Ministers move to stave off new divorce revolt

Family Bill: Couples to be given the option of attending marriage guidance counselling
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Indy Politics
The Government is attempting to buy off a fresh rebellion on its controversial Family Law Bill by earmarking three months at the start of the divorce process for couples to attend marriage guidance counselling if they want it.

But ministers are adamant that they will not yield to demands from "pro-family" Tory rebels and Labour for couples to be forced to meet a counsellor before filing for a no-fault divorce under the Bill.

A Commons committee stage amendment from the right-wing former minister Edward Leigh - the unofficial leader of the rebel Tory MPs - calls for a three-month delay between attending the counselling meeting and presenting a statement of marital breakdown.

Mr Leigh's move raises the scenario of reluctant or long-separated couples, and even victims of violence, being obliged to go through the motions of marriage guidance. It would also add a further three months to the period for "reflection and consideration", which has already been lengthened from 12 to 18 months after last week's revolt by 165 Tory MPs.

Paul Boateng, Labour's legal affairs spokesman, heaped further pressure on the Government by threatening to withdraw Opposition support at the Third Reading unless the Government agreed to force couples to undergo compulsory marriage guidance, albeit during a two-month gap.

Labour's stance, in particular, has been condemned by divorce practitioners as a political device to boost its standing as champion of the family, by a party that ought to know better.

As the Bill now stands, the option of marriage guidance, along with advice to mediate rather than litigate disputes, is to be highlighted to couples in initial information sessions.

Westminster sources said the compromise being drawn up by Jonathan Evans, the junior minister in the Lord Chancellor's Department responsible for the Bill, accepted the argument for an effective litigation or mediation- free zone for the following three months.

The change would give spouses more time to decide whether to take advantage of marriage guidance, rather than immediately pressing on with the divorce process, sources said.

But Mr Evans is implacably opposed to the idea of enforced marriage guidance counselling, and hopes to convince Tory MPs that it would not work. Parallel moves are afoot to ensure that the three- month isolation period is included within the 18 months and not added on to it.

A loyal Tory backbencher is expected to promote an appropriate amendment at the report stage, on the footing that the House of Commons has already decided on an 18-month cooling-off period, not 21 months.

Mr Evans is also responding to non-partisan concerns about the initial information sessions. Group sessions of about eight or 10 people at a time have been mooted, creating what critics say would be a conveyor-belt impression.

In the meantime, Mr Evans agreed during a committee stage debate yesterday to consider at the report stage a general amendment highlighting the importance of marriage guidance counselling.