Labour threatens to kill divorce Bill

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Labour is threatening to kill the Family Law Bill, on the grounds that it is a "mess" after a series of Government retreats in the face of stiff opposition by Tory MPs.

Senior Labour MPs last night confirmed they were seriously considering voting against the Bill when it comes up for the third reading in the Commons, raising a strong risk for the Government that it could lose the legislation.

A clear hint that Labour will seek to kill the Bill is given by Paul Boateng, Labour's legal affairs spokesman, in the current edition of House magazine in the Commons.

Although Labour supported it on the second reading, Mr Boateng has made it clear he believes it is a "dog's breakfast". He says the Bill was exhibiting "all the hallmarks of another disaster in the making". He said: "The House has shown little enthusiasm for this Bill. The country still less shares its technocratic and Treasury-driven impulse. How different it would be if any necessary reform of divorce were indeed part of that 'larger project of supporting and strengthening the institution of marriage and family life' that Cardinal Hume and others have called for. Only a General Election can allow this to happen."

Some Cabinet ministers privately believe the Government could be relieved if the Bill was defeated. It has faced strong resistance from Tory MPs led by John Patten, the former Secretary of State for Education, and has been widely criticised outside Westminster. But there could also be a backlash against the Labour Party if it were to kill a Bill which offers protections for battered women.

Tory rebels who oppose the Bill would be ready to vote with Labour to kill it. One of the leading Tory back-bench critics of the Bill said: "If you wanted to embarrass the Government, there would be no better way to do it than to defeat the Government on this Bill."

The Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay, has staked his reputation on getting the reforms to the divorce laws through Parliament. Labour voted for it on the second reading, but there were free votes on two key amendments - for keeping the principle of fault in divorce, which was defeated, and an 18-month cooling off period, which was agreed.

Yesterday Lord Mackay bowed to a Labour call for an advisory board to advise on implementation of the Bill.

Lord Mackay said: "My experience of the Marriage Working Party, the Children Act Advisory Committee and the Ancillary Relief [financial provision] Advisory Group has led me to conclude that it is a good idea in principle, and it will be very useful in practice, to set up a new, widely-representative board to advise me on research into supporting marriage and preventing marriage breakdown, and the implementation of the Family Law Bill."

The board's functions will include advising on the design of pilot schemes, monitoring the schemes' progress and overseeing the operation of the Bill once it is enacted.

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