All Baroness Tyler of Enfield contributions to the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act 2020

Tue 3rd March 2020
Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill [HL]
Lords Chamber

Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard)
Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard): House of Lords
Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard)
Ministry of Justice
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Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill [HL] Debate

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Department: Ministry of Justice

Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill [HL]

(Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard))
Baroness Tyler of Enfield Excerpts
Tuesday 3rd March 2020

(1 year, 7 months ago)

Lords Chamber

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Ministry of Justice

Again, Answers to Written Questions suggest that no grants have been allocated for research into the causes of marriage breakdown or research into ways of preventing it. Given the huge cost of family breakdown and the fact that the Government have seen fit to introduce effectively the biggest change to divorce law in 50 years, it is regrettable that they did not inform their approach to divorce law reform with a better understanding of the causes of marital breakdown and ways of preventing it. I end by suggesting that support for marriage should somehow be provided through a programme to help parents, regardless of whether they are married.

Baroness Tyler of Enfield Portrait Baroness Tyler of Enfield (LD)
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My Lords, I support Amendment 21, which aims to put relationship support funding on a firmer basis. At the outset I should declare an interest as a former chief executive and current vice-president of the relationship counselling charity Relate, and I am also a former chair of Cafcass.

Many of the reforms contained in the Bill are certainly to be welcomed, but—this is a real gap—the Bill is silent on the provision of relationship support, which in my view needs to be available much earlier in the process of relationship breakdown, as well as at the later stages, which we are very much focusing on today. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, has already said, funding for relationship support services was identified as a necessary part of divorce reform during the passage of the Family Law Bill, and I agree with him that it remains just as necessary today. In fact, I should like, very briefly, to take us back to the Denning report of 1947. As Lord Denning said, there should be a marriage welfare service “sponsored by the State but not a State institution”. It should be a function of the state to support marriage guidance as a form of social service. I underline the words “as a form of social service” because they are germane to my argument.

Over the years, successive Governments have taken their responsibilities in this area seriously—to a greater or lesser extent, I contend—to ensure the availability of relationship support services for those who want and need them. It has been my personal experience that some Ministers and, indeed, some Prime Ministers have shown a much greater interest in this area than others: some have really wanted to champion the need for proper relationship support services, while others have taken much less interest. I think that it is genuinely a real problem that proper funding for relationship support—which I see as a core responsibility of government in providing necessary social services—has sometimes felt over the years as if it has come down to the whim of a particular Minister or Prime Minister.

Over the years, responsibility for funding relationship support services has moved between a large number of departments—frankly, having been quite involved in some of those moves, I feel that I could write a book on it. It currently rests with the DWP. Funding over that time has steadily been eroded and now focuses—very narrowly, I think—on interventions to do with workless households and helping to give support where there are high levels of parental conflict. I am not saying that there is anything wrong with focusing on high levels of parental conflict or workless households, but there is a much broader need to support relationships across the rest of the general population. This particularly helps families and children to thrive, which we discussed very eloquently in last Thursday’s debate.

I also feel that having properly functioning families with good relationships within them and trying to minimise relationship and family breakdown whenever we can is so fundamental to so many of the Government’s broader social policy objectives, be they in education, health or employment. It really deserves to be taken a lot more seriously than it sometimes feels that it is. It is clear that early intervention to support relationships—again, the subject of our debate last week—increases the chances for relationship difficulties at the early stages to be repaired. We therefore need to make sure that those chances to seek support are provided when a relationship begins to deteriorate, as well as in the period after an application for divorce is made, when the focus is likely to be on helping the couples to reduce conflict and on ways in which they can continue to successfully co-parent but live apart. Those things can have long-lasting benefits for children, particularly for their emotional well-being.

As has already been said by the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, relationship support must be accessible, affordable and available when it is needed to help families seeking to repair or manage relationship difficulties. This is a really key point for me: relationship counselling must not just be seen as a middle-class preserve. It has to be available and affordable for all, irrespective of income or ability to pay. As far as I am concerned, I have always seen the availability of relationship support services as a social justice issue.

Government funding for relationship support services must be recognised as an essential component of the Government’s new approach to divorce and separation if the aims of this Bill are to be fully recognised. The Government really must take core responsibility for ensuring that there is good relationship support available and not just see it as a fluffy little discretionary add-on.

Lord Bishop of Salisbury Portrait The Lord Bishop of Salisbury
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My Lords, I rise in support of Amendments 3 and 21 and to provide a brace of bishops. I want to observe the seriousness and the quality of this debate as we as a House navigate the support of marriage as an institution and of couples in keeping their vows while recognising that marriages break down and trying to provide adequately for those circumstances. If the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, is right that support for the relationship support services sometimes depends on the whim of a Minister or Prime Minister, one might hope that the present occupant of 10 Downing Street would take a particular interest in these matters.

On average, the Church of England conducts about 1,000 weddings a week. We have experience of conducting, preparing people for and supporting them in marriages. Quite often, couples that I have prepared say that they want to get married in church because they know that they are standing and making their vows in a solemn and serious place that has significance in the community and before God. They want the support of the community gathered around them. In the modern marriage service, we say, “Will you support them in what they are doing?” The congregation comes back with, “We will”. The role of gathering around a couple to support them in keeping what we know to be quite difficult things to keep is a very significant part of the service. Marriage is a gift of God in creation. A marriage in civil ceremony is, therefore, as big a deal. That means that we need to gather around these couples too and support them in upholding their vows.

However, marriages break down. That is costly in the way that the noble Lord, Lord Browne, itemised; there is a financial cost to society. It is also emotionally costly to the individuals in the couples. This is not done lightly: there is a real cost to this, as well as a financial cost to the family concerned. It needs good support to wrap around it. Tolstoy observed that all happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in is own way. That is a good reason for saying that the support of marriages is complex and that we need to put in relationship counselling provision early on to support that.

Both amendments seem valuable to me for the support that they give individuals but also because they make a point in a Bill that, as my right reverend friend the Bishop of Portsmouth observed at Second Reading, might better be focused on kinder divorce rather than easier divorce. Through these amendments, we would be making a statement about the seriousness and importance of marriage, and the support that needs to be wrapped around it, both at an earlier stage and, by noting the availability of resources, at this last stage before the matter is finalised.