Anti-Divorce Bill lobby targets peers

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The Independent Online

Political Correspondent

Up to 50 religious peers, predominantly Tories, are expected to be fiercely lobbied over attempts to amend the Family Law Bill, allowing "no-fault" divorce after one year, which was published as a House of Lords measure yesterday.

By convention, peers do not oppose measures on the second reading, but the accompanying debate, fixed for Wednesday week, will be a barometer of the feeling against the Bill and the likely scope and number of amendments. Opponents are gearing up for intensive lobbying in an attempt to inflict maximum damage on the Bill before it transfers to the Commons.

The controversial Bill incorporates measures due to have been passed in last session's Family Homes and Domestic Violence Bill, which a group of Tory MPs alleged would undermine marriage by giving people who live together identical rights with married couples in domestic violence cases.

While the new Bill retains the fundamental principles, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, the Lord Chancellor, has made four changes in the detail. Courts would have to have regard to the fact that cohabitants have not made the same commitment as married couples, and cohabitants would have to use more expensive High Court proceedings instead of county courts to resolve property disputes.

Cohabitants without property rights would also only be able to exclude violent partners from the home for a maximum of 12 months. The burden of proof for spouses trying to eject a violent partner would be easier.

But few concessions have been made in relation to the divorce proposals. The principal difference between the Bill and the preceding White Paper is that not all couples may have to attend an interview setting out information on mediation, the consequences of divorce and the requirements necessary to secure a divorce or separation order. The Bill gives the Lord Chancellor the power to make regulations to cover exceptions.

Far more controversially, the Bill retains the White Paper preference for a minimum one-year reflection period, during which the couples must make arrangements for a life apart. According to Lords sources, that is virtually certain to produce an amendment calling for a two-year period.

An amendment calling for fault to be retained as proof of the irretrievable breakdown of marriage is also expected.

The former law lord Lord Simon of Glaisdale, a cross-bencher but a former Tory minister and a strong campaigner for the sanctity of marriage, is expected to be one focus of opposition to the Bill. Other Catholic or religious peers who could oppose it include the Duke of Norfolk, former Tory minister Lord Elton, the Tory moral fundamentalist Baroness Cox, Lord Ashbourne, Tory and chairman of the Joshua Christian Trust, and cross- bencher Baroness Ryder of Warsaw, co-founder of the Ryder Cheshire Foundation.

While a free vote has been promised, the Government is certain to seek to stymie the campaign against the Bill by insisting that the so-called "payroll vote" - ministers and parliamentary aides - support it.

t The Catholic Bishops of England and Wales yesterday attacked the stridency of the campaign against the Divorce Bill, in which right-wing Catholics have been prominent. "If the whole debate is thrown hither and tother [sic], what example does that give to children? The way we conduct debate in public has got to be educative." the Bishop of East Anglia, Peter Smith, said.