Right-wing Tories find fault in divorce changes

Inside Parliament Bill abolishes 'Christian inheritance' Children suffer most from separation
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Tory opponents of the Government's divorce law reforms yesterday lambasted the changes as rendering marriage vows meaningless and even, it was claimed, ending 2,000 years of basing divorce legislation on the "Christian inheritance".

Edward Leigh, a former minister, said trying to solve problems on the basis of "no pain, no shame and no apology" as the Family Law Bill proposed, would make rebuilding relationships even more difficult.

But while the House rejected by 267 votes to 137 the proposal to keep adultery and intolerable behaviour as grounds for divorce, John Major suffered the embarrassment of seeing the proposed "cooling-off period" before a divorce can go through extended from a year to 18 months.

"This is a very solemn moment in our history," the right-wing Mr Leigh said at the start of the committee-stage debate. "Our law in this area for the best part of 2,000 years has been based on our Judaeo-Christian inheritance. Do we wish to sweep that all away?"

Supported by the former Cabinet ministers John Patten and John Redwood, his amendment would have effectively wrecked the balance struck by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay, in framing the Bill.

While introducing "no-fault" divorce, the measure ends "quickie divorces", so despised by the fundamentalists, and proposed a 12-month period for reflection and consideration - later extended to 18 months as three Cabinet ministers joined the uprising against the Bill.

Mr Patten, a Roman Catholic, said that if the Bill passed into law it would be a signal that the Commons did not regard marriage as binding and something to "be striven to be kept together and kept to for the rest of people's lives".

Mr Leigh said the backdrop was a "crisis of marital breakdown". Each year 158,000 marriages ended in divorce. "If you bring in no-fault divorce, what about the bitterness of the injured party? Sometimes there are injured parties and what about their bitterness, what about their feeling of rejection and the denial of their rights?"

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman, Tory MP for Lancaster and a former divorce lawyer, agreed, citing the plight of the rejected lady who had supported her husband but become "possibly a little dull". "She would be very bitter if she was just cast aside like an old glove with no good reason given."

However another ex-divorce lawyer, Patrick Nicholls, Conservative MP for Teignbridge, said the one thing he learned fairly quickly was "that the pit of misery and unhappiness which two people locked in deadlock in matrimony can cause each other is absolutely bottomless". Those who were inclined to bring fault back were looking for a sort of certificate of moral righteousness, which could not work.

He said: "There is no video nasty I've ever seen which is more squirmingly embarrassing and more heart-breaking than to see two people trying to explain to the man up there in the wig how they felt, why they had to act as they did."

With 11 ministers and five whips lining up against the Lord Chancellor's proposals, Roger Freeman, the Public Service minister, tried to lay off the damage by maintaining that it was "a genuine free vote". Enforcing a one-year cooling-off period, the Bill would make divorce harder than at present.

Fault was not always 100 per cent on one side, Mr Freeman said, while allegations of fault could escalate confrontation, hampering the process of mediation, and making things harder for children.