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10.19 am

Mr. Cash: I am glad to be able to say that the Opposition support the Bill, which seeks to rectify an anomaly that exists in English law. Currently, religious marriage between two Jews is recognised by the state as creating a civil marriage, provided that notice has been given to a superintendent registrar. The religious marriage creates a duel bond, both civil and religious, yet in dissolving that dual bond, the state only requires that there should be a civil divorce, leaving the religious marriage intact and limping on. The parties are left in a state of limbo, unable to remarry in an Orthodox religious ceremony until the husband grants his wife a get, or bill of religious divorce. If the husband refuses to give his wife a get, she is known as an agunah, or chained wife, as the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) pointed out.

The current proposal has the support of virtually the entire Jewish community. During its initial stage, before the 1996 legislation was passed—that legislation was

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never brought into operation because it was included in part II of the Family Law Act 1996, which the Government intend to repeal—a meeting was convened by the Chief Rabbi and the Board of Deputies, at which representatives of the six main Orthodox and Reform movements were present. They are all united in supporting the proposed legislation. This is perhaps the first time that so comprehensive an array of support has been assembled.

Some have argued that the problem is internal to the Jewish community, so it should be solved within it. In fact, the Jewish community, through the initiative of the Chief Rabbi, has instituted unprecedented measures to alleviate the problem of individuals whose spouses refuse to grant or receive a Jewish bill of divorce, known as a get. They include a pre-nuptial agreement, currently signed by the majority of couples marrying under the aegis of the Chief Rabbi; communal sanctions against recalcitrant spouses; a taskforce whose remit includes pre-marital counselling for couples; relationship education in schools; and the training of mediators to resolve difficult cases. It should be put on record that the Chief Rabbi himself has intervened to resolve some of the most difficult cases.

The British Jewish community has done as much as it can—perhaps more than any other Jewish community in the world—to alleviate the problem. However, in the final analysis, Jewish communities in modern nation states are voluntary associations. They have no way, other than through education and persuasion, of changing the minds of determined individuals such as those to which the hon. Member for Hendon referred. That is why they seek the assistance of English law to end, or at least to mitigate, the anomaly whereby a civil divorce may proceed in the absence of a Jewish divorce, thus leaving one partner—usually the woman—unable to remarry.

It is wrong to say, however, that the rabbinate has not done all that it can to resolve the problem. It has recognised the need for action and, as far as possible within the parameters of Jewish law, it has taken action. Beyond that it cannot go. The assistance of the courts would be a powerful step forward, and would alleviate much human misery. We therefore give our support to the proposals.

10.22 am

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham): The hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) said that his Bill enjoys all-party support, and that is certainly true as far as I am concerned. I was not privileged to work on his Committee, but I have read his cogent, well written, well argued and compelling article explaining the Bill. I agree with the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) that a powerful humanitarian case exists. A small number of women are subject to considerable misery, and the legislation will alleviate their difficulty without causing detriment to anyone else. That seems an admirable basis for proceeding.

Before I came to the Chamber, I had some slight doubts, which were captured in the discussion prompted by the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas). However, the Minister's answers, particularly in relation to the Catholic Church—the need for consensus, and the fact that no changes will be imposed on other religions—satisfied my doubts. Although it is not sufficient to

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persuade me to oppose the Bill, something still troubles me slightly, however: the principle—attributed to the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell)—of our legislating in respect of other religions, even where consensus exists.

I shall illustrate the point with a hypothetical case. I am a non-Catholic who married a Catholic woman. Unfortunately, she has since died, but we had a very happy and loving marriage. We got married in a Catholic church, and beforehand I went along for instruction. It was clearly explained to me that the nature of marriage in the Catholic faith is that marriage is for life. As I said, our marriage was happy and loving, and the issue of divorce never arose.

Let us suppose, however, that I had been a different man in a different situation, and that I went off with another woman, or abused my wife, and obtained a civil divorce. My wife would then have been in an invidious position, because the Church would not have recognised the divorce. She might well have wanted to remarry—to marry another devout Catholic and bring up children in the faith—but she would have been unable to do so because her divorce would not have been recognised.

Mr. Dismore: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Cable: Let me finish the point, so that the hon. Gentleman can consider whether he still wants to intervene. In practice, there would have been no problem, as mechanisms exist—annulments, and so on—that humane priests can use. However, in such a situation a woman could encounter a wall of theological difficulty. A priest could say, "Well, my dear, I sympathise entirely with your position, but you entered into the relationship voluntarily. Membership of this Church is voluntary—you do not have to belong—and you will have to resolve your problem somewhere else." She might get angry and say, "I'm going to talk to my MP. I have heard about a law relating to the Jewish faith. I am in the same position as a Jewish woman, so why can't Parliament change the law to solve my problem? It's unfair." The priest could reply, "I cannot accept that principle. Why should a group of atheists, Anglicans, Methodists, Jews and Muslims prescribe the law internal to my Church?"

In practice, there is no problem, because—as the hon. Member for Hendon has stressed—the Church authorities have expressed no concern. Moreover, as the Minister said, matters would have to proceed by consensus. None the less, I have slight doubts as to why Parliament—a multi-faith body—is legislating in respect of the internal affairs of a particular Church.

Mr. Dismore: I can answer the hon. Gentleman's point relatively quickly. The Jewish faith recognises divorce and remarriage within the faith, but the Catholic Church does not. We are trying to enable Jewish women to remarry within the faith—at the moment, they are prevented from doing so—but the situation does not arise within the Catholic faith because it does not recognise divorce and remarriage per se.

Dr. Cable: I hope that the hon. Gentleman has not misunderstood me—I am not trying to object to his Bill. He is absolutely right to draw that distinction, and as he stressed earlier, the Catholic Church and other faiths that

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do not recognise divorce have raised no objections to his Bill. However, there is a deeper issue—it is in no sense an objection to the Bill—that we should all bear in mind. We are legislating for the internal affairs of a particular religion and faith, regardless of our own religion, and we should do so with some trepidation and care.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside): Although the hon. Gentleman's point has some validity, in this instance the call for Parliament to intervene comes from established Jewish authorities, including the Chief Rabbi. Given the circumstances, does he accept that the proposed course of action is the correct one?

Dr. Cable: It is entirely correct, and I have no objection to the Bill, which is properly and narrowly drawn, and correct both morally and legally. I simply reiterate that there is an underlying issue of principle. We are dealing with a religion to which most of us do not belong, so we should take care and think about the far-reaching action that we are taking. None the less, I fully support the Bill and applaud the hon. Member for Hendon for introducing it. I am happy to associate my colleagues with it.

10.28 am

Linda Perham (Ilford, North): I was a member of the Standing Committee that considered the Bill last autumn, and I am proud to sponsor it. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) said, its purpose is to correct a great injustice suffered by Jewish women in particular. Many Jewish people live in my Ilford, North constituency and the London borough of Redbridge.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South): As my hon. Friend knows, I am her constituency neighbour. Many of my Ilford, South constituents will be similarly delighted at the introduction of this Bill by my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore). It is long overdue and I congratulate him on introducing it.

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