Divorce rebels scent victory on waiting time

Family Law Bill: Labour offers support in Lords as pressure mounts for concessions
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Indy Politics

Political Correspondent

Lord Mackay, the Lord Chancellor, confirmed last night that he would "listen carefully" to demands for an extension of the time for reflection under the controversial Family Law Bill from 12 to 18 months.

The Lord Chancellor emphasised his preference remained with a year-long period during which divorcing couples would have to resolve differences over children and finances.

And while Government colleagues fear the concession may be needed to buy off revolts on other parts of the Bill, Lord Mackay's Labour opposite number, Lord Irvine of Lairg, urged him to stand firm.

The Lord Chancellor said: "I've indicated, of course, that I will listen carefully to all that is said in Parliament, not only on this subject but on every other aspect of this matter, which I regard as a matter of essential importance to the social fabric of our society."

"In my view, the greatest possible consensus on these matters is something I would like to attain, consistent with the principles I have enunciated."

The shadow Lord Chancellor sought to reassure Lord Mackay during the opening day of line-by-line examination in the Lords committee stage that an overwhelming majority of Labour peers would resist any move by the Government to lengthen the waiting time to 18 months or even two years, which would exacerbate the trauma of divorce for children.

No sooner had he sat down, however, than he was instantly contradicted by the Labour peer Lord Stoddart of Swindon, who declared: "I shall certainly be supporting amendments which give a much longer time for consideration and reflection. I want more time."

Lord Stoddart and fellow Labour peer Lord Stallard had joined forces with the Tory peers Baroness Young - the de facto leader of the rebellion against the Bill - and Lord Ashbourne. All four are opposed to proposals to do away with the grounds of adultery and unreasonable behaviour and allow "no fault" divorce after a year.

Lord Irvine made clear his support for the measure, emphasising that three-quarters of all divorces are currently "quickie" ones granted within a few months. "There is no greater formality than renewing a driving licence," he said as he described court procedures in which judges terminated clutches of marriages en bloc.

Appointments with judges to ensure the interests of children had been satisfied involved two dozen sets of parents turning up at 10am. "A mandatory year for reflection and consideration during which mediation takes place is surely much more seemly than the conveyor belt approach I have described," he said.

Lord Irvine insisted that the Bill buttressed marriage but was critical, however, of its lack of emphasis on reconciliation.

Lord Mackay had sought to defuse some of the opposition by announcing the Government's readiness to commit new cash for projects aimed at reducing marriage breakdown.The aid might need to be targeted on "marriage preparation" projects and encourage people to seek help earlier.

But Lord Stoddart told him: "I am surprised that the noble and learned Lord Chancellor, with his background, has come forward with this legislation." Lord Mackay was a very good man, Lord Stoddart said, but he had unfortunately "fallen into the hands of an assorted bunch of anarchists and liberals".

Lord Stallard said that millions were being spent on teaching children how to fit condoms and on social security resulting from the end of marriage, rather than on teaching children about parenting and marriage.