HL Deb 02 July 1996 vol 573 cc1425-9

10.42 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Southwark

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(The Lord Bishop of Southwark.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The DEPUTY CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES (Lord Burnham) in the Chair.]

Clause 1 [Alternatives for prescribed declaration and words of contract]:

Lord Northbourne moved Amendment No. 1: Page 1, line 7, after ("building)") insert— ("(a) after the words "and each of them shall say to the other" the following words shall be inserted— I (name) have carefully considered the promises I am making here today and I understand that I am entering into a marriage partnership with you (name) under which each of us is making a commitment to support and care for the other and for any children of the marriage for as long as we live. I acknowledge that even if this marriage should end in irretrievable breakdown I shall continue to have a responsibility to love and contribute to the support of any child or children of the marriage and"; and (b)").

The noble Lord said: I say immediately that I entirely support the main thrust of this Bill. It is not my intention in any way to damage that thrust. This is a probing amendment. If it had arisen earlier in the evening, I had rather hoped it might lead to an interesting and important debate. I daresay at this hour it will not.

There is a need to encourage young couples who are contemplating marriage to consider carefully the nature of the engagement they are entering into. One may ask, do they not already do so? Surprisingly, many do not.

During the debates on the Family Law Bill many noble Lords, including the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor repeatedly referred to the importance of the beginning of marriage, and to the fact that when the question of divorce arose it was much too late in a marriage to be able to do anything effective to put it together again in most cases. Professor Father Jack Dominian, who is possibly one of the greatest experts in this country on the subject of marriage, said that, The only way to reduce marriage breakdown is preparation for marriage". A marriage guidance counsellor to whom I spoke recently talked about people coming for counselling advice being asked, "Are you communicating with one another?" He said that some of them never seem to have communicated—although there must have been some body language somewhere.

An intelligent young Roman Catholic priest from Australia who deals regularly with marriage preparation told me that many of the couples say to him, "Father, we know all about it. We know you have to do this but it's only a formality, isn't it?" His attitude is, "Yes, it's only a formality but I have to do something about it. Would you mind filling in this questionnaire? You go over there; and you go over there". In many cases, even on the simplest question the couple's answers are completely different.

There is probably consensus that if couples were clearer about the nature of the commitments they were making, they would have a better chance of the success and happiness both for themselves and their children which some of us have been fortunate enough to enjoy in our marriage and would like to see others enjoy.

I have put down a clear, unequivocal, easily understood promise which is made by each to the other in front of friends and family. I believe that it might help. The words which I propose look simple but they are designed to cover several important issues. First, they emphasise that marriage is a very serious promise made by each partner to the other. Secondly, it emphasises that marriage is not just about a relationship. It is also about a partnership to do a specific job: to care for one another, and to care for the children of the marriage. My words define what that job is. Finally, in the first sentence, the parties agree that the partnership is intended to last for life.

The second sentence of the amendment may cause a certain number of raised eyebrows. Having promised that the partnership is for life, why are we talking about irretrievable breakdown? We have just passed the Family Law Bill which accepts irretrievable breakdown as a possibility. If we were to accept a provision of this kind in this Bill, or draft it in some future legislation, we would have to bring couples face to face with the fact that if they are too selfish, too greedy, too demanding, or if they take too much out of the marriage and put too little in, they may end up joining the 30 per cent. who now face irretrievable breakdown with the great suffering to themselves and the children which that involves.

Divorce is the single greatest threat to children in our society today. It also causes untold misery to their parents. I wonder whether a promise along the lines of the amendment could make a contribution to reducing the number of adults and children who suffer the trauma of divorce. I beg to move.

10.45 p.m.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, was so courteous as to give me advance notice of the wording of his amendment. Therefore I have been able carefully to consider it. I have also had the opportunity to ascertain that the Labour Party has not yet finalised its policy position on this matter. So I am empowered to say that I find myself very much in sympathy with the impulse which underlies the amendment and with the desire of the noble Lord to make the seriousness and lifelong responsibilities of civil marriage as clear and as binding on the parties as it is possible to be. In many ways that is what the amendment does.

It is especially true so far as concerns the children of the marriage. His amendment sets out absolutely unambiguously what those responsibilities are. But the difference between religious and civil marriage is such that one cannot, in making laws about civil marriage, avail oneself of the understandings and assumptions which belong appropriately to a religious understanding of marriage as a sacrament. In a religious context, one can easily and well talk about "a responsibility to love", which is the wording of the amendment. It means something in the context of the vocabulary of theology or ecclesiology or liturgy, but within the context of a secular jurisprudence or among the arcane attics of the parliamentary draftsmen, it is very difficult to ascribe to a phrase like "a responsibility to love" any precise or enforceable meaning. It is difficult to see how a responsibility to love could be established or denied in the courts.

Given that difficulty, it is not easy for us on these Benches to give our unreserved support to the noble Lord's amendment. But if the Minister could find it in his heart to take the amendment away and consider it and return at a later stage with a more easily enforceable form of words, it could perhaps improve not only the morality but also the euphony of the Bill to its and our inestimable advantage.

The Earl of Courtown

Noble Lords will recall that I made clear during the Second Reading debate that the purpose of this Bill is to introduce greater choice for people who are getting married by allowing the use of more modern language in the marriage ceremony for those couples who want it. As I explained, the 1990 White Paper, Registration: Proposals for Change, recognised that there was a case for providing modern-day language alternatives which had substantially the same effect as the contracting and declaratory words prescribed in the Marriage Act 1949. The proposals in this Bill have broadly the same purpose.

In seeking to provide an alternative form of contracting words which would set out the responsibilities of marriage, the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, goes beyond the recommendation of the White Paper. Moreover, the reference to the possible irretrievable breakdown of marriage would be inappropriate at the time of the marriage ceremony when the presumption, and certainly the hope, must be that the marriage will be for life.

This is not, of course, to say that the Government do not recognise the importance of these issues. As the Committee is aware—and this was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne—the Family Law Bill which recently completed its passage through Parliament sets out the principle that the institution of marriage is to be supported. Under the new system, couples will have to reflect on their marriage breakdown, consider their responsibilities and decide arrangements for the future before a divorce order is granted. They will receive information about the availability of marriage guidance counselling and other sources of help and will be encouraged to take all practicable steps to save their marriage. The Bill places public funding for a marriage support service on a statutory basis. In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, the Government are therefore unable to support the amendment.

The Lord Bishop of Southwark

I am grateful that so many noble Lords have remained for this debate and to the noble Earl, Lord Courtown, and the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, for their contributions. I thank also the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for the gracious manner in which he introduced his amendment. I understand and share many of the concerns of which the amendment speaks, but I do not believe that the Bill is the right place for them to be expressed. In his quotation from Jack Dominian, the noble Lord hinted that marriage preparation classes before the ceremony are the right place for those matters to be raised.

The proposals of the Bill do not affect the marriage services of the Church of England. I am therefore speaking on behalf of the Roman Catholic and Free Churches. The text contained in the Bill has been agreed by the Roman Catholic and Free Churches as being appropriate to the forms of their liturgies. The proposed texts are in the first case an update on the wording that has already existed and in the second case in a form that is totally consistent with the marriage liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church.

The amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, though graciously introduced, would be completely inappropriate in the liturgical context. A marriage ceremony is not the occasion for such a declaration to be made. It would not be supported or even considered for use in the marriage service of the Church of England. Therefore I cannot support it for inclusion in the service of any other Church.

If carried, the amendment would create serious problems with regard to the Church's teaching on marriage. To enshrine in its liturgy even a suggestion of irretrievable breakdown goes against the teaching of the Church that marriage is a life-long commitment "till death us do part".

It may be that some other, more appropriate way outside the Bill can be found to raise the issues contained in the amendment. The noble Lord may therefore feel able to withdraw it.

Lord Northbourne

I am grateful for the kind remarks of the right reverend Prelate and the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris. As noble Lords may imagine, it is not my intention to press the amendment. In so far as it has been spoken to, it has received an encouraging measure of support. I shall pursue the argument about the inclusion of irretrievable breakdown with the noble Lord, Lord Morris, at a later date. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 1 agreed to.

Clause 2 agreed to.

House resumed: Bill reported without amendment; Report received.