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Baroness Young: My Lords, after two hours of debate, it is very difficult to do justice in replying to it. But I should like to start by thanking all those who have supported me. I am particularly grateful to my noble friend Lady Elles, the noble Lords, Lord Stoddart and Lord Stallard, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, and the noble Lord, Lord Jakobovits, who have walked this very long path together since Second Reading and throughout all the stages of the Bill.
There are others, too, to whom I am most grateful. If I do not reply to every point that has been made, I think your Lordships will be grateful because I am sure we do not want to stay here for much longer. I should also like to thank the noble Earl, Lord Russell. Kind remarks from those who do not agree with what you have to say are all the more sincere. I very much respect his point of view, as I know he respects mine. I thank him for what he has said. I am also particularly grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon, and to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, both of whom have entered into the debate for the first time and have given me their support.
I am deeply disappointed that my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor feels unable to accept this amendment which was offered in the spirit of compromise. In replying to his remarks, I start by thanking him for the many amendments he has made to the Bill for which I am deeply appreciative-- I know many others are as well. Those are
First, he said that he had consulted widely. He has done so. He has consulted a great many people. I recognise that the Bill is based on the work of the Law Commission. A White Paper has been produced, and we have had the views of lawyers and a great many experts in the field. We all have our own experiences, but I can only say to the House that in my entire political experience, which now, I regret to say, extends almost 50 years, since I was a Young Conservative--that is a long time ago--I have never had such support for anything as I have had for the stand I have taken in this case. It has been quite extraordinary, extending from people stopping me in the street to people in shops where I normally shop coming up to me and saying, "We have seen you on television and we so agree with what you have had to say". I have been astonished. I believe that by raising the issues we have raised in the House, we have tapped into a very deep feeling of great anxiety in society that marriage is breaking down and we must do more to buttress it.
I know that every statistician will say that personal example does not prove anything at all. Before someone says so, I shall accept their argument. But all of us in public life know when something we are doing is popular; we know even more rapidly when something we are doing is not popular. The experience that I have had has been quite extraordinary.
The noble and learned Lord quoted statistics about divorce, which I wrote down at the time. He said that 80 per cent. of divorces take place within a year or less. I do not see how that can be the same. I am looking at the table from which the noble and learned Lord quoted. As, in fact, 26 per cent. of divorces take between two and five years, I do not see how 80 per cent. can take less than a year. No doubt we can argue about these figures afterwards.
The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, there may be confusion about the time before the divorce process starts, which in the two to five year period is the same, and the actual period of time that the process itself takes.
Baroness Young: My Lords, I know that it is a very dangerous thing to start arguing about figures with a mathematician. Were my husband here he would tell me to stop at once, and that advice is probably very sound. We might discuss this matter afterwards. The fact is that I am not entirely satisfied that the figures are quite as stated.
The noble and learned Lord said that there are many opportunities in the Bill for the postponement of the actual divorce itself, and those are greatly to be welcomed. I do not in any way wish to cast doubt on them or to say that I am anything but very grateful to my noble and learned friend for introducing these
My noble and learned friend concluded by reading out two letters, one from the NSPCC and the other from the Children's Society. I accept what they have to say and their sincerity. What I find most extraordinary about the letters from the societies is that in Scotland, where 60 per cent. of divorces take at least two years, and in Northern Ireland, where 73 per cent. of divorces take two years or more, we have no outcry about the damage being done to children. There is no move to shorten the length of time. If we look further afield into Europe we find that there is a much longer period before couples with children can get a divorce and where one spouse does not consent. Those countries are always being held up to us as having fewer divorces. We do not hear about damage to children.
This debate has turned on the issue of damage to the children. In public life one of the first questions one asks about any change in practice is whether we have any examples where that has happened, either in this country or abroad. One of the most extraordinary features of this debate has been the refusal to look at the facts of other countries where these matters are now happening. In the whole of the argument about fault, the evidence is overwhelming in the United States that it increases the number of divorces.
I return to the issue of children. The evidence is perfectly clear. In countries where there are lower divorce rates--something which I believe we all want--there is a longer period of time. I do not believe that there is any evidence that the children suffer more there. They are going to suffer wherever it is. They are the innocent victims in all of these matters. I ask your Lordships to look at the evidence of other countries and to ask: if it works there, why would it not work here?
As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, rightly said, this is not an enormous amendment. It is a compromise and an opportunity for people to think again. I met someone over the weekend who said that they had been separated for four years, but before the divorce had come through they had got together again. Is that not the sort of thing that we want to encourage? I appreciate the sadness and tragedy of which the noble Lord, Lord Marsh, spoke and I try to understand his feelings. But surely for all of us we must try to do all we can to encourage reconciliation, to buttress marriage, to support the fabric of society and to help the children who are the innocent victims of divorce.
I ask your Lordships to support me in this amendment, which will extend from one year to 18 months the period where a couple with children, or where one spouse does not want a divorce, have to wait and to leave the period at a year for couples without children where both are agreed. I wish to test the opinion of the House on this matter.
Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.