HC Deb 02 February 2001 vol 362 cc632-3

Order for Second Reading read.

2.24 pm
Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I was given leave to introduce the Bill two days ago, and I do not wish to repeat the arguments that I put forward then and which I am sure hon. Members will dutifully have read in Hansard.

The purpose of the Bill is to remedy a disadvantage suffered by Jewish men and women who are prevented from remarrying by the refusal of their partners to grant or accept a religious divorce. The Bill will allow the civil courts to defer granting a civil divorce until a religious divorce is given, thus providing a remedy to women known as the agunah—the chained women—who are, effectively, blackmailed by their husbands into agreeing to settlements to which they might not otherwise agree, to enable them to obtain a divorce. That has resulted in severe hardship. For example, women have been subjected to domestic violence, or their children have been abused.

I shall not speak at length as I know that time is short and that the Bill has overwhelming support from all quarters of the House. I urge hon. Members—particularly one or two on the other side of the House who may have blocked a similar Bill in the past—at least to allow some good to come from today's proceedings by permitting the Bill a Second Reading.

2.25 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mrs. Barbara Roche)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) on vigorously pursuing the matter. The Government consider that the Jewish community has made a convincing case for the need for a remedy for Jewish women seeking a religious divorce. We therefore support the Bill, which we hope will aid Jewish women who are disadvantaged in such a way. It gives me great pleasure to say that on behalf of the Government.

2.25 pm
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

The Bill raises controversial and profound questions that obviously require full and proper consideration by the House. I hope that nobody, least of all the Minister, is suggesting that we make law—particularly in such a sensitive and difficult area—without the most proper and full consideration by both Houses of Parliament at every stage. I trust that there is no disagreement among us over that.

The hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) seems to be desirous of getting the Bill through the House without proper discussion. For reasons that I understand, but deplore, he did not give the House a proper account of the measure and referred us to his speech of 31 January, which I have read and considered. I have a copy with me and it could provide the basis for a full and proper debate.

The hon. Gentleman's remarks raised very important questions and I refer to the first: The basic Jewish laws relating to marriage and divorce are biblical and, therefore, cannot be changed. I do not challenge that as a statement of fact, but I am concerned about the relationship between the laws of religious faiths and Churches and the civil law as well as the extent to which it is proper for the civil law to intervene—in this case, to be invited in—as a participant in matters of deeply held faith and long-standing religious practice. That will be the burden of my analysis as it develops.

The hon. Gentleman continued: Jewish women who wish to conduct their family relationships within the framework of their religious beliefs have virtually no power to compel a reluctant husband to grant them a get. I understand that "get" is a technical Jewish term for a form of divorce or separation. That, too, raises the most profound questions, not least of which is whether those who are of a belief, a faith, a Church or a religion of their own free will accept the advantages and, if there are any, the disadvantages of that belief.

The hon. Gentleman has also raised the issue of whether such people, having taken their belief on, should reach out to the civil law outside their faith to remedy a matter arising as a result of that faith. As these laws are biblical, is it legitimate to argue that they can be changed? I do not know enough about rabbinical law or the rabbinical process to judge whether they can. That is another part of the debate that we obviously need to have to consider the Bill properly.

The hon. Gentleman tried to be helpful and his previous speech referred to some of the questions that I have raised. He said: That is why the Jewish community has now sought the assistance of civil law, in the form of a provision that a judge should have the discretionary power to withhold the grant of a civil divorce until a Jewish divorce has been given.—[Official Report, 31 January 2001; Vol. 362, c. 321–22.] That raises the most profound questions about the proper relationship between the laws of a faith or a Church and those of a secular society. I believe that such a Bill must be dealt with most carefully, sensitively and comprehensively if it is to reach the statute book.

It being half-past Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed on Friday 9 February.