Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I have waited a long time to have the opportunity to bring this issue to at least some of your Lordships’ notice. I am extremely concerned about what is happening to British Muslim women. It is not about religious freedom or what we are trying to change, but what is happening in the everyday lives of British Muslim women. If we cannot protect British women, whether they are Muslim or not, then we are not providing the right kind of help.
In 2010, when we were discussing the Equality Bill, I tried to table an amendment to try to stop Sharia law impacting on women’s lives. I was told then that it was too late and if I brought this new topic into the Bill it would be likely that the Bill would fall. I had a letter from the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, and several telephone conversations with her. I still have the letter. She said, “We will look at this seriously. Do not table the amendment. We will take it up later and look at it”. I had constant telephone calls from the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill. He was then an adviser to Gordon Brown. He said, “Don’t worry, we will at look at this. We will look into what is happening to the women”. I am still waiting. They did nothing. I tried very hard to remind them that they had given me this undertaking—well, they would not call it an undertaking; it was about stopping my amendment. Since then I have spoken to Ken Clarke and he said, “Well, you know, it is their choice if they choose to go to Sharia councils”. Yes, it is their choice, and they do go—and my noble friend Lady Cox will talk more about choice. But a choice can be made only if you know what the choices are. A choice cannot be made if you are told, “This is your choice”. It was very short-sighted of Ken Clarke not to look into it.
I also had discussions with the Ministry of Justice, particularly about the Sharia councils. As your Lordships probably know, there are now more than 80 Sharia councils. As far as I know, they are not trained lawyers. I think they are imams who have some training. The decisions—please correct me anybody who knows more—are ad hoc on that particular case. There is no record kept. Nobody knows what previous decisions have been. Nobody knows what the next decision will be. So women cannot get a divorce—the councils put them off and put them off. This was also shown in a programme on television where a woman went every year to try to get a divorce but she could not. Some women, of course, have a registered marriage, which means that they are subject to British law and can get a British divorce, and they do. The problem there is if they go to an Islamic country their husband can come and claim the children. This, of course, is unacceptable to the mothers. In any case with Sharia, a seven year-old boy is given to the wife; girls are given at puberty. If the woman marries somebody else, it could be worse.
The retired Bishop of Rochester, who has studied Sharia, has said clearly that Sharia is discriminatory against women, not only in relation to marriage and children, but in most aspects. A woman’s status does not come up to more than half that of a man. Two women have to give evidence to equal a man’s evidence. When a Sharia will is made, a woman gets half of what a man gets. This is happening in our country today, here and now, and we are letting it happen. It is not fair: these women have come here to be with their husbands; they have been allowed to live here legally. We women spent the whole of last century trying to change women’s lives. We wanted equality—we are still fighting for it, but at least we do not have all these things happening to us.
I wrote to the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, who said that we need to work with the Sharia councils. I suppose she means that it is work in progress, but I have not heard anything about what work has been done with the Sharia councils. The most important thing, if we cannot do without them, is that records should be kept. If they keep records, then we can look at the records and see whether there is a similarity between cases, or whether different things are happening in different ways. These women have no support from the community or the family, and only a third of women have their marriages registered, because the men work hard not to get the marriages registered.
It helps men in these ways. Polygamy allows them to have two or three wives. Many women have said that they were absolutely taken aback to find that the man had two or three wives already. They have control over custody of the children. They do not need to provide any financial support, and there is plenty of evidence that no support has been provided for the women. They cannot be charged with bigamy, because the other women are also not registered—they are just women in the household. I think that this is absolute abuse of the British system and it has to be looked at very carefully.
If a man brings a woman into this country as his wife, it should be legally essential for him to register that woman as his wife. Then, when the next wife comes, at least we will know how many wives he has. Your Lordships may remember that I said some time ago that we should not give benefits for an unlimited number of children, since those people who are in work cannot afford more than one or two children. At that time I did a radio interview and a man said, “I have three wives”. The interviewer asked him, “How do you manage three wives?” He said, “It is on a rota basis”. There are wives living separately from the household. One woman—my noble friend Lady Cox will talk about this further—says that she lives in the household, but she gets benefits which are used to pay the mortgage for the house. There is so much going on under the surface.
The noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, feels that this is a religious matter. No, it is not a religious matter. It is not about praying to God. Did God really make us half as good as a man? We do not believe that any more. Maybe at one time people did believe that, but we are not half of a man. We are also people; we are also persons. I think that if Muslims come to this country, and if they bring a wife—or a husband—the marriage must be registered. Even just doing that will change many things in the system. Once the marriages are registered, the men will be subject to a charge of bigamy and subject to having to pay maintenance to the wife if they divorce her.
Another thing, of course, is that a man can divorce a woman by saying, “I divorce you”. I cannot understand how we can accept that today. Maybe 600 or 700 years ago it was fine, but it is not fine in this country today. Communities are moving backwards. Things are happening in schools which are unacceptable. They are trying to segregate girls and boys. In Birmingham there was a takeover of schools and Leicester University decided that girls and boys would sit separately when somebody came to speak to them. What is so amazing is that the university council said this was all right. Well, it is not all right; none of this is all right. We need to protect all British women, whether or not they are Muslim.
My Lords, I start by apologising for the fact that I may not sound completely coherent today. I am suffering from a migraine and not able to see my notes properly, so I am going to have to guess at what I was going to say. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, for calling this debate as it is an important subject to be discussed but I urge her to read back the speech that she just made in Hansard. I say that because it is important for us to work out what it is that we are debating here today. If we are debating a series of headlines which regularly appear in the Daily Mail about what may have happened around the country, then that is a completely different debate. Invariably, as we have found out, those newspapers are incredibly good at headlines but carry very little factually. I urge the noble Baroness to look at a fantastic programme made by Peter Oborne—
The noble Baroness says I am relying on headlines and newspaper reports. I am not. There is so much evidence which has been collected by various researchers and taken from women. These are their own stories and views; this is not about headlines. I am sorry, I cannot accept that. It is an easy-peasy way to put it down.
I urge the noble Baroness to listen to an incredibly interesting programme by Peter Oborne, “It Shouldn’t Happen to a Muslim”, where he unpicks some of these stories about takeovers in Birmingham, girls and boys at Leicester University, et cetera.
Let me take this back to what I think it is about: a distinction between Sharia and Sharia law. Sharia exists in the United Kingdom in our multicultural society. Noble Lords will be aware that only this year Britain announced to a loud fanfare that we had become the first western country in the world to issue sukuks—Islamic, Sharia-compliant bonds with which we raise funds to finance government, among other things. We announced that we would put in place Sharia-compliant student loans, start-up loans and home loans to ensure that the Muslim community could take full advantage of the opportunities this country has to offer. We have Sharia in the form of dietary requirements, with clear responsibilities in relation to halal and to shechita under Jewish law. We have very clear Sharia responsibilities in relation to births and deaths—for example, the way in which circumcisions are conducted in hospitals around this country in accordance with people’s religious rights. Sharia, like other religious practices, is therefore an everyday part of British life and has been for many years.
However, what I think we are debating today is whether we have Sharia law. As I am sure the Minister will answer, we do not. We have one system of law in England and Wales; it is English law, and that is paramount. Even within Sharia law as those discussions go—predominantly those discussions in the Daily Mail—there are two distinctions. There is a civil aspect and a criminal aspect. A criminal penal code has never been part of a discussion in the United Kingdom but civil practices have been, predominantly in domestic situations when marriages break down, and so-called Sharia councils have been set up as an alternative arbitration system for people to resolve their disputes.
The most important point that the noble Baroness makes is that all women in this country deserve the same protection, irrespective of their religion. The noble Baroness says that this is an abuse of the system. My argument would be that it is a failure of the system that Muslim women find themselves having to go before Sharia councils, because the mainstream system in the form of the civil courts does not allow them the support and protections that they deserve.
Dealing with it on that basis, we must look at what the mischief is. It is that Muslim women are not protected in the same way as other women when their marriages break down. There is a simple answer to that: recognise their marriage. That would deal with the mischief and meet all the concerns that the noble Baroness raises today. If I conduct a Muslim marriage with a Muslim man which is recognised under English law, I am afforded exactly the same protections as any other woman who conducts a marriage in this country. This means that when my marriage breaks down, I do not have to go to a Sharia council but to the civil courts. That option has been presented to both this Government and previous Governments. It is a simple amendment which can be made to allow for the recognition of such marriages. It would mean, effectively, that if any further religious marriage were conducted, the man would be charged with bigamy. Both would be legally recognised and we would therefore have the evidential basis on which to put a case of bigamy. That is what it boils down to.
If the Government can formally recognise a nikah in the way in which many government papers have submitted that it is possible to do, we will deal with this issue. If, despite having that civil protection, system and recognition, there is still a thirst out there for alternative dispute resolution, let us make sure that the alternative dispute resolution has a code of conduct, that there is a sense of training and education for people who take part in it and that it is properly monitored. Let us also make it clear that the alternative dispute resolution option is subject to English law. That is the way in which we can deal with this issue, without any reference to the plethora of other issues which are not part of this debate.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lady Flather on initiating this debate on a very important subject. I appreciate the way in which she opened it. She did not rely on headlines but on some very substantive issues. I take the distinction made by the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, between Sharia and Sharia law. Sharia is much wider. It contains many aspects of ways of life, including times of prayer and so on, and no one can take issue with those. However, what we are looking at today are those aspects of Sharia law which adversely affect women in this country.
I take this opportunity to raise some of the concerns that are reflected in my Private Member’s Bill, which is currently in your Lordships’ House, with particular reference to aspects of religiously-sanctioned gender discrimination and threats to the fundamental principle of liberal democracy and of one law for all. However, first I emphasise my primary and fundamental commitment to the essential freedom: freedom of religion and belief, as enshrined in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I do so as a vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on International Freedom of Religion or Belief.
There may be various institutions and aspects of different faith traditions which embody gender discrimination, both in policies and practices. If women are aware of the implications of these discriminations, make an informed choice and are happy to accept these provisions then they have every right to do so. However, where women and girls involuntarily suffer as a result of such policies and practices, this should be a matter of concern in a country committed to the eradication of unacceptable gender discrimination and the promotion of gender equality.
The concerns that I will highlight in this debate are associated with the fundamental tenets inherent in many interpretations of Sharia law, which are inherently discriminatory with regard to provisions for men and women. The establishment of Sharia courts or councils in this country has promoted the application of such gender-discriminatory provisions in ways which are currently causing considerable distress for many women. I am not relying on headlines but on talking to Muslim women and their organisations.
These provisions include unequal access to divorce. As has already been said, in many situations a husband can obtain a divorce merely by saying “I divorce you” three times. Women, on the other hand, have to obtain permission from a religious authority, often a Sharia council or court, and they may have to pay and fulfil other conditions. Sometimes their husbands will not give them money, so they are trapped in the marriage. One Muslim lady described to me how, in theory, she knew she could obtain a divorce. However, she had to pay for it and, as she could not obtain the money—her husband would not give it to her—she felt as though she was in a room with an open door to freedom, but tied to a chair so that she could not walk out of that door to enjoy that freedom. Conversely, the husband usually does not have to pay anything to obtain his divorce.
Another lady, a devout Muslim, described how her husband had divorced her. When she asked her imam for a divorce, he told her that she must bring her marriage certificate, but this was in her husband’s possession. When she asked for it, he told her that it was with his family, back in their country of origin. When her family there went to his family to ask for the certificate, they beat her younger brother because she was bringing shame on the family by asking for a divorce. She is a devout Muslim, so she will not remarry without a religiously-sanctioned divorce. She is trapped and, several years later, still very lonely in this country. When I asked an imam from a major mosque why a man does not have to pay, and indicated that it takes two people to divorce, I never received a reply.
Another problem for many Muslim women is their lack of knowledge regarding the implications of having only a religious marriage, without an accompanying legally registered civil marriage. This leaves them and their children without any rights in law if they are divorced. Many say that they are not told that their religious marriage does not simultaneously provide for a legal marriage, while others say that their husbands-to-be and/or the families discourage them from obtaining a legal marriage. Of course, this leaves the husband free to practise polygamy without breaking the law against bigamy. Another aspect of gender discrimination which often applies in the practice of Sharia law relates to polygamy. A husband is entitled to take up to four wives, provided he takes responsibility for making appropriate provision for them all.
No, I am sorry; this is a timed debate. If I have time at the end, I will answer.
In many Muslim communities in this country polygamy is commonplace, although in this nation bigamy is legally forbidden. A report written by a courageous Muslim woman named Habiba Jaan, Equal and Free? 50 Muslim Women’s Experiences of Marriage in Britain Today, has just been published. In this report, Habiba describes the marital situation of 50 Muslim women in the West Midlands. Two-thirds of those who are married are in polygamous marriages. Some say that they did not know that they were a second or third wife when they were married. Of these, almost all said that their husbands fail to provide them with financial support, in contravention of Islamic teaching. Many of these women are desperately unhappy.
A related aspect of these practices of polygamy and unequal access to divorce is the number of children which one man may have. Several Muslim women have told me that men in their communities may each have up to 20 children. This clearly paves the way for children to grow up in dysfunctional families. Those children may become very vulnerable to disaffection, marginalisation and potential radicalisation.
My Private Member’s Bill, the Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill, seeks to address some of these problems by trying to ensure that women know their rights under law in this country, as well as by providing more protection for victims of domestic violence and outlawing the operation of quasi-legal courts. In another initiative last year, I moved an amendment to what was then the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill. This would have made it a requirement for the celebrant of any religious marriage which does not also provide for a legally registered marriage to ensure that both parties to the marriage are aware of the implications of that. The importance of a legal marriage was also alluded to by the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi. For some reason which I fail to understand, the Government did not accept that amendment.
The heart-wrenching, award-winning documentary film “Banaz: A Love Story” depicts the true story of a young girl who was murdered by men in her family for bringing what they saw as shame on the family. A disturbing aspect of that film was the failure of the police to provide protection for Banaz, despite her having made several visits to the police station to seek help. The Government do not support my Private Member’s Bill or my amendment, on the grounds that they are unnecessary because every citizen in this country ostensibly has access to the law of our land. However, this implies that every citizen knows their rights, and this is clearly not the case. It also ignores the reality that many closed communities can put a great deal of pressure on families and individuals not to bring what they deem to be shame on the community.
The chasm between the Government’s de jure position and the de facto reality for so many women and girls in this country today is resulting in widespread suffering, intimidation and such gender discrimination as would make the suffragettes turn in their graves. I hope that in the Palace of Westminster, where there are memorials to those suffragettes for their achievements in obtaining votes for women at a very high price, our modern-day Parliament will not betray their sacrifices or their achievements. While respecting freedom of religion and cultural diversity, I do not believe that we should allow that freedom to override the law of our land or to deny women the knowledge of their rights and their freedom—genuine freedom—to access those rights. At present, we are looking the other way while many women are suffering in our country. That is documented by Muslim women, not by headlines I have read. We have responsibility in our country to protect and promote fundamental freedoms and gender equality. At the moment, we are seriously failing to do so.
I thank the noble Baroness because that is just the point that I was making. It is more than the point I was making, because I have been told that that has not been deemed acceptable at the moment. We have raised it in many discussions and I would strongly support the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, if that could be accepted. The related point that I raised in my speech is that if any religious marriage—I am not talking only about Islamic marriages—does not bring in at the same time a legally registered marriage, the woman ought at least to know the implications of not having a legally registered marriage. At the moment, they do not even know. They are often told by their families that it is a legally registered marriage or think that if it is carried out in the UK, it will bring a legally registered marriage. At the moment, they are in a state of ignorance. The amendment that I moved would go one step towards remedying that situation so that they would at least know. They would not necessarily have freedom of choice because of the pressures put on them by families and local communities, but it would be one step. If the suggestion of the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, were to become an amendment I would support it wholeheartedly.
My Lords, I wish to touch on three areas during this debate: first, the areas where there are clearly no conflicts between the use of Sharia courts and the law of this land; secondly, the areas where there clearly are conflicts between the use of Sharia courts and the law of the land; and, thirdly—and I realise that this will be disappointing to some people in the debate—is the unfortunate conflation which I often hear between Sharia law, religious extremism and persistent forms of Islamophobia.
I start by saying that I admire virtually all the world’s great religions because, by and large, their original prophets exhorted their followers to be peaceful, empathetic and active citizens who treat others with humanity and humility. That is the theory. Nowhere is this clearer than in the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad and those around him at the birth of Islam. Personally, I wish that we listened more to what they had said, rather than less. I am Jewish—I should say that I am a Jewish atheist—but I studied Islam at university. I was very surprised to find that, as it turns out, by the standards of his time, the Prophet Muhammad was basically a raving feminist when looking at the situation surrounding him in the 7th century. The Prophet would never sanction what has been done in his name in recent times, whether to women in this or any other country, or what is happening at the moment to the enemies of Islamic State.
The disciple closest to Muhammad was his cousin, Ali ibn Abi Talib, who Muhammad himself brought up and who was the first person to convert to Islam. I mention him because he is considered one of the foremost experts in Islamic jurisprudence, which is what we are debating today. It is amazing to look at the letter that he wrote to the emissary he was sending to govern Egypt in 658 AD, because it is a lesson to us all today. It holds lessons for us when considering the conflicting views in this debate. On the selection of a chief justice to deliver judgments in legal disputes, he gave the following instruction. He said that he should choose,
“one who cannot be intimidated … one who is not self-centred or avaricious, one who will not decide before knowing the full facts, one who will weigh with care every attendant doubt … who will examine with patience every new disclosure of fact and who will be strictly impartial in his decision, one who flattery cannot mislead”.
With regard to having patience at the disclosure of every fact, I was interested to hear the proposal of the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, regarding marriage. That is a very important thing to consider.
On bloodshed, he said—again, one can only wish that the leaders of Islamic State would follow Ali ibn Abi Talib’s commands:
“Beware! Abstain from shedding blood without a valid cause. There is nothing more harmful than this which brings about one’s ruin. The blood that is wilfully shed shortens the life of a state. On the Day of Judgment it is this crime for which one will have to answer first. So, beware! Do not wish to build the strength of your state on blood ... Before me and my God no excuse for wilful killing can be entertained”.
Given that the founders of Islam were so keen that Muslims were fair and just, and that they built their legal system on fair and just principles, why is there such uproar about Sharia in Britain today? Why does it so often seem that so much of our debate is governed by the Daily Mail? We have to weigh that Islamophobic hysteria against the problems and discrimination that have been shown to exist towards women within some rulings of some Sharia councils.
The obvious point is that, although Sharia gave women in the seventh and eighth centuries more entitlements than they previously had, today in some areas of Sharia, such as inheritance and divorce, it gives them less entitlement. As we all agree, everyone in Britain must be equal before the law. Thus, wherever Sharia does not conflict with this requirement, Muslims should have exactly the same rights as other religious groups in Britain, such as Christians and Jews, to seek guidance from institutions within their respective faith. At the same time, equally obviously, they must always have the right to take any dispute to a British court. I do not think that any of us disagree on that.
It is important to flag up that Sharia is different things to different people. Different Islamic sects interpret Sharia rulings differently. Even within sects, opinions and rulings vary among scholars. Therefore, it is difficult to use the broad-brush term “Sharia law”. One problem is the unregulated nature of the Sharia councils, to which attention has been drawn. This is where they differ slightly from, for example, the similar religious Jewish councils. Nobody really knows the number of Sharia courts or councils in the UK but I wonder whether the Minister can give us the latest estimate. The latest study in 2009 by Civitas suggested that there was evidence of at least 85 Sharia councils across Britain, but the number could be far higher.
It is also very important to distinguish between the actions of arbitrators or tribunals working on a formal level and those operating informally, and the difference between applying actual judgments and giving advice. It is crucial to make it 100% clear, as the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, did and as I think everyone here accepts, that Sharia law is not part of the British legal system, and there are absolutely no plans to make it a part of our legal system.
The Sharia councils that have been in existence here since the 1980s have to operate as tribunals under the Arbitration Act 1996. The Act allows for consenting adults to resolve disputes and conflicts, be they civil or commercial, as long as they do not conflict with UK law. The same applies to the Jewish Beth Din courts. Jewish families have that right. My mother was brought up in an orthodox Jewish family, although it was not that orthodox because her mother had converted. There was a question over whether her parents’ marriage was kosher, so to speak, and it was the Beth Din court that my family went to. I do not think that in a tolerant society it is up to others to say, “No, you can’t go and seek counsel from your religious institutions and organisations”. It is not the choice that I would make—as I said, I am an atheist and I take a secular approach on all matters—but I absolutely believe that it is the right of those who are guided by their faith to have that choice, and we have to ensure that that choice does not conflict with the absolute need for women in Britain not to be discriminated against because they choose to use a Sharia council.
In closing, I ask the Minister where we are up to in increasing the regulation around Sharia bodies, and whether he is convinced that their activities currently fall within the Arbitration Act 1996. Is he also convinced that they uphold fundamental human rights for all citizens, and what further action does he believe is required to ensure that they are properly monitored, so that neither women nor individuals from other groups face any discrimination, intentional or otherwise, for choosing to receive guidance and rulings from their religious faith bodies?
My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Baroness for initiating an important debate. It is important to reflect on where we are now. I am glad to see that both the diversity and the gender balance in this House are alive and kicking. We have had contributions in a ratio of four to one: four women and one man. We have also had a healthy sprinkling of different religious identities: contributions from—if I may sum the noble Baroness up thus—a Hindu humanist; from a Muslim; from a committed—and, I know, strong—Christian, and from a Jewish atheist. I suppose that with a debate such as one on Sharia it is entirely appropriate that there is a slight bias towards a Muslim man responding to bring it all into proportion.
I stress from the outset, in order to make it abundantly clear—the noble Baroness, Lady King, made the same point—that Sharia law has no jurisdiction in the court systems of England and Wales: we do not recognise it. There is no parallel court system in this country. Again reiterating what the noble Baroness said, we have no intention of changing this position in relation to any part of England and Wales. I make that statement from the outset because it is important to get it on record—that that is the law of the land and the law of the land will prevail irrespective of what religious practice or community you may belong to.
A question posed very ably—I would expect nothing less—by my predecessor in this role of faith Minister is: what does Sharia and the distinction between Sharia and Sharia law mean? As we have heard—the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, also alluded to this—Sharia can mean many things. Essentially, the first code of Sharia is: do not lie. That is perhaps a teaching and a learning for us all. It is also about halal food, and we see plenty of that. It is abstention from alcohol—I am teetotal, I can commit to that. It is also about service to charity and humanity. It is about welfare for all. If you look at the diversity of our great country today, specifically the Muslim community, the charitable nature of what they do is guided by Sharia law, which we are debating today. As law-abiding citizens of our great country they reflect that code of conduct in their charitable giving—their alms giving—to the poor, the needy, across the country. We are at the forefront of that. That is something that, across the country, irrespective of faith or religion, we should be proud of.
The noble Baroness, Lady King, asked specifically about Sharia councils. She talked about the figure of 85 in 2009. The Government have not made a specific assessment of Sharia in this country and are not involved in the administration—which she also asked about—of Sharia councils in any way. However, I emphasise again that the law of the land is supreme: regardless of our beliefs we are all equal under the law of the country.
I move on to some of the pertinent issues that have been raised. The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, gave some quite specific examples. I totally relate to them and they are true not just of one particular community but of many. Women have suffered terrible abuse and had terrible dilemmas. Because of limits on time, all I would say at this juncture is that she will know as well as I do—and as I am sure all noble Lords will agree—that the faith in its actual learning and theory protects women. It is unfortunate that we see practice failing with individual abuses or abuses in certain communities. These have to be eradicated and the full force of the law must apply.
Again, I need to make it absolutely clear that Sharia councils, Sharia courts—whatever name may be attributed to them—have no part in the court system in this country and no means of enforcing their decisions. If any of the decisions or recommendations made by Sharia councils or committees are illegal or contrary to national law, national law will prevail every time and where it does not criminal sanctions should apply. Any member of any community should know that they have a right to refer to an English court at any point, particularly if they feel pressured or coerced.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Cox and Lady Flather, highlighted the fact that where women are vulnerable they are not perhaps informed or educated. Therefore, it is also important that we work with communities in identifying these women. As Minister for Communities I am encouraged by the programmes and am laying greater emphasis on learning English, empowering women in particular through language. There are some excellent programmes targeting these very vulnerable groups. I recently saw QED, a practical project in Bradford. Muslim women who came from abroad, as spouses of husbands, actually had the education and knowledge but did not have the confidence to extend themselves into the fabric of the country. It is projects such as that one about empowering women where a lot of our focus should be, and rightly.
I also pay tribute to my predecessor in this role, the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, for setting up the integration roadshows. I am pleased to say that I will be nimble-footed from this debate because I am travelling up to Manchester immediately afterwards to conduct one of the integration roadshows. There we take some of the challenges facing different communities—in particular Muslim communities—that come out of practice that is founded not on the religion but unfortunately on interpretations that are removed from the faith. I totally take what the noble Baroness said. We need to tackle these head on.
No, I am not saying that, and the noble Baroness is correct to point that out. The same common law principles would apply in that case. I would like to clarify one thing. The point was made on a couple of occasions about access within Sharia for a woman to take a divorce. Again, this is the difference between theory and practice. The avenue does exist. There is the concept of Khula which allows a woman to take a divorce without citing a reason. The problem arises in certain communities because although some practise this very well, others unfortunately do not make it available. That is where the focus should be. I want to be absolutely clear that, in the context of concerns about Muslim marriages and Sharia councils, the Government believe that the key issue is raising the primacy of English law and the importance of a clear understanding of how English law works.
My noble friend raised the issue of recognising the nikah in terms of the law of the land. She will know from her experience as a Minister, and she also speaks very ably as a lawyer, that there are certain complexities that we need to address. This is far more than just a simple issue, a simple adjustment to make. It would need careful consideration before the Government could give any commitment. I am sure she appreciates that there are things that need to be discussed fully to balance out what the implications of that would be. I have already alluded to the importance of communities coming together to effect real change. We can amplify the message of those communities where women are not empowered to speak up and help them to get their messages out, but we believe that building integration is ultimately the responsibility of everyone in society.
This is a useful and timely debate. Let me assure the noble Baronesses, Lady Flather and Lady Cox, and, indeed, all noble Lords, that, as they know, I am personally committed to ensuring the eradication of some of the challenges we have seen, such as the evils of forced marriage. The Government have been very serious about this. Indeed, as noble Lords will know, we took steps by criminalising this heinous activity. As we have seen with FGM as well as with forced marriages, the important thing is first of all to ensure that this is communicated effectively, and that people understand what the law of the land means. It is important to make that accessible to all people and to educate people in that respect as well.
I wish to conclude my remarks today by thanking all noble Lords who participated in what has been a very useful debate. I again underline the fact that what defines our great country of Britain is that it allows people to practise, profess, propagate and preach their faith with great freedom and liberty across all boundaries. It does not matter who or where you are.
Before the Minister draws his remarks to a conclusion, could he give any further clarification on what if any legislative changes would be required to bring the activities of Sharia councils under further regulation at the present time? Or is it just a question of implementing guidance?
There are no plans to legislate on Sharia councils in that sense. We believe that the rule of law should prevail, and I have re-emphasised that point. We see plenty of good practice within the Muslim community. For example, many Muslim communities employ a simple resolution to this question. Before any imam is sanctioned to perform a nikah ceremony, the couple are asked to produce a certificate of registration. That is a good practice, and it means that the civil marriage is registered prior to the Islamic marriage, ensuring protection for both men and women. It is right that we do not seek to interject in people’s religions from a government perspective, but where we see that there is good practice it should be shared across the country. That is certainly the approach that the Government are taking.
I note that I have a minute to go, so I will make full use of it by once again reiterating the Government’s commitment to ensuring that wherever we see abuse, whoever the perpetrator and whoever the victim, the Government will stand up strongly to provide protection. We have a strong record over the past four years of doing just that. Protecting religious identity is an important part of what defines our great nation, but not to the detriment of the rule of law. Ultimately, whatever religious practice one may follow and whatever religious community one may belong to, one thing prevails above all else, and that is the rule of law.