House of Commons
Tuesday 25 June 2019
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
The Secretary of State was asked—
Rules-based International Order
International institutions and international law have since 1945 provided the framework for a sustained rise in global peace and prosperity. As a permanent member of the Security Council, we consider the United Nations to be the foundation of peace and security around the world. The UK has been at the forefront of efforts to defend the system—for example, by challenging Russian attempts to undermine international institutions and international law.
I thank the Minister for that response. Further to UN resolutions 39 and 47, and the 2018 report by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights detailing the shocking human rights violations in Jammu and Kashmir; what steps is he taking with India, Pakistan and other regional powers to secure a further resolution at the UN Security Council and a lasting settlement between these two nuclear-armed nations?
The UK’s position is that it is for India and Pakistan to find a lasting political resolution to the situation in Kashmir, taking account of the wishes of the Kashmiri people. We consistently encourage India and Pakistan to engage in dialogue as a means of resolving differences. It is not for the UK to prescribe a particular solution or act as a mediator.
Does the Minister agree that the international rules-based order is underpinned by treaty, and if Britain were to leave the European Union with no deal we would be walking away and turning our back unilaterally on treaties? Not only would it be an act of self-harm to our country, but it would undermine the system of the rules-based international order itself.
I do not know whether to be pleased or astonished at the Minister singing the praises of the United Nations. Presumably this means that the Government will be taking every step they can to comply with the recent resolution on the sovereignty of the Chagos Islands?
There are clear international rules regarding British sovereignty in Gibraltar, yet Spain continuously and repeatedly breaches the integrity of the maritime waters surrounding the Rock. What will the Minister do to remind Spain of its obligations under the rules-based international order?
Any such incursions in the proper waters of Gibraltar are always responded to by us. We watch them closely, but I very much hope that there can be no increase in tension and that we can in the years ahead reach a very settled position between ourselves and Spain on the absolute rights of Gibraltar as a British sovereign Rock.
I had hoped to start by congratulating the Foreign Secretary on making it to the final two in the Tory leadership race, but unfortunately, to coin a phrase, he has chosen to bottle the very first question, perhaps because he knew some of the issues that we were going to raise. But if the Minister of State is answering on his behalf, may I ask whether our potential future Prime Minister will commission an independent public inquiry or authorise a full parliamentary inquiry to establish which Ministers or civil servants over the past four years have been responsible for authorising arms sales for use in Yemen, even when, as the courts have found, it is clear there was a high risk that those arms would be used to commit war crimes?
I am very happy to join the right hon. Lady in congratulating my right hon. Friend on reaching the final two and indeed the final one—that is what we look forward to, for the good of the country. I am sorry that she was not sufficiently nimble of foot to save up such a question for topicals, when I am sure she will get such a chance. However, as she well knows, all of our arms sales meet the most rigorous rules, and we will continue to adhere to them.
I thank the Minister for that answer, but all the arms sales have not met the most rigorous rules. That is the whole point. He knows that there are men in this Chamber and beyond—Ministers—who ignored the evidence of risk to innocent civilians; guilty men, Ministers who signed off the export of arms that have now been found to be unlawful. Two of the men responsible for those decisions are the candidates to be our next Prime Minister.
Let me ask a related question, for which the Foreign Secretary has exclusive responsibility. It is now almost nine months since Jamal Khashoggi was murdered. Thanks to the Senate, we know that the CIA has concluded that Crown Prince Salman most likely ordered that murder, and we have heard from the United Nations that there is credible evidence for that conclusion. Will the Minister simply tell us, nine months on, when he will produce an official assessment of who ordered the murder of Jamal Khashoggi? Unlike Yemen, this is entirely on his watch.
I am afraid the right hon. Lady appears not to have read the 20 June Court judgment, which acknowledged “rigorous”—her very word—“robust” and “multi-layered” processes
“‘carried out by numerous expert government and military personnel’, upon which the Secretary of State could rely”.
As the right hon. Lady appreciates, my responsibilities do not cover Saudi Arabia, but we speak directly to our Saudi counterparts on all such matters, including arms and human rights.
Does the Secretary of State, who we hope will get to his feet for once on this question, not agree that the selling of weapons to a regime that murders journalists and civilians and repeatedly breaks international humanitarian law entirely undermines the United Kingdom’s role as a proponent of the rules-based international order?
I hope that for the time being at least I am an adequate substitute for the Foreign Secretary in answering these questions; it is a perfectly reasonable allocation of a question to a broad thematic policy area for which I am responsible. Within that broad theme, I assure the House that we endeavour to maintain the highest standards, not only within the rules-based international system but when it comes to the export of arms.
I welcome the Minister’s response, most notably his reference to this House, because earlier this year it was our own House of Lords Select Committee that reported that UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia were “unconscionable” and that the UK Government are “on the wrong side” of the law. Last week, the Court of Appeal ruled that arms sales to Saudi Arabia are unlawful. The Government’s actions have been denounced by the upper House of the legislature and ruled unlawful by the judiciary, so on what grounds does the Secretary of State, or, indeed, the Minister, still insist on selling weapons to the regime?
Trinidad and Tobago: Criminal Justice
I ask this question with specific reference to my constituent Sharon St John, whose son Adrian was murdered three years ago. She is still waiting for justice. I thank the Foreign Office for belatedly getting more involved in the case, but what further pressure can Ministers and the Government put on the Trinidad and Tobago authorities to set the date for a full trial as soon as possible?
I commend the hon. Gentleman’s assiduousness in raising this truly terrible constituency case. He can be reassured that we have taken every opportunity to raise the case with Trinidad and Tobago. We obviously cannot interfere specifically in Trinidad and Tobago’s judicial process, but we are extending every possible support where we can. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that in May last year the magistrate committed the accused to stand trial for murder, but we acknowledge that the trial date has not yet been set.
When I visited Trinidad, I found the people and nation to be peaceful, loving and entrepreneurial. There are some specific problems, but will the Minister confirm that the Foreign Office advice is still that British citizens can travel to Trinidad and Tobago? Many people will enjoy a vacation there.
Yes, of course. Thousands of people from the UK and elsewhere enjoy holidays in Trinidad and Tobago, and it is of course a close friend and Commonwealth partner. The hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) is right to raise the issue, and I am sure that my hon. Friend would do the same should a constituent have such a bad experience anywhere in the world.
Over 30,000 British nationals visit Trinidad and Tobago every year. Forty people were murdered there in January 2018 alone, and the deaths of Mr and Mrs Wheeler in particular exposed the need for protection measures for British citizens visiting Trinidad and Tobago. Will the Minister outline the steps being taken to secure the safety of UK citizens when they are on holiday?
Millions of citizens travel world wide all the time, and we ensure that we provide good and up-to-date travel advice. We always encourage travellers to take out insurance policies when they are going on business trips or holidays, and to look at the Foreign Office’s travel advice pages.
We remain very concerned about the situation in Hong Kong, and I raised those concerns with the Chief Executive on 12 June. Today I urge the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government to establish a robust, independent investigation into the violent scenes that we saw. The outcome of that investigation will inform our assessment of future export licence applications to the Hong Kong police, and we will not issue any further export licences for crowd control equipment to Hong Kong unless we are satisfied that concerns raised about human rights and fundamental freedoms have been thoroughly addressed.
I join my colleagues in congratulating the Secretary of State on the position he is in now, and wish him good luck for the future; it is a good achievement.
Will the Government fulfil our moral responsibilities and offer refuge to Hong Kong residents who are at risk from the extraterritorial application of Chinese law?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his good luck wishes and ask him not to pass that on to Labour party members in Ealing, because it might discourage their Conservative party counterparts. I also thank the shadow Foreign Secretary for her congratulations; she is a gracious person and I would expect nothing less of her.
On more serious matters, we were very concerned about this extradition law because the fundamental freedoms of Hong Kong are what has made it such a stunning success since 1997—and, indeed, before 1997. Anything that contradicted the letter or spirit of the Basic Law that preserves those freedoms should not happen.
My right hon. Friend has spoken out very powerfully on Hong Kong at other points. Will he recognise the report on China by the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs and the work that we put into the Hong Kong Administration, and the fact that the UK is in many ways still underpinning the economy of Hong Kong through the application of justice and the lending of judges to guarantee the courts? At what point does the Foreign Secretary think that civil rights can be divorced from property rights, and at what point would that mean that British judges are actually whitewashing a now failing civil rights Administration?
I do not think we can divorce civil rights and political rights. My hon. Friend and his Committee are absolutely right to raise those concerns. An independent judiciary, where people can be confident of their basic freedoms, is at the heart of what has made Hong Kong such an extraordinary city. We do not just have a moral obligation to stand up for the people of Hong Kong; we actually have an internationally binding legal agreement signed with China in 1984 by Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping. We will stand by that agreement and we expect China to do the same.
The Foreign Secretary may not know that at the time two parliamentary delegations went to Hong Kong to check how the declaration had been accepted by local people. I was on one of those delegations, led by Ian Mikardo, and we all came away absolutely convinced that one nation, two systems was a solemn, sacred obligation. Will the Foreign Secretary give a message to the Chinese Government: none of their nonsense—we know who is behind this and that they want to crush democracy in China, and that if it comes to it, we could have a system of embargoes on their goods coming to this country and to Europe?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his passionate support for the people of Hong Kong, and I want to reassure him on this. On my first visit to China as Foreign Secretary, I spoke to my counterpart, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, about the very issue of Hong Kong to underline just how important it is not just to this Government but to everyone in this House.
As a former investment banker specialising in the markets of Hong Kong up to and beyond the 1997 handover, I fully appreciate the incredible efforts made by Governor Chris Patten in securing the one country, two systems agreement for 50 years. Economic stability is an incredibly fragile commodity. Will my right hon. Friend reinforce and redouble his efforts to make sure that the one country, two systems arrangement does continue for the next 27 years?
Absolutely. I think that what happens in Hong Kong is, for all of us, a litmus test of the direction of travel that China goes in, because we had an internationally binding agreement signed in 1984 that Britain feels very, very strongly about. It is, as my hon. Friend rightly says, at the heart of Hong Kong’s economic success as well as its political freedom.
Is not the real problem that although the Chief Executive may not directly take her orders from Beijing, she often looks over her shoulder to find out what the Communist party of China is saying? Is not the fundamental truth that in the end one can repress human freedom for a while but one cannot finally quash it?
My right hon. Friend has said that one country, two systems must mean exactly that. Will he support the legitimate demands of the protesters, many of whom are waving Union flags in the hope of support from this Government and this House for the permanent withdrawal of this most contentious Bill?
UK Soft Power
I thank my hon. Friend for drawing attention to the important media freedom conference that we are hosting jointly with the Canadians in London in a couple of weeks’ time. He will be glad to hear that so far Ministers from 50 countries will be coming along to that event. We are asking countries to sign up to a pledge welcoming the value of a free media in holding the powerful to account and stressing the importance of the free exchange of information.
Mr Speaker, you have just graciously opened Parliamentary Links Day, celebrating science in Parliament and the UK’s world-leading position as a science nation. Unfortunately, all too often African scientists are prevented from coming here to collaborate because of the UK’s outdated and arbitrary visa system. The all-party parliamentary group for Africa, which I chair, is conducting an investigation into this. Will the Minister commit to joining us for the launch of the report on 16 July and to working with the Home Office to address this real barrier to our soft power in the world of science?
I commend the hon. Lady’s chairmanship of the all-party parliamentary group for Africa. As she knows, I try to come along to all her meetings when I can, so I will add that request to the list and hope I will be able to join her. She will be glad to know that we have recently gone out to every part of our diplomatic network to find out from the frontline where there are issues with the UK visa system. She knows how many millions are processed every month. We want to see what we can do, working with our colleagues in the Home Office, to make sure that everyone who wants to come to visit the UK, for scientific or other purposes, and who has a legitimate reason to be here, the means to be here and the opportunity to return can do so.
The Secretary of State clearly believes that he is a master of soft power and diplomacy. He says that Europe will be willing to renegotiate the Brexit withdrawal agreement if a new Prime Minister comes forward with ideas on how to solve the Northern Ireland border issue. I presume that, like her colleague, the Minister for Europe and the Americas, the right hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan), the Minister is supporting the Secretary of State for the premiership. If she is, can she please tell us what those ideas are?
Let me take this opportunity to say that, yes, I do support the Foreign Secretary’s campaign to be the next leader of the Conservative party. The hon. Gentleman has been extremely ingenious in this question on soft power in shoehorning the sort of questions that will rightly be asked by members of the Conservative party in this campaign. What I will say from this Dispatch Box is that I am absolutely confident that, whatever the outcome of those negotiations, the UK’s leadership in soft power will continue to shine brightly in the world.
We are very concerned about the situation in the middle east and the risks of an accidental war. We have made serious efforts to de-escalate tension, including the visit by my right hon. Friend, the Minister for the Middle East, to Tehran at the end of last week.
With regard to the recent tanker attacks, the UN Secretary-General has stated that the truth will be known only if an independent entity verifies the facts. Does the Secretary of State agree with that and will he confirm that the UK will not be dragged blindly, with the US, into a war against the wider wishes of the international community?
The hon. Gentleman is right to ask that question. We have been doing extensive work. The message that we are sending with our partners in the European Union, particularly the French and the Germans, is that, with respect to Iran’s nuclear programme, this is a crucial week. Iran has said that it will reach the limits of what it is allowed for low-enriched uranium by 27 June, which is later on this week. It is absolutely essential that it sticks to that deal in its entirety for it to be preserved and for us to have a nuclear-free middle east.
May I also congratulate my right hon. Friend, the Minister for the Middle East, on his visit to Tehran, which I know that he will have found as fascinating as I always did? In his conversations about Iran with his US counterparts, may I ask the Foreign Secretary to remind them of David Petraeus’s key question: “Tell Me How This Ends?”. Although it is very clear that Iran has to take actions to assuage regional tensions, does he agree that the United States needs to move cautiously and listen to wise voices such as those of Dr Anwar Gargash who urges political solutions to long-standing and complex regional problems?
No one speaks more wisely on the middle east than my right hon. Friend after his very long and distinguished time in the Foreign Office with responsibility for that brief. He is, of course, right. Neither side wants war in this situation, but it is very important that there are ladders for people to climb down so that discussions and negotiations can take place.
I, too, commend the Minister for the Middle East for his visit to Iran. Time and again, Iran demonstrates that it has no intention of being a serious and responsible member of the international community through its human rights abuses, its ballistic missile tests and its export of terror and violence throughout the region. Are we not naive in thinking that with a bit more love and a bit more carrot, Iran will change its ways?
My right hon. Friend speaks very wisely on this. The truth is that the only real solution to this problem is for Iran to stop its destabilising activities in Yemen, which has seen missiles being fired into airports in Saudi Arabia; in Lebanon, which is seeing Hezbollah activity and attacks happening on Israel; and in Iraq and in Syria. That is the long-term solution.
US President Donald Trump said this weekend that all the current tension with Iran could disappear if only Tehran agreed to co-operate on ending its nuclear programme. Have the Government tried to explain to the President that if he wants to achieve that outcome, all it takes is for all sides to honour the terms of the Iran nuclear deal—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action?
May I say gently to the hon. Gentleman that the cause of the problems is that destabilising activity by Iran has continued even after the JCPOA? It has had success in restraining Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and that is why we continue to support it, but we are not going to get proper peace in the middle east unless we end those thoroughly destabilising activities.
Journalistic Rights and Freedoms
This year, the UK is spearheading a global campaign on media freedoms, and our diplomatic missions around the world have stepped up their activity accordingly. We have announced the appointment of Special Envoy Amal Clooney, establishing a high-level panel to drive legislative reform throughout the world, and we will announce further practical steps with wide international support at next month’s UK and Canada-led conference.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s answer, but at least 94 journalists were killed in the course of their duties last year. Will he and his ministerial colleagues undertake, on every occasion when they travel overseas or meet foreign Heads of State, to raise this issue, which is so vital if we are to get real news, not fake news?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As it happens, at the weekend I was in Tehran, and I made the points that he has made to my interlocutors. It is absolutely vital that journalists are able to do their work unhindered and certainly unthreatened, and the secret to peace and prosperity across our world—our troubled world—today is the ability to have the transparency that is the stock in trade of journalists.
Will the Minister look at the situation of journalists in Turkey, and in that context, will he welcome the victory of the opposition in Istanbul as a sign that at least in Turkey there are people fighting against the authoritarianism of President Erdoğan?
Istanbul has very much been in the spotlight over the past few days, and I think we probably welcome the political vibrancy that we have seen in Turkey over the past few days. Of course, Turkey is a very dangerous place for journalists right now, and the hon. Gentleman is right to underscore the importance of Turkey in particular engaging with this process. I very much hope that Turkey is represented at the conference in London next month.
We all welcome the Foreign Secretary’s decision to host a ministerial summit on media freedom next month. However, can the Minister of State explain why it took an outcry from Britain’s National Union of Journalists even to get an invitation to the summit and why, even though journalists have now been invited, they are still not being allowed to speak? Will he also say what involvement the International Federation of Journalists has had?
I am absolutely delighted that journalists, and of course their representative bodies, will be represented at this conference. I am very keen for them to suggest what part they might play in the proceedings, and I am looking forward to hearing from them. This is meant to be Britain being a window to the world on the importance that we assign to journalistic freedom and a free press. Let us see what they have to say.
Departmental Staff: Pay
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has well-established processes in place to ensure that our staff, wherever they work around the globe, are paid correctly and on time.
I am disappointed that the Secretary of State is not answering this question, because in the last set of questions he said of the Interserve dispute going on in his Department:
“If we failed to pay any of our staff on time, I take full responsibility.”—[Official Report, 14 May 2019; Vol. 660, c. 88.]
I understand that nothing has happened, and in fact the FCO is now the second Government Department to set up a food bank to help its staff. Are these really the actions of a person who wants to lead this country? He cannot even sort out what is going on in his own Department.
The hon. Lady is completely misinformed to say that nothing has happened. What did happen is that Interserve changed the date in the month on which the salary of some of the lower paid workers in the Foreign Office was paid, and it made some errors in calculating what was owed. It was thanks to the personal intervention of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, who not only wrote to the CEO of Interserve but called people in the Foreign Office to account, that, first, those people were properly paid, and secondly, they received a subsequent and additional good-will payment.
One set of staff who are deservedly well paid are Her Majesty’s trade commissioners. The nine have been in place for a year and have been a big success. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the new position shows how well the Department for International Trade and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office work together to promote trade by hiring the right people to lead that work?
The FCO is playing a leading role in promoting international co-operation on climate change, maintaining the momentum generated by the Paris agreement, and raising ambition, as indicated by our new net zero 2050 target.
This Government pride themselves on the special relationship with the United States. With record low temperatures gripping the US last winter, President Donald Trump tweeted that it would be good to see some of
“that good old-fashioned Global Warming”.
What progress was made during Donald Trump’s recent state visit on making him see sense on climate change?
We are very direct with President Trump. We do not agree with him on climate change, which is why we continue to uphold the Paris accord and why we are championing a UK bid to host the next big climate change conference, COP 26. We want it to be held in London at the end of next year, and if we are successful, it will tell the whole world how seriously we take the issue.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we need to focus on young people, and I am sure there will be a youth event if we are successful in our bid to host COP 26, but in some ways I want to have an oldies event as well, because I want young people to see that older generations really do take this issue seriously. Their concern is that we are not as committed to it as they are, and we must prove them wrong.
The UK is now exporting more waste to countries with the highest levels of ocean plastic pollution. The ban on plastic exports to China has led to the UK offloading its waste on nations with questionable records on marine pollution. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to reduce environmentally costly plastic exports?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the scenes in Malaysia and other parts of the world of plastic waste that has often come from us are not acceptable. All I can do is salute the extraordinary work done by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in championing an end to plastics in the ocean. The international leadership he has shown is extraordinary.
I welcome the fact that, yesterday, this House of Commons voted to make the UK carbon-neutral by 2050. That is a great achievement for this Parliament. The Foreign Secretary is fully aware that the UK accounts for only a very small percentage—about 2%—of global emissions, so for the change to be made a reality for the world, other countries need to follow suit. What is his assessment of how the effort is going in other developed countries to ensure that they follow our lead?
I think we are making progress, despite the setback of not having the United States on board. As for exactly what the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is doing, we have 299 people across the world whose job is entirely or partly to advocate on climate change. We are using our diplomatic network to its fullest effect.
At present, there is no primary legislation to prevent this Government or future Governments using carbon offsetting in other countries to reduce our own carbon emissions. Will the Foreign Secretary commit to such legislation to ensure that we are not simply exporting our own problems?
Handling plastic waste is a key environmental challenge, as was highlighted earlier. Last week I met Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir, who agreed on the importance of partnership between our two Governments to tackle the issue of unrecyclable waste illegally exported to Malaysia. Our high commission in Kuala Lumpur is already on the case. Will my right hon. Friend pass on to colleagues in the Cabinet the importance of reviewing penalties for subcontractors in the UK who are illegally mixing waste for export? This is not the sort of export that the Foreign Office or the Department for International Trade want to support.
My hon. Friend is extremely well connected, Mr Speaker. You are absolutely right. Prime Minister Mahathir is just one of many Prime Ministers that I know he knows. Perhaps he should be doing my job. What he says is right. As was mentioned in an earlier question, we are responsible for only 2% of emissions, so the power of UK leadership is the power of the example that we set. That is why on these issues we have to ensure that we get it right.
I am asking a rare third question on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman). She cannot be here for family reasons, but she wanted me to join in the important discussion on climate change. It gives me the opportunity to congratulate the Foreign Secretary directly not just for getting into the final two, but for being the only candidate who has the police outside his house for the right reasons. [Laughter.] Aside from the very welcome conversation on climate change that the Prince of Wales had with Donald Trump during his state visit—[Interruption.] I’m sorry, does the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) wish to intervene?
Okay, well perhaps I can start again. I want to ask the Foreign Secretary this. Aside from the very welcome conversation on climate change that the Prince of Wales had with Donald Trump during his state visit, I want to reiterate the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan). What progress did the Foreign Secretary and the Government make in trying to persuade the President of the United States to take climate change seriously, given that his response following that visit was to say that all this fuss was simply about changes in the weather?
I talked very openly with President Trump about the fact that we disagreed. He also had extensive discussions with other people on his visit. I do not comment on royal conversations, but I do know he spent a lot of time with His Royal Highness Prince Charles. The point I would gently make to the right hon. Lady is that when we disagree with our friends we do have these conversations and it would be great if she did the same with people like Maduro and Putin as well.
US-UK Special Relationship
As it happens, we are on the same topic. The state visit of President Trump was a tremendous success, although the absence of the Leader of the Opposition from the state banquet was noted but not regretted.
I am sure my right hon. Friend will therefore agree that those who tried to disrupt and denigrate the recent state visit of the President of the United States were deliberately and shockingly trying to damage our special relationship, and betray what the President has rightly called the greatest alliance in history.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Every day I walk up the Foreign Office staircase and pass a bust of one of our greatest Foreign Secretaries, Earnest Bevin, who was both a Labour Foreign Secretary and one of the founders of NATO. What a betrayal of his remarkable legacy to have a Labour leader who takes money from Iranian state TV and is a friend of terrorists.
President Trump made it clear that the special intelligence sharing arrangements with the UK might be cancelled if the British Government persisted with their compromised arrangements with Huawei on 5G. How have the Government responded to that threat?
NGOs: Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories
We firmly believe that civil society organisations should be able to conduct humanitarian work in both Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and I saw some of that work in action on the ground during my visit last month. We are aware of reports of pressure exerted against NGOs, particularly those critical of Israel’s conduct in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. We continue to make it clear that a vibrant civil society is in Israel’s interest and encourage the Palestinian Authority to ensure that NGOs can work unimpeded.
I thank the Minister for that refreshing answer, but I ask him to pursue the case of Omar Shakir, the director of Human Rights Watch, who has been harassed for two and a half years. Is the Minister also concerned by the wider hostile environment for NGOs, which has seen the Daily Mail pay £120,000 in libel damages to Interpal this month for impugning its humanitarian work in Gaza, and by the summit taking place in Manama this week on the future of the Occupied Palestinian Territories that does not even have the word “Palestine” on the agenda?
There was a lot in that question; I will do my best to answer it. The Manama conference is in train right now, and that gives me the opportunity to say again, so that there is no confusion, that Her Majesty’s Government are fully behind the two-state solution, with Jerusalem as a shared capital. I hope that makes it clear.
The hon. Gentleman mentions Omar Shakir, the director of Human Rights Watch, and I share the hon. Gentleman’s dismay at what has happened to him. I note that his deportation has been stayed and I encourage that stay of deportation to be made permanent. It is important that Human Rights Watch continues to do the important things that it does in Israel and the OPTs. I very much encourage both the Palestinian Authority and the Government of Israel to ensure that NGOs such as Human Rights Watch are able to continue doing what they do. It establishes credibility for both of them in the international community and any attacks on them, I am afraid, does them inestimable damage.
My right hon. Friend will be well aware that numerous NGOs operate both in Israel and Palestine. Does he agree that NGOs that encourage Palestinians and Israelis to come together, such as the Parents Circle-Families Forum and MEET—the Middle East Entrepreneurs of Tomorrow—should be encouraged, and that the refusal of Palestinian Authority to allow these NGOs to operate causes more dissension and concern?
My hon. Friend speaks from a position of some strength because he takes a great deal of interest in these matters. Dialogue is terribly important. When I have spoken to both my Israeli and Palestinian Authority interlocutors, I have made it absolutely clear to them that the only way forward for peace in the middle east is for dialogue to be facilitated and continued. NGOs of the sort that he has described are an important part of that.
The Israeli NGO, Save a Child’s Heart, which I had the honour to visit recently, just performed its 5,000th life-saving operation. The children come from all over, including Africa and the Palestinian territories. Will the Minister join me in commending and celebrating this fantastic achievement by this wonderful organisation?
It does sound like a wonderful organisation, and it is important to commend the activities of NGOs and particularly medical charities, large and small, that operate in this space. Too often we hear about the large ones and not so much about the small ones. I am particularly conscious of those operating in relation to Gaza and the west bank and the difficulties that some are having, particularly with their patients gaining the access that they need. Organisations of the sort that the right hon. Gentleman describes are very important in that respect.
International Economic Crime
The line between rogue nation states and terrorist organisations sponsoring organised criminal activity is increasingly blurred. They are attacking our national institutions and millions of residents in this country. Does the Minister believe that diplomacy is working?
My hon. Friend rightly draws attention to the importance, given that we are one of the world’s leading financial centres, of our being as rigorous as possible and taking a zero-tolerance approach. I am sure the House will welcome the fact that last December the Financial Action Task Force review took a close look at our system and concluded that the UK had the strongest anti-money laundering regime of the countries assessed to date, but clearly we cannot be complacent; there is much more to do.
The political stand-off in Venezuela continues and the humanitarian crisis deepens. We support initiatives by the Lima Group, the International Contact Group and the Norwegian-facilitated talks in Oslo to make progress towards a solution. We have committed significant humanitarian aid and are supporting the UN and the Red Cross movement operating in the region.
Will the Minister join me in welcoming the visit of the UN Human Rights Commissioner, Michelle Bachelet, to Venezuela and endorsing her demands that, whatever else needs to happen there, we must see the immediate release of all political prisoners being held by the Maduro Government?
Yes, I am very happy to confirm that, but of course we need to see far more than that in Venezuela. Maduro has brought his own country to its knees. Millions of people have fled to neighbouring countries. The country has been ruined by the lunacy of one man, and we all, as the international community, need to work together to do everything we possibly can to restore the fortunes of that once great country.
This might be my last Question Time as Foreign Secretary—or indeed it might not—but one important event that will happen before the result of the Conservative leadership election is announced is the launch of a major global campaign to protect the safety of journalists around the world. The UK has joined forces with Canada to spearhead this campaign, which I will be launching next month with Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland. It will be the world’s first ever ministerial summit on media freedom, here in London. We have 700 confirmed attendees from media and civil society across 98 countries and from 45 different Governments. Together we will shine a light on abuse and raise the price for those who would harm or imprison journalists.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for announcing that conference. Whether he remains Foreign Secretary or becomes Prime Minister, or takes any other post, I hope that he continues consistently to champion human rights and media freedom.
I declare an interest in that last month I was part of a delegation with Medical Aid for Palestinians and the Council for Arab-British Understanding that visited the Palestinian refugee camp of Dheisheh in the occupied west bank. There we witnessed the vital work in education, health and other areas of humanitarian relief that the United Nations Relief and Works Agency does but which is now at risk because the US has threatened to defund and delegitimise the agency. Can the Foreign Secretary confirm that the UK intends to support the renewal of UNRWA’s mandate at the General Assembly later this year so that it can continue its vital work of protecting people and giving them a sense of hope?
I thank the hon. Lady for her good wishes. She once bought me a cappuccino in Portcullis House, and I look forward to returning the favour in No. 10, if that is what happens. I can confirm that we will continue to support the renewal of UNRWA’s mandate and the vital work it does.
As it happens, I recently visited a kibbutz very close to the Gazan border, and I saw for myself the effect that such attacks were having on the civilian population, despite Israel’s Iron Dome, which is good but not infallible. We condemn all rocket attacks from Gaza towards Israeli. They are completely unacceptable. While they and other violence like that continues, there is no realistic prospect of peace being forthcoming in that part of our troubled world. We must see the cessation of rockets from Gaza into Israel.
The hon. Lady can tell her constituents, and indeed the people of Sudan, that we stand with them in their desire for a transition to civilian-led government. As she knows, there have been widespread reports following those horrendous attacks, and we encourage everyone to keep documentation of such atrocities. Justice will come eventually, but I summoned the Sudanese ambassador to express our disagreement with—our real abomination of—what had taken place on 3 June.
Of course I share my hon. Friend’s concern about Iran’s support for international terrorism, particularly through its proxy groups, which I discussed at length with my interlocutors over the weekend. I think it only fair to say that the Financial Action Task Force has recognised that there has been some progress in Iran but is disappointed that it has not been comprehensive, which it is why it is felt that, on balance, it is right to extend the deadline to October 2019. I hope very much that the outstanding issues in the action plan will be addressed during the intervening time.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s excellence as a trade envoy between the UK and Ethiopia. Ethiopia’s trade has increased by some 80%, which must surely be one of the records among trade envoys.
We are truly appalled by those killings, and our thoughts are indeed with the people who have been affected by them. We support Ethiopia’s progress in political and economic reforms, and we do not want such events to influence that agenda.
I am happy to do that. India is a country that I want to visit at the earliest opportunity to strengthen our relations. I am trying to avoid the use of the phrase “strong and stable”, but I will say that that relationship with India is incredibly important to both countries, and we will do everything we can to further it.
My constituent Mr Rishikesh Kardile has been in custody since a business conference in Barcelona in February. Will the Minister’s officials ask the Indian Government to lift their extradition application so that he can return to his young son and family in my constituency and the matter can be resolved through the normal legal process?
Further to my letter to the right hon. Gentleman last month, Mr Kardile has now been released from prison. He is required to remain in Spain, because he is the subject of an Indian extradition notice. It would be very difficult, and possibly inappropriate, for us to intervene, as this is a matter for the Spanish courts, but we are extending to Mr Kardile and his family the fullest consular support possible.
Nobody can criticise our Government’s reaction to atrocities committed against the Muslim community, or indeed Muslims around the world; however, given that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary seeks to lead this Christian country, has his Department not rather let him down in the way we have sought to protect Christians abroad?
I think that has been somewhat of a blind spot, but we are putting it right, and that is why I asked the Bishop of Truro to conduct an independent review into what more we can do to tackle the persecution of Christians, which accounts for about 80% of the religious persecution in the world. That report will be received next month.
Does the Foreign Secretary not agree that whether it is the tear gassing and rubber bulleting of peaceful protestors in Hong Kong or the mass detention without trial in concentration camps of civilians in the United States by Trump, our hand is much weakened in upholding the fundamental values of human rights if we are under the pressure of seeking trade agreements with China on the one hand or the United States on the other, and therefore we are better off staying in the EU and having a final say on that?
Many of us hope that my right hon. Friend will continue his brilliant work as Foreign Secretary for many years to come, but may I take him back to his earlier remarks about Sudan and the present position of the long-suffering people of Sudan? Will he ensure that the British Government do all they can to make certain that, in line with the International Criminal Court indictment of General Bashir and Salah “Gosh”—two people who have been identified as perpetrators of mass atrocities in Darfur and elsewhere in Sudan—they are held to account and taken to The Hague as swiftly as possible?
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for his assiduous pursuit of this agenda; he knows how closely we are working with both the ICC and other international forums to ensure that the situation in Sudan remains at the forefront of the international agenda and that we do everything we can to ensure a swift and orderly transition to civilian rule in that country. Clearly, accountability will not be forgotten by the international community.
Last week the Minister for the Middle East suggested that we would have no ideas how to increase the pressure on Russia to stop targeting hospitals in Syria. He is wrong about that: we sent him a number of ideas just this morning. Will he meet us to discuss them, and will he consider those measures, including expelling the Russian ambassador for these atrocities?
I remember our conversation across the Floor of the House and look forward very much to receiving the hon. Gentleman’s helpful ideas. It is vital that the parties to the Sochi ceasefire are mindful of the obligations they signed up to in September. The events of 6 May and subsequently are deeply regrettable and stand the very real risk of causing a huge further humanitarian crisis with further internally displaced people. We have to avoid that at all costs. I therefore gently suggest that the parties get back around the table and ensure that as a safe first step they stop their hostile activities in north-west Syria.
I have just returned from seeing Richard Ratcliffe, who is on the 11th day of his hunger strike in support of his wife Nazanin, who still languishes in a prison in Iran. Given the current increased tensions with Iran, what more can we do to keep Nazanin at the forefront of the profile and make sure the message to get her released is not lost among the other discussions we must have?
I thank my hon. Friend for visiting Richard Ratcliffe, who is a very brave man. I met him the weekend before last, and he is doing a remarkable job. I know that the whole House is thinking about Nazanin, about her five-year-old daughter and about that family. Our message to Iran is very simple: whatever disagreements you have with the UK, do not punish this innocent woman. It is not her fault. Let her come home.
Further to the earlier question about self-determination for the people of Kashmir, will the Minister confirm whether he has approached the United Nations to take a more direct and active role in recording, monitoring and reporting human rights abuses in Kashmir?
Obviously, we oppose human rights abuses anywhere. I have only recently and temporarily assumed responsibility for that part of the world, but I take fully on board what the hon. Lady says and assure her that the Government pay full attention to any human rights abuses anywhere in the world, but particularly in the Kashmir region.
The UK has shown leadership on that initiative relentlessly since 2014, and I can announce that this November, five years on, we will host a summit to document progress and to highlight the fact that the world needs to continue to focus on this important issue.
There is considerable potential for trade and for increasing Britain’s soft power in developing our relationship with the Kurdistan region of Iraq. What more can be done to review the Foreign Office security advice on Kurdistan, and can it be viewed differently from the advice relating to wider Iraq?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. As it happens, I met Minister Hakim, the Iraqi Foreign Minister, a few hours ago to discuss a number of these issues. He is keen to normalise the trade and commerce relationship between Iraq and the rest of the world at the earliest opportunity. We discussed a range of issues, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will discuss them further when he meets his Iraqi interlocutors later today.
One of the issues is, bluntly, the exchange of people and the establishment of a visa regime that facilitates the passage of people between Iraq and the UK. I know that that is an issue of great importance to Iraq as things return to some level of normality after a very troubled period.
The hon. Gentleman mentions Kurdistan. We hope that President Barzani will visit this country in the near future. I have no doubt at all that some of these issues will be returned to when he comes to London.
This Foreign Secretary deserves credit for setting up an independent review into the persecution of Christians worldwide, but will he ensure that a lasting legacy is achieved, whatever the outcome of that review, by ensuring that diplomats who are sent to countries where persecution occurs receive training in religious literacy?
That is a very interesting suggestion, and I defer to my right hon. Friend’s great knowledge on these topics. I would like to wait for the Bishop of Truro’s recommendations, which we are expecting next month, before I consider that idea in the round, but it is certainly worthy of consideration.
I was incredibly moved to meet Richard Ratcliffe last week. A similar question has been asked today, but I do not feel that it was answered as well as it could have been. His wife is enduring an unjust incarceration in Iran, and I would like to know what the Government are doing specifically to provide us with an update on the steps they are taking to bring her home.
We have left no stone unturned. I went to Teheran on 19 November, and I have given Nazanin diplomatic protection. I have changed the travel advice to try to prevent this from happening to other dual nationals, and the Minister for the Middle East, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), raised the matter in Teheran at the end of last week. We are doing absolutely everything we can, because this is an appalling injustice.
Since the joint comprehensive plan of action was signed in 2015, there have been over 30 long-range missile launches from Iran capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. What are Ministers doing to tackle that aspect of Iran’s nuclear ambition?
It is vital that the JCPOA remains in place. It is also vital that we make progress with the E3 on the special purpose vehicle that we have designed to take this matter forward. At the weekend, I left my interlocutors in no doubt about our insistence that they maintain their commitment to JCPOA, specifically in relation to the nuclear issue. They must also desist from their ballistic missile programme and their support for proxies that are destabilising the middle east.
Mr Speaker, you might be interested to know that Blowfish Theatre has a travelling show “Boris the Musical 2”, which will be performed in the forthcoming Edinburgh festival in the Gilded Balloon theatre. If the Secretary of State has not seen the show, I recommend that he does so. The Edinburgh festival is the finest arts festival in the world. May I ask what Her Majesty’s Government are doing to support the theatre groups that take part so they can perform overseas, which would offer a strong boost to the UK’s soft power and, better still, I say to my SNP colleagues, to Scottish soft power?
I was in Scotland at the weekend, and I had the most delicious fish and chips I think I have ever had. We do an enormous amount of work to support the Edinburgh festival, the Edinburgh Tattoo and all the incredible tourism opportunities in Scotland. We do so as the Government of the United Kingdom, because we are stronger together.
Point of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Kerry Foods made the sad announcement at 5 o’clock yesterday that it intended to close its production factory in Burton, leading to the loss of between 690 and 900 jobs. That is a clear blow to my constituency and the people employed there, and we looking to the Government to come together with a cohesive plan not only to see whether there are alternative people to take over the factory but, if not, to help those 700 back into work and come up with a proper plan for the use of the site.
Can you, Mr Speaker, advise me how I can use the House to bring together the necessary Departments—the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, and the Department for Work and Pensions —to make sure that the employees of Kerry Foods get the help and support they need?
The hon. Gentleman, whom I thank for his point of order, is well able to advise himself, and he has advertised his concerns for starters today. Insofar as he seeks my counsel, and I focus it on matters appertaining to the Chamber, I suggest that he seek to catch my eye at an early stage, perhaps in a Question Time session this week, in which he might be able to raise the matter at a very high level in question form. If thereafter he wishes a fuller consideration of the matter he could always apply for an Adjournment debate. There is a ballot for such debates, which, I can advise him, is of a guided character—it is a guided ballot—and he may well find that he is successful in that ballot.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. As the MP for the neighbouring constituency to Burton in South Derbyshire and as an HCLG Minister, I very much look forward to having further conversations with my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths) about this issue, which is very important to our neighbouring constituencies.
Ground Rents (Leasehold Properties)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to regulate ground rents charged on leasehold properties; to make provision for a cap on ground rents; to make property developers liable for the legal costs of leaseholders seeking to vary certain ground rent contracts; and for connected purposes.
Mr Speaker, imagine for a moment that you own a lovely one or two-bed apartment with your family, or perhaps even a recently built house. You have lived there quite happily for a few years, but you decide it is time to move, perhaps because of schools, for work or to move up the property ladder. You are primed and ready to go, but the estate agent asks for a copy of your leasehold agreement and there in the small print you get hit with the fact that you cannot sell your property—you are trapped. Tens of thousands of people across the country are in this position, and it simply cannot be right. This leasehold ground rent scandal needs attention right now. In many cases, developers have created leases with feudal ground rent clauses that have since fallen out of favour with lenders, leaving owners stuck with an unsaleable property because prospective buyers cannot get a mortgage to purchase the property.
In some cases, the ground rent doubles every 10 years. In others, it doubles just once. There are reports of lenders refusing to lend on what they deem as unreasonable or onerous ground rent clauses. Some will not lend if the ground rent exceeds 0.1% of the property value at any point during the lease. Leasehold campaigners argue that there are close to 100,000 people affected by terms that leave them with a ground rent in excess of 0.1% of the property value. I would argue that such circumstances are onerous. The result is an unsaleable property and, in many cases, the developer is long gone, having sold the freehold on to a distant investment company. They have, of course, made their money twice—not only from selling the leaseholds in the first place but from selling on the freehold.
Ground rents can, of course, be peppercorn or set at a reasonable rate, and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government report shows that the market place is mixed, but it is important to clarify that ground rents have nothing to do with the maintenance of a building. They are simply an income for the freeholder. As the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mrs Wheeler), who has responsibility for housing and homelessness, told the MHCLG Select Committee:
“One of the things I do find utterly fascinating is that a building might be beautifully maintained at a peppercorn ground rent or poorly maintained at £500 ground rent. The amount of ground rent payable is no indication of the quality of the maintenance and services provided.”
There is nothing wrong with a freeholder taking a reasonable ground rent, but when that ground rent becomes onerous and stops someone selling their home it becomes a problem. The rights between freeholder and leaseholder need to be redressed.
As the Select Committee commented:
“Any ground rent is onerous if it becomes disproportionate to the value of a home, such that it materially affects a leaseholder’s ability to sell their property or obtain a mortgage. In practical terms, it is increasingly clear that a ground rent in excess of 0.1% of the value of a property or £250—including rents likely to reach this level in future due to doubling, or other, ground rent review mechanisms—is beginning to affect the saleability and mortgage-ability of leasehold properties.”
My Bill seeks to address this.
The result of developers selling on the freehold to investors is that some freeholders are remote and uninterested in helping their leaseholders. Those who are interested charge unfair fees and legal costs for what should be a simple solution. I know of one such scenario in which there is a £180 charge just to discuss terms with the freeholder.
The freeholder could of course just ignore the problem, or say no. There is currently no obligation on the freeholder to help to sort the problem out—except good will. It cannot be right that in 2019 we have leasehold properties unable to be sold because of ground rent clauses. Behind each problem is a person, an individual, a family, a couple or perhaps a small investor. They do not deserve to be forgotten and left high and dry, trapped indefinitely with their property.
What can be done? Currently, the law allows 50% of leaseholders in a block of apartments to get together to buy the freehold—quite a task, and a long and expensive process if you just want to sell your property. Leaseholders could try to extend the lease, but again there is an elongated process, with expenses running into thousands of pounds. There is also the possibility that the leaseholder negotiates a variation of lease with the freeholder. This is also costly, and there is no onus on the freeholder to do the deal. It is probably the simplest solution but, with prohibitive expenses and no obligation on freeholders to engage, we have a postcode lottery of failure and success.
The Select Committee noted:
“The options for leaseholders with onerous ground rents are limited. House owners are entitled to pay to enfranchise after two years of ownership, thus removing any obligation to pay ground rent, onerous or otherwise. However, this would only be possible if the cost of enfranchisement…is both reasonable and affordable for the house owner. Flat owners, similarly, are entitled to enfranchise, although this is a much more difficult process, requiring the consent of 50% of the owners in a residential block… Otherwise, leaseholders are reliant upon the benevolence of their freeholder to remove unreasonable terms.”
That is why I am proposing this private Member’s Bill.
I am aware that the Law Commission is currently contemplating a solution to the thorny issue of onerous ground rents on existing leases, but I propose simple solutions. First, we need to create a legal obligation on freeholders to grant a quick and simple lease variation to leaseholders where ground rent prohibits a sale. Secondly, it is important that ground rents are capped at the lower of £250 per annum or 0.1% of the property value.
I am also considering including an obligation on the original developer to foot the leaseholder’s legal bills in such situations. After all, why should families have to find a large sum to solve a problem not of their making? If the Bill progresses, I hope we will be able to shape it more specifically in Committee—I imagine that might be somewhat optimistic.
Systems and institutions are supposed to serve the public, and I hope we can all agree that we cannot have people unable to sell their property. Drastic and immediate action is required. I believe there is growing concern on both sides of the House about leasehold properties, and the Select Committee should be commended for its excellent report. I am also pleased to see that the Competition and Markets Authority has taken this issue on board and is looking at mis-selling in this arena. I hope both the Government and the Select Committee will keep this under further review.
I believe there is a wide cross-party consensus in Parliament on this issue, and the time for Parliament to intervene on the leasehold ground rent scandal is now. I hope hon. Members will help me to change the law to restore fairness in this sector and to stop people being trapped in unsaleable properties.
Question put and agreed to.
That Eddie Hughes, Kevin Hollinrake, Mr Edward Vaizey, Bob Blackman, Teresa Pearce, Andrew Lewer, Matt Western, Siobhain McDonagh, Mary Robinson, Mohammad Yasin, Mr Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi and Neil O’Brien present the Bill.
Eddie Hughes accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 409).
Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Marriage will always be one of our most important institutions. It is vital to our functioning as a society, as we all know instinctively from our own lives and from the lives of family and friends. Rightly, then, none of us is indifferent when a lifelong commitment cannot continue, but it cannot be right for the law to create or increase conflict between divorcing couples.
I am encouraged by the many colleagues and others who have told me that the law must change to take unnecessary conflict flashpoints out of the legal process. Like me, they believe in the importance of marriage but see the destructive effects of what the law demands. People going through divorce already have to face more than enough emotional upheaval without the conflict that can be created or worsened by how the current law works.
I have reflected at length on the arguments for reform, on what people have said in response to the Government’s proposals and on the painful experiences we all know from talking to family and friends. I have heard from people who have been through divorce, from people who support divorcing couples through the legal process and from people who say they cannot afford to live apart for two years—without finally sorting out their finances—but, at the same time, cannot bring themselves to throw hurtful allegations.
The Bill responds constructively to the keenly felt experience of people’s real lives. This is a Bill for anyone who agrees that the end of a relationship should be a time of reflection, and not of manufactured conflict.
I warmly congratulate the Government and the Secretary of State on introducing this Bill. I think I have married more people than anybody else in this House, in the transitive use of the word. I was always painfully aware that, when two people come together, it may well be that, in the end, they need to part, but the idea that they would have to prove in court all sorts of reasons for why the marriage had fallen apart—relying on the common law understanding of adultery, for instance—is just nonsense and adds to the sense of pain that there could already be within a family.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks, and this Bill is by no means anti-marriage. As he rightly says, this Bill seeks to ensure that, in those unfortunate circumstances where a marriage comes to an end, it comes to an end in a way that minimises the conflict between the parties. That, in my view, has to be a sensible way forward.
There is undoubtedly fault in a divorce but, in my experience from continual exposure at constituency surgeries, the attribution of that fault leads parents to use their children as weapons in a continuing battle with their former partner.
My right hon. Friend makes a good point, and it is worth bearing in mind that, where children are involved, it is all the more important that we minimise the conflict. The current requirement incentivises that sense of attribution of fault, which does nothing to ensure that the relationship between the two parents can be as strong as possible, and it is the children who lose out in those circumstances.
I have thought about this with care. Obviously, to practising Christians and those of other faiths, the end of a marriage is not to be taken lightly, but I am glad the Secretary of State has accepted the proposition put by my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne) that causing more conflict at the end does not help.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that in no other respects any of the protections for often the more vulnerable party to a marriage, the woman, will be affected by this measure, particularly in relation to financial arrangements and the custody of children, and that it simply removes the evidentiary requirement for a fault to be attributed to one side or the other?
My hon. Friend, the Chair of the Select Committee on Justice, is right. This is about the attribution of blame and fault, and no more than that. Indeed, the protections in place for the vulnerable party remain just as they are. It is often the vulnerable party who suffers most from the need to attribute blame, because that can be difficult. In the context of domestic abuse, for example, it is striking how the likes of Women’s Aid have been very supportive of these measures because of their concern that there might be women trapped in marriages who do not want to attribute blame because they feel that may result in a further deterioration in the relationship.
The truth is that when a marriage or indeed a civil partnership has sadly broken down and is beyond repair, it stops benefiting society and the people involved. At worst, continuing in a legal relationship that is no longer functioning can be destructive to families, and the law ought to deal with the reality of marriage breakdown as constructively as possible. The current law does not do that. The requirements of the divorce process at present can often give rise to a confrontational position, even if the decision to divorce is mutual. The incentive to make allegations at the outset, to avoid otherwise waiting for two years’ separation, becomes ingrained. Divorce is traumatic, and children are inevitably affected when their parents separate—that goes without saying. I agree that marriage has long proved its worth for bringing up children, but the reality is that not all marriages last. The law should deal with that reality as sensibly as it can. When a marriage has failed, we have to take a serious look at how to reduce conflict for everyone involved, not least for children. Research shows that it is conflict between the parents that has been linked to greater social and behavioural problems among children, rather than necessarily the separation and divorce itself.
I very much welcome the proposals in this Bill. Getting rid of the fault-based approach to divorce and the conflict is a good thing, as is ensuring that people do not have to wait for two years. Does the Secretary of State agree with me and with Resolution, the organisation for family lawyers, that we also need to provide earlier advice for cohabitees who believe that common law spousal rights might exist for them? Legal advice on whether such rights exist would be beneficial. Does he agree that including provision for early advice in the Bill would be welcome?
Obviously, this Bill’s focus is on divorce for those who are married. There is a point about advice where we can have a wider debate. I will focus my remarks today on the contents of the Bill and the argument I am making about the problems with fault in the current divorce system, and I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s support on that. Clearly, there is a debate to be had as to how we can provide support to couples, be that about reconciliation or in other contexts.
Whatever family structure children grow up in, they benefit most from stable, loving and caring relationships with parents and other close family members. We are clear that when parents have taken this difficult decision, children’s best interests are served by minimising conflict during and after the legal process, to support co-operative parenting and positive parenting relationships. This Bill is in the best interests of children whose parents are divorcing. It will therefore remove the harmful requirement for wives, husbands and civil partners in England and Wales to hurl blame or to go through the waiting limbo of separate lives. It will help them move forward more amicably and constructively. It will make a genuine difference to many thousands of children and families who each year, sadly, experience divorce.
It is 50 years since the Divorce Reform Act 1969 gave rise to the law we now have, and few of us will have known anything else. Some among us will have divorced under this law. All of us will be conscious of the bitter experience of friends and constituents who have. Even so, the existing law is not always understood. It allows divorce only on the ground that the marriage has broken down irretrievably. The court cannot hold the marriage to have done so unless it is satisfied of one or more of what the law calls “facts”. Three of the five facts—adultery, behaviour and desertion—relate to conduct of the respondent. The other facts are two years’ separation and five years’ separation, the difference being that two years’ separation requires both parties to agree to the divorce—the same applies to civil partnerships, except that the adultery fact is not available. But the fact someone chooses does not necessarily bear any resemblance to the real reasons the marriage or civil partnership broke down. Those reasons are often subtle, complex, and subjective. Who, if anyone, was responsible is a question that can be answered honestly only by the people in the marriage.
We are probably all aware of situations where a couple have sadly grown apart over time and jointly agree to divorce The current law does not allow them to do so, unless they are first financially able to live apart for two years. They might be forced to present events in a way that serves the system; minor incidents become stretched out into a pattern of behaviour to satisfy a legal threshold, which then bleeds over into how a couple approach negotiations over arrangements for children and finances; or there may be a coercive relationship, where one partner is desperate to divorce but is too scared of the consequences of setting out the evidence of their partner’s unreasonable behaviour to the court. It should be enough that the relationship has irretrievably broken down.
I do know where people are coming from when they say the requirement to prove a fact is useful, because they think that someone must be held responsible for the break-up of the marriage and that this requirement lets the court determine blame for that. The court, however, cannot do so, and the law does not require it to. Instead, making allegations or having to live apart in a marriage introduces conflict or makes it worse—this conflict can continue far beyond the legal end of the marriage and hurt children’s life chances. That is the reason for this reform.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for the careful way in which he is taking us through these proposals and for his indication of support for marriage. Will he look, perhaps in the context of this Bill, at supporting marriages before they have broken down irretrievably and providing support where couples are under pressure, in order to reduce marital breakdown by intervening earlier?
The last two words, “intervening earlier” are key. Once the point of a divorce is reached, it is likely—the evidence suggests this—that it is too late. The question is: can we provide support earlier? In all honesty, I do not believe that the Bill provides the vehicle to address that point, because if we try to provide that support in the context of the divorce itself, we will be too late. Clearly however there is an argument—one that I suspect is for the next spending review—as to what assistance can be provided to couples at an earlier stage in the process. I completely understand where my hon. Friend is coming from and I very much agree that the point is about earlier intervention, but where someone is going through the divorce process, making that process more difficult and confrontation is counterproductive.
Does the Secretary of State understand the circumstances where a resident parent turns children against the non-resident parent where no abuse whatsoever is involved? That causes estrangement for the child, often for many, many years. Is it not time that we found a legal framework—early intervention is important in this respect—to tackle this problem? I have only recently become involved in this campaign on parental alienation, and I was shocked that hundreds if not thousands of parents are estranged from their children because the resident parent seeks to manipulate the child against a non-resident parent for no reason whatsoever.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention on a matter that I suspect all of us have had experience of as constituency Members of Parliament as well as citizens. These circumstances are hugely difficult. To some extent, the existing divorce law can somewhat encourage that behaviour, because of the need to attribute blame, but he is right to suggest that this is a wider issue, one that is hard to address in the context of divorce. He is right to highlight the difficulties that can exist and how parents can be alienated from their children in what are difficult circumstances.
When I became Justice Secretary last year, I was able to take a deeper look at the issue of divorce. What became clear to me was that making allegations does not serve any public interest. It needlessly rakes up the past to justify the legal ending of a relationship that is no longer a beneficial and functioning one. At worst, these allegations can pit one parent against the other. I remain deeply concerned that what the existing law requires can be especially damaging for children.
The law on divorce and dissolution is out of step with the constructive approach that family law takes in other areas and that practitioners take every day. It is time to change that. Resolution is the lead organisation representing family lawyers who subscribe to a non-confrontational approach. Resolution’s chair, Margaret Heathcote, has said that
“because of our outdated divorce laws”
practitioners have effectively been working
“with one arm tied behind their backs.”
The Bill will change that.
At the beginning of my speech, I spoke about the confrontational position that the law sets up and about its harmful impact on children. That confrontational position undermines not only good co-parenting but any prospect of reconciliation. I understand concerns about people being divorced against their will. The reality is that under the existing law the court can refuse a divorce only if a legal requirement is not met, and never simply because one party wants to stay married. Only about 2% of respondents say that they want to contest the divorce. Hardly anyone continues contesting all the way to a court hearing. Marriages are not saved at all by the ability of a spouse to contest the divorce.
When I got married, as a Catholic I did not think the option of divorce was open to us. I genuinely thought that under all circumstances our marriage would be forever; my wife decided otherwise. That was a very emotional time. Does my right hon. Friend expect that when the change comes in some people will find it easier to divorce and that there be a spike in the divorce figures? A period of reflection sometimes gives people the opportunity to save their marriage, and that opportunity might be missed under the proposed changes.
I agree with my hon. Friend about a period of reflection. In fact, the Bill will ensure that there is a longer minimum period of reflection for people in a marriage to consider whether reconciliation is the right course. The evidence suggests that by the time things get to that stage, reconciliation happens very rarely, but we are extending that period, so it is not really about making divorce easier but about making it less confrontational.
On my hon. Friend’s point about whether we anticipate a spike in divorces, there is international evidence as to what is likely to happen following such a reform. I shall be open with my hon. Friend: there will be people who are currently waiting for two or five years for a divorce, and that divorce will be brought forward, so the likelihood is that there will be an increase because of that waiting list. However, the international evidence suggests that once that initial spike has been dealt with, in a steady state the divorce rate is unlikely to increase; it is likely to remain much the same. I hope it is clear to my hon. Friend that although we would anticipate that some divorces will be brought forward, the change is unlikely to increase the divorce rate in a steady state.
Let me turn briefly to the measures in the Bill: it does not create a new process, but instead retains the framework of the existing law and removes those aspects that are considered to cause conflict. The Bill therefore retains the two stages of divorce and dissolution orders. The Government believe that the need to confirm to the court that it may make the conditional order, and to apply to the court for the final order, means that a divorce or dissolution is never automatic and that the decision to divorce is a considered one, with opportunities for a change of heart right up to the last moment.
The reform will retain irretrievable breakdown as the sole legal ground for divorce and dissolution. It will replace the current requirement to evidence irretrievable breakdown through a conduct or separation fact with a statement of irretrievable breakdown of the marriage or civil partnership. For the first time, couples will have the option to make this a joint statement, to reflect some couples’ mutual decision to divorce. It will remove the possibility of contesting the decision to end the legal relationship, as a statement of irretrievable breakdown will be conclusive evidence to the court that the marriage or civil partnership has irretrievably broken down.
The reform will introduce a new minimum period of 20 weeks from the start of proceedings to the point at which the applicant—or applicants jointly—can confirm to the court that a conditional order may be made. I hope that that gives my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes) some reassurance about that moment of reflection. Our proposal will make the court process towards a conditional order less rushed and give couples further time to consider the implications of the divorce. Between 2011 and 2018, around two thirds of cases reached conditional order in less than our proposed 20-week minimum period. That included approximately one in 10 cases within eight weeks, and four in 10 cases between nine and 16 weeks. The Bill also modernises language such as “decree nisi” and “decree absolute”, to bring terms in line with the more modern terms used in civil partnership law.
The reforms I have set out will deliver a system of divorce that is fit for the 21st century. It is time to end the blame game. The system we have now does not support the reality of marriage and civil partnership breakdown. It has been criticised as a system that
“is, and always has been, a sham”.
Those are the words of Sir Paul Coleridge, former family judge and chair of the Marriage Foundation, who, like all of us, believes strongly in marriage but sees that by reforming the law to remove from it unnecessary requirements that can fuel conflict, we will not undermine marriage and will support people to look to the future as they go through very difficult times. For that reason, I commend the Bill to the House.
I welcome the Bill. Labour supports the introduction of a no-fault divorce procedure, which we committed to in our 2017 general election manifesto, and we are pleased that the Government have acted, especially in the light of the troubling case of Owens v. Owens. We will therefore vote to support the Bill if a vote is called at this stage. We will use our time in Committee to amend the Bill, if need be, to ensure that it is the best law possible for those who are already going through a difficult time in their lives.
The existing procedure and law managing divorce and the dissolution of civil partnerships is not fit for purpose and is in clear need of updating. A fundamental problem with the existing law, which is set out for divorcing couples in the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 and for the dissolution of civil partnerships in the Civil Partnership Act 2004, is that it requires people who seek a divorce to prove that the marriage has broken down, either by establishing fault on the part of one partner, or by showing that the couple have lived separate lives for a number of years. In reality, for those who cannot afford to live in two separate households for years in order to prove that their marriage has broken down, the only option currently available is to establish fault on the part of their partner. That is one way in which the current divorce law discriminates against women, particularly those on a low income, by reducing the options available to them to a fault-based divorce.
Establishing of one of the three faults—adultery, unreasonable behaviour or desertion—can be difficult, and often heightens tensions at an already stressful time. We know the hurt that such heightened tension can all too often cause. There are widespread concerns about the increased risk of domestic violence faced by women who go through this fractious process. Surveys of people who have gone through the divorce procedure show that in excess of one in four people who go through a divorce have cited a fault that is not in fact true, simply because it is their only way to secure a divorce. This is plainly an unacceptable state of affairs, and it is right that the Government are now acting to address it.
A conflictual process is deeply damaging to children’s life chances. Children will of course be better served by parents who co-operate, and if their parents have a constructive relationship. The law is a real barrier to that.
I reiterate the point I made earlier to the Secretary of State, who rightly talked about the impact on children of an acrimonious divorce. We need to protect children from the risk of abuse—everybody would accept that—but if a resident parent turns a child against a non-resident parent, that can cause massive long-term damage to that child. The current legal framework does nothing satisfactory to tackle that particular problem. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that now is the time to look again at what can be done differently in respect of the whole question of alienation and the impact on children?
There are very often issues with how the family courts go about these custody matters. I get lots of cases like this, as I am sure my hon. Friend does. It is an area that needs to be looked at. Equally, some lawyers—not all—can exacerbate the situation in the way they handle the case. I get lots of complaints about family courts, particularly with regard to who is right and who is wrong, and there is a lot of antagonism. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis) said, this can be very damaging to children.
That is why we are very supportive of mediation in family cases in general, and why we have made announcements in relation to legal aid and early family law advice. I hear my hon. Friend’s point about the role of solicitors not always being helpful, but there can also be problems when people end up being advocates for themselves.
The need to apportion blame and ratchet up the acrimony is one of the main reasons that so many of us want to see an end to this fault-based law—not least because of the impact on children. For example, the present divorce ground of unreasonable behaviour requires allegations that are hardly ever challenged and can sometimes be exaggerated by one spouse against the other, which can exacerbate tensions between them. It also makes it more difficult to agree arrangements for children. Indeed, one of the most urgent reasons for these reforms is to alleviate the harm caused to children, including to their mental health, by acrimonious separations. For a child of a divorcing couple, the divorce can be one of the most difficult times in their life. As the Secretary of State has indicated, the introduction of a no-fault procedure should mean that the whole process can be quicker and less stressful for them. At an emotionally traumatic time, such as a divorce or separation, parents want and need support in order to put the best interests of their children first.
This change to the law has public support and the support of family law experts. Margaret Heathcote— the chair of Resolution, which represents more than 6,000 family law practitioners and is a strong supporter of this change—said:
“Every day, our members are helping people through separation, taking a constructive, non-confrontational approach in line with our code of practice. However, because of our outdated divorce laws, they’ve been working with one arm tied behind their backs.”
In fact, the Secretary of State quoted her himself.
Professor Liz Trinder, who led the Nuffield Foundation’s 2017 research into divorce law, is also supportive of these reforms, saying that
“making people produce a ‘reason’ to obtain their divorce—as they are currently required to do—does not save marriages and instead just creates a meaningless charade that can create conflict, confusion and unfairness.”
And Christina Blacklaws, president of the Law Society, said:
“Making couples attribute fault…can escalate the differences between them in an already charged situation.”
The recent case of Owens v. Owens highlighted a particularly iniquitous aspect of our existing divorce laws: the possibility for one party to attempt to refuse a divorce by defending it.
Does the hon. Gentleman think this change will in any way lessen the seriousness of the marriage contract? Will people entering into it feel that they can do so more lightly because, from a purely contractual point of view, escaping from it is made easier by this legislation?
I know that marriage is technically a contract, but it seems strange to think of it that way when it is such a personal and emotional thing. I do not believe that this change in the law, which is welcome, will lead to an overall increase in the number of divorces in the long run. However, I do think that it will reduce the unnecessary tension, conflict, distress and damage to children in those divorces, which would take place in any event.
In the case of Owens v. Owens, the family court judge refused to grant a divorce to Mrs Owens, who made the application for a divorce in 2015, despite finding that the marriage had in fact broken down. This was because she failed to prove, as required in the 1973 Act, that her husband’s behaviour was such that she could not reasonably be expected to live with him. Mrs Owens’s appeal was dismissed at both the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court, leaving her unable to divorce her husband until 2020—a clearly unacceptable case. The judges who heard the case at both the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court expressed their dissatisfaction with the existing law, with Sir James Munby, the then president of the family division, suggesting that divorce law was based on a “lack of intellectual honesty”, and Lady Hale concluding that it was for Parliament to make any changes to the law. It is therefore right that Parliament is now able to take up this issue and make the reforms necessary to ensure that no one has to go through what Mrs Owens experienced in this case.
The new divorce laws that we are considering today should aim to secure a number of desirable outcomes. They should ensure that people can separate as amicably as possible, keeping conflict to a minimum, so that the chances of reaching agreement are maximised and the risk of domestic abuse is as low as possible. Where there are children, their interests must be paramount, and a safe, secure and sustainable outcome for them should be promoted wherever possible. Unlike the existing system, these new divorce laws should not discriminate against women, especially those on low incomes. The new divorce and dissolution laws must also protect vulnerable and marginalised groups throughout the divorce process. In particular, they must not weaken the hard-won rights of LGBT people.
One issue that has been raised by charities working to support victims of domestic abuse is that the Bill as drafted does not remove the bar on petitioning for a divorce in the first year of a marriage. This can leave women who are suffering domestic abuse trapped in the abusive marriage during that year. Will the Secretary of State address that issue during the passage of the Bill, and will he tell us whether he has met Women’s Aid and other charities to discuss these concerns?
Since 2013, legal aid for divorce cases in England and Wales has been withdrawn by the Government—in most cases as part of a wider attack on access to justice that has had a very detrimental impact on family law cases. Groups including Citizens Advice have highlighted how legal aid cuts add to strain on divorcees, and more widely it is lower income people and those with children who are more likely to be litigating in person than any other group. Resolution, which was mentioned earlier, has previously stated that providing legal aid for a single, initial meeting with a lawyer would provide separating couples with clear “signposts” about their legal options and encourage more people to use mediation as an alternative to courtroom confrontation.
Even with the welcome changes contained in the Bill, divorce will still be an often confusing legal process. There is a clear public interest in people being supported to achieve amicable resolutions to financial questions and arrangements for the care of children following a separation. Will the Government therefore commit to reintroducing legal aid for early legal advice for couples going through the divorce procedure?
In conclusion, bringing our divorce laws into the 21st century can form an essential part of the efforts to protect women from domestic abuse, limit the damaging impacts that fractious separations can have on children and encourage amicable separations wherever possible. For those reasons, I am pleased to support these overdue reforms.
I rise to support this proposed new legislation from the Government. It is a long overdue reform, and I certainly commend it.
Marriage is a very serious, lifelong commitment, and we all enter into it in that spirit. It is very clear that it is the best outcome for a stable family life, and, indeed, delivers the best outcome for children.
But we live in the real world, and we know that every marriage has its ups and downs. Although it is not a matter for this Bill, many have talked about the need to give advice, but advice should be given before entering into marriage, not as it draws to a close. We all had relationship education at school, but, when it comes to marriage, what does that really mean in terms of a relationship, of finance and sharing the benefits and the burdens of our shared working lives, and of what we might or might not inherit? What does it mean for children? Have the couple discussed whether they want children? Is the lady going into this arrangement expecting that that is the norm while the gentleman does not have the same concept at all? Increasingly, marriages are not all about having children. Outside this Bill, we ought to look at that. If we do so, we will have better and happier couples who will stay married longer.
Some marriages, clearly, do not weather the storm. People change. We cannot deny that; we cannot expect people always to be the same. Events impact hugely on people’s lives. The impacts on people’s lives are many and varied as we travel more and as a result of the internet. When a marriage does irretrievably break down, the clear focus must be on good post-divorce relationships. That is not just about the children, although they are absolutely key; it is also about the relationship between the two people who were married. There should be a focus on mutual support for the children of the marriage. At this point, I should make it clear that we are not just talking about biological children of that marriage. Marriages today are quite complex, and there will often be a number of stepchildren and others to be taken into account.
Blame is not helpful. It is destructive and it impacts mental health. As we have heard, it can place children in very unpleasant situations where they are asked or expected to take the side of one partner or the other, or almost emotionally bullied into doing so. In some cases, children are even led to believe that the breakdown of the marriage is their fault. That cannot be right in today’s society. This Bill is absolutely a step in the right direction. It removes blame and it removes fault.
There is, however, more to do. I understand the Government’s caution in tackling the causes that need to be proved for divorce, but the financial arrangements on separation and divorce and for children do not work and must be readdressed in the context of the modern world, not the world as it used to be. The world is no longer about two people getting married and staying together for their lifetimes. It is not always about having biological children. Indeed, as I said, it is not always about having children at all.
When looking at finances and at the arrangements for children, the problem is that the courts are not well guided, because the original rules and regulations were set for a time that no longer exists and need to be reviewed. We have a common law system. We have a background of evidence that, to some extent, has evolved to help these newly changed situations.
Unless there is a readjusted start point, however, gaming comes in, whether it is about arguments about finance or about children. For many people, this creates a very unfair situation that cannot lead to what, for me, are the key objectives—good relationships between the parting parents and with the children. Indeed, the antiquated nature of the current legislation actually prevents marriages. Many will say, “Well done, Government, because at least we now understand that if things do not work out, there is a non-blaming way of parting ways.” We had not dealt with the acrimony and blame that goes with financial settlements and settlements for children.
The concept of a pre-nup is a great start, but the problem is that they create more discord between couples before they are married than is absolutely necessary. They can create great bitterness. There are still huge questions about whether they are legally binding. It might not be for this Bill, but we have to look at and consult on those matters again.
Not all marriages are about children. There may be no children produced, but there will be children in the marriage. Often there will be a mixture of biological children, stepchildren and step-grandchildren. Under the current system, the interests of all those parties and their relationships are not properly taken into account. As adults, we have to grow up and live with the consequences of the decisions we make, but for children who have built very close relationships with stepchildren or grandparents these situations can be devastating. All this really needs to be thought through again.
Too often, the parent who has the children has the opportunity to game the system and cast aspersions on the behaviour of the absent parent of such a vicious nature that the court is left with little option but to accept that the risk is too great, and, as a consequence, that the individual making the accusations must be believed. This system does not work. It is often abused for financial advantage, it having nothing to do with the children. I strongly recommend that we look at this again and do the job better.
I support the Opposition’s request that legal aid be brought back into this area, because we have clogged up the courts with cases that are not going to deliver a good outcome for anybody. The court system is completely stymied because the judge finds himself or herself having to give advice to the litigants in person. That is not good for children, for parents or for anyone involved with the family in its broadest terms.
The issue of finances becomes a terrible wrangle about who is entitled to what. We start with the principal assumption of a 50:50 split. In the old days, when often one party worked and the other looked after the children, it was absolutely fair that the work involved in creating, bringing up and nurturing the family was valued. That would be a sensible starting point. Increasingly, though, both parties work, and both bring very different financial contributions to the marriage. We need to look again at how we assess the right starting point. We then need to assess what criteria will enable us to move away from that starting point.
The most important thing is the needs of the children. That should be the first thing taken into account. Secondly, there is the need for each of the spouses to make sure that they are still able to live well. However, it is unrealistic, for a number of reasons, for anyone to go into a marriage and assume that when it breaks up there is necessarily an entitlement to live in the same style as they did when they were married. Financially—usually—it is not affordable. While marriage is for life, increasingly individuals are marrying more than once, more than twice—indeed, three times—and therefore to make financial provision that assumes that that individual will be single for the rest of their life simply is not realistic.
We need a much more realistic approach to marriage, and to the financial settlement. We need to recognise that people will often marry more than once—and that is not a criticism; it is actually a good thing, because marriage, as we know, is a very good environment in which to bring up children. If we can make marriages happy, if they can deliver long term, and if there can be many long-term happy marriages, that is not something to eschew, but something to welcome.
This reform is very welcome, but the reality of how people marry—the circumstances in which they marry and the circumstances around children—has changed so fundamentally that the law on financial settlements and on arrangements for the children must be fundamentally reviewed. Nevertheless, this is definitely a good start in the right direction, and I commend the Minister and the Government for introducing this Bill, which I will support.
It is very refreshing to see such widespread consensus; I take the fact that the Chamber is relatively empty this afternoon as a sign that we all know that the Bill is a very welcome step forward, and that there is widespread consensus. As has been said, the Bill makes our legal practices around divorce fit for the 21st century, and the Liberal Democrats very much welcome the changes.
Divorce can be traumatising and affect whole families for years after the event. Up until now, the legal process by which divorce happens has further exacerbated that trauma, dragging out the process and forcing couples into conflict to assign legal blame. Currently, it is impossible to seek a no-fault divorce unless the couple have been separated for at least two years. To file for divorce more quickly than that, couples must claim “unreasonable behaviour” or “adultery”.
The impacts of such a system are devastating, especially for children. Divorce and family breakdown are considered an adverse childhood experience that has lasting impacts on the children. Recently, we have talked about adverse childhood experiences around knife crime, the penal system and policing. I hope and wish, because I am a member of the all-party group for the prevention of adverse childhood experiences, that the whole approach—the trauma and fault approach—to a lot of services will be much better and more widely understood, and that all 650 MPs in this country will understand what trauma and fault mean. I encourage all hon. Members to attend at least some meetings of our all-party group. Family separation is an adverse childhood experience.
We are all very concerned about the impact on children. The reality of the damage of divorce is manifest, not just in the process, which we are discussing, but primarily in the separation of parents and the subsequent years in which children live torn between them. Does the hon. Lady agree that whenever divorce is granted, there must be greater focus on the children of the break-up?
I thank the hon. Gentleman. Throughout the years, we have understood how important it is that we take children seriously and focus a lot on their mental health and wellbeing. I totally agree.
Living through adverse childhood experiences hugely influences the likelihood that a child will end up serving time in our criminal justice system, have poor mental and physical health, and find it very difficult to build stable, loving relationships. Our divorce legislation must take that into account and be trauma-informed.
People often come to the decision to divorce at the most chaotic times of their and their families’ lives. We must have a system that tries to restore order—not fuel further chaos—and we must absolutely support children throughout that process.
The new legislation, which would allow couples to file for no-fault divorce and complete the process in six months, would leave space for families to continue to function in very difficult circumstances. It would encourage couples to be mindful of their marriage and the impact of divorce, while not pushing them towards further conflict.
Each year, over 100,000 couples get divorced in England and Wales. In the years that have passed since the most recent significant family legislation, over 1.7 million people have assigned blame in the divorce process. Needless to say, this Bill is long overdue.
There is much more that can be done to bring our marriage laws into the 21st century, as the hon. Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) said. We must recognise that marriage and civil partnerships are not for everyone, and that young people who do get married are doing so later and later. Our legal system needs to catch up with society, in which millions of couples choose to live together without making a formal commitment. The Law Commission suggests granting essential but limited legal rights to couples who have lived together for at least three years. Such legislation would complement the new divorce, dissolution and separation laws, and I urge the Minister to take another look at that proposal.
Family law defines millions of lives, young and old. We have an obligation to ensure that the law is up to date and empowers people, instead of holding them back. Changing the current legislation to focus on reconciliation, as opposed to conflict, is a very positive first step in the process, but there is more to be done.
I draw hon. Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
This is a sensitive subject and I hope to approach it in that way. Divorce can never be easy—not for the parties, nor for the others involved, such as children or the wider family. People who marry do so in the hope that their relationship will be long lasting, but when relationships do break down, often, the impact is devastating for many involved. I will never forget a grandmother coming to see me to make a will—I practised for many years as a solicitor in a community law firm, although never as a family law specialist. She broke down in tears as she told me that, following her son’s divorce, she had lost all contact with her grandchildren for years.
However, when couples do stay together and weather the inevitable storms of marriage, the stability that that engenders benefits not just the parties, but their children. Indeed, it is increasingly acknowledged that, even where there is an argumentative marriage—as many are—where parents stick together, the stability benefits the children. Indeed, the Lord Chancellor talked about stability benefiting children. The wider community and society benefit, too. Sadly, the UK has one of the highest levels of family breakdown in the developed world, with profound consequences for children’s mental health, housing pressures, homelessness, addiction, loneliness in old age, and much more. So, in order to promote stability, Government is justified, and has an interest, in helping couples stay together and in counteracting wherever possible the consequences of the high level of relationship breakdown in this country.
I fully support what the hon. Lady has put forward. I talked to her beforehand about this subject —indeed, we have talked about it on many occasions—and she and I agree that we see divorce as bad for children. Does she agree that this might minimise some forms of conflict in the short term, but that the long-term negative impact of divorce on children’s development and adult wellbeing will become more prevalent as divorce increases? Does she see in her constituency office, as I see in mine, the side effects of divorce and the impact on children?
I do, very much, in many cases. It is that break-up that causes so much hurt. Very often it is not so much the conflict; in fact, a lot of emerging research shows that the shock of marriage break-up can be greater for children when there has not been conflict in the parents’ relationship than when there has been.
I accept that not every marriage can be maintained and that it is sometimes better for one to end. I am also very much aware that many single and separated parents do a brilliant job. However, this Bill not only makes it easier to leave a marriage, but fails to take the opportunity properly to promote reconciliation where that may be possible. It fails to instigate better mediation procedures. At present, mediation procedures do not work well, according to family law practitioners. They need to be much more wisely applied at a more timely point during the legal process. If need be, I shall say more about this at a later stage of the Bill’s progress. I sincerely hope that an amendment will be tabled to reflect that need.
As ever, my hon. Friend is making a thoughtful and compassionate contribution to the debate. I agree with the tenets of the Bill and I slightly disagree with some aspects of her speech. We need to take confrontation out of the break-up process. I certainly agree with her that we need to signpost people towards relationship counselling services. In effect, as part of the trade-off in allowing a more simple, streamlined divorce process, we need to support those who wish to make a success of such counselling.
I want to make a quick intervention because the hon. Lady mentioned the words “family relationships”. When the Conservative party came to power, one of the policies it pursued at that time—I supported this by the way—was to fix broken Britain. In relation to striking at the institution of marriage, does she feel that this divorce Bill, as it is coming forward, fixes broken Britain, or does it make it worse?
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting intervention because the phrase “broken Britain” came from a report by the Centre for Social Justice that was produced a decade or so ago. Sadly, relationship breakdown is even greater now than it was then. I do not believe that successive Governments have put in place policies and procedures to help to strengthen relationships, and this Bill will not do so either. In fact, sadly, I believe it will make divorce easier. Why do I say that? Simply because it will allow one party to walk away from the most important commitment they are likely to have made in their lifetime, without giving any reason at all and without their spouse being able meaningfully to object to their decision to do so. The removal of fault sends out a signal—I am particularly concerned about the signals sent out by the Bill to young people—that marriage can be unilaterally exited, on notice, by one party, with little if any recourse available to the party who has been left. I fear it signals that marriage need no longer be entered into with the intention of its being a lifelong commitment, as it is today—perhaps it will be signalled more as a time-limited arrangement that can be ended at will. Indeed, it is interesting that, in my law firm, I am now hearing the phrase “My current partner” coming into usage.
As I say, the removal of fault, without any opportunity to challenge, means that some who are genuinely wronged—it may be only a tiny number, as the Secretary of State has mentioned—cannot put anything on record on what they feel about the reasons stated for the divorce. The Bill simply says that a court must make a divorce order merely on the bald statement by one party that a marriage has broken down irretrievably.
I thank the hon. Lady for taking a further intervention and you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for letting me intervene. Does she accept this concern—I believe it is her concern as well? This change to the divorce law proposes irretrievable breakdown as a sole ground for divorce, but what is actually proposed is unilateral, no-reason divorce. That is what it is a