The best intentions won't save a bad marriage

Labour wants to amend the divorce Bill to force couples to undergo counselling, but this would only make matters worse
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The dust had settled, temporarily, but the Family Law Bill will soon be up and stampeding its unpredictable way through a fractious committee stage. We may have enjoyed the ludicrous spectacle of senior cabinet ministers and Tory whips joining the wild herd of rebels against their own Bill. But in the thundering noise of the Tory party on the hoof, Labour's dubious role in all this has almost escaped notice.

Labour, now in the driving seat of this runaway Bill, says it will vote against it unless its own amendments are included. Some amendments are excellent - insuring that the legally aided get an equal choice betwen mediation and the law, for instance. But the amendment Labour flourishes with most gusto is the extraordinary demand that all couples shall be compulsorily marriage counselled - and the Tory rebels love it. Paul Boateng, Labour's spokesman on legal affairs, declared that the Bill did too little to "save marriages". But all this is flam and hokum, a low-down Howardism - a policy without substance or point beyond a quick headline. It will not "save" marriage - it is only designed to garnish Labour's image as the party of the family.

This is how divorce will work under Boateng's proposal. Already under the Bill, couples seeking a divorce will have to attend a group "information session". Sitting in rows as if guilty of something, they will be lectured at and shown a video on the processes open to them. They will be urged towards marriage guidance counselling, but, if truly set on divorce, they will be encouraged towards mediation rather than litigation.

But what Labour is now insisting on has enraged all those concerned with divorce. Within the four weeks following the "information session", every applicant will be forced to attend a compulsory marriage guidance counselling session. Thou shalt be counselled! Then there has to be another four-week cooling off period to think about it before they can apply for a divorce and the 18-month clock starts ticking. "A ridiculous and insulting idea," says Jane Simpson, of the Solicitors Family Law Association. It's sheer impertinence has everyone in the marriage and divorce business seething. Impertinent in both senses - it is intrusive and bossy, and utterly without pertinence in "saving" marriages.

I went to see Paul Boateng in his office, where a Christian Socialist sign is displayed reminding us that he is a Methodist lay preacher and we are entering new Labour's Christian, moral, family-friendly zone. He talks solemnly: "The Government's Bill offers mediation to help couples divorce more amicably, but it does not give them counselling to see if their marriages can be saved. If counselling could save just one in 20 marriages, what a good thing that would be! We need to get couples early, when there is still that window of opportunity."

I asked if he had any useful research statistics on how many couples were already living apart, and for how long, when they applied for divorce? How many now had other partners, or even other children? "Counselling" such couples would surely be something of a farce, so he must know the facts? "Um, er, actually, I don't know," he said.

Well, then, on what does he base the extraordinary figure that maybe one in 20 marriages could be "saved"? He smiles confidently, "Ah, well, there is good research that shows that 50 per cent of men and 29 per cent of women regret divorcing later. That means that with counselling those marriages might be saved."

This is typical of the much-abused research that has been so knocked about recently that its bloodied features are barely recognisable. The original research comes from a book, Grounds for Divorce, and one of its authors, Gwynn Davis, professor of Socio-Legal Studies at Bristol University, sighs as he says, yes indeed, his work has been grossly misinterpreted. "There were a remarkable number of men in our sample who subsequently regretted divorce. The trouble is, their wives didn't." But some 29 per cent of wives did? "Yes, but they weren't from the same couples. There was only a tiny proportion where both partners expressed ambivalence."

In a vital part of this much-misquoted work, the authors interview people at length about their reasons for divorce: "One of the strongest messages to emerge from these interviews is that people will put up with an extraordinary amount - years of unhappiness - in order to try to keep their marriages and family together. ... One could never accuse the couples in our sample of having taken the decision [to divorce] lightly."

Here, at last, a breath of reality creeps into what has been a largely nonsensical debate, with the Westminster herd trampling over the most private and intimate aspects of people's lives. Yet again, Westminster displays itself as grotesquely out of touch with the way we all live out here in the messy world of real marriages and divorces. At Westminster, there are "solutions" to everything. In life, there are not, and we know it.

But Boateng is on a moral roll: "Society is entitled to say marriage is important. It was made as a public commitment. Social obligations come with it, so compulsory counselling is a reasonable obligation for those seeking divorce. It is part of a package of rights and responsibilities." It's those R & R words again that now justify all kinds of curious illiberalisms peppering new Labour's policies. The marriage professionals say this kind of talk is exactly what deters ever greater numbers of people from getting married at all.

What of the prospective counsellors? Renate Olins, head of the London Marriage Guidance Council, says: "It debases the currency of counselling. We shall certainly not provide it as an organisation. It turns us into functionaries of the state. Counselling has to be voluntary and the whole idea of an official counsellor is unethical." The Tavistock Institute of Marital Studies agrees that compulsion is an absurdity. So where will Labour find this new battalion of strong-arm counsellors?

After all, when the Bill takes effect in two years, it will probably be Labour that has to cope with the fallout. This Bill, once just a modest reform, has become a moral battlefied, and it may yet become another Child Support Agency fiasco. Boateng has the grace to worry about that: "It won't be no-fault divorce, it will be our-fault divorce," he concedes glumly. What happens when, say, the Waleses are sent to a public information session and compulsory counselling? What happens when it proves exceedingly expensive to the Exchequer? It will all turn up on Labour's plate - and it will serve them right for forcing innocent citizens to be counselled by busy bodies about their private lives.