Ms Rosie Winterton: I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) on his strong commitment to this important issue, and on the skill and determination that he has shown in piloting his Bill through the House. I echo the tribute that he paid to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty).
A number of Members have spoken, including my hon. Friends the Members for Finchley and Golders Green (Dr. Vis), for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman), for Eastwood (Mr. Murphy), for Ilford, North (Linda Perham) and for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes). I was moved by the way in which my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North contrasted her 30 years of happy marriageon which I congratulate her againwith the tragic tales brought to her surgery by constituents, and the dealings she has had with this difficult issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood mentioned Scotland. His comments will be taken on board, which I hope will ensure that the campaign is as successful in Scotland as it has been here.
I do not want to let this opportunity pass without paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mr. Caplin). He cannot speak for himselfunusuallybut he has made a number of representations to me about the issue.
The hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) also made a moving speech. I understand his concerns, but I can reassure him that the Bill does not seek to change Jewish religious law or to interfere with its interpretation. It amends only the civil law, in order to place Jewish men and women who seek divorce on an equal footing.
The Government are certainly sympathetic in regard to the difficulties experienced by some Jewish women who are prevented from remarrying in a religious ceremony because their husbands refuse to grant them a religious divorce, known as a get. Jewish women in that position have been described as "chained women trapped in limping marriages". Our aim, which applies to all families, is to ensure that if marriages break down acrimony can be reduced for all concernedespecially, of course, the children. Limping marriages are far from that ideal, and we are very aware of the distressing consequences for such women and their children.
This is a short and straightforward Bill with an important aim. It seeks to remedy the injustice and suffering experienced by chained women and their children. Some Jewish women who obtain a civil divorce from a spouse who refuses to grant them the religious divorcethe getcan face grave difficulties. According to orthodox interpretations of Jewish religious law, a woman who does not obtain a get is still considered to be married, regardless of any civil divorce. The get is therefore essential if the marriage is to be properly dissolved for the purposes of Jewish religious law. Orthodox Jewish women who obtain a civil divorce, but whose husbands refuse to give them a get, may not remarry in a religious ceremony in a synagogue.
Chained women may suffer other serious consequences because of their husbands' refusal to give them a get. If a chained woman sought to remarry in, say, a civil ceremony without obtaining a get, her marriage would not be regarded as a valid Jewish marriage and any children of the union would be regarded as illegitimate, a status that would last for 10 generations.
Women who wish to remain part of the orthodox Jewish religious community can be put in an invidious position if their husbands choose to abuse the religious law in this way. They can be forced to choose between observing the laws and practices required by their religious faith, and the freedom to remarry and make a fresh start with a new spouse.
I am certainly no theologian, and I am not an expert in Jewish religious law; but I know that there are major obstacles in the way of the Jewish religious authorities' ability to resolve the problem of limping marriages without the assistance of the civil law. I feel that I am probably getting into dangerous waters now. Nevertheless, I intend to plough on and stand to be corrected on any of the dates that I may give.
As I understand it, the issue could be resolved only by the re-establishment of a supreme rabbinical court known as a Sanhedrin. The last time that such a body was in existence was nearly 2,000 years ago. This is where it gets difficult. The last Sanhedrin ceased to exist with the destruction of the temple by the Romans under the Emperor Vespasian in 70 AD. Those are the facts that I have. I am happy to settle for 72 AD.
Mr. Dismore: My hon. Friend is correct in saying that it was under the Emperor Vespasian, who seized power after the year of the four Emperors arising out of the chaos of the succession following the assassination of Nero. In fact, however, the destruction was carried out by Vespasian's son, Titus, who later became Emperor in his own rightthe second Emperor of the Flavian dynasty.
Given the difficulties in this area, I am sure that the House will appreciate that there would be considerable problems in reconstituting such a body today. That is why the Jewish community has asked for the assistance of Parliament to alleviate the suffering of those trapped in limping marriages.
I should, perhaps, point out that not all the victims of limping marriages are women; there are cases in which wives have refused to agree to religious divorces. In those circumstances, Jewish men will be able to benefit from the provisions of this Bill. I understand, however, that the consequences of not complying with Jewish religious law in obtaining a get before re-marriage are more severe and enduring for women than for men.
I have heard of a number of very distressing cases in which husbands have refused to agree to a religious divorce for many years, thereby effectively depriving some Jewish women of the opportunity to re-marry and have children with a new spouse, to which many hon. Members have referred. The ability of husbands to withhold a get from their wives has also led to some situations that can be described only as blackmail. In those cases, husbands have used the threat of withholding the get to achieve a more advantageous financial settlement on divorce or to force women to agree to iniquitous terms relating to the children of the marriage. There are also cases in which husbands have demanded a cash payment in return for agreeing to a religious divorce.
I am aware that many in the Jewish community have sought to address the problems experienced by chained women by applying moral and other pressures to recalcitrant husbands. In some cases, this has led to the social ostracism and even the picketing of the businesses of some individuals in particularly notorious cases, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon referred. I am sure that all parts of the House, and the Jewish community, would prefer matters relating to marriage and the family to be dealt with in other less confrontational and stressful ways. This Bill will assist in that.
Leading representatives of the Jewish community, including the Chief Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sacks and members of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, have put a very compelling case to the Government on the need for a provision that will provide a remedy for the difficulties faced by some Jewish women when seeking a
As many hon. Members have said, the Bill would enable the court, when it considers it appropriate, to order that a decree of divorce is not to be made absolute until a declaration is made by both parties that they have taken the necessary steps to obtain a religious divorce. That would mean that the legal divorce would not be finalised until the religious divorce had been provided. The effect of the Bill is therefore to place the parties on an equal footing; neither would be able to re-marry until both agreed to a religious divorce and, after a religious divorce, both would be free to re-marry in a synagogue in a religious ceremony. Although the number of chained women is small, it is important to assist people in such tragic circumstances.
As other hon. Members have said, the Bill reflects the contents of a Bill that was introduced in another place by the noble Lord Lester of Herne Hill in 2000. That Bill was unable to complete its passage, however, due to a shortage of parliamentary time. The Government suggested amendments to that Bill during its passage to ensure that it would comply with the European convention on human rights. Those changes are reflected in this Bill.
As the House may also be aware, provisions similar to those introduced in this Bill are contained in section 9(3) and (4) of part II of the Family Law Act 1996. On 16 January last year, my noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor announced that, based on evidence from pilots and from concerns expressed by the judiciary and others about complexity and delay, the Government were not satisfied that it would be right to proceed with the implementation of part II. The Lord Chancellor also announced that he proposed to invite Parliament to repeal the relevant sections of the Family Law Act 1996 once a suitable legislative opportunity occurs. We remain committed to the principles set out in part I of the Act, namely, saving saveable marriages, and bringing marriages that have broken down to an end with the minimum distress to the parties and children affected.
In that respect, the Lord Chancellor's Department is taking forward many initiatives, such as providing information leaflets and parenting plans for divorcing and separating couples, and establishing family advice and information networks to ensure that the principles of part I of the Family Law Act 1996 are realised in practice. Legal advice has indicated that it is not possible for the Government to implement section 9(3) and (4) independently because its provisions are procedurally linked with the other provisions of Part II. This Bill is therefore the vehicle by which those sections can be
Some hon. Members have expressed concern that the Bill seeks to legislate in what are essentially matters of religious doctrine and custom. I reassure them that the Government understand those concerns and would not support a Bill that purported to interfere in the interpretation of religious faith. We are satisfied that the Bill does not seek to involve the civil courts in questions of religious law. It only enables the court, when dealing with an application for a civil divorce, to withhold the decree absolute until the parties have taken the necessary steps to acquire a religious divorce from a Jewish religious court.
As I said during the debate on the amendments, the Bill contains provisions for the Lord Chancellor to extend its provisions to other religious groups, should they so wish. I reiterate that there is no intention of foisting provisions on other faith groups. The hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) raised the issue of other religious groups, so let me point out that the Bill will apply only in cases where a religious group or sect provides for some form of religious divorce. Only in those instances would there be any question of using the order-making power. It would not be a matter of providing a religious divorce in terms of any religion; the critical question that the Lord Chancellor would also have to consider is whether withholding a religious divorce would have serious consequences for any of the parties. That would have to be taken into account when considering divorce for any other religious groups.
I strongly believe that the Bill will have a positive impact on the lives of Jewish women threatened with being trapped in a limping marriage. The Bill will be able to help those women at no extra cost to the public purse. It enjoys wide support across the Jewish community and has been endorsed by leading members of that community.
I know that some right hon. and hon. Members are, quite properly, concerned to ensure that the private Member's route is not used for the promotion of inappropriate legislation. I hope that anyone who shares those legitimate concerns is reassured that my hon. Friend's Bill is an example of the appropriate use of the private Member's route. It is a tightly drafted Bill designed to provide a remedy for a very specific problem. The number of chained women may well be small, but as the Bill offers an effective and appropriately framed remedy, I hope that the House agrees that we should take the opportunity to improve their lot and that of their children.
I hope that the House also agrees that this is a worthwhile Bill. It would have been unlikely to find a place in the Government's programme due to demands on parliamentary time and could only have made progress thanks to the work of my hon. Friend. The Government support the Bill and I am happy to commend it to the House.