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Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale: My Lords, if the noble Lord will forgive me, I feel that I must draw the attention of the House to the tight schedule for this debate. Every speaker so far has adhered to what I know is a strict timetable. I appeal to other noble Lords to do the same.

Lord Jakobovits: My Lords, perhaps I may make a final point in the light of that justified reminder.

We believe that the education for marriage starts long before birth, and is never finished. We are bidden to go into marriage preparation, which is so widely neglected today, by making sure that we do not allow children to be born and raised without some form of preparation and training in the most delicate art of human relations. If we succeed, the rewards will be infinite and the rejoicing in countless thousands and millions of homes will be immense.

3.49 p.m.

Lord Ahmed: My Lords, I too should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for initiating this very important debate. Perhaps it is appropriate for me to speak on the Muslim perspective when the Christian and Jewish leaders have spoken before me.

The family occupies a special status in Islamic teachings on marriage and is seen as the cornerstone of Muslim society. Not only is it a source of mutual comfort, care and protection for the nuclear family unit, but through the extended family social and blood ties are strengthened, responsibilities are shared and respect and appreciation grow across generations. The extended

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family then can operate as an independent social unit. Characteristic of this is the support offered by family members through both good times and bad, and very often, this can entail help, either financially or emotionally. This notion of "family" is so strong that many Muslims apply this concept to their social circles in the absence of the extended family. Of course, that also applies to many other communities.

I wish to concentrate on the legalities of the Muslim marriages in Britain today. I draw your Lordships' attention to the Shariah Application Acts 1935 and 1937 which are significant pieces of legislation passed by the British Parliament in which the Muslim personal laws were recognised during the time of British India. Even after the creation of Pakistan, while it remained a British dominion between 1947 and 1954, the Privy Council remained as the Supreme Court of Pakistan and several matters came before the Privy Council in which their Lordships made decisions in matters pertaining to Muslim personal law.

I have become aware that a number of structural and institutional issues face British Muslims and members of other major non-Christian faiths when entering into marriages in Britain. These issues become difficulties and barriers when people wish to assert their religious rights, if and when a marriage does break down.

Therefore, I propose the following for consideration. First, of paramount importance is the need for research that clearly identifies the problems, issues and experiences faced by Britain's non-Christian populations when contracting marriages like Nikkah and seeking annulments and divorces. Secondly, non-Christian marriages should be awarded some legal recognition in respect of civil marriages. After all, the aims of both are life-long commitment and, historically, members of these communities generally have a good record of lasting marriages. To dismiss the legal validity of these marriages is to suggest that children of these unions are not legally legitimate. Places of worship could be granted the necessary status to allow for the solemnising of these religious-legal ceremonies.

Thirdly, one possible way of regulating and legitimising religious marriages may be to offer funding to major religious organisations to enable them to compile directories of reputable clerics who perform religious marriages. Grants could be awarded to these major religious organisations to enable them to establish legitimate religiously-based training programmes, thus conferring a professional status on clerics. This could ensure that sham marriages are not conducted.

Fourthly, when it comes to marital breakdown, there is a need, I believe, to elevate non-Christian marriages and their specific concerns beyond the discretionary status they currently occupy in British family courts. At present it seems that there is a lack of uniformity in how these discretionary practices are exercised by the judiciary.

Fifthly, to assist the legal profession and members of the judiciary when dealing with these areas, some form of training that is periodically reviewed is needed. I am not proposing that religious minorities be awarded a special status; nor do I believe that these groups would

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themselves argue for this. But I do believe that the legal system needs to recognise "difference" and not to equate it with "irrelevance". This could simply mean assisting religious minorities to assert their religious rights, provided, of course, they do not contravene civil law.

Finally, members of religious minorities seeking legal intervention in their marital issues should not be placed in the position of experts, having to educate legal counsel on religious aspects. This additional pressure negates the possibility of the clients operating from a misinformed position themselves, but it may also act to dissuade those less confident about such matters from pursuing their legal and religious rights. The legal profession should be in a position to advise and initiate contact with religious organisations on their client's behalf. From my knowledge, it seems that clients are left to seek out such resources themselves.

The main thrust of my arguments stresses the need for education and communication between the legal professions and the religious ones, with the aim of ensuring that Britain's non-Christian minorities' religious rights and sensitivities are protected and respected. This process of education and communication should be a two-way process and should recognise the active contributions and diverse perspectives Britain's minorities offer, not just to the social sphere but also perhaps to the personal sphere as well.

3.56 p.m.

Baroness Platt of Writtle: My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for initiating this vital debate. I believe that the state of marriage is fundamental to the health and prosperity of our nation. There are many speakers, so I will be short, which is difficult for such an important subject.

Marriage is there for the mutual benefit of its partners so that they may help and comfort each other and achieve happiness together. We all know that marriage does not produce a perpetual state of bliss. It has its ups and downs. Each partner will benefit from plenty of give and take.

In today's atmosphere of easy divorce, as illustrated by the statistics given by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, there is too much tendency to give up and break up rather than work at it and get over the problems. That is very sad because in many cases it certainly does not result in future happiness for either partner.

As the Prayer Book lays down, marriage was ordained for the procreation of children, and that is where I would like to place my emphasis. The arrival of children brings great joy, but also considerable responsibility. We all remember times of near despair, especially during the "terrible teens" when children are establishing their own individuality and continually testing the boundaries of their parents' tolerance and temper.

However, I, like other noble Lords, am fortunate to be able to say that in the long term--and this is our golden wedding year--those difficult tensions are absolutely worth while. I view my children and

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grandchildren with great pride. But there are times when the problems seem overwhelming. The husband is probably meeting equally difficult and trying problems at work, as may the wife also. Put together, that is a lethal mix and the time to sort it out is not easy. It is important that young people are prepared for this state of affairs, as many speakers have said today, so that it does not catch them unawares.

When I chaired the education committee in Essex, we invited marriage guidance education counsellors into our schools. Short courses of that kind before marriage for young people might help too. We want young people to be overwhelmed by the romance of marriage but for that romance to be underpinned by a deep and mutually responsible sense of reality so that couples work positively together to achieve continued happiness. That does not happen by magic.

I believe that children need both parents, a mother and a father. If one dies it is a tragedy which is unavoidable. However, the conflict of divorce, the separation of two loved parents and the difficulty for the children in keeping in touch, particularly when the parents are sparring in an atmosphere of self-justification, must be a terrible strain for the children. If there is a remarriage and a new young family, a difficult teenager can be very unwelcome, just at a time when that teenager needs most support. Exams have to be passed and careers chosen. Teenagers can need help with difficult relationships of their own. All problems seem mountainous at that age. There is need for the patience and time of loving adults to get those problems sorted out.

This is the time when, at the worst, teenagers leave home with disastrous results. Research shows that children from broken homes tend later to have poorer health, lower income and educational attainment, and are more likely to be unemployed and involved in crime. In their loneliness they start an unstable relationship which may break up and result in lone parenthood on low income. Thankfully, these are not always the results, but the danger is there. That may mean considerable public expenditure, as the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, illustrated.

There is no ideal or perfect society. Some marriages are unbearable and need the freedom of divorce. However, I hope that the Government, both fiscally and otherwise, the media, and society, including all religions, as the two previous speakers said, will work towards a more stable and responsible attitude to the permanency of marriage,

    "to love, cherish ... till death us do part",
as the Book of Common Prayer says. It would be a most worthwhile resolution for the millennium, contributing greatly to the contentment and prosperity of society.

4.2 p.m.

Lord Chalfont: My Lords, I would like to add my thanks to those offered to my noble friend Lord Northbourne for initiating this debate. My contribution to it will be brief. I have no special knowledge or expertise in this field, but I can speak from experience. I hope that your Lordships will indulge me if I begin my remarks from an unashamedly personal

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point of view. First, my father was married to my mother for over 50 years before he died and my wife was brought up in the same kind of permanent, stable, lasting family relationship.

Furthermore, my wife and I celebrated our own 50th wedding anniversary last year. We were both brought up in a safe and loving environment. Although our only child died very young, our memories of this have enabled us to form close and affectionate relationships with a large, loving assembly of nephews, nieces and godchildren, as other noble Lords will have done. I speak as one who believes that the institution of marriage is an important and cherished element, not only in the context of the family but, as my noble friend Lord Northbourne has said, in the more general context of living in a stable and civilised society.

It may be relevant in passing to mention also that I spent much of my early grown up life serving in an Army regiment, where there were not only strong family ties and traditions going back for 300 years, but also a very real feeling that the regiment itself was a kind of family, providing the reassurance of a permanent and supportive structure.

It is from that background that I venture to offer a few brief comments in support of my noble friend Lord Northbourne. We must, of course, bear in mind that the situation which prevails in this context of marriage and the family in the ancient world was profoundly changed by the influence of Christianity. Among the Greeks and especially the Romans, for example, a marriage could be initiated without any kind of ceremony, or at least without a ceremony prescribed or defined by law, and the relationship between the two parties--known then as the matrimonium iustum--was a free union which could be terminated without formality by either party at any time. Noble Lords will know that as the Christian tradition has evolved, a relationship of this kind, in order to constitute marriage, had to be monogamous, involve a full community of life and be characterised by the duty of faithfulness.

As has already been said, of course, this institution is not universal or prevalent throughout the world. Today, other countries and other cultures have their own attitudes and practices in this special area of human relationships. As the noble Lord, Lord Jacobovits, said, as this country has now become to a very large extent a multi-cultural society, it might be argued that we have to take account of these different cultures in determining our approach to the institution of marriage. However, it is worth recording that in writing a foreword to a recent book of Christian perspectives on a study of the nation, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, offered the following important advice,

    "Christians have no right to inflict their values on others but they do have a right in a free democracy to proclaim the values they hold dear as forcefully and attractively as possible".

It is within that cultural context that I would like strongly to support the views put forward at the beginning of this debate by my noble friend Lord Northbourne. The essential characteristics of marriage and family seem to me to involve a permanence of human relationships, a strong commitment among the members of the family and, above all, loyalty, a much

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overlooked and despised virtue these days. This environment is a basic unit of a society which provides a stable environment for the nurture of children and mutual support for all members of the family. As I suggested earlier, they ensure the continuity of a society as a whole in which personal values, morality and communal responsibility can be passed on to future generations.

None of this is to suggest that there is only one permissible approach to relationships in this area. Too much has happened in the social and cultural structure of this country, and also in the structure of the family in this country, to be dogmatic or intolerant in this field. It would, indeed, be intolerant to suggest that the Christian doctrine should be the only approach to marriage in a post-Christian, multi-faith society. However, as I have already mentioned and as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, has stated, it is important in a free society that we should make our own views and our beliefs clearly and unequivocally known.

It is from that point of view that I strongly support the view of my noble friend Lord Northbourne, especially in his opinion that children need the security of a long-term, committed relationship between their parents. As he said, most children get their best chance to develop their full potential growing up with two parents in a stable, loving relationship. I close as I began by declaring that this is a sentiment which from my own personal experience I can wholeheartedly endorse.

4.9 p.m.

Lord McNair: My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for giving us the opportunity to debate the role of marriage in society. I have an interest to declare in this debate, as other noble Lords have done, which is not just that I am married, but that I enjoy being married and that I am not cynical about it. The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, has chosen the title of this debate carefully because looking at the economic and social roles of marriage raises distinct, although related, issues.

If marriage were the accepted norm and people got married as a matter of course we would probably not be having this debate. Perhaps the way to highlight the need for stability is to look, as some other noble Lords have done, at the picture that presents itself in life and on our television screens and in our newspapers. I believe that last year the Evangelical Alliance published a very worrying report entitled The Roots of Social Breakdown. It is clear that that represents a catalogue of human misery, particularly increases in homelessness and domestic violence. A few years ago in preparing for a debate in your Lordships' House on the situation of young people in inner cities I had occasion to telephone a health authority that covered three south London boroughs. I asked the official to whom I spoke for statistics on births and terminations expressed as a percentage of pregnancies. Then, as now, I could not believe what he told me and I asked him to recheck the figures because I was staggered. He came up with the same answer. In 1991 in those three south London boroughs 36 per cent. of all pregnancies ended in abortion. That is a horrifying statistic quite apart from

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the moral issues in terms of unnecessary medical intervention, bodily trauma and anxiety. It would be useful to know whether the declining popularity of marriage is a symptom or cause, or perhaps both, of this aspect of social breakdown.

Those who believe it does not matter whether or not people get married are often themselves living lives based on a moral code even if they are reluctant to admit it. I have heard people say that they reject the moral code by which they grew up but they are living within the agreements that made up that moral code. It is immensely cruel for such people to conclude that moral codes are inherently a bad thing and so deprive their own children, or their pupils if they teach, of any framework of agreement about how to live life.

Based on my own experience, the most important benefit of marriage is stability, although marriage is no guarantee of stability. One of the problems is that in our soap opera culture people tend to pin all their hopes on "their relationship". It is vital for the stability of marriage or a long term relationship that both partners have shared goals to whose achievement both can contribute. That does not mean that the goals should be identical but goals in which each can and does participate. There are many different spheres of pro-survival activity beyond self and marriage. One can contribute to the survival of groups to whom both partners belong, or to the survival of other people around the world. One can support causes to do with animal or plant life, or explore the philosophical aspect of life. I believe that it is very important not to focus solely on "the relationship". It is also important not to take marriage for granted and to remember actively to create the marriage on a daily basis.

4.13 p.m.

Lord Judd: My Lords, in joining with those who have thanked the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for introducing this debate, I was particularly impressed by the fact that it was not a moralistic or authoritarian intervention about the family but a very sensitive intervention in the context of his general concern for social wellbeing, in particular the wellbeing of the young. In a complex issue of this kind inevitably there is a good deal of subjectivity. We speak from our own experience. I had the good fortune to grow up in a strong family that greatly influenced my whole approach to life. I now have the good fortune to enjoy tremendously, perhaps above all else, the family that my wife and I choose to call "our own". We draw great strength from that. It gives us the base from which to go out and do the other things that we want to do.

However, on such an intricate matter one must be very careful about generalising on the basis of personal experience or generalising at all. For example, in the past a good deal of romantic nonsense has been talked about the family. The family in the past concealed a great deal of suffering particularly on the part of women who were exploited atrociously. There was violence and sexual abuse. There were double standards particularly on the part of men. If we simply ride over that and ignore it, it does not help us in looking to the future.

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Sometimes there is over-simplified talk--perhaps I can be accused of having used it myself on occasion--of the family being the basis of a viable, stable and decent society. That can be but is not automatically the case. We know of parts of Europe in which the family has played a very strong part but where that family culture in society has been related to violence and crime. Therefore, one cannot look simply to the family per se as the solution to the problem.

We are going through a period of transition. I do not believe that we should be too depressed about the future; rather, there is great hope in the institution of family. We are moving into the age of what has been described as the democratic family in which women have fuller rights and the father is able to play a fuller and more responsible part than was probably true in the past and enjoy the fruits of it in terms of a closer relationship with children and their upbringing. Children are themselves, while not free of parental authority--I hope that they never will be--more challenging. I believe that that is in itself healthy; certainly it is for me. But as we look to the future we must recognise what has already been said in the debate this afternoon; namely, we now live in a multi-cultural society. I always enjoy and listen with great care to the remarks of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lincoln. But I was troubled that he was so concerned about pluralism in this context. In the debate this afternoon we have heard what pluralism has to offer: the strength in the role and values of the family that come from cultures other than the Christian culture, to which I myself subscribe.

If we look at the underlying issue that concerns all of us, one point on which we all agree is the wellbeing of children. That will be looked to in the context of the family; sometimes it will be looked to in model relationships outside the family. I can think of some that I have encountered. I refer to models of mutual loyalty and caring concern for children. What matters is the quality of the relationship. What also matters is that the Government should do all that they can--I believe that they are endeavouring to do so--to support parents. The first issue is parenting itself. That is one of the most demanding assignments of life. How much preparation do young people get for the responsibility of parenting? There should be far more conscious preparation for parenting. There are also issues involving law and taxation, about which we have heard a good deal of late, the provision of nurseries and creches, working arrangements and hours, not least for men, the pattern of career demands, housing and public transport. A network of issues must be brought together if we want to give substance to the general principles that we seek to underline.

In conclusion, I return to one point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, in his introductory speech. He said that he was not just speaking about marriage but the nature of the society in which we wanted to live. I believe that he is right. The interplay between the two is absolutely essential. That brings us back to responsibility and the social values of loyalty and commitment. The question that I ask myself is: how can these be encouraged in a consumer society that is dominated by competition, self-advancement, instant

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gratification, "my rights", and an increasing preoccupation with litigation and blame? I believe that it is right not only to support the family in social policy and to find the right way to generate that support, but that in the whole culture of our society, which we as active politicians should be helping to engender, there should be far greater recognition of service to balance the undue emphasis of late on excellence as an end in itself.

4.20 p.m.

Baroness Strange: My Lords, I cannot begin better than by quoting from my noble and learned friend Lord Simon of Glaisdale during my noble friend Lord Northbourne's debate on the family in 1996, when he said,

    "not for the first time, your Lordships have been put deeply in debt by Lord Northbourne".--[Official Report, 11/12/96; col. 1113.]
On my noble friend's debate today on marriage, I would say "Snap!". Three years ago, there were three maiden speeches, including that of the noble Baroness, Lady Symons of Vernham Dean, and the present and the former noble and learned Lord Chancellors both spoke. Altogether, there were 28 speakers, and today there are also 28. And many of them are the same noble Lords. I think this argues some kind of continuity which, when you think about it, is what marriage is all about.

The Book of Common Prayer puts very plainly the three reasons for which matrimony was ordained. The first is children, and bringing them up right in a secure and happy home. The second is physical joys, which I think I cannot put better than the lady in my hairdresser's did; "keepin' yer ain tae yersel". The third is for,

    "the mutual love, society and comfort that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity".
The whole of marriage is comprised in these three maxims and, however long I spoke or however much I said, I could not say it better than that. Nor am I foolish enough to try.

Another point which comes out very clearly and powerfully in the preamble to marriage in The Book of Common Prayer is the emphasis that the first miracle at Cana in Galilee of turning water into wine was performed at a marriage. Cousin Albert Baillie, who married us in 1952 and who was Dean of Windsor before the war, always put this into his sermons at weddings--he said it showed the pre-eminence above all of the estate of marriage, that Christ had chosen it for His first miracle--it was not a christening, it was not a wake, it was not just any old hooly; it was a marriage.

I have an interest to declare. I have been happily married for some time, although my husband and I cannot compete with the noble Lord, Lord Jakobovits. We have six children and four-and-a-half grandchildren. My parents celebrated their ruby wedding in your Lordships' House, as did my husband and I some 24 years later. We had bridesmaids, pages and a best man with us though, alas, no Cousin Albert. But children and grandchildren, nieces and nephews, none of whom had been in this world 40 years earlier, were all there. I made a three-tier cherry cake, part of which

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Miss McWilliam caught as it tumbled to the floor. Many of your Lordships I know have already celebrated golden and diamond weddings which glow with a starry glimmer of happiness and loving memories shared.

Of course, a happy marriage has to be worked at; it does not just happen. Robert Louis Stevenson said:

    "Marriage is like life in this, in that it is a field of battle, and not a bed of roses".
At every wedding anniversary, my father always claimed that he and my mother had had only one fight. "But of course," he said, "we do have an armistice now and then."

Last weekend, I was discussing marriage with my dentist, who has been happily married for some time. "The trouble is," he said, "that it isn't fashionable. Some of my children's contemporaries give up after a year because they say they aren't happy." It seemed to us both that happiness is a state of mind which comes from within and is too often confused with the pursuit of instant pleasure. Happiness very often comes from doing something for someone else. I suspect that one reason my husband is such a happy person is because he is always doing things for other people--usually for me.

On Monday the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, gave a party at Richmond House for three war widows who are retiring from their current jobs, although they will still be very much on the strength. It was a lovely thing to do, and I hope it made her as happy as it made all of us. One of these three ladies has found happiness for a second time and got married in the Crypt of St. Paul's just before Christmas. My husband and I and the Reverend Peter Bishop and his wife were the only non-family members, and we felt very blessed. She had asked me to read Shakespeare's sonnet on the marriage of true minds, which I thought I knew by heart and arrived without a crib. Luckily, I did. But I shall spare your Lordships.

But perhaps marriage is a fashion that is coming back. Four of our children have got married and we have been blessed with grandchildren. One of my nieces got married in the Isle of Man just before Christmas and our eldest granddaughter was a bridesmaid dressed as a golden fairy. There is much to be said for marriage as a repository for the past, as a joy for the present, as a blessing for the future. As Her Majesty the Queen most notably said, "I'm for it".

4.25 p.m.

Lord Ashbourne: My Lords, I too must thank the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for initiating this important debate and giving us the opportunity to discuss the family and the central position of marriage within it.

The family was ordained and established by God--

    "Of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named".
(Ephesians, chapter 3, verse 15).

And a Godly home is a visual image of the spiritual relationship of Christ with his Church, as we learn from Ephesians, chapter 5, verse 21 and chapter 6, verse 4. It is a place to belong, to grow, to find love and acceptance, to feel secure, to make mistakes and be

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forgiven, a place to learn about relationships and right choices. When God's order is established in the home, His word honoured and obeyed, the family is strong. When the family is strong, the nation is strong. When the family life of a nation is under attack, the nation is weakened. Today in Britain the family has become a prime target for attack: it is visibly crumbling. The role of the family sits on the intersection between personal freedom and duty to others. Politicians talk about duty and responsibility, but are frightened to limit freedom.

There is a rising tide of juvenile stress and disorder throughout the western world which cannot be accounted for by poverty and unemployment alone. It is more likely to be due to a collapse of social bonds, with family break-up at its heart. Stable family life, whatever its down-side, generally remains the most dependable bulwark against the many uncertainties and insecurities of the modern world. Yet in Britain now there are whole communities where committed fatherhood is virtually unknown.

The tragedy is that all these children from such disrupted backgrounds want to "be there" for their own children when they themselves grow up, but have virtually no chance of breaking the cycle in which they are trapped. The collapse of the family means the erosion of those networks of trust, responsibility and commitment that make up civic society. If these values are not embodied in the family so that they become habits of heart and mind in individuals, there is little chance that these concepts will be applied in turn to the wider society.

The key difficulty lies with the concept of commitment. Commitment is the undertaking that restricts one's freedom of action in the greater cause. But to the individualist any such restriction is, by definition, oppressive. Commitment, therefore, has been redefined as a negotiable commodity. The commitment of adults to each other or to their children lasts precisely as long as it is convenient. It is then redefined to reflect altered circumstances, and so the estranged parent purports to be as committed to the child as when that parent lived in the family. But this "arm's length" commitment by the parent, who may see the child only for a few awkward hours each Sunday, is not commitment at all.

For all its difficulties, marriage remains a near-universal aspiration. But it is fragile and, if it is to thrive, it must be buttressed through a concerted and conscious effort by law, economics and culture. Clearly, marriage and the stable family have been undermined by huge cultural pressures which must be beyond any one agency, such as the State, to reverse. But the state plays a significant part in helping to shape that culture. Religious leaders, too, have a crucial part to play and should display both practical and moral leadership. But government policy also plays a part in underpinning stable families. It must make marriage mean something again by supporting, promoting and giving it privilege over other relationships.

That can be done in a number of ways. Put simply, there should be incentives for behaviour which promotes pro-social outcomes, and corresponding disincentives

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for behaviour which does the opposite. So, for example, the tax and benefit system should favour married couples with children over the unmarried. Divorce law should see the re-introduction of the concept of fault, (or reason, as I prefer to call it) which was finally removed in Britain with the introduction of the Family Law Act. It is fundamentally unjust that people who are victims of their spouse's betrayal or irresponsibility should be further penalised by losing their children and their house simply because justice has decided to be blind to personal responsibility. Parents who have walked out on their marriages should have to pay more for the upkeep of their families than spouses who have themselves been abandoned, or those who were never married in the first place, who should nevertheless pay something. The current thrust of family law to promote the equivalence between married and co-habiting couples should be reversed.

What then should be done? Surely we should restore the significance of marriage. After several decades of escalating divorce rates, the effect on children has been well documented. There is now little dispute that children from broken homes tend to have poorer health, lower income and lower educational attainment. They are more likely to be unemployed, commit crime and in due course become divorced themselves.

The Government are able to state that,

    "marriage is still the surest foundation for raising children".
Yet in a number of areas public policy actively works against marriage as an institution.

Divorce law is to be further reformed so that pre-nuptial agreements for divorce are more binding than marriage itself. Secondly, a married woman wishing to stay at home and look after her children is disadvantaged in the tax system because her tax allowance is not transferable. Her work is therefore largely unrewarded. Thirdly, the Chancellor of the Exchequer has now decided to scrap the married couples allowance, formerly the only tax break in favour of marriage.

Instead of that, public policy should buttress marriage in a variety of ways including enhancing the legal status of marriage, supporting marriage through the tax and benefit system, and scrapping the pending no fault divorce reforms (or no reason divorce reforms, as I prefer to call them). It is interesting to note that Louisiana, which introduced no fault divorce some years ago, has now decided that the system is not working. No fault divorce is now being scrapped and it is returning to the normal fault system which is so much to be preferred.

I conclude by urging the Government to take vigorous and immediate action to restore the significance of marriage.

4.33 p.m.

Lord Habgood: My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity presented by the debate and for much that has been said. I was spurred to put my name down to speak in the debate by a remark recently on Radio 4 on the "Today" programme. It was said, "It is not the

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state's business whether or not two people are married". The Radio 1 version of that would be, "After all, it's only a bit of paper".

There seems to be a deep confusion in many people's minds as to what marriage is. Many people confuse it with a wedding and say, "I cannot get married because the party is too expensive". I hope that the public character of marriage as a permanent and legal commitment to a specific form of relationship is emerging strongly from the debate. Precisely because it is public, the state must in some way or other be involved. Good reasons have been given already as to why the state should be involved: the nurture and care of children; the need for stability; and so on.

Perhaps I may add a sentence. It goes to the heart of what the noble Lord, Lord Judd, said, and refers also to part of what the noble Lord, Lord Ashbourne, said. Mature and responsible personal relationships are the building blocks of a mature and responsible society. One cannot separate the quality of relationships between people and what binds them together from the kind of people that one is producing and the quality of society. Given the fleeting character of so many of the personal relationships within modern society, it seems to me imperative that those fleeting relationships should be counterbalanced by those which are stable, reliable and life long.

One of the great merits of the married family is that the relationships, once chosen, remain given. One of the great maturing influences in the process of growth into adulthood is coming to terms with the "givenness" of relationships--the givenness of children; or the givenness of one's parents. The growth of maturity by making commitments and taking responsibilities is at stake.

I speak in pragmatic terms. I am belying my collar deliberately because it is a public political matter and not simply a religious one. Marriage as we know it in this country is a paradigm for those qualities of stability, reliability, commitment, and so on, as well as an education into them. Of course things can go wrong. We recognise that. That is why we have divorce laws. But without maintaining that ideal, we erode those qualities in public life which make democracy possible.

A further pragmatic reason why it is important is that unless there is a firm and recognised public basis for relationships between people we lay ourselves open to endless fraud. How can one have privileges and responsibilities within family relationships unless those are publicly recognised and registered so that one knows who is married to whom. We are coming nowadays to the terrible situation that we all relate to partners, as though it is an endless sexual game of tennis, and one swaps partners half way through. How does one identify those responsible?

The state has a strong interest in supporting marriage. However, we recognise that the social trends are against it. In reading through some of the research documents prepared for the Lord Chancellor's Department, one finds this typical theme; namely, they map the current flow and then knock down every possible counter measure which goes against that flow. We get into a

24 Mar 1999 : Column 1318

vicious circle. We have social trends towards unrestricted choice in all manner of things. That has its impact on the attitudes towards marriage and further enhances the social trends.

That is why we so desperately need markers in our society which demonstrate the social significance of marriage. But we have been seeing the gradual removal of all those markers in our society which make marriage different. What is left? A few property laws. If a man is elevated to your Lordships' House, his wife becomes a Lady. It is somewhat difficult to think of anything else which distinguishes marriage in our public life from other states. The married couple's allowance is the last straw, not because people will be influenced by finance but for symbolic reasons. It removes yet another difference between the marrieds and the non-marrieds. There is desire not to disadvantage those who have chosen alternatives to marriage. But the Government cannot have it both ways. If they are going to support the family, they have to make up their mind whether marriage matters and express that in policy.

4.40 p.m.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for this timely debate. All speakers have emphasised the importance of marriage and that has been emphasised also in the research. Noble Lords who have spoken have been quite right, in my respectful view, to emphasise that importance.

However, we should just pause for a moment to think about the additional stresses faced by current marriages which did not exist in years gone by. Sometimes there is almost a temptation to think of the halcyon days of, in particular, Victorian times. It is important for us to remember that in Victorian times the average length of a marriage was about 12 years. Why was that? It was because, tragically, many of those marriages ended not in divorce but in the demise of one of the partners. So the opportunity for partners--if I can express the matter colloquially--to get on each other's nerves was much more restricted than in the case of those who look forward to the joys of celebrating 60 years of happy conjugal bliss.

We need to bear that in mind because there needs to be a sympathy and an empathy for the difficult task which those who enter the perilous seas of marriage now face. They are much more turbulent waters than they ever were.

We must bear in mind also that there is a multiplicity of reasons why many do not share the religious convictions of noble Lords in this House. I confess and say straightaway that I, too, have very strong religious commitments which are cultural, in terms of the nature of the Caribbean island from which I come which is predominantly Catholic, and, indeed, in terms of family background. I am one of 12 children and my parents have been married since 1937 and are still happily so. Therefore, from a premise of total commitment to the institution of marriage I say that we must be extremely sensitive to the fact that others choose different paths, often not because they make an informed choice but because that is what is forced upon them.

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We must meet people where they are. There are many who do not have the advantage of two-parent families, not from choice but because that has been foisted on them. Therefore, when we talk about families we must take into account the broader church of relationships which produce children; relationships in which children will be nurtured.

One of the realistic steps that we must take is to recognise how we can best assist those new families who may not have two adult members in them to nurture their children. The research is clear. It tells us that children are best nurtured and cared for by two people living together in harmony on a long-term basis; that fragmentation of that relationship, be it honoured by the bands of matrimony or not, is destructive to children. That is not a moral issue. It is a researched, pragmatic reality that children in this country experience.

However, we need not be too pessimistic because 83 per cent. of young people when questioned and asked about marriage made it clear that they intended to marry or hoped to marry. So I believe that those who worry that marriage is dead do so unnecessarily.

There is an issue as to how we support marriage. This Government have put a great emphasis--and rightly so--on conciliation, mediation, guidance and support. Why have they done that? It is because it is the most efficacious way of maintaining relationships which support children.

The Family Reform Law Act 1996 has in many ways been vilified. People say that it is wrong, but that Act tries to put the emphasis back on conciliation, preparation and thought. Many issues are burdening young families now. I endorse everything said by the noble Lord, Lord Sheppard, in relation to the effect that unemployment has had on families and the individual sense of self.

I wish to say a few words about men. There has been much said to indicate that men are no longer necessary as a part of the family structure and mention has been made that our sons need the example of a father. But our daughters need that just as much. Therefore, the responsibility that we have is to look to see how we can support our young men to become good fathers and contributors, not just in a financial sense but in an emotional, moral and supportive sense so that they can nurture their children, who can be truly proud of them. It is a challenge and when I look around your Lordships' House I am sure that there are those here who are more than able to rise to that challenge.

4.46 p.m.

Lord Thurlow: My Lords, I hope that many of your Lordships agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, that we should not be too pessimistic. But as the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, said, we cannot put the clock back. That implies that we must devote ourselves to trying to think of positive ways in which to go forward.

I dare say that the social trends which have been so negative for so long may perhaps--and I am mildly optimistic--change and the pendulum may begin to

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swing the other way. But we cannot put too much faith in that. We must find positive ways in which to go forward.

Your Lordships may recall that in some of the fringe areas of the British Isles--for example, I recall the Outer Hebrides where I served as a young territorial officer many years ago--there used to be a social convention of a trial period before marriage, before children arrived. It was understood generally and, indeed, accepted by the parties that when the children arrived, the alliance would become legal and permanent.

I advocate that we should develop and give legal form to such a trial marriage or, a better word perhaps, introductory marriage. The main cause of breakdown is the attitude with which so many young people enter marriage; namely, that love is blind. All the poets of all the ages have regarded the passion of romantic love as a form of insanity. It passes and the strains of commitment begin to show themselves.

I suggest that we need a social mechanism to enable responsible reconsideration of the commitment before beginning a family. Many years ago, the father of the noble Earl, Lord Russell, advocated a model. He suggested the following conditions: no intention to have children; divorce by mutual consent; and no question of alimony in the event of breakdown--and to give it legal force, I would add the necessary condition that if a child is born, the marriage must become permanent.

No government would wish to take a stance on this kind of subject in advance of a clear demonstration of public opinion. Some Churches would also see difficulties. It is up to individuals and voluntary organisations, supported by the media, to give a lead. I hope that if widespread public support for this concept became manifest, the Government would initiate official investigations and the legal implications would be properly considered and charted.

We cannot put the clock back. We must find ways of going forward. We must deter marriages being embarked upon irresponsibly, without consideration of the strains ahead and the obligations of commitment. I suggest to your Lordships that a legal framework of introductory or trial marriage is one of the ways forward.

4.52 p.m.

Viscount Brentford: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for introducing this subject. We are considering two matters: the economic and social roles of marriage. I propose to say one or two words about the economic role and primarily talk about the social role.

As regards the economic role, the cost of broken marriages to the Exchequer is approaching £5 billion per year. That is quite a substantial economic factor in the breakdown of marriage as we face it today. The cost of marriage support has been running at about £3 million, which is quite a contrast to the cost of breakdown. I believe that this Government will increase that sum in future. Clearly, that would be a worthwhile investment.

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Research shows that problems from ill-health, smoking and alcoholism in married couples amount to approximately half those of single people or cohabiting couples. When people are off work, through sickness, become ill through smoking, or suffer problems from alcoholism, that all costs money. Therefore, that is a factor when we consider the economic role.

However, marriage is good for the economy. Research shows that married people tend to work harder, earn more and save more. That all brings in more money to the Exchequer. So, it is very worth while for the Exchequer to support marriage.

I turn now to the social role of marriage. I should like to emphasise the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Habgood, about marriage providing the quality of relationship that society needs. A lasting marriage provides stability in the community, and there is far too little of that at present. I have visited one or two of the worst housing estates in this country and read a book summarising some of the stories concerning such housing estates. Marriage can provide stability in the community, and that is greatly needed.

In contrast to the stability of marriage, a cohabiting couple is five or six times more likely to split up than a married couple. That factor makes me doubtful about the benefits of trial marriages, as suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Thurlow.

Married men are less likely to commit crimes. Certainly, marriage provides the best basis for support and care for elderly and disabled people as well as for children. Commitment to others--spouse, children and extended family--requires work and effort. That conflicts with self-centredness and individualism which, as several noble Lords have said, is a product of today's culture. As the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, stated this is a real challenge.

Perhaps I may say a word about the welfare of children. I was pleased to hear the Home Secretary state, on a couple of occasions, that from his experience and in his view marriage forms the best environment for raising children. One-in-two cohabiting couples with children part within 10 years as against only one-in-eight of married couples with children. I see that some schools even consider broken homes to be a greater problem for children in their schools than anything else today.

There are various things I should like to see happen. I make a plea to the media to do more to portray marriage positively than the bad role models I so often see and hear. I refer particularly to fatherhood, which has been mentioned several times. I should like to see more good father role models being portrayed in the media in "soaps" and suchlike.

We need more education on marriage as well as on parenting, both in adult education and schools. I hope to see more of that in the next few years. More government funding is needed for marriage preparation and for strengthening marriage. We need good marriages. Much of this was started by the Family Law Act 1996, bringing in a whole new field of conciliation work. From that arises much more encouragement to strengthen marriage rather than waiting for the crisis to

24 Mar 1999 : Column 1322

come. Churches have submitted information to the Home Office on ways they can help to improve both the quality and stability of marriage. I hope and believe that the Home Office will take up that offer and work as a partnership to strengthen marriage.

I would love to see the Government checking that all policy serves to strengthen, not weaken, marriage. I, too, am optimistic that we can turn the corner and have more good marriages.

4.57 p.m.

Lord Craigmyle: My Lords, on 1st December in your Lordships' House I produced a litany of ways in which a married family helps society better than an unmarried one. Several noble Lords tonight have done better than me, so I shall not repeat it. However, perhaps I did not make clear that the comparisons I made were not between married families and worse-case scenarios, but between married families and apparently stable co-habitees parenting their own children.

There seems to be some confusion on the subject. The Chancellor of the Exchequer wishes to create stability through what he advertises as family-friendly policies. I believe he has missed a vital point in all this. Families do not make stability; families make children. Marriages make stability, but they get a thumbed nose from the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

The mechanics work like this. The contract of marriage, and the promise of stable life that will flow from that contract, induces partners to invest all their efforts and resources in the marriage. The return on investment is huge, not only to those married people but to society at large. As taxpayers, we should all hope that our ageing population is a married population. Married people are more likely to be independent and healthy and not so burdensome on younger citizens. Perhaps I should state an interest!

If the contract is undermined by social indifference, easy divorce and even, as in last November's discussion document, pre-nuptial separation agreements, nobody can expect the same level of investment by partners in their relationships.

So, what are we left with? The chief characteristic of marriage for a modern British couple is financial discrimination. Perhaps I may give as an example the working families tax credit. Like family credit before it, the WFTC fails to recognise the cost of the second adult in the family, except for the purpose of reducing the credit. That leaves us with the extraordinary situation in which a couple may take full advantage of their tax bands while both earning good money, but as soon as they have a child and take on parental responsibilities, not only do they lose one of their incomes, but they pay extra tax if the husband tries to make up the difference. Going back to last November's discussion document, leaving the child in childcare will not help either the child or the marriage.

Let us imagine the situation of a young couple netting £20,000 a year each--a good wage--who say, "Well, this is all right. We can manage very nicely. Let's have a baby. Of course, we'll lose one income, but we'll be helped with child benefit and the working families tax

24 Mar 1999 : Column 1323

credit. The Government support families". So, they have a child. Wow! They do not know what hits them. They expected their income to halve; what they had not reckoned on was that the net equivalised drop would be to about 55 per cent. of the value of that.

So, what happens to that couple? They are not only under huge financial stress (poverty being relative to expectation), but they are riding the roller-coaster of new family life. Worries about child welfare, worries about mother welfare, depression and elation are all subsumed into a fog of sleep deprivation. Do not underestimate those forces. They are probably the greatest internal battleground of those people's lives. That couple ought to be supported. They ought to be supported for many good reasons. But let me be really cynical about this: they ought to be supported because if they split up, the cost to the rest of us will be horrendous.

So many noble Lords have referred to education for marriage. I should like to end by saying something really positive, so here is a suggestion. It arises out of the question: how can young people learn of the benefits of marriage when a growing number of them have never seen marriage at work? With this problem in mind, an initiative has been taken to introduce married couples to volunteering sixth formers who wished to have the opportunity to discuss the institution of marriage. This is called the "Students Exploring Marriage Initiative", organised by the Grubb Institute of Behavioural Studies. I shall quote the words of one of its students:

    "Before I decided to participate in the workshop, I had a pretty cynical view of marriage. With most of the adult members of my family divorced, I'd interpreted it as a thing of the past".
That is by no means untypical, yet there is a hunger to learn about marriage. Students at Rochester Grammar School for Girls told their Deputy Head of Sixth:

    "that the project was the most useful experience they have had in the school"!
How about that? Forget maths and science!

I commend that project to any government who feel that examples of marriage could help to nurture a climate of stability in the country. It might not address the fundamental problems, but at least it keeps the choice of marriage open--for what we do not know, we cannot choose.

5.3 p.m.

The Earl of Longford: My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Craigmyle, will not think me patronising if I say that I know that we older Members of the House welcome the accession of such a vivid young mind.

I must begin with an apology for speaking twice in one day. Although that is not contrary to the rules of the House, it is not a practice that I recommend. However, I am afraid that it is unavoidable in my case. Having been married for 67 years, when the subject of marriage arises I feel bound to offer a few thoughts. However, I assure the House that I shall speak even more briefly than have other noble Lords.

24 Mar 1999 : Column 1324

We have heard some inspiring addresses, beginning with that of the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne. We have also heard from the former Bishop of Liverpool, the noble Lord, Lord Sheppard, and from the noble Lord, Lord Ashbourne, who is my spiritual mentor. Although we belong to different Churches, I attend a prayer group which he inspired and I follow everything that he said about practical measures.

If I look at the matter more broadly, it does not mean that I disagree with the suggestions made on the practical level. I am talking from the moral point of view. Some people seem ashamed of using the word "moral" and ask, "Why should we say anything about morals?" I shall speak about nothing except morals. If we did not have marriage, but only partnerships, children would be illegitimate. The people who produce those children and are not married are living in sin from the Christian point of view. I think that we should say that more clearly. I am Irish and therefore I do not understand English reticence or the fact that people do not like talking of morals because they think that that is bad form. I wish that people spoke up more plainly. I should like a poll to be taken in which people would be forced to say whether they agree that sex outside marriage is a sin. Sex outside marriage is, indeed, a sin. Once one accepts that, one either has to have marriage or face the human race dying out. There is no argument about the moral point of view, irrespective of the social and economic advantages of marriage.

However, morality is not the only issue. There are the children. Some people have a lot of children. I have had eight, but I hesitate to boast about anything these days. In a railway carriage not long ago, a lady said to me, "How many great-grandchildren do you have?" I said that I had 14. In fact, I have 15, but I had forgotten one. I then added, a shade complacently, that I fancied that that was rather more than most people. The man opposite said, "That's nothing at all; I have 17". So, one must never boast, but I can at least refer to the fact that I have had 67 years of very happy married life. Noble Lords may say that that is entirely due to my wife. That might largely be true and I have been very lucky there.

We know that marriage is a partnership. Although I have been exceptionally lucky, I am sure that I would be lynched if I suggested that other noble Lords have not been equally lucky. We have all been lucky if we have had long and happy marriages. Marriage is the best outcome. It is the only moral outcome otherwise society would come to an end. I support everybody who says anything at all in favour of marriage. I hope that I have made my point plainly enough.

5.7 p.m.

Lord Laming: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, is to be congratulated on initiating this debate on a subject which is clearly by general agreement recognised to be of fundamental importance to the well-being of our society. As many noble Lords have said, there is no doubt that children develop best in a loving and secure family setting. Disruption to family life and to the relationships which children have with the adults on whom they depend usually results in children becoming insecure and fearful of the future.

24 Mar 1999 : Column 1325

That often produces a lack of concentration and a regression to earlier, more infantile behaviour. If children get caught up in destructive battles between the adults to whom they look for their security, that can lead to damaging conflicts of loyalty, and to anger and resentment. Such feelings can easily spill over into their other relationships.

I am sure that we all agree that children are entitled to expect the adults in their lives to be aware of their vulnerability and to conduct their adult relationships in ways which facilitate the good things during the precious early years of childhood. That is particularly important as statistical evidence indicates that adults change their partners more frequently in the age group when they are more likely to have children under the statutory school age. Moving from childhood, through adolescence, into adulthood is difficult enough without children having to cope with the added trauma of parents being at war with each other.

However, I suggest that, as the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, said, we should guard against the notion that we have lost a golden age of marriage and the family which we should now seek to recover. Although the figures on separation and divorce are of significance, they are but one dimension of a complex story. For example, it is interesting to note that the number of children in public care has actually reduced in recent years. Furthermore, we ought also to acknowledge that in the past the apparent stability of marriage was, in many instances, due to the fact that women were economically and socially locked into marriage. Whether the relationship was loving or joyless, tender or brutal, fulfilling or empty, many women simply had no choice and some of them lived in fear of yet another pregnancy.

So we should celebrate that women now have greater control over their own bodies, in particular pregnancy. More women have a greater range of choices in their lifestyles than in times past. More women are now economically active and society is being enriched by their skills and human qualities. There is a long way to go, but steady progress is being made towards genuine equality, even if that causes discomfort among some men. We need to help young men better understand these changes.

We need to recognise the changes taking place in our society. The recent report of Social Trends shows, for example, that half of all pregnancies occur outside marriage and the proportion approaches two-thirds in some inner city areas. The number of children per family is now so much smaller than in the past; and many women are now much older when they have their first child. Great geographical mobility means that far fewer people live their lives in the place of their birth surrounded by a network of supportive relatives and friends.

So what should we be doing in these circumstances? The starting point is to recognise those changes without recrimination or regret. We do not live in a world of "if only", and policies must address the reality of our social situation and be relevant to today's needs. Secondly, it should be emphasised in all that we do that

24 Mar 1999 : Column 1326

choice does exist and that pregnancy and parenthood are not to be undertaken lightly. We need it to be clearly understood that adults have choice; but babies do not. Becoming a parent is a huge responsibility. It entails putting the well-being of another person before one's own comfort or convenience. It is not a short-term task, or indeed a long haul; it is a life-time commitment.

I hope that we agree that the state should not interfere in adult relationships, but there must be in place effective ways of helping and supporting parents through difficulties and bad times. In the past the extended family was the source of such help. But that is often not the case today, for reasons that I have touched upon. Help with the techniques of parenting, coping with uncertainty, frustration and tiredness, can often make the difference between success and breakdown. Health visitors and family centres provided by local authorities are of particular importance. The success of organisations like Home-Start, where carefully selected parents voluntarily support other parents, clearly demonstrates the long-standing benefit which can flow from the right kind of help at the right time.

Certainly the state should not be considering taking on the parenting role of other people's children at the first sign of difficulty. But, regrettably, sometimes adults do seriously harm their children and children get caught up in the conflict of adults. In that situation the state must have in place effective systems of child protection where the risk of the safety of the child is a serious matter. There should be no doubting that the clear focus of child protection work must be unswervingly on the well-being of the child. Tough decisions have to be made and actions taken with courage and determination.

Whatever the structure of the family, it will remain the bedrock of our society. It is best placed to provide the proper upbringing of children. But we must recognise that the structure of many families does change and will go on changing. No doubt many noble Lords have experienced that among wider family and friends. But our commitment to the family, however constituted, should remain resolute. We can do much to reinforce parental responsibility with good support and understanding, whatever the vicissitudes of life.

5.15 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for tabling this debate this afternoon. I decided to speak in it because so few ladies were listed to speak. Not only am I in a minority in that respect--in fact, I am listed as a Lord, which I assure the House I am not--but I am also probably one of the few speakers this afternoon who is not able to relate 20 years of happy marriage; I am a divorcee. I do not want to refer to my personal experiences in that regard, except to say that I agree with those speakers who pointed out that outside your Lordships' House there is a very different society. The noble Lord, Lord Sheppard, was correct when he said that not many people would relate to the way in which we are debating this matter this afternoon.

24 Mar 1999 : Column 1327

I also echo the view that there never was a golden age of childhood. If we go back 100 years children were up chimneys and working very long hours--that still continues--and many children were at boarding school. That cuts out family life. I had a quick look through Dodds and noted that half the noble Lords this afternoon, including myself, went to such institutions where we certainly did not benefit from the role models of our parents, of nurture and so forth. We should bear all those matters in mind and that at both ends of the social spectrum there has never been a golden age.

Nor has there ever been a golden age of marriage. Noble Lords mentioned the changes that have taken place. Women were free labour in many places. As recently as the 1830s wives were still able to be sold in Britain and it was only in 1870 that the Married Women's Property Act came into being. It is not surprising therefore that women in society feel slightly resentful, now that they are more independent, of being blamed for so many of the ills of society.

I want to turn to the subject of society, because that is where one of the problems arose during the 1980s and we are now reaping some of the difficulties of that time in the way our children and young people behave. When the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, was Prime Minister, she said, "There is no such thing as society".

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