House of Commons
Tuesday 25 June 2019
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
The Secretary of State was asked—
Rules-based International Order
International institutions and international law have since 1945 provided the framework for a sustained rise in global peace and prosperity. As a permanent member of the Security Council, we consider the United Nations to be the foundation of peace and security around the world. The UK has been at the forefront of efforts to defend the system—for example, by challenging Russian attempts to undermine international institutions and international law.
I thank the Minister for that response. Further to UN resolutions 39 and 47, and the 2018 report by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights detailing the shocking human rights violations in Jammu and Kashmir; what steps is he taking with India, Pakistan and other regional powers to secure a further resolution at the UN Security Council and a lasting settlement between these two nuclear-armed nations?
The UK’s position is that it is for India and Pakistan to find a lasting political resolution to the situation in Kashmir, taking account of the wishes of the Kashmiri people. We consistently encourage India and Pakistan to engage in dialogue as a means of resolving differences. It is not for the UK to prescribe a particular solution or act as a mediator.
Does the Minister agree that the international rules-based order is underpinned by treaty, and if Britain were to leave the European Union with no deal we would be walking away and turning our back unilaterally on treaties? Not only would it be an act of self-harm to our country, but it would undermine the system of the rules-based international order itself.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his ingenuity in crowbarring this into questions, but my main focus under this question is much more about the United Nations and multilateral institutions.
Does the Minister agree that if the Opposition want a deal, they should vote for one?
I do not know whether to be pleased or astonished at the Minister singing the praises of the United Nations. Presumably this means that the Government will be taking every step they can to comply with the recent resolution on the sovereignty of the Chagos Islands?
It is not a binding judicial decision, as the hon. Gentleman absolutely knows. He can expostulate as much as he wishes—it is a great act to watch—but he know the facts and I am sure he would admit it if he were pressed further.
I note that the hon. Gentleman is advised to expostulate rather than to expatiate. It is an interesting essay question in its own right as to the respective merits of each.
There are clear international rules regarding British sovereignty in Gibraltar, yet Spain continuously and repeatedly breaches the integrity of the maritime waters surrounding the Rock. What will the Minister do to remind Spain of its obligations under the rules-based international order?
Any such incursions in the proper waters of Gibraltar are always responded to by us. We watch them closely, but I very much hope that there can be no increase in tension and that we can in the years ahead reach a very settled position between ourselves and Spain on the absolute rights of Gibraltar as a British sovereign Rock.
I had hoped to start by congratulating the Foreign Secretary on making it to the final two in the Tory leadership race, but unfortunately, to coin a phrase, he has chosen to bottle the very first question, perhaps because he knew some of the issues that we were going to raise. But if the Minister of State is answering on his behalf, may I ask whether our potential future Prime Minister will commission an independent public inquiry or authorise a full parliamentary inquiry to establish which Ministers or civil servants over the past four years have been responsible for authorising arms sales for use in Yemen, even when, as the courts have found, it is clear there was a high risk that those arms would be used to commit war crimes?
I am very happy to join the right hon. Lady in congratulating my right hon. Friend on reaching the final two and indeed the final one—that is what we look forward to, for the good of the country. I am sorry that she was not sufficiently nimble of foot to save up such a question for topicals, when I am sure she will get such a chance. However, as she well knows, all of our arms sales meet the most rigorous rules, and we will continue to adhere to them.
I thank the Minister for that answer, but all the arms sales have not met the most rigorous rules. That is the whole point. He knows that there are men in this Chamber and beyond—Ministers—who ignored the evidence of risk to innocent civilians; guilty men, Ministers who signed off the export of arms that have now been found to be unlawful. Two of the men responsible for those decisions are the candidates to be our next Prime Minister.
Let me ask a related question, for which the Foreign Secretary has exclusive responsibility. It is now almost nine months since Jamal Khashoggi was murdered. Thanks to the Senate, we know that the CIA has concluded that Crown Prince Salman most likely ordered that murder, and we have heard from the United Nations that there is credible evidence for that conclusion. Will the Minister simply tell us, nine months on, when he will produce an official assessment of who ordered the murder of Jamal Khashoggi? Unlike Yemen, this is entirely on his watch.
I am afraid the right hon. Lady appears not to have read the 20 June Court judgment, which acknowledged “rigorous”—her very word—“robust” and “multi-layered” processes
“‘carried out by numerous expert government and military personnel’, upon which the Secretary of State could rely”.
As the right hon. Lady appreciates, my responsibilities do not cover Saudi Arabia, but we speak directly to our Saudi counterparts on all such matters, including arms and human rights.
Does the Secretary of State, who we hope will get to his feet for once on this question, not agree that the selling of weapons to a regime that murders journalists and civilians and repeatedly breaks international humanitarian law entirely undermines the United Kingdom’s role as a proponent of the rules-based international order?
I hope that for the time being at least I am an adequate substitute for the Foreign Secretary in answering these questions; it is a perfectly reasonable allocation of a question to a broad thematic policy area for which I am responsible. Within that broad theme, I assure the House that we endeavour to maintain the highest standards, not only within the rules-based international system but when it comes to the export of arms.
I welcome the Minister’s response, most notably his reference to this House, because earlier this year it was our own House of Lords Select Committee that reported that UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia were “unconscionable” and that the UK Government are “on the wrong side” of the law. Last week, the Court of Appeal ruled that arms sales to Saudi Arabia are unlawful. The Government’s actions have been denounced by the upper House of the legislature and ruled unlawful by the judiciary, so on what grounds does the Secretary of State, or, indeed, the Minister, still insist on selling weapons to the regime?
The Court judgment did not say that our arms sales are unlawful. It criticised an aspect of process that we are studying very closely and will address. It is incorrect to say that our arms sales to Saudi Arabia are wholesale unlawful.
Trinidad and Tobago: Criminal Justice
Since 2017, under a bilateral security memorandum of understanding with Trinidad and Tobago, the UK has delivered targeted programmes to improve local judicial and policing capacity.
I ask this question with specific reference to my constituent Sharon St John, whose son Adrian was murdered three years ago. She is still waiting for justice. I thank the Foreign Office for belatedly getting more involved in the case, but what further pressure can Ministers and the Government put on the Trinidad and Tobago authorities to set the date for a full trial as soon as possible?
I commend the hon. Gentleman’s assiduousness in raising this truly terrible constituency case. He can be reassured that we have taken every opportunity to raise the case with Trinidad and Tobago. We obviously cannot interfere specifically in Trinidad and Tobago’s judicial process, but we are extending every possible support where we can. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that in May last year the magistrate committed the accused to stand trial for murder, but we acknowledge that the trial date has not yet been set.
When I visited Trinidad, I found the people and nation to be peaceful, loving and entrepreneurial. There are some specific problems, but will the Minister confirm that the Foreign Office advice is still that British citizens can travel to Trinidad and Tobago? Many people will enjoy a vacation there.
Yes, of course. Thousands of people from the UK and elsewhere enjoy holidays in Trinidad and Tobago, and it is of course a close friend and Commonwealth partner. The hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) is right to raise the issue, and I am sure that my hon. Friend would do the same should a constituent have such a bad experience anywhere in the world.
Over 30,000 British nationals visit Trinidad and Tobago every year. Forty people were murdered there in January 2018 alone, and the deaths of Mr and Mrs Wheeler in particular exposed the need for protection measures for British citizens visiting Trinidad and Tobago. Will the Minister outline the steps being taken to secure the safety of UK citizens when they are on holiday?
Millions of citizens travel world wide all the time, and we ensure that we provide good and up-to-date travel advice. We always encourage travellers to take out insurance policies when they are going on business trips or holidays, and to look at the Foreign Office’s travel advice pages.
We remain very concerned about the situation in Hong Kong, and I raised those concerns with the Chief Executive on 12 June. Today I urge the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government to establish a robust, independent investigation into the violent scenes that we saw. The outcome of that investigation will inform our assessment of future export licence applications to the Hong Kong police, and we will not issue any further export licences for crowd control equipment to Hong Kong unless we are satisfied that concerns raised about human rights and fundamental freedoms have been thoroughly addressed.
I join my colleagues in congratulating the Secretary of State on the position he is in now, and wish him good luck for the future; it is a good achievement.
Will the Government fulfil our moral responsibilities and offer refuge to Hong Kong residents who are at risk from the extraterritorial application of Chinese law?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his good luck wishes and ask him not to pass that on to Labour party members in Ealing, because it might discourage their Conservative party counterparts. I also thank the shadow Foreign Secretary for her congratulations; she is a gracious person and I would expect nothing less of her.
On more serious matters, we were very concerned about this extradition law because the fundamental freedoms of Hong Kong are what has made it such a stunning success since 1997—and, indeed, before 1997. Anything that contradicted the letter or spirit of the Basic Law that preserves those freedoms should not happen.
My right hon. Friend has spoken out very powerfully on Hong Kong at other points. Will he recognise the report on China by the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs and the work that we put into the Hong Kong Administration, and the fact that the UK is in many ways still underpinning the economy of Hong Kong through the application of justice and the lending of judges to guarantee the courts? At what point does the Foreign Secretary think that civil rights can be divorced from property rights, and at what point would that mean that British judges are actually whitewashing a now failing civil rights Administration?
I do not think we can divorce civil rights and political rights. My hon. Friend and his Committee are absolutely right to raise those concerns. An independent judiciary, where people can be confident of their basic freedoms, is at the heart of what has made Hong Kong such an extraordinary city. We do not just have a moral obligation to stand up for the people of Hong Kong; we actually have an internationally binding legal agreement signed with China in 1984 by Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping. We will stand by that agreement and we expect China to do the same.
The Foreign Secretary may not know that at the time two parliamentary delegations went to Hong Kong to check how the declaration had been accepted by local people. I was on one of those delegations, led by Ian Mikardo, and we all came away absolutely convinced that one nation, two systems was a solemn, sacred obligation. Will the Foreign Secretary give a message to the Chinese Government: none of their nonsense—we know who is behind this and that they want to crush democracy in China, and that if it comes to it, we could have a system of embargoes on their goods coming to this country and to Europe?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his passionate support for the people of Hong Kong, and I want to reassure him on this. On my first visit to China as Foreign Secretary, I spoke to my counterpart, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, about the very issue of Hong Kong to underline just how important it is not just to this Government but to everyone in this House.
As a former investment banker specialising in the markets of Hong Kong up to and beyond the 1997 handover, I fully appreciate the incredible efforts made by Governor Chris Patten in securing the one country, two systems agreement for 50 years. Economic stability is an incredibly fragile commodity. Will my right hon. Friend reinforce and redouble his efforts to make sure that the one country, two systems arrangement does continue for the next 27 years?
Absolutely. I think that what happens in Hong Kong is, for all of us, a litmus test of the direction of travel that China goes in, because we had an internationally binding agreement signed in 1984 that Britain feels very, very strongly about. It is, as my hon. Friend rightly says, at the heart of Hong Kong’s economic success as well as its political freedom.
Is not the real problem that although the Chief Executive may not directly take her orders from Beijing, she often looks over her shoulder to find out what the Communist party of China is saying? Is not the fundamental truth that in the end one can repress human freedom for a while but one cannot finally quash it?
The hon. Gentleman puts it beautifully; he is absolutely right. Whatever the pressure that may or may not be exerted on the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, what works in Hong Kong at the moment is that the judiciary is independent, and that must not change.
My right hon. Friend has said that one country, two systems must mean exactly that. Will he support the legitimate demands of the protesters, many of whom are waving Union flags in the hope of support from this Government and this House for the permanent withdrawal of this most contentious Bill?
I called publicly for the Bill to be halted, and I agree with what the Hong Kong Government belatedly decided to do, which is to commit to not bringing it back until concerns about democratic rights have been addressed.
UK Soft Power
The UK has recently been rated the world’s No. 1 soft power. Our strengths in sport, education and culture are a vital diplomatic asset.
I really welcome the upcoming conference on media freedoms that the Minister is hosting next month. What specific asks can be made of the countries attending to ensure that they promote the values of democracy and free speech?
I thank my hon. Friend for drawing attention to the important media freedom conference that we are hosting jointly with the Canadians in London in a couple of weeks’ time. He will be glad to hear that so far Ministers from 50 countries will be coming along to that event. We are asking countries to sign up to a pledge welcoming the value of a free media in holding the powerful to account and stressing the importance of the free exchange of information.
Mr Speaker, you have just graciously opened Parliamentary Links Day, celebrating science in Parliament and the UK’s world-leading position as a science nation. Unfortunately, all too often African scientists are prevented from coming here to collaborate because of the UK’s outdated and arbitrary visa system. The all-party parliamentary group for Africa, which I chair, is conducting an investigation into this. Will the Minister commit to joining us for the launch of the report on 16 July and to working with the Home Office to address this real barrier to our soft power in the world of science?
I commend the hon. Lady’s chairmanship of the all-party parliamentary group for Africa. As she knows, I try to come along to all her meetings when I can, so I will add that request to the list and hope I will be able to join her. She will be glad to know that we have recently gone out to every part of our diplomatic network to find out from the frontline where there are issues with the UK visa system. She knows how many millions are processed every month. We want to see what we can do, working with our colleagues in the Home Office, to make sure that everyone who wants to come to visit the UK, for scientific or other purposes, and who has a legitimate reason to be here, the means to be here and the opportunity to return can do so.
The Secretary of State clearly believes that he is a master of soft power and diplomacy. He says that Europe will be willing to renegotiate the Brexit withdrawal agreement if a new Prime Minister comes forward with ideas on how to solve the Northern Ireland border issue. I presume that, like her colleague, the Minister for Europe and the Americas, the right hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan), the Minister is supporting the Secretary of State for the premiership. If she is, can she please tell us what those ideas are?
Let me take this opportunity to say that, yes, I do support the Foreign Secretary’s campaign to be the next leader of the Conservative party. The hon. Gentleman has been extremely ingenious in this question on soft power in shoehorning the sort of questions that will rightly be asked by members of the Conservative party in this campaign. What I will say from this Dispatch Box is that I am absolutely confident that, whatever the outcome of those negotiations, the UK’s leadership in soft power will continue to shine brightly in the world.
We are very concerned about the situation in the middle east and the risks of an accidental war. We have made serious efforts to de-escalate tension, including the visit by my right hon. Friend, the Minister for the Middle East, to Tehran at the end of last week.
With regard to the recent tanker attacks, the UN Secretary-General has stated that the truth will be known only if an independent entity verifies the facts. Does the Secretary of State agree with that and will he confirm that the UK will not be dragged blindly, with the US, into a war against the wider wishes of the international community?
The US is our closest ally. We talk to it the whole time. We consider any requests that it makes carefully, but I cannot envisage any situation in which it requests, or we agree to, any moves to go to war.
I think the whole House appreciates the efforts that were made by the Minister for the Middle East at the weekend to de-escalate this crisis, but can the Secretary of State tell us what work is being done with the UN to make further progress?
The hon. Gentleman is right to ask that question. We have been doing extensive work. The message that we are sending with our partners in the European Union, particularly the French and the Germans, is that, with respect to Iran’s nuclear programme, this is a crucial week. Iran has said that it will reach the limits of what it is allowed for low-enriched uranium by 27 June, which is later on this week. It is absolutely essential that it sticks to that deal in its entirety for it to be preserved and for us to have a nuclear-free middle east.
May I also congratulate my right hon. Friend, the Minister for the Middle East, on his visit to Tehran, which I know that he will have found as fascinating as I always did? In his conversations about Iran with his US counterparts, may I ask the Foreign Secretary to remind them of David Petraeus’s key question: “Tell Me How This Ends?”. Although it is very clear that Iran has to take actions to assuage regional tensions, does he agree that the United States needs to move cautiously and listen to wise voices such as those of Dr Anwar Gargash who urges political solutions to long-standing and complex regional problems?
No one speaks more wisely on the middle east than my right hon. Friend after his very long and distinguished time in the Foreign Office with responsibility for that brief. He is, of course, right. Neither side wants war in this situation, but it is very important that there are ladders for people to climb down so that discussions and negotiations can take place.
I, too, commend the Minister for the Middle East for his visit to Iran. Time and again, Iran demonstrates that it has no intention of being a serious and responsible member of the international community through its human rights abuses, its ballistic missile tests and its export of terror and violence throughout the region. Are we not naive in thinking that with a bit more love and a bit more carrot, Iran will change its ways?
My right hon. Friend speaks very wisely on this. The truth is that the only real solution to this problem is for Iran to stop its destabilising activities in Yemen, which has seen missiles being fired into airports in Saudi Arabia; in Lebanon, which is seeing Hezbollah activity and attacks happening on Israel; and in Iraq and in Syria. That is the long-term solution.
US President Donald Trump said this weekend that all the current tension with Iran could disappear if only Tehran agreed to co-operate on ending its nuclear programme. Have the Government tried to explain to the President that if he wants to achieve that outcome, all it takes is for all sides to honour the terms of the Iran nuclear deal—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action?
May I say gently to the hon. Gentleman that the cause of the problems is that destabilising activity by Iran has continued even after the JCPOA? It has had success in restraining Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and that is why we continue to support it, but we are not going to get proper peace in the middle east unless we end those thoroughly destabilising activities.
Journalistic Rights and Freedoms
This year, the UK is spearheading a global campaign on media freedoms, and our diplomatic missions around the world have stepped up their activity accordingly. We have announced the appointment of Special Envoy Amal Clooney, establishing a high-level panel to drive legislative reform throughout the world, and we will announce further practical steps with wide international support at next month’s UK and Canada-led conference.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s answer, but at least 94 journalists were killed in the course of their duties last year. Will he and his ministerial colleagues undertake, on every occasion when they travel overseas or meet foreign Heads of State, to raise this issue, which is so vital if we are to get real news, not fake news?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As it happens, at the weekend I was in Tehran, and I made the points that he has made to my interlocutors. It is absolutely vital that journalists are able to do their work unhindered and certainly unthreatened, and the secret to peace and prosperity across our world—our troubled world—today is the ability to have the transparency that is the stock in trade of journalists.
Will the Minister look at the situation of journalists in Turkey, and in that context, will he welcome the victory of the opposition in Istanbul as a sign that at least in Turkey there are people fighting against the authoritarianism of President Erdoğan?
Istanbul has very much been in the spotlight over the past few days, and I think we probably welcome the political vibrancy that we have seen in Turkey over the past few days. Of course, Turkey is a very dangerous place for journalists right now, and the hon. Gentleman is right to underscore the importance of Turkey in particular engaging with this process. I very much hope that Turkey is represented at the conference in London next month.
We all welcome the Foreign Secretary’s decision to host a ministerial summit on media freedom next month. However, can the Minister of State explain why it took an outcry from Britain’s National Union of Journalists even to get an invitation to the summit and why, even though journalists have now been invited, they are still not being allowed to speak? Will he also say what involvement the International Federation of Journalists has had?
I am absolutely delighted that journalists, and of course their representative bodies, will be represented at this conference. I am very keen for them to suggest what part they might play in the proceedings, and I am looking forward to hearing from them. This is meant to be Britain being a window to the world on the importance that we assign to journalistic freedom and a free press. Let us see what they have to say.
Departmental Staff: Pay
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has well-established processes in place to ensure that our staff, wherever they work around the globe, are paid correctly and on time.
I am disappointed that the Secretary of State is not answering this question, because in the last set of questions he said of the Interserve dispute going on in his Department:
“If we failed to pay any of our staff on time, I take full responsibility.”—[Official Report, 14 May 2019; Vol. 660, c. 88.]
I understand that nothing has happened, and in fact the FCO is now the second Government Department to set up a food bank to help its staff. Are these really the actions of a person who wants to lead this country? He cannot even sort out what is going on in his own Department.
The hon. Lady is completely misinformed to say that nothing has happened. What did happen is that Interserve changed the date in the month on which the salary of some of the lower paid workers in the Foreign Office was paid, and it made some errors in calculating what was owed. It was thanks to the personal intervention of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, who not only wrote to the CEO of Interserve but called people in the Foreign Office to account, that, first, those people were properly paid, and secondly, they received a subsequent and additional good-will payment.
One set of staff who are deservedly well paid are Her Majesty’s trade commissioners. The nine have been in place for a year and have been a big success. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the new position shows how well the Department for International Trade and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office work together to promote trade by hiring the right people to lead that work?
My right hon. Friend is a champion of international trade. Trade commissioners are of great value and of course—in line with the question on the Order Paper—they are paid appropriately and on time.
The FCO is playing a leading role in promoting international co-operation on climate change, maintaining the momentum generated by the Paris agreement, and raising ambition, as indicated by our new net zero 2050 target.
This Government pride themselves on the special relationship with the United States. With record low temperatures gripping the US last winter, President Donald Trump tweeted that it would be good to see some of
“that good old-fashioned Global Warming”.
What progress was made during Donald Trump’s recent state visit on making him see sense on climate change?
We are very direct with President Trump. We do not agree with him on climate change, which is why we continue to uphold the Paris accord and why we are championing a UK bid to host the next big climate change conference, COP 26. We want it to be held in London at the end of next year, and if we are successful, it will tell the whole world how seriously we take the issue.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s efforts to secure the COP 26 summit for Britain. If he succeeds, how will he ensure that schools in Havant and across the country can contribute to the summit, given the importance of climate change to the next generation?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we need to focus on young people, and I am sure there will be a youth event if we are successful in our bid to host COP 26, but in some ways I want to have an oldies event as well, because I want young people to see that older generations really do take this issue seriously. Their concern is that we are not as committed to it as they are, and we must prove them wrong.
The UK is now exporting more waste to countries with the highest levels of ocean plastic pollution. The ban on plastic exports to China has led to the UK offloading its waste on nations with questionable records on marine pollution. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to reduce environmentally costly plastic exports?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the scenes in Malaysia and other parts of the world of plastic waste that has often come from us are not acceptable. All I can do is salute the extraordinary work done by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in championing an end to plastics in the ocean. The international leadership he has shown is extraordinary.
I welcome the fact that, yesterday, this House of Commons voted to make the UK carbon-neutral by 2050. That is a great achievement for this Parliament. The Foreign Secretary is fully aware that the UK accounts for only a very small percentage—about 2%—of global emissions, so for the change to be made a reality for the world, other countries need to follow suit. What is his assessment of how the effort is going in other developed countries to ensure that they follow our lead?
I think we are making progress, despite the setback of not having the United States on board. As for exactly what the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is doing, we have 299 people across the world whose job is entirely or partly to advocate on climate change. We are using our diplomatic network to its fullest effect.
At present, there is no primary legislation to prevent this Government or future Governments using carbon offsetting in other countries to reduce our own carbon emissions. Will the Foreign Secretary commit to such legislation to ensure that we are not simply exporting our own problems?
I recognise the fairness of the hon. Lady’s point. There will, of course, be legislation to follow relating to our net zero 2050 target and that will be the moment to have that debate.
Handling plastic waste is a key environmental challenge, as was highlighted earlier. Last week I met Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir, who agreed on the importance of partnership between our two Governments to tackle the issue of unrecyclable waste illegally exported to Malaysia. Our high commission in Kuala Lumpur is already on the case. Will my right hon. Friend pass on to colleagues in the Cabinet the importance of reviewing penalties for subcontractors in the UK who are illegally mixing waste for export? This is not the sort of export that the Foreign Office or the Department for International Trade want to support.
The hon. Gentleman is a very well connected fellow indeed. I have had cause to observe that before and I do so again.
My hon. Friend is extremely well connected, Mr Speaker. You are absolutely right. Prime Minister Mahathir is just one of many Prime Ministers that I know he knows. Perhaps he should be doing my job. What he says is right. As was mentioned in an earlier question, we are responsible for only 2% of emissions, so the power of UK leadership is the power of the example that we set. That is why on these issues we have to ensure that we get it right.
I am asking a rare third question on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman). She cannot be here for family reasons, but she wanted me to join in the important discussion on climate change. It gives me the opportunity to congratulate the Foreign Secretary directly not just for getting into the final two, but for being the only candidate who has the police outside his house for the right reasons. [Laughter.] Aside from the very welcome conversation on climate change that the Prince of Wales had with Donald Trump during his state visit—[Interruption.] I’m sorry, does the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) wish to intervene?
Okay, well perhaps I can start again. I want to ask the Foreign Secretary this. Aside from the very welcome conversation on climate change that the Prince of Wales had with Donald Trump during his state visit, I want to reiterate the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan). What progress did the Foreign Secretary and the Government make in trying to persuade the President of the United States to take climate change seriously, given that his response following that visit was to say that all this fuss was simply about changes in the weather?
I talked very openly with President Trump about the fact that we disagreed. He also had extensive discussions with other people on his visit. I do not comment on royal conversations, but I do know he spent a lot of time with His Royal Highness Prince Charles. The point I would gently make to the right hon. Lady is that when we disagree with our friends we do have these conversations and it would be great if she did the same with people like Maduro and Putin as well.
US-UK Special Relationship
As it happens, we are on the same topic. The state visit of President Trump was a tremendous success, although the absence of the Leader of the Opposition from the state banquet was noted but not regretted.
I am sure my right hon. Friend will therefore agree that those who tried to disrupt and denigrate the recent state visit of the President of the United States were deliberately and shockingly trying to damage our special relationship, and betray what the President has rightly called the greatest alliance in history.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Every day I walk up the Foreign Office staircase and pass a bust of one of our greatest Foreign Secretaries, Earnest Bevin, who was both a Labour Foreign Secretary and one of the founders of NATO. What a betrayal of his remarkable legacy to have a Labour leader who takes money from Iranian state TV and is a friend of terrorists.
President Trump made it clear that the special intelligence sharing arrangements with the UK might be cancelled if the British Government persisted with their compromised arrangements with Huawei on 5G. How have the Government responded to that threat?
By saying two things: we will never do anything that will compromise our intelligence-sharing relationship with the United States and we will take all such decisions in the British national interest.
NGOs: Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories
We firmly believe that civil society organisations should be able to conduct humanitarian work in both Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and I saw some of that work in action on the ground during my visit last month. We are aware of reports of pressure exerted against NGOs, particularly those critical of Israel’s conduct in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. We continue to make it clear that a vibrant civil society is in Israel’s interest and encourage the Palestinian Authority to ensure that NGOs can work unimpeded.
I thank the Minister for that refreshing answer, but I ask him to pursue the case of Omar Shakir, the director of Human Rights Watch, who has been harassed for two and a half years. Is the Minister also concerned by the wider hostile environment for NGOs, which has seen the Daily Mail pay £120,000 in libel damages to Interpal this month for impugning its humanitarian work in Gaza, and by the summit taking place in Manama this week on the future of the Occupied Palestinian Territories that does not even have the word “Palestine” on the agenda?
There was a lot in that question; I will do my best to answer it. The Manama conference is in train right now, and that gives me the opportunity to say again, so that there is no confusion, that Her Majesty’s Government are fully behind the two-state solution, with Jerusalem as a shared capital. I hope that makes it clear.
The hon. Gentleman mentions Omar Shakir, the director of Human Rights Watch, and I share the hon. Gentleman’s dismay at what has happened to him. I note that his deportation has been stayed and I encourage that stay of deportation to be made permanent. It is important that Human Rights Watch continues to do the important things that it does in Israel and the OPTs. I very much encourage both the Palestinian Authority and the Government of Israel to ensure that NGOs such as Human Rights Watch are able to continue doing what they do. It establishes credibility for both of them in the international community and any attacks on them, I am afraid, does them inestimable damage.
My right hon. Friend will be well aware that numerous NGOs operate both in Israel and Palestine. Does he agree that NGOs that encourage Palestinians and Israelis to come together, such as the Parents Circle-Families Forum and MEET—the Middle East Entrepreneurs of Tomorrow—should be encouraged, and that the refusal of Palestinian Authority to allow these NGOs to operate causes more dissension and concern?
My hon. Friend speaks from a position of some strength because he takes a great deal of interest in these matters. Dialogue is terribly important. When I have spoken to both my Israeli and Palestinian Authority interlocutors, I have made it absolutely clear to them that the only way forward for peace in the middle east is for dialogue to be facilitated and continued. NGOs of the sort that he has described are an important part of that.
The Israeli NGO, Save a Child’s Heart, which I had the honour to visit recently, just performed its 5,000th life-saving operation. The children come from all over, including Africa and the Palestinian territories. Will the Minister join me in commending and celebrating this fantastic achievement by this wonderful organisation?
It does sound like a wonderful organisation, and it is important to commend the activities of NGOs and particularly medical charities, large and small, that operate in this space. Too often we hear about the large ones and not so much about the small ones. I am particularly conscious of those operating in relation to Gaza and the west bank and the difficulties that some are having, particularly with their patients gaining the access that they need. Organisations of the sort that the right hon. Gentleman describes are very important in that respect.
International Economic Crime
We are working with a range of countries to demonstrate UK global leadership by increasing our capabilities in the overseas network, including establishing joint serious organised crime teams in over 80 countries.
The line between rogue nation states and terrorist organisations sponsoring organised criminal activity is increasingly blurred. They are attacking our national institutions and millions of residents in this country. Does the Minister believe that diplomacy is working?
My hon. Friend rightly draws attention to the importance, given that we are one of the world’s leading financial centres, of our being as rigorous as possible and taking a zero-tolerance approach. I am sure the House will welcome the fact that last December the Financial Action Task Force review took a close look at our system and concluded that the UK had the strongest anti-money laundering regime of the countries assessed to date, but clearly we cannot be complacent; there is much more to do.
The political stand-off in Venezuela continues and the humanitarian crisis deepens. We support initiatives by the Lima Group, the International Contact Group and the Norwegian-facilitated talks in Oslo to make progress towards a solution. We have committed significant humanitarian aid and are supporting the UN and the Red Cross movement operating in the region.
Will the Minister join me in welcoming the visit of the UN Human Rights Commissioner, Michelle Bachelet, to Venezuela and endorsing her demands that, whatever else needs to happen there, we must see the immediate release of all political prisoners being held by the Maduro Government?
Yes, I am very happy to confirm that, but of course we need to see far more than that in Venezuela. Maduro has brought his own country to its knees. Millions of people have fled to neighbouring countries. The country has been ruined by the lunacy of one man, and we all, as the international community, need to work together to do everything we possibly can to restore the fortunes of that once great country.
This might be my last Question Time as Foreign Secretary—or indeed it might not—but one important event that will happen before the result of the Conservative leadership election is announced is the launch of a major global campaign to protect the safety of journalists around the world. The UK has joined forces with Canada to spearhead this campaign, which I will be launching next month with Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland. It will be the world’s first ever ministerial summit on media freedom, here in London. We have 700 confirmed attendees from media and civil society across 98 countries and from 45 different Governments. Together we will shine a light on abuse and raise the price for those who would harm or imprison journalists.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for announcing that conference. Whether he remains Foreign Secretary or becomes Prime Minister, or takes any other post, I hope that he continues consistently to champion human rights and media freedom.
I declare an interest in that last month I was part of a delegation with Medical Aid for Palestinians and the Council for Arab-British Understanding that visited the Palestinian refugee camp of Dheisheh in the occupied west bank. There we witnessed the vital work in education, health and other areas of humanitarian relief that the United Nations Relief and Works Agency does but which is now at risk because the US has threatened to defund and delegitimise the agency. Can the Foreign Secretary confirm that the UK intends to support the renewal of UNRWA’s mandate at the General Assembly later this year so that it can continue its vital work of protecting people and giving them a sense of hope?
I thank the hon. Lady for her good wishes. She once bought me a cappuccino in Portcullis House, and I look forward to returning the favour in No. 10, if that is what happens. I can confirm that we will continue to support the renewal of UNRWA’s mandate and the vital work it does.
As it happens, I recently visited a kibbutz very close to the Gazan border, and I saw for myself the effect that such attacks were having on the civilian population, despite Israel’s Iron Dome, which is good but not infallible. We condemn all rocket attacks from Gaza towards Israeli. They are completely unacceptable. While they and other violence like that continues, there is no realistic prospect of peace being forthcoming in that part of our troubled world. We must see the cessation of rockets from Gaza into Israel.
The hon. Lady can tell her constituents, and indeed the people of Sudan, that we stand with them in their desire for a transition to civilian-led government. As she knows, there have been widespread reports following those horrendous attacks, and we encourage everyone to keep documentation of such atrocities. Justice will come eventually, but I summoned the Sudanese ambassador to express our disagreement with—our real abomination of—what had taken place on 3 June.
Of course I share my hon. Friend’s concern about Iran’s support for international terrorism, particularly through its proxy groups, which I discussed at length with my interlocutors over the weekend. I think it only fair to say that the Financial Action Task Force has recognised that there has been some progress in Iran but is disappointed that it has not been comprehensive, which it is why it is felt that, on balance, it is right to extend the deadline to October 2019. I hope very much that the outstanding issues in the action plan will be addressed during the intervening time.
I utterly deplore what Katie Hopkins said—I condemn it in the roundest terms—but I also support the view of the President of the United States that the Mayor of London needs to do more about knife crime.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s excellence as a trade envoy between the UK and Ethiopia. Ethiopia’s trade has increased by some 80%, which must surely be one of the records among trade envoys.
We are truly appalled by those killings, and our thoughts are indeed with the people who have been affected by them. We support Ethiopia’s progress in political and economic reforms, and we do not want such events to influence that agenda.
I think the action that the Government have taken to address the Windrush scandal has been noted by the countries affected, and I think they understand that we see that an injustice was done and we are putting it right.
I am happy to do that. India is a country that I want to visit at the earliest opportunity to strengthen our relations. I am trying to avoid the use of the phrase “strong and stable”, but I will say that that relationship with India is incredibly important to both countries, and we will do everything we can to further it.
My constituent Mr Rishikesh Kardile has been in custody since a business conference in Barcelona in February. Will the Minister’s officials ask the Indian Government to lift their extradition application so that he can return to his young son and family in my constituency and the matter can be resolved through the normal legal process?
Further to my letter to the right hon. Gentleman last month, Mr Kardile has now been released from prison. He is required to remain in Spain, because he is the subject of an Indian extradition notice. It would be very difficult, and possibly inappropriate, for us to intervene, as this is a matter for the Spanish courts, but we are extending to Mr Kardile and his family the fullest consular support possible.
Nobody can criticise our Government’s reaction to atrocities committed against the Muslim community, or indeed Muslims around the world; however, given that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary seeks to lead this Christian country, has his Department not rather let him down in the way we have sought to protect Christians abroad?
I think that has been somewhat of a blind spot, but we are putting it right, and that is why I asked the Bishop of Truro to conduct an independent review into what more we can do to tackle the persecution of Christians, which accounts for about 80% of the religious persecution in the world. That report will be received next month.
Does the Foreign Secretary not agree that whether it is the tear gassing and rubber bulleting of peaceful protestors in Hong Kong or the mass detention without trial in concentration camps of civilians in the United States by Trump, our hand is much weakened in upholding the fundamental values of human rights if we are under the pressure of seeking trade agreements with China on the one hand or the United States on the other, and therefore we are better off staying in the EU and having a final say on that?
This is the trouble with Labour, if I may say so: the United States supported the people of Hong Kong but Labour boycotted the state banquet of the US President but went to the state banquet of the President of China. What sort of priorities are they?
Foreign Office questions without the voice of Sutton Coldfield would be like dinner without a main course; we cannot have it.
Many of us hope that my right hon. Friend will continue his brilliant work as Foreign Secretary for many years to come, but may I take him back to his earlier remarks about Sudan and the present position of the long-suffering people of Sudan? Will he ensure that the British Government do all they can to make certain that, in line with the International Criminal Court indictment of General Bashir and Salah “Gosh”—two people who have been identified as perpetrators of mass atrocities in Darfur and elsewhere in Sudan—they are held to account and taken to The Hague as swiftly as possible?
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for his assiduous pursuit of this agenda; he knows how closely we are working with both the ICC and other international forums to ensure that the situation in Sudan remains at the forefront of the international agenda and that we do everything we can to ensure a swift and orderly transition to civilian rule in that country. Clearly, accountability will not be forgotten by the international community.
Last week the Minister for the Middle East suggested that we would have no ideas how to increase the pressure on Russia to stop targeting hospitals in Syria. He is wrong about that: we sent him a number of ideas just this morning. Will he meet us to discuss them, and will he consider those measures, including expelling the Russian ambassador for these atrocities?
I remember our conversation across the Floor of the House and look forward very much to receiving the hon. Gentleman’s helpful ideas. It is vital that the parties to the Sochi ceasefire are mindful of the obligations they signed up to in September. The events of 6 May and subsequently are deeply regrettable and stand the very real risk of causing a huge further humanitarian crisis with further internally displaced people. We have to avoid that at all costs. I therefore gently suggest that the parties get back around the table and ensure that as a safe first step they stop their hostile activities in north-west Syria.
I have just returned from seeing Richard Ratcliffe, who is on the 11th day of his hunger strike in support of his wife Nazanin, who still languishes in a prison in Iran. Given the current increased tensions with Iran, what more can we do to keep Nazanin at the forefront of the profile and make sure the message to get her released is not lost among the other discussions we must have?
I thank my hon. Friend for visiting Richard Ratcliffe, who is a very brave man. I met him the weekend before last, and he is doing a remarkable job. I know that the whole House is thinking about Nazanin, about her five-year-old daughter and about that family. Our message to Iran is very simple: whatever disagreements you have with the UK, do not punish this innocent woman. It is not her fault. Let her come home.
Further to the earlier question about self-determination for the people of Kashmir, will the Minister confirm whether he has approached the United Nations to take a more direct and active role in recording, monitoring and reporting human rights abuses in Kashmir?
Obviously, we oppose human rights abuses anywhere. I have only recently and temporarily assumed responsibility for that part of the world, but I take fully on board what the hon. Lady says and assure her that the Government pay full attention to any human rights abuses anywhere in the world, but particularly in the Kashmir region.
Will my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary update the House on the progress being made with the prevention of sexual violence in conflict initiative?
The UK has shown leadership on that initiative relentlessly since 2014, and I can announce that this November, five years on, we will host a summit to document progress and to highlight the fact that the world needs to continue to focus on this important issue.
There is considerable potential for trade and for increasing Britain’s soft power in developing our relationship with the Kurdistan region of Iraq. What more can be done to review the Foreign Office security advice on Kurdistan, and can it be viewed differently from the advice relating to wider Iraq?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. As it happens, I met Minister Hakim, the Iraqi Foreign Minister, a few hours ago to discuss a number of these issues. He is keen to normalise the trade and commerce relationship between Iraq and the rest of the world at the earliest opportunity. We discussed a range of issues, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will discuss them further when he meets his Iraqi interlocutors later today.
One of the issues is, bluntly, the exchange of people and the establishment of a visa regime that facilitates the passage of people between Iraq and the UK. I know that that is an issue of great importance to Iraq as things return to some level of normality after a very troubled period.
The hon. Gentleman mentions Kurdistan. We hope that President Barzani will visit this country in the near future. I have no doubt at all that some of these issues will be returned to when he comes to London.
This Foreign Secretary deserves credit for setting up an independent review into the persecution of Christians worldwide, but will he ensure that a lasting legacy is achieved, whatever the outcome of that review, by ensuring that diplomats who are sent to countries where persecution occurs receive training in religious literacy?
That is a very interesting suggestion, and I defer to my right hon. Friend’s great knowledge on these topics. I would like to wait for the Bishop of Truro’s recommendations, which we are expecting next month, before I consider that idea in the round, but it is certainly worthy of consideration.
I was incredibly moved to meet Richard Ratcliffe last week. A similar question has been asked today, but I do not feel that it was answered as well as it could have been. His wife is enduring an unjust incarceration in Iran, and I would like to know what the Government are doing specifically to provide us with an update on the steps they are taking to bring her home.
We have left no stone unturned. I went to Teheran on 19 November, and I have given Nazanin diplomatic protection. I have changed the travel advice to try to prevent this from happening to other dual nationals, and the Minister for the Middle East, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), raised the matter in Teheran at the end of last week. We are doing absolutely everything we can, because this is an appalling injustice.
Since the joint comprehensive plan of action was signed in 2015, there have been over 30 long-range missile launches from Iran capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. What are Ministers doing to tackle that aspect of Iran’s nuclear ambition?
It is vital that the JCPOA remains in place. It is also vital that we make progress with the E3 on the special purpose vehicle that we have designed to take this matter forward. At the weekend, I left my interlocutors in no doubt about our insistence that they maintain their commitment to JCPOA, specifically in relation to the nuclear issue. They must also desist from their ballistic missile programme and their support for proxies that are destabilising the middle east.
Mr Speaker, you might be interested to know that Blowfish Theatre has a travelling show “Boris the Musical 2”, which will be performed in the forthcoming Edinburgh festival in the Gilded Balloon theatre. If the Secretary of State has not seen the show, I recommend that he does so. The Edinburgh festival is the finest arts festival in the world. May I ask what Her Majesty’s Government are doing to support the theatre groups that take part so they can perform overseas, which would offer a strong boost to the UK’s soft power and, better still, I say to my SNP colleagues, to Scottish soft power?
I was in Scotland at the weekend, and I had the most delicious fish and chips I think I have ever had. We do an enormous amount of work to support the Edinburgh festival, the Edinburgh Tattoo and all the incredible tourism opportunities in Scotland. We do so as the Government of the United Kingdom, because we are stronger together.
Point of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Kerry Foods made the sad announcement at 5 o’clock yesterday that it intended to close its production factory in Burton, leading to the loss of between 690 and 900 jobs. That is a clear blow to my constituency and the people employed there, and we looking to the Government to come together with a cohesive plan not only to see whether there are alternative people to take over the factory but, if not, to help those 700 back into work and come up with a proper plan for the use of the site.
Can you, Mr Speaker, advise me how I can use the House to bring together the necessary Departments—the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, and the Department for Work and Pensions —to make sure that the employees of Kerry Foods get the help and support they need?
The hon. Gentleman, whom I thank for his point of order, is well able to advise himself, and he has advertised his concerns for starters today. Insofar as he seeks my counsel, and I focus it on matters appertaining to the Chamber, I suggest that he seek to catch my eye at an early stage, perhaps in a Question Time session this week, in which he might be able to raise the matter at a very high level in question form. If thereafter he wishes a fuller consideration of the matter he could always apply for an Adjournment debate. There is a ballot for such debates, which, I can advise him, is of a guided character—it is a guided ballot—and he may well find that he is successful in that ballot.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. As the MP for the neighbouring constituency to Burton in South Derbyshire and as an HCLG Minister, I very much look forward to having further conversations with my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths) about this issue, which is very important to our neighbouring constituencies.
That is extremely helpful. The hon. Gentleman’s cup runneth over, such is the plentiful supply of assistance and advice. I look forward to hearing further from him about this matter in the days to come.
Ground Rents (Leasehold Properties)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to regulate ground rents charged on leasehold properties; to make provision for a cap on ground rents; to make property developers liable for the legal costs of leaseholders seeking to vary certain ground rent contracts; and for connected purposes.
Mr Speaker, imagine for a moment that you own a lovely one or two-bed apartment with your family, or perhaps even a recently built house. You have lived there quite happily for a few years, but you decide it is time to move, perhaps because of schools, for work or to move up the property ladder. You are primed and ready to go, but the estate agent asks for a copy of your leasehold agreement and there in the small print you get hit with the fact that you cannot sell your property—you are trapped. Tens of thousands of people across the country are in this position, and it simply cannot be right. This leasehold ground rent scandal needs attention right now. In many cases, developers have created leases with feudal ground rent clauses that have since fallen out of favour with lenders, leaving owners stuck with an unsaleable property because prospective buyers cannot get a mortgage to purchase the property.
In some cases, the ground rent doubles every 10 years. In others, it doubles just once. There are reports of lenders refusing to lend on what they deem as unreasonable or onerous ground rent clauses. Some will not lend if the ground rent exceeds 0.1% of the property value at any point during the lease. Leasehold campaigners argue that there are close to 100,000 people affected by terms that leave them with a ground rent in excess of 0.1% of the property value. I would argue that such circumstances are onerous. The result is an unsaleable property and, in many cases, the developer is long gone, having sold the freehold on to a distant investment company. They have, of course, made their money twice—not only from selling the leaseholds in the first place but from selling on the freehold.
Ground rents can, of course, be peppercorn or set at a reasonable rate, and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government report shows that the market place is mixed, but it is important to clarify that ground rents have nothing to do with the maintenance of a building. They are simply an income for the freeholder. As the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mrs Wheeler), who has responsibility for housing and homelessness, told the MHCLG Select Committee:
“One of the things I do find utterly fascinating is that a building might be beautifully maintained at a peppercorn ground rent or poorly maintained at £500 ground rent. The amount of ground rent payable is no indication of the quality of the maintenance and services provided.”
There is nothing wrong with a freeholder taking a reasonable ground rent, but when that ground rent becomes onerous and stops someone selling their home it becomes a problem. The rights between freeholder and leaseholder need to be redressed.
As the Select Committee commented:
“Any ground rent is onerous if it becomes disproportionate to the value of a home, such that it materially affects a leaseholder’s ability to sell their property or obtain a mortgage. In practical terms, it is increasingly clear that a ground rent in excess of 0.1% of the value of a property or £250—including rents likely to reach this level in future due to doubling, or other, ground rent review mechanisms—is beginning to affect the saleability and mortgage-ability of leasehold properties.”
My Bill seeks to address this.
The result of developers selling on the freehold to investors is that some freeholders are remote and uninterested in helping their leaseholders. Those who are interested charge unfair fees and legal costs for what should be a simple solution. I know of one such scenario in which there is a £180 charge just to discuss terms with the freeholder.
The freeholder could of course just ignore the problem, or say no. There is currently no obligation on the freeholder to help to sort the problem out—except good will. It cannot be right that in 2019 we have leasehold properties unable to be sold because of ground rent clauses. Behind each problem is a person, an individual, a family, a couple or perhaps a small investor. They do not deserve to be forgotten and left high and dry, trapped indefinitely with their property.
What can be done? Currently, the law allows 50% of leaseholders in a block of apartments to get together to buy the freehold—quite a task, and a long and expensive process if you just want to sell your property. Leaseholders could try to extend the lease, but again there is an elongated process, with expenses running into thousands of pounds. There is also the possibility that the leaseholder negotiates a variation of lease with the freeholder. This is also costly, and there is no onus on the freeholder to do the deal. It is probably the simplest solution but, with prohibitive expenses and no obligation on freeholders to engage, we have a postcode lottery of failure and success.
The Select Committee noted:
“The options for leaseholders with onerous ground rents are limited. House owners are entitled to pay to enfranchise after two years of ownership, thus removing any obligation to pay ground rent, onerous or otherwise. However, this would only be possible if the cost of enfranchisement…is both reasonable and affordable for the house owner. Flat owners, similarly, are entitled to enfranchise, although this is a much more difficult process, requiring the consent of 50% of the owners in a residential block… Otherwise, leaseholders are reliant upon the benevolence of their freeholder to remove unreasonable terms.”
That is why I am proposing this private Member’s Bill.
I am aware that the Law Commission is currently contemplating a solution to the thorny issue of onerous ground rents on existing leases, but I propose simple solutions. First, we need to create a legal obligation on freeholders to grant a quick and simple lease variation to leaseholders where ground rent prohibits a sale. Secondly, it is important that ground rents are capped at the lower of £250 per annum or 0.1% of the property value.
I am also considering including an obligation on the original developer to foot the leaseholder’s legal bills in such situations. After all, why should families have to find a large sum to solve a problem not of their making? If the Bill progresses, I hope we will be able to shape it more specifically in Committee—I imagine that might be somewhat optimistic.
Systems and institutions are supposed to serve the public, and I hope we can all agree that we cannot have people unable to sell their property. Drastic and immediate action is required. I believe there is growing concern on both sides of the House about leasehold properties, and the Select Committee should be commended for its excellent report. I am also pleased to see that the Competition and Markets Authority has taken this issue on board and is looking at mis-selling in this arena. I hope both the Government and the Select Committee will keep this under further review.
I believe there is a wide cross-party consensus in Parliament on this issue, and the time for Parliament to intervene on the leasehold ground rent scandal is now. I hope hon. Members will help me to change the law to restore fairness in this sector and to stop people being trapped in unsaleable properties.
Question put and agreed to.
That Eddie Hughes, Kevin Hollinrake, Mr Edward Vaizey, Bob Blackman, Teresa Pearce, Andrew Lewer, Matt Western, Siobhain McDonagh, Mary Robinson, Mohammad Yasin, Mr Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi and Neil O’Brien present the Bill.
Eddie Hughes accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 409).
Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Marriage will always be one of our most important institutions. It is vital to our functioning as a society, as we all know instinctively from our own lives and from the lives of family and friends. Rightly, then, none of us is indifferent when a lifelong commitment cannot continue, but it cannot be right for the law to create or increase conflict between divorcing couples.
I am encouraged by the many colleagues and others who have told me that the law must change to take unnecessary conflict flashpoints out of the legal process. Like me, they believe in the importance of marriage but see the destructive effects of what the law demands. People going through divorce already have to face more than enough emotional upheaval without the conflict that can be created or worsened by how the current law works.
I have reflected at length on the arguments for reform, on what people have said in response to the Government’s proposals and on the painful experiences we all know from talking to family and friends. I have heard from people who have been through divorce, from people who support divorcing couples through the legal process and from people who say they cannot afford to live apart for two years—without finally sorting out their finances—but, at the same time, cannot bring themselves to throw hurtful allegations.
The Bill responds constructively to the keenly felt experience of people’s real lives. This is a Bill for anyone who agrees that the end of a relationship should be a time of reflection, and not of manufactured conflict.
I warmly congratulate the Government and the Secretary of State on introducing this Bill. I think I have married more people than anybody else in this House, in the transitive use of the word. I was always painfully aware that, when two people come together, it may well be that, in the end, they need to part, but the idea that they would have to prove in court all sorts of reasons for why the marriage had fallen apart—relying on the common law understanding of adultery, for instance—is just nonsense and adds to the sense of pain that there could already be within a family.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks, and this Bill is by no means anti-marriage. As he rightly says, this Bill seeks to ensure that, in those unfortunate circumstances where a marriage comes to an end, it comes to an end in a way that minimises the conflict between the parties. That, in my view, has to be a sensible way forward.
There is undoubtedly fault in a divorce but, in my experience from continual exposure at constituency surgeries, the attribution of that fault leads parents to use their children as weapons in a continuing battle with their former partner.
My right hon. Friend makes a good point, and it is worth bearing in mind that, where children are involved, it is all the more important that we minimise the conflict. The current requirement incentivises that sense of attribution of fault, which does nothing to ensure that the relationship between the two parents can be as strong as possible, and it is the children who lose out in those circumstances.
I have thought about this with care. Obviously, to practising Christians and those of other faiths, the end of a marriage is not to be taken lightly, but I am glad the Secretary of State has accepted the proposition put by my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne) that causing more conflict at the end does not help.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that in no other respects any of the protections for often the more vulnerable party to a marriage, the woman, will be affected by this measure, particularly in relation to financial arrangements and the custody of children, and that it simply removes the evidentiary requirement for a fault to be attributed to one side or the other?
My hon. Friend, the Chair of the Select Committee on Justice, is right. This is about the attribution of blame and fault, and no more than that. Indeed, the protections in place for the vulnerable party remain just as they are. It is often the vulnerable party who suffers most from the need to attribute blame, because that can be difficult. In the context of domestic abuse, for example, it is striking how the likes of Women’s Aid have been very supportive of these measures because of their concern that there might be women trapped in marriages who do not want to attribute blame because they feel that may result in a further deterioration in the relationship.
The truth is that when a marriage or indeed a civil partnership has sadly broken down and is beyond repair, it stops benefiting society and the people involved. At worst, continuing in a legal relationship that is no longer functioning can be destructive to families, and the law ought to deal with the reality of marriage breakdown as constructively as possible. The current law does not do that. The requirements of the divorce process at present can often give rise to a confrontational position, even if the decision to divorce is mutual. The incentive to make allegations at the outset, to avoid otherwise waiting for two years’ separation, becomes ingrained. Divorce is traumatic, and children are inevitably affected when their parents separate—that goes without saying. I agree that marriage has long proved its worth for bringing up children, but the reality is that not all marriages last. The law should deal with that reality as sensibly as it can. When a marriage has failed, we have to take a serious look at how to reduce conflict for everyone involved, not least for children. Research shows that it is conflict between the parents that has been linked to greater social and behavioural problems among children, rather than necessarily the separation and divorce itself.
I very much welcome the proposals in this Bill. Getting rid of the fault-based approach to divorce and the conflict is a good thing, as is ensuring that people do not have to wait for two years. Does the Secretary of State agree with me and with Resolution, the organisation for family lawyers, that we also need to provide earlier advice for cohabitees who believe that common law spousal rights might exist for them? Legal advice on whether such rights exist would be beneficial. Does he agree that including provision for early advice in the Bill would be welcome?
Obviously, this Bill’s focus is on divorce for those who are married. There is a point about advice where we can have a wider debate. I will focus my remarks today on the contents of the Bill and the argument I am making about the problems with fault in the current divorce system, and I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s support on that. Clearly, there is a debate to be had as to how we can provide support to couples, be that about reconciliation or in other contexts.
Whatever family structure children grow up in, they benefit most from stable, loving and caring relationships with parents and other close family members. We are clear that when parents have taken this difficult decision, children’s best interests are served by minimising conflict during and after the legal process, to support co-operative parenting and positive parenting relationships. This Bill is in the best interests of children whose parents are divorcing. It will therefore remove the harmful requirement for wives, husbands and civil partners in England and Wales to hurl blame or to go through the waiting limbo of separate lives. It will help them move forward more amicably and constructively. It will make a genuine difference to many thousands of children and families who each year, sadly, experience divorce.
It is 50 years since the Divorce Reform Act 1969 gave rise to the law we now have, and few of us will have known anything else. Some among us will have divorced under this law. All of us will be conscious of the bitter experience of friends and constituents who have. Even so, the existing law is not always understood. It allows divorce only on the ground that the marriage has broken down irretrievably. The court cannot hold the marriage to have done so unless it is satisfied of one or more of what the law calls “facts”. Three of the five facts—adultery, behaviour and desertion—relate to conduct of the respondent. The other facts are two years’ separation and five years’ separation, the difference being that two years’ separation requires both parties to agree to the divorce—the same applies to civil partnerships, except that the adultery fact is not available. But the fact someone chooses does not necessarily bear any resemblance to the real reasons the marriage or civil partnership broke down. Those reasons are often subtle, complex, and subjective. Who, if anyone, was responsible is a question that can be answered honestly only by the people in the marriage.
We are probably all aware of situations where a couple have sadly grown apart over time and jointly agree to divorce The current law does not allow them to do so, unless they are first financially able to live apart for two years. They might be forced to present events in a way that serves the system; minor incidents become stretched out into a pattern of behaviour to satisfy a legal threshold, which then bleeds over into how a couple approach negotiations over arrangements for children and finances; or there may be a coercive relationship, where one partner is desperate to divorce but is too scared of the consequences of setting out the evidence of their partner’s unreasonable behaviour to the court. It should be enough that the relationship has irretrievably broken down.
I do know where people are coming from when they say the requirement to prove a fact is useful, because they think that someone must be held responsible for the break-up of the marriage and that this requirement lets the court determine blame for that. The court, however, cannot do so, and the law does not require it to. Instead, making allegations or having to live apart in a marriage introduces conflict or makes it worse—this conflict can continue far beyond the legal end of the marriage and hurt children’s life chances. That is the reason for this reform.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for the careful way in which he is taking us through these proposals and for his indication of support for marriage. Will he look, perhaps in the context of this Bill, at supporting marriages before they have broken down irretrievably and providing support where couples are under pressure, in order to reduce marital breakdown by intervening earlier?
The last two words, “intervening earlier” are key. Once the point of a divorce is reached, it is likely—the evidence suggests this—that it is too late. The question is: can we provide support earlier? In all honesty, I do not believe that the Bill provides the vehicle to address that point, because if we try to provide that support in the context of the divorce itself, we will be too late. Clearly however there is an argument—one that I suspect is for the next spending review—as to what assistance can be provided to couples at an earlier stage in the process. I completely understand where my hon. Friend is coming from and I very much agree that the point is about earlier intervention, but where someone is going through the divorce process, making that process more difficult and confrontation is counterproductive.
Does the Secretary of State understand the circumstances where a resident parent turns children against the non-resident parent where no abuse whatsoever is involved? That causes estrangement for the child, often for many, many years. Is it not time that we found a legal framework—early intervention is important in this respect—to tackle this problem? I have only recently become involved in this campaign on parental alienation, and I was shocked that hundreds if not thousands of parents are estranged from their children because the resident parent seeks to manipulate the child against a non-resident parent for no reason whatsoever.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention on a matter that I suspect all of us have had experience of as constituency Members of Parliament as well as citizens. These circumstances are hugely difficult. To some extent, the existing divorce law can somewhat encourage that behaviour, because of the need to attribute blame, but he is right to suggest that this is a wider issue, one that is hard to address in the context of divorce. He is right to highlight the difficulties that can exist and how parents can be alienated from their children in what are difficult circumstances.
When I became Justice Secretary last year, I was able to take a deeper look at the issue of divorce. What became clear to me was that making allegations does not serve any public interest. It needlessly rakes up the past to justify the legal ending of a relationship that is no longer a beneficial and functioning one. At worst, these allegations can pit one parent against the other. I remain deeply concerned that what the existing law requires can be especially damaging for children.
The law on divorce and dissolution is out of step with the constructive approach that family law takes in other areas and that practitioners take every day. It is time to change that. Resolution is the lead organisation representing family lawyers who subscribe to a non-confrontational approach. Resolution’s chair, Margaret Heathcote, has said that
“because of our outdated divorce laws”
practitioners have effectively been working
“with one arm tied behind their backs.”
The Bill will change that.
At the beginning of my speech, I spoke about the confrontational position that the law sets up and about its harmful impact on children. That confrontational position undermines not only good co-parenting but any prospect of reconciliation. I understand concerns about people being divorced against their will. The reality is that under the existing law the court can refuse a divorce only if a legal requirement is not met, and never simply because one party wants to stay married. Only about 2% of respondents say that they want to contest the divorce. Hardly anyone continues contesting all the way to a court hearing. Marriages are not saved at all by the ability of a spouse to contest the divorce.
When I got married, as a Catholic I did not think the option of divorce was open to us. I genuinely thought that under all circumstances our marriage would be forever; my wife decided otherwise. That was a very emotional time. Does my right hon. Friend expect that when the change comes in some people will find it easier to divorce and that there be a spike in the divorce figures? A period of reflection sometimes gives people the opportunity to save their marriage, and that opportunity might be missed under the proposed changes.
I agree with my hon. Friend about a period of reflection. In fact, the Bill will ensure that there is a longer minimum period of reflection for people in a marriage to consider whether reconciliation is the right course. The evidence suggests that by the time things get to that stage, reconciliation happens very rarely, but we are extending that period, so it is not really about making divorce easier but about making it less confrontational.
On my hon. Friend’s point about whether we anticipate a spike in divorces, there is international evidence as to what is likely to happen following such a reform. I shall be open with my hon. Friend: there will be people who are currently waiting for two or five years for a divorce, and that divorce will be brought forward, so the likelihood is that there will be an increase because of that waiting list. However, the international evidence suggests that once that initial spike has been dealt with, in a steady state the divorce rate is unlikely to increase; it is likely to remain much the same. I hope it is clear to my hon. Friend that although we would anticipate that some divorces will be brought forward, the change is unlikely to increase the divorce rate in a steady state.
Let me turn briefly to the measures in the Bill: it does not create a new process, but instead retains the framework of the existing law and removes those aspects that are considered to cause conflict. The Bill therefore retains the two stages of divorce and dissolution orders. The Government believe that the need to confirm to the court that it may make the conditional order, and to apply to the court for the final order, means that a divorce or dissolution is never automatic and that the decision to divorce is a considered one, with opportunities for a change of heart right up to the last moment.
The reform will retain irretrievable breakdown as the sole legal ground for divorce and dissolution. It will replace the current requirement to evidence irretrievable breakdown through a conduct or separation fact with a statement of irretrievable breakdown of the marriage or civil partnership. For the first time, couples will have the option to make this a joint statement, to reflect some couples’ mutual decision to divorce. It will remove the possibility of contesting the decision to end the legal relationship, as a statement of irretrievable breakdown will be conclusive evidence to the court that the marriage or civil partnership has irretrievably broken down.
The reform will introduce a new minimum period of 20 weeks from the start of proceedings to the point at which the applicant—or applicants jointly—can confirm to the court that a conditional order may be made. I hope that that gives my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes) some reassurance about that moment of reflection. Our proposal will make the court process towards a conditional order less rushed and give couples further time to consider the implications of the divorce. Between 2011 and 2018, around two thirds of cases reached conditional order in less than our proposed 20-week minimum period. That included approximately one in 10 cases within eight weeks, and four in 10 cases between nine and 16 weeks. The Bill also modernises language such as “decree nisi” and “decree absolute”, to bring terms in line with the more modern terms used in civil partnership law.
The reforms I have set out will deliver a system of divorce that is fit for the 21st century. It is time to end the blame game. The system we have now does not support the reality of marriage and civil partnership breakdown. It has been criticised as a system that
“is, and always has been, a sham”.
Those are the words of Sir Paul Coleridge, former family judge and chair of the Marriage Foundation, who, like all of us, believes strongly in marriage but sees that by reforming the law to remove from it unnecessary requirements that can fuel conflict, we will not undermine marriage and will support people to look to the future as they go through very difficult times. For that reason, I commend the Bill to the House.
I welcome the Bill. Labour supports the introduction of a no-fault divorce procedure, which we committed to in our 2017 general election manifesto, and we are pleased that the Government have acted, especially in the light of the troubling case of Owens v. Owens. We will therefore vote to support the Bill if a vote is called at this stage. We will use our time in Committee to amend the Bill, if need be, to ensure that it is the best law possible for those who are already going through a difficult time in their lives.
The existing procedure and law managing divorce and the dissolution of civil partnerships is not fit for purpose and is in clear need of updating. A fundamental problem with the existing law, which is set out for divorcing couples in the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 and for the dissolution of civil partnerships in the Civil Partnership Act 2004, is that it requires people who seek a divorce to prove that the marriage has broken down, either by establishing fault on the part of one partner, or by showing that the couple have lived separate lives for a number of years. In reality, for those who cannot afford to live in two separate households for years in order to prove that their marriage has broken down, the only option currently available is to establish fault on the part of their partner. That is one way in which the current divorce law discriminates against women, particularly those on a low income, by reducing the options available to them to a fault-based divorce.
Establishing of one of the three faults—adultery, unreasonable behaviour or desertion—can be difficult, and often heightens tensions at an already stressful time. We know the hurt that such heightened tension can all too often cause. There are widespread concerns about the increased risk of domestic violence faced by women who go through this fractious process. Surveys of people who have gone through the divorce procedure show that in excess of one in four people who go through a divorce have cited a fault that is not in fact true, simply because it is their only way to secure a divorce. This is plainly an unacceptable state of affairs, and it is right that the Government are now acting to address it.
A conflictual process is deeply damaging to children’s life chances. Children will of course be better served by parents who co-operate, and if their parents have a constructive relationship. The law is a real barrier to that.
I reiterate the point I made earlier to the Secretary of State, who rightly talked about the impact on children of an acrimonious divorce. We need to protect children from the risk of abuse—everybody would accept that—but if a resident parent turns a child against a non-resident parent, that can cause massive long-term damage to that child. The current legal framework does nothing satisfactory to tackle that particular problem. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that now is the time to look again at what can be done differently in respect of the whole question of alienation and the impact on children?
My hon. Friend raises an important wider point. Further assistance and early intervention, which was mentioned by the Secretary of State, is required to protect all concerned.
There are very often issues with how the family courts go about these custody matters. I get lots of cases like this, as I am sure my hon. Friend does. It is an area that needs to be looked at. Equally, some lawyers—not all—can exacerbate the situation in the way they handle the case. I get lots of complaints about family courts, particularly with regard to who is right and who is wrong, and there is a lot of antagonism. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis) said, this can be very damaging to children.
That is why we are very supportive of mediation in family cases in general, and why we have made announcements in relation to legal aid and early family law advice. I hear my hon. Friend’s point about the role of solicitors not always being helpful, but there can also be problems when people end up being advocates for themselves.
The need to apportion blame and ratchet up the acrimony is one of the main reasons that so many of us want to see an end to this fault-based law—not least because of the impact on children. For example, the present divorce ground of unreasonable behaviour requires allegations that are hardly ever challenged and can sometimes be exaggerated by one spouse against the other, which can exacerbate tensions between them. It also makes it more difficult to agree arrangements for children. Indeed, one of the most urgent reasons for these reforms is to alleviate the harm caused to children, including to their mental health, by acrimonious separations. For a child of a divorcing couple, the divorce can be one of the most difficult times in their life. As the Secretary of State has indicated, the introduction of a no-fault procedure should mean that the whole process can be quicker and less stressful for them. At an emotionally traumatic time, such as a divorce or separation, parents want and need support in order to put the best interests of their children first.
This change to the law has public support and the support of family law experts. Margaret Heathcote— the chair of Resolution, which represents more than 6,000 family law practitioners and is a strong supporter of this change—said:
“Every day, our members are helping people through separation, taking a constructive, non-confrontational approach in line with our code of practice. However, because of our outdated divorce laws, they’ve been working with one arm tied behind their backs.”
In fact, the Secretary of State quoted her himself.
Professor Liz Trinder, who led the Nuffield Foundation’s 2017 research into divorce law, is also supportive of these reforms, saying that
“making people produce a ‘reason’ to obtain their divorce—as they are currently required to do—does not save marriages and instead just creates a meaningless charade that can create conflict, confusion and unfairness.”
And Christina Blacklaws, president of the Law Society, said:
“Making couples attribute fault…can escalate the differences between them in an already charged situation.”
The recent case of Owens v. Owens highlighted a particularly iniquitous aspect of our existing divorce laws: the possibility for one party to attempt to refuse a divorce by defending it.
Does the hon. Gentleman think this change will in any way lessen the seriousness of the marriage contract? Will people entering into it feel that they can do so more lightly because, from a purely contractual point of view, escaping from it is made easier by this legislation?
I know that marriage is technically a contract, but it seems strange to think of it that way when it is such a personal and emotional thing. I do not believe that this change in the law, which is welcome, will lead to an overall increase in the number of divorces in the long run. However, I do think that it will reduce the unnecessary tension, conflict, distress and damage to children in those divorces, which would take place in any event.
In the case of Owens v. Owens, the family court judge refused to grant a divorce to Mrs Owens, who made the application for a divorce in 2015, despite finding that the marriage had in fact broken down. This was because she failed to prove, as required in the 1973 Act, that her husband’s behaviour was such that she could not reasonably be expected to live with him. Mrs Owens’s appeal was dismissed at both the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court, leaving her unable to divorce her husband until 2020—a clearly unacceptable case. The judges who heard the case at both the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court expressed their dissatisfaction with the existing law, with Sir James Munby, the then president of the family division, suggesting that divorce law was based on a “lack of intellectual honesty”, and Lady Hale concluding that it was for Parliament to make any changes to the law. It is therefore right that Parliament is now able to take up this issue and make the reforms necessary to ensure that no one has to go through what Mrs Owens experienced in this case.
The new divorce laws that we are considering today should aim to secure a number of desirable outcomes. They should ensure that people can separate as amicably as possible, keeping conflict to a minimum, so that the chances of reaching agreement are maximised and the risk of domestic abuse is as low as possible. Where there are children, their interests must be paramount, and a safe, secure and sustainable outcome for them should be promoted wherever possible. Unlike the existing system, these new divorce laws should not discriminate against women, especially those on low incomes. The new divorce and dissolution laws must also protect vulnerable and marginalised groups throughout the divorce process. In particular, they must not weaken the hard-won rights of LGBT people.
One issue that has been raised by charities working to support victims of domestic abuse is that the Bill as drafted does not remove the bar on petitioning for a divorce in the first year of a marriage. This can leave women who are suffering domestic abuse trapped in the abusive marriage during that year. Will the Secretary of State address that issue during the passage of the Bill, and will he tell us whether he has met Women’s Aid and other charities to discuss these concerns?
Since 2013, legal aid for divorce cases in England and Wales has been withdrawn by the Government—in most cases as part of a wider attack on access to justice that has had a very detrimental impact on family law cases. Groups including Citizens Advice have highlighted how legal aid cuts add to strain on divorcees, and more widely it is lower income people and those with children who are more likely to be litigating in person than any other group. Resolution, which was mentioned earlier, has previously stated that providing legal aid for a single, initial meeting with a lawyer would provide separating couples with clear “signposts” about their legal options and encourage more people to use mediation as an alternative to courtroom confrontation.
Even with the welcome changes contained in the Bill, divorce will still be an often confusing legal process. There is a clear public interest in people being supported to achieve amicable resolutions to financial questions and arrangements for the care of children following a separation. Will the Government therefore commit to reintroducing legal aid for early legal advice for couples going through the divorce procedure?
In conclusion, bringing our divorce laws into the 21st century can form an essential part of the efforts to protect women from domestic abuse, limit the damaging impacts that fractious separations can have on children and encourage amicable separations wherever possible. For those reasons, I am pleased to support these overdue reforms.
I rise to support this proposed new legislation from the Government. It is a long overdue reform, and I certainly commend it.
Marriage is a very serious, lifelong commitment, and we all enter into it in that spirit. It is very clear that it is the best outcome for a stable family life, and, indeed, delivers the best outcome for children.
But we live in the real world, and we know that every marriage has its ups and downs. Although it is not a matter for this Bill, many have talked about the need to give advice, but advice should be given before entering into marriage, not as it draws to a close. We all had relationship education at school, but, when it comes to marriage, what does that really mean in terms of a relationship, of finance and sharing the benefits and the burdens of our shared working lives, and of what we might or might not inherit? What does it mean for children? Have the couple discussed whether they want children? Is the lady going into this arrangement expecting that that is the norm while the gentleman does not have the same concept at all? Increasingly, marriages are not all about having children. Outside this Bill, we ought to look at that. If we do so, we will have better and happier couples who will stay married longer.
Some marriages, clearly, do not weather the storm. People change. We cannot deny that; we cannot expect people always to be the same. Events impact hugely on people’s lives. The impacts on people’s lives are many and varied as we travel more and as a result of the internet. When a marriage does irretrievably break down, the clear focus must be on good post-divorce relationships. That is not just about the children, although they are absolutely key; it is also about the relationship between the two people who were married. There should be a focus on mutual support for the children of the marriage. At this point, I should make it clear that we are not just talking about biological children of that marriage. Marriages today are quite complex, and there will often be a number of stepchildren and others to be taken into account.
Blame is not helpful. It is destructive and it impacts mental health. As we have heard, it can place children in very unpleasant situations where they are asked or expected to take the side of one partner or the other, or almost emotionally bullied into doing so. In some cases, children are even led to believe that the breakdown of the marriage is their fault. That cannot be right in today’s society. This Bill is absolutely a step in the right direction. It removes blame and it removes fault.
There is, however, more to do. I understand the Government’s caution in tackling the causes that need to be proved for divorce, but the financial arrangements on separation and divorce and for children do not work and must be readdressed in the context of the modern world, not the world as it used to be. The world is no longer about two people getting married and staying together for their lifetimes. It is not always about having biological children. Indeed, as I said, it is not always about having children at all.
When looking at finances and at the arrangements for children, the problem is that the courts are not well guided, because the original rules and regulations were set for a time that no longer exists and need to be reviewed. We have a common law system. We have a background of evidence that, to some extent, has evolved to help these newly changed situations.
Unless there is a readjusted start point, however, gaming comes in, whether it is about arguments about finance or about children. For many people, this creates a very unfair situation that cannot lead to what, for me, are the key objectives—good relationships between the parting parents and with the children. Indeed, the antiquated nature of the current legislation actually prevents marriages. Many will say, “Well done, Government, because at least we now understand that if things do not work out, there is a non-blaming way of parting ways.” We had not dealt with the acrimony and blame that goes with financial settlements and settlements for children.
The concept of a pre-nup is a great start, but the problem is that they create more discord between couples before they are married than is absolutely necessary. They can create great bitterness. There are still huge questions about whether they are legally binding. It might not be for this Bill, but we have to look at and consult on those matters again.
Not all marriages are about children. There may be no children produced, but there will be children in the marriage. Often there will be a mixture of biological children, stepchildren and step-grandchildren. Under the current system, the interests of all those parties and their relationships are not properly taken into account. As adults, we have to grow up and live with the consequences of the decisions we make, but for children who have built very close relationships with stepchildren or grandparents these situations can be devastating. All this really needs to be thought through again.
Too often, the parent who has the children has the opportunity to game the system and cast aspersions on the behaviour of the absent parent of such a vicious nature that the court is left with little option but to accept that the risk is too great, and, as a consequence, that the individual making the accusations must be believed. This system does not work. It is often abused for financial advantage, it having nothing to do with the children. I strongly recommend that we look at this again and do the job better.
I support the Opposition’s request that legal aid be brought back into this area, because we have clogged up the courts with cases that are not going to deliver a good outcome for anybody. The court system is completely stymied because the judge finds himself or herself having to give advice to the litigants in person. That is not good for children, for parents or for anyone involved with the family in its broadest terms.
The issue of finances becomes a terrible wrangle about who is entitled to what. We start with the principal assumption of a 50:50 split. In the old days, when often one party worked and the other looked after the children, it was absolutely fair that the work involved in creating, bringing up and nurturing the family was valued. That would be a sensible starting point. Increasingly, though, both parties work, and both bring very different financial contributions to the marriage. We need to look again at how we assess the right starting point. We then need to assess what criteria will enable us to move away from that starting point.
The most important thing is the needs of the children. That should be the first thing taken into account. Secondly, there is the need for each of the spouses to make sure that they are still able to live well. However, it is unrealistic, for a number of reasons, for anyone to go into a marriage and assume that when it breaks up there is necessarily an entitlement to live in the same style as they did when they were married. Financially—usually—it is not affordable. While marriage is for life, increasingly individuals are marrying more than once, more than twice—indeed, three times—and therefore to make financial provision that assumes that that individual will be single for the rest of their life simply is not realistic.
We need a much more realistic approach to marriage, and to the financial settlement. We need to recognise that people will often marry more than once—and that is not a criticism; it is actually a good thing, because marriage, as we know, is a very good environment in which to bring up children. If we can make marriages happy, if they can deliver long term, and if there can be many long-term happy marriages, that is not something to eschew, but something to welcome.
This reform is very welcome, but the reality of how people marry—the circumstances in which they marry and the circumstances around children—has changed so fundamentally that the law on financial settlements and on arrangements for the children must be fundamentally reviewed. Nevertheless, this is definitely a good start in the right direction, and I commend the Minister and the Government for introducing this Bill, which I will support.
It is very refreshing to see such widespread consensus; I take the fact that the Chamber is relatively empty this afternoon as a sign that we all know that the Bill is a very welcome step forward, and that there is widespread consensus. As has been said, the Bill makes our legal practices around divorce fit for the 21st century, and the Liberal Democrats very much welcome the changes.
Divorce can be traumatising and affect whole families for years after the event. Up until now, the legal process by which divorce happens has further exacerbated that trauma, dragging out the process and forcing couples into conflict to assign legal blame. Currently, it is impossible to seek a no-fault divorce unless the couple have been separated for at least two years. To file for divorce more quickly than that, couples must claim “unreasonable behaviour” or “adultery”.
The impacts of such a system are devastating, especially for children. Divorce and family breakdown are considered an adverse childhood experience that has lasting impacts on the children. Recently, we have talked about adverse childhood experiences around knife crime, the penal system and policing. I hope and wish, because I am a member of the all-party group for the prevention of adverse childhood experiences, that the whole approach—the trauma and fault approach—to a lot of services will be much better and more widely understood, and that all 650 MPs in this country will understand what trauma and fault mean. I encourage all hon. Members to attend at least some meetings of our all-party group. Family separation is an adverse childhood experience.
We are all very concerned about the impact on children. The reality of the damage of divorce is manifest, not just in the process, which we are discussing, but primarily in the separation of parents and the subsequent years in which children live torn between them. Does the hon. Lady agree that whenever divorce is granted, there must be greater focus on the children of the break-up?
I thank the hon. Gentleman. Throughout the years, we have understood how important it is that we take children seriously and focus a lot on their mental health and wellbeing. I totally agree.
Living through adverse childhood experiences hugely influences the likelihood that a child will end up serving time in our criminal justice system, have poor mental and physical health, and find it very difficult to build stable, loving relationships. Our divorce legislation must take that into account and be trauma-informed.
People often come to the decision to divorce at the most chaotic times of their and their families’ lives. We must have a system that tries to restore order—not fuel further chaos—and we must absolutely support children throughout that process.
The new legislation, which would allow couples to file for no-fault divorce and complete the process in six months, would leave space for families to continue to function in very difficult circumstances. It would encourage couples to be mindful of their marriage and the impact of divorce, while not pushing them towards further conflict.
Each year, over 100,000 couples get divorced in England and Wales. In the years that have passed since the most recent significant family legislation, over 1.7 million people have assigned blame in the divorce process. Needless to say, this Bill is long overdue.
There is much more that can be done to bring our marriage laws into the 21st century, as the hon. Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) said. We must recognise that marriage and civil partnerships are not for everyone, and that young people who do get married are doing so later and later. Our legal system needs to catch up with society, in which millions of couples choose to live together without making a formal commitment. The Law Commission suggests granting essential but limited legal rights to couples who have lived together for at least three years. Such legislation would complement the new divorce, dissolution and separation laws, and I urge the Minister to take another look at that proposal.
Family law defines millions of lives, young and old. We have an obligation to ensure that the law is up to date and empowers people, instead of holding them back. Changing the current legislation to focus on reconciliation, as opposed to conflict, is a very positive first step in the process, but there is more to be done.
I draw hon. Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
This is a sensitive subject and I hope to approach it in that way. Divorce can never be easy—not for the parties, nor for the others involved, such as children or the wider family. People who marry do so in the hope that their relationship will be long lasting, but when relationships do break down, often, the impact is devastating for many involved. I will never forget a grandmother coming to see me to make a will—I practised for many years as a solicitor in a community law firm, although never as a family law specialist. She broke down in tears as she told me that, following her son’s divorce, she had lost all contact with her grandchildren for years.
However, when couples do stay together and weather the inevitable storms of marriage, the stability that that engenders benefits not just the parties, but their children. Indeed, it is increasingly acknowledged that, even where there is an argumentative marriage—as many are—where parents stick together, the stability benefits the children. Indeed, the Lord Chancellor talked about stability benefiting children. The wider community and society benefit, too. Sadly, the UK has one of the highest levels of family breakdown in the developed world, with profound consequences for children’s mental health, housing pressures, homelessness, addiction, loneliness in old age, and much more. So, in order to promote stability, Government is justified, and has an interest, in helping couples stay together and in counteracting wherever possible the consequences of the high level of relationship breakdown in this country.
I fully support what the hon. Lady has put forward. I talked to her beforehand about this subject —indeed, we have talked about it on many occasions—and she and I agree that we see divorce as bad for children. Does she agree that this might minimise some forms of conflict in the short term, but that the long-term negative impact of divorce on children’s development and adult wellbeing will become more prevalent as divorce increases? Does she see in her constituency office, as I see in mine, the side effects of divorce and the impact on children?
I do, very much, in many cases. It is that break-up that causes so much hurt. Very often it is not so much the conflict; in fact, a lot of emerging research shows that the shock of marriage break-up can be greater for children when there has not been conflict in the parents’ relationship than when there has been.
I accept that not every marriage can be maintained and that it is sometimes better for one to end. I am also very much aware that many single and separated parents do a brilliant job. However, this Bill not only makes it easier to leave a marriage, but fails to take the opportunity properly to promote reconciliation where that may be possible. It fails to instigate better mediation procedures. At present, mediation procedures do not work well, according to family law practitioners. They need to be much more wisely applied at a more timely point during the legal process. If need be, I shall say more about this at a later stage of the Bill’s progress. I sincerely hope that an amendment will be tabled to reflect that need.
As ever, my hon. Friend is making a thoughtful and compassionate contribution to the debate. I agree with the tenets of the Bill and I slightly disagree with some aspects of her speech. We need to take confrontation out of the break-up process. I certainly agree with her that we need to signpost people towards relationship counselling services. In effect, as part of the trade-off in allowing a more simple, streamlined divorce process, we need to support those who wish to make a success of such counselling.
Absolutely, and that is very much the thrust of what I want to say today. The Government need to do much more to help to strengthen family relationships.
I want to make a quick intervention because the hon. Lady mentioned the words “family relationships”. When the Conservative party came to power, one of the policies it pursued at that time—I supported this by the way—was to fix broken Britain. In relation to striking at the institution of marriage, does she feel that this divorce Bill, as it is coming forward, fixes broken Britain, or does it make it worse?
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting intervention because the phrase “broken Britain” came from a report by the Centre for Social Justice that was produced a decade or so ago. Sadly, relationship breakdown is even greater now than it was then. I do not believe that successive Governments have put in place policies and procedures to help to strengthen relationships, and this Bill will not do so either. In fact, sadly, I believe it will make divorce easier. Why do I say that? Simply because it will allow one party to walk away from the most important commitment they are likely to have made in their lifetime, without giving any reason at all and without their spouse being able meaningfully to object to their decision to do so. The removal of fault sends out a signal—I am particularly concerned about the signals sent out by the Bill to young people—that marriage can be unilaterally exited, on notice, by one party, with little if any recourse available to the party who has been left. I fear it signals that marriage need no longer be entered into with the intention of its being a lifelong commitment, as it is today—perhaps it will be signalled more as a time-limited arrangement that can be ended at will. Indeed, it is interesting that, in my law firm, I am now hearing the phrase “My current partner” coming into usage.
As I say, the removal of fault, without any opportunity to challenge, means that some who are genuinely wronged—it may be only a tiny number, as the Secretary of State has mentioned—cannot put anything on record on what they feel about the reasons stated for the divorce. The Bill simply says that a court must make a divorce order merely on the bald statement by one party that a marriage has broken down irretrievably.
I thank the hon. Lady for taking a further intervention and you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for letting me intervene. Does she accept this concern—I believe it is her concern as well? This change to the divorce law proposes irretrievable breakdown as a sole ground for divorce, but what is actually proposed is unilateral, no-reason divorce. That is what it is about.
That is exactly the point I want to make. I am concerned that, if marriage can be seen as so easily exited, more and more young people will think, “Why bother entering into it at all?” Marriage rates may well, and likely will, further decline.
The hon. Lady has been incredibly generous with her time. She, like I, views marriage through the prism of our faith, but I hope that she recognises that not everyone who engages in marriage sees it that way. They do not see it as a covenant from God. They do not see it in the same way she and I do. May I ask her to reflect on why, where a marriage has broken down, the process should be elongated and why somebody should feel trapped in a marriage in which they are no longer invested? Would she also give some thought to the notion that, when somebody has to give a reason over and above irretrievable breakdown, it leads to the conflict she is seeking to avoid?
The hon. Gentleman, whom I deeply respect, has made a number of points and I will address particularly the point about conflict in a moment. However, may I first respond to the point about where a marriage may have—so-called—irretrievably broken down?
Despite what the Secretary of State said, I think these proposals will do even less than current procedures to help to promote dialogue and potentially therefore reconciliation. Currently, each year, approximately 10,000 divorces are started and then dropped. Many couples do give their marriage another chance. However, these proposals—in effect, promoting unilateral divorce on demand simply by serving a notice on the other person that the marriage has broken down, without having to give any reason at all and without the spouse being able to contest this should they want to—will, I believe, inhibit the dialogue that could promote reconciliation in some cases.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
Will the hon. Lady give way?
It is a luxury to have the time to do so. I will give way to the hon. Lady first and then to the right hon. Gentleman.
The hon. Lady is very generous and we do have the luxury of a proper debate. Does she not accept that a marriage takes two and the tragedy is always when one side feels something has irretrievably broken down? It is a tragedy, but it is at the heart of why it is difficult to keep something going when one side clearly does not feel they can keep it going. For that reason, this change in the law is very welcome.
I note what the hon. Lady says, but I am saying that we should give more support to the opportunity for dialogue and potential reconciliation—for example, through better mediation services than we currently have.
Whether we view marriage through the prism of faith or simply as an arrangement in which people come together because they wish to be together, does the hon. Lady agree that, with no-fault divorce, the process by which a couple come to the conclusion that the marriage has irrevocably broken down, has been made so much easier that the full extent of the considerations that ought to be taken before the marriage is broken up will not have been taken? That is why the Bill is flawed.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. It is that thoughtfulness that I am seeking to preserve. There is something also about the thoughtfulness that goes into preparing for the marriage ceremony, including—to pick up the point made by the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) about not all marriages being religious—secular ones. There is a thoughtfulness about that ceremony and the public commitment it entails, with the support of friends and relatives who witness it, all of which helps to strengthen the relationship and often enables people to weather the inevitable storms. I am concerned that the thoughtfulness the Bill will extract through the ending of a marriage will denude the necessity, importance or encouragement of the thoughtfulness at the start of and during the relationship.
It is deeply worrying, because at the end of the day, one of the most precious things in life that many if not most of us want is the fulfilment of a loving, enduring relationship. Is the fact that people construct a reason for applying for divorce, as the Minister mentioned, a good enough argument for abandoning altogether the requirement and the thought that has to be put into it?
I am deeply concerned that marriage rates are likely to decline further. Interestingly, that is the conclusion of research drawn on by the authors of “Finding Fault”—the paper the Government rely on heavily in promoting the Bill. The authors of “Finding Fault” choose to ignore that conclusion and instead rely on Professor Justin Wolfers’ study, which cites a 2004 piece of research on other jurisdictions where no-fault divorce has been introduced. They do not quote it, but I shall. The research showed that
“the marriage rate declined by about 3 to 4 percent following the adoption of unilateral divorce laws.”
The likelihood of remarriage is also affected by such laws; according to the research,
“unilateral divorce led remarriage rates of divorcees to decline by around one-third to one-half.”
I intervene to back up the hon. Lady’s argument. To make marriage a relationship that one can exit unilaterally simply by saying that one wants out will fundamentally change its nature and undermine the ability of marriage to bring stability to the lives of adults and children. Does she agree that the ethic of marriage embodied in the Bill prioritises individual freedom and liberty, rather than encouraging, as it should, self-giving, sacrifice and commitment?
The hon. Gentleman makes a profound point. Without going too far into philosophy and theology, I will say there is something to be gained from the giving as well as the receiving within a marriage. It is difficult to understand why the Government are proposing legislation that will make the fulfilment that can be obtained from that harder to achieve. It is already hard enough for so many young people, with few role models of sustained relationships to look at and with media misconceptions about relationships so prevalent today.
What is truly tragic is that it is the poorest in our society who are not now marrying in great numbers and who are the least resilient when relationships break down. Marriage brings stability. Just one in 11 married couples split before a child’s fifth birthday, compared with one in three unmarried couples. As the Minister says, children benefit from stability. The well-off are still marrying and still benefiting. That is not social justice. Sadly, as the Minister acknowledged, many families will be affected by an immediate increase in divorce rates that even proponents of the Bill accept will inevitably follow the Bill’s passage, as those who currently wait for two or five years opt for a quickie divorce instead. I understand that it could take a decade for the spike to dissipate to our normal rates of divorce—already the highest in Europe—and the heaviest effect will be felt by the children involved.
It is especially concerning that the Government are ignoring the result of their own public consultation on the matter. Of those who responded, 80% did not agree with the proposal to replace the five current grounds for divorce with a six-month notification process; a mere 17% were in favour of the proposals in the Bill. No less than 83% wanted the Government to retain the individual’s right to contest a divorce; only 15% said that that right should be removed. What reason did the Government give for ignoring those responses? It was that the respondents who objected to the proposals did so as a result of a campaign to raise public awareness about the proposals. That is laughable—not just laughable, but deeply worrying. Why should the public bother responding to consultations if they are ignored in this way? Are we in this place not already being ridiculed for ignoring the public’s view on another grave matter?
The tragedy is that the premise on which the Bill is founded—reducing conflict—is a false one. Solicitors specialising in family law tell me that no-fault divorce is no silver bullet to reduce family conflict and acrimony. They say the real source of contention between spouses and ex-spouses is finance and the division of assets. The Bill will do nothing to change that. Indeed, the Government are missing an opportunity in the Bill to tackle some grave injustices in that regard, while creating others. One solicitor who has specialised in family law day in, day out for 25 years says of the Bill:
“It will in my view lead to more not less divorce”
The solicitor continues:
“I have dealt with a lot of cases these last few years where people have done the divorce themselves”
and says the Government are
“trying to make it easier to exclude lawyers—but”
the divorcing couples
“have not sorted out the finances correctly, either by not getting a clean break order (therefore the former spouse can still make a claim years after the divorce) or not sorting finances at all, as a dominant party (usually man) puts pressure on the other to do nothing—often causing that other to be in financial hardship.”
He goes on:
“The issue is and always has been finance in divorce, not the divorce process. No-fault divorce will not solve anything in my view. Instead they should look at ways to provide financial equality in the process of sorting divorce and finances, as it is still often one party who is more able to pay for good legal support. The Financial Services order is supposed to allow the other to apply to court forcing the financially stronger to fund both lawyers but in reality the process is…difficult…restricted and doesn’t work.”
It seems the Government have missed the opportunity to address that problem, too.
Sadly, despite the Minister’s words, the proposals will do even less than the current procedures to promote dialogue and potential reconciliation. As I approach the end of my speech—as I said, it is a luxury to be able to speak at the desired length and to take as many interventions as people wish to make—I will quote from the explanatory notes on the Bill. They say:
“The Government’s policy intention behind the reformed law is that the decision to divorce should be a considered one, and that separating couples should not be put through legal requirements which do not serve their or the state’s interests and which can lead to ongoing conflict and poorer outcomes for children.”
Is the hon. Lady aware of a story in the press a month or so ago about a father and mother who were divorcing, and when it came to deciding who would have responsibility for the children, neither parent wanted it? Is she as dismayed as I was that neither the father of the children nor their mother wanted anything to do with them? Does that not disappoint her? It disappoints me.
That is heartrending. Words fail me.
Returning to the more prosaic words of the explanatory notes, I remind colleagues of the statements that
“the decision to divorce should be a considered one”,
“couples should not be put through legal requirements which do not serve their or the state’s interests and which can lead to ongoing conflict and poorer outcomes for children.”
In my view, this Bill fails on every one of those counts. As I have explained, it will make divorce not a more considered decision but a less considered one, with no reason needing to be explained. It will do nothing to reduce the ongoing conflict that arises from financial disputes. It will increase divorce rates and reduce marriage rates.
The very recent Centre for Social Justice report on families leads me to the inevitable conclusion that it will not serve the state’s interests and that it will lead to poorer outcomes for children. Time prohibits me from quoting much of the excellent and well-evidenced research in the report, but I will simply quote from it as follows. It concludes:
“Marriage leads to better life outcomes for children. Marriage promotes stability. Children of married parents are more likely to achieve at school, have better mental health, less likely to use drink and drugs and less likely to get involved in offending behaviour.”
As I said at the outset, there are always exceptions to every such statement, and I repeat that many single and separated parents do an excellent job. Having said that, however, divorce can be deeply hurtful and costly for those involved, for their children and for wider society. It is already at epidemic levels. The Bill will make it worse. The Government should be actively seeking to strengthen family relationships, not weaken them.
Thank you, Mr Speaker—Mr Deputy Speaker. That was, perhaps, a Freudian slip.
It is a pleasure, as always, to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce). She made a heartfelt speech. I know that this is a matter on which she feels very strongly. It is an issue to which I myself have given considerable thought. It is sensitive and important, particularly for those who have a faith and regard marriage as a sacrament as well as a legal contract.
I look at this issue from the point of view of someone who happens to be a practising Anglican, as someone who has for 25 or 30 years been a practising lawyer—not predominantly in the field of family law, although I did practise family law to some degree in my earlier days—as someone who served as a councillor in a local authority, and as someone who has the honour of serving as Chair of the Justice Committee. I have had the chance to see the issue from a number of points of view and I have come to a different conclusion to my hon. Friend. I do not say that with any disrespect for the strength or genuineness of her feeling; I am just persuaded, on balance, that the Secretary of State is right and that the evidence points quite clearly to this being an appropriate and necessary reform.
As Chair of the Justice Committee, I have had the opportunity to engage with leading members of the judiciary, particularly, in this context, with those of the family division. It is the overwhelming view of family practitioners, including solicitors, barristers and senior judges, that the current arrangements, which require fault to be used as a proof of irretrievable breakdown, do not work satisfactorily and do not achieve what is ultimately the necessary objective of enabling people whose marriage has sadly broken down irretrievably—I suspect that none of us want that to happen when we embark on a marriage, but it does happen in some cases—to leave their marriage with a measure of dignity and to do so in a way that enables the important issue of financial fairness to be resolved, and, in the case of children, to enable civilised and caring arrangements to be made for them and their children. That, ultimately, must be the chief and principal objective.
My hon. Friend gets to the heart of the matter: the fault aspect. What persuades me is that the requirement to assign fault can itself be a polluting element within the divorce or separation process. It may actually make what could be a more amicable separation more poisonous and more difficult when it comes to discussing other matters such as finance.
I agree and that was certainly my experience as a lawyer. That is the experience of the majority of practitioners and the majority of the judiciary to whom I have spoken. When I started my practise at the Bar, the Divorce Reform Act 1969 was comparatively recent and the law was developing. There was an issue then and it has remained a constant. There is an underlying risk of tension and antagonism in the course of family proceedings, which spill on from the divorce itself into the proceedings thereafter, which, for the future, are very often much more important. I very much take on board the point my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton makes about the value to society of stable marriages—indeed, the value to society of stable relationships of any kind. If I thought that the Bill would seriously harm that, I would take a different view towards it, but I do not think that and the evidence does not suggest that that is the case either.
I strongly support the thrust of the hon. Gentleman’s argument and I strongly support the Bill. I am very sorry I was not here for the earlier speeches. All the representations I have received from the legal profession support the Bill. I was a practising solicitor, but I did not do matrimonial law. My daughter does and she strongly supports the Bill. I think it is overdue and I will be strongly supporting it today.
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. I have to say that from my own limited experience and from speaking to those who continue to practise, no area of law is perhaps more sensitive or more emotionally draining—not just for the parties, but for the practitioners who seek to advise them and the judiciary who sit on these cases—than family work. It is inevitably stressful and we ought to have a system that reduces stress, rather than makes it greater.
The evidence from other comparators also shows that the Bill is an advantage to the overall social objective and that some concerns are not justified. It is suggested that the Bill imports into law a concept of unilateral no-fault divorce. That is not strictly correct. It is currently the case that after two years of separation with consent or five years without consent, divorce can be granted without any allegation of conduct. The truth is, as I will refer to later and as Sir Paul Coleridge, the chairman of the Marriage Foundation and a former High Court judge of the family division himself observed, that that does not keep up to date with the way people now change and move on with their lives. It certainly does not reflect my experience, and the experience of most people, that the divorce petition comes at the end of the breakdown of a relationship, not the beginning. Time and time again, I have seen that with people who come to my surgery, with court cases I have been involved in or observed, and, as most of us have, with friends and acquaintances—people we know—where it has been the end of a sad and painful process that ultimately leads to the conclusion that the marriage is no longer sustainable and they want to move on. We ought to help them to be able to do that. My experience has certainly been that divorce is not undertaken lightly and I think the Secretary of State is right to recognise that.
Does the hon. Gentleman feel that the sacrament of marriage is made stronger or weaker by the passing of the Bill?
As an Anglo-Catholic, I take the hon. Gentleman’s point about the sacrament strongly, but I do not believe, in societal terms, that it makes very much difference. In truth, many marriages are not in entered into in a religious context. The weight that is placed on the sacrament, even with those of faith, may vary. Perhaps it should not, but I think that is the reality. For those for whom it is important, it will be a difficult personal decision, as it has been for friends of mine for whom the end of their marriage was very difficult indeed. None the less, they thought it was appropriate to recognise what had happened and to make a break. It is a profound point for those of faith, but I do not think it is an argument against the Bill, as I think the hon. Gentleman agrees.
We also have to bear in mind the suggestion that there might be manipulation of a vulnerable party. I take that seriously and it has been raised by a couple of constituents of mine who think carefully and closely about these matters. However, my experience and all the evidence seem to suggest that the greatest risk of manipulation and pressure being put on a vulnerable party is during the period when the marriage has broken down and people have to wait perhaps for two or five years, especially if, as hon. Members have observed, they are obliged for financial or childcare reasons—or a mixture of both—to continue to live under the same roof. That is the point at which the vulnerable party is often most at risk.
It is perhaps significant that the study, “Finding Fault?”, points out that, at the moment, the system is to some degree “manipulated” by fault being used as a ground to speed up divorce. It is not that the marriage has not broken down, but that it is quicker for someone to get divorced if they allege fault than if they wait two or five years. That can have perverse consequences: people have to say hurtful things against the party with whom they are still living and attempting to bring up their children, so that they can speed up the divorce that they both know is inevitable. I cannot see how that benefits society or, for those of us to whom this is important, a Christian ethos for that family.
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct and makes another persuasive point, because it means that a divorce is based on a lie. Frankly, we should not have any lies in a legal process. Years ago, I remember reading Evelyn Waugh’s “A Handful of Dust”, in which a character has to abscond to Brighton, seemingly with a woman, to provide the grounds for a divorce. This stuff is from 40 or 50 years ago and is nonsense. We need a bit more honesty in the process.
I take my hon. Friend’s point. My pupil master, when I started at the bar, had practised in divorce work under precisely those arrangements prior to the 1969 Act. They used to get what was called “ordinary hotel evidence”, which was an affidavit from the chambermaid or the waiter, who happened to have taken breakfast in bed to a couple. That was a pretty demeaning way of having to go through a legal process and it was rightly got rid of, but at the time, people genuinely thought that that might undermine marriage. It did not, of course, but that is the sort of thing that we have all recognised we need to move on from, and this is just a further adjustment.
There is another serious point about the inability of a party who feels aggrieved by the behaviour of their husband or spouse, who might have left them, to have the ground on the record. With respect, that misunderstands the legal test, which has always been, and continues to be, that the marriage has irretrievably broken down. That is not changed by the Bill. The question of behaviour and conduct is relevant only as one of the facts that is relied upon to support the ground for divorce, which is the irretrievable breakdown of the marriage. Moving to a single approach to that—the service of the petition, or the application—simplifies that and does not change the legal test.
Although it is tempting to think that an aggrieved party can get their hurt and concern on the record, it is not relevant as a matter of law because there is no causal connection between the conduct and the ground for the dissolution of marriage, and there never has been since the 1969 Act came into force. It also has the detrimental effect of creating a much more antagonistic attitude, because, first, there is good evidence that people game the system and will exaggerate behaviour to speed up the divorce, and secondly, this clouds the subsequent relationship as parties work out the consequences of the breakdown for finance and families.
It is important that the financial protections for a vulnerable party are specifically preserved under paragraph 10 of the schedule to the Bill, which maintains the existing arrangements. For those concerned about this, it is worth noting that in making a determination on financial arrangements,
“the court must consider all the circumstances including…the age, health, conduct, earning capacity, financial resources and financial obligations of each of the parties to the marriage”.
The suggestion that the change in any way undermines the protection for a vulnerable spouse during a divorce is simply not borne out by that measure, which preserves in the Bill exactly the same test that we have in the current law. I hope that that reassures people who are understandably concerned about that point.
That leads me to my final point, which my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) rightly raised: we cannot really justify a legal process that encourages people to be untruthful. That is what is happening and what has been attested to by the judiciary at the highest level. The late, much missed Sir Nicholas Wall, the former president of the family division, spoke on this during his tenure in office. His successor, Sir James Munby, one of the most experienced family division judges of his time, has spoken very bluntly about a system that involved hypocrisy and a “lack of intellectual honesty”. To go back to my hon. Friend’s point, Sir James referred to the “‘hotel divorce’ charades” that had been played out in the past. If there is collusion, it is the collusion that is sometimes needed by parties to invent conduct to speed up the divorce rather than waiting two or five years. Somebody may, for whatever reason—because the marriage has been breaking down for a long time—already have a new partner and there may be a new family on the way. One may or may not approve of that, but it is a reality of the world, and we have to have a justice system that recognises it and enables the best outcomes for that world rather than creating an obstacle.
Lady Hale, the president of the Supreme Court, said that the system is misleading because, as she put it, the
“fact used as the peg on which to hang the divorce petition may not bear any relationship to the real reason why the marriage broke down”.
If we are going to tackle marriage breakdown, as I believe we should, we should put the emphasis and resource into intervening much earlier to prevent the breakdown and not to involve a charade, in some cases, at the end of the divorce arrangements. I agree very much with the observations on that from my hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris), who is not in her place. I would also make the case that if there is an area where funding can be made available to restore elements of legal aid, compelling evidence to the Justice Committee has suggested that early advice on family matters should perhaps be the highest priority for its use. I know that the Secretary of State is someone who will be driven by the evidence when he considers those matters.
The person who perhaps clinches it for me—this is important because of his background—is Sir Paul Coleridge, to whom I have already referred. For many years, he was a family division judge, who practised throughout his professional career in family division work. He is also a practising Christian. Against that dual background, he has come to the view that the law requires reform and that the removal of the fault requirement would be a positive benefit and an advantage. He supports the change on that basis. He said that nowadays, most regard the delays under the current system as
“an intolerable block on their ability to move on with their lives. So to get around the delay they invent allegations to satisfy the court and enable it to turn a blind eye to what is really going on.”
Sir Paul also tackles the issue of divorce rates. He says:
“Since 1970 the divorce rate has fluctuated”—
he practised for a great deal of that time—
“For some periods it has gone up and for other periods, including now, it has dropped. There is simply no discernible connection between the type of divorce process and the rate of family breakdown. The two are unconnected.”
I have been driven by the evidence to agree with him. I hope that we make much more effort to deal with family breakdown, but changing the process is not going alter that situation.
Sir Paul also says:
“We now have a system that drives people to lie to the court if they are not prepared to wait for two years or longer. That is wrong.”
That must be right. He ended what I think was a very thoughtful piece with the following remark:
“An intelligent process to end unsustainable marriage is good for the reinvigoration of the most important social arrangement yet devised for mankind.”
That is a broad and Christian view of the matter, and a socially and legally informed one, and I commend it to the House. It is the reason I support the Bill.
This debate has seen considered and valuable contributions. There have been many points of agreement across the House—and obviously some differences.
I thank all Members who participated, starting with the hon. Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris), who is not in her place. She talked about the importance of marriage while recognising the challenges, issues and realities when people get married and things go wrong. She referred to the 50:50 rule for dividing property, about which there is some misunderstanding. As I understand it, from the many years I studied family law, the 50:50 rule applies to people with long-lasting marriages—30 or 40 years—and maybe several children. Often with short marriages, the rule does not apply. The crux of her argument, however, was that marriage is important but that things can go wrong.
The hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) talked about the importance of the Bill and why the law needs to change.
I thank the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), who earnestly talked about the importance and stability of marriage for people and children. I know she holds these views very dearly, as do many across the country and the House. I also thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for his many contributions in the form of interventions.
Finally, I cannot finish without mentioning the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), the Chair of the Justice Committee, who, with all his different hats on, gave a very considered speech about why the Bill is necessary. He made the particularly important point that many people were having to exaggerate, lie or invent fault to be able to expedite a divorce. We should not be making our citizens do these things.
In an era when we better understand the complexities of human relationships and the freedom that people deserve to decide how they live their lives, it is clear to most of us that the old and outdated divorce rules need to change. That was crystallised and highlighted by the case of Owens v. Owens, to which the shadow Lord Chancellor and the Chair of the Select Committee referred. Mrs Owens asked for a decree nisi, which was not granted, even though the Supreme Court accepted that the marriage had irretrievably broken down. The law said that there had to be an attribution of fault to one of the parties, so the law as it stood did not allow the marriage to be finished. Subsequently, the then president of the family division, Sir James Munby, said that this aspect of law and procedure was based on
“hypocrisy and a lack of intellectual honesty”.
The Supreme Court also said that it was not for the judiciary or the courts to change the law but for Parliament. I am pleased that Parliament is debating this and that the law will be changed for the betterment of all.
As the Nuffield Foundation put it, the reliance on fault and blame as a key pillar of divorce law is
“at odds with the thrust of wider reforms in the family justice system, which have focussed on reducing conflict and promoting resolution”.
We understand that 1.7 million people currently use fault to get a divorce when fault is not the reality. Given that 90% of family lawyers represented by Resolution say that the current law makes it harder to reduce conflict between ex-partners and that 69% of the public are in favour of no-fault divorce, the time is right to change this archaic rule.
I would, however, like to raise some omissions from the Bill and to hear what the Lord Chancellor has to say. Divorce procedure is just one part of the wide tapestry of our legal system. As has been raised in debate with Ministers, this tapestry is fraying due to decisions made by their party over the past decade. The reforms we have discussed today are welcome attempts to reduce unnecessary conflict and prevent needless emotional stress for divorcing couples and their children, but in other areas of justice and family policy this does not seem to be an issue of concern for the Government.
The deep cuts to legal aid mean that the legal representation required to reach the right divorce settlement will be available only to those with the funds to pay for it. A lack of legal support makes it difficult for people to understand the intricacies of important changes such as these and therefore will reduce the positive impact of the no-fault divorce procedure, which we welcome today. Did the Lord Chancellor agree with the Law Society when it said the Government should, alongside these reforms, reintroduce legal aid for early legal advice to support divorcing couples and help them to reach the best possible settlements for themselves and their children?
I strongly support what my hon. Friend is saying to the Lord Chancellor. One of the major concerns I hear in my constituency surgeries is about individuals seeking advice concerning contact with children and matrimonial proceedings. It is a very emotive subject, as we heard earlier in the debate, and needs to be addressed.
I thank my hon. Friend for that helpful intervention. I hope the Lord Chancellor was listening to that and to everything else we are saying on the Opposition Benches.
More could be done in the Bill to support the most-at-risk people seeking a divorce. The Bill does not remove the bar on petitioning for divorce in the first year of marriage, despite charities and campaigners pointing to the impact this will have on victims of domestic abuse. We know that big life events such as marriage or pregnancy are hotspots for abuse and controlling behaviour to begin or increase. That first year of marriage is for some not a honeymoon period but a nightmare. It is clear that in 2019 we should not be trapping people in potentially dangerous situations because of an outdated law that does not give people the agency to get themselves out. Can the Lord Chancellor explain the rationale for this omission?
Overall, we welcome the reform, but we urge the Government to put this progressive shift into the context of the wider changes required to our justice system. There is so much more to do to ensure that anyone going through a tough time, such as a divorce or other conflict, has a positive and fair experience while seeking justice. I hope that the Minister, when he responds, will deal with some of the questions we have raised. That said, this is a very welcome Bill, which is why the Opposition support it.
I am greatly encouraged by the quality of the debate that we have had today, and for the broad support that the Bill has received from Members on both sides of the House. I particularly thank my hon. Friends the Members for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) and for Solihull (Julian Knight), the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas), my hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris), and the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) for their support.
The Bill is intended to help to heal family relationships when division has become unavoidable. No one, of course, seeks such an outcome. Few stand at the altar, or before a registrar, contemplating an ending rather than a beginning—“till death do us part” remains the golden thread of marital aspirations—but such is the flawed and fragile nature of human relationships that it can never be avoided altogether.
I know that all Members have families’ interests at heart. I know, too, that we share a belief in the vital importance of the commitment that marriage and civil partnerships bring, not only to couples and their families but to the wider wellbeing of our society. However, I am keenly aware that we arrive at that belief on the basis of different views and experiences.
I recognise that some Members have misgivings about the Bill. I should confess, as a Catholic myself, that when the Secretary of State presented me with it six weeks ago, I took rather a large gulp. What could I, a good Catholic boy, do with a divorce reform Bill? But the more I studied the Bill and looked at it carefully, the more I saw a civil and human measure that sought to lessen acrimony and create space for reflection. The misgivings that people have, however, are no less a part of the debate, and I am grateful to the Members who have voiced their concern as well as those who have expressed their support.
Will the Minister give way?
I will happily do so, briefly.
I am very grateful to the Minister, not least because I have only just come into the Chamber.
I congratulate the Government on introducing this incredibly important Bill. I also pay tribute to Philip Marshall QC, my colleague at the Bar, who has campaigned on the issue of no-fault divorce for many years. Does the Minister agree, however, that we must not only pass this important Bill, but reintroduce legal aid so that couples who are considering divorce can be advised by solicitors at an early stage? That saves a lot of money in the long run, and it is much better for the entire family.
I may well deal with that point briefly later in my speech.
It is worth pointing out that the breakdown of a marriage and the legal process of divorce that comes after it are two very different things. There was a time when the only legal exit from a marriage demanded an act of adultery, but that never stood in the way of anyone walking out on anyone else, and the law as it stands today does not prevent it either. There are general protections for respondents and vulnerable parties in any proceedings, and those will remain. We are also extending to all respondents the ability to apply for the final order to be delayed while the court considers their financial position following divorce.
My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) raised a number of important points. I am not unsympathetic to her wider agenda on support for families, and I look forward to meeting her and, indeed, Lord Farmer in the coming weeks to discuss their manifesto for families. She will be aware of our Reducing Parental Conflict programme, to which £39 million has been allocated, our Troubled Families programme, and many other initiatives across Government. I take on board her point that we need to do far more to support relationships further upstream, because we do not wish to reach a point at which relationships fall apart unnecessarily. I also take the point made by many Members on both sides of the House about the need to reform the finances of divorce, but I consider that to be a much greater issue than can be contained in this Bill. It is highly complex, and there is, as yet, no consensus. However, we recognise that it is an issue that will need to be discussed at some point.
The hon. Member for Bath rightly mentioned adverse childhood experiences. What she said went to the nub of why I believe the Bill to be a humane measure. At the end of the day, children often bear the brunt of the unpleasantness that divorce can cause, and we do not wish to add to that unpleasantness by ensuring that the divorce process is dragged out or becomes more acrimonious than it needs to be.
Many Members have expressed concern about so-called unilateral divorce. We should bear in mind that as marriage is a voluntary union of two people, the moment one person decides that the marriage is over, it is indeed over. The current divorce laws do not prevent unilateral divorce. Only about 2% of divorces are contested, many owing to the mistaken belief that attributing fault can somehow prevent the divorce from occurring. Indeed, when a divorce is contested, the only reasonable option is to prove that there was some flaw in the validity of the marriage originally. It is important to bear in mind what the law actually does, rather than what we might seek to believe that it can do.
I hear the points made by the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) and others about legal aid. Legal aid remains available to those who need it, such as victims of domestic abuse. It also remains available for mediation when couples are in dispute about finances or child arrangements, which provides a non-litigious route to resolving issues and helping families to move forward constructively. I also hear the point about the bar on the dissolution of marriages in the first year. The remedy for domestic abuse remains a range of proactive orders that the court can make, including non-molestation and occupation orders. We hope that those will include the domestic abuse protection orders referred to in our draft domestic abuse Bill.
We have heard from many stakeholders—a wide range of third parties—who take an interest in these issues and who support the measures that the Government are taking, including, as was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, the chair of the Marriage Foundation, Sir Paul Coleridge.
The Bill will not, in my view, make divorce more common. It will not make divorce any easier, and it will certainly not make divorce any quicker: the 26-week period will remain in place. However, it may make divorce less acrimonious, and for that reason alone I think it is a worthwhile Bill on which to embark. Divorce and dissolution will happen regardless of how the legal processes effecting them operate, because the irretrievable breakdown of some marriages and civil partnerships is, unfortunately, inevitable. The Bill deals with that reality with the minimum of acrimony by creating the conditions that will allow people to move forward and agree arrangements for the future in an orderly and constructive way, and for that reason I commend it to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time.
Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill (Programme)
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7)),
That the following provisions shall apply to the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill:
(1) The Bill shall be committed to a Public Bill Committee.
Proceedings in Public Bill Committee
(2) Proceedings in the Public Bill Committee shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion on Thursday 4 July 2019.
(3) The Public Bill Committee shall have leave to sit twice on the first day on which it meets.
Proceedings on Consideration and up to and including Third Reading
(4) Proceedings on Consideration and any proceedings in legislative grand committee shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour before the moment of interruption on the day on which proceedings on Consideration are commenced.
(5) Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the moment of interruption on that day.
(6) Standing Order No. 83B (Programming committees) shall not apply to proceedings on Consideration and up to and including Third Reading.
(7) Any other proceedings on the Bill may be programmed.—(Rebecca Harris.)
Question agreed to.
Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill (Money)
Queen’s recommendation signified.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 52(1)(a)),
That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill, it is expedient to authorise the payment out of money provided by Parliament of any expenditure incurred under or by virtue of the Act by the Lord Chancellor or the Secretary of State.—(Rebecca Harris.)
Business without Debate
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),
Value Added Tax
That the Value Added Tax (Reduced Rate) (Energy-Saving Materials) Order 2019 (S.I., 2019, No. 958), dated 21 May 2019, a copy of which was laid before this House on 21 May, be approved.—(Rebecca Harris.)
25 June 2019
The House divided:
Question accordingly agreed to.View Details
Closure of Heywood Crown Post Office
The hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) is very consumed by the graphic image on her iPad, but the more immediate matter is that of her petition.
I do apologise, Mr Speaker. I was distracted.
I rise to present this petition on behalf of the residents of Heywood and Middleton. The petition notes the vital services that Crown post offices provide to their communities, particularly in towns such as ours with only one surviving bank branch and where the post office provides vital access to financial services.
The Post Office proposes to move Heywood post office from its current location and to franchise the service to an as-yet unopened retail unit in a currently vacant shop in the town, leading to the fears that, should the new shop fail, the post office branch will also be lost. This petition, which has received 1,450 signatures, expresses concern that this move will adversely affect jobs, quality of service and accessibility, and will have a negative impact on Heywood town centre.
The petition states:
The petition of residents of Heywood and Middleton,
Declares that Crown Post Offices provide a vital service to their communities; further that Post Office Limited propose to close Heywood Post Office and to franchise the service to a local retailer; further that there is concern that this will adversely affect jobs, quality of service, and accessibility, and have a negative impact on Heywood town centre; and further that a local paper petition and online petition on this matter has received signatures.
The petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Government and Post Office Limited to keep Heywood Post Office open at its current location.
And the petitioners remain, etc.
Parental Involvement in Teaching: Equality Act
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Rebecca Harris.)
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for the opportunity to raise the important issue of parental involvement in primary school pupils learning about the Equality Act, which was passed in 2010. The Act, which I welcomed, supported and voted for, has nine protected characteristics: age; disability; gender assignment; marriage and civil partnerships; pregnancy and maternity; race; religion or belief; sex; and sexual orientation. Accompanying the words of the Act is guidance, and the “Sex and Relationship Education Guidance 2000” is also referred to and relevant. In particular, paragraph 1.13 states:
“In the early primary school years, education about relationships needs to focus on friendship, bullying and the building of self-esteem.”
Paragraph 1.31 further states:
“Sexual orientation and what is taught in schools is an area of concern for some parents. Schools that liaise closely with parents when developing their sex and relationship education policy and programme should be able to reassure parents of the content of the programme and the context in which it will be presented.”
The Children and Social Work Act 2017, which I supported and voted for, puts relationships and sex education on a statutory footing and requires all primary schools to teach age-appropriate relationship education.
I recently read a post that said:
“It’s not about homosexuality, heterosexuality or transsexuality—stop promoting sexuality to our children full stop. Let kids be kids.”
We need to protect the innocence of our children at all costs, and I believe that this is not only a parent’s right but their duty and their job. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that to prevent that by enforcing teaching against the will of a parent is not acceptable in any way, shape or form?
I will deal with that later.
The relationships and sex education set out in the Children and Social Work Act does not come in until September 2020, although primary schools can introduce it a year earlier. There was also draft guidance on how the Act should be implemented, and I supported and voted for the statutory instrument associated with that guidance. This legislation builds on the provisions of the Equality Act and, although it has relevance, as I shall explain later, it is the Equality Act and the nine protected characteristics that I shall be talking about today, not least because that is quoted by the headteacher of the school in my constituency where the controversy has arisen.
The Equality Act does not require primary schools to actively teach the nine characteristics. According to the guidance accompanying the Act,
“schools are free to include a full range of issues, ideas and materials in their syllabus, and to expose pupils to thoughts and ideas of all kinds, however challenging or controversial, without fear of legal challenge based on a protected characteristic.”
I support and welcome the guidance, but therein lies a problem. In Birmingham, there are 258 primary schools. Thirty-nine are in my constituency. Some are local authority- maintained, others are part of academy chains, but that is pretty irrelevant in the context of this debate. In many of the 256—not 258—schools, headteachers introduce pupils to what is in the Equality Act in ways that they believe meet the requirements of the guidance. Recognising that some of the nine characteristics may pose challenges for communities who have more conservative social attitudes, and taking into account the demographic composition of their own school, they have chosen to engage with their parents to explain the nine characteristics. They hold workshops about the individual characteristics and ongoing consultations with parents, showing them the type of materials that the school proposes to use, and they engage with parents about what age is most appropriate for the various characteristics to be introduced to pupils.
That seems eminently sensible to me, and it seems to be in line with references in the Children and Social Work Act and the draft guidance, which refers to “age appropriateness” in the context of religious background and the need for ongoing consultations. I unreservedly support and applaud those 256 headteachers, and parents are overwhelmingly supportive because there has been no appreciable backlash by parents at those schools.
At two schools, however, there has been a major reaction among parents that has become increasingly bitter and polarised. One of the schools is in my constituency, and the other is in an adjoining constituency represented by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood).
What does the hon. Gentleman think has caused the crisis at this moment, given what he said about other schools where this has not been an issue? I would suggest that it is due to at least two individuals of whom I am aware, who have been whipping this up, creating a myth and creating fear. This issue has never been raised by any of my schools or constituents. I represent a diverse constituency, as he does, yet both the individuals involved in the Birmingham process have recently arrived in Cardiff, and I suddenly began to receive emails referring to the English education system, rather than the Welsh. Does he think that that is a coincidence, and why it has become an issue now, but not in areas in the rest of the country that are equally diverse?
I thank the hon. Member for his intervention. I cannot give him an answer because I can only refer to what is happening in Birmingham. I shall continue to refer to that.
In a Westminster Hall debate on 25 February, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood referred to the fact that parents were complaining that there had been no consultation whatever about how the nine protected characteristics were being imparted to children, and that children, some as young as four or five, were telling parents about what they allegedly had been taught in lessons. That caused the parents considerable concern. At the school in my constituency, a similar situation occurred. There was no consultation with parents. The headteacher made it plain that no consultation was going to take place and no collective meetings with parents were held. She said that she or her deputy would meet individual parents on a “one-to-one” basis to listen to their concerns, but when such meetings took place the same answer was always given—namely, that the school was only carrying out the Equality Act.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I have already given way on a couple of occasions. [Interruption.] Well, the hon. Member will have plenty of time to make a speech, because this debate could go on until 7 o’clock.
Understandably, some parents were unhappy with the response and felt that the school had no regard for their concerns.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I have made it clear that I am not giving way.
The parents therefore had their own meeting and, after asking the brother of one parent who is in the property business and is well educated and articulate, to be the co-ordinator, they began their protests, on which I will touch in a minute. The common theme that links these two schools is that parents at both schools were neither consulted nor involved in how the nine protected characteristics were to be imparted to children. Parents were excluded entirely from the process, although the Equality Act is not an exam subject, for example, like English or mathematics.
All schools call regular meetings of parents when they want to inform them about important issues. It is part and parcel of school life for regular meetings to take place with parents, but no meetings with parents were held at the two schools.
Will he give way?
I will not.
The question that those who have sought to characterise the disputes at both schools as a clash of cultures should be asking is, what have the headteachers and their staff at 256 primary schools got right with the support of their parents, while in two schools it seems to have gone very wrong? I turn briefly to the protests outside the school in my constituency.
Will the hon. Member give way?
No, I will not.
The school is in an area with a very large Muslim population. Nearly all the children who attend are from Muslim families. When the protests began outside the school in my constituency I did not take sides or make public comment. I took the view that parents of young children do not protest against their child’s school unless they have some grievance. Parents protest against many things, including the Government and the local council, but to protest against their child’s school is rare, and there has to be some particular reason for it.
I went and saw the headteacher. I asked questions and put suggestions to her. I have deliberately not put her responses in the public domain, because I believe that if I had done so it would have inflamed the situation, but I did tell the leader of the council what they were. Three officials from the Department for Education were present, and they took detailed notes, which presumably were conveyed to the Minister. I have known the headteacher for a number of years, and I respect her academic achievements at the school, which follow the excellent work initiated by the previous head, Anne Bufton, at the school. Before leaving the meeting with the headteacher, I did say that if she or her staff felt threatened by the protests outside the school then she should apply for a restraint injunction to get them moved elsewhere, and I explained to her the procedure for doing that. No such injunction was sought until more than a month later.
I then invited, through my Muslim assistant, the leaders of the protest to come and see me at my house. I was shown copies of letters written to the headteacher expressing their concerns, which were not replied to. I saw statements from parents saying that the headteacher would not have a parents meeting, but would talk to parents only on a one-to-one basis. I saw statements saying that, when such meetings took place, the individual parents were told that what the school was doing was the Equality Act. I saw letters and statements which, time and again, emphasised that the protesters—mostly young mothers—were not seeking to undermine the Equality Act, not least because it protected Muslims from Islamophobic criticism, and that all they were asking for was meaningful consultation about what was the appropriate age for the nine protected characteristics to be introduced to their children. They told me that they had ongoing contact with the appropriate police superintendent every day a protest was organised. They told him when the protest would start and finish, and they always asked for the police to be present to ensure that no laws were broken by the demonstrators.
Thank you so much for giving way. I spent a couple of hours with the headteachers of the schools. Does he agree, while he is talking about the demonstrations, that the probable reason why the headteacher did not have a public meeting was that, in those public arenas she has been called a paedophile and worse?
There are 256 primary schools throughout Birmingham, as I said, where meetings take place all the time between parents and teachers. I do not accept the argument that there could not be parents meetings at the other two schools in Birmingham. If the headteacher or any other teachers felt that such a meeting could develop an unpleasant atmosphere, all they had to do was ask the police to be present. They would gladly have been present. Otherwise, they could have asked for local councillors and the MPs to be present, but no such things happened.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I have given way a lot, but I will in a moment.
After each demonstration, the parents had email correspondence with the police superintendent to seek written confirmation that the police were satisfied with the way the protest had been conducted and they asked each time whether any arrests had taken place or cautions been issued. I have seen copies of the email correspondence and confirmation by the police superintendent—whom I have known and dealt with for many years—that no arrests were made or cautions given. I make the point again that, during the time the demonstrations have taken place, no arrests have been made because, according to the police, no laws have been broken.
I was finally, when I met with protesters at my house, shown a petition signed by 229 parents expressing no confidence in the headteacher. I subsequently spoke to the police superintendent, whom I had spoken to regularly throughout the protests. After listening to the different accounts of the headteacher, the parents who were protesting and the police, I came to the conclusion that the parents who were protesting had some valid reasons for doing so, as the headteacher seemed totally unwilling to have meetings with the parents to address their concerns and to seek a compromise to resolve the conflict.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I have given way on many occasions.
I told the protesters this and I also told them that they had made their point and that the protests should end. I reiterated this when they came to see me at my surgery, which was filmed on phone camera and put into the public domain in an abridged version. [Interruption.]
Order. I absolutely understand the strong feelings that exist on this subject, but there is no way—I say this as much for public interest as for any other reason—that this debate will be curtailed. It can run until 7 o’clock, so any hon. or right hon. Member who wishes to catch my eye has an extremely good chance of doing so. The hon. Gentleman has the Floor now, and whatever hon. Members think about his decision to give way or not, he has a right to be heard and he will be heard.
I am obliged to you, Mr Speaker.
I have to say that the breakdown in trust between the headteacher and the parents has not been helped by certain tweets that the headteacher has put out. She is, of course, perfectly entitled to tweet what she wants to, as is everybody else, but to call parents who are participating in highly organised police-supervised protests a “mob” which needs to be “sorted” and accuses Muslim parents—mostly young women—of “homophobic hatred” and to say that
“if we allow parents to think consult means demand resignations if we don't get our way”
is not exactly helpful in reducing tension because it is immediately recycled on multiple social media sites, which builds up a frenzy of hatred against parents. As I have said, they are mostly young mothers who have done nothing wrong. They are good mothers who want to express concern about what their children are telling them.
My hon. Friend has referenced concerns on numerous occasions, but he has not been able to articulate them. Having seen the literature, I am not sure what he and the parents are referencing.
I do not have children attending schools in Birmingham. My children are grown up, and I have a grandchild who is not in Birmingham. It is not for me to pass judgment on the concerns of parents.
I will not give way anymore.
If parents say they have concerns, and if they have sought to raise those concerns with the headteacher and have not been allowed to do so, I believe it is incumbent on a Member of Parliament to articulate those concerns. That does not mean to pass judgment, but if they have concerns, they are entitled to have them addressed. So far as the parents at these two schools are concerned, there has been no engagement and no meetings, whereas 256 other schools in Birmingham are doing things differently.
What is this “homophobic hatred” that these parents are supposed to be spreading? That is massively serious. Let us look at some of the police witness statements. As I have said, the police were at every protest. These statements are not hearsay or recycled versions that have been fed to social media to feed the frenzy; they are legal daily reports by police officers who were present. They say the chants were repeated over and again, and what were those chants? “Our children, our choice.” “Listen to parents.” “Let kids be kids.” “We are not homophobic.” “Parent governor step down.” “Headteacher step down”. That is not nice for the headteacher or the parent governor, but I do not accept that as being homophobic.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
This is on a point of information.
No, I have given way on a lot of things.
Furthermore, the police who were present wore body cameras and were asked by the organisers of the protest to check whether any placards contravened the law. I understand that only one placard was deemed inappropriate at an early protest, and the people carrying the banner were told not to bring it again.
I make these points because I believe the parents have not had a fair chance to put their side of the dispute. They have been branded professional agitators, accused by a councillor of not having children at the school, called a “mob” and told that they are spewing out homophobic hatred. These mothers have been smeared, and the fact that the local Member of Parliament, having weighed up the evidence and listened to all sides of the argument, came to the conclusion that the people protesting had just reason to complain and protest merely added a target for the witch hunters and increased the lust for a sacrifice, irrespective of the facts.
I return to a couple of specific questions, which I supplied to the Minister before the debate. I ask these questions because I suspect many primary school head- teachers watching this debate, like their colleagues in Birmingham, want to know whether they are inadvertently contravening the law in how they impart the nine protected characteristics of the Equality Act to their pupils.
As I have said, 256 of 258 primary schools in Birmingham are, in different ways, ensuring that their pupils know when they transfer to secondary school that any form of discrimination, victimisation, prejudice or bullying of other people who fall within the nine protected characteristics is unlawful. They do this by engaging with parents to explain the nine characteristics; by having workshops about the individual characteristics; by having ongoing consultations with the parents and showing them the type of material they propose to use; and by engaging with parents about what age is most appropriate for the various characteristics.
Have you read the material?
I will come to that point in a minute.
The parents want clarification. First, they want to know whether it is permissible for headteachers to partner with parents to decide how the nine protected characteristics are imparted to pupils, bearing in mind that parents cannot have any veto over which characteristics are taught. Secondly, they would like to know whether the nine protected characteristics have to be taught all together, or whether they can be spread out and imparted to pupils throughout their time in primary school, taking into account at what age the head and/or parents consider it most age-appropriate for each protected characteristic to be imparted to the children.
I ask those questions because many primary heads are looking at what has happened at the two schools where controversy has arisen and do not want to be accused of discrimination, which is of course illegal, in the way they deal with the Equality Act and the nine protected characteristics. I would be grateful for clarity from the Minister, because this will affect the relationships education provision that comes in in 2020 and that can be introduced in September 2019, which is much more specific about the terms “consultation” and “age appropriateness”.
I have no opinion on the ages at which primary school children should be introduced to the provisions of the nine protected characteristics. For example, I attended a recent meeting held by the headteachers’ union here in the Commons, in Committee Room 9. A headteacher—he may have been a deputy head—from Manchester argued forcibly that the whole “age appropriate” concept should be scrapped completely, and that children aged two should be introduced to the provisions of the protected characteristics. If the parents of the children involved are happy with that, who am I to say it should not happen? But parents, who in international law have the prime responsibility for the upbringing of their children, have to be partners with schools in the making of such decisions.
Likewise, I have no prescribed views about what teaching materials should be used. I believe that schools and parents should make the decision after proper consultation, which is what is currently happening in most schools. In respect of the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) from a sedentary position earlier, yes, I have now read most of the books that my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) has given to me. Some of them are very good—“The Little Mermaid” is particularly good, and I have just got a copy for my grandchild—but my Muslim constituents would like to talk through some of the other books with the school to understand what the concepts are. They cannot talk it through with the school if the school will not have consultation.
I regret the controversies that have arisen around the two schools in Birmingham. I believe they could have been avoided if the schools had taught the provisions of the Equality Act in different ways and taken the parents’ concerns into account. For my part, I apologise unreservedly for any offence caused to any person of whatever sexual orientation by anything I have said or written. In particular, I apologise unreservedly to members of the LGBT community in Birmingham and throughout the country for anything I may have said or written that has caused offence to them. I assure you, Mr Speaker, that it most certainly was not intended.
I had not intended to speak, but decided to do so in the light of what I have heard today. Let me first say that I come from an Irish Catholic background, so I know from experience what cultural conservatism can be like. I know some of the terrible things that happened in the Irish Catholic culture, going back over many years—at its most obscene, the Magdalene laundries. But ultimately that changed because brave Catholics challenged their own culture. Ireland is now a tolerant country with a gay Prime Minister; that would have been thought unachievable and impossible in decades gone by.
With regards to what has been happening in Birmingham, I am the first to respect cultures, including cultural conservatism. I believe that there should be engagement without hesitation, but I do not accept what has been said today—that there has been no engagement by the head, Sarah Hewitt-Clarkson, with parents. I think there has been engagement, but I also think we need to distinguish between two things: on the one hand, there are those who feel uneasy; but on the other hand, there are there those who have been deliberately stirring this up.
This is not just happening in Birmingham. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) referred to what is happening in Cardiff, and we are seeing a network develop in a number of cities around the country. To be frank, that network is absolutely wrong because, as a very good Muslim friend and constituent of mine said, “Jack, if we go down the path of dividing and demonising, or in any way suggesting that we would ever do that, our country and our city are a poorer country and city.” I never want to see the day when we in any way feed the view that there is something wrong about two men living together or two women living together.
I remember a man who came out to me in the old Transport and General Workers’ Union many years ago. He was desperate, in tears and afraid to speak out. But now Birmingham is the city of pride—pride with a small p and Pride with a big P. We have tens of thousands marching in Birmingham, celebrating our diversity: our rich cultural diversity, our rich ethnic diversity and our diversity in terms of sexual preference. Long may that always be the case.
I stress again that I absolutely understand that one has to engage, listen and explain, but if there are forces on the march the kind of which we thought were history in our country, we have to say, “No, you’re wrong.”
I hope it is reassuring to colleagues to know that you will all get in; don’t worry.
Teaching about LGBT existence and relationships, and showing respect and legitimacy to all regardless of their sexual orientation, is something that has not been a feature of our school system for very long. That is because of the odious and appalling effects of section 28, which was passed in the 1980s in a circumstance that was very similar to some of the scare stories that we are hearing about the possible dire effects of simply teaching relationship and sex education in schools—something that we should have been doing generations ago. If we had done it generations ago, there would have been an awful lot more happy and well-adjusted people than those who have been monstered in the way they have for the way that they are in a system that was disfigured by the effects of section 28. Many years later, we are finally making progress on LGBT rights in law and reaching fantastic levels of formal equality in our law. That is one of the most important social reforms that the previous Labour Government were responsible for, and it has been continued, to their credit, by Administrations subsequently. I know of the Minister’s own personal commitment to this agenda.
Yet here we are in the middle of a similar kind of moral scare that is being whipped up by people who have a different agenda from the wellbeing of children and their adjustment to the facts and experience of 21st-century life in the UK. We have seen it exposed on television and in some of the closed Facebook groups of the individuals involved that are making claims about the sexual orientation of the teachers at this school, using language that I would not use in this Chamber. We have seen it in the mob reactions outside the school. It is not appropriate, however we do these things, that young primary school pupils should have to run a gauntlet of screaming demonstrators simply to get to school, with that noisy, vociferous, aggressive kind of shouting and chanting. That will be traumatic for any kind of young primary school pupil, and we should not be subjecting them to it. To be honest, no parents who believe that they are acting in the best interests of their children should be making them run such a gauntlet.
We know—I exempt my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr Godsiff) from this, although I wish he had let me ask him a question—that the motivations of some of those involved in this are reactionary. They are returners to an era where LGBT people should get back in the closet and hide and be ashamed of the way they are. We are not going to get back in the closet, or hide, or be ashamed of the way we are. Nor are we going to allow a generation of pupils who are now in school to go through what pupils in the ’80s had to go through because this Chamber let them down.
Nor are we going to allow this to happen in the name of religion. I am a humanist, and married to a Catholic. She does much work with LGBT religious organisations to try to put together across religions coalitions of moderate, decent, sensible religious people who recognise the right of LGBT people to exist, to have access to respect and dignity, and to have their rights in law. We must not put together this view that if somebody has a religious objection, then somehow there can be no debate about it from then on in. There are multiple views in religions about the legitimacy of LGBT rights. It is only on the far extremist fundamentalist fringes that we get the kind of hostility that is being shown on some of the Facebook groups of these campaigners. I would like to know a lot more about the network that is behind this, because it is a deliberate, reactionary attempt to take back progressive advance and decency for children.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way; she is speaking incredibly movingly. As somebody who lives closer, I think, than anybody else to the schools particularly in question and lives in the community amongst the people who go to that school, I want it to be said on the record that she is absolutely right in what she says about this being on the fringes, because I do not recognise the Muslim community that I live amongst as being part of that mob.
I thank my hon. Friend. She has a great deal of experience in this, not least because she lives amongst the community that is being portrayed in such a way.
We must not give in to this kind of organised campaign, which is effectively being organised from the outside. The Equality Act—which was passed in 2010, so has been on the statute book for nine years—actually says that schools have a duty not to discriminate against LGBT people. That includes discrimination against pupils who are LGBT—to be fair, that would probably not be very apparent at primary school level—pupils who are perceived to be LGBT, and pupils with LGBT parents, carers and family members. These are the diverse parents that we have in our communities now, and the children that they send to school, or the potentially LGBT children in school, do not deserve to be treated with anything other than equality and respect. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] All that is meant by the teaching on relationship and sex education is that this diversity needs to be represented. It is not propagandising and it is not trying to “turn people gay”, which I have heard mentioned—I am not sure it is possible to turn people gay; there certainly would be no gay people if you had to be taught about being gay to be gay. [Laughter.] What we are talking about is respect, their rights, their right to be equally welcome in school, not to be bullied or treated as if they are lesser, not to be made to feel that somehow there is something wrong with them, not to feel suicidal, not to be called “faggot” or “lezzer” in school and not to be humiliated. That is what we are talking about when it comes to relationship and sex education—plain, simple decency.
It is an honour and a privilege to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle), who made a very personal and passionate speech with which I wholeheartedly agree.
I was sorry that we even had to come here today to take part in this debate. I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr Godsiff). I listened to his apology. I am always more than ready to listen to an apology, but much of his speech contradicted that, and indeed contradicted what he had said on that recording, which I have viewed.
I am glad that my hon. Friend has now read the books—at least some of them—and that my office was able to help with that. I find it unfortunate that he made comments and waded into this debate without having looked at the books, as they are at the heart of the issue. I have looked at the books; I have looked at the material that causes so much alleged offence, but there is nothing that I think could cause offence. In fact, along with many other inclusive educational and teaching materials and books, they teach about all the range of difference that we have in our lives, and they certainly do not get into the details of sex or anything biological; we are talking about things that are age-appropriate, that are directed at younger children. It is about understanding the world around them—that there may be children in their class who are Muslim or Jewish or black or white or a woman or a man or gay or lesbian or trans. This is the world we live in. This is the reality we live in. This is the country we live in.
I live in just as diverse a community as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green. I am pleased to say that at the weekend I went to the Grangetown festival in my community, and was able to visit the Pride Cymru stall, right in the heart of one of my largest Muslim communities; and there, mixing in that community, were the LGBT community, different churches, different mosques, different Hindu temples, and different community organisations. They were all just getting on with their lives and making a difference to their community, supporting young people and running diversionary activities for those who might be caught up in knife crime, or other difficulties, in the community, and supporting each other, and working together as a community. They were not interested in dividing each other over the nature of their sexuality, their sex, their race or their religion; they were all working and living together, so there is a different way we can live.
I have watched the scenes in Birmingham with horror. I believe that people have been whipped up into a sense of true moral panic about some problem that does not actually exist. It has become extremely unpleasant and extremely divisive, as we have seen, and that is spreading, as has been said, to other parts of the UK.
I want to draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention, and that of the House, to some of those who have been involved in instigating some of the language, protests and division we have seen. At least two of them have come down to Cardiff recently, one of whom, thankfully, was spotted and a talk was cancelled. A woman called Dr Godfrey-Faussett—in fact, she is being investigated by the British Psychological Society for her comments—said in a YouTube clip last year that there was a
“totalitarian endeavour to indoctrinate our children in sexual ideologies.”
She runs the so-called Stop RSE campaign, and has talked about a “war on morality”.
Another group is the so-called Islamic RSE, run by a gentleman called Ustadh Torofdar. I have seen for myself the guide—the handy guide—that can be handed to parents on how they should in effect infiltrate governing bodies or parent teacher associations, and on how they should influence activities in their schools by alleging a whole set of things that are going on in their schools—of course, no evidence is presented—and suggesting that parents may want to get involved and raise these concerns. It gives form letters to be sent to MPs, the media and schools, with all sorts of wild and fanciful allegations about somehow trying to corrupt young people. I will not read out the letter: I have got it, but some parts of it I just find so offensive.
I had never received a letter of this nature in my constituency ever—I have been an openly gay MP for six and a half years in an extremely diverse constituency—or any of these things until the last few months. They are originating from these groups, which are collaborating. As has been said by my hon. Friends from Birmingham, they often involve individuals who do not even have children at these schools. This is the very nature of a moral panic, and it is a very good example of one. I think we need to look at what is really going on here, rather than any actual perceived problem or issue.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey spoke about the legacy of section 28. I grew up in a school in south Wales, and I certainly was not out about my sexuality at the time. Like me, many LGBT people struggle with these issues for their whole life, and it can affect when they come out, how they come out and to whom they come out, as well as all sorts of other things in their life. I do not want young people living today to go through these experiences—it is just simply horrific—but I know that things can change. Last year, I went back to a Pride parade in the town where I went to school, and that would simply have been unthinkable when I was at school 25 years ago, when I saw lesbian friends of mine being called “dirty lezzers” and everything else, with all sorts of homophobic abuse going on.
That relates to a time and a place, and to a set of attitudes and a set of laws, that I thought we had got well beyond, and I am sorry to see chinks occurring in different places. We have to remember that this is in the context of a wider debate, with deeply concerning comments being made, including, I am sorry to say, by some of the candidates for the Conservative leadership and, indeed, by newly elected MEP Ann Widdecombe. These are really horrific things that, quite frankly, should be from a bygone age. We have made such progress in this House on so many issues, such as marriage equality or the way we conduct ourselves here. Of course, we are the most LGBT diverse Parliament in the world, and we should be celebrating that. I very much hope that it is setting an example to young people in our country that they can be who they are, because God made them too, just like everybody else.
We have to think about the other side of this. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green voiced concerns about the rights of parents and the rights of certain conservative religious communities, but there is no hierarchy in equality. All the protected characteristics are there alongside one another for a reason, and we should be promoting all of them, not just one, or selectively, or in certain circumstances, or only because it might not offend one constituent group or another. We have to remember that at the heart of this is the wellbeing and safeguarding of young people, including young people in the very schools the hon. Gentleman refers to.
In 2001, in Holy Cross church in the Ardoyne district of north Belfast, there was a concentrated campaign not only against Father Aidan Troy, the priest there, but against that community. Recently, I met two girls who had been primary school pupils at the time, and they are still, 18 years later, suffering the trauma of that experience. Even if we can put aside for one moment the substantive argument, does my hon. Friend not agree that it is simply impossible and unconscionable that we allow primary school children to be subjected to this sort of concentrated mob abuse? That cannot be allowed, surely.
I wholeheartedly agree. It beggars belief that we may be creating situations that will continue to affect that cohort of children, not just at the schools we have been discussing, but plenty of others. The reason the wider LGBT community is so concerned is the signals that are sent when they see Members of Parliament and a teacher being subjected to abuse, when they see mobs outside schools and when they see the types of poster that have been displayed. It makes people feel that perhaps they cannot be who they want to be and live as they want. For young people in particular, that is a massive issue.
In this country, Stonewall was largely founded on the issue of section 28, and we will celebrate the 30-year anniversary at Pride this year. I am proud that one of the founders of Stonewall, Lisa Power, lives in my constituency and is a good friend of mine. I am deeply concerned when I look at the statistics that Stonewall has shared about mental health and the issues young people face: 84% of trans young people have deliberately harmed themselves; the figure for the LGBT community is 61%. Two in five LGBT pupils are never taught anything about LGBT issues and half of LGBT pupils in schools say there is no adult they can talk to about issues affecting them. That litany of self-harm, depression and, in the most extreme circumstances, taking one’s own life should be the concern of