Divorce plans survive right-wing onslaught

Ringing the changes: Lord Mackay's reform Bill is to be reintroduced, but fewer couples are now taking the marriage vows
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Proposals by Lord Mackay, the Lord Chancellor, to overhaul divorce law have emerged unscathed from an onslaught by Tory right-wingers and will be outlined as originally planned in next week's Queen's Speech.

A divorce reform Bill - which would replace the "quickie" fault-based divorce with a single ground of irretrievable breakdown of marriage after a one-year cooling-off period - has already been drafted. It is expected to begin its parliamentary passage in the House of Lords soon after the newsession begins.

A Number 10 spokesman said that completion of the public-spending round at the weekend had left the entire planned government programme unchanged. He emphasised also that the measure had John Major's personal backing: "... the Government is pretty firmly in favour. The Prime Minister also believes there is a case for the Bill, not to make divorce easier - that is not the purpose."

Lord Mackay, however, has cleared only the first of a series of potential hurdles. Critics will ensure the bill has a stormy passage in both Houses, particularly when it transfers to the Commons early next year. Tory right-wingers have protested that the measure would make divorce too "easy" by reducing the current two-year period for a divorce by consent, to one year. And it has been argued that the removal of fault would rob the marriage contract of substance.

Some critics would like to see the bill amended to retain the concept of fault, and perhaps to make couples wait two years instead of one, but a proposed emphasis on mediation to solve disputes over children and finances would be retained.

The one-year period would not begin to run until those seeking the divorce had attended a compulsory interview with a panel of experts to explore the options of mediation, and to receive information about the consequences of the break-up, such as the impact of the Child Support Agency.

Lord Mackay has argued that the "quickie" divorce amounts to divorce on demand, in which the exchange of acrimonious allegations harms children. The one-year period of reflection would, however, make couples consider more carefully the consequences of their actions. The Lord Chancellor is also expected to emphasise plans for a lengthy pilot period. Roger Gale, the Tory MP for Thanet North who helped mobilise opinion against the now shelved Family Homes and Domestic Violence Bill suggested yesterday that the Bill could, in fact, make divorce harder. But Lady Olga Maitland, Tory MP for Sutton & Cheam, pledged to fight the Bill as it stands.

The Conservative Party, she said, was supposed to be the party of the family, yet could be seen to be helping the break-up of family life. "I would like to believe that the Lord Chancellor is willing to make amendments," she said. "No-fault divorces are not acceptable."