindly wrote to me and invited me to put down my name to speak in this important debate. I would have done so except for the consideration that your Lordships have heard my views very fully over and over again. I have not changed them and I do not wish to take up your Lordships' time.

5.46 p.m.

Lord Addington: My Lords, how do I start my speech? The noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, has rather stolen my opening line by declaring my, shall we say,

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imminent interest in the subject of marriage. I think that putting my name down to speak in the debate was a clear case of a fool rushing in where angels fear to tread. But I think it is a good way of acknowledging that every time one speaks about this subject one brings to it a part of one's personal prejudices and history.

The idea of a broken home is one I do not like. I did not regard my home as being broken; I regarded it as not having a father. I hope that in future we will be able to change the language we use in relation to this subject because, let us face it, if a marriage has broken down, having the two people at each others' throats--verbally, physically or in icy silence--will probably be far more damaging to any child and the people in the marriage. There is not much doubt about that precept. If we bear that in mind, it is to be hoped that this debate will go forward in a reasonably coherent manner. Reference has been made to the Victorian model of marriage. It has clearly been shown that the average Victorian marriage lasted 12 years.

I am of the age when the schoolbooks of my first years showed Janet and John waiting for daddy to come home and mummy doing the cooking. That has all changed. Indeed, it was an illusion. For a large part of our history, mothers in the poorer parts of our society invariably worked. It may have been very low status work and for very short periods of time, but throughout most of our history women have worked. They did physically hard work in the home within marriage or they went out to earn extra money. Indeed, in certain parts of our society, for long periods that work was often prostitution. It is often easy to forget that our society has always pushed people down and tried to exploit them as far as the society and law would allow. The biggest change to marriage as an institution is probably the role of women within it.

I am getting married to someone who has a regular job--unlike a regular attender here--and who will probably bring as much economically to the table as I do. Thus, we are forming a "partnership", a very different term. The term "partner", which I agree seems to cover every arrangement one can possibly come across--everything from a business relationship to the person to whom you are married--is probably much more appropriate to a modern marriage.

The noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, spoke about having children. Perhaps I may make another personal declaration. I do not regard the act of getting married as acquiring a breeding licence. Surely we have gone beyond that. These days, a man who has children is expected to change the nappies. Indeed, my sister's husband takes great delight in putting one of my nephews in my arms and saying, "Right, you hold him while I do the dirty work". That is something that I am just about managing to do while observing the whole process. I am told, "It gets easier when they're your own". I wait to discover that.

What we are really talking about is the best environment whereby we can put small unit blocks into our society--whether we allow them to develop in a

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more traditional way with help from outside in a modern world, or whether we try to cling onto something which probably never existed.

We have heard a series of radical suggestions. One is that marriage could possibly become a series of contracts. To make a further personal comment, I could not have seen myself falling down on one knee and saying: "Will you enter into a five-year renewable contract with me?". It will require some time and customisation to take that on board as a new concept. But it could happen. The idea of people living together in a permanent relationship outside marriage is growing. Indeed, the statistics that have been bandied around during this debate may well change over time as society and people become more used to dealing with that relationship.

Rules will probably be established as to how it should be approached. The legal frameworks that are developing to bring people into non-married stable relationships will become easier to deal with and people will know what is expected of them. Just as children like a stable environment, adults like to know what they are supposed to do as well. We often forget that there is nothing more difficult than doing something new and original. As we establish new codes of conduct, possibly these statistics will change. Such relationships may never be as stable as marriage; or the idea of the renewable contract could be another way forward. We do not know. We are entering a rapidly expanding area of change in our society.

We need to examine the economic and social situation. We need to consider the role of women in marriage as in any other relationship. It is a fact that the economic unit is changing in its diversity. In certain parts of society, the traditional male job no longer exists. The days are gone when a man did a heavy manual job and went home and placed money on the table--or, to be technical, economic purchasing power--and allowed the woman to run the household. As I have said, that was never the totally dominant mode. Unless we can get young males in our society to appreciate that they will have to take on a partnership role, the whole thing is liable to collapse.

The remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, were, as usual, well-considered. The noble Lord demonstrates the value of having thought about a subject deeply before speaking about it. He mentioned the idea of educating people in terms of what to expect from their own marriage and said that we should examine that approach closely. It will be a help if we prepare people for the realities. The same is true of sex education. This country has the highest rate of teenage pregnancies in Europe, probably because we are among the slowest to tell people in straightforward terms exactly what happens. Surely we can combine such education with what happens in marriage. The idea of how pregnancy occurs and knowing how to look after a baby are surely related.

Marriage has survived for many years. Its meaning in social and economic terms has changed fundamentally throughout the centuries, and it will continue to change.

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Perhaps I may be allowed one final aside, which I rather inelegantly did not incorporate earlier in my remarks. The noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, commented on recognising the value of the other major religions in their own right. It is a sensible idea. I hope that it will be drawn to the Government's attention in the foreseeable future. It certainly cannot hurt; and it may help.

5.55 p.m.

Baroness Seccombe: My Lords, this has been a most informative debate. I have greatly enjoyed all the contributions. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, on raising the issue and on his thoughtful, sensitive and detailed outline of society today with its many frightening statistics.

This debate is specifically about family life within marriage, and that is the subject on which I have concentrated my thoughts. I have greatly enjoyed listening to Members of different faiths who have given us their views. I congratulate noble Lords who have celebrated many years of married life and wish the noble Lord, Lord Addington, great happiness as he embarks on a new life. My noble friend Lord Griffiths said that this was not a time for private views. But it is very difficult not to have such views and speak to them. So I ask the indulgence of the House.

During any family crisis when our children were growing up, my husband would always say to me, "Never forget, children grow up in spite of their parents". I found those words comforting because, try as hard as we did, I am sure we made awful mistakes. But we all survived. Being a parent is a tremendous responsibility when there are two parents to share it, but if there is only one, that load must at times become almost intolerable.

I grew up in a one-parent family, as my father died when I was 10 years old. I have often pondered on the difficulties my mother must have faced as she tried to bring us up alone. In addition, we had to leave our home as a consequence of bomb damage, and of course there were all the other worries that families endured in wartime Britain. I am sure that my brother and I must have caused my mother great anxiety, and she had no one with whom to share it. In fact, I wonder how she coped at all. There were so many pressures on her. But throughout it all, she taught us to pull together as a family, whatever problems we faced. That stood me in very good stead.

I quote that experience because I just cannot understand why anyone should want to embark on raising children in a one-parent family situation. I most sincerely believe that children want to grow up in a home with two parents living together under one roof, sharing the care, with its ups and downs, of their offspring. Having a bedroom in each parent's home, and consequently going from place to place with his or her suitcase, is a very poor substitute and must add to the confusion in a child's mind after a family break-up.

Of course I am sure that everyone starts out on the wedding day with high ideals, and "until death us do part" is most sincerely meant. But it is extremely sad to see so many marriages fail at such an early stage. I do

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not wish to take a moral stance as I do not feel qualified to do so, but my experience as a magistrate often left me with real sadness as I saw so many lives destroyed.

There is statistical evidence to show that children from broken homes normally do worse than those from stable homes. So I believe that the Government have a duty to support marriage through fiscal and social measures. When I listen to those who advocate mothers of young children under school age being harried into taking full-time employment, I am concerned about the effect on those children when they are, for example, ill or at home for school holidays. Nurseries are fine for a few hours a week, but leaving children there from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. day after day is a recipe for future disaster.

It is usually for financial reasons that mothers of young children go out to work full-time, so I want to repeat two suggestions which were made earlier. I urge the Government to take two positive measures: first, to restore the married couples' allowance to everyone and not just to pensioners. Secondly, I believe that the married woman who stays at home to look after her young child or children, or a handicapped relative, should be allowed to transfer her personal tax allowance to her husband.

Since coming into office, this Government appear sadly to have abandoned the traditional family, caring more for those who raise their children outside marriage or with a peripatetic live-in lover. Marriage is a very special institution and should be treated as such by government. I am obviously speaking for myself, but I most sincerely believe that if we continue on this course it will create great problems for future generations. I have met so many young mothers who, while working full-time--not part-time, which I support--have been consumed with guilt and at the same time have felt cheated out of the joys of being around with their children during those early years.

We have heard the experiences of families outside marriage and of course I understand the pressure people are under when they are unemployed, lack housing and are forced into bed-and-breakfast accommodation. That is the kind of life no one could wish to continue. What we have heard in many of the speeches today is that people need the commitment provided by marriage rather than by merely setting up home together.

We have heard that there ought to be preparation for marriage from an early stage. One hopes that that would come from within the home, but, sadly, if it is from within a broken home it may not always help. Perhaps schools can help, but as people prepare for marriage I hope that they will realise the enormity of what they are committing themselves to. Children develop best in a loving home with two parents. We should not forget that.

There have been various views about the father's role and I recognise the huge change since I had my sons. I married at the end of an era because, afterwards, except for voluntary work, I did not work again. But I understand that today's fathers, whose wives work part-time or full-time, have a much greater share in bringing up their children. That is much to be welcomed and also enjoyed.

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I am sure that some people will say, "It's all right for her, she's happily married". So I am. I was lucky; I believe I chose the right mother, the right family and of course the right husband. But I want more of our citizens to have the same happiness as I had and to believe that raising children is a worthwhile career in itself. I am convinced that if we all felt like that we would be a much happier and more successful society.

6.3 p.m.

The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, let me begin by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for introducing this debate and for the quality of his contribution. Over the years, he has been a strong champion of the family and in particular of disadvantaged families and children. For that, but not only that, he is rightly held in high regard in your Lordships' House.

We are often reminded how attitudes to marriage and to the family have changed dramatically. The latest issue of the Government's Population Trends was published only last week. Our divorce rate, though now stable, is still the highest in Europe. We are warned that, if the present trends continue, married couples will become a minority of the adult population within the next 10 years. The noble Lord, Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach, drew attention to that. This compares with 1981, when 65 per cent. of adults were married.

What should the Government do? I believe the role of the state is to encourage, not to compel; to provide practical help, not to moralise. I can assure noble Lords that the Government are certainly not neutral. They have made clear their support for the institution of marriage. I have done so myself on many occasions. I do so again. The consultation document, Supporting Families, emphasises the importance of marriage as a strong foundation for stable relationships and as the most reliable framework for raising children. The paper emphasises that marriage,

    "also sets out rights and responsibilities for all concerned. It remains the choice of the majority of people in Britain. For all these reasons, it makes sense for the Government to do what it can to strengthen marriage".

Of course, as the consultation paper also says, supporting marriage does not mean trying to compel people to marry, or criticising or penalising those who choose not to do so. More couples cohabit before marriage and, increasingly, more of them have children without first marrying. Some couples, even with children, continue to cohabit without marrying at all. In a free society, we must respect these choices, not condemn them. We must ensure that the protection of the law is available to everyone in our society on the basis of need, not exclusively on the basis of marital status. Given that around a third of children are now born outside marriage, it would be unacceptable to discriminate against children because their parents are unmarried.

It is clearly just as important that cohabitants and former cohabitants should have protection from domestic violence as spouses and former spouses. Part

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IV of the Family Law Act provides that protection and early indications are that those suffering domestic violence in both married and unmarried relationships are making substantial use of the Act.

Support for the institution of marriage is one of the principles underlying the Family Law Act 1996. There has been a torrent of misguided criticism of the Act, aimed at my noble and learned predecessor, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, whose Act it was, and now aimed at this Government. These people claim to believe that the implementation of the Act will make divorce quicker and easier. It is the present fault-based divorce law that makes divorce quick and easy. My noble and learned predecessor's Act, when implemented, will make it slower and more difficult. Let me prove that.

Fault-based divorce today places a premium on fault allegations, encouraging the type of proceedings which are clearly harmful to children and lead to many years of hostility and bitterness following divorce. There is no encouragement or opportunity for couples to try to save their marriages. Divorce and remarriage often take place before arrangements for children and finance are finalised. This encourages an irresponsible attitude to marriage and family life. Good neutral information is not available to enable people to consider their options, to make informed decisions and to stop and think about what divorce will mean for them and their children. Surely, the interests of the children must come first.

Let me digress for a moment and then return to my theme. I agree completely with the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, that the relationship of marriage gains major new responsibilities from the birth of children.

Perhaps I may respond to the points made on the Budget. With effect from April 2000 the married couple's allowance, worth £197 a year, will go, but it will be replaced by a new children's tax credit from April 2001 worth £416 a year. There will also be a 3 per cent. real increase in child benefit from April 2000 to £15 for the first child and £10 for subsequent children. This is in addition to the £2.95 increase for the eldest child announced in the last Budget which takes effect from this April.

I believe that my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer should be applauded for putting families with children first. Children are 20 per cent. of the population, but 100 per cent. of our future and they should be put first. The married couple's allowance is a misnomer. The previous government rightly called it an anomaly and reduced it from 40 per cent. to 15 per cent. It is not an allowance restricted to married couples; it is a tax credit paid at the same flat rate to married couples, single parents and unmarried parents living together. Why? Because it is an additional person's allowance available to anyone with children--that is, an additional person to support. Thus it is paid to single parents and cohabiting parents with children. Perhaps I may gently chide the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, for what she said about the Government's tax proposals in this area. It was a travesty of the facts.

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I now return to our divorce practices today. They sanction quick and easy divorces which devalue marriage. Today, 75 per cent. of divorces are quickie divorces granted within a few months of the petition. Let me remind your Lordships of what happens in practice. The petition is sent through the post to the local county court and then a copy is sent by post to the other party who, in the vast majority of cases, will not defend the divorce, but will indicate consent. The district judge in the county court will list about two dozen cases for 10.30 in the morning. He will pronounce in a single sentence that a decree nisi is granted in all cases in front of him that morning. Six weeks after the decree nisi the decree will be made absolute and the marriage terminated. It is only at that stage that the interests of the child are addressed. In theory, the court must be satisfied that the arrangements for the children are satisfactory, or at least that they are the best that can be devised in the circumstances. In practice, the court's scrutiny of the arrangements is often cursory in the extreme. These are the facts of life about divorce in this country today.

My noble and learned predecessor's Family Law Act 1996 introduces a radically different approach to divorce. When Part II of the Act comes fully into force people contemplating divorce will be encouraged, during a compulsory period of reflection and consideration, to consider whether they can be helped by marriage counselling. Where there is no prospect of reconciliation, mediation services will be made available to help couples reach agreement for themselves about future arrangements for the children and property. This new procedure will get rid of the quickie divorce because of the compulsory period for reflection and consideration.

I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Ashbourne, will consider the points that I am about to make with an open mind. When the Act is implemented there will be a minimum waiting time prior to divorce of 13 months, which in certain circumstances may be extended to 19 months. That will give people the opportunity to stop and think and enable them to make informed decisions. This will help to identify saveable marriages and support them by the provision of state funding for marriage counselling. This will support children by informing parents of the importance of the welfare of the children and helping them to co-operate as parents after divorce. This will reduce conflict by providing mediation as a less confrontational way of resolving disputes.

For all these reasons the Government are committed to bringing their predecessors' Family Law Act 1996 into force. We are now approaching the end of an extensive period of piloting of the new arrangements. Later this year the Government will announce an implementation date.

The principle of support for the institution of marriage is given practical effect by Section 22 of the Family Law Act. This gives the Lord Chancellor power to make grants in connection with the provision of marriage support services, research into the causes of marital breakdown and into ways of preventing marital breakdown.

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Since my department took over this responsibility from the Home Office in 1995, we have spent between £3 million and £3.5 million per year on marriage support. This includes strategic funding for the major national agencies and some project funding for research and development. We have published a Directory of Marriage Support Services which has been distributed to public libraries and other outlets throughout the country.

I say to the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, that my own department has agreed to contribute £100,000 to the Government's funding of the National Family and Parenting Institute to which he referred and in addition to the marriage support grants that we make. I believe that this institute consults widely and that that does extend to the agencies concerned with ethnic minorities.

Professor Jane Lewis of the University of Nottingham has just completed a research project funded by my department. Her report, "Individualism and Commitment in Marriage and Cohabitation" will shortly be published in the department's research series. We have already published two volumes of review papers by One plus One, the marriage and partnership research charity which is funded by my department on the causes of marital breakdown and the effectiveness of policies and services intended to reduce its incidence.

Towards the end of last year I invited Sir Graham Hart to carry out a review of marriage support and research funding to assist my department in developing a more strategic approach to the allocation of resources. Sir Graham, as a former Permanent Secretary at the Department of Health, is especially well qualified to provide advice on this subject. He came to see me last week. He is on course to complete his report and submit it by Easter. It would not be right for me to speculate about his detailed recommendations now. Obviously, I shall need some time to consider his report before I make it public, together with my response. This I hope to do during the summer.

But what I say now--and I am sure that it will be of interest to all noble Lords who have contributed to this debate--is that Sir Graham has told me that he considers state funding of the national marriage support agencies to be a highly appropriate and worthwhile use of public funds. I wholeheartedly agree with him on that and I will be responding positively. I can tell your Lordships that next year's planned funding is £3 million and I will be reviewing the figures in the light of Sir Graham Hart's report. I hope that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lincoln will recognise what I have just said as the positive statement that it is intended to be.

This has been a valuable debate. I have enjoyed the contributions of all your Lordships. The whole debate will serve to inform the development of policy by the Government.

6.19 p.m.

Lord Northbourne: My Lords, first I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Addington. I hope that this debate on the Order Paper has not applied any pressure on him to commit himself. I am enormously grateful to all noble

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Lords who have spoken this afternoon and I am humbled by both the number and quality of the contributions.

I was very happy to hear Christians, Jews and Moslems all singing from the same hymn book, as it were. All confirmed one another's views about marriage. I leave all of them and noble Lords with the thought that although most, if not all, of the major religions support marriage I suspect that as an institution it probably pre-dates all the religions that we know today.

I leave the House with one thought. Let us go forward in thinking about structures within and without marriage and, as a society, let us consider how we can better live together, and support one another and our children, both within and outside marriage. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

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