HL Deb 14 July 2000 vol 615 cc505-9

2.41 p.m.

Read a third time.

Clause 1 [Refusal of decree absolute on grounds of non-dissolution of religious marriage]:

Lord McIntosh of Haringey moved Amendment No. 1: Page 1, line 10, leave out ("26(1)") and insert ("26(1)(d)").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in moving this amendment, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 2. The amendments stand in the name of the Lord Chancellor.

At Second Reading, I, and in Committee the noble Lord, Lord Bach, indicated the Government's support in principle for the Bill. As I said at that time, we have received advice from counsel that the Bill is not compatible with Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights in that it discriminates on grounds of religion. For that reason, the Government have tabled these amendments to ensure that the Bill is compatible with the convention.

The effect of the first amendment is to confine the provisions of the Bill to the Jewish faith in the first instance. The second amendment would allow the Lord Chancellor to add other faith groups as and when appropriate. The Government seek to take this action as, at present, only the Jewish community has approached the Government for this remedy. In the circumstances, it would be inappropriate to confer rights on all faith groups without evidence that the provision would be welcome to them. The second amendment will allow other faith groups, if they wish, to put a case to the Government to have the provision extended to them. I beg to move.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

My Lords, we are grateful to the Government for having subjected the Bill to careful scrutiny—among other things, against the standards of human rights. As the Minister explained, the amendments recognise that Britain is a plural society in which people of different faiths and no faith at all should be treated with respect and equality.

The amendments give rise to no difficulty so far as concerns delegation. We have the benefit of the report of the Select Committee on Delegated Powers and Deregulation to that effect. The provision sensibly authorises the Lord Chancellor to add other faith groups in the way that has been explained if, and only if, after consultation, other faith groups wish to have that benefit.

It seems entirely healthy that the Government have on this occasion been prepared to disclose their legal advice. I explained on an earlier occasion that I did not altogether share the view that the Bill was not strictly compatible. That does not really matter. What the Bill now does is make sure that it does not authorise any discrimination. In those circumstances, we greatly welcome these sensible amendments.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey moved Amendment No. 2: Page 1, line 13, at end insert— ("(1A) This section also applies where the parties to proceedings—

  1. (a) were married to each other according to religious usages of a kind prescribed in an order made by the Lord Chancellor; and
  2. (b) are required to co-operate if the marriage is to be dissolved in accordance with those usages.").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

2.45 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey moved Amendment No. 3: Page 1, line 16, leave out ("is").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, with Amendment No. 3 I should like to speak also to Amendments Nos. 4 and 5. These are procedural amendments which allow the parties to the application to know exactly what is required of them to satisfy the court that they have taken all the necessary steps to dissolve the religious marriage. Specifically, Amendment No. 3 is a minor drafting point to aid statutory interpretation. Amendment No. 4 provides that the declaration be produced to the court. This is a significant step in the process. Without the declaration, the court will be unable to verify whether the religious marriage has been dissolved and therefore make an informed decision as to whether to issue the decree absolute.

Amendment No. 5 will allow for rules of court to specify the form and requirements of the declaration. This will help the court to adopt a unified approach and make clear to the parties what is required. The amendment also provides that where a declaration has been found to be inaccurate after the divorce is made absolute, that will not affect the civil divorce. Equally, any financial and childcare provisions arising from the civil divorce would not be adversely affected. Amendment No. 5 also sets out the provision relating to any order in this matter to be made by the Lord Chancellor; specifically, that an order must be made by statutory instrument and shall be subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament. I can also inform the House that, as the noble Lord, Lord Lester, points out, the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee has not raised any queries about the delegated power extended to the Lord Chancellor in making orders to add other faith groups as and when appropriate.

The nature of these amendments is to allow proper procedural instructions to ensure that upon implementation the parties are clear as to what is required of them to comply. I commend the amendments to the House. I beg to move.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

My Lords, these amendments are also great improvements to the Bill. They achieve greater certainty not only in the law but between the parties. For that reason, I am most grateful.

Lord Simon of Glaisdale

My Lords, can the Minister explain what kinds of requirements are envisaged in new subsection (4)(c)?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, these are matters that may be imposed under rules of court. It is not for Parliament to anticipate what kinds of rules the courts may themselves wish to add.

Lord Simon of Glaisdale

My Lords, that may be something of a blank cheque.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

My Lords, I do not know whom I may help. I would be the first to raise a criticism if I thought that there was any over-broad delegation or uncertainty. The Select Committee under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Alexander, indicates that it is satisfied. For my part, I regard the matter as purely procedural. If there were any defect it could be dealt with under the negative resolution procedure. It is important that this Bill be speedily enacted to give quick relief. I and the other backers of this measure would be most upset if, on a technicality, this Bill could not be bid farewell as soon as possible. In what is proposed I see no real vice; on the contrary, virtue.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey moved Amendments Nos. 4 and 5: Page 1, line 18, at end insert ("is produced to the court"). Page I, line 23, at end insert— ("(4) A declaration of a kind mentioned in subsection (2)—

  1. (a) must be in a specified form:
  2. (b) must, in specified cases, be accompanied by such documents as may be specified: and
  3. (c) must, in specified cases, satisfy such other requirements as may be specified.
(5) The validity of a decree of divorce made by reference to such a declaration is not to be affected by any inaccuracy in the declaration. (6) An order under subsection (1A)—
  1. (a) must be made by statutory instrument:
  2. (b) shall be subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.
(7) "Specified" means specified in rules of court.").

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill do now pass.

Moved, That the Bill do now pass.—(Lord Lester of Herne Hill.)

Baroness Miller of Hendon

My Lords, Clause 1 of the Bill re-enacts Section 9(3) of the Family Law Act 1996. Unfortunately, that section is in Part II of the Act which, for various reasons totally unconnected with this clause, the Government have not yet brought into effect and may not do so for some time. In other words, the clause is simply in the wrong place; otherwise it would be law by now.

Your Lordships will recall that I had a reservation about the wording. However, I emphasise that I supported the good intention or purposes of Clause 1 of the Bill. That reservation was dispelled by the assurances the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, gave me in Committee.

The Bill, therefore, gives effect to the will of both Houses of Parliament which would otherwise be indefinitely delayed for reasons which are not relevant to this Bill. That would be to the detriment of a number of chained spouses whose problems may be relieved by the Bill. Even if that number is only one, we need to do whatever we can to help where their own religious courts cannot.

In those circumstances, I support the proposal that the Bill do now pass and hope sincerely that it will be given a smooth passage in another place.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Baroness for her remarks. Her contribution to debates on the Bill has been extremely important. It has made us all think again very carefully. We have now reached the happy position where noble Lords on all sides of the House welcome the Bill. As the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, explained, the will of Parliament is already expressed in Section 9(3) of the Family Law Act 1996. There is nothing controversial about this measure; there is nothing involving public expenditure or anything of that kind. It would be presumptuous to say anything about how it might fare in another place. But it is very much to be hoped that it can be dealt with in a way which gives speedy relief and redress to a most unfortunate group of victims of an ancient injustice.

In conclusion, first, perhaps I may express great gratitude to the Government for the spirit in which they have approached the measure and the constructive way in which they have improved the Bill beyond its original form. Secondly, I express gratitude to the House as a whole, including the usual channels, for enabling the Bill to be speedily passed in this House while in no way sacrificing effective scrutiny. With those words, I commend the Bill.

On Question, Bill passed, and sent to the Commons.