Backbench sniping holds up divorce bill

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The Independent Online

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 reforms to divorce.

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 they were retreating.

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

Edward Leigh, a minister who was sacked by John Major, is leading the Commons campaign against the measure with other right-wing senior Conservative 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 before a divorce can go through.

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 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, in the Family Law Bill.

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 a continuous period of at least a year; or that one of the parties had behaved in an intolerable way; or that they they had lived apart for at least two years.

Other amendments would increase the cooling-off period to 18 months or two years where one party did not consent to the divorce or where there were children under 16.

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.

Middle-aged women who have spent a long time raising a family will be told they are being ejected from their marriage without reasons."

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

Mr Leigh said there was growing support for his proposals from Christian family groups and that some ministers could back him in the lobbies.

The Bill was opposed in the Lords by the peers' former Conservative leader, Baroness Young, who is concerned about the effect of marriage breakdown on children.

The Government relied on the backing of Labour's front bench and will do so again when the Bill is debated after the Easter Recess.