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Sharia Law

Volume 480: debated on Tuesday 14 October 2008

4. What recent assessment her Department has made of the implications of sharia law practices for community cohesion. (226339)

Community cohesion is about building better relationships between people from different backgrounds, including those from new and settled communities. The use of religious courts, such as sharia councils, to resolve private family and contractual disputes is well established, and in itself does not have an impact on community cohesion. It is, however, important that all practices are compliant with our framework of equality legislation, as equality is essential in the underpinning of cohesion.

I congratulate the Minister on his debut on the Front Bench in his new role. He said over the weekend that he would be

“very concerned about sharia courts applying in the UK.”

Presumably no one had told him that last year the Government licensed a whole lot of what they call Muslim arbitration tribunals. I appreciate that their powers are limited, but they are presided over by sharia judges and are therefore, in effect, state-licensed sharia courts. Is the Minister satisfied that individual women in particular who come before such courts will do so voluntarily in every case?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, but I wish that he had read the entire quotation. For the avoidance of any doubt, I tell the House that sharia law has no jurisdiction in England and Wales, and there is no intention to change that. His point about women is one that I referred to in the answer that I gave a minute and a half ago. We are conscious of the fact that all sharia councils should abide by equality legislation. That is at the core of cohesion.

Is my hon. Friend aware that only two of the eight mosques in my constituency are registered for marriage? Therefore, there can be problems, as couples are married in sharia law, but not in the law of this country. Sometimes there are problems—if the marriage breaks down and a settlement needs to be arrived at about the division of assets, for instance, where the woman can be let down by a sharia judge. Can my hon. Friend’s Department do anything to encourage mosques to register for marriage, so that those marriages take place within the law of the land?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. She has huge experience of what is a serious issue. For the avoidance of doubt, the Marriage Act 1949 provides for mosques to be registered for the solemnisation of marriages according to the rites of the Muslim religion. There are certain conditions that need to be satisfied, and they are recognised in law without the need for a civil ceremony. Where a mosque is not registered, such as six of the eight mosques in my hon. Friend’s constituency, a separate civil ceremony is necessary. Otherwise, the spouses of the religious marriage are treated the same as common-law wives and therefore can be disadvantaged. It is really important that they seek advice where they can and that we encourage civil contracts where, for whatever reasons, civil ceremonies are not registered. However, it is just as important that we advise mosques to become registered. That will give women the protection that they need.

I understand that as part of the Government’s community cohesion policy the Minister has started working with mosques to teach citizenship. Could he enlighten us on what his Department is doing to bring mosques more into the mainstream and get them involved, such as through the registration that the hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) talked about?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I know that he takes a keen interest in these matters in Rochdale. He will be aware of the setting up of the Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board—MINAB—with which we are working, along with communities and religious organisations, to improve how mosques operate. A good mosque is like a good church, a good synagogue, a good temple or a good gurdwara: it can be the hub of a local community and make it more cohesive. We are working with faith leaders to ensure that their mosques can use best practice from around the country, so that citizens in Rochdale—Muslims and non-Muslims—can be best served by good mosques.

Last weekend, I was at the big Eid celebration in Bletchley in my constituency. There was a stall there giving information on Islamic mortgages, which are consistent with sharia law. In the current economic climate, such mortgages—which are, of course, available to non-Muslims as well as to Muslims—seem to be quite a good model. Is not this an example of a practice designed for only one community which could benefit the whole community and which could be accommodated in UK law?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. She will be aware that, in consecutive Finance Bills, the Government have allowed Islamic finance to take place in this country. She makes the important point that sharia law is not, as is perceived by the media, just about cutting off hands. It covers Islamic finance, worshipping, and how one dresses and eats. She is absolutely right to say that ethically friendly mortgages—Islamic finance mortgages—are products that are now being taken up not only by more Muslims but by non-Muslims as well.

We welcome the Minister to his new post. We also send our best wishes to his predecessor.

Over the weekend, the Minister was quoted as saying, in relation to sharia courts:

“At some stage in the future I do not rule out the possibility that the Muslim diaspora in this country may be advanced enough”.

That must mean either that he did not know about the Muslim arbitration tribunals or that he thinks that, eventually, their powers could be extended. To clear all this up, will he write to me listing exactly when these tribunals were approved, who approved them, who was consulted, who the judges are, what cases have been heard, and exactly what measures are in place to protect women? And will he place a copy of the letter in the Library?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his warm words. I am disappointed that somebody of his experience does not know the areas covered by the Ministry of Justice, and those covered by the Department for Communities and Local Government. He will of course be aware of the matter from the copy of the letter given to him by the shadow Home Secretary, the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), to whom the Home Secretary wrote on this issue. As my contacts with our Front Bench are clearly better than the hon. Gentleman’s contacts with his own Front Bench, I will ensure that the right Minister writes to him to give him the information that he has requested.