HC Deb 16 January 2001 vol 361 cc219-20W
Mr. Coleman

To ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department when she will publish the final evaluation report of research into pilot information meetings under Part II of the Family Law Act 1996; and what plans the Government have to implement Part II of the Act. [146031]

Jane Kennedy

The Final Evaluation Report has been published today, and copies have been placed in the Library. The Lord Chancellor and I are grateful for Professor Walker and her team at Newcastle University for the very detailed and informative report they have produced.

On 17 June 1999, Official Report, column 213W, the Government announced that they would await the Final Evaluation Report before deciding the way forward on Part II.

The research has concluded that none of the six models of information meeting tested over a two-year period is good enough for the implementation of Part II on a nation-wide basis. It has shown that, for most people, the meetings came too late to save marriages and tended to incline those who were uncertain about their marriages towards divorce. While people valued the provision of information, the meetings were too inflexible, providing general information about both marriage saving and the divorce process. People wanted information tailored to their individual circumstances and needs. In addition, in the great majority of cases, only the person petitioning for divorce attended the meeting, but marriage counselling, conciliatory divorce and mediation depend for success on the willing involvement of both parties.

The Report has suggested testing a further model designed to address the majority of the shortcomings identified in the pilots. However, this new kind of meeting would not solve the underlying problems associated with compulsory information meetings, in particular the timing of the meetings in the divorce process and their inability to engage both parties.

Furthermore, in the Government's view the problems with Part II are not limited to the provisions on information meetings. The new procedures would be complex and likely to lead to significant delay and uncertainty which would not be in the best interests of the couple or their children. There are concerns that the provisions would prove unworkable in practice.

The Government therefore do not believe Part II would fulfil the principles of Part I of the Act, to which they remain committed. These principles include saving saveable marriages and, where marriages break down, bringing them to an end with the minimum distress to the parties and children affected.

The Government are not satisfied that it would be right to proceed with the implementation of Part II and propose to invite Parliament to repeal the relevant sections of the Family Law Act 1996 once a suitable legislative opportunity occurs. This decision does not affect section 22, in Part II, relating to the funding of marriage support services, which is in force and will remain so. In addition, while it is not possible to implement separately the provisions at sections 9(3) and (4) of Part II, the Government are sympathetic to the needs of Jewish women who are denied a religious divorce, and is considering the best way forward.

The Government will draw on the Evaluation Report and build on the initiatives already under way in their efforts to support marriage and stable relationships and to reduce the damaging impact of family conflict and relationship breakdown on children. They have taken forward a wide range of measures over the past three years to help families, including establishing the new Children's Fund and the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, improving maternity and parental leave arrangements, and increasing funding for marriage and relationship support to a total of £5 million per annum by 2002–03.