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Volume 710: debated on Tuesday 28 April 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their position on polygamous marriage in the United Kingdom.

My Lords, the Government do not support or approve of polygamous marriage. It is not possible to enter into a polygamous marriage in the United Kingdom under UK law. A person who is domiciled in the United Kingdom cannot enter into a valid polygamous marriage abroad.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply, but is he aware that Chapter 13.20 of the entry clearance guidance issued by the UK Border Agency to entry clearance officers states:

“Even where it is suspected that a divorce of convenience has taken place and that a man … is continuing to live with a previous wife, entry clearance cannot be withheld from a second wife, even if a polygamous household will be created as a result”?

Does he accept that this guidance effectively means that the Government are turning a blind eye to polygamy and that it does exist?

No, my Lords, I would not accept that for a moment. I have set out the Government’s policy as clearly as I can. This country recognises, and has done for many years, a marriage that has taken place abroad as being valid in England and Wales provided that it has been created in accordance with English private international law. To be recognised as valid, it must have been contracted between parties of full capacity and the marriage ceremony must have accorded with the formal requirements of the law of celebration in the country where it took place. If these conditions are satisfied, the marriage in question is normally recognised as being compliant with English private international law. This includes polygamous marriages but is not government approval of such marriages.

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware of reports of marriages with Islamic religious ceremonies taking place in this country that are not subsequently registered with the state? What may the Government do to protect the women and children of such non-legally registered marriages, especially in the event of a divorce that may be inflicted on the wife, who then has no recourse to the recognition of rights under a legal marriage?

My Lords, those marriages that are religious ceremonies only—save for those of the established church—are of course not valid under English law; those ceremonies do not set up a valid marriage. There is protection for the innocent parties of such a ceremony. For the wife, these include various abilities to get injunctions for domestic violence, approvals under the trusts of land Act and rights on the death of the purported husband. There are also rights for any children of such a union under the Child Support Agency rules and there are lump sums for children. There are some protections for those who are the innocent victims of such a ceremony.

My Lords, does it follow from what the Minister has helpfully said that it is the clear public policy of the United Kingdom, and should remain so, that one man is allowed to marry one woman and that that applies to everyone who lives in this country? That is my understanding of what the Minister said. Does he agree that it is also part of UK public policy to mitigate the serious disadvantages suffered by women in polygamous marriages in this country and that one way in which to do that would be to grant legal protection to unmarried cohabitant couples so as to provide a safety net for multiple wives whose polygamous marriages are unrecognised, as the noble Baroness, Lady Afshar, suggested in a recent debate? If that is not the right approach, what is the right approach?

My Lords, I agree absolutely with the first question that the noble Lord asked. That is exactly what I said, I hope, in answering the Question. But whether the Cohabitation Bill that the noble Lord has introduced to this House is the answer is much more questionable. We think that it is unnecessary and takes the wrong approach towards addressing the mistaken perception that cohabitation confers a quasi-marital legal status. We believe that sufficient provision for financial and property protection is already available to adult couples who live together. However, although we do not support his Bill—the noble Lord knows that already—we want to consider the Scottish experience and extrapolate from it the likely balance between cost and benefit that the Bill involves.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the time has perhaps come when we should follow the lead of the Australian Prime Minister and start saying to the people who come to live here that they not only have to follow the law but have to accept the moral and ethical views of this country? We do not want a divided society and it is very important that a message should be sent to people who live here that they have to comply with the moral and ethical situation and not only the law.

My Lords, I have to say to the noble Baroness that the vast majority of those who come to this country know full well that they must obey the laws of this country and do so. They add a huge amount to what this country represents in the world. Of course, in this particular field it is essential that anyone who comes here behaves in accordance with English law. Again, I think that that is widely understood.

My Lords, what are the rights of an asylum seeker who is admitted to this country and has a polygamous marriage in his country of origin? Can he bring only one wife with him, or are the others allowed in, too?

My Lords, I might have guessed that it would be the noble Lord who would catch me out. I do not know the answer to that question, but I suspect that the situation is very much the same whether it involves an asylum seeker or someone who comes into this country in any other way. However, I shall look into it and write to the noble Lord.

My Lords, I wonder whether I could ask the Minister another question that may be a little difficult to answer—but it is nice to ask. Does he know how many religious marriages are carried out each year that are not subsequently registered with the civil authorities? Is there any way of finding out how much that is going on?

My Lords, it is difficult to find that out. One thing that we think might improve the situation—and this has been supported by a respectable organisation that calls itself the Muslim Parliament—relates to the fact that, of the 809 mosques in this country, only 159 are registered to carry out proper marriages. In other words, there is either a registrar present when the religious ceremony takes place or an authorised person already exists in the mosque to ensure that the civic element of any marriage that there must be under English law is provided. We would encourage more mosques to come forward and be registered for carrying out marriages.