HC Deb 16 May 1994 vol 243 cc548-9
45. Mr. Wicks

To ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department what plans he has to improve mediation services for couples petitioning for divorce.

Mr. John M. Taylor

I think I had better read my answer fairly slowly.

Mr. Tony Banks

The Minister is not being paid by the word now.

Mr. Taylor

For one of the few times in my life, I am speaking without a fee.

The Lord Chancellor is considering the case for legislation in the light of the responses received to the Government's consultation paper on mediation and the ground for divorce. He therefore has no immediate plans for improving mediation services.

Mr. Wicks

But does not the Minister think that improvements could be made to mediation services, even ahead of legislation? Given that, every year, 160,000 children under 16 have parents who divorce, does he recognise the need for urgency?

Mr. Taylor

Yes. I recognise the urgency, but, in matters as important and sensitive as this, it is very important to get things right. The hon. Gentleman is an expert in these areas, and I respect that. Moving to mediation as a concept is difficult. Moving away from fault-based divorce and adversarial techniques is, in my view, considerably easier, but they are parallel paths. It would be a great mistake to allow legislation to get to the statute book without having quite defined how we would provide mediation, how we would pay for it and who would be the mediators.

Mr. Hawkins

My hon. Friend will recall that I practised in family law for a number of years before coming to the House. Does he agree that, in making any changes in family law, particularly in divorce law, it is most important that we ensure that, in any divorce, the interests of the children remain paramount? Will he confirm that, whatever other changes to the law are considered, the long-established legal principle in this country—that the interests of the children are paramount—will remain?

Mr. Taylor

I am at pains to emphasise to my hon. Friend that the welfare of children will remain paramount. In fact, if it is possible to enhance the superlative, I suggest to him and the House that, under the proposed arrangements, the welfare of the children will be even more important because the parties will be asked to consider what we now inappropriately call 'ancillary matters' before they get their decree. The welfare of the children, the future of the children and funding for the children will have to be addressed by the parties. They will have to resolve those issues, perhaps with the aid of mediation.

Mrs. Ewing

But given that many effective voluntary organisations already work in mediation services, is the Minister prepared to ensure that they are given sufficient funding to enable them to complete a task that is very important to the families concerned without having to rely on legislation being introduced? Beyond that, is it likely that, within the next Parliament, legislation will be introduced to ensure that family mediation services are recognised and given their due worth?

Mr. Taylor

It is not for me to anticipate what will be in a forthcoming legislative programme, and I do not think that the hon. Lady would expect me to. She will accept, however, although she may not be content with the situation, that local services exist; that, in many cases, they are very good; and that they are currently funded by the voluntary and private sectors, with assistance in some areas from the probation service, local authorities and the legal aid fund.

Mr. Ian Bruce

Does my hon. Friend agree that many fathers who face mediation find that their lawyers tell them that the mother's interests always seem to come before the father's, although the children's interests may come before both? In this age of equality, should not we start to look more closely at the way in which men and fathers are viewed when divorce settlements come about?

Mr. Taylor

The law is even handed between men and women in the unfortunate circumstance of divorce. My hon. Friend is quite right to identify the fact that the interests of children come before those of the mother and father; but it is very often the best interests of the children that make the settlement between the parties look as though it is asymmetrical. That asymmetry might well follow arrangements for residence, contact and the like.