HC Deb 04 May 1973 vol 855 cc1648-52


11.30 a.m.

Mr. MacArthur

I beg to move Amendment No. 7, in page 13, leave out line 33.

In a previous comment I paid tribute to the hon. Member for Hackney, Central (Mr. Clinton Davis), who was so helpful to me in Committee, and I acknowledge at once the great help given by the hon. and learned Member for Dulwich (Mr. S. C. Silkin), whose learned skills were of great value to me and the Committee. The hon. and learned Gentleman has apologised to me for his absence, and I understand it.

The amendment follows from helpful comments by the hon. Member for Hackney, Central on Second Reading and in Committee. It deals with the provision in the Bill as at present drawn bringing Clause 16, which deals with non-judicial divorces, into force immediately upon Royal Assent. The rest of the Bill will come into force on 1st January 1974, and the amendment means that Clause 16 will also come into effect on that date and not on enactment of the Bill if it concludes its progress satisfactorily.

The amendment has an interesting purpose. It shows how widespread the effect of legislation of this kind can be. The hon. and learned Member for Rowley Regis and Tipton (Mr. Peter Archer) was very generous in his remarks about the Bill just now, and he is right in saying that it makes an important change to an aspect of the law which affects women at present most adversely. It is an important advance in women's legal rights. The amendment will permit more time for the good news of Clause 16 to be spread among immigrant communities, because it is they who will be principally affected by it.

It would be most unfortunate if a non-judicial divorce were obtained after the clause was in force by people who were not aware of the change in the law and thought that their marriage was validly dissolved. The point was raised by the hon. Member for Hackney, Central in Committee, and I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Advocate for giving us an assurance that the Government would accept responsibility for seeing that the information about the change in the law was suitably made known among the immigrant communities in Britain.

If the Bill were to receive the Royal Assent before the end of July, which seems possible, there would be insufficient time to make such publicity effective. It is better that we should postpone the coming into effect of the clause until 1st January 1974 not only for the subsidiary advantage of consistency of time but for the major advantage that a postponement of that kind would allow six months or so additional time for the spreading of the information among the immigrant communities. There are disadvantages in postponing the operation of the change, the principal one being that there might be a flood of talaks towards the end of the year and the registrars might find themselves with a large number of persons claiming to remarry on the strength of that.

I am advised that the registrars are well aware of this but do not oppose the amendment on that ground. I am grateful to them for so readily accepting the prospect of a certain amount of extra work over the coming months. The most difficult feature of the transitional period is likely to be determination of the time when talak was obtained in order to see whether it took effect before the new law took effect. That, however, is a problem which would have resulted whenever the clause took effect, and it would not be made materially more difficult by the postponement which the amendment will bring about.

My right hon. and learned Friend, in commenting on the previous amendment, called attention to the repercussions the Bill could have and it was not until the Committee stage that I realised how widespread could be its effects among the immigrant communities. In our previous discussions on this aspect of the Bill we have restricted our survey largely to the Muslim community but my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Advocate pointed out to the Committee that Hindu divorces are among the practices which can give rise to difficulty because they can be obtained by mutual or unilateral consent. The range of matrimonial practices affected by the clause is not only wide but colourful. My right hon. and learned Friend referred to African community law and custom; to decrees granted in England by the Greek ecclesiastical court; and he said that certain Chinese customary divorces could also give rise to the same problem unless we took account of them in the Bill.

Therefore, it is right that because of the widespread effect that Clause 16 will have on the immigrant communities and on their matrimonial customs we should give a little more time for the news of the change to be made known. I am glad that the amendment, if the House accepts it, will give the Government more time to carry out their worthy promise to promulgate the information to the immigrant community.

Mr. Percy Grieve (Solihull)

I support the amendment, and in doing so I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and East Perthshire (Mr. MacArthur) on carrying the Bill successfully through to this stage.

It is a Bill which marks a most important step forward in the emancipation of women and in their progress to full equality in our society. Of no section of womankind is that perhaps more true than of the women of the immigrant communities, because they, having been subject to the talak procedure of divorce and of other procedures of a like kind, and our courts, after the Qureshi case, having held such divorces to be lawful in this country and binding on the parties, were in a position of substantial inferiority compared with other women of indigenous origin.

For that reason I hesitated at first in considering whether it would be wise to postpone the coming into force of Clause 16. As my hon. Friend has just said, there is perhaps some reason to fear that there might be a spate of such divorces between now and 1st January 1974. But I am reassured by what my hon. Friend has said about that, and by what he said about the attitude of the Registrar-General and registrars throughout the country.

When we consider the other side of the medal we see good reason why the amendment should be accepted. I had the honour of serving for some time on the Select Committee on Race Relations and Immigration. Therefore, I am fully aware, as I expect many other hon. Members are, of the substantial difficulties that bodies concerned with communications with immigrant communities have in bringing to their notice, and educating them in, the laws and practices of this country. I have no doubt that the Qureshi decision is by now well known in such communities, and that that they have been relying for a long time on their legal rights to divorce in accordance with their native customs and practices.

Therefore, I think that a period of time for education and communicaton is vital. For that reason, after an initial hesitation about the amendment and any postponement, I come down wholeheartedly in favour of the amendment.

The Lord Advocate

As the matter was canvassed at some length in Committee I should like to add only that the Home Office has taken it up with the Community Relations Commission, which will in turn take it up with the leaders of the various immigrant communities, It is a question of judgment how long should be allowed for the change in the law to be brought to the notice of the immigrant communities. I think that the general feeling of the House will be that the period between now and the coming into operation of the measure as a whole is probably about right. Certain disadvantages in that approach have been referred to, but I do not think that there is any serious risk. If too long a period were taken, that risk would be enhanced, and I think that the period in the amendment is about right.

Amendment agreed to.

Forward to