Labour forces justice on pensions split

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The Independent Online
Labour put the fate of the troubled Family Law Bill beyond doubt last night after claiming a victory over equal rights for wives to their husbands' pension funds at the time of divorce.

The amendment to allow pension-splitting was part of a backstage deal between Government and Opposition to ensure the passage of the Bill - which at many stages was threatened by Tory "pro-family" rebels.

Government sources played down the latest concession over the much-amended legislation, saying it would only give the Lord Chancellor the power to bring in regulations, and that a further Act would be needed.

But Labour claimed a "tremendous victory", which brought justice for divorced wives closer - although not until after the next election. Paul Boateng, Labour's legal affairs spokesman, warned ministers in the Commons: "We must make one thing absolutely crystal clear: there will be no Family Law Bill, no Bill that will pass this House, that does not have written on its face the regulations that are contained in ... our amendment."

In a careful balancing act the Government has succeeded in winning round potential Tory rebels who had claimed the Bill made divorce easier, while trying to make it difficult for Labour to carry out its threat to join the rebels in bringing down the Bill.

Last night Julian Brazier, Conservative MP for Canterbury and a leading anti-divorce campaigner, said: "The package as a whole is an improvement on the existing law."

Former Cabinet minister John Patten, who voted against the Third Reading, said: "We are saying to the future, in this law as perhaps in later laws, we may well strip fault and responsibility out of laws when people are brought to judgment."

From the other perspective, Nigel Shepherd, chairman of the Solicitors' Family Law Association, which represents about 4,000 solicitors, said that while no-fault divorce and mediation in partnership with independent legal advice was welcome, divorce would become "an assault course of obligatory meetings and immovable time periods. . . Critically, many couples will have to wait much longer for their divorce to come through. This will undoubtedly cause real emotional hardship, particularly to children and, ironically, may encourage people to start proceedings earlier than they would otherwise have done."

MPs who voted against the Third Reading were:

Tories - Sir Michael Neubert, John Patten, Sir Trevor Skeet, John Townend; Labour - James Cann, Terry Lewis, Dennis Skinner; Liberal Democrat - David Alton; Democratic Unionist - the Rev Ian Paisley. The tellers for the noes, Edward Leigh (Conservative) and Jeremy Bray (Labour) also opposed the Bill.

The Government ministers who voted for a 21-month waiting period were: Stephen Dorrell, Michael Forsyth, William Hague, Michael Howard and Ian Lang.

Other ministers voting against the amendment included: James Arbuthnot, Sir Nicholas Bonsor, John Bowis, Alistair Burt, Lord James Douglas-Hamilton, Roger Evans, George Kynoch, David Maclean, Andrew Mitchell, Anthony Nelson, James Paice, Nicholas Soames, Iain Sproat, Ann Widdecombe and David Willetts.