Minister moves to placate divorce Bill rebels

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The Government bent over backwards to placate its Family Law Bill rebels last night, pledging to change the law to allow divorced wives a share of their husbands' pensions and promising "genuine" free votes on the key reform of no-fault divorce after a year.

To a barrage of criticism from Tory backbenchers as he opened the Bill's Commons Second Reading, Roger Freeman, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, said his door was open from today to any backbencher who wanted help with drafting a workable amendment that could be put to the vote during the committee stage. And, "as a measure of our acceptance of the principle", a Lords amendment on splitting pensions at the time of divorce would not be overturned.

Mr Freeman promised that the Government would bring forward its own legislation "at the earliest opportunity" following a Green Paper in July. In practice, that is likely to mean that 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. Mr Freeman said 30 Acts of Parliament would need to be changed if pension splitting was adopted in the way the Lords had decided.

Introducing the concept of the "genuine" free vote that even members of government could exercise, dubbed the "Freeman vote" by John Patten, a former minister and ardent critic of the Bill, Mr Freeman promised that issues of removing fault from divorce and the length of the waiting time would be dealt with in this way.

In response to a question from Edward Leigh, another critic and former minister, Mr Freeman suggested that clauses covering the "hardship" bar to divorce and on whether financial orders should be allowed during the one-year waiting period could be further examined on the floor of the House at the report stage.

But on the Bill as a whole, Mr Freeman insisted that it would "better protect the interests of the children of a marriage by reducing acrimony and by ensuring that conduct is taken into account where it is relevant to the upbringing of children".

He said Office of Population Censuses and Surveys 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 and divorces before arrangements had been decided for children or financial matters. His attempts to meet Tory rebels half-way is unlikely to have changed many minds. John Redwood, the former Cabinet minister, demanded to know why the law should be changed to allow someone to be divorced against their will, or contrary to the benefit of the children, after a year, when under the present law the couple could have to wait at least two years and be separated.

Paul Boateng, Labour's spokesman on legal affairs, demanded to know how much the Bill's mediation provisions would cost. Mr Boateng also highlighted the plight of victims of domestic violence, who he said could not be expected to sit down in mediation with their attackers.

Meanwhile, the Law Society has insisted that pension splitting could be dealt with in the current Bill.