HC Deb 12 April 2002 vol 383 cc264-84 9.33 am
Mr. Gareth R. Thomas (Harrow, West)

I beg to move amendment No. 2, in page 1, line 8, leave out from "Jews" to "must" in line 10.

Mr. Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 4, in page 2, line 8, leave out from "to" to "House" in line 9 and insert— 'approval by resolution of each'.

No. 1, in page 2, line 10, at end insert— '10B Prescribed religious usages The Lord Chancellor shall report annually to Parliament on any representations he has received about the use of section 10A(1)(a)(ii), and whether he intends to make an order under section 10A(6).".'.

Mr. Thomas

I assure the House that in tabling the amendment I am not trying to wreck the Bill or to stop its progress. Indeed, I do not intend to detain hon. Members long on the issues as I have already raised them privately with the Minister and the promoter of the Bill. I realise that they could also be considered in more detail in the House of Lords.

I tabled the amendment in the spirit of seeking clarification from my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), who deserves considerable congratulation on his piloting of the Bill through the House. My prime concern relates to the Bill's potential knock-on consequences for other religions in relation to the process that it introduces for consideration of the needs of other religions in similar situations if they arise.

I have received strong representations in support of the Bill from senior members of the Jewish community, especially senior members of the Board of Deputies of British Jews and others who live in my constituency. The Bill is designed to remedy an injustice, with which hon. Members are now familiar, that affects Jewish men and women who want a divorce but are prevented from achieving a civil divorce by the actions of their partners.

During the previous Parliament, my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon and Lord Lester suggested that the Bill leaves open the possibility that a similar situation may arise in relation to those of the Muslim faith. In Standing Committee on 7 November, my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon and the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett) asked whether the Bill applied to the Muslim faith and whether that had been properly consulted on.

During the previous Parliament, when Lord Lester proposed legislation to achieve a similar result to that sought by my hon. Friend, he highlighted counsel's opinion from a Mr. Rabinder Singh, an expert on human rights law, who had been brought in by the Government to advise on the Bill's compatibility with the European Union convention on human rights. His one concern about the original Bill was whether it was discriminatory in requiring that a religious divorce should be granted before a civil one was obtained for Jewish spouses, but not for Muslim spouses. That may be why the provisions that amendment No. 2 would delete were included in the Bill. According to Lord Lester, Mr. Singh argued that the Bill, by treating a Jewish husband less favourably than a Muslim husband, was potentially discriminatory. He felt that that issue needed resolution if the Bill was to be compatible with the Human Rights Act 1998. I seek further clarification from the Minister or from my hon. Friend on whether that is the reason for the provision. The position is certainly unclear.

In his advice, Mr. Singh said that, in his judgment, Islamic law was similar to Jewish law in this regard. However, Lord Lester quoted from the textbook "Muslim Family Law" by Judge David Pearl and Werner Menski, both of whom are senior figures in the legal world. They explained that English Muslim law requires the husband to give his wife a talaq in order for a divorce to be recognised by Sharia law, and that a woman who obtains a civil divorce but then fails to obtain a talaq is left in a limping marriage, which is similar to the situation of Jewish women who have been refused a get, which was the driving force behind my hon. Friend's Bill.

Lord Lester argued that, from his understanding of that textbook on Muslim family law, under English Muslim law the United Kingdom Islamic Sharia Council can grant a khula to the wife, which would enable an immediate dissolution of the marriage that would be recognised in Islamic law. Unlike Jewish women in a similar situation, a Muslim woman in a limping marriage could obtain a valid religious divorce against the wishes of her husband.

My purpose in setting out the position is to ask whether Lord Lester was right in his view. Is there an issue with the Muslim faith or with any other religious faith? Why do we need to give the Government a power to deal with other religions if they do not face this difficulty?

I have taken the trouble to speak to a number of my constituents. Those of the Hindu faith are clear that there is no problem in their religion on the issue that Jewish women face. My amendment No. 2 would ensure that no other religions were covered by the Bill. My hon. Friend and the Minister should consider whether we need to allow that additional width in the Bill.

I recognise that the position regarding the Muslim faith may be a little confused. I have spoken to senior Muslim figures in my constituency, who have slightly different views on whether this is an issue. I hope that the Minister and my hon. Friend can clarify the situation. I pray in aid the comments that the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) made in Committee. He thought that the question whether the law should intervene in a matter of faith was a philosophical issue. That is an entirely reasonable concern to raise. The Jewish religious authorities are clear that there is a need for intervention, and on that basis it is right that we give additional powers in that respect.

9.45 am

If there is a problem or the potential for a problem in the Muslim faith, Parliament must recognise that it has a responsibility to improve its response to such a situation. There has perhaps been a collective failure over a number of years, but we have now reached the stage of finally being able to resolve this issue. The Jewish community has had to wait for resolution of this problem at last to be on offer, and I do not want other religions to have to suffer delays in tackling the injustice that has been identified.

Amendment No. 1 would ensure that there is a duty on the Lord Chancellor to report to the House if other religious authorities raise similar difficulties. Such a requirement on the Lord Chancellor's Department would be a spur to Parliament to act with more speed in future.

Amendment No. 4 would require approval by both Houses of Parliament using the affirmative resolution procedure. Intervention in religious matters is something that Parliament should not undertake lightly. The involvement of both Houses and the widening of the pool of legal and religious expertise and knowledge is a sensible precaution to ensure that we get the right resolution of these problems. The use of the affirmative resolution procedure would help to clear up any confusion about who the religious authorities were, and would ensure that all sectors of the community would be able to bring their concerns to Members of Parliament so that the right way forward could be found.

As I said, these are probing amendments. I hope that the Bill will make progress, but we need to be clear that we have the right process in place and that there are sensible opportunities for other religions in a similar situation to bring concerns before the House and for Parliament to act with more speed and more success on this issue than it has until now.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising these important issues and for enabling me to explain the background to these provisions.

By way of preamble, I want to correct him on one point. He referred to the European Union convention on human rights, but the European convention on human rights has nothing to do with the European Union. That is a popular misconception, which I hope is not shared by the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash). The European convention on human rights emanates from the Council of Europe, which is a different body. It is incumbent on us all to ensure that the correct constitutional position is explained in the House and to the people at large, because there is much confusion in this country about the European convention and where it comes from. The fact that some people may have certain views about the European Union does not necessarily mean that they have the same views about the Council of Europe and the convention.

My hon. Friend is right that the provision has been incorporated in the Bill to ensure that it complies with the European convention on human rights and our own human rights legislation. He may be suggesting that that is a belt-and-braces approach, and it may be seen as that, but he gave the reasons for that at the end of his contribution.

The Bill is designed to deal with the particular problem of divorce within the Jewish community, but it is appropriate to make provision in the legislation should other faiths want to raise their own concerns at a later stage. The mechanism provided by the Bill is designed to deal with the difficulties caused by husbands who refuse to give their wives a get. I am not sure whether other religions have an exact parallel of the problem facing the Jewish community, but the mechanism would be available should that be the case.

I have received letters from Catholics who are concerned about a possible impact on the Catholic faith, which does not recognise divorce. There is nothing in the Bill that creates a right of divorce—either civil or religious—where one does not already exist. There is nothing for Catholics to worry about in that context. The purpose of the Bill is not to interfere with religion. It is framed to enable civil authorities to deal with a technical problem that has arisen within the Jewish community.

My hon. Friend is right to refer to the Muslim community. I am grateful to him for bringing to the attention of the House the comments made in another place and in Committee. He has obviously done a great deal of work in researching the law and in discussions with members of the Muslim community in his constituency.

There has been no demand from members of the Muslim community for provisions similar to those in the Bill to apply to them. The answer may lie in what my hon. Friend says—that within existing arrangements for Sharia law in Britain, a way has been found round the problem, with the Muslim authorities if necessary being able to override the failure of a husband to grant a talaq divorce.

There is some doubt within some sections of the Muslim community as to whether that is a legitimate approach. There is no guarantee that the practice adopted by the Muslim authorities in Britain will continue indefinitely. However, a provision is available should the Muslim community come forward with a clear consensus that there should be implementation. I perceive no demand for that at present.

Mr. William Cash (Stone)

The hon. Gentleman has mentioned the position of Roman Catholics. Has he had consultation with Church authorities, or is he merely referring to representations that have come from individuals within his constituency, or others?

Mr. Dismore

I am referring to representations from individual correspondents, not from my constituency but from one or two other places. A problem has not been perceived. I have received two or three letters.

I return to my main point, which is that there is nothing in the Bill that creates a new right of divorce or interferes with rights of religion in that connection. There is nothing to worry about. That is probably why I have not received any correspondence from Roman Catholic authorities. I know from previous experience in this place that they are not slow to come forward if they feel that their faith is likely in any way to be affected by activities in the House.

We are dealing with a provision that I hope will never have to be used. If it has to be used, that will show a change of approach from the more progressive attitude that has been adopted by the Muslim community in finding a way round the problem.

It is worth understanding why there is a problem for the Jewish community. Jewish law goes back much further than 2,000 years in this context and it cannot be changed. The situation goes back to the destruction of the temple by Titus, son of Vespasian, in 70 AD. To change Jewish law, there has to be a Sanhedrin, which is a gathering of the rabbis, which can take place only in the temple of Jerusalem. The temple having been destroyed, there cannot be a Sanhedrin, so the fundamental tenets of Jewish law cannot be changed. That means that we must devise other ways to overcome what is perceived as a problem within the Jewish community. As far as I am aware—no doubt my hon. Friend will correct me if I am wrong—a similar problem does not apply within the Muslim faith.

We need the provision so that if a problem is identified in future, we will not have to go through the rigmarole of taking new legislation through Parliament. There will already be provisions available to deal with the problem. As I have said, there is no sign that there is a problem, and there has been no demand for change.

To deal with my hon. Friend's point about the affirmative resolution procedure, let me say that there will be no prospect of change unless there is a clear consensus throughout a faith that there should be change.

The proposal that relates to Jewish divorce, which the Bill is designed to deal with, has the unanimous support of Jewish authorities. There is a clear consensus behind the Bill throughout the Jewish community. There is no argument or debate about whether it is the right thing to do. I am grateful to the Lord Chancellor's Department for its support for the Bill. I am pretty sure—no doubt my hon. Friend the Minister will make this absolutely clear—that there is no question of the clause being activated if there is no clear consensus within any other particular faith. As I have said, I am not aware of any particular demand for that at present.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Ms Rosie Winterton)

I am aware that my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas) has moved the amendments in the spirit of probing and certainly not that of wrecking. I know how hard he has worked in campaigning for the Bill and the changes that it will make. He has made representations to me and I know how strongly he feels about the issue.

The effect of amendment No. 2 would be to limit the scope of the Bill to Jewish religious marriages. I understand that my hon. Friend has some concerns about the compatibility of the Bill with the Human Rights Act 1998. The Government's view is that the amendment would make the Bill less likely to comply with that Act.

My hon. Friend raised the issue of Muslim women. It might be helpful if I reinforce the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore). The position of Muslim women differs from that of Jewish women in respect of religious divorce. Where the husband has pronounced the talaq and any subsequent procedures required by law have been completed, the marriage is at an end. After the divorce, the wife is obliged to refrain from marriage for a period, which is commonly held to be four months and 10 days. Once that period is completed, there are no religious restrictions on the woman remarrying.

Perhaps I should clarify and confirm that where a Muslim woman wants a religious divorce it is open to her, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon said, to approach the Muslim Law Shariah Council to ask for the marriage to be dissolved. Sonia Nurin Shah-Kazemi of the university of Westminster, in her paper entitled "Untying the Knot—Muslim Women, Divorce and the Shariah", states: Unlike the legal situation of women in the Jewish community, civil law mechanisms are not necessary for Muslim women to dissolve their marriage contracts. Perhaps I can recommend that paper to my hon. Friend.

The Government would still be willing to consider any representations that the Muslim community may wish to make on this issue. However, we are confident that the position differs in terms of the Jewish and Muslim faiths.

The amendment would make the Bill identical in scope to a Bill that was introduced in another place by Lord Lester of Herne Hill in 2000. The Government suggested amendments to it in the light of legal advice that limiting the measure to only one religious group would risk offending against article 14—the right of freedom from discrimination—together with article 12—the right of freedom to marry—of the European convention on human rights. The Government believe that the Bill as drafted is fully compliant with the Human Rights Act 1998 and, therefore, with the convention.

10 am

Amendment No. 4 would substitute the affirmative resolution procedure for the negative resolution procedure in the event that the Lord Chancellor makes a statutory instrument under clause 1(6) extending the provisions of the Bill to other religious groups. The Government's view is that the negative resolution procedure represents the appropriate level of parliamentary scrutiny in this case.

The Government have made it clear, and I am happy to assure the House today, that the Lord Chancellor would make such an order to extend the provisions of the Bill to other religious groups only where they requested it. The Lord Chancellor would want to be satisfied that such a request represented a consensus of the appropriate religious authorities and community leaders of any groups concerned. There is no question of the Government seeking to foist the provisions on any group that does not wish to have them.

The effect of amendment No. 1 would be to require the Lord Chancellor to make an annual report to Parliament on any representations he had received on extending the provisions of the Bill to other faith groups, and to indicate whether he intends to make such an order extending its provisions.

Mr. Cash

The references to "religion" and "religious" are somewhat controversial because some sects' and faiths' description of themselves as religious is hotly disputed. Do the Government intend to analyse that and work out whether the provisions should apply to recognised religions? After all, the request could come from almost anyone.

Ms Winterton

Of course, the Lord Chancellor would have to be satisfied that any representations represented the views not only of many within any religious group, but community leaders. I assure the hon. Gentleman that there would be wide consultation before any decision was made to extend the provisions to other groups.

The Government's view is that amendment No. 1 is unnecessary. In the event that the Lord Chancellor received representations—again, I assure the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) that they would have to be of a sufficiently authoritative nature—from religious groups asking for the legislation to be extended to them, a statutory instrument would be required. Parliament would then have an opportunity to scrutinise the instrument through the negative resolution procedure.

Mr. Dismore

Perhaps I could help my hon. Friend out with the intervention from the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash). Is not the answer to the hon. Gentleman's point that, although there can obviously be difficulties in deciding whether a particular organisation is a religion or not, it can only be brought within the terms of the Bill if the Lord Chancellor believes it to be a religion. Both Houses of Parliament will have the opportunity to scrutinise the actions of the Lord Chancellor and to decide whether they agree.

Ms Winterton

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. That was exactly the point that I was coming on to make. Through that process, Parliament would have the opportunity to make representations, if there were any worries about the nature of any group. I reiterate that there is no question either of the Bill being foisted on religious groups or of Parliament not having the opportunity for further scrutiny of any decisions. I hope that with those reassurances, my hon. Friend will consider withdrawing his amendment.

Mr. Gareth R. Thomas

I am grateful to both my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) and my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department for their words of clarification. I will of course withdraw the amendment as it was intended to be a probing amendment. I do so with one reservation. I will re-read the paper from the legal expert at the university of Westminster. As the university is close to my constituency, I recognise all the more the importance of that paper. I hope that the Lord Chancellor's Department will be able to clarify the views of the Muslim religious authorities before the Bill makes its passage through the other place.

I wish the Bill speedy progress through the other place. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Order for Third Reading read.

10.6 am

Mr. Dismore

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

I am pleased to have the opportunity to move that the Bill be read the Third time. The Bill is not a new idea. This is the third attempt in which I have been involved to take it through the House. It is the second attempt that I have made personally. The first attempt was when I tried to take through the House the Bill that had been introduced in another place by Lord Lester. On the two previous occasions, the Bill failed through lack of time.

I am doubly pleased, as this is a ten-minute Bill. To be able to take a ten-minute Bill through all the stages in the House is quite an accomplishment and could be achieved only because of the broad consensus that the Bill has been able to attract from all sides of the House and from all hon. Members.

I am grateful for the support of my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department and indeed the Lord Chancellor himself, and for the support that the Bill has been able to attract from all the Opposition parties. I am particularly grateful to the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), who may have had reservations about the Bill but now seems to be convinced of its merits.

The Bill will remedy a major 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. In practice, the disadvantage is usually suffered by the wife, rather than the husband.

The basic Jewish laws relating to marriage and divorce are biblical, and theoretically, as I mentioned on Report, can be changed only by a Sanhedrin. As there has not been a Sanhedrin for nearly 2,000 years, it is important that we see what we can do through the civil law to deal with this particular problem.

In Jewish law, marriage and divorce are consensual processes. An individual cannot be married or divorced against his or her will. Although that encourages a couple to try to work together to solve their difficulties, which obviously is a worthwhile objective and an outcome that we would all like to see, occasionally there can be problems where one party seeks to end the marriage, and the other refuses to grant the religious divorce, called in Hebrew a get.

The husband has to go before a Beth Din, a Jewish court, personally or by proxy, to have the get document written and prepared. It must then be delivered to his wife. Only when she receives it from him can a divorce take effect. If the husband fails to do so, the wife cannot remarry in Jewish law, although the husband may be able to do so in limited cases.

Jewish authorities have long been sensitive to the problem, especially where it is the wife who is trapped in a marriage that she seeks to end. She is called, in Hebrew, an agunah—the plural is agunot—meaning one who is chained to a spouse against her will.

An active campaign organisation, the agunot campaign, has been operating for a number of years to bring pressure to bear. It works hard to publicise the practical effects of the injustices of the present laws and to embarrass reluctant husbands into compliance.

There have been attempts to deal with the problem. Two rabbis in the United States have been granting annulments anyway, despite the lack of co-operation of the husbands. However, those American rabbis have a different interpretation of Jewish law, which is not accepted as a valid interpretation by Orthodox Jewish authorities anywhere in the world. Even with such an annulment, remarriage remains impossible within the Jewish faith.

Through its rabbinical courts, the Jewish community in Britain has done all it can internally to alleviate the situation. It has brought in prenuptial agreements, currently signed by the majority of couples. The agreement binds them, should their marriage fail, to attend a Jewish court to resolve their outstanding differences.

Mr. Cash

The Bill does not extend to Scotland. Does the hon. Gentleman have any thoughts on that?

Mr. Dismore

I intended to mention Scotland later in my speech. Family law, in this context, is a devolved responsibility for the Scottish Parliament. There have been discussions in Scotland about whether such a provision should be brought in. I would very much hope that the Scottish Parliament, which is now a little behind the English Parliament in this context, will take our example and propose similar legislation as promptly as possible.

Mr. Jim Murphy (Eastwood)

I pay tribute to the efforts made by my hon. Friend on his Bill hut, in the spirit of correction and accuracy, may I remind him that this is the British Parliament and not the English Parliament?

Mr. Dismore

My hon. Friend is entirely right. This is the British Parliament but, in this context, it is legislating only for England and Wales. My hon. Friend is quite right to correct me on the constitutional niceties. Having corrected my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas) on the constitutional niceties of European law, I am hoist by my own petard.

The prenuptial agreement can he only a voluntary undertaking and there is considerable doubt whether it can have legal effect as a matter of civil law. Synagogue bodies have tried to institute communal sanctions against recalcitrant spouses. However, a determined spouse can simply ignore those, driven by the that often accompanies divorce. A well-publicised example of this was the case at the end of 2000, when a rabbi took an advertisement in the Jewish Chronicle to name and shame a recalcitrant husband, but that did not achieve the objective.

More recently, there is now a regular Sunday morning picket, which I joined last year, organised by the agunot campaign outside the house of a Golders Green husband who has refused to grant his wife a get for decades. A civil divorce on the grounds of cruelty was granted in 1962. There was a terrible custody battle and arguments over access in which the husband felt aggrieved at his wife, who took the daughter out of the jurisdiction for a number of years. Now, 40 years on, the husband still refuses to release his wife, despite the extensive publicity given to the case.

It can be appreciated that 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. Without a get, a divorcee who has a child by her subsequent partner—even if married in civil law—is defined as an adulteress under Jewish law. The child is classed as a mamzer, an illegitimate outcast. This stigma lasts for many future generations, affecting the child's own descendants for centuries.

If a wife refuses to accept her husband's get, he is known as an agun. However, he does not suffer from the same disadvantages as a woman, as status in Jewish law passes through the female and not the male line, and biblical law makes different provisions in relation to men and to women.

The consequences of that go beyond the right of a wife to remarry. As a result of the husband's right to withhold a get, a lack of balance is created in negotiations around family breakdown, often over ancillary relief or child custody arrangements. A husband can effectively hold his wife to ransom, and can demand money, property or other unfair or inappropriate rights concerning custody or child maintenance in return for the get.

There are no reliable statistics of the total number of women affected, but seven cases in the Hendon area have been referred to me as the constituency MP. No doubt there are others in my own constituency of which I am unaware and throughout the Jewish community nationwide. It is difficult to get a grip on the figures, because much stigma is still attached to the problem. Some of the cases reported to me illustrate the problems that arise. I referred to them on Second Reading and I do not propose to do so again; anyone who wants to familiarise themselves with these tragic cases can read the Official Report.

The Bill will not help every woman in these tragic circumstances. If the husband does not want or need a civil divorce, or a civil divorce has already been granted in the past—the Bill cannot be retrospective—the problem will remain. This is the sad position of a number of women active in the agunot campaign. However, the Bill will provide a real remedy for women in the future who are confronted with these problems, such as those in the cases that I have previously described, if any civil proceedings have not reached decree absolute. It rectifies a serious anomaly in English civil law, which creates this extremely undesirable state of affairs for future cases where civil proceedings have not commenced or been finalised.

The Bill enables the court to require the dissolution of the religious marriage before granting a civil divorce. This provides a lever, whereby pressure could be brought to bear on the husband to agree to a get. Where he unjustly refuses to co-operate, he would not be granted a civil divorce, which is normally sufficient for his purposes, without first agreeing to a religious divorce, which his wife needs to avoid the stigma that I described. The playing field for ancillary relief would also be levelled, avoiding the risk of blackmail over financial settlements or custody or access to children.

Similar provisions have been enacted previously but were not brought into force for reasons wholly unconnected with this Bill, as a result of the previous reform of family law. Similar provisions already apply in parts of Canadian, South African and New York state law, and are currently under consideration in Scotland. The Bill would not solve all cases, but it would resolve many, where the husband needs a civil divorce.

It is also important to understand that the Jewish community is not seeking the assistance of the civil law to solve a Jewish problem. First, the community seeks to end the anomaly whereby a Jewish marriage is also a civil marriage, but a civil divorce may be unaccompanied by a Jewish divorce. Secondly, the Jewish community is seeking the assistance of the civil courts in bringing the couple to a Jewish court, which itself undertakes to resolve the dispute, allowing both parties to remarry according to their religious convictions.

The Bill has the support of all synagogue bodies in Anglo-Jewry, Orthodox and Progressive, as well as the Chief Rabbi, the Board of Deputies, the Jewish Marriage Council and the agunot campaign.

I conclude by expressing my thanks and appreciation to the many people who have written to me in support of the Bill and especially those who have given me such active and vigorous help. First, I thank the Chief Rabbi for his personal encouragement and support—particularly after the two previous failed attempts—to persevere with the campaign for reform. I thank Judy Nagler and Jeremy Newmark from the Chief Rabbi's office. I wish to thank my constituent and friend, the president of the Board of Deputies, Mrs. Jo Wagerman, for her help. Neville Nagler and Fiona MacCauley from the board have also been of assistance.

Jeffrey Blumenfeld of the Jewish Marriage Council gave me help in identifying the sad and tragic cases that I have used to illustrate the real need for the Bill. Gloria Proops of the agunot campaign, while realising that most of her members would not benefit for the reasons that I have given, has nevertheless supported my efforts to help women who may suffer similar problems to her members.

I must also thank my legal advisers, Dayan Berkovits of the Federation of Synagogues, Miss Eleanor Platt QC and, perhaps above all, Judge Myrella Cohen QC, my constituent, who has spent many patient hours explaining the intricacies of Jewish law and custom to me, proving to me how a millennia-old problem could be considerably eased by a modest measure such as this. I am grateful for her considerable talent for diplomatically correcting my various drafts and comments over the months as I have been working on the Bill.

I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty), without whose tireless efforts behind the scenes we might not have been able to reach Third Reading today. In that context, I thank the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall), who has also been co-operative behind the scenes on behalf of the Opposition.

I commend the Bill to the House.

10.19 am
Mr. Cash

I am glad to be able to say that the Opposition support the Bill, which seeks to rectify an anomaly that exists in English law. Currently, religious marriage between two Jews is recognised by the state as creating a civil marriage, provided that notice has been given to a superintendent registrar. The religious marriage creates a duel bond, both civil and religious, yet in dissolving that dual bond, the state only requires that there should be a civil divorce, leaving the religious marriage intact and limping on. The parties are left in a state of limbo, unable to remarry in an Orthodox religious ceremony until the husband grants his wife a get, or bill of religious divorce. If the husband refuses to give his wife a get, she is known as an agunah, or chained wife, as the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) pointed out.

The current proposal has the support of virtually the entire Jewish community. During its initial stage, before the 1996 legislation was passed—that legislation was never brought into operation because it was included in part II of the Family Law Act 1996, which the Government intend to repeal—a meeting was convened by the Chief Rabbi and the Board of Deputies, at which representatives of the six main Orthodox and Reform movements were present. They are all united in supporting the proposed legislation. This is perhaps the first time that so comprehensive an array of support has been assembled.

Some have argued that the problem is internal to the Jewish community, so it should be solved within it. In fact, the Jewish community, through the initiative of the Chief Rabbi, has instituted unprecedented measures to alleviate the problem of individuals whose spouses refuse to grant or receive a Jewish bill of divorce, known as a get. They include a pre-nuptial agreement, currently signed by the majority of couples marrying under the aegis of the Chief Rabbi; communal sanctions against recalcitrant spouses; a taskforce whose remit includes pre-marital counselling for couples; relationship education in schools; and the training of mediators to resolve difficult cases. It should be put on record that the Chief Rabbi himself has intervened to resolve some of the most difficult cases.

The British Jewish community has done as much as it can—perhaps more than any other Jewish community in the world—to alleviate the problem. However, in the final analysis, Jewish communities in modern nation states are voluntary associations. They have no way, other than through education and persuasion, of changing the minds of determined individuals such as those to which the hon. Member for Hendon referred. That is why they seek the assistance of English law to end, or at least to mitigate, the anomaly whereby a civil divorce may proceed in the absence of a Jewish divorce, thus leaving one partner—usually the woman—unable to remarry.

It is wrong to say, however, that the rabbinate has not done all that it can to resolve the problem. It has recognised the need for action and, as far as possible within the parameters of Jewish law, it has taken action. Beyond that it cannot go. The assistance of the courts would be a powerful step forward, and would alleviate much human misery. We therefore give our support to the proposals.

10.22 am
Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham)

The hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) said that his Bill enjoys all-party support, and that is certainly true as far as I am concerned. I was not privileged to work on his Committee, but I have read his cogent, well written, well argued and compelling article explaining the Bill. I agree with the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) that a powerful humanitarian case exists. A small number of women are subject to considerable misery, and the legislation will alleviate their difficulty without causing detriment to anyone else. That seems an admirable basis for proceeding.

Before I came to the Chamber. I had some slight doubts, which were captured in the discussion prompted by the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas). However, the Minister's answers, particularly in relation to the Catholic Church—the need for consensus, and the fact that no changes will be imposed on other religions—satisfied my doubts. Although it is not sufficient to persuade me to oppose the Bill, something still troubles me slightly, however: the principle—attributed to the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell)—of our legislating in respect of other religions, even where consensus exists.

I shall illustrate the point with a hypothetical case. I am a non-Catholic who married a Catholic woman. Unfortunately, she has since died, but we had a very happy and loving marriage. We got married in a Catholic church, and beforehand I went along for instruction. It was clearly explained to me that the nature of marriage in the Catholic faith is that marriage is for life. As I said, our marriage was happy and loving, and the issue of divorce never arose.

Let us suppose, however, that I had been a different man in a different situation, and that I went off with another woman, or abused my wife, and obtained a civil divorce. My wife would then have been in an invidious position, because the Church would not have recognised the divorce. She might well have wanted to remarry—to marry another devout Catholic and bring up children in the faith—but she would have been unable to do so because her divorce would not have been recognised.

Mr. Dismore

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Cable

Let me finish the point, so that the hon. Gentleman can consider whether he still wants to intervene. In practice, there would have been no problem, as mechanisms exist—annulments, and so on—that humane priests can use. However, in such a situation a woman could encounter a wall of theological difficulty. A priest could say, "Well, my dear, I sympathise entirely with your position, but you entered into the relationship voluntarily. Membership of this Church is voluntary—you do not have to belong—and you will have to resolve your problem somewhere else." She might get angry and say, "I'm going to talk to my MP. I have heard about a law relating to the Jewish faith. I am in the same position as a Jewish woman, so why can't Parliament change the law to solve my problem? It's unfair." The priest could reply, "I cannot accept that principle. Why should a group of atheists, Anglicans, Methodists, Jews and Muslims prescribe the law internal to my Church?"

In practice, there is no problem, because—as the hon. Member for Hendon has stressed—the Church authorities have expressed no concern. Moreover, as the Minister said, matters would have to proceed by consensus. None the less, I have slight doubts as to why Parliament—a multi-faith body—is legislating in respect of the internal affairs of a particular Church.

Mr. Dismore

I can answer the hon. Gentleman's point relatively quickly. The Jewish faith recognises divorce and remarriage within the faith, but the Catholic Church does not. We are trying to enable Jewish women to remarry within the faith—at the moment, they are prevented from doing so—but the situation does not arise within the Catholic faith because it does not recognise divorce and remarriage per se.

Dr. Cable

I hope that the hon. Gentleman has not misunderstood me—I am not trying to object to his Bill. He is absolutely right to draw that distinction, and as he stressed earlier, the Catholic Church and other faiths that do not recognise divorce have raised no objections to his Bill. However, there is a deeper issue—it is in no sense an objection to the Bill—that we should all bear in mind. We are legislating for the internal affairs of a particular religion and faith, regardless of our own religion, and we should do so with some trepidation and care.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside)

Although the hon. Gentleman's point has some validity, in this instance the call for Parliament to intervene comes from established Jewish authorities, including the Chief Rabbi. Given the circumstances, does he accept that the proposed course of action is the correct one?

Dr. Cable

It is entirely correct, and I have no objection to the Bill, which is properly and narrowly drawn, and correct both morally and legally. I simply reiterate that there is an underlying issue of principle. We are dealing with a religion to which most of us do not belong, so we should take care and think about the far-reaching action that we are taking. None the less, I fully support the Bill and applaud the hon. Member for Hendon for introducing it. I am happy to associate my colleagues with it.

10.28 am
Linda Perham (Ilford, North)

I was a member of the Standing Committee that considered the Bill last autumn, and I am proud to sponsor it. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) said, its purpose is to correct a great injustice suffered by Jewish women in particular. Many Jewish people live in my Ilford, North constituency and the London borough of Redbridge.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South)

As my hon. Friend knows, I am her constituency neighbour. Many of my Ilford, South constituents will be similarly delighted at the introduction of this Bill by my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore). It is long overdue and I congratulate him on introducing it.

Linda Perham

I am pleased to have my hon. Friend's support. I know that he shares our views, and my local Jewish community is pleased that—hopefully—the matter will be concluded this time.

I shared in the Israel independence day celebrations at Sinclair house—an excellent facility in my constituency—and I hope to do so again in a few days' time. I have visited it on many occasions since my time as a local councillor and mayor of the borough in 1994. At Sinclair house last September, I spoke at the annual meeting of Jewish Women's Aid. Many women present asked me about the Bill's progress and were anxious about it, and they told me how important it is to get the Bill through this time. Indeed, Jewish women constituents have come to me with problems arising from their inability to obtain a get.

I feel strongly that the issue involves not just religion, but human rights—equal rights between men and women who have entered the partnership of marriage. In the week in which I have celebrated my 30th wedding anniversary, I count myself most fortunate that my husband and I have enjoyed a long and happy marriage. I can only imagine the misery and despair of people trapped in a failing relationship from which there seems no escape. I feel compassion for the situation and circumstances in which so many have found themselves over the years, bound against their will into a marriage that has effectively ended.

I feel particularly strongly about Jewish women being stigmatised in a way that Jewish men are not—a point that my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon mentioned—in that a divorcee who has a child in a new relationship is branded an adulteress and her child illegitimate. I especially welcome the support of all the agencies to which he referred, such as the Board of Deputies and all the synagogue bodies in Anglo-Jewry.

The support of the Chief Rabbi is also appreciated. I am a vice-chair of Labour Friends of Israel, and in a letter to the organisation's director the Chief Rabbi says that he is deeply appreciative of the support MPs and Peers from all sides of the House have shown. He also refers to the Bill as a "much needed measure".

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon on introducing the Bill. He has already earned the praise of the Jewish community in his successful campaign to establish holocaust memorial day in this county, and his Bill deserves to pass into statute. He is one of many of us who give the lie to those who believe that Back Benchers cannot make a difference. I hope that the House gives the measure its full support.

10.32 am
Mr. Jim Murphy

I take great pleasure in supporting the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), who is one of the most assiduous Back Benchers. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford. North (Linda Perham) said, he has already achieved recognition throughout the country for holocaust memorial day and I hope that he achieves the important, but perhaps less high profile, objective of securing support for this private Member's Bill.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon said, it is highly unusual for a ten-minute Bill to clear all the hurdles that are placed before it and garner support across the parties and throughout the country. On that, I congratulate him. The only problem is that my local Jewish community has asked, "How come he has managed to secure two substantial changes in Government policy and attitudes when you have achieved none?". That is an issue for the electorate come the election. Nevertheless, I support the proposals before the House, not only because the Bill is important in protecting Jewish women, but because it deals with human rights.

From my perspective, marriage is a meeting of equals and an equal partnership. Unfortunately, as Jewish law currently stipulates, when a marriage breaks up, for whatever reason, it ceases to be an arrangement of equals. There appears to be an inbuilt discrimination against the woman.

The Bill represents a learning experience for me, as I do not practise the Jewish faith. I am a Roman Catholic. When a marriage in the Jewish faith breaks up, the man has to go to a Beth Din court, either in person or by proxy, and the ethos of the Jewish faith dictates that the woman becomes an agunah, or chained, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon said. Children of the wife born in any future relationship are discriminated against and considered to be illegitimate, so the Bill is welcome not only for the women who are chained in marriages that no longer exist and which they no longer wish to be in, but for the children of such women. It will remove the stigma of illegitimacy. It is also necessary, even though Anglo-Jewry and the synagogue bodies have done all they can to mitigate the worst excesses of religious rulings and Jewish law.

I do not wish to make a habit of doing so, but may I correct my hon. Friend on one point? He is right to say that Jewish marriage and divorce laws are biblical and can be affected only by a Sanhedrin, the assembly of rabbis, and the temple of Jerusalem. He said that the temple was destroyed in 70 AD, but my reading suggests that it was destroyed in 74 AD. That is not a reason for me to fall out with him or to fail to support his Bill, but simply my attempt to inform my Jewish constituents that my hon. Friend is not always right.

Mr. Dismore

I thought that 74 AD was the right date, but I received several letters correcting me, saying that it is 70 AD. Last night, I checked the history books, and my researcher said that it is 70 AD. I suspect that, in those days, the calendar was probably flexible.

Mr. Murphy

I thank my hon. Friend for that clarification. Perhaps we can split the difference.

I have a number of other points to make about the Bill and the Minister's thoughtful response to the amendments. In particular, I welcome the comments in respect of the Muslim faith and other faiths. I have the good fortune to represent a significant Muslim community and I welcome the commitment that the Lord Chancellor will ascertain whether there is widespread support in any other faith and among leaders of any other faith before any aspects of this or future Bills in any way affect or apply to any other recognised faith.

In respect of Roman Catholicism and divorce, it is my strong view that there are many good and practising Roman Catholics who are separated, divorced or remarried. That is my perspective on my faith, and I think no less of those who have had to face that tough choice as Catholics. Nevertheless, I am certain that the assurances given by my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon and the Minister will reassure the Catholic Church and Catholic agencies that their religious laws and our religious beliefs are not indirectly or unintentionally affected by the Bill, particularly in the absence of any serious or considerable consultation. The comments made this morning will be welcomed by the leaders of my faith.

The issue of Scotland has already attracted attention in the debate. I do not wish to chastise my hon. Friend for calling this the English Parliament; he is in good company. I hope I am not straying, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but the BBC unfortunately often calls this the English Parliament. I wish to put that marker down for my hon. Friend and others.

Mr. Cash

A number of comments were made about this earlier. There were references to a British Parliament and some references to an English Parliament, but— speaking as shadow Attorney-General—I want to put on record the fact that this is the United Kingdom Parliament. Let us leave it at that.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. We have strayed far enough.

Mr. Murphy

The hon. Gentleman is of course right. No doubt it pleases him that at least we are not talking about the European Parliament.

As has been said, there have been discussions about the position in Scotland. As my constituency contains approximately 80 per cent. of Scotland's entire Jewish community, there has been considerable discussion there. I have spoken to my Member of the Scottish Parliament, who is keen for similar legislation to apply in Scotland.

Although this aspect of family law has already been devolved to Scotland, the opportunities represented by Bills of this kind are broadly welcomed across the political divide. They can easily be amended to apply to Scotland. A relatively new procedure known as the Sewel motion, named after Lord Sewel, would simply require the insertion of the word "Scotland". Indeed, we were recently able to do that with the Proceeds of Crime Bill. If this Bill attracts the consensus in Scotland that it has attracted so far in the rest of the United Kingdom, perhaps such an arrangement could be considered in the other place. I see no reason, relating to law, religion or the level of support, for this welcome measure not to apply throughout the United Kingdom. All Jewish women and their future children could then enjoy the same rights and the same legal and religious protection.

10.42 am
Dr. Rudi Vis (Finchley and Golders Green)

I shall speak for less than a minute.

I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), whose constituency is next to mine, has made many people in Hendon pleased that he has made such good progress with the Bill. Many people in Finchley and Golders Green feel the same.

My hon. Friend thanked a number of people for their assistance. He has spent an enormous amount of time on research, and I congratulate him sincerely on the way in which he has pushed the Bill through.

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 marriage—on which I congratulate her again—with 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 himself—unusually—but he has made a number of representations to me about the issue.

The support from Opposition parties is extremely welcome and will be appreciated by all, especially members of the Jewish community who have made representations.

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 concerned—especially, 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 divorce—the get—can 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 right—the second Emperor of the Flavian dynasty.

Ms Winterton

I thank my hon. Friend. I knew it was a mistake to go down this route. If I may, I shall stick to 70 AD. I did refer to events under Emperor Vespasian.

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 religious divorce. Last September, I had the pleasure of meeting Jeffrey Blumenfeld, Her Honour Judge Dawn Freedman, Tayla Singer and other members of the Jewish Marriage Council. I am extremely grateful to members of the council for assisting me in understanding the issues that this Bill seeks to address. I also met Her Honour Myrella Cohen QC and Eleanor Platt QC of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, who have worked so hard on behalf of chained women in the Jewish community. I understand that they gave much assistance to my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon. The type of advice that they were able to give me was invaluable in understanding the complex issues in this difficult area.

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 implemented without the rest of part II and, sensibly, it takes the opportunity to repeal those sections in the Family Law Act.

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.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.

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