Leading Article: Marriage reform la mode

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The Independent Online
How sinners trembled when Lord Mackay of Clashfern, formerly of the "Wee Wee Frees", one of Scotland's most uncompromising Presbyterian churches, announced his intention to reform the laws on divorce. Cresting the wave of concern about the decline of stable marriage, Lord Mackay promised measures that would cut the rate of divorce. Instead yesterday's White Paper proposed a collection of sensible measures, designed to make divorce less expensive and more amicable.

Lord Mackay has recognised an important truth - that the state has limited ability and little right to intervene in the personal relationships of private individuals. It certainly has no place in asserting the moral superiority of a particular way of life. Where it does have a legitimate interest is first in the cost to the Exchequer of the rising divorce rate and - above all - in the impact on children, the citizens of the future, of what happens within families.

The only available long-term study and most other research shows that children are damaged by family breakdown. Lowered self-esteem, educational under-achievement, emotional problems and an increased risk of delinquency more often attend the child of the broken home. A clear hierarchy of preferred backgrounds emerges from the research. Best of all is the happy and stable partnership, followed (more unexpectedly) by unhappy but stable homes. The next best outcome is the divorce or separation that is handled amicably, and allows the absent parent to play an important role in the life of his or her child. The worst outcomes arise from acrimonious breakdown or unstable step-families.

Some organisations have used this research to attack Lord Mackay's proposals as insufficiently pro-family. They believe that the Lord Chancellor should be doing more to discourage divorce - the Government should "get behind marriage, rather than facilitate its collapse".

It is naive, however, to believe that the state can reverse developments so deeply rooted in our changing culture. The increasing economic independence and self-confidence of women is probably the biggest factor behind the incidence of divorce. We do not wish either to legislate or wish this away.

So Lord Mackay has limited himself to making the process just a little less painful and expensive. The single ground of breakdown removes the unpleasant need to cite adultery or unreasonable behaviour as a basis for quick divorce, while making all couples wait a year before a decree is granted. The emphasis on mediation in the meantime may make a few couples reconsider separation, but is more likely to allow many others to part gracefully. This is neither easier nor harder divorce - it is simply better managed divorce.

But if the White Paper recognises the limits of what the law can achieve in influencing family life, we could still do more for families, especially those with children. We should recognise that new parents need advice and help to weather the emotional storms of bringing up children; if they can no longer easily get this from extended families, perhaps there is role for better counselling to go with the antenatal classes. Perhaps the language of contract also has something to contribute to successful relationships, if only to offset the overblown language of romance.

But institutions must also learn to adapt to diverse family structures. Step-families in particular need to be understood. The effective punishment of the step-family was one of the most damaging failures of the Child Support Agency. Nor does it help the children of divorced parents if institutions such as schools and hospitals place barriers in the way of the participation of the parent who is absent from the child's home. When the Lord Chancellor's proposed working group on marriage is set up it should make sure that its brief is wide enough and its outlook sufficiently imaginative to encompass the needs of all kinds of families.