MPs halt rights-for-partners law

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Eight Tory backbenchers yesterday forced the Lord Chancellor to put on ice a Bill to ensure that unmarried victims of domestic violence have similar rights to spouses.

Like the proposed divorce Bill to be included in the Queen's Speech, the measure had been the subject of detailed work by the independent non- party Law Commission. The Conservative-dominated Home Affairs Select Committee had supported the commission's proposals. The retreat by Lord Mackay, said to be temporary, came after the eight backbenchers discovered the Bill had been proceeding through the House under the "fast-track" procedure used for non-controversial legislation.

The eight - Edward Leigh, the former Cabinet minister John MacGregor, Patrick Nicholls, Roger Gale, Ann Winterton, Julian Brazier, John Butterfill and Lady Olga Maitland - said the the Bill would undermine the status of marriage. Julian Brazier served on the committee that has been giving detailed scrutiny to the Bill. Mr Gale admitted yesterday that the critics were to blame for not seeing the flaws earlier.

The Bill, which gives unmarried people the right to expel partners from a shared home - in some cases even if it was owned by the offending partner, has also been the subject of a critical press campaign.

After meeting Lord Mackay yesterday, the MPs claimed victory in their campaign to secure changes - three amendments have been tabled. The Lord Chancellor's Department said, however, that it had only been delayed for a week.

Mr Leigh and Mr Butterfill said that the Bill created substantial new rights for cohabitees, a claim firmly denied by the department. Spokesmen said the main new change was a power to transfer a council tenancy from one partner to the other in cases where a victim of violence needed to stay in the home with the children.

The Lord Chancellor's Department has countered claims that girlfriends could simply take over their partner's flat or house, pointing out that domestic violence would have to proved in a court of law before a man could be forced to leave. Mr Gale said: "I think the Bill as it stands is dead in the water. I hope it will now be brought back in a form in which we can support it."

The Law Society was concerned that a previously uncontroversial measure had run into difficulties.: "The worries expressed over the rights of cohabitees are particularly misleading as they have had the right to be protected from domestic violence since the late 1970s."