Labour threatens to oppose 'messy' divorce reforms

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The Independent Online
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."

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. Late last night the Government was forced by an alliance of right- wing rebels and the Labour Party to make a fresh series of concessions.

These included a pledge for divorce courts to take into account in certain circumstances the behaviour of a spouse when fixing divisions of assets; legal aid for couples who qualify and want to seek eleventh hour reconciliation during the 18-month waiting period for divorce; and as much opportunity to secure legal aid when there are court proceedings as when there is mediation. Previously the bill would have shown a clear preference for mediation over court proceedings.

Lord Mackay had already 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 [and] the Children Act advisory committee . . . has led me to conclude that it will be very useful to set up a board to advise me on research into preventing marriage breakdown, and the implementation of the Family Law Bill."