Divorce Bill threatened by rebel vote

Cabinet ministers block government reform
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The Independent Online
Four Cabinet ministers voted with Tory rebels to inflict a humiliating defeat by a majority of just four votes on the Government's divorce law reform Bill last night by supporting a move to introduce an 18-month cooling- off period before divorce can go through.

Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, Peter Lilley, Secretary of State for Social Security, Stephen Dorrell, Secretary of State for Health and William Hague, Secretary of State for Wales, all voted with the rebels to defeat the Government's preferred option in the Family Law Bill of a one-year cooling-off period.

The defeat of part of the Lord Chancellor's reforms by 200 votes to 196 was an embarrassment for John Major and led to clapping in the public gallery. The result was greeted by cheering among Tory MPs. John Patten, the former Cabinet minister, called on the Government to withdraw the Bill and warned that the Government would be relying on Labour support for its passage through the Commons.

Ministers said last night they were determined to press ahead with the legislation but the four-vote victory for the rebels stiffened the resistance of the Bill's opponents and raised real questions about the Government's ability to get it on to the statute book. None of the Cabinet ministers will be disciplined because it was a free vote, but the size of the opposing vote underlined the depth of feeling against the Bill.

There was a coalition of right-wing Tory MPs, Ulster Unionists, Catholics, and MPs who support traditional "family values". They included John Redwood, the former Cabinet minister, Home Office ministers Tim Kirkhope, David Maclean, and Ann Widdecombe, health ministers John Bowis and John Horam, and Foreign Office ministers David Davis and Sir Nicholas Bonsor.

Baroness Young, the former leader of the Lords, who opposed the Bill said: "I am very pleased. It is what I wanted myself. When I moved my amendment I hoped the Lord Chancellor would accept it because I didn't feel it went against the principle of the Bill. I think a longer period of time is something which Cardinal Hume and quite a lot of other Church leaders called for."

Earlier, the Government was forced to rely on Labour to win the first crucial vote on the Bill in the face of opposition from more than 100 Tory MPs - including 16 ministers and whips. Eleven ministers and five Conservative whips opposed the Government's proposal to abolish the concept of fault in divorce proceedings. Their move was defeated by 267 votes to 137. Mr Patten said: "This Bill is now in the hands of the Labour Party. I think it is would be very wise to halt the progress on the Bill and reflect on whether it is wise to carry on. I have never known a government Bill to be in the hands of the Opposition."

While Mr Major and most of the Cabinet voted for the Bill as drafted, the dissidents' amendment was backed by an unexpectedly long list of prominent ministers below Cabinet rank. Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, voted against the rebel amendment, but his entire Commons Home Office team voted in support of fault being maintained in divorce.

Mr Lilley abstained in the first vote, and Michael Portillo, the Secretary of State for Defence, did not vote. Three prominent figures in the party, Sir Marcus Fox, chairman of the 1922 committee, Michael Trend, the party deputy chairman, and Angela Rumbold, vice-chairman for candidates, also voted for the amendment.

Former Trade minister, Edward Leigh, who led the revolt over the concept of fault, warned the move by Lord Mackay would make divorce easier and push up the rate of marriage breakdowns.

Analysis, page 2

How they voted

Key supporters of the Divorce Bill amendment for an 18-month cooling- off period included Stephen Dorrell, Health Secretary, Michael Howard, Home Secretary, along with his entire Home Office team of David Maclean, Anne Widdecombe, Tom Sackville and Tim Kirkhope; William Hague, Welsh Secretary, Peter Lilley, Social Security Secretary, David Davis (Foreign Office) David Willetts, (Public Services) John Bowis, John Horam (both at Health) James Clappison (Environment) Iain Sproat (Heritage), and seven government whips.