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BUSINESS OF THE HOUSE

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 14 (Exempted business),


Question agreed to.

Family Law Bill [Lords]

Again considered in Committee.

Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

Mr. Evans: There is clear evidence that the number of divorces granted during the early years of marriage has increased. My hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst therefore draws the Committee's attention to a serious issue.

Some recent press reports have falsely claimed that the Bill would enable parties to divorce on the first anniversary of their marriage. As I have made clear previously, that is untrue. The current law permits a petition to be served the day after the first anniversary of the marriage. The Bill would effectively double that minimum period before an application for a divorce could be made, although my hon. Friend's amendments would lengthen the period for a further year.

I turn now to the core issue of whether the period for reflection and consideration should be lengthened from the minimum of 12 months proposed in the Bill. Clearly, as I said earlier, that is a matter for the individual judgment of hon. Members. There is a need to restate the fact that the period that we are considering is the period for reflection and consideration following service of the statement of marital breakdown. Accordingly, from the time that the Bill comes into effect, we will be preventing couples from making an application for a divorce order until that minimum period has elapsed.

Although I have no doubt that some hon. Members will find it attractive to opt for a longer period as a quid pro quo for the removal of the need to make allegations of fault, it must be borne in mind that longer periods can create hardship. The longer the period that amendment may bring, the more the argument will gain currency that shortening the period should be granted in particular cases.

I want to make it clear to the Committee that I am strongly opposed to reducing the period below the bare minimum currently in the Bill. We must remember that we are trying to create balanced law tough enough to ensure that couples take marriage seriously and try hard, but not so tough that they reject it altogether. That was a matter of concern to several hon. Members who spoke. Although we have one of the highest marriage rates in Europe, we were reminded that it has been falling in recent years.

24 Apr 1996 : Column 532

Sadly, marriage rates have fallen most sharply among younger people. There are those who believe that making the period for reflection and consideration too long, even if that is being done for the some of the honourable reasons that we have been debating this evening, might affect marriage rates among the young. If marriage is seen as something that is so difficult to get out of if things do go wrong, young people may decide that they prefer to demonstrate their commitment to each other by way of cohabitation rather than marriage. We should be cautious that, with the best of intentions, we do not take any step in the individual judgments we make that would in any way undermine marriage or adversely affect marriage rates.

The hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng) reminded the Committee at the beginning of these debates that we are all making individual judgments, and that no statements made from the Dispatch Box are anything other than the personal views of those who express them. I reiterate those words in relation to the words that I intend to make. In the circumstances, it is necessary for the Committee to know my personal view.

It is my view that the minimum period, even if that length of time is disputed, should be the same in all cases, whether there are children in a marriage or not. I find it difficult to see how extending the period for couples with children can be said to benefit children.

Children, as we would all acknowledge, suffer greatly from their parents' marriage breakdown. As I said to some of my hon. Friends earlier, they suffer particularly from a decision of one parent to leave the marital home. It is clear from all the evidence that that is one of the factors that causes much damage. One reason why we need to focus particularly on that is that, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Dame A. Rumbold) reminded us, sometimes children unjustly and wrongly attribute to themselves the responsibility for their parent's marital breakdown.

In considering those issues, it is important that we do not run the risk of parents, in moments of frustration, blaming their children for the fact that they may have to wait longer to be free of a marriage that they believe to be long finished. That is a danger, bearing in mind all the emotional and practical pressures that inevitably arise in the divorce process. I hope that there will be hon. Members who feel that placing that additional pressure on children is unfair.

The idea that drawing out the period for a lengthier time may be harmful to children is not just my personal view. On Third Reading in another place, my noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor quoted from letters that he had received from a number of children's charities. During this debate, we heard a contribution from the hon. Member for North-West Durham (Ms Armstrong), who referred to her experience with the National Children's Home--I call it that in order not to engage in any sort of backwards attack from my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett-Bowman). [Interruption.]

The Chairman of Ways and Means (Mr. Michael Morris): Order. Hon. Members attending the Chamber should listen to the hon. Member who has the Floor; otherwise, they should have their conversations elsewhere.

Mr. Evans: The National Children's Home and a number of other children's charities have considerable

24 Apr 1996 : Column 533

experience in the area. The Lord Chancellor quoted from letters that he had received from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, The Children's Society, Barnardo's and the National Children's Home, all of which dealt with that concept of lengthening the period where children are involved.

I know that those organisations have written to hon. Members. I do not intend to repeat their comments, but hon Members will be aware that those are the views of some of the most highly respected children's organisations, who have a wealth of experience in this field and whose views I would not dismiss lightly.

At the beginning of this speech, I said that those who have contributed to this debate have done so with sincere and heartfelt opinions. In my opinion, the speeches that we have heard this evening have been sincere, passionate, intelligent and legitimate.

Many hon. Members quoted the injunction that was given to us earlier by the Catholic bishops. I applaud all hon. Members who contributed to the debate, all of whom listened with care to the arguments that were put before the Committee. As I said earlier, we must remember with caution that what we decide tonight will have far-reaching implications. We must examine our views very carefully--whatever decisions we make--and give careful and measured thought to those who will be affected by the way that we vote.

Couples, despite their best efforts, are sometimes involved in the trauma of marital breakdown. The innocent parties to that trauma--who have figured in many speeches--are the children whose whole lives will be affected by what we decide tonight. Therefore, we are not deciding just an intellectual question of how long it should take for couples to prove that their marriage has irretrievably broken down, or a quick gut reaction, or a gesture towards restricting divorce. We are making decisions that will have an effect on the lives of thousands of people and their children. It is a responsibility that we cannot take too seriously.

Mr. Sims: The debate this evening has inevitably centred on the length of time that will be devoted for the period for reflection and consideration. I remind the Committee that the debate started with the amendment that I moved, which would have the effect of making couples who are married unable to initiate divorce proceedings for two years, rather than the one year that is at present the law.

I believe that it is important for us to uphold the status of marriage. The Bill has been criticised for undermining the credibility of marriage--I think, perhaps, inaccurately. Nevertheless, we must send a message from this Committee that marriage is the foundation of our society, and that stable marriages are very important.

People should not get married "unadvisedly, lightly or wantonly"--to quote the Church service--and they should know that, when they get married, they cannot simply dissolve the contract within one year. I think that two years is a perfectly reasonable minimum period. That will be the effect of my amendment on which the first vote will take place. I hope that the Committee will support it.

24 Apr 1996 : Column 534

Question put, That the amendment be made:--

The House divided: Ayes 154, Noes 235.

Division No. 106
[10.12 pm


AYES


Aitken, Rt Hon Jonathan
Alton, David
Amess, David
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)
Atkins, Rt Hon Robert
Baker, Rt Hon Kenneth (Mole V)
Baker, Nicholas (North Dorset)
Banks, Matthew (Southport)
Bates, Michael
Beggs, Roy
Beith, Rt Hon A J
Bellingham, Henry
Bendall, Vivian
Benton, Joe
Booth, Hartley
Bray, Dr Jeremy
Brazier, Julian
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter
Bruce, Ian (South Dorset)
Budgen, Nicholas
Burns, Simon
Burt, Alistair
Butcher, John
Cann, Jamie
Cash, William
Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)
Congdon, David
Conway, Derek
Coombs, Anthony (Wyre For'st)
Coombs, Simon (Swindon)
Dafis, Cynog
Davies, Quentin (Stamford)
Davis, David (Boothferry)
Day, Stephen
Deva, Nirj Joseph
Devlin, Tim
Dixon, Don
Dorrell, Rt Hon Stephen
Duncan Smith, Iain
Eastham, Ken
Evans, David (Welwyn Hatfield)
Evans, Nigel (Ribble Valley)
Evans, Roger (Monmouth)
Evennett, David
Faber, David
Field, Barry (Isle of Wight)
Forsythe, Clifford (S Antrim)
Fox, Dr Liam (Woodspring)
Fox, Rt Hon Sir Marcus (Shipley)
French, Douglas
Fry, Sir Peter
Gale, Roger
Gallie, Phil
Gardiner, Sir George
Gill, Christopher
Gillan, Cheryl
Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles
Gorst, Sir John
Grant, Sir A (SW Cambs)
Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)
Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth, N)
Hague, Rt Hon William
Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archibald
Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)
Hannam, Sir John
Hargreaves, Andrew
Harris, David
Hawksley, Warren
Higgins, Rt Hon Sir Terence
Horam, John
Hughes, Robert G (Harrow W)
Hunt, Rt Hon David (Wirral W)
Hunter, Andrew
Jenkin, Bernard
Jessel, Toby
Jones, Ieuan Wyn (Ynys Mon)
Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham)
Jopling, Rt Hon Michael
Kellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine
King, Rt Hon Tom
Kirkhope, Timothy
Knapman, Roger
Knight, Dame Jill (Bir'm E'st'n)
Leigh, Edward
Lennox-Boyd, Sir Mark
Lidington, David
Lilley, Rt Hon Peter
Lord, Michael
McAvoy, Thomas
Maclean, Rt Hon David
McLoughlin, Patrick
Maitland, Lady Olga
Marlow, Tony
Mates, Michael
Merchant, Piers
Mills, Iain
Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)
Mitchell, Sir David (NW Hants)
Molyneaux, Rt Hon Sir James
Monro, Rt Hon Sir Hector
Montgomery, Sir Fergus
Murphy, Paul
Neubert, Sir Michael
Nicholls, Patrick
Onslow, Rt Hon Sir Cranley
Paice, James
Paisley, The Reverend Ian
Parry, Robert
Patten, Rt Hon John
Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth
Porter, David (Waveney)
Powell, Ray (Ogmore)
Powell, William (Corby)
Redwood, Rt Hon John
Riddick, Graham
Robathan, Andrew
Roberts, Rt Hon Sir Wyn
Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne)
Rumbold, Rt Hon Dame Angela
Sackville, Tom
Scott, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas
Shaw, David (Dover)
Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge)
Sims, Roger
Skeet, Sir Trevor
Skinner, Dennis
Smyth, The Reverend Martin
(Belfast S)
Spearing, Nigel
Spicer, Sir Michael (S Worcs)
Spink, Dr Robert
Spring, Richard
Sproat, Iain
Steinberg, Gerry
Stern, Michael
Streeter, Gary
Sumberg, David
Sweeney, Walter
Taylor, Rt Hon John D (Strgfd)
Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Thornton, Sir Malcolm
Tracey, Richard
Tredinnick, David
Twinn, Dr Ian
Vaughan, Sir Gerard
Waller, Gary
Watts, John
Widdecombe, Ann
Wilkinson, John
Wilshire, David
Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)
Winterton, Nicholas (Macc'f'ld)
Wolfson, Mark
Wood, Timothy
Yeo, Tim

Tellers for the Ayes:


Mr. Michael Alison and
Mr. Donald Anderson.


NOES


Abbott, Ms Diane
Ainsworth, Peter (East Surrey)
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE)
Allen, Graham
Anderson, Ms Janet (Ros'dale)
Armstrong, Hilary
Ashby, David
Banks, Robert (Harrogate)
Barnes, Harry
Barron, Kevin
Bayley, Hugh
Beckett, Rt Hon Margaret
Benn, Rt Hon Tony
Bermingham, Gerald
Berry, Roger
Betts, Clive
Biffen, Rt Hon John
Boateng, Paul
Boswell, Tim
Bottomley, Rt Hon Virginia
Bradley, Keith
Brandreth, Gyles
Bright, Sir Graham
Brown, M (Brigg & Cl'thorpes)
Burden, Richard
Butler, Peter
Butterfill, John
Byers, Stephen
Caborn, Richard
Callaghan, Jim
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)
Carlisle, Sir Kenneth (Lincoln)
Carrington, Matthew
Channon, Rt Hon Paul
Chapman, Sir Sydney
Chisholm, Malcolm
Clapham, Michael
Clark, Dr David (South Shields)
Clarke, Eric (Midlothian)
Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Ru'clif)
Clwyd, Mrs Ann
Coe, Sebastian
Coffey, Ann
Corbyn, Jeremy
Corston, Jean
Cousins, Jim
Cunningham, Jim (Covy SE)
Currie, Mrs Edwina (S D'by'ire)
Curry, David (Skipton & Ripon)
Darling, Alistair
Davidson, Ian
Denham, John
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James
Dover, Den
Dowd, Jim
Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth
Dykes, Hugh
Eagle, Ms Angela
Eggar, Rt Hon Tim
Etherington, Bill
Evans, Jonathan (Brecon)
Fabricant, Michael
Fatchett, Derek
Fishburn, Dudley
Fisher, Mark
Flynn, Paul
Forman, Nigel
Forth, Eric
Foster, Rt Hon Derek
Foster, Don (Bath)
Foulkes, George
Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman
Freeman, Rt Hon Roger
Galbraith, Sam
Gapes, Mike
Garel-Jones, Rt Hon Tristan
Garnier, Edward
Gerrard, Neil
Godman, Dr Norman A
Godsiff, Roger
Golding, Mrs Llin
Goodlad, Rt Hon Alastair
Gorman, Mrs Teresa
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Grocott, Bruce
Gummer, Rt Hon John Selwyn
Hall, Mike
Hampson, Dr Keith
Hanson, David
Harman, Ms Harriet
Harvey, Nick
Haselhurst, Sir Alan
Heald, Oliver
Heathcoat-Amory, Rt Hon David
Heppell, John
Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael
Hill, Keith (Streatham)
Hodge, Margaret
Hogg, Rt Hon Douglas (G'tham)
Hogg, Norman (Cumbernauld)
Hoon, Geoffrey
Hordern, Rt Hon Sir Peter
Howard, Rt Hon Michael
Howarth, Alan (Strat'rd-on-A)
Howarth, George (Knowsley North)
Howell, Rt Hon David (G'dford)
Hoyle, Doug
Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
Hutton, John
Illsley, Eric
Ingram, Adam
Jack, Michael
Jackson, Glenda (H'stead)
Jackson, Helen (Shef'ld, H)
Janner, Greville
Jenkins, Brian (S.E. Staffs)
Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey
Jones, Barry (Alyn and D'side)
Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)
Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C)
Jones, Lynne (B'ham S O)
Jones, Robert B (W Hertfdshr)
Kennedy, Jane (L'pool Br'dg'n)
Khabra, Piara S
Kirkwood, Archy
Knight, Mrs Angela (Erewash)
Knight, Rt Hon Greg (Derby N)
Knox, Sir David
Kynoch, George (Kincardine)
Lait, Mrs Jacqui
Lang, Rt Hon Ian
Lawrence, Sir Ivan
Liddell, Mrs Helen
Livingstone, Ken
Lloyd, Rt Hon Sir Peter (Fareham)
Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)
Llwyd, Elfyn
Loyden, Eddie
Luff, Peter
Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas
Lynne, Ms Liz
McCartney, Ian
Macdonald, Calum
McFall, John
MacGregor, Rt Hon John
MacKay, Andrew
Mackinlay, Andrew
Maclennan, Robert
MacShane, Denis
Madden, Max
Madel, Sir David
Mahon, Alice
Major, Rt Hon John
Marland, Paul
Marshall, Jim (Leicester, S)
Marshall, John (Hendon S)
Martlew, Eric
Mawhinney, Rt Hon Dr Brian
Maxton, John
Mayhew, Rt Hon Sir Patrick
Meacher, Michael
Meale, Alan
Michael, Alun
Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)
Milburn, Alan
Miller, Andrew
Mitchell, Austin (Gt Grimsby)
Moonie, Dr Lewis
Morgan, Rhodri
Morley, Elliot
Morris, Estelle (B'ham Yardley)
Mudie, George
Mullin, Chris
Needham, Rt Hon Richard
Newton, Rt Hon Tony
O'Brien, Mike (N W'kshire)
O'Brien, William (Normanton)
Oppenheim, Phillip
Ottaway, Richard
Page, Richard
Pattie, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey
Pawsey, James
Pickthall, Colin
Pike, Peter L
Pope, Greg
Prentice, Bridget (Lew'm E)
Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)
Primarolo, Dawn
Quin, Ms Joyce
Radice, Giles
Rendel, David
Renton, Rt Hon Tim
Robertson, George (Hamilton)
Robinson, Mark (Somerton)
Roche, Mrs Barbara
Sainsbury, Rt Hon Sir Timothy
Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey)
Sheerman, Barry
Shephard, Rt Hon Gillian
Shersby, Sir Michael
Short, Clare
Simpson, Alan
Smith, Chris (Isl'ton S & F'sbury)
Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)
Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)
Soames, Nicholas
Soley, Clive
Spellar, John
Squire, Rachel (Dunfermline W)
Squire, Robin (Hornchurch)
Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John
Steen, Anthony
Stevenson, George
Stott, Roger
Taylor, John M (Solihull)
Temple-Morris, Peter
Tipping, Paddy
Touhig, Don
Turner, Dennis
Tyler, Paul
Waldegrave, Rt Hon William
Walden, George
Wallace, James
Ward, John
Wardell, Gareth (Gower)
Wareing, Robert N
Watson, Mike
Whitney, Ray
Whittingdale, John
Wicks, Malcolm
Wigley, Dafydd
Worthington, Tony
Young, David (Bolton SE)
Young, Rt Hon Sir George

Tellers for the Noes:


Mr. Peter Bottomley and
Sir Jim Lester.

Question accordingly negatived.

24 Apr 1996 : Column 536

It being later than three hours after the commencement of the proceedings on the clause, The Chairman put the Questions then required to be put.

Amendment proposed: No. 7, in page 5, line 14, at end add--


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