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Lords Chamber

Volume 569: debated on Thursday 22 February 1996

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House Of Lords

Thursday, 22nd February 1996.

The House met at three of the clock ( Prayers having been read earlier at the Judicial Sitting by The Lord Bishop of Chester): The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.


What targeting arrangements are made for patrolling Trident submarines now that the Soviet Union is no longer the enemy, and whether any nuclear weapon-free countries are targeted.

My Lords, our nuclear missiles are de-targeted and have been since 1994. It is not our practice to comment further on matters of targeting.

My Lords, as that is the case, and the Government are admitting that there is no target, what is the use of patrolling Trident weapons at a cost which can amount to about £50 million? Does the noble Earl agree that it is a completely useless exercise? Why are the Government continuing with this nonsense when the budget of every other Department of State is being cut?

My Lords, I believe the key point is that our deterrent, together with those of our NATO allies, contributes towards maintaining stability in Europe. To perform that role in the current international environment, the weapons do not need to be targeted. Stability is best preserved by maintaining the invulnerability of our strategic deterrent and continuous patrols by our submarines achieve just that.

My Lords, have we not been discussing with the French for a very long time the question of co-operation on patrolling? Can the Minister say what has been achieved?

My Lords, we co-operate with France on a wide range of nuclear issues, including technical matters. For obvious reasons it is not our practice to release details of our co-operation, which involves the national security of both countries. I can tell the noble Lord that the dialogue is continuing.

My Lords, will the noble Earl confirm that Trident has now what is called a sub-strategic role as well as a strategic role? Presumably, there is a difference in the targeting procedure—I am not talking about the targets—when Trident is being strategic and when it is sub-strategic. Will the Minister confirm that and advise the House how that switch is made?

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Williams, is quite right. The entry into service of HMS "Victorious" means that Trident now provides a continuously available sub-strategic capability. The UK sub-strategic capability is also provided by the RAF with its Tornados armed with WE177 free-fall bombs. The concept of sub-strategic capability has long been a vital part of our and NATO's nuclear doctrine. Without it, a potential adversary could gamble on us not being prepared to use our full strategic capability in response to aggression. The sub-strategic capability removes the risk of him believing that we ourselves will be deterred from using nuclear weapons.

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Earl for that explanation, but he did not quite answer the question that I asked. How is targeting procedure affected in a submarine when someone decides that it is acting sub-strategically as opposed to strategically?

My Lords, the way in which the missiles are targeted is something that we do not discuss in public, for obvious reasons. But there is essentially no difference in the way that strategic and sub-strategic missiles are targeted.

My Lords, in order to enlighten my ignorance, can my noble friend tell us the exact difference between sub-strategic and strategic and what does each mean?

My Lords, in a few words, a strategic nuclear strike would be an all-out nuclear attack. A sub-strategic strike would be an attack of a more restricted kind, perhaps against a specific military target. The difference is one of scale and purpose.

My Lords, if the missiles used in a strategic attack and in a sub-strategic attack are different, one must assume that the latter are smaller and of shorter range. Can the Minister say whether they can be used with conventional warheads? If they can, is it really a sensible way to carry a medium or short-range conventional weapon; hiding it deep under the sea in a boat costing hundreds of millions of pounds for use, for instance, in Poland or East Germany?

My Lords, the missiles on board our Trident and Polaris nuclear submarines are all nuclear missiles. There are no conventionally-armed missiles on those boats. Indeed, a decision was taken some little time ago that that should be the case. However, we have decided to arm the Royal Navy with Tomahawk cruise missiles, which will be coming into service during the next few years. But that is very different from the nuclear deterrent, which is the subject of this Question.

My Lords, is it not the case that the Royal Navy is the most efficient fighting service and its ability to transfer from strategic to sub-strategic weapons, or vice versa, is probably instantaneous?

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. I believe that in the Royal Navy we have a Senior Service of which all of us can be very proud.

The Trident nuclear deterrent represents a superb technical achievement for the United Kingdom.

My Lords, the noble Earl has referred to the Trident submarine as being a contribution towards stability. Is he aware that the versatility now arriving by the sub-strategic role increases instability as far as any non-nuclear country is concerned? Is the noble Earl aware that it is only those countries who possess such weapons who feel the slightest bit stable about it? As far as the rest of the world is concerned, it is a contribution towards an uncertain situation which prevents us from arriving at real peace. Will the Government look at this matter seriously and ask themselves whether they ought not to make a little bit of progress towards a non-nuclear situation?

My Lords, I completely disagree with the noble Lord. As I have explained, a sub-strategic capability essentially fills a gap in the deterrent. Were it not for that capability, a potential enemy could misread our intentions and I believe that that would fatally damage the deterrent effect.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree with me that, given the fact that the Russians have already launched another nuclear submarine and are building a new generation of them, if the noble Lord opposite is so concerned about balance it is perhaps reasonable that we should retain our very modest deterrent?

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. As she will know, the UK's nuclear deterrent is a minimum deterrent.

Grey Squirrels: Control Studies

3.10 p.m.

Whether they are arranging to monitor the effects of schemes designed to reduce populations of grey squirrels and so to prevent the extinction of red squirrels in particular areas.

My Lords, the Forestry Commission has for many years been undertaking annual surveys of the distribution of red and grey squirrels and of the number of grey squirrels killed. Two research projects have been set up in Anglesey and Thetford to discover whether controlling grey squirrels will help prevent the extinction of red squirrels.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his reply. I welcome the Government's recent decisions and the help they have been giving over this problem. Does he agree that action is needed soon to prevent serious damage to trees from grey squirrels and to enable the red squirrels to survive? Is he aware that we still have red squirrels in northern Scotland because the greys have not yet penetrated from the south but that it is only a matter of time unless effective culling is undertaken?

My Lords, my noble friend makes a number of good points, not least that there are still many red squirrels in northern Scotland. In fact, three-quarters of the red squirrels in Great Britain are in Scotland. Action, which I agree is essential, is already in place. More action plans will be coming on stream. The Forestry Commission, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, SNH, English Nature and the CCW in Wales are all committed to various action plans. It is important that that action is taken to prevent tree damage and to help red squirrels.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the real villain was Henry VIII who destroyed the forests in which the red squirrels fed? They almost disappeared. When foreign squirrels, including the grey squirrel, were imported, they did not attack the red squirrels but played happily in what pieces of forest were available. Now the red squirrel is particularly susceptible to a virus to which the grey squirrel is not. It will be very bad this winter. Thousands more red squirrels will die because of the virus. It is no way the fault of the grey squirrel which does no harm to the trees or the birds in my garden.

My Lords, I am not sure whether recent analysis and research supports the noble Lord's interpretation. I believe that Henry VIII felled oak trees to build ships. The red squirrel finds acorns a little hard to eat. He is a discerning fellow; he prefers well-hung hazelnuts. One of the problems is that grey squirrels are voracious eaters. They eat hazelnuts before they are ripe which prevents the red squirrels eating them. So there is a problem in the winter. There are other problems which must be addressed. Red squirrels prefer pines, Norwegian spruce and larch; grey squirrels prefer broadleaved trees. The drive we have at the moment to increase broadleaved planting in Great Britain will at the same time affect the success with which grey squirrels are able to survive.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware of a most interesting debate last night in another place when this subject was gone into in considerable detail. A great deal of information was given. The noble Earl spoke about red squirrels in Scotland and the hope that we can save as many as possible. At the same time there seems to be a contradiction. In paragraph 10.5 of the UK action plan for biodiversity the red squirrel is listed among the subjects for special grants. In view of the fact that the SNH grant for 1996–97 has been cut by 11 per cent., is the Minister satisfied that the essential work of helping to preserve the red squirrel will be funded properly?

My Lords, there are ample resources to produce the action required to safeguard the future of the red squirrel. The resources do not come just from one nature agency such as SNH, but from the Forestry Commission, woodland owners in the private sector and other sources. The partnership approach has been adopted in relation to the red squirrel. There is an organisation called Red Alert which draws together all the different initiatives. The funding of SNH has been decided upon the ground of the efficiencies which we know are possible in that organisation and upon the new priorities which are expected of that organisation. The species action plan is a priority which we are confident it can meet.

My Lords, in view of the misunderstanding among householders of the depredations caused by these tree rats and the fact that preservation societies are being set up to protect them, will the Government take action to try to publicise to everyone, particularly urban dwellers, just how much depredation these rats cause?

My Lords, my noble friend makes a good point. The campaign being run by Red Alert is designed partially to educate and raise public awareness of the merits and otherwise of the grey squirrel. In addition, it is important that all woodland owners are aware of the need to control grey squirrels. They can do extensive damage to broadleaved trees. If they are not controlled the damage they can do to our countryside, landscapes and various habitats will also be extensive.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that he said that an inquiry is going on to see what effect grey squirrels are having on the survival of red squirrels? Does that mean that there is no proof that grey squirrels are driving out red squirrels? Secondly, with the poisoning of grey squirrels is account being taken of the damage that may be caused to other animals and birds which feed off the carcasses of those grey squirrels? Finally, is it the intention—

Yes, you are going to have it whether you like it or not. You should know that by now. Finally, is it now the policy of Her Majesty's Government completely to exterminate the grey squirrel in every part of the UK?

My. Lords, there is strong circumstantial evidence that within 15 years of grey squirrels moving into a wood the red squirrels have moved out. We believe that that is due partially to the disease that grey squirrels carry from which red squirrels die. We believe that grey squirrels out-compete red squirrels for available food and so in the winter the grey squirrels are well fed while the red squirrels are badly fed. As regards Warfarin, the hoppers have been designed carefully so that other small mammals and birds cannot get at it. Even if another small mammal were to get at the Warfarin hopper or consumed a grey squirrel which had died from Warfarin, that small mammal would have to eat an extraordinary number of such grey squirrels even to be at risk of any damage.

My Lords, have my noble friend and the Government ever considered going back to the old wartime offers of so much money per grey squirrel tail to encourage farmers and other people on the land to help reduce the numbers?

My Lords, we have so many different initiatives in place around the country designed to deal with grey squirrel that the bounty on the grey squirrel's tail is not one we are considering at the moment.

My Lords, will the Minister answer my question as to whether it is government policy to exterminate the grey squirrel?

My Lords, it is obvious that the Government's policy with regard to biodiversity is to strike a balance. We want to secure the future of the red squirrel whose numbers and range have fallen against the fast-rising numbers of the grey squirrel. There are now 2.5 million grey squirrels in the UK. We believe that that is too many.

Sheep Dips: Research

3.19 p.m.

Which research organisations are to receive the £1.2 million allocated by them to study alternatives, including vaccines, to organophosphate sheep dips to protect sheep against scab.

My Lords, two research contracts have recently been awarded. The first is for studies on an immunological approach to sheep scab control, and represents a major collaborative effort by seven laboratories. These are the Central Veterinary Laboratory of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food; the Universities of Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Leeds; the Moredun Research Institute in Edinburgh, the Babraham Institute in Cambridge; and the School of Biological Sciences in Bangor.

The second, complementary study, aims to understand the critical factors that affect the spread and development of sheep scab and includes looking for natural predators of the sheep scab mite. The study is being undertaken by the University of Liverpool in collaboration with the University of Bristol, the Central Veterinary Laboratory and the School of Biological Sciences, Bangor.

My Lords, I am grateful that the Government have seen fit to fund the research. Am I correct in my understanding that the project is to last between two-and-a-half and three years? If that is the case, will the licensing of any vaccine produced during that time be fast tracked, in view of the fact that a great deal of sheep scab is occurring throughout the country?

My Lords, I am sure that the whole House recognises the contribution that the noble Countess has made towards our resolution to pursue the problem of sheep scab and the alternative methods of controlling it. As regards this project, it is at an early stage and at the frontiers of known science. If everything went perfectly, which we would not expect, we would have a useful vaccine in seven years time. We should be pleased if we had a vaccine in 10 years' time but it may well be longer.

My Lords, in view of the defects as regards the resistance of sheep scab mites to one of the main chemical alternatives to OP dips, will the Government accelerate the work on at least one of the two research projects so that it will be completed in less than three years? During that time we may see the possibility of alleviating the very unsatisfactory dilemma that is presented to sheep farmers who wish to dip their sheep.

My Lords, no, I do not believe that there is anything we can do to speed up the research projects. They take the time that they take because that is the required time. The end product will not be a useful vaccine but an indication of how a useful vaccine might be developed. We are still a long way away from having an alternative to chemical control.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Gallacher, mentioned the resistance of mites to the pyrethroid group of dips. Many farmers are returning to the use of OPs. While I realise that sheep scab must be controlled, may I ask the Minister to ensure that the medical profession is well aware of the symptoms of OP poisoning in humans? There are still problems and every day I receive tragic letters from people who are receiving no co-operation from their GPs or consultants.

My Lords, however much I may do to respond to the noble Countess's request my effectiveness will be much less than hers.

Business: "Sea Empress" Question

3.22 p.m.

What form of inquiry they propose to establish to investigate the accident to the tanker "Sea Empress" off Milford Haven.

My Lords, in view of the fact that at a convenient moment after 3.30 p.m. my noble friend Lord Goschen will, with the leave of the House, repeat a Statement that is to be made in another place on the "Sea Empress", I suggest that that will provide an opportunity for a full Answer to be given to the noble Lord's Question. I understand that the noble Lord is content to wait until then. I hope that that course of action will meet with the approval of the whole House.

Broadcasting Bill Hl

3.23 p.m.

My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Inglewood, I beg to move the Motion standing in his name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That the amendments for the Report stage be marshalled and considered in the following order—
  • Clauses 1 to 31,
  • Schedule 1,
  • Clauses 32 to 65,
  • Schedule 2,
  • Clauses 66 to 71,
  • Schedule 3,
  • Clauses 72 to 92,
  • Schedule 4,
  • Clauses 93 to 95,
  • Schedule 5,
  • Clauses 96 to 98,
  • Schedule 6,
  • Clauses 99 and 100,
  • Schedules 7 and 8,
  • Clauses 101 and 102.—(Lord Strathclyde.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Education (Scotland) Bill Hl

My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That the order of commitment of] 1 th December last be discharged, and that the Bill be committed to a Scottish Select Committee.—(The Earl of Lindsay.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Humber Bridge (Debts) Bill

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Transport
(Viscount Goschen)

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a third time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a third time.—(Viscount Goschen.)

My Lords, can my noble friend say what will be the total cost of this unhappy enterprise to the taxpayer?

My Lords, we discussed the issue fully on Second Reading and there was a further discussion in another place. The measures provided for in the Bill allow the rescheduling of the debt. It is not yet decided how much of that debt will be rescheduled in the manner outlined on Second Reading.

On Question, Bill read a third time.

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill do now pass.

Moved, That the Bill do now pass.—(Viscount Goschen.)

On Question, Bill passed.

Family Law Bill Hl

3.25 p.m.

Report received.

Before Clause 1, insert the following new clause—


(". The court and any person, in exercising functions under or in consequence of Parts I and II, shall have regard to the following general principles—

  • (a) that the institution of marriage is to be supported;
  • (b) that the parties to a marriage which may have broken down are to be encouraged to take all practicable steps to save it;
  • (c) that a marriage which has irretrievably broken down and is being brought to an end should be brought to an end—
  • (i) with minimum distress to the parties and to the children affected; and
  • (ii) without costs being unreasonably incurred in connection with the procedures to be followed in bringing it to an end.").
  • The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, Amendment No. 1 follows our consideration in Committee of an amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Stallard, to insert a clause setting out the general objectives of the Act. During that debate it was clear that a number of your Lordships supported the inclusion of such a provision. I indicated in general terms that I was anxious to consider the matter and therefore I am happy to bring forward this amendment, which I hope reflects the mood of the House on this important issue.

    It is important that the amendment is included at the beginning of the Bill as it sets the framework for all those who will be concerned to operate it, whether it be persons exercising functions under Parts I and II or 'whether it be the court making decisions under these provisions.

    I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Stallard, and those who supported him for making the suggestion. This is an important amendment to the Bill and an improvement. It serves as a useful assertion of the framework within which the Bill should operate. I therefore have pleasure in begging to move Amendment No. 1.

    moved, as an amendment to Amendment No. 1, Amendment No. 2:

    Line 3, leave out ("Parts I and II") and insert ("any provision of this Act").

    The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, your Lordships will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Stallard, for his part in paving the way to my noble and learned friend's amendment and to my noble and learned friend in going so far to meet our wishes.

    In moving Amendment No. 2, I shall speak to Amendments Nos. 3 and 4 which are grouped with it. However, Amendment No. 5 raises different issues and I propose to move it separately.

    The advantage of the statement of principles on the lines tabled by my noble and learned friend is that it gives a guideline to the interpretations of any matter in a measure which might be obscure or ambiguous. Secondly, it is a general guide to the way in which a statute should be interpreted when it comes before the courts.

    It is an alternative to dealing with the matter by Long Title which is the method I would generally prefer if only because otherwise the Long Title serves no useful purpose at all. However, in this case, I agree that it is more convenient to proceed in the way in which the noble Lord, Lord Stallard, dealt with it in Committee and the way it is dealt with by my noble and learned friend's Amendment No. I. That has the support of several precedents mentioned in Committee and approved by the Renton Committee on legislation.

    There have been a number of criticisms of some decisions made under the 1969 Divorce Reform Act and its consolidation in 1973. I do not believe that some of those decisions would have been criticised if a statement of principles such as that we have before us and susceptible of improvement had preceded the 1969 Act. As it was, judges had to do their best to carry into effect what they conceived to be the general objective of the 1969 Act. What they saw was a desire, a mechanism, to make divorce ever more facile, if necessary at the expense of justice. That being so, a number of decisions of the court inevitably took that direction, at the expense of justice. In using that term, I shall go no further than the White Paper which led to the Bill now before the House. The whole of chapter 2 deals with shortcomings in the existing law, which is in effect the 1969 Act. Indeed, one paragraph uses the word "injustice".

    As regards my noble and learned friend's amendment, we are grateful to him for it as far as it goes. But there are one or two curious omissions which are bound to raise questions. First is the provision referred to in my Amendment No. 2 which draws attention to the important matter of the institution of marriage in relation to Parts I and II. That makes it significant that there is no reference to Part III. The relevant principle proclaimed in my noble and learned friend's amendment is that the institution of marriage is to be supported. Is that of no significance in relation to Part III which deals with domestic violence? I venture to ask why that is omitted.

    Amendment No. 4 is purely a verbal alteration but I think it important. The words I seek to omit are,

    "a marriage which has irretrievably broken down".

    It is a matter which will be taken up later in a number of amendments to be moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Young. It is unnecessarily provocative to refer in the statement of principles to that formula to which there is grave objection. What I suggest is a more neutral term; namely, "is being dissolved". I cannot see that my noble friend's amendment loses anything by that change and, as I said, the phrase is much less provocative. I beg to move.

    3.30 p.m.

    My Lords, I believe that it is appropriate at this stage to express my gratitude to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor for the remarks he made in moving the amendment and his acceptance of the general sense of the amendment I moved in Committee. I believe that he encompassed most of the points I made. Of course, I am still very much concerned about reconciliation, but that will be dealt with at a later stage of the Bill. I believe that the noble and learned Lord's proposed amendment covers the points I made. I am quite happy to express my gratitude for his positive response to that amendment and for writing a provision into the Bill. I obviously reserve my position as regards future remarks on later amendments which may be relevant.

    Lords, I welcome the amendment in general but I have one reservation: it concerns the reference to children in paragraph (c). As drafted it could be taken to imply that the children's needs and problems can be disposed of at the time when the marriage is brought to an end. Unfortunately, that will seldom be possible as the effects of divorce on a child often continue well into the future.

    I mention four areas where problems may affect children after divorce. First, there may be arguments about access. Secondly, there are situations in which parents compete for children's good will by offering expensive presents and treats. Thirdly, there are instances where parents' main priorities are to rebuild their social life and find another partner. The children come off second best and may experience a sense of rejection which has lasting effects upon them. Lastly, when mother's new partner moves into the house in place of father, children are at a higher risk of abuse. In his book Homes and Battered Children, published in 1994 by the Family Education Trust, Mr. R. Whelan calculated that the risk of abuse was 33 times higher than if children had remained with their own married parents.

    Those problems cannot be solved readily by legislation but we cannot afford to ignore them. However, if the reference to children in the amendment were to include such a phrase as, "with regard to the present and future needs of the children", all those concerned would be encouraged to look ahead beyond the actual divorce settlement. I believe that that would be helpful. Perhaps I may suggest to your Lordships that, between now and Third Reading, consideration might be given to amending this section of the Bill on the lines that I have proposed.

    My Lords, I, too, am warmly in favour of the amendment moved by my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor. Perhaps I may briefly elaborate on the reasons given by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, and say that statements of principle are always helpful, especially in the early stages of an Act of Parliament. I say that because they clarify the intention of Parliament with regard to the other provisions of the Bill and enable the detailed provisions of the legislation to be more easily interpreted by the courts and understood by the users of statutes.

    As to the amendments tabled in the name of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, I must say that Amendment No. 5 is one that I believe my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor should welcome. He himself set the precedent for that in the Children Act. At the beginning of that Act—

    My Lords, I hope that my noble friend will forgive me for interrupting him, but my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor specifically excluded Amendment No. 5 from this group so that we may discuss it later.

    My Lords, I should tell my noble friend that it is to be dealt with separately.

    My Lords, I should just like to say that I welcome the support of the noble Lord, Lord Renton, whenever it may come.

    My Lords, in that case, circumstances compel me to defer my further support for that amendment.

    I am very doubtful about the other amendments tabled in the name of the noble and learned Lord, the most important of which is Amendment No. 2. That would make the new clause moved by my noble and learned friend apply to the whole of the Bill. The proposed new clause applies to Part I and II only and I am sure that that is correct. Speaking broadly, those parts deal with divorce whereas Part III of the Bill deals with quite separate matters; namely, "Family Homes and Domestic Violence". Of course, not all of the provisions in Part III relate to divorce, although, as regards domestic violence, they overlap a little.

    I should like briefly to refer to Amendment No. 3, which seems to me to be just a drafting amendment and not one which I feel my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor should accept. Amendment No. 4 goes a little beyond drafting, but I prefer the wording chosen by my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor rather than the alternative proposed by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale.

    3.45 p.m.

    My Lords, I, too, welcome Amendment No. 1 for reasons very similar to those just given by the noble Lord, Lord Renton, who is too modest to say that the amendment accepts some of the principles of drafting for which he argued in the Renton Report. Those principles need defending and I am glad to see them being adopted. I would, perhaps, have wished that the noble and learned Lord had said in his amendment that the institution of marriage is to be supported whenever possible, as politics is, after all, the art of the possible. Nevertheless, I take that to be implicit in the spirit of the amendment.

    However, I am not so happy with the amendments tabled in the name of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale. In particular, I am not happy with Amendment No. 2. I believe that the institution of marriage is to be supported. I also believe that human life is to be preserved. I do not believe that it in any way qualifies my support for marriage if I put my support for the preservation of human life first. I also believe that the Queen's peace is to be kept. I do not believe that it in any way qualifies my support for the institution of marriage if I put the preservation of the Queen's peace first. Therefore, in cases where the preservation of marriage might lead to threat to the life or to severe physical injury of one of the parties, I think that it would be unduly doctrinaire to say that the preservation of the institution of marriage should come first in such circumstances. That is why I believe that the principle—as, I think, the noble and learned Lord has realised in the drafting of the amendment—is not germane to Part III of the Bill. The noble and learned Lord is entirely right to apply it to Parts I and H, but not to Part III.

    I am not entirely certain of the effect of Amendment No. 3 which refers to the marriage being "in crisis". I once, rather rashly, used the word "crisis" in the title of an academic work. Shortly afterwards, one of my senior colleagues at a conference fixed me with a beady eye and told me that it was an overworked word. I concluded on reflection that my colleague was correct: either it means nothing or it is, I believe, a good deal more restrictive than many of us would like it to be.

    Amendment No. 4 would remove the notion of irretrievable breakdown, which is somewhere near the very heart of the Bill. I would not go all the way with the Denham doctrine as recently re-enunciated in The Times about wrecking amendments, but I will say that, if the amendment were to be carried, it would remove something which, as I said, is very close to the heart of the Bill and of which I believe a clear majority of the House approves. Therefore, if it were carried, I, for one, would regret it.

    My Lords, as someone whom my noble and learned friend will recognise as being not entirely happy about the legislation now before us, I should like to thank him for bringing forward the amendment, which is based on an original amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Stallard. The fact that my noble and learned friend has re-drafted the amendment and brought it back in this form is most helpful. It is valuable to have the statement of principles at the beginning which, as I said when we discussed the matter in Committee, gives us a reference point for the other aspects of the Bill as they come before us.

    Moreover, I believe it is important that both the debate that we had in Committee and today's subsequent debate will be on the record. I now understand that that will be taken into account when lawyers are considering legislation because it sets out the intention of Parliament. I believe that our discussions are both important and helpful.

    I greatly appreciate the points made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale. I stand as second to none in my great respect for his views on such matters. However, in life when one actually gets something which is of value I suppose that one should be generous enough to say "Thank you" for it; and, indeed, I do so today. I accept what my noble and learned friend has done.

    My Lords, I join with other noble Lords in thanking my noble and learned friend for bringing forward his amendment today. However, like the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, I have a certain number of reservations about it. It will come as no surprise that my noble and learned friend sees as a primary object of the Bill the minimising of costs to parties and to taxpayers. He said as much in Committee, reminding us of what was in the White Paper.

    Keeping costs down is a worthy and desirable aim in all litigation, and nowhere more desirable—it may be thought—than in family matters where children are involved. However, in my view it would be wrong in principle to single out this Bill for special direction about costs, not least because it was substantially as a result of penny-pinching and the introduction 20 years ago of cheap and cheerless postal divorces under the special procedures that we are now where we are, with a divorce system which is in disrepute.

    I wonder whether the word "costs" in my noble and learned friend's amendment includes the fees paid to mediators. The point may or may not be clear, but it is easy to envisage the Legal Aid Board feeling obliged, under the penny-pinching principle, to refuse legal aid for ancillary proceedings because of the availability of mediation. What seems to me so curious is that the costs principle is included in this amendment, but the principle that divorcing couples should be made aware of the consequences of their divorce, which was mentioned in the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Stallard, has been left out. It seems to me that that principle in the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Stallard, which referred to couples being made aware of the consequences of their divorce is a principle of the first importance.

    As to supporting the institution of marriage, the expression is ambiguous. Are we to understand the reference to support of marriage as the option to be preferred over cohabitation? Or, are we to understand the phrase to embrace the concept that marriage can be best supported by non-acrimonious divorces which enable the parties to enter into better marriages later on? I suggest that the principle would be better expressed more openly as "support for marriage as the lifelong voluntary union of man and woman as husband and wife". That would inevitably and unambiguously give primacy of esteem to the present marriage in every case, whether it be a first or a subsequent marriage. This, I suggest, is as it ought to be.

    To move on from the institution of marriage to the question of irretrievable breakdown raised by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, and mentioned by many other noble Lords, I would just say as a drafting point that the reference in paragraph (c) of the amendment to a marriage having irretrievably broken down overlooks the fact that irretrievable breakdown in the Bill is a figment of legislative imagination. Irretrievable breakdown takes place, according to the wording of Clause 4, not earlier than the end of the period for reflection and consideration, by which time it is clearly too late to do much about distressed parties and children.

    I say "Amen" to the principle that distress should not be caused to children but I believe that there is a nettle here and I propose to grasp it. I believe that the way the principle is expressed here, taken in the context of the whole amendment, is conceptually flawed. We know that as a general rule the distress of children is less in intact families than in families destroyed by separation and divorce. We know that the distress of children after divorce may increase over the years as contact with the non-resident parent is weakened, if not lost, and the resident parent enters into a new relationship or marriage. If one thing was made abundantly clear during the Committee stage of this Bill, it was that the White Paper was misleading in dwelling on the idea that generally children in conflict-ridden, intact families would be better off in divorced families. That is an unfounded hypothesis, but much of the thinking behind the Bill relies on it as received wisdom.

    It is often the case that from and after the divorce decree there will be a temporary reduction in stress and friction. I can envisage a situation where a district judge, obeying my noble and learned friend's direction, would take steps or give advice deliberately to bring a marriage to an end in order to relieve short-term distress. He would, of course, say that he was in no position to accept the argument or evidence that the long-term distress of the child would be the greater if the marriage were dissolved prematurely. Or, a mediator may feel compelled to make the same sort of decision.

    It is unfortunate that my noble and learned friend's amendment is in a form which too strongly influences the discretion of all those involved in the dissolution process. The amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Stallard, at Committee stage seems to me to have been better judged in that respect. My noble and learned friend's amendment follows the form used in the Children Act. I do not consider the Children Act formula suitable for this amendment. Section 1 of that Act placed the single issue of the welfare of a child in a unique paramount position in unspecific terms. The principles in Amendment No. 1 today are much more specific. They are not even sui generis each other; one may conflict with another; and other principles with equal if not greater claim to inclusion are not recognised. It seems to me that my noble and learned friend's amendment, as drafted, is likely to lead to confusion and unfairness. I hope that he will not press it today but will think further about it.

    My Lords, perhaps I might have a four penn'orth run. The noble Lord, Lord Robertson of Oakridge—

    My Lords, if the spokesman on the Front Bench is to conclude, it is probably the turn of our side of the House to speak, is it not? Someone from the noble Lord's side spoke last.

    My Lords, as the noble Lord is accustomed to being on his feet, I shall leave him there.

    My Lords, I only wish to speak briefly. I wish to support the amendment put down by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor in response to that of my noble friend Lord Stallard tabled at Committee stage. I support the noble and learned Lord's amendment because it makes absolutely clear that,

    "the institution of marriage is to be supported".
    That is an important sentence. It will establish that all of us here—if we pass the amendment—support the institution of marriage. That means that we want it to be continued and strengthened in so far as that is possible.

    The measure also, in my view, strengthens the position in relation to children. In my view, in the original Bill the position of children was forgotten. They were the forgotten part of marriage and the forgotten part of divorce. This amendment is important. It establishes the principles upon which we shall continue our discussions. I can only hope that the message that will go out from this House—we talked about messages at Committee stage—will be that we support marriage per se. I hope, in the light of this amendment, that as we go through the Bill the sentiments expressed in it will not be negated by the refusal of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor and others to accept what some of us consider extremely good and reasonable amendments which will improve the Bill no end, and strengthen the message we are sending out in Amendment No. 1.

    My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, raised an issue—that was also raised by my noble friend Lord Coleraine—relating to children. The noble Lord, Lord Robertson, rightly said that the damage which is done to children by divorce is cumulative, but that arrangements can be made before the divorce to minimise that. It is relevant to this amendment and to later amendments to recall that Clause 2(1)(c) contains a requirement that an order may not be made unless,

    "the requirements of section 8 about the parties' arrangements for the future are satisfied".
    Section 8(3)—or rather Clause 8(3), as it now is—contains a requirement that,
    "The requirements of section 41 of the 1973 Act … must have been satisfied".
    These place a duty on the court to consider whether there are children of the family and, if there are, the arrangements to be made for them. Nothing can happen until those arrangements have been made and the court has been satisfied. The court will remain bound by the requirements of Section 1 of the Children Act 1989, referred to by my noble friend Lord Coleraine, that when a court determines any question with respect to the upbringing of a child, or the administration of a child's property or the application of any income arising from it, the child's welfare shall be the court's paramount consideration. It seems to me that that paramountcy is already in the Bill and that many of your Lordships' concerns can be laid to rest.

    My Lords, I certainly would not presume to conclude any matter in your Lordships' House. Least of all would it ever be my wish to exclude the noble Lord, Lord Elton. I hope that he will forgive me if I do not follow him in the matters to which he has just adverted. I believe that the principle of Amendment No. 5 is something that your Lordships may wish to debate in rather more detail at a later stage. But what he said is something that I for one will then wish to address.

    It is not every Bill that benefits from a general objects clause. I should like to see such a device used sparingly. But there are Bills that benefit in that way. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, reminded us, there are precedents for them. I believe that my noble friend Lord Irvine said at Committee stage that such a Bill had been introduced by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor himself, which became the Legal Aid Act 1988. I believe that this is such a Bill.

    I am fortified in finding myself in respectful agreement with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, and the noble Lord, Lord Renton. In addition to the guidance that those who have to implement these measures will find in this clause, there are two advantages that I regard as a bonus. First, it may help to dispel misunderstandings that have been disseminated about this Bill, sometimes somewhat irresponsibly, I suspect. It is common ground in your Lordships' House that we are anxious to support the family as an institution and to support marriage as an essential factor in that. We may differ as to whether particular policies are best calculated to bring that about. For example, I believe that the number of homeless people who can be seen on London's streets bear witness to some policies of the present Government which are less than supportive of the family, but we can agree that the support of marriage is an important objective of this Bill.

    The second advantage was referred to in Committee by my noble friend Lord Stallard. I believe that we should emphasise in the statute the need for reconciliation procedures for those who are considering embarking on the divorce process. Here we have authority for the proposition that that is at least one of the objectives of the Bill, though I hope there will be more specific amendments that we may be able to debate at a later stage.

    Referring to the amendments of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, I hope he will forgive me for saying that, most unusually, I have the misfortune to differ from him. The reasons for that have already been ventilated by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, and other noble Lords. I will not presume to repeat them.

    I should like to say one word about the comments of the noble Earl, Lord Coleraine.

    My Lords, I believe the noble Lord is referring to my noble friend Lord Coleraine, not the noble Earl, Lord Coleraine.

    My Lords, far be it from me to question the authority of the noble and learned Lord on the procedures of your Lordships' House. Slips of the tongue fall from all of us sometimes but perhaps are not so readily picked up.

    I welcome the noble Lord's reference to the purpose of minimising the cost of divorce proceedings. It does not mean that that should be the overall consideration. I believe that there are better uses for the money in upholding marriages before they reach the stage of divorce than in spending a great deal of money at the divorce stage. I am sure that the noble Lord will go some way to agree with that.

    I am personally grateful to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor for showing that he listens to our debates and that, having listened, he reflects. As I understand it, that is the purpose of our procedures. I hope that some of his colleagues in government will seek to emulate him from time to time. It is even possible that when they do they will find that they enjoy it.

    My Lords, I am grateful for the general welcome that my amendment has been given. I should like to address one or two of the issues that have been raised in connection with the amendments of my noble and learned friend Lord Simon of Glaisdale, and refer also to the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, and my noble friend Lord Coleraine. I believe that we will come to the children aspect when Amendment No. 5 is moved by my noble and learned friend Lord Simon of Glaisdale.

    Parliament, with great deliberation and care, put in place the Children Act 1989 to deal with disputes, and the like, connected with children, as well as intervention by local authorities, and so on, in families to help with the care of children. That was a very strong and clear statute which was put into effect after two years of careful preparation. I speak subject to the correction of those who day in, day out, work in these courts. From what I know of the matter—I have sought to take a close personal interest in it—my impression is that the Act has worked extremely well in providing a framework for deciding matters connected with the welfare and upbringing of children. Your Lordships will have in mind that it is under that framework that any disputes or matters connected with the welfare of children will ultimately be decided. I do not wish to damage that framework that has been carefully put in place by making changes which will apply only in respect of parties in a divorce situation. Of course, many of these considerations apply whether the parties are in a divorce situation or in a later or earlier situation. I will return to that in more detail when my noble and learned friend moves Amendment No. 5.

    Amendment No. 2 is intended to spread the clause to the whole of the Bill. This is deliberate on my part. I am strongly of the view that Part III of the Bill deals with a somewhat different subject matter. For example, the importance of marriage is emphasised in that part. We have put into that part, which has been the subject of some consideration and doubt in some quarters, Clause 36. This clause ensures that courts will consider the situation as between married and unmarried people when they make use of powers under that particular part of the Bill.

    If one looks at the provision in my clause with regard to saving marriages, I think it would be quite difficult to apply that appropriately in the case, for example, of violence between spouses in the matrimonial home. In that case, although the objective of saving the marriage is important, the immediate objective so far as concerns Part III of the Bill is to provide protection for the parties from that violence. I believe that these might be seen to be in conflict.

    Amendments Nos. 3 and 4 are primarily drafting amendments. On Amendment No. 3 I prefer the phrase "may have broken down" to "is in crisis" because it fits in with the logic of the Bill that people only come to the court if their marriage has reached a stage that can reasonably be described as having broken down. There is then the progression—trying to save the marriage; seeing whether the marriage can be saved; and, if it cannot, the breakdown is irretrievable. That seems to me a logical, clear and intellectually satisfactory framework.

    Amendment No. 4 inserts "is being dissolved". I have been provided with the draft on the basis of bringing the marriage to an end, it having irretrievably broken down. I think that that is a satisfactory draft.

    I accept that after the breakdown of a marriage there are problems of the kind mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, and others. However, paragraph (c)(i) makes the point that everything possible should be done to minimise the distress occasioned. Obviously, if one starts by some procedure which does not minimise but tends to exacerbate the distress, one is apt to do even more damage by reason of the resulting situation when one takes account of the factors to which the noble Lord referred. Therefore, this is a worthy objective. I believe that to some extent it is an attainable objective and should go in.

    My noble friend Lord Coleraine mentioned cost. I respectfully suggest that the point made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, is good. It is often wasteful of money, particularly when costs are incurred unreasonably in connection with proceedings on the irretrievable breakdown of a marriage. I am sure that a number of your Lordships will have heard how difficult it is in the courts for judges sometimes to restrain the willingness of parties to litigate on matters which are almost beyond doubt, occasionally very much at their own expense. Often people seem to get into hot and costly disputes when ultimate payment is being made out of the resources available for the family.

    My amendment proposes a worthy objective in itself. I hope that your Lordships will approve it as it stands and will not support Amendment No. 2 which we are presently discussing.

    4.15 p.m.

    My Lords, I am most grateful to all noble Lords who have contributed to the debate and to my noble and learned friend for giving advance notice of his thinking on Amendment No. 5. I have already expressed my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Renton.

    Some points have not been answered; I shall come to those in a moment. First, perhaps I may say that I agree entirely with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, that anything in the way of minimising the cost and traumata of divorce is to be welcomed. It was no aim of any part of my amendment to deal with that part of the amendment of my noble and learned friend.

    The main point which has not been referred to is the significance of the omission of any reference to Part III. Anyone reading the Act with this preliminary is bound to ask why those admirable principles are only applicable to Parts I and II.

    Is not the institution of marriage intimately bound up with considerations as to domestic violence? Is an act of domestic violence, however necessary the intervention of the law, necessarily the end of a marriage? If the answer is no and there is a chance of repentance and reconciliation, then the omission of a reference to Part III can only be deplored.

    The noble Lord, Lord Renton, says that the reference to marriage is irrelevant to Part III because it does not deal with divorce as do Parts I and II. But is the institution of marriage wholly bound up with the procedures for divorce? No doubt a lax divorce law, an unjust divorce law, can gravely damage the institution of marriage, as we have seen and has been admitted by the authors of the 1969 Act in the current White Paper.

    I pass from that to the question of irretrievable breakdown. If we write in "irretrievable breakdown" at this stage we are anticipating the result of important amendments to be moved shortly by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, and others. Moreover, I do not for a moment admit that a marriage can be said to have irretrievably broken down when there is a young child. Important responsibilities still remain outstanding. Still less can I endorse a phrase that the noble Earl, Lord Russell, used in Committee—of the parties being locked in a loveless marriage. There can be very few marriages where there is a young child which can properly be described as loveless. I should have thought that there were practically none. Therefore it seems to me preferable at this stage to use the neutral terminology that I have suggested.

    However, your Lordships undoubtedly would not wish to come to a decision at this time. Before Third Reading, I should like to consider what has been said. In the meantime I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

    Amendment to Amendment No. 1, by leave, withdrawn.

    4.20 p.m.

    "Sea Empress"

    My Lords, I understand that this may be a convenient moment to repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport.

    "Madam Speaker, on Monday I made a Statement to the House on the "Sea Empress". In that Statement I referred to the difficulties of operations of this kind and said that the resolution of the incident would take time. I stressed that the weather would remain the crucial factor in determining progress. I am now informing the House of the steps that have been taken since Monday and the further steps the Government propose to take thoroughly to assess the incident and its consequences and to establish what lessons should be learnt and what further action needs to be taken.

    "Since my earlier Statement the elements have posed considerable dangers and difficulties for the salvors engaged by the ship's owners. Difficulties with wind and tide have led to the ship regrounding on a number of occasions and to the loss of additional, and significant, amounts of oil. Despite these difficulties, immense efforts have been made by the salvors to try to stabilise the ship in order to prevent further loss of oil and to remove the oil still on board.

    "Where oil has escaped, my marine pollution control unit's aircraft have sprayed it with dispersants. At the same time, between 150 and 160 people, organised by MPCU and supervised by qualified beachmasters, have been working to clean up oil which has been washed ashore. There has been no shortage of manpower or resources: all the equipment which could physically be brought onto the beaches has been made available. The local and harbour authorities and voluntary bodies have also been working hard to protect the environment.

    "As the House will know, the ship was successfully refloated last night and towed to a jetty in Milford Haven, where it is protected by a boom. There was some further escape of oil from the vessel during these operations. It is proposed to unload the vessel into smaller tankers that will be brought alongside. This operation needs to be carefully planned and prepared and is likely to take some days. Every effort will be taken to prevent any further discharges from the ship.

    "We are not yet in a position to confirm precisely the amount of the ship's cargo that remains on board. Indications are that up to half the cargo—some 65,000 tonnes—has been spilt. Of this light crude, around a quarter will have evaporated. However, there is considerable pollution at sea and on parts of the coastline. Much of the pollution at sea is in the form of sheens but there are also patches of thicker oil. When it is appropriate to do so these thicker patches are being sprayed with dispersants by aircraft. There are also three oil recovery vessels currently operating at sea and two further oil recovery vessels are proceeding to the area. Oil recovery operations are also continuing within Milford Haven.

    "There is pollution also on parts of the coastline. The clean-up techniques used will vary between sites and are decided in full consultation with environmental experts and interests under the overall control of the joint response centre established by the MPCU and the harbour and local authorities at Milford Haven. The actual clean-up operations are being undertaken by local authority and oil company personnel and by specialist contractors. Every assistance is being given to the voluntary bodies who are dealing with oiled seabirds. I would like to pay tribute to these bodies for all the valuable work they are doing.

    "The House will want to know what the Government will do to find out, first, the causes of this accident, secondly, what lessons can be learnt from the way the salvage operation was conducted, and, finally, the extent of environmental damage and the effectiveness of the response and clean-up operations.

    "As I told the House on Monday, the Marine Accident Investigation Branch has already initiated an inquiry into the causes of the grounding of the "Sea Empress". MAIB inspectors have been on the scene since Friday and have made good progress. The Chief Inspector of Marine Accidents will provide me with a full report that will be published. I am sure that MAIB is the right body to do this. This is the purpose for which it was set up under Act of Parliament. We need a thorough professional examination of what went wrong so that we can learn whatever lessons there are to learn for the design, operation, management and pilotage of tankers. MAIB, like the parallel body for the investigation of air accidents, the AAIB, has the highest reputation for professionalism and integrity. I can assure the House that in this case, as in others, its investigation and report will be independent.

    "Secondly, the conduct of the salvage operation. Salvage operations can only be undertaken by skilled experienced professionals and the consortium engaged by the ship's owners includes one of the world's leading salvage firms. The responsibility for the conduct of the salvage operation rests with the salvors. Though their proposals have to be considered and agreed both by the port authority and the marine pollution control unit, responsibility for their initiation and execution rests with the salvors. The salvors had to determine the resources needed and to ensure that they were to hand.

    "Let me reiterate my unstinting admiration—which I am sure the whole House shares—for the tireless work which the teams of salvors, together with members of the emergency services, military and civilian helicopter crews, the ship's crew, Admiralty salvage experts, members of the MPCU and all those involved, have put into the salvage operation since the accident, often in diabolical conditions of danger, gales, freezing temperatures and acute physical discomfort. It is all too easy to criticise their efforts from the comfort of the armchair, the studio or the news room.

    "Nonetheless, for all their Herculean efforts the vessel remained stranded for five days and some 65,000 tonnes of oil have been spilt. I know the House shares my disappointment and frustration at the repeated failures of the earlier salvage attempts and my deep concern at the environmental consequences. We must find out why, and whether there is any more that could be done to make a future salvage operation more likely to succeed. To that end I have asked the Chief Inspector of Marine Accidents to extend the scope of the current investigation to include the salvage operations. This will include consideration of the planning and execution of the operation, examination of the contingency plans that were made and of the input and supervision of the operation by the shipowner, his insurers, the harbour authority and the marine pollution control unit. The chief inspector has told me he is appointing independent consultants to assist with this part of his inquiry. I look to all those involved to co-operate fully with this aspect of the investigation. I shall publish the chief inspector's report.

    "It is also essential that we undertake rigorous scientific assessments of the damage that has been caused on land and sea and of the effectiveness of the clean-up operations.

    "My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Wales announced yesterday that up to £250,000 is being made available for a comprehensive environmental assessment and long-term monitoring programme in the area affected by the spill. The work will start immediately and will be undertaken by the Countryside Council for Wales, acting in partnership with other statutory agencies and voluntary environmental groups.

    "It is intended to assess the impact of the spillage both on coastal and marine habitats, and of the effect of dispersing the oil both naturally and by chemicals on the concentrations of flora and fauna, including seabirds, seaducks and marine mammals. This will include a full assessment of the damage done to the Skomer Marine Nature Reserve and Milford Haven waterway. The levels of oil pollution in the seawater and coastal sediments will be measured, and changes monitored, as will the long-term recovery of the biological systems in general. The immediate need is to minimise to the extent that is possible the environmental effects of the spill. But we must not lose sight of the need to learn for the future.

    "This assessment by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Wales will be complemented by work to be done by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, who are arranging for diversion of the research vessel "Corystes" from its current research work to a new mission of fishing and environmental monitoring. The "Corystes" will be collecting samples of fish and shellfish for analysis of residues of oil. This will supplement the present and ongoing programmes of monitoring and will enable us to determine what restrictions are necessary and to say when fishing can safely resume. In the meantime, voluntary action ensures that fish on the market remain safe to eat.

    "I also wish to express our appreciation of the work of those involved in the clean-up operation who are often working in exposed and unpleasant conditions. Nonetheless, we will also need to assess the pollution response and clean-up operations. At this moment it is impossible to estimate how extensive these operations are likely to be.

    "At-sea operations are the responsibility of the marine pollution control unit, while operations on shore fall primarily to the local authorities, assisted by MPCU and, in this case, by the oil industry. In consultation with my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Wales I propose to appoint an independent assessor to undertake a rigorous examination for us of the response and clean-up procedures and techniques employed following the "Sea Empress".

    "As the report of the Ecological Steering Group established after the "Braer" recommended, it is essential that these examinations of the environmental impact and of the clean-up operations are brought together and published in a form which will provide clear guidance for the future. This will be done.

    "We believe that the measures necessary to reduce the risk of pollution were clearly set out in Lord Donaldson's report, Safer Ships, Cleaner Seas. When we have completed the investigation and the assessments I have referred to in this Statement we will be in a position to assess the lessons on this particular spill and set them in the context of Lord Donaldson's findings and recommendations, the vast majority of which we have accepted.

    "The Government are determined to find out exactly what happened, to publish the results and to learn and apply the lessons. The House would expect no less".

    My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

    4.31 p.m.

    My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made in another place. I pay tribute to those individuals who, at considerable personal risk, were involved in seeking to salvage this stricken vessel.

    This accident was extremely serious. At this stage it is difficult to measure the damage caused to that fragile and beautiful coastline and to its fish and wildlife. It is clear, however, that the damage could have been infinitely worse. The environmental damage was limited substantially through good fortune rather than good planning.

    As the Minister said, many questions must be posed. How did the accident occur? Was the salvage operation carried out efficiently? How can we best protect our coasts? How can we ensure to the best of our ability that there is no recurrence? And how best can we have the matter fully and objectively investigated?

    Another salient question was omitted totally from the Statement. Were the Government at fault in any way? Were they not on notice as to the vulnerability of Milford Haven to accidents of this kind, bearing in mind that one occurred only four months ago involving a double-hulled vessel? The Government's own department carried out an internal investigation—a follow-up to the Donaldson Report—which I understand was produced to the department last June. Why has that not yet seen the light of day, given the desire made transparent today on the part of the Government to be absolutely open?

    Because the Department of Transport is so closely implicated in these matters, the Opposition take the view that an investigation undertaken by the Marine Accident Investigation Branch alone is inappropriate. I hasten to add that I cast no aspersions whatsoever on the MAIB. A Minister may laugh at that; but I held these responsibilities and I know that the MAIB will do whatever it is asked to do with considerable skill. However, that said, I do not believe that the necessary remit for this investigation is covered by its immediate competences. Moreover, since the Department of Trade and Industry's actions, or failures to act, must also be investigated impartially—because serious questions affecting environmental issues also have to be raised—we believe the most appropriate form of inquiry would be for the Government to ask the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson, to reconstitute his committee.

    After all, why was that committee set up in the case of a much less serious accident, the "Braer"? Are there not more lessons to be learnt as a result of this particular incident? That view is taken not simply by the Opposition; it is taken by many non-governmental organisations and other people. Certainly the Donaldson Report gained much credit from the fact that it was carried out by a distinguished judge and Member of this House. That redounded to the advantage of this country in the international counsels of world shipping. If that is right, it seems somewhat fruitless to run two investigations concurrently. But the Government have already started the investigation by the MAIB. Is there a place for a further Donaldson report? I certainly believe that there is. A decisive advantage is that much work has already been done by the Donaldson Committee. There is always the possibility, if the Minister is concerned about timing, for a preliminary report to be published if the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson, were to undertake this work, and one could be requested.

    Other issues have to be addressed. First, was the accident avoidable? At what point did a pilot come on hoard? Was it right that he came on board some 15 minutes before the ship entered the harbour? Bearing in mind that large tankers take a very long time to change course, was that anything like sufficient? Any investigation will certainly examine that matter. Having regard to the fact that another incident had occurred, as I said, only four months earlier at that very same port, would it not have been a wise precaution to have a large tug available on all such occasions, bearing in mind the vulnerability of that area? That is a matter for the Government, not for the salvors or anybody else. Had there been, as was reported in the press, other, unreported incidents of a similar kind? The Minister may like to comment on that, or least indicate that the Government will carry out a full investigation into that aspect of the matter.

    Secondly, did the Government pay sufficient heed to the Donaldson recommendations regarding the availability of tugs? The specific recommendation was that tugs should be available in the Western Approaches. That was intended to prevent accidents of this kind. After the collision, is it right that the Government should have declined to bring in additional tugs? Would the presence of more powerful tugs, based in our busiest mainland oil terminal, have assisted? The Government say no. But that is a point of view convenient for them to adopt. We should like to know, from an impartial investigation, whether that government view is right.

    Thirdly, was there no radar to control ingress to Milford Haven? Has that been the position over a period of something like six months? How could that situation have been permitted? Did the Department of Transport know about it, and if so, what did it do about it?

    Fourthly, in terms of communications, was it not extraordinary that in order to communicate with the large Chinese tug that was required a Chinese restaurateur had to be persuaded to leave his take-away in order to assist in the necessary interpretations? The whole matter is farcical.

    Fifthly, should not the whole question of double hulls be carefully and impartially examined? The United States has taken a very decisive view; namely, that no single-hulled tanker should be allowed to gain access to ports of an environmentally sensitive nature. Do the Government believe that view to be right, or not? Are there dangers in retrofitting existing tankers? As I understand it, these questions were left open by the Donaldson Report. They now assume huge significance.

    Sixthly, what are the environmental and economic consequences likely to be? The Minister dealt in part with that question in his report, and I am grateful for that. Many people will be affected: fishermen, hoteliers, and others. I understand that compensation will ultimately be available—but how soon? Is there to be a mechanism for providing interim payments in suitable cases? Will claimants who make reasonable claims, which may be very complex in undertaking, be given an indemnity to cover reasonable legal costs? As I understand it, legal aid will not be available because there is no litigious process in what we contemplate.

    The Government have said that much responsibility falls on local authorities. What additional financial support is to be made available to those local authorities? They will have to undertake expenditure immediately. It is true that ultimately they will be able to make a claim on the funds that are available. But why do not the Government provide the support now and then stand in the place of the local authorities, so that they can recover the moneys that are due? It is patently unfair that the local authorities should have to bear the brunt of the expenditure immediately.

    Seventhly—the Minister's Statement was rather long and I am perfectly entitled to put these points, even if it irritates some of those on the other side of the House—is there evidence that cargo and shipowners have been involved in cutting costs and corners, thereby making accidents far more likely?

    Eighthly, will the Minister confirm that the European Union's pollution taskforce has been sent by the Commission to help clear up the oil spillage? Has the Commission also pledged financial support for the area to the extent of £250,000, with more being made available for environmental organisations if necessary to help save wildlife?

    Do the Government not regard it as essentially contradictory that, while they preside over the collapse of the British merchant fleet, as undoubtedly they do, increasing numbers of substandard flags of convenience ships carry goods to and from our ports? Is there not something inherently contradictory in that attitude? At the same time they cut the Coastguard agency. They impose cuts on the Marine Safety Agency and the Marine Accident Investigation Branch. Are those not very important issues which also have to be tackled? How can the Marine Accident Investigation Branch do that work? All those are issues which should be investigated by a reconstituted Donaldson Committee.

    My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount for repeating the Statement. I share his wish to recognise the experience of individuals involved in the rescue procedures. Nevertheless, the Statement glosses over the fact that this is an accident which should not have happened. No, it is not stupid to say that. We had the example of an almost identical accident which happened in an identical place at a very similar time of day in terms of the tidal pattern in those waters. We also had the advice of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson—I see he is in his place and I shall not therefore discuss his report: it is, after all, his report and not mine—that we should pay particular attention to the approach to Milford Haven. It is ironic that most of our busiest oil ports are in areas of extreme environmental sensitivity, areas such as the Shetlands, the northern coast of Scotland and so on. Indeed, the "Sea Empress" had been involved in an incident at the Shetland port of Sullom Voe some months ago.

    I want to concentrate on the issues of navigation. I shall attempt not to occupy quite so much time as the previous speaker. There are some important points to be made. What strikes me, as an amateur lover of boats and ships, is that, as reported at an early stage, the vessel was holed on the starboard side by rocks on the sandspit lying on her port side as she steamed towards the harbour. That suggests that the vessel was very seriously out of the correct path in the seaway.

    I accept the seriousness of what the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, said about the pilotage. It might be very sensible to bring pilots aboard by helicopter at an earlier stage in the approaches to Milford Haven. If a pilot arrives by helicopter, the ship does not have to slow down in order to take the pilot on board. The ship does not lose way and therefore is less likely to be incapable of making the steering manoeuvres that may be necessary as she begins to move off course. I should like to hear the Minister's response to that point. It appears that the managing company for the "Sea Empress" is investigating these matters and has expressed concern that the grounding of the two vessels happened in very similar circumstances and in the same place.

    The Statement speaks of the need to look at all the various factors—the ownership, the management of the vessel, and so on, and the design—which may have contributed to the accident. Does the fact that the vessel is Spanish-built, Norwegian-owned, registered in Cyprus, sailing under a Liberian flag of convenience, managed from Glasgow, chartered by the French and crewed by Russians make the investigation more difficult? As well as the questions asked by the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, about the need to investigate whether or not single-hulled vessels should ever come into our ports, especially into ports in such sensitive areas, I should also like to ask whether or not the Minister agrees that the increased use of flags of convenience makes the control of shipping in our coastal waters more difficult. That point has been raised by a number of commentators.

    This has been an extremely dangerous accident. It has been dangerous for the fishing industry, which is already under stress; dangerous for the tourist industry, which is very important in that part of south-west Wales; and extremely dangerous potentially to the environment. There have been suggestions in the press that a certain complacency had developed towards the environmental danger. The suggestion was made that the sea after all could help to clean itself. All that is true. But there must be a limit, particularly in coastal waters, to the amount of absorption which can be anticipated. There seem to be obvious dangers in relying on that as a method of getting ourselves out of trouble.

    One matter not mentioned in the Statement is the assertion by the noble Viscount's honourable friend the Minister in another place on the radio this morning that the principle of the polluter pays will be obeyed and put into effect in this instance. Is the Minister satisfied that there are sufficient funds available from various international resources and/or from the insurance policies of the shipowner to satisfy that requirement?

    My Lords, I welcome the contributions from the Front Benches opposite. This has, of course, been an extremely serious accident. The Statement attempts to highlight our resolve to find out what has gone wrong.

    The first point I should address is the inquiry into the cause of the accident. I was slightly puzzled by the approach taken by the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis. He took pains to say that he felt that the MAIB was independent of government. He explained that he had held the portfolio in charge of shipping, so he is well placed to accept that independence. The MAIB is beyond the influence of the department and Ministers. We cannot interfere. It has the expertise. It was set up with the specific aim of investigating accidents of this very kind. That is its stock in trade. I see no reason why that position should not continue and why that body should not be the responsible and appropriate body to investigate this accident as it would investigate any other accident.

    The noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, said that he felt that the MAIB should not conduct the investigation because the Government may be implicated. I do not believe that the Government are either more or less implicated in this accident than in any other accident. All accidents around our coast have the potential to be extremely serious and are investigated by the MAIB. It has an international reputation. Its integrity is unquestioned and I do not believe that the argument that it may criticise the department is a reason for it not to undertake the inquiry. It has criticised the department and its agencies before—the Marine Safety Agency and the coastguard—and it has the ability to do so again if it believes that that is the correct course of action.

    The second major theme raised by both noble Lords was that of emergency towing vehicles—the emergency tugs—and the recommendations made in the report that we commissioned from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson. We accepted that report, specifically 86 out of 103 recommendations made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson. The report is widely accepted as making a major contribution towards maritime safety and pollution prevention.

    As the House will be aware, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson, identified that, as a priority, there should be two locations in which emergency towing vehicles should be positioned; in Dover and in the Minches in Scotland. We have taken forward that recommendation and acted upon it. Emergency towing vehicles are now stationed at those locations. They have been called out and used a number of times.

    The noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, suggested that we ask the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson, to reconvene his inquiry. He contrasted that with the approach of using the Marine Accidents Investigation Branch. I believe that there is some confusion. In the "Braer" incident the body which investigated the accident was the Marine Accidents Investigation Branch. The inquiry of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson, was set up to consider wider issues of safety and pollution prevention. It has been extremely successful in addressing those issues. But on the specific point of investigating the accident itself there was absolutely no quibble; the MAIB was the responsible and appropriate body in those circumstances and it is so in these circumstances also.

    A number of points were raised about the circumstances of the accident; what happened; whether there was deviation of the vessel from a planned course and so forth. Those are points which the MAIB inquiry will investigate in detail; it will take evidence from all parties concerned. It will interview the relevant people and produce a thorough report, which will be published. That is the forum for investigating those issues and I should not like to comment on that. Beyond that, many of the issues to which the noble Baroness referred in particular are the responsibility of the port authority. It has a proper responsibility. It is a trust port and its responsibilities and the responsibilities of the master of the vessel are clearly defined and the boundaries clearly laid down.

    The noble Baroness said that it was an accident that should never have happened. That goes for every accident in the maritime field and elsewhere: no accident should happen. It was an extremely serious incident. We recognise that a substantial loss of oil into the marine environment and on the coast will cause real environmental problems. But that does not alter the fact that there was an accident which can be investigated and the details of which can be produced by the MAIB.

    The noble Baroness asked about the international nature of the ownership, management and crewing of the vessel in question. It is common in the shipping world for that situation to occur. Shipping is an international business; it has always been that way and resources of many seafaring nations are drawn together to provide facilities for shipowners.

    The noble Baroness asked also about flags of convenience. She will be aware that we have put substantial resources into the issues of port state control and addressing flags from countries other than the UK in those matters. We inspect around 30 per cent. of all the vessels with foreign flags that call at our ports, whereas our international obligation is only 25 per cent. That is a powerful tool. I agree with the noble Baroness that persuading administrations to conduct their responsibilities of flag state control more appropriately is something on which we should concentrate through the national maritime organisation and we give that a priority.

    The noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, talked of the issues relating to the Marine Safety Agency, the coastguard agency and the MAIB in terms of funding. I can give an assurance that those bodies are given the appropriate funding by government. Safety will in no way be compromised. That is the view of the chief executive of the two agencies in question and I can repeat that assurance. We will not look for efficiency savings within those organisations which compromise safety and that is our final position.

    This accident caused extremely severe difficulties in terms of the environment. I am pleased only that the ship has been recovered, though it has taken a long time. The assessments that we have now put in place will determine the actual causes of the accident and assess the nature of the salvage operation and of the environmental clean-up operations that go ahead. We will learn from the experience.

    My Lords, before the noble Viscount sits down, perhaps he will be kind enough to respond to the question concerning local authorities and compensation for individuals.

    My Lords, local authorities will be able to claim from the IOPC fund. Specific compensation arrangements have been put in place. It is an organisation agreed by international treaty and has the ability to call upon approximately £57 million worth of funding to provide compensation. It did a good job following the "Braer" in the Shetland Islands though there are legal claims still outstanding.

    4.57 p.m.

    My Lords, my feeling on this issue is that the Minister's response has been totally disappointing. Indeed, that disappointment is now turning to anger among those of us who have been concerned about the coastal environment for many years.

    The environmental response of the Government has been totally inadequate in view of what was a near ecological disaster along the coast. I urge him to consult immediately again with his honourable friend in another place, the Secretary of State for Wales, to institute a full public inquiry where all the issues concerned with coastal zone management will come forward and all the ecological issues can be discussed. It makes nonsense of the deliberations of this House and of government to talk about sustainable development while such disasters continue to happen.

    The European Union should immediately initiate a new proposal for regulations to control the transport movements that create this kind of pollution so that we can receive a serious response, rather than the totally inadequate response from the Government to what is a major environmental disaster.

    My Lords, I understand the noble Lord's extreme concern for the environment of the region with which he is so closely associated. But there is a possibility that two issues are being confused. I understand that the Government's reaction in physical terms—in putting forward the agreed contingency plans, mobilising the aircraft with dispersant spraying units, bringing forward the beach-cleaning operations and so forth to deal with the oil itself—is giving the noble Lord cause for concern.

    Everything is being done that possibly can be done, mobilising considerable assets to deal as far as we can with the oil. A full public inquiry will not help in any way to address the issues of the clean-up now. An inquiry, against the procedures that I have put forward, is another question. A public inquiry will take time; it will inevitably provoke bitter controversy, legal representation, cost to those who want to make points and so forth. Our concern is to get to the nature of what caused this accident and to find out what lessons can be learnt. Those are our top priorities in terms of investigating the accident.

    My Lords, in piecing together what happened in this accident, I have to agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, that it was an avoidable one. The weather was bad, but it was not that bad. I have to surmise that the tanker was probably late, that the master wanted to avoid paying overtime to the people in the port and that he was cutting corners. One marine expert—I hope that he is not the one who will be conducting the inquiry—was quoted in the Guardian yesterday as saying that the problem was that the tide was too high and that it goes up and down by 25 feet. But it does that every fortnight or so and has been doing it for millions of years. So that was not a very helpful suggestion. He cut the corners. As the tide goes up it also goes in and out, sideways, probably by three or four knots across that entrance, which I know quite well. He was pushed to the side, the pilot came out too late and there was a problem of communications. I do not think they got their act together before they went into the harbour. One thing professional seafarers know is that you should not enter a harbour until you are ready. Is it not true to say that the whole accident was saved from being worse by a Chinese tug with someone from a Chinese takeaway helping to translate? It is a pretty poor reflection on life.

    And that is a pretty poor question, my Lords. I would have expected rather better of the noble Lord. Yes, there were real communications difficulties with the tug in question—we can all have a big laugh about the Chinese takeaway and it is something that the press have centred on; yes, that tug was not useful; and yes the tug was not used. But other tugs were used. It was up to the salvors to determine the tug capacity they wanted. They got the tugs there.

    A great deal of comment has centred on the issue of tugs when in reality the problem towards the end was buoyancy and not pulling power. You can pull a vessel that is on rocks too hard and she will just break up. The noble Lord appears to have conducted his own inquiry and has come to his own conclusions extremely rapidly. I shall not follow him on that course and I shall not pre-empt our inquiry.

    My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that this big ship was on the Liberian register and that whatever may be the merits of that country it is not a maritime country nor one capable of carrying out any effective supervision over the management of shipping? If the ship was on the Liberian register, is there not a case for deciding to impose restrictions on the movements of ships, particularly of big ships, from non-maritime countries?

    My Lords, it is extremely difficult to determine what is and what is not a maritime country. Liberia has a very substantial register indeed. The reasons behind that are numerous and there is a long history after the Second World War of vessels across the whole spectrum flagging out of their national registers. Rather than discriminate by country, we feel it is appropriate to discriminate in terms of condition. That is why we examine vessels which come into our ports. We use port state control. If vessels are substandard, we detain them; and if we detain them, we publish the details of the vessel and of her detention and pass them on to the maritime community. That must be the technique we use instead of trying just to say that because such and such a country does not have as long a maritime tradition as we do, therefore it shall not trade.

    My Lords, it is customary on these occasions to thank the Minister for making a Statement. However, I understand that on this occasion we have very much more to thank the noble Viscount for than making a Statement. His qualities of decision-making and impromptu leadership as the Minister on the spot have been quite outstanding. For that he deserves the thanks of your Lordships' House.

    My Lords, as a former Member of Parliament for Pembroke and as someone who has had some involvement in the shipping and ports industry, perhaps I may first thank those who at considerable risk to themselves succeeded in finally salvaging this vessel. May I ask that the MAIB, in whose efficiency and integrity I have complete confidence, should look with particular urgency at an early stage in its inquiry at the whole question of following the practice of powerful tugs escorting every large tanker into port and to consider as a priority whether there should not be large tugs escorting tankers through the extremely dangerous and exposed entrance to Milford Haven?

    Secondly, will my noble friend ask that all those who are inquiring into this affair look at the ecological damage and the possibilities of preventing ecological damage to the wonderful environment around the Pembrokeshire coast, but also bear in mind when looking at proposals for limiting entry only to double hulled tankers, and so on, at the importance of Milford as an oil port and to the huge importance of the oil refineries there to employment in West Wales? We have to find a balance between protecting the environment and recognising the significance of Milford in those respects.

    My Lords, the Marine Accident Investigation Branch will be looking at the issues of the approach of the vessel, the use of pilots, whether any lessons can be learnt and how tugs should be utilised. But my understanding from speaking to people on the spot is that at Milford Haven the tides and currents are such that a very rapid approach has to be made through the entrance to the haven itself, and for that reason the use of tugs is not suitable. Vessels have to move very quickly and it is not a comparable situation to where oil tankers entering another type of port or harbour might be able to move more slowly and therefore benefit from the use of tugs. But, having said that, the inquiry will also look into that point.

    My noble friend made an extremely important point in that Milford Haven is an important oil terminal with a very large refinery. There is, therefore, a considerable requirement for oil and the passage of oil tankers. That balance is at the heart of this issue. It is in an extremely sensitive area, but we must do everything we can to ensure that the shipping is as safe as possible.

    My Lords, does the Minister agree that, in a sense, we have so far been very fortunate from an ecological point of view that the wind has been northerly? There is now a 16 kilometre long oil slick out at sea and as the winds go round to the more normal south-westerly a far worse ecological disaster may result than anything we have yet seen. Is the noble Viscount satisfied that sufficient is being done to try to prevent that oil slick ending up on those sensitive shores?

    My Lords, the noble Baroness is quite right that we have been relatively fortunate with the direction of the wind in terms of the direction that the large oil spill has taken. As for the spill itself, at sea the main weapon we have is our dedicated fleet of Dakota spraying aircraft. They have been spraying where the oil is far enough offshore not to have associated environmental disadvantages with the dispersant itself coming ashore. That is the main weapon that can be used on oil at sea. Beyond that, we are largely in the hands of the elements.

    My Lords, I shall be brief, and some noble Lords will remember that I used to be brief when I was on the Opposition Front Bench for more than four years dealing with government Statements. In a Starred Question last week I raised the importance of preventing oil pollution of the sea very shortly before the "Sea Empress" went aground. Will my noble friend accept that I make no claim to Highland second sight, which is sometimes attributed to me, but that I and other noble Lords are very concerned on the general subject and, of course, deplore this accident? While informed comment must, I believe, await the results of the inquiry, can the Government assure us that they will now assist in every way to mitigate the damage to wildlife on Skomer and other islands and to the coastline in the path of the slicks?

    Yes, my Lords, I can give my noble friend that strong assurance. We have already taken action and we shall continue to do so.

    My Lords, while echoing what the Minister said earlier that the salvage of a ship of this size from rocks is a very much more complex business than large sectors of the media and the population believe, is it not the case that 20 years ago Milford Haven was used by tankers twice the size of this one and without the need for helicopters or escort tugs? Should we not be looking more carefully at the apparent reduction in standards at sea, which I believe are behind a lot of these distressing incidents that we are seeing today?

    My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right. This is a highly complex issue and it is very difficult to encompass it in a soundbite, as it were. People are looking for easy explanations to a very difficult problem indeed, and one which involves a huge range of factors. I believe that the key factor in this case is that the world's leading salvage experts were on hand. It was their expertise in this highly specialised and technical field which was relied upon. The noble Lord identified the issue of human failings and the associated questions of training and standards of seafaring. Those are vital questions. The noble Lord was absolutely right to highlight them. It is also worth noting that a pilot was on board the vessel at the time.

    My Lords, will my noble friend resist the call for a public inquiry into this matter and allow the MAIB to get on with its job? Is my noble friend aware that in the aviation world there has not been a public inquiry into an accident for nearly 25 years and that most aviation accidents are infinitely more serious (usually involving loss of life) than the one which has taken place in Wales? The reason for that is because the reputation of the Air Accident Investigation Branch is extremely high and its reports highly regarded throughout the world. We all want to see the MAIB gain that same reputation. Unless it is allowed to do its work it will never acquire the same reputation. Will my noble friend also confirm that one of the advantages of the MAIB approach is that interim recommendations can be made, sometimes in a matter of days? Lastly, before all noble Lords condemn flags of convenience out of hand, will my noble friend confirm that the most serious recent accident of this kind involved the "Exxon Valdez" in Alaska, and that ship was American crewed and owned?

    My Lords, when discussing foreign-flagged vessels there is often the temptation automatically to assume that a foreign flag equals sub-standards. That is not the case. A great number of foreign-flagged vessels have been shown to be substandard and I emphasise that. However, the "Sea Empress" is a relatively new vessel and only about three years old. She is not the sort of rust-bucket that one might have deduced from initial reports.

    My noble friend is quite right to highlight the usefulness of the MAIB approach. Our priority is not political expediency in immediately declaring an enormous inquiry to look into this matter. The MAIB is a body which has the technical expertise, integrity and independence to look specifically at these issues and to do so quickly. Speed is also important. I believe that my noble friend was quite right to highlight the issue of interim reports, which can be extremely useful in preventing further accidents.

    My Lords, perhaps I should declare an interest in that I am an owner of a small property on a part of the Pembrokeshire coast, which I fear has already suffered pollution from this oil tanker. Will the Government now implement a recommendation of the Donaldson report, which I understand is still under consideration and which clearly affects Milford Haven, that marine environmental high-risk areas should be established around United Kingdom shores without waiting for international agreement?

    My Lords, I am very pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Rochester, raised the issue of environmental high-risk areas. As he mentioned, it is one of the recommendations made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson, in his report that we are considering. Despite that, the fact is that Milford Haven, with its oil terminal and the refinery, cannot be designated an area to be avoided because oil tankers have to go there. However, I agree with the noble Lord that it is an area of extreme sensitivity and that we must find the best methods of balancing those two very contrasting issues. We have seen what can happen when a great deal of oil is spilt in this highly sensitive environment. But as my noble friend Lord Crickhowell mentioned, the refinery and the terminal are extremely important to the economy of this area of Wales.

    My Lords, most of the Statement, and much of the discussion this afternoon, has surrounded the events that happened immediately when and after the "Sea Empress" hit the rocks. It behoves us all to make the seas as safe as we possibly can. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, that we have to make sure that these accidents are reduced to the absolute limit. It is now possible to use satellites to place cars and even missile silos with pinpoint accuracy. Therefore, does my noble friend agree that satellite global positioning ought now be used to check on the course of all high-risk shipping in our waters at least? It should not be beyond the wit of man to set up a central control to determine a ship's position from her previously agreed, logged and safe, chartered course, as indeed happens already with aircraft.

    My Lords, I agree with my noble friend that technological developments have made navigation a great deal easier. However, there are still the difficulties of very strong tides and currents to be taken into account. We do not yet know whether this accident was caused by an error of navigation, steering failure, engine power plant failure or whatever. We believe that technology is extremely important. A transponder should be fitted to vessels and that is something we are working on with the international community.

    My Lords, I pay a tribute to the noble Viscount for his fortitude in dealing with this event on the spot. It is fair to say that he kept his cool throughout in more ways than one and many of us admire him for it. As regards Skomer, which has been referred to, when claims for compensation are made there will be loud voices from many interests calling from along the coast. Will the Government make sure that Skomer—there is no loud voice because no one lives there except for a warden—is not overlooked if it needs compensation? We hope that it will not, but it may.

    My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her extremely kind words. I receive them with great gratitude. As regards the situation of Skomer, it is clearly a very important wildlife reserve. Extreme environmental sensitivities are involved. There is a great variety of bodies working extremely hard to make sure that the effects of this accident are minimised. They are concentrating their efforts on those islands. As regards compensation for pollution from the IOPC fund, that depends on economic loss or reasonable measures being taken to prevent pollution. However, as I said, there are several other bodies which are extremely concerned, and in financial terms, with these extremely important reserves.

    Family Law Bill Hl

    Consideration of amendments on Report resumed.

    5.20 p.m.

    had given notice of his intention to move, as an amendment to Amendment No. 1, Amendment No. 3:

    Line 6, leave out ("may have broken down") and insert ("is in crisis").

    The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, there has been a general welcome for my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor having accepted the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Stallard, that there should at the outset be a statement of principles to cover the Bill. I deplored one substantial omission earlier and I have made suggestions of verbal improvements. However, there is still one striking lacuna in relation to children. The amendment seeks to add:

    "that the interest of any child affected is paramount".

    My Lords, I am so sorry, I think I am speaking to an amendment which has not been called. I do not move Amendment No. 3.

    [ Amendment No. 3, as an amendment to Amendment No. 1, not moved.]

    [ Amendment No. 4, as an amendment to Amendment No. 1, not moved.]

    moved, as an amendment to Amendment No. 1, Amendment No. 5:

    Line 14, at end insert—

    ("(d) that the interest of any child affected is paramount.").

    The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, what I said prematurely on Amendment No. 3 is sufficiently in your Lordships' minds, so I do not propose to repeat it. It has been a notable feature of permissive divorce reform, of which this is the latest instalment, to concentrate attention on the spouses without regard to the fact that a family extends to the children. The Bill, as presented, was thin on references to children. On an earlier amendment, I quoted the phrase that was used of the parties being locked in a loveless marriage and indicated that that is impossible to enunciate when there is a child.

    Practically every speech made by proponents of the measure has used the phrase "a dead marriage" as if a marriage could properly be described as dead when there is living proof on the vine. Those phrases, the Bill, and all the terminology to which I have referred, have been used in the light of the Children Act, to which my noble and learned friend referred on an earlier amendment, with welcome prematurity. That suggests that the reference in the Children Act is not sufficient when one comes to understanding and construing—and, most of all, the public understanding of this measure.

    Even if the Children Act does impinge on this measure, there can be no possible harm in adding the provision which I am now submitting to your Lordships. If it does not—I confess that I am by no means certain that it does; in other words, that the Children Act would be considered as governing every transaction under this measure—we need the amendment. As I say, if it does, it can do no harm. I beg to move.

    My Lords, I support the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale. So much do I respect him that I have proposed almost identical wording in an amendment to Clause 2. It raises the same point about introducing the principle expressed in the Children Act.

    As I understand it the Children Act deals primarily with disputes between parents. The Family Law Bill does not deal primarily with disputes between parents but with the divorce of parents. It is possible to have a divorce where the parents are not in dispute. I suggest that care should be used in analysing the problem which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, brings before the House to show that the paramountcy of the welfare of the children should be in both—the Family Law Bill and the Children Act. The Children Act deals with court orders, custody, wardship, and so on. The same principle is expressed in the Family Law Bill.

    The noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, and many other noble Lords have pointed out the importance of children in relation to divorce. I am sure that it is my noble and learned friend's view and philosophy that the importance of children is central to the Bill. I should be grateful if the amendment could be considered in that light.

    My Lords, I well remember my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor improving the Children Act 1989 by putting into Section 1 words which are almost identical to those in Amendment No. 5. It was a statement of principle which was to guide all concerned in exercising their functions under the Act. The question is whether it would help to have it as an addition to the amendment moved by my noble and learned friend. In my opinion, it strengthens my noble and learned friend's new clause.

    It must be confessed that Amendment No. 5 overlaps, to a minor extent, the words in paragraph (c)(i) of the amendment moved by my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor where reference is made to,
    "with minimum distress to the parties and to the children affected".
    That does not go as far as Amendment No. 5. The two are not incompatible. If Amendment No. 5 were added, the earlier words could quite well stand. I hope that my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor will accept Amendment No. 5. It contains an important statement of principle which should be borne in mind by all concerned in exercising their functions under the Bill.

    My Lords, were it not for my concern for children I would not be taking part in discussions on the Bill. I believe that we are all at one with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, in wishing to protect their position so far as is consistent with practicality and justice.

    My noble friend Lord Renton said that the Children Act has as its preliminary section, as indeed it does, that the child's welfare shall be paramount in the court's consideration whenever the court is exercising its powers under the Children Act. The question I wish to ask my noble and learned friend is: am I right in thinking that in exercising their powers under any subsequent Act the courts are still acting under the Children Act 1989, which means that the paramountcy of the child is already preserved?

    5.30 p.m.

    My Lords, unfortunately, I was unable to be in my place in Committee and I wish to take this opportunity to thank the noble and learned Lord for accepting a slightly different form of the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Stallard. Had I been present I should have spoken strongly in favour of it.

    I am not qualified to enter into the discussion about whether it is necessary to repeat the word "paramount" in this Bill if it is already in the Children Act. No doubt the noble and learned Lord will tell us that. However, I wish to speak about the word "paramount" itself because it is a difficult and strong word. I ask myself whether in a divorce situation it is fair to the parents to say that the child's interest is paramount. After considerable thought, I believe that it is and that it is necessary to have it in the Bill.

    First, the interests of the parent will only rarely be in conflict with the interests of the child. If they are in conflict surely the parents should take on their shoulders the burden of the disadvantage. That principle is fundamental to our society because if children are to grow up happy and useful and as acceptable citizens they need love, security, support and guidance.

    I confess that there are different ways in which that can be given. In The Republic of Plato, or indeed in the Spartan community, children were brought up by the state. It is rather different in a democracy. The cost of care by the state is astronomical, whether it is given directly, through children's homes, through foster parents or through support for dysfunctional families and single parents. In a democracy there is a limit to the burden of cost that the taxpayers are prepared to accept. Already in this country the cost of supporting dysfunctional families is reaching a level at which people are beginning to feel tetchy about it. If the situation gets out of hand taxpayers will say, "No more". If that happens children will really suffer.

    We cannot afford to go down that route. That is why I believe that Parliament must say to parents, through this Bill, "If you decide to have a child, or if you have a child by mistake, you are responsible for that child. If you subsequently fail to get on together and decide to divorce you have a duty to protect the child as far as humanly possible from the results of your failure".

    I believe that parents must recognise that the child's interest is paramount. If parents fail to recognise it society must, through the law, step in and say, "The interest of the child is paramount". I therefore support the amendment.

    My Lords, the noble and learned Lord may remember speaking to a similar amendment during our discussions on the Child Support Act. In the Children Act the interest of the child is paramount because it is an Act about children. It does not necessarily follow that the interest of the child should be paramount in every context. Were that to be so I am sure a large number of roads around the country would be closed instantly. I do not believe that to be in prospect. This Bill is concerned with balancing a large number of competing interests. That is necessarily so and we cannot avoid it.

    When we consider the interest of the child in a situation involving divorce we must decide whether we are considering the interest of the child in conjunction with those of his parents or in opposition to them. If we consider the interest of the child in opposition to that of his parents almost every child would prefer to have two loving parents living together. But politics is the art of the possible. Because we would like that to happen it does not follow that it will happen. It is a bit like passing an Act to say that we shall always have a wise and benevolent government. I do not believe that it would prove effective.

    If we consider the child's interest in opposition to that of his parents we cannot achieve what we want. We are doing more than is humanly possible. If we consider the child's interest in conjunction with that of his parents we will be doing only what the Bill is attempting to do in any event. Either the words are otiose or they are redundant and I prefer to see the Bill remain as it is.

    My Lords, perhaps your Lordships will consider the following scene. Two children say that they want their parents to stay together and not to be divorced. The court agrees with them and the divorce is not granted. Then the father or the mother—I shall not be sexist—runs off with somebody of the opposite sex. Because he or she is not allowed to divorce that person lives with somebody else, unmarried. Unfortunately, one cannot stop human beings behaving in such a way. It is how people behave. It is important that children's interests are taken into account but I believe that to make them paramount is going too far. I believe that my example shows that to be a perfectly reasonable view to take.

    My Lords, I will yield to none in my desire to do everything that the law properly can to protect and promote the interests of our children. I believe that it is fundamental to our way of life. I also believe that the best possible surroundings in which children can be brought up is a happy home, with father and mother happily married providing them with a secure background. Sadly, there are many circumstances in which that is not possible. One of them is where father and mother reach a situation in which they cannot possibly live together.

    As was said by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, if the parents were acting properly, in considering what they should do they would consider the interests of the children paramount. However, the court is faced with what the parents have actually done. All noble Lords will know that there are cases in which one parent has gone off and left a young child in order to pursue a different way of life with somebody other than the child's other parent.

    In that situation, where the question is, "Should the parents be divorced?", the court has very little option, assuming that the grounds of divorce, whatever they are, are made out, but to grant a divorce. We shall consider the grounds of divorce in more detail when we debate the amendment tabled by my noble friend Lady Young. In my submission, the correct approach is to say that matters concerned with the welfare of the children are subject to the provisions of the Children Act which, in my view, is a well-balanced, practical and efficient method of dealing with that most important matter.

    As your Lordships know, I have proposed an amendment to the hardship clause in order to take account of the possibility of the decree of divorce creating hardship for the children. Your Lordships may have seen that some people believe that I am suggesting that children should become involved in the disputes of their parents. I need not point out to your Lordships, because your Lordships know, that I have done no such thing. But it is extremely important that we do not do that if we can possibly avoid it. I believe that one of the worst things that can happen to a child when parents are divorcing is to become involved in the disputes between the parents in such a way as to sour relationships between that child and both parents. It is in the fundamental interests of the child that the child should maintain as good a relationship as possible with both parents, notwithstanding the divorce. That is the primary consideration which has led me to put this Bill before your Lordships.

    Therefore, I submit to your Lordships that it is not appropriate to accept this amendment. As I said, I have proposed amendments in relation to the hardship bar and in that I was trying to take account of the views of your Lordships in Committee. I have relaxed the hardship bar which will now apply to all grounds for divorce, assuming that my proposals are carried. I have accepted also an amendment proposed by my noble friend Lady Elles that the court should take that into consideration when looking to see whether the powers under the Children Act should operate. In my submission to your Lordships, that is the right way to proceed, with the paramountcy of the children coming in where there are questions about the arrangements for them: where they should live; with whom they should have contact; prohibited steps orders and so on.

    Therefore, with the greatest possible respect to my noble and learned friend, I hope that he will withdraw this amendment on the basis that we are all committed to doing everything possible to promote the interests of the children in an appropriate manner in this sad situation.

    My Lords, before the noble and learned Lord sits down, I wonder whether he will assist me on a matter which I was proposing to raise on a later debate. I wonder whether he will assist your Lordships as to the meaning of the word "paramount", referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne. I do not recollect a case in which it was judicially defined. Does he understand it to mean the most important of the interests to be considered or does he understand it to mean that it should be conclusive to the total exclusion of all other considerations?

    My Lords, I take it that it is the most important interest to be considered and to dominate all other considerations. It may not be easy to give a full definition. I do not have a dictionary at hand nor, regrettably, in my head. But that is the way that I understand it. Where the court is operating under the Children Act, its leading, most important and all-prevailing consideration is that of the interests of the child.

    However, that may be different where there is a dispute between parents in relation to matters. I give your Lordships one example which does not come completely out of the context of this Bill but is related to it. In the distribution of property between the father and mother, are the interests of the children to be paramount in that sense? Obviously, something must be done about providing for the father and the mother, and the children will have to be provided for properly. But I submit to your Lordships that in that case the interests of the children should not have the controlling influence which one would expect them to have as regards the question of where the child is to reside. That may not be a very good answer but it is the best that I can give.

    My Lords, before my noble and learned friend sits down, perhaps he will bear in mind—and it supports his argument because, quite frankly, he has converted me—that "paramount" means overriding in this context in particular.

    My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend. He has answered the question much more briefly than I did.

    5.45 p.m.

    My Lords, I am grateful to those noble Lords who have contributed to the debate and most of all to those who have supported the amendment.

    At the outset, I deal with some subsidiary points. First, I was very glad that my noble and learned friend adopted the argument that I ventured to put forward in Committee that it is highly detrimental to the interests of a child whose parents are in conflict to be brought into that conflict.

    Secondly, my noble and learned friend posed a difficulty just before he sat down for the first time. He referred to the formula when it comes to the division of property. That is quite irrelevant because this Bill is not concerned at all with division of property.

    In Committee, I submitted some schedules which dealt with co-ownership of the matrimonial home and its chattels. My noble and learned friend demurred from them being made part of the Bill. I understood him to say—I think I prematurely understood him to say—that he would refer the matter to the Law Commission. I have only just received a letter from my noble and learned friend, for which I am grateful, which does not appear to be quite so encouraging as that.

    But the point is that there is no question at all of division of property under this Bill. Therefore, with all respect to my noble and learned friend, the point that he made was entirely irrelevant.

    The third point that I wish to make is about the word "paramount" which has been referred to by more than one noble Lord, including my noble friend Lord Northbourne. That is a phrase which is perfectly well-known to the law. The original guardianship of infancy says that the welfare of the child was to be the first and paramount consideration. Parliament took over that phrase from the old Court of Chancery whose formula it was in its jurisdiction over children. If I were asked to define it, I would be obliged, I think, to say that "first" and "paramount" is really a pleonasm. A first consideration is a consideration which is more important than any other. A paramount consideration is a consideration which is more important than all others, and in relation to a child, I hope that that would be the test.

    The noble Earl, Lord Russell, with whom I am far happier in agreement than differing from him, said that the formula is all right in the context of the Children Act but not in any context whatever. But of all contexts, surely the context of the Family Law Bill is where it is most relevant. It is most relevant because the child is part of a family whose relationships we are considering. It is most important because the welfare of the child is paramount because the whole future of society depends on the children. It depends on the children, even if we did not have abundant evidence by now that divorce is damaging to the children whose background is disrupted.

    My noble and learned friend was kind enough to send me recently the report of the Exeter University Research Group. But there is evidence upon evidence to suggest that disruption of the family background is damaging to a child. It goes back to the 1930s and the researches of Can-Saunders who found a clear link between delinquency and the disruption of the family background. Therefore, if there is any context in which that formula is relevant and desirable, it is in the context of this Bill.

    My noble and learned friend referred to an amendment which he has tabled to Clause 9 picking up on an amendment that was proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Elles. That is important and, in addition, there are a number of other amendments relating to children which fall to be discussed, including my Amendment No. 8 which would spare children altogether the trauma of divorce.

    In those circumstances, it seems to me that it would be premature to press the amendment at this stage. It can be considered later when we know how the Bill is shaped in relation to all the other suggestions that have been made about the welfare of children. Therefore, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

    Amendment No. 5 as an amendment to Amendment No. 1, by leave, withdrawn.

    On Question, Amendment No. 1 agreed to.

    Clause 2 [ Circumstances in which orders are made]:

    Page 2, line 2, leave out ("attending information sessions") and insert ("information meetings").

    The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, in moving the amendment I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 44 to 51 and 54 to 57. The amendments that I propose in this connection arise out of questions that were raised with me about sessions for information. It was thought that the expression which we had used—namely, "information sessions"—had connotations of large, public communal events which might prove intimidating to some people. There was also concern expressed about the possibility of preserving privacy.

    I wanted to make the provisions as open as possible so as to enable us to benefit from pilots of the giving of information which I propose to carry out. I have sought to meet the concerns about privacy and also those expressed about parties going separately to information sessions. Obviously, there are some situations in which parties would not find it congenial to go together, especially those involving domestic violence. Therefore, I have sought to make clear that those concerns have been addressed.

    I regard it as a rightly important part of the philosophy of the Bill that, before anyone goes to court with any kind of statement about the breakdown of his or her marriage, very full information should effectively be given to those concerned about the situation and particularly about all the types of help that may be available. In my view, it is extremely important that that information should be given effectively. The different situations which may arise are numerous and it is not possible to say with any precision at this stage what is the best method of dealing with them. That is why I propose substantial pilots if your Lordships and another place ultimately pass the Bill. One of the reasons for the delay in bringing it into effect is that those matters and arrangements should be thoroughly put in place so that the law will operate effectively.

    I believe that most of the other amendments are self-evident in their purpose. In the light of that explanation, I beg to move.

    My Lords, I wish to speak to Amendments Nos. 52, 53, 58 and 59 which are tabled in my name. I very much welcome the first amendment of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor which states clearly the general principles guiding the working of the Bill. It states,

    "that the institution of marriage is to be supported".
    "the parties to a marriage which may have broken down are to be encouraged to take all practicable steps to save it".
    The most obvious ways in which those excellent principles can be given substance is by ensuring that those attending information sessions are,
    "offered a counselling session with an approved marriage counsellor",
    as set out in Amendment No. 52. The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor has indicated that he intends such meetings to include information about marriage counselling. But his commitment, as reported at cols. 993 to 995 of Hansard of 23rd January, needs to be written into the Bill for all to see and respond to, not only for this generation but for subsequent generations.

    While information about a number of matters will be given in the information meetings, the availability of marriage counselling is so fundamental and central to the stated principles that lie behind the Bill that it is crucial that it should appear in print. That is the intention of Amendment No. 52. However, we do not want just anyone to set himself—or, indeed, herself—up as a marriage counsellor. The marriage support agencies—the Jewish Marriage Council, Relate, The Tavistock Marital Studies Institute, One Plus One and Marriage Care—ensure that those who work for them undertake specialised training and receive ongoing professional supervision by experienced and specialist practitioners. Amendment No. 53 is designed to ensure that only approved counsellors in organisations approved by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor would undertake that crucial work.

    Amendments Nos. 58 and 59 seek to clarify and strengthen the latter provision. Marriage counselling is a discipline in its own right, distinct from counselling of other kinds. Individual counselling gives priority to the well-being and personal development of the person concerned by considering matters from his or her point of view. Marriage counselling addresses the needs and expectations of both partners and the future of the relationship. It is a skill which requires specialist training and development.

    Research from one study shows that,
    "many couples do not know whether their marriage is at an end; indeed some may be using the legal system to find out".
    That highlights the need for the amendments standing in my name. Of course, it will be entirely up to the couple as to whether or not they avail themselves of such marriage counselling. Moreover, in the majority of cases, it is likely that the divorce process will simply go on.

    However, some marriages can be saved and will be saved. Because of that it is vital that the availability of such marriage counselling should be clearly spelt out, not just for the present but for the many years ahead when the Bill is likely to be in operation. I am looking 20 or 30 years ahead. I suspect that the legislation will still be in force. It is vital for those in the future that the availability of marriage counselling, professionally monitored, is actually on the statute book. I hope that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor will be able to accept my amendments which I believe have substantial all-party support.

    6 p.m.

    My Lords, as the noble and learned Lord, the Lord Chancellor, said, his Amendment No. 6, and some of his subsequent amendments, arose out of our debates in Committee. In relation to Amendment No. 6, I asked for some reassurance about the form which the information sessions would take. Indeed, we received some welcome assurances from the noble and learned Lord. I think at that point the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, suggested that some of the misunderstandings—if, indeed, there were misunderstandings—arose from the use of the expression "information sessions". The noble and learned Lord duly undertook to consider that matter. As he said, we also referred to problems as regards the privacy of the information process, and of possible intimidation of vulnerable partners. The noble and learned Lord listened to what we said and reflected on it. For the second or third time this evening, we are in his debt for that. That, as I understand it, is the whole purpose of our proceedings in Committee and at Report stage.

    I wish briefly to mention two other matters. First, I have received a letter from Dr. Stephen Cretney pointing out that the pilot schemes proposed by the noble and learned Lord involve voluntary attendance. They will not in any sense involve the kind of persuasion which appears to be envisaged in the Bill, as there will be no power to apply persuasion of that kind. The information involved will comply with the existing law, and not with the law which will operate when the Bill is on the statute book. Doctor Cretney expressed some doubt whether, in consequence, we shall learn as much from these schemes as we would normally hope to learn from pilot schemes. I thought it right to inform your Lordships and the noble and learned Lord of those comments. For my part, I still think that these pilot schemes will be extremely valuable. They may not tell us all that there is to know, but I believe they will provide some useful guidance.

    Secondly, my noble friend Lord Irvine and I wish to express our total agreement with everything that was said by the right reverend Prelate. His arguments would not benefit from repetition by me, and I do not propose to do that except to say that it is certainly most important that the conciliation services should be undertaken by conciliators who are qualified and accredited. It is important to have some such scheme in place. We support the amendments of the right reverend Prelate.

    My Lords, I, too, welcome the proposals of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor on the information sessions, now called meetings. I was interested to hear his explanation. Many of us are worried about what exactly will happen. The pilot schemes are to be welcomed, but quite how they will work is rather unclear. Obviously there will be pilot schemes in some areas and not in others. I do not know what conclusions we are expected to draw from that on how the process will work later. If I may say so, we are buying fairly blind on the information sessions, but it was helpful to have been given a further explanation, and no doubt more information will be forthcoming should this Bill find its way onto the statute book.

    The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford mentioned a point that he raised in Committee. I am sure that all of us—certainly myself—who would like to see a Bill that buttresses marriage rather than civilises divorce welcome the proposals to help couples who are in difficulty. We are, of course, aware that some 20,000 to 30,000 couples each year get to the brink of divorce and then decide not to go further, and that quite a proportion of couples who divorce regret that they ever did so. Therefore, anything that can be done to help those two groups of people seems to me to be valuable.

    I return to what I regard as an important point if we are putting public money into an organisation; namely, what we are putting the money into, and what the organisations are doing. I entirely agree with the point made by the right reverend Prelate when he said that we should support marriage. However, I am reluctant to put public money into organisations which regard marriage as one of a series of alternative lifestyles. I believe that is the current jargon. We need to be careful about what we are doing.

    I wish to ask the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford what is meant by Amendment No. 53 which states,
    "For the purposes of this section, an approved marriage counsellor is a person currently accredited as such by an organisation…who has undertaken specialist training in couple counselling".
    What does that mean? Does the amendment refer to marriage, to cohabitation, to homosexual couples or to lesbian couples? To whom does it refer? We must understand what we are doing if we put public money into these organisations. I should also like to have a definition of "marital interaction", as referred to in the amendment. Does that mean having a row, or chatting over dinner, or holding hands? If we are passing legislation, we must define precisely what it is we are about. I return to my fundamental point; namely, that if we are putting public money into such a process, which I believe we all agree we should do to help marriages, we need to make quite sure that the money will have precisely that effect, and that it is not being given to an organisation which a great many of us would not wish to see publicly supported at all.

    My Lords, I join others in thanking the noble and learned Lord for reviewing the phraseology of the provisions with regard to the giving of information. I was among those who expressed anxiety on this matter. However, I should like the noble and learned Lord to take the matter a little further. As I understood the noble and learned Lord at the previous stage of the Bill, he suggested that one of the means of providing information might be to make use of technology. He mentioned, in particular, the use of videos. I wonder whether using the term "meetings" might preclude all that the noble and learned Lord might have in mind, and all that might come out of the use of pilot schemes, if videos are to be used, possibly without face to face meetings taking place. I am not sure whether the noble and learned Lord has in mind that a meeting with a person will be required in every case. That is what the term suggests to me. I do not think we are yet quite at the point in our interaction with modern technology where the viewing of a video would be considered to constitute a meeting.

    I take this opportunity to ask whether the noble and learned Lord can give us any information as to when the pilot schemes may start, although I accept, of course, that the Bill has to complete its passage first. How does the noble and learned Lord envisage discussion taking place on what the pilot schemes might consist of? I know that there is some anxiety among practitioners that time will pass quickly, and that it might be useful to have some public discussion on what the pilots might comprise at an early stage. I, for one, would be grateful to hear the noble and learned Lord's comments as regards the detail of the pilot schemes and the timetable. On behalf of myself and my noble friend—I have to be careful not to speak for all on these Benches—I should say that I believe the amendments of the right reverend Prelate are self-evidently right.

    My Lords, I had in mind that if a video is to be used it would be handed out, and possibly handed back, but that there would also be some arrangement for a meeting with an individual to take place—rather than solely the viewing of a video—in situations which were not covered by exemptions. I believe it is extremely important that these matters should be effectively communicated and that people are not left with an ineffectual communication of information. We are all familiar with the situation of receiving pieces of paper, sometimes in fairly large quantities, where perhaps we do not always study them as fully as the importance of the information they contain would require.

    As regards timing, I wish to consult those who can help in this situation. I have already obtained information from other jurisdictions where these arrangements are in place. Assuming the Bill attains Royal Assent, I hope to proceed with it soon after that.

    The noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, referred to Dr. Stephen Cretney. I accept that the pilots will have to be conducted against the background of the existing law until the new law is brought in. That is certainly an important consideration. I do not believe that what we do at the beginning will necessarily be the final form. The regulation-making power will enable us to improve the information meetings in the light of experience of their interaction with the new law after it comes into force.

    My noble friend Lady Young has raised questions about the amendments of the right reverend Prelate. As a result of an amendment passed on the last occasion, Clause 18 provides for the giving of grants to marriage support services and research into the causes of marital breakdown and ways of preventing it. These are all quite clearly related to marriage and they are framed deliberately. I think it right that the availability of marriage counselling is made clear in the regulations relating to the nature of the information to be provided. The right reverend Prelate would like to see that on the face of the Bill. One of the difficulties—which we have faced in relation to other amendments—is that once one starts to specify matters one has to specify all that may be required. I have to guard against the possibility that a list will not be sufficiently flexible in order to take account of changes in the period that I and the right reverend Prelate hope the Bill will cover.

    I have a problem about approved organisations. The method that I wish to use in relation to marriage counselling is grant aid. I remain of the view that it is extremely important that marriage counselling is not skewed towards the end rather than the beginning of a marriage. It is important that this kind of service is available as early as possible. In this connection, I propose that grant aid be available to organisations who qualify under the grant-aiding provisions. To impose a system of regulation organised by the Lord Chancellor or the Government is more than is necessary. As my noble friend Lady Young has said, it is not right to hand out public money by way of grants, except to those who are providing the service to standards that we think appropriate and with results which justify the giving of further money. Provision for monitoring the utility of the service is important.

    The right reverend Prelate also spoke of consultation in framing the regulations. Of course, I will wish to consult with bodies working in this field. The difficulty about the form of his amendment is that it is so rigid that it would be difficult to ensure compliance with it. I hope that the right reverend Prelate will feel able not to move his amendments and to allow me to consider putting forward an amendment in relation to consultation that meets his main concern as set out in his last amendment. As far as the earlier amendments are concerned, I shall wish to consider whether, in relation to the information session, it is possible to make provision for greater detail in the primary legislation without endangering the necessary flexibility.

    My Lords, perhaps my noble and learned friend will allow me to put a question. Will be not make the kind of consultation that the right reverend Prelate desires without being enjoined to do so in an Act of Parliament and the cluttering up of the statute book?

    My Lords, I will certainly undertake to do that. But these regulations may vary from time-to-time, and the right reverend Prelate asks for an assurance that this particular point is placed on the statute book. If the right reverend Prelate is content with an assurance that I will consult all of the relevant organisations in this field of which I am aware, obviously I am also content with that. That will save the statute book some words. My noble and learned friend is always concerned to achieve that. That is an alternative course of action. Because of the importance attached to this matter, I am willing to consult on the framing of the regulations if I am given flexibility as to the nature of that consultation. I do not wish to take on the responsibility of statutory regulation of these bodies, but prefer to rely on the fact that government money under Clause 18 will not be given to them except under the kind of conditions to which I have referred. I commend the amendment to the House.

    On Question, amendment agreed to.

    6.15 p.m.

    Page 2, line 5, after ("satisfied;") insert—

    ("( ) it is not contrary to the interests of any child of the family to dissolve the marriage;").

    The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 7 I should like to speak also to Amendment No. 9 in the same grouping.

    Like many other noble Lords, I should like to express my gratitude to my noble and learned friend for including children not only on the face of the Bill but in the general objectives adopted in Amendment No. 1, and in particular the reference to minimum distress being caused to children in this process. Of course, that covers the life of the child not only before and during divorce proceedings but after them. I believe that everybody has admitted that it is after divorce proceedings that so much distress and suffering is caused to the child of a marriage that has been dissolved. I am grateful that there is now mention of the child and that the interests of the child, insofar as we are considering its position within the Bill, can fall within and be judged against the general principles expressed in Amendment No. 1.

    It has been said several times—but we must remind ourselves from time-to-time—that this is a family law Bill, not a divorce reform Bill. Surely, it is not unreasonable to provide that a court should consider the welfare of the children during divorce proceedings. That is the purpose of Amendment No. 7. As can be seen from Clause 2 in Part I, the court has to take into account four considerations listed in paragraphs (a) to (d). I suggest that it is perfectly reasonable to expect the court to have regard to the interests of the children of the family during the discussion and decision-making process. I should like to repeat what my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor has already pointed out. This does not mean that a child should have a veto on divorce, any more than that consideration of the child's interests under the Children Act means that the child can veto custody or a court order. It means that where there are circumstances which can be shown to be detrimental to the child the court must have regard to them before an application for divorce is granted. That is the purpose of Amendment No. 7.

    I briefly turn to Amendment No. 9 which provides a new subsection (5) to Clause 2 of the Bill. The provision is similar to Section 1(3) of the Children Act. It contains a list of matters to which the court should have regard in considering the child's best interests. My list is taken directly from Section 1(3) of the Children Act, removing those parts of the list which are not relevant to divorce but are more appropriate to the care procedures or contested custody applications which fall within the purview of the Children Act.

    My list is set out in Amendment No. 9. It refers to,

    "the ascertainable wishes and the feeling of the child".

    There may be some suggestion that "wishes" is not the appropriate word. It refers to,

    "his physical, emotional and educational needs".

    There are many cases in which there are special needs for children. The provision refers to,

    "the likely effect on [the child] of any change in his circumstances; and any harm which he has suffered or is at risk of suffering".

    The provision sets out the considerations that could guide the court when it considers the interests of the child. As I have indicated, they would not be overriding. However, in considering a divorce where there are children of the marriage it seems logical and reasonable that those interests should be taken into account before a divorce is granted. There is no logical reason why welfare should be at centre stage when a court must make a decision about a child's custody or access, but should take a back seat when it comes to the parents' divorce.

    We discussed at some length in Committee the effect of divorce on the children of the marriage. I do not intend to repeat all the points made during that debate. We have only to refer back to them to see all the problems as regards the broken home and the effects on the children. We all recognise that while one of the parents may hopefully imagine that he or she will find greater happiness through divorce, we can probably agree that those who will not find happiness either way will be the children of the divorcees. They will probably bear scars from that divorce for the rest of their lives.

    I hope that it will be considered reasonable to put these two amendments on the face of the Bill. I should, of course, withdraw subsection (4) in Amendment No. 9, which is very similar to the provision that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, has withdrawn. I beg to move.

    My Lords, like the noble Baroness, Lady Elles, I am very glad that the first amendment of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor includes children. I have been concerned until now that there has been hardly any reference to children in the Bill. I am very glad that they now feature in the first amendment.

    I put my name to the two amendments so capably moved and spoken to by the noble Baroness because it is right that the interests of the children should come in the part of the Bill which deals with court orders. A court should have direction from Parliament in this part of the Bill to give particular attention to the interests of children.

    I recently received the report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in York, published a year ago, called Family and Parenthood. Like all the reports of that foundation, it is very thorough and interesting. It states that,
    "the 168,248 English and Welsh children under 16 who experienced their parents' divorce during 1992 was double the 1971 figure and exceeded the previous peak reached in 1980".
    We are concerned with a large number of children. I draw attention in particular to subsection (5)(c) which provides that the court shall have regard to,
    "the likely effect on [the child] of any change in his circumstances".
    The same report states—it is a point raised previously in our debates—that,
    "there is accumulated evidence that children whose birth parents separate run increased risks of adverse educational, health and behavioural outcomes when compared with those of similar social backgrounds whose parents stay together".
    It continues:
    "It is now apparent that some consequences for some children continue into adult life".
    It is extremely important that when a case comes before the court it should take account of that. I have been worried during debates that not enough attention is being paid to the interests of children. That is what worries me most about the whole process of divorce. I support the amendments.

    My Lords, I, too, support the two amendments. Apparently 90 per cent. of children of divorcing parents wish their parents would stay together. Divorce causes loss of their status, identity and self-esteem, and in over 50 per cent. of cases loss of one parent. I strongly support the amendments which I hope will help to make divorce less likely and will help the children to stop their parents' divorcing.

    My Lords, I strongly support the general aim of the amendments. However, there is a practical difficulty. Subsection (5)(a) of Amendment No. 9 refers to,

    "the ascertainable wishes and feelings of the child concerned".
    How do the proposers of the amendment imagine that the court will ascertain those wishes and feelings without the risk of setting the child against the parent?

    It seems to me that there is a place for trying to get into the mind of the child, as it were. National Family Mediation has a code of practice on this. I thought that it might be useful to your Lordships if I were to read a few paragraphs. The code states:
    "Mediators must encourage the participants to consider their children's wishes and feelings. Where appropriate, they may discuss with the participants whether and to what extent it is proper to involve the children themselves in the mediation process in order to consult them about their wishes and feelings".
    That keeps the ball firmly in the court of the parents. It continues:
    "Where it appears to any mediator that a child is suffering or likely to suffer significant harm, the mediators must advise the participants to seek help from the appropriate agency.
    "Where it appears necessary or desirable in order to protect the child from significant harm, the mediator must in any event contact the appropriate agency".
    The code continues:
    "When parents cannot agree or the situation is such that they cannot communicate with their children without the children feeling they are caught between them, or might be disloyal or are unduly influenced by one parent, then the mediator will seek to consult the children's views directly and bring their wishes and feelings back to the parents' session. Direct consultation by a skilled mediator gives children respect as 'persons to whom duties are owed not objects of welfare'… and ensures that their views are fully considered and become an important influence on parents' final decisions".
    It seems to me that to incorporate that part of the code of practice into mediation services is probably the right way for the points made in the amendments to be met. I should be fearful of anything that allowed the court direct access to the children.

    6.30 p.m.

    My Lords, the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Habgood, was the subject of an amendment at an earlier stage. Might it be possible for the court welfare officer to collect the information from the children? I think that could be done without unduly bringing the children into the divorce.

    My Lords, I presume that the suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Habgood, would fall to the Government, under the scheme described by my noble and learned friend, by the terms in which a grant was given to the organisation providing the counselling. It is a matter for reflection.

    Perhaps my noble and learned friend can answer a question which I did not hear answered in a previous exchange. Am I right in thinking that the whole operation of the Bill is subject to the provisions of the Children Act which he has frequently described in the House as biting in a particular case? If so, are not many of the gnats which we are straining at gnats and not camels?

    My Lords, I am afraid that I could not support Amendment No. 7 as it stands. It goes too far in two respects. First, it appears to cover children of any age. Presumably, 18 or 19 year-olds—perhaps those who are even older—could be included. Secondly, it comes into operation if there is any disadvantage whatever to a child, however small, arising from a divorce. If the amendment were reworded to read that it was "wholly contrary" or "markedly contrary" to the vital interests of any child of the marriage under the age of 16 to dissolve the marriage, I could support it, but not otherwise. Amendment No. 9 is less draconian but I am still uneasy, given how difficult it will be to predict with accuracy the consequences of the divorce on any given child.

    My Lords, I too am worried about Amendment No. 7 and the words,

    "it is not contrary to the interests of any child".
    I prefer the words, "have regard to the interests of any child". I do not see how the wording could be implemented. Any divorce is not in the interests of a child; therefore there could be no divorce at all if that wording were included. I agree with my noble friend Lady Elles. I understand the proposal but the wording might lead to misinterpretation.

    I support the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Habgood, on Amendment No. 9 and the words,
    "the ascertainable wishes and feelings of the child concerned".
    If we were to follow the wishes of the child those wishes might be wrong. Therefore it ought to be the child's concerns and feelings.

    Some of the press got hold of completely the wrong end of the stick when they suggested that the noble and learned Lord wanted children to be involved in the process of divorce. He did not say that, but the press insinuated it. I wish to say how wrong that was. I would like the wording of Amendment No. 9 to be altered. As regards the children, it would not be fair for them to feel that their wishes would be listened to because quite often that is not possible. The children's concerns and worries might be listened to but not their wishes because they might not be fulfilled.

    My Lords, I support the general thrust of the amendments, although some of the points that have been made ought to be taken into account before the House decides. It is true that the press have got hold of the wrong end of the stick with some of them believing that under the amendments children would have a veto on divorce. That would not be acceptable to the House, nor to me.

    I repeat what I said in Committee. Children are a vital part of a marriage where children exist in it. We must bear in mind that once a child has arrived it is part of the marriage. It no longer belongs to the husband and the wife; it belongs to the husband, the wife and the children of the marriage. Therefore, it is necessary to address the concerns and welfare of the children as well as their feelings where they can be ascertained. However, the children's feelings must not constitute a veto on divorce.

    It has been argued that we should not involve children in the process because they will be involved in the acrimony which so often goes with divorce. But they are already involved in acrimony. If there were no acrimony within the family, there would be no thought of divorce. One cannot use that argument against taking into account, where possible, the views and interests of children. Whether we like it or not, if we want this to be a family law Bill, as against a divorce Bill, we must address the interests of children and ensure that they are addressed properly. We must ensure that as a House and as part of Parliament we get it right. That is why the debate is so important and why the views which have been expressed have been so interesting.

    My Lords, I expressed both at Second Reading and in Committee my wish to see children appear in the Bill. Although I greatly wish for that, I do not quite feel myself able to support the amendments of the noble Baroness, Lady Elles. I do not believe that the words "interests", "wishes" and "feelings" are quite what we should have. I support the reservations of the noble Lord, Lord Habgood, and the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull. I prefer our own amendments which come later. Thus I shall reserve my right to speak on them at the right moment.

    My Lords, in formulating Amendment No. 9 my noble friend Lady Elles pointed out that she had taken the wording from the Children Act. The noble Lord, Lord Moran, expressed his surprise that there is so little mention of children in the Bill. However, the excellent Children Act remains extant and its terms apply, whatever may appear in the Bill. Is it not therefore reasonable that the amendments suggested by my noble friend should not appear in the Bill because they are not necessary? The legislation is already there.

    My Lords, it seems to me that Amendment No. 7 could almost be classed as the Librum veto in the old Polish Parliament. In other words, it appears that one child in a divorce can veto the prospect of divorce by his parents. It is within the bounds of imagination or possibility that there could be five children in a marriage. It could conceivably be in the interests of one of those children that the marriage continues, and in the interests of the other four that it is dissolved. Is that one child to be able to behave like a Polish count? It strikes me as not being a very sensible approach.

    We all agree that the interests of children must be looked at very carefully, as the noble Lord, Lord Habgood, said. Perhaps this consideration should be more important in conciliation measures than in mediation measures. The Law Society produced a brief on exactly that point.

    I believe the noble and learned Lord has it right. The,
    "ascertainable wishes and feelings of the child concerned"
    is not something that we should allow to go into law.

    My parents divorced, and I did not want them to. It was probably a silly thing that they were divorced, and in the end they did not like it very much. But it would have been totally wrong for me (admittedly by then I was 21 or 22) to be able to stop that divorce. It would have been even more wrong to be able to stop it had the divorce taken place when I was 12 or 14. These amendments are well-meaning, but ill-thought-out.

    My Lords, I support both these amendments, so well introduced by my noble friend Lady Elles. In offering my support, I am well aware of the subsequent amendments tabled by my noble and learned friend in connection with the hardship bar and his new amendment, I believe tabled today, Amendment No. 137. Obviously, we shall have an opportunity to debate those matters, but both these amendments are very welcome steps in the right direction in regard to the importance of children.

    It may well be wondered, therefore, why we feel it necessary to add anything further to the proposal. There is a difference between the considerations that apply in Clause 9 on the hardship bar, which we shall discuss later, and those brought forward by my noble and learned friend .in his Amendment No. 137—as I understand it, that amendment is very largely concerned with property, assets, and so on—and these amendments which fill a lacuna, as it were, in the provisions relating to children. They are based directly on the Children Act because we regard that Act as saying something of significance which ought to be central to this piece of legislation.

    It does not need me to rehearse all the arguments as to the devastating effects of divorce on children. The noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, set them out, as did the noble Lord, Lord Moran. Although we pay lip-service to these matters all the time in this House, and did so in Committee, we now know that one in five children is from a broken home. One-third of the children in a class are from broken homes, as are one-third of the students in a university. I am told that, were we to look into the tragedy of people sleeping rough under the arches at Waterloo station, we should find that a lot are 16 year-olds, turned out of their home by dreadful step-parents of one sort or another, causing terrible social problems, all stemming from divorce. This is therefore an extremely important issue. We should not in any way gloss over it. but should see it as central to the Bill.

    I understand the concerns about wording expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Habgood. It may well be that the wording is not quite right. However, I should be very loath to leave this matter to mediation. After all, nobody can be obliged to go to mediation, any more than they can be obliged to go to conciliation, desirable though it may be. Therefore, we need much firmer measures on the face of the Bill.

    Another point was raised in relation to the definition of "a child" in Clause 7. That is defined in law, and covers the age of a child. We are not talking about someone who is 19 or 20.

    These amendments need very careful consideration. I very much hope that if my noble and learned friend feels he cannot accept them today he will take them away and perhaps redraft them where necessary. It seems totally inconsistent to have a Children Act that sets out what we believe is best for children, and which we all supported, and then, five minutes later, have another piece of legislation that is different. That is inconsistent. It is part of the general confusion today as to what we mean about marriage and bringing up children that we have inconsistent views. When it becomes inconvenient to consider the interests of children, we drop the matter. Nothing is mentioned in the Bill. We need to be consistent.

    As my noble friend Lady Elles made absolutely clear in her opening remarks, this proposal does not mean asking children to put a veto on divorce. Obviously that would be an absurd proposition. However, it does mean that when the court considers the matter, the interests of the children ought to be amajor concern. I support these amendments and hope that my noble and learned friend will consider them very seriously.

    6.45 p.m.

    My Lords, I have not spoken before on this Bill. I did not want noble Lords to tell me that I had not been married and divorced and therefore knew nothing about it. However, I have done a lot of work with children. When I read in the press that my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor wanted children to be asked whether or not their parents should be divorced, I was absolutely horrified. I examined the Bill and the amendments, and found that he was not doing any such thing. But that is precisely what my noble friends—with whom I agree about so much in relation to the importance of children—suggest in subsection (5)(a) of Amendment No. 9 which refers to,

    "the ascertainable wishes and feelings of the child concerned".
    In that context, a child is asked to say whether he or she wants the parents to divorce. I do not understand how we can say that that puts the paramount interests of the child first. If the child says no to divorce, the parents stay together in a miserable situation and the child will blame himself or herself. If the child says yes, they split up and the situation is miserable. Again, the child will blame himself or herself. In such a situation the marriage is already in a very bad state, and we know that children blame themselves for that. That is what happens. This is the wrong point at which to apply such a proposal.

    The noble Lord, Lord Habgood, spoke about how children are consulted in mediation. With respect, that is completely different. I know a little about it, as I took a Private Member's Bill on mediation through this House last Session. Asking a child about the arrangements that will be made for him or her is quite different. Amendment No. 9 suggests that we ask a child: do you, or do you not want your parents to divorce? I cannot possibly go along with that, and I hope that my noble and learned friend will not.

    My Lords, I am concerned as to how this amendment would work in practice. I ask myself, "How would a court take an objective view as to whether or not dissolution of the marriage is in the interests of the child?", and examine that question case by case. I suspect a confusion of thought in this debate between dissolution of the marriage and separation of the parents. It is very important that that distinction is kept at the forefront of our considerations.

    At least a year before the matter comes before the court, as it would under this amendment, the parents themselves probably will have already confronted the question of whether or not they should separate and will have asked themselves the question which parents in that situation must ask. It is a question to which I do not feel there is ever a satisfactory answer. It is whether to struggle on; try to stay together in conflict and unhappiness; or stay apart in relative peace (if not harmony) possibly to spare the children further distress but meaning that the children, unhappily, do not have two parents under the same roof.

    So far as concerns the wishes of the children, most children would say, if asked, that the one thing they really want is for their parents to be back together. But in case after case that is the one thing the children cannot have. Whether that is then translated into a reason for holding up or preventing the dissolution of the marriage is a different question altogether. However, I fear that one side effect of these amendments would be to involve the children more than they already inevitably will be involved. I subscribe to the view—it is the view of very experienced family lawyers—that in many cases children have the right not to have to decide these difficult questions.

    As a matter of drafting, it seems to me that the amendment may well be in some ways inconsistent with Clause 2(1)(c) of the Bill. The other thing with which the courts will have to be concerned in any event is whether the arrangements required to be made for the children have been met. It is certainly right, if there is an issue about what is best for the children, that any question concerning the upbringing of the children is properly considered under the provisions of the Children Act, to which reference has already been made and of which the provisions set out in Amendment No. 9 are but part. Therefore, I have reservations about the amendments.

    My Lords, I am a little puzzled. Perhaps the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor can help me. Amendment No. 7 seems clear-cut. I could not support it. Yes, I could support the spirit of it, but not the letter. It is stopping the divorce.

    So far as I understand Amendment No. 9, new subsection (5) simply says that:
    "a court shall have regard in particular to".
    To my mind, the amendment does not in any way necessarily stop the divorce. It means that the children's wishes, thoughts and situation is brought into the picture for consideration. That seems to me perfectly straightforward and reasonable, if I understand it correctly. If I do so correctly understand it, I should want to support it. I should like to know whether the noble and learned Lord accepts that that is the right way to interpret the amendment.

    My Lords, I believe that we can stipulate that children in divorced families are usually unhappier than children with two loving parents living together. We need not go on arguing about that. But if we were to legislate for that, we might be accused of legislating in favour of Father Christmas. What we need to consider is whether children in divorced families are better or worse off than children with two unhappily married parents.

    In Committee I said that there was no research available on that point. The noble Baroness, Lady Elles, rightly pulled me up and drew my attention to the Exeter Family Study, which I read with very great profit. It is an excellent piece of research and I shall rely on it in many contexts in social security debates. The sentence to which she drew my attention was technically incorrect. The study attempts the task of comparing unhappily married parents with divorced parents. I have a great many queries about the statistics. I shall not detain the House with the bulk of them now.

    Perhaps I may mention one point. There is no way of eliminating the possibility that the couples who divorced were unhappier than the couples in a state of conflict who continued to live together. So the fact that their children suffered more disturbance may simply be because their parents were unhappier. It may not be the consequence of the divorce.

    It remains my position that we simply do not know, as a general rule, whether children are more unhappy with unhappily married parents living together or with divorced parents. I suspect that there is no general rule on that at all. In the total absence of information on which I feel that I can rely I am not prepared to put very much weight on the point. That is why I am afraid that, grateful though I am to the noble Baroness for drawing my attention to the study, I still cannot support the amendment.

    My Lords, I support the general thrust of these amendments. Any defects in drafting or wording can perfectly well be cleared up at Third Reading. Two of my amendments are grouped with this amendment. Amendment No. 25 falls right outside the area. It is concerned with representation of the child and it revives the suggestion that I made in Committee that the best person to represent the child's interests is the Official Solicitor. Other suggestions were made, such as court welfare officers. My amendment is better considered in this context. I say "represent the child's interests" and agree very strongly with the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, that it is far more important that the child's interests should be considered than the child's views canvassed. I believe that that answers a great many of the points made in this debate.

    My other amendment is Amendment No. 8. That amendment vindicates the principle that children come first. It takes children right out of the divorce process. Their views will not be canvassed and they will not be asked because there will be no divorce when there is a young child. The noble Earl says that we lack information. So we do. But we know that children suffer from divorce. We do not know how it occurs or where it occurs particularly acutely. My own feeling is that one of the greatest sources of damage is the presentation of a surrogate parent and the indoctrination of a child. My heart sank on being told, "I have done what I can but the child has an invincible repugnance to seeing his lather"—or mother. One knew that consciously or unconsciously—it was generally a little of both—the child had been influenced. So it is important to canvass the interests of the child.

    The evidence is conclusive that children suffer from divorce in many ways. Twice during the course of the Bill I have quoted what was said by my noble and learned friend about that. My noble friend Lord Moran quoted some alarming figures but in fact they minimise the extent of the danger. I believe he said that over 160,000 children were involved in 1993; but that is only the children whose parents were divorced in that year. To that one must add the children who were under 15 whose parents divorced the previous year and so on back; the children under 14 the year before, and so forth. The figure is more likely to be 250,000. Are we really going to wash our hands of them? Are we going to wring our hands and say that it is just too bad? We have the highest divorce rate in Europe. Our average is almost twice the European average. Are we just to beat our breasts and leave it at that?

    I therefore commend to your Lordships the idea—even if we do not accept it this time we can perhaps accept it next time—that there should be no divorce where there are children of the family under the age of 16. Not only would that dramatically reduce the rate of divorce; not only would it spare thousands of children from untold misery and detriment; but it would also at a stroke deal with the problem in relation to the mounting divorce rate.

    I guarantee firmly that if such a provision were introduced there would be only a small number of divorces that would require adjudication or relief. What is more, it may well be—it would probably be—in the interests of the parents themselves. The light and flame of youth would be extinguished, but the parents would be still united in a common interest in the child for whom they have—and this is enduring—made a sacrifice. The light and flame of youth may well turn into a glow of the remaining coals of their marriage.

    I agree so much with what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, my noble friend Lord Moran and the noble Baroness, Lady Young. We turn our hack on such evidence at our peril. Why should children come first? Because they are the future of our society. They should come first and the way to make them come first is to say that there shall be no divorce if the children are under 16. It is for that reason that I support the amendment of the noble Baroness, though I would prefer to go further and see my own enacted.

    7 p.m.

    My Lords, the difficulty with Amendment No. 8 is that, although children nearly always suffer when their parents are divorced, many children will suffer even more if their parents do not divorce.

    My Lords, I see that my Amendment No. 24 is grouped with Amendment No. 7. With the permission of the House I would prefer to speak to it separately when its turn comes.

    My Lords, what struck me in the course of the debate is the amount of common ground between all noble Lords who participated. The noble Baroness, Lady Elles, reminded us, and rightly, that where there has been an irretrievable breakdown of a marriage, we must ensure that in arranging the divorce and resolving the disputes of home and property, the court should not lose sight of the interests of the children.

    It is true, as so many noble Lords have said, that the interests of the children would be best served if the marriage did not break down at all. The interests of the children would be best served by a warm, happy, affectionate home. But that is not what we are contemplating. The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor said in an earlier debate that the question is: what is to happen when that is no longer possible and one or both parties wants a divorce? The question therefore is how best to give effect to the principle which the noble Baroness wishes to introduce into the Bill.

    The noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, in his Amendment No. 8, proposes that if there is a child under 16 there can be no divorce at all, even if the court were to consider that it was in the interests of the child and that those interests would be better served by their being divorced. I agree with those noble Lords who said that it does not follow automatically that the interests of a child are necessarily, in all circumstances, better served by keeping the marriage in existence. Something may turn on the alternatives: whether the parents would continue to stay together; if they continue to stay together, what the situation in the home would he; what may happen if they did not stay together and entered into other relationships. Those are all matters to be considered. With the greatest respect to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon—again, it is an unusual situation for me to find myself differing from him—he would preclude the courts from entering into any of those inquiries in the case of a child under 16 and considering the situation at all.

    The noble Baroness, Lady Elles, does not go quite so far. She would invite the court to consider whether the interests of the child would be adversely affected by a divorce. But she offered the court no discrimination if it came to the conclusion that those interests were adversely affected. If the court finds that a divorce would be contrary to the interests of a child, it would have no discretion; it would have to refuse a divorce.

    I respectfully agree with those noble Lords who believe that that is putting it too high. When the court is considering an order directly affecting a child—something about wardship or care and control—then the interests of the child should be paramount. My noble friend Lord Irvine reminded me a few moments ago (in fact he told me because I do not believe I ever knew it) that the word "paramount" was judicially defined in the case of Thane in 1925. That definition was used by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor in an earlier debate. Those interests are more important than the other interests, but they are not exclusive; they do riot "trump"—the court used that word—all the other interests.

    Before I interrupted myself I was saying that where it is a question of an order directed specifically to a child, then it would be right to say that the interests of the child should be paramount. But where what is in question is whether there shall be a divorce, then the interests, the future and the happiness of other people are involved. The court should be empowered at least to give them consideration. It may decide that in all the circumstances the interests of the child outweigh those of the parents and that the interests of the child are that there should not be a divorce. So be it. But to say that the court may not even take the interests of other people into account appears to be going too far. As the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, pointed out, what happens if there is more than one child and the interests of those children conflict? What guidance do we give the court then?

    We have all encountered children carrying a feeling of guilt because, perhaps unwittingly, they have prevented their parents from obtaining what they believe their parents desire. It would be wrong to place children in the position of being the necessary occasion of their parents' frustration without a court being able even to take that into account.

    The noble Baroness rather exacerbates the problem when she says that the court must have regard to the wishes and feelings of the children. I do not dissent from that—no one in their right mind would—although at Committee stage the feeling was expressed by more than one of your Lordships that the interests of the child may be of greater importance than the expressed wishes of the child. But I would not quarrel with giving a child of suitable age the opportunity to express a view. Indeed, I think we are under an obligation as a country to do so because it is in the convention on the rights of the child, to which this country has subscribed. I have sometimes wondered how it operates always in practice. I have tried with children and grandchildren to listen to their arguments. There has usually come a time, I am hound to say, when I have lost my temper and terminated the argument. Quite how far the convention requires us to go, I am not sure; but of course we would not seek to dissuade a court from listening to the wishes of the child.

    I share the anxieties of the noble Lord, Lord Habgood, in asking how the court is to go about ascertaining those wishes. I suspect that if a judge were simply to ask a child, "Do you want your parents to divorce?", none of us would have any hesitation in predicting what the answer would he. There are ways of ascertaining a child's wishes; but it is not an easy problem. I confess that I am one of those who takes the view that courts ought not to be encouraged to involve children in the emotional crises of their parents. There may be occasions when it has to be done but normally I should have thought that it could not bode well for a child to feel that he had to take sides between his parents and lose the friendship and love of one parent or the other. But what is proposed is that the wishes of the child will have to be expressed in the context of what would be virtually a veto on the divorce—I see that the noble Baroness, Lady Elles, shakes her head, but she does not give the court any discretion if it finds that the interests of the child are adversely affected. I confess to an anxiety over whether placing a child in that position would be good for the child.

    I have a great deal of sympathy, as no doubt do all noble Lords, with what the noble Baroness is seeking to achieve; but I hope that she might be persuaded that the court should be given some discretion in applying that to the infinitely variable facts of any particular case. It follows from what I have said that I support the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne.

    My Lords, these are amendments of very great importance, and in responding to them I should like to try to answer one of the questions that was put to me. As I understand Amendment No. 7, it would prevent the grant of an order of divorce if it were contrary to the interests of any child of the family. If one leaves that out of account, there is not really a basis for the later provision in relation to that particular object. But it may well be that the object will be served in some other context—the welfare of the child will come into consideration in some other context.

    The question of how children's existence should be taken into account in relation to a divorce is a very difficult one. Hitherto, it has been done by requiring that where the court considers that powers under the Children Act should be exercised in connection with the children, the court may postpone the granting of the divorce until it does just that. The provisions of the Children Act are intended to deal with all the circumstances which affect a child's welfare; where the child lives, when that is in dispute; with whom the child should have contact; points to do with where the child should be educated; and so on—four particular types of order especially in Part II of the Children Act. Paragraphs (a) to (d) of Amendment No. 9 are taken from criteria in the Children Act for deciding these matters. Hitherto, the position has been that the arrangements for the children are to be considered against the background of these criteria. That is the arrangement for the children on the divorce. It has not hitherto been regarded as part of the consideration of whether or not a divorce should be granted at all.

    The extreme view is the one contained in Amendment No. 8 in the name of my noble and learned friend Lord Simon of Glaisdale. He would reduce divorces at a stroke by not allowing them in the case of there being children under the age of 16. The logical consequence of that is that if you want to reduce divorces altogether at a stroke you bring in a law to say that there will be no divorce. Would that meet our present situation? You would certainly make sure that there were no divorces—no legal divorces, anyway—but you might well unleash very powerful forces.

    My Lords, was that not the situation which we had for centuries?

    7.15 p.m.

    My Lords, I am sure that my noble and learned friend will have read history about this matter as much as I have. Certainly one way out of these situations in past centuries was the drastic one of one or other of the parties terminating their lives. To my mind this is a serious matter. The idea that by getting rid of a divorce order you immediately sort out the situation is just impracticable. If I thought that the way to benefit the children in this country was to get rid of divorces so long as the children were under the age of 16 I would be very happy to embrace that, but I do not believe that for a moment.

    I agree with the view expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Moran, my noble friend Lady Young and others that the present situation is serious and that is why I think it needs to be addressed, and addressed by means of the provisions of this Bill which encourage—that is the most the state can do—people to try to save their marriages. It is not a task that will always he successful but it is a task on which help is important.

    In relation to the children of the marriage, it was said by a number of noble Lords that it is not intended that what is proposed should produce a veto. If it does not produce a veto, it is hard to see how it will work. So far as I understand these amendments, they do not seem to me to have implied in them a practical way of working.

    Perhaps I may suggest—it may be somewhat presumptuous on my part—that one way of looking at this is by reference to the hardship bar; to use the hardship bar as a mechanism by which the interests of the children should be considered. Having regard to the debates in Committee, I have proposed that that is a way of dealing with the matter. Where there is substantial hardship to a child or children of the marriage resulting from the order of dissolution, the court should have a discretion to refuse the order of dissolution. That seems to me to provide a practical and reasonable way of handling this matter. It may be that my noble friend Lady Elles would like to do more in that connection, but that is a basis on which this matter can be approached.

    I have also to point out that part of the arrangements in connection with a divorce before it can be granted under the provisions of the Bill is that the arrangements for the children are before the court. I have embodied in Amendment No. 137, to which my noble friend Lady Young referred, the criteria that my noble friend Lady Elles proposed in her earlier amendment, which is similar to one she proposed in Committee, for bringing into effect the operation of the Children Act in conjunction with the divorce arrangements. That is the right thing and the right way to look at it.

    The court, in considering the divorce arrangements, should consider those that the parties have made for the children by reference to the criteria we have set out. In that way a practical arrangement is possible for taking proper account of the interests of the children. The Children Act allows the court to take account of the various matters referred to in subsection (5)(a), (h) and (c). It is perfectly reasonable that the interests, wishes and feelings of the child should be taken into account when considering, for example, where it should stay and with whom it should have contact. It is quite a different thing to say that those wishes and feelings could really play a part in deciding whether or not their parents should be allowed the benefit of a dissolution of their marriage.

    My understanding of the research is that what really causes damage to the children is the breakdown of the marriage usually leading to separation of the unit of husband and wife into two distinct units. The child cannot stay with both and feels torn in two. That is a real danger. It usually happens sometime before the divorce. In considering the dissolution of the marriage there is nothing that the court can do to put that right unless the parties are persuaded, by means of the kind of things we are seeking to encourage here, to do it for themselves.

    In my submission the Bill provides the correct framework. I am certainly willing to consider whether anything further should be done in relation to the hardship bar. I believe that that is the right way forward and the only practical way in which interests can be taken into account in a way which does not distort the whole divorce process which is, after all, not a process for the children, although it has effects on them, but for dissolving the marriage of their parents.

    I invite my noble friend to withdraw the amendment. We may be able to consider whether anything more requires to be done in relation to the hardship bar and the other amendments I have suggested. I believe that we have come quite a long way towards dealing with the problem appropriately by later amendments.

    My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble and learned friend for a rather generous offer. I shall withdraw the amendment. I would like to consider further ways in which subsection (5)(c) can be brought into the Bill in some form or other and particularly the three paragraphs which come from the Children Act. Perhaps they can be put into Clause 9 so that they will be part of the consideration of the way in which the court will consider the welfare of the children. That may be one way around the problem. I would like to consider that later.

    I am surprised that some noble Lords question the words "wishes" and "feelings" which were so strongly supported in this House when the Children Bill, as it then was, was being debated. They are the precise words taken from the text of the Children Act. I realise that there are many who consider that there would be a veto on the divorce if the interests of the children were taken into account. Some of us share the deep feelings of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, as regards the fact that probably there should not be any divorce, particularly where there are children under the age of 16. I accept, however, that that would not be the feeling of the House and that it would not be acceptable. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, would object when I say "in this day and age" because of the way people regard divorce.

    Perhaps I may conclude with one comment to the House about what is happening to children. A teacher used to talk to a class in Newcastle every year on religious themes. He found that he could no longer do so because he could not talk any more about God the Father because, although the children knew about God, they did not know who or what the father was. That seems to sum up what is happening to children and their parents in today's society. I thank the noble and learned Lord and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

    My Lords, before my noble friend sits down perhaps she can help me on this point. One of the problems is that as a result of the breakdown of a marriage many children are not in contact with their fathers. Is it not right that one of the ways of trying to alleviate that is to preserve, on the breakdown of a marriage, a good relationship between the children and their father?

    My Lords, I agree entirely with my noble and learned friend. I thank him very much for the amendment that he has tabled which reflects one that I tabled earlier referring precisely to contact between both parents. We at least share that particular view. I am very grateful to my noble and learned friend for having raised the matter.

    Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

    [ Amendments Nos. 8 and 9 not moved.]

    My Lords, I beg to move that further consideration on Report be now adjourned.

    Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

    Business Tenancies (Northern Ireland) Order 1996

    7.26 p.m.

    The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office
    (Baroness Denton of Wakefield)

    rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 15th January be approved.

    The noble Baroness said: My Lords, this order implements the recommendations contained in the report of the Law Reform Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland on Business Tenancies, published in June 1994. The Business Tenancies (Northern Ireland) Act 1964 governs the law relating to business tenancies in Northern Ireland and gives the tenant of business premises basic rights; namely, the right to security of tenure and the right to compensation. The committee, following its review and after extensive consultation with interested parties in Northern Ireland, concluded that the 1964 Act on the whole achieved a fair balance between the competing interests of landlord and tenant. The committee recommended that the basic principles of the Act should remain, but that its procedures should be streamlined to promote legal certainty and simplicity.

    The Government accepted the recommendations of the advisory committee generally, and the order contains its core recommendations. This is a technical piece of legislation, but it is important. I beg to move.

    Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 15th January he approved.—( Baroness Denton of Wakefield.)

    My Lords, once again I am grateful to the Minister for introducing this order, which we support. I commend the Law Reform Advisory Committee for its work. I believe that it is still chaired by Lord Justice Carswell so the quality of the work is no surprise. I believe also that it was set up in the almost forgotten but happy days of a Labour administration, which is another cause for sel f-congratulation.

    On a more sober note, no one has worked harder than the Minister in the cause of the improvement of business, inward investment and the development of employment opportunities. This order will have a part to play in that picture at a time when there are so many difficulties which threaten the very useful and fruitful work that the Minister has done over these past months and years. We support this order.

    My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Williams, for his support for the order. I would expect it to come with commendation, given its source. We appreciate the work of the committee. I also thank the noble Lord for his concern for Northern Ireland at this time. It is heartbreaking to see the views and prayers of Northern Ireland for peace ignored so outrageously.

    I should like to place on the record that we are cheered by how much was achieved in the 17 months of the ceasefire. There are foundations which a break in the ceasefire will not take away. People who would have crossed the street to avoid one another now work together in community and business. Business leaders have emerged to lead in the commercial world. We have always maintained shareholder value, and it remains. The strength of the local firms and their export record will help us. In Northern Ireland, if the effort amounted to 110 per cent. previously, it is now 140 per cent. We shall continue to simplify legislation. I thank the noble Lord for his support. I commend the order to the House.

    On Question, Motion agreed to.

    Hong Kong (Overseas Public Servants) Bill

    7.31 p.m.

    Read a third time.

    My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill do now pass.

    I explained at Second Reading that the Bill is an enabling measure which will allow the Government to offer a package of benefits to certain overseas Hong Kong officers. In particular, we propose to make schemes, by Order in Council, to pay officers compensation for loss of their career prospects and to provide Hong Kong overseas pensioners with a measure of protection for the sterling value of their pensions. Officers will also be allowed to retire prematurely before 30th June 1997 and he entitled to resettlement help.

    The Bill was considered in Committee. Noble Lords who spoke recognised the contributions that Hong Kong overseas officers have made to the success of Hong Kong and that they should receive benefits similar to those provided to their predecessors in 42 former British dependent territories. It is gratifying that no noble Lord questioned the object of the Bill. There was some discussion also of the proposed pension safeguard scheme which the Government propose to implement, by Order in Council, after enactment of this legislation.

    I explained in some detail the considerations which underlie the proposed scheme and why the Government consider that it is fair to Hong Kong pensioners and to British taxpayers. The Bill passed through Committee unamended, and I have no government amendments to propose. I beg to move.

    Moved, That the Bill do now pass.—(Lord Chesham.)

    My Lords, I thank the Minister and the other contributors who discussed the Bill. I should like also, as I did on Second Reading, to pay tribute to the Hong Kong Civil Service and its overseas members. They have worked with great efficiency and commitment to Hong Kong and its future. I should like also to wish them well in the months leading up to the handover, and for those who intend to remain in their posts over that period and beyond, I express my hope that the transition will be as trouble free as it possibly can be.

    The Labour Party has been happy to support the Bill throughout its consideration in this House and another place. It provides the security needed for retiring civil servants in Hong Kong. We know that it is acceptable to them after a long period of negotiation which we are sure they will be glad is now over. It is consistent with the 42 other similar schemes, and as such, again, is highly acceptable to us. I look forward to the Bill receiving its Royal Assent and being implemented.

    My Lords, we on these Benches echo the sentiments of the noble Baroness with regard to the commitment of Hong Kong civil servants who are soon to be pensioners. Although I failed to make any impression on the Bill or to change the Government's mind, this is a worthy piece of legislation. I hope that it is enacted well.

    My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness and the noble Lord for their support for the Bill. We too would like to pay a great tribute to the overseas civil servants in Hong Kong. We wish them the very best, and hope that everything goes as well as it possibly can. I commend the Bill to the House.

    On Question, Bill passed.

    European Convergence Criteria: Deficit Assessment

    7.35 p.m.

    rose to move, That this House approves, for the purposes of Section 5 of the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1993, Her Majesty's Government's assessment as set out in the Financial Statement and Budget Report 1996–97.

    The noble Lord said: My Lords, Section 5 of the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1993 is about sending information on economic matters to the Commission. It asks the Government to submit to Parliament for its approval a report which assesses the UK's medium-term economic and budgetary position. It also says that this report shall form the basis of any submission of information to the Council and Commission which may be required under Articles 103 and 104c of the Maastricht Treaty.

    The Financial Statement and Budget Report 1996–97, the Red Book, provides that assessment. It describes the Government's tax and spending plans and explains how they are related to the Government's economic and political objectives. The last paragraph of chapter I of the Red Book states that it forms the basis of submissions to the European Commission for the purposes of multilateral surveillance of economic policies.

    In sending that report the Government are merely continuing to co-operate in the longstanding practice of sharing information on economic matters with our partners in the Community. The Maastricht Treaty extended that co-operation with two new procedures: the agreement of broad economic policy guidelines by the Council and the excessive deficits procedure. In stage 2 of EMU the Council can make non-binding recommendations only under these procedures.

    This debate is not about the Government's economic strategy which was fully debated in another place after the Budget Statement and in your Lordships' House the day after the Budget, thanks to the ingenuity of the noble Lord, Lord Desai. However, the House may note that this strategy has succeeded in providing a stable macroeconomic framework, sustainable growth, the longest period with inflation below 4 per cent. for almost 50 years, falling unemployment, and sound public finances. This debate is about transmitting this information in the Red Book to the European Commission to comply with our treaty obligations. I beg to move.

    Moved, That this House approves, for the purposes of Section 5 of the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1993, Her Majesty's Government's assessment as set out in the Financial Statement and Budget Report I 996–97.—( Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish.)

    7.37 p.m.

    My Lords, on the previous two occasions upon which we have debated this Motion, as is required, as the Minister said, by Section 5 of the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1993, noble Lords on all sides of the House protested that regurgitating chapters of the Red Book did not fulfil the conditions laid down in that section. Where, for example, in this ersatz report is there the "assessment of the medium term economic and budgetary position in relation to the … social … and environmental goals", as is required by the Act? Nowhere, of course.

    Including Section 1(16) to assert that the report does meet those conditions does not make it true. It is typical of the Government to think that asserting something is true makes it true. The Minister should realise that that is not the case. I suppose that the Minister thinks that if he ignores the law of the land year after year we on these Benches will eventually tire of complaining of the Government's duplicity and let the matter go. We will not. It is about time the Minister displayed some respect for the law. Surely that is not too much to ask, even of this Government.

    What is clearly too much to ask is an unambiguous statement of the Government's fiscal objectives. Two years ago, when the first of these debates took place, the Government's fiscal goal, as set out in the 1993 Red Book (para 2.8) was:
    "to bring the PSBR back toward balance over the medium term, and in particular to ensure that when the economy is on trend the public sector borrows no more than is required to finance its net capital spending".
    I pointed out at the time that the first part of that sentence contradicts the second part. Perhaps because of my protest—perhaps not—last year the Government's fiscal goal was changed. Paragraph 2.9 of the 1994 Red Book reads:
    "The Government's fiscal objective is to bring the PSBR back to balance over the medium term".
    That is all. There is no mention any more of financing capital spending by the public sector.

    Now, lo and behold, in the 1995 Red Book the objective of fiscal policy has been changed again. In paragraph 2.12 we find that the internal contradictions of 1993 have been reinstated and that the Government's medium-term objective is to bring the PSBR back into balance over the medium term—that is, to borrow nothing—and at the same time to borrow no more than is required to finance net capital spending—that is, to borrow something.

    That confusion over the very foundation of the Government's fiscal strategy is intolerable. Even if the Minister adopts his customary position of ignoring all questions asked of him, he really must answer this: is the Government's medium-term fiscal objective that government borrowing should be zero? Or is it the Government's medium-term fiscal objective that the Government should borrow to finance capital expenditure? Which is it? To submit a report to Parliament which is internally contradictory is simply unacceptable.

    Regrettably, this report is not just muddled, though that would be bad enough, it is also quite literally calculated to deceive. The deficit projections in the report are based on assumptions about general economic performance which are widely accepted by informed commentators to be false. Table 4.2 of the Red Book provides an estimate of the general government financial deficit, the relevant measure of the fiscal deficit under the Maastricht criteria. The deficit is forecast to be 4¾ per cent. of GDP in 1995–96 and 3½ per cent. in 1996-97, which is "close", as the report puts it, to the Maastricht target.

    However, as is pointed out in paragraph 4.7 of the Red Book:
    "The projections of the public finances in the medium term are based on the assumptions on the economy set out in paragraph 3.61".
    Let us turn to paragraph 3.61 and find out what those assumptions are. Crucially, we find the assumption is that the economy will grow by 2 per cent. in 1995–96 and by 3 per cent. by 1996–97. When the assumption of 3 per cent. growth this year was touted by the Government last November it was just barely credible. Today, three months later, as the latest issue of the Bank of England's latest Inflation Report makes clear, the assumption of 3 per cent. growth is truly incredible.

    In the face of the Government's projection of accelerating growth, on which their estimates of the fiscal deficits are based, it is worth examining what the Bank has had to say in the past couple of weeks. In its Inflation Report it stated:
    "Economic growth slowed throughout last year. Non-oil output was about 2 per cent. higher than in 1994. But the fourth-quarter growth rate fell throughout the year from 3 per cent. at the beginning to about I per cent. at the end … a more protracted period of slow growth during 1996. as a result of significant downward revisions to growth prospects in the world economy (especially France and Germany) cannot be ruled out".
    So much for 3 per cent.; so much for 2½ per cent., the so-called "slow-growth" scenario used in Table 4.11 of the report. Today's PSBR figures reinforce the Bank's view.

    Will the Government now tell us what, in the light of the factors which the Bank of England has identified, is the Treasury's current forecast for the impact of slower GDP growth on the projected deficit outturn?

    Of course, the report is not just about forecasts; it is about the Maastricht convergence criteria. In the midst of the confusion and dissimulation, it might be expected that the Government would at least make clear to your Lordships' House what their attitude to the convergence criteria might be. Do the Government believe that the convergence criteria are the appropriate criteria for judging whether Britain should join a single currency or do they not?

    I am not asking the Minister to tell us whether Britain will join. I quite understand that the Government wish to postpone that decision to a later date. What I am asking is: what are the criteria which the Government will use to reach that decision? What are the Government looking for? Do the Government believe, for example, that the achievement of the Maastricht guidelines are appropriate criteria or are they looking for something else? If so, what'? If the Prime Minister is too confused, or too fearful of Mr. Portillo's xenophobic battalions, to state what the basis of his own judgment might he, can the Minister at least tell us what is the Government's attitude to other member states forming a monetary union?

    The Prime Minister's regular attempts to argue that France and Germany should not join in monetary union even if they want to do so simply makes this country look ridiculous. He is pretending that he can fix the rules of a game that he himself does not want to play. The unrestrained glee with which government Ministers greet every difficulty encountered by France and Germany on the path to monetary union clearly reveals their attitude to the enterprise. In the face of civil war in the Conservative Party, they want the whole thing to fail; they want their private nightmare to go away.

    What happens to the Conservative Party does not matter much. But when party in-fighting determines the international stance of Her Majesty's Government that is enormously damaging to this country's interests. Crowing over the difficulties of our European partners in the pursuit of their political objectives is bound to build up long-standing resentment and to weaken yet further Britain's political and economic standing with our partners.

    This position was made crystal clear in a remarkably frank letter sent by the Chancellor of the Exchequer last month to Signor Dini, the chairman of the Committee of European Finance Ministers. In his letter, Mr. Clarke identified with remarkable candour the key questions about what will happen if and when—and it is most likely when—France and Germany forge a monetary union and Europe is divided into "ins" and "outs", with Britain among the "outs".

    It is well worth examining Mr. Clarke's points. First, what exactly will be the link between the single currency and the pound? Do the Government imagine that the pound will go on floating? What do the Government assume will be the reaction of France and Germany to the strains of monetary union being multiplied by the strains of the devaluing pound?

    Secondly, for those on the inside the logical use of the European Union's structural funds will be to develop and strengthen those weaker regions within the monetary union which have no possibility of devaluation, rather than reinforcing the competitive position of the British who continue to devalue. What will the Government do when the structural funds are diverted from Liverpool and Scotland to Lille and the eastern Länder of Germany? Mr. Clarke informed Signor Dini that he would protest. A fat lot of good that will do!

    Thirdly, is it not the case that those who have joined the monetary union, the insiders, will feel that their economic interests take precedence over the economic interests of the outsiders? For example, the policies of the Central European Bank, an institution which due to the incompetence of Mr. Major will be located in Frankfurt and not where it should be in the City of London, will be geared to the needs of the insiders not the outsiders.

    Fourthly, it seems likely that once the monetary union is formed the insiders will impose stricter conditions on any new entrants than are currently contained in the Treaty. Will the Minister tell us, for example, what is the Government's reaction to Herr Waigel's proposal that once the monetary union is formed the deficit conditions should be tightened'? Do the Government agree with Herr Waigel? If so, does the Minister agree that stricter conditions applied to insiders under Herr Waigel's scheme will be applied to outsiders who in the future might wish to join'? The terms for any outsider becoming an insider will be much tougher than the terms for joining at the outset.

    Mr. Clarke asked four vital questions. They are vital to this country's economic interests and vital to our future relationship with our European partners. From the evidence of his letter the Government do not have any answers to the questions which the Chancellor has posed. That is no way to trifle with Britain's economic future. Whether we join a monetary union or not, it is vital that the monetary union be a success for those who do join. Their prosperity is our buoyant market. The Government should be putting forward proposals to aid in the success of monetary union. They should be formulating constructive proposals as to how Britain as an outsider, should it indeed be an outsider, can best adapt to our relationship with the insiders to ensure success for both groups.

    A positive approach to the goal which is so important to our French and German partners will surely be in Britain's long-term interests. Unfortunately, that is the last thing which is likely to come from the party opposite. They treat the objectives of our partners with fear and contempt.

    This report is rife with muddled definitions, dubious statistics and the failure to address the issues required by the Act. It is but another example of the Government's persistent failure to deal with European affairs in the hest interests of the nation. This is a thoroughly unsatisfactory report. The Government should withdraw it and draft a report which actually meets the requirement of the law of the land.

    7.50 p.m.

    My Lords, even in this non-philosophical age, we sometimes ask why we are here. Certainly when I found myself thrust with the glory of intervening in this debate this evening I felt that a little research was required. I found that, in another place, the Paymaster General told us very clearly that the purpose of the debate and the Motion is to satisfy Section 5 of the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1993, which is sometimes called the Maastricht Act. That usually means loud boos and hisses off from the Government Benches.

    In doing my research and looking at how your Lordships' House and the other place has dealt with this Bill over the past two years, one finds three simultaneous debates taking place. There are a few old folks going down memory lane and having a complete debate about whether or not Britain should be in the Common Market—and I use the old term advisedly because it is usually the same people rehearsing the same arguments that they have rehearsed over the past 30 years. Then there are some more recent adherents who want the debate to be entirely about economic and monetary union and the single currency. Thirdly, I notice that the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, uses the opportunity to bite lumps out of the Red Book, which he has done again this evening.

    However, in his remarks, many of which I agreed with, he touched on the whole spirit of the Government's approach. Many of us find the Government's churlishness objectionable. They have the attitude that they have got to do it; this is the minimum that needs to be done; and get on with it. As the noble Lord suggested, that may be because to do otherwise would simply provoke the Europhobes on the Government Back Benches and the Government have lost all stomach for that fight. I think that that is a pity because the opportunity to look rationally at the convergence criteria and to have an informed discussion about how we are progressing on that would be to the benefit of all concerned. After all, a commitment to work for price stability, no excessive government deficit, stable exchange rates and no beggar-my-neighbour interest rates are not just matters of convergence but seem to be a Holy Grail of economic management to which most governments would aspire.

    I approach the debate by saying that we on these Benches urge on the Government the need for a positive approach to these matters while they occupy the Government Benches, even though we understand the great difficulties which face them in keeping the party together. Recent opinion polls about economic monetary union and a single currency show overwhelmingly that people do not feel that they are sufficiently well informed about the issues. They would welcome more information and more public debate. That is surely true. If we are, as some of the critics of EMU and the single currency suggest, taking one of the most fundamental decisions which has ever faced this country, and certainly one of the most important decisions concerning sovereignty, parliamentary control and so on, there is a duty on the Government to encourage a well-informed public debate about the issues concerned.

    My party makes no secret about the matter. We believe that both EMU and a single currency would be good for Britain. It would increase trade and assist business by removing uncertainty and transaction costs, especially for small and medium-sized enterprises. Membership would place Britain in a hard currency zone, protecting us from the volatility of speculation. It would reduce long-term interest rates, making the cost of borrowing cheaper for firms, individuals and government itself. It would ensure that the City of London and British business are able to gain fully from the advantages of the single market, which will be greatly enhanced through the convergence of European economies and a single currency.

    The noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, referred to the City of London. I echo those remarks. I am sometimes very concerned about the aloofness—or is it the cowardice?—of the City at the moment in playing its part in encouraging informed debate. Sometimes the complacency with which I hear City figures saying that the City is so far ahead of any of its European competitors that it can survive almost any threat makes me wonder where I have heard that before. I then remember that it was our motorbike industry in the 1950s which used to think in that way. I am extremely worried about whether London could remain one of the three world-great financial centres if we miss the bus in terms of European monetary union.

    I realise fully that this is a debate in which there are passions and strongly-held opinions on both sides. I believe that the Government are failing in the way in which they are handling their treaty responsibilities by not encouraging debate at all. The Government should look again at the suggestion made two years ago by the noble Lord, Lord Cockfield, that they should produce, as their commitment under the treaty, not just the Red Book but a proper paper of assessment which could be the basis of a decent and informed debate.

    As someone who has been involved in the European debate almost since my student days and certainly through the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, I am concerned that the way in which the debate about European monetary union and the single currency is developing has uncanny echoes of all the other times at which Britain has deluded itself into thinking that it could make its own pace, stay out of the argument, stay on the periphery of the arguments, and then finds itself pursuing an already moving train. The analogy has been made so often because that is exactly what has happened. We were not there for the iron and steel community because Ernie Bevin memorably said, "The Durham miners won't have it". There are no Durham miners today. We missed the Treaty of Messina. We missed the early development of the Community when we could have set our seal on many of the developments.

    Yet again, because of the power and the threat of the Europhobes, the Government are neither playing their part at the heart of the discussions which are taking place in the Community, nor encouraging the informed debate which should be going on in this country. The criticism that that process receives from this side of the House is something that I believe the Minister should answer tonight.

    8 p.m.

    My Lords, although this has been a short debate, a number of interesting and important points have been raised. Perhaps I may begin by telling the noble Lord, Lord McNally, with whom I have not had the pleasure of debating before—there will no doubt be a number of further occasions upon which we can open up on such issues—that I do not believe the spirit of our response to Section 5 is churlish. The Red Book contains all the relevant information for the purposes of multilateral surveillance, which is what the debate is all about, and the UK's participation in that multilateral surveillance.

    The one point upon which I agree most strongly with the noble Lord, Lord McNally, is the fact that if EMU and the single currency is to succeed, no matter how many members join it, it is very important that the people of the countries of Europe are taken along with the policies that their leaders make. I believe that it was perfectly clear two or three years ago in the aftermath of Maastricht that it was not only in Britain that there were great reservations; there were reservations in many other countries. One or two factors going the other way could have brought about considerable mayhem—if, for example, the French referendum had just gone a few points in the other direction.

    Therefore, I hope we can all agree about the importance, not just in this country but in all European countries, of taking our people along with us. Perhaps because of the way that we operate in this country it is even more important for us to take our people along with us. I say that because we debate European matters in both Houses of Parliament in a way that some of our other friends do not. Statements are made by Ministers returning from Council of Ministers' meetings in Brussels on almost every sphere, including fishing, the environment and finance. Indeed, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister himself does so when he returns from Heads of Government meetings. That process is not always replicated in other member states.

    I believe that we should at least pride ourselves on the fact that we in this country are trying to have a debate. That debate tends to divide parties just a little. Dare I say that to the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, who tried to have a bit of sport at the expense of my party? I answer questions in this House day after day on the European Union. It is clear that the noble Lord's party is not entirely and completely united. Just in case the noble Lord, Lord McNally, feels too self-righteous, I commend to him some remarks I made only last night during a most interesting debate introduced by his noble friend Lord Dahrendorf. I had occasion to remind the House of some comments made by the latter noble Lord about EMU and the single currency in an interview with Der Spiegel. That suggests that the noble Lord's party is not entirely united on the question of whether European monetary union and the Euro is entirely a good thing. At the risk of being accused of attempting to reach consensus, I believe that we can all agree that our parties are not entirely united on whether or not European monetary union would be a good thing.

    I should like to return to the question of a single currency because I believe that that was the central point of the contributions made by both noble Lords. However, I should like, first, to try to answer one or two of the cross questions put to me by the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell. I would hate to get the reputation of not answering questions. Indeed, I always try to answer questions. If the noble Lord does not always receive the answers that he would prefer, I suggest that that is slightly different from saying that I do not answer the questions.

    The noble Lord asked me a number of questions and I am sure that he will not mind if I say that I may not be able to remember, or, indeed, answer, all of them. The noble Lord reprimanded me on certain environmental measures saying that they were not in the Red Book. But environmental and social measures are contained in the Red Book: for example, the promotion of high employment; a high standard of living; a better quality of life; sustainable growth and respect for the environment; environmental measures introduced in the Budget this year; the reduced duty on fuel which produces lower emissions of gases; the continued rise in the duty on road fuels by an average of at least 5 per cent. above inflation with higher rises for super unleaded petrol where there is a lot of evidence of environmental damage; and the new tax on the waste disposed of in landfill sites introduced to use market forces to reduce environmental damage. Therefore, environmental factors are contained in the Red Book.

    I was also asked about the Government's fiscal strategy; indeed, I have been asked about that on a number of occasions by the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell. So it is not a new subject for us to fence with over the Dispatch Box. Our objective—I have said this before—is to bring the PSBR back towards balance over the medium term and in particular to ensure that, when the economy is on trend, the public sector borrows no more than is required to finance its net capital spending.

    As regards the 3 per cent. growth forecast being too optimistic, I should point out to the noble Lord that my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer sticks by the Budget forecast that the economy will grow by 3 per cent. this year. Growth is supported by stronger consumer spending and by accelerated business investment. In particular, we believe that the fundamentals are in place for growth to continue. We have low inflation; we have sound public finance; and, above all, we have competitive businesses.

    There is one point that I should like to make to the noble Lord who thought that structural funds could be diverted from Liverpool to Lille, and so on. I cannot remember the rest of what he said, because I lost it at that point due to the fact that I was trying to work out how to answer him. I should say that structural fund expenditure is allocated and fixed until 1999. There can be no possible diversion until that time. But, at that point, who is to know what other countries will have joined the European Union, the economies of which would actually require the use of the structural funds on a priority basis?

    The noble Lord, Lord McNally, mentioned the City of London. I believe that he was unduly pessimistic. I say that because the City is a centre of international financial excellence and we expect it to continue to rise to the challenges of the future whatever they bring, in or out of EMU. London handles more international currency business than all the other European Union centres put together. It is the overwhelming choice as the European headquarters for major international investment hanks. Moreover, we have recently seen the tendency of some pharmaceutical companies and banks to move offices and headquarters to London to take advantage of the situation—

    My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the Minister, but surely that is why we are part of a European single market. If we were an offshore financial centre, that would not necessarily apply. It is not that I underestimate the power of the City. What worries me sometimes is its complacency.

    My Lords, one of the lessons of the past 50 years is the fact that all of us in this country must guard against complacency. I believe that the noble Lord mentioned the motor cycle industry as an example of complacency. That led to the industry being totally superseded by the Japanese motorbike industry which certainly showed considerable aggression and no complacency at all. Therefore, we must guard against it, and that includes the City.

    The latter point allows me to turn to what has been the core of tonight's discussion; namely, the question of convergence of the MU and whether or not we would join. I shall start by saying that I believe we are in an enviable position over the single currency in that we have a choice about whether or not to join. That means we can make a decision when we have a clearer view of exactly what joining the single currency entails for Britain.

    I have to say that I am not entirely sure about the party opposite. I have spent some weeks considering the matter. Every time it is debated I wonder to myself whether the party opposite actually approves of the choice or would it ask us to abandon that choice, tear up our opt-out and make the decision today that we will enter the MU if the convergence factors are right in 1998–99. That is an interesting question; indeed, it is one for which I have never actually been able to find an answer. It is perhaps true to say that the party opposite has come from a position of absolute and total hostility to the European Union in my political lifetime—starting in 1979 when I became a Member of the other place—to now being with us in favour of the European Union and of the all important single market. I would say to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, that I do not think we ought to get ourselves trapped into thinking that the single market necessarily needs a single currency for it to work, and that if it does not have a single currency it will somehow disintegrate. That would be damaging. I shall return to that matter in a few moments because I wish to underline that point.

    Right now with the option there on the table for us to decide nearer the time whether or not to join the single currency we are playing a full part with our European partners in the work which is needed to determine what preparations will be necessary for the single currency. If we join that single currency, it is important that the details are acceptable to the British public. That was the point I made at the beginning of my remarks when I agreed with what the noble Lord, Lord McNally, said on that point. If we do not join, the single currency will still affect British commerce, industry and our financial institutions when they do business in Europe, as well as individuals when they take their holidays in the European sun.

    Whatever the final decision on membership, it is in our best interests to be fully involved in that work. We are involved in it, and we intend to continue to be involved. However, we believe that we are not now in a position to assess the pros and cons of joining at this stage. It is impossible to tell what the circumstances will be in two or three years' time. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister has put it this way; namely, that we should not operate on hunches but on facts. That underlines the value of our opt out. We shall seek to join if it is in our national interests to do so. We shall make that decision on a hardheaded assessment of the pros and cons.

    Every day the serious newspapers contain articles written by people either from this country or from Europe underlining the point that the single currency will be an exercise of unprecedented scale and complexity. If it is to succeed, it must be based on firm economic foundations because if it were to fail that would have disastrous consequences for the European Union. It cannot be in Europe's interests to proceed to a single currency before the economic conditions are right. Roughly 50 per cent. of our trade is with Europe. Given the importance of our trade with Europe, we have a strong interest in making sure that the single currency works, whether or not we are in it. The Government put emphasis on the convergence criteria of inflation and public finances set out in the Maastricht Treaty. I underline that point in response to what the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, said. The criteria aim to ensure that economies are moving in the right direction towards economic convergence which is a necessary condition for economic and monetary union.

    It is important that member states bear down on inflation and control their fiscal deficits. We believe that the convergence criteria project the right message and represent sound economics in their own right, EMU or not. The noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, accused me of feeling unrestrained glee at the difficulties of France and Germany. If the noble Lord had been present during last night's debate, he would have heard me say clearly that we are not pleased with the problems that the French and Germans are experiencing because France and Germany are important markets for our goods and services. If they are experiencing an economic downturn, that is not good news for our all important exports to their markets. However, we believe we should look at what is happening there and see whether there are lessons to be learnt for the whole of Europe and for ourselves as regards deficits and increased welfare spending without much thought given as to how one controls that. That is the real problem in France. It is also a problem in Italy. The Germans have taken some steps—one hopes those are sufficient—to attempt to meet some of the problems that they have. However, I must say to the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, that I do not accept that either myself or my honourable or right honourable friends feel unrestrained glee at the difficulties experienced by France and Germany.

    I was asked whether the convergence criteria are the only criteria which apply in this area. No, they are not the only criteria. They are not sufficient in themselves. We need to consider other factors, too. We must look at the trends of the time and—dare I say it?—at employment and unemployment, which worries all the countries of the European Union. Many of those countries are in a much worse position regarding unemployment than this country. We believe that not only must we have durable convergence and steady growth to make the single currency sustainable, but we must also have in place trends in employment and other areas which will make convergence sustainable. As was pointed out in the Economist—I believe a couple of weeks ago—it is perhaps not just the convergence criteria which are needed to achieve the single currency which are important, but it is also important to maintain the economies of the different countries who join in a convergent state. If that does not happen, the pressures inside a single currency could easily cause it considerable damage, if not cause an explosion. That would be damaging to the idea that we have built up so painfully over all these years of a European Union and a single market. EMU requires durable convergence and sustainable growth. We cannot know for certain now what countries will be able to meet those conditions when we reach Stage 3 in 1999. What is clear is that not everyone will be able to meet those conditions in 1999. The latest evidence shows that only a minority of countries will have fulfilled the conditions. That leads me to the most important point made by both noble Lords; namely, if EMU goes ahead with only a minority of member states, what pressures will that create? As I have just said, those pressures could threaten the future of the European Union.

    The prospect of a group of "ins" and "outs"—the "ins" part of the Euro currency bloc, and the "outs" who either do not want to join or cannot join because of a lack of convergence—raises a number of crucial questions which, as the Prime Minister has made clear, must be addressed. At the summit of European leaders in Madrid last December he succeeded in persuading his colleagues that the questions raised should be studied now because the creation of a group of "ins" and "outs" within the European Union could impinge seriously on the way it works, and on the successful way it has worked for a number of years. We yield to no one in our support of the single European market. It is vitally important that nothing damages that single European market when and if the Euro comes into being.

    I was asked about the Chancellor's letter regarding the "ins" and "outs". That letter was intended to follow up the agreement made at the Madrid European Council on the need to investigate the relationship between the "ins" and "outs". Whether we are in the "ins" or in the "outs", it is important that these matters are investigated. We have stressed the importance of sorting out these issues whether we participate. These issues will be discussed by Ministers and officials during the next few months and I hope that sensible conclusions can be arrived at so that if there is a situation of "ins" and "outs", the single market will be able to continue and will not be damaged.

    I may not have answered directly some of the questions put to me; but by giving an exposition of where the Government stand on the single currency and the convergence criteria, and what happens to the "ins" and "outs", I hope that I have answered a number of questions posed by both noble Lords. What we are discussing this evening gives the Commission the information to help it make judgments about how we are managing to meet the convergence criteria. I could not help but notice that in last year's report the Commission pointed out that we still had a little work to do. It commended the United Kingdom Government on keeping control of public spending. I very much hope that the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, and his party will join us in that important aspect of keeping a tight control on public spending. On the next occasion that I, as a Minister from the largest spending department, make some proposals to control my department's budget as part of the control of public spending, I hope that I shall have the support of the party opposite. That would be a novel experience.

    I hope that I have at least addressed the most important points made by both noble Lords. I make no apology for repeating my next point in a different way. I believe that whatever happens as regards the United Kingdom and the single European currency, that will affect every country whether they are in or out of it. It is vitally important that the economic conditions throughout the whole of Europe not just converge between now and the decision dates in 1998 and 1999, but also continue to converge after that for the sake of the whole enterprise of the single market and the prosperity it has already brought to the participating countries. I believe the single market can continue to bring that prosperity not just to the participating countries but also to those countries who wish to join it.

    On Question, Motion agreed to.

    House adjourned at twenty minutes past eight o'clock.