Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill [Lords] DebateFull Debate: Read Full Debate
Sir Edward LeighMain Page: Sir Edward Leigh (Conservative) - Gainsborough)
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Order. A reminder that there is pressure on time. There are still quite a few speakers, who would be well advised to take pretty well under 10 minutes to allow everyone to speak. I call Sir Edward Leigh.
But it is even worse than that because, as the Law Society points out, the respondent might not even know that they were being divorced. It will usually be a lady who is divorced by a man who has gone, as my right hon. Friend has described, and they might not know and then they would be divorced by January. That is the harsh reality we are facing and it is appalling that a Conservative Government should impose that on us.
We have had a very wide-ranging debate this afternoon with some very impressive contributions from Members. I wish to focus on two particular areas of concern for me, which are my driving motivation for supporting the Government in bringing forward this legislation. They are the significance of fault in the context of divorce and, most importantly from a personal perspective, the impact that it has on children and their future life chances.
On the significance of fault, it is very clear from all the contributions made by hon. and right hon. Members in the Chamber that there is strong cross-party consensus about the importance of supporting effective, strong and stable relationships for the benefit of our society. All of us will have seen in our constituency casework those situations where relationships have broken down. For a variety of reasons, they may well not be the reasons that end up being cited as couples seek to part through the process of divorce. An example of that is domestic violence, which can be enormously difficult to prove. Abuse may have been going on for a long time behind closed doors, but the requirement to demonstrate fault and to demonstrate that through the legal process may lead to other issues being used as a proxy in a way that demonstrates something that is deeply unproductive for people who are seeking to bring an end to a relationship in the best possible interests of each party. For society as a whole, it may lead to us pushing our citizens down a route that forces them to bring about an acrimonious end to a relationship with all the damage that that causes to their family and their wider community of friends and neighbours when there is an alternative available to us that is represented in this Bill. Therefore, it seems that it is a positive step that we will no longer require people who wish to separate to enter into this deeply conflictual and damaging process.
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My right hon. Friend makes a very powerful point, but we also need to recognise that the context of our society today is very much of the view that five years is a long time to wait and that the process that is required where fault is established in order to undertake the divorce more quickly is one that inevitably leads to this degree of conflict. Let me move on to the key point—
If I may, in respect of others who wish to speak and time being short, I will move on.
This issue of conflict and the impact that it has on children is at the heart of the concern that I feel and, for me, the significance and the value of pressing ahead with this legislation. The organisations that I have cited previously in the discussions on this issue—the Early Intervention Foundation, Tavistock Relationships and the Local Government Association—have a huge stake in supporting children in our society. They may have a political or a religious affiliation or no affiliation whatever, but all identified that it is not the fact that a divorce is taking place, but the fact that there is conflict in the relationship between those two parents that causes the damage to children and their life chances. For me, that is incredibly important, and it is backed up not just by the evidence on the relationship damage caused by divorce, but, conversely, by very good evidence about the significance of really effective and positive co-parenting. Society, I think, has already moved in that direction. We see many, many examples of non-traditional couples, who are brilliant and effective parents, giving children a fantastic start in life. Of course, many of us enjoy and are positive about seeing that in the context of traditional marriage. However, we need to recognise that, when such a relationship runs into difficulty, the opportunity we can create through this Bill for a less acrimonious separation—to help preserve and support that effective co-parenting relationship between the two separating adults—is incredibly important for the future opportunities and life chances of those children.
Finally, I would like to make the point that I very much support what a number of colleagues have said about the significance and importance of counselling. When people have made the enormously important decision to get married, it is a very significant decision to move away from that, and counselling should be supported and made available as far as possible. However, that is not a reason not to support this legislation.
I am extremely passionate about the significance that the absence of conflict will have for ensuring that children, who could benefit from a constructive co-parenting relationship with adults who have none the less sought to divorce, is available to those children, rather than potentially perpetuating a situation in which acrimonious division between separating parents has a lifelong impact on those children for their futures. For those reasons, I remain strongly in support of the direction that the Government are taking.
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It is pleasure to see the Lord Chancellor in his place. I am sorry if the queue—or perhaps short legs—meant that I arrived just as he was getting to his feet. I did not get the chance earlier, but I pay tribute to the work of the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), who dealt with the Committee stage with great skill and commitment.
I welcome the Bill because, as I said on Second Reading, I am a one nation, mainstream Conservative who believes that it is as well to legislate for the world as it is rather than the world as it should be. That is what we have done with this Bill. Ultimately, a law that does not reflect the way people live their lives falls into disrepute. We are avoiding that situation with this legislation. I know that that is genuinely painful for a number of Members in this House, but it is also genuinely painful for anyone to go through the matter of divorce.
I was glad that my right hon. and learned Friend gave the indication that he did to my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), because he raised an important point about how we deal with assisting people through this most difficult of situations. I know of my hon. Friend’s good faith in this matter and that he will pursue that; many people have much sympathy with that point.
I wish to say one other thing. We will rightly remove the question of the need to prove fault and the contention and antagonism that that causes. I hope that we can now concentrate on the question of financial orders and children, and that we make sure that that can be done as expeditiously as possible. The other thing that could perhaps remove antagonism in the process is access to early legal advice.
I have always taken the view, as the Lord Chancellor knows, that we perhaps took too much out of legal aid funding in some areas; the removal of legal aid support for early advice in matrimonial matters was, I think, an error, and it does no harm to admit that. The Justice Committee has called in a number of reports for it to be reinstated. I accept that this Bill is not the vehicle for it, but I hope that, when the Lord Chancellor has discussions with the Chancellor and others, he will bear in mind that that would be a sensible, humane and civilised thing to do. In practical terms, it will be much better if mediation can be used to resolve many of those matters once the process of divorce is dealt with in a much less stringent manner, and it has been demonstrated clearly in evidence to our Select Committee that the best gateway to mediation and a much more collaborative approach to achieving resolution is through early access to a lawyer, because the lawyers are the gatekeepers of the mediation process. Money spent on that would, I submit, be money well spent both in terms of savings of court time and burdens on social services when having to resolve confrontational custody and child-related applications, and in terms of society as a whole. It would also be the decent thing to do. With those comments and with the knowledge that my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor will take them on board, I commend the Bill the House.
I am not a lawyer and I make no apology for that. We who are elected here come from all sorts of backgrounds, and whatever our background, we are equal and our voices should all be heard.
I heard what my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill) said about fashions and all of that. When I was first elected to Parliament, Margaret Thatcher was the Prime Minister and Lord Hailsham was the Lord Chancellor. I fully accept that the world was different then. When I and people like me compare what our party is doing now to what it did then, it is a bit of a shock. If I fast forward to when Lord Mackay of Clashfern was Lord Chancellor—a wonderful Lord Chancellor, who is very much on the ball these days, even though he is over 90—and remember the position he took in 1996, I share his worries.
As I said earlier, I do not think this debate is about saying that people should not live together, or that it is about celebrating marriage. Regardless of how my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor has explained the situation, I am worried that my party is giving out a message, and when messages are put out on social media and in the newspapers, that is what people grab. I am just a little worried that, although my right hon. and learned Friend, to whom I listened carefully, has reassured us about reconciliation and all other matters, it may just make a margin. I go back to what I said, to pick up on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, that yes, people change, but at the end of it all, human beings are human beings and relationships are relationships. It is a big step to get married, and the fallout of divorce is truly shocking. The Minister, who did a wonderful job in summing up, responded to the amendments earlier, but I repeat that I would much prefer fewer people getting married, if marriage is no longer going to be fashionable, than see divorce increase.
The final thing I would say to my right hon. and learned Friend is that I think the whole House wants him to succeed with this legislation, but if he is wrong and I am right, and we see more divorces, I would be very interested to learn how the Government will deal with that situation. Obviously, I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend is right about what he wants to achieve, but I have been here and listened to many Ministers state things before, and of course there is a huge gap between their saying something and learning how it impacts five, 10, 15 or 20 years later. I just hope that on this occasion I am wrong.