Ministers to revolt on divorce Bill

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The Independent Online
Three senior ministers are planning to vote against the two key planks in Lord Mackay's divorce reforms, causing serious embarrassment to the Government over the already troubled proposals.

The two issues at the centre of the controversy are the introduction of the "no fault" divorce and a minimum 12-month cooling-off period.

A Government source said John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment, Ann Widdecombe, Minister of State at the Home Office and Michael Ancram, Minister of State at the Northern Ireland Office, were expected to oppose the Government when so-called "conscience" clauses on the two issues in the Family Law Bill reach the Commons. Such a high-profile protest would boost the opposition campaign, orchestrated by former Cabinet ministers John Redwood and John Patten and a substantial section of the Tory backbench.

All three ministers have strong religious connections. Mr Gummer and Miss Widdecombe both left the Anglican Church to become Roman Catholics over the issue of women priests. Mr Ancram attended Ampleforth College, the Catholic public school, and married a member of the Fitzalan Howard family headed by the country's leading establishment Catholic, the Duke of Norfolk.

The Bill, with its "no fault" clause and cut in the minimum waiting period for a divorce from a possible five years to one, is set to begin its Commons stages before Easter. It still has to clear a Tory rebellion at Monday's Lords Third Reading, when Lady Young, the former Conservative minister, will press for a vote to increase the period of "reflection and consideration" from 12 months to 18.

In order to ensure that a coherent Bill emerges from the Commons, the Government is expected to adopt a procedure similar to that used during the 1990 Abortion Bill. That is likely to mean the Second and Third Readings are "whipped" - with Tory MPs being expected to vote with the Government. But free votes on issues of conscience, such as the retention of fault and the waiting time, would be taken on the floor of the House as part of the Bill's Committee Stage.

The device is calculated to enable the Government to get the Bill passed without being forced to rely on Labour during the principal stages. While Government business managers would hope for support throughout of the entire "payroll vote" from ministers and parliamentary private secretaries, the omens are not good.

Lord Mackay, the Lord Chancellor, who introduced the Bill, said yesterday: "I am concerned that any extension in this minimum period for obtaining a divorce may unnecessarily increase the trauma for children involved in the divorce process, for whom a year can seem a very long time." Lord Mackay has come under severe attack from Government colleagues for insisting on bringing in the Bill.