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Lord Meston moved Amendment No.209A:

Page 57, line 35, at end insert--
(" . After paragraph 11 of Schedule 2 to the Children Act 1989 there shall be inserted--
" . Every local authority shall take such steps as are reasonably practical and as may be necessary, to advise, assist and, where appropriate, befriend those families with dependent children which notify a Court that the marriage or relationship has broken down or is in danger of breaking down.".").

The noble Lord said: The noble Baroness, Lady Elles, asked me to express her regret that she cannot be here to move this amendment and has asked me to do so on her behalf. At present no steps are required to be taken by a local authority when marriages get into difficulty. A visit to a solicitor is often the first step, followed by divorce. There is a role for the churches and the counselling agencies but they are voluntary and need first to be approached by a party to the marriage. Parties may not know of their services. In the first instance, a local authority has a role to fill that gap. Its services should be activated after parties notify the court of the breakdown of their marriage - that is, when there is the initial statement of breakdown. Local authorities should make available their services to advise, assist and, where appropriate, to befriend those families with dependent children. The local authority may then assist those families to seek help from counselling agencies or the Church, which would keep costs to a reasonable level.

I know that the noble Baroness was particularly anxious that in the divorce process the voice of the child should be heard and that the child should have someone to speak to and, where appropriate, to assist him or her. That is the purpose of the amendment. It strikes me that the amendment meets a need which, to some extent, used to be met by the old Section 41 of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973. Since the amendment of that section

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of the Children Act l989, the usefulness of Section 41 has diminished considerably. It is on that basis that, on behalf of the noble Baroness, I beg to move.

The Lord Chancellor: The court's power in Section 16 of the Children Act to make a family assistance order in any family proceedings has certain similarities to the amendment. That order can apply to specific members of the family or to the family as a whole, and can be made whether or not any other order is made in relation to the child. It is a short-term order designed to provide the expert help of a probation officer or local authority officer to promote co-operation within the family or to assist it to cope with problems arising during what may be a difficult period of transition following divorce or separation.

However, that involvement will clearly not be necessary or appropriate in every case, and the Act therefore provides that before making an order the court must be satisfied that the circumstances are exceptional and that the consent of every person named in the order other than the child is obtained.

The proposed amendment would be in addition to the court's power to make a family assistance order. Local authorities would be required to become involved whenever the court was notified of the breakdown or impending breakdown of a relationship, and to decide themselves what steps it was reasonably practical and necessary to take. I consider that, as at present, decisions of that nature are best exercised by the courts in the light of all the circumstances of the individual case, which is essentially the power under Section 16.

In addition, the amendment is unclear on whom the onus to notify the local authority would rest. It appears that an obligation would be placed upon the court to keep a record of notices received and to pass them to the local authority. Also, it does not require the consent to the referral of all the parties involved. The latter is essential, as, if there is opposition to the involvement of an outside agency from within the family, then that involvement is unlikely to be successful in resolving the difficulties that may exist. The principle of the Children Act is that only where intervention in family life is necessary is it right for a local authority, for example, to become involved.

The Government are committed to providing help to support services to families where the need arises to help them resolve areas of conflict and to protect the welfare of the children involved. However, I believe that families should not be subject to the intervention of outside agencies unless it is clear that that is genuinely necessary. In the great majority of cases, it is likely that local authority intervention of the type proposed by the amendment would not be appropriate, and thus substantial time and resources would be wasted in unnecessary investigations which could well have the effect of exacerbating tensions within the family.

I understand well my noble friend's concerns, so well expressed on her behalf by the noble Lord, Lord Meston, but I believe that Section 16 of the Children Act strikes the appropriate balance between those concerns and the need to preserve the autonomy of families generally when considering intervention by

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outside agencies. Therefore I hope that my noble friend and the noble Lord will see that it is better to address those concerns within the powers existing under Section 16 to which I have referred.

Lord Meston: The amendment was designed, as I understand it, to provide a practical method of notification of local authorities. It has to be said that even the exceptional circumstances which would normally provide for a family assistance order can be overlooked under the existing process. Perhaps the way to cater for the needs which the amendment seeks to meet would be for the Government to consider breathing some fresh life into Section 4l of the Matrimonial Causes Act l973. That is something that may have to be looked at later. I am sure that the noble Baroness would wish me to reserve her position. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Schedule 6 agreed to.

Schedule 7 [Transfer of certain tenancies on divorce etc. or on separation of cohabitants]:

The Lord Chancellor moved Amendment No. 210:

Page 58, line 45, leave out ("respective").

The noble and learned Lord said: I spoke to this amendment with Amendment No. 186. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Schedule 7, as amended, agreed to.

Schedule 8 [Minor and Consequential Amendments]:

Lord Meston moved Amendment No. 211:

Page 62, line 44, leave out ("months") and insert ("weeks").

The noble Lord said: The schedule reproduces Section 1(5) of the Matrimonial Causes Act which provides that the time between the decree nisi and the decree absolute in a nullity suit should be six months unless a shorter period is fixed. Since 1972 the period has actually been six weeks and it seems absurd to re-enact a period of six months. On that basis, I beg to move.

The Lord Chancellor: I am happy to consider this amendment. However, there is a question as to whether if one does this the power of the High Court to shorten the period further should be preserved. It may be that at this juncture the thing to do is to fix the period in the primary legislation and leave it at that. However, I shall be happy to consider that further.

Lord Meston: I am grateful for that indication. I would wish the power of the court to shorten the period to be preserved. But, subject to that observation, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 212 to 212C not moved.]

Schedule 8 agreed to.

Schedule 9 [Modifications, Saving and Transitional]:

The Lord Chancellor moved Amendment No. 213:

Page 78, leave out lines 13 to 18.

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The noble and learned Lord said: This is a drafting amendment. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Schedule 9, as amended, agreed to.

Remaining schedule agreed to.

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House resumed: Bill reported with amendments.

Reserve Forces Bill [H.L.]

Reported from the Committee (on Recommitment) in the Moses Room with an amendment and ordered to be reprinted as amended.

        House adjourned at twenty-eight minutes past eleven o'clock.

30 Jan 1996 : Column CWH99

Official Report of the Committee on the

Reserve Forces Bill [H.L.] (on Recommitment, second day)

Tuesday, 30th January 1996.

The Committee met in the Moses Room at half past three of the clock.

[The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Ampthill) in the Chair.]

Clause 56 [Call out for certain operations]:

On Question, Whether Clause 56 shall stand part of the Bill?

Lord Judd: Before we endorse this clause, I hope that it might be in order to raise one or two points. First, we on this side of the Committee--as I am sure noble Lords on all sides of the Committee--would want to put on record our unqualified admiration for the tremendous work, particularly in recent years, which has been done by the armed services in the context of the kind of role described in Clause 56. I also would hazard to say that my impression is that it gives a great deal of professional satisfaction to those involved, who feel that they are already making a very useful contribution to humanity.

That work obviously overlaps with the work of many existing humanitarian agencies. In a sense, I should certainly declare an interest because my professional life has mainly been spent in such agencies. Some of them are non-governmental voluntary agencies, and some, of course, are the big United Nations multi-national agencies. It would be reassuring for us all to hear the kind of conversations and discussions that have been taking place with those who have traditionally done this work about how best the role can be dovetailed, and how best it can be mutually supportive and effective.

Perhaps I may illustrate that by mentioning some questions that I have personally heard raised. First, among people who are in no sense negative about the armed services, who greatly appreciate the armed forces and armed services, they ask whether the services will not, inevitably, in the aftermath of the Cold War, be looking for a role. Finding a role is not necessarily quite the same as finding the most cost-effective way or the most relevant way of delivering a particular service--they do not necessarily coincide. There is some public anxiety around that point and it would be very good to hear the noble Earl's views on it.

Then there is the issue of neutrality. Some humanitarian agencies would claim that essential to their success in history has been the fact that they demonstrably have no vested interest in any party to a conflict; they are concerned about people in a situation, and it is that that has given them access, sometimes in

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some of the most difficult circumstances. Would that role be as available to the armed forces and how would the reserve forces play their part within that?

There is also the whole issue of the professional competencies involved in humanitarian work, relief work, and so on. Here, it would be very interesting to look in a little more detail at the arrangements that are being made between the reserve forces, the mainstream forces and the humanitarian and voluntary agencies about sharing competencies, learning from each other, and the rest.

I raise these questions because they are anxieties. On this side of the Committee we are very positive towards this Clause. It provides a very distinguished and exciting role for the armed services to play, and we wish it well. We would like to see it get off to the best possible start. Therefore to hear the noble Earl's thinking about some of these issues would be helpful.

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