rose to call attention to the case for maintaining the rule of law and ensuring that respect for other cultures does not infringe upon the right of United Kingdom citizens to protection under the law, particularly in the field of education and marriage; and to move for Papers.
The noble Baroness said: My Lords, earlier this year, thanks to the efforts of that admirable Peer, the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act was passed and is to come into effect this November. It is not my intention today to address the deeply serious issues of honour killings, forced, rather than arranged, marriage and genital mutilation. My concern is with the effects on civil society and community relations arising from the existence of two parallel legal systems: Sharia law with its own courts, and our own civil law, the law of the land. We are, however, tacitly accepting the formal Muslim view that Sharia itself must be regarded as the ultimate criterion of justice when measured against the law of the land. That has practical consequences. We are, by not challenging that out of respect for another culture, failing women and children in particular. We are tacitly accepting a parallel legal structure.
Muslim women who are British citizens are being deprived of their rights—property rights, for example. Women marrying in the mosque, a ceremony which is not a civil contract, forfeit their claim to compensation in a divorce. In a country which fought for votes for women and for the Married Women’s Property Act, numbers of British women are excluded from their rights, although under Sharia law women do have the right to own and inherit property.
This situation exists because we have for some years been more concerned to respect other cultures than actively to protect the interests of citizens of this country—women and children, who are part of that culture. That policy has not only allowed injustice, it has deprived the country of much talent. As Principal of Somerville, I met many remarkable young women such as Mayy Yamani, or Humeira Khan—one of our Rhodes scholars—and a number of doctors, lawyers and academics from that world. There should be many more, and my objective today is to remind us that there are aspects of Sharia law which do active harm in terms of the national interest, in particular, in the increasingly combustible area of civil society. When we condone the practice of allowing girls to be withdrawn from school from 12 years old onwards so that they may be sent to Pakistan to marry and thus facilitate the entry of a young husband who may be illiterate and innumerate, we are not only allowing her to be unlawfully deprived of education, when she is required by law to be educated up to the age of 16, but the country is losing a potentially skilled and valuable citizen. This is being done with the connivance of the schools on the grounds—as I was told when I visited a school in Bradford—that the council believes we must respect the culture of the Muslim community.
Some schools continue to put this first today when they are asked to display notices advising young Muslim girls threatened with forced marriage where to go for help. When I raised the issue of early withdrawal of Muslim girls from schools during Committee stage of the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007, I was told that they might just be going off for a family holiday in Pakistan in order to renew ties with their culture. That is entirely desirable. My problem is: do the schools inquire about them after the holidays? My late and much admired friend Lady Faithfull used to raise this issue too. She and I were both concerned that girls whose education ended at 12 and whose husbands often allowed them little freedom in society, would have much less to offer their children, who in turn come to school ill-prepared. A well-educated mother can and will make a significant contribution to the skills of her children. Equally, we should be insisting that those entering the UK on the basis of marriage to a British citizen should be required to take steps to become literate and numerate before they are accorded citizenship. It is in our interest, as well as theirs, to make them qualified to get work, and it would be much better for civil society and race relations. Education opens windows. We should not allow our own female citizens to be deprived of access to the world of ideas and action by tacitly accepting their situation.
If there were more action in the UK on this issue, the admirable Foreign Office team which helps young women who are in Pakistan against their will might have less to do. I am concerned that, in failing to enforce the law, we are not only failing these girls, we are losing valuable citizens with the ability to make a serious contribution to the life of the country. Fortunately, I know a number of honourable and wise Muslim fathers who are proud to support their daughters in securing university education and professional skills, but perhaps there are not enough of them. One final point on that issue, Her Majesty’s Government can do nothing but good in protecting women and children in the difficult area of forced, not arranged, marriage. It is sometimes thought that the girl in flight who comes to the police or a hospital for help should be directed to an Asian member of staff who will best understand the problem. Experience shows that he or she may put his Sharia duty first and inform the family.
I have a further concern which will be shared by many of the responsible and wise members of the Muslim community. Many British citizens are having a hard and increasingly difficult life with many economic pressures and tensions today. Such issues as the demand for housing and the availability of welfare have become very important. Polygamy, as the House knows, is recognised under Sharia law. In this country, however, it is illegal. I asked the following Question earlier this year:
“Whether there are any cases of receipt of housing or other benefits by second and subsequent wives of a polygamous marriage illegal under British law; and, if so, what is the legal authority for such payments”.
I received the reply,
“Because legislation does not provide entitlement to benefit payments to anyone in a polygamous marriage that is illegal under British law, there should be no such cases". —[Official Report, 20/3/08; col. WA 68.]
However, it is difficult to know how HMG reconcile this reply with the regulations in the Social Security Contributions and Benefits Act 1992. The guidance manual currently in use by local authorities gives the following provision:
“Polygamous marriages: If none of the members have reached 65, for the claimant and the other party to the marriage respectively, £174.05 and £181.79. For each additional member of the marriage, £60”.
That enables the husband to secure not only housing benefits for each of his wives, but, presumably, some entitlement to housing for each. It is already a cause of deep resentment in the community that housing has all too often had to be allocated in recent years, for instance, to refugees when the local man or woman has just reached the top of the list. But to know that a fellow citizen who is actually breaking the law can benefit by it causes bitter resentment. It is no way to bring about good relations between communities.
Equally, there is room for anger in the field of education arising from the politicisation of what may sometimes be taught in our schools. In 2006, a pilot teaching-pack on citizenship for children from 12 to 16 was sent to schools in a London borough. It was funded by the Government's Neighbourhood Renewal programme and entitled, 9/11: The Main Chance. It invited pupils to imagine organising a terrorist attack. What terrorist targets were there in the neighbourhood, and what weapons and methods should they use to achieve a good result? For good measure, it included links to websites alleging that Dick Cheney directed the attacks and that the US air force shot down United flight 93. There was also a link to a website on food terrorism and how fast-food chains could be attacked. The producers claimed—and I think believed—that these packs had been intended partly to enable pupils to,
“Get into the minds of the terrorists who carried out the 9/11 attacks”,
“How to teach pupils to bring impartial and unbiased information to a subject”.
I am glad to say that the pilot packs were withdrawn. The Higher Education Minister rightly said that citizenship classes should be used to give pupils a stronger sense of British identity and that teaching all children about British culture and traditions would allow all children, including Muslims, to integrate better into society. The makers of the pack believed they were teaching children to “see the other side” and to understand angry young Muslims. They forgot the honest anger of all British citizens, including the vast majority in Muslim communities who, while always putting Sharia first in many matters of conduct, wish to live at peace with their neighbours, hate terror as much as we do and do not wish to see it justified.
While absorbing what is good in other cultures, we should not confuse tolerance, a British virtue, with the condoning of wrong, nor should we be afraid to remember and celebrate our common past. I spoke to a class of boys in Bradford who, though they were “doing” slavery in their history lessons, had never heard of Wilberforce and knew nothing of the Royal Navy's part in arresting slavers. I spoke to them of the comradeship which existed between the British and their grandfathers when they fought side-by-side in Burma. They knew nothing of that. I told them to ask their grandfathers. One did so and wrote to me to say that he had learnt much.
We should support the peaceful majority in the community by taking energetic steps to act against those mosques which, often funded by Saudi money, allow their premises to be used to propagate hate literature. That is not what a mosque is for. We must ensure our universities are not used in the name of freedom of speech to promote active jihadist doctrines or, disgracefully, anti-Semitism. These measures, designed to counter the promotion of hate, represent no threat to Sharia but reassure both peaceful Muslims and ordinary Englishmen of every class and religion.
Respect for the right of the Muslim communities to conduct their lives according to Sharia law should be matched by equal respect for our own Christian religion. From the little I heard of the Minister’s statement on the previous debate, which I was sad to miss, that has already been said most strongly. I can only say it again. We should note the lack of support shown by many local authorities, and indeed by Government sometimes, to Christians of every denomination. If a useful enterprise, for instance, designed to keep deprived and unhappy children off the streets—and I know of such a case—is seen to be connected with a Christian entity, it will be refused support on the grounds that the eligibility criteria do not allow funding for groups which “promote religious beliefs”. When it comes to official funds to support charitable activities concerned with the needs of deprived youth groups from every background, the authorities are often reluctant to help any enterprise with Christian connections because of the message they believe it sends to the Muslim community. However, it does our relations with devout Muslims no good to be seen to reject our own Christian church, even when it is not proselytising but merely doing social good for a whole community.
Respect for the right of Muslims to conduct their lives according to Sharia law should be seen to be matched by equal respect for our own religion. We recognise that strong feeling over events in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine is genuinely felt by many Muslims as well as by many non-Muslims, but we say nothing about the widespread persecution of Christians in countries where Sharia law rules. We should not behave in our own Christian country as if Christianity were politically unacceptable, however good our motives.
We need to reassure the peaceful Muslims and the ordinary English men and women of every class and religion that all citizens will receive the protection of the law, that a distinction will be made between respect for other faiths and tolerance of people and ideas which are alien to our world and wish to destroy it. If the country at large cannot feel that we respect ourselves and that the priority is the common good and justice for all, slow to anger as our countrymen are, they too could become angry, and that would be a bad day.
I had not intended to do it, but I shall tell a story at the end. It is relevant to women. At one time when I was serving in Africa, in Zambia, I had occasion to go to a far part of the country. The governor of Zambia at that time—it was Northern Rhodesia then—asked me to take a letter to the paramount chief saying that Her Majesty had awarded him an MBE; this would be a very good introduction. He reminded me that I should not leave the presence of the paramount chief without having received a present from him; this would be grave discourtesy. I knew that because I had encountered the same rule in the Congo.
So I went and I presented the letter. We sat in great amity in a very hot hut surrounded by people, and we drank warm beer for what seemed to me like several days but it was probably several hours. The time went by but no present emerged. I thought, “Can I leave? Do I stay? Has it all changed?”, and then through the crowd there came a man wriggling on his tummy up to the paramount chief and holding something. He gave it to the paramount chief and the paramount chief turned to me with an expression of extreme relief on his face, clutching this object. He said, “As you well know, it is the custom that I should present you with a present before you can leave my presence on these ceremonial occasions”. I said, “Yes, paramount chief, I did know that”. He said, “The problem is that you are a woman”. Slightly huffily I said, “Well, you have two daughters who are chiefs”. “Oh”, he said, “that is not the problem! We had not got a suitable present. How could we give you a spear or a bow and arrow or something like that? We had to make a special present for you, and here it is”. It was a hoe. Women dig in Africa.
I used to tell my undergraduates that story when they were feeling rather uppity, and it was very salutary sometimes. I think perhaps it is salutary even today that we should remember that women sometimes get relegated to rather odd corners of society, but that in fact they have a very important part to play. I beg to move for Papers.
My Lords, I am particularly grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Park, for instituting this debate on subjects which are both timely and urgent and which gives me an opportunity to speak once more about that great wrong that has been done and is being done to womankind worldwide. It is being done to young United Kingdom citizens by those who flout the law, usually through ignorance of it but sometimes with contempt for it. I have spoken about it many times before but I know it is a subject that meets with great sympathy in your Lordships’ House and is not, I hope and believe, something with which listeners lose patience. But this afternoon I would like to say something also about the history of female genital mutilation and the traditions and rituals which surround it.
Deeply entrenched in social, economic and political structures, it is a blatant example of gender inequality and like the practice of dowry and child marriage and the now abandoned foot-binding in China, represents society’s control over women. In Africa it is an ancient procedure first observed, it is said, by the Crusaders. But it is older than that and may well predate the coming of Islam and even of Christianity. The explorer Richard Burton probably mentioned it in the vast work he wrote on sexual practices in the Middle East but we shall never know. His prudish wife Isabel read it after his death and, shocked to the core, burnt it lest such a work came to damage his reputation. Here, incidentally, may be the place to point out how a mealy-mouthed recoil from speaking about genital mutilation, and when it must be referred to, alluding to it by the euphemism “female circumcision”, has done much to maintain it.
In 1929 the Church of Scotland mission to the Kikuyu in Kenya attempted to break down the custom of clitoridectomy by demanding that all their followers and those who wanted their children to attend mission schools should pledge themselves not to support this initiation rite. Teachers too were asked to denounce the custom. The question was first raised here in another place and a committee of MPs, including the Duchess of Atholl, was appointed as early as 1930 to investigate. However, it was agreed that the best solution was to leave it to the people concerned to choose what custom most suited their changing conditions. Some European delegates to a conference in Geneva in 1931, held under the auspices of the Save the Children Fund, urged the abandonment of this, of what they called “a heathen custom”. But the general opinion was for the people to be left to choose. In the main they chose to retain it. Unfortunately, it is these decisions to adhere to a custom generally deplored that have contributed to widespread genital mutilation in Africa today.
So began respect for a culture which includes an appalling practice. Women suffer a lifetime of pain and degradation without ever speaking of what has caused their suffering. There can be no other procedure on earth, therapeutic or cosmetic, not only so harmful but so entirely pointless as FGM. How deformative it is may be deduced from the reaction of midwives in the 1970s when, on first seeing the results of FGM in African immigrants, believed that they were looking at a congenital malformation of the genitalia.
Many African countries have passed laws to ban it but making female genital mutilation illegal seems to have little effect. It is often practised in parts of Africa even when it is known to inflict harm on girls because the social benefits deriving from it are considered to be higher than its disadvantages. In spite of laws forbidding it and its disabling, painful and disfiguring results, in these societies FGM is thought necessary for the correct upbringing of a girl and as part of her preparation for adulthood and marriage. The practice may be part of coming-of-age rituals and the girls themselves may wish to undergo the procedure as a result of social pressure from peers and because of fear of stigmatisation and rejection. Girls are given rewards, take part in celebrations and receive gifts. So, however painful, however likely to store up pain and the disturbance of gynaecological function, it may confer a sense of pride and a feeling of community membership. Even here in London, among Horn of Africa communities, girls have been heard to ask each other, “Have you been cut yet?”. Those with enlightened parents absorbed into a United Kingdom culture may feel left out
Among the Kikuyu it was taboo for a man to have sexual relations with women who had not undergone FGM. And it is a desire for a good and successful marriage which may account for its persistence. It is believed that the practice ensures and preserves a woman’s virginity and, without going into anatomical details that would be inappropriate here, it probably does. Strangely, it is also thought to make girls “clean” and beautiful. No holy text prescribes it, yet most women who have suffered it are Muslim because Islam is the prevailing faith in the countries from which they or their parents have come. Many who have suffered it are Christian; so much for those Save the Children delegates who called it a “heathen custom”. Some are animists. Its practice is upheld by local structures of power and authority. Some doctors of medicine, and older women who have themselves been mutilated, support it and see efforts to combat it as an attack upon their culture and way of life.
Strong support for the protection of the rights of women to abandon FGM is found in international treaties including the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; the Convention on Civil and Political Rights; the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women; and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Female genital mutilation violates many human rights principles, including the right to life when the procedure results in death—as it does in 10 per cent of cases in certain parts of the Horn of Africa—and the right to freedom from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.
Parents who decide to have their daughters genitally mutilated believe that the benefits outweigh the risks, but this perception cannot justify an irreversible and life-changing practice that violates a girl's human rights. Even when a girl herself desires the procedure, her decision is in fact the result of social pressures and community expectations. In this country, the culture embedded in our own culture supports this attitude in spite of all efforts to end it and in spite of two Acts of Parliament making it an offence punishable with up to 14 years’ imprisonment. I do not think that FGM has ever been mentioned in your Lordships’ House without some noble Lord asking if there have yet been any prosecutions under the 2003 Act. The answer is always no.
Though we may respect a culture, we must first respect human beings. People are of greater importance than tradition. More valuable than any custom or tradition, however enshrined in history and general acceptance, is one single small girl who is at risk of having her life and body ruined by this practice. The number of women calculated to have undergone female genital mutilation in the United Kingdom is almost 270,000, and 15,000 children living here are estimated to be at risk of joining them.
My Lords, I warmly thank the noble Baroness, Lady Park, for introducing this subject and providing us with the opportunity to consider one of the most challenging issues confronting our country today. I will focus on an important issue already highlighted by the noble Baroness: the creeping implementation of Sharia law in this county and the associated constellation of beliefs and values held by significant numbers of citizens.
I have no wish whatsoever to impute anything undesirable about the vast majority of Muslims, who are peaceable, hospitable and law-abiding citizens, or to generate any ill feeling towards them. However, this is an important subject because Sharia law is in many ways infringing the rights of UK citizens to protection under the law in the fields of marriage, freedom of religion and freedom of speech.
In the previous debate, the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Warwick, referred to a report that said that a third of Muslims living in this country would like to live according to Sharia law. There are inherent problems with this, because aspects of Sharia law are fundamentally incompatible with the principles of our legal system, particularly those aspects which deny and run contrary to the fundamental values codified in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—particularly equality before the law for each citizen and freedom to choose and change religion. In Sharia, equality before the law is denied, as between men and women and between Muslims and non-Muslims. Freedom to choose and change religion is forbidden or severely constrained. The first inequality is especially serious for women, and the second for Muslims who wish to leave Islam. They become apostates, for whom the penalty in many Islamic countries may be death.
There are many cases in Britain today where citizens have suffered as a result of these provisions and are not receiving adequate protection from the police or other authorities. Before giving examples, I should make one point clear. It is often argued that other religious minorities, especially the Jewish community, have been allowed to have distinctive legal provisions, particularly with regard to family law, in parallel with the law of this land. It has therefore been argued that the Muslim community should have the same rights to their own distinctive legal provisions, especially in family matters. However, there is a fundamental difference: in every country where the Jewish community has its special provisions, the Jewish authorities explicitly affirm that they respect the sovereignty of the secular law of the land. Disturbingly, however, there are many cases where those adhering to Sharia give precedence to its norms, even when they are in direct conflict with UK law.
In family law, some Sharia family councils are helpful in settling some cases of domestic disputes. However, the excellent report Crimes of the Community: Honour-based Violence in the UK by the Centre for Social Cohesion documents disturbing statistics of growing trends in domestic violence, including murder, in the name of so-called honour, and in forced marriages. These violations of human rights are mainly associated with Islamic beliefs, although they are also found to a lesser extent in some other communities. Moreover, women in Islamic communities may face a particular problem, as Sharia provisions allow imams to carry out marriages, in mosques, which are recognised by their community but do not bring the legal protection of a UK-recognised civil marriage. Women who subsequently wish to have a divorce, perhaps because of domestic violence, are thus not able to access the legal protection of British family law. There are also disturbing cases of community complicity in preventing access by women suffering from domestic violence to protection from the authorities to which they turn. For example, Crimes of the Community cites many cases of women who escape to the local police station and are put in the care of a culturally appropriate police officer who sends them back to their family or community, probably to punishment or retribution; or of a taxi driver who takes them home instead of to a safe place; or of women being given interpreters who deliberately distort the woman’s pleas for help.
For example, Zalkha Ahmed, director of Apna Haq, a women's support group in the north of England, says on page 105 of the report that some translators working for social services have deliberately blocked government attempts to help south Asian women who are fleeing violence and abuse:
“We have also had translators who would lie to the social services when women go to seek help. The translators would not reveal the extent of the story, and try to play down the extent that honour had to play in the problem to try and portray a positive image of the community”.
Moreover, several women's groups, particularly in the Midlands and northern England, say that they are often reluctant to go to the police with women who have run away to escape violence, because they cannot trust Asian police officers:
“According to some women’s groups such problems appear to be … common in the West Midlands police force”.
Also relevant in this context is the growing number of Muslim polygamous marriages in Britain, referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Park. While such marriages are perfectly in line with the provisions of Sharia, they run counter to the very spirit of equality which underlies British law. As long ago as 1996, polygamous marriages in Britain were given media coverage on the TV programme “East”, which caused a brief ripple among those who saw it as significant for Britain's Muslim women citizens, but it quickly disappeared from view. Since then, the number of Muslim polygamous marriages has increased steadily, even to the point where the Government have felt the need to grapple with the question of family support payments being made for second, third and fourth wives, as reported in the media earlier this year. This development does no credit to Britain's long tradition of affirming equality in marriage. I hope that the Minister will say something about the Government’s latest position on payments for wives of polygamous marriages.
Last year I raised the question of the introduction of Sharia in Written Questions. The Government's reply affirmed the introduction of Sharia in the United Kingdom but gave an assurance that every citizen always has access to the protection of the law of the land. Clearly, this has not been the case for many Muslim women who have suffered domestic violence and/or been trapped in unhappy marriages.
Such protection has also not been available for Muslims who have wanted to change their religion. While there is always a welcome in the Muslim community for anyone to become a Muslim, the fate of Muslims who convert to another faith is very different. This is apostasy, which in traditional Islamic communities is punishable by death, in line with the provisions of the Islamic legal schools. There are many reports of citizens in this country who have wished to convert from Islam to another faith who have been threatened, whose families have been attacked and subject to severe intimidation, and who have not received sufficient protection from the police, so they have had to live in hiding. I give one example from a report, No Place to Call Home: Experiences of Apostates from Islam, recently published by Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which states:
“A British citizen who converted to Christianity from Islam and then complained to police when locals threatened to burn his house down, was told by officers to ‘stop being a crusader and move to another place’. A few days later, the unoccupied house next door was set on fire”.
In regard to the fundamental issue of freedom of speech, your Lordships will remember the amendments to the proposed legislation concerning incitement to religious hatred which were achieved in your Lordships’ House. Without those amendments it could have been a criminal offence, punishable by up to seven years’ imprisonment, to speak critically of a religion, to promote another religion or to joke about a religion. Those fundamental freedoms were given legal protection by those amendments, despite the determination in another place to remove them. But despite this legal protection, there are still cases where police have interfered in highly intimidating ways to prevent people exercising those fundamental freedoms.
A recent example, reported in the Sunday Telegraph on 8 June, describes how two Christians were stopped from exercising their right to distribute information about Christianity. They were told by police that they,
“were in a Muslim area and were not allowed to spread the Christian message”.
They were accused of committing a hate crime and were told that they would be taken to the police station. They were advised not to return to the area with the words:
“You have been warned. If you come back here and get beaten up—well, you have been warned”.
We now have in some of our communities in Britain twin-track systems of values and legal systems, which have certain fundamental, inherent incompatibilities. Her Majesty’s Government have given an assurance that every citizen ultimately has the right of recourse to the UK legal system and the protection it should provide. But, clearly, some citizens and communities are under the influence of the alternative, Sharia legal system, which does not recognise the fundamental freedoms which should be available to every citizen of this land. Some of these citizens are suffering infringements of fundamental human rights without the effective protection due to them. What steps are Her Majesty’s Government taking to ensure protection for all citizens from violations of the fundamental freedoms to which they are entitled under the law of this land?
Sharia law came into this country without parliamentary debate or public discussion. There can be no justification for the implementation of laws and policies which deny citizens of this land the protection which is their right. I am therefore very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Park, for this opportunity to put some of these concerns on the record and, I hope, to open the way for full, constructive, appropriate parliamentary and public discussion of matters which are important to every citizen of this land and to the future of our nation.
My Lords, I, too, am very grateful indeed to the noble Baroness, Lady Park, for raising this important question and for concentrating our thoughts on human rights under the rule of law. Whatever culture or faith people come from or adopt, they have a basic right to freedom from domestic violence, abuse, forced marriage, female genital mutilation, as so powerfully described by the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, and so-called honour crimes. Faith leaders have consistently made clear statements against all these practices and have affirmed the right of all our citizens to equality of education under the law and our own culture.
It is difficult to extricate this debate from the preceding one. I was grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, who spoke in the previous debate, for affirming the need for equal treatment by the police in these areas. That affirmation was made in this debate by the noble Baroness, Lady Cox. I am also grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, for her contribution to the report From Destitution to Contribution about the treatment of people in Leeds. It dealt specifically with asylum seekers but had much to teach us about the way in which people from different cultural backgrounds within our single British culture are able to relate to, listen to and care for each other.
We need to be careful about our assumptions as to who needs protection under the law. The toolkit for faith leaders and faith organisations produced by the Greater London Domestic Violence Project, which I commend to the House, states:
“Studies have shown that patterns of domestic violence do not vary significantly between different communities, cultures or religions. Domestic violence can manifest itself in any society where there is an unequal power imbalance between men and women”.
This is not just a problem for people in “other cultures”, to quote the Motion under debate, but affects the lives of people from all walks of life within the culture of which we are all a part.
Law plays its part but cannot solve the problem. It is the responsibility of all of us to help those suffering abuse, and to challenge those who use sacred texts and teachings to justify violence and abuse. Within that context we also need to affirm those cultural and religious communities that use their customs to defend human rights. The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, referred to the ways in which Islamic courts defend the rights of women when their husbands refuse to divorce them by granting the dissolution of the nikah, the religious marriage bond. There is much within the practices and legal systems of different communities and cultures within our land which we ought to welcome, as well as that which is against human rights which we need to condemn.
It is important that religious communities are not denied the right to uphold ethical and moral standards where they do not infringe basic human rights. The noble Baroness, Lady Park, spoke of the need to uphold Christian ethical standards. We have long been used to provision within the law for Christian ethics; hence, Church of England Ministers specifically retain the right not to solemnise the marriages of those who have been divorced because of Christian teaching on the lifelong nature of marriage. That does not create a lack of cohesion within our communities; rather, it upholds particular values and holds them in front of our society.
In the whole of this debate we need to reflect on the place of conscience as being crucial to our own society and to the ways in which we think. In that respect, I very much regret the recent decision to force Roman Catholic adoption agencies to place children with gay couples, overriding the conscientious rights of the Roman Catholics concerned. The result of that has been the loss of their skilled experience in placing some of our most damaged children for adoption. That is the very opposite of the affirmation of human rights that we seek to uphold.
Whatever we make of those examples in terms of Christian ethics, there is a need to listen to the conscientious arguments of those from various religions and cultures, not least Christianity, as we seek to find the right way forward under the provision of the rule of law. Our right defence of human rights must not blind us to the benefits of cultural law. The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, referred to the Jewish Beth Din courts, and one could also quote Somali customary law, as enabling disputes to be settled in the security of a particular cultural group without recourse to the secular courts. Many can accept the jurisdiction of those courts, and they present no threat to human rights; indeed the opposite. They provide a safe haven for independent adjudications.
In our right concern for the rights particularly of women under the law, and in our criticisms of certain provisions of Sharia, we also need to be careful not to condemn all that comes from that particular tradition. In Leeds, as elsewhere, we have welcomed in particular the provision of Sharia-compliant loans and mortgages as an example of multicultural inclusion that has enabled Muslim businessmen to play their part in the financial economy of our country. The arguments for and discussion about those loans and mortgages have provided a challenge to our own secular culture, where interest and debt are simply taken for granted. Since debt is a major cause of marital breakdown and of the denial of family rights to children in our culture, I welcome the challenge of another culture—a culture other than my own—to our whole attitude to money.
I thoroughly welcome the warning contained in this debate, and which the noble Baroness, Lady Park, expressed so strongly in her opening speech. Protection under the law is crucial to our society and must remain so. At the same time, we need to defend the rights of cultural and religious groups to affirm ethical and moral standards, not least the rights of Christian communities to do that. Indeed, we can learn from them to enhance the common good of the whole of our culture.
My Lords, I commend the noble Baroness, Lady Park, for her insight in initiating this debate and for drawing attention to such a timely and far-reaching issue. Much concern this afternoon may focus on the prerequisite regulation for enabling individuals from different cultures, particularly women, to have the same range of options as everyone else. The extreme cases of female circumcision or so-called honour killings are clearly unacceptable in our society, but the less obvious and more frequent instances also need to be discussed, where an individual may be physically unharmed but none the less every day is prevented from living as fulfilling a life as possible.
I agree that the first step is to ensure that respect for other cultures should not be an impediment, however passive, to the rights of UK citizens. But we should not mistake what is necessary for what will be sufficient. Collective respect next needs to be harnessed proactively as a prompt, even an inspiration, for those individuals to benefit in new ways from the unprecedented confluence of culture and contemporary UK society.
If we want to shift from mere protection from harm to promoting quality of life, education and marriage are good places to start. Those areas bear directly on the current problems, respectively, of the impact of science and female equality and hence, together, the issues highlighted are of women in science. It is from the perspective of a woman scientist that I shall comment.
The biotechnology of the 21st century is enabling those of us in the developed world to cherish realistic aspirations for living longer, healthier lives more than any other preceding generation. Meanwhile, advances in the physical sciences and engineering free up an ever increasing amount of time each day from the routine drudge that characterised the lives of so many in the previous century. The individual has more chance and more time than ever to realise their full potential. Brain science, which is my area, champions and attempts to understand the notion of the individual. Each human being is born a citizen of the world. Particular beliefs, lifestyle and culture are not embedded in the DNA, but subsequently they shape the connections of our brain cells after birth.
The Jesuits’ famous claim, “Give me a child until he is seven, and I shall give you the man”, is speaking for the power not of genes, but of the environment and its impact on the human brain. It is education that enables each of us to make sense of, understand and appreciate that environment, including the beliefs and agendas of different cultures, and to translate the ever-increasing bombardment of information into knowledge. The search for knowledge need not be at odds with tradition, nor specifically need science be at odds with religion; witness the large number of very talented scientists with strongly held beliefs. The difference is that, with education, the onus of interpretation and evaluation shifts to the individual, rather than residing in the passive, unconditional acceptance of a collective mindset. When a child is educated and allowed to realise their full intellectual potential, there is no reason to assume that they will not still respect and be an integral part of their culture; quite the opposite.
I shall give one example. The Asian Women of Achievement Awards is a scheme of which I have first- hand experience, having served on the panel of judges. The awards were set up in 1999 to recognise the immense accomplishments of women in the Asian community and to break the stereotypes that normally surround them. They aim to provide inspiration and role models for other women, but also to raise awareness in the wider community of the phenomenal achievement of Asian women and the journey that they make, frequently against the odds, to succeed in mainstream society.
The awards cover a range of categories and have given a platform to women from different fields, ranging from opera singers to CEOs and scientists. Dozens of the contestants have subsequently been invited to speak at large conferences and in the boardroom and to make media appearances. Most significantly, contestants have also said that being recognised for the awards has changed the perception of their status within their communities and families. Even those who do not feel that they need the recognition have commented on the raised energy levels among their co-workers as a result of the awards. Now a new initiative, the Ambassadors programme, is being launched to send some of the Asian women of achievement into schools as ambassadors, where they will inspire sixth-formers. There is an annual reception of 100 women of achievement, with 100 sixth-formers from 30 different schools, to let the young women interact directly with women in the working world.
Talk of women inevitably leads to the other subject mentioned in this afternoon’s debate: marriage. For many women, marriage leads to children, who can often complicate—and even be an impediment to—a career. This is particularly the case for a career in research, science, engineering and technology, or SET. As pinpointed in SET Fair, a report to the Government which I headed in 2002, one of the biggest single problems for young women scientists is balancing the demands of childcare with the long and irregular hours mandated by the early stages of a research career. This is characterised, in turn, by limited contractual tenure and no clear or secure structure.
There are ways of combating this sad state of affairs. Following the 2002 report, the UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology was introduced. It is the UK’s leading centre, providing information and advisory services to employers and organisations in the SET sectors. It supports women entering, returning to and progressing in these fields. The centre works to improve significantly the participation and position of women in SET in industry, research, academia and public service, in order to benefit the future productivity of the UK, and the lifetime earnings and career aspirations of women. The situation remains that half a million women in the UK are qualified in science, engineering and technology, but less than one-third work in those sectors, all of which are suffering a severe skills shortage that will worsen in the coming decades.
Women have always led complex lives with conflicting demands, women in science more so than many. In addition, the balance of a traditional culture with modern 21st-century life must present an even greater challenge. When looking at the percentage of women, compared to men, in science, of particular relevance to this debate is the fact that ethnic minority women scientists proportionately outnumber their white female counterparts, with 43.3 per cent compared to 37.4 per cent. This ratio does not hold for all other employment sectors combined. Women scientists from ethnic minorities are, therefore, a significant group. They need particular help in balancing a career that has, anyway, a precarious structure, with the cultural demands of their home and family. However, there is insufficient funding for the resource centre to reach out as it would like.
Meanwhile, charities and the private sector are doing what they can. There is the admirable Daphne Jackson Trust and another initiative sponsored by a major cosmetics company in combination with UNESCO, in which I have had the honour of being involved. Both are making some headway in helping female scientists to return from full-time childcare and assisting financially in diverse ways, from paying for childminders to paying for microscopes.
I endorse wholeheartedly the opening remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Park, that we should not stand by passively with a well intentioned, but misplaced, sentiment that permits those from certain minority cultures to be disadvantaged. Yes, we should protect their rights, but should we not also do more? Schemes such as the Asian Women of Achievement, and the statistics showing the high representation of non-white women in science, show how traditional culture and values can, after all, synergise with our current society to their mutual benefit. Inevitably, there is currently just not enough money to level the playing field. Surely it is time for the Government to make a far more substantial investment in ensuring that all UK citizens, irrespective of race or gender, have an equal chance in making the most effective contribution—be it scientific or otherwise—to creating a society where there is not only an absence of fear and repression, but the active happiness of individual achievement.
My Lords, I apologise to the noble Baroness, Lady Park, for my late arrival; I had a crisis in locating both copies of my speech. I was rescued, not for the first time, by my noble friend Lord Addington and now have a copy. I congratulate the noble Baroness on her speech in introducing this debate. It is seldom that I can say this, but I do not think the noble Baroness said a single word with which I disagreed. Her speech was humane, wide in its approach, generous, and an example to us all.
When I started to think about this debate, I remembered that the British are frequently accused today of not respecting the customs of others during the period of empire. I have no objection to inward migration into this country and I do not believe that we could prevent it even if we tried. This is a restless period, when people seek to move to improve their future prospects, and easy means of travelling long distances are available. Those who come to live among us may be prompted by understandable ambitions and dreams but, equally, they will need to learn what is and is not acceptable behaviour in this country. In this respect, the Government have a duty to defend the lives of those they have allowed to live here, just as they have a duty, in this respect, to British citizens. This duty is one of the most basic elements of the unwritten contract between people and authority.
In this context, the well documented cases of young women from Muslim households who are forced into marriage, threatened, or even killed, by family members for the “honour” of their families, are a reproach to our society, as well as to the families involved. I appreciate that honour killing is not a defined crime, but we have to take on board the obvious fact that women are nowhere more vulnerable than behind locked doors in their own homes. Are the Government considering changing the criminal law in response to the special needs of all women trapped in violent marriages, irrespective of the origin and cultural attitudes of victims and their family members?
The report of the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal, Liberation from Forced Marriages, provides useful enlightenment on the differences between Islamic law and various cultural attitudes with respect to marriage. The report clearly differentiates between true Islamic law with respect to marriage and the illegality of forced, as opposed to arranged, marriage. The report provides an interesting and precise description of the various procedures that can lead to a marriage supported by Muslim law and those that are not so supported. Coerced marriages—whether by emotional blackmail, threats of disinheritance or insistence that the marriage goes ahead for the honour of the family—are not accepted. It is interesting that the tribunal’s report concludes that in more than 70 per cent of all marriages between an English spouse and one from another country there is an element of force or coercion before the marriage takes place.
The report further notes that in the immigration procedures for the foreign spouse, there is no obligation for the immigration officer to check the character of the marriage that is the basis for entry into the UK for the foreign spouse. Once the initial two-year period of residence is over, and the couple are reinterviewed by the Home Office, it will be too late to detect the false character of the marriage between the two people. The foreign national may also be forced into silence because the well-being of the family at his or her home of origin depends on the continuance of the family links in the UK. The MAT recommends a new immigration process to deal with incoming spouses that depends in part on the British citizen providing a voluntary submission to the MAT judges that the marriage he or she has entered into was not forced or coerced. That would result in a written declaration from the judges of the MAT that the marriage did not involve force or coercion and the UK citizen could use that declaration to support the application of the foreign spouse to settle in the UK. This would involve no change to current immigration legislation. Do the Government welcome this approach, which does not alter immigration itself or the current procedures of the Immigration Service, but might be an aid to understanding when couples are truly married, even under Muslim law, and when they have been coerced into marriage?
Another useful source is the recent report of the Home Affairs Committee of the House of Commons. I shall mention two of many witness statements: those from the Iranian and Kurdish Women's Rights Organisation and from the Southall Black Sisters. In its evidence, IKWRO describes what it calls “so-called family “honour” as,
“a patriarchal ideology of oppression”,
and “honour” killing as being,
“akin to lynching in the family's intent to maintain the oppression of women as a gender”.
It goes on to refer to the organised nature of so-called “honour” killings, as involving,
“a collective desire to kill”,
“a large conspiracy to evade justice”.
It is difficult to think of two more damning phrases than those. That is strong language indeed, but does the Minister appreciate that there are important issues of humans rights involved? What, if anything, do the Government feel can be done about these events, which are a real blot on the UK's reputation in this respect?
The evidence from the Southall Black Sisters points again to the no recourse system, by which abused spouses recently arrived in this country cannot obtain any funding if they have to flee the family home. I recently received a reply from Mr Vernon Coaker to a letter of mine on this matter in which he seems to be trying to do his best to improve the situation, but the progress he told me about seems to depend on the victim having already succeeded in obtaining indefinite leave to remain. Have I missed the point somewhere? Can the Minister give me any reassurance on this point? I doubt whether many people would think that immigration status should determine the life of a young woman who may have been brought into this country more or less by force and who has no place to go for shelter because she knows nobody but her spouse’s family in this country.
The recommendations of the House of Commons report amount to 111 paragraphs spread over 16 pages of single-spaced lines. It is impossible to refer to them all, or even any of them, in real detail, but I was struck by the emphasis placed on the collection and reporting of domestic violence data across all government departments on a comparable basis and on publishing those data. That seems to be an important first step in getting a handle on the size and importance of this issue.
A concern was expressed by witnesses to the Home Affairs Committee that police staff sometimes think that reports brought to them by victims are simply not true. A recommendation that the Government commission a separate study on the prevalence of forced marriage in this country could be helpful in addressing that mutual misunderstanding, with benefit to victims.
A third series of recommendations concentrated on the need for an information campaign, including specific information on honour-based killing and forced marriage. The report also contains recommendations on the need for better education in schools, not just about forced marriage as such but on sex and relationships in general. Clearly these subjects are of immense importance to young people. Some victims have found immense support within their school. With an increasing level of violence among young people in intimate relationships, to which the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds referred, such teaching could have benefits for the wider school population whatever their religion. Does the Minister recognise the role that education could play in tackling these problems? Will commitment be given to trying to find an acceptable way of promoting such education in schools?
This is an enormous subject which impinges on our consciences—or should do so. It must be a matter of satisfaction that real efforts are being made to understand and tackle the problems we have been discussing. I am sure we will be returning to it on other occasions. Meanwhile I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I too add my congratulations to my noble friend Lady Park of Monmouth for securing this important debate. I know of her deep passion and commitment in ensuring that this debate remains at the heart of our public debate here. It neatly follows on from the previous debate. My noble friend has raised a number of serious questions and I look forward to the Minister’s response. I will pick up on some of the points already raised by my noble friend and other noble Lords.
We are aware that each year children, predominantly girls from south Asian families, are taken out of education in the context of a family holiday or similar, and then disappear from the system. While everyone recognises that there is a problem, there still appears a great reluctance on the part of local authorities and other agencies to intervene, or to be proactive in seeking out these young people. I will listen with great interest to the Minister’s comments on what the Government are doing to ensure that their guidelines are being properly followed. They must recognise the need to ensure that while we respect cultural sensitivities, it must not be at the expense of young people reliant on those agencies to protect them.
I start by addressing forced marriage. As has been recognised by this House, and as required by the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007, we must distinguish between arranged marriages and forced marriages. The former are accepted and often successful cultural practices where both partners willingly consent. In contrast, forced marriages are an unjustified and unacceptable human rights violation. Physical and emotional abuse remain at the heart of coercion. Often young people find themselves in places where they are alone and friendless. Submission is usually the only option. However, there is sometimes a fine line between arranged and forced marriages. We must be aware of that.
Let me quote from Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”:
“Oh, bid me leap, rather than marry Paris,
From off the battlements of yonder tower”.
Forced marriage is an age-old phenomenon. While it is uncommon among many cultures, sadly it remains high in others. Statistics from the Forced Marriage Unit highlight that 15 per cent of the 400 cases a year they deal with involve young men. The ages of victims range from as young as 13 to adulthood. Their family backgrounds range from African and European to Asian descent.
I wish to highlight the practical problems associated with tackling forced marriage. The work of the Forced Marriage Unit is to be commended since its success in helping those who have been through this ordeal is tremendous. However, it must be noted that on top of the 400 cases a year which the Forced Marriage Unit deals with, those at Southall Black Sisters state that they see another 150 extra cases a year.
Southall Black Sisters provides phenomenal support within the heart of the community and it would be devastating to see its funding cut, as was suggested to me recently by a friend. More alarmingly, Dr Nazia Khanum, OBE, in her research into the prevalence of this problem within the UK, estimated that there are, in fact, 3,000 cases of forced marriage a year. Why is there such a disparity between the 400 cases reported to the FMU and the estimate given in Dr Khanum’s report? It seems that the gap is led by fear: fear on the part of the victim who does not know to whom or how to report their concerns and fear on the part of public bodies to get involved. For that reason, to ensure that the Forced Marriage Act is effective in protecting both existing and potential victims, I urge that the guidelines to professionals on dealing with the issue are rigorously enforced and monitored.
How will the Minister monitor whether appropriate mandatory training for police officers, social workers, health workers and teachers is taking place? As I am sure he will agree, only that will ensure that the victims will feel competent to deal confidently with the problem, and it will also increase the victim’s faith in the system. The role of teachers in ensuring the success of the Act is vital, especially for the 12 to 18 year-olds, where the problem is most prevalent. If teachers are trained to recognise the warning signs of a forthcoming forced marriage or a removal from education, their ability to approach a child may overcome a child's fear of reporting their concerns. Training must be enforced, not only on recognition of the problem, but in discussing issues sensitively and competently, and on the procedure to follow and find support. Schools and colleges already have posters that they can put up, but some head teachers are reluctant in case they cause offence to local communities. We must take the issue as seriously as that of child protection. Will the Minister reassure noble Lords that schools and colleges which report young people not returning from long absences will be taken seriously and will he ensure that thorough investigations take place, as that may be the only lifeline that such young people may have?
In reference to points made by my noble friend, education and its availability to provide a basis on which young people of all backgrounds can learn of the history and cultural values of the country in which they reside is important. They can then relate to the difficulties that they face when they undergo the onslaught of cultural responsibilities from the culture into which they are born.
The second issue is female genital mutilation, which has recently been discussed at length in the House. I do not wish to repeat the ways in which genital mutilation can occur as the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, has expressed it with much greater knowledge than I could ever possibly do. It is a horrific custom—a vile procedure. It is carried out on girls who are mainly between the ages of four and 10 and the lasting trauma impacts on their innocent lives for the rest of their lives. The World Health Organisation outlined the four ways in which it may occur, and each one is more barbaric than the last. I urge all noble Lords to go on to the website and read the foul, vile, obscene violation of young girls’ lives. Whatever reasons are used to justify the practice of mutilation of female genitalia, it is a criminal offence and the utmost protection to potential and existing victims must be provided. Forward UK estimates that 279,500 women currently residing in England and Wales are likely to have undergone FGM, while 22,000 children under the age of 15 are likely to be at risk of undergoing the procedure. Yet despite these staggering numbers, this House has noted that not one prosecution has occurred under the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003. It is obviously a sensitive and difficult subject and the role of health professionals is vital to prevent the continuation of this abuse of human rights. The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, has stated:
“When FGM comes to the attention of any professional, consideration needs to be given to any child protection implications … and a referral made to social services or the police if appropriate”.—[Official Report, 5/6/08; col. 260.]
Are there any statistics evidencing that disclosures have been made or that information has been followed through? As with forced marriage, I highlight the need for clear guidance in order to protect vulnerable individuals from practices that cannot be justified by cultural context. No doubt these issues will be discussed many times over—that is right. Those who have the protection of our legal system must always be assured that when they feel voiceless, there will be many fighting hard for the rights that they should enjoy, regardless of what community they belong to. We must make it clear to those who support these practices that they have nowhere to hide.
I had an arranged marriage nearly 31 years ago. My husband won me over with Crunchie bars and fruit cake. There are many successful stories, but some, unfortunately, are heartbreaking; of young people married against their will and of communities building walls of silence or colluding with parents to unleash vile measures in order to sustain and maintain these cultural practices. I belong to a community that still prefers boys to girls; where different standards apply depending on whether you are a boy or a girl; and where, in the name of family honour, particular practices continue, allowing torture, beatings and the removal of all rights and liberties, especially if you are female. Let us remove the label of “honour” from those disgraceful practices. There is no honour in actions that defile, belittle and degrade other human beings.
I understand the reasoning behind proposals in the Education and Skills Bill to make education or training compulsory to the age of 18, but I urge noble Lords to look closely at the unintended consequences that may arise. I hope that we do not see children going absent from education at an even earlier age.
While I had an arranged marriage, my children would find it very difficult to accept that concept. It is fortunate that we live in a country that upholds and supports the decision to choose. Therefore I would be very wary of the slow creep of Sharia law into our legal system. I support the right to uphold one’s culture, but it must be done within the boundaries of the British legal system, where one law applies to all, regardless of religion, gender, ethnicity or social background. The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, is absolutely right to point that out. We have a twin-track system developing in this country. It is crucial that all citizens speak English so that they can confidently access the rights and protections that all citizens of this country deserve. I have spent all but nine months of my life in this country. I fear that after some movement forward, there is now a lot of movement backwards. I have fought very hard to highlight the rights of women, particularly from my community. It is a long battle that will need the support and help of your Lordships’ House.
My Lords, it is with some trepidation that I step into this debate as the Minister. I have listened to seven strong-minded and powerful women debate issues that are particularly challenging for us—I also pay tribute to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds. I shall not go any further on that one. My point is that the women who have spoken have all brought unique contributions to your Lordships’ House and spoken powerfully and with passion on issues that are sensitive to our culture and the nature of our multicultural society.
I was particularly impressed, as I always am, by the noble Baroness, Lady Park, and her well balanced speech, touching as it did on the need for respect for diverse cultures but warning us of the passive acceptance of some aspects of Sharia law in particular into our culture and the dangers of ignoring the adverse consequences of that. Her warning was extremely important, particularly when she drew attention to the part that some aspects of Sharia law can play in justifying cultural practices that, as we have heard this afternoon, can have an absolutely appalling impact, particularly on women.
I very much welcome the debate, because it enables me on behalf of the Government to set the record straight on a number of issues. I listened with tremendous interest to the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, who spoke from the perspective of a woman scientist. The understanding of the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, and her description of Sharia law and its potential impact were also enlightening. I was also enormously impressed, as I always am, by the authority and passion with which the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, spoke about female genital mutilation. The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, made it apparent to all of us that we have a duty to protect all our citizens, regardless of their ethnic origin, their ethnic background and how they came to be here. I also listened with great care to the words of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds.
I make it clear to noble Lords that, in this country, the rule of law has absolute primacy. While we respect other cultures and greatly value the diversity of the many different people who live and work in this country, that respect should in no way infringe the rights of UK citizens to full protection under UK law. The rule of law is more than just the sum total of national and international law. As the former Attorney-General, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, said,
“it is not simply about rule by law … it … comprehends some statement of values which are universal and ought to be respected as the basis of a free society … there are some rights so fundamental that there can be no compromise on them”.
I absolutely agree. As this debate has made clear, those values may occasionally conflict with values of other cultures. The heritage of certain cultures gives rise to challenges in ensuring that the rule of law in this country is respected and upheld. However, the Government have the necessary tools in place to address these challenges. I will set out the challenges in turn, because they need to be dealt with full on.
This is plainly a timely debate in relation to forced marriage, given the publication of the report by the Home Affairs Committee of the other place, Domestic Violence, Forced Marriage and “Honour”-Based Violence. The Government have welcomed the committee’s report and we will respond fully in due course. We particularly welcome the acknowledgement in the report that significant steps have been taken to tackle these issues.
The Government have taken a proactive approach to addressing forced marriage. First, we have strengthened the legislation through the implementation of the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007. In constructing that Act, the Government listened carefully to stakeholders, who warned us that making forced marriage a criminal offence would deter victims from seeking police assistance, as they would not wish to criminalise members of their family. However, the Act offers civil remedies to protect victims or potential victims of forced marriage and it protects those who are already in such marriages. I listened with great care to the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, on forced marriage. I was entranced by her description of her own marriage. A particular problem has been highlighted. Fortunately, things turned out well for the noble Baroness, but that is clearly not always the case.
Courts can make a forced marriage protection order to prevent a forced marriage from occurring or pre-empt it. The order can contain prohibitions or restrictions on those who would force the victim into marriage. It may be applied for by a third party, if the victim is not able to protect themselves. A person in breach or contempt of an order made under the Act can then be dealt with under contempt of court powers, which could ultimately include sending them to prison for two years. An order can be made to protect the victim even where the police conclude that there is insufficient evidence to bring a criminal prosecution. Where a forced marriage has already taken place, courts can make orders to protect the victim and help to remove them from that situation. The court can add a power of arrest where violence is threatened or used and the court considers that there will be inadequate protection without it.
In addition to this legislative measure, we are working to raise awareness and understanding of the issues among practitioners, communities and potential victims, including children and young people. We are putting together new statutory guidance for police, social services and health and education professionals, as the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, was keen for us to do. We are improving our data collection in this area and we continue to take up individual cases through our Forced Marriage Unit. Again, I was grateful for the tribute that the noble Baroness paid to the unit, which was established in January 2005 to act as the United Kingdom’s one-stop shop for providing support and information to those at risk and undertaking extensive outreach work to raise awareness of the issue. It dealt with around 400 cases last year and I expect that number to increase.
We are working particularly hard to ensure that children and young people are aware of the issues around forced marriage. About a third of the cases that the Forced Marriage Unit deals with involve minors—people under 18 and, in some cases, children as young as 13. These are clearly cases of child abuse. The guidance that we published for schools in January 2007, Safeguarding Children and Safer Recruitment in Education, contains information about forced marriage. In April this year, we wrote to all local authorities and schools to remind them of their responsibilities in relation to forced marriage. We will shortly be sending all secondary schools awareness-raising materials designed for schools and young people, which we will encourage schools to use. In February 2007, we introduced a new statutory duty for local authorities to identify any children who go missing from schools and to follow up these cases to ensure that the children have not come to harm, such as being forced into marriage. Clearly there is more work to do to sharpen and raise awareness.
The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, cited some chilling cases of honour-based violence and the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, usefully drew attention to the issue of honour-based violence in the context of Sharia law. There are few crimes more grievous than violence carried out in the name of honour. So-called honour killings and beatings have no place in a civilised society. They bring dishonour on those who plan and commit them, dishonour on the customs and religions that those people follow and dishonour on the communities that those people come from.
In this country we are rightly proud of our ethnic, religious and cultural diversity. We are proud also of our strong defence of fundamental freedoms, which include the freedom of people to interact with whom they wish and to court, marry and have children with whom they wish. There are those who would have otherwise—those who wish to see interaction only between people of the same background and only then in the most tightly governed circumstances. However, we will never accept this. We will do everything that we can to protect those in danger of being victims of so-called honour crimes and to investigate and prosecute the perpetrators of them.
We are also working hard to educate communities about these dreadful crimes. We are currently sponsoring a series of regional roadshows and seminars to this effect. Communities are important. People often fail to prevent such crimes and protect the planners and perpetrators or help them to leave the country. They, too, need educating and they, too, may be guilty of serious criminal offences that carry heavy penalties. In those cases, we will pursue them vigorously. I am grateful that examples of this have recently been reported in the national press.
The noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, spoke, as one would expect, with her usual measured passion against the practice of female genital mutilation. We are doing everything that we can to deal with FGM. Noble Lords will know that we used to refer to this practice as female circumcision, but it bears no resemblance at all to its male equivalent. It has no medical, hygiene or health benefits in any form. It is a cruel and brutal practice, often undertaken, as the noble Baroness said, on very young girls who are in no position to defend themselves from it and for whom the devastating consequences can last a lifetime.
The Government have made it absolutely clear that we will pander to no cultural sensitivities whatever in relation to FGM. We have brought in specific offences to deter UK residents from practising FGM either at home or abroad. The Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003 made it an offence for UK nationals or permanent UK residents to carry out FGM abroad or to aid, abet, counsel or procure the carrying out of FGM abroad, even in countries where the practice is legal. The Act also reflected the serious harm that FGM causes by increasing the maximum penalty from five to 14 years’ imprisonment.
Noble Lords will realise that prosecuting cases of FGM is extremely difficult. At the time of mutilation, victims may be young and vulnerable. They may be too afraid to report offences or to give evidence in court, and there are evidential and other difficulties if cases are reported many years after the event. However, the FGM Act 2003 sends the clearest possible message that FGM, wherever and whenever it occurs, is a wholly unacceptable practice. We have good evidence to suggest that the Act is already preventing FGM in specific cases.
In addition to legislation, the Government have issued guidance to all professionals dealing with children and a training DVD specifically aimed at health professionals. There is also specific guidance from the Association of Chief Police Officers. In London, the Metropolitan Police Service has offered a £20,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and prosecution of anyone carrying out FGM in the capital. We are also supporting work in a large number of countries, particularly in Africa, aimed at eradicating the practice and providing healthcare for girls and women affected by it in those countries. As with so-called honour-based violence, we are working hard with the communities involved to ensure that family and wider community members do not protect those who commit these crimes.
The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, drew attention to the impact and extent of domestic violence in ethnic minority communities—although the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds said that there was no evidence to suggest that domestic violence was more prevalent in those communities. There is an issue and a debate to be had on this. Domestic violence is a devastating crime that impacts across all communities and the Government are fully committed to improving our response. It is estimated that domestic violence will affect as many as one in four women in this country at some point in their lives. It will affect as many as one in six men, although such incidents are typically less severe and less often repeated.
Our national delivery plan provides the framework through which we are delivering change. Key pivotal planks have been the ongoing expansion of specialist domestic violence courts, the introduction of independent domestic violence advisers and multi-agency risk assessment conferences. As at April this year, 98 specialist domestic violence courts across England and Wales were accredited, including at least one in every region. We plan to embed and expand the programme to have 128 systems in place by 2011. Independent domestic violence advisers guide victims through the criminal justice process and provide specialist advice and practical and emotional support. Involvement with victims of domestic violence has been shown to decrease victimisation and reduce victim withdrawal. We are also rolling out multi-agency risk assessment conferences to protect victims at high risk of serious harm or homicide. That programme will be completed by 2011. Further, we have committed £6.5 million this year for rolling out multi-agency risk assessment conferences and independent domestic violence advisers. These plans are underpinned by the Government’s new public service agreements, which, for the first time, prioritise serious violence, including domestic violence.
We are also working through the health service to better detect and intervene early in cases that come to its attention. For example, we know that 30 per cent of domestic violence either starts or escalates during pregnancy, so we now routinely inquire about this, confidentially and safely, as part of antenatal provision. There has to be a cultural dimension to this, which informs and is a critical part of our work.
In 2003, the Government announced a major investment in refuge provision in England. Over £34 million of capital was allocated and, as a result, approximately 511 units of new and refurbished accommodation are being provided. These are in addition to considerable existing provision. For example, housing associations have around 3,200 units of accommodation across the country for women at risk of domestic violence. This is clearly a welcome improvement.
A number of questions have been asked today. Answering them all would be an impossible task and I have no intention of doing so. However, I will put together a compendium letter picking up the important and various points that were raised. I have made a note of some of them and will try to respond to them as the debate draws to a close.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Park and Lady Cox, both made the point that Sharia law infringes the rights of women. That is an important argument, as it is clear that Sharia law can infringe women’s rights in education, marriage and other areas. As I made plain, Sharia law has no jurisdiction in England and Wales and there are no plans to change that. Moreover, it should be noted that domestic and honour-based violence are in no way condoned under Sharia law and that we must continue to pursue those who commit these crimes through the criminal justice system.
The noble Baroness, Lady Park, made some points about polygamous marriages. We do not support polygamous marriages, although the United Kingdom is a receiver of polygamous marriages conducted in other countries and cultures. We support the law that prohibits parties from contracting polygamous marriages in this jurisdiction. We have to recognise that those marriages have been lawfully made in other jurisdictions by citizens of other countries, but we believe that there are probably fewer than 1,000 such marriages in existence in the United Kingdom. Some of the issues surrounding polygamous marriage obviously spill over into issues relating to the benefits system. They are many and complex and I do not think that I have time to go through them this afternoon, much as it might provide some interesting arguments and debates, but I will try to address the subject in correspondence.
The noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, valuably, as ever, drew attention to the importance of women in science and in particular the Asian Women of Achievement Awards and the BME women in science awards. The Government obviously strongly support the Asian Women of Achievement Awards and we have helped to sponsor the event. We wish to continue to see it flourish and I commend it to all noble Lords. I also commend the efforts of the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, to get more well qualified women from all backgrounds to stay in science and related careers. We very much share that objective. I am sure that she will not blush when I say that she has played a fantastic role in advancing the cause of women in science.
The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, asked about changes in forced marriage law and visa applications. We have just completed a consultation exercise on a range of issues related to visa applications in marriage cases, including on whether to increase the age requirement from 18 to 21 for sponsored visas. We are giving careful consideration to all the contributions and we will be reporting on that issue shortly. I recognise how important it is. It is obviously a complicated matter but I think that we can feasibly make some improvements and changes that may begin to tackle some of the issues relating to forced marriage and the bringing of spouses into the United Kingdom.
The noble Baroness, Lady Verma, referred to the value of the work of the Southall Black Sisters and to possible threats to their funding, which surprised me. Like the noble Baroness, I respect their work greatly and we would be very concerned if that were the case. However, I understand that they have been invited to apply for further funding alongside other such groups, so I think that one should be hopeful that funding will continue in the future.
My time is up. I apologise for not having covered all the points but, as I said, I shall make sure that we pick those up and respond to them directly. I shall ensure that all Members of your Lordships’ House who have contributed to the debate receive a copy of my letter.
This has been an extremely valuable debate. We take this issue seriously: the rule of law must remain paramount. The Government will pander to no cultural or other consideration in dealing with these important issues and the sensitivities that arise from them. I pay tribute to the noble Baroness for raising this matter in the way she did, naturally following on from the earlier debate, which certainly in its conclusion was also valuable.
My Lords, I had serious doubts when I realised what a splendid debate had preceded this one and how many things had been said that were probably extremely relevant to our discussion. However, I do not regret introducing this debate, because all the speakers today have been fascinating in their completely different ways. I am deeply grateful and I think that the House owes a great debt of gratitude to them.
A very great Ghanaian called Robert Gardiner once said that the British left a major legacy in their former colonial countries—the language of English and the rule of law. I think that that is still true in this country today. English matters because everyone can communicate and, as many speakers have said today, communication is one of the great issues. The rule of law is the other and it is deeply important.
I am extremely grateful to everyone, not least the Minister. I look forward to his answers to some of my questions. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.
Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.