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House of Commons Hansard
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Written Statements
01 February 2018
Volume 635

Written Statements

Thursday 1 February 2018

Cabinet Office

Cabinet Committees and Implementation Task Forces

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Today I am publishing the updated list of Cabinet Committees and Implementation Task Forces (ITFs). The updated list includes several key changes:

Housing taskforce: the ITF will now be chaired by the Prime Minister.

Industrial strategy taskforce; a new ITF has been established to oversee the delivery of the industrial strategy.

Rough sleeping and homelessness reduction taskforce: a new ITF has been established to co-ordinate action to reduce homelessness and halve rough sleeping over the course of the Parliament.

Copies of the associated documents will be placed in the Libraries of both Houses and published on gov.uk.

[HCWS441]

Home Department

Faith Practices

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The Government have today published the independent review into the application of Sharia law in England and Wales. The review has been laid before the House (Cm 9560). Copies of the report will be available from the Vote Office and it is also available on the Home Office website.

The review was commissioned by the then Home Secretary in May 2016 and was chaired by Professor Mona Siddiqui, an internationally renowned expert in Islamic and inter-religious studies. Professor Siddiqui was supported by a review panel of experts that included experienced family law barrister Sam Momtaz QC, retired High Court judge Sir Mark Hedley, and specialist family law solicitor Anne Marie Hutchinson OBE QC. The panel was advised by two religious and theological experts, Imam Sayed Ali Abbas Razawi and Imam Qari Asim.

Sharia law has no jurisdiction in England and Wales and the decisions of Sharia councils are not legally binding. The review focused on whether and to what extent the application of Sharia law by Sharia councils may be incompatible with the law in England and Wales. This included ways in which Sharia law may be being misused or exploited in a way that may discriminate against certain groups, undermine shared values and cause social harms.

To gather evidence the review team issued a public call for evidence and ran a number of oral evidence sessions. During the course of the review, the review chair and panel heard evidence from stakeholders including users of Sharia councils, women’s rights groups, academics, lawyers and Sharia councils. I am grateful to Professor Siddiqui for the thoroughness of her review and for the review team’s comprehensive report.

The review found that most of the work of Sharia councils concerns Islamic divorces, and that the applicants are mostly women. While there are a number of reasons women desire an Islamic divorce, a significant driver is that some Muslim couples do not have a civil marriage as well as an Islamic ceremony. The review also found evidence of a range of practices across Sharia councils, both positive and negative. The review concludes with a series of recommendations to Government.

The review made three recommendations:

Recommendation 1 (legislative change): amendments to marriage law to (a) ensure that civil marriages are conducted before or at the same time as the Islamic marriage ceremony and (b) establish the right to a civil divorce.

Recommendation 2 (building understanding): proposes developing programmes to (i) raise Muslim couples’ awareness that Islamic marriages do not afford them the protections under the law that come with a civil marriage because their partnership is not recognised as a legal marriage; and (ii) encourages Muslim couples that have or are having an Islamic marriage to register for a civil marriage as well.

Recommendation 3 (regulation of Sharia councils): proposes regulating Sharia councils through the creation of a state-established body that would create a code of practice for Sharia councils to accept and implement.

The Government will carefully consider the review’s findings. The review team’s failure to reach a unanimous agreement on recommendation three (regulation of Sharia councils) demonstrates the complexity of the issues. The Government consider that the proposal to create a state-facilitated or endorsed regulation scheme for Sharia councils would confer upon them legitimacy as alternative forms of dispute resolution. The Government do not consider there to be a role for the state to act in this way. Britain has a long tradition of freedom of worship and religious tolerance and regulation could add legitimacy to the perception of the existence of a parallel legal system even though the outcomes of Sharia councils have no standing in civil law, as the independent review has made clear. Many people of different faiths follow religious codes and practices and benefit from their guidance. The Government have no intention of changing this position and for this reason cannot accept recommendation three.

The review found some evidence of Sharia councils forcing women to make concessions to gain a divorce, of inadequate safeguarding policies, and a failure to signpost applicants to legal remedies. This is not acceptable. Where Sharia councils exist, they must abide by the law. Legislation is in place to protect the rights of women and prevent discriminatory practice. The Government will work with the appropriate regulatory authorities to ensure that this legislation and the protections it establishes are being enforced fully and effectively.

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Housing, Communities and Local Government

Housing Infrastructure Fund

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Today the Government announce that we will invest £866 million to help unlock up to 200,000 new homes through 133 marginal viability fund projects, within the housing infrastructure fund.

The Government have set out a plan that puts us on track to increase housing supply to 300,000 homes a year and this first wave of funding from the £5 billion housing infrastructure fund is part of a comprehensive programme to fix the broken housing market.

This investment will fund key local infrastructure projects including new roads, cycle paths, flood defences and land remediation work where it is needed for new housing to be built. Without this financial support, these projects would struggle to go ahead or take years for work to begin, delaying the homes these communities need.

The marginal viability fund was available to all single and lower-tier local authorities in England to bid into.

We received 430 bids from local authorities, worth almost £14 billion in total. This shows how much local authorities are willing to step up to fix the broken housing market, and we are committed to supporting this ambition. Bids went through a rigorous assessment process and were assessed on the basis of their strategic approach, value for money and the ability of the projects to be delivered. We are putting infrastructure at the heart of housing delivery and are committed to bringing communities, local authorities and the private sector together to solve this problem.

The second component of the housing infrastructure fund—the forward fund—is available to the uppermost tier of local authorities in England to bid into, and aims to pump prime a small number of strategic and high-impact infrastructure projects. Expressions of interest for forward funding are being assessed and the best proposals will be shortlisted to go through to co-development shortly. Local authorities will submit their final business cases with successful bids announced from autumn 2018 onwards.

The full list of successful marginal viability fund projects, and the indicative amount we are awarding (subject to final financial clarifications) can be found on the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government website at:

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/housing-infrastructure-fund

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Justice

Justice and Home Affairs Council

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The first meeting of EU Interior and Justice Ministers during the Bulgarian presidency took place on 25 and 26 January in Sofia. Her Majesty’s ambassador to Bulgaria, Emma Hopkins, and a senior Government official represented the UK for interior day. I represented the UK for justice day.

Interior day began with a debate on European asylum policy. The presidency set out its objective to conclude negotiations on the reform of the common European asylum system (CEAS) package, including Dublin IV, by the end of June. Member states supported the aim of concluding negotiations by June but there remains a lack of consensus on the inclusion of burden sharing mechanisms in Dublin IV. The UK continues to support a comprehensive approach to migration but does not support a mandatory redistribution system within the EU and has not opted into the Dublin IV regulation.

Over lunch, Ministers discussed the global UN compact on migration (GCM), which will be negotiated in the UN over the next six months. The discussion aimed to initiate consideration on the alignment of member states’ positions on the principles of the GCM text. The UK is committed to agreeing a global framework for a new approach to orderly, safe and regular global migration. The UK reaffirmed the Government’s principles that underline our approach to achieving this, in particular that refugees should seek protection in the first safe country they can reach; that a distinction needs to be maintained between economic migrants and refugees; and that states have the right to control their borders and the duty to accept their citizens back.

Interior day ended with a discussion on integrated border management. Member states highlighted priorities for co-operation among the relevant authorities and agencies involved in border security and with third countries to help secure the Union’s external border. These priorities related specifically to implementation of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (EBCGA) and related EU databases—the entry/exit system (EES) and the European travel information and authorisation system (ETIAS). The UK recognises the importance of increased border security across the EU. However, the UK is not part of the border aspects of the Schengen agreement and therefore does not participate in the EBCGA, EES or the ETIAS.

Justice day began with a consideration of the issues relevant to future co-operation between the European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO) and other partner agencies and offices of the EU, such as Europol, Eurojust and the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF). Member states agreed on the importance of clear working relationships, with a clear delimitation of responsibilities so that the EPPO does not limit or encroach upon other agencies’ competences. The Government have been clear that we will not participate in an EPPO and did not opt-in to the regulation.

The day continued with a discussion on the Brussels IIa recast regulation. Member states agreed that the continued requirement for exequatur in some family cases was a significant obstacle to the operation of the system and should be abolished. Similarly, it was agreed that the grounds for refusal of recognition of a judgment should be limited, which is of particular importance where children are concerned.

The Commission presented an update on the progress of the forthcoming legislative proposal on cross- border law enforcement access to e-evidence held by communications service providers. The Commission aims to present the proposal to the JHA Council in March. The Government will consider their position and whether to opt in to the proposal when it is published. The Commission also provided an update on the code of conduct on countering illegal hate speech online which was signed in June 2016 by major social media companies and aims to ensure illegal hate speech is removed within 24 hours. The Commission detailed the progress made by social media companies and explained their intention to expand the number of signatories to the code.

Over lunch, Ministers discussed the justice issues raised by artificial intelligence, in particular on questions of liability. Member states broadly agreed on the need for clear, but light touch, rules on liability which would create certainty to allow investment decisions to be taken without overregulating and discouraging innovation.

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