LEADING ARTICLE:Mackay licks the Moralist Tendency

Click to follow
The Independent Online
A week ago, those whose job it is to help the victims of domestic violence were in despair. The Government had announced that it did not intend to proceed with the Domestic Violence and Family Homes Bill, following a campaign waged against it by a small group of Tory MPs and one newspaper - the Daily Mail. Over at Mail HQ there was an orgy of self-congratulation. The Mail was "the newspaper everyone is talking about. And no wonder", it boasted. Serve the Government right for introducing flawed, anti-family legislation. Shame about the battered women, of course, but there you go. Blame Lord Mackay.

Then, over the weekend, something began to happen. Tories such as Peter Bottomley, alarmed by the week's events, began to speak out against the nostalgic fundamentalism of the Bill's critics. Earlier this week, the Government's defeat over Nolan will have reminded ministers of the dangers of acceding to the prejudices of its back benches. By yesterday morning it had become clear that the Government had decided to proceed with the Domestic Violence Bill as part of its new divorce legislation. It looked like a major victory for Lord Mackay, the Lord Chancellor.

Ah yes, said a rather less confident-sounding Roger Gale (MP for Family Values West), but we have been told that lots of the nastier bits of the Bill - the ones we objected to - will disappear. So it is still a victory for common sense, etc.

It may be the new year before the Bill is published and we can test Mr Gale's assertions about how far the Moralist Tendency has been accommodated. And it is a worry that a Bill which spent several years being discussed and shaped by experts might have been significantly altered in just a few days. But there are some early signs that the concessions offered to the saintly ones will be minor and - in a few instances - entirely cosmetic.

Property rights for cohabitees who are the victims of violence will remain in the Bill, but courts may not be allowed to renew exclusion orders indefinitely. There could be a slightly tighter definition of "mental harm" - but non- physical criteria will not disappear entirely. And Lord Mackay has promised (according to Mr Gale) to "redefine the very significant difference between marriage and cohabitation". In this promise one senses not much more than an instruction to the drafters merely to avoid language that will excite Mr Gale.

If these are indeed the changes that Lord Mackay has in mind then he will have scored a significant victory - and one in which MPs can share. Parliament will gain because it will have a chance (which the previous fast-track procedure for the Bill would have denied) properly to discuss an important piece of well-drafted legislation.

The Lord Chancellor's victory will be even more satisfying, for his will be a triumph of long-term solutions over short-term politicking. He will know that by a mixture of smart manoeuvre and obduracy he has achieved important things for people who needed his help.