When people make the difficult decision to divorce, the evidence suggests that counselling will often be too late at that stage. Seeking counselling would be a personal choice for those involved. For counselling to bring a change of direction, it would require the willing co-operation of both people in the marriage. We will look at the information available to people who are contemplating divorce to see whether we can strengthen signposting to marriage counselling, and our Bill will provide the opportunity for parties to reflect on the decision to divorce by introducing a minimum timeframe within the legal process. Couples who can reconcile will be able to do so.
Now that divorce is being made easier, with no-fault divorce going on the statute book, should we have parallel provision to help couples to save their marriages? I think the best way to do that would be further investment in services under section 22 of the Family Law Act 1996.
I think there is a wider debate to be had about how Government as a whole can address issues that lead to relationship breakdown. Simply funding marriage support services may not address the heart of the issue or reach the people who need help most at the right time, but I agree that there is a need to test what works to help couples to stay together, and I am happy to listen to the arguments about that.
What mediation services and contact centres are available, and what is their role?
Family mediation offers a way to resolve child or financial arrangements without litigation, and child contact centres provide safe, neutral venues where separated couples can build sustainable long-term child arrangements. In reforming the legal process for divorce, we will look to strengthen how couples are signposted to such services. My right hon. Friend refers to counselling, a service for people whose relationships are in trouble. As well as using services such as Relate, many people draw on family, friends and others they can trust. A marriage is more likely to be saveable before the legal process of divorce has begun.
Can the Minister outline what discussions have been held about offering support for counselling through charitable initiatives such as Relate to cut down waiting times from eight weeks? During that time many couples decide that their issues are irrevocable when in fact they might have been salvageable with help and support.
As I said earlier, there is a wider debate on this matter. I believe that the earlier such support can be provided, the better. When it comes to reform of divorce law, my argument is that by that stage it is often too late. In any event, the current requirement in our divorce law to attribute blame and fault makes it all the harder for marriages to be reconciled.
I think my right hon. Friend and the Government have got the approach right. Divorce is not the time to start putting difficulties in people’s way. When people get married, they know it is going to end in desertion, divorce or death; on the whole, death is the one we would choose, but preferably not as a result of too active participation by the other half.
May I reinforce what my right hon. Friend said, and ask him whether he will try to make it better known, not just in his Department but in others, that if people can get into stable households, all sorts of things go better? Poverty is reduced, anguish is reduced, life is extended and people have better lives, so times of family formation, reformation and even de-formation can lead to a better life for most people.
I do agree with my hon. Friend, and I am interested by the insights into the Bottomley household. The fact that our current divorce laws introduce conflict at the point of divorce can make the break-up of relationships more confrontational than it needs to be in what are already difficult circumstances.
I believe that the hon. Gentleman has been married for 52 years.
In sickness and in health.
I believe that to be so. [Interruption.]
And Lady Bottomley says so as well, as the hon. Gentleman pertinently observes from a sedentary position.