Divorce (Religious Marriages) Bill

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Mike Gapes: I want to comment on what has just been said by the hon. Gentleman. A significant number of my constituents are of the Jewish faith. I am certain that a large majority—in fact, almost every member of that community except some of the men who are behaving in such a disgraceful way—would welcome an attempt by Parliament to resolve the matter. Therefore, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon on introducing the Bill. I am delighted to serve on the Committee and hope that the Bill makes rapid progress through its remaining stages in the House.

10.45 am

Mr. Andrew Mitchell: First, may I say what a pleasure it is to appear under your benign authority today, Mr. Conway? I was about to address you as Sir Derek because, when I was formerly in the House, most people who occupied your position either were knights or became knights. I am sure that the Committee joins me in hoping that it will not be too long before you are addressed as Sir Derek.

Secondly, may I say what a pleasure it is to appear before you rather than the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich, under whose chairmanship I served as a Government Whip and as a Minister? She was an extremely firm and utterly correct Chairman of the Committee, but I always used to approach those occasions with considerable fear and trepidation.

I do not wish to detain the Committee. I agree strongly with the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon. After reading the brief, which the hon. Member for Hendon kindly and helpfully supplied, I wondered why Parliament was interfering in what appeared to be a religious matter and why I, a not very good member of the Church of England, had been invited to serve on the Committee. The fact is that the Bill would not be before us if the rabbinical authorities had been able to sort out the problem. As the hon. Member for Hendon said, there are several heart-rending cases, which the Bill seeks to put right.

There is a philosophical point—I feel the spirit of the shadow Leader of the House brooding over me—about whether the law should intervene in a matter of faith. However, I am entirely satisfied that, although the Bill will not solve the problem, the judgment of the Jewish community is that it will be help to do so. Therefore, it deserves the full support of the Committee and has the full support of the Conservative party.

Linda Perham (Ilford, North): Like my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South, I have many Jewish constituents. In fact, I am told that one area of my constituency has the largest Jewish population in western Europe.

I certainly support the Bill and wish to comment on the point made by the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon about support for the Bill. When my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon introduced the Bill, he said that it had

    ``the support of all Synagogue bodies in Anglo-Jewry, as well as the Chief Rabbi, the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Marriage Council.''—[Official Report, 23 October 2001; Vol. 373, c. 148.]

Members of the Committee should be assured that there is support in the Jewish community for the Bill.

I recently addressed the annual meeting of Jewish Women's Aid, which was held at Sinclair house, the Jewish centre in my constituency. I received representations from all the women there about this subject. We discussed many matters of interest to Jewish women, but this was the one that they felt most strongly about. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend, and I hope that the Bill will reach the statute book.

Mrs. Dunwoody: I, too, am delighted to see you in the Chair, Mr. Conway. The Bill is important, and I know that you understand that and will help us to make progress in your normal, even-handed and humorous fashion.

I have no Jewish constituents, although I found five once in Crewe and Nantwich. However, a good friend of mine, the late Tammi Alalouf, who was a most cultured woman, came to me some years ago with a group of Jewish women who were being subjected—I must use that verb—to an appalling set of personal circumstances because of the operation of the get. I had not encountered that almost mediaeval imposition and was stunned to realise that a British citizen living in this country, apparently able to enjoy the full range of British liberties, could be denied the advantages of a civil divorce that were fully granted to her ex-partner.

I was so horrified by the situation that I agreed to raise it not only in the House but with individual Ministers, which I did over a long period. I was not as lucky as my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon. I have the unique distinction of having been in this place for more years than I like to admit and obtaining a private Member's Bill only when it was clear that nothing would get on the statute book because there was going to be a general election. One has to have a special talent to achieve that, and I have done that over many years.

The Bill is necessary: its effect will be to change materially the lives of many Jewish women in the United Kingdom. My hon. Friend will have the support of everyone in the House who believes in justice and fairness to get the Bill on to the statute book as speedily and efficiently as possible.

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk): Having been asked to serve on the Committee, I consulted different members of the Jewish community. As a result, I am persuaded that the legislation has the widest support from both the orthodox and reform wings. Will the hon. Member for Hendon address one point about the court's discretion? I think that the answer is in new section 10A(2), but I should be grateful for some reassurance. If a Jewish woman is more concerned about obtaining a civil divorce than a Jewish divorce, will the court have the discretion to accede to the woman's request even if the husband does not wish to grant a Jewish divorce? I have nothing else to add to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield, and we are delighted to support the Bill.

Mr. Dismore: I thank all hon. Members who have supported the Bill, in particular my hon. Friends the Members for Ilford, North (Linda Perham), for Ilford, South, for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) and for Crewe and Nantwich, who are all sponsors of the Bill. On the subject of benign chairmanship, I also have previously served under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich, and she will note that I have kept my jacket on in due respect.

I will deal with the specific points raised by the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon. They were all valid questions, and I have no objection to answering them as fully as possible. He will have noted that in introducing the Bill under the ten-minute rule procedure I mentioned that the Bill had the support of all the synagogue bodies in Anglo-Jewry, as well as the Chief Rabbi, the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Marriage Council. I have been in extensive consultation with them throughout the Bill's passage, and I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the agunot campaign, despite any reports to the contrary, is also supportive. Indeed, I have a letter from Gloria Proops, the chairman of the campaign, wishing me every success.

Mr. Burnett: Has the hon. Gentleman met any objection to the Bill?

Mr. Dismore: I have not met any objection. The agunot campaign put forward the valid criticism that the Bill would not solve every problem. I fully accept that, and made the point in introducing the Bill. The Bill will provide a lever only where the husband also wants a divorce. If the husband is not bothered about a divorce, the Bill will not be able to help. There are one or two hard cases, which the agunot campaign deals with, which it would not help. However, it would help the much larger number of women who are chained in marriage; I mentioned earlier the practices in respect of unfair settlements in the final proceedings. The Bill will make a big difference to many women in these circumstances, although not to all.

The hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon gave us an interesting history lesson on whether the problem can be dealt with by the Jewish faith. However, the Jewish community has done all that it can to solve the problem. Prenuptial agreements are a prerequisite now, but they are binding in honour only, not formally binding. They seek, through the use of communal sanctions, to persuade recalcitrant husbands to behave themselves. In spite of the cases reported in the Jewish Chronicle, and the demonstrations outside people's houses, not a great deal can be done at present if a husband is determined.

The hon. Gentleman raised the matter of the European convention on human rights and the Human Rights Act 1998. Human rights would probably be infringed if the measure were not to be enacted as there is a right to family life, which is denied to Jewish women if the husband refuses to grant a get. The Bill is putting right something that infringes the European convention. My response to the hon. Gentleman is that the Bill is a positive, not a negative, answer to the problem.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the Muslim faith. There have been no approaches from the Muslim community about the matter, although there is a similar, but not identical, difficulty. The Bill provides a mechanism to overcome such a problem should there be an approach from the Muslim community. As I said in response to the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield, the Bill is primarily about the problems facing the Jewish community.

The hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon asked about the guidelines that will be issued to the judiciary in implementing the measure. I have had a lot of assistance in preparing the Bill from Judge Myrella Cohen, QC, an eminent family law judge, and, should the Bill become law, her help will be sought to draft the guidelines. I have also had help from Eleanor Platt, QC, and Dayan Berkowits, a judge in the Beth Din of the Federation of Synagogues, who have applied their considerable experience to the Bill. The guidelines will be produced in consultation with the Board of Deputies, with members of the Jewish community whom I have mentioned and with others.

The hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) raised the matter of the court's discretion. If the parties are satisfied with a civil divorce there is no problem, because discretion would be exercised only if someone applied for a judge to intervene. In practice, for orthodox women, a civil divorce is inadequate; that is why the Bill is needed.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2

Short title, commencement and extent

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Dismore: The clause deals with the mechanism to bring the law into effect. The date on which the Bill would come into effect would be appointed by the Lord Chancellor, but we have to deal with some of the loose ends mentioned by the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon. The Act does not apply to Scotland because of devolution, but I understand that there are moves in the Scottish Parliament to introduce a similar measure.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Bill to be reported, without amendment.

        Committee rose at two minutes to Eleven o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Conway, Mr. Derek (Chairman)
Bacon, Mr.
Burnett, Mr.
Cryer, John
Dismore, Mr.
Dunwoody, Mrs.
Ellman, Mrs.
Gapes, Mike
Gardiner, Mr.
Lamb, Norman
Love, Mr.
Mitchell, Mr. Andrew
Moffatt, Laura
Perham, Linda
Winterton, Ms Rosie

 
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Prepared 7 November 2001