Divorce Bill `blow to fabric of society'

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The Tory peer Baroness Young, leader of the Lords rebellion over the Family Law Bill, yesterday threw down a fresh gauntlet to the Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, with a raft of amendments to extend the reflection period for divorce, promote reconciliation and retain fault as a ground for ending a marriage.

Lady Young, a committed Anglican and former vice- chairman of the Tory party, invoked Hillary Clinton's backing for divorce to be made harder and declared that instead of buttressing marriage, the Bill was simply a way of managing the decline of marriage in a civilised way. Resorting to the rare event of holding a House of Lords news conference, Lady Young said that the high divorce rate in Britain was "actually weakening the whole fabric of society. It is very serious."

The Bill's intention to do away with fault sent out the wrong kind of message, she said. "If you make a promise to keep your marriage vows and you break it, it ought to be recognised that this is a fault."

Of the six amendments tabled or planned for the Bill's report stage, beginning today, Lady Young said her attempt to lengthen the 12-month period of "reflection and consideration", which she is prepared to press to a vote, had attracted much support, including from Cardinal Basil Hume, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster; the Archbishop of York, Dr David Hope, and the Bishop of Chester, the Right Rev Michael Baughen.

The amendment, a compromise on her previous position, provides for the first 6 months of the 18 to be reserved solely for reconciliation where couples want to attempt it. During that time, in effect a "litigation- free zone", the intervention of lawyers or mediation to solve disputes over finances or the care of children would be put on hold .

Lady Young is prepared for the waiting time to be abridged to the 12 months in the Bill only where both spouses consent and there are no children. But she strongly insisted yesterday that one spouse should not be able to obtain a divorce after only a year, particularly if no reason was to be given, against the wishes of the other.

Another of the amendments would give a court discretion to withhold a divorce for such time as is judged appropriate where it would be "contrary to the interests" of any child.

A government amendment tabled by Lord Mackay would allow the 12-month period to be extended by a further 12 months if couples cannot reach agreement over children and financial matters. But critics claim the concession is "cosmetic".