Thursday 2 May 2019
[Steve McCabe in the Chair]
Working at Height: Safety
I beg to move,
That this House has considered preventing serious injury and fatalities while working at height.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I pay tribute to everyone who contributed to the all-party parliamentary group on working at height report, which we published just a few months ago. The acknowledgments on the back pages list the organisations in the sector that brought their expertise to bear.
A 1970s public information film told us:
“The effects of gravity can be grave.”
We all have a stake in our constituents being safe while working at height, including the workers in this very building, which is shrouded in scaffolding, including just outside the doors of Westminster Hall.
Last year, the APPG on working at height undertook an inquiry to understand the reasons why falls from height occur, and to examine their consequences for individuals and their families. It published a report in February, “Staying Alive: Preventing Serious Injury and Fatalities while Working at Height”, which makes a number of recommendations that we hope will help to create a safer environment for the millions of people who work at height in the UK every day.
More than 60 respondents to the APPG took the time to share their experience and suggest ways to improve and build on the current guidelines and legislation. Working at height is not the sole preserve of those we might automatically think of, namely people in the construction sector. We must also consider the work of window cleaners, sole traders, small businesses, people in the oil and gas sector, farmers and agricultural workers, and many other professions besides. The evidence gathering helped us to shape the report’s recommendations and gave us a valuable insight into the challenges faced by those various sectors. The fantastic response from the public and industry highlighted the importance of this issue and the desire to see improvements across all sectors involved in working at height. I pay particular tribute to the Access Industry Forum, and to Peter Bennett OBE of the Prefabricated Access Suppliers’ and Manufacturers’ Association and the No Falls Foundation, which are based in my constituency and forged the idea of setting up the APPG.
At the report launch, we were humbled to hear from Paul Blanchard, who had a fall in 2010 when aged 55. After falling from a roof, he broke his back and 18 ribs, suffered severe head injuries and punctured a lung. He subsequently spent three months in a coma in hospital. His family were told twice that he might not survive, and that if he were to survive he would likely have significant brain damage. Miraculously, he pulled through, but was left with no sense of smell and damaged hearing, and was paralysed from the chest down. At the launch, he spoke movingly about how he is still coming to terms with the changes to his life and that of his family. His account is a stark reminder that a fleeting lapse in concentration can have devastating, lifelong consequences. That must be our main motivation to do all we can to improve the regulatory environment and the rules and guidelines. No one should ever not return home from work as a result of a fall from height.
Although we have a good record in the UK, 35 families last year lost a loved one due to a fall from height. I am sure you will agree, Mr McCabe, that that is 35 too many. The fantastic “Get a Grip” safety campaign, which was launched recently by the Ladder Association and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, aims to raise awareness of the importance of using ladders and step-ladders safely, both at work and at home, in an attempt to reduce accidents. The campaign features a short film comprising an interview with Abbi Taylor, whose father, Jason Anker, who also gave evidence to us, was paralysed after a fall from height when she was only three years old. Abbi talks candidly about the profound effects that her father’s accident had on her. She speaks about how he was not able to walk her down the aisle at her wedding or babysit his young granddaughter. It is an incredibly powerful message and helps to convey the hugely important message that there can be devastating, real-life consequences to using ladders, or working at height in any capacity, if proper precautions are not taken. I recommend Abbi’s video to everyone here, and would be happy to share the details if anyone is interested.
I would like to see more of that type of campaign, as we do not have the public information broadcasting that we used to have. I am keen for the APPG to explore and be more involved in that. As Dr Karen McDonnell, occupational safety and health policy adviser for ROSPA, said recently:
“We are aware people have deadlines and other pressures, but by cutting corners you’re putting yourself in harm’s way. By making people think about what could happen to family and friends in the event of a fall, we can get people to think twice about their safety”.
I could not agree more. It is one thing to tell people about rules and guidelines, but quite another to tell them of the life-changing impacts that carelessness can bring about. We all see people working on buildings and ladders doing those kinds of things, and we sometimes wonder why people have done what they have done. Often, it is due to a lapse of concentration or because someone has cut a corner.
To tackle some of these issues, the APPG has made four recommendations and highlighted two areas where we want to consult further. First, we want to introduce enhanced reporting through the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 1995—RIDDOR—which would at a minimum record the scale of a fall, the method used and the circumstances surrounding the fall. It would also be useful to link up with NHS data, which could provide further details. Previously, data was collected through the home accident surveillance system and the leisure accident surveillance system, but that ended in 2003, leaving a significant data gap.
Secondly, we recommend the setting up of an independent reporting body to allow confidential, enhanced and digital reporting of near misses and accidents that do not fall under RIDDOR reporting. That could then be shared with the Government and industry, to inform health and safety policy. We heard evidence from the Confidential Hazardous Incident Reporting Programme charitable trust, the UK Confidential Reporting Programme for Aviation and Maritime, and Confidential Reporting on Structural Safety, all of which have seen the benefit of such a reporting scheme. It would be particularly useful in addressing emerging new risks in newer areas of industry and construction. Things are changing, and buildings look very different. The occasions on which people may have to work at height, such as music festivals, are developing all the time, and we must consider how accidents can be reported.
The first two proposals attracted broad agreement from those who responded to the APPG’s inquiry. There is concern that safety improvements are hindered by a lack of empirical data, knowledge and understanding of the root causes of falls from height. The issue is compounded by a cultural obstacle when it comes to supporting people to report unsafe practices. The recommendation concerning improved reporting suggests a change to existing systems of data collection, as opposed to building something from scratch. Free-text boxes and not asking the right questions hamper the learning that can be taken from incidents. The Minister will be glad to hear that stakeholders believe that making those improvements would have little financial burden on the Government. It would be a quick win and would improve data quality and accuracy almost overnight. For those reasons, I would be grateful if the Minister gave the proposal serious consideration.
Our third recommendation concerns extending the “Working Well Together—Working Well at Height” safety campaign to a wider audience outside construction. There are now many industries that involve work at height that ought to be considered, and it appears that stakeholders would welcome such an initiative. The Health and Safety Executive analysed 150 falls from height that it investigated in the food and drink industry over three years. Its website indicates that 40% of workers fell from ladders; 17% from vehicles or forklifts; 10% from machinery or plant; 10% from platforms; 8% from stairs; 7% from roofs or false ceilings, 4% from scaffolds and gantries; and 4% from warehouse racking. A range of incidents can occur. Workplaces are increasingly complex, and workers are perhaps not as prepared as they could be due to the nature of work, including temporary and zero-hours contracts. Workers in those environments need to be protected wherever they are.
The APPG has suggested changes that draw on best practice or existing mechanisms. That is why our fourth recommendation is that the Scottish fatal accident inquiry process should be extended to all parts of the UK. In Scotland, Ministers are required under section 29 of the Inquiries into Fatal Accidents and Sudden Deaths etc. (Scotland) Act 2016 to report on fatalities. FAIs are mandatory for deaths occurring in the workplace, and the outcomes are publicly available online. Extending that to all parts of the UK would go some way to ensuring that all fatalities in the workplace, including those as a result of a fall from height, are properly and thoroughly investigated and reported, and that recommendations for change are made.
The APPG wants to look further at a digital technology strategy, including a new tax relief to help small, micro and sole traders to invest in new technology. That is more an issue for the Treasury, rather than the Minister, but we think it is important. We heard from the City of London Corporation about its initiative to improve understanding of working at height among facilities management companies, and from construction giant Balfour Beatty about its use of drone technology to carry out bridge inspections, cutting the risk for workers at height. Technology offers great potential and it should be available not just to wealthy companies but as widely as possible, including to small businesses and lone workers so that they can avoid putting themselves at risk. This is also a good time for Government to instigate a major review of work-at-height culture, which should include investigating the suitability of legally binding financial penalties in health and safety. Those funds could go towards raising awareness.
I have been contacted by people interested in preventing injury from dropped objects, for which the data is also quite sketchy. The HSE collects information on those struck by moving objects, which accounted for 13% of deaths and 10% of injuries, but there is no sense of exactly which objects were moving, in what manner, how they caused harm or what happened. Information suggests that dropped objects are in the top 10 causes of injury in the oil and gas industry alone. That requires much more investigation, and the APPG intends to look into it further.
Work is being carried out in the United States, with the ANSI/ISEA 121 dropped object prevention solutions standard, and in Aberdeen with the dropped objects prevention scheme, or DROPS. I encourage the Minister to investigate whether those schemes could enhance the HSE’s work.
I am sorry to disappoint hon. Members who came to the debate hoping for a wee break from Brexit, but it is important to touch briefly on the potential impact that leaving the European Union may have on this area of policy, which we must bear in mind when it comes to people’s safety. In a recent survey, 97% of businesses asked by EEF said that they wanted no immediate change to regulations as and when the UK leaves the EU. We must not sacrifice red tape, because it provides a safety net.
The UK Government introduced the Health and Safety (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2018, which are designed to ensure that all EU-derived protections are fully incorporated into UK law. The message from the APPG is clear: Ministers must ensure that no individual who works at height is any less safe after Brexit. I hope the Minister will make a commitment on that.
Before I conclude my remarks, I thank the right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson), who is an excellent member of the APPG and is very committed to the issue. I am glad to see him here. I am sure that if it were not for today’s local elections, the debate would have a much wider attendance.
Although I acknowledge that the UK has some of the lowest workplace fatality and serious injury rates of any country in the European Union, the latest data— published last year by the Health and Safety Executive—shows that, averaged over the past five years, 26% of deaths at work happen as a result of a fall from height, which is by far the leading cause. In 2017-18, 8% of workplace injuries were the result of a fall from height—those injuries can be very serious. Many of those deaths and injuries are preventable, and that is a tragedy. We in this place must therefore do everything in our power to minimise risk and protect individuals as much as possible. One fatality at work is one too many.
I support the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) in commending the APPG report to the Minister and to the House as a whole. I have played a small part in the group, but was able to attend a number of sessions and helped to sign off the report’s recommendations. I have done so because it is self-evident and important that we must try to reduce still further the number of deaths and injuries caused by falls from height.
My first memory of my dad was visiting him in hospital after he had suffered an industrial injury and was off work for six months. It is important to remember that it is not just the individual who is affected by an injury at work, but their family, as the hon. Lady said. Although my dad was not injured by a fall from height, the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and the Work at Height Regulations 2005, which were both passed by a Labour Government, are critical pieces of legislation. They ensure that those who work at height, either for big businesses or when self-employed, come home safe, contribute at work safely and are free from injury or—in some cases, sadly—death, as a result of their efforts at work.
We have a responsibility not only through business, central Government regulation and legislation passed by this House, but through the exploitation and promotion of good practice, to ensure that we do all we can to make that happen. The report shows that in the last year for which we have figures, 18% of people who died at work died as the result of a fall from height, so inroads the Government make in tackling that challenge will help to reduce the overall number of deaths at work. Our figures are very good compared with other European countries, partly because of the legislation passed to date, but as the hon. Lady said, the report mentions some important ways we can not only build on the regulations that place duties on employers, self-employed people and any individuals who contract people to work at height, including building owners, facility managers and householders, but rise to the challenges set out in the report. I look forward to hearing what the Minister thinks the challenges will be.
The hon. Lady mentioned the importance of reporting. There is now a reporting mechanism, but the APPG’s report asks for enhanced reporting to examine still further, and at a minimum, the scale of the fall, the methods used and the circumstances—to get as much information as possible about the fall, so that we can learn and help to prevent future injuries. Is the Minister happy with the current level of reporting and with the demands put on it? Is there scope to improve reporting, as the hon. Lady and the report have requested? If so, as Minister, he has a duty to improve reporting and prevent future injuries and deaths.
The hon. Lady mentioned that our report asks for an independent body to ensure that we allow confidential, enhanced digital reporting of near misses. Reporting a number of near misses that could have resulted in death or serious injury is crucial to oblige good practice and to ensure that we reduce the potential danger and the threat of poor behaviour. What is the Minister’s view on an independent body? Does he think it worthwhile or would it be an additional burden on business? I do not think it would be, but I would like some clarity on that, because it is important that we have that level of support.
The hon. Lady mentioned the Working Well Together campaign and the Working Well at Height safety campaign for industries outside the construction sector. Many businesses regard that as a critical part of their work for training, assessments and so on. For some businesses, however, working at height might be occasional and not central to their daily work. What is the Minister’s view on the Working Well Together Campaign? Can it be improved? He has the ability to make changes if his good team of officials assess them and support him in doing so.
The hon. Lady mentioned Scotland’s fatal accident inquiry process, and I think that there is merit in that. If I get nothing else from the Minister today, I would welcome confirmation of whether he has even looked at Scotland’s fatal accident inquiry process. If he has, what is his assessment of it? I am not asking him today to expand it; I am just asking whether he has looked at it. Have his officials looked at it? Will he be reviewing it? Will he bring to the table an assessment of whether lessons from Scotland could improve safety at work?
I want to help the right hon. Gentleman. Perfectly legitimately, he is making, as did the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), a number of particular points. It may also help colleagues who have yet to speak if I make this brief point in an intervention. Clearly, this matter requires the Health and Safety Executive to report back to the Government on it. The Government would rightly be criticised if they were too definitive without first receiving a specific response from the HSE. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that I will attempt, within the bounds of what I am able to say, to answer the points raised by the hon. Lady and by him, but obviously we are subject to the formal response by the HSE.
I am grateful to the Minister for putting that on the record. He knows that I acknowledge that relationship, but the key point is that, as the Minister, he can commission work, ask for reviews and, if he has not already, ask the Health and Safety Executive to look at the Scotland fatal accident inquiry process to assess whether any improvements have been made.
Finally, the report also suggests a review of working-at-height culture. Potentially, with the great modern technology we have, that includes mechanisms that the hon. Member for Glasgow Central mentioned, such as drones and other activities. We do not wish to put people out of work, but the threats and dangers of certain aspects of work can be minimised by advancing technology. Again, the Minister has the overview to work with the Health and Safety Executive, that great Labour Government invention, to reduce the number of deaths and injuries at work.
I support what the hon. Lady said, and I want to put on record my support from the Labour Back Benches for the recommendations. I hope that our discussions over 18 months to two years will result in some changes that prevent injury and loss of life, and give some people the opportunity to go back to work the following day, contributing to our economy without threat to their life or their family’s future.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr McCabe. When I saw your good self and the Minister sat there, I thought that I was in a Select Committee. I was ready to ask him impertinent questions—
The hon. Gentleman is never impertinent.
I will perhaps have to quote the Minister’s comment back at him during a future inquiry.
I congratulate my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), on all her work on working at height, which is particularly prevalent in sectors such as construction. I come from a trade union background and was a Unison activist in Glasgow, and we were very aware of such issues, in particular those around whether workers should get additional payments for the context in which they work—at height, for example—and so on. We should remember that in some sectors of the economy, blacklisting by employers was prevalent, often of individuals who expressed the health and safety concerns of workers. That is a real problem and it is still happening. Blacklisting is illegal, but some evidence presented to the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs last year suggested that the practice continues. I refer Members to the early-day motion in my name that calls for a public inquiry into blacklisting.
Every fall from height can have life-altering consequences for workers and their families. The working-at-height culture needs to improve, as the APPG report demonstrates clearly, but sadly the issue does not yet appear to be at the top of decision-making agendas. Lack of data prevents us from understanding the causes of falls from height, which is compounded by a cultural obstacle to supporting people to report unsafe practices.
This excellent report looks at the issues that the right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson) talked about, in particular the four primary recommendations: the enhanced reporting system; the appointment of an independent body to allow confidential, enhanced and digital reporting of all near-misses, to be shared with Government and industry to inform health and safety policy; the extension of the Working Well Together programme; and the extension of the Scotland fatal accident inquiry process to other parts of the United Kingdom.
Another concern to share is that, under the coalition Government, the HSE suffered cuts and job losses. Many of us from a trade union background and those Members in Parliament at the time had real concerns about the deregulation of health and safety and the reporting of it. I hope that the Minister will tell us what the existing staffing levels are at the HSE, because I would be concerned had the numbers reduced over the past 10 years. Clearly, we should not be cutting jobs at the Health and Safety Executive.
In Scotland, under section 29 of the Inquiries into Fatal Accidents and Sudden Deaths etc. (Scotland) Act 2016, Ministers are required to report on fatalities. Fatal accident inquiries are the legal mechanism through which deaths in the workplace are investigated. Inquiries are mandatory for deaths occurring in the workplace, as well as in custody, or when the circumstances are deemed to be in the public interest, and they are usually held in the sheriff courts. The outcomes of all fatal accident inquiries since 1999 are publicly available and can be accessed online via the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service. The all-party group calls for an equivalent system to be introduced in the rest of the UK, to ensure that employers are held to account for fatal injuries occurring as a result of workers falling from height, and that incidents are reported with sufficient information.
The Scottish Government are looking at the law on culpable homicide and considering proposals made by Members of the Scottish Parliament. For example, Claire Baker MSP launched a consultation, which ran from 7 November to 23 April this year, on how the law on culpable homicide can be tightened, and the related Bill appears to have cross-party support.
Companies can be prosecuted under the UK Government’s Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007. We support the Act, but have concerns about the lack of prosecutions under it. Will the Minister talk a bit about that when he responds to the debate? Individual directors can also be charged with the common law offence of culpable homicide or with offences under health and safety legislation, but the SNP position is that if existing legislation can be improved by devolved legislation, we will consider what further steps should be taken.
In the 2018-19 programme for government, the Scottish Government committed to establish in spring this year a new support service—developed and delivered with Victim Support Scotland—to give families bereaved by murder and culpable homicide dedicated and continuous support. That is an important part of the Government’s programme. Wider work to look at the law of homicide is also under way. The Scottish Government asked the Scottish Law Commission to consider that law, and examination commenced in February 2018. Our view is that every fatality at a place of employment in Scotland should be investigated, and that the nature of the deaths requires a detailed and often lengthy investigation involving complex, technical and medical issues and expert opinion. The law already allows individual directors to be charged, which of course is necessary.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central. Clearly, Scottish National party Members are leading the way in this Parliament in promoting the rights of workers. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) is campaigning against discrimination against young people in the living wage; my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald), is producing legislation on unpaid work trials; and I am promoting—this debate is another opportunity to do so—the Workers (Definition and Rights) Bill, which touches on issues such as a worker’s status. People in industries such as construction believe that they are workers or employees, but later find out that they are somehow self-employed. We need to get on top of the issue of precarious work.
Thank you, Mr McCabe, for chairing this debate. I commend to the House the report of the all-party parliamentary group on working at height.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr McCabe.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) on securing this important debate, and on her work as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on working at height, which produced a thought-provoking report in February. I thank her for her comprehensive and effective speech.
From conservation work on Big Ben to pruning trees and cleaning windows, it is estimated that each year, more than 1 million British businesses and 10 million workers carry out tasks that involve some sort of working at height. Action to protect the health and safety of workers has been a central issue for the labour movement throughout its history. Lord Shaftesbury, a Conservative politician, also campaigned for factory reform in the 19th century. However, some Conservatives see health and safety as part of some kind of “nanny state”, implying that there is no need for health and safety regulation, and that providing safety in the workplace is in some way damaging to the economy. The last leader of the Conservative party and Prime Minister said, in January 2012:
“One of the coalition’s new year resolutions is this: kill off the health and safety culture for good.”
That is truly shocking, and shows a real disregard for the health and well-being of millions of working people throughout the country.
Strong health and safety legislation is as important today as it has always been. The latest figures for injuries and fatalities at work show that there is still a real need for robust health and safety regulations, especially for working at height. In 2017-18 there were 555,000—over half a million—non-fatal injuries at work, according to figures from the Health and Safety Executive, which has been responsible for safety in the workplace since 1974.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson) on drawing attention to the Labour party’s strong track record and pivotal role in health and safety legislation. In 2017-18, 8% of all non-fatal workplace injuries were due to a fall from height, and of the 144 workers killed at work, 35 were due to a fall from height. Deaths due to a fall from height represent a high proportion of the total, that being the largest reason for a death at work. The figures for 2017-18 are broadly in line with the average of 37 a year since 2013-14. Twenty of those 35 deaths occurred in the construction industry, although falls from height also occur in other parts of the economy, such as agriculture and the service industries.
The last Labour Government introduced the Work at Height Regulations 2005, which are widely considered to have led to a significant improvement in safety at work. The number of deaths resulting from falls from height at work in 2017-18 was 27% lower than in 2005-06. Nevertheless, we need to do more. I want to talk about three areas—reporting, enforcement and the future uncertainty we face as we leave the European Union.
On reporting, the HSE has estimated that only around half of non-fatal injuries are reported, and that the self-employed, who make up 37% of jobs in construction, report an even smaller proportion. In her report for the last Labour Government into the underlying causes of fatal accidents in the construction industry, Baroness Donaghy commented:
“It is a disgrace that we have such a low level of reporting of serious accidents, let alone near-misses”.
Yet in 2013, the HSE amended the regulation on the reporting of injuries at work to reduce the reporting burden on industry, so detailed data on falls is no longer collected. What consideration have the Government given to requiring reporting of the circumstances of a fall, such as how it happened, the distance, and the experience and training that the person had received on working at height? Regulation and reporting are vital, as is enforcement.
On enforcement, according to Government figures, the Treasury’s funding for the HSE is set to be over £100 million less this year than in 2009-10, which is a cut of 45%—almost half—over 10 years. That is shocking. How do the Government seriously expect the HSE to continue to carry out its statutory duties, as well as take on new ones post Brexit, with cuts of that scale to its funding? The number of enforcement notices issued by the HSE fell in 2016-17 and 2017-18. What assessment has the Minister’s Department made of the impact of funding cuts on the number of inspections that HSE undertakes? The Government have so far failed to respond to the tailored review of the HSE, which was published in November last year. When do they intend to do so?
The hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) mentioned Brexit; if future funding is one key uncertainty for health and safety regulation, Brexit is another. After the UK joined what was then the European Economic Community in 1973, European directives on health and safety mirrored much of what was in the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974. However, in certain respects European legislation went further, and working at height was one area where UK regulation followed a European directive.
The hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) said during the referendum campaign that the UK could slash safety standards after Brexit. That is a truly shocking proposal and shows disregard for the well-being of working people. Will the Minister give us a guarantee that existing health and safety legislation will not be watered down after we leave the EU, and that as the EU seeks to extend health and safety legislation, the protection that UK workers enjoy will keep pace?
The tragedy is that falls from height can very often be preventable, through proper enforcement of existing legislation and increased awareness of good practice. The 2005 regulations state that work at height should be avoided altogether wherever practical. As has been mentioned, new technology makes that possible in certain circumstances, such as the use of drones to inspect bridges or buildings. New technology also provides real opportunities for companies and organisations to provide vital health and safety training to help protect people in the workplace.
Rita Donaghy’s 2009 report into fatal accidents in construction was titled “One Death is too Many”. I am sure that is a sentiment that we can all agree on. Those who criticise health and safety regulations as an example of a nanny state might reflect on the impact that deaths and injuries at work have on bereaved families or victims whose lives are shattered as a result.
Thank you for being in the chair in today’s debate, Mr McCabe. The hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) is right that it feels a little like a reunion of the Work and Pensions Committee, but it is certainly a privilege to respond on behalf of the Government to a worthy and important report, and I will attempt to address as many of the points as I can.
I should explain from the outset that I am not the specific Minister with departmental responsibility for this matter. I convey the apologies of the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), who will ultimately respond to the report on behalf of the Government. Departmental officials have briefed me on the report to allow me to respond to many points, which I will do to the best of my abilities. I reiterate the point that I made to the right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson)—that the HSE needs to feed the Government its views on the report as a whole and on the specific recommendations.
It is right and proper to thank all colleagues for attending; the hon. Member for Glasgow South West made the fair point that today, many constituents will enjoy the pleasure of their Member’s company at the local elections and the like. Otherwise, I am certain more would have been here. I put on the record the Government’s acceptance and acknowledgment of the cross-party working that went into the production of the report. That is to the credit of all colleagues who have worked together. I also thank the Access Industry Forum and all the witnesses. Sadly, we will have to discuss Brexit briefly in a moment, but it is often said that this Parliament is solely focused on thing, unaware that there are many other things that Members are doing. The issue we are talking about is of great worth and merit and is part of an ongoing process.
I will push back slightly on the right hon. Member for Delyn, who seemed to suggest that it was solely the Labour Government who were interested in these matters on an ongoing basis. He will be aware of the Factories Act 1961 and the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992. Successive Governments, of whatever shape or form, have attempted to address health and safety at work in a multitude of ways, to try to reduce the number of accidents and increase the degree of ongoing safety.
I spent 15 years representing claimants who had suffered similar injuries to those described by the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) in her opening speech. I worked on approximately 200 or 300 personal injury cases concerning falls from height, sometimes union-backed. I endorse the comments of the hon. Member for Glasgow South West that there have been many examples where unions have been very supportive of members and have ensured that they got the best possible representation and compensation. I was lucky enough to represent many unions on an ongoing basis in cases in the past.
This issue affects a whole host of different industries. It is easy to say that it affects only scaffolders and roofers, but it can also affect farmers and, self-evidently, people who work in the oil and gas industry. Bluntly, it also affects the mum or dad who chooses to fix their own windows or roof, or to mess with their television aerial. There are many examples of individuals working from height without necessarily understanding the consequences of what they are getting involved with.
I welcome the debate. Let me say, for the avoidance of doubt, that this is an extremely important issue. I shall make a few preliminary points. First, the Health and Safety Executive has informed the Government that it will respond formally to the APPG’s report in due course. I have pressed for a specific timetable. I do not want to inscribe this in stone, but I am told that a response will be made within 60 working days at the very latest, and cover all the points raised in the report and any other issues raised in this debate that are outstanding. I assure the House that the HSE’s response will be deposited in the Library.
It is right to note—I do so not to make a party political point, but because we cannot discuss health and safety at work without putting this on the record—that Great Britain has lower levels of accidents and injuries at work than most nations. The report states fairly at page 6 that, since the introduction of the 2005 regulations,
“the UK has consistently had some of the lowest workplace fatality and serious injury rates in the European Union.”
The report cites the 2014 statistics for the UK and similar countries: the UK had 0.55 fatalities per 100,000 employees, compared with 3.14 in France and 0.81 in Germany. We all agree that one fatality is too many, but that should not detract from the fact that successive Governments have done good work in this field. I also recognise, if it needs to be recognised, that falls from height are a major cause of serious and fatal injuries. The right hon. Member for Delyn fairly made the point, with the poignant tale of his father, that this issue affects each and every person in our communities.
As a practising barrister, I was involved in cases concerning scaffolders and the like both before and after the Work at Height Regulations 2005 were introduced. The report rightly makes it clear that it is agreed that the regulations are fit for purpose and fundamentally appropriate. The HSE has indicated that it welcomes the report and the desire for action. A key strand of the “Helping Great Britain Work Well” strategy for health and safety is acting together, and it is pleasing to see the work at height industry coming together in this way. The HSE undertakes to continue working with stakeholders to promote better working practices in the industry to try to protect workers in the workplace.
The report recommends that the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 1995—RIDDOR, as we all know them—should include enhanced reporting, so that additional intelligence is available. When those regulations were amended in 2013, the key change for work at height was the removal of the high fall—2 metres and above—and low fall categories. However, the free text box on the current reporting form where the reporter includes information about the incident remains the same, and can still be used to record additional information about any work at height incident. That text box can be used to record information about the height of a fall.
The report suggests that enhanced reporting would help to identify the causes of falls from height. It is not for me to come to that conclusion at this stage, but we will listen to the HSE before the relevant Minister comes to a view on that issue. The HSE and industry have already undertaken plenty of excellent work in investigating work at height accidents, and they have established the main reasons behind such falls. Much good guidance is already available from the HSE and industry that addresses this important topic. The Government feel that it is fundamentally more important to place emphasis on the need to follow existing guidance and good practice to prevent falls wherever practicable, or to mitigate their effects should a fall occur.
Another recommendation in the report is that an independent body should be appointed to allow confidential reporting, and that that reporting should include near misses and other non-RIDDOR accidents. The HSE is fundamentally supportive of efforts in this area, but wishes to respond in more detail. However, it is right to put it on the record—this addresses points that several Members made—that the HSE operates a complaints advisory team, to which employees and the public may report concerns about work at height and dangerous practices in the workplace. Crucially, people may make such reports anonymously, and that can lead to the HSE inspecting areas of concern. The Government believe it is important that near misses are reported first and foremost to the employer as soon as possible. It is the employer who needs to investigate and introduce controls.
The report further suggests extending Working Well Together beyond the construction sector. The Access Industry Forum already helpfully provides financial and resource support to Working Well Together, so its groups around Great Britain can run “Working Well at Height” safety and health awareness days. The HSE already works with the Access Industry Forum and Working Well Together. It will continue to promote them and will explore whether there is an appetite for extending the campaign outside the construction sector. The agriculture sector is well known for similar incidents, so the HSE will discuss with the Access Industry Forum how it might also support that sector. As a representative of a very strong farming community, I will be looking to the National Farmers Union in my area to see how it wishes to address this point locally.
A couple of colleagues mentioned Brexit. I wish to make it very clear that we agree with the statement on page 10 of the report that the Government must ensure that no change is made as a result of Brexit that makes individuals who work at height less safe. On that point, the Prime Minister has committed to protecting workers’ rights as the UK leaves the European Union. That includes specific health and safety protections. The Prime Minister has said that there will be no lowering of standards after Brexit.
Hon. Members mentioned the approach in Scotland, where fatal accident inquiries are reported on and then entered on a publicly accessible database. I accept that the report recommends that a similar process should be introduced for England and Wales. I do not want to give a politician’s answer, but I will do so, to a degree. This is an issue for the Ministry of Justice. To be fair to the Ministry of Justice, it is aware of the issue and is looking to respond as part of the HSE response and the Government’s response.
The Ministry of Justice will certainly come back to the hon. Member for Glasgow Central and the APPG on this matter, but I have been asked to make a couple of points in the interim. In England and Wales, the coroners’ courts make findings and reach conclusions. Although those are not routinely made available, they are read out in public at the hearing, and there is a system where the coroner will write to ask relevant bodies and organisations to take action if they believe there is a continued risk to life. Those reports and responses are published in “prevention of future deaths” reports by the Chief Coroner and are publicly available. On that particular issue, the Government at present have no plans to change the proven process, but we will wait to see what the HSE says.
Several colleagues spoke about the causes of falls. I think it is fair to say that there is a fundamental view that the causes of falls are already well known from the many HSE and industry investigations. It is questionable whether gathering additional information would reveal new causes, given the extensive work over decades to identify what causes falls. I endorse entirely the benefits of enhanced data and of drones providing better preliminary assessments of the proposed height at which one would be working. There is absolutely an ongoing desire to ensure that there are fewer injuries in the long term.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Glasgow Central for her efforts, both in terms of the report and in bringing this important matter before the House. I hope Members are assured that there is a plan to take this matter forward. The Government will continue to support the work of the HSE and industry in reducing the number of serious injuries and fatalities, and we will provide a response shortly. The Minister with responsibility for this area looks forward to meeting the APPG and having an opportunity to set out the Government’s position following the HSE’s response.
I thank everyone for coming and contributing to the debate. I appreciate what the Minister said about not perhaps being the correct Minister to cover this debate, but I appreciate the way in which he responded and the expertise he brought to the debate, which is important. I am glad that the HSE will provide a comprehensive response to the report, and that that will be made available in the Commons Library for others to see. That is useful.
I also look forward to receiving the reports on how fatal accident inquiries might be widened or used. I appreciate that that is a Ministry of Justice issue, but the implications of such inquiries, where we have seen them in Scotland, have been quite useful in their process and in making public recommendations. There is currently a much delayed and much publicised one going on about the Clutha helicopter crash in Glasgow. That has involved a huge evidence-gathering process. People will be able to go and watch, and in time the findings will come out. It is a good process for finding out where something has gone wrong and putting it right for the future.
The Minister is correct about the farming sector. The NFU was a keen contributor to the report. I had a conversation with the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—unusually, he is not in his place—who said he was away to fix something on the roof of his farm with a ladder and then he realised, “What am I doing? I am on my own here. Why would I go up on the roof with a ladder? Something could happen.” The House would be much poorer for the loss of him, so I am glad that he saw that. That story shows how easily decisions can be made that cause people to take risks without thinking them through and end up injured or worse. More can be done on educating the public about that.
There is still a need for enhanced reporting, so I urge the Minister to look at that. While there is the free text area within the reporting, it does not go far enough to gather the right information. We therefore do not know whether someone using equipment was trained, had particular qualifications or was part of any organisations that might have given advice. It would be useful to have as much background detail as possible to get to the bottom of what went awry to cause the accident.
I am interrupting the hon. Lady’s final peroration to add two points. First, I accept that that is a live issue; to pretend otherwise as to how we do that would be wrong. She has also reminded me that I failed to respond to a point raised by the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) about blacklisting, which is a loathsome practice. It is quite right for a Government Minister to make it absolutely clear that we wholeheartedly oppose such a process. Employers have a legal duty to consult employees and their representatives on HSE complaints. Blacklisting is absolutely not acceptable in any way, and full support will be given to those, of whatever shape or form, who bring forward cases of such heinous behaviour.
I thank the Minister for adding that—I was about to come on to blacklisting and the risk that some workers feel on reporting when things are not right. Employees in precarious employment in particular feel that if they become a whistleblower, they could quickly and easily lose their job, with the issue going unresolved for the next worker to come up against as well. I urge him to consider whether the anonymous reporting scheme that he mentioned covers that eventuality. There may be a time lag between someone’s reporting and an investigation; investigating needs to be done more efficiently and quickly, so that there can be a resolution without that worker being put at individual risk of losing their employment.
I was glad to hear what the Minister said about workers’ rights. We will hold the Government to that—he had better believe that we will. Working at height is increasingly complex, because buildings and the employment spectrum are more complex. It is right that the regulations are looked at again to ensure that they are entirely fit for purpose, because things have changed dramatically since they were written and we need to ensure that they are always effective in protecting workers.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered preventing serious injury and fatalities while working at height.
The next debate is scheduled to start at 3 pm, so I am required to suspend the sitting until then.
Sharia Law Courts
[David Hanson in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered sharia law courts in the UK.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I am extremely grateful to all hon. Members who have turned up on a Thursday afternoon when there is not much business on and at a time of local elections. That shows their devotion to this House and to the subject of this debate.
The genesis of this debate is a report prepared for the Council of Europe in January, at which I happened to speak. The report was led by a paper prepared by a member of the Spanish Socialist party, and it looked at the compatibility of sharia law with the European convention on human rights. I will turn to that topic later. The report singled out the UK, not completely approvingly, for how it approached this issue, as well other countries, such as Greece, which have taken a different approach.
When approaching this issue, I am aware that the charge of Islamophobia may be levelled against us, but it is right that we consider sharia law courts or councils in terms of their conformity with the European convention on human rights, just as we do with other aspects of UK society. I am also aware of “The independent review into the application of sharia law in England and Wales”, which was produced in February 2018. The review was chaired by Professor Mona Siddiqui of the University of Edinburgh, and the panel included distinguished lawyers and religious and theological experts. I read that report with great interest.
The Council of Europe called on the authorities of the United Kingdom to do a number of things. I will read them out but comment on only one of them. First, it called on the UK to
“ensure that sharia councils operate within the law, especially as it relates to the prohibition of discrimination against women, and respect all procedural rights.”
Secondly, it called on the UK to review the Marriage Act 1949,
to make it a legal requirement for Muslim couples to civilly register their marriage before or at the same time as their Islamic ceremony, as”—
the report claims—
“is already stipulated by law for Christian and Jewish marriages.”
As an aside, I am aware that a number of imams are also qualified registrars and can therefore conduct the civil service at the same time as the religious service. Similarly, a number of Catholic priests are qualified registrars. However, I do not think there is a legal requirement for that to go ahead.
Thirdly, the Council called on the UK to
“take appropriate enforcement measures to oblige the celebrant of any marriage, including Islamic marriages, to ensure that the marriage is also civilly registered before or at the same time as celebrating the religious marriage.”
Fourthly, it called on the UK to ensure that vulnerable women are provided with safeguards against exploitation and informed about their right to seek redress before UK courts. The Council also called for awareness-raising campaigns to be put in place, to encourage Muslim communities to acknowledge and respect women’s rights in civil law, especially in marriage, divorce, custody and inheritance. As an aside, I think there is a lot to be said for emphasising that particular point and ensuring that we indulge in awareness campaigns.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s point about awareness. Like him, I carefully read the independent Home Office report, which said:
“It is this misrepresentation of sharia councils as courts that leads to public misconceptions over the primacy of sharia over domestic law and concerns of a parallel legal system.”
Although the hon. Gentleman has been careful with his language, as I would expect, the Order Paper says “sharia law courts”, which is precisely what the Home Office report said we should avoid.
I realise that the independent report calls them sharia law councils, but we can come on to look at that in the moment. I was reading out the Council of Europe’s descriptions, which calls them sharia law courts. We should continue with that, at least for the moment.
The Council’s next point was that the UK should
“conduct further research on the ‘judicial’ practice of Sharia councils”—
to use that term—
“and on the extent to which such councils are used voluntarily, particularly by women, many of whom would be subject to intense community pressure in this respect.”
The Council of Europe committee held meetings with Professor Ruud Peters of the University of Amsterdam and Professor Mathias Rohe of Erlangen University in Germany. On 5 September 2017 it held another hearing and the participants included Mr Konstantinos Tsitselikis, professor in human rights law and international organisations at the University of Macedonia, and Ms Machteld Zee, a political scientist and author. Finally, I was pleased that the committee held an exchange of views with Professor Mona Siddiqui, whom I have already mentioned.
Professor Sandberg from Cardiff University has recently said:
“Surely the issue of concern is whether people are pressurised into the form of alternative dispute resolution provided by Sharia councils? The Resolution distinguishes between situations where Muslims submit voluntarily and, alternatively, where they submit under social pressure”.
He says that the report does not pursue that any further and:
“That, however, is the nub of the issue.”
He goes on to say:
“Where the decision to use a religious authority for dispute resolution is genuinely voluntary on the part of both parties then this should be no more objectionable than any other form of alternative dispute resolution”—
provided that it also conforms with UK law.
As the Council’s report makes clear, sharia law is understood as the law to be obeyed by every Muslim. It divides all human action into five categories: what is obligatory, recommended, neutral, disapproved of and prohibited. It makes two forms of legal ruling: one designed to organise society and one to deal with everyday situations. It also has a legal opinion, intended to cover a special situation.
Sharia law, therefore, is meant in essence to be a positive law, enforceable on Muslims. Although most states with Muslim majorities have inserted in their constitutions a provision referring to Islam or Islamic law, the effect of those provisions is largely symbolic or confined to family law. Those religious provisions may have a legal effect if raised in the courts, and a political effect if they intrude into institutional attitudes and practices.
I shall consider the general principles of sharia law in relation to the European convention on human rights, particularly article 14, on the prohibition of discrimination on grounds such as sex and religion, and article 5 of protocol 7 to the convention, which establishes equality between spouses in law. Other aspects of the convention may also have an effect.
In Islamic family law, men have authority over women, because God has made the one superior to the other. It goes on to say that good women are obedient. It encourages women who stray from those norms to suffer punishment. In sharia law, adultery is strictly prohibited, and legal doctrine holds that the evidence must take the form of corroborating testimony from witnesses to prove an individual’s guilt. In the case of rape, which is seldom committed in public, there must be four male witnesses who are good Muslims, so punishing the rapist is difficult, if not impossible. In practice, women are obliged to be accompanied by men when they go out, which is not conducive to their independence.
Under Islamic law, a husband has a unilateral right to divorce, although it can be delegated to the wife and she can therefore exercise her right to divorce. Otherwise, she may initiate a divorce process but only with the consent of her husband, by seeking what is known as khula, in which case the wife forgoes her dowry. In cases where the husband has deserted the wife, has failed to co-operate with the divorce process or is acting unreasonably, the marriage may be dissolved, but only by a sharia ruling. While divorce by mutual consent is enshrined in Islamic law, the application must in this case come from the wife, since the husband can repudiate his wife at any time. There is also the question of equal rights regarding divorce arrangements, such as custody of children.
For the division of an estate among the heirs, distinctions are made according to the sex of the heir. A male heir has a double share, whereas a female heir has a single share. In addition, the rights of a surviving wife are half those of a surviving husband. Non-Muslims do not have the same rights as Muslims in criminal and civil law under sharia law. That applies, for example, to the weight attached to their testimony in court, which is discrimination on the grounds of religion within the meaning of articles 9 and 14 of the convention.
The European Court of Human Rights had the chance to rule on the incompatibility of sharia law with human rights in the early 2000s, in its judgment on the Welfare party v. Turkey, which held that
“Turkey, like any other Contracting Party, may legitimately prevent the application within its jurisdiction of private-law rules of religious inspiration prejudicial to public order and the values of democracy for Convention purposes (such as rules permitting discrimination based on the gender of the parties concerned, as in polygamy and privileges for the male sex in matters of divorce and succession).”
In that particular case, the decision by the Turkish constitutional court to order the dissolution of the Welfare party, which advocated the introduction of sharia law, was held to be compatible with the convention, and the Court clearly affirmed the following:
“It is difficult to declare one’s respect for democracy and human rights while at the same time supporting a regime based on sharia, which clearly diverges from Convention values, particularly with regard to its criminal law and criminal procedure, its rules on the legal status of women and the way it intervenes in all spheres of private and public life in accordance with religious precepts.”
With respect to sharia law itself, the Court expressly stated that
“a political party whose actions seem to be aimed at introducing sharia in a State Party to the Convention can hardly be regarded as an association complying with the democratic ideal that underlies the whole of the Convention”.
However, although the Court has ruled that sharia law is incompatible with the convention, that does not mean that there is absolute incompatibility between the convention and Islam. The Court also recognised that religion is
“one of the most vital elements that go to make up the identity of believers and their conception of life”.
Accordingly, the Court’s relatively firm position should not be taken as a rejection of all elements of sharia or of Islam as a whole, while taking into account the existence of structural incompatibilities between Islam and the convention which, as far as sharia law is concerned, are sometimes absolute and sometimes relative.
It is also likely that a large number of cases concerning the position of Muslim women under Islamic law never come before the ordinary courts or the European Court of Human Rights because women are under enormous pressure from their families and their communities to comply with the demands of the informal religious courts. Such cases give rise to the question whether to use the concept of public order to refuse to recognise, or enforce, discriminatory decisions, even if they are not challenged by the women concerned.
There is currently no single accepted definition of the term “sharia council” in the United Kingdom, where such bodies generally provide advice and attempt to resolve disputes relating to family or personal issues according to the principles of sharia law. However, little is known about their work, which is conducted in private, and decisions are not published, leading to a lack of transparency and accountability. There is also uncertainty about the number of sharia courts operating in the UK. A study by the University of Reading identified 30 groups involved in such activity, and a report by the think-tank Civitas estimated that at least 85 groups are in operation, although that figure also includes informal tribunals run out of mosques or online forums.
Sharia councils provide a form of alternative dispute resolution, something I am very familiar with, having chaired the all-party parliamentary group on alternative dispute resolution for the past three years. Members of the Muslim community voluntarily consent to accept the religious jurisdiction of sharia councils. Marital issues and the granting of Islamic marriage divorces account for about 90% of their work. They also advise in matters of law, including issues of inheritance, probate and wills and Islamic commercial law contracts, and they provide mediation, counselling and religious ruling services.
Sharia councils are not considered part of the British legal system. They are not courts and their decisions are not legally binding. However, despite having no judicial authority, some councils see themselves as authoritative on religious issues, and the power of sharia councils lies in how they are perceived by their communities.
A significant number of Muslims do not have a marriage recognised under British law. Those who do not register their marriage under civil law, and some who have been married abroad, have little redress available to them, as their position under British law is similar to that of unmarried cohabitants who have few financial remedies on the breakdown of their relationship. A significant number of Muslim couples fail to civilly register their religious marriages, and some Muslim women therefore have no option of obtaining a civil divorce. Some women may have no other option but to obtain a religious divorce, for which the judgment of a sharia council is normally required.
Furthermore, even in cases where women have a civil law marriage, some might seek the decision of a sharia council for reasons of self-identity or community standing, or to provide reassurance that they have the religious freedom to remarry within their faith. Those who obtain a civil divorce but not a religious divorce might find it difficult to remarry—a position sometimes referred to as a “limping marriage”. One of the experts invited to testify before the committee, Ms Zee, denounced what she described as “marital captivity”.
There are numerous reports citing examples of how Muslim women have been discriminated against by sharia councils. Examples of such discrimination include women being pressured into mediation, including victims of domestic abuse; greater weight being given to the husband’s account of reasons for divorce; women not being questioned impartially by council members, who are almost all men, and feeling blamed for the breakdown of the marriage; and unjustified requirements to pay back their dowry.
There are also allegations that sharia councils have issued discriminatory rulings on child custody. The Casey review cited claims that
“some Sharia Councils have been supporting the values of extremists, condoning wife-beating, ignoring marital rape and allowing forced marriage.”
Researchers were told that
“some women were unaware of their legal rights to leave violent husbands and were being pressurised to return to abusive partners or attend reconciliation sessions with their husbands despite legal injunctions in place to protect them from violence.”
The majority of the evidence, however, is anecdotal, as little empirical evidence has been gathered in relation to users of sharia councils. Further research is therefore necessary; I am aware that the Select Committee on Home Affairs has done some work. Mechanisms are required to provide safeguards and ensure that vulnerable women are not exploited or put at risk. Many of the women are not aware of their rights to seek redress before the British courts.
Sharia councils should not be confused with arbitration tribunals. The Muslim Arbitration Tribunal was established in 2007 under the Arbitration Act 1996. It operates within the framework of British law and its decisions can be enforced by civil courts, provided that they have been reached in accordance with the legal principles of the British system. Its legal authority comes from the agreement of both parties to give the tribunal power to rule on their case. In cases where decisions do not conform to the principles of British law, they may simply be quashed. Moreover, the 1996 Act cannot be used to exclude the jurisdiction of the family law courts. The MAT can therefore conduct arbitration according to Islamic personal law on issues such as commercial and inheritance disputes. Many of those issues were considered by Baroness Cox, who promoted the Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill in 2011. I will leave hon. Members to look at that.
The independent review was set up because sharia courts were deemed to be discriminating against women, as I have outlined. It has three recommendations. The first is to ensure that civil marriages are conducted before or at the same time as the Islamic marriage, in line with the way in which most Christian and many Jewish marriages are conducted. It also states that there should be a requirement for Muslim couples to civilly register their marriage, and that there be consequential changes to divorce.
I will skip the second recommendation and go to the third recommendation, which is to carry out some regulation of the sharia courts. The Government have declined to do that, for the obvious reason that that would legitimise the courts as part of the judicial establishment, which they have no intention of doing. To go back one, the second recommendation is for a general awareness campaign to acknowledge women’s rights and to inform women of those rights, including the fact that arbitration that applies sharia law in respect of financial or child arrangements falls foul of the Arbitration Act.
The independent review sets out several bad practices, including inappropriate and unnecessary questioning about personal relationship matters; asking a forced marriage victim to attend the sharia council at the same time as her family; insisting on any form of mediation as a necessary preliminary; and inviting women to make concessions to their husbands to secure a divorce. Lengthy processes also mean that, although divorces are rarely refused, they can be drawn out.
There are several other faults with the system, such as inconsistency, a lack of safeguarding policies or clear signposting, and the fact that, even with a decree absolute, a religious divorce is not always a straightforward process. Civil legal terms are adopted inappropriately, which leads to confusion. There are few women panel members of sharia councils, and some panel members have only recently moved to the UK, so they have no understanding of the UK system.
It is often proposed that, based on the evidence of discriminatory practices in some sharia councils, they should all be shut down and banned. The main problem with that argument is that a ban cannot be imposed on organisations that can set up voluntarily anywhere and that operate only on the basis of the credibility given to them by a certain community. The evidence that the review heard indicates that women use sharia councils almost solely to obtain religious divorces, for a number of different reasons, such as community acceptance of the divorce and their own remarriage hopes.
It is clear from all the evidence that sharia councils are fulfilling a need in some Muslim communities. There is a demand for religious divorce that is being answered by the sharia councils. That demand will not simply end if they are banned and closed down; instead, that could lead to them simply going underground, which would make it even harder to ensure good practice and would make discriminatory practices and greater financial costs more likely and harder to detect.
The main point is that there needs to be an acceptance of the law of the land, as there is within other communities, particularly the Jewish community, whose members accept that British law overrides their religious law. It is impossible to understand why somebody would enter a sharia court voluntarily, when they know that they are going to be under pressure to conform with whatever is said there. I discussed that with another Minister, who had better remain nameless. She was incandescent about sharia courts and told me to warn the Minister not to give a mealy mouthed response, or she would be after him. I mention that as an aside; I do not want to influence what the Minister will say at all, but that is a good indication that, particularly among women—that Minister was a Muslim lady—the effect of sharia courts is quite controversial. I am glad that the Home Affairs Committee took evidence on the issue.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I wear many hats in this debate, which I thank the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) for securing. Contrary to the accusations of Islamophobia, I am a Muslim woman who is a member of the all-party parliamentary group on British Muslims. We have just launched our definition of Islamophobia, which I am proud that the Labour party has adopted; it would be useful if the hon. Gentleman’s party did, too. This debate, which brings the issue of sharia councils to the House, is welcome because it is right that we have such conversations.
I agree with many things that the hon. Gentleman has said. Sharia councils are not entirely fit for purpose, as I am only too familiar with as a former member of the Home Affairs Committee with the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald). Before the review, the Committee took evidence from many people about sharia councils. Yes, 90% of their work is about divorces, and yes, despite that, they do not offer counselling services. I have raised that privately and publicly with imams and scholars across the board. I would also say, however, that while it is right that we debate the fact that sharia councils have a huge way to go, we must not throw the baby out with the bathwater.
One thing I really struggled with in the previous speech was the idea that God made men superior to women. I am not a theologian; I am a politician, but one thing I am clear about as a Muslim woman is that my God did not make me unequal to a man. He gave me many rights and I enjoy those rights. One of those rights affords me being the Member of Parliament for Bradford West. Many Muslim men chose to vote for me and put me here. I disagree with the idea that in Islam, God makes men superior to women. The idea of needing four witnesses to rape is also news to me.
During our Select Committee inquiry, we also heard the idea that is out there, and peddled by the right-wing media, that sharia courts are taking over and replacing the British legal system and judiciary. There is absolutely no truth in that, because the first law of sharia—the first concept and the key tenet of it—is that the law of the land takes precedence.
I really struggle with the idea that somehow Muslims need to accept the law of the land—Muslims do accept the law of the land. The majority of Muslims in this country, as with the majority of people of any faith or the majority of people of no faith, accept the law of this land. However, many people still break the law of this land. If we look at prisons, we see that the people who are convicted of breaking the law of this land are not just Muslims. Muslims do have respect for the law, and I take it very personally and feel really offended at the suggestion that Muslims need to accept the law of the land. We do accept it.
There is not a requirement for there to be four witnesses to a rape, and as for the idea that a husband has a unilateral right to ask for a divorce, to return to the Select Committee inquiry, we heard lots of evidence against that. As a Muslim woman, I can instigate a divorce. Every Muslim woman in this country can instigate a divorce. A Muslim woman does not need the permission of her husband; she can instigate it, and she can go and get that divorce. That is a right afforded to every Muslim woman.
Yes, there is a question as to whether every sharia council actually implements that and works to the letter of the law and to its essence. And many sharia councils do discriminate. We have heard horrific—horrific—cases of women being discriminated against. The Select Committee took evidence from women who had been forced to go back to the perpetrator of violence against them, rather than reporting that violence. As a Select Committee, we went out and took our inquiry into the community. And yes, we heard of issues involving women where the arbitration service did not work, and where women were discriminated against—of course we did. However, that is no different from any other community. I have heard of lots of cases from constituents who were not happy with what had happened in a court of law because they felt that they had to do things that were not conducive to women’s rights.
I speak from experience. I speak as the daughter of a woman who was convicted of murdering an abusive partner and served 14 years in prison; I speak as a woman who had a forced marriage at the age of 15. So I am absolutely familiar with the patriarchal cultures within which women are oppressed and abused, and I stand very tall against them; I really do. I know that when my mother sought help from the community, she was not afforded it. However, let me say this: more than 25 years ago, when my mother was driven to do what she did, there were many other women in prison at the same time, and many other women who had killed their abusive partner. In fact, the majority of women who are in prison have experienced some form of abuse. Women do not just willy-nilly go and kill people; it is not what we do.
What I am saying is that when women are abused, it is not just the sharia councils that have a responsibility to respond. I won an award in 1998—the Emma Humphreys award—and that was one of the first times that the issue of abuse against women had been raised. Let us be clear: 90% of the sharia councils’ work is about divorce, which affects women. The nub of the issue for me is whether the sharia councils are fit for purpose for women, and treat women with equality and empower women. However, I agree that that is not the case at present.
Emma Humphreys was not a Muslim woman. There were many other women who went to prison for killing their partners. In those days, even judges did not have the understanding of domestic violence that we do today. So we as a country have come a long way. But in this country, which is such an advanced democracy, we have not got it right when it comes to women just yet. We have got a long way to go when it comes to giving women equality in courts of law, where there are years of experience and magnificent judges, but we still get it wrong.
So sharia courts do serve a purpose. They might not be brilliant and I absolutely agree that they need some regulation. Our Select Committee took evidence from the Muslim Women’s Network UK; perhaps the hon. Member for Henley could read the Committee’s report and read the evidence from the Muslim Women’s Network UK about sharia councils.
We all agree that sharia councils cannot be abolished, as that would send them underground and we do not want that to happen. This service has to be available. As a Muslim woman, I need the sharia council; I want to be able to access the sharia council, but yes, I also want it to be fit for purpose.
What I do not want is for this issue to be conflated with anything else. The hon. Member for Henley, at the start of his speech, said that he would be accused of Islamophobia for securing this debate, but I would argue that that is not the case. However, I will also point out something else that he said, which is something I really struggle with, and this is where we enter a grey area.
I do not have an issue with anybody criticising my religion; I have no issues with that whatsoever. The definition—the definition by the all-party parliamentary group on British Muslims—of Islamophobia clearly sets out that there is nothing wrong with people having a debate about what Islam is and what Islam is not. However, in this debate today the hon. Gentleman referred to the Casey review, and when talking about it he said that its findings included sharia councils supporting extremists and wife-beating. I get some of that context, but the whole idea of extremism in sharia councils—I have yet to come across that. That is not the debate that I hoped to have today, and I did not expect to hear the word “extremist” mentioned in this debate.
As I have said, 90% of sharia councils’ work is about divorce. In my constituency of Bradford West I have addressed gatherings, including majority male or male-dominated gatherings, and I have talked to people and said, “Why is it that we have so much money when we spend on the mosques, yet we are not talking about having counselling services for women, even though divorce is such a big deal, tearing children and families apart? We need to have those support services in place.”
So I agree that sharia courts need regulation, but what I do not accept, and will not accept, are all of these ideas about all of the sharia councils, including the idea that God has made men superior to women, the idea that there need to be four witnesses to a rape, and even the idea that someone needs to say the talaq three times for divorce, and that a divorce can just be granted and a woman has to accept it. No, she does not.
Let me tell people something else that the sharia councils could do if they were fit for purpose, which is what we should be working towards. We have a marriage contract—a nikah—and in that nikah a woman can stipulate that the man must forgo his religious idea of a polygamous marriage, such that he can take another wife. A woman can stipulate that in the contract. That contract is absolutely legally binding, as far as the sharia council is concerned, and the woman can divorce if that contract is breached. There is no need for her to have her husband’s permission.
However, what I want is for every Muslim woman in this country to understand that their nikah does not give them legal protection in this country. Their nikah—their marriage contract—does not give them the rights that a civil marriage does. And we should be absolutely promoting that message across the communities, to make sure that women are empowered.
I have come across men who have abused their position and taken on a second wife, even though a nikah is in place, and not respected the rights of their first wife; and I absolutely agree that we should be making sure that that practice does not exist. We need to make sure that women understand that they can write contracts, and we need to train the imams and other people in how to give women their rights, including their contractual rights. And we should say to women, “Look, think outside the box. If you don’t want this in a marriage—in a normal relationship, we have what we like and what we don’t like, and that is the same with a marriage in Islam.” There is nothing to stop any woman from doing that.
There are three things that I really want from this debate today. I want women who are listening to this debate, and the men who are listening to it, from all communities, to know that there is no Islamophobia in talking about sharia councils; in fact, such talk is very welcome. Sharia councils are not brilliant, they are not perfect, they have got a way to go, but we should support them and regulate them, or support them to regulate themselves, because communities have their own solutions; it is not necessary for us as a Parliament to impose solutions upon them.
We need to empower sharia councils; we need to get the regulations in place. We need to get women and men across the communities to understand that that contract does not give those rights under the law. As I have said before—I repeat it because I feel it is so important—the first tenet of sharia law is that the law of the land presides. The Daily Mail, The Sun and the right-wing media would have people believe that we have a parallel legal system running in this country. That does not exist. We are not about to bring sharia law into the country and take over. Less than 5% of the British community is Muslim, but somehow that 5% is taking over the whole of England’s British law? The 650 of us are making all of these laws, but somehow 5% of the community is taking over and is going to abolish all of what we have done for hundreds and hundreds of years? That is not going to happen.
Let us empower the women; let us talk to the Muslim communities, not about the Muslim communities. Let us change how we deal with this issue, not conflate it with words such as extremism when we are having a debate about sharia councils. Ninety percent of what those councils do is about divorce. Please, let’s not go there.
I make a plea to the Minister: please look at the APPG definition of Islamophobia. I have talked to the Home Secretary, I have asked the Prime Minister and many Ministers, and there is an absolute denial that Islamophobia exists in the Government. That needs to be addressed, and when we have addressed it, these debates will be much more constructive. They would not need to start with a Member of Parliament saying that he is going to be accused of being Islamophobic, because this is not Islamophobic; this is the right debate to have for the sake of women, of equality, and of all our communities.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) on having secured this important debate about sharia councils. I take part in this debate with some trepidation, as it is a complicated issue, touching on family law, freedom of religion, culture, gender relations and many other issues in between. It is quite right to say that our response should first and foremost be informed by the experiences and views of those most affected: those are, of course, Muslim women, 90% of whom are seeking a divorce. Their experience of sharia councils varies greatly, which reflects the fact that sharia councils themselves vary significantly. Unsurprisingly there is no unanimous opinion, even among Muslim women, on how—or whether—we in Parliament or the Government should respond to some of the issues that have been raised, both today and in other reports.
I too was a member of the Select Committee on Home Affairs when it was looking at the issue of sharia councils. It was probably one of the most polarised issues that I looked at during my time on that Committee, involving widely diverging and strongly held opinions. On the one hand, at some of the events that the hon. Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah) has described, I spoke to women who were absolutely positive about their experience with sharia councils and how they had secured divorces there; others pointed to horrendous practices and discrimination, which we have heard about.
Dr Siddiqui’s report found similar disparities in practice, but that review, as we have also heard, concluded that banning sharia councils is not a realistic option; I support that conclusion. There is demand for advice and guidance, for determinations on the meaning of religious texts and procedures, and for religious divorce. That review warned that if anything, such a ban would likely drive councils underground, making transparency even more difficult and risking more widespread bad practice and discrimination.
The second issue I want to touch on is how civil marriage law can play a role in this area. I make absolutely clear that I am not a family lawyer, so I will not go into fine detail about the specific proposals for marriage law reform in England and Wales that Dr Siddiqui’s review put forward. However, it does seem—the evidence suggests this—that a significant number of Muslim women in the UK have a religious marriage, but not one that is recognised by the civil law. As we have heard, that seriously limits the options and powers available to women, should that marriage then break down.
However, I went on to the website of Glasgow Central Mosque today to see what options there are for marriage. I was met with a well set-out and positive page that starts by celebrating the fact that
“Family life is a building block of a successful society, and marriage is an occasion of great joy.”
That page goes on to say:
“We can perform religious marriages, which are recognised by the law. A marriage ceremony (Nikah) at Glasgow Central Mosque must also be a religious marriage (i.e. the legal equivalent of a civil marriage conducted by a registrar). Our Imams are authorised to solemnise religious marriages, therefore it is not necessary to have a separate civil marriage. If the civil marriage has already taken place, please bring the marriage certificate on the day.”
I read an article by a Muslim woman who is a solicitor in Glasgow, who wrote about how the culture in the Glasgow mosques is one of working together to ensure that the civil requirements are met at the same time as the religious ones. It seems—of course, I stand to be corrected—that the general practice in that city has become to meet both religious and civil requirements at the same time. It would be good to know how that culture has come about. It would be good to find out what impact that has had on the number of women who are without a civil marriage in Glasgow and Scotland, and whether the doubling-up of those processes has been encouraged or helped by provisions in family law—slightly different in Scotland from those in England and Wales—or whether something else has made that happen. That could inform our thinking, both in Scotland and in England and Wales, as to whether there needs to be legal change or whether we can do more in terms of culture and awareness raising, as the hon. Member for Bradford West has said.
For many years I have been an organist, and I have played at Catholic weddings. In many cases, the service has been delayed because of the late arrival of the registrar. A marriage conducted by a priest is religiously legal, but in order to make it civilly legal, a registrar has to be there. That seems to be the established position in the Catholic Church; as I understand it, only in the Anglican Church and the Church in Wales is the priest automatically a registrar.
That is interesting to hear. If there is a way to remove such complications to ensure that such delays can be avoided, it should be looked at. I understand—I repeat, I am not a family lawyer, so I might be completely wrong—that that is not the position in Scotland, where priests are generally able to conduct both the religious and civil ceremonies in one go without the presence of a registrar. To my mind, that clearly makes things simpler.
The second group of recommendations in the Siddiqui report is essentially about empowering women, a topic on which I suspect we will all be at one. That seems to be front and centre of the issue that we face. There absolutely must be awareness raising about rights; for example, many of those who have ended up with a religious but not a civil marriage have done so purely because they did not know about the law or their status.
Awareness-raising about civil rights is only the first step in empowerment. Support is also needed to ensure that all are able to overcome the potentially “huge cultural barriers” described in the report, which can inhibit the exercise of rights even when people are aware that those rights exist. Those barriers stop women choosing to pursue civil remedies instead of religious ones. We need to give greater backing to all the NGOs, advice centres, human rights bodies and others that can provide that support. That is not just about supporting women to overcome barriers; those organisations can help to lower the barriers in the first place, encouraging a culture that respects women who choose to use their civil rights in the first place.
Do we need to go further? That question takes us on to the third group of recommendations in the Siddiqui report. The steps that we have just discussed about empowerment tend to focus on providing alternatives to sharia councils. We also need to ask whether we can improve practices in sharia councils themselves, which is perhaps the toughest issue.
As we have heard, the Siddiqui review recommended a form of regulation via a state-constituted body and a code of practice, and many sharia councils and women’s organisations supported such an approach. Presciently, the report acknowledged that the Government could be reluctant to adopt a wholesale regulatory approach for fear of being seen to legitimise a different system of law. I can understand that response, but it should not be an end to the matter. Not adopting full-scale regulation does not absolve us of the need to look at the seriously bad practices that have been recorded in some cases, how that relates to the law, and whether the law can be changed in other ways to stop those practices. If I understood it correctly, that was what the dissenting opinion in Dr Siddiqui’s report was getting at.
For example, should we require in law that anyone providing advice about family law matters must provide signposting to civil remedies? How should the law respond if an institution is seen to aid and abet domestic violence by coercing a victim to mediate with the perpetrator? Are there existing regulations in respect of “service providers” that could be strengthened and better applied to stop the serious issues that we have seen? What should happen if evidence shows that councils are undertaking tasks that should be exclusively for the courts? Crucially, given that consent is so important, what is the legal response when certain councils are engaging in proceedings, providing opinions and making judgments when there was never genuine consent to the process in the first place? I do not have the answers to all those questions, but we have to consider them and be led by the evidence, particularly the evidence we hear from those who have been caught up in these processes.
On balance the Siddiqui review is correct that banning would be ineffective, counterproductive and not justified. The main objective must be to encourage the use of civil processes and access to civil redress and rights where appropriate. Marriage law changes might help with that, but more importantly, so too might policies that empower women, such as support for NGOs and other groups. While a distinct form of regulation and a complete new regulatory regime may not be the right approach, that does not mean that we should not be looking at whether other civil and criminal laws and regulations could be better applied to stop or prevent some of the bad practice we have heard about. If we do all that, hopefully we can continue to protect the sharia councils that are doing a job that accords with all the values we want to be upheld, while at the same time clamping down on those that are not.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I begin by commending the speeches that have been made from the Back-Benches, starting with the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell). I acknowledge his expertise and interest in this issue. I also acknowledge his work in the Council of Europe and the Justice Committee and as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on alternative dispute resolution. I also commend my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah) on her passionate speech. I congratulate her on her work in the all-party parliamentary group and her work in our party on the definition of Islamophobia that has been adopted. I also congratulate her on the experience and expertise she brought to the debate today, both in terms of the workings of sharia councils and the extraordinarily passionate and personal section in her speech on her fight against patriarchal culture wherever it is found in our society. I thought she said something extraordinarily true when she said we should always look to talk to communities, not about them. That is something we can all take away from this debate.
As my hon. Friend set out—I echo it—there is nothing Islamophobic at all in bringing this debate forward. It has been a good debate across the board, but I want to speak about Islamophobia not only in the context of this debate, but in the wider context of our society and the time in which the debate takes place. We all acknowledge that Islamophobia and far-right attacks on Muslims here in the UK and across much of the world are rising. The figures show a record number of such attacks and incidents of abuse, and recently five mosques in Birmingham were vandalised on a single night. That does not happen in a vacuum.
While I do not want to stray beyond the confines of this debate, I do think that not only social media companies but the mainstream media have a responsibility for how such matters are covered. Indeed, the UK’s assistant commissioner at the Metropolitan police—the national head of our anti-terrorism measures in the UK—Neil Basu said:
“The reality is that every terrorist we have dealt with has sought inspiration from the propaganda of others, and when they can’t find it on Facebook, YouTube, Telegram or Twitter they only have to turn on the TV, read the paper or go to one of a myriad of mainstream media websites struggling to compete with those platforms.”
He was referring to the wake of the terrible Christchurch attacks in New Zealand and the fact that mainstream media were spreading the awful streaming of that terrible attack. We even see anti-Muslim sentiment whipped up in relation to the food that many Muslims eat. Clearly we all stand together in condemnation of such discrimination, abuse and hatred.
Protection of the rights of religious minorities is an essential feature of any democratic society, and there is a richness to our culture in the United Kingdom. We have people who practise many different religions. It is right that the state should not prevent people from acting according to their religious beliefs and cultural traditions, provided that, first, it does not break the law—I include in that being compliant with our human rights obligations—and, secondly, it is always a product of free choice and by consent.
In that regard, I think we can pick up certain positive aspects, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford West indicated. Mediation is based on consent with an agreement on process from both parties, and we can see that happening. We have heard about the percentage of divorces that are dealt with by sharia councils, but such things as boundary disputes, housing, wills, probate and estates can be dealt with, too. We can see positive outcomes when there is agreement on process. In addition, the hon. Member for Henley mentioned the work of the 2007 Muslim arbitration tribunal in that regard.
It is important that we stick to facts when it comes to any form of alternative dispute resolution or religious council, because there is no suggestion that they somehow trump or overrule the rule of law.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern about the title of this debate, which refers to sharia courts, rather than sharia councils?
Indeed. I mentioned that when I intervened on the hon. Member for Henley, who referred to them as councils in his speech. One of the conclusions drawn by the Home Office’s independent report was that the real problem with using “courts” is that it gives the impression that there is a parallel or competing courts system when there is not. That is an extraordinarily important point, and it brings me to my next point, which is that we have to be very wary of misinformation, particularly given the idea that Parliament is somehow introducing this parallel law. That is clearly not the case. It is incumbent on us all to make that clear and to be careful about the language that we use in that regard.
To draw my remarks to a close, the two pillars have to be the rule of law, which will always be paramount, and a basis of consent. My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford West spoke extraordinarily powerfully about the role of women. She is an example of a woman in an extraordinary role and an exemplar to others. We must bear in mind, too, that human rights are always central to how we judge any form of alternative dispute resolution.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson, not least because it protects me from being challenged by difficult questions from someone who did my job many years ago with great skill and knowledge.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) on securing this debate, which addresses an area of significant interest and importance. It is right that this House debates such issues. The work of the Council of Europe has no greater champion or more active participant than my hon. Friend. I am very pleased to be able to respond to the debate. It was due to be responded to by my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), until his well-deserved promotion yesterday evening, so I confess that I am not an expert in this area, but I have been fascinated by the debate.
I am grateful to all hon. Members who have taken part late on a Thursday afternoon. I am particularly grateful to the hon. Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah), not only for the passion and power that she habitually brings to her speeches, but for the depth of her knowledge and understanding of the subject. I am pleased she was able to be here.
I also recognise the contribution of the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald), who spoke in his usual measured and sensible tone. His contribution was particularly valuable in highlighting the practice in Glasgow, which he touched on.
I omitted to mention the speech of the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) not because I did not think that it was impressive, but simply because I treated it as a Front-Bench contribution, not a Back-Bench one. I join the Minister in commending the speech.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention; I was about to respond to his speech. As ever, he made a powerful and sensible case. He highlighted, as other Members have, the importance of choosing our words with care when we speak in this House, not just on this subject but on all subjects, and the responsibility that we all have, and the broader responsibility of the media and others in this space, to choose our words with care.
I will set out the Government’s position on sharia law. As the Prime Minister has said, and as Members have mentioned today, there is one rule of law in the United Kingdom. In practice, that means, within each of the UK jurisdictions, a single system of law, legislated according to our constitutional arrangements by this Parliament or the devolved Administrations. Our judicial systems interpret, apply and, where necessary, enforce those laws. There is no parallel system of sharia law in operation in the UK; Her Majesty’s courts enforce our laws. My hon. Friend the Member for Henley was right to say that sharia law is not part of the British legal system. We must ensure that we do not succour such misinformation or misconceptions beyond these walls.
Our vision for our communities is that all British citizens, whatever their religious background, should be free to practise individual religious freedom. Many British people of different faiths and none benefit a great deal from the guidance that religious codes and other practices offer. Those values allow us to enjoy our individual freedoms and to lead varied lives in diverse communities. That is one of the great strengths of this great country; however, it has to be within a framework in which citizens share and respect common rights and responsibilities, with unfettered access to national law and our legal institutions to enforce those rights when necessary. Equal access to the law is a key benefit of living in a democratic society. As the hon. Member for Bradford West highlighted, that respect for the law is, I hope and believe, shared by everyone in our country, irrespective of background, gender, religion or any other factor.
If there is any conflict between religious practices and national law, national law must, and will, always prevail. In particular, I highlight the Equalities Act 2010 and, as the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds), highlighted, our strong and important human rights legislation and the framework behind it. The Home Office and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government lead on the broader issues surrounding faith, community integration and British values. The Ministry of Justice is responsible for the operation of the justice system, including the use of non-court dispute resolution services such as mediation, and for the law governing marriage.
I heard the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Henley on the use of sharia religious principles and the operation of sharia councils. In particular, he highlighted concerns about various forms of discrimination on the basis of sex or religion in family matters, in particular divorce, in relation to the evidential weight applied. I acknowledge too the views set out by the parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in its resolution, passed in January this year, about the need to combat all forms of discrimination based on religion. As my noble and learned Friend Lord Keen of Elie has said, people may choose to abide by the interpretation and application of sharia principles if they wish to do so, provided their actions do not conflict with national law; however, that must be their free choice, and does not supersede national law.
The resolution reiterated the obligation on Council of Europe member states to protect the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as enshrined in article 9 of the European convention on human rights. That right represents one of the pillars of a democratic society, and we share the council’s view of that important principle. The resolution also noted that the exercise of the right to manifest one’s religion may be subject to some limitations necessary in a democratic society; it is not an unqualified right. Furthermore, it noted that the operation of religion should never act to limit or remove other convention rights or freedoms to which citizens in a democratic society are entitled, and we agree with that too.
While supporting and, I argue, even encouraging pluralism, the resolution expressed concern about the official or unofficial application of what it termed “sharia law” in several Council of Europe member states. As hon. Members have set out, in relation to the UK specifically the Council of Europe set out its concern about what it views as the judicial activities of sharia councils that, although not part of the British legal system, attempt to provide a form of alternative dispute resolution.
The resolution drew attention to members of the Muslim community, sometimes voluntarily but sometimes under pressure from peers or their own conscience, accepting the religious jurisdiction of such councils. The resolution further noted that it occurs mainly with regard to marital issues involving divorce, as the hon. Member for Bradford West said, and some matters related to inheritance and commercial contracts. The resolution expressed concern that the rulings of sharia councils could discriminate against women in divorce and inheritance cases.
The UK Government are clear that all rules, practices and bodies, including systems of alternative dispute resolution, must operate within the rule of law. Our law provides for a formal system of legally binding arbitration under the Arbitration Act 1996, which allows parties to consent to apply a system of law other than English law, with appropriate procedural safeguards to protect against duress or coercion. Arbitral decisions can play an important role, but only if the necessary procedural requirements and legal safeguards are satisfied. Most types of family dispute can be resolved in a legally binding way only if they are adjudicated by the courts.
The Government understand the concerns that some Members have set out about the operation of sharia councils. Indeed, the resolution on the basis of which the debate has been tabled acknowledged and welcomed the Home-Office-commissioned independent review, chaired by Professor Mona Siddiqui and commissioned by the now Prime Minister. That review looked at whether sharia law was being misused or applied in a way that is incompatible with domestic law in England and Wales, and whether there were discriminatory practices against women who use such councils.
Does the Minister welcome, as I do, the finding in that review that, despite the fact that there is understood to be a conflict in very minute parts of sharia law, in terms of inheritance being discriminatory, in this country that would not apply because the rule of our law would override all of it in any case?
The hon. Lady is right to highlight the primacy of our national domestic law in that context.
The review was published by the Government in 2018, with the Council of Europe calling the recommendations
“a major step towards a solution”.
The review found evidence of a range of practices across sharia councils, both positive and negative, and made three recommendations, which have been touched upon. Some of them mirror, or are very similar to, the UK-specific proposals set out in the Council of Europe resolution. I will run through them, as other hon. Members have, and respond on behalf of the Government.
The review’s first recommendation was to amend marriage law to ensure that civil marriages are conducted before, or at the same time, as the Islamic marriage ceremony, thereby establishing the right to a civil divorce and to financial protection on divorce. The law already provides the option to solemnise a legally valid Islamic marriage if it takes place in a mosque registered for worship and for marriage, as the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East mentioned. However, we understand and appreciate that many Muslims choose to marry at home and, as the hon. Member for Bradford West said, may be unaware that that means that their ceremony, while religiously recognised, is not recognised under national law.
We will continue to engage with key stakeholders, including faith groups, academics and lawyers, to test their views on the policy and the legal challenges of limited reform relating to the law on marriage and religious ceremonies. I am keen for us to make as rapid progress as possible, but as the tenor of this debate has shown and as hon. Members will recognise, this is a sensitive area that involves the expression of religious freedom, so it is important that we get any changes right.
With respect to the current marriage law, the second recommendation proposed developing programmes to raise awareness among Muslim couples that Islamic marriages do not afford them the legal protection that comes with a civil marriage—a point that the hon. Lady made very powerfully. The cross-Government integrated communities action plan, which is led by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, commits to supporting awareness campaigns to educate and inform couples and their children of the benefits of having a civil marriage alongside a religious marriage. The plan is a powerful opportunity to drive our vision for integrated communities in the UK. As the Prime Minister has said, we will use it to proudly promote the many values that unite us, including democracy, free speech, human rights and the rule of law—values that allow us to enjoy our individual freedoms and lead varied lives in diverse communities.
The third recommendation proposed regulating sharia councils by creating a state-established body with a code of practice for the councils to adopt and implement. The review team’s failure to reach a unanimous agreement on that proposal demonstrates the complexity of the issues involved. The Government consider that a state-facilitated or endorsed regulation scheme for such councils could confer on them a degree of legitimacy as alternative forms of dispute resolution and risk introducing what might be perceived as a parallel system of law. As the then Home Secretary set out at the time, the Government do not consider it an appropriate role of the state to act in that way.
Does the Minister agree that the role that the Government have to play in these communities, as in any communities, is to support them in getting to where they need to be with sharia councils to make them compliant with our existing laws on non-discrimination regardless of gender?
The hon. Lady makes an important point. I believe that the Government have an obligation in a range of areas to do what we can to ensure that all bodies and organisations comply with our national laws. She is right that it is incumbent on us all to encourage compliance with the laws that we make in this House.
The Home Office review found some evidence of sharia councils in England and Wales forcing women to make concessions to gain a divorce, of inadequate safeguarding policies and of a failure to signpost applicants to legal remedies. That is clearly not acceptable, as the hon. Lady made clear in her speech. 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 that legislation and the protections that it establishes are being enforced fully and effectively.
The Council of Europe’s resolution calls on the UK authorities to do more to
“remove the barriers to Muslim women’s access to justice…step up measures to provide protection and assistance to those who are in a situation of vulnerability…conduct further research on the ‘judicial’ practice of Sharia councils and on the extent to which such councils are used voluntarily, particularly by women, many of whom would be subject to intense community pressure in this respect.”
The Government are clear that we must do more to support people in faith communities to make informed choices about how to live their lives. Key to that is our work on integration and on a shared understanding of British values and the system of law that underpins them. My colleagues in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government will consider those points further as work progresses on the integrated communities action plan.
The Minister mentions British values again. Does he agree with my view as a Muslim woman that there is no conflict at all between my Muslim values and British values?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to highlight that point. I believe that our values, which include the rule of law and the belief in human rights and democracy, are shared throughout our whole country, irrespective of people’s background, gender, age or religion.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Henley again for giving us the opportunity to debate these important issues. I assure him that what he and other hon. Members have said today has been heard, and that my colleagues across Government and I will consider carefully all the points that have been raised on all sides.
I conclude by repeating what I said at the beginning of my speech: many British people of different faiths benefit a great deal from the guidance that their religious codes, beliefs and practices offer. Such values allow us to enjoy our individual freedoms and lead varied lives in the diverse communities that are a hallmark of our country, but that has to happen within a framework in which citizens can share and respect common rights and responsibilities as they share in the benefits of living in this great country. There is, and remains, one rule of law in the United Kingdom, democratically enacted by this Parliament and the devolved Administrations, and applied by our independent judicial system.
Today’s important debate has been conducted in a manner that does credit to this House, which those who watch our proceedings may not always think is the case. It has been a very worthwhile way of spending our afternoon.
Once again, may I express my gratitude to all Members who stayed for this debate, especially the three Front-Bench Members? It has been very useful.
I said earlier that sharia councils should in no way be abolished, and that they provide a useful function in Muslim communities. I stick by that—they certainly do. However, there are two issues that I think we all agree are important. The first is the protection and empowerment of women; I am as keen that that should happen as any Member of this House, and a lot of my remarks were directed towards ensuring that it does. The second issue is human rights, which the hon. Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) mentioned and to which, as a delegate to the Council of Europe, I am absolutely committed. I pointed out how differences in human rights approaches have been raised in the Council of Europe; if we had the time, we could go through the situation in all the countries that the Council has looked at.
I am grateful to hon. Members for their participation and their help in raising this important subject. I agree that it is very sensitive, but that does not mean that we should not raise it or talk about it.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Sharia law courts in the UK.