Intensive government efforts to "whip" Conservative peers to vote against Labour amendments to the essentially non- party Family Law Bill failed, by 178 votes to 150.
The changes, moved by Baroness Hollis of Heigham, Labour's social security spokeswoman in the Lords, seek to enshrine the principle of so-called "pension splitting" in the law, leaving detailed consideration of the means of putting it into practice.
Prospects of the Government reversing the all-party victory in the Commons looked slender last night, raising hopes that the widely supported reform, which would also benefit less well-off husbands, has in effect been brought forward by several years.
The proposal would enablecouples to divide pensions at the time of divorce, instead of having their financial affairs entangled for years. Some divorced wives are at risk of being driven on to income support in their old age because their former husbands might die early - sometimes before a pension can be drawn at all.
Lady Hollis said the move, which was backed by the pensions industry, the Law Society and the Mothers' Union, would save many divorced people from penury in old age.
There were 21 Tory rebels, including the former ministers Lord Tebbit, Lord Gilmour of Craigmillar, Lord Boyd- Carpenter, and Baroness Young - the leader of the Conservative revolt over the Bill's main provision for "no-fault" divorce after a year.
There was some consolation later last night, when the Government easily defeated by 118 votes to 65 a move by peers, including Lady Young and Labour's Lord Stoddart of Swindon, to retain adultery and unreasonable behaviour asgrounds for divorce.
But the pension rebels ignored the entreaties of the Lords Social Security Minister, Lord MacKay of Ardbrecknish, who urged that a Green Paper, published last week, would enable all those involved to ensure that there was a properly worked-out plan on which a "measured and not an emotional judgement" could be taken.
During the Bill's committee stage, the move had attracted wide cross- party support and a sympathetic hearing from Lord Mackay of Clashfern, the Lord Chancellor. While a number of supporters of yesterday's amendment were content for the details to be examined in a Green Paper consultation, they were determined to have the principle written into the legislation to ensure that progress was not thwarted for perhaps several years after the next election.
The cross-bencher Lord Simon of Glaisdale, the strongly anti-divorce former law lord, accused the Government of "stone-walling".
The wording of Lady Hollis's amendments might involve the Government in the embarrassment of having to help redraft them, and Lord MacKay of Ardbrecknish pointedly emphasised that supporters would be voting for the most sweeping "Henry VIII" enabling clauses imaginable.
But when the Bill reaches the Commons, business managers are expected carefully to gauge the level of support for any reversal. Paul Boateng, Labour's legal affairs spokesman, warned of cross-party opposition and likely defeat if the Government attempted to do so.
In a tactical retreat late last night, Lady Young withdrew a further controversial amendment, seeking to extend the Bill's period for "reflection and consideration" from 12 to 18 months, but said she would consider pressing it to a vote on the final day of the report stage or third reading. "It was very late. Quite a lot of our supporters had gone home."Reuse content