26 April 1996
Divorced from Reality
Sara Hinchliffe looks behind the furore over the government's defeat on
John Major is said to be 'stunned' after four of his cabinet colleagues
stabbed the government's Family Law Bill in the back in the commons debate
Poor John. You can get a certain amount of gratification from the government's
discomfort over its defeat, and the increasing lack of consensus within
the Tory Party over everything from Europe to the family. However, there's
a lot more at stake here than Tory infighting.
Because of the excitement about the government defeat, the disagreements
between the two sides of the debate have been blown out of all proportion.
Despite Tony Blair's glee, the amendments are entirely in keeping with the
spirit of the bill; which helps to explain why the government allowed a
free vote in the first place, and why Lord Mackay has already taken the
amendments on board.
Everyone in the commons vote on divorce agreed that the need to protect
children from the damaging consequences of divorce was paramount; disagreements
centred on how best to achieve this. In the end the Tory right won the argument
and their amendments on the need to lengthen the 'cooling off' period before
divorce can be granted will become law. Couples with children under 16 will
normally only be able to get divorced after 18 months of 'reflection'; the
childless will be able to get their decrees after a year.
But why should discussion of divorce centre on children? No one would argue
that children have a great time when their parents split up. But surely
the people who should be able to make decisions about whether, when and
how to divorce are the adults involved? But on the pretext of concern about
children, the right to make these decisions is being taken away from parents.
The Family Law Bill's most negative effects centre on the presumed interests
of children. On the basis of protecting children from the 'damaging' consequences
of their parents' behaviour, divorce will be more tightly regulated and
family life scrutinised in an unprecedented way. Parents will be prevented
from divorcing if they have not made what the courts consider to be 'appropriate'
arrangements for their kids. Children will be able to have a say (in reality
their interests will be interpreted for them by courts and social workers)
in the divorce proceedings. People with children will be made to wait longer
for a divorce than those without. Divorcing couples will be required to
undergo conciliation and mediation. This, in practice, is what 'no-fault'
divorce means; and that's why only those Tories who didn't die out with
the dinosaurs oppose its introduction.
The unpalatable idea of tightening the regulation of divorce is given credence by the focus on children. Pushing the need for parents to put their children is a handy way of regulating the way parents behave, and new ways of regulating family life are desperately needed in a climate where even those who do get married don't think it's for life. The furore over the Tories' defeat shouldn't blind us to what the divorce reforms mean - more state control, in a more modern and acceptable form - over our lives.
- Sara Hinchliffe will be discussing children's rights in the course
Policing the Family at The Week conference
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