12 Apr 2002 : Column 263

House of Commons

Friday 12 April 2002

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


Nationality, Immigration and Asylum

Mr. Secretary Blunkett, supported by the Prime Minister, Mr. Secretary Prescott, Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr. Secretary Straw, Mr. Secretary Reid, Mr. Secretary Murphy and Angela Eagle, presented a Bill to make provision about nationality, immigration and asylum; to create offences in connection with international traffic in prostitution; to make provision about international projects connected with migration; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time Monday next, and to be printed. Explanatory notes to be printed [Bill 119].

Point of Order

9.31 am

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

On 14 February, I wrote to a Minister at the Department of Health on behalf of a constituent, Mrs. Anne Cann of Crediton, who was concerned, following a report that was commissioned by the Express and Echo newspaper from Exeter university, about the dangers that were perceived to be affecting her household as a result of a nearby telecommunications mast. I followed up with a chaser letter, and, having had no response from the Department of Health at all, I raised the matter in some detail during the debate on the Easter Adjournment.

It is a matter of great concern to me that despite offering the Department of Health the full report from Exeter university, chasing my correspondence and offering to go to talk to the Minister personally, I have had no response whatsoever after nearly two months. The way in which the Department is treating a serious Back-Bench inquiry is getting close to contempt. Can you give me some advice, Mr. Speaker, on what I can do to assist my constituent?

Mr. Speaker: I am very concerned when I hear complaints about Back Benchers not receiving replies from Ministers. The hon. Lady has put the matter on record, and I look forward to the Minister responding.

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Divorce (Religious Marriages) Bill

Not amended in the Standing Committee, considered.

Clause 1

Power to refuse decree absolute if steps not taken to dissolve religious marriage

9.33 am

Mr. Gareth R. Thomas (Harrow, West): I beg to move amendment No. 2, in page 1, line 8, leave out from "Jews" to "must" in line 10.

Mr. Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 4, in page 2, line 8, leave out from "to" to "House" in line 9 and insert—

'approval by resolution of each'.

No. 1, in page 2, line 10, at end insert—

'10B Prescribed religious usages
The Lord Chancellor shall report annually to Parliament on any representations he has received about the use of section 10A(1)(a)(ii), and whether he intends to make an order under section 10A(6).".'.

Mr. Thomas: I assure the House that in tabling the amendment I am not trying to wreck the Bill or to stop its progress. Indeed, I do not intend to detain hon. Members long on the issues as I have already raised them privately with the Minister and the promoter of the Bill. I realise that they could also be considered in more detail in the House of Lords.

I tabled the amendment in the spirit of seeking clarification from my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), who deserves considerable congratulation on his piloting of the Bill through the House. My prime concern relates to the Bill's potential knock-on consequences for other religions in relation to the process that it introduces for consideration of the needs of other religions in similar situations if they arise.

I have received strong representations in support of the Bill from senior members of the Jewish community, especially senior members of the Board of Deputies of British Jews and others who live in my constituency. The Bill is designed to remedy an injustice, with which hon. Members are now familiar, that affects Jewish men and women who want a divorce but are prevented from achieving a civil divorce by the actions of their partners.

During the previous Parliament, my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon and Lord Lester suggested that the Bill leaves open the possibility that a similar situation may arise in relation to those of the Muslim faith. In Standing Committee on 7 November, my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon and the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett) asked whether the Bill applied to the Muslim faith and whether that had been properly consulted on.

During the previous Parliament, when Lord Lester proposed legislation to achieve a similar result to that sought by my hon. Friend, he highlighted counsel's opinion from a Mr. Rabinder Singh, an expert on human rights law, who had been brought in by the Government to advise on the Bill's compatibility with the European Union convention on human rights. His one concern about the original Bill was whether it was discriminatory in requiring that a religious divorce should be granted before

12 Apr 2002 : Column 265

a civil one was obtained for Jewish spouses, but not for Muslim spouses. That may be why the provisions that amendment No. 2 would delete were included in the Bill. According to Lord Lester, Mr. Singh argued that the Bill, by treating a Jewish husband less favourably than a Muslim husband, was potentially discriminatory. He felt that that issue needed resolution if the Bill was to be compatible with the Human Rights Act 1998. I seek further clarification from the Minister or from my hon. Friend on whether that is the reason for the provision. The position is certainly unclear.

In his advice, Mr. Singh said that, in his judgment, Islamic law was similar to Jewish law in this regard. However, Lord Lester quoted from the textbook "Muslim Family Law" by Judge David Pearl and Werner Menski, both of whom are senior figures in the legal world. They explained that English Muslim law requires the husband to give his wife a talaq in order for a divorce to be recognised by Sharia law, and that a woman who obtains a civil divorce but then fails to obtain a talaq is left in a limping marriage, which is similar to the situation of Jewish women who have been refused a get, which was the driving force behind my hon. Friend's Bill.

Lord Lester argued that, from his understanding of that textbook on Muslim family law, under English Muslim law the United Kingdom Islamic Sharia Council can grant a khula to the wife, which would enable an immediate dissolution of the marriage that would be recognised in Islamic law. Unlike Jewish women in a similar situation, a Muslim woman in a limping marriage could obtain a valid religious divorce against the wishes of her husband.

My purpose in setting out the position is to ask whether Lord Lester was right in his view. Is there an issue with the Muslim faith or with any other religious faith? Why do we need to give the Government a power to deal with other religions if they do not face this difficulty?

I have taken the trouble to speak to a number of my constituents. Those of the Hindu faith are clear that there is no problem in their religion on the issue that Jewish women face. My amendment No. 2 would ensure that no other religions were covered by the Bill. My hon. Friend and the Minister should consider whether we need to allow that additional width in the Bill.

I recognise that the position regarding the Muslim faith may be a little confused. I have spoken to senior Muslim figures in my constituency, who have slightly different views on whether this is an issue. I hope that the Minister and my hon. Friend can clarify the situation. I pray in aid the comments that the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) made in Committee. He thought that the question whether the law should intervene in a matter of faith was a philosophical issue. That is an entirely reasonable concern to raise. The Jewish religious authorities are clear that there is a need for intervention, and on that basis it is right that we give additional powers in that respect.

9.45 am

If there is a problem or the potential for a problem in the Muslim faith, Parliament must recognise that it has a responsibility to improve its response to such a situation. There has perhaps been a collective failure over a number of years, but we have now reached the stage of finally

12 Apr 2002 : Column 266

being able to resolve this issue. The Jewish community has had to wait for resolution of this problem at last to be on offer, and I do not want other religions to have to suffer delays in tackling the injustice that has been identified.

Amendment No. 1 would ensure that there is a duty on the Lord Chancellor to report to the House if other religious authorities raise similar difficulties. Such a requirement on the Lord Chancellor's Department would be a spur to Parliament to act with more speed in future.

Amendment No. 4 would require approval by both Houses of Parliament using the affirmative resolution procedure. Intervention in religious matters is something that Parliament should not undertake lightly. The involvement of both Houses and the widening of the pool of legal and religious expertise and knowledge is a sensible precaution to ensure that we get the right resolution of these problems. The use of the affirmative resolution procedure would help to clear up any confusion about who the religious authorities were, and would ensure that all sectors of the community would be able to bring their concerns to Members of Parliament so that the right way forward could be found.

As I said, these are probing amendments. I hope that the Bill will make progress, but we need to be clear that we have the right process in place and that there are sensible opportunities for other religions in a similar situation to bring concerns before the House and for Parliament to act with more speed and more success on this issue than it has until now.

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