Concessions for the Right, deals with the Left . . . divorce law ushers in a new era for wives

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The Independent Online
The most controversial piece of social legislation for a quarter of a century cleared its crucial Commons Third Reading last night after a string of government concessions on the Bill to introduce no-fault divorce.

But the 427 votes to nine - majority 418 - was only guaranteed after a government climbdown on a key Labour demand to allow wives to claim a share of their husband's pensions on divorce, producing an 11th hour commitment from Labour to back the beleaguered Family Law Bill.

Nine MPs, including five Tories, voted against giving the Bill its Third Reading after a marathon Commons session, while the campaign on the Government's own benches to make divorce as difficult as possible continued right up to the wire when a string of ministers, five of them in the Cabinet, voted for a maximum waiting period of 21 months instead of the 12 originally envisaged.

But the cumulative effect of a series of ministerial U-turns and protracted - sometimes frantic - negotiation since the Bill's introduction in the autumn have allowed the main body of the reforms to go through. The Bill must now return to the Lords, where the mauling began, before it can receive Royal Assent.

The measure, the first attempt to reform divorce law since the 1969 Reform Act and the last major piece of legislation under the current administration, will not only allow divorces to be granted for the first time without proof of fault or separation, but also seeks to buttress the institution of marriage, encourage couples to attempt reconciliation, and use mediation to resolve grievances over children and money.

Once it comes into force, probably in two years' time, there will be an end to the "quickie" divorce for adultery or unreasonable behaviour, meaning a longer wait for divorce for about three-quarters of all couples. But the novel emphasis on marriage as well as divorce, and a longer cooling- off period of 18 months rather than 12 in many cases - inserted with many other amendments during the stormiest of parliamentary passages - has made the Bill more a conservative attempt at social engineering rather than the liberal measure it was once portrayed as being.

The deal with Labour will mean the Lord Chancellor will be given the power to bring in regulations on pension splitting. Other concessions that were made to Labour, which had threatened to scupper the whole Bill if its entire package of final demands was not accepted, include a new power to allow separate representation for children in some cases, and a strengthening of protection against domestic violence.

MPs passed by a convincing 312 votes to 154 an amendment from the Tory MP Sir Jim Lester to bring the three-month "reconciliation" period introduced during the Committee Stage within the maximum 18-month period of "reflection and consideration". But high-level opposition to the Bill continued until the 11th hour when five Cabinet ministers - Stephen Dorrell, Michael Forsyth, William Hague, Michael Howard and Ian Lang - and at least 15 ministerial colleagues voted against the change.

Lord Mackay, has faced an uphill struggle to get the measure through and no piece of legislation has so divided and confused both social liberals and conservatives.

While the reforms began quietly enough with a lengthy period of consultation with interested parties and experts, it fell victim to a backlash against liberalism. The result is the most value-laden piece of legislation in recent political memory, possibly presaging a trend towards "value politics" - but one that may have artificially raised expectations about the extent to which the law can condition social behaviour.

Labour's legal affairs spokesman, Paul Boateng, called the Bill a "dog's breakfast" after it emerged from the Committee Stage. But it was Labour's high absenteeism rate during the free votes that allowed the original 12-month cooling-off period to be extended to 18 months. Even so, Labour claimed a "tremendous victory" over pension splitting, which brought justice for divorced wives closer.

David Aaronovitch, page 2