Mackay divorce Bill runs into more trouble

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The Independent Online
Ministers are facing strong protests from Tory peers over the threat to impose a two-line whip on the Lord Chancellor's Bill to reform the divorce laws.

The former Tory Leader of the House of Lords, Baroness Young, a fervent opponent of divorce reform, and her supporters are demanding an explanation from the Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, over why he appears to be breaking a promise to allow a free vote on issues of conscience.

The Lord Chancellor's office last night confirmed a two-line whip would be imposed on part of the controversial Family Law Bill, but officials denied he was breaking a promise to allow a free vote when it begins its committee stage on Thursday.

"There is a two-line whip on some aspects of it. There always was going to be. Some of the Lords are a little bit upset that there is going to be a two-line whip, but it is a request to be present. It is no more than that," said one government source.

The Lord Chancellor said at the second reading of the Bill in the Lords: "As a matter of principle, I and the Government consider that there should be a free vote on issues of conscience."

Lady Young is leading the attack on the Bill and has tabled amendments opposing the Lord Chancellor's plans to introduce "no fault" to divorce proceedings and to reintroduce the grounds of adultery and unreasonable behaviour that the Bill seeks to remove from the present law.

Another amendment would double by one year to two the period of reflection and consideration during which couples using mediation procedures would be expected to resolve differences over their finances or children.

The former Law Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, has also tabled what amounts to a completely new draft of the Bill on rights to the matrimonial home for a couple seeking divorce.

Sources close to the Lord Chancellor last night said it was thought both Lady Young's key amendments were covered by Lord Mackay's promise of a free vote on issues of conscience. If they are not, there is bound to be a row at the start of the committee stage, which promises to be highly contentious.

Senior Labour sources said the Government was "foolish" in trying to enforce a two-line whip on the Bill. "It has caused trouble, and that was entirely predictable," said one Labour source. Opposition parties are allowing a free vote for their supporters on the Bill.

The opponents have tabled a barrage of more than 50 amendments in the hope of building up opposition to the measure before it reaches the House of Commons. John Patten, the former Education Secretary, is preparing to oppose it in the Commons, with the threat of a wider rebellion.

Ministers could be forced to rely on the support of the Labour Party to get the Bill through Parliament. Labour has detailed reservations about parts of the Bill, but will not stand in the way of a measure to liberalise family law.

Lord Mackay was forced to abandon parts of the Bill on marital property and violence in the home when it caused a Tory backbench revolt. The Bill was revived in spite of some misgivings by ministers. John Major changed the Lord Chancellor's minister in the Commons to give it more of a chance. John Taylor was moved, and replaced by Jonathan Evans, who will be responsible for its passage in the Commons.

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