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Mr. Cash: The references to "religion" and "religious" are somewhat controversial because some sects' and faiths' description of themselves as religious is hotly disputed. Do the Government intend to analyse that and work out whether the provisions should apply to recognised religions? After all, the request could come from almost anyone.
Ms Winterton: Of course, the Lord Chancellor would have to be satisfied that any representations represented the views not only of many within any religious group, but community leaders. I assure the hon. Gentleman that there would be wide consultation before any decision was made to extend the provisions to other groups.
The Government's view is that amendment No. 1 is unnecessary. In the event that the Lord Chancellor received representationsagain, I assure the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) that they would have to be of a sufficiently authoritative naturefrom religious groups asking for the legislation to be extended to them, a statutory instrument would be required. Parliament would then have an opportunity to scrutinise the instrument through the negative resolution procedure.
Mr. Dismore: Perhaps I could help my hon. Friend out with the intervention from the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash). Is not the answer to the hon. Gentleman's point that, although there can obviously be difficulties in deciding whether a particular organisation is a religion or not, it can only be brought within the terms of the Bill if the Lord Chancellor believes it to be a religion. Both Houses of Parliament will have the opportunity to scrutinise the actions of the Lord Chancellor and to decide whether they agree.
Ms Winterton: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. That was exactly the point that I was coming on to make. Through that process, Parliament would have the opportunity to make representations, if there were any worries about the nature of any group. I reiterate that there is no question either of the Bill being foisted on religious groups or of Parliament not having the opportunity for further scrutiny of any decisions. I hope that with those reassurances, my hon. Friend will consider withdrawing his amendment.
Mr. Gareth R. Thomas: I am grateful to both my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) and my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department for their words of clarification. I will of course withdraw the amendment as it was intended to be a probing amendment. I do so with one reservation. I will re-read the paper from the legal expert at the university of Westminster. As the university is close to my constituency, I recognise all the more the importance of that paper. I hope that the Lord Chancellor's Department will be able to clarify the views of the Muslim religious authorities before the Bill makes its passage through the other place.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to move that the Bill be read the Third time. The Bill is not a new idea. This is the third attempt in which I have been involved to take it through the House. It is the second attempt that I have made personally. The first attempt was when I tried to take through the House the Bill that had been introduced in another place by Lord Lester. On the two previous occasions, the Bill failed through lack of time.
I am grateful for the support of my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department and indeed the Lord Chancellor himself, and for the support that the Bill has been able to attract from all the Opposition parties. I am particularly grateful to the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), who may have had reservations about the Bill but now seems to be convinced of its merits.
The Bill will remedy a major disadvantage suffered by Jewish men and women who are prevented from remarrying because of the refusal of their partners to grant or accept a religious divorce. In practice, the disadvantage is usually suffered by the wife, rather than the husband.
The basic Jewish laws relating to marriage and divorce are biblical, and theoretically, as I mentioned on Report, can be changed only by a Sanhedrin. As there has not been a Sanhedrin for nearly 2,000 years, it is important that we see what we can do through the civil law to deal with this particular problem.
In Jewish law, marriage and divorce are consensual processes. An individual cannot be married or divorced against his or her will. Although that encourages a couple to try to work together to solve their difficulties, which obviously is a worthwhile objective and an outcome that we would all like to see, occasionally there can be problems where one party seeks to end the marriage, and the other refuses to grant the religious divorce, called in Hebrew a get.
The husband has to go before a Beth Din, a Jewish court, personally or by proxy, to have the get document written and prepared. It must then be delivered to his wife. Only when she receives it from him can a divorce take effect. If the husband fails to do so, the wife cannot remarry in Jewish law, although the husband may be able to do so in limited cases.
Jewish authorities have long been sensitive to the problem, especially where it is the wife who is trapped in a marriage that she seeks to end. She is called, in Hebrew, an agunahthe plural is agunotmeaning one who is chained to a spouse against her will.
An active campaign organisation, the agunot campaign, has been operating for a number of years to bring pressure to bear. It works hard to publicise the practical effects of the injustices of the present laws and to embarrass reluctant husbands into compliance.
There have been attempts to deal with the problem. Two rabbis in the United States have been granting annulments anyway, despite the lack of co-operation of the husbands. However, those American rabbis have a different interpretation of Jewish law, which is not accepted as a valid interpretation by Orthodox Jewish authorities anywhere in the world. Even with such an annulment, remarriage remains impossible within the Jewish faith.
Mr. Dismore: I intended to mention Scotland later in my speech. Family law, in this context, is a devolved responsibility for the Scottish Parliament. There have been discussions in Scotland about whether such a provision should be brought in. I would very much hope that the Scottish Parliament, which is now a little behind the English Parliament in this context, will take our example and propose similar legislation as promptly as possible.
Mr. Jim Murphy (Eastwood): I pay tribute to the efforts made by my hon. Friend on his Bill but, in the spirit of correction and accuracy, may I remind him that this is the British Parliament and not the English Parliament?
Mr. Dismore: My hon. Friend is entirely right. This is the British Parliament but, in this context, it is legislating only for England and Wales. My hon. Friend is quite right to correct me on the constitutional niceties. Having corrected my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas) on the constitutional niceties of European law, I am hoist by my own petard.
The prenuptial agreement can be only a voluntary undertaking and there is considerable doubt whether it can have legal effect as a matter of civil law. Synagogue bodies have tried to institute communal sanctions against recalcitrant spouses. However, a determined spouse can simply ignore those, driven by the ill-will that often accompanies divorce. A well-publicised example of this was the case at the end of 2000, when a rabbi took an advertisement in the Jewish Chronicle to name and shame a recalcitrant husband, but that did not achieve the objective.
More recently, there is now a regular Sunday morning picket, which I joined last year, organised by the agunot campaign outside the house of a Golders Green husband who has refused to grant his wife a get for decades. A civil divorce on the grounds of cruelty was granted in 1962. There was a terrible custody battle and arguments over access in which the husband felt aggrieved at his wife, who took the daughter out of the jurisdiction for a number of years. Now, 40 years on, the husband still refuses to release his wife, despite the extensive publicity given to the case.
It can be appreciated that Jewish women who wish to conduct their family relationships within the framework of their religious beliefs have virtually no power to compel a reluctant husband to grant them a get. Without a get, a divorcee who has a child by her subsequent partnereven if married in civil lawis defined as an adulteress under Jewish law. The child is classed as a mamzer, an illegitimate outcast. This stigma lasts for many future generations, affecting the child's own descendants for centuries.
The consequences of that go beyond the right of a wife to remarry. As a result of the husband's right to withhold a get, a lack of balance is created in negotiations around family breakdown, often over ancillary relief or child custody arrangements. A husband can effectively hold his wife to ransom, and can demand money, property or other unfair or inappropriate rights concerning custody or child maintenance in return for the get.
There are no reliable statistics of the total number of women affected, but seven cases in the Hendon area have been referred to me as the constituency MP. No doubt there are others in my own constituency of which I am unaware and throughout the Jewish community nationwide. It is difficult to get a grip on the figures, because much stigma is still attached to the problem. Some of the cases reported to me illustrate the problems that arise. I referred to them on Second Reading and I do not propose to do so again; anyone who wants to familiarise themselves with these tragic cases can read the Official Report.
The Bill will not help every woman in these tragic circumstances. If the husband does not want or need a civil divorce, or a civil divorce has already been granted in the pastthe Bill cannot be retrospectivethe problem will remain. This is the sad position of a number of women active in the agunot campaign. However, the Bill will provide a real remedy for women in the future who are confronted with these problems, such as those in the cases that I have previously described, if any civil proceedings have not reached decree absolute. It rectifies a serious anomaly in English civil law, which creates this extremely undesirable state of affairs for future cases where civil proceedings have not commenced or been finalised.
The Bill enables the court to require the dissolution of the religious marriage before granting a civil divorce. This provides a lever, whereby pressure could be brought to bear on the husband to agree to a get. Where he unjustly refuses to co-operate, he would not be granted a civil divorce, which is normally sufficient for his purposes, without first agreeing to a religious divorce, which his wife needs to avoid the stigma that I described. The playing field for ancillary relief would also be levelled, avoiding the risk of blackmail over financial settlements or custody or access to children.
Similar provisions have been enacted previously but were not brought into force for reasons wholly unconnected with this Bill, as a result of the previous reform of family law. Similar provisions already apply in parts of Canadian, South African and New York state law, and are currently under consideration in Scotland. The Bill would not solve all cases, but it would resolve many, where the husband needs a civil divorce.
It is also important to understand that the Jewish community is not seeking the assistance of the civil law to solve a Jewish problem. First, the community seeks to end the anomaly whereby a Jewish marriage is also a civil marriage, but a civil divorce may be unaccompanied by a Jewish divorce. Secondly, the Jewish community is seeking the assistance of the civil courts in bringing the
I conclude by expressing my thanks and appreciation to the many people who have written to me in support of the Bill and especially those who have given me such active and vigorous help. First, I thank the Chief Rabbi for his personal encouragement and supportparticularly after the two previous failed attemptsto persevere with the campaign for reform. I thank Judy Nagler and Jeremy Newmark from the Chief Rabbi's office. I wish to thank my constituent and friend, the president of the Board of Deputies, Mrs. Jo Wagerman, for her help. Neville Nagler and Fiona MacCauley from the board have also been of assistance.
Jeffrey Blumenfeld of the Jewish Marriage Council gave me help in identifying the sad and tragic cases that I have used to illustrate the real need for the Bill. Gloria Proops of the agunot campaign, while realising that most of her members would not benefit for the reasons that I have given, has nevertheless supported my efforts to help women who may suffer similar problems to her members.
I must also thank my legal advisers, Dayan Berkovits of the Federation of Synagogues, Miss Eleanor Platt QC and, perhaps above all, Judge Myrella Cohen QC, my constituent, who has spent many patient hours explaining the intricacies of Jewish law and custom to me, proving to me how a millennia-old problem could be considerably eased by a modest measure such as this. I am grateful for her considerable talent for diplomatically correcting my various drafts and comments over the months as I have been working on the Bill.
I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty), without whose tireless efforts behind the scenes we might not have been able to reach Third Reading today. In that context, I thank the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall), who has also been co-operative behind the scenes on behalf of the Opposition.