Free vote for divorce reform

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The Independent Online
The Government is considering a free vote on the sensitive issue of divorce law reform in the wake of a victory by Lord Mackay of Clashfern, the Lord Chancellor, in securing ministerial backing for a bill early in the next parliamentary session

The most radical shake-up of the divorce laws for a quarter of a century will get under way after next month's Queen's Speech, despite possible opposition from Catholics and the right wing of the Conservative Party

The plans by Lord Mackay to scrap fault-based divorces and encourage couples to solve differences outside court got the go-ahead at the most recent ministerial committee on Queen's Speeches and Future Legislation (FLG), the last such meeting before the Queen opens the new parliamentary session on 15 November.

Under White Paper proposals set out by Lord Mackay in April, the "quickie" divorce for unreasonable behaviour or adultery would be replaced with a decree after a 12 month cooling-off period, in which couples would have to agree on arrangements for finances and the care of children.

While Lord Mackay is determined to go ahead, some Conservative critics of the proposals argue that they could make divorce too easy, a charge Lord Mackay rejects.

Two prominent former Cabinet opponents of Lord Mackay's proposals, John Redwood and John Patten, are now on the backbenches, and could be tempted to lead a revolt which would embarrass the Government in the run-up to the general election. A free vote, similar to that on Sunday Trading, would avoid charges that the Government had to rely on Labour to push the proposals through.

At the start of the process planned by Lord Mackay, the person seeking the divorce would have to attend a compulsory information session, where the options of mediation, marriage guidance and legal advice would be explained by a panel of experts.

The concept of mediation to help couples reach compromises and avoid costly court battles is a key part of the Lord Chancellor's proposals. He also believes the idea behind the package, forcing couples to confront their differences, would be less damaging to children and could save marriages.

Lord Mackay has three speaking engagements between now and the Queen's Speech, beginning today with a speech to Marriage Care (formerly the Catholic Marriage Advisory Council), which Government sources said would be used to promote his commitment to marriage. The bill is expected to be one of the earliest to be published, but the legislation would be implemented only after a long pilotting period.