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Mr. Wigley: That means urging them not to take the assistance that is available and which makes such a very great difference to many people.

The evidence that has come to the all-party disablement group, from many directions, over an extended period, leaves me in no doubt that cannabis can be beneficial. The Bill is restricted in scope. It does not open the floodgates to the consequences foreseen by the hon. Lady. That is a matter for future legislation or perhaps a royal commission. This is a matter of urgency, and one that cannot wait for another four or five years for the tests to be concluded, evaluated and acted on.

We have the opportunity to show that we understand the suffering of people with MS and other conditions, and it is up to us to stand shoulder to shoulder with them and

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ensure that there is a legislative change that will bring their assistance through such drugs within the law. I hope that the Bill will be given a Second Reading.

2.6 pm

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mrs. Barbara Roche): Though brief, this has been a very good debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) spoke with great conviction. I cannot respond to him as he would like, but I say with all sincerity that I recognise the seriousness, commitment and passion that he brings to the issue. Nobody could fail to be moved by his accounts of people suffering from very debilitating illnesses.

The Government believe that it would be premature to amend the misuse of drugs legislation to allow the prescribing of cannabis before the quality, safety and efficacy of a medicinal form of the drug has been scientifically established--that was the point made by the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh)--and a marketing authorisation has been issued by the Medicines Control Agency. All prospective new medicines have to go through that procedure.

The Government have the support of the British Medical Association and the Royal Society in the view that raw cannabis should not be available for medicinal purposes, but we welcome, and have encouraged, research into the possible medicinal uses of cannabis. If current trials are successful and lead to a medical cannabis preparation that is approved by the Medicines Control Agency, we have made it clear that we would be willing to amend the regulations to allow it to be prescribed.

We have to take into account the fact that cannabis is a harmful drug. A 1997 World Health Organisation report confirmed that it has both acute and chronic health effects. Work was published this week by Professor Heather Ashton of the university of Newcastle on the effect that it can have in exacerbating schizophrenia. We have to be mindful of the context in which we are operating.

The Home Office has licensed a number of laboratory and medical research projects over the past few years, including two current projects involving or leading to clinical trials. Dr. Geoffrey Guy of GW Pharmaceuticals is conducting a large-scale research project aimed at developing non-smoked medicines derived from cannabis. The research involves patients with multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injury, rheumatoid arthritis, cancer pain and other serious conditions. Clinical trial studies are now being conducted. There are four main phases, involving pre-clinical and clinical research. Phase one is the cultivation of suitable plants; phase two is designing a method of administration; phase three is the start of the clinical trials; and phase four is the licensing application for a medicinal product.

That research has now been under way for two years, and the first two stages have been accomplished. The Home Office drugs inspectorate and the Medicines Control Agency have overseen them. I hope that that helps to reassure the House that the work is being done--a fact that it is important for me to point out. GW Pharmaceuticals hopes to have completed the phase three trials by mid-2002 and to be in a position to submit a dossier to the MCA in application for marketing authorisation in autumn 2002.

I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West that the Government cannot support the Bill, because of its implications. Without a marketing authorisation for a

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medicinal form of the drug, cannabis could be prescribed for any ailment that the doctor chooses. One can imagine the pressure on doctors in such circumstances.

As I said at the start of my speech, the Bill is well intentioned, but it would have far-reaching and unacceptable consequences. For those reasons, the Government are unable to support it.

Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second time:--

The House divided: Ayes 8, Noes 4.

Division No. 102
[2.11 pm


Austin, John
Burden, Richard
Flynn, Paul
Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE)
Harris, Dr Evan
Jones, Dr Lynne (Selly Oak)
Lloyd, Tony (Manchester C)
Taylor, David (NW Leics)

Tellers for the Ayes:

Ann Clwyd and
Mr. Dafydd Wigley.


Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot)
Leigh, Edward
McIntosh, Miss Anne
Maclean, Rt Hon David

Tellers for the Noes:

Mr. Andrew Dismore and
Mr. Gareth R. Thomas.

It appearing on the report of the Division that 40 Members were not present, Mr. Deputy Speaker declared that the Question was not decided, and the business under consideration stood over until the next sitting of the House.

2 Feb 2001 : Column 631

2 Feb 2001 : Column 632

Divorce (Religious Marriages) Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

2.24 pm

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I was given leave to introduce the Bill two days ago, and I do not wish to repeat the arguments that I put forward then and which I am sure hon. Members will dutifully have read in Hansard.

The purpose of the Bill is to remedy a disadvantage suffered by Jewish men and women who are prevented from remarrying by the refusal of their partners to grant or accept a religious divorce. The Bill will allow the civil courts to defer granting a civil divorce until a religious divorce is given, thus providing a remedy to women known as the agunah--the chained women--who are, effectively, blackmailed by their husbands into agreeing to settlements to which they might not otherwise agree, to enable them to obtain a divorce. That has resulted in severe hardship. For example, women have been subjected to domestic violence, or their children have been abused.

I shall not speak at length as I know that time is short and that the Bill has overwhelming support from all quarters of the House. I urge hon. Members--particularly one or two on the other side of the House who may have blocked a similar Bill in the past--at least to allow some good to come from today's proceedings by permitting the Bill a Second Reading.

2.25 pm

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mrs. Barbara Roche): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) on vigorously pursuing the matter. The Government consider that the Jewish community has made a convincing case for the need for a remedy for Jewish women seeking a religious divorce. We therefore support the Bill, which we hope will aid Jewish women who are disadvantaged in such a way. It gives me great pleasure to say that on behalf of the Government.

2.25 pm

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): The Bill raises controversial and profound questions that obviously require full and proper consideration by the House. I hope that nobody, least of all the Minister, is suggesting that we make law--particularly in such a sensitive and difficult area--without the most proper and full consideration by both Houses of Parliament at every stage. I trust that there is no disagreement among us over that.

The hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) seems to be desirous of getting the Bill through the House without proper discussion. For reasons that I understand, but deplore, he did not give the House a proper account of the measure and referred us to his speech of 31 January, which I have read and considered. I have a copy with me and it could provide the basis for a full and proper debate.

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The hon. Gentleman's remarks raised very important questions and I refer to the first:

I do not challenge that as a statement of fact, but I am concerned about the relationship between the laws of religious faiths and Churches and the civil law as well as the extent to which it is proper for the civil law to intervene--in this case, to be invited in--as a participant in matters of deeply held faith and long-standing religious practice. That will be the burden of my analysis as it develops.

The hon. Gentleman continued:

I understand that "get" is a technical Jewish term for a form of divorce or separation. That, too, raises the most profound questions, not least of which is whether those who are of a belief, a faith, a Church or a religion of their own free will accept the advantages and, if there are any, the disadvantages of that belief.

The hon. Gentleman has also raised the issue of whether such people, having taken their belief on, should reach out to the civil law outside their faith to remedy a matter arising as a result of that faith. As these laws are biblical, is it legitimate to argue that they can be changed? I do not know enough about rabbinical law or the rabbinical process to judge whether they can. That is another part of the debate that we obviously need to have to consider the Bill properly.

The hon. Gentleman tried to be helpful and his previous speech referred to some of the questions that I have raised. He said:

That raises the most profound questions about the proper relationship between the laws of a faith or a Church and those of a secular society. I believe that such a Bill must be dealt with most carefully, sensitively and comprehensively if it is to reach the statute book.

It being half-past Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed on Friday 9 February.

2 Feb 2001 : Column 634

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