I appreciate the opportunity to debate this important issue in the Chamber. We have the privilege of living in a free society, in which the rights of the individual are not determined by their gender. We live in an open, tolerant country, which rightly welcomes people’s different faiths and religious beliefs and is diverse and benefits socially, economically and culturally from that diversity. Many individuals have campaigned, fought and given their lives for the freedom and values that make up the United Kingdom. This is a special place, embracing democracy, free speech and, just as important, a justice system that has evolved over a millennium.
One of the cornerstones of our justice system is that we are all equal in the eyes of the law. Embodied in the law of our country are the demands for equality, the challenge to the wrongs that appear in prejudice and discrimination in our lives. We can be proud—but we should not be complacent—that the vast majority of our judges, magistrates and clerks come from all backgrounds and are of both genders.
When I read that my local council of mosques had issued a press release calling for the Government to recognise sharia councils—they are courts in any other country—and ensure that they are better resourced, I was greatly concerned. Exploring this issue, I find that most of the debate that reaches the public comes from far right blogs and racist rhetoric. Little thoughtful contribution to understanding or exploring these issues comes to the fore. There are a couple of notable exceptions: the work of Baroness Cox, from the other House, and the work of the BBC’s “Panorama” programme, led by the journalist, Jane Corbin. I am grateful to Miss Corbin for conversations that I had with her in preparing for this debate, and I put on the record my appreciation of an excellent programme transmitted yesterday evening. Baroness Cox’s exceptional work seeks to ensure that sharia tribunals and councils operate within the law and should not form a concurrent legal system in the UK. With that aim in mind, I have four questions for the Government.
First, I should like to hear from the Government that we have only one law in this country. Secondly, I want to hear that sharia councils must comply with UK law. That includes compliance with all equality and anti-discrimination laws and family law. Thirdly, I should like to understand how the Government will ensure compliance and what penalties will be applied to a council or court if it breaks the law. Fourthly, I should like to know what consideration the Government have given to ensuring that all sharia marriages are legally underpinned by a compulsory civil marriage.
In last night’s programme, it was evident that women were not being treated equally. In the so-called arbitration process, even a simple issue of cost was clearly discriminatory. Women pay £400 to get a divorce; men pay nothing. Women are encouraged not to report to the police. A woman was given a divorce only after she agreed to hand over her children to the husband. The council or court was only ever made up of men or a man.
I understand that the act of determining child access or contact cannot be undertaken in law by a sharia council or court. I hope that, if evidence of wrongdoing can be established, those who have broken the law, as shown in the programme last night, will be pursued. On seeing the programme’s evidence, the chief crown prosecutor for the Crown Prosecution Service in the north-west said that he was disappointed, but not surprised. If the CPS is not surprised about such findings, why are we, as a Government, allowing such things to happen?
The director of Inspire, an organisation with an impeccable reputation, issued a statement following the “Panorama” programme last night:
“Panorama’s programme, (22nd April 2013) on the unregulated and discriminatory practice of some of Britain’s sharia councils has been of long concern to Inspire. ‘Secrets of Britain’s Sharia Councils’ highlighted how some of the services provided by Sharia councils, in particular arbitration and mediation services, operate in a way that is at times discriminatory towards women, undermining their human rights which should be protected by British law, especially with regards to child custody and domestic violence cases.”
That is part of a long, detailed release that is a thoughtful contribution to the debate. That paragraph in particular highlights problems that I am concerned about as well.
I want to discuss underpinning religious marriage with civil law marriage. Some men are choosing not to marry through the civil law process, because doing so makes divorce simpler and does not enable a woman rightly to claim her share of the assets at the time of divorce. There is also an opportunity for men to marry a second wife, because the first, sharia marriage is not recognised in law. We have to ensure that the rights of women are protected. I therefore concur with Inspire’s call that all sharia marriages be simultaneously registered as civil marriages, thus offering much-needed protection to women.
I believe that, sadly, the word “sharia” has more negative connotations than positive images in our country. Only by exploring why will we begin to address those concerns. Unlike the far right, I do not believe that Islam is evil. We should not underestimate the level of distrust and sometimes fear that exists. It is our responsibility to challenge the wrongdoing and allay those fears. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Kris Hopkins) for bringing this timely debate to the Chamber. I am sure that hon. Members will be aware of the concerns raised in the BBC “Panorama” programme last night on this subject.
My hon. Friend has eloquently, carefully and respectfully explained why he is opposed to any establishment of a state-sponsored, alternative judicial process in England and Wales. I recognise that there is some confusion about what the exact position is on this issue. Therefore I start by stressing plainly and clearly that sharia law has no jurisdiction under the law of England and Wales and the courts do not recognise it. There is no parallel court system in this country, and we have no intention of changing the position in any part of England and Wales.
On the points raised by my hon. Friend, sharia law is the code of personal religious law governing the conduct of Muslims. Those principles can extend to all aspects of people’s lives. There are a number of sharia councils in England and Wales that help Muslim communities resolve civil and family disputes by making recommendations by which they hope that the parties will abide, but I make it absolutely clear that they are not part of the court system in this country and have no means of enforcing their decisions. If any of their decisions or recommendations are illegal or contrary to public policy—including equality policies such as the Equality Act 2010—or national law, national law will prevail all the time, every time. That is no different from any other council or tribunal, whether or not based on sharia law.
Britain is proud of its tradition of religious tolerance. The Government do not prevent individuals from seeking to regulate their lives through religious beliefs or cultural traditions. Provided that an activity prescribed by sharia principles does not contravene the law of England and Wales, there is nothing that prevents people from living by sharia law.
The use of religious councils or other extra-legal bodies to deal with civil disputes is well established and non-contentious. Communities have the option to use religious authorities to adjudicate disputes and to agree to abide by their decisions on a voluntary basis, but such decisions are subject to national law and are not legally enforceable. Any member of any community should know that they have the right to refer to an English court at any point, especially in the event that they feel pressured or coerced to resolve an issue in a way with which they feel uncomfortable.
Because sharia councils do not have any legal means of enforcing their decisions, they can only make recommendations that they hope the parties will follow. There is no appeal mechanism. If a party decides to challenge a decision in a civil court, any decision would be made in accordance with English law.
Any use of sharia law in Scotland would be a devolved matter for the Scottish Parliament. My understanding is that there are no sharia courts in Scotland and that there is no intention of setting any up. However, individual parties can, if they wish, agree to use sharia law to settle disputes, so long as there is no conflict with the law of Scotland.
I understand the concerns, expressed by many, regarding religious councils involving themselves in matters of domestic violence, to which my hon. Friend referred. Domestic violence is a dreadful form of abuse and is not acceptable in our society; it is not condoned or supported by any religion. It is absolutely essential that victims and potential victims are aware of their rights and of all the advice and support that is available. The Government are committed to working with both statutory and voluntary organisations to ensure that our messages reach across all communities.
My hon. Friend knows that Baroness Cox’s Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill had its Second Reading on 19 October 2012. The Government are aware of the level of concern about the perceived use and interpretation of sharia law in this country, as was highlighted by the amount of support for that Bill on Second Reading. After careful and considered deliberation, however, it was evident that the provisions already existed in current legislation and so were unnecessary. Instead, we believe the issue is more about raising awareness of the existing position under English law. We are fully committed to protecting the rights of all our citizens and will consider what is required to educate people further on the protections afforded to them by UK law.
Under criminal law, any person who commits a criminal offence is liable to be prosecuted for that offence, provided it is in the public interest to do so. In England and Wales, criminal proceedings are always heard in a criminal court. We do not recognise any criminal law decision made by an alternative court in this country. The Government have no intention of changing that position.
My hon. Friend also asked about the recognition of sharia marriages by English courts. We are working to raise awareness of the need to have a legally recognised marriage, and we are encouraging mosques to register to carry out legally recognised marriages in their various facilities.
I hope that I have answered all the important issues raised by my hon. Friend. This has been a useful and timely debate, and I am grateful to him for his contribution.
Rightly, this country celebrates diversity. We are a country where everyone has an opportunity to contribute, no matter what their background, ethnicity or religion, but that must be within a set of laws and a judicial framework that is common to all and understood by all. There can be no question of there being a parallel court system in this country. I hope that that clarification of the Government’s position reassures my hon. Friend and other hon. Members who are present