HC Deb 05 February 1996 vol 271 cc16-8
31. Lady Olga Maitland

To ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department what representations he has received from the Roman Catholic Church in relation to the Family Law Bill [Lords]. [11789]

Mr. Jonathan Evans

I have received a number of representations from Catholic organisations in relation to the Government's divorce reform proposals.

Lady Olga Maitland

I thank my hon. Friend for his reply. Has he read the article by Cardinal Hume, published in The Tablet on 20 January 1996, in which he admitted that his earlier statements about the Family Law Bill were wrong, and that he did not support it in its present form but had serious reservations about it? He said that the Bill needed to be strengthened, that he opposed the idea of the no-fault clause, and that the time delay of one year was far too short.

Will my hon. Friend reassure me that he will listen carefully to Cardinal Hume's representations, bearing in mind the fact that he represents the enormously strong feeling of the vast majority of people?

Mr. Evans

I always pay close attention to Cardinal Hume's opinions. I am aware that, in October 1995, the Catholic media office expressed disquiet that the media had been suggesting that Catholic bishops opposed the proposals in the Bill, and it reiterated the fact that the Catholic bishops welcomed the attempt to minimise damage caused by high divorce rates.

My hon. Friend mentioned Cardinal Hume's article in The Tablet. I have a note of an interview that Cardinal Hume gave to the "Today" programme that morning. He said: I have not changed my mind. That seems to me to be a misreading of the text". Later, he said: I still support the Bill … I do not side with the critics of this Bill. I hope that my hon. Friend also listens to what the cardinal has to say.

Mr. Alex Carlile

In his dealings on the Bill, will the Minister bear in mind the fact that, in the part of rural Wales that he and I know well, there is significant anxiety about the poor funding of conciliation services, including Relate? Will he try to ensure that one of the Bill's consequences is that matrimonial conciliation services can function at least as effectively in rural Wales as anywhere else in the country?

Mr. Evans

I recognise that it is important that we have effective conciliation services, but it is also important to recognise that conciliation cannot be forced on people involuntarily. It is also important that there should be no confusion between mediation—which is an important part of the Bill—and conciliation, leading, one hopes, to reconciliation. All those services are very important and, as my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor has said in debates in the other place, the Government attach great importance to them.

Mr. Tracey

Whether we or anyone else has misread Cardinal Hume's words, my hon. Friend should be well aware that there are singularly grave misgivings about the present terms of the Bill.

Mr. Evans

I am very keen, as is my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor, to take on board all those misgivings. I am very aware that many of those anxieties were expressed in Committee. It is important to have the detail of matters about which such misgivings are expressed because, as we found in Committee, many of those misgivings can be answered by what underpins the Bill. What underpins the Bill is, first, the wish to ensure the end of the quickie divorce—which, we feel, does not support married life, in which context my hon. Friend's position and mine are hardly dissimilar—and, secondly, the wish to take out of divorce much of the acrimony that the current system perpetuates.

32. Mr. Cohen

To ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department what plans he has to make mediation binding in divorce cases; and if he will make a statement. [11790]

Mr. Jonathan Evans

The Government have no plans to make mediation binding in divorce cases.

Mr. Cohen

Does the Parliamentary Secretary agree with the letter from the Lord Chancellor's Department of 9 January 1996, which said: mediators are required … to protect the interests of the weaker party and required to remedy any imbalances of power"? If mediation is not binding, will not a stronger party have a vested interest in ignoring its process and outcome? Surely the inexorable logic of the statements in the Lord Chancellor's letter is that mediation should be binding.

Mr. Evans

A mediated agreement can be made legally binding if the parties subsequently agree that should be the case. The hon. Gentleman seems to be proposing that the mediator should supplant himself as some sort of tribunal chairman or in a judge's role—not something that the Government intend to advance.

Sir Sydney Chapman

I am deeply reassured that mediation will not be binding, because, however much it should be encouraged, many people who deal professionally with divorce cases believe that binding mediation would be counter-productive.

Mr. Evans

Mediation must, by definition, be voluntary—no one can be compelled to make use of it. If a mediated agreement is reached between two parties, I see no objection to the parties subsequently carrying it forward as an agreement in writing—in which case, it would take on a legal character. We need to make that distinction clear.

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