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Marriage And Family Values
17 January 2001
Volume 620

3.13 p.m.

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rose to call attention to marriage and traditional family values; and to move for Papers.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, it is my hope that today's debate will make a positive contribution to the national debate on marriage which is now taking place. I start by saying how pleased I am that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor is to reply to the debate. I thank him for his letter giving me notice of his two important statements yesterday.

Today, we have on the one hand of this national debate the powerful voice of Archbishop Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, speaking on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church in support of marriage and the traditional family and, on the other, the right honourable Member in another place, Tessa Jowell, the Minister for women, who has said that marriage should not be regarded as the best way to live and bring up children, but simply as one of a series of equally valid alternative lifestyles—a view I understand, if the press is correct, that is shared by the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, and the honourable Member Margaret Hodge, though not by some other members of the Government.

I believe that this view is shared also by the Liberal Democrats, judging by their contribution to the debates during the Learning and Skills Bill earlier last summer on what should be included in the guidelines on sex education in schools. The House voted in favour of accepting the importance of marriage as a major building block of society but considered other lifestyles equally valid. I am glad that my right honourable friend William Hague has pledged his support for marriage and the traditional family. I shall say more on that later.

If the anxious parent looks to the law to help and support marriage, there is little comfort. Each piece of legislation narrows the distinction between marriage and co-habiting in all its forms. Brenda Hoggett QC, (now Mrs. Justice Hale), when a member of the Faculty of Law of Manchester University, wrote:
"Family law no longer makes any attempt to buttress the stability of marriage or any other union. It has adopted principles for the protection of children and dependent spouses which could be made equally applicable to the unmarried. In such circumstances the piecemeal erosion of the distinctions between marriage and non-marital co-habitation may be expected to continue. Logically we have already reached a point at which rather than discussing which remedies should be extended to the unmarried, we should be considering whether the legal institution of marriage continues to serve any useful purpose".
Can the anxious parent get more help from the Church? I am, of course, very pleased that two right reverend Prelates are to take part in the debate today. As a member of the Church of England, I am, however, disappointed to find divisions in the Church, perhaps best summed up by the vote on Section 28 when four bishops voted for repeal and four voted against. The trumpet has certainly sounded an uncertain tune.

So the issue today is whether marriage, which I define as a ceremony taking place between a man and a woman making a public commitment to live together for life, is the best way for society as a whole. Or do we continue on the path of marginalising marriage by making it just one of many ways to live? As a general election draws nearer, we shall hear more of this question. Does it matter? And, if so, why does it matter? I should like to try to answer those questions.

Let me base my answers on facts. The number of marriages each year is declining. In 1980 there were approximately 370,000 marriages, of which 241,000 were for the first time. By 1999 this number had fallen to 263,500 marriages, of which 155,000 were for the first time. In 20 years the number of marriages has declined between 25 and 30 per cent.

There are some who think that by 2020 the number of married people in the country will be in the minority for the first time in some 3,000 years and that we shall be one of the first countries in history not to have marriage as a basis of its society. The fall in the number of marriages has been accompanied by a fall in birth rates. There were 16 live births for each thousand of the population in 1979 and by 1999 this had fallen to 11 per thousand—something of which we are just becoming aware as the population ages and there are not enough young people to fill important vacancies. This will have serious consequences for the future. We already know that the skills shortage in some areas has resulted in the need to increase the number of immigrants. So although most people marry and 60 per cent of marriages last a lifetime, 40 per cent end in divorce and the UK has the highest divorce rate in the European Union.

While there has been a decline in marriage there has been an increase in couples living together. The latest evidence from the report Seven Years in the Lives of British Families, produced by the Institute for Social and Economic Research, found that 70 per cent of young people interviewed in the 1990s opted to cohabit. But the facts show that only a third of cohabiting relationships last. So cohabiting couples are even more likely to break up.

Cohabiting cannot therefore be considered as "marriage without the vows", as some would say. The same point is made by Patricia Morgan, in her book, Marriage Lite. This profound social change means that some 39 per cent of all children in England and Wales are born outside marriage into unstable relationships, and as the report to which I referred goes on to say,
"more British children will spend significant parts of their childhood in families with only one parent".
That parent is almost always the mother. So one major and important change in society today is the absence of fathers in the home. The effects of this have been grossly under-estimated. Children need two parents, prepared to give a lifelong commitment to support their children. It is tragic when you hear some women say, as I have done, that men today are almost irrelevant.

One curious effect of cohabitation is that couples who cohabit before marriage are 50 per cent more likely to divorce than those who do not. Both the fall in the number of marriages each year and the increase in cohabitation are accompanied by a high divorce rate. In 1961, there were 32,000 divorces. In 1971, the first year of operation of the 1969 Divorce Reform Act, the number had risen to 110,000. Between 1988 and 1998 the average annual divorce rate was 179,000. The numbers have fallen recently, but that is only because there are fewer marriages. The effect of all this is felt most heavily by the children. One in four children will see their parents divorce before the child is 16. Many adults have in fact offloaded their unhappiness on to their children and, although much is done to try to keep and support children, it is the children who suffer. This is a hard and uncomfortable fact that society often refuses to acknowledge.

Does all this matter? In 1994 it was estimated that family breakdown was costing £5 billion in benefits and other expenditure. A recent report has put the cost at £16 billion, and it is not difficult to see how that figure was arrived at. It compares with the £4 million annual support to marriage and relationships promised by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor yesterday.

Then we have the breakdown of discipline in schools. Most teachers will tell you that discipline is more difficult today. It is not unusual to hear of four and five year-olds arriving at school "completely out of control". One reason for that is the absence of supportive parents. Here one can see the effect of the absence of fathers.

In their Green Paper, Supporting Families, the Government acknowledged that,
"rising crime and drug abuse are indirect symptoms of problems in the family".
And in their publication, published last week, Fighting Violent Crime Together; An Action Plan, the Government again point to a strong link between crime and broken marriages, stating,
"Numerous studies have shown parental separation to be a good predictor of both juvenile and adult offending".
Lest all these views are thought to come simply from Conservatives, let me quote from A. H. Halsey, Professor of Social Policy at Nuffield College, Oxford, and co-author of English Ethical Socialism, who has written:
"Children of parents who do not follow on the traditional norm (i.e., taking on personal, active and long term responsibility for the social upbringing of the children they generate) are thereby disadvantaged in many major aspects of their chances of leading a successful life. On the evidence available, such children tend to die earlier, to have more illness, to do less well at school, to exist at a lower level of nutrition, comfort and conviviality, to suffer more unemployment, to be more prone to deviance and crime and, finally, to repeat the cycle of unstable parenting from which they themselves have suffered".
The same message comes from a report produced in 1998 and reviewed by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Add to this the very worrying situation of the increase in teenage pregnancies—there are 90,000 teenage conceptions a year, around 8,000 to girls under 16; and that figure has been steady for the past 10 years—and we begin to see the effect of the breakdown of marriage and the traditional family. Almost the saddest fact is that now 20 per cent of the population are single people. If we add those who are divorced or separated, the figure rises to 36 per cent. As they grow older, they will become an increased charge on the NHS and social services because, unlike married couples, they will have no one immediately at hand to look after them, and no one with whom to share the costs.

So the answer to my first question is quite clearly that the breakdown of traditional marriage and the traditional family does matter to society and its effects are felt today in every aspect of policy. The question now is what to do. One thing is quite clear. We cannot change all this quickly, even if there were a will to do so. Just as it has taken us 35 years to get where we are, it will in my view take at least as long to put right some of the problems I have enumerated. But there are things that we could do immediately.

I am very glad that my right honourable friend William Hague has pledged to re-introduce the tax allowances for married couples. This is especially important for married couples with children. It sends an immediate signal that a future government believe in supporting marriage by giving back to married couples the money they have earned at a time of greatly increased expense, particularly after the birth of a baby. I hope that a future Conservative government would look through the whole benefits system to see that marriage is supported. There is a real difference between supporting marriage and keeping couples together, and supporting children and single parents which seems to be the present policy.

A second step could be to overhaul the sex education policy currently being conducted in our schools. It has clearly failed in its objective of preventing teenage pregnancies. The more sex education there has been the more teenage pregnancies there have been. The new policy of allowing chemists to supply the morning-after pill—which we shall debate shortly—is, I believe, unlikely to bring down the rate of teenage pregnancy, if that is its purpose, and will have undesirable side-effects. We should, instead, be supporting parents. We should not encourage school nurses, or doctors, to give advice to girls and boys under the age of 16 without the knowledge of their parents. That seems to me to undermine family life in an important way. We could take a good look at what is happening in the United States. A number of states have introduced an abstinence policy of simply teaching in school the benefits of saying "no" and that sex is for marriage, which, where it has been applied, has in fact had the effect of bringing down the number of teenage pregnancies. This policy has the support of Senator Hillary Clinton, who wrote in her book, It takes a village:
"After many years of working with and listening to American adolescents, I don't believe they are ready for sex or its potential consequences—parenthood, abortion, sexually transmitted diseases—and I think we need to do everything in our power to discourage sexual activity and encourage abstinence".
Thirdly, the law should acknowledge the importance of the married state; and each piece of legislation should be considered in this light.

To conclude, I believe that the facts in support of marriage speak for themselves. However, I recognise that I am talking about an ideal. It may well be that in the course of today's debate—I am pleased to see so many speakers—some will refer to the back to basics campaign of my right honourable friend John Major. That policy was right in my view: it failed because it did not make clear that what was proposed was an ideal. I accept that marriage is difficult. Most relationships are. And not all will succeed. But, to use an analogy, Beethoven remains a great composer, even when some play his music badly.

Marriage has stood the test of time. It stands as a bulwark against the power of the state. For all the reasons I have given it helps to sustain education, a society with less crime, and stability. And whatever may be argued, 82 per cent of young people aged between 16 and 17, when asked, have said that they plan to marry. It seems to me right to put the ideal in front of the young and not to argue, as the Minister, Tessa Jowell, has, that it would be "unkind" or "exclusive" to speak the truth on these matters. My own view is that it is unhelpful, not to say irresponsible, not to speak the truth to young people and to society on issues which are of such great importance to them and their future.

Of course there are exceptions. There are single women who bring up their children successfully and I congratulate them. However, the overwhelming facts are as I have set out.

I started by referring to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor. In the press statement he sent to me, he, too, referred to marriage and relationships funding. Perhaps he will say what he means by "relationships" in that context. He also sent me a statement setting out the Government's intention to repeal Part II of the Family Law Act 1996. When that measure was before the House, I argued against it from Second Reading through to Third Reading. If I may say so, I think that I have been shown to be right. I hope that the Government will heed what I have said today. I believe that it is a message for the whole country. I beg to move for Papers.

3.31 p.m.

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My Lords, I very much welcome this debate. I have a great deal of respect for the noble Baroness, Lady Young, as she knows, although I have inevitably disagreed with her stance in recent debates.

This debate gives us the opportunity to air our views on the condition of human relations in our society at the beginning of the 21st century. We all want strong, enduring families and, in most cases, despite the rise in divorce, that is what we have.

Some useful facts may help us, because the tenor of the debate so far might allow us to think that marriage is finished and families are fragmented in the United Kingdom today. The reality is different. More than 80 per cent of children in the United Kingdom grow up with two adults who are their parents—so no great revolution there. More people live in so-called "traditional" family households than in any other type of family, according to the Office for National Statistics. Fathers spend more quality time with their children today than was the case in the 1950s. I in no way decry the magnificent contribution that lone parents make to our society, but the fact is that lone-parent households account for only 7 per cent of all UK households. That is nearly the figure for the support enjoyed by the Conservative Party according to some opinion polls.

If the bald facts do not convince noble Lords, perhaps I may rehearse some recent history. In 1999, my noble friend the Leader of the House and the Minister for Women, Lady Jay, conducted a unique consultation exercise with the women of this country. The consultation asked three questions: What do you think is the single most important issue facing this country today? What do you think is the single most important issue facing women today? What in your view should the Government do to help women? The response rate was staggering for a government questionnaire, with 28,000 completed responses. What issues were women in our country today most exercised about? They were exercised about balancing paid work and family life, getting women's voices heard better, combating violence against women. the gap between men's and women's pay, women's health issues and the teenage years for girls. C'oncerns about the condition of marriage and traditional family values were not at the forefront of that huge postbag of responses. Those 28,000 British women had other priorities and issues that they wanted the Government to deal with to improve their lives. I am sure that they were all doing their best to hold relationships together, to look after their children and to get on with their lives.

From the comments so far, noble Lords might be forgiven for thinking that the Government had no interest in supporting strong families in this country. I offer a few examples to refute that impression: the Supporting Families initiative, which is the first of its kind; the marriage packs, which are also the first of their kind and give advice for those setting out on marriage; the first-ever National Childcare Strategy; and, of course, the enormous resources, running to hundreds of millions of pounds across departments of government, that are assisting families every day.

I believe that strong societies make strong families—a proposition that might be tricky for anyone who was once a member of a government who denied that society existed. Nothing corrupts family life as much as poverty. I therefore conclude by saying what I believe makes good families: the New Deal; the minimum wage; falling unemployment; rising incomes; support for young professionals to find homes; better managed estates; a commitment to skills and carers; schools that parents support; an active respect for the voices of women; and streamlined access to adoption. All those policies make good families and they are all being delivered by the Government in a massive investment in the health of family life in this country.

3.36 p.m.

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My Lords, like many, I hesitated many times before putting my name down to speak in this debate. When, at the 11th hour, I did so, I promised that I would make my general position plain before raising the few points that there is time for.

My first point is that, although I have been married gratefully and happily for 33 years, there has been a great deal of luck, and on my part failing, integral to that. Secondly, I view permanent parenting relationships as the bedrock of a good society and undoubtedly best for children. I observe that that occurs increasingly outside marriage. The idealism, hard work, forgiveness and celebration that are integral to a good marriage often are—and certainly should be—no less so for good partnership.

Having made that clear, perhaps I could distort one of Thomas Jefferson's most famous sayings: if I lived in a world where the choice was between good family life and good government, I would choose the former. Ultimately, government exists within a context of free behaviour. If the fabric of society collapses, it will collapse government, too.

Having said that, my considered view is that marriage has two clear advantages over partnership. The first is that by making a private, lifelong commitment in public, usually in the company of one's nearest and dearest friends and relations, one enlists their lifelong support. If one has any belief in the mystical as well as practical power of human sympathy, as I certainly do, that will significantly help the relationship through the inevitable trials and tribulations that will beset the best of marriages.

Secondly, exchanging purely private protestations of mutual love and living together, even over a long period, is not the same as making a solemn and binding public promise, with the premeditation and ceremony that sharpen and deepen the awareness and commitment of those making it. In saying that, I mean no disparagement to those in partnership. Like many here, I have children in that position. One does not have to look far to find women, in particular, who, even after long partnership, are not entirely sure as to what their partner feels and intends in the long term.

The role of the state in all this is limited. Good families and right values are the organic creation of the individuals, families and communities that make up society and the way in which they live and exist. However, the state gets dragged willy-nilly into all that, as it has to pay for the breakdown of relationships, within or without marriage, when there are children.

It is surely counter-productive for marriage to be penalised, if that is the word, in the sense that only when there is marriage is there a forcible, fair split of income and capital assets between the parties when the relationship breaks down. Any man today who walks away from a long-term partnership where there has been no marriage is not obliged to pay a penny piece to the woman concerned, however rich he is and however poor she is. That seems to me to be an extraordinary inversion, given what I suspect is the more general view that marriage is the better option.

With those words, and with time being as it is, I shall sit down.

3.40 p.m.

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My Lords, when I have got over the shock of being placed in a maiden speaker's position, I should like to congratulate my noble friend Lady Young on initiating this important debate at this time of year. Christmas is probably the most suitable time in the world to think about families. It is the season of the holy family, when all the world is silent, concentrating on that great event in a far-off stable. It is the time when the light comes into the world or, indeed, for pagans, the mid-winter solstice, when the days which had been growing ever shorter suddenly became longer. The darkness was decreasing. There would be spring again: the sun and the light would come back.

Of course, for all of us it is a lovely time—a time when we gather together and when families come home. And every family naturally has its own tiny moments of tension: "You know you put your spectacles in your bag. And if you've turned the whole bag upside down then it must have been someone else's bag". "Why did you give them a set of drums, a tin whistle, a wodge of potty putty—yes, that's what you've just been sitting on in your new dress". "It was your dog that was sick, not mine; and it was certainly your dog that ate the chocolate in the bottom of my stocking". "Whose turn is it to unload the dishwasher?" "Well, of course I threw it out; it was past its sell-by. How was I to know that it was tomorrow's lunch?" Those are all remarks that most of us have heard at one time or another in our families. They are just human remarks, and they have nothing to do with the power, the strength and the involvement that we all gain from our families.

This year, with four of our six children married, we were lucky enough to have a full muster, not all at once but at intervals, from the two just-walking babies to my noble kinsman and clan chief at 94, whose own marriage lasted for over 60 years while ours is still in its infancy at 48. We made our own magic with a children's party for 50 children, candles and a gingerbread castle, which took my daughter from Washington four days to make (from a special recipe culled from the President-Elect's mother) with some help from all of us. It took the children just four minutes flat to demolish it. A puppet lady showed the children how to make a magic rainbow, and Father Christmas himself was piped down the stairs through garlands of cypress and ivy and twinkling gold bells. The children parted like the Red Sea as he made his way to the Christmas tree and unloaded his sack with presents for all, which we were all wrapping up and sorting out until one in the morning the night before. A tree, green and glowing, was loaded with decorations gleaned through the years from the first green and red glass balls from Queen Victoria's reign over 100 years ago to some silver paste and glitter angels and stars made by my grandchildren this year. And, finally, Father Christmas was piped back up to his turret chimney through a floating cloud of coloured balloons.

I hope that your Lordships will not think me selfish in sharing those family reminiscences. It is because I should love to have had your Lordships with me, too, shouting for Father Christmas and dancing in the new century.

We went to a lot of nativity plays. One of our granddaughters was a mouse who travelled to Bethlehem to see what had happened. But the sheep told her that she could not go in because she had no present; so did the hens, waving rather tired and obviously empty cardboard egg containers; so did the shepherds. each bearing a woolly toy lamb; and so did the tiny kings. However, the mouse discovered a small hole high in the wall. When she peered down at the Baby Jesus, both Mary and Joseph thanked her for keeping the cold night draughts from his face. Retailing her story to her friend the owl, who was in fact her brother, he asked her, "What did you give the Baby Jesus?" "I gave myself', she said, "for as long as I was needed".

That, I believe, is what we do in families: we give ourselves for as long as we are needed. And, like dogs, it is not only for Christmas, but for life. A family is like the grain of mustard seed in the Bible: it is a small warm area of love which in its essence reaches out and infects everyone.

3.45 p.m.

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My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Young, for her courage and determination in introducing this debate. However, very gently and with due courtesy but robust admiration, I dispute the metaphor in her opening speech about trumpet blasts and the Church of England, believing that single-instrument orchestras are not always the most pleasing nor the most truly harmonious. Be that as it may, it is said with the most enormous respect and affection.

Last July I had the huge privilege of conducting the funeral of the late Robert Runcie in St Albans Abbey. The abbey was packed to overflowing and crowds gathered outside. Towards the end of the service I led the family mourners to the graveside and said the prayers. For me and for everyone there, it was intensely moving.

However, I had a problem that day—a family problem. Our son and daughter-in-law were clue to be married by me in St Albans Abbey only 15 minutes after the funeral ended. Noble Lords may picture the scene. Hundreds and hundreds of mourners who had come to pay their respects to a deeply loved man were pouring out of the west doors of the abbey. As they came out of the doors, so towards them across the abbey orchard walked a stunningly beautiful bride on the arm of her father. As they saw her approach, the crowds of mourners spontaneously burst into applause. For me, it was absolute magic.

I tell the story in order to make a simple point. The funeral of Lord Runcie was not value-free; the wedding of our son and daughter-in-law was not value-free either. Those kinds of service are not mistakes and are not aberrations; at the extremes of human life they are symbolic of what makes life worth while. They are examples of situations where private and public parts of our lives meet. Both the funeral and the wedding overflowed with values about mercy, hope, love, thanksgiving and new beginnings—values which ultimately are rooted in God.

Therefore, it seems to me literally non-sense to suggest that any of us lives in a value-free society; and if some values are more important than others—for example, giving thanks for a great life or sharing in a new marriage—then do we not as a nation have a moral duty to support those institutions which are of profound significance and which give eternal values human shape and human meaning? But how can we do so?

In preparing for this debate, one set of statistics leapt out at me. Just over 50 per cent of all divorcing couples have children under the age of 16. Of course, it is impossible to quantify confusion and sorrow. However, if it were possible, I believe that the confusion and sorrow endured by many of those children would be staggeringly large. As a society, we cannot be value-free about those children.

Of course, I recognise that not all marriages are good and I recognise that relationships break down. But surely we have a moral duty to ensure that marriages survive. Exhortation is not enough. We need to engineer our society legally, educationally, and financially so that fewer of our children are caught up in the anguish of family breakdown.

I offer a suggestion which is probably naïve, but I shall try. Should we not try to ensure that either parent, be they man or woman, with a child under the age of five receives a living wage to enable him or her to bring up that child without being forced back to work? It is patently wrong to interfere with private choice. However, I believe that a living wage for a parent for a limited period of time and for a limited number of children would do much to prevent the financial, time-management and emotional stresses and strains which can tear at the heart of young families.

I realise that I am almost out of time, but, briefly, I want to make two more points. First, the Churches, in common with other faith communities, already provide huge support in preparing couples for marriage and in the counsel and care of those whose marriages come to grief. Please may we be assured by the Minister that religious communities will not be discriminated against if governmental money is made available for grants and offers of support?

As an earnest of our concern, I am also able to say, on behalf of those Bishops who are unable to be present because they are currently at a three-line-whip meeting in York, that we should very much welcome the opportunity to meet the Lord Chancellor and his officials in the hope that we can make a proper contribution towards taking forward this important debate, which involves issues surrounding marriage preparation and reconciliation, and the whole area of family law.

3.51 p.m.

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My Lords, first, I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans for his moving speech. I want to move on from what he said about children. I agree with his premise and that of the noble Baroness, Lady Young, for whom I have both respect and affection.

We must be careful in promoting our own beliefs and backgrounds neither to stigmatise nor to penalise others who decide to take other paths, or, especially, their children. When 40 per cent of all marriages fail, and many failed marriages are, as the noble Baroness pointed out. between parents who have children under the age of 16, it would be totally wrong not to do all we can to give those children the same opportunities as others. Equally, if the parents of children decide, for whatever reason, not to marry, or if they are single parents, it would be wrong not to give them the same financial benefits as married couples, because the people who would suffer would be their children, who are in no way at fault.

I arrived at those views from a slightly different route from that of the right reverend Prelate because I come from a traditional Jewish family. My father, Barnett—Lord Janner—whom many of your Lordships knew, and my mother and my sister, Lady Morris of Kenwood, and I lived as a nuclear Jewish family. That gave us children a wonderful chance. My late wife, Myra, and I tried to offer the same to our three children, and I now hugely enjoy our six grandchildren. But the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, has already pointed out that we cannot impose on our children whatever way of life we may choose for them. We bring them up as best we can, just as our parents did their best for us. Some of our parents succeeded and some failed. We must do what we can. That is great if it works; but, if it does not, we must help our children who choose other routes in this decent, diverse society. We must certainly do so if they are leading happy, constructive and helpful lives and look after other people.

The right reverend Prelate reminded me of another member of my family, my wife's uncle, Sir Israel Brodie, with whom I spent a lot of time when he was terminally ill in St Thomas's Hospital. I remember one day sitting with him when he said to me, "Greville, remember that none of us is here for very long. We must live our lives as fulfilled as we can and help others to do the same". That is my approach.

Most noble Lords come from traditional families—certainly I do. We believe in marriage and, yes, we believe in virtue—I recall the argument of the noble Baroness, Lady Young—and in all that is best in the world. But we must recognise reality, and reality is changing. The reality is diversity and the fact that some of our children live in ways that are different from the way in which we have decided to live our lives. The reality is that we must help them and, above all, their children. For that reason, I wholeheartedly support the key paragraph in the Government's consultation document, Supporting Families. It states:
"This Government believes that marriage provides a strong foundation for stable relationships. This does not mean trying to make people marry or criticising or penalising people who choose not to. We do not believe the Government should interfere in people's lives that way".
I pause to say that even if we believe that, there is no way that we could successfully do so.
"We do share the belief of the majority of people that marriage provides the most reliable framework for raising children".
Yes, let us bolster that framework, but not at the expense of others who live differently and, above all, not at the expense of their children.

3.55 p.m.

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My Lords, the whole House will be grateful to my noble friend Lady Young for having introduced this debate. If I may say so, her speech was full of facts and statistics that were of enormous interest. If I may also say so, I admired the speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans. It said much more than the words he used. It was a remarkable speech.

Most nations, cultures and societies throughout the world, wherever they may be and however advanced or primitive they may be, acknowledge that their own society depends for its continuation, self-conduct and happiness on marriage in some form or shape. That is not necessarily a Christian view or a religious view, although it may be both, but it is a recognition of the fact that if good order is to be maintained, marriage is the bedrock upon which all else is built and from which all else flows. It is, of course, from parents that children learn to carry on whatever it is that their parents pass on to them. That may be in the form of manners, behaviours or attitudes.

There is a feeling in our society today, especially over the past 10 years or so, that the matter should be "loosened up". Some argue that the fact that so many marriages, regrettably, end in divorce, and the fact that parties get remarried and frequently provide a happy home, suggest that marriage should cease to be put on a pinnacle because so many people seem to fail to attain it or hang on to it. And, goes the argument, if we do create the idea that marriage is the desirable way in which to live and bring up families—I think that that is what the noble Lord, Lord Janner, was saying—we are somehow condemning those who have not attained this ideal as failures or as being irresponsible. Most of us—in fact, all of us—have to bear responsibility for what we do in our lives and for the results of what we do. That is not to say that one does not have to give equal help to children who come from marriages that have not succeeded.

The speech made by the Minister of State in the Department for Education and Employment to which my noble friend referred was pretty amazing. Ms Jowell said:
"The Government should not promote marriage as the ideal context for bringing up children … We would never want to advocate a family policy that made some children feel that they were first class children and others feel that they were second class … Children thrive in a stable environment, being brought up by parents who love them. I think in the 21st century families come in all shapes and sizes".
The latter point may be a fact, but I am horrified that a Minister should say that marriage is not on a pinnacle.

The fact is that life is a pretty hairy race and the best laid plans and intentions go astray. That is surely no reason not to aim for the best. Whatever we do, whether in our social, domestic or business life. we must strive for the best. If we strive for the best, we frequently only get second best, but if we are content to strive for second best, we will, of course, get only third best. Gradually, one corkscrews downwards.

Children want and ought to be brought up in a happy home with their parents. That must be the ideal. The fact that two people can live together in harmony and happiness, and can bring up children, even though they may not be married, is creditable. However, I find it hard to say to youth, and I find it fearful that the Government should say to youth, that because that has happened in some circumstances, living in a stable relationship without marriage should therefore be put on a par, and in equity, with those who live in a stable relationship in marriage. What do children gather from that? They gather that anything goes. We all, in what we do, whether socially, domestically, politically or in our business life, affect others. I hope that what we do encourages others. That also applies to the media, who are responsible for publishing a lot of things which people absorb and believe to be the norm.

4 p.m.

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My Lords, I am glad to have the opportunity to contribute to this debate, and do so having worked with the Ministerial Group on the Family since 1997 and having contributed to the preparation of the 1998 consultation paper, Supporting Families.

I have to say in passing that I do not recognise some of the fantasy stories in the media about warring Ministers. Supporting Families was a good example of Ministers working co-operatively across departmental boundaries to produce a coherent set of ideas on family policy that recognise the reality of today's world.

Today's reality is that the number of first marriages in England and Wales has halved since the peak of 1970. In 1998 there were 267,000 or so marriages, putting those among the lowest recorded figures for the 20th century. More couples are choosing to live together without marrying at all. In 1979—a significant date for many in this House—11 per cent of all unmarried women aged 18 to 49 were cohabiting. By 1998 that had increased to 29 per cent. That happened during a period when there was still a married couple's tax allowance, on which the noble Baroness and her party leader seem now to he placing great reliance.

If one wanted to make a narrow political point—I do not—one could say that successive Conservative governments presided over that terrible moral decline. But I recognise that the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, and Mr Major could do little about it. Those statistics are the results of millions of individual decisions by people who live in this country. I just wish that many current-day supporters in the media and elsewhere would accept that the present Government are in exactly the same position.

We live in a world in which more first marriages are preceded by cohabitation than not compared with 2 per cent in the late 1960s. The Government Actuary's projections suggest that the number of cohabiting couples could double over the next two decades. Even where more people marry, four out of 10 marriages are likely to end in divorce. Four out of 10 births now occur outside marriage, although the majority take place with the parents living at the same address.

The reality is that our fellow citizens are choosing in their millions to ignore the advice of family traditionalists in the decisions they make about the way they want to live their lives. I have always thought that a prime duty of government is to analyse the evidence in formulating policy. The Government—any government—simply cannot ignore those facts in producing a family policy. However, the Government do not seem to have been operating in a value-free way. They made clear that in framing family policy they attach great importance to stable relationships; they believe people have the right to live without fear of violence and that the needs of children are paramount.

My noble friend Lord Janner made exactly those points in his quotations. Every discussion in which I have participated with Ministers since 1998 suggests that the Government have kept very much to the position of supporting families. There is no doubt that divorce and separation impact adversely on children, but so do other factors. Most children, in practice, survive the divorce or separation of their parents and adapt successfully to change in their lives. That is because other influences, such as poverty, education, parenting skills and exposure to domestic violence also impact on their lives.

Child poverty is a good example of something that has increased dramatically over the past two decades. Over that period one in three British children lived in households with incomes below 60 per cent of the median. The best route out of poverty for many of those children is for their parents to be employed. Sound economic policy, low unemployment, reforming the tax and benefit systems to reward working families and a national minimum wage are key elements to a successful family policy. I believe that those are the policies the Government have been successfully pursuing and will have more impact on successful family policy than a lot of empty rhetoric about marriage and about trying to go back to the future.

4.5 p.m.

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My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Young, for giving the House the opportunity to air its views about marriage and the family at the start of our new year.

It seems to me that the key question here is: are we going to move forward or is this about moving backwards? So my starting point is to ask what we mean by "traditional family values". Are they the traditional family values of the 19th century and before, when a woman and her children effectively belonged to the husband? Are they the traditional family values which include arranged marriages? Are they the tradition of women being expected to give up their job when they marry to enable them to care for their husband? Or are they the traditions of the Church of England which, by and large, does not allow divorced people to remarry under its roof? Or perhaps they are the tradition of multiple pregnancies and back-street abortions from a time when women had no control over their fertility. Or are they the traditions of the Thatcher years and the Conservative government who decided that there was no such thing as "society"?

To take one example of the previous government's record on the family, they removed income support for unemployed 16 year-olds, which placed many poor families under terrible strain, was responsible in some cases for creating family breakdowns and, indeed, put some youngsters on to the streets without home or money.

This debate should be about looking forwards instead of looking backwards to traditional values which I fail to find, except perhaps in the nostalgia of which we are all guilty from time to time, and a state of mind in which the party opposite exists a lot of the time.

Should we not recognise that, at the beginning of the 21st century, marriage and the family are complex and diverse? Complicated relationships and sometimes not always successful marriages exist in the highest families in our land, and for all of us—including noble Lords opposite and my family also. This Government recognise those complexities in their programme. They recognise the importance and value of supporting families and the children in them.

Substantial thought and resources are going into supporting British families. The Government's starting point is that the vast majority of parents, and indeed step-parents, are loving, devoted and ambitious for their children, and that they need support to do their job.

I believe that the noble Baroness, Lady Young, needs to inject several things into her laudable aim of supporting the family. She needs to inject a bit of reality about the world as it is. The party opposite needs to inject more honesty about people's relationships into its policies, and a great deal more compassion. Reality, honesty and compassion—all the things which make for a good marriage if we think about it.

4.8 p.m.

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My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend Lady Young for instigating this debate and I take this opportunity to thank her for her dedicated support for the preservation of the traditional family.

Such a debate is not only timely but also, with an election approaching, it is one of the most important issues facing the electorate. I say that because I believe that society is judged on how it addresses family matters and the way that that impacts on much wider issues such as the economy, crime, education and health, to mention but a few.

In my view, the people of this country have lost something very precious; that is, leadership on what is a responsible attitude to raising a family. For many years the major political parties supported marriage as the essential building block of a stable society. Today, that alliance appears to have broken down and this Government have drifted away from endorsing that message. It is only the Conservative Party that is wholeheartedly committed to the traditional family and has policies to support it.

The Government, quite rightly, state that families exist in many differing forms, and of course they do. For me, the first and the best is where a man and a woman marry and set up a home together. For those who are lucky enough to have children, I believe that it is even more important for those children to have the chance to grow and develop mentally and physically in as loving and caring an atmosphere as possible, with both parents on hand, but I recognise that that is not always easy.

I grew up in a lone-parent family. My father died and my mother was left to cope. I loved my father dearly and enjoyed that special bond that exists between father and daughter, so I know what I missed when he died. My mother was brilliant. In spite of all the difficulties she faced in war-torn Britain, she made a wonderful home for my brother and me. I owe much to her and the single-minded way she set about being the breadwinner and home-maker. I am glad that she had the pleasure of seeing my brother become a High Court judge and my entry into your Lordships' House. She made us a real family in which we supported each other. I consider that I was lucky to have my parents' example. I am sure that I have not done as well as they did, but I have tried.

I find it disturbing that marriage is declining, divorces are increasing, and more and more people are cohabiting. Most depressing of all, 22 per cent of children were born outside marriage in 1997 compared with only 2 per cent 20 years earlier. As a consequence of those and other factors, the number of lone-parent families has almost quadrupled.

I was deeply concerned when the Government withdrew the married couples' allowance except for pensioners. I am delighted that my party has pledged to restore it. The attitude of the Government over Section 28 continues to worry me as, once again, it undermines marriage. Perhaps I may add that as a past branch chairman of the NSPCC, I was horrified by the attitude of the society over Section 28. I hope that it will not continue to spend 46 per cent of its income on campaigning and only 37 per cent on the wonderful front-line work it does for abused children.

We eagerly await the White Paper on the family. Recent press speculation suggests that the Prime Minister has been lobbied by colleagues not to follow their former assertions that,
"marriage is still the surest foundation for rearing children".
It is suggested that that is because many of his colleagues fear press intrusion into their private lives. If that is so, I am deeply saddened. As my noble friend Lord Ferrers said, surely it is right to strive for the best, whatever the press may say. I hope that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor will be able to assure us that the Government do believe that marriage, and only marriage, is best.

4.14 p.m.

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My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Young, for this opportunity to discuss the well-being of our families. I am convinced that marriage is a very important means for improving the welfare of children. The process of marriage aids couples to be clear in their intentions to one another and to consider the full implications of starting a family and the responsibilities entailed, as the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, so clearly communicated.

For that reason, I applaud the practical measures to strengthen families put forward in the Government's paper Supporting Families. I recognise that marriage is not a part of the experience of many families. It is unacceptable to stigmatise those families and their children—a point the Government have often made. In such a situation I am not clear what more can be done to promote marriage. I note, however, the power of a good example. Could governments not set the right example of long-term commitment; that commitment which marriage encourages and which I believe we would all want to be the goal of those who want to be parents, married or otherwise?

Your Lordships may be aware of the fate of Anna Climbie, a young girl who died of hypothermia following prolonged neglect and malnutrition last year. One of her abusers said,
"You could beat her and she would not cry at all. She could take the beatings and pain like anything".
The social worker and woman police constable in the case were described as blindingly incompetent. Several opportunities to remove Anna from torture were missed. However, I should like to draw attention to an article in The Times on Saturday, January 13th this year which noted that Haringey Social Services had suffered a 24 per cent budget cut and was run by inexperienced staff. Indeed, the social workers unit was at half strength, with 33 per cent of its management posts vacant. The article goes on to state that the WPC worked for another struggling unit, Haringey Child Protection, which covered one of London's most deprived boroughs yet lacked key staff. The woman police constable had not had full training and had no CID experience.

Is it not right to deduce that one of the important factors in Anna's death was the under-investment in police and social services? I think that my noble friend Lord Northbourne will probably confirm that social workers are often frustrated in their work by impossible caseloads. Chronic under-investment has resulted in staff shortages.

There are now 6,900 households in bed-andbreakfast accommodation in London. a number which has risen steeply in recent years. There are more households in temporary accommodation now than at any time since the late 1970s. We invest a lower percentage of our gross domestic product in public services than most of our European neighbours. We also have the highest divorce rate in 'western Europe, as has been said, and the highest rate of teenage pregnancies. The United States invests about 9 per cent less of its gross domestic product in public services than ourselves and has far higher divorce and teenage pregnancy rates. Its infant mortality rate is 7.8 per thousand live births. The rate in this country is 5.9 per thousand. In France and Germany it is 4.8 per thousand and in Norway it is four per thousand.

If governments of whatever complexion think in the long-term best interests of their citizens and provide prudent, sustained, sufficient investment in good public services, they will be setting an example which should pervade all society, including, of course, our families. They would also be providing services which help families to thrive. If one is to behave ethically, it is helpful to be in an environment where one does not think of the immediate gratification of urgent needs, particularly in the most disadvantaged families.

4.18 p.m.

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My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Young, for initiating this important debate. Traditional family values seem to have become inextricably linked with marriage. In the environment in which I was raised they are two very different things. The Indian concept of Vasudeva Kathumbkam, meaning "the world is one family", informs our relationships with everyone. It extends beyond one's relatives to include friends, neighbours and work colleagues. I believe in and support that concept. One of the reasons why Asians have been so successful in this country is strong family ties.

Unfortunately, that definition of family values is being rapidly eroded everywhere, even in Indian communities. In my view, we should make more effort to restore those values. Marriage is only one part of family values. Marriage means a relationship between husband and wife, and it should certainly be encouraged. However, we know that this relationship is under strain. What is also true is that not all children born to married parents are planned or wanted. Far too many children are born almost by accident. In those circumstances, we cannot keep saying that a stable male/female partnership is the only suitable way to bring up children.

The Family Service Unit, an NGO of which I am president, has centres throughout the country and it deals with these issues almost on a daily basis. It is doing tremendous work. It shares the belief that marriage provides a reliable and stable framework for most families for the successful raising of children. However, there is the need for a clear distinction to be made between positive relationships and formal marital status in families.

In FSU's experience, formal status such as marriage can be misused in power struggles, including domestic violence between parents, to the detriment of children and mothers. One has to recognise and respect the diversity of family life in Britain in the 21st century, where only one-fifth of households are made up of a married couple with dependent children and where nearly one-quarter of our children—around 3 million—live in single-parent families.

In FSU's long experience, many kinds of families can provide a loving and secure environment. What is important is that children are brought up within consistent boundaries, receiving love, care and attention. One in four of our children are brought up in poverty. Poverty is both a cause and a consequence of family breakdown, but its effects are damaging to everyone.

Surely, therefore, resources would be better employed in eliminating child poverty than trying to decide what culturally specific type of family is best equipped for the task of parenting. Most of all, we must ensure that no child grows up feeling excluded because he or she is unwanted.

4.22 p.m.

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My Lords, first, I must declare an interest, having enjoyed contented married life with my husband for more than 50 years. Our children have equally contented 15-year marriages. "Contented" does not always mean placid or perfect. During the bad patches, it is important to remember that the other donkey's grass is not necessarily greener, despite appearances; nor does it mean that we have never had a cross word. Utopia does not exist, and of course there will be cases where, sadly, separation becomes inevitable. But it is vital that parents should act responsibly and stay together whenever possible.

People celebrating their diamond wedding—today it is that of John and Mary Mills—say, "There should always be plenty of give and take", or, "Don't let the sun go down on your wrath". Proverbs may be old-fashioned but they always contain a good deal of truth.

Returning to cross words, or even rows, it is good for children to see their parents disagree, lose their tempers but make it up and be good friends the next day. No one is always right.

Last week, we went to the pantomime, "Peter Pan", with our youngest granddaughter at Southend. It was a packed house and an excellent performance. After Captain Hook had been trounced by Peter Pan and the crocodile, Peter Pan, Wendy and all the Lost Boys who had no parents arrived back on the roofs of London by the Darling's house. Peter invited Wendy back to the Never-Never Land but she refused. She wanted to stay with her parents and grow up.

Mrs Darling invited all the Lost Boys to stay with her family too and they all said, "Yes, please", much to the great sadness of Peter Pan. Mrs Darling said, "All children need two parents; a mother and a father", which is what attracted the Lost Boys.

Some people say that such statements devalue single-parent families. Having coped with a single-parent family in our own extended family, I know that that is not true. The Lost Boys recognised that if they had the chance of two parents they should grasp it and grow up in the most desirable situation. There is a lot of truth in old-fashioned fairy stories, too.

Children cannot choose their parents. Parents choose to have children and after that they owe those children the responsibility of bringing them up to the best of their ability together, difficult though that may be at times. Many of our problems in society would be reduced considerably if that sense of responsibility were more universally put into action, as my noble friend Lady Young emphasised.

4.25 p.m.

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My Lords, this is an important debate because it touches on the very health, stability and cohesiveness of our society. As we have been reminded, we have the highest divorce rate in Europe, with children often the main casualties. Statistics, which are about real people, show us that children of a broken marriage often follow the same pattern as their parents.

The family can be the place where the world acquires a human face and where order and values for living can be acquired and tested. It is the crucible of our humanity. Recently, though, I was chatting to a group of young prisoners and asking them what kind of support they were receiving from their families and what help they were likely to receive when they had completed their sentences. "No support", was the immediate answer of a number of the prisoners.

Strengthening the place of marriage and the family as the bulwark of society is a major concern of many people today. Yet while successive governments have recognised the huge social problems created by marital and familial breakdown, the response has often been ambivalent, and a discernible timidity evident in giving too strong an emphasis to the prior importance of marriage and family life lest other relationships should not be given appropriate support. An obvious example, already referred to, is the Government's persistent refusal to restore tax concessions for married couples as a symbol that society values marriage. Yet this would be another positive step following the Government's 1999 consultation document, Supporting Families, which has resulted in an information pack soon to be distributed by the National Family and Parenting Institute and made available to all couples who want to get married.

In the House of Bishops' teaching document, which is currently being discussed in many parts of the Church of England, the house summarised its understanding of marriage as,
"a pattern that God has given in Creation, deeply rooted in our social instincts … life-long marriage … the bedrock of a rapidly changing society … sexual intercourse, as an expression of faithful intimacy, properly belongs within marriage exclusively … marriage is a school of patience and forgiveness … by it a new unit of society is created … So that the weakening of marriage has serious implications for the mutual belonging and care that is exercised within the community at large".
I could go on, but the document costs only £1 and is well worth reading.

I recognise that verbal support for marriage and the family is easily given but not so easily delivered. Practical support for people, rather than gesture politics and brandishing slogans, is urgently needed.

Unfortunately, concern for marriage and the family often comes too late. We have already been reminded that the cost of picking up the pieces of broken relationships is huge. In comparison, this year only £4 million has been made available for marriage and relationship support. I long to see that funding substantially increased to give support to the groups and organisations that try to cope with the many demands upon them for the help that they provide. I have in mind the growth in the numbers of parenting groups and students who explore marriage projects, community family projects and so on.

The Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, has written:
"It took us a long time for us to realise that by cutting down rain forests, using cars with highly leaded fuels and building factories with toxic emissions we were gradually destroying the ecosystem within which we live and breath. We know now. It has been much harder for us to realise that by destabilising marriage and accepting casual sex, serial relationships, divorce and single parenthood as norms, we are rapidly eroding the social structures on which humanity depends, but it is no less true".
I conclude by identifying with the statement made recently by the Archbishop of Westminster. He made a plea to Ministers in relation to the forthcoming White Paper on the family that they should not be,
"afraid to put marriage and family life at its very heart, and it will then be supported by the vast majority of people in this country".

4.32 p.m.

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My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Young, for introducing this fascinating debate. I found it hard to prepare for it because I was not entirely sure of the thrust of the debate. The debate has produced a number of familiar matters as well as some surprises. I do not represent any special interest group. I regret that I do not have a strong religious faith but, like others, I am convinced that marriage should be supported. Marriage is still an essential part of good social organisation and is also a way for two people to make a public commitment to each other. Clearly, the public nature of that commitment is an important part of its significance.

I intend no disrespect to the institution of marriage when I say that one of its primary purposes was., and to some extent remains, the acquisition and protection of property. We should remember that historically it has been an economic partnership as well as everything else. However, in the nature of this debate I do not want to concentrate so much on marriage as on family values. I refer in particular to the appeal of the noble Baroness, Lady Young, to tradition. I have a problem with the notion of tradition as it applies to social policy. By definition, it is retrospective and, in the general sense, conservative. I should like to speak for those who, like myself, have not had a traditional family background and have experienced at first hand the damage that can be done by rigid adherence to social convention masquerading as family values.

I agree with a good deal of the remarks made on this subject by my noble friend Lord Janner, who is not now in his place. I do not look back with any nostalgia to the atmosphere of shame and secrecy that surrounded marriage breakdown when I grew up. It had a profoundly traumatising effect on my family and many others. When I compare it with the experience of my own children, I feel only relief that they were born when they were. For all the pain of their parents' divorce, which I regret, they at least have maintained a close relationship with both parents and their half-siblings. I never knew mine. I think back with horror to my discovery, when searching through the records of a mental hospital, that one of my mother's relatives had been incarcerated for the whole of her adult life because she had become pregnant when unmarried. No doubt the noble Baroness, Lady Young, would tell me that upholding tradition and family values should not imply cruelty of that kind but, not uncommonly, it did. I do not regret the passing of such a world.

The family values in which I believe, and am glad to see reflected in the Government's development of social and educational policy, are based on tolerance and respect for the great diversity of human relationships and the many ways in which people can support each other and create a healthy environment in which children can grow up. We must not jettison ideas and values just because they are not new. We must reflect upon the past and pay proper attention to lessons that can be learnt from it, but we must no: be sentimental and selective about it. We must live in the world as it is, and not as we should like it to be.

4.36 p.m.

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My Lords, one of the most worrying features of the decline in marriage and the traditional family unit is its effect on the more deprived people in our society. So often in this debate we forget that the most profound effects are felt not by the more sophisticated but by the least sophisticated in our society. For six years I served on the Parole Board. One of my duties was to interview prisoners and write an assessment of their suitability for parole. I saw hundreds of prisoners who for the most part were serving five to seven years in some of the major prisons in this country. Almost without exception, their backgrounds followed similar patterns. They had been born to unmarried couples whose relationships had collapsed. Their mothers had then been involved in a series of relationships. They never experienced a stable family situation and their careers had been truancy from school and drugs, followed by minor and then major crime. Often at 16 they had conceived a child themselves who repeated that history. I do not believe that it is fanciful to view the collapse of the family as a factor in that lifestyle.

I respect the views of the noble Lord, Lord Janner, and the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh. I do not suggest for a moment that all single parents produce criminals, but thousands of people have had their lives altered in this way. I accept that sometimes in the past the structures of society have been oppressive, but we should also pay attention to the contemporary situation with the emphasis on individual rights rather than social structures which have been the cement of society in past ages. It is possible that emphasis on individual rights rather than social cohesion causes even more trouble than some of the oppressive patterns of the past. It is believed that it would be wrong for the Government to stress the importance of marriage as against other relationships. The fact is that, as noble Lords know, governments have a duty to influence society by what they say and the laws they implement.

The noble Earl, Lord Russell, has, like me, read Dicey's Lectures on the Relationship Between Law and Public Opinion in England during the 19th Century and knows the effect of law. A recent article in the Financial Times summed up modern reality in terms of Burger King's advertisement, "Have It Your Way". People now insist on doing their own thing and not being limited by family structures or external rules of the past. In this they defy history. We are moving into a new environment for which we have no maps and guidance. If we see marriage as only one form of relationship that is no better than others, cultural relativism of that kind is most destructive to the less sophisticated members of our society. Some of the casualties are the prisoners I interviewed, and we must bear part of the responsibility for the society that has produced people like that. I share the experience of the right reverend Prelate. Those people told me that they could expect no support from their dysfunctional families when they left prison.

Stability, order and the example of lifetime commitment are good things. They are not always realised, but that is not enough to throw it all out. Like the noble Lord, Lord Janner, a Pauline who respects toleration, I believe in toleration. I believe in not attacking, but that does not mean rejecting the values that have supported his Jewish society and my society for many generations.

4.40 p.m.

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My Lords, I must first declare an interest in that I have had the good fortune to be blissfully happily married for 52 years.

Those of us who joined the noble Baroness, Lady Young, in opposing the Family Law Act 1996 which introduced no fault divorce will not be surprised that it has been found defective in practice and will welcome the decision announced yesterday by the Lord Chancellor to repeal the greater part of it.

I believe strongly in the importance of lifelong marriage and close family ties in building the sort of society we need in this country. I know that there are many who, for one reason or the other, have the misfortune to be denied that. Many of them, single mothers especially, struggle to bring up children, difficult though this is for one person. But for society at large I believe we should hold up the ideal of a happily married two-parent family, and for all married couples divorce while they have young and dependent children should normally be unthinkable.

It is for individuals to work out their own lives. Neither the Government nor anyone else can dictate to them how they should behave. But the Government can do something to help and encourage a way of life that contributes to a good society, and, above all, an environment in which our children can grow up loved and cherished and feeling protected and secure. I am dismayed that the Government are doing so little to promote that. Although I welcome the announcement yesterday by the Lord Chancellor about funding marriage and relationship support, I still think that the signals that the Government send out do not suggest that encouraging marriage is one of their priorities. For example, they have abolished the married persons allowance, and the present tax and benefit systems provide little incentive to those who may contemplate marriage.

We know that the Prime Minister is a family man who, from his own experience, must wish to encourage marriage as the basis of a good society. But it is reported that he and those of his colleagues who share his views, like Mr Boateng, have been overridden by others, including, apparently, the Leader of this House, who have, it is suggested, persuaded him that it is a mistake to promote marriage and that it is better to talk about stable relationships, which of course cover a multitude of sins. I hope that the reports are wrong and that the Prime Minister will stick to his guns.

Nowadays a great number of women go out to work and leave their children with nannies if they are very rich, and in day nurseries if they are not. They often have impressive careers and their talents are fully used as they were not in the past. But there may be a price to pay, for even the best paid helper cannot wholly replace a natural mother in looking after a child.

With modern technology it is increasingly practicable to work full or part-time from home. So more and more women may in future be able to care for their own children and do a good job at the same time.

We all know that there are many things wrong with our society. We have the highest rate of divorce in Europe. There are the great and growing number of teenage pregnancies and more and more reports of abuse of children by live-in partners and of young people driven out of their homes to live rough on the streets or join violent teenage gangs.

Unhappily, sooner or later, nearly all children are exposed to offers of drugs, suggestive magazines and opportunities for promiscuity. State schools are now apparently adopting the lamentable expedient of giving the "morning after" pill to 11 or 12 year old girls without informing their parents. These various temptations are all too likely to result in nothing but unhappiness and damaged health. Children are most likely to resist them if they have been brought up in a happy home and are constantly reminded of the need to choose right rather than wrong.

The Government can perhaps help by restoring more single-sex schools where there is less pressure to impress the other sex, and by making sure that those who have illegitimate babies are not promptly rewarded by being propelled to the top of the housing list.

Generally, we need to take a stand against the decline in standards and the collapse of morals. Children are usually quick to know what is expected of them and if high standards are expected they often respond in a remarkable way. We do not want them to wallow in the mud but to set their sights on the stars. I believe it will help a great deal if we point the way to a happy, lifelong marriage as the best way of meeting the trials and tribulations of life and so ensure that our children are given the best possible start.

4.45 p.m.

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My Lords, I rise to offer strong support for the defence of lifelong marriage expressed so ably by the previous speaker and, of course, by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, in a memorable speech. In half a century I cannot remember a better speech, although I suppose that people who were in your Lordships' House 50 or 100 years ago will say that Lord Keynes reached that standard when he defended the American loans. Anyway, it was a memorable speech.

I am glad to be followed by the noble Lord, Lord Elton, who is my spiritual boss in the sense that he presides over the prayer group that I attend. I know that he will stop me before someone else does if I go beyond the four minutes. I rise to ask a simple question of everyone, Christian or non-Christian. If they were asked whether they would prefer their children to have happy lifelong marriages or deviate in some way—perhaps daughters being left as lone mothers or sons becoming homosexual or having all kinds of fun and games in other ways—I am sure that the answer would be that they would rather see their children in lifelong happy marriages.

We have some wonderful examples of marital devotion. The most obvious one is the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan. We are told that he sits beside his beautiful wife Audrey, who is not too well these days, and never leaves her side. That is real devotion. The Prime Minister is an excellent example of marriage.

Now I become a little timid. I have to mention the fact that—surprise, surprise—I have been married for 69 years. I do not boast of that too much. The last time I said that to someone, he said, "That is nothing. My parents have been married for 75 years". So it is no good boasting about these things. Nevertheless, I have been happily married for 69 years. If people ask how I won the attention of the most popular girl of her time, I can only say that it was divine providence. So providence and luck come in. Therefore, one cannot attribute everything to virtue when one only has merit. But that is all I say. I can only hope for everyone here that their children and grandchildren and great grandchildren—I have quite a few in each category—will have long happy lifelong marriages.

The difficulty with defending marriage most strongly is that there are many good people who have not had my good fortune. Some very dear to me have found fulfilment in their second marriages. In particular there is one man whom I admire. known to everyone in this country—I shall not mention his name now—who has been involved in a happy partnership for some years. No one can say that I am a better man than he. Of course I do not say that. There are others too—homosexuals—who lead very good lives. So we must not condemn others; we must sympathise with them. I am only saying that I strongly believe that marriage is best and that everyone really thinks the same, whatever they may say at the moment.

4.49 p.m.

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My Lords, like my noble friend Lady Platt of Writtle, I declare an interest as the father of four children. But sadly it is of a different kind because their mother and I separated after 13 years, which was eight years after the youngest child was born. We divorced and I remarried six years later. But I can see no reason why that should prevent me from supporting the contention of my noble friend Lady Young that marriage is the best environment in which to raise children.

I had a nasty motor accident when I was in my early thirties. That has certainly not stopped me advising young people to drive carefully. I see an analogy there. To argue against my noble friend because I had failed to provide my own children with the best would be to fly in the face of truth. The Government are not bringing that truth unequivocally to the notice of intending parents.

Every generation has a duty to pass to the next what it has learnt. The more valuable the lesson, the more urgent the duty. When we bring up children we are preparing them for the world in which they are going to live as adults. That world is morally, as well as physically, more dangerous now than the world of the 1950s into, or before, which the whole of the present Cabinet was born. It is certainly more materialist. During a period which historians will doubtless describe as stable, there has been a series of four revolutions of enormous importance to children.

The credit revolution was launched by the introduction of credit cards, with the profoundly revealing slogan "Taking the waiting out of wanting". I commend that slogan to your Lordships' prolonged thought as to its effect. The communications revolution which accompanied it elevated children under the age of 10 to the status of a powerful market sector targeted on television advertising. It has also removed from all but diligent parents, and even from some of them, the control of their children's access to wholly inappropriate media channels and programmes. The sexual revolution, regarded as some kind of liberation in the 1960s, has been rendered incalculably more dangerous by the advent of AIDS. The drugs revolution has brought prohibited and sometimes lethal substances within their unsupervised reach. All this in a world in which moral standards themselves are seen by some as at best optional and by others as irrelevant.

Each of these revolutions produced a new threat to children. None of them was in place when the whole of the Cabinet or any of my contemporaries were brought up. The world is more dangerous for children now than it was then and you would think that we collectively, and the Government above all, would be doing our utmost to provide them with the best possible protection. That, both research and scripture assure us, is provided by the caring and protective circle of a stable marriage. The lamentable fact is that in the year 2000 fewer children received that protection than received it in 1950, before the revolutions.

What has brought all this about? Why is our society changing in this way? However you try to focus the lines that lead you to that cause, somewhere very near it you find an enormous rise in selfishness and a decline in the teaching of the virtues of unselfishness and courage. I was brought up during the war when those virtues were essential to the survival of the country. It is not surprising that they were instilled rigorously in me. That is perhaps why I still soldier on in your Lordships' Chamber. The fact is that the generality of our society no longer looks up to people for unselfish acts or self-control. Without those, no marriage will survive.

4.53 p.m.

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My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Young, for the opportunity to participate in today's debate and I look forward to debating with the noble Lord, Lord Moran, the use of technology in your Lordships' House to allow this mother of school-age children to spend more time with her children.

Like many noble Lords, I am a huge fan of marriage, believing that it can provide a strong and stable framework for adults and children alike, but I am a far greater fan of the family values that we attribute to it. For me, these values are based around the nurturing and care of all members of the family, especially the children; providing stability and education for all, especially the children; and raising the children to take seriously their responsibilities to themselves and others, especially their own children and children in their care. Those values should be paramount. But they need not be found, and indeed are not always found, within the structure of marriage. Families come in different shapes and sizes; and whether one believes that is to be celebrated or lamented, it is reality.

What matters in all families is that the children are brought up securely, safely and responsibly. The shape or size of the family does not seem to me to be terribly important if at the end of childhood there is a responsible, mature and happy individual. Congratulations would then seem to be in order.

I am not, though, complacent about family life. The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, recounted the story of Anna Climbie, placed in the care of her great aunt. The newspapers recalled the roll of dishonour of high profile cases of children neglected or murdered by those who should have loved and cared for them. Those are extreme and relatively rare cases. But they reawaken in us real concern that some children are at the mercy of those who have no understanding of or regard for their welfare.

I wonder whether we do enough as a society to prepare people for the variety of family models in which they may well live in their lifetimes and the different expectations that will be placed on them. It feels to me on occasion that our emphasis on the image of a single model of marriage rather than on the underlying values can sometimes get in the way, leaving people totally unprepared for the situations in which they may find themselves. As the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington of Oxenford, said, there are no maps.

Upon my marriage, I became a full-time step-parent and have been so for the past 13 years. The only model I or my stepchildren had was of the wicked stepmother in "Cinderella" or "Snow White", until, that is, some very helpful Hollywood studio brought out a film entitled "My Stepmother is an Alien", to the great delight of my children, I hasten to add. More seriously, in the 13 years that I have played this role, I have never been visited to see whether the children were being brought up okay. On many occasions I would have welcomed the kind of support that is best personified by health visitors who help new mothers to understand their offspring and to discover how to be a parent. I would have liked help with how to organise an eight year-old's birthday party from a knowledge base of zero. More importantly, I would have liked someone to talk to me about the not so good times in that role.

Taken to extremes, if we do not provide good role models, support systems and understanding about what is expected of them, then we set people up to fail; and failure in family life can be only bad news for our children. That is why I support the teaching of parenting and of citizenship in schools and why I support so many of the Government's measures. As we reflect on our traditional family values, perhaps it is time to look at how we educate and support people to play a variety of family roles; how we offer support to adults who increasingly find themselves operating in families that are complicated to explain, never mind participate in; how we provide support to children put into different family groupings and ensure that they are being cared for properly; and what role our health and social services can play, and what role government can play, in supporting these new families. In doing so, I believe that we would be promoting the best of family values, to keep our children safe.

4.57 p.m.

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My Lords, I rise only to apologise for not being in my place when my turn came to speak in the debate. Owing to a misunderstanding over the telephone, I was convinced that this debate was the second debate. Therefore, I shall not speak this afternoon. In the unlikely event that any noble Lords are interested in my views, they will have to contain their impatience until next week, when we have a debate, in which I have an interest, on the subject of the problems of sons without fathers.

4.58 p.m.

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My Lords, when I saw the reference to "traditional family values" in the Motion for today's debate I was reminded of a sentence in my grandmother's diary for 1864. She wrote:

"The Miss Berries are rather old fashioned. They swear a little".
That makes the point that tradition is a little more cyclical and a little less linear in its progress than perhaps we sometimes imagine.

On the subject of tradition, the noble Baronesses, Lady Thornton and Lady McIntosh, have spoken for me, but I think it is proper that it falls to me, and not to them, to say how much the stability of marriage in past times has rested on the economic dependence of women. It has rested on the fact that they have not had the choice of leaving. I remember an 18th century epitaph:
"Here lies Mary, the wife of John Ford,

We hope her soul has gone to the Lord.

But if for the other she quitted this life,

She had better be there than be John Ford's wife".
If the greater frequency of divorce means that that situation is not so often repeated, I for one cannot bring myself to regret it. I do not believe that there are any more unhappy marriages now than there were in the 17th century. I cannot sustain that opinion but, equally, I believe that no one can refute it. A marriage may end in divorce, but sometimes it is better to be divorced than to be in a bad marriage. I agree with St Augustine that the corruption of the best is the worst. That proposition applies as much to marriage as it does to many other things.

We have here a very longstanding difference between the party of the noble Baroness, Lady Young, and my own party. It goes back at least three centuries. Her party was dedicated to the promotion and encouragement of uniformity. From the beginning, my party was dedicated to the management of diversity. This applied originally to issues of religion. The Tory Party identified itself as the party of the Church. It is a fact that we had no fewer churchmcn on our Benches than did that party, as the career of Gladstone may well illustrate. But we were not in favour of monopoly. It is that objection to the monopoly, not a lesser loyalty to the Church, which still applies today. Professor John Curtice has found that my party contains among its activists more regular churchgoers than does any other party in the country. As one who is an unbeliever and does not regret the fact, perhaps I may say that I am delighted by that fact. I respect the liberty of their consciences for the same reason that they respect the liberty of mine. There is a common respect for pluralism and diversity, which is what holds us together. Worse things could hold us together.

What has happened in our lifetimes is one of the revolutions that the noble Lord, Lord Elton. did not mention; namely, the advent of reliable contraception. That has changed the underlying basis of sexual morals as totally as printing has changed education, or gunpowder and nuclear weapons have changed warfare. It will never be the same again. One may regret that, or one may—as I do?—welcome it. Either way, things will never be the same again and nothing can be done about that.

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My Lords, I know that this is a short debate and so I shall be brief. Recently I have received literature which exposes the fact that supposedly reliable contraception in the form of condoms is, statistically, not at all reliable.

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My Lords, at this stage I do not wish to enter into a semantic debate about the precise statistical meaning of "reliability". They are certainly a very great deal more reliable, and are a great deal more relied on, than anything that went before them.

The rethinking that this development demands is one which is to be done by private individuals. It is not a matter for the state. It is a matter for the individual conscience. Long ago we learnt that the state cannot create faith. Equally, the state cannot create love. Once we accept that, I think that we must accept that this is a matter for the private conscience.

My right honourable friend Mr Kennedy recently remarked that family life and the way we raise our children are private matters. If we understand the purposes of the state, that is clear enough. The purposes of the state are to keep the peace; to give people the opportunity to fulfil their potential in the way they choose; and to give them liberty wherein they do no harm to others. The noble Lord, Lord Pilkington of Oxenford, claims that it was a government's duty to influence people towards behaviour of which a government approved. I simply do not agree with that. It is hard enough for government to do their own job without trying to do ours for us.

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My Lords—

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My Lords, I am sorry, but this is a timed debate and I really cannot accept any more interventions. I have never refused an intervention before and I am sorry to have to do it now.

I think that the noble Lord was about to refer to children. It is a legitimate point. John Stuart Mill once remarked that just because we allow others power over themselves, therefore we are the more willing to restrict the power they may have over others. To protect children against cruelty or to defend their right to education is perfectly proper for the state. But here I come to the other limit of the state, not just that it is ultra vires, but to the limits of the state's competence. The state cannot know exactly what is happening inside an individual family. It cannot take our moral decisions for us for exactly the same reasons that it cannot reach clinical decisions in medicine or make academic judgments in education.

I hear the statistics about the effects of divorce on children. I know something of this from my own experience. But the question is: what do those statistics show? They may show no more than that, all other things being equal, children fare better with happy parents than with unhappy parents. If we compare the children of divorced parents with the children of happily married parents, we are not comparing like with like. What we need to do to achieve a statistical comparison is to compare the children of divorced parents with the children of unhappy parents who have remained married. I know from my teaching experience that that can do a great deal of harm. The statistical basis for such comparison would be extremely difficult. Until we can achieve it, a certain amount of hesitation ought to be in order.

We have heard much in this debate about the married couples' tax allowance. So far as I am concerned, marriages are made in heaven and divorces are made in hell. In neither case can the state do much about it. For the state to attempt to persuade people to live in one particular way is ultra vires. What is more, I speak as one who has been 38 years married and never for a moment regretted it. However, when I compare my own relationship with that of my two sisters-in-law, who have lived as unmarried partners, the reason why I cannot assert a superiority is that I cannot perceive a difference.

Were we to be talking about a marriage in church, I would understand that. It is clearly a different type of animal. But marriage in a register office is a social recognition. A civil partnership—in which my party is pioneering the way—is also a social recognition of a partnership. Between one form of social recognition and another, I really cannot see any significant difference. I enjoy marriage, but I believe that if it is as good as the noble Baroness, Lady Young, has said, it is perfectly capable of surviving without the benefit of a tariff barrier.

I shall conclude on the question of the morning-after pill. I am glad that the Government have done what they have. Anyone who argues that it is right to inflict an unwanted pregnancy on an underage girl is putting forward a cruelty which, in my mind, does not deserve the name of morality.

5.8 p.m.

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My Lords, once again, I join other Members of the House to congratulate my noble friend Lady Young on setting out so clearly the case for marriage and the family. Recently my noble friend has been deservedly recognised by a number of awards for her stand on moral issues affecting the family and children, on which I congratulate her most warmly. However, what is so remarkable about my noble friend is the dignified, courageous and resolute way she has withstood much aggressive criticism, intimidation and even ridicule.

It has been suggested by some that those who hold fast to the belief that marriage is the key building block of society and of its importance in family life and in the bringing up of children in some way reflect a generational gap and that they do not speak for the young. I do not accept that. Many surveys have shown that young people support marriage. In any case, most of us are mothers—some are grandparents—and we are thus very much in touch with young people. My noble friend Lady Young should not be daunted by such criticisms. I say thank God for her wise counsel on such fundamental issues. As I have listened to a number of references to fathers, I am reminded of Lady Macleod, a great Member of this House who is no longer with us. She devoted her life to charity, and especially to the organisation Children Need Fathers. Her valuable contributions to our debates echoed in my mind today as the debate progressed.

When making judgments about others, I prefer to compare what they say with what they do. In a consultation document, Supporting Families, the Government said,
"marriage is still the surest foundation for raising families".
The noble Lord, Lord Janner, referred to the same quotation. My understanding—which is why I mention it—is that the emphasis on marriage contained within that phrase will not appear in the final document.

Noble Lords should contrast that statement with the number of policies which have been given priority by the Government in recent times. One really must challenge the sincerity of the Government on these issues. There has been, for example, the abolition of the married couples' allowance. The Government have imposed the lowering of the age of consent for homosexuality and have removed the protection for girls from buggery at the age of 16—both measures being imposed by the use of the Parliament Act before the Bill had completed its passage through both Houses. It was a constitutional outrage.

The Government are making available the morning-after pill over the counter at pharmacies and are allowing girls as young as 11 to receive the morning-after pill free on demand at school and without informing their parents. If I were a parent of an 11 year-old now, I would be mortified at the idea of that confidentiality withholding such information from me as a parent. What kind of message is it that confirms that you can do what you like as long as you either wear a condom or take the morning-after pill?

The Government, no doubt, will continue with their efforts to repeal the ban on promoting homosexuality to children in school. The Government have also produced guidelines to schools advocating role-playing by children involving gay, lesbian, transvestite and other complex sexuality situations.

Then we have the refusal by the Government to accept bringing under the abuse of trust sections of the Sexual Offences Act thousands of mentors created by the Learning and Skills Act, who will be working closely in one-to-one relationships with vulnerable children.

I could go on. It is a very strange list of priorities which does little to support marriage and the family. The Government cannot continue to wring their hands over the growing number of insecure children, the growing crime levels among young people, the costs of family breakdown, the levels of teenage pregnancy and the growing number of children requiring care, and yet duck the issue of recognising marriage as a more stable alternative to other relationships.

It is no secret that members of the Government, led by the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, and Ms Tessa Jowell, have argued strongly to play down the promotion of marriage in public policy. They see it as no more or less significant than any other family relationship, unlike some of their other colleagues, such as Mr David Blunkett, Mr Jack Straw and Mr Paul Boateng, who take a more pro-marriage viewpoint.

From what we all read and hear, the noble Baroness and her supporters, including the Prime Minister, have won that battle. Perhaps the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor will clarify the specific status of marriage in the forthcoming White Paper.

It has also been said that, because the present Cabinet Ministers' lives do not bear public scrutiny, to follow the scientific research and accept—not pontificate or direct—that marriage is the best form of relationship for a country economically and socially and for bringing up children, would expose Cabinet Members to public ridicule and the charge of hypocrisy. But human frailty or disadvantage serves only to strengthen, not weaken, the message.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury. He made the distinction that marriage—which involves a very public commitment made in the company of friends and family, bringing with it obligations and duties—is not equal to other forms of relationships. I agree with him that that does not disparage other forms of relationships.

The breakdown of family life impacts on all aspects of our lives. There are all too many children who do not enjoy a happy and loving home life; all too many children who live within very transient parental relationships; and all too many children who have no framework within which to grow and develop, and who have no basic rules by which to live a fruitful and fulfilling lifestyle. Putting marriage and the family at the heart of policy should not be abandoned because of the private lives of Cabinet Ministers. The interests of children—and subsequently the quality of life enjoyed by our children as they grow to become parents—will be better served if public policy supports marriage and the family.

It takes courage to ignore personal ridicule in favour of doing the right thing by our children. Let us hope that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor will announce today that marriage and the family will be restored as the surest foundation for raising families, as was set out in the Government's own consultation document. I support my noble friend.

5.15 p.m.

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My Lords, support for families is at the core of this Government's policies. Strong and stable families are essential to the wellbeing of our society. They provide the young with that fair start in life which should be the birthright of every child.

However, the state can do only so much. It cannot make people happy, but it can provide the circumstances which make happiness more obtainable. In particular—my noble friend Lady Crawley drew attention to this—it can ensure that families are freed from the ache of daily poverty and social exclusion. That is why we passed the minimum wage, a measure which has done so much to underpin the cohesion of family life. It recognised the damage which could be done to families by poverty wages.

Let it be remembered that the benefits of the minimum wage gave most help to the unskilled and part-time workforce, who are predominantly women. This is no accident. We have always recognised that, especially in poor families, it is the woman who is the financial mainstay. It is she who manages the family budget and juggles the finances to ensure the children do not suffer.

It was disappointing, therefore, to find that the party opposite fought this measure through the House, clause by clause and line by line. Those opposite who speak of family values could try to explain how their opposition to the minimum wage enhanced the position of families in our society. Of course, they have changed their mind since—and we welcome all sinners come to repentance—but I am still quite sure that the British people will remember the role that they played in opposing the legislation, and act accordingly when the time comes.

It is because we believe that financial security is the bedrock of family stability that the Chancellor has brought forward a range of measures targeted at those in greatest need. Its aim is to end the scourge of child poverty, which is at its most acute in households where no one works. Tax and benefit measures have lifted 1 million children out of poverty in the life of this Parliament. Increases in child benefit, the working families' tax credit and the New Deal for lone parents have one common aim—to free our people from poverty and to give our children a better future than their parents. It is a pity that, once again, the party opposite opposed these measures. Its record, I am sure, will not go unnoticed by the British people when the time comes.

However, not all children have the inestimable blessing of a happy home. For some, family life is disfigured by cruelty and neglect. These most vulnerable children deserve society's greatest concern. They are entitled to look to the Government for help and, in extreme cases, for rescue. The Government believe that the best people to care for children are their parents. The state, it has been said, cannot improve on nature. Provided that its welfare is secure, a child is happiest in its own home. But for those children where parental abuse or neglect is such that arrangements for their upbringing have to be made outside the family, the Government believe that being brought up in an adopted family is, in many cases, far preferable to life in a children's home, however caring, or long-term fostering.

That is why we intend to bring forward measures to cut through the bureaucratic clutter of rules that stop children having a decent home with adoptive parents. Our new proposals aim to cut out the nonsense about "non-smoking, ethnically identical" parents and to concentrate on the needs of a child to be integrated into a loving and stable home as quickly as possible. We aim to cut to 12 months the waiting time before a child is found an adoption placement. Although this is a vast improvement on the present position, it is a maximum not a minimum time-frame; for it must always be remembered that each of us has only one childhood which, once lost, can never be retrieved.

Our new proposal will deliver a 40 per cent increase in permanent placements nationally by 2005. New national standards will ensure that prospective adopters are treated fairly across the country and are not helpless in the face of the passing whims of social workers. The question should always be "Is it in this child's interests to be adopted by this family, and not remain in the care of the state?", rather than, "Is this family ideal in every way?". Very few of us would pass that test.

Our proposals recognise that some children have special difficulties: not all are the endearing babes in arms of romantic fiction. Our proposals for post-adoption services will help support them into a new home. Other children want to maintain a legal link with their parents. For these we propose a new concept of "special guardianship" which would provide the security of a permanent home while still retaining some links with the birth family. This will be of especial value in our ethnic communities, where religious objections to adoption, as we know, are sincerely held and must be respected.

The Government believe that every child has the right to a secure upbringing. Most families can provide that for themselves, but there is a special duty on society to take particular care of children who do not have that advantage. These are our most vulnerable dependants. If they move from pillar to post in short-term care, with 20 per cent having three or more foster placements in a year, then is it any wonder that they become disaffected and alienated? Is it any wonder if they drift into unemployment and crime? Is it any wonder that they in their turn prove unsatisfactory parents and that the whole cycle is repeated in the next generation? We must work to break this cycle of deprivation now. The Government's new adoption proposals will ensure that the welfare of these children is put first and that they are given the chance of a good upbringing to equip them for the responsibilities of citizenship.

I listened, as ever, with care but with growing wonder to the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Young. If only I could be as sure of anything as she is about everything, how simple life would be! But the picture she paints of her ideal society is one which few would recognise outside the plot of a 1950s Ealing film. Of course it is true that there is more divorce, that there are more teenage pregnancies and more lone parents than when I was growing up. But it needs to be remembered that the rosy picture of the dutiful and subservient housewife and the stern but kindly paterfamilias, living in a semi in leafy suburbia with two well-mannered and obedient children, often masked the brutal reality of a loveless marriage, based on the financial dependence of the neglected wife in a home ruled by fear and where hypocrisy played a prominent role. I strongly believe that the society of today, with all its many faults, is a gentler, more civilised and more tolerant community in which to bring up children than ever itwas when I was a boy.

The key to our progress has been our growing tolerance—tolerance not only of those with whom we have no quarrel, but of those whose lifestyles we find uncongenial. After all, we are all minorities in one way or another. Lawyers are certainly minorities, and perhaps not much loved ones at that!

Let me make one thing plain. A loving marriage between two parties of the opposite sex provides, for the overwhelming majority in our country, the best assurance of a happy personal life and provides the surest foundation upon which to rear a successful family. But I know of no words of Christ which in any way condemn any loving relationship. His harshest judgment was on the self-righteous.

The noble Baroness has told the House what she is against and what she condemns. On the whole, I incline to the view that those of us in positions of privilege in this House should pause long before criticising those of whose lifestyles we disapprove.

The Government will spare no effort in their quest for the best means of supporting families. I have, in a spirit of mediation and good will, looked far and wide at the views of others. I have found valuable help in a document entitled Clear Blue Water—Common Sense in the Conservative Party. It was launched last year by Nigel Evans MP, a Front Bench spokesman and vice-chairman of the Conservative Party. It says this:
"Conservatives should seek equality before the law".
I entirely agree. We all should.
"Conservatives should therefore support: an equal age of consent; the abolition of Clause 28; and the right of Gay marriage".
These words caused me puzzlement, but perhaps the noble Baroness is in a better position than I to enlighten the House. Is this still the Conservative position? I look forward to hearing her reply.

I yield to no one in my defence of the family, but our country is changing and this House, if it is to lead the nation, must respond to those changes. In the time of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham, homosexuality was regarded as an absolute bar to becoming a judge. I always thought this blinkered and prejudiced policy indefensible in the modern world and was delighted when my predecessor, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, abrogated it. I have carried this reform forward. Now, a man or woman who wants to become a judge is judged solely on his or her merits irrespective of sexual orientation, ethnic origin, gender or disability provided that he or she is able to fulfil the duties of the office, again on merit. Surely that is the way ahead. Surely it is the best way to get the best judges and the best system of justice.

What we must recognise in this House is that the concept of what is or is not a family is changing. More and more people are living together without marrying; more and more children are being born to lone parents—

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My Lords, may I interrupt the noble and learned Lord? Does he accept any government responsibility whatever for the moral condition of the country?

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My Lords, I take the view that government must, so far as they can, create and follow policies which are conducive to conditions of economic well-being. I believe, of course, in the criminal law, but I do not believe that in the matter of these most fundamental human relations it is the function of government to sermonise.

It is the genius of the common law that it recognises these facts of life and adapts to meet them. Your Lordships' House, sitting judicially, recently considered the concept of a family in relation to a same sex partner's rights of occupation under the Rent Acts. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Slynn of Hadley, in holding that such a partner did have such rights, said:
"Far from being cataclysmic it is … in accordance with contemporary notions of social justice".
He continued:
"It seems also to be suggested that such a result in this statute [Rent Act 1977] undermines the traditional (whether religious or social) concept of marriage and the family.
"It does nothing of the sort. It merely recognises that, for the purposes of this Act, two people of the same sex can be regarded as having established membership of a family, one of the most significant of human relationships which both gives benefits and imposes obligations".
One of the achievements of this Government that gives me greatest pride is the Human Rights Act, which, at long last, has incorporated into our own law those principles of decency and mutual respect that animated the British framers of the European convention 50 years ago. It gave Europe, the cradle of civilisation, a new start out of the ashes of the Second World War. At the heart of the convention is Article 8, which secures to all our citizens respect for family life and which prohibits interference by the state with that right except to the extent that it is lawful, proportionate and necessary in a democratic society.

It remains to be seen how the courts will give effect to this living organism. In many instances our own common law marches hand in hand with the convention. But in others it will be the convention that will inspire the judges to fashion the law to the challenges of this millennium. I cannot predict how precisely this infant will grow, but grow it will. I am confident that our judges will give it good succour and that in adulthood it will bring pride to its progenitors.

The role of the state is to encourage, not to compel; to provide practical help, not to preach. I can assure noble Lords that the Government are certainly not neutral. We have made clear our support for the institution of marriage and for the family. This is well in keeping with the principles of my party. Labour has always supported the family. It was the government of Clement Attlee who began the legislative protection of children with the Children Act 1948. In 1975, we brought forward the Children Act of that year and we gave strong support to the Children Act 1989, which will surely prove to be an enduring monument to the work of my predecessor the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern. This proud record is entirely in keeping with our determination to use the resources of our country not for the benefit of the few but for the needs of the many. It is a task to which we have set our hand and from which we shall not flinch until we accomplish it.

I do not know when the general election will come. It may be sooner; it may be later. I could not possibly comment. I can, I think, share this secret with the House. It will certainly come within 18 months. But whether this year or next the support by this Government for families in all its different facets will play a central role in the choice that we place before the British people. I am confident that they will make the right choice.

5.32 p.m.

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My Lords, I should like to begin my concluding remarks by thanking all those who have taken part in the debate, especially my noble friend Lady Blatch, who has always been such a great support to me.

In my opening remarks, I said that I hoped this would be a contribution to the national debate about the future of marriage and I believe that it has been. It has drawn a clear distinction between those of us who actually believe that marriage is the centre of society—indeed, its decline is having terrible consequences—and those who clearly do not hold that view.

There are many points to which I should like to reply, but convention on this occasion does not call for anything other than a few words. However, I should like to draw attention to what the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford said about the late Lord Jakobovits, who exercised such a powerful influence in this House, and his analogy about cutting down the forests: you do not realise the damage you are doing until you have cut down a great deal of the forest. That is precisely what is happening in society. We do not realise what we are doing as, bit by bit, we are dismantling it.

The noble Lord, Lord Janner, who is not now in his place, and the noble Baronesses, Lady McIntosh and Lady Thornton, made the point that we should not impose our ideas on our children; or, indeed, on anyone else. But they impose their ideas all the time. Let us look, for example, at smoking, at drugs, or at racism, if we are going to talk about anything even more serious. They impose their ideas there because they clearly know what they think. It is very sad that they do not impose their ideas in this respect when so many young people are at risk, not only from AIDS but also from sexually transmitted diseases—issues to which I did not refer but which evidence shows to be on the increase.

I turn now to the noble Earl, Lord Russell, whose speeches I always enjoy so much. I only wish that I could think of a suitable reply as regards what the Conservatives were doing in the 17th century, but, alas, such a response does not leap to mind. However, on an issue upon which we have crossed swords before, the noble Earl said that family life is a private matter. Yes, it is. But each piece of law that we pass affects families, and then it becomes a public matter. At that point one has to say what one thinks. As I have said before, I believe that every law sends a signal; and we have sent out a lot of very bad signals recently.

Finally, I should like to thank the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor for his response. He will not expect me to agree with a great deal of his speech. However, I very much support what the Government are doing on the matter of adoption. This is an issue in which I have always been interested. I am very glad that adoption is being made easier, because I believe that to be very important. I greatly welcome that move.

I am sorry that the noble and learned Lord thinks that I am too certain in my views. However, he may be pleased to know that, in preparing for this speech, I have not required either the services of a focus group or of a spin-doctor. Curiously enough, just occasionally, though not very often, I am capable of thinking for myself. Some of us who have principles about life—and I am not ashamed to say this— do feel that if one is in public life one should stand up for what one thinks to be right and true.

I may be wrong in my views, and I do not pretend to have a monopoly on truth. But while listening to many of the speeches opposed to mine, I heard no arguments against the statistics and facts that I presented to the House. It is no argument to say that because everyone is doing something it is necessarily the right way to go forward. I believe that we are treading a very difficult road. The people for whom I worry are not those of my generation; I worry about the future generations.

I conclude by thanking once again all those who have contributed to this debate. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.