HL Deb 24 March 1999 vol 598 cc1294-343

3 p.m.

Lord Northbourne rose to call attention to the economic and social role of marriage; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I rise with some trepidation to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

I suggest to your Lordships that in this country today we are facing a social revolution and that we would be wise to face that revolution with our eyes open. For thousands of years, marriage has been the norm. Young people in love have been forced by social sanctions to make a long-term commitment to stay together to support their children and one another. In the past three decades, things have changed. Last year, 37 per cent, of all live births in England and Wales were outside marriage, and for the under-20 age group, the figure was 89 per cent. Today, 2.7 million children live in 1.6 million single-parent households and 25 per cent, of the children born this year can expect to see their parents' marriage break up before they leave school.

Obviously marriage is facing a sharp decline in popularity; it is no longer enforced by social sanctions. Some may say that that is a good thing and I accept that there are arguments for it. It gives adults more freedom to make their own lifestyle choices. We live in a society where individualism is a dominant ideology. Others would say that we are sowing the seeds of an intractable social problem for the future.

This week, the Church of England Board of Social Responsibility published a document, Supporting Families, which states: Any weakening of marriage has serious implications for the mutual belonging and care that is exercised in Society at large". This debate is not only about marriage; it is about how we as a society want to treat one another and how we want to treat our children. I believe that the structure of families matters because of the damage to the child and the cost to the community when parents fail to fulfil their obligations to their children. Children need the security of a long-term committed relationship between their parents. The human child takes 18 years to grow up—some would say more. During that time, he or she needs security, guidance, role-models and unconditional love. Most parents want to give those things and most parents are the best people to do the job. Statistics show that children brought up in stable, happy, functional families have better life chances in terms of health, drugs, crime, educational achievement, employment prospects and as parents of the future. Also, single parents tend to have problems of poverty because they usually have to struggle to combine parenting with earning or to get by on benefits.

Kathleen Kiernan, writing of social exclusion in 1997, reports overwhelming evidence that the break-up of partnerships or marriages is damaging to children. She states, Children are more likely to suffer from poor performance at school—more anxious and attention seeking, to fall ill, have behavioural problems, drug problems and come before the Courts. They are also more likely not to marry as to divorce, and to break up relationships". Of course, some regular families are unhappy and some reconstituted families are brilliant. But that does not alter the fact that, on average, most children get their best chance to develop to their full potential growing up in a two-parent, stable family.

As to the cost to the community, the cost to taxpayers of paying for the children of neglect and abuse is very high. So also is the cost of supporting young single parents and marriage breakdown. One estimate puts the public cost of divorce and separation this year at £5 billion, and in addition to that there is the cost of housing two families instead of one. Children in foster care cost the taxpayers around £15, 000 a year. Children in special institutions cost from £50, 000 to £100, 000 a year each. And today's situation may be only the tip of the iceberg. Local authorities are already jibbing at those costs, understandably so. But if the numbers of children needing public care increase, the taxpayers will jib at the bill; the quality of care will suffer; and less good care will lead to more illiteracy, more exclusion, more drugs and more crime.

Children who are emotionally deprived or brought up in poverty are a bad investment for the nation. Society is a stakeholder in successful parenting. Indeed, the Government have said that strong, secure families make for a strong, secure society. The Chancellor of the Exchequer said in his Budget speech that children are our investment as a country. But an underclass of children is exploding in this country today, whose day-to-day life is bleak and whose future is frightening. I therefore put the proposition that there is an overwhelming social and economic case for society to welcome, encourage and support mothers and fathers who are prepared to make the long-term commitment to live together in a stable, loving, long-term partnership and to support their own children.

The crucial question is whether marriage is the best way to achieve that commitment. Here I come to arguing the case; I am taking sides. To date, marriage has been the best way that anyone has discovered. In a recent survey, 14 per cent, of people believed that marriage was out of date; 72 per cent, of families are still headed by a married couple; 82 per cent, of young people questioned in the survey still expect to marry.

Marriage is different from cohabitation because marriage involves long-term commitment publicly made. It fundamentally affects the lives of third parties, including the children and the extended family. In contrast, cohabitation normally expressly rejects long-term commitment. David Lock MP, speaking for the Government in an all-party parliamentary group the other day, said, Research suggests that marriages are the best environment in which to bring up children. When marriage breaks down we all pay". I want to mention just two more statistics. Cohabiting couples are almost four times as likely to split up as those who are married, and even where there are children, 50 per cent, of cohabiting couples part within 10 years compared to only 12 per cent, who marry.

I shall spend just a small interlude on the nature of marriage. There is an illusion today that marriage is just about celebrating a relationship. But marriage should, or can be more than that. It can and should be a contract to develop a series of relationships. Most noble Lords will have had the experience of falling in love; of the changes which take place in a relationship when the first baby comes along and one is faced with the demanding little package which is noisy at both ends and leaks in the middle. Marriage is the cement which makes possible the smooth transition from one relationship to the next. It is the signpost and the support at the major crossroads in a couple's life.

I am not suggesting that we should put the clock back. We must find positive ways to move forward. Should we find ways of making marriage itself more attractive and more relevant to young people today? Or should we invent an alternative which offers an opportunity of supporting and enhancing the number of people who are prepared to make a long-term commitment? I hope that some speakers this afternoon will look at alternatives to marriage. I hope that others will focus on the role of the extended family, the importance of marriage for the mutual support of the partners in old age or disability and on marriage as a sacrament. I intend to focus on things which could be done to make marriage more relevant to young people today.

First, let us look at the background. We live in a society today which has changed much since the head of an Oxford college said to his students in a sermon a hundred years ago: Gentlemen, I implore you not to imperil your immortal souls in a practice which, I am reliably informed, lasts no more than 2¾ minutes". For many young people today sex has become a recreation rather than an expression of lasting love. Individualism is the dominant social ideology and the roles of men and women are less differentiated. Fathers are less clear about their role, while mothers often struggle to balance motherhood and a career. Like high street banks, we have moved from long-term loyalty relationships to short-term transactional relationships.

The Home Secretary is reported as saying last week: I don't think it is the job of the secular state to be judgmental about how people run their adult personal relationships". That is fair enough if there are no children. However, does the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor agree that when two adults bring a child into the world their relationship is no longer a purely private matter? The child's welfare may be affected and the state has to assume ultimate responsibility for the welfare of that child. That is why the state is surely justified in behaving in ways which will support and encourage parents who are willing to make a long-term commitment. You cannot have it both ways. If marriage is good for children, you are betraying children if you do not support marriage.

I shall have time this afternoon to touch on only one or two examples of the range of things which could be done to support marriage and to make marriage more relevant to young people today. I will not take time describing the excellent plans for marriage preparation, counselling and mediation and for support for parents which the Government have already put in hand.

I believe that responsible parenthood should be taught in schools based on agreed values about parental responsibility and long-term commitment. I believe that young people in school should also learn about the needs of children; the need for long-term commitment by both parents—for patient, non-judgmental love, for boundaries and example and, above all, for time. Is the law sufficiently unequivocal about the financial responsibility of parents, especially when a child is living away from home? There is also a need for funding for teachers to be trained to teach these things.

In his recent Budget, the Chancellor of the Exchequer sent a message of negative support for marriage. He took away £2.5 billion by withdrawing the married couples' tax allowance. He gave only £1.4 billion in additional support to children, but there was no visible support for parental commitment. Surely to support and encourage long-term parental commitment is the cheapest as well as the best way to support children in the long term.

Then there is the problem of men. I suspect that very few of those 1.6 million single mothers really want to struggle to bring up a family on their own. I suggest that what we need is 1.6 million suitable and eligible young men. Of course, cloning might provide the answer. However, short of that, the Government should focus more on young men. We need family values and suitable role models in our schools. We need education for relationships and parenting. We need to rebuild the youth service. We need to re-instate sport in schools. We need to redefine the role of young men in the family. We need young men who are educated, who have a job and will bring back a pay packet to share with the family.

Finally, I turn to changes to the institution and ceremony of marriage itself. For example, what about "two-tier" marriages, with a greater degree of commitment until the first child arrives, or even "three-tier" marriages? What about term marriages which last 21 years, at which point there is a reassessment? What about a memorandum of agreement, which would not be binding but which would help couples to sort out what they believe the other person believes before they enter into the commitment? What about contracts of marriage which would be binding? What about a commitment to or from extended families and what about changes to the marriage ceremony to msike it more relevant and make the commitment which young people are making clearer and more transparent?

This debate is not just about marriage; it is about the kind of society that we want to live in. Our attitude to long-term commitment in marriage is a symptom of our attitude to one another, especially our attitude to our children. Children need their parents. Parents need one another. We, as a society, need to relearn how to live together.

My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

3.15 p.m.

Lord Sheppard of Liverpool

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for having tabled this important subject for debate. Indeed, full Benches in the Chamber even on a Wednesday show just how much importance many noble Lords attach to it. I should like to focus my five minutes on the social and economic role of marriage in areas of deprivation such as I have known in Merseyside and in east and south-east London.

Especially among those who have found themselves excluded from regular employment, the world of long-term commitments seems remote. Belonging to institutions or conforming seems to have nothing to offer. Instead, the spontaneous—what we feel like now—fills the horizons.

Being excluded from regular employment has crucial effects on marriage and family life. The noble Lord spoke about the need for suitable eligible young men, but the collapse of so much industry in Britain has left many men without any role. There are many homes where jobs are still unknown to anyone, whether male or female. In the 1991 census, 46 per cent, of children growing up in the borough of Knowsley were growing up in a home where no-one was in employed work; indeed, almost half the children in a large borough. While checking those figures with someone yesterday in Kirkby I receive the devastating comment, "Men are regarded as redundant"—in the home as well as at work. What worries me as much as anything is that the absence of a father who comes home with the dignity of a decent job well done leaves a boy with no positive or realistic directions to steer by.

All that supports the Government's mainline priority of getting people into work. Many of the areas that I have in mind are into their third generation of mass unemployment. A whole culture needs to be changed; that is, a culture that has assumed, with reason, that there would be no jobs. I know very well that there are mothers and carers who are doing real work, work that is of great value to the nation. We should at least consider paying them for that work. However, for the great majority, a decent job must be the expectation of both husband and wife—helped, I believe, by the working families tax credit.

If we are to support marriage better we need to break into that culture, deep set as it is now, that cannot conceive of long-term rewards for long-term commitment. The Church has a major part to play, with many still coming to us asking to be married in church. However, lengthy preparation groups, like parenting groups and those concerned with married counselling, are often declined because they, too, are seen to come out of the tidy institutional world.

However, we must not give up at the first refusal or indeed at the second or third refusal. The Government's consultation paper on support for marriage focuses helpfully on what health visitors might be able to offer in support. Among the professionals health visitors are regarded as relatively non-threatening persons. There is a fear of statutory social workers; a fear that they might take the children away.

I believe the Government should be ready to put fresh resources into other bodies that might provide bridges to bring parenting classes or marriage counselling within reach. I think of voluntary organisations. Rather naturally, I mention the Family Service Units, whose president I was for 10 years. Other bridges could be provided by nursery classes or playgroups, and perhaps we need to go a good deal further than that in building bridges. The detached youth worker has shown that he or she can often make lasting contacts with youngsters that school or the more settled youth club cannot reach. In Kirkby, that I mentioned, the Church's Centre 63 has a small team of detached workers around it with different groups, different skills and different objectives to bring to the young people with whom they are in touch.

In the end, it is the quality of marriages that they see that will persuade young people to attempt this great adventure. What I have called building bridges of human contact is a necessary step along the way.

3.20 p.m.

Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow two speakers who have done so much to support the family and care for the welfare of children. The subject of this debate is extremely important. Marriage has been the basis of family life in this country and the foundation of our social life for centuries. It has not been the basis of a narrow view of the family but a view of the extended family covering far more than just a husband and wife.

We know that the success or failure of marriage has important implications for the individuals involved and for us all, for their quality of life, for their standard of living, for our welfare expenditure and taxation, for the growth of social problems and, as the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, said, for the degree to which we try to create trust in our society and create a certain kind of society. The current trends, which were mentioned, are clearly rather negative. The projections by the Government Actuary are even worse. The predicted increase in divorce and in co-habitation will mean that married couples will be in a minority in the population. It is against this background that I wish to make three points.

First, this is a debate about the public interest and not about our private values and private morality. I am sure that each of us has a different view of marriage. This is not a debate about our private views. The crux of this Motion, as I see it, is whether it is in the interests of our society as a whole that children are brought up within the structure of a marriage in which two parents have made a commitment to each other for life, or whether alternative arrangements are just as good. Should the Government be indifferent as between alternative family forms, or should they throw their weight behind marriage?

No one wishes the Government to start preaching to us. Nor should the Government pressurise people into choosing one particular kind of relationship. But the Government have after all formed a clear view on the need to help lone mothers return to work; on the need to provide extra childcare facilities; and on the need to extend support to help parenting. This is not viewed as preaching or interfering in family life. I believe that in a similar way the subject of marriage is not a subject on which the Government can afford to be neutral, especially when they have made so much of their concern for the welfare of children.

The reason I say this—and this is my second point— is the weight of the evidence. I confess that I had not looked at the evidence and the literature on this matter for some time. However, as I prepared for this debate I was surprised at the reviews of the literature which I read. The conclusion overwhelmingly points in one direction; namely, that judged by almost any indicator you care to mention—the state of mental and physical health; the emotional and intellectual development of children; the frequency of violence and child abuse; care for the elderly; and the likelihood of the relationship breaking up—marriage scores consistently ahead of other family forms.

The studies use averages, so there will be bad marriages and good alternative relationships. But the thrust of the evidence is clear. As the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, said, the reason has to do with commitment. Obviously any relationship involves commitment but a commitment to marriage is a commitment for life. We should not be surprised if that results in different behaviour. Surveys of attitudes show clearly that marriage is a basis for a stable family life. I was interested to note the recent St. Valentine's Day engagement of Zoe Ball to Fat Boy Slim. This shows that the ideal of marriage is alive and well even in the world of the 1990s "ladettes".

My third point is that, in the light of the evidence and because of the pain and cost caused by divorce, in my judgment the Government have no option but to show their unequivocal support for marriage. I believe that that starts with taxation. The Chancellor, Gordon Brown, said in his first Budget, The tax system sends critical signals about activities a society wishes to promote or deter". That theme was developed in the Red Book, Taxation is not wholly neutral in the way it raises revenue. How and what is taxed sends clear signals about the economic activities which governments believe should be encouraged and discouraged and the values they wish to entrench in society". I strongly agree with both those statements. But the signals which a tax system sends out, and the values it wishes to entrench apply to marriage as much as to anything else. In the context of the abolition of the married couples' allowance I ask the following questions. What signals does this send to our society? What values do the Government wish to entrench in our society? This is not a party political point because previous Conservative governments have initiated measures which have gone in the same direction. However, I am afraid this tax measure suggests that, despite the rhetoric of speeches and White Papers, marriage is not a sufficient priority with the Government for them to put the weight of the tax system behind it. Until that is reversed we shall never solve the problems that the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, spoke about in his marvellous opening speech.

3.27 p.m.

The Earl of Mar and Kellie

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for initiating this debate and for prompting me to take part. His concern for the welfare and effective upbringing of children is formidable. However, he did not anticipate that yesterday was our 25th wedding anniversary.

I intend to speak from the position of someone who has been a step-parent for the past quarter of a century. Aged 25—I am appalled to recall—and with a confidence and seriousness that no doubt belied my youth, I moved into a marriage which involved not just the two of us but also the five others, then aged 13 to four. Of course today they are now almost all 30 somethings and, in the main, parents themselves of our seven grandchildren. I believe that some observations about step-parenthood may add a useful dimension to this debate.

First, the step-parent is able to examine the question: is the children's upbringing the result of nature or nurture? Step-parents examine that question from a special perspective. At those moments when what they say and do is annoyingly similar to one's own weaknesses or foibles, then you know that nurture has been effective. At the same time you live with and offer leadership to people who do not share your nature, but that inherited from their parents.

Secondly, I think it is necessary to face up to the fact that you are marrying not just a spouse but also the children. Novels, dramas and soap operas are full of the old chestnuts of cruel, uncaring and rejective step-parents who end up resenting the presence of the existing children because they only want a relationship with the parent. Clearly this is a useless strategy and quite unrealistic, but it happens. I can think of only a few actions that are worse than having to live with real hostility, especially if you are a child. Such an unfavourable situation is far from the desirable stable upbringing that one hopes will be in an emotionally and physically warm home.

Thirdly, there is the need to co-ordinate the multiplicity of relationships which are brought about by a parent's remarriage. There are usually three sets of grandparents—possibly four if it is a double remarriage. Those relationships have to be encouraged and enabled to be retained or to be built. There is the need to encourage an on-going relationship between the estranged parent or parents and the children. In 1995 the Children (Scotland) Act established that parents have a right and a duty at law to maintain contact with their children—especially when estranged from them—unless there is a good reason why that should not happen. That recent Act also imposes a duty on the residential parent to facilitate that contact with the children. The law is correct and offers guidance to separating parents about how they should conduct their roles of parenthood in estrangement or in divorce. Whether mere mortals can perform as perfectly as the law requires remains to be seen. After all, marriages rarely end without some form of acrimony, even if it is only temporary.

There can also be the problematic task of integrating the children of two families into one. For example, a simple problem is where one eldest child has to surrender position. Throw in the possibility of a child of the new marriage and we have the proverbial new family, made up of his, her and their children. Except with the wisdom of Solomon—or greater—wi 11 this ever be an easy task for what has to be regarded as new marriage partners?

My own experience was simplified by this marriage continuing as it started, as one with a substitute parent, thereby minimising the multiplicity of relationships and enabling the family to move forward into its new life and the children to move on into their adulthood.

3.32 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Lincoln

My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this important debate and to express my gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for introducing it. The Church teaches that marriage is a particular form of relationship which God has made as part of the created order, It is therefore deeply rooted in our social instincts and is the means by which a man and a woman, over the course of their lifetime, may learn love together. By marriage a new unit of society is created, a couple stronger than the sum of the two partners. Just as a wedding is a public ceremony, so a marriage is a public fact. It is a reshaping of human life within the community and, as such, has a responsibility to the community to be a force; for good in its life. Any weakening of marriage thus has serious implications for the mutual belonging and care that is exercised in the community at large.

In the light of this understanding of what marriage is, it will be evident that the "clear principles" required as a basis for a modern family policy cannot simply be derived from an exercise of analysing social trends. It is not because it "remains the choice of the majority of people in Britain" that marriage should be supported by the Government and the institutions of civil society but because it is fundamental to human flourishing.

Understandably, the Government have no wish to act either as preacher or nanny, but it is simply not possible, in my view, to have a "value free" or neutral policy here. An ideological commitment to pluralism, which rules out any possibility of one family form being judged better than another, provides an inadequate basis for developing a sound family policy. So I urge the Government to base their family policy on the principles I have outlined, with a clear commitment to the support of marriage as their basis.

Having said that by way of introduction, there are some practical things which I believe can be done. First, too much attention is probably paid to the beginning and end of marriages. During the passage of the Family Law Bill the Church of England argued strongly that far more should be done to support marriages through the lifetime of a couple. No doubt more could be done by the Church and others to improve marriage preparation. But, surely, resources devoted to those periods when couples face difficulties—but before they think it is all over—would be of much more use. Of course, more thought needs to go into how that could be delivered in a way that was acceptable and effective. But ways can be found, such as One Plus One's research with health visitors in their role of support and encouragement. That has already been demonstrated.

Secondly, the Government need to send a strong signal to support married people in the choices they make. Now that the decision has been taken to end the MCA, then surely a government who recognise that marriage provides the best context for bringing up children and that it is still the choice of most people in our society must come forward with new proposals for supporting and strengthening marriage. The evidence so far is that we are spending less on marriage support now than when the question was raised first in the wake of the family law debates. That is not encouraging.

Thirdly, there is still much to be discovered about how marriages develop and change that would inform attempts to improve the prevention and treatment of marital distress. What is required is sustained and co-ordinated action, over time, by policy makers, professionals and the voluntary sector attending to those factors which can be addressed. That is why we, as a Church, have argued that the National Family and Parenting Institute should include marriage within its remit.

Lastly, existing knowledge about marriage, and the changes and pressures upon it in our day, need to be more widely used. Most marriages go through bleak periods from time to time. Anecdotal evidence, not least from the clergy and Church-based organisations such as the Mothers' Union, Family Life and marriage education groups, suggests that many couples are unaware of how "normal" it is to experience the difficulties they encounter and are badly equipped to negotiate change and challenge.

Many countries are recognising the important public policy issues in this area. Many of them—I single out Australia and Ireland as examples—have seen the need to devote some serious resources to strengthening marriage. The best way to defend marriage will to be show, in ways that can be demonstrated, that it best meets the contemporary and evolving needs of women, men and children, and therefore society as a whole. More needs to be said about the relationship of the "ideal" to everyday experienced "reality". But I hope the comments I have made may be some modest contribution towards that.

3.39 p.m.

Lord Jakobovits

My Lords, before contributing to this important debate, perhaps I may be allowed to say a word in tribute to that great personality whom we lost overnight. I refer to Lord Beloff, who so greatly enriched our debates, our thinking and the literary riches of our country. If we are seeking one simple phrase that epitomised his life it would be the title of one of his early books, one of the most popular of the many that he wrote, The Intellectual in Politics. He was that intellectual par excellence. We shall profoundly miss his erudition, wit, perspicacity and friendliness and the insights which have helped to make our House into what it is and which will make his name immortal in the annals of this House and of our country.

We are once again grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for raising the supremely urgent subject of marriage. I make no apology for having agreed to take part in this debate. We are given an average of six minutes for each contribution. That is soon going to be the average time for each marriage if we are not careful. Our job in those six minutes is to make some contribution to ensuring that the period for a marriage is greatly extended.

Now that we are a multi-cultural society, with many strands making up the diversity of our citizens, we ought to try to collect from each constituent something of enduring value which can contribute to our debate, and eventually towards the solution to one of the gravest problems besetting contemporary society.

We are not helped by some of the statements made by Ministers of the Crown, two of whom have already been referred to. In a recent television interview the Home Secretary argued that the Government, now representing a secular state, should altogether withdraw from moral judgments affecting marriage. The stability of the home is clearly no longer the charge of the Home Secretary. Likewise, the example of the Foreign Secretary in relation to the durability and sanctity of marriage, or the action of the Chancellor in withdrawing the last financial props that encourage the preference for marriage, do not augur well.

We have already paid an extortionately high price as a nation for our indifference to marriage. The People's Princess would still be alive today, and so would her lover, if they had observed the laws on the sanctity of the marital bond. Let us consult each strand of our multi-cultural society to see whether we can enucleate from them something that can help each one of us to contribute towards solving the massive problem that now engages our nation.

Perhaps I may say a word or two drawn from the faith and family tradition which gave birth to me. I wish to mention just two items. A 2000 year-old saying in the Talmud has it that, "He who divorces the wife of his youth, even the altar sheds tears over him". Why the altar? The altar is the instrument of sacrifice. If a marriage fails, it is a sign that the two spouses were not prepared to make enough sacrifices for each other and thought first of their own happiness before the happiness of their partner and spouse. The altar has failed to teach that lesson, and weeps for its failure.

Perhaps I may give a second, more personal illustration. I heard with pleasure the personal references by previous speakers. My wife often told me that when she left her parental home to be married to me, in a Paris synagogue where her father was the rabbi, her mother told her: "You'd better make a success of your marriage because, if you don't, I won't take you back home". Today, far too many think that if they do not succeed in their new home there will be an open door when they return to their parents or elsewhere.

The alternatives to success are far too easy today. Every marriage encounters its occasional problems and disappointments. But if the alternatives were too simple and the escape too easy, few would make enough effort to make their marriage succeed. The more precious it becomes by dint of the effort put into it, the less dispensable it turns out to be.

I speak as the father of six happily married children and eight happily married grandchildren. I am asked, "What is the recipe?" I answer that, in addition to the careful choice of carefully nurtured genes in the partners to be chosen, it is to close the door of your home to smut and indecency and to open it to the healthy whiff of social engineering to create a Rolls Royce of a home which is indestructible and full of comfort and security.

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

My Lords, if the noble Lord will forgive me, I feel that I must draw the attention of the House to the tight schedule for this debate. Every speaker so far has adhered to what I know is a strict timetable. I appeal to other noble Lords to do the same.

Lord Jakobovits

My Lords, perhaps I may make a final point in the light of that justified reminder.

We believe that the education for marriage starts long before birth, and is never finished. We are bidden to go into marriage preparation, which is so widely neglected today, by making sure that we do not allow children to be born and raised without some form of preparation and training in the most delicate art of human relations. If we succeed, the rewards will be infinite and the rejoicing in countless thousands and millions of homes will be immense.

3.49 p.m.

Lord Ahmed

My Lords, I too should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for initiating this very important debate. Perhaps it is appropriate for me to speak on the Muslim perspective when the Christian and Jewish leaders have spoken before me.

The family occupies a special status in Islamic teachings on marriage and is seen as the cornerstone of Muslim society. Not only is it a source of mutual comfort, care and protection for the nuclear family unit, but through the extended family social and blood ties are strengthened, responsibilities are shared and respect and appreciation grow across generations. The extended I family then can operate as an independent social unit. Characteristic of this is the support offered by family members through both good times and bad, and very often, this can entail help, either financially or emotionally. This notion of "family" is so strong that many Muslims apply this concept to their social circles in the absence of the extended family. Of course, that also applies to many other communities.

I wish to concentrate on the legalities of the Muslim marriages in Britain today. I draw your Lordships' attention to the Shariah Application Acts 1935 and 1937 which are significant pieces of legislation passed by the British Parliament in which the Muslim personal laws were recognised during the time of British India. Even after the creation of Pakistan, while it remained a British dominion between 1947 and 1954, the Privy Council remained as the Supreme Court of Pakistan and several matters came before the Privy Council in which their Lordships made decisions in matters pertaining to Muslim personal law.

I have become aware that a number of structural and institutional issues face British Muslims and members of other major non-Christian faiths when entering into marriages in Britain. These issues become difficulties and barriers when people wish to assert their religious rights, if and when a marriage does break down.

Therefore, I propose the following for consideration. First, of paramount importance is the need for research that clearly identifies the problems, issues and experiences faced by Britain's non-Christian populations when contracting marriages like Nikkah and seeking annulments and divorces. Secondly, non-Christian marriages should be awarded some legal recognition in respect of civil marriages. After all, the aims of both are life-long commitment and, historically, members of these communities generally have a good record of lasting marriages To dismiss the legal validity of these marriages is to suggest that children of these unions are not legally legitimate. Places of worship could be granted the necessary status to allow for the solemnising of these religious-legal ceremonies.

Thirdly, one possible way of regulating and legitimising religious marriages may be to offer funding to major religious organisations to enable them to compile directories of reputable clerics who perform religious marriages. Grants could be awarded to these major religious organisations to enable them to establish legitimate religiously-based training programmes, thus conferring a professional status on clerics. This could ensure that sham marriages are not conducted.

Fourthly, when it comes to marital breakdown, there is a need, I believe, to elevate non-Christian marriages and their specific concerns beyond the discretionary status they currently occupy in British family courts. At present it seems that there is a lack of uniformity in how these discretionary practices are exercised by the judiciary.

Fifthly, to assist the legal profession and members of the judiciary when dealing with these areas, some form of training that is periodically reviewed is needed. I am not proposing that religious minorities be awarded a special status; nor do I believe that these groups would themselves argue for this. But I do believe that the legal system needs to recognise "difference" and not to equate it with "irrelevance". This could simply mean assisting religious minorities to assert their religious rights, provided, of course, they do not contravene civil law.

Finally, members of religious minorities seeking legal intervention in their marital issues should not be placed in the position of experts, having to educate legal counsel on religious aspects. This additional pressure negates the possibility of the clients operating from a misinformed position themselves, but it may also act to dissuade those less confident about such matters from pursuing their legal and religious rights. The legal profession should be in a position to advise and initiate contact with religious organisations on their client's behalf. From my knowledge, it seems that clients are left to seek out such resources themselves.

The main thrust of my arguments stresses the need for education and communication between the legal professions and the religious ones, with the aim of ensuring that Britain's non-Christian minorities' religious rights and sensitivities are protected and respected. This process of education and communication should be a two-way process and should recognise the active contributions and diverse perspectives Britain's minorities offer, not just to the social sphere but also perhaps to the personal sphere as well.

3.56 p.m.

Baroness Platt of Writtle

My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for initiating this vital debate. I believe that the state of marriage is fundamental to the health and prosperity of our nation. There are many speakers, so I will be short, which is difficult for such an important subject.

Marriage is there for the mutual benefit of its partners so that they may help and comfort each other and achieve happiness together. We all know that marriage does not produce a perpetual state of bliss. It has its ups and downs. Each partner will benefit from plenty of give and take.

In today's atmosphere of easy divorce, as illustrated by the statistics given by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, there is too much tendency to give up and break up rather than work at it and get over the problems. That is very sad because in many cases it certainly does not result in future happiness for either partner.

As the Prayer Book lays down, marriage was ordained for the procreation of children, and that is where I would like to place my emphasis. The arrival of children brings great joy, but also considerable responsibility. We all remember times of near despair, especially during the "terrible teens" when children are establishing their own individuality and continually testing the boundaries of their parents' tolerance and temper.

However, I, like other noble Lords, am fortunate to be able to say that in the long term—and this is our golden wedding year—those difficult tensions are absolutely worth while. I view my children and grandchildren with great pride. But there are times when the problems seem overwhelming. The husband is probably meeting equally difficult and trying problems at work, as may the wife also. Put together, that is a lethal mix and the time to sort it out is not easy. It is important that young people are prepared for this state of affairs, as many speakers have said today, so that it does not catch them unawares.

When I chaired the education committee in Essex, we invited marriage guidance education counsellors into our schools. Short courses of that kind before marriage for young people might help too. We want young people to be overwhelmed by the romance of marriage but for that romance to be underpinned by a deep and mutually responsible sense of reality so that couples work positively together to achieve continued happiness. That does not happen by magic.

I believe that children need both parents, a mother and a father. If one dies it is a tragedy which is unavoidable. However, the conflict of divorce, the separation of two loved parents and the difficulty for the children in keeping in touch, particularly when the parents are sparring in an atmosphere of self-justification, must be a terrible strain for the children. If there is a remarriage and a new young family, a difficult teenager can be very unwelcome, just at a time when that teenager needs most support. Exams have to be passed and careers chosen. Teenagers can need help with difficult relationships of their own. All problems seem mountainous at that age. There is need for the patience and time of loving adults to get those problems sorted out.

This is the time when, at the worst, teenagers leave home with disastrous results. Research shows that children from broken homes tend later to have poorer health, lower income and educational attainment, and are more likely to be unemployed and involved in crime. In their loneliness they start an unstable relationship which may break up and result in lone parenthood on low income. Thankfully, these are not always the results, but the danger is there. That may mean considerable public expenditure, as the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, illustrated.

There is no ideal or perfect society. Some marriages are unbearable and need the freedom of divorce. However, I hope that the Government, both fiscally and otherwise, the media, and society, including all religions, as the two previous speakers said, will work towards a more stable and responsible attitude to the permanency of marriage, to love, cherish … till death us do part", as the Book of Common Prayer says. It would be a most worthwhile resolution for the millennium, contributing greatly to the contentment and prosperity of society.

4.2 p.m.

Lord Chalfont

My Lords, I would like to add my thanks to those offered to my noble friend Lord Northbourne for initiating this debate. My contribution to it will be brief. I have no special knowledge or expertise in this field, but I can speak from experience. I hope that your Lordships will indulge me if I begin my remarks from an unashamedly personal point of view. First, my father was married to my mother for over 50 years before he died and my wife was brought up in the same kind of permanent, stable, lasting family relationship.

Furthermore, my wife and I celebrated our own 50th wedding anniversary last year. We were both brought up in a safe and loving environment. Although our only child died very young, our memories of this have enabled us to form close and affectionate relationships with a large, loving assembly of nephews, nieces and godchildren, as other noble Lords will have done. I speak as one who believes that the institution of marriage is an important and cherished element, not only in the context of the family but, as my noble friend Lord Northbourne has said, in the more general context of living in a stable and civilised society.

It may be relevant in passing to mention also that I spent much of my early grown up life serving in an Army regiment, where there were not only strong family ties and traditions going back for 300 years, but also a very real feeling that the regiment itself was a kind of family, providing the reassurance of a permanent and supportive structure.

It is from that background that I venture to offer a few brief comments in support of my noble friend Lord Northbourne. We must, of course, bear in mind that the situation which prevails in this context of marriage and the family in the ancient world was profoundly changed by the influence of Christianity. Among the Greeks and especially the Romans, for example, a marriage could be initiated without any kind of ceremony, or at least without a ceremony prescribed or defined by law. and the relationship between the two parties—known then as the matrimonium iustum—was a free union which could be terminated without formality by either party at any time. Noble Lords will know that as the Christian tradition has evolved, a relationship of this kind, in order to constitute marriage, had to be monogamous, involve a full community of life and be characterised by the duty of faithfulness.

As has already been said, of course, this institution is not universal or prevalent throughout the world. Today, other countries and other cultures have their own attitudes and practices in this special area of human relationships. As the noble Lord, Lord Jacobovits, said, as this country has now become to a very large extent a multi-cultural society, it might be argued that we have to take account of these different cultures in determining our approach to the institution of marriage. However, it is worth recording that in writing a foreword to a recent book of Christian perspectives on a study of the nation, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, offered the following important advice, Christians have no right to inflict their values on others but they do have a right in a free democracy to proclaim the values they hold dear as forcefully and attractively as possible". It is within that cultural context that I would like strongly to support the views put forward at the beginning of this debate by my noble friend Lord Northbourne. The essential characteristics of marriage and family seem to me to involve a permanence of human relationships, a strong commitment among the members of the family and, above all, loyalty, a much overlooked and despised virtue these days. This environment is a basic unit of a society which provides a stable environment for the nurture of children and mutual support for all members of the family. As I suggested earlier, they ensure the continuity of a society as a whole in which personal values, morality and communal responsibility can be passed on to future generations.

None of this is to suggest that there is only one permissible approach to relationships in this area. Too much has happened in the social and cultural structure of this country, and also in the structure of the family in this country, to be dogmatic or intolerant in this field. It would, indeed, be intolerant to suggest that the Christian doctrine should be the only approach to marriage in a post-Christian, multi-faith society. However, as I have already mentioned and as; the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, has stated, it is important in a free society that we should make our own views and our beliefs clearly and unequivocally known.

It is from that point of view that I strongly support the view of my noble friend Lord Northbourne, especially in his opinion that children need the security of a long-term, committed relationship between their parents. As he said, most children get their best chance to develop their full potential growing up with two parents in a stable, loving relationship. I close as I began by declaring that this is a sentiment which from my own personal experience I can wholeheartedly endorse.

4.9 p.m.

Lord McNair

My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for giving us the opportunity to debate the role of marriage in society. I have an interest to declare in this debate, as other noble Lords have done, which is not just that I am married, but that I enjoy being married and that I am not cynical about it. The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, has chosen the title of this debate carefully because looking at the economic and social roles of marriage raises distinct, although related, issues.

If marriage were the accepted norm and people got married as a matter of course we would probably not be having this debate. Perhaps the way to highlight the need for stability is to look, as some other noble Lords have done, at the picture that presents itself in life and on our television screens and in our newspapers. I believe that last year the Evangelical Alliance published a very worrying report entitled The Roots of Social Breakdown. It is clear that that represents a catalogue of human misery, particularly increases in homelessness and domestic violence. A few years ago in preparing for a debate in your Lordships' House on the situation of young people in inner cities I had occasion to telephone a health authority that covered three south London boroughs. I asked the official to whom I spoke for statistics on births and terminations expressed as a percentage of pregnancies. Then, as now, I could not believe what he told me and I asked him to recheck the figures because I was staggered. He came up with the same answer. In 1991 in those three south London boroughs 36 per cent, of all pregnancies ended in abortion. That is a horrifying statistic quite apart from the moral issues in terms of unnecessary medical intervention, bodily trauma and anxiety. It would be useful to know whether the declining popularity of marriage is a symptom or cause, or perhaps both, of this aspect of social breakdown.

Those who believe it does not matter whether or not people get married are often themselves living lives based on a moral code even if they are reluctant to admit it. I have heard people say that they reject the moral code by which they grew up but they are living within the agreements that made up that moral code. It is immensely cruel for such people to conclude that moral codes are inherently a bad thing and so deprive their own children, or their pupils if they teach, of any framework of agreement about how to live life.

Based on my own experience, the most important benefit of marriage is stability, although marriage is no guarantee of stability. One of the problems is that in our soap opera culture people tend to pin all their hopes on "their relationship". It is vital for the stability of marriage or a long term relationship that both partners have shared goals to whose achievement both can contribute. That does not mean that the goals should be identical but goals in which each can and does participate. There are many different spheres of pro-survival activity beyond self and marriage. One can contribute to the survival of groups to whom both partners belong, or to the survival of other people around the world. One can support causes to do with animal or plant life, or explore the philosophical aspect of life. I believe that it is very important not to focus solely on "the relationship". It is also important not to take marriage for granted and to remember actively to create the marriage on a daily basis.

4.13 p.m.

Lord Judd

My Lords, in joining with those who have thanked the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for introducing this debate, I was particularly impressed by the fact that it was not a moralistic or authoritarian intervention about the family but a very sensitive intervention in the context of his general concern for social wellbeing, in particular the wellbeing of the young. In a complex issue of this kind inevitably there is a good deal of subjectivity. We speak from our own experience. I had the good fortune to grow up in a strong family that greatly influenced my whole approach to life. I now have the good fortune to enjoy tremendously, perhaps above all else, the family that my wife and I choose to call "our own". We draw great strength from that. It gives us the base from which to go out and do the other things that we want to do.

However, on such an intricate matter one must be very careful about generalising on the basis of personal experience or generalising at all. For example, in the past a good deal of romantic nonsense has been talked about the family. The family in the past concealed a great deal of suffering particularly on the part of women who were exploited atrociously. There was violence and sexual abuse. There were double standards particularly on the part of men. If we simply ride over that and ignore it, it does not help us in looking to the future. Sometimes there is over-simplified talk—perhaps I can be accused of having used it myself on occasion—of the family being the basis of a viable, stable and decent society. That can be but is not automatically the case. We know of parts of Europe in which the family has played a very strong part but where that family culture in society has been related to violence and crime. Therefore, one cannot look simply to the family per se as the solution to the problem.

We are going through a period of transition. I do not believe that we should be too depressed about the future; rather, there is great hope in the institution of family. We are moving into the age of what has been described as the democratic family in which women have fuller rights and the father is able to play a fuller and more responsible part than was probably true in the past and enjoy the fruits of it in terms of a closer relationship with children and their upbringing. Children are themselves, while not free of parental authority—I hope that they never will be—more challenging. I believe that that is in itself healthy; certainly it is for me. But as we look to the future we must recognise what has already been said in the debate this afternoon; namely, we now live in a multi-cultural society. I always enjoy and listen with great care to the remarks of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lincoln. But I was troubled that he was so concerned about pluralism in this context. In the debate this afternoon we have heard what pluralism has to offer: the strength in the role and values of the family that come from cultures other than the Christian culture, to which I myself subscribe.

If we look at the underlying issue that concerns all of us, one point on which we all agree is the wellbeing of children. That will be looked to in the context of the family; sometimes it will be looked to in model relationships outside the family. I can think of some that I have encountered. I refer to models of mutual loyalty and caring concern for children. What matters is the quality of the relationship. What also matters is that the Government should do all that they can—I believe that they are endeavouring to do so—to support parents. The first issue is parenting itself. That is one of the most demanding assignments of life. How much preparation do young people get for the responsibility of parenting? There should be far more conscious preparation for parenting. There are also issues involving law and taxation, about which we have heard a good deal of late, the provision of nurseries and creches, working arrangements and hours, not least for men, the pattern of career demands, housing and public transport. A network of issues must be brought together if we want to give substance to the general principles that we seek to underline.

In conclusion, I return to one point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, in his introductory speech. He said that he was not just speaking about marriage but the nature of the society in which we wanted to live. I believe that he is right. The interplay between the two is absolutely essential. That brings us back to responsibility and the social values of loyalty and commitment. The question that I ask myself is: how can these be encouraged in a consumer society that is dominated by competition, self-advancement, instant gratification, "my rights", and an increasing preoccupation with litigation and blame? I believe that it is right not only to support the family in social policy and to find the right way to generate that support, but that in the whole culture of our society, which we as active politicians should be helping to engender, there should be far greater recognition of service to balance the undue emphasis of late on excellence as an end in itself.

4.20 p.m.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, I cannot begin better than by quoting from my noble and learned friend Lord Simon of Glaisdale during my noble friend Lord Northbourne's debate on the family in 1996, when he said, '"not for the first time, your Lordships have been put deeply in debt by Lord Northbourne"'. —[official Report, 11/12/96; col. 1113.] On my noble friend's debate today on marriage, I would say "Snap!". Three years ago, there were three maiden speeches, including that of the noble Baroness, Lady Syrnons of Vernham Dean, and the present and the former noble and learned Lord Chancellors both spoke. Altogether, there were 28 speakers, and today there are also 28. And many of them are the same noble Lords. I think this argues some kind of continuity which, when you think about it, is what marriage is all about.

The Book of Common Prayer puts very plainly the three reasons for which matrimony was ordained. The first is children, and bringing them up right in a secure and happy home. The second is physical joys, which I think I cannot put better than the lady in my hairdresser's did; "keepin' yer ain tae'yersel". The third is for, the mutual love, society and comfort that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity". The whole of marriage is comprised in these three maxims and, however long I spoke or however much I said, I could not say it better than that. Nor am I foolish enough to try.

Another point which comes out very clearly and powerfully in the preamble to marriage in The Book of Common Prayer is the emphasis that the first miracle at Cana in Galilee of turning water into wine was performed at a marriage. Cousin Albert Baillie, who married us in 1952 and who was Dean of Windsor before the war, always put this into his sermons at weddings—he said it showed the pre-eminence above all of the estate of marriage, that Christ had chosen it for His first miracle—it was not a christening, it was not a wake, it was not just any old hooly; it was a marriage.

I have an interest to declare. I have been happily married for some time, although my husband and I cannot compete with the noble Lord, Lord Jakobovits. We have six children and four-and-a-half grandchildren. My parents celebrated their ruby wedding in your Lordships' House, as did my husband and I some 24 years later. We had bridesmaids, pages and a best man with us though, alas, no Cousin Albert. But children and grandchildren, nieces and nephews, none of whom had been in this world 40 years earlier, were all there. I made a three-tier cherry cake, part of which Miss McWilliam caught as it tumbled to the floor. Many of your Lordships I know have already celebrated golden and diamond weddings which glow with a starry glimmer of happiness and loving memories shared.

Of course, a happy marriage has to be worked at; it does not just happen. Robert Louis Stevenson said: Marriage is like life in this, in that it is a field of battle, and not a bed of roses". At every wedding anniversary, my father always claimed that he and my mother had had only one fight. "But of course, "he said, "we do have an armistice now and then. "

Last weekend, I was discussing marriage with my dentist, who has been happily married for some time. "The trouble is, "he said, "that it isn't fashionable. Some of my children's contemporaries give up alter a year because they say they aren't happy. "It seemed to us both that happiness is a state of mind which comes from within and is too often confused with the pursuit of instant pleasure. Happiness very often comes from doing something for someone else. I suspect that one reason my husband is such a happy person is because he is always doing things for other people—usually for me.

On Monday the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, gave a party at Richmond House for three war widows who are retiring from their current jobs, although they will still be very much on the strength. It was a lovely thing to do, and I hope it made her as happy as it made all of us. One of these three ladies has found happiness for a second time and got married in the Crypt of St. Paul's just before Christmas. My husband and I and the Reverend Peter Bishop and his wife were the only non-family members, and we felt very blessed. She had asked me to read Shakespeare's sonnet on the marriage of true minds, which I thought I knew by heart and arrived without a crib. Luckily, I did. Elut I shall spare your Lordships.

But perhaps marriage is a fashion that is coming back. Four of our children have got married and we have been blessed with grandchildren. One of my nieces got married in the Isle of Man just before Christmas and our eldest granddaughter was a bridesmaid dressed as a golden fairy. There is much to be said for marriage as a repository for the past, as a joy for the present, as a blessing for the future. As Her Majesty the Queen most notably said, "I'm for it".

4.25 p.m.

Lord Ashbourne

My Lords, I too must thank the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for initialing this important debate and giving us the opportunity to discuss the family and the central position of marriage within it.

The family was ordained and established by God— Of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named". (Ephesians, chapter 3, verse 15).

And a Godly home is a visual image of the spiritual relationship of Christ with his Church, as we learn from Ephesians, chapter 5, verse 21 and chapter 6, verse 4. It is a place to belong, to grow, to find love and acceptance, to feel secure, to make mistakes and be forgiven, a place to learn about relationships and right choices. When God's order is established in the home, His word honoured and obeyed, the family is strong. When the family is strong, the nation is strong. When the family life of a nation is under attack, the nation is weakened. Today in Britain the family has become a prime target for attack: it is visibly crumbling. The role of the family sits on the intersection between personal freedom and duty to others. Politicians talk about duty and responsibility, but are frightened to limit freedom.

There is a rising tide of juvenile stress and disorder throughout the western world which cannot be accounted for by poverty and unemployment alone. It is more likely to be due to a collapse of social bonds, with family break-up at its heart. Stable family life, whatever its down-side, generally remains the most dependable bulwark against the many uncertainties and insecurities of the modern world. Yet in Britain now there are whole communities where committed fatherhood is virtually unknown.

The tragedy is that all these children from such disrupted backgrounds want to "be there" for their own children when they themselves grow up, but have virtually no chance of breaking the cycle in which they are trapped. The collapse of the family means the erosion of those networks of trust, responsibility and commitment that make up civic society. If these values are not embodied in the family so that they become habits of heart and mind in individuals, there is little chance that these concepts will be applied in turn to the wider society.

The key difficulty lies with the concept of commitment. Commitment is the undertaking that restricts one's freedom of action in the greater cause. But to the individualist any such restriction is, by definition, oppressive. Commitment, therefore, has been redefined as a negotiable commodity. The commitment of adults to each other or to their children lasts precisely as long as it is convenient. It is then redefined to reflect altered circumstances, and so the estranged parent purports to be as committed to the child as when that parent lived in the family. But this "arm's length" commitment by the parent, who may see the child only for a few awkward hours each Sunday, is not commitment at all.

For all its difficulties, marriage remains a near-universal aspiration. But it is fragile and, if it is to thrive, it must be buttressed through a concerted and conscious effort by law, economics and culture. Clearly, marriage and the stable family have been undermined by huge cultural pressures which must be beyond any one agency, such as the State, to reverse. But the state plays a significant part in helping to shape that culture. Religious leaders, too, have a crucial part to play and should display both practical and moral leadership. But government policy also plays a part in underpinning stable families. It must make marriage mean something again by supporting, promoting and giving it privilege over other relationships.

That can be done in a number of ways. Put simply, there should be incentives for behaviour which promotes pro-social outcomes, and corresponding disincentives for behaviour which does the opposite. So, for example, the tax and benefit system should favour married couples with children over the unmarried. Divorce law should see the re-introduction of the concept of fault, (or reason, as I prefer to call it) which was finally removed in Britain with the introduction of the Family Law Act. It is fundamentally unjust that people who are victims of their spouse's betrayal or irresponsibility should be further penalised by losing their children and their house simply because justice has decided to be blind to personal responsibility. Parents who have walked out on their marriages should have to pay more for the upkeep of their families than spouses who have themselves been abandoned, or those who were never married in the first place, who should nevertheless pay something. The current thrust of family law to promote the equivalence between married and co-habiting couples should be reversed.

What then should be done? Surely we should restore the significance of marriage. After several decades of escalating divorce rates, the effect on children has been well documented. There is now little dispute that children from broken homes tend to have poorer health, lower income and lower educational attainment. They are more likely to be unemployed, commit crime and in due course become divorced themselves.

The Government are able to state that, marriage is still the surest foundation for raising children". Yet in a number of areas public policy actively works against marriage as an institution.

Divorce law is to be further reformed so that pre-nuptial agreements for divorce are more binding than marriage itself. Secondly, a married woman wishing to stay at home and look after her children is disadvantaged in the tax system because her tax allowance is not transferable. Her work is therefore largely unrewarded. Thirdly, the Chancellor of the Exchequer has now decided to scrap the married couples allowance, formerly the only tax break in favour of marriage.

Instead of that, public policy should buttress marriage in a variety of ways including enhancing the legal status of marriage, supporting marriage through the tax and benefit system, and scrapping the pending no fault divorce reforms (or no reason divorce reforms, as I prefer to call them). It is interesting to note that Louisiana, which introduced no fault divorce some years ago, has now decided that the system is not working. No fault divorce is now being scrapped and it is returning to the normal fault system which is so much to be preferred.

I conclude by urging the Government to take vigorous and immediate action to restore the significance of marriage.

4.33 p.m.

Lord Habgood

My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity presented by the debate and for much that has been said. I was spurred to put my name down to speak in the debate by a remark recently on Radio 4 on the "Today" programme. It was said, "It is not the state's business whether or not two people are married". The Radio 1 version of that would be, "After all, it's only a bit of paper".

There seems to be a deep confusion in many people's minds as to what marriage is. Many people confuse it with a wedding and say, "I cannot get married because the party is too expensive". I hope that the public character of marriage as a permanent and legal commitment to a specific form of relationship is emerging strongly from the debate. Precisely because it is public, the state must in some way or other be involved. Good reasons have been given already as to why the state should be involved: the nurture and care of children; the need for stability; and so on.

Perhaps I may add a sentence. It goes to the heart of what the noble Lord, Lord Judd, said, and refers also to part of what the noble Lord, Lord Ashbourne, said. Mature and responsible personal relationships are the building blocks of a mature and responsible society. One cannot separate the quality of relationships between people and what binds them together from the kind of people that one is producing and the quality of society. Given the fleeting character of so many of the personal relationships within modern society, it seems to me imperative that those fleeting relationships should be counterbalanced by those which are stable, reliable and life long.

One of the great merits of the married family is that the relationships, once chosen, remain given. One of the great maturing influences in the process of growth into adulthood is coming to terms with the "givenness" of relationships—the givenness of children; or the givenness of one's parents. The growth of maturity by making commitments and taking responsibilities is at stake.

I speak in pragmatic terms. I am belying my collar deliberately because it is a public political matter and not simply a religious one. Marriage as we know it in this country is a paradigm for those qualities of stability, reliability, commitment, and so on, as well as an education into them. Of course things can go wrong. We recognise that. That is why we have divorce laws. But without maintaining that ideal, we erode those qualities in public life which make democracy possible.

A further pragmatic reason why it is important is that unless there is a firm and recognised public basis for relationships between people we lay ourselves open to endless fraud. How can one have privileges and responsibilities within family relationships unless those are publicly recognised and registered so that one knows who is married to whom. We are coming nowadays to the terrible situation that we all relate to partners, as though it is an endless sexual game of tennis, and one swaps partners half way through. How does one identify those responsible?

The state has a strong interest in supporting marriage. However, we recognise that the social trends are against it. In reading through some of the research documents prepared for the Lord Chancellor's Department, one finds this typical theme; namely, they map the current flow and then knock down every possible counter measure which goes against that flow. We get into a vicious circle. We have social trends towards unrestricted choice in all manner of things. That has its impact on the attitudes towards marriage and further enhances the social trends.

That is why we so desperately need markers in our society which demonstrate the social significance of marriage. But we have been seeing the gradual removal of all those markers in our society which make marriage different. What is left? A few property laws. If a man is elevated to your Lordships' House, his wife becomes a Lady. It is somewhat difficult to think of anything else which distinguishes marriage in our public life from other states. The married couple's allowance is the last straw, not because people will be influenced by finance but for symbolic reasons. It removes yet another difference between the marrieds and the non-marrieds. There is desire not to disadvantage those who have chosen alternatives to marriage. But the Government cannot have it both ways. If they are going to support the family, they have to make up their mind whether marriage matters and express that in policy.

4.40 p.m.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for this timely debate. All speakers have emphasised the importance of marriage and that has been emphasised also in the research. Noble Lords who have spoken have been quite right, in my respectful view, to emphasise that importance.

However, we should just pause for a moment to think about the additional stresses faced by current marriages which did not exist in years gone by. Sometimes there is almost a temptation to think of the halcyon days of, in particular, Victorian times. It is important for us to remember that in Victorian times the average length of a marriage was about 12 years. Why was that? It was because, tragically, many of those marriages ended not in divorce but in the demise of one of the partners. So the opportunity for partners—if I can express the matter colloquially—to get on each other's nerves was much more restricted than in the case of those who look forward to the joys of celebrating 60 years of happy conjugal bliss.

We need to bear that in mind because, there needs to be a sympathy and an empathy for the difficult task which those who enter the perilous seas of marriage now face. They are much more turbulent waters than they ever were.

We must bear in mind also that there is a multiplicity of reasons why many do not share the religious convictions of noble Lords in this House. I confess and say straightaway that I, too, have very strong religious commitments which are cultural, in terms of the nature of the Caribbean island from which I come which is predominantly Catholic, and, indeed, in terms of family background. I am one of 12 children and my parents have been married since 1937 and are still happily so. Therefore, from a premise of total commitment to the institution of marriage I say that we must be extremely sensitive to the fact that others choose different paths, often not because they make an informed choice but because that is what is forced upon them.

We must meet people where they are. There are many who do not have the advantage of two-parent families, not from choice but because that has been foisted on them. Therefore, when we talk about families we must take into account the broader church of relationships which produce children; relationships in which children will be nurtured.

One of the realistic steps that we must take is to recognise how we can best assist those new families who may not have two adult members in them to nurture their children. The research is clear. It tells us that children are best nurtured and cared for by two people living together in harmony on a long-term basis; that fragmentation of that relationship, be it honoured by the bands of matrimony or not, is destructive to children. That is not a moral issue. It is a researched, pragmatic reality that children in this country experience.

However, we need not be too pessimistic because 83 per cent, of young people when questioned and asked about marriage made it clear that they intended to marry or hoped to marry. So I believe that those who worry that marriage is dead do so unnecessarily.

There is an issue as to how we support marriage. This Government have put a great emphasis—and rightly so—on conciliation, mediation, guidance and support. Why have they done that? It is because it is the most efficacious way of maintaining relationships which support children.

The Family Reform Law Act 1996 has in many ways been vilified. People say that it is wrong, but that Act tries to put the emphasis back on conciliation, preparation and thought. Many issues are burdening young families now. I endorse everything said by the noble Lord, Lord Sheppard, in relation to the effect that unemployment has had on families and the individual sense of self.

I wish to say a few words about men. There has been much said to indicate that men are no longer necessary as a part of the family structure and mention has been made that our sons need the example of a father. But our daughters need that just as much. Therefore, the responsibility that we have is to look to see how we can support our young men to become good fathers and contributors, not just in a financial sense but in an emotional, moral and supportive sense so that they can nurture their children, who can be truly proud of them. It is a challenge and when I look around your Lordships' House I am sure that there are those here who are more than able to rise to that challenge.

4.46 p.m.

Lord Thurlow

My Lords, I hope that many of your Lordships agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, that we should not be too pessimistic. But as the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, said, we cannot put the clock back. That implies that we must devote ourselves to trying to think of positive ways in which to go forward.

I dare say that the social trends which have been so negative for so long may perhaps—and I am mildly optimistic—change and the pendulum may begin to swing the other way. But we cannot put too much faith in that. We must find positive ways in which to go forward.

Your Lordships may recall that in some of the fringe areas of the British Isles—for example, I recall the Outer Hebrides where I served as a young territorial officer many years ago—there used to be a social convention of a trial period before marriage, before children arrived. It was understood generally and, indeed, accepted by the parties that when the children arrived, the alliance would become legal and permanent.

I advocate that we should develop and give legal form to such a trial marriage or, a better word perhaps, introductory marriage. The main cause of breakdown is the attitude with which so many young people enter marriage; namely, that love is blind. All the poets of all the ages have regarded the passion of romantic love as a form of insanity. It passes and the strains of commitment begin to show themselves.

I suggest that we need a social mechanism to enable responsible reconsideration of the commitment before beginning a family. Many years ago, the father of the noble Earl, Lord Russell, advocated a model. He suggested the following conditions: no intention to have children; divorce by mutual consent; and no question of alimony in the event of breakdown—and to give it legal force, I would add the necessary condition that if a child is born, the marriage must become permanent.

No government would wish to take a stance on this kind of subject in advance of a clear demonstration of public opinion. Some Churches would also see difficulties. It is up to individuals and voluntary organisations, supported by the media, to give a lead. I hope that if widespread public support for this concept became manifest, the Government would initiate official investigations and the legal implications would be properly considered and charted.

We cannot put the clock back. We must find ways of going forward. We must deter marriages being embarked upon irresponsibly, without consideration of the strains ahead and the obligations of commitment. I suggest to your Lordships that a legal framework of introductory or trial marriage is one of the ways forward.

4.52 p.m.

Viscount Brentford

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for introducing this subject. We are considering two matters: the economic and social roles of marriage. I propose to say one or two words about the economic role and primarily talk about the social role.

As regards the economic role, the cost of broken marriages to the Exchequer is approaching £5 billion per year. That is quite a substantial economic factor in the breakdown of marriage as we face it today. The cost of marriage support has been running at about £3 million, which is quite a contrast to the cost of breakdown. I believe that this Government will increase that sum in future. Clearly, that would be a worthwhile investment.

Research shows that problems from ill-health, smoking and alcoholism in married couples amount to approximately half those of single people or cohabiting couples. When people are off work, through sickness, become ill through smoking, or suffer problems from alcoholism, that all costs money. Therefore, that is a factor when we consider the economic role.

However, marriage is good for the economy. Research shows that married people tend to work harder, earn more and save more. That all brings in more money to the Exchequer. So, it is very worth while for the Exchequer to support marriage.

I turn now to the social role of marriage. I should like to emphasise the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Habgood, about marriage providing the quality of relationship that society needs. A lasting marriage provides stability in the community, and there is far too little of that at present. I have visited one or two of the worst housing estates in this country and read a book summarising some of the stories concerning such housing estates. Marriage can provide stability in the community, and that is greatly needed.

In contrast to the stability of marriage, a cohabiting couple is five or six times more likely to split up than a married couple. That factor makes me doubtful about the benefits of trial marriages, as suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Thurlow.

Married men are less likely to commit crimes. Certainly, marriage provides the best basis for support and care for elderly and disabled people as well as for children. Commitment to others—spouse, children and extended family—requires work and effort. That conflicts with self-centredness and individualism which, as several noble Lords have said, is a product of today's culture. As the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, stated this is a real challenge.

Perhaps I may say a word about the welfare of children. I was pleased to hear the Home Secretary state, on a couple of occasions, that from his experience and in his view marriage forms the best environment for raising children. One-in-two cohabiting couples with children part within 10 years as against only one-in-eight of married couples with children. I see that some schools even consider broken homes to be a greater problem for children in their schools than anything else today.

There are various things I should like to see happen. I make a plea to the media to do more to portray marriage positively than the bad role models I so often see and hear. I refer particularly to fatherhood, which has been mentioned several times. I should like to see more good father role models being portrayed in the media in "soaps" and suchlike.

We need more education on marriage as well as on parenting, both in adult education and schools. I hope to see more of that in the next few years. More government funding is needed for marriage preparation and for strengthening marriage. We need good marriages. Much of this was started by the Family Law Act 1996, bringing in a whole new field of conciliation work. From that arises much more encouragement to strengthen marriage rather than waiting for the crisis to come. Churches have submitted information to the Home Office on ways they can help to improve both the quality and stability of marriage. I hope and believe that the Home Office will take up that offer and work as a partnership to strengthen marriage.

I would love to see the Government checking that all policy serves to strengthen, not weaken, marriage. I, too, am optimistic that we can turn the corner and have more good marriages.

4.57 p.m.

Lord Craigmyle

My Lords, on 1st December in your Lordships' House I produced a litany of ways in which a married family helps society better than an unmarried one. Several noble Lords tonight have done better than me, so I shall not repeat it. However, perhaps I did not make clear that the comparisons I made were not between married families and worse-case scenarios, but between married families and apparently stable co-habitees parenting their own children.

There seems to be some confusion on the subject. The Chancellor of the Exchequer wishes to create stability through what he advertises as family-friendly policies. I believe he has missed a vital point in all this. Families do not make stability; families make children. Marriages make stability, but they get a thumbed nose from the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

The mechanics work like this. The contract of marriage, and the promise of stable life that will flow from that contract, induces partners to invest all their efforts and resources in the marriage. The return on investment is huge, not only to those married people but to society at large. As taxpayers, we should all hope that our ageing population is a married population. Married people are more likely to be independent and healthy and not so burdensome on younger citizens. Perhaps I should state an interest!

If the contract is undermined by social indifference, easy divorce and even, as in last November's discussion document, pre-nuptial separation agreements, nobody can expect the same level of investment by partners in their relationships.

So, what are we left with? The chief characteristic of marriage for a modern British couple is financial discrimination. Perhaps I may give as an example the working families tax credit. Like family credit before it, the WFTC fails to recognise the cost of the second adult in the family, except for the purpose of reducing the credit. That leaves us with the extraordinary situation in which a couple may take full advantage of their tax bands while both earning good money, but as soon as they have a child and take on parental responsibilities, not only do they lose one of their incomes, but they pay extra tax if the husband tries to make up the difference. Going back to last November's discussion document, leaving the child in childcare will not help either the child or the marriage.

Let us imagine the situation of a young couple netting £20, 000 a year each—a good wage—who say, "Well, this is all right. We can manage very nicely. Let's have a baby. Of course, we'll lose one income, but we'll be helped with child benefit and the working families tax credit. The Government support families". So, they have a child. Wow! They do not know what hits them. They expected their income to halve; what they had not reckoned on was that the net equivalised drop would be to about 55 per cent, of the value of that.

So, what happens to that couple? They are not only under huge financial stress (poverty being relative to expectation), but they are riding the roller-coaster of new family life. Worries about child welfare, worries about mother welfare, depression and elation are all subsumed into a fog of sleep deprivation. Do not underestimate those forces. They are probably the greatest internal battleground of those people's lives. That couple ought to be supported. They ought to be supported for many good reasons. But let me be really cynical about this: they ought to be supported because if they split up, the cost to the rest of us will be horrendous.

So many noble Lords have referred to education for marriage. I should like to end by saying something really positive, so here is a suggestion. It arises out of the question: how can young people learn of the benefits of marriage when a growing number of them have never seen marriage at work? With this problem in mind, an initiative has been taken to introduce married couples to volunteering sixth formers who wished to have the opportunity to discuss the institution of marriage. This is called the "Students Exploring Marriage Initiative", organised by the Grubb Institute of Behavioural Studies. I shall quote the words of one of its students: Before I decided to participate in the workshop, I had a pretty cynical view of marriage. With most of the adult members of my family divorced, I'd interpreted it as a thing of the past". That is by no means untypical, yet there is a hunger to learn about marriage. Students at Rochester Grammar School for Girls told their Deputy Head of Sixth: that the project was the most useful experience they have had in the school"! How about that? Forget maths and science!

I commend that project to any government who feel that examples of marriage could help to nurture a climate of stability in the country. It might not address the fundamental problems, but at least it keeps the choice of marriage open—for what we do not know, we cannot choose.

5.3 p.m.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Craigmyle, will not think me patronising if I say that I know that we older Members of the House welcome the accession of such a vivid young mind.

I must begin with an apology for speaking twice in one day. Although that is not contrary to the rules of the House, it is not a practice that I recommend. However, I am afraid that it is unavoidable in my case. Having been married for 67 years, when the subject of marriage arises I feel bound to offer a few thoughts. However, I assure the House that I shall speak even more briefly than have other noble Lords.

We have heard some inspiring addresses, beginning with that of the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne. We have also heard from the former Bishop of Liverpool, the noble Lord, Lord Sheppard, and from the noble Lord, Lord Ashbourne, who is my spiritual mentor. Although we belong to different Churches, I attend a prayer group which he inspired and I follow everything that he said about practical measures.

If I look at the matter more broadly, it does not mean that I disagree with the suggestions made on the practical level. I am talking from the moral point of view. Some people seem ashamed of using the word "moral" and ask, "Why should we say anything about morals?" I shall speak about nothing except morals. If we did not have marriage, but only partnerships, children would be illegitimate. The people who produce those children and are not married are living in sin from the Christian point of view. I think that we should say that more clearly. I am Irish and therefore I do not understand English reticence or the fact that people do not like talking of morals because they think that that is bad form. I wish that people spoke up more plainly. I should like a poll to be taken in which people would be forced to say whether they agree that sex outside marriage is a sin. Sex outside marriage is, indeed, a sin. Once one accepts that, one either has to have marriage or face the human race dying out. There is no argument about the moral point of view, irrespective of the social and economic advantages of marriage.

However, morality is not the only issue. There are the children. Some people have a lot of children. I have had eight, but I hesitate to boast about anything these days. In a railway carriage not long ago, a lady said to me, "How many great-grandchildren do you have?" I said that I had 14. In fact, I have 15, but I had forgotten one. I then added, a shade complacently, that I fancied that that was rather more than most people. The man opposite said, "That's nothing at all; I have 17". So, one must never boast, but I can at least refer to the fact that I have had 67 years of very happy married life. Noble Lords may say that that is entirely due to my wife. That might largely be true and I have been very lucky there.

We know that marriage is a partnership. Although I have been exceptionally lucky, I am sure that I would be lynched if I suggested that other noble Lords have not been equally lucky. We have all been lucky if we have had long and happy marriages. Marriage is the best outcome. It is the only moral outcome otherwise society would come to an end. I support everybody who says anything at all in favour of marriage. I hope that I have made my point plainly enough.

5.7 p.m.

Lord Laming

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, is to be congratulated on initiating this debate on a subject which is clearly by general agreement recognised to be of fundamental importance to the well-being of our society. As many noble Lords have said, there is no doubt that children develop best in a loving and secure family setting. Disruption to family life and to the relationships which children have with the adults on whom they depend usually results in children becoming insecure and fearful of the future. That often produces a lack of concentration and a regression to earlier, more infantile behaviour. If children get caught up in destructive battles between the adults to whom they look for their security, that can lead to damaging conflicts of loyalty, and to anger and resentment. Such feelings can easily spill over into then-other relationships.

I am sure that we all agree that children are entitled to expect the adults in their lives to be aware of their vulnerability and to conduct their adult relationships in ways which facilitate the good things during the precious early years of childhood. That is particularly important as statistical evidence indicates that adults change their partners more frequently in the age group when they are more likely to have children under the statutory school age. Moving from childhood, through adolescence, into adulthood is difficult enough without children having to cope with the added trauma of parents being at war with each other.

However, I suggest that, as the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, said, we should guard against the notion that we have lost a golden age of marriage and the family which we should now seek to recover. Although the figures on separation and divorce are of significance, they are but one dimension of a complex story. For example, it is interesting to note that the number of children in public care has actually reduced in recent years. Furthermore, we ought also to acknowledge that in the past the apparent stability of marriage was, in many instances, due to the fact that women were economically and socially locked into marriage. Whether the relationship was loving or joyless, tender or brutal, fulfilling or empty, many women simply had no choice and some of them lived in fear of yet another pregnancy.

So we should celebrate that women now have greater control over their own bodies, in particular pregnancy. More women have a greater range of choices in their lifestyles than in times past. More women are now economically active and society is being enriched by their skills and human qualities. There is a long way to go, but steady progress is being made towards genuine equality, even if that causes discomfort among some men. We need to help young men better understand these changes.

We need to recognise the changes taking place in our society. The recent report of Social Trends shows, for example, that half of all pregnancies occur outside marriage and the proportion approaches two-thirds in some inner city areas. The number of children per family is now so much smaller than in the past; and many women are now much older when they have their first child. Great geographical mobility means that far fewer people live their lives in the place of their birth surrounded by a network of supportive relatives and friends.

So what should we be doing in these circumstances? The starting point is to recognise those changes without recrimination or regret. We do not live in a world of "if only", and policies must address the reality of our social situation and be relevant to today's needs. Secondly, it should be emphasised in all that we do that choice does exist and that pregnancy and parenthood are not to be undertaken lightly. We need it to be clearly understood that adults have choice; but babies do not. Becoming a parent is a huge responsibility. It entails putting the well-being of another person before one's own comfort or convenience. It is not a short-term task, or indeed a long haul; it is a life-time commitment.

I hope that we agree that the state should not interfere in adult relationships, but there must be in place effective ways of helping and supporting parents through difficulties and bad times. In the past the extended family was the source of such help. But that is often not the case today, for reasons that I have touched upon. Help with the techniques of parenting, coping with uncertainty, frustration and tiredness, can often make the difference between success and breakdown. Health visitors and family centres provided by local authorities are of particular importance. The success of organisations like Home-Start, where carefully selected parents voluntarily support other parents, clearly demonstrates the long-standing benefit which can flow from the right kind of help at the right time.

Certainly the state should not be considering taking on the parenting role of other people's children at the first sign of difficulty. But, regrettably, sometimes adults do seriously harm their children and children get caught up in the conflict of adults. In that situation the state must have in place effective systems of child protection where the risk of the safety of the child is a serious matter. There should be no doubting that the clear focus of child protection work must be unswervingly on the well-being of the child. Tough decisions have to be made and actions taken with courage and determination.

Whatever the structure of the family, it will remain the bedrock of our society. It is best placed to provide the proper upbringing of children. But we must recognise that the structure of many families does change and will go on changing. No doubt many noble Lords have experienced that among wider family and friends. But our commitment to the familj', however constituted, should remain resolute. We can do much to reinforce parental responsibility with good support and understanding, whatever the vicissitudes of life.

5.15 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for tabling this debate this afternoon. I decided to speak in it because so few ladies were listed to speak. Not only am I in a minority in that respect—in fact, I am listed as a Lord, which I assure the House I am not—but I am also probably one of the few speakers this afternoon who is not able to relate 20 years of happy marriage; I am a divorcee. I do not want to refer to my personal experiences in that regard, except to say that I agree with those speakers who pointed out that outside your Lordships' House there is a very different society. The noble Lord, Lord Sheppard, was correct when he said that not many people would relate to the way in which we are debating this matter this afternoon.

I also echo the view that there never was a golden age of childhood. If we go back 100 years children were up chimneys and working very long hours—that still continues—and many children were at boarding school. That cuts out family life. I had a quick look through Dodds and noted that half the noble Lords this afternoon, including myself, went to such institutions where we certainly did not benefit from the role models of our parents, of nurture and so forth. We should bear all those matters in mind and that at both ends of the social spectrum there has never been a golden age.

Nor has there ever been a golden age of marriage. Noble Lords mentioned the changes that have taken place. Women were free labour in many places. As recently as the 1830s wives were still able to be sold in Britain and it was only in 1870 that the Married Women's Property Act came into being. It is not surprising therefore that women in society feel slightly resentful, now that they are more independent, of being blamed for so many of the ills of society.

I want to turn to the subject of society, because that is where one of the problems arose during the 1980s and we are now reaping some of the difficulties of that time in the way our children and young people behave. When the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, was Prime Minister, she said, "There is no such thing as society".

Lord Milverton

My Lords, did she?

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Dean

My Lords, I can assure the noble Lord that she did.

The 1980s engendered the "Me first and everything else second" syndrome. Simply blaming marriage failure for the holes in society through which children are falling will not do. The extended family has contracted for a number of reasons. People have greater mobility. They leave their home towns in search of jobs. Lack of housing means that families often have to move far away from the support of grandparents, aunts, cousins and so forth. But housing estate design encourages everyone to think first of their private space and does little to foster neighbourly behaviour and to enable the sort of supportive networks that build up informally through communal facilities. As a local councillor I received phone calls from young single mums, but sometimes from elderly widows or people who were new to the area, about a specific problem but, after talking to the person for a while, the underlying message was, "I am lonely and it is hard to cope on my own". That is very much the case for parents, particularly with young children, whether or not they are single parents (though it can be more so for single parents) if they are isolated and staying at home.

Of course marriage is one way to provide the social framework for love and care, and it is a strong way of providing that. But it is not a panacea for all the isolation, loneliness and fear in our society.

The Government need to take action in a number of areas. Primarily, they must enable the informal support mechanism for individuals to be provided by society. Though this Government have made some moves in good faith towards that, a number of elements are still lacking. For example, although the measure of best value that is to be imposed on the delivery of so many local authority services will be able to measure statistically many things, will it be able to measure the value of the school nurse, the health visitor or the outreach youth worker? I do not believe that statistics will ever really be able to measure exactly the contribution of those workers to society and the benefits that they can bring.

No one goes into marriage hoping that it will fail. I firmly believe that everyone who has children desperately wants the best for them. No one wishes to fail their children. So although those with long and happy marriages are to be congratulated, we need a strong society which can support those who are single parents, those who are divorced parents and those who are elderly or widowed while still having a role in supporting their own children. Please let us not make people who have failed in their marriages feel failures to a greater degree because failure breeds failure and that will continue to the next generation.

5.20 p.m.

Lord Milverton

My Lords, I am very happy indeed to be able to join in the debate on the Motion tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, and to indicate my absolute support for it on the basic understanding that marriage, secure and stable, is the best foundation for man and woman in society and for the children. Indeed, it can survive difficulties where love is living both real and true.

First, however unpleasant it may be, we have to accept the inevitable collapse and breakdown of marriages and relationships of those living in partnerships and co-habitation when all reality has disappeared so all is unreality. Acceptance, that one has tried the absolute limit in genuine giving of love and compassion, but the inflexibility of the other one has rejected love. So the inevitability of the unreality comes on the scene. In life we know that love can be rejected in many ways.

As we know, love and compassion is two-way, not one way, involving mind, spirit and body (the physical side, the sexual); not just one without the other two. When this happens the parent left with the children needs all the positive help possible, conducted with sensitivity, patience and understanding. That is where, perhaps, grandparents can be of great help and support. The needs of the other parent will be quite different. Firmness may be needed, together with other approaches, if that person is willing.

Like anything of great value and treasure, love has to be worked at. So if one is not playing the game, the other one is put in a most frustrating position: love can be deadened or killed. It is a two-way system, is it not? The value of this sort of marriage is lessened when love becomes warm then cold and colder. Children sense and feel more than we realise. Social and economic matters are affected by the state of marriage, whether it is of the traditional sort or of those in partnership or cohabiting. As a priest, I have, like any other priest, come across those living in partnership or cohabiting. One has to give credit to some of them because they are conducting their lives with a form of commitment.

Secondly—and this is my main point—many marriages need not break down if people could realise afresh the true meaning of love which is more than just the enjoyment of the physical, the sexual. It involves the joyful exchanges through the mind and spirit, enjoying the mutual respect of one another, and so learning from one another, gaining an increase in knowledge, and understanding the joy of discovery. I often used to tell those couples who came to me for marriage preparation counselling that marriage is an endless journey of discovery where each is helping the other grow in maturity and stature. This love and compassion interchange leads to the healthy physical action which gives the sexual word its true meaning. There are some words which we have abused. "Sex" is one as well as "love".

This is how dignity and worth are incorporated in a personality. A mother especially can give her boy (her son) the lead to respect a woman. There is also the lead of a father to a daughter which enables the daughter to be able to respect a man. Indeed, if I remember correctly, I believe that that was mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland. Both of course can help either son or daughter, but I hope that noble Lords will note that I said a father can give special help to a daughter and a mother can give special help to her son.

If a mother finds herself on her own, the task of being mother and father is not easy; indeed, it is tough. If marriage is a genuine giving and receiving between two minds, spirits and bodies, then there is hope for children; but otherwise there is less hope. If the genuine happens, this must help socially and economically with trust and loyalty. That is a sure foundation.

There are other ways to bring up children, but I find it difficult to think of some as being good and healthy. I try to see and understand other ways, but there are natural and unnatural ways if one believes in the doctrine of creation. Surely the unnatural do not help the social and economic pattern of life, do they? Our children need a positive and healthy example. When dignity is present the abusing and/or disorientating of love and sex is checked or prevented. Surely dignity is one thing that true marriages can show and give.

Happy loving marriages are the sure natural foundation for children and for social and economic health. We hope that more and more people will come to understand that. Let us pray and give thanks for those couples who show that, so that more and more people will come to know that joy which, in turn, brings health and joy for the community and indeed the nation.

5.27 p.m.

Lord Burlison

My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to make a few points in this most important debate initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne. Although I am a great believer in marriage as a building block of our society and the bedrock of the family, it is not my intention to moralise on the matters of either marriage or divorce. Nor will I suggest to your Lordships' House that I have a magic quick fix formula to reduce the trend that has given us the highest divorce rate in Europe. However, we should not forget that the average length of a marriage in mid-Victorian times was 12 years. Death did then what divorce does now.

I do think there are positive things which we can do to encourage the institution of marriage. I know that there have been many suggestions in the past on how practical help can be given to make the role of marriage stronger and easier to manage. Suggestions such as trial marriages and applying penalties have been mentioned in this afternoon's debate. I must say that I am not in favour of those suggestions, but I recognise that the Family Law Act 1996 can greatly improve divorce and mediation. It is my view that governments do have a role to play in strengthening the main elements of marriage. I am pleased to say that we have a Prime Minster and a Government who, I believe, care about and recognise the values which families see as their priorities to establishing high quality family life. They have already started the process of helping to strengthen the main elements of marriage by their recent moves in the Budget with a better deal for families, increased child benefit, child tax credit changes and new tax rates. These changes coupled with the new minimum wage and the minimum income guarantee will produce the greatest help for so many families who are trapped in the stressful low income area. These are some of the positive steps which the Government have taken to help to ease the economic burdens of running a home and at the same time set down a strategy which I believe will result in the strengthening of the marriage base.

There are other important elements which cause concern, put pressure on family life and affect in particular people on lower incomes. I refer to education, housing and health provision. Most parents feel reasonably secure if they can see a future for their children in these areas.

I suspect that like most noble Lords taking part in this debate, I was brought up by two superb parents in a stable marriage who led by example and who steered me through my childhood with limited resources. I was taught clearly what was right and what was wrong and always to lend a hand to those less well off than myself. I hope that my children grow up with similar values. If they do not, I am sure that both my wife and myself will feel we have failed.

When I am away from this House, I spend much of my spare time with my children. However, like many other parents from a working-class background, I am not a schoolteacher, nor do I possess the teaching qualities of one. Therefore, I am deeply indebted to the teachers of Thomas More Comprehensive School at Blaydon for the way my children are being educated. I am confident that if they fail in their education it will not be the fault of their school, which incidentally was recently mentioned in the Telegraph guide to good schools. I have mentioned the education of my children simply to explain to noble Lords how important it is to working parents to know that their children an; receiving a good education and at the same time are being cared for at school. That in itself can lift so much pressure from family life.

Marriage relationships have changed and they are more varied than hitherto, but that is not necessarily wrong. Chores are shared to a greater extent now by both partners, who often work. Modern marriages place much more emphasis on fathers being involved with the children from their birth and with all the other commitments which go with being a parent.

On every variation in marriage one can take a positive or a negative view. I believe, however, that one of the most important points is to support relationships rather than an institution. We should provide more pre-marriage education. We should place greater emphasis on counselling services for when things go wrong and, above all, we should care for children to minimise the damage that is caused to them. Marriage has changed—if it is to be relevant it must change—and so must our attitude to it.

5.33 p.m.

The Earl of Sandwich

My Lords, the longstanding concern of my noble friend Lord Northbourne is mainly for the children of divided families. As I come into that category I have dared to enter this debate. Who can ignore the research published by the Lord Chancellor's department that the number of under 16s who have seen their parents' marriage break down rose from 9 per cent. in 1960—when I was 16—to 20 per cent. in 1979, and over 25 per cent. today? That is one child in every four. My nephew who now lives with us is another child in that group.

This morning I happened to be in Matrimony Place beside St. Paul's churchyard in Clapham and was there reminded of the high Victorian ideal of marriage which few of us—let us face it—can ever attain, even the noble Earl, Lord Longford. With our rising divorce rates and record teenage pregnancies we are a fallen tribe beside our European neighbours.

I come from a generation which has been cool, if not hostile, to the institution of marriage. Although we have been shaken by the statistics today we must recognise how well the institution itself has survived criticism. I believe this is because it is only a framework. It is a formalised relationship. Although it has been questioned by many since the 1960s, I believe that it is now essential to family life. But it will only last so long as the individuals and conditions allow.

I must say as an aside that, having attended a civil ceremony in London recently where I was a witness to a friend's marriage, I believe much could be done to improve the quality of secular marriages. The soupy music and trite statements by the registrar reminded me more of a crematorium service, which is another ceremony we seem unable to get right. In this respect I agree with the Government's proposals to include a more imaginative personal celebration of the couple's commitment within the ceremony. Is this not what religion is all about? Is it at last becoming politically correct to ask the Churches to advise town halls on how it is done?

Any failure in a marriage is not, however, in the institution—however much we improve it, as this Government certainly hope to do—but it is in us, the individuals and society. As the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, said, there are large numbers of children who could ideally expect to have two parents. I am not someone who holds up the conventional family like a torch, and nor is he, because we all recognise that there are wonderful examples of parenting outside marriage. But as one who suffered from divorced parents and who remembers that terrible sense of pain when the letter arrives and you know that their paths are taking them further apart and further from the children, I personally regret the trend away from formal marriage relationships. I welcome the efforts of this Government to reinforce the family and to strengthen the support systems which enable children, especially very young children, to flourish in spite of the difficult conditions around them, and they are difficult today.

But are we doing enough economically? I warmed to the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Sheppard, because I remember only too well a night spent in a parish on the edge of a north Coventry housing estate where deprivation, caused fundamentally by unemployment in the automobile industry, is among the bleakest in the country. When you see the boarded up houses and the damage to property caused by excluded young people despite the best efforts of the Churches, the voluntary agencies, the schools and the local council, you know that these are the conditions in which marriages break down and young people are helpless to overcome frustration and apathy. We should remember that the social fabric in inner cities and some rural areas is frail without the active economic initiative which governments should provide with the help of the private and voluntary sector where possible.

I am sure we all support the basic messages of the Home Office consultation document, Supporting Families. It states on page 30 that, Strong and stable families provide the best basis for raising children". It continues, Too often parents do not have access to the help … they need". For my remaining time I wish to concentrate on the question of access, with reference to the work of Save the Children with ethnic minorities. I regret that the primary focus of the consultation paper is on parents and not children. There is, for example, no mention of the impact of the Government's proposals on children, and no mention of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child which protects children, or of its implementation in the UK.

The new National Family and Parenting Institute is to be welcomed if it properly recognises the diversity of communities and the need to communicate effectively with families with different cultural backgrounds. Can the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor confirm that the institute will consult fully with agencies, such as Save the Children, which work closely with the Bangladeshi and Vietnamese communities? They propose, for example, that the institute should devise more effective methods of evaluating local initiatives and of assessing their impact on children. There should be improvements in functional literacy and training for parents for whom English is not their first language. Children from ethnic minority backgrounds may well be brought up in a more traditional framework—as we have heard—which includes extended families and earlier marriage but these do not, of course, always work in favour of the children.

I have digressed into the wider issues of the family outlined by the Supporting Families document because, like the Government, I am certain that more sensitivity by local councils and agencies to the varied needs of families provides a good part of the answer. However, overcoming prejudice and supporting families are not only a government responsibility. I fully respect New Labour's move away from the nanny state towards better parenting and a society which holds individuals, as well as institutions, accountable for the evils which beset our children.

5.40 p.m.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede

My Lords, I, too, should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for initiating this important debate. The noble Lord closed his opening speech by saying that children need their parents, parents need one another, and we need to re-learn how to live together. I agree with those sentiments but I would argue that parents need to learn from examples of today's successful marriages rather than from the Victorian model of successful marriages.

My noble friend Lord Judd spoke of today's democratic family. I would argue that today's democratic family is different and better than the old-fashioned model of a Victorian family. In some ways my noble friend Lord Burlison made the same point. I would argue that in today's family children come first, quite explicitly, in a way that perhaps they did not in some of the older models. Women have far greater opportunities outside the home. That should be celebrated and women should be encouraged to take those opportunities. I would argue that men are taking a far more active role in bringing up their children. Even now, when we talk about changing nappies, men of only 20 or 30 years find it extremely funny. They regard it as something they would never have dreamt of doing themselves, but it is quite normal for fathers of my generation.

In addition, there is a constant time pressure on today's modern marriages and a constant pressure of money. That is why some two-thirds of mothers go out to work today. That is a good thing but of course it is a question of getting the right balance between work and the home. I believe that the key to the success of a modern democratic marriage is balance and flexibility. I know and believe that the Government are doing everything in their power to try to promote that balance and flexibility. Perhaps I should declare an interest here in that my wife is the chief executive of a voluntary organisation called Parents at Work, which is campaigning specifically to get a better balance in the modern home.

The noble Lord, Lord Habgood, made many important points in his speech, particularly when he said that the modern family is a political issue and that it is concrete policies which matter in supporting today's family. It is worth very quickly recounting the huge amount that the Government have done to support the family since they came to office. There is the national childcare strategy, nursery places, out-of-school clubs, increased training, early years development and childcare partnership. There has been a huge change in employment rights, particularly for part-time workers, which is of enormous benefit to mothers. There is parental leave, which will probably be unpaid but is at least a step in the right direction. There will be paternity leave, again a step in the right direction. Maternity leave is to be extended from 14 to 18 weeks and there will be family or emergency leave so that people do not have to tell fibs and say that they are ill when they really mean that their children are ill. There is also the working time directive, which I would argue will do much to help today's family.

In addition, there are the tax and benefits changes which have been made in the last two Budgets. These will make a big difference to today's family. There is the children's tax credit, childcare tax credit and the working family tax credit, all of which will be helpful. In addition, the Government are campaigning very actively to encourage employers to understand the business benefits of having flexible working patterns and a family friendly attitude.

Many noble Lords have spoken about their personal experiences and the importance of marriage; all noble Lords, quite rightly, have spoken about how important it is to them. But I, like the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, come from a broken home. That has made me doubly aware of the importance of permanence in bringing up my own family. These types of debate tend to become rather pious unless one acknowledges that families do sometimes go wrong and need to be supported when they do. I am slightly worried about with how much of the generally high-tone of the debate I find myself agreeing. I wonder whether I would have agreed with so much of it before I got married and had my own children.

Finally, the only Peer who is single and who will contribute to today's debate is the noble Lord, Lord Addington. Unfortunately for the noble Lord—or very luckily for the noble Lord—he will be getting married fairly soon, on 27th March. He can take an outside perspective and perhaps a more detached view than many of us who have taken part in the debate.

5.45 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Clashfern

My Lords, I just want to say that the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, very kindly wrote to me and invited me to put down my name to speak in this important debate. I would have done so except for the consideration that your Lordships have heard my views very fully over and over again. I have not changed them and I do not wish to take up your Lordships' time.

5.46 p.m.

Lord Addington

My Lords, how do I start my speech? The noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, has rather stolen my opening line by declaring my, shall we say, imminent interest in the subject of marriage. I think that putting my name down to speak in the debate was a clear case of a fool rushing in where angels fear to tread. But I think it is a good way of acknowledging that every time one speaks about this subject one brings to it a part of one's personal prejudices and history.

The idea of a broken home is one I do not like. I did not regard my home as being broken; I regarded it as not having a father. I hope that in future we will be able to change the language we use in relation to this subject because, let us face it, if a marriage has broken down, having the two people at each others' throats—verbally, physically or in icy silence—will probably be far more damaging to any child and the people in the marriage. There is not much doubt about that precept. If we bear that in mind, it is to be hoped that this debate will go forward in a reasonably coherent manner. Reference has been made to the Victorian model of marriage. It has clearly been shown that the average Victorian marriage lasted 12 years.

I am of the age when the schoolbooks of my first years showed Janet and John waiting for daddy to come home and mummy doing the cooking. That has all changed. Indeed, it was an illusion. For a large part of our history, mothers in the poorer parts of our society invariably worked. It may have been very low status work and for very short periods of time, but throughout most of our history women have worked. They did physically hard work in the home within marriage or they went out to earn extra money. Indeed, in certain parts of our society, for long periods that work was often prostitution. It is often easy to forget that our society has always pushed people down and tried to exploit them as far as the society and law would allow. The biggest change to marriage as an institution is probably the role of women within it.

I am getting married to someone who has a regular job—unlike a regular attender here—and who will probably bring as much economically to the table as I do. Thus, we are forming a "partnership", a very different term. The term "partner", which I agree seems to cover every arrangement one can possibly come across—everything from a business relationship to the person to whom you are married—is probably much more appropriate to a modern marriage.

The noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, spoke about having children. Perhaps I may make another personal declaration. I do not regard the act of getting married as acquiring a breeding licence. Surely we have gone beyond that. These days, a man who has children is expected to change the nappies. Indeed, my sister's husband takes great delight in putting one of my nephews in my arms and saying, "Right, you hold him while I do the dirty work". That is something that I am just about managing to do while observing the whole process. I am told, "It gets easier when they're your own". I wait to discover that.

What we are really talking about is the best environment whereby we can put small unit blocks into our society—whether we allow them to develop in a more traditional way with help from outside in a modern world, or whether we try to cling onto something which probably never existed.

We have heard a series of radical suggestions. One is that marriage could possibly become a series of contracts. To make a further personal comment, I could not have seen myself falling down on one knee and saying: "Will you enter into a five-year renewable contract with me?". It will require some time and customisation to take that on board as a new concept. But it could happen. The idea of people living together in a permanent relationship outside marriage is growing. Indeed, the statistics that have been bandied around during this debate may well change over time as society and people become more used to dealing with that relationship.

Rules will probably be established as to how it should be approached. The legal frameworks that are developing to bring people into non-married stable relationships will become easier to deal with and people will know what is expected of them. Just as children like a stable environment, adults like to know what they are supposed to do as well. We often forget that there is nothing more difficult than doing something new and original. As we establish new codes of conduct, possibly these statistics will change. Such relationships may never be as stable as marriage; or the idea of the renewable contract could be another way forward. We do not know. We are entering a rapidly expanding area of change in our society.

We need to examine the economic and social situation. We need to consider the role of women in marriage as in any other relationship. It is a fact that the economic unit is changing in its diversity. In certain parts of society, the traditional male job no longer exists. The days are gone when a man did a heavy manual job and went home and placed money on the table—or, to be technical, economic purchasing power—and allowed the woman to run the household. As I have said, that was never the totally dominant mode. Unless we can get young males in our society to appreciate that they will have to take on a partnership role, the whole thing is liable to collapse.

The remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, were, as usual, well-considered. The noble Lord demonstrates the value of having thought about a subject deeply before speaking about it. He mentioned the idea of educating people in terms of what to expect from their own marriage and said that we should examine that approach closely. It will be a help if we prepare people for the realities. The same is true of sex education. This country has the highest rate of teenage pregnancies in Europe, probably because we are among the slowest to tell people in straightforward terms exactly what happens. Surely we can combine such education with what happens in marriage. The idea of how pregnancy occurs and knowing how to look after a baby are surely related.

Marriage has survived for many years. Its meaning in social and economic terms has changed fundamentally throughout the centuries, and it will continue to change. Perhaps I may be allowed one final aside, which I rather inelegantly did not incorporate earlier in my remarks. The noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, commented on recognising the value of the other major religions in their own right. It is a sensible idea. I hope that it will be drawn to the Government's attention in the foreseeable future. It certainly cannot hurt; and it may help.

5.55 p.m.

Baroness Seccombe

My Lords, this has been a most informative debate. I have greatly enjoyed all the contributions. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, on raising the issue and on his thoughtful, sensitive and detailed outline of society today with its many frightening statistics.

This debate is specifically about family life within marriage, and that is the subject on which I have concentrated my thoughts. I have greatly enjoyed listening to Members of different faiths who have given us their views. I congratulate noble Lords who have celebrated many years of married life and wish the noble Lord, Lord Addington, great happiness as he embarks on a new life. My noble friend Lord Griffiths said that this was not a time for private views. But it is very difficult not to have such views and speak to them. So I ask the indulgence of the House.

During any family crisis when our children were growing up, my husband would always say to me, "Never forget, children grow up in spite of their parents". I found those words comforting because, try as hard as we did, I am sure we made awful mistakes. But we all survived. Being a parent is a tremendous responsibility when there are two parents to share it, but if there is only one, that load must at times become almost intolerable.

I grew up in a one-parent family, as my father died when I was 10 years old. I have often pondered on the difficulties my mother must have faced as she tried to bring us up alone. In addition, we had to leave our home as a consequence of bomb damage, and of course there were all the other worries that families endured in wartime Britain. I am sure that my brother and I must have caused my mother great anxiety, and she had no one with whom to share it. In fact, I wonder how she coped at all. There were so many pressures on her. But throughout it all, she taught us to pull together as a family, whatever problems we faced. That stood me in very good stead.

I quote that experience because I just cannot understand why anyone should want to embark on raising children in a one-parent family situation. I most sincerely believe that children want to grow up in a home with two parents living together under one roof, sharing the care, with its ups and downs, of their offspring. Having a bedroom in each parent's home, and consequently going from place to place with his or her suitcase, is a very poor substitute and must add to the confusion in a child's mind after a family break-up.

Of course I am sure that everyone starts out on the wedding day with high ideals, and "until death us do part" is most sincerely meant. But it is extremely sad to see so many marriages fail at such an early stage. I do not wish to take a moral stance as I do not feel qualified to do so, but my experience as a magistrate often left me with real sadness as I saw so many lives destroyed.

There is statistical evidence to show that children from broken homes normally do worse than those from stable homes. So I believe that the Government have a duty to support marriage through fiscal and social measures. When I listen to those who advocate mothers of young children under school age being harried into taking full-time employment, I am concerned about the effect on those children when they are, for example, ill or at home for school holidays. Nurseries are fine for a few hours a week, but leaving children there from 8 a. m. until 6 p.m. day after day is a recipe for future disaster.

It is usually for financial reasons that mothers of young children go out to work full-time, so I want to repeat two suggestions which were made earlier. I urge the Government to take two positive measures: first, to restore the married couples' allowance to everyone and not just to pensioners. Secondly, I believe that the married woman who stays at home to look after her young child or children, or a handicapped relative, should be allowed to transfer her personal tax allowance to her husband.

Since coming into office, this Government appear sadly to have abandoned the traditional family, caring more for those who raise their children outside marriage or with a peripatetic live-in lover. Marriage is a very special institution and should be treated as such by government. I am obviously speaking for myself, but I most sincerely believe that if we continue on this course it will create great problems for future generations. I have met so many young mothers who, while working full-time—not part-time, which I support—have been consumed with guilt and at the same time have felt cheated out of the joys of being around with their children during those early years.

We have heard the experiences of families outside marriage and of course I understand the pressure people are under when they are unemployed, lack housing and are forced into bed-and-breakfast accommodation. That is the kind of life no one could wish to continue. What we have heard in many of the speeches today is that people need the commitment provided by marriage rather than by merely setting up home together.

We have heard that there ought to be preparation for marriage from an early stage. One hopes that that would come from within the home, but, sadly, if it is from within a broken home it may not always help. Perhaps schools can help, but as people prepare for marriage I hope that they will realise the enormity of what they are committing themselves to. Children develop best in a loving home with two parents. We should not forget that.

There have been various views about the father's role and I recognise the huge change since I had my sons. I married at the end of an era because, afterwards, except for voluntary work, I did not work again. But I understand that today's fathers, whose wives work part-time or full-time, have a much greater share in bringing up their children. That is much to be welcomed and also enjoyed.

I am sure that some people will say, "It's all right for her, she's happily married". So I am. I was lucky; I believe I chose the right mother, the right family and of course the right husband. But I want more of our citizens to have the same happiness as I had and to believe that raising children is a worthwhile career in itself. I am convinced that if we all felt like that we would be a much happier and more successful society.

6.3 p.m.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, let me begin by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for introducing this debate and for the quality of his contribution. Over the years, he has been a strong champion of the family and in particular of disadvantaged families and children. For that, but not only that, he is rightly held in high regard in your Lordships' House.

We are often reminded how attitudes to marriage and to the family have changed dramatically. The latest issue of the Government's Population Trends was published only last week. Our divorce rate, though now stable, is still the highest in Europe. We are warned that, if the present trends continue, married couples will become a minority of the adult population within the next 10 years. The noble Lord, Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach, drew attention to that. This compares with 1981, when 65 per cent. of adults were married.

What should the Government do? I believe the role of the state is to encourage, not to compel; to provide practical help, not to moralise. I can assure noble Lords that the Government are certainly not neutral. They have made clear their support for the institution of marriage. I have done so myself on many occasions. I do so again. The consultation document, Supporting Families, emphasises the importance of marriage as a strong foundation for stable relationships and as the most reliable framework for raising children. The paper emphasises that marriage, also sets out rights and responsibilities for all concerned. It remains the choice of the majority of people in Britain. For all these reasons, it makes sense for the Government to do what it can to strengthen marriage". Of course, as the consultation paper also says, supporting marriage does not mean trying to compel people to marry, or criticising or penalising those who choose not to do so. More couples cohabit before marriage and, increasingly, more of them have children without first marrying. Some couples, even with children, continue to cohabit without marrying at all. In a free society, we must respect these choices, not condemn them. We must ensure that the protection of the law is available to everyone in our society on the basis of need, not exclusively on the basis of marital status. Given that around a third of children are now born outside marriage, it would be unacceptable to discriminate against children because their parents are unmarried.

It is clearly just as important that cohabitants and former cohabitants should have protection from domestic violence as spouses and former spouses. Part IV of the Family Law Act provides that protection and early indications are that those suffering domestic violence in both married and unmarried relationships are making substantial use of the Act.

Support for the institution of marriage is one of the principles underlying the Family Law Act 1996. There has been a torrent of misguided criticism of the Act, aimed at my noble and learned predecessor, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, whose Act it was, and now aimed at this Government. These people claim to believe that the implementation of the Act will make divorce quicker and easier. It is the present fault-based divorce law that makes divorce quick and easy. My noble and learned predecessor's Act, when implemented, will make it slower and more difficult. Let me prove that.

Fault-based divorce today places a premium on fault allegations, encouraging the type of proceedings which are clearly harmful to children and lead to many years of hostility and bitterness following divorce. There is no encouragement or opportunity for couples to try to save their marriages. Divorce and remarriage often take place before arrangements for children and finance are finalised. This encourages an irresponsible attitude to marriage and family life. Good neutral information is not available to enable people to consider their options, to make informed decisions and to stop and think about what divorce will mean for them and their children. Surely, the interests of the children must come first.

Let me digress for a moment and then return to my theme. I agree completely with the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, that the relationship of marriage gains major new responsibilities from the birth of children.

Perhaps I may respond to the points made on the Budget. With effect from April 2000 the married couple's allowance, worth £197 a year, will go, but it will be replaced by a new children's tax credit from April 2001 worth £416 a year. There will also be a 3 per cent. real increase in child benefit from April 2000 to £15 for the first child and £10 for subsequent children. This is in addition to the £2.95 increase for the eldest child announced in the last Budget which takes effect from this April.

I believe that my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer should be applauded for putting families with children first. Children are 20 per cent. of the population, but 100 per cent. of our future and they should be put first. The married couple's allowance is a misnomer. The previous government rightly called it an anomaly and reduced it from 40 per cent. to 15 per cent. It is not an allowance restricted to married couples; it is a tax credit paid at the same flat rate to married couples, single parents and unmarried parents living together. Why? Because it is an additional person's allowance available to anyone with children—that is, an additional person to support. Thus it is paid to single parents and cohabiting parents with children. Perhaps I may gently chide the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, for what she said about the Government's tax proposals in this area. It was a travesty of the facts.

I now return to our divorce practices today. They sanction quick and easy divorces which devalue marriage. Today, 75 per cent. of divorces are quickie divorces granted within a few months of the petition. Let me remind your Lordships of what happens in practice. The petition is sent through the post to the local county court and then a copy is sent by post to the other party who, in the vast majority of cases, will not defend the divorce, but will indicate consent. The district judge in the county court will list about two dozen cases for 10.30 in the morning. He will pronounce in a single sentence that a decree nisi is granted in all cases in front of him that morning. Six weeks after the decree nisi the decree will be made absolute and the marriage terminated. It is only at that stage that the interests of the child are addressed. In theory, the court must be satisfied that the arrangements for the children are satisfactory, or at least that they are the best that can be devised in the circumstances. In practice, the court's scrutiny of the arrangements is often cursory in the extreme. These are the facts of life about divorce in this country today.

My noble and learned predecessor's Family Law Act 1996 introduces a radically different approach to divorce. When Part II of the Act comes fully into force people contemplating divorce will be encouraged, during a compulsory period of reflection and consideration, to consider whether they can be helped by marriage counselling. Where there is no prospect of reconciliation, mediation services will be made available to help couples reach agreement for themselves about future arrangements for the children and property. This new procedure will get rid of the quickie divorce because of the compulsory period for reflection and consideration.

I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Ashbourne, will consider the points that I am about to make with an open mind. When the Act is implemented there will be a minimum waiting time prior to divorce of 13 months, which in certain circumstances may be extended to 19 months. That will give people the opportunity to stop and think and enable them to make informed decisions. This will help to identify saveable marriages and support them by the provision of state funding for marriage counselling. This will support children by informing parents of the importance of the welfare of the children and helping them to co-operate as parents after divorce. This will reduce conflict by providing mediation as a less confrontational way of resolving disputes.

For all these reasons the Government are committed to bringing their predecessors' Family Law Act 1996 into force. We are now approaching the end of an extensive period of piloting of the new arrangements. Later this year the Government will announce an implementation date.

The principle of support for the institution of marriage is given practical effect by Section 22 of the Family Law Act. This gives the Lord Chancellor power to make grants in connection with the provision of marriage support services, research into the causes of marital breakdown and into ways of preventing marital breakdown.

Since my department took over this responsibility from the Home Office in 1995, we have spent between £3 million and £3.5 million per year on marriage support. This includes strategic funding for the major national agencies and some project funding for research and development. We have published a Directory of Marriage Support Services which has been distributed to public libraries and other outlets throughout the country.

I say to the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, that my own department has agreed to contribute £100, 000 to the Government's funding of the National Family and Parenting Institute to which he referred and in addition to the marriage support grants that we make. I believe that this institute consults widely and that that does extend to the agencies concerned with ethnic minorities.

Professor Jane Lewis of the University of Nottingham has just completed a research project funded by my department. Her report, "Individualism and Commitment in Marriage and Cohabitation" will shortly be published in the department's research series. We have already published two volumes of review papers by One plus One, the marriage and partnership research charity which is funded by my department on the causes of marital breakdown and the effectiveness of policies and services intended to reduce its incidence.

Towards the end of last year I invited Sir Graham Hart to carry out a review of marriage support and research funding to assist my department in developing a more strategic approach to the allocation of resources. Sir Graham, as a former Permanent Secretary at the Department of Health, is especially well qualified to provide advice on this subject. He came to see me last week. He is on course to complete his report and submit it by Easter. It would not be right for me to speculate about his detailed recommendations now. Obviously, I shall need some time to consider his report before I make it public, together with my response. This I hope to do during the summer.

But what I say now—and I am sure that it will be of interest to all noble Lords who have contributed to this debate—is that Sir Graham has told me that he considers state funding of the national marriage support agencies to be a highly appropriate and worthwhile use of public funds. I wholeheartedly agree with him on that and I will be responding positively. I can tell your Lordships that next year's planned funding is £3 million and I will be reviewing the figures in the light of Sir Graham Hart's report. I hope that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lincoln will recognise what I have just said as the positive statement that it is intended to be.

This has been a valuable debate. I have enjoyed the contributions of all your Lordships. The whole debate will serve to inform the development of policy by the Government.

6.19 p.m.

Lord Northbourne

My Lords, first I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Addington. I hope that this debate on the Order Paper has not applied any pressure on him to commit himself. I am enormously grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken this afternoon and I am humbled by both the number and quality of the contributions.

I was very happy to hear Christians, Jews and Moslems all singing from the same hymn book, as it were. All confirmed one another's views about marriage. I leave all of them and noble Lords with the thought that although most, if not all, of the major religions support marriage I suspect that as an institution it probably pre-dates all the religions that we know today.

I leave the House with one thought. Let us go forward in thinking about structures within and without marriage and, as a society, let us consider how we can better live together, and support one another and our children, both within and outside marriage. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.