The Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, is prepared to back down over the waiting time for divorces in his controversial Family Law Bill after coming under strong pressure from Tory peers who are threatening to derail the legislation.
Government sources said Lord Mackay was willing to lengthen the proposed waiting period from 12 to 18 months.
The latest re-think came as anti-divorce peers prepared to savage key aspects of his "no fault" divorce reform plans in what promises to be a stormy first day of the committee stage in the House of Lords today.
Government business managers made it clear that the Lord Chancellor would be willing to compromise over the 12-month period of "reflection and consideration". Under present divorce laws, couples have to wait two years.
Lord Mackay's Bill would sweep away the "quickie" divorce for adultery or unreasonable behaviour. Couples would have to use the period to resolve outstanding differences over children and finances, preferably using mediation services rather than lawyers.
"He would be prepared to consider that part of the Bill," a source said. "He feels it is one part of the Bill he can be flexible on." It was also suggested that Lord Mackay would listen to arguments for doubling the period to two years - though a concession on that scale is viewed as remote in government circles.
Lord Mackay's preference is for one year, based on his belief that a longer period could harm the children of unhappy marriages and on overwhelming support in consultation that preceded the Bill for 12 months.
But the Government is equally aware of the strength of feeling against the Bill, spearheaded by the former Tory party vice-chairman Baroness Young and Lord Simon of Glaisdale, a law lord and former Tory minister. "We think we have a great deal of support," the government source said. "But quite a number of people on our benches and the cross- benches do have problems."
Lady Young has tabled a series of amendments going to the heart of the measure, including one restoring adultery and unreasonable behaviour as grounds for divorce. Two further amendments seek to introduce either an 18-month or two-year waiting period, while fresh amendments she was tabling last night will call for a stronger emphasis on reconciliation.
Lady Young said yesterday: "I want to buttress marriage. The Bill is making divorce easier. Divorce after one year without giving any reason at all and against the will of the other party is extraordinary. The removal of fault will only lead to an increase in divorce. I want [Lord Mackay] to accept some of my amendments."
She said an increasing number of peers were approaching her to offer support.