Minister to steer `no-fault' divorce reform

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The Independent Online

Legal Correspondent

The Government signalled its strong backing for the Lord Chancellor's "no-fault" divorce reforms yesterday with a decision to put up a Cabinet minister to open the Commons Second Reading debate on the Family Law Bill.

The ad hoc Cabinet committee set up to manage the controversial measure through its Commons passage decided that Roger Freeman, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and the public service minister, will handle the opening of the debate, with Jonathan Evans, junior minister for the Lord Chancellor's Department, taking the closing stages.

Mr Freeman will also be in charge of the the free or "conscience" votes that will be taken on the floor of the House during the committee stage, covering the highly sensitive issues of whether adultery and unreasonable behaviour should be retained in divorce, and whether the Bill's 12-month cooling-off period is enough.

The decision to involve a Cabinet minister will come as a disappointment to a number of Conservative critics of the Bill who are still arguing for it to be dropped, even though it emerged largely unscathed after heated debate in the Lords.

But the scope for potential Government embarrassment remains considerable.

The Government's present intention is to "whip" the vote on the Second and Third Readings, with Tory critics expected to support the Bill during those stages. But Labour is likely to respond with a very light one-line whip which will leave the impression of a heavy-handed Government forcing its MPs into line on what is essentially a conscience issue.

There were signs too that the Government will capitulate over the defeat inflicted by a cross-party alliance in the Lords over the splitting of pensions at the time of divorce. Ministers had protested that the reform would be complicated to enact and a drain on the Exchequer because of each spouse's separate tax allowances.