Mackay seals victory over violence Bill backbench lobby is sealed

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The Independent Online

Legal Affairs Correspondent

Lord Mackay, the Lord Chancellor, has sealed his victory over Conservative backbenchers by withdrawing concessions over his Family Homes and Domestic Violence Bill.

The Bill had to be abandoned at an advanced stage last week because the small group of backbenchers was still unhappy that the Bill seemed to erode family values. At one stage the backlash seemed to threaten Lord Mackay's Divorce Reform Bill as well.

Then the Cabinet reaffirmed support for the Divorce Bill, and this week the Lord Chancellor won the backing of party whips to include the Domestic Violence Bill as part of the Divorce Bill in next week's Queen's Speech.

Yesterday, Lord Mackay told a solicitors conference in London that the concessions had been offered to get the Bill through quickly during the parliamentary session which ended last week. They were no longer on offer because the Bill would now have adequate parliamentary time.

During the last session, the Bill was put through by a fast-track procedure, scrutinised by a committee, but unnoticed by many backbenchers.

Underlying Lord Mackay's confidence yesterday was the knowledge that the combined Bill is now almost certainly to be given a free vote in the Commons, so it will go through with Labour support, even if a handful of Tories oppose it.

In reply to a question from the floor, he said: "When the matter was raised at the end of the last session, I was pretty anxious to try to get the Bill through, and I would have been willing to consider, as far as [some] ... proposals were concerned, not necessarily pressing ahead with them." But now there was to be full parliamentary discussion of the Bill, his position had altered.

Lord Mackay said he believed most of the opposition had been based on the mistaken belief that the Bill gave cohabitees the same status in law as married couples. He said anyone who had read the whole bill would have realised that was not the case.

He was still prepared to "meet the concerns" of opponents, but believed he could do so while "conserving the principles of the Bill" which he believed were sound.

The Lord Chancellor had outlined areas where he was prepared to to make concessions to a private meeting of worried backbenchers a fortnight ago. He had discussed amending a clause giving unmarried people rights of occupation in homes owned by their partners for a potentially unlimited time if they had been subjected to physical or mental harm.

Some backbenchers believed he had been willing to limit the occupation to a year, and to limit it to cases of physical harm. Others had hoped he would give rights to cohabitees only where the couple had children.

It became clear yesterday that after the furore over the Divorce Bill, which seeks to end quickie divorces based on blame by "no-fault" divorces with a delay of at least a year, Lord Mackay is making substantial concession to solicitors to get their backing.

The proposals include a much greater emphasis on mediation, but Lord Mackay told yesterday's conference that solicitors would be allowed to be mediators themselves, and could then go to the court on behalf of the divorcing couple.

One spouse in a divorce would also be allowed to go to court during mediation to force the other spouse to disclose earnings or assets.

Earlier this week, the Lord Chancellor said legal aid would still be available to couples who wanted to use lawyers, not mediation, for their divorce.