Moved by Baroness Altmann
1: Clause 1, page 2, line 3, at end insert—“(f) unreasonable prevention or threat of prevention of dissolution of a religious Jewish marriage via a religious bill of divorce (a “get”);”Member’s explanatory statementThis specifically itemises one spouse unreasonably preventing the dissolution of a Jewish religious marriage with a “get” as being within the scope of the Bill by bringing it under the definition of abusive behaviour.
My Lords, I will also speak to the other amendments in this group in my name and those of the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, and the noble Lords, Lord Mendelsohn and Lord Palmer. I am grateful for their cross-party support.
These amendments relate to a particular form of abuse which has long been of concern to me as a British citizen of Jewish faith, whereby a spouse—usually the husband—unreasonably prevents the dissolution of his Jewish religious marriage and denies his wife the freedom to move on with her life. We seek to ensure that such behaviour is recognised as a defined form of abuse under this Bill, so that the wife can receive the support and help provided for victims.
I should stress that the majority of Jewish divorces proceed in accordance with religious laws, especially once the civil divorce settlement is agreed, but there are instances in which a husband deliberately refuses. Sometimes this is to extort money from the wife or her family; sometimes it is to wield power and control out of bitterness or spite; sometimes it is out of a vengeful desire to inflict long-term suffering on the ex-wife. The objective here is to support the victim, who is being treated as a chattel rather than as a person and denied her basic rights. There are cases where a woman has been civilly divorced from her husband for more than 20 years, yet the husband has consistently refused to engage with the religious authorities and to grant her a get. She is unable to remarry or to have further children. She is a prisoner in the marriage.
There is no intention here to undermine the role of the Jewish courts, which govern Jewish religious laws and which require the husband to voluntarily sign an official Jewish bill of divorce document, called a get. This can only be initiated by the husband in order to dissolve their Jewish marriage.
There is an entire legal framework governing all aspects of Jewish life, dating back to Biblical times. Although the present-day Jewish courts, known as batte din, and the judges, or dayanim, have been seeking ways to facilitate a process that can free the woman by means of persuasion or negotiation, this process is clearly open to abuse. The wife remains chained in the marriage and, if she wishes to stand by her faith, she cannot date or remarry another man unless she has been given the get. If she were to do so, any children would be considered illegitimate and would not be fully accepted under Jewish religious law.
We hope that these changes will assist rabbinic courts, so that fewer men will play these kinds of cruel games. Sadly, these have been used by men as leverage to control their ex-wives or demand a ransom for their freedom. We recognise that civil divorce is not a substitute for a get, without which, no matter how long the couple have been separated, they are still not considered religiously divorced. This legislation hopes to provide—and these amendments seek to achieve—a wake-up call for Jewish husbands, so that they recognise that it is socially unacceptable to refuse to religiously divorce their wives. Extortionate demands are not acceptable. It should be done in a timely way. It should be as inappropriate in this day and age for a Jewish man to refuse his wife a get as it is for a man to inappropriately fondle a woman or make lewd comments about her looks. We are seeking mindset change.
I hugely regret that this remains an issue for the rabbinic authorities, who have been unable sufficiently to overcome the problem that this causes for women. I understand and fully respect that these are difficult points of Torah, Talmudic and Mishnaic law, which I do not claim to have detailed legal knowledge of. I bow to the legislators in this country on Jewish matters, but I believe that we have a duty to ensure that these Jewish women are protected. They are entitled to the same protections as other victims of abuse.
Fantastic charities such as Jewish Women’s Aid and GETToutUK have been helpful, and many legal and other experts have pleaded for change. I hope that these amendments will further encourage recalcitrant husbands to free their former wives and that society will recognise their victimhood. Such behaviour is not only unreasonable and abusive; it is immoral. These amendments seek to establish that decent behaviour cannot encompass this type of abuse. Legislation cannot force a man to give a get. The religious courts want men voluntarily to attend and grant it. We are sensitive to concerns that a coerced get may be considered invalid, leaving the wife permanently held hostage in the unwanted marriage. We hope that this mindset change in the national community will be forthcoming as we move forward with this legislation.
The later amendments in this group, Amendments 74, 79 and 80, are designed to clarify that the Serious Crime Act 2015 definition of controlling or coercive behaviour covers a situation where a Jewish couple is separated or divorced under secular law and no longer cohabiting, but the religious marriage is not yet dissolved and the husband persistently refuses to give a get. The amendments seek to confirm the previous belief, not yet tested in court, that such a husband could be prosecuted for the crime of controlling or coercive behaviour and face criminal sanctions, even if the couple are no longer living together. However, I am pleased to tell the House that I will not need to move these amendments as Amendment 45 in a later group, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Lister of Burtersett, has the support of the Minister and of my noble friends Lady Bertin and Lady Sanderson. That amendment would explicitly establish that post-separation abuse is covered by the 2015 Act, and that an unreasonable get refusal would potentially be a serious crime.
Since this issue was raised in Committee, I have been hugely grateful to my noble friends the Ministers who have continued to engage with us. I thank them and their departmental officials, and also the domestic abuse commissioner and her team, who have been so supportive and understanding of this situation. Indeed, perhaps I may put on record how grateful I am to be living in a country where issues of this nature, which affect a particular religion, can be engaged with so seriously and sensitively by our Government, the Civil Service and other officials.
The domestic abuse commissioner has stated that she welcomes these proposed amendments to the Bill and that she recognises that this would be a form of coercive behaviour on the grounds of psychological or economic abuse or coercion. She has requested and recommended that this issue be included in statutory guidance under the heading of “wider spiritual abuse”.
Since this issue was raised in Committee, we have listened carefully to the debate and we would like to thank again the domestic abuse commissioner and the Ministers. Although I stressed clearly that these amendments are designed to relate solely to Jewish religious divorces, with no intention to impact on any other religious groups, we understand that there were concerns of a read-across to other religions.
Having listened carefully to the debate in Committee, I have also been grateful for ministerial assurances that unreasonable and persistent refusal to give a wife a get is already covered by the broad definitions of abuse in the Bill, and I have received assurances that this will be explicitly mentioned in the statutory guidance. I would be grateful if my noble friend would confirm this and, on that basis, I would therefore accept that this issue need not be in the Bill and I do not intend to press the amendment to a vote. I beg to move Amendment 1.
My Lords, I have signed all the amendments in this group, which have been signed by noble Lords from the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties and the Cross Benches—not very usual. As the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, said so very clearly, all these amendments relate to a spouse—usually the husband—unreasonably preventing the dissolution of a Jewish religious marriage.
My thanks go to Government Ministers for engaging with us and for seeking a UK legal solution to this medieval enigma. I would have preferred for these amendments, clear as they are, to be in the Bill. However, I have to accept, as has the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, for the moment, that the problem lies with current interpretations of the rules of Jewish marriage, and not with a parliamentary solution. There is no doubt that chained women and their children, after a civil divorce, are being unreasonably discriminated against for life. I accept that the Government have been sympathetic and have sought by practical means of guidance issued to help those affected, such as with Amendment 45, which I understand will be supported by the Government.
I am grateful for this assistance, but it is not enough. Even if we do not vote on these amendments today, as suggested by the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, I will continue to call for a more sympathetic approach from the Beth Din religious authorities. They rely on the Catch-22 absurdity that a Jewish divorce is not recognised if the recalcitrant husband is seen to be “coerced” into giving a get, resulting in the divorce not being recognised in Jewish law. Thus the agunah, or chained woman, is prohibited from having intimate relations with a man other than her husband and cannot remarry in an orthodox ceremony. In a really unacceptable denial of rights, the children will have severe restrictions placed upon them. Children should not suffer in this way, whatever the reason. This is unacceptable in 2021.
However, these same restrictions on coercion do not stop coercion of the wife being blackmailed, as suggested by the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, into giving a get, be it by payment of money, loss of family home or access to the children of the marriage. All the amendments in this group seek to provide a remedy and I welcome the moves in the Bill and in the guidance. However, what we do not want is to worsen the situation by creating the very perceived coercion which these despicable men rely on.
My Lords, I first came across the problem with which Amendment 1 deals when I was promoting the divorce Act in 1996 and I was assisted in great measure by my late friend Lord Jakobovits, who was then the Chief Rabbi.
The problem arises, as has been explained, for a person of the Jewish faith who is married and then decides to seek divorce. If she is female, she may get a decree of divorce in the English courts, but the Jewish law to which she feels bound requires that she cannot be divorced under that law without the agreement of her husband. Some husbands who have been divorced by the English courts decline to agree that the wife should be allowed to divorce under the Jewish law which they have both agreed to follow. In that situation, the husband is able to hold the wife into the marriage which she has made clear she wishes to leave.
The exercise of power by the husband is a controlling or coercive power within the meaning of Clause 1(3) of the Bill. Since they are both over the age of 16 and have been personally connected within the meaning of Clause 2(1)(a) of the Bill, it is clear that the husband is showing what under the Bill is described—and this will shortly become law—as domestic abuse towards the wife and therefore is subject to the remedies for her provided in the Bill. No distinct amendment is required in order to bring the wife into the situation where she can receive the help that the Bill will provide when it becomes an Act.
I agree that there is a problem which cannot be solved by us about a get having to be voluntary. The use of one of the remedies may be easier than another in that situation, but one thing I am sure of is that it does not do any good to alter the provisions in Clause 1 of the Bill by these amendments, at least in respect of everything except the Serious Crime Act—but I do not think it requires anything to be done in that place, either. Adding things such as “reasonable” and “unreasonable” and so on is a mistake and the proper thing to do is to leave Clause 1 as it is, because it undoubtedly carries with it the implication that the refusal of a get is domestic abuse.
My Lords, the Ministers involved have done a great service by listening to the Members who have put forward these amendments. I am pleased to support all the amendments in this group, to which I have put my name.
By accepting the need to stigmatise husbands who behave unreasonably in not giving a get, the Government are sending a signal to spiteful men and to fossilised religious authorities that compassion and secular standards have to prevail. I support the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, in all that he has said about this. The ability to refuse a religious divorce provides abusive husbands with power to control and to subvert conditions relating to the divorce, by, for example, demanding that the divorce settlement be repaid. The refusal can have a grievous effect on a woman’s entire life. She may be prevented from remarrying while still of childbearing age and there is concern for the status of children that she may have in future.
I am not defending the religious law underlying this, and it is not confined to Judaism. Nevertheless, it is accepted by some women here, and by millions around the world, but it is time for the secular law principles to prevail, all the more so since from this autumn, we will have no-fault divorce, a system which does not allow the unwilling spouse to defend a divorce at all—it must be accepted. The guidance, which I hope will contain these provisions, is a good example of how British law manages to encompass a diversity of views within its system. A man who refuses a get unreasonably in the future may even be found guilty of a criminal offence of coercive and controlling behaviour, under the Serious Crime Act 2015, because this Bill clarifies that domestic abuse provisions apply to former couples, even after separation. Nevertheless, this provision would work more effectively as a threat than an actual imprisonment, because the get must be granted by the husband without direct coercion. The clarification in the statutory guidance which we hope for will mean that this is a good day for women and a step closer to equality in religious law.
My Lords, I speak personally in this debate. It is a privilege and a pleasure to follow the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, because I remember 1996. I was in the Chamber as a newly appointed Peer and remember very well Lord Jakobovits, who was quite a close friend.
I come from an orthodox Jewish family and I am an orthodox Jew. My grandfather was an orthodox rabbi. He taught me Hebrew and Aramaic from the age of six or seven, and his wife, my maternal grandmother, was very concerned about the problem of get. She used to try persuading the rabbinical authorities, including my grandfather, who was not a dayan—a judge—of the rightness of the cause. She remained, throughout her life, from the First World War onwards, an activist on this. My grandfather supported her with a smile, but he recognised that the Jewish courts were rather reluctant to move forward.
My mother travelled around the world trying to persuade the rabbis of the problem faced by the agunah. She spoke to American, Israeli and Australian rabbis—for example, the Chief Rabbi of Israel—and those in parts of Europe. The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, who will be speaking in this debate, can testify to how frightening my mother was. Unquestionably, many strictly orthodox rabbis appeared to be persuaded. She was always greeted with polite acquiescence, but nothing has happened, and one of the problems is that there are many different courts, so-called batte din, around the world. There is more than one in this country and they have been reluctant to work collectively in any way.
Another reason for being personally interested in this debate is that this is the week of my 48th wedding anniversary. My wife is not listening to what I am saying about divorce, by the way. Judaism differs from many other faiths because religious law is based on Talmud, which dates back to the Mishnah from the second century and the fifth century. It is a huge and remarkable compilation of discussions by the rabbis, who, of course, disagree with each other. Jews always disagree, and the Talmud is one of the few books of law of any kind which is almost entirely a matter of questions. One rabbi asks a question and another group of rabbis answers with a question. That is how the Talmud has built up. It has left Judaism almost unique in its religious format. It is not pyramidal—there is no one central authority. There is no supreme court in Judaism. I suspect that a supreme court would be in the world to come, not in this world. That has been a major problem for a few issues, particularly this issue of the chained woman.
It is embarrassing for someone such as myself to try persuading an English Parliament, to which I am absolutely committed, to help with Jewish law. I would also say that these instances of irreligious men hiding behind their religious cloak is much rarer than one might think, but none the less, there is this very important case for a few people where the future happiness of a woman, her freedom and, to some extent, the possibility of her having children is so important to her and to the community. It would at least prevent this shocking instance, so I am delighted that the Government are minded in some way to help us. I am very pleased that the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, feels that the amendment to follow, to which I will listen with great care, will help to sort this matter out. I congratulate her on bringing forward this important matter, which affects a number of Jewish families.
My Lords, it is a privilege to speak to the amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann. I am not Jewish, but as a woman of faith I appreciate the complexities detailed in the amendments. I am grateful to all organisations which have kept us fully briefed throughout the passage of this Bill. I salute them today, for many have spent a lifetime advocating for victims and survivors. As we approach the end, I have drawn on their experience, sentiments, and many of their expressions and words, to speak today, and I stand in support of the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, and other noble Lords who have spoken.
Violence and abuse often beget another generation of violence, not in all families, but some are so scathed by the pain, humiliation and loss of hope, respect and self-esteem, and mental and physical well-being, that this impacts all aspects of their lives. Women have achieved significant positions in society and throughout the globe, yet perpetrators— mostly men—have, as has been said, continued to feel entitlement to an inalienable right to batter and abuse their wives and partners, sometimes using religious references. Throughout the years, many in families and communities and, shockingly, lawmakers and law enforcers, have often been bystanders, designating the degradation of women as “domestic”. Women have tolerated millennia of violence and persecution sanctioned by family, society, and worst of all, the state, and sometimes even religion. This Bill is our pledge that we will uphold a society which liberates victims and survivors to live free of the fear of violence and abuse and, more importantly, institutionalise justice, freedom and liberty from aggressors and their assailants.
Laws, while a cornerstone, will not on their own aid the victims, the survivors, and their families to rebuild their lives. They will continue to require proper and adequate financial assistance and structural support to protect them until they are strong enough in transit from victim to survivor. Therefore, at the outset it is crucial that the gendered context of abuse is recognised on the face of the Bill. We live in an unequal world, where women are often at the margin or society, no matter what advances we have made in some aspects of our society. All victims of domestic abuse need support, but how we respond to men and women will inevitably be different, as has been stated, and therefore their experiences and needs require appropriate responses. To deny a gendered approach is to persist in repudiating the experiences of the vast majority of victims and survivors of violence and abuse, who are women in our country and throughout all parts of our world.
The Istanbul convention also requires states to take a gendered approach, taking on board women’s faiths when implementing laws and policies on domestic abuse. This Bill cannot deny the reality, thus ignoring well-established evidence that women escaping and recovering from violence and abuse will require women-only services.
May I say that I also wanted to speak to the group beginning with Amendment 2, but I mistakenly was unable to put my name down? But it was an honour to be present in the Chamber to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, as she powerfully addressed the Chamber and courageously stated her personal experience. I recognise the point that she has argued, and accept that there are certainly many complexities which become part of the continuous battle over children in separation and divorce. Regrettably, I am not in support of her clause. I worked with women’s NGOs and refuges—
The noble Baroness is now speaking to the amendment that comes in the next group. If she would constrain her remarks to the amendments in the first group, that would be appreciated.
Later in this Bill, we will be discussing the role of Cafcass and the family court in instructing contact with children, which calibrates comprehensive briefing, and must always ensure that the protection and well-being of children are at the forefront of any discussions. Although I recognise the important and useful role of Cafcass and the family court system, I suggest it is far from resilient in its effectiveness and application, due to insufficient understanding of the impact of violence and abuse.
I wish to address the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, and her call for get refusal to be recognised as a form of domestic abuse within the statutory definition to ensure that Jewish women are protected and can access a DAPO on the grounds that a get is being withheld by an abuser.
I appreciate that this amendment specifically addresses get. I am in awe of the leadership of the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, in getting us to this point. If husbands who refuse wives religious divorce are likely to be prosecuted, it would be a godsend, not just for Jewish women, as it would give hope to other women of faith, including Sikhs, Muslims, and Hindus—many of whom often discover, when there is a violent incident or separation, that their religious ceremonies are not recognised by the laws of our country. This blights the lives of countless women and families who have no recourse to the laws. The Register Our Marriage campaign and other leading women’s organisations welcome these proposed changes on get, as do I. It raises hope for others seeking state recognition for their plight in relation to religious ceremonies.
My Lords, I take part briefly in this debate because I was moved by what my noble friend Lady Altmann said in Committee. I go by one abiding conviction: we are all equal under the law and every subject of Her Majesty the Queen deserves the same consideration, the same protection and the same advancement as any other. As a great admirer of the Jewish community and what it has contributed to our national life over many centuries, I believe that what my noble friend is arguing for today is something that we should all recognise as a legitimate request. I was delighted to hear her comments that she believes that this will be covered, even though her own amendment will not be pressed to a Division.
I have tried to help a little in the work that the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, has done for Muslim women in the context of sharia law. Again, it is important that everyone in this country—every woman—has the same benefits as every other. The rule of law is what makes this a civilised country.
I sincerely hope that we will go forward from Report to see this important landmark Bill on the statute book very soon, and that it will indeed give true and equal protection to all those who suffer or who are in fear of domestic abuse. I am glad to support this amendment.
My Lords, I speak in support of this group of amendments, which I have signed. I associate myself with the excellent speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, and my colleagues. I also thank the Minister and the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, and the officials of the domestic abuse commissioner for their engagements on these amendments.
There is indeed progress. As my noble friends have said, there are some clear indications for some modest but significant improvements as outlined. Crucially, I hope we will hear some reassurance, building on what was said in Committee, that statutory guidance, as provided for in Clause 73, will take into account the measures proposed in the amendments.
It is also important to note that there is a host of additional elements throughout this Bill which support the plight of victims and will provide new opportunities for assistance and help, including DAPOs, the role of the domestic abuse commissioner and many others. There is no doubt that more will be done over time. At its very heart, this is a form of gender discrimination that we really cannot accept.
The Government have made a number of arguments as to why they could not go further or place these matters on the face of the Bill. Indeed, there is a reasonable point that the Government have not had enough time to tease through all the different implications for all faiths on this matter. There is a less persuasive point about drafting preferences.
There are two arguments, however, that are surely utterly wrong and incompatible with the underlying intentions behind this Bill: namely, that this is only domestic abuse in certain circumstances and that English law alone cannot solve this matter. A plainly gender-specific arrangement which places women where they have less rights and power in courts, which are exclusively run by the decisions of men, is wrong. This is not a situation we should accept, nor is it an arrangement we should settle for, even under any calculation of what religious freedoms should be accorded to faith communities in our country.
In Holland, the courts have been making rulings which have included fines and even imprisonment of husbands unwilling to deliver gets, with all the support of the rabbinate and the religious courts. In fact, under Dutch jurisprudence since 2002, which was strengthened in specific legislation just a couple of years ago—and which has been accessed by Jewish women across Europe, including, previously, some from the UK who, unfortunately, can no longer access it now—the secular courts are able to unchain Jewish women in these circumstances. The distinguished Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, the head of the conference of European orthodox rabbis, supports this measure, as does rabbi Aryeh Ralbag, the former chief rabbi of Amsterdam, who now works in the orthodox courts in New York to bring reform and change. They support the Dutch judiciary’s proactive approach and recognise that, over 2,000 years, the role of the religious courts and the nature of Jewish communities in modern times is different. In response to the opposition of those who resist any notion that secular values or laws should ever interfere in how the Jewish law operates in liberal democracies. Rabbi Ralbag has powerfully said:
“Am I concerned that this is creating a precedent for interference? In some places, yes, I am. But I and every rabbi need to measure this against the pain and suffering that is being visited on Jewish women right now. And right now, this is what we can do to help”.
Regrettably, we are a long way from that here in the UK, but this is something that I think should inspire us that more can and must be done through this Bill—and indeed after it. I have been truly shocked and humbled over the issues presented by these amendments. I have been contacted by tens of women in this situation since I first spoke out. I have heard the most traumatic stories, including with people I knew, and in some cases people I have socialised with. How true it is that you never know what is going on, even with people you think you know well. The private torments, appalling behaviour, abuse and control—it has been utterly shocking. How important it is that there are excellent organisations such as the Jewish Women’s Aid and GETTout UK. I have been shocked at how some members of the legal profession have been providing the use of the get as a bargaining chip to ensure that women cannot receive what the law is clear and firm they are fully entitled to.
These issues go much deeper than the granting of the get and involve many cases that do not even touch the sides of the religious courts, where they are prepared to intervene. So while I am grateful to the Government for the progress that I hope the Minister will confirm during his speech, we cannot be satisfied with where we are. There is a huge duty on leaders in the Jewish community to face up to this dark side. While thus far it does not do what the Dutch have done, I hope the Bill will make them think and come round to proposing more legislative interventions themselves. I hope Jewish women will find comfort in the support that the Bill will give them in their struggles ahead, and for that we must be grateful.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to listen to and follow my noble friend Lord Mendelsohn and the other sponsors of these amendments.
I wish to make two brief points. The first is that whenever there is an unequivocal imbalance in power relations, that affects behaviour. The behaviour relayed to me in the context of these amendments particularly concerns women who remain in abusive relationships precisely because, in any definition of “negotiation”, the odds of getting out are stacked against them. One cannot go fairly into a separation negotiation if the other side has additional cards that are greater than the ones you possess. That imbalance affects ongoing behaviour; it will be affecting people’s behaviour now, as my noble friend Lord Mendelsohn rightly pointed out, in cases where perhaps no one will know anything at all other than the woman directly affected. There is a responsibility on the Government to listen acutely to the expertise being brought.
That brings me to my second point—and it is an apposite time to be making it in the context of Lord Speaker elections and people thinking about the size of the House—about the diversity of this place. There is no purpose in having an unelected Second Chamber if it does not represent the diversity of the communities out there. With these amendments and the Government’s arguments against them, we see a juxtaposition of the best and the not so good. Here we see a community effectively represented, by Members from across the range of the political spectrum knowledgably putting forward their expertise to the Government and to the House. But if we are to have a purpose here and carry out the precise role that an unelected Chamber needs to, we need to be far more inclusive of all communities across the country. The amendments, as clearly as any that I have ever seen, absolutely demonstrate the strengths of this House but also, in a sense—and I anticipate that this will be the Government’s response—part of its ongoing weaknesses, in that we are not inclusive enough of all communities.
I congratulate those who have brought forward their expertise from their community for the rest of us. With such cross-party wisdom, it would be foolish of us to ignore that expertise.
It is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Mann, who, as a non-Jew, has done, and continues to do, so much in the fight against anti-Semitism.
The well-informed debate in Committee was a good one and today’s debate has been just as important and impressive. I am delighted to confirm the assertions by the noble Lord, Lord Winston, about his mother, the late Ruth Winston-Fox; she was a force to be reckoned with but also a wonderfully warm, creative and successful campaigner. She clearly produced quite an impressive son, too.
The Bill, which is welcomed across the House and beyond, is about helping as many people who need it as possible. That is why I support my noble friend Lady Altmann’s amendments; as always, she made the case strongly and eloquently. I too am grateful to the Government, specifically on the Front Bench, my noble friends Lady Williams and Lord Wolfson. There can be no doubt in my mind that withholding a get is abusive behaviour. I also pay tribute to the inspiring work of Jewish Women’s Aid.
While it remains true that I am a member of the United Synagogue and part of the Modern Orthodox Jewish community, I am qualified to speak for no one. However, I spoke to a close family member who happens to be going through a divorce and, as she said, if via this Bill only one woman, one agunah, were spared the indignity, the abuse, the embarrassment and the hurt and were enabled to rebuild her life then that would be a good result. How much more important it is if, by passing these focused and narrow amendments, we can help many more than just one agunah. My noble friend Lord Wolfson understands, he has empathy and he has the knowledge to help. I urge him to help those who need it.
My Lords, I speak to show support from these Benches for the amendments. They relate to Jewish law but there are many women who, for many reasons, are effectively prevented from leaving a failed marriage because their spouse unreasonably decides to prevent them moving on with their lives. Just one example might be where a wife is subject to abuse but the husband threatens to cut her off without a penny if she leaves the relationship. Whether or not the threat could be carried out is not the point if the threat is believed. In the case of the amendments, the husband has to consent to the divorce in Jewish law, and so the threat is real.
It is a privilege to be able to speak on this Bill on International Women’s Day. Any woman should be free to leave any relationship if she so chooses, and that includes relationships covered by these amendments. In 2021 there should be no chained women.
My Lords, Labour is happy to support this group of amendments but recognises the realities of abuse that different communities face. We must ensure that what is in the Bill works in practice for victims of all backgrounds in the UK.
The technical aspects of the amendments have been described powerfully and in detail by other noble Lords. When I came to review them in preparation for today, I was struck by the complexity of the situation surrounding victims caught in these particular circumstances due to religious faith, and the clarity with which these amendments have been written in order to ameliorate the effects and consequences of that faith while unlocking the rights of the woman in that situation and disallowing perpetrators from using the get negotiations as an abusive bargaining chip.
I pay tribute to the noble Lords who have brought forward these amendments for the experienced and knowledgeable way in which they have highlighted this problem, and I am glad of the support across all areas of the House for the amendments, on the grounds of domestic abuse by way of controlling and coercive behaviour. As the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, spoke of in her detailed opening speech, this is a defined form of abuse where the victim is treated as chattel. I was interested to hear my noble friend Lord Winston’s insights into the uniqueness of Judaism in not having one central authority, as well as my noble friend Lord Mendelsohn’s powerful and cogent arguments about what must be done, and the insight that he showed in his comment about not knowing what is actually going on with people who you think you know.
Inclusion in the Bill provides the opportunity to ensure that its provisions and protections are applicable to all. It specifically recognises the plight of these women by removing the shadow of abuse and control, restoring their right to exercise their faith through their ability to remarry and have children within their faith. The recognition would also offer these women other protections under the Act, once it is passed, if they are specifically included. It is in line with a key objective of the Bill: to raise awareness and understanding of domestic abuse and its impact on victims. Key is the ability of women to bring a case where they retain control of the process as the victims, rather than as a witness in a prosecution, having criminal sanctions as a civil party. It also clarifies that unreasonably preventing the obtaining of a get can include the imposition of unfair conditions, calibrated by reference to being substantially less favourable terms than the civil courts have ordered.
In conclusion, on International Women’s Day, this group highlights what so many noble Lords have said. The Bill needs to work for all victims and to do that it needs to grapple with the reality of how domestic abuse is experienced, in all the different ways that it is, by all of our communities across the UK—whatever their faith or ethnicity—by those living with it and trying to escape it.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Altmann for tabling these amendments. As a number of speakers have said, it is particularly apt that we are debating this on International Women’s Day. The quality of speeches in this debate is a testament to the strength of feeling across the House. Indeed, the standard of speeches has set a very high bar for the rest of Report.
I hope the House will forgive me if I depart from my prepared text to pick up two comments by my noble friend Lord Cormack. He first said that all were equal under the law. I respectfully agree entirely. Towards the end of his short but powerful contribution, he also said, if I took it down correctly, “The rule of law is what makes this a civilised country.” Again, I respectfully agree, and those two propositions guide not only the work of my department but my approach to this matter.
Amendments 1 and 3 would add a sixth limb to the list of behaviours in Clause 1(3) which count as abusive; namely, the unreasonable refusal to agree to the granting of a religious bill of divorce, or get, which is necessary to dissolve a Jewish religious marriage. The threat of such a refusal would also be caught by the amendment. It is undeniable that women who are refused a get by their husbands suffer long-lasting and significant consequences. A woman who has not received a get is regarded in the eyes of Jewish religious law as still married. She is therefore unable to remarry, but that is not the only disability which she suffers. Perhaps more importantly, if she does not remarry but has further children with another Jewish partner, those children will be severely restricted as a matter of Jewish law as to whom they are later able to marry.
The term applied in Jewish law to a woman whose husband refuses to give her a get, being an “agunah” or “chained”, is thus apt and tragic. I know that Jewish religious authorities are concerned about the problem but have not, so far, found a solution to it within Jewish religious law. That is a source of regret to many, but not something which English law alone can solve. While I accept, as the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, put it, that this issue goes back to medieval times and may go back further—it is certainly of long standing—it is a matter which ultimately, so far as Jewish law is concerned, the Jewish religious authorities themselves have to deal with. If the undoubted abilities of the mother of the noble Lord, Lord Winston, were insufficient to resolve this problem—I pass on congratulations from the Front Bench to him on his wedding anniversary—and she did not succeed with all her talents, one wonders where the solution will come from.
While English law cannot solve this problem, there is something which English law can and should deal with. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, reminded the House, this is not the first time English law has engaged itself in this area. He reminded the House of the significant work done by the late Chief Rabbi, Lord Jakobovits, of blessed memory, which led up to the legislation at the start of this century. English law can recognise that the refusal to grant a religious dissolution is all too often about the exertion of control by one spouse over the other—almost invariably, in the context of a get, by the husband over the wife—and, as such, may be considered a form of domestic abuse in certain circumstances
However, as my noble friend Lady Williams outlined in her response in Committee, we consider that this would sit better in the statutory guidance on domestic abuse provided for in Clause 73, rather than in the Bill. Again, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, identified, that is because the list of abusive behaviours included in the definition is purposefully drafted to be high level. That definition is therefore to be applied by the courts and other agencies on a case-by-case, fact-specific basis. Including specific circumstances in the Bill, such as a refusal to grant a get, may lead to calls for inclusion of other examples which would have two adverse consequences. First, as a matter of drafting, it would make the definition unwieldy. Secondly, we do not want to give the impression by including specific examples that there is a hierarchy of abuse. We are concerned to capture and prevent all forms of domestic abuse.
Before I provide further reassurance on the matter of statutory guidance, which a number of noble Lords have referred to, it would make sense to respond to Amendment 79 first. That amendment seeks to ensure that both the guidance I have just referred to and the statutory guidance issued under Section 77 of the Serious Crime Act 2015 include the unreasonable refusal to grant a get within their discussion of controlling or coercive behaviour. While we would not want to prescribe in statute what statutory guidance must contain, the House will have heard my own and my noble friend Lady Williams’ previous commitments during Committee and subsequent discussions to address this issue in the statutory guidance provided for in Clause 73.
I am pleased to have met with my noble friend Lady Altmann, the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, and the noble Lords, Lord Mendelsohn and Lord Palmer, recently to discuss this matter and share our progress on including the issue within the statutory guidance. Home Office officials have been working closely with my noble friend Lady Altmann, with Jewish Women’s Aid and others to shape the reference to this issue in the statutory guidance. I was particularly pleased to hear my noble friend refer to the work done by my department’s officials in this regard as well.
I am pleased that we have now included specific reference to refusal to grant a get within the draft guidance. We have also included a specific case study on get refusal, provided by Jewish Women’s Aid—to whom I pay tribute, as my noble friend Lord Polak did—to bring the issue to life for those reading that guidance. Let me say this clearly and unambiguously: there are, and no doubt will be, cases in which the refusal to give a get may be considered a form of domestic abuse. As my noble friend Lady Deech reminded the House, that is especially the case if refusal to grant a get is used as a method to undermine a financial settlement imposed by the civil court. As the noble Lord, Lord Mann, reminded the House, the issue here is that that power affects all the negotiations which surround the issue of separation.
Turning back to the statutory guidance, we have also added a new section on spiritual abuse, a particular form of abuse where perpetrators use the victim’s faith or other belief system to control them. We have worked closely in this regard with the Faith and Violence Against Women and Girls Coalition, drawing on its expertise. The new section is now comprehensive and takes up a few pages within the guidance.
I respectfully agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, that this applies to all faiths. Spiritual abuse is not faith specific, and I assure the noble Lord, Lord Mann, that the Government’s approach is to be absolutely inclusive of all communities within our country. We will continue to work closely with the experts as we develop the guidance, and we will be publishing an updated version of the draft guidance shortly after Royal Assent for a formal consultation, where there will be a further opportunity for interested parties to contribute. As the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, said, because what we are dealing with here are ultimately issues of power and control, I hope that that will enhance the nature and quality of the consultation.
I turn now to Amendment 74, which seeks to ensure that partners in a Jewish religious marriage which has not been dissolved can be considered within the definition of “intimate personal relationship” within the Serious Crime Act 2015, whether or not they continue to be married under civil law or live together. My noble friends will have seen that we intend to support the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, which would remove the “living together” requirement contained within the controlling or coercive behaviour offence. Therefore, Amendment 74 is now unnecessary.
I turn finally to Amendment 80, which seeks to ensure that the unreasonable refusal to dissolve a religious marriage be regarded as a significant factor in the consideration of whether a person has suffered domestic abuse, whether a domestic abuse protection order should be issued, and the production by relevant local authorities of strategies for the provision of domestic abuse support, as required by Clause 55. My remarks just now about what is appropriate to include on the face of the Bill, and what to include in guidance, apply equally to the first limb of this amendment, on the determination of domestic abuse. On the second limb of the amendment, which refers to domestic abuse protection orders, it would not be appropriate for the Government to direct the judiciary as to what it must consider when deciding whether to grant such an order. That is a matter for the courts. The amendment is, in any event, unnecessary. The conditions which must be satisfied before a court can make a DAPO will already enable a court to make such an order if the behaviour amounts to abusive behaviour under Clause 1(3). On the final limb, relating to local authorities, we are not otherwise specifying what local authorities must take into account when drawing up their strategies, which will relate to general provision in the relevant local authority area. A specific reference is therefore unnecessary, but again I reassure my noble friend that this issue will be considered within the statutory guidance to which those local authorities will refer.
The noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn, referred to the approach in Holland, and said that the Jewish religious authorities ought to look at the approach there. It is not for the Government to identify what might or might not be an appropriate solution to this problem from the point of view of Jewish religious law. It is fair to say, as the noble Lord mentioned, that there are different answers or proposed answers to a very long-standing question. It is undeniable, as again he said, that there are causes which are traumatic indeed. The intent of this amendment has broad support across the House. We have heard a number of very powerful speeches supporting the proposals, and not only do the Liberal Democrat Benches support them but the Opposition do as well. I was a little worried for a moment about whether that support would be forthcoming, but it was. The Government are also in sympathy with the underlying aims of these amendments, and I was very pleased to hear from my noble friend that, in light of our discussions and the progress made on the statutory guidance, and the very clear—and I hope unambiguous—statements made from the Dispatch Box today, she will be content to withdraw her amendment.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his remarks, and am truly humbled by the widespread support across the House for the sentiments and intent of these amendments. Every noble Lord who spoke supported this group of amendments. I hope that, on International Women’s Day, this will help promote a mindset change among Jewish men, or men of any faith, that the position of power they may find themselves in should not be exercised against the interests of their wives. I accept that the broad definitions do cover get refusal, and I appreciate my noble friend’s unambiguous statements to that effect. On the basis of the assurances that I have most gratefully received, I will not be moving my Amendments 3, 74, 79 and 80, and I thank my noble friend and the department for all their engagement. I beg leave to withdraw my Amendment 1.
Amendment 1 withdrawn.