Concessions open door for Divorce Bill

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The Independent Online
The bitterly-contested Divorce Bill was finally in sight of Commons approval last night after Lord Mackay, the Lord Chancellor, made a series of concessions which nevertheless leave the central principle of the measure intact.

After a day of high-level negotiations which included contacts between Lord Mackay and Lord Irvine, his opposite number in the Lords, the Shadow Cabinet kept ministers in suspense by saying it might not decide its final stance until the third reading on Monday.

But there were growing signs last night that the Labour Party will support the Bill. MPs were told to expect a three-line whip on Monday and the Labour leader, Tony Blair, told the shadow Cabinet the decision should be taken solely on the Bill's merit and not on the grounds of the "massive political blow" it could inflict on the Government.

If Labour does back the Bill - which removes the concept of fault from divorce - it will mean Lord Mackay's struggle to win a consensus will have finally paid off despite the prospect of a substantial revolt by right-wing Tories against it.

Most of the concessions to be published today lean towards Opposition demands and the Lord Chancellor is not expected to grant a substantive amendment sought by Edward Leigh, one of the leading right-wing campaigners against the Bill, for exemptions from the new law for those with deeply- held religious convictions.

The concessions made last night include:

t Government approval for an amendment tabled by the Tory MP, Sir Jim Lester, ensuring that the three-month "reconciliation period" will now be included in the maximum 18-month cooling off period before divorce rather than outside it - which could have meant a wait of up to 21 months for a divorce to go through.

t Allowing a woman who has suffered domestic violence to be represented by a third party - possibly the police or another party - in proceedings.

t The right of representation for children involved in divorce cases in certain circumstances.

t No "presumption" in favour of mediation rather than legal proceedings between estranged couples. Although the Government had favoured mediation over damaging court battles, it is now even-handed between mediation and the courts.

Lord Mackay yesterday strongly denied that he had planned to resign if the Bill was not approved. He said: "I haven't contemplated defeat. I shall only contemplate defeat if I have to."