Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill [Lords] DebateFull Debate: Read Full Debate
Sir Edward LeighMain Page: Sir Edward Leigh (Conservative) - Gainsborough)
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(3 months, 3 weeks ago)Commons Chamber
I understand entirely my right hon. Friend’s concerns. The number of divorces has declined in recent years, but that perhaps goes back to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester about the beginning of it, because the number of marriages has declined in proportion since 1972, just under 50 years ago. Taking the long view, one should focus upon the beginning of the process—the nature of the commitment, the solemnity of that commitment and the importance of that relationship and that commitment—rather than the detail of the end process.
This Government’s proposals will apply equally to married couples and civil partners. While I conveniently refer to the concept of marriage and divorce, the principles and effects apply equally to civil partnerships and their dissolution. Husbands, wives and civil partners will no longer need to produce or face a real or perceived catalogue of failings in respect of their most intimate relationship. There is a strong common view underlying the proposals in the Bill, built upon the foundation of a significant evidence base.
As ever, I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his constructive approach. He quite properly seeks to make a comparison with a nearby jurisdiction—a next-door jurisdiction—but I believe that taking a more comprehensive approach will cure problems for the long term. Rather than encouraging a piecemeal approach to divorce reform—in other words, coming back to it in very short order—we are creating a Bill that will, I believe, endure for a considerable period of time.
Let us remember that the evolution of divorce law has involved significant moments in parliamentary history: there was the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 and the Divorce Reform Act 1969, which of course led to the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973, which brought together a lot of the legislation on such issues. These things are not done, and I do not think they should be done, from Parliament to Parliament; they should have a longer shelf life, bearing in mind the gradual evolution of the law in this area.
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The law should have majesty; it should be awesome. May I ask the Secretary of State to resist this fetish for translating everything into newspeak?
There is fault in divorce. We all know that. It is a question not just of unreasonable behaviour, but of abominable, disgraceful and outrageous behaviour. But I accept the principle of the Bill—namely, that by trying to attribute fault, we vastly magnify the bitterness and unpleasantness of the conflict that divorce creates. We have all experienced in our surgeries those parents who continue to use their children as weapons in prosecuting a continuing war against their former partners. The removal of fault will not remove that entirely, but I am confident that it will certainly diminish it.
My problem with the Bill is with respect to the streamlining and potential shortening of the process. The difficulty I have is this: by making divorce more straightforward and easier, it becomes the first resort, rather than the last. It becomes the easy and quicker way out, vastly reducing the potential for counselling and reconciliation. We should remember that divorce is the swiftest route to poverty. Of the people who might come through the door during one of my morning surgeries, if you scratch the surface of their problem—whether the problem presents as debt, housing, education or access to children—nine times out of 10, divorce and family breakdown are the root cause. And the easier we make divorce, the more we shall have of it.
I accept the virtue of this Bill on its own terms. The Lord Chancellor has said that the Bill is concerned only with divorce, and if we are concerned only to make divorce smoother and less painful, I accept the Government’s case. However, I do not judge the Bill just on its own terms. It is not just about divorce, it is about marriage, and that is the crucial difference that I have with the Government.
What will this Bill do? Its practical effect is simply that couples will not have to wait for two years for a no-fault divorce, but will have to wait for only six months. I can appreciate that two years must feel like an eternity for someone who wants to move on with their life, but I suggest that the damage done to society and future generations by this Bill will be far greater than the distress of some people waiting 18 months longer, because what is really proposed is not just the speeding up of no-fault divorce, but the effective abolition of the marriage vow.
What is the difference between marriage and any other romantic relationship? It is this: people promise, in front of their friends and family and in a legally binding commitment, not to walk out. That is basically what it is, and it is an enormous promise. It is why the wedding service has these portentous words: marriage is
“a solemn, public and life-long covenant…No one should enter into it lightly or”
unadvisedly but reverently and soberly. This Bill proposes to abolish all of that—centuries upon centuries of precedent, upon which our society has been built—to say instead that the vows do not have to be kept; that it is not solemn, public and lifelong, but trivial, private and as long or short as people want it.
At the moment, a marriage can end only when the facts—the word “facts” is in our current law—show that the marriage is really over, either because of fault or a separation of at least two years.
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When my party won an 80-seat majority in the election, I knew that it was about much more than getting Brexit done; it was also about responding to the working-class community’s desire for an alternative to the liberal agenda which has dominated politics for so long. So it is with deep regret that I see this Bill brought to the House tonight. We need a Government prepared to back communities, build families and cement social solidarity, and this Bill is injurious to all those objectives.
The biggest shake-up of divorce law in half a century is based on a misunderstanding of what marriage is and the human ideals from which marriage derives its meaning. This Bill reduces marriage to the legal status of a tenancy contract—one that can be dissolved at minimal notice by either party, without any expectation of permanence or any explanation.
Hegel said that marriage is a “substantial tie” that “begins in contract” to “transcend” contract, by abolishing the separation between the parties. Hegel’s point can be put more simply: essentially, a marriage is not a contract but, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) said, a vow. That is why it has such great significance to us and why it is traditionally surrounded by so much ceremony. Roger Scruton put it this way:
“That we can make vows is one part of the great miracle of human freedom; and when we cease to make them, we impoverish our lives by stripping them of lasting commitment.”
It is through our ability to limit and constrain ourselves that we express our true freedom.
Life is not a dreary succession of consumer choices, but a journey marked by moments of transcendental significance, and marriage is one such commitment.
Our existing law is founded on the ancient understanding of what marriage is: a vow. Progressive activists for the Bill, such as the Lord Chancellor’s old ally, David Gauke, say that alleging fault increases acrimony in a divorce, but that notion is based on a misunderstanding of marriage. Changing the law may cheapen marriage, but it cannot change the idealism in which the commitment of one human being to another is founded. Acrimony is almost bound to follow the breaking of such a vow. Regardless of what the law may say, enmity is not a product of the process, but a characteristic of human relations when they break down, and to pretend otherwise is to attempt to deceive this House and the people who vote for us. The current law reflects these facts of life and reflects the significance of the vow that has been made. Fault necessitates expectation.
I agree, and the Bill essentially turns divorce into an administrative formality, removing the breathing space that allows around 10% of divorces that are initiated to be averted. About one in 10 divorces that are started are never actually completed, and that is because of the time available for counselling, for reconciliation, for reconsideration and for trying again. The Bill removes that opportunity. It removes protections for individuals whose spouses seek to terminate their marriage in times of hardship or illness. For many, the changes could mean that faithful, committed husbands lose access to their children, while women cruelly abandoned by errant husbands will have no way of marking that betrayal and no reason offered for why their marriage has ended.
What is most disappointing is that the Government ignored their own consultation. Some 83% of public respondents opposed change. The Bill provides a 20-week period at the start of proceedings, which Ministers say will allow time for reflection, but 20 weeks is not long enough to settle the matters of property or to secure the welfare of children. In any event, the Law Society points out that most of the 20-week period could pass without one respondent to the divorce even knowing about it. Unbelievably, the Bill does not require the applicant to serve a notice on the respondent at the start of the 20 weeks. When that matter was raised in the House of Lords, Lord Keen gave a lukewarm response. He is never the most persuasive Minister. I say it is a basic injustice that must be remedied, not by the Family Procedure Rule Committee, as he suggested, but on the face of this Bill.
We are in perhaps the most challenging time that anyone can remember, yet we bring forward a Bill with such insensitivity that we challenge not only the stability of families, but the very nature of marriage itself. Divorce marks the end of a partnership—the death of a love. As a family ends, all of society is a little weaker. The Lord Chancellor will come to regret this Bill because it is fundamentally un-Conservative. As it makes divorce easier, it makes marriage less significant and will make it less valued, and that is a price that no one here can afford to pay.