Andrew Selous contributions to the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act 2020

Wed 17th June 2020 Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill [Lords] (Commons Chamber)
3rd reading: House of Commons
Committee: 1st sitting
Committee: 1st sitting: House of Commons
13 interactions (1,519 words)
Mon 8th June 2020 Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill [Lords] (Commons Chamber)
2nd reading
2nd reading: House of Commons
Money resolution: House of Commons
Programme motion: House of Commons
7 interactions (806 words)

Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill [Lords]

(3rd reading: House of Commons)
(Committee: 1st sitting)
(Committee: 1st sitting: House of Commons)
Andrew Selous Excerpts
Wednesday 17th June 2020

(8 months, 3 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber

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Ministry of Justice
Robert Neill Portrait Sir Robert Neill
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The only part that I agree with my right hon. Friend about is the fact that acrimony can be a feature of the human condition. I am afraid that I have to profoundly disagree with the rest of his analysis. I regret to have to say that a divorce process that entrenches confrontation absolutely has the reverse effect to that which he suggests. The reality is that the acrimony, sadly, has arisen in the course of the breakdown, which, all too often, may have been a long time coming and may have happened for a number of reasons, which cannot be laid necessarily always at the door of one party or the other. But the law, as it stands, does not fit that reality fairly and sensibly. Whatever its intention, it actually makes matters worse, so I do have to part company with my right hon. Friend on that.

There is much to be said— I will take it out of turn but I think it relates to the principle of this—for the various amendments that relate to improving the attempts to support marriage and conciliation. I understand that and hope the Minister will have more to say about what more we can do in that regard. The truth is that, by the time we get to the issuing of the proceedings for divorce, the horse has bolted. We should do more to prevent that from happening and help couples when they run into difficulties at the beginning, but that is not what this Bill is changing.

Andrew Selous Portrait Andrew Selous (South West Bedfordshire) (Con)
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Do I detect from what my hon. Friend has said that he is supportive of new clause 1 and amendment 7, which are, in fact, identical in terms of marriage and relationship support? That has always been a feature of this aspect. It was part of the Family Law Act 1996. Is he supportive of what those two amendments are trying to do?

Robert Neill Portrait Sir Robert Neill
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I am supportive of the objective, but I would like to hear the Minister’s comments on whether those are the best means of achieving it in the context of the Bill. I entirely accept what my hon. Friend says about the objective, and he and I share views on a number of issues. I would prefer to see the Bill pass cleanly and then to work constructively with the Government to find means of giving that sort of support, because there are other methods that I think could be used to do that. However, I take on board the importance of the point he makes.

Against that background, it is important that we seek to minimise conflict and that we face the fact that, however much we might wish it were otherwise, a bond that is no longer meaningful to a couple is not best served by forcing them together. That is neither socially desirable nor just; nor is it Christian or ethical in terms of any faith.

Break in Debate

Scott Benton Portrait Scott Benton (Blackpool South) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to follow my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom), with whose comments I completely agree. The community I represent contains some of the most deprived wards in England, and the magnitude of some of the social challenges in Blackpool is frankly enormous. When I visit our local soup kitchens, or work with community groups who help the most marginalised in society, I speak to many of those who are reaching out for support. There are, of course, a wide variety of different personal circumstances, and a plethora of reasons why people need additional help. It always strikes me, however, that some form of family breakdown usually lies at the heart of it.

The traditional family is a cornerstone of a strong society, and marriage is the glue that holds families together. Marriage creates a stable environment in which children can thrive, and we know that children born to married parents are more likely to go to university, get married themselves, and find long-term employment. Strong families and marriage provide the support and stability that benefits not just the individuals concerned, but society as a whole. Indeed, it is a sad fact that anything we do to weaken the family unit and marriage by making a divorce easier to obtain will result in greater family breakdown, and there will be more people falling on hard times and invariably presenting themselves for support at those community groups and food banks that I visit in my constituency.

The benefits of marriage speak for themselves. There is so much more that I would like to say on this, but I would like to associate myself with the comments made in the excellent speeches on Second Reading by my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) and my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), who highlighted many of the points that I would make this afternoon, had I more time.

I have reservations about this Bill and the message that it sends out to society. As a Government, we should be encouraging marriage and supporting the principle of the traditional family. If we introduce compulsory no-fault divorce in a six-month timeframe, the result will inevitably be an increase in the divorce rate and the problems within society that family breakdown creates.

One obvious way of mitigating the impact of the Bill is the provisions in new clause 1, which would ensure increased support for marriages and new support for couples where an application for divorce has been made to the court. Of course, there will be sad occasions when it may not be in the couple’s best interests to stay together, but I am speaking more generally when I say that it is in the national interest for couples to stay together.

Surely it would be an effective use of public funds for the Government to make available grants for marriage support services before marriage and during a marriage—that is, before couples appear before a court seeking a divorce. The estimated cost of family breakdown is £51 billion per year. In stark contrast, the Government’s forecast spending on relationship support in the last financial year was a paltry £10.2 million. So family break- down costs us £51 billion, yet we spend only £10 million trying to fix the source of it. Sadly, I am not sure that will make much of a difference.

A number of Government Members have expressed concerns about the Bill. It would go some way to show the Government’s support for marriage if they were minded to invest in relationship support, counselling and marriage preparation. Those programmes will make a significant difference. The Government’s own commissioned evaluation of relationship support provided in the UK found that counselling and relationship education resulted in statistically significant

“positive changes in individuals’ relationship quality, well-being and communication”,

and that couple counselling and certain types of marriage preparation were

“cost effective, providing substantially greater savings to society than they cost to deliver.”

The Relationships Alliance, a group that includes Relate, has published evidence on why good-quality couple and family relationships matter. In that publication, it stated:

“International evidence, including several randomised control trials, shows that relationship counselling or therapy can be effective in improving relationship quality, relationship satisfaction, conflict resolution skills, and wellbeing and mental health.”

Relationship support really does work, and it is clear that it would make a significant and effective difference. Services offered should be local and able to respond to a couple’s needs within days, especially given the minimum timeframe that the Bill currently specifies. I sincerely hope that the Government will see that the proposal in new clause 1 fits with their key policy objectives on divorce law reform, which include sufficient opportunity for reconciliation, and will therefore ensure that marriage counselling is made available to spouses when an application has been made for divorce.

Andrew Selous Portrait Andrew Selous
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17 Jun 2020, 4:49 p.m.

When we had the Second Reading debate on the Bill not so long ago, the Lord Chancellor made the very good observation that if we were serious about strengthening marriages and relationships in this country, we needed to do so through what was termed

“the right end of the telescope”.—[Official Report, 8 June 2020; Vol. 99, c. 677.]

I think he meant that we needed to have a greater focus on three areas: marriage preparation; marriage enrichment; and marriage counselling when marriages get into difficulty and relationship support for all couples. I like the phrase used in the Family Law Act 1996, which talks about marriage and relationship support, and as I said on Second Reading, although I am an enormous fan of marriage and always will be, I will always stand up for people who have never been married and those who are divorced as well as those who are married. I think that that would go for all my hon. and right hon. Friends on the Conservative Benches and no doubt across the House.

Returning to the Family Law Act 1996, a previous Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay, was absolutely clear at that time that marriage and relationship support services were an entirely necessary part of divorce reform. That was a good, sensible point, and I do not want this Government, of whom I am an enormous supporter, to depart from that principle. What worries me a little is that the Government’s position appears to have moved slightly away from wanting to try to support saveable marriages. I say that because the previous Lord Chancellor, talking of these reforms, said:

“Sometimes, a marriage will still be reparable at the point at which one spouse seeks the divorce”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 17 March 2020; Vol. 802, c. 1431.]

The current law offers little opportunity for repair, but it was a clear commitment by the previous Lord Chancellor, not so long ago, that we should look at being able to save marriages even when a divorce is potentially imminent.

However, what the previous Lord Chancellor says contrasts with the view of the current Lord Chancellor, of whom I am also a great fan. I believe him when he says that he supports marriage and family life, but he did say that

“by the time a decision to issue a divorce petition has been made, matters have gone beyond that, to a great extent—not in every case, but in my view, in the vast majority of cases.”—[Official Report, 8 June 2020; Vol. 677, c. 95.]

I am a huge fan of the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) , and I know that he is personally a great supporter of strengthening marriages and couple relationships, but perhaps he could explain why the Government’s position seems to have hardened a little in this area of marriage and relationship support over the past six months.

Looking at the figures, I note that in 2018 in England and Wales, there were 91,299 divorces. My parents also divorced, so I know the pain and grief that that causes. In some ways, I think it is a greater pain even than a bereavement. We know from academic studies that around 10% of people who engage in marriage counselling services, even when a divorce is starting to be undertaken, decide not to divorce. That would be around 9,000 divorces a year that potentially would not take place, were we to offer services that the previous Lord Chancellor seemed to say were sensible; Lord Mackay of Clashfern said they were an absolutely essential part of divorce law reform.

John Hayes Portrait Sir John Hayes
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My hon. Friend is making a compelling argument on an amendment that seeks to make what most sensible people would regard as a modest change to the Bill, which is simply to say that where we can support reconciliation, we will do so. The Government have been offered that compromise, and I am astounded, frankly, that they have not accepted it.

Andrew Selous Portrait Andrew Selous
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17 Jun 2020, 4:48 p.m.

I agree with what my right hon. Friend says.

Eagle-eyed observers of the amendment paper will have noted that new clause 1, in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), and amendment 7 are identical. In fact, I have a confession to make to the House: neither my hon. Friend nor I wrote it. In case we are accused of plagiarism, I think it came from Lord Michael Farmer in the other place. It was a good amendment; it was raised in the other place a couple of months ago, and it has stood the test of time. When it was in the other place, I noted that it had the support of Conservatives, a Member of the Democratic Unionist party, the Liberal Democrat Front Bench and the Bishop of Salisbury.

From what the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham), said today, I think he supports the spirit of the amendment—not perhaps the actual words, but the objectives, as far as I understood him. My hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill), the Chair of the Justice Committee, also said he supported the spirit of the amendment, so I think we have a great deal of cross-party consensus on this issue, which I really hope we can take forward.

New clause 1 and amendment 7 need not actually cost the Government anything. Although “may” changes to “must”, the measure just says “make grants” in respect, effectively, of marriage preparation, marriage enrichment and marriage support, and the same for civil partnerships and more widely for relationship support. However, it does not specify an amount. We are not imposing a financial requirement on a Government who, my goodness me, are already struggling with enormous financial demands on them at the moment, but we are specifying where this work should take place, and on a very good evidential basis.

It was noted in another place, when the Bill was debated there, that support for marriage and relationship support has seemed to depend a bit over the years on the whim of whoever was Prime Minister and whichever set of Ministers were in place. That is a pity because, until recently, there has been cross-party support on this issue. Labour and Conservative Governments, ever since the Denning report of 1947, have seen it as core business, and there is a greatly increased need for it, not least because of lockdown, which has been referred to.

We know that family relationships are under enormous pressure in the pressure-cooker environment of lockdown at the moment. We also know that families coming through lockdown perhaps slightly better than others are often those where there are strong family relationships, and they have helped children and others to cope well. I know that Marriage Care, which contacted me after Second Reading, is having many people come to it asking for support that it and other members of the Relationships Alliance, which my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South (Scott Benton) quite properly mentioned, are unable to provide, because the financial means is not there, as Government support in the reducing parental conflict programme is quite narrowly focused on working couples where there is parental conflict—a laudable objective, but not actually wide enough.

Understandably, the Government are always nervous about new requests for spending, but the fact is that when these relationships go wrong, the Government pick up the tab big time. There is no debate about the benefits, the extra housing costs, the mental health support and other health support that will be paid out. We pay that out in our billions without question, so, as my hon. Friend said—and, indeed, as the Lord Chancellor said on Second Reading—let us put a bit more emphasis on the other end of the telescope to try to strengthen these relationships in the first place.

As we—hopefully—emerge from the pandemic, we need to rebuild not just a strong economy, but a strong society. All my hon. Friends were elected only last December on a manifesto that said absolutely clearly that a strong society is built on strong families. As one or two of my colleagues have said, we need evidence of that. That is a grand statement, with which we all agree. What are the actual building blocks to put that in place? I do hope that my hon. Friend the Minister, of whom I am a great fan—I was absolutely thrilled to see him be promoted—will give us some comfort on that, because very many of us really want to see it.

David Amess Portrait Sir David Amess (Southend West) (Con)
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17 Jun 2020, 12:04 a.m.

I rise to speak in support of amendment 1 tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), and in so doing I take this opportunity to praise her, particularly for all the work that she does in this and so many other areas, and our former colleague, David Burrowes, who also has done a huge amount of work on this issue. Amendment 1 would increase the minimal legal time period for divorce to 12 months, instead of the six months proposed in the Bill, and it is both necessary and sensible.

I toyed with thinking that I would not speak in this debate, because it would be a waste of time. I have been a Member of Parliament for a little while, and I have been a member of my party for more than 50 years, and when I first joined, the view that I have was the majority view. As each Parliament has gone by, I have seen some slippage, certainly among my colleagues, but I am delighted to be speaking now, because I have heard a number of speeches that I have been particularly encouraged by, including from a new colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South (Scott Benton). What a joy it was to hear my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) speak. My goodness am I glad that I supported her in her first attempt to become leader of my party. She addressed a whole range of issues in a succinct way, and I entirely agreed with everything she said.

This is not a debate about whether it is right that people live together and do not get married; it is not that sort of debate. It is a debate about marriage itself. Marriage is very popular in the Amess household at the moment. Last year, one of my daughters got married in America. It was one of these new-style weddings, where it is an open venue. Next week, I have another daughter in America who is getting married. My wife and I cannot be there, and it is saving us a huge amount of money. Next year, we will have another wedding here, which will be slightly over the top. Another daughter was due to get married this year in August, but as with many other colleagues, that wedding cannot go ahead and will be taking place next year.

I have many constituents who have been married for 70 years, and I say to them, “Aren’t you sick of each other?” They say, “No, we still love each other just as much as when we first got married.” I can hear my own father being asked whether he had ever had a row with my mother. He would say, “Only once, and that row hasn’t finished yet.” In my own household, my wife and I never row, because she is right about everything. Well, I give her the impression, anyway, that she is right about everything.

I say to my hon. Friend the Minister—I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous)—that I and other colleagues are delighted to see him as a Minister, but, as my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire said earlier, the Bill seems to treat this as a legal matter, and the emotional side just is not there at all.

When the House debates anything that can slightly be termed “moral”, the general public are not enamoured by that, because we as a class of politicians are seen as big-time sinners who should not have a view. I so agreed with what my right hon. Friend said, having represented first the constituency of Basildon, which in those days had the highest number of single parents in the country, and now Southend West. So many of us in our surgeries can see the impact of divorce at a practical level, and it seems crazy that we have people planning for their marriage for a year, two years or three years and it can now end in six months. That is quite extraordinary.

On Second Reading, the Secretary of State said that under the new law,

“the legal process of divorce will take longer for about four fifths—80%—of couples”.—[Official Report, 8 June 2020; Vol. 677, c. 104.]

There is a crucial caveat in that sentence that the House must be aware of, namely that the Secretary of State is talking about the legal process of divorce—that is only the time from the first application to the final decree. The problem with that analysis is that it does not take into account that the proposals in the Bill operate in a fundamentally different way from the current law.

In the current system the period of two years’ separation with or without fault or five years’ living apart comes before the legal process of divorce, and that accounts for about 40% of divorces. In the proposed system, the period of separation starts after the legal process has begun, so it is disingenuous to compare the length of legal divorce proceedings under the Bill and under the current law.

That is comparing the Pope with Donald Trump, frankly. It is simply not defensible to say that 80% of divorces would take longer under a six-month separation period, when 40% of divorces currently take more than two years.

Break in Debate

Robert Buckland Portrait Robert Buckland
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I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

I thank hon. and right hon. Members from all parts of the House for their careful scrutiny of the Bill throughout its passage. I am deeply grateful to all those who have contributed to the debate in Committee today and on Second Reading last week. I acknowledge that there have been some dissenting voices on reform of the law—first, as a matter of principle—and differing opinions as to precisely how to reform it, but I am happy to make it clear that those contributions have been of no less value than those that have supported the purpose of the Bill and its approach to reform. We have been fortunate to have these debates enriched by the variety of viewpoints expressed.

During the passage of the Bill, Members have rightly raised questions about its potential impact on families, but I believe that it actually has marriage and families at its heart. It is for that reason that I believe so strongly in the measures contained within it. While no one wants marriages to break down, the proposals in the Bill are based on the very sad reality that some do. When they do, the law should seek to reduce conflict and to create the best opportunity for the parties to agree future arrangements. It is not for the law to try to keep a couple in a loveless marriage, and nor can the law in practice adjudicate on who was to blame for its breakdown. That is an intensely private and personal matter between the couple themselves.

This is a measured Bill that will bring much-needed reform. It is reform that many of its supporters believe is long overdue. It will allow parties to move forwards, not backwards, and it will deliver a legal process that reduces conflict and its impact on children while safeguarding the importance of marriage.

During its passage through both Houses, the Government have listened with interest and care to the issues raised. In the other place, there was debate concerning the law on financial provision on divorce and concerns that it, too, can drive conflict. Some Members in this place have also made that important point. My noble and learned Friend Lord Keen gave assurances that the Government would conduct a review of that area of law, which has remained unchanged for nearly 50 years. That is a substantial undertaking where we will need to be led by the evidence, which is yet to be gathered, and it is thus not a matter for this Bill.

We have also listened to concerns about the start point of the new 20-week minimum period prior to the conditional order of divorce, and we have given an undertaking that we will work with the Family Procedure Rule Committee to consider how court rules may provide for a requirement on applicants to serve notice within a specified period. We listened to concerns from the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee about two delegated powers in the Bill that would allow the legal minimum periods for divorce orders and dissolution orders to be amended. Those powers will now be subject to the enhanced scrutiny procedure via the affirmative mechanism.

Beyond the Bill, many detailed changes will be needed to divorce procedure, court IT systems, online information and guidance. We will take the opportunity to look at ways to improve signposting to the services that can help couples when facing the prospect of a divorce and during the subsequent legal process. We recognise the value of relationship support and mediation services, which can play a vital role in addressing relationship breakdown. The Chancellor announced £2.5 million to fund research into how best to integrate family services, including the emerging family hub model. The Department for Education will ensure that strengthening relationship support is part of that research programme, so that vital work is completed in that area.

It is important to take a moment to focus on what the Bill does not do. I believe that that is necessary because I have been concerned about certain misconceptions that have arisen about it. First, it is not a quickie divorce Bill—quite the contrary. It will, for the first time, provide a new 20-week minimum period between the start of proceedings and the conditional order. Secondly, the Bill does not undermine marriage. It is a Bill to reform the legal process for divorce once the sad stage of irretrievable breakdown has already been reached.

Thirdly, the Bill does not in any way undermine the hugely valuable and vital mediation, counselling and relationship support services that can and do assist reconciliation. Finally, the Bill definitely does not come at the wrong time. Its current stage is the culmination of a lengthy process.

Andrew Selous Portrait Andrew Selous
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I apologise for missing the start of my right hon. and learned Friend’s remarks. I do not know whether he had a chance to watch any of the Committee stage, but looking at what his predecessor said on the Bill, there seems to have been a slight hardening of the Government’s stance in relation to counselling provision. The previous Lord Chancellor was open to that, but it seems that my right hon. and learned Friend is not quite as keen or does not think that there are so many possibilities at that stage. Could he address that specific point?

Robert Buckland Portrait Robert Buckland
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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his continuing interest in, support of and commitment to issues relating to the family. They are values and views that he and I share. I take the view that this legislation is not the vehicle to deliver the sort of services and support that he and I want to see. This is very much about the end of the process, as opposed to what he and I think needs to be done well before that, to support families to help themselves, to enrich family life and to ensure that every proper assistance is given to couples who perhaps do not have the benefit of wise advice from parents or other support circles and might be dealing with the problems and challenges of every relationship alone, and who, frankly, could benefit from the wherewithal and the support that I know he believes in so passionately.

For that reason, I take what I would regard as a more direct and straightforward approach. I make no apology for that. I think it is important to be direct about these issues and not to conflate legislative process with policy progress. My commitment to my hon. Friend and to all others who are legitimately concerned about these issues is that, as a Government, we will work harder to co-ordinate, to bring together the strands of policy that sit with various Departments and to ensure that we have a family policy that is fit for the 2020s, in the way that he wants to see. I look forward to that continuing dialogue with him.

As I was saying, the Bill does not come at the wrong time, because its current stage is the culmination of a lengthy process that was delayed by a general election and a new Parliament. Its timing has nothing to do with the current covid-19 emergency. The Bill’s reforms will not come into force on Royal Assent, because time needs to be allowed for careful implementation. At this early stage, we are working towards an indicative timetable of implementation in autumn 2021. As I have said, the Bill will deliver much-needed reform in respect of which there is clear, strong and broad consensus. I again thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions. I commend the Bill to the House.

Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill [Lords]

(2nd reading)
(2nd reading: House of Commons)
(Money resolution: House of Commons)
(Programme motion: House of Commons)
Andrew Selous Excerpts
Monday 8th June 2020

(9 months ago)

Commons Chamber

Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Bill Main Page
Ministry of Justice
Robert Buckland Portrait Robert Buckland
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8 Jun 2020, 7:57 p.m.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He cuts to one of the most important issues in the debate about divorce, and I absolutely agree with him on the merit of organisations such as Relate and the work that they do to support marriages that have run into difficulties. However, it is the sad experience that, by the time a decision to issue a divorce petition has been made, matters have gone beyond that, to a great extent—not in every case, but in my view, in the vast majority of cases.

The Government are working hard to support initiatives such as the troubled families programme and, in the last Budget, to invest more money into proper research into effective family hubs where work can be done to support families in conflict who are struggling and having difficulty keeping together. The work of the Department for Work and Pensions in the £39 million reducing parental conflict programme, even at this time of covid, is an example of the Government’s strong commitment to supporting families. We believe that the family is a vital component of what it takes to be a civilised society. It is the source of stability, safety, love and all those things that we should be cherishing as a society.

Andrew Selous Portrait Andrew Selous (South West Bedfordshire) (Con)
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8 Jun 2020, 7:58 p.m.

We are in the final year of that £39 million, and there is no guarantee as to what will happen in the next financial year. Could the Lord Chancellor reassure us that he will be a doughty champion with the Treasury and at the Cabinet table to ensure that that programme is renewed, reinvigorated and properly funded?

Robert Buckland Portrait Robert Buckland
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I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I can make the assurance that I, in my position as Lord Chancellor, will do everything I can to reinforce the important messages about the values of family. As a Conservative, they are particularly important to me, but I know that Members of all parties in this House share those values and from their own experiences believe in the family.

I want to add this comment: it is because I believe in the family that I think these measures are the right approach. Some people might think that is contradictory, but I do not believe so, because I think it is our responsibility in the legal process to try to reduce conflict, because conflict leads to emotional difficulty. It can lead to damage. It can lead to serious consequences, not just for the adults in the relationship but, let us face it, the children, too. We owe it to them to minimise in our legal processes, rather than maximise, the damage that can be caused.

Break in Debate

Stella Creasy Portrait Stella Creasy (Walthamstow) (Lab/Co-op)
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8 Jun 2020, 8:54 p.m.

I rise to join my colleagues on the Front Bench in supporting the Bill, which recognises the tragedy that happens when a relationship breaks down. The last thing anybody wants is for the state to be a barrier to people being able to move forward from that. I also rise on behalf of a small number of young people—indeed, Ministers could be advocates for them—who are those affected by their parents’ status of divorce, and the way that we see marriage within broader public policy making. We do not often get legislation on marriage, so I hope the Minister will forgive me for taking the opportunity to make this plea when discussing the Bill. He talked about sending signals. I think we are quick to jump to send signals to the parents and we must not, at the expense of the children, damage the children’s lives.

I am talking about, in particular, the group of children who may not only face their parents becoming divorced but then might also lose a parent—and, in particular, their entitlement to support under our current system through the bereavement support system. There are 2,000 families every single year who face the horror of losing a parent, whether through a terminal illness or a sudden death. Indeed, in our current circumstances, there may be families right now who are facing this situation through the horror of the virus that has taken over this country. Those families discover that because of their status under our current legislation, they are not entitled to support, so the children face destitution.

Many of us will have seen these families in our constituencies, given the 3.5 million people who choose to have children and decide not to get married. I know that marriage is something people feel very strongly about in this debate. There are also families where, when the parent gets divorced, those same entitlements are lost to the child. We are unusual as a country in attaching the entitlement to support to the parent rather than the child. When we talk tonight about the financial situation that divorce might create and how we might support families, I ask Ministers please not to forget these children and not to forget the opportunity that we might have through this Bill to learn from other countries which have what they call orphans’ pensions.

Five families every single day find, when a family member dies, that their child cannot seek to benefit from the entitlements built up through the state pension. It is the same for children of divorced parents if a divorced parent dies; the child loses that entitlement. I think of families such as the family of Laura Rudd. She was not married to her partner, who went out for a jog and did not come home, and her son Noah has been left destitute as a result. Children in my constituency also face that experience.

It would be very easy simply to reflect that when we want to support marriage we do that with the parents—with the consenting adults—but the way in which our financial system works serves to penalise children for the choices that their parents may make. I know from listening to this debate that that is not the intention of Ministers, but it is the outcome of the way in which we see marriage, and thereby the laws around divorce.

Ministers talk about supporting families, so will the Secretary of State work on this with his colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions? Will he use the opportunity of legislation that looks at divorce, families and the entitlements that parents might have with their children and not miss the chance to right a historical wrong? Indeed, when he talks to his colleagues in the DWP, they will tell him of legal cases—human rights cases—that have recognised the discrimination as a result of bereavement support allowance against children of parents who are not married, or who have divorced. The Government have been asked to address this issue for over a year now, and yet we have not had a resolution to it. That is because of the way in which we construct marriage within our public policy making.

This Bill will help to support people in that terrible moment when they find that their relationship cannot continue any longer. That is a tragedy for all concerned. It is a tragedy whether people have spent many years together and decided not to marry, or have married and decided that their marriage should break down. But in all of this, we all have a concern for the children. It surely cannot be the intention of any decent Government to put into destitution children who suffer through no fault of their own the double tragedy of a parent dying and a relationship breaking up. I therefore ask Ministers: please do not miss this opportunity finally to do something about bereavement support allowance and to make sure that we support every child in every family so that no child is penalised for the choices of their parents.

Andrew Selous Portrait Andrew Selous (South West Bedfordshire) (Con)
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8 Jun 2020, 8:59 p.m.

This Bill is aimed at minimising conflict between separated couples to make divorce not easier, but kinder. Divorce will take a minimum of six months, with an average of four out of five divorces taking longer than under the existing law.

The Family Law Act 1996 identified funding for relationship support services as a necessary part of divorce reform—an approach that has been sustained by successive Governments since the Denning report of 1947. In 1999, the then Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine, said that the three objectives of the 1996 Act were, first, supporting marriage; secondly, saving saveable marriages; and, thirdly, where marriages had sadly broken down, bringing them to an end with minimum distress. I will always stand up and fight for people, whether they are married, never married or divorced. I also passionately believe that marriage is one of our most important and valued institutions, which we neglect at our peril. The benefits of a couple pooling their resources, time and energy are fantastic.

On the first objective of supporting marriage, marriage rates are at their lowest level since records began in 1862. Even more worryingly, the Marriage Foundation points out that 87% of mothers from higher income groups are married, compared with only 24% of mothers at the bottom of the income scale, so the marriage gap is widening, which is a social justice disaster. We need marriage for the many, not the few.

The Bill is silent on marriage and relationship support, which is not good enough, given that there is no assurance of funding for this work after the end of this financial year. We know from research concluded after the 1996 Act that one in 10 marriages was saved at the point of divorce by offering counselling, and that half those offered counselling took it up and better managed the divorce process. Much greater provision of the separated parents information programme is something that we owe children, to reduce the distress that many will experience when the divorce process is badly managed. Prevention is always better than cure, which is why the provision of marriage and relationship support services is so vital. We should celebrate much more the work of the Relationships Alliance and its constituent members—Relate, Marriage Care, OnePlusOne and Tavistock Relationships. They are all on the frontline, battling for social justice and a better society.

Local authorities such as Rochdale, with its relationships champions programme, which I visited, lead the way among local authorities. Charities, voluntary groups and faith groups, such as Toucan, with its “build a happier, healthier life together” work; the inspirational Nicky and Sila Lee, with their marriage preparation course and marriage coursework; and Soulmates Academy, run by the redoubtable Jonathan and Andrea Taylor-Cummings, all do brilliant work and should be commended.

The Government need a cross-departmental programme to bring the work of the brilliant antenatal charity Dads to Be into every NHS hospital, not only the three that it operates in at the moment. We should ensure that marriage registrars provide signposting to the very best marriage preparation; that all GPs are as good as the very best in signposting to relationship support; and that brilliant charities such as Explore, which does such excellent work in our schools in giving children good role models for what healthy, happy, committed and respectful relationships and marriages look like, are supported. All these individuals, groups, churches and other faith organisations are doing brilliant work on the frontline and deserve our thanks and support.

As we look to rebuild our economy after the ravages of covid-19, it is not only economic matters that need our attention but the fractured and hurting relationships that we need to repair to a healthier, more respectful and more committed state. Next month, it will be 19 years since I made my maiden speech in the House. On that occasion, I spoke of the importance of the family and of strengthening family relationships, and it grieves me that the situation has got worse, not better, in those 19 years. I stand here saying the same as I said to Labour Governments in those first nine years and to coalition and Conservative Governments since: we need the political will—together across this House, from all our political traditions—to put this issue higher up the political agenda. It is a social justice matter, and it is for everyone. I implore the Government to take it seriously, and to remember that we stood on a manifesto that said strong families are the key to a strong society.

Toby Perkins Portrait Mr Toby Perkins (Chesterfield) (Lab)
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I very much enjoyed the speech by the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), who gave us all food for thought, and I welcome entirely the spirit in which this debate has taken place so far. I do not know whether I ought to declare an interest, because after 21 years of marriage, I am sadly in the process of going through a divorce.

The primary concern of everyone who has children and is going through such an unhappy incident is the impact that it will have on their children. I think that the current legislation does lead to unnecessary additional conflict and blame, so the Government are right to pursue this important legislation at a time when they are extremely busy.

In speaking in this debate, I am carrying on in the family way, because my great-grandfather, A. P. Herbert, was the original author of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1937. Some unkind remarks may be made to the Minister in Committee, but A. P. Herbert would have thought of that as a very easy ride, compared with what was said in 1937 when he brought that legislation through. The Secretary of State was right to stress that wanting to assist couples to split in as amicable and blame-free a fashion as possible does not in any way undermine what marriage is all about, or fail to recognise the crucial role that that institution plays in our society.

It is important to recognise what the current process does. It not only moves couples down the route of having to find blame and conflict, but includes the role of the court—the state—in deciding whether or not people should be married. The state does not consider that it has anything like the same level of responsibility for deciding whether a couple get married in the first place—if they meet at 4 o’clock and decide at 8 o’clock that night that they want to be married, the state considers that none of its business. So why, if a couple come to the conclusion that they should no longer be together, should the state consider that it is its business to investigate whether they are right?

I will leave it there, but I welcome what the Government and my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) said and the spirit in which this debate is taking place. I hope that we will all keep in mind the need to ensure that couples who sadly reach the conclusion that they must separate are able to do so in as amicable a fashion as possible.