§ 5.5 p.m.
My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. This Bill does not do more than to seek parity of the law in Northern Ireland with that which has obtained in England since the passing of the Divorce Reform Act 1969 in England. There is just one technical variance and I would give your Lordships an assurance that it is no more than of a procedural nature. This is that we are planning in this Bill to continue the procedure that petitions be heard in the High Court; whereas in England they would be heard in the county court. There are arguments on both sides for maintaining or changing the situation, but it is generally known that the courts sytem is at present under review in Northern Ireland and may well be reorganised. Therefore, we thought it would be better not to make this particular change, which might possibly confuse the issue at this stage, but rather to await the outcome of the review of the courts system. But I say again that it is a procedural issue and in no way affects the principle or the rationale of the Bill.
The Bill, as I have mentioned, is based on the 1969 Divorce Reform Act. It could be argued that that Act could 1083 perhaps be improved; it could be said that it does not fulfil all the recommendations of the report made by the then Archbishop of Canterbury; but we felt that the eight years of experience in seeing the 1969 Act in operation was such as to justify the view that it has been reasonably satisfactory. More important, we felt it would be better, to take a fairly modest step at this stage rather than to introduce new and possibly controversial provisions which might also involve legal complications.
But, my Lords, I am afraid that in our researches into this matter over the last nine or ten months, the Bill in its present form has turned out to be much more complicated than we had originally envisaged. This is because of the variances in the existing law between England and Northern Ireland. I apologise, therefore, that the Bill is not quite as simple and straightforward as I had originally anticipated that it should be. However, on this occasion I shall not weary your Lordships by going into the legal intricacies and details of it although I accept that drafting Amendments may be necessary. Not only will I be glad to consider favourably any such Amendments that noble Lords may suggest, but indeed I will be very grateful for such suggestions.
Rather than reiterate the arguments put forward for and against the 1969 Act, because I know that they were fully debated both in your Lordships' House and in another place during the passage of that Bill, I will merely summarise as follows. In the ideal circumstances, divorce ought not to be necessary; but I am afraid that it is a fact of life that human relationships do break down. What I am aiming at is that divorce in itself should no longer be considered to be an offence or a sin. There can be offences and sins attached to divorce: cruelty, whether it be physical or mental, is certainly a sin and an offence. It could be argued that adultery is a sin and an offence. Certainly desertion by a husband leaving a wife with a young family in destitute circumstances is a sin and an offence. What I am saying is that divorce itself is not an offence. It is regrettable; it is perhaps even deplorable; but, rather like someone who has a serious illness, it is something that you pity them for rather than censure them for it. It is something 1084 you try to get them over and, if they are a friend, you try to rehabilitate them and get them back to a normal way of living again as soon as possible.
The purpose of the Bill, like the 1969 Act, is not to make divorce cheaper—and I do not speak financially; I speak in terms of significance—nor to make it of less consequence. May I summarise the points. First, one of the purposes is to provide every opportunity for reconciliation to take place. Your Lordships will note in the Bill that the solicitor acting for a petitioner will be called upon to certify in court that he has fully discussed with the parties concerned the possibilities of reconciliation and has put them in touch with any marriage guidance counsellorship that may be available. Also there is a clause to enable parties to come together again for a trial period of six months in order to give the marriage every chance of being restored and recovered if this is at all possible. Secondly, one of the most important aspects of it is to try to cut out from the regrettable procedures of divorce the accusations and acrimony—and perhaps even snooping by private detectives—with all the consequent distress that this has on the parties themselves and any children that there may be of the marriage.
I am extremely lucky; I am highly privileged in so far as I grew up in a home in which my parents remained happily married until death did they part. It was a domestic climate of stability and security. I know that it is something which is unfashionable to say nowadays, but I had such a respect for my parents that I did all sorts of ridiculous things that I did not want to do in order not to disappoint them, such as riding horses, shooting at birds and playing cricket. But I respected my parents to that extent, and if their marriage had broken up in acrimony with accusations being tossed one to another, I honestly think that the bottom would have fallen out of my life. I know it is the case that not everyone enjoys the privilege of having that secure family background, but I did and I am deeply grateful for it. I merely quote this because I know what I would have felt like if my parents' marriage had split up in the circumstances that I have described.
Moving on to a more sordid aspect, the third purpose behind the Bill is to try to reduce the risk of physical violence 1085 which can take place when a marriage has broken but cannot be dissolved. This, as your Lordships know, is much more likely to happen among the lower income brackets where they live in a small house. They cannot get away from each other and there is not the finance available for one to move out and for them to separate without maintenance and provision of that sort. Since the passing of the 1969 Act, society has perhaps become even more aware of the problem of battered wives. This is a problem which I am sure has always existed. But, human nature being what it is, and people being quite rightly and properly proud and loyal, if a woman appears out shopping with a black eye she is not going to say, "My husband thumped me last night". She is going to say, "I fell downstairs", or "I walked into a cupboard door in the dark", or something like that. This is a problem that we are only just beginning to appreciate; but from what I have been told it is a very substantial problem indeed. Anything one can do to help to obviate it would be extremely desirable.
Then there is the regrettable situation in the Northern Ireland legislation as it stands at the moment, as it was in England prior to 1969, that when two parties are intent upon getting a divorce and they cannot provide proof for it, they are tempted to "stage manage" a marital offence. This is one of the most sordid and unchristian things one can think of, but it is a resort to which many have had to turn. In addressing myself to this Bill, I gave careful study to the Scriptures, and I am convinced that it would be more in keeping with the law of God that such cruelty and suffering should be avoided than that the present man-made law should be adhered to. When a marriage breaks down irretrievably—this is what it is all about, it is not about offences—the partners should be able to bid farewell to each other with dignity and charity. I use the word in the same sense as St. Paul used it.
Then there is the question of releasing those who have been deserted by their partner. Perhaps they have not seen him or her for many years but cannot prove any offence whereby they can get a divorce. Surely it is an act of Christianity and charity that they should be released from a long dead marriage and enabled to resume a meaningful family life. Finally, there is the matter of trying to secure, for 1086 a wife in particular, a more satisfactory financial provision than is often the case at the moment.
I have been asked how one can quantify the public demand for a measure of this sort. I can only say that since some publicity was accorded to the First Reading of this Bill, I have been astonished at the number of letters and telephone calls I have received, all saying: "Good luck! I hope this goes through. Thank heavens someone is trying at last to do something about this situation!" There has been only one adverse voice. It came from a politician who felt, I am sure, that it was expected of him to express the opinion that he did. Many of the letters I have received have been most moving. One woman rang up and said: "I have not seen my husband for 18 years and I cannot get a divorce. How soon will this Bill go through?" I am convinced—
§ Lord SIMON of GLAISDALE
My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord why the lady could not get a divorce, since the husband had apparently deserted her?
§ Lord SIMON of GLAISDALE
My Lords, that certainly does not prevent one getting a divorce on the ground of desertion.
My Lords, the noble and learned Lord is very much better qualified than I to comment on this matter. I received information to that effect and I have not investigated this particular case in detail; but I should be more than glad to write to the noble and learned Lord when I have received more information about the matter. Indeed, perhaps his advice would be extremely valuable in assisting this unfortunate woman to solve her problem, and I thank the noble and learned Lord for his intervention.
How then can this be quantified? I know that at the moment the Standing Commission on Human Rights is working on a wide range of social problems; and I learned recently that they hope to have a report available fairly soon, perhaps in early spring. I can quite understand that Her Majesty's Government may want to delay any final decision 1087 on this Bill until that report has been received. Another report which I think will be very interesting is to come from the Faculty of Law at Queen's University in Belfast. Research is being done, I understand, into all the petitions which were submitted in 1975. That report should be of extreme interest to all those who ask how the demand for the Bill is to be quantified.
In view of this, I would appeal to your Lordships' House to give the Bill a Second Reading. I am not so unrealistic as to think that if and when the Bill reaches another place the Government will throw their hats in the air and say: "Marvellous! This is just what we have been waiting for." I realise that there is very little time available in which to deal with additional legislation; but I would appeal to your Lordships not to kill the Bill at this stage, but to keep it alive in the hope that the two reports to which I have referred will be available shortly and will then enable us to hammer out the Bill and turn it into something which is very meaningful. I beg to move.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Dunleath.)
§ 5.25 p.m.
§ The MINISTER of STATE, NORTHERN IRELAND OFFICE (Lord Melchett)
My Lords, may I say straight away how much I welcome the initiative of the noble Lord, Lord Dunleath, in introducing this Bill. It comes at a time when I and my colleagues have very much in mind the question of divorce law reform in Northern Ireland. I should also like to congratulate the noble Lord on introducing such a well-drafted Bill. While I am advised that some minor drafting Amendments might be needed, I am glad to say that I do not have to stand here at the Dispatch Box and draw your Lordships' attention to any major errors in or omissions from the Bill. May I also say at the outset that I have the greatest personal sympathy with what the noble Lord's Bill seeks to achieve.
I do not intend to detain your Lordships long, but I should like to outline briefly the Government's current views on the possibility of changing the law on divorce in the special circumstances of Northern Ireland. The law on social and personal 1088 matters was, of course, a matter for the Stormont Parliament, and the existing law in Northern Ireland, the Matrimonial Causes Act (Northern Ireland) 1939, was an act of that Parliament. There has been a tradition in Northern Ireland over the last half-century of introducing there most of the changes in the law which had been introduced in England. The Northern Irish authorities appear to have often allowed a short time to elapse before introducing legislation which followed English legislation—time to evaluate the English Act and the way in which it worked in practice. The 1939 Act, to which I have just referred, provides a good example since it followed closely the Matrimonial Causes Act 1937. However, there has been no corresponding legislation to follow the Divorce Reform Act 1969, which introduced the concept of irretrievable breakdown of marriage as the sole grounds for divorce in England and Wales.
One important factor explaining why Northern Ireland has not so far followed the rest of Great Britain so far as divorce is concerned was no doubt that from 1968 onwards the Northern Ireland Parliament was preoccupied with more fundamental issues, issues which tended to push personal and family matters to one side. And, since 1972, there has, of course, been no regional legislature. The result, so far as the law on divorce is concerned, is that there is a widespread and growing feeling in Northern Ireland that the law has become outdated, and that much needless human suffering is being caused. In these circumstances, the Government would be failing in their duty if they did not look closely at the need for legislation in fields which we have previously thought appropriate to leave to a devolved Administration or, in Great Britain, to Private Members' Bills.
It was for this reason that my right honourable friend the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland explained in another place on 2nd July last year that the Government would now consider whether to legislate to bring Northern Ireland law in this area more into harmony with laws in other parts of the country. My right honourable friend made clear the Government's readiness to consider new legislation in this area. But he also stressed the need to avoid precipitate 1089 action, and the importance of there being full consultation with the people of Northern Ireland before the Government themselves introduced any such legislation.
So far as the reform of the law on divorce and homosexuality is concerned, this consultation is being carried out on the Government's behalf by the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights. My right honourable friend the then Secretary of State formally requested the Commission on 30th July last year that they:should now consider the desirability of amending the law on homosexuality and the law on divorce with a view to bringing the law in Northern Ireland more closely into line with the current law in England and Wales".My right honourable friend went on to remind the Commission that both subjects are sensitive matters, and that the Government would not wish to propose fresh legislation on them without first being satisfied about the extent to which such changes would be supported or accepted within Northern Ireland. As the noble Lord, Lord Dunleath, said, the report of the Commission on both subjects is now expected to come at some time during the spring. In reply to a Question in another place on 23rd December last year my right honourable friend the Secretary of State said that he would urgently consider legislation in the light of the Commission's views.
While the Government are now awaiting the Standing Advisory Commission's views, we do not oppose the principle of this Bill or underestimate its value. The Government welcome the Bill, not least for the opportunity its passage through your Lordships' House will provide for us to hear the views of all concerned, both in this House and in Northern Ireland, on the reform that it proposes of the divorce law.
§ 5.31 p.m.
§ Lord SIMON of GLAISDALE
My Lords, I feel that it requires some apology for an English judge to intervene in your Lordships' House on a Northern Irish measure. But I was for many years president of the Divorce division in this country, and I feel it is only right that I should give my personal view that this Bill, like its predecessor in 1969 1090 and the Scottish Act which followed it, is the very embodiment of humbug and injustice.
It is humbug in a number of ways. The noble Lord, in a speech introducing this Bill, put it far more attractively than the English Act was put forward and he did not say—although the noble Lord, Lord Lord Melchett, did say—that it introduces the breakdown of marriage as the sole ground. Of course, it does nothing of the kind. What it does is to recapitulate a number of old grounds, and add to them the right of a man to repudiate his wife, because she has ceased to find favour in his eyes, after he has deserted her for five years, and that is deemed to be a breakdown of marriage unless it is shown that the marriage has not broken down. In other words, the pretence that this substitutes breakdown of marriage as the sole ground for divorce is the merest pretence. The Bill is claiming to be doing something that it does not do at all.
The second respect in which I am bound to say that I think the Bill is the very embodiment of humbug is that it has in its Long Title, as this kind of Bill always has, that it is to facilitate reconciliation and the noble Lord, Lord Dunleath, dwelt particularly on that matter. But all my information is that similar provisions in the Divorce Reform Act 1969, and its re-enactments, have proved to be a completely dead letter, and I am bound to say that it seems to me extraordinary, after eight years of a provision having proved a dead letter, that it is now seriously put forward in a Bill and indeed in the Long Title of the Bill, and that that is claimed as one of the merits of the Bill.
The third respect in which the Bill is humbug is that Clause 4 claims, on the face of it, to be a safeguard of a wife, who has been divorced on the ground that she and her husband have lived apart for five years, against her being caused grave financial or other hardship. Again, a similar provision is in the English Act and yet not once has it been successfully invoked. Even when a wife has been able to satisfy the court that she would suffer grave hardship, nevertheless a divorce has been pronounced. So much for the humbug.
The injustice is a matter that I have already mentioned. I could not help 1091 calling to mind, when the noble Lord introduced this Bill, two fairly recent examples in your Lordships' House, one I think two sessions ago and one only on the 19th of last month. The first was the proceedings on what is now the Inheritance Act, and the second was the debate on the Finer Report. The debate on the Finer Report showed the most widespread apprehension among your Lordships about the lot of one-parent families, but this Bill actively creates one-parent families, as indeed the 1969 Act has done. It encourages the creation of one-parent families. The reason is perfectly simple. It enables a man to repudiate his wife after five years' separation, even though she has stood by her matrimonial duties, has stood by her marriage in every way and no complaint can be made against her. She has merely ceased to find favour in her husband's eyes. It generally means that someone else, someone younger, who has not yet had to go through the labour, pain and peril of childbirth and all the household chores, has found greater favour. But he can repudiate his wife and her family, and marry the younger second woman.
As was pointed out to your Lordships, when the 1969 Act was being debated, by a judge of incomparable experience in this sphere of judicature, my noble and learned friend Lord Hodson, and confirmed by the noble Baroness, Lady Summerskill, who has had professional, Parliamentary and Ministerial experience of this problem, the fundamental fact is that there are only a handful of men in this country who can afford two families. Therefore, if you enable the husband to repudiate his wife merely because she has ceased to find favour in his eyes, and marry another wife and have a second family, the first family goes plummeting down to the level of poverty where they are lucky if they are caught at subsistence level by the Supplementary Benefits Commission. Indeed, the horrifying fact that appeared from the Finer Committee's Report was that there were 45,000 families who were below supplementary benefits level; in other words, below subsistence level. Therefore, I am afraid that this Bill embodies a fundamental injustice.
Marriage is really based on a functional division of co-operative labour between husband and wife. The wife in our 1092 society, in any envisageable society, bears the children and manages the home and thereby suffers economic impairment. The husband, by her assumption of her responsibilities, is freed for his economic advancement. Those problems can be worked out in the state of marriage, and it is one of the reasons why marriage as an institution has been fostered in every society known to me. It is a way of working out fairly the fundamental division of co-operative labour between husband and wife. But this Bill, like its predecessor, strikes at the very root of that principle because it enables the man, even though the wife has fully played her part in the co-operative labour, to repudiate her. That is Clause 2(1)(e).
In introducing the Bill the noble Lord mentioned the avoidance of cruelty and suffering. I cannot believe that he has read the contents of the Finer Committee Report on One Parent Families. As I have said, a measure like this creates one-parent families. It was a masterly and most moving report and it showed beyond any doubt at all the cruelty that society inflicts on the one-parent family and the suffering they endure. Therefore I ask your Lordships not to attach to ourselves any flattering unction: thinking that by passing this measure we are avoiding and obviating cruelty and suffering. On the contrary, we shall be adding to it.
The noble Lord mentioned financial provision and I want to ask him this question. The English Divorce Reform Act was accompanied by an elaborate Act enabling the court to do justice after divorce, so far as it can be done where you have two families clamouring for the resources of one. It enabled the court to do justice, so far as it could, to a divorced wife. Is there to be a comparable measure in Northern Ireland?
I ask something more. Both in England and in Scotland and now under this Bill if it is accompanied by the financial measures that are necessary to mitigate to some extent the cruelty and suffering, Parliament will be putting divorced women in a more favourable position than women who have stood by their marriages. That is quite unnecessary. Many of the Commonwealth countries have recognised the problem and given courts the same power to make provision for a wife or a widow or, indeed, for the personal representative of a 1093 wife as they do for a divorced woman. How long are we going to endure that kind of discrimination against the married woman?
During the course of this year we hope to see a report from the Law Commission on the matrimonial home. Many of us hope that the report will recommend joint ownership of the matrimonial home. It would be something on the way, but we have not got it yet and at the moment, and until we get even that measure, we are discriminating against the woman who stands by her marriage and providing that after she has played her full part in the co-operative division of labour she can still be cast aside with her children and both of them consigned to the Supplementary Benefits Commission. That is what is involved.
Notwithstanding the fact that I have no claim to connection with Northern Ireland, I thought it right to give this warning. When we debated the Finer Report on 19th January there were signs of recognition that a wrong step had been taken, as I believe it had been, in 1969. It was particularly noticeable, not surprisingly, in the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Summerskill, but it was also, I thought, most noticeable in a speech that was made from the Bench of Bishops. There is no question that the Archbishop's Commission and Putting Asunder, jumping on an intellectually fashionable bandwagon at the time, was a major contributor to the Divorce Reform Act 1969 and that it contradicted entirely the evidence that was given by the Church of England, led by the Archbishop of Canterbury, to the Morton Royal Commission of 1954 to 1957. I think that I saw signs of recognition that this problem to which I have referred, the creation of a particular class of one-parent family, had been perpetrated by the 1969 Act.
Despite that, I shall not ask your Lordships to divide against the Bill, for two reasons. First, I think it is always a very great evil when the matrimonial and divorce laws of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland diverge. You get false claims of domicile: people taking up a domicile in order to gain a forum. It seems to me, if I may say so with respect, that the noble Lord, Lord Dunleath, was entirely justified—as, indeed, the noble 1094 Lord, Lord Melchett, reiterated—in drawing attention to the advantage of bringing together the three jurisdictions.
The second reason is my own feeling that things have got to get worse before they get better. I remember many years ago now serving on a Royal Commission that included a very wise psychiatrist. He said to me, "I often feel that I have to send people away because they are not yet ill enough for me to help them properly". I have a feeling that in recent years our society has caught this sickness and that things have to get worse before they get better. There has to be wider recognition of the misery that has been caused by throwing over established institutions and traditional ideas. I shall not, therefore, ask your Lordships to divide against the Bill but will content myself with warning, as I hope I may with respect, that the Bill contains inbuilt imperfections of injustice for married women—and humbug.
§ Lord ROBBINS
My Lords, before the noble and learned Lord sits down, I wonder whether he could develop a little further his argument that Clause 4 is not a sufficient safeguard against the evils upon which he has been dwelling.
§ Lord SIMON of GLAISDALE
My Lords, the reason is that on ultimate analysis Clause 4 is discretionary. The discretion has never once since 1969 been exercised to refuse a divorce, even in those cases I mentioned where a wife had proved that it would cause grave financial or other hardship. The words on page 4, line 13, were held by the court to be sufficient to entitle them nevertheless to grant a decree of divorce, and I am bound to say that I think that that construction of the Act was absolutely right. The shameful thing is that what Parliament enacted as a safeguard has proved to be no safeguard at all.
§ 5.51 p.m.
§ Lord O'NEILL of the MAINE
My Lords, I understand that the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, is not rising, so I will rise instead, first to congratulate my noble friend Lord Dunleath for the courage and foresight he has exercised in introducing this Bill. We in Northern Ireland are in some ways much closer to Scotland than we are to England and in its wisdom Scotland has 1095 followed in England's footsteps (I believe the Act came into operation at the beginning of this year) and therefore it seems to me that Northern Ireland is rather left sticking out like a sore thumb.
I much appreciated the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Melchett. Personally, if it were possible—and I am not saying this in any sense of criticism of the noble Lord, Lord Dunleath, but just as someone who has been part of a provincial Government for some time in the past—I would prefer to see the Government introducing a measure of this kind rather than that it should come from a noble Lord privately. I believe it is easier for a Government to introduce legislation of this kind, especially when dealing with Northern Ireland, and to get it through both Houses—because that is another important point. We might get it through this House and then it might be thrown out in the House of Commons.
It could be argued with force that this is something which should be left to a future Assembly in Northern Ireland, but I know, and I think the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, must now know, that there are some Members of Parliament representing Northern Ireland in the House of Commons who are dedicated to ensuring that no Assembly shall ever be re-established in Northern Ireland. Therefore, as the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, said, this is something that the Government are thinking about; and I hope they will continue to do so in the future.
I should like once more to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Dunleath. Some noble Lords present here tonight may not realise that he is a Member of what is known in Northern Ireland as the Alliance Party, which is one of the rare Parties representing both Catholics and Protestants. That is something which I think noble Lords should appreciate while we are discussing these matters tonight. I wish the noble Lord well. Like him, I hope that this Bill will not be killed: I hope it will be kept open, waiting for the report, but I believe that for final success it might be better if the Government were to take over a measure of this kind, perhaps a more inclusive measure covering other matters as well, because I believe that that would have a greater chance of success.
§ 5.54 p.m.
§ Lord BELSTEAD
My Lords, I apologise that my name is not on the list of speakers and out of no disrespect to the noble Lord, Lord Dunleath, I intend to intervene for only a short time. First, I think we should always look carefully at Northern Ireland Bills to see whether, under a devolved Government, they would have been the subject of legislation in Northern Ireland. Under the Stormont Parliament I assume that this Bill would have been handled in Belfast, so although I have listened to what the noble Lord, Lord O'Neill of the Maine, said with regard to the prospect of setting up another Northern Ireland Assembly, I would just say that on an occasion of this kind I think Parliament should tread with some wariness.
Having said that, I believe that this Bill would bring the law of Northern Ireland into line with the law of England and Wales and of Scotland. I accept the contention put forward by the noble Lord in his speech, that there is a considerable body of opinion in Northern Ireland today which takes the view that, as the law in Great Britain has abandoned the concept of the matrimonial offence and put in its place the need to prove that the marriage has broken down irretrievably, so this should be the criterion of divorce proceedings in Northern Ireland. I think that on this occasion we on these Benches must look towards the Government to decide what ought to be done about the Bill on this occasion. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has advised as to the volume of demand for this legislation and whether there would be perhaps any other body of opinion in Northern Ireland, either public or legal, which might wish to amend the divorce law for England and Wales and for Scotland so that the law became slightly different in respect of Northern Ireland. And having listened to no less a person than the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, who after all was President of the Probate, Divorce and Admiralty Division of the High Court, voicing fundamental criticisms of the law as it stands today in Great Britain, it is reasonable to say that there might be two sides to the objections in Northern Ireland.
The noble Lord, Lord Dunleath, may say to that "Very well. Let us carry the Bill forward and let us amend it and discuss 1097 it in Committee". It may be that that is what your Lordships would wish to do, but the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, for the Government, has said that the Secretary of State is awaiting a report from the Standing Advisory Committee on Human Rights in Northern Ireland; and as I understood from the noble Lord that the Government wish to await that report I hope the noble Lord, Lord Dunleath, may also be content to await the report. However, to my mind this Bill has one particularly valuable function: It is a Bill—a comparatively rare occurrence amid the flood of Parliamentary orders which has had to serve as Northern Ireland legislation during these past years. Therefore, on the subject of divorce reform for Northern Ireland I hope that when the Government are ready to proceed, if this Bill is not to proceed through Parliament on this occasion, the Government will then do so by way of a Parliamentary Bill and not by way of a Parliamentary order. To my mind that would be the least that should be done to recognise the importance of social reform in Northern Ireland and the work which the noble Lord, Lord Dunleath, has undoubtedly devoted to bringing his own Bill before your Lordships today.
§ 5.58 p.m.
My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the various noble Lords who have been good enough to speak on this measure. I am particularly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, speaking on behalf of the Government, for his thoughtful and favourable response to what I said and to the Bill. I welcome his statement that it is right and proper in the absence of a devolved Government for Her Majesty's Government to look closely at measures of this kind. I also welcome what I think he said, that it was important that this type of measure should be subject to public comment and discussion. I am grateful for his remarks.
I felt a sense of privilege that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, should have felt it proper to speak on this occasion. Knowing the experience he has and the weight of his authority I felt it was an extremely valuable contribution. It is clear that he approves of this Bill no more than he approves of the 1969 Divorce Reform Act. This is an opinion—and an authoritative opinion—to which he is 1098 entirely entitled. He made a number of interesting points and I should like to assure him sincerely that these will be looked at closely. I have taken some notes, but I shall study his speech in Hansard extremely carefully.
With regard to financial provisions, those that accompany the 1969 Act I think were passed in 1970 and taken through by the Government, and I was assuming that a similar provision would take place if this Bill goes through in respect of Northern Ireland now; but again this is a very good point to look at. I welcomed the noble Lord's statement that parity was the tidy and logical way to do it, because that is what I feel and that is one of the purposes of this Bill. I thank the noble Lord for his contribution.
It was an unexpected pleasure to hear my noble friend Lord O'Neill of the Maine. I take his point about there being advantages in the Government putting through a measure of this kind rather than it being a Private Member's Bill. But Governments need the odd prod every now and again, do they not? At the end of the day that may turn out to be the best way of doing it. But I think perhaps there is advantage in having this Bill in motion off the ground at the moment because it gives an opportunity for public reaction.
The noble Lord may be interested to know that I have received public reaction from two bodies which I thought particularly significant. One was from the Christian Marriage Committee of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland saying "Good luck. This is what we need. All power to your elbow". I had a similar message from the Methodist Church Council on Social Welfare. I found it extremely heartening that those two bodies, which have been working on problems such as this for a considerable time, should have felt like that, and I think that is quite a good thermometer of public opinion. If your Lordships are good enough to give this Bill a Second Reading, I hope that will provide further opportunity for public reaction before we reach the next stage.
I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, for what he said. Certainly I am very happy, and indeed I think it would be the proper course of events, to 1099 wait, if the Parliamentary timetable permits it, until the report of the Standing Commission on Human Rights comes through, so that we can see what it says, and also the report to which I referred from the Faculty at Law of Queens University. Certainly I would be happy to wait for those, and indeed I think this would be the best course of action. In thanking your Lordships for your consideration of this Bill, and thanking noble Lords who have contributed with their remarks, I commend the Bill.
§ On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.