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The Lord Bishop of Oxford: I am sorry to intervene, but I feel I must correct the noble Lord. I can assure him that preparation for marriage for couples getting married in the Church of England is taken more seriously than it has ever been. It now takes a number of evenings. It is not simply a matter of a little chat with the couple or going through the service. It is taken very seriously. Often professional marriage support agencies are brought in to help.

Lord Stallard: I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate and I am delighted to hear it. That is how it should be. That is what we want to extend. We ought to extend our support to all those organisations which concentrate on that aspect. Even in schools we ought to be looking at preparation for what is a serious contract.

As it stands the Bill does not take care of that aspect. We are left with the amendments, which try to reduce the conflict. It is not only conflict which makes children suffer; the legal process makes them suffer even more. I hope that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor will take note of what has been said, which has all been in the same vein, before he finally wraps up the Bill.
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The Lord Chancellor: It is certainly my business to listen carefully to all that has been said. As the noble Lord, Lord Stallard, said, there is a theme, mentioned more than once, upon which all who have spoken are agreed. I should like to begin by responding to my noble friend Lady Elles. I certainly did not mean to treat her remarks on the last occasion other than with the utmost respect. I meant to show why it is not easy to say, from the experience of other jurisdictions, what causes a rise or fall in the divorce rate. That is what I sought to say. In no way was I seeking to minimise or undervalue what the noble Baroness said.

That brings me to the suggestion that the welfare of children is not at the forefront of what is proposed in the Bill and in the White Paper which preceded it. Speaking for myself, I consider that the welfare of children affected by marital breakdown is the centre of what we are about. I believe that we have a responsibility to ensure, as the noble Lord, Lord Stallard, said a moment ago, that the divorce process does not make the situation worse for the children. That is exactly what the Bill is intended to achieve: that the divorce process does not make it worse than it needs to be for the children and, of course, also for the parents.

I am the first to acknowledge, indeed to assert, that breakdown between parents is a disaster for their children. I believe that, in the ordinary course of events, children grow up to love and to be united to both parents as a unity because they have been accustomed to treat the parents as a unit. I think that good parents do their best to give that impression to their children at every opportunity. When the parents start to come apart, the child is almost torn apart because there is an affection in the child for each of the parents.

It is that thought which is behind my view that we should do everything that we possibly can to persuade the parents to stay together. That is the philosophy which underlies the Bill. However, if, having had every opportunity to consider that, the parents decide that they wish their marriage to be dissolved, a regime should be in place which minimises the danger and damage to the relationship with each parent. I think that it is clear that breakdown damages children. But it is also clear that to be able to maintain a relationship after the breakdown with both parents is the best outcome for the children in that sad situation.

The noble Lord, Lord Stallard, shakes his head rather deliberately. I do not know whether he means to contradict that proposition. I think that it is absolutely plain that of the children who, sadly, are afflicted by divorce, the ones who do best in later times, who develop best, are those who are able to maintain a good relationship with both their parents.

I believe it is clear that the Bill seeks to give parents every opportunity, before the final decision to divorce is taken, to consider those matters. One of the matters to be considered in terms of the Bill is the arrangements made for the children. Where there is difference about that, all the machinery of the
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Children Act applies. I believe that in practice the Children Act has been found in private and public law provisions to be of very great value.

We have to keep another matter in mind. When parents come into conflict there is a tendency, sadly, in some situations for them to seek to treat the children as pawns or as symbols of victory on one side or another. We must do everything we possibly can to prevent that.

I should like to follow what my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter said. The centre of this debate is on what can be done in relation to the interests of children in connection with the divorce order. I think that it would be going too far to try to prevent divorce in every case where there is a child of the family under 16 or under 18.

This may be the right time to mention the letter referred to by my noble and learned friend Lord Simon of Glaisdale in introducing his amendment. He asked me a little time ago whether I could give the different relevant ages of children in relation to certain proceedings. I shall summarise the letter as it is rather long. The Children Act 1989 private law proceedings allow residence orders to children up to the age of 16 but it also provides for orders to continue beyond that age where the circumstances are exceptional. In care proceedings, no care or supervision order may be made in respect of a child who has reached the age of 17, or 16 if he or she is married. Wardship may be awarded up to 18. A child is defined in the Child Support Act as a person under the age of 16, or under the age of 19 when receiving full-time non-advanced education who has not been married. Under the Children Act, financial provisions for children apply where the child is aged under 18 but Schedule 1(3) allows a periodical payments order to be extended for a child over 18 who is or will be undergoing education, or where there are special circumstances. I believe that those are the main headings. I shall not weary the Committee with others. A number of different ages ranging from 16 to 18 are relevant to the matter. In any event, I submit to the Committee that to attempt to prevent divorce where there are children under the age of 16 or 18 is going much too far.

On Amendment No. 8, for many the fact that the order of divorce is being made at all would be regarded as contrary to the interests of the children if one embraces the philosophy that I mentioned earlier, in the sense that it would be better for the children if there were no marital breakdown and the parties stayed together. On the other hand, later amendments are directed also to the hardship bar which may well mean that at that stage a discretion should exist in the court to postpone the order of divorce. Indeed, Section 41 of the Act—it is already taken into account in connection with the arrangements for children—would allow the order to be postponed in some circumstances. Therefore, there are ways in which the interests of the children, in so far as they can be attained by a postponement of the order of divorce, may be taken into account. We can perhaps consider that in more detail later.
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The noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, suggested that the Bill has the effect of increasing the scope for divorce. In my submission to the Committee, the whole purpose of the Bill is to do what reasonably can be done to give the parties an opportunity to consider carefully before they go forward to an ultimate divorce. Perhaps I may emphasise one aspect. The noble Lord, Lord Stallard, said that mediation is about what will happen. One important consideration in deciding whether to divorce is what will happen. Sometimes, parties go ahead and divorce without realising what the practical effects will be. They know what the present situation is and the aspects of it for which they do not care. But it is very difficult to know what the future will be like.

The noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, sometimes echoes the views of Families Need Fathers on this aspect. One of the most devastating consequences of divorce for some fathers is that they have the greatest difficulty maintaining suitable contact with their children. A firm realisation of that at an earlier stage in the development of the relationship with the mother of their children might have a very salutary effect in preventing them going forward. It is therefore important that the mediation provisions are in the Bill, and that the Bill envisages mediation as a way of examining the future in order that parties may consider whether they want such a future or whether they would prefer to seek to repair the relationship and proceed with their marriage.

We should do everything we can within the framework of the law to encourage parties to stay with a living marriage and to have that marriage continue alive. There are obviously different standards and measures of that. But in reality it is the parties who must ultimately conclude the matter in the light of all the circumstances.

The interests of the children are at the heart of the Bill. This is one of the most important matters to be resolved before a divorce goes forward. I agree that it would be unwise to stipulate that no divorce should take place where there are children under 16 or 18. I share entirely the anxiety about children expressed by my noble and learned friend Lord Simon of Glaisdale in moving the amendment, by my noble friend Lady Elles and by all others who spoke on these matters. If I could achieve that all who are married stay happily together married, I should be absolutely delighted. I believe that marriage is the most rewarding of all human institutions and the best possible background and atmosphere in which children should be brought up. I do not seek to encourage divorce when I say that we have, however, to face the fact that marriages break down. We have to make the best arrangements we can when that happens and do everything we can within that framework to preserve, as far as possible, opportunities for the parties to keep their marriages going.

I hope that in the light of this discussion my noble and learned friend will feel able to withdraw his amendment, realising that many of the sentiments that
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underlie his moving of it are embraced in all parts of the House and that we are all anxious to secure the best practicable arrangements for achieving those results.

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