Lord Mackay's controversial bill on domestic violence, dropped by the Government in its closing Commons stages last week, has been revived and is expected to be combined with the Divorce Law Reform Bill to be announced in next week's Queen's Speech.
In a victory for the Lord Chancellor, key Lords and Commons business managers agreed yesterday that the two measures should be combined in a single bill to be foreshadowed at the opening of the new session next Wednesday.
After a clear decision that the Divorce Bill, intended to end "quickie" divorces based on fault, should go ahead, in spite of the opposition of "moral majority" MPs on the Tory backbenches, the Lord Chancellor has secured backing for an amended Family Homes and Domestic Violence Bill to go ahead as well.
Lord Mackay was clearly disappointed last week when he was forced to abandon the Domestic Violence Bill, despite making concessions to backbenchers who claimed the measure undermined the institution of marriage by reinforcing protection for unmarried women against battering.
Under the new plan agreed in principle at a meeting yesterday between the Lord Chancellor, Lord Cranborne, Leader of the Lords, Tony Newton, Leader of the Commons, and Alastair Goodlad, Chief Whip, the two bills will now be combined and so probably both be subject to a free vote.
This strategy means also that whereas the Family Homes and Domestic Violence Bill was taken through the Lords and Commons in a "fast-track" process intended for uncontentious legislation, the measure now will be given time for debate and amendment in both Houses of Parliament.
Before he was forced to pull the Domestic Violence Bill from the current programme, Lord Mackay had discussed changes with backbenchers, including an amendment of a clause that gives unmarried people rights of occupation in homes owned by their partners for six months if they have been subject to violence or harassment.
One change that the Lord Chancellor is understood to have offered was to time-limit the occupation rights to one year, so that the occupation orders could not be repeatedly renewed. He is said by some previous backbench critics to have agreed to modify the definition of "harm" from which partners would be protected in the bill, so as not to embrace mental as well physical harassment. He is said also to have firmed up language in the bill designed to underline the distinction between married and unmarried couples and to produce clear guidelines on how it should be interpreted by the courts.
Roger Gale, MP for Thanet North, said last night that although he could not vouch for his colleagues, he believed that "Lord Mackay had gone a very long way to meet the concerns we hade expressed." Mr Gale said he told the Lord Chancellor he was prepared to support the bill in the form that Lord Mackay had outlined.
The Lord Chancellor regards the bill, the main components of which were recommended by the Law Commission, as an important consolidatory measure. Even in its amended form, the bill would still codify the rights of unmarried partners to seek recourse against domestic violence.
Final ratification will await John Major's return from the commonwealth Conference but the Prime Minister is understood to have indicated that he backed both Lord Mackay's desire to proceed with the divorce bill, and his declared intention of bringing back the Family homes and Domestic Violence Bill "as soon as possible."
In a speech to family law solicitors on Tuesday, Lord Mackay made clear it would be possible to amend the Divorce Bill in its passage through Parliament, and said he was prepared to drop the requirement for anybody filing a divorce petition to attend an information meeting where experts could spell out alternatives. Instead he would be prepared to substitute a video that couples could watch at home, or telephone calls from experts.
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