Men behaving honourably over divorce reform

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The Independent Online
Three men were having terrific fun yesterday, talking about marriage. In normal life, of course, wherever you have a number gathered together to discuss being wed (and what pertains to that blissful state) most of them will be gals. Men - even in these emotion-displaying days - shun such conversations and drift off to exchange thoughts about golf, football and mistresses.

But this is the House of Commons, where pontificating about marriage is a mostly male preserve and where the future of the important Family Law Bill, dealing with a reform of the divorce laws, lay in the hands of our three heroes.

The first, Gary Streeter, until recently a rather anonymous junior government whip, gained his new position representing the Lord Chancellor - and thus having to steer the legislation through the Commons - in the reshuffle following the resignation of the sexually careless Rod Richards. The fact that he was only there thanks to the adultery of a colleague does not prevent him from parroting the phrase "strong, stable marriages", whenever his speeches seemed to demand a nice three-part peroration.

Having an even better time was his shadow, Paul ("Today Brent East, tomorrow Soweto") Boateng. For 15 minutes prior to the beginning of the debate Boateng and Streeter stood behind the Speaker's chair horsetrading, Boateng doing most of the talking. I had to follow the conversation through body language. Boateng shrugged his shoulders, lifted his eyes and gesticulated towards the Labour benches ("It's going to be tight, Gary. The lads aren't happy"); spread his hands out, palm upwards and lowered first one and then the other ("It's 50/50 Gal, what can I say?") and kept on fiddling with the braces under his pin-striped jacket ("Tell me, Gazza. Do you find these metal bits keep rubbing against your nipples?").

Our third happy lad was Edward Leigh, anti-divorce rebel, who sat in the Chamber, as the debate got under way preening himself for having forced the Government to give so many concessions to the "family" lobby. Mr Leigh has a face that looks as though it is moulded from a rather unstable pink wax. One by one, as amendments designed to mollify him were introduced and his pronunciations justified, the substance ran and congealed, forming an expression of almost beatific smugness.

The first amendment that the three agreed upon was on the need for more marriage guidance counsellors. Lots of them. Well-funded ones, charged with the responsibility of advising folk on how to save their marriages. Gary promised them. Paul welcomed them. Edward took the credit for them. Things were going swimmingly.

But there were others who were not so ecstatic. Dame Jill Knight (Con, Edgbaston) wanted to know where all these marriage counsellors would come from. Would they be "spirited out of the ether?" she asked. Or would they be clergymen "spirited out of the church?"

While I was trying to work out which of Dame Jill's alternatives I would choose I heard the sound of a stone being rolled away and the saintly John Patten stood up. With a sneer that started at the tip of his immaculate hair-do and worked down to his well-pressed trousers, he laid into the counselling industry. Who would screen the counsellors? "The rot set in", he said with massive contempt, "when they adopted politically correct names like Relate, Marriage Care. And I even heard the words couple counselling fall from the lips of a noble prelate".

Couple counselling? Those who really want stable, strong marriages would presumably prefer organisations with more robust titles like "Stay Hitched", "What About Yer Vows" and "Keep It Zipped". But they can't win. Yesterday smug won out over sneer every time.