Lord Farmer is a former Treasurer of the Conservative Party.
Much has been said about the Government’s need to maintain the support of red wall voters. Influential new think tank, Onward, stresses the greater premium they place on ‘belonging’ and on resilient communities, than on the relentless pursuit of ever greater liberty. Doing justice to these values requires investment in social, not just physical, infrastructure.
So the 2019 Conservative Manifesto statement that a strong society needs strong families is a line they need to prioritise. Recently, Ranil Jayawardena, the party’s vice-chair of policy, supported by dozens of other Conservative MPs, called for a cabinet-level Minister to coordinate family-strengthening efforts across departments. This is the bold ‘machinery of government’ change required to address our family breakdown crisis and implement manifesto commitments to champion family hubs, improve the Troubled Families programme, and review the children’s care system.
We compare very badly with other OECD countries with our high rates of single parenthood, divorce and separation, and large numbers of children entering local authority care. Broken and dysfunctional family lives and the absence of fathers drive so many of the social problems this Government is grappling with, particularly knife and gang crime, county lines, mental ill-health, educational underachievement, early pregnancy, drug and alcohol addiction, and poor productivity.
Yet instead of charging ahead with these promised reforms, they have picked up David Gauke’s Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill which fell when Parliament was dissolved last year.
Unmentioned in the Manifesto, this Bill stealthily ushers in state-sanctioned, unilateral divorce under the guise that it will ‘minimise the impact of divorce, particularly on children’. It is fundamentally flawed because not only does it ignore the urgent need to strengthen families, it actually weakens them.
The Government claims a lot of support for this Bill, but in reality, it’s largely from a narrow selectorate of lawyers and judges who are of course in favour of sanitising the messiness of divorce. Yet when the general public were asked recently if fault should continue to be a ground for divorce, 71 per cent supported the status quo. The Ministry of Justice dismissed this and the response to their own consultation where over 80 per cent wanted to retain the right for an individual to contest a divorce.
Obviously, the fault cited may not be the actual reason the relationship faltered, but airbrushing the very notion of fault out of divorce weakens marriage. It sends a very strong signal that even this explicit commitment might be illusory and unreliable, so why go to the bother of getting married at all? Marriage rates reduce following the introduction of no-fault divorce and the likelihood that divorcees will remarry drops considerably. Less marriage means more cohabitation, an inherently less stable relationship form.
Where does unilateral divorce leave the weaker party – often the primary carer, often the woman, and often the financially disadvantaged? On average women see their income drop by 12 per cent after divorce whilst men’s incomes bounce up by 30 per cent. Divorce rates spike and even if they reduce again in time, that spike is made up of real people – adults and children. They will not be spared conflict as the Government claim: this heightens around financial and children issues which are of course considered separately.
If they persist with this reform, the Government should state on the face of the Bill that they will track the trends that follow it and publish reports on family stability. As the legislation progresses through the Lords this week, I will also support amendments to ensure respondents have the full six months before the divorce is granted – although far better if this period were extended to a year. Currently, the clock starts ticking when the applicant informs the court, but the respondent may be wholly ignorant, several weeks hence, that the legal end of their marriage is nigh.
At least 12 weeks of that period should be litigation free – the Government is billing it as an opportunity to reflect but there is nothing to stop anyone from charging ahead with parallel financial arrangements. The Bill also needs to be stripped of Henry VIII powers which enable a future Lord Chancellor to reduce the proposed six month timeframe without proper parliamentary debate.
As it stands, this Bill is an applicant’s charter which only assists divorce, and provides no support to help struggling couples stay together. Its authors are saying, in effect, we’re on your side if you want easier divorce, but if you actually want to overcome your marital difficulties you are on your own. If we have to have this Bill, and I sincerely wish we did not, then it has to come with an expansion of support for relationships.
This Bill is an overhang from a very different Parliament mandated by a very different election manifesto. Absent of public clamour for the reform, this Government risks losing its way early in the new term by ignoring the values of its actual voters. The 2019 election changed everything. It has provided a valuable opportunity, to set a new, pro-family tone, which should not be squandered. So I would urge the Government to pause, rethink this Bill’s implications, and implement the family-strengthening policy platform they were elected on.