Anti-terror laws delay divorce Bill

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Chief Political Correspondent

The Government was forced to delay the next stage of the controversial Family Law Bill last night as Tory rebels said they would try to defeat key parts of the divorce reforms.

The Lord Chancellor's Office had to postpone the committee stage of the Bill, due today, after the Government decided to rush emergency anti-terrorism legislation through the Commons. Ministers denied that they were retreating.

The delay was welcomed by the Bill's opponents, who believe they can use it to build up opposition to the measure.

Edward Leigh, a minister sacked by John Major, is leading the campaign with other right-wing, senior backbench MPs: Dame Jill Knight, John Patten, the former education secretary, and John Redwood, the leadership challenger.

They tabled amendments to the Bill yesterday to tighten grounds for divorce by insisting on fault-based divorce and doubling the proposed cooling- off period to two years.

The Government has already given way to opponents by allowing a free vote on key sections. It expects to be able to win with Labour support but yesterday's delay heartened those opposed to the measure.

Mr Leigh said he was confident that he could win support from ministers and a large group of backbenchers unhappy with the changes planned by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay of Clashfern.

The measure seeks to introduce no-fault divorces for the first time and to give couples a 12-month cooling-off period before they can sign a statement leading to a final divorce.

One amendment, insisting on guilt being considered, would require the court to be satisfied that one of the parties had committed adultery and that they had lived apart for at least a year; or that one of the parties had behaved intolerably; or that they had lived apart for at least two years.

Mr Leigh said: "It sends out the wrong message to young people embarking on the most important decision of their lives. If you have no fault, you are signing a contract which is meaningless."

The Government says the Bill strengthens the institution of marriage and that the cooling-off period will slow down divorces, giving couples more chance to settle differences.