Tory rebellion bodes ill for divorce Bill

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The Independent Online
The first Commons debate on divorce law reform for a quarter of a century saw nine Tory rebels defy a Government instruction to back the controversial Family Law Bill on its Second Reading last night.

The rebellion came despite Government efforts to meet critics' concerns, with pledges to change the law to allow divorced wives a share of husbands' pensions and promising "genuine" free votes on the key reform of no-fault divorce after a year.

A heavily whipped Government side easily secured the Second Reading by 280 votes to 13, a majority of 267 - but the rebellion, led by the former Cabinet minister John Patten, presages a far stronger protest during the coming free votes and a bruising line-by-line standing committee stage.

Seven Tories defied the party whip, plus two Tory tellers for the "no" votes. They were joined by three Ulster Unionists, two Labour MPs and one Liberal Democrat.

To a barrage of criticism from critical Tories as he opened the debate, Roger Freeman, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, said his door was open to any backbencher who wanted help with drafting a workable amendment that could be put to the vote at the committee stage. And, "as a measure of our acceptance of the principle", a Lords amendment on splitting pensions on divorce would not be overturned.

Earlier, Mr Freeman prom- ised the Government would bring forward legislation "at the earliest opportunity" following a Green Paper in July. In practice, that is likely to mean a measure will be announced in this autumn's Queen's Speech, while the Lords' amendment - described by Mr Freeman as "defective and insufficient"- will never be brought into force.

Introducing the concept of the "genuine" free vote, Mr Freeman promised that the issues of removing fault from divorce and the length of the cooling-off period would be dealt with in this way. Amendments to extend the year to 18 or 24 months are expected. He said official figures for 1994 showed that in 72 per cent of cases people filed for divorce on the basis of fault leading to a median period for all divorces of seven months.

The year-long period of "reflection and consideration" would slow down divorces and give couples more chance to resolve their differences, he said.

While several Tories spoke for the measure, Mr Patten, a Roman Catholic, accused ministers of seeking to remove the choice between a "real marriage contract and a no commitment marriage contract".

Dame Jill Knight, another rebel who said she had suffered when her parents divorced, declared: "The signal we're proposing to send tonight is that marriage vows are not of great importance. They can be cancelled for no reason at all - and cancelled speedily too."

Labour, which only imposed a one-line whip, broadly backed the Bill, but spokesmen emphasised the need to ensure that the mediation services it envisaged did not turn out to be another Child Support Agency.

t The Conservatives who voted against a Second Reading were: John Butcher (Coventry SW); Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster); Dame Jill Knight (Birmingham Edgbaston); Sir Michael Neubert (Romford); John Patten (Oxford W and Abingdon); Sir Trevor Skeet (Bedfordshire N); and John Townend (Bridlington). The tellers for the "noes" were Tories Edward Leigh (Gainsborough and Horncastle) and Bob Dunn (Dartford).

The two Labour MPs were Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) and Dr Jeremy Bray (Motherwell S). The Ulster Unionists were Sir James Molyneaux (Lagan Valley), The Rev Martin Smyth (Belfast S), and David Trimble (Upper Bann). The Liberal Democrat was David Alton (Liverpool Mossley Hill).

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