Clause 1 - Power to refuse decree absolute if steps not taken to dissolve religious marriage

Divorce (Religious Marriages) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:30 am on 7th November 2001.

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

Photo of Andrew Dismore Andrew Dismore Labour, Hendon

I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Conway, and hope that your duties will not prove too onerous this morning.

The purpose of the clause is to remedy a 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, known in Hebrew as a get. The Jewish laws on marriage and divorce are biblical and not easily changed. In Jewish law, marriage and divorce are consensual processes, and an individual cannot be married or divorced against his or her will. That creates a problem in cases in which one party seeks to end the marriage and the other refuses to grant or receive a divorce.

For a civil divorce to be effective in Jewish law, a get—a consensual divorce in which mutual co-operation between the parties is needed—must be obtained. The husband has to go before a Beth Din court—a court in Jewish law—for a get and deliver it to his wife, and she is required to accept it. If he does not do so, the wife cannot remarry in Jewish law, although the husband may still be able to do so.

Jewish women who want 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 a subsequent partner is defined as an adulteress under Jewish law and the children are illegitimate for future generations. If a wife refuses to accept a husband's get, he does not suffer from the same disadvantages, so he can hold his wife to ransom, demanding money, property or other rights such as custody or reduced child maintenance in return for the get.

The Bill would enable a court to require the dissolution of a religious marriage before granting a civil divorce. The power is discretionary, but would provide a lever whereby pressure could be brought on the husband to agree to a get. New section 10A(1) refers to other prescribed religious usages, to be prescribed by the Lord Chancellor. It may have implications for Muslim marriages, but there has been no pressure from that community so far for similar provisions; the Bill is aimed primarily at the problems of Jewish divorce.

Photo of Andrew Mitchell Andrew Mitchell Conservative, Sutton Coldfield

On a point of clarification, the hon. Gentleman said that the proposal was aimed primarily at the problems of Jewish divorce. I understand that it is specifically aimed at that problem. Is that correct?

Photo of Andrew Dismore Andrew Dismore Labour, Hendon

It is correct that the Bill is specifically aimed at the problems of Jewish divorce, but should an unforeseen problem arise with another religion, a provision is made for the Lord Chancellor to proceed by order, which would be subject to the negative resolution procedure in both Houses.

The court would intervene only on the application of either the husband or the wife. It is a discretion that is available to the court; there is no compulsion on the judge, who would intervene only if that was just and reasonable. If one party was behaving unreasonably, the judge could intervene; if both parties were behaving reasonably, there would be no cause for him to do so. An order made by the judge could be revoked at any time.

The parties would have to produce a declaration, which must be in a specified form. The specification would be in the rules of court and could be changed relatively easily, if the paperwork proved to be more complicated than anticipated.

That is all that I have to say on the clause. I shall do my best to answer hon. Members' questions.

Photo of Mr John Burnett Mr John Burnett Liberal Democrat, Torridge and West Devon

I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Conway. I have not served under your chairmanship before, but I have served under the benign chairmanship of other members of the Committee, particularly the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody).

My first reaction on reading the Bill was that members of the Jewish faith should be able to resolve the problem. Fortunately, however, I had the opportunity to discuss the Bill with my illustrious and noble Friend Lord Lester, who led the Bill through the House of Lords.

Photo of Andrew Dismore Andrew Dismore Labour, Hendon

In fact, Lord Lester piloted another Bill. This third attempt at such legislation is phrased slightly differently from previous attempts, but will have the same effect.

Photo of Mr John Burnett Mr John Burnett Liberal Democrat, Torridge and West Devon

I am extremely grateful for that correction, because I was not certain what role Lord Lester had in the legislation. In any case, he has had a prominent role. He explained to me that, since 74 AD and the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, it has been impossible for a Sanhedrin to meet, and therefore impossible for orthodox Jewish people to change their laws.

I am sympathetic to the Bill, as is my party, especially because of the occasional and sometimes more than occasional victimisation of women. It ill behoves me as a Catholic to pronounce on these matters, but I can see the benign effects that the Bill could have.

As the Sanhedrin has not met since 74 AD, I imagine that quite a lot of Jewish teaching is a little archaic, and this issue is one example. Our summer recesses are becoming longer, and if we are not careful, we shall create a similar problem, because we cannot change the law when we are not here.

I should like the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) to elaborate on one or two points. Will he give us greater detail about the reaction of members of the Jewish faith to the provision? It is important that we hear more about that, because we do not want to trespass on the sensitivities of an important section of our community.

Photo of Gwyneth Dunwoody Gwyneth Dunwoody Labour, Crewe and Nantwich

Is it not true that, on religious observance, there is a clear line to be drawn between a Parliament's interests in justice and the fair distribution of support, and the views of a particular religion, and that we have encountered such a distinction before?

Photo of Mr John Burnett Mr John Burnett Liberal Democrat, Torridge and West Devon

I am extremely grateful for that question. The hon. Lady may recall my saying that, until I heard the history of the matter, I thought that it would be best dealt with by members of the Jewish faith.

The same situation prevails for Catholics as for Jewish people: a Catholic marriage is also a civil marriage. Catholics do not recognise divorce, as the hon. Member for Hendon probably knows, so a civil divorce is not a Catholic divorce. With the Bill, we are, albeit indirectly and with discretion, impinging on the solemn beliefs of a group of people. I should therefore like to know what consultation there has been with members of the Jewish faith, and the results. It would be wise to have that on the record.

Photo of Mike Gapes Mike Gapes Labour/Co-operative, Ilford South

Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that, in British society today, there should not be common standards and equal rights for all, and that because people follow a variation of a particular religion, they can invoke a religious exclusion clause so that the normal civil liberties and laws do not apply to them?

Photo of Mr John Burnett Mr John Burnett Liberal Democrat, Torridge and West Devon

I am not so grateful for that intervention, because I said that I was deeply sympathetic to the Bill. However, it is important that, so far as possible, we carry members of the Jewish faith with us. I do not want to trespass unnecessarily on their solemn beliefs. I repeat that I am sympathetic to the Bill and would be happy to see it extended, if need be, along the lines suggested by the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell). I hope that the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) will understand that it not wise to stoke up problems in sensitive debates where problems do not exist—

Photo of Louise Ellman Louise Ellman Labour/Co-operative, Liverpool, Riverside

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the orthodox Jewish community and its representative institutions strongly support the Bill, and that they have been disappointed at the failure of similar Bills in the past?

Photo of Mr John Burnett Mr John Burnett Liberal Democrat, Torridge and West Devon

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that intervention. I am sure that she has a significant and compelling fund of knowledge to back up her assertion. I was anxious to hear that and no doubt the hon. Member for Hendon can elaborate.

Will the hon. Member for Hendon tell us whether there is a problem with the European convention on human rights? Could the Bill be seen as discriminating against holders of the Jewish or other faiths? How will it apply to the Muslim faith? I understand that the Bill would allow Muslims to overcome some of their difficulties with matrimonial issues.

Finally, judicial discretion is wide—and rightly so. What has been done to settle the guidelines for judges to deal with these matters? Who will scrutinise those guidelines, and what consultation will there be about them?

Photo of Barry Gardiner Barry Gardiner Labour, Brent North

May I suggest that the hon. Gentleman examine the central feature of the Bill? It attempts to address a fundamental inequity in the relationship between husband and wife in the Jewish faith, in that the husband can avail himself of certain advantages, to the disadvantage of the wife. Far from contradicting human rights legislation, the Bill introduces into civil law a provision whereby the courts can use discretion to ensure that equity applies.

Photo of Mr John Burnett Mr John Burnett Liberal Democrat, Torridge and West Devon

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I fully understand that, but some people could still make mischief through the European convention on human rights. That was my penultimate point. I am anxious that the hon. Member for Hendon take the opportunity to explain the repercussions of the convention on the Bill. As I said, I hope that he will also say more about the guidelines for judges.

I repeat that we welcome proper and sensible debate of the Bill, and that we want any potential problems arising to be worked out through its parliamentary stages.

Photo of Mike Gapes Mike Gapes Labour/Co-operative, Ilford South 10:45 am, 7th November 2001

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.

Photo of Andrew Mitchell Andrew Mitchell Conservative, Sutton Coldfield

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.

Photo of Ms Linda Perham Ms Linda Perham Labour, 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.

Photo of Gwyneth Dunwoody Gwyneth Dunwoody Labour, Crewe and Nantwich

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.

Photo of Richard Bacon Richard Bacon Conservative, 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.

Photo of Andrew Dismore Andrew Dismore Labour, Hendon

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.

Photo of Mr John Burnett Mr John Burnett Liberal Democrat, Torridge and West Devon

Has the hon. Gentleman met any objection to the Bill?

Photo of Andrew Dismore Andrew Dismore Labour, Hendon

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.