Tories uneasy over divorce Bill

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The Independent Online

Chief Political Correspondent

The Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, will tomorrow attempt to head off growing Tory backbench unrest about divorce law reform.

With an estimated 100 Tory MPs prepared to vote against the changes, the Government is likely to offer a free vote. Labour support will guarantee its passage through the Commons.

A group of Tory backbenchers, led by John Patten, the former Secretary of State for Education, are building opposition to the proposals, which would allow couples to divorce after one year without having to prove that the marriage has irretrievably broken down.

The Lord Chancellor is due to meet his party's MPs to settle backbench unrest about the Family Homes and Domestic Violence Bill, which rationalises civil remedies for domestic violence, but MPs said last night they intended to express their concern at the proposed divorce reform Bill.

Senior Conservative backbenchers said the Government could still be forced to climb down on the measure, although Lord Mackay is insisting that the Bill should be included in the Queen's Speech next month.

Mr Patten has called for the Government to "bury the Bill" before it buries the institution of marriage. Opponents, among them John Redwood, the leadership challenger, argue that the better ideas in the divorce White Paper could be enacted without abolishing the principle of fault in divorce. These elements include a requirement for the person seeking the divorce to attend a compulsory interview with a panel of professionals.

The Lord Chancellor has lobbied hard at Westminster. He said recently at the launch of the Catholic Marriage Care organisation: "I want couples to talk to each other. I want them to be able to think through the consequences of divorce before it happens."

The divorce Bill is likely to be introduced in the House of Lords. A number of Catholic MPs, including Mr Patten, are opposed to it, but the Catholic bishops have welcomed the attempt to minimise the damage caused by high divorce rates.

Polly Toynbee, page 19