That the Bill be read a second time.
My Lords, I am profoundly grateful to all noble Lords speaking in this debate and to many other noble Lords who have expressed their support for the Bill but are unable to be in their place today. The Bill seeks to address two interrelated issues: the suffering of women oppressed by religiously sanctioned gender discrimination, and a rapidly developing alternative quasi-legal system which undermines the fundamental principle of one law for all.
The Bill is strongly supported by many organisations concerned with the suffering of vulnerable women, including Karma Nirvana, the Council for Muslims Facing Tomorrow, British Arabs Supporting Universal Women’s Rights, the National Secular Society, the Muslim Women’s Advisory Council and the internationally renowned Canadian Muslim scholar Raheel Raza, who describes this Bill as a blessing to help women to achieve their rights.
I am especially grateful for their support because the problems are escalating and the need to find some solutions is ever more urgent. As Theresa May, when Home Secretary, highlighted almost a year ago:
“There is evidence of women being ‘divorced’ under sharia law and left in penury, wives who are forced to return to abusive relationships because sharia councils say a husband has a right to ‘chastise’, and sharia councils giving the testimony of a woman only half the weight of the testimony of a man”.
In a free society, individuals must be able to organise their affairs according to their own principles, religious or otherwise, but we must not condone situations where rulings are applied which are fundamentally incompatible with the laws, values, principles and policies of our country. The courageous Muslim author Dr Ida Lichter wrote to me this week saying:
“Denying our Muslim women the benefits of British justice is tantamount to condescension and marginalisation of an oppressed minority”.
This week, we heard deeply moving and disturbing first-hand accounts during a meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on “Honour” Based Abuse. I will give two examples from the meeting, which are merely the tip of a huge iceberg, but they are two too many and we should not be allowing these situations which cause such aguish in this country.
The first is the story of Aala—a pseudonym, of course. She is originally from Pakistan and had an Islamic marriage in the UK. Aala was raped, abused and financially exploited by her husband. Her imam and her husband refused to negotiate an Islamic divorce, claiming that the marriage had never taken place, despite the fact that she had a video recording of the ceremony. She told us, weeping, that she is now so ostracised by her community, both in the UK and in Pakistan, that she feels such shame and loneliness that she has attempted suicide. Secondly, we heard from Fozia, who was sent under false pretences from Britain to Kashmir, where she was threatened at gunpoint into a forced marriage. Returning to the UK, she soon discovered that her new “husband” was entering into another marriage to help him to stay in the UK. When Fozia went to the police with her concern over bigamy, they told her, “We can’t arrest him, because it’s allowed in your religion”.
Such suffering cannot be allowed to continue. Provisions must be introduced to ensure that the operation of sharia law principles in the UK today is not undermining the rights of women and the rule of law. I therefore briefly identify the concerns which the Bill seeks to address. I recognise its provisions cannot solve all the sensitive, complex and collateral issues, but I have been assured by the women whom they seek to help that they would be immensely useful.
First, the Bill seeks to address arbitration tribunals which apply discriminatory rules. The Arbitration Act 1996 allows parties to agree how certain civil disputes, often financial, should be resolved, including according to the law of another legal system. This permits arbitration to operate according to sharia principles. The Bill recognises Muslim arbitration tribunals and will not affect their operation in accordance with the law of the land. However, there is concern that even when these tribunals are operating within the terms of the Arbitration Act, some are practising gender discrimination such as: inequality between men and women regarding access to divorce, whereby the man can just say, “I divorce you”, three times; polygamy, so that a man can marry four wives; child custody, whereby, in the event of a divorce, a father may claim custody of his children, often at the age of seven; inheritance provisions, whereby women and girls receive only half the amount of the legacy given to men and boys; and rules of evidence that provide that the value of a woman’s testimony is deemed to be just half that of a man’s. That is why the Bill seeks to close any loophole that might remain in the Equality Act 2010 and strengthens court powers to set aside rulings based on such discrimination, if the woman is unhappy.
The second concern relates to arbitration tribunals acting outside their remit, for example by deciding cases relating to criminal law, such as those involving domestic violence and grievous bodily harm. The Casey review, commissioned in 2015 by the then Prime Minister and Home Secretary, cited claims that,
“some Sharia Councils have been supporting the values of extremists, condoning wife-beating, ignoring marital rape and allowing forced marriage … we were told that some women were unaware of their legal rights to leave violent husbands and were being pressurised to return to abusive partners or attend reconciliation sessions with their husbands despite legal injunctions in place to protect them from violence”.
The suffering of vulnerable women can be exacerbated by the nature of the closed communities in which they may live, where they are subjected to enormous pressure not to seek outside professional help because that is deemed to bring “shame” on the family or the community. In many cases, women have suffered further difficulties because police, civil authorities and professional personnel have been reluctant to take action that might be deemed to give offence to the leaders of these communities—there are many cases of that.
This relates to the third concern that the Bill seeks to address: the crucial matter of consent, which must be at the heart of both arbitration and mediation. Women may be pressured by their families into going to sharia councils. They may also lack the knowledge essential for informed choice, such as about their rights under British law. Therefore, in terms of court orders arising from mediation or other negotiated agreement, the Bill creates enhanced mechanisms for orders to be set aside if there is evidence that the consent of one party was not genuine.
The fourth concern relates to the estimated 100,000 couples in Britain today who are living in Islamic marriages not recognised by English law. Women in such marriages risk being duped into believing they are married under the law of the land, only to find upon divorce they have few to no rights in terms of finance or property.
The influential Aurat report by the courageous Muslim woman Habiba Jaan described Muslim women’s experiences of marriage in the West Midlands. The majority of women who had a religious-only ceremony were unaware their marriage was not officially recognised by English law. Many were deeply disturbed when they discovered their predicament and said they wished they had known the reality of their situation and its implications.
To try to address aspects of these problems, in November 2013, I moved an amendment to the then Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill, which would have protected women who are duped into believing they are married under the law of the land only to find upon divorce they have limited rights. I am sorry that the Government rejected the amendment. The Government rejected a similar amendment to the Policing and Crime Bill in November 2016, which would have ensured that any celebrant of a religious marriage had an obligation to ensure that the religious marriage is also legally registered. Others have suggested an amendment to the Marriage Act 1949, requiring all religious and secular marriages to be registered. That may be a suggestion for consideration on another day, for which I would greatly value advice.
In conclusion, it is important to emphasise that the Bill does not specify any particular faith tradition. If women from other faiths experience systematic discrimination, the provisions of the Bill would also be available for them. It is also important to recognise that the Bill does not interfere with the internal theological affairs of faith groups. If a woman with devout convictions accepts religiously sanctioned gender discrimination, the Bill would not inhibit the practice of her faith. But the problems I have highlighted often arise because choice is not informed or genuinely free.
Since the Bill was last debated, evidence of these concerns has increased. So too has the need for urgent action. I hope, therefore, that the Bill will receive a more sympathetic response from the Minister than on previous occasions, when the Government claimed that there is no need for such provisions as all citizens can access and benefit from their rights according to law. The chasm between the de jure situation and the de facto reality is an abyss into which countless women are falling and suffering as a result.
I also hope that the Minister will not use the ongoing Home Office inquiry as an excuse to delay viable legislation, especially in view of the widespread concerns expressed by many organisations about the composition of the review panel, which is chaired and advised by theologians, fails to include non-Muslim experts on Islam, and fails to include human rights experts.
Muslim women are today suffering in this country in ways in which, as I always say, would make the suffragettes turn in their graves. Many of them see the proposals of the Bill as a lifeline, or, as one lady said to me, “a light at the end of the tunnel of darkness and oppression”. The Bill cannot solve all the problems, such as intimidation or the intention—mentioned by many Muslim women—of those who might continue their practices underground. But it would provide some much-needed help and show vulnerable British Muslim women that their concerns are being taken seriously rather than being ignored in the name of “political correctness” and “multiculturalism”. I passionately hope they will not be disappointed again. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, for her doughty championship of equality and the importance of access to justice. She is a life force on so many issues. This is the third time that I have followed, or rather limped, in her slipstream to support the Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill or similar versions, and I do so with pleasure and on the same three grounds that I have before.
First, as a former chair of ACAS, I understand the importance of arbitration and mediation. It was our bread and butter. It relied on the genuine consent of the parties, a clear knowledge of what they were entering into and an understanding that they were equal before the conciliator or arbitrator. Any system which might be seen to misuse these procedures would be a reputational risk for arbitration and mediation in general.
Secondly, we should all be equal under the same laws. I say “should be”, because equal access to justice today is a right which is becoming rather flimsy due to major cuts in legal aid and advice agencies imposed by coalition and Conservative Governments. Nevertheless, equality is a fundamental right.
Thirdly, I feel strongly that women’s equality has to be fought for as vigorously today as in previous generations. Too often, it takes second place to other considerations: it is too sensitive, it might be seen to be anti-religious or anti-Muslim or—my favourite—women have gained all the rights they need and existing laws are sufficient as they stand.
If any women in this country today fail to get justice because they are misled about their rights or are surrounded by family who elevate custom and practice to the status of a right, then we are still a long way off from equal rights for women. As the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, said, the majority of women who marry under sharia law in this country are not aware that this does not give them legal rights under UK law on marriage, which places them at a potential disadvantage.
In the last debate on the subject, reference was made by the then Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, to the Home Office’s counterextremism strategy, which was published in October 2015 and reported that the Government intended,
“to commission an independent review to understand the extent to which Shari’a is being misused or applied in a way which is incompatible with the law. This is expected to provide an initial report to the Home Secretary in 2016”.
I remember feeling concerned that the issue of women’s rights had been referred to anywhere in the Home Office, let alone the counterextremism strategy. It seemed at the time an insensitive and inappropriate thing to do. Nevertheless, my question to the Minister is: where are we now, 15 months later, on this independent review?
Also in the previous debate, the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, referred to the Law Commission’s preliminary scoping study of marriage in England and Wales. The commission was due to report in December 2015 and we were assured that the Government would be considering the next steps. What progress, if any, is being made?
I would like to say something about custom and practice. It is very influential in all walks of life, for good or not so good. As a former trade unionist and still a strong supporter of trade unionism, I know all about custom and practice. To repeat an example I gave in a previous debate, I turned up to the electricity showrooms on the Chiswick High Road in the late 1960s to take out a hire purchase agreement on an electric fire for our rental accommodation, only to be told that I needed my husband’s signature to take out that agreement. He had even less money than I did but he had the power of the signature. That was custom and practice, and it was only two generations ago. I remember the way in which women subjected to appalling domestic violence could be informed by the police, if they were brave enough to go to the police in the first place, that it was a domestic and they could do nothing. That was custom and practice.
In summing up the last debate, the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, said:
“Integration requires changes to society, not necessarily changes to the law”.—[Official Report, 23/10/15; col. 904.]
That may be the truth, but it is not the whole truth. There comes a time when something that a society accepted as custom and practice has to be changed by the law in order to make it unacceptable. The Bill is an attempt to say that the law needs to step in, not necessarily to move us forward but to stop us moving backwards.
In conclusion, I really hope the Government will not continue to drift along in the brackish waters of scoping studies, Home Office counterextremism strategies and hoping-it-will-go-away working parties. I look forward to the Minister’s positive response.
My Lords, in this country we are privileged to enjoy extensive freedoms, particularly freedom of religion. However, the freedom of religion must accompany the freedom to change one’s religion. It is extremely important that the kind of oppression that comes from the establishments in religion trying to prevent their followers from changing their religion should not be allowed as a matter of law in this country.
The Bill deals with that in what in my judgment is a very effective way, assuming that it became law. First, looking at the provisions of negotiated settlements, it makes it plain that the real consent of both parties is essential for that agreement to stand. That strikes me as fundamental. If a person wants to change their faith or some of its tenets, whether they are a man or woman, they should be absolutely free to do so without any possible restraint. Any attempt to restrain that is in the nature of oppression, which ought to be outlawed so far as possible. Some of these pressures are very subtle and difficult to eliminate or indeed discover or deal with publicly. However, the test put in the clause dealing with negotiated settlement, that the consent must be genuine, is tested by the criteria that are set out. I think that is extremely effective. It is probably as effective as any provision of law could be to deal with these sometimes subtle pressures, particularly on young people.
My second point is about arbitration, which comes first in the Bill. In a sense, arbitration is part of the machinery of our justice system. It is a very distinct procedure from the ordinary court procedure but, if properly carried out under the provisions of our law, it has the effect of becoming binding, just as a court judgment does. The Arbitration Act makes provision for that. There is a need to deal with the pressures that can come under that as a publicly recognised method of enforcement, or of reaching agreement and then enforcing that agreement. In that connection, therefore, the provisions of our ordinary law that apply to everyone else are applied, and the Bill does that in a very balanced way. I am not saying it could not be subject to amendment, but it strikes me as extremely balanced at the moment for dealing with a problem that has been shown to exist in our country in more than one area of religious establishment.
It is important that this matter should be dealt with sooner rather than later. It is easy to put off, but on the whole the urgency of the situation merits action at an early date.
My Lords, I support the Bill, which was introduced so eloquently by the noble Baroness, Lady Cox. I applaud her commitment to those who are oppressed, whether here or abroad.
It is so easy in our country to take for granted our freedom, our equality and our tolerance, but it does not take much knowledge of British history to realise that these values have been hard fought and are comparatively recent, as the noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, has just said. Some might therefore wonder why it was necessary to enact this Bill when under civil law women are equal to men in every sense and have the same access to the fruits of freedom. The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, has set out the reasons admirably, but I would like to set out the following thoughts.
It is understandable that new citizens to our country will inevitably bring with them their cultural and religious expectations, and for the most part they are welcome to do so. In so many ways, they can enrich our common cultural life. Sometimes, though, some of those traditions may collide sharply with the resident nation and raise questions about compatibility. Such is the case when it comes to marital relationships when they appear before sharia courts. It is equally understandable that religious traditions will want to order their lives according to their faiths, and that is true for Christianity, Judaism and other traditions. However, we must all conform to standards expected by civil law in its commitment to uphold justice for everyone.
The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, outlined her concern for Muslim women trapped in bad marriages with intimidation and threats whenever they try to free themselves. Parliament exists to clarify the law whenever it is challenged, and it must come to the rescue of those unsure of their rights.
Some might say—this has already been mentioned—that a law such as this is unnecessary. All that the noble Baroness wishes to address is already there in current laws; all we need to do is apply them. That may be objectively true, but whenever there are loopholes, whenever there is confusion, whenever a minority of sharia courts—I am assured it is a minority—exist to trump, which is an interesting word, civil law, we must correct abuses by strengthening existing laws to ensure that Muslim women and other groups have the same rights as men.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, for introducing her Private Member’s Bill. She raises important issues affecting the principle of equality before the law, and she has my full support.
The noble Baroness has travelled far and wide, and we are privileged to have her contribution in your Lordships’ House. I have had the opportunity of attending a number of meetings convened by her. I heard at first hand testimonies of courageous women who have suffered unbearable forms of gender discrimination. We must add to this the practice of polygamous marriages and inequality of access to divorce. This is what victims suffer.
There are also child custody policies and matters connected with inheritance laws, so ably described by the noble Baroness. While we enjoy the protection of British laws, these women are drawn into practices that often disadvantage them.
Evidence of this nature, often in the name of faith-based practices, must be considered alien in any civilised society. Since the early days of Commonwealth migration, successive Governments have been proactive and have valued equality and diversity as one of their core values. The evidence is there for all to see. We have introduced legislation and other measures to establish equality of opportunity on grounds of race, disability, gender, age, faith and sexual orientation.
Despite these positive measures, one cannot say that all is well. That could be ascribed to the fact that we have no written constitution and limited guidance in the legal process and available documentation. The fact remains that there is serious divergence in the way an individual faces process and practice, often based on faith interpretations that seriously disadvantage them in access to justice. The Bill therefore demands serious consideration by your Lordships’ House.
There have been a number of developments recently. The latest was the Casey review. This was set up by the Government to consider what could be done to boost opportunity and integration in our most isolated and deprived communities. An area of interest is the examination of practices by different communities and how faith-based problem-solving could disadvantage women and many of the second generation of youngsters born in this country.
An integrated society is possible only if we all subscribe to the law of the land. Debate on community cohesion is useless if we shy away from tackling the very essence of one law for all. Our democracy is based on rules of law, and we all have an opportunity to contribute towards this end.
I do not run away from the fact that, in many parts of the world, there are informal and accepted practices to resolve disputes without recourse to legal process. Many land disputes and family disputes are resolved by involvement of community elders. The crucial point is that, in cases of grievance, all citizens must have access to the law of the land, which must be supreme.
The questions which need to be answered are as follows: do informal processes treat individuals fairly; and, in the matter of gender equality, do informal interventions comply with the law of the land? All the research papers I have read point to the fact that in many cultures, women are not only disadvantaged but discriminated against in the way that faith-based procedures deal with them.
It is time to rebalance this anomaly. So-called laws which have no basis in statute are bad laws and should not be part of our democratic institutions.
My Lords, when David slung his stone at Goliath’s head, he killed him with one blow and a great victory against tyranny was achieved. Today, the fight for peace and victory is infinitely harder, but David had the right idea, as has the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, with the Bill, for which we are deeply indebted to her: aim for the head, and eliminate a vital organ of the growing poison that seeks to inject itself into our system of democracy and equality.
Yet sharia law need not be evil. It could even be welcome if it remained subservient to the laws and rules of our multicultural society, but being subservient is something that sharia finds very hard to do. Many who believe in sharia believe that it derives its legitimacy from God himself. We should not be surprised if they regard such a law to be superior to the law of man, the law of the land.
However, in a society such as ours, submission to the law of the land is precisely what all other systems of law and belief must accept. The law of this land, the law by which we all abide, is the fundamental basis of our security. In an increasingly diverse society, it is the bedrock of our common freedom, yet it is vulnerable, for the law which serves us so well is not always as carved in stone as some people think. As circumstances change, the law updates to protect every segment of our society, always without prejudice. The powerful and the needy obey it to the letter or are punished.
It is on occasion open for negotiation, and at such moments we must be exceptionally wary about what ideas we allow in. Women in our world enjoy 100% equality. Their word carries equal weight. Those are hard-fought-for principles. But sharia has come to an opposite view, to a degree that is both obscene and inexplicable to the western mind.
How can this country allow such inequality and intolerance, let alone in the name of equality and tolerance? How can this country, which has led the way in equality throughout its history, choose in the 21st century to turn a blind eye to laws which regard women as unequal citizens with an unequal say and an unequal voice?
Today, we are a multicultural society. Christian, Muslim, Jew of any denomination should feel safe, but to feel safe we must know that we are protected by a common law, one which holds back the worst excesses of fundamentalist religions. Our Muslim friends and neighbours, among others, are right to worry about where those excesses lead. Wherever the footprints of sharia lie, violence and oppression follow swiftly behind. It is not benevolent in Sudan, Nigeria, Syria, Iran or Saudi Arabia. In all these places, unspeakable murders are perpetrated. While some in the UK present sharia as an expression of peace, everywhere else it arrives, the people with Kalashnikovs are not far behind.
At this stage of our world’s existence, politicians and scientists are struggling to find the right reaction to this problem. For so long, we have lived in a society where negotiation and compromise are the first steps, but these words—negotiation and compromise—are not in the lexicon of Islamic fundamentalists or those who advocate sharia. As we value the best aspects of our lives in this country, we should make a stand against the unequal and low regard for the value of human life that sharia offers.
Today the West is slow, ponderous, and uncertain. Most of our citizens who are Muslim share our philosophy; they enjoy the benefits that security, equality and entrepreneurship offer. They enjoy life, with its unique joys of family life; they enjoy sharing their festivals and the disciplines of their own faith—but above all they appreciate the climate of tolerance that abounds in great depth within these blessed isles. But these rights are not inevitable, and it is perfectly possible at any stage that a country such as ours, juggling the complexities of a diverse society, can unwittingly fall off the path.
The Bill is a small masterpiece. It isolates a deepening problem and focuses on an issue of greater importance than many people realise. Already many sharia courts have become illegal and unjust by any standards. They are controlled by fundamental Islamists and aim to stand not beneath but above the law of this land.
May I complete my words with a small anecdote? I recently watched a television programme about one Imam, aged about 35, English, erudite, charming and sitting in a beautiful book-lined study, being asked to explain his opinions on some Islam practices which he answered with reassurance and seeming common sense. The final question was deliberately simple. What was the Imam’s views about the treatment of women who are stoned to death for adultery? We waited for a reassuring, 21st-century answer. His reply: “That is our law”.
My Lords, I adopt all that has been said so well by previous speakers. I was particularly impressed by my noble friend Lady Donaghy, who from her experience at ACAS spoke so well about the principles of equality, non-discrimination and seeking to protect the vulnerable. In respect of one of her points, I recall that, as a Member of Parliament, I was approached once by some workers who complained that they were being prosecuted because they had stolen construction materials from their place of work. As a sort of lawyer, I knew the Theft Act, brought in by my noble friend Lord Elystan-Morgan in 1968, and I asked what section of the Act they were going to rely on. They said, “custom and practice”.
When I was approached by the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, I felt that I had a three-line whip to come here, because I admire her enormously. I admire her principled persistence, almost along the lines of Wilberforce. I remember the previous attempts to bring in this Bill in 2012, when the government response was at best lukewarm. I recall that in 2015 at least there was shown a greater recognition of the problems, and the then Home Secretary, now Prime Minister, Theresa May, said very clearly where she stood on this matter—and I hope that she might be reminded of that from time to time.
Of course, an inquiry was set up in May 2016, and there was a Home Affairs Select Committee inquiry parallel to that in June. I am inclined to withhold my reaction to the inquiry until we see the terms of its conclusions, but I share some the concerns of the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, about the terms of reference and the members of that inquiry—and, indeed, that they have not gone far enough in either direction.
I recall the last attempt by the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, in 2015, so I went to look at the speech that I had made on that occasion and found to my surprise that I agreed with myself. My second thought was that today, in support of the noble Baroness on this all-party matter, I have, alas, nothing startlingly new to say—but I was reassured by the fact that that has never deterred parliamentarians from saying a few words. I shall not repeat what I said—or indeed what Mrs May, the Prime Minister, has said.
I have only two observations. There is a real problem revealed by the research of the noble Baroness, Lady Cox—the danger of a parallel jurisdiction developing in this country, as it creeps into areas of law, and even into the area of criminal law. I also agree with others that this is essentially, if not entirely, a women’s issue, and that there is clear evidence of gender discrimination and coercion of vulnerable women by some—perhaps it is a minority, we do not know—sharia courts. There is the point about the ease of divorce. I was interested to note that, even in Egypt, President Sisi is now seized of this problem; he is trying to ensure that in Egypt, where the Grand Mufti is, women are not disadvantaged by very speedy divorce by the predominant men.
So I fully agree with the objectives of the Bill. Women should be made aware of their rights. For those women who are particularly vulnerable in some of the closed societies that are developing even within our own society, the judiciary should make every effort to ensure that they are aware of their rights and generally prevent a parallel system developing. Yes, we should probably give two cheers for the inquiry and the Home Office report—and yes, we are fully committed to the principles and clauses in the Bill proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, who is a great fighter for liberation not just in this country but also, as we have seen, in Burma, South Sudan and elsewhere. I am a great admirer of her work.
My Lords, I have occasionally heard it said that Private Members’ Bills in your Lordships’ House are an opportunity for self-indulgence. If anyone still believes that, they should look at today’s business, in which we have four pieces of legislation, each one of which has the capacity to make an enormous and beneficial difference to people’s lives. We are very privileged to be here on a day such as this—and I feel particularly privileged to be able to stand up in your Lordships' House and support my noble friend’s Bill. She has been a doughty fighter on these issues for many years. I shall freely confess that she persuaded me of the merits of this legislation some years ago and I hope that the House will give full support to her today.
The relationship between religions and the law comes in many shapes and colours on a long scale. At one end of the scale—it was a great privilege to sit next to the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey, when he made his speech—we have the established Church, whose compliance with the law is evidenced daily by its presence in this House. Unfortunately, at the other end of the scale, we have cults that impose rigid and often eccentric discipline on their disciples. I certainly do not accuse Islam of that, but it is part of the picture.
The law must be able to intervene when a point on the scale is reached that undermines accepted legal rights—and that is what this debate is about. I do not want to attack any religion. It is wrong to do so; people are entitled to their beliefs. As a lawyer, I certainly do not want to attack the value of arbitration and alternative dispute resolution. In her wonderful speech, the noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, gave ample justification for that process, whatever one calls it. If a religious organisation provides alternative dispute resolution and does so fully within the law, we should all welcome it as a very useful process.
If that form of mediation or alternative dispute resolution adds a zone of comfort because all the parties happen to adhere to shared beliefs and views, so much the better. It is no different in degree from them all being members of a good trade union. They share a vision which, one would hope, helps them to agree when they have differed. However, the entry into something that is called a marriage but which is not seen as a marriage by the law undermines rights in a very dangerous way. It removes the legitimate expectations that all the rest of us who have entered into a marriage, or a comparable relationship, enjoy. The use of the term “legitimate expectation” is important in this context because it is recognised by the law that enables people to take legal action against those who have abused their use of administrative action. We call this by the shorthand, “judicial review”.
The consent to a status of, for example, a wife has validity only if there is genuine consent to the consequences of that status. My noble friend’s Bill enables people to acquire those consequences by law, rather than being deprived of them arbitrarily. Where bodies fail to inform an individual of their legal rights, they are failing to fulfil their duty of care to their members. A simple analogy would be the misdescription of goods under trades descriptions legislation. If we buy Chanel perfume and it turns out to be a fake, we are entitled to have our rights enforced. If we marry and it turns out to be a fake, we are surely entitled to the rights of a married person. So where such bodies act contrary to the law, it is a matter for real concern. Where there can be an effect on innocent third parties—for example, children—it is a matter for acute anxiety. My noble friend’s Bill addresses those issues and I applaud it.
My Lords, I am delighted to be able to follow the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, who is sitting in a new place. I know that he will bring enormous distinction to the Cross Benches. I also join in the many tributes to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, who is a dogged, determined, persistent fighter who could adopt as her motto that of my dear friend Tam Dalyell, who died only yesterday: “the importance of being awkward”. My noble friend is never put off by a brush-off from the Front Bench. Yesterday, I was delighted to see that the Foreign Secretary is beginning to heed some of her wise words on Syria. I very much hope that my noble and learned friend Lord Keen of Elie, who is doing a double stint on the Front Bench today, will be welcoming, positive and fully understanding of the importance of the points made on the Bill when he responds.
Less than 48 hours ago, your Lordships’ House had an interesting short debate on the Higher Education Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, moved an amendment drawing attention to the fact that the student loan system is a barrier to Muslim students attending our universities. He spoke with great eloquence and I was delighted to be able to support him, briefly, as I had on previous occasions. The Government share our recognition of this, because the only subject of real debate on Wednesday was the timing of when a new system would be brought in to help Muslim students by enabling them to feel that they were not transgressing their moral principles. That was entirely defensible, right and proper. It was not a question of sharia law overriding the law of the land. Rather, we were recognising—as we do with the religious feelings of other faiths—that there are certain things that people should be allowed to do. But what they should not be allowed to do is transgress the law of the land, which treats every citizen of this country as equal.
As other noble Lords have said, the noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, with all her experience of ACAS, made a very cogent speech. I believe very strongly in citizenship ceremonies—I have attended one. I hope the noble Baroness would agree that it would be a very good thing if all those becoming British citizens were given a little document which said: this is your law, these are your rights and these are your responsibilities. This is what we are saying today to our Muslim fellow citizens: to the women, these are your rights; and to the men, these are your responsibilities. The law of our land does not allow you to take four wives or to dismiss a wife merely because you want to. The law of the land gives to every woman who enters into a marital relationship fundamental rights that are the equivalent of those enjoyed by every other woman in this country, regardless of religion, ethnicity or racial background.
There was an interjection earlier from a noble Baroness—whose name escapes me for the moment—asking whether the Government believed in equality under the law: of course they do. But if they do, they must, when my noble and learned friend responds to this morning’s debate, show that they do not just believe but that they practise. Setting up commissions and committees is sometimes an extremely good idea and is often a necessary preliminary to legislation—but we have pushed this into the long grass for far too long. There are women in our land today who are suffering; they are being ostracised from their own communities, and that is not acceptable. If someone is a British citizen, he or she has all the rights and duties of a British citizen. That, in effect, is all that this Bill seeks to say, and I very much hope that it will be enacted.
This House is deeply in debt to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, who is a doughty fighter and a wonderfully persistent person. I hope that she will carry on being a thorn in the side of government, where necessary, for as long as she is here—and may that be a very long time.
My Lords, I too pay tribute to the courage and determination of my noble friend Lady Cox. Not being as brave as the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, I would not dare to imply that she is awkward, but there is no doubt whatever that she has been absolutely tireless in bringing the suffering of Muslim women in Britain to the attention of the public.
As one who has lived for many years in Muslim countries, I have every respect for devout individual Muslims. That said, it is surely fundamental that there can be only one law in this country, and furthermore, that institutions operating in Britain should do so in accordance with the rights that people can expect in this country, be they men or women—that is, there must be equality under the law.
The problem in this instance is the growing body of evidence that arbitration by sharia courts in practice discriminates against women in a manner that is frankly unacceptable in British society. That makes it all the more important that any such mediation should be voluntary and not the result of family or community pressure. The strength of those pressures is rather hard to imagine for those of us who belong to the majority community, but it is very clear to anyone who has lived in a Muslim country and seen the way in which women are obliged by pressures of family and tradition to fall in behind their men. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, was therefore exactly right to focus on the voluntary nature of any such mediation.
The draft Bill before us tackles these issues in an intelligent and targeted way. It does not interfere with the legitimate mediation services, which are already bound by equality legislation, nor does it interfere with the internal theological affairs of any religious group. However, it addresses a lacuna in our law which, in practice, permits discrimination against women in a manner that is unacceptable, as I have said. Indeed, as the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, has just said, we have reached the point when it is time to intervene.
Finally, I was going to draw attention, as the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, has, to the actions of the President of Egypt, a Muslim country, who has said that there must be an end to oral divorces which have been permitted. I find it deeply ironic that the President of a Muslim state feels able to take decisive action to remedy a clear injustice when our own Government apparently will not. I hope the Minister will prove me wrong.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, for persevering in bringing this important matter before your Lordships’ House on such a regular basis. I hope that this time the Government will hear what the House is saying loud and clear.
I put my name down to speak in this debate very late yesterday, which is why I was unable to attend the several briefing sessions on the Bill that the noble Baroness held. The reason I put my name down so late was that I had not intended to speak in this debate. I thought that the work I had done in this area until about a decade ago had worn me down sufficiently that I no longer wanted to examine multiculturalism and theology, particularly Islam. However, I looked at the speakers’ list and appreciated that, of the dozen or more Muslim Peers in this House, not a single one had put their head above the parapet. As a liberal, I am afraid I frequently put my head above the parapet, so here I stand.
I turn to what the Bill is not. Many in the Muslim community say that the Bill seeks to target the Muslim community. However, I rebut that claim. This is not an anti-Muslim Bill. It could be argued that it is an anti-Muslim man Bill in that the power which might be restricted if the Bill were to pass would potentially impact on a certain category of Muslim men who are self-selecting in giving themselves powers as religious experts and theologians. Many in this House may not know that there is little religious hierarchy in Sunni Islam since its emphasis as a religion is on individual accountability and a huge amount of consensus in decision-making. That is why I refer to several of these people who sit on sharia councils as self-selecting. I argue that the Bill sets out to help not just Muslim women but all women who face discrimination through theological edicts and culture.
I did some research on this issue in 2008, when a well-respected publication wanted me to write a cover story about the impact of sharia in the United Kingdom. This followed research that had come from the think tank Policy Exchange, which found that significant numbers of Muslims in the UK wanted to be governed by sharia while living here. So I visited mosques which ran sharia councils and read a lot of literature but, most importantly, I spoke to men and women about why they undertook to marry or settle disputes under sharia in any event when other remedies were available. The reason most frequently given to me was that it was an expression of identity, particularly for young women. That was frequently accompanied by another reason—namely, that Jewish people have their own court, so why not us? It has been implied in the House today that there is an assumption that it is mainly newly arrived people who turn to sharia councils to settle their marital disputes. However, I found that this practice was becoming a trend among second, third and fourth-generation women, who were using identity politics as an excuse to define themselves.
A further and more difficult reason was that the young women were coerced by family to undertake this kind of marriage. As we heard when the forced marriage legislation was going through this House, it is very hard for a young person, in a culture which venerates family and community, to go against the perceived wisdom. To say to parents—and indeed to extended family members, as you may well be marrying a cousin—that you are doing so to seek legal protection in the union puts you in the position of effectively saying that you do not trust the other side, and you expect to need legal protection. In other words, you are challenging the bona fides of the other side. How many 17, 18 or 19 year-olds in these communities would be able to do that?
I turn to another aspect under Clause 2, which deals with inheritance. It is true that the treatment of the division of an estate is discriminatory and that this inequality is seldom challenged. My own experience was very different on the demise of my mother. She was highly educated and would have been described as a feminist. She was so troubled by the idea of treating her daughters unequally in Pakistan that she discovered, unusually, that even in that country—a Muslim country— if she made a will setting out a different allocation of assets than that prescribed under sharia, it would be legal. The key was that she had to make a will. She did this, and my late brother, a great liberal and champion of equality, did not demur, even though he was the great loser under that settlement.
The problem here is that if you do not have the strength to challenge the system, which is your family and community, you are unable to seek legal protection. The presumption within the community that the man has greater rights is so entrenched that it is very difficult to assert otherwise. That is why the mere existence of the law on the statute books would make a profound difference to the lives of many women in this country. We should support the Bill on that basis.
My Lords, this is the third time in five years that I have spoken in support of my noble friend Lady Cox’s much-needed Bill. It now seems that our system of balloting for precedence in Private Members’ Bills needs revision. This one is so important that it is regrettable that it has come so far down the list. Indeed, obviously that is my opinion of my own Bill, which will be debated today.
I congratulate my noble friend on her persistence and on her renowned dedication to human rights, in particular women’s rights. The issues she has presented, both in this House and in the various evidence sessions she has organised, are so serious that it has led many to question whether the Home Office review into the application of sharia law in England and Wales is sufficiently robust. The inquiry is limited to the application of sharia law as opposed to its place—if any—within the rule of law. The panel does not include human rights experts or non-Muslim experts on Islam, and potentially its deliberations and subsequent consultations might be used to delay reform, the need for which has been so cogently established over the years.
The Bill raises two immensely significant issues with which we grapple in many areas of everyday life. One is the relationship between democracy and religious beliefs, and the second is the extent and meaning of the rule of law. In relation to the clashes, when they occur, between democratically enacted law and religious beliefs, in nearly every case this country’s judges and legislature have sided with the law. Religious beliefs do not excuse murder, or discrimination against women or gay people. Yet occasionally there is a weakening in our system; for example, when people use the phrase “it’s their culture” in order to turn a blind eye to unacceptable practices. We must not go down that route, and it is more vital than ever today to stick to our guns, as Europe sees the mass movement of people of different religions and practices, with the consequent need for integration and for majorities and minorities to live together in peace and respect. If bakers are not allowed to refuse to bake a gay cake, how much more serious an issue and how clear the answer if a religious minority is in breach of our law in an important part of its entire way of life.
In 2015, we all celebrated the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta. I am well aware that Magna Carta was the product of a sexist, classist and unfree society, as we see it now in retrospect. Only seven decades later, the country turfed out the entire Jewish population for centuries. The symbolism of Magna Carta now as an ideal of the rule of law took centuries to unfold. But in 2015 we celebrated it as the basis of us all being subject to the same system of law, having equal rights to the law and to be treated equally by it. If, as my noble friend says, sharia courts are misrepresenting themselves as courts with legal authority, and if women are being forced to accept the rulings of non-legal courts, that is unacceptable. If there are claims that sharia law takes priority over secular law, or there is a call for the introduction of sharia law in some areas or over some practices, that is not to be tolerated by the rule of law—and exactly the same is true of any other minority religion. The Bill makes that clear by settling the limits of arbitration and stopping discrimination in private courts.
I am especially concerned about the fate of women under attempts to force them into sharia jurisdiction. In our law, the welfare of children is paramount, and their welfare may be seriously jeopardised if Muslim mothers are forced to accept unwise conditions about their upbringing as the price of a religious divorce. English law recognises rape within marriage as a crime, likewise domestic abuse, and those crimes must not be swept under a carpet of a parallel legal system. In English law, marriage, property and the family are not zones into which the law may not intrude—the very opposite, in fact. In the Bill it is made clear that the fundamental principles of equality and respect for the rule of law apply to all, and that religious courts of whatever persuasion have to be subservient to the family, criminal and property law of this country. Access to our courts must be open to all, and communities and marriages should not be conducted outside the law of the land. The Select Committee which is currently considering the Licensing Act 2003 might see fit to bring mosques into that ambit so that they are not licensed unless also licensed to carry out weddings that are recognised in English law. Leaving women bereft of rights under a parallel legal system is not acceptable. This House and the other place must face up to this, and I hope to hear from the Government that they will progress the Bill.
My Lords, I thank and greatly admire the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, for her insistence and persistence in fighting for the rights of women under the law. It is interesting that no matter how many times the noble Baroness brings back the issue of mediation and arbitration to your Lordships’ House, so many of your Lordships not only attend but speak, and with increasing eloquence and determination. I shall be very brief today, because so many of the problems have been aired and so many points have been validly made.
The noble Baroness has consistently talked to women —mainly Muslim women—about their severe problems and their oppression under religiously sanctioned gender discrimination in this country. She has written many articles and reports on this subject, talked to many organisations, and has asked Governments to change the law in similar Bills, in 2012-13, 2015-16, and again now. As we know, the Government in 2016 established an independent review into the application of sharia law, which will report in 2017. I hope that it will take account of the important point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, that many Muslim women,
“are unaware of their legal rights”.
If they are unaware, how can they act?
The noble Baroness’s brilliant 2015 report for the Bow Group, A Parallel World, says it all. She gives numerous examples of discrimination from women and from organisations to illustrate her powerful case. She says in the preface to the report:
“I have sat and wept with those who are oppressed, abused and treated as second class citizens. One Muslim woman told me: ‘I feel betrayed by Britain. I came here to get away from this and the situation is worse here than in the country I escaped from’. This cannot be allowed to continue. Provisions must be introduced to ensure that the operation of Sharia law principles in the UK today is not undermining the rights of women and the rule of law”.
As the noble Baroness has consistently pointed out, she fights incredibly hard for women. Again, she points out:
“The Bill does not interfere in the internal theological affairs of religious groups. In a free society, and in accordance with the hard-fought tradition of freedom of religion and belief, individuals must be able to organise their affairs according to their own principles, whether religious or otherwise. However, attempting to operate a parallel legal jurisdiction and to allow the de facto creation of new legal structures and standards is unacceptable”,
in this country. She is asking for a positive response from the Government. I sincerely hope that she gets it. We shall be watching every move.
My Lords, I am proud to call the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, my very dear friend. She is a bully, you know, and what is so good is that she does her bullying in such a way that you do not mind it—you are pleased to help her. I also congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, on her speech. The speeches related well to each other and set the scene for us.
I am concerned about a number of things. First, I lay the blame squarely at the door of the Government. There is no way that a Government should be allowing a parallel system to affect their citizens. We have first to decide whether the Muslims and the Muslim women are citizens of this country. If they are, they all deserve, and ought to be given, equal treatment. There should not be another system of so-called law which is a religious law—not a law of the land—and which interferes with and decides how people, particularly women and children, are treated.
Through my noble friend Lady Cox I have met women and heard stories about events which you cannot believe are happening in our country. I have come from elsewhere to live in this country and I respect this country. It has never interfered with my belief—I am not a Christian—and the important thing is that I respect its laws and culture.
I want to say something important about the word “culture”. A lot of the people who deal with minority women are told, “This is our culture”, but what does that mean? If they are beaten and chastised, that is their culture. If they are not given any money, that is their culture. If they are not given a divorce, that is their culture. But what is culture? I always imagined that it was something that developed for the good of society—not something that is no better than a social practice. You can have social practices which are appalling or social practices which are wonderful, but you cannot have an appalling culture. Hiding behind something called “culture” is one of the worst things to have come about, particularly when it is cited by social workers and other people who deal with these issues.
According to scholars, sharia law is discriminatory against women in every respect. No matter what we do, it will never provide equality. Therefore, it is our Government’s job to make sure that women are not discriminated against under sharia practice. Pakistan has only just passed a law saying that honour killing is now viewed as murder. It has taken a long time but it came about because a woman burned her daughter. India is now trying to stop multiple marriages, saying that everybody is entitled to marry only one person. Strictly speaking, we do not allow multiple marriages here, but when the Home Affairs Committee tried to tackle that, it discovered that it would cost the Government a huge amount of money to take care of all the so-called non-wives, because under that system there is always a wife, a nanny, a cousin or somebody else to look after the children.
As your Lordships know, when a Muslim man divorces his wife, with great ease, he puts her out on the street. When people ask why he is doing that, he says, “Why does it matter? The Government will look after her. She won’t starve or sleep on the street. I don’t have to worry about that”. As somebody has already stated, fathers are entitled to take children who have reached the age of seven. You can get a British divorce if you have a British marriage, but if you go to Pakistan or any other Islamic country the husband can take the children away because the woman is not divorced in the eyes of Islamic law. I learned this graphically from a woman who had had a British divorce and tried for six years to get a sharia divorce. This is an absolute scandal.
When the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, was a Minister, I discussed with him the possibility of at least registering the marriages of all the people who come to live in this country. Their marriages, at least, should be registered and, once they are, questions of bigamy and rights come up. Without that, the women have nothing. Let us get on with it and change things.
My Lords, I do not want my noble friend to be bowed down with the compliments she receives in this debate but I would like to put them in context. She has been congratulated many times on her persistence in going to the aid of this particular oppressed minority in our community, and it should be seen in the light of the last decade or two having been spent doing exactly that and in much more perilous and exacting circumstances right round the world. Let that not be overlooked.
The case made by my noble friend is very simple: it is that a large number of people in this country are being misled as to the powers of bodies which adjudicate on how their lives are to be lived in a very fundamental, important and intimate way. Some of them are under a misconception when they arrive in the process; others are given the misconception by the people managing the process. Where an official of any of these bodies is represented as having the power and authority of the English common or statute law, they deliberately mislead and make a false statement, which has damaging consequences—sometimes almost lethally damaging consequences—on the people appearing before them.
My noble friend’s Bill is directed at remedying that by criminalising a false statement with that effect, and the House is definitely very much behind her on that. Personally, I would go further. I think that giving that impression to, or gratuitously leaving it in the mind of, a person using the services of that body by what the lawyers call either suppressio veri or suggestio falsi—in other words, knowingly allowing them to be misled as to the force of what is decided—should itself be a punishable offence.
I want to touch on just one other aspect in this prolific debate, in which so much has been covered, and it is rather a large point made earlier by my noble friend. The Government will be making up their mind on the scale of this phenomenon—there are those who say that it is very small—and will take advice from a body that they appointed to give them that advice. I ask the Government, through my noble and learned friend on the Front Bench—to be sure to assess that advice with very great care in the light of the positions and experience of the people giving it. That is not to question the probity of their advisers; it is simply to recognise that a person’s view is determined to a large extent by the viewpoint from which they take it, and their perceptions are to some extent qualified by their preconceptions. It is very important that none of the evidence should be lost from sight.
I am sorry: I said that I had only one point to make but I have one other. An article in a periodical about law and religion in the UK has suggested that my noble friend is attacking this problem from the wrong end. Rightly, she targets the people who are misleading the clients—if that is the right word—of these courts. The article suggested, with apparent authority, that this was quite wrong and that really the problem was the consent given by the victims. That is a fairly extraordinary assertion from our point of view. It may not be so from the point of view of others who are part of the culture, to which my noble friend Lady Flather referred; but in fact the victims are not fluent in the English language. If the victims were fluent in the English language and familiar with the customs and practices of British society, there might be half a case in that statement, but they are not. Typically, they do not have one word of the English language and therefore are completely unaware of their rights. This Bill will restore to those people rights which have been theirs since they set foot in this country, and I hope that it is accepted by the Government.
My Lords, I am most pleased to support this Bill, which, as has already been said many times around the House, is another example of the indefatigable force that is my noble friend Lady Cox. As we have heard, she is interested not only in this, but in so many things worldwide.
I have been increasingly concerned, as I am sure many of your Lordships have, to learn of the abuses to which some Muslim women—I emphasise “some”—are being subjected while living in our country and, as such, subject to the supremacy of our law. As the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, mentioned, I was with him this week at a meeting at which we were presented to three ladies who gave us oral statements of what had happened to them. They described the most appalling abuse—“appalling” is a rather mild word. One striking criticism that was left with me, which was inferred from what we heard, was the failure of our police in certain cases to deal properly with such incidents as reported by Muslim women. We can speculate as to why some police may have taken the decision, if indeed they did, not to deal with this properly, but I am sure that this should be investigated and addressed. We can all understand what the possible reasons for it may be, but we must take seriously this apparent disinclination of certain police or police forces to provide appropriate support when abuse is reported.
In most cases, the strength of the abused is enormous, even to make such a complaint. We have to understand that these people live in a different world from ours. To have the courage to come forward and even suggest that they have a complaint to make, and then for it not to be taken seriously, is very depressing. In the interests of time, I shall move on, but so many noble Lords have referred to certain things in this area that I clearly endorse. I want to focus on the fact that we must strengthen the duties of police and social services to ensure that women are made aware of their legal rights under our law. As has been said, so many of them do not even speak our language. It is therefore not an easy task, but it must be addressed. I urge the Government to support the Bill.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to support the noble Baroness in this very important Bill. I too pay tribute to her persistence in keeping these gross injustices perpetrated against women to the fore. She is the undoubted expert in this area and I urge the Government to implement this Bill as soon as possible. In my opinion, the measures needed to prevent women being treated as chattel go well beyond this modest Bill, but I accept her judgment that the changes she proposes are so reasonable that no fair-minded person, or man or Government, should sensibly oppose them.
I take the view that in commercial transactions, businesses, companies and individuals who are equal can agree any arbitration system that they wish. We know that our English commercial courts are regarded as the finest in the world and are usually the place designated in contracts for dispute resolution. Other contracts may stipulate arbitrators from professional institutes. The key point is that where parties are equals, they can select any system for civil dispute resolution that they like, so long as it is not in breach of a country’s civil or criminal law. I do not pretend for one second to understand the theory of how sharia law should work. But I have read the case studies circulated by the noble Baroness and I am appalled at what is happening in our country today. It is clear that Muslim women are not being treated as equals. I have not heard one word to say that the case studies circulated by the noble Baroness are false or exaggerated, and we can assume that these are not just 30 isolated instances but rather the norm, when male religious leaders ignore national law and decide cases according to their interpretation of religious law.
Here I think we have to judge matters not on what a highly educated, fair imam implementing proper principles from the Koran should in theory do, but on what happens in reality in dozens of sharia courts where less-well-educated and biased judges are imposing their bigoted judgments on women who have no ability to fight back. Where is the justice in all those cases where a woman complains about being repeatedly beaten and the sharia court takes the man’s word for it but asks the woman to produce two witnesses? Where is the justice when a judge laughs at a woman and says, “If he beats you, why did you marry him in the first place?”, or tells a woman that he does not want to hear her side of the story, only the man’s? Where is the justice in that wicked pronouncement that, “the husband was entitled to beat her because she was disobedient”?
The problem we have in this country, and possibly in our parliamentary bubble, is that we respect religious systems of marriage and divorce. Of course people should have the right to go through a form of religious divorce, if they want to. However, we may have made the mistake of assuming that all religious divorces treat women as fairly as they are treated in a UK civil divorce, and that is simply not the case. Any UK divorce judge who behaved in the way or said the things that some sharia judges have would be removed within 24 hours, never allowed into a courtroom again and possibly prosecuted for hate speech—and rightly so. We must remove the blinkers from our eyes that sharia divorces are equal to UK civil divorces. They are not, and women are being ruthlessly discriminated against.
This Bill is modest and seeks to tackle some of the injustices. However, I hope that the Government review of sharia law will go much further. I hope we will see a recommendation that no sharia religious divorces will be valid unless, in every case, a civil court also pronounces on it. That is not part of this Bill, but it is a very serious problem that will have to be addressed sooner rather than later.
Time does not permit me, so I have deleted from my speech all the paragraphs on police failure to act on the actions of Muslim women. Largely, that is because the police do not like to get involved in domestic disputes. Unfortunately, because of that, Muslim women are suffering a great injustice.
I conclude, if I may, by making a practical suggestion to your Lordships. I suspect that after the next Loyal Address, the House of Commons will have one major Bill with which to deal—the so-called great repeal Bill. This House may have very little to do and we may have time on our hands. I suggest to all parties and all groups that we gang up and present the Leader with a suggestion: that this Bill, or one very like it, should be government legislation, starting in this House after the next Loyal Address, when your Lordships will have ample time to get it perfectly correct. I believe that my noble friend’s Bill is absolutely meritorious in its own right and deserves to succeed. The Government should implement it as soon as possible or, if not, take it over as government legislation. Let us get it through this House.
My Lords, I too would like to compliment my noble friend Lady Cox on her hard work in bringing this important measure before us today, and on her tireless efforts to help vulnerable people across the globe.
Whenever anyone mentions religion in Questions in your Lordships’ House, there is a noticeable air of embarrassment—“Why are we discussing religion? Religion is a wholly private matter”. As a Sikh, I totally disagree. In the Sikh view, the whole aim of religion is to make us better human beings, with a responsibility to help the less fortunate and work for greater fairness and justice for all.
Unfortunately, looking at the way that religions operate and their seemingly meaningless rituals does not always inspire us with confidence. A very real problem is that religious teachings are easy to state—I could put key Sikh teachings on one side of A4—but far more difficult to live by, and instead an undue emphasis is placed on rituals and culture that have nothing to do with the ethical imperatives of religion. To make things worse, leaders of religions have often misused their positions of authority to pursue political power, sometimes by violent means, living in luxurious palaces while countenancing poverty and suffering among those they controlled.
As a result, religion found itself, particularly in the west, banished to the margins of society to quietly contemplate the hereafter, rather than working for the betterment of society. Meanwhile, secular leaders have taken over the business of running society, without interference from religion. But our do-it-yourself society often forgets to place due emphasis on rights, wrongs and responsibility in its decision-making. Let me elaborate on the dangers of this do-it-yourself approach. Whenever I am asked to help with a self-assembly, I throw the instructions to one side, start putting all the pieces together and stand back to admire my handiwork only to find it skewed and ready to fall apart.
I invite noble Lords to stand back and look at society today. We have a record prison population with many repeat offenders—more than 100, some with acute mental problems, took their own lives last year—more people getting divorced, often resulting in family breakdown, with a record number of children being taken into what we euphemistically call “care”. I could go on. An ever-growing proportion of our national budget is now spent on sticking-plaster solutions that ignore the underlying causes of not paying due attention to ethical imperatives for a healthy society.
Logic suggests that we should look again at the guidance for responsible living contained in our different faiths. But unfortunately, guidance in religious books is not always clear and is at times confusing. Ethical teachings are often entwined with questionable or oppressive cultural practices that are at variance with what we today see as fundamental human rights. To be effective, and make the contribution to society that the founders of our religions intended, religions must open themselves to scrutiny and questioning. In speaking in gurdwaras and to Sikh and inter-faith groups, I always urge the questioning of religious teachings, particularly if they seem to be at variance with common sense and human rights. We need to do this to make religion relevant to the world of today.
The mixing of religion with sometimes oppressive culture—the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, referred to this—is a particular problem. The Labour Minister and founder of the health service, Aneurin Bevan, said that whenever he heard the word “culture” he immediately thought of bacteria. Today we know that there are good and bad bacteria. Similarly, there is also good and bad culture—good culture that enhances respect for elders and responsibility towards others. However, there is also oppressive culture that denigrates those of other beliefs, women, or those who simply appear different. The prevailing culture at the time of Guru Nanak, some 500 years ago, in both the West and the East, saw women as lesser beings. It had, bacteria-like, infected and distorted the ethical teachings found in different faiths. Sadly, negative attitudes to women are still all too evident in much of the world today.
The power and hold of negative culture is easy to understand when we look at the Sikh community. Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion, was appalled by the way that women were treated in the India of his day. He taught the dignity and complete equality of women. The same teaching was also emphasised by nine succeeding Gurus and is incorporated in our holy scriptures, the Guru Granth Sahib. Women can and often do lead Sikh services, and girls are encouraged to enter the professions. The Sikh chaplain to the British armed services is a woman. Yet, despite such clear teachings, some men in the community are still clearly influenced by the more negative culture of the sub-continent.
Negative attitudes to women, all too evident in Islam, have become embedded in religious texts which, as we have heard, give less weightage to the word of a woman, and lesser inheritance rights. There are also particular problems with attitudes to divorce. These negative attitudes prevent Islam from playing its full part in social improvement. I have many Muslim friends and most are happily married and a credit to society. But sharia law and divorce are heavily weighted in favour of men and are at variance with the law of this country. We cannot have a parallel judicial system, particularly one that discriminates against women. We have today heard many examples of the weightage against women in the proceedings of sharia courts and the resulting suffering. We have heard the concerns of our Prime Minister, Theresa May, when as Home Secretary she referred to wives being left in penury and a supposed right of husbands to chastise their wives.
I conclude by complimenting the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, who does so much to help women across the world, often in dangerous and perilous circumstances. The proposals in her Bill will not only enhance and help safeguard the position of women in the Islamic community but, importantly, also leave Islam stronger and better able to play its full part in the world of today. It is time for all our religions also to do a little spring cleaning to bring true religious teachings to the fore in helping give ethical direction to society. As a Sikh I strongly support the Bill and hope it goes on to become law.
My Lords, I thank noble Lords for permitting me to speak in the gap. Unfortunately, my name was put down for the debate in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, that follows and not this one, for which I must accept responsibility.
Much has been said in this debate about sharia law, but I suggest that in the United Kingdom, particularly England, it is out of control. For one thing, no one from within the Muslim community whom I have spoken to at any level knows how many of these councils exist. May I express a personal view? At the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, there were generations who had grown up knowing nothing but totalitarianism—first the Nazis, followed seamlessly by communists—and many individuals so affected found it initially difficult to adjust to life with western values. Most Islamic immigrants to the United Kingdom come from Pakistan, from a country where power is, I need hardly say, male power, which at every level is all-important. It is understandable that immigrants from that country will seek to exercise power over their communities in this country through the creation of and participation in sharia courts, with frequently little knowledge and experience of the customs and particularly law of this country.
Certainly the interpretation of Muslim law and practice varies widely between councils. Many of the sharia courts represent themselves as courts with legal authority and Muslim women are being coerced into agreeing to go before a so-called sharia court rather than a UK court. That is why Clause 1(4) of the Bill is particularly important in placing a duty on public bodies to ensure that women in polygamous households and, significantly, those who have had a religious but not an English civil marriage, are made aware of their legal position and relevant legal rights under English law.
Two days ago the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, convened a meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on “Honour” Based Abuse at which three exceptionally courageous Muslim women gave evidence of the abuse, both mental and physical, to which they had been subjected in the course of their marriages and then break-ups. A number of interesting points emerged from the meeting. The first is that sharia courts appear to have comparatively few British-born members, and I am aware that here I am in conflict with the information received by the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner of Margravine, but this can be seen as an encouragement to building up a stable and responsible Muslim population. However, as long as immigration from predominantly Muslim countries continues at a significant level, the danger of sharia councils being filled by members, many of whom have recently arrived in this country and whose activities are in conflict with the law of the land in the United Kingdom, will remain.
The second point that emerged at the meeting was the level of funding of sharia courts that comes from the UK Government. Can the Minister give the House an idea of the nature and extent of this funding and the source within government from which it comes? The third and somewhat disturbing point which came up is the lack of police co-operation experienced by more than one of the witnesses, an issue referred to in the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Cox. This may be due to sensitivities to possible racist prejudices or simply a lack of awareness of the extent of the reach of sharia courts. In any case and whatever the cause, the effect of this Bill, if and when as I hope it becomes law, will be significantly reduced if female Muslim victims are unable to count on the support of the police. I hope that the Minister will speak to his colleagues in the Home Office in an effort to ensure that at the national level, the police are made aware of their responsibilities in these inter-Islamic disputes.
Perhaps I may say finally that many tributes have been paid to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, but I want particularly to emphasise the example she has set and the leadership she has shown in inducing these women, often under great community danger, to come forward and talk to us.
My Lords, along with other noble Lords I offer my congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, on securing a Second Reading for her Bill today. The noble Baroness is a highly respected Member of your Lordships’ House with an enviable record as a campaigner, a fighter for justice, someone who does not shy away from tackling the big issues and, as the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, has said, someone who will not be put off by a brush-off from the Front Bench.
The Bill seeks to make provision regarding the application of our equality legislation to arbitration and mediation services. The effect would be to prevent providers of such services doing anything that would constitute discrimination, victimisation or harassment on the grounds of sex. I agree very much with my noble friend Lady Donaghy when she made the point that women have had to fight for equality, so that where women are relying on custom and practice, we have a long way to go. Sometimes the law needs to step in and take action to ensure that matters do not start going backwards.
As we have heard, the Bill seeks to achieve these aims by inserting a new subsection into the Equalities Act 2010 and the Arbitration Act 1996. The 1996 Act allows parties to have their civil disputes arbitrated outside the civil court system, although the court can set aside the decision if the arbitration does not comply with accepted standards of fairness and procedure as set out in the Act itself. With her vast experience as a former chair of ACAS, my noble friend Lady Donaghy talked about the importance of arbitration and the need for both parties to be able to agree freely. I concur with the comment of the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, about the value of arbitration and its particular value when it is undertaken by a faith group, as well as his words about the rights of citizens to take action where such bodies act contrary to the law of the United Kingdom.
The Bill also seeks to provide important clarification that discrimination includes treating evidence given by men as being of greater value than that given by women. It would also give powers to the court to set aside any order based on a mediation settlement agreement or other negotiated agreement if it believes that, on the evidence before it, one party’s consent was not genuine. There are further provisions in the Bill that place obligations on public bodies to inform individuals who have been married under certain religious practices or those living in polygamous households that they may be without legal protection.
We live in a great country. For all our problems, and they may be few or they may be many, whatever your viewpoint is on particular issues, justice, tolerance, respect for the rule of law and equality are all things that this country both stands for and stands up for. We have the right to campaign, to demonstrate, to have our say and to be treated equally by our fellow citizens, as well as having a fair chance at taking the opportunity to share in and be protected by the law equally, no matter who we are. That is all about being a citizen of the United Kingdom and living in this country.
The Bill does not state that it applies to any one faith or religion. As the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, has made clear to noble Lords, it applies to all faith groups equally. It may be that at certain times the protection of our freedoms that this Bill seeks may be used by a particular faith group more than others. I am very clear that discrimination against women and girls is wrong. Where Muslim women and girls are being discriminated against and denied their rights, that is wrong. It must be challenged, it must be opposed, and Parliament and the Government have a duty to challenge such behaviour and to take action to ensure that such discrimination is ended.
The first way that discrimination is challenged is often when brave people speak out against injustice, which we have seen throughout our own history and across the world. Usually such people are condemned as mad. They are generally abused and may suffer even further discrimination. Then a wider group of people will come around to their view so that they are not as denounced as they had been previously. Finally, often those who doubted in the first place then come forward with their own views so that something becomes the norm and the law is changed. We can see the contrast from where we were during the campaigns for women’s suffrage and where we used to be in respect of gay relationships between consenting adults before the publication of the Wolfenden report, and where we are today, with equal marriage, the acceptance of gay relationships and equality of gay people in respect of their rights and responsibilities. Attitudes have changed, and they should also change in this area.
When we hear shortly from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen of Elie, I suspect we may be told that the Government are aware of the concerns expressed and that they will continue to consider and review the issue. However, the protections needed are already in place. I hope that I am wrong and that the noble and learned Lord will go further in his remarks today. We will also hear, I am sure, about the independent review of sharia law which was established in May 2016, and that the Government want to receive the report on the review to consider its findings in the light of the evidence and to see whether anything further needs to be done to ensure that everyone, including Muslim women and girls, is provided with the protections they need to ensure that their rights are protected and that they are able to access justice. I hope that the noble and learned Lord will be able to give as full as possible a response to the points which have been raised, in particular by the noble Baroness, Lady Cox.
My noble friend Lord Anderson of Swansea has again spoken in support of moving forward, as indeed he did on the previous attempt to make progress in this area. He said that he fully supports the Bill and the principles behind it. Like me, he supports the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, in her attempts to champion the rights of women and girls and to address the specific problems suffered by some who are unaware of their legal rights.
In conclusion, I thank the noble Baroness for bringing this Bill before your Lordships’ House. Having its Second Reading so late in the parliamentary Session means that I am not sure how much further progress it is going to make without the Government’s help and support. This is a problem which needs to be addressed more widely, as the reality is that the vast majority of Private Members’ Bills put forward by noble Lords do not even get a Second Reading, although a great many of them seek to do good work and would make a difference to our lives in this country. We need to review the procedure. In the meantime, however, I look forward to the response of the noble and learned Lord.
My Lords, I join all sides of the House in putting on the record my admiration not only for the determination of the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, but for the courage of the women to whom she has listened. Without their courage and that of others, we would not be debating this sensitive problem today. I understand the desire of the noble Baroness and her tireless fight to bring this matter out of the shadows and into the light of day. The Government are absolutely clear: we share the concerns raised by noble Lords in the debate that people can suffer because of decisions made by sharia councils in particular, or because the families and communities of coerced persons prevent them from understanding that they are as equal before the law as any Member of this House. These are concerns that the Government take very seriously. We know that any effective proposals to address the problem must come from thoroughly understanding its complexities and source. That is why the Prime Minister, in her previous role as Home Secretary, launched the full, independent sharia review last year, chaired by Professor Mona Siddiqui. That is also why the Government, on the broader problem of opportunity and integration, of which disadvantage to Muslim women is part, commissioned the independent review by Dame Louise Casey, who reported last month. Your Lordships will see that the Government are committed to shining a light on this problem.
Your Lordships will know, too, that women’s experiences of sharia councils and the issue of unregistered marriage are central to the sharia review. The Casey report has framed concerns about these in the broader narrative about how people with different backgrounds can be part of a cohesive society—a point touched on by many noble Lords in the debate. The report found that British Muslims overwhelmingly had a strong sense of belonging to Britain. We should not lose sight of that larger picture.
The Government are absolutely clear too that the authority of the courts in England and Wales is intact. There is and will be no parallel legal system. People are free to live their own lives according to their religious principles and the Government will not prevent them doing so. What there is in sharia and other religious councils is a means for people to seek decisions that will carry weight with their communities. This entire process should be voluntary and free from any form of force, but we have heard today of instances in which it is not. What for some is religious freedom is for others a source of injustice. That is the key to the problem before us. By its nature, of course, this is a problem that is not amenable to any easy solution.
Your Lordships have raised many of the issues that were put to Dame Louise relating to sharia councils and the reasons why some women may have recourse to them. We should always acknowledge that there are Muslim women for whom a religious pronouncement of divorce is important and who freely and knowledgeably choose to go to a sharia council, as followers of other religions may do with their own councils. It is important to acknowledge this: as I have said, the Government have no wish to curb religious freedom. None the less, it is of serious concern to us where women may have recourse to sharia councils because of coercion or lack of awareness of their rights. We appreciate that behind much of this are also the problems of lack of integration, of understanding, of language skills and sometimes of education. The source of that is very much lack of opportunity. The Casey report frames these issues in the contexts of integration, but also, crucially, of opportunity and understanding. That is a context we should never lose sight of.
I assure the House that the Government are taking the findings of the report extremely seriously. Like my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government in another place, however, I do not wish to say anything that might prejudge our response to the Casey report in spring this year or, for that matter, to the findings of the independent sharia review.
With that in mind, I turn to the measures in the Bill. As noble Lords are aware, sharia councils are not part of the court system in this country. I noted references to sharia courts on occasion in the debate. We do not recognise the existence of sharia courts. We understand the danger that some sharia councils may purport to perform as courts or hold themselves out as courts, but they have no legal means of enforcing their decisions. Furthermore, the evidence at this stage is that very few sharia councils will carry out arbitration, and then in only very limited circumstances. We appreciate, none the less, that there have been concerns about arbitration by sharia councils in some instances, or about their straying into matters that only a court can adjudicate on. I assure the House that the Government are taking those concerns on board and view them very seriously.
The Government do not consider it necessary to amend the Equality Act 2010, as Part 1 of the Bill proposes, so that it applies to arbitral tribunals. Section 33 of the Arbitration Act 1996 already imposes a duty on arbitral tribunals to act fairly and impartially, and awards can be challenged in the court if this duty is breached or there is any other serious irregularity. Section 142 of the Equality Act 2010 already makes contracts unenforceable if they treat someone in a discriminatory way. That would apply to contracts as a result of mediations that were discriminatory, including any that might be facilitated by religious councils.
The Government still consider that amending the public sector equality duty is neither the best way to address this issue nor an appropriate use of the duty. I am the Government. The duty is broad—deliberately so—and the Government remain concerned that this breadth of application could be undermined if specific requirements were to be separately identified within it.
Part 2 proposes amendments to the Arbitration Act 1996. The existing law already imposes on tribunals a mandatory duty to act fairly and impartially. Where the family court in England and Wales has discretionary powers to make orders, such as in relation to making arrangements for children following the breakdown of a parental relationship, it is not possible to enter into an agreement to be bound by the outcome of an arbitration process, as a court could always override that outcome.
Part 3 proposes amendments to the Family Law Act 1996. It is, however, already the case that contracts cannot be enforced if they are made under duress. In family law cases, a judge will not make an order based on a negotiated agreement unless satisfied that there was genuine consent. Because the family court already has the power to set aside such orders, the Government’s view remains that the amendments proposed are unnecessary in this context.
The Government do not lightly create new offences. Before we might have cause to consider the new criminal offence of falsely claiming legal jurisdiction proposed in Part 4, we would need to consult and to hear compelling evidence that it was genuinely necessary. We would also wish to await the findings of the independent sharia review.
I appreciate that the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, may be disheartened that she has not persuaded the Government that her Bill would be necessary or effective. Our reservations about it remain.
The noble and learned Lord said that a new criminal offence is unnecessary. Does he not agree that the criminal offence of holding oneself out as a medical practitioner has been extraordinarily effective? Does he not think that there is an extremely strong case not for doing nothing but for providing a similar sort of offence for those who hold themselves out to be a court or tribunal?
There are, of course, provisions already in respect of that. We do not propose to do nothing, as I seek and have sought to explain.
As I said, our reservations about the Bill remain. It would be unfortunate for the Government to rush into any legislative change that did not, in the end, turn around the experience of the women whom the noble Baroness seeks to champion.
A few moments ago my noble and learned friend gave us a variation on “l’etat c’est moi”. Having listened to the debate, which I trust he has, and having heard persuasive speeches from all parts of the House, will he at least, in his capacity as the Government, which he has proclaimed to us all, agree to meet all of us who have spoken in the debate and have further discussions?
I am perfectly prepared, as I represent the Government at the Dispatch Box, to take forward further discussions on this matter. Those discussions could most constructively be held once we have the sharia review available and once we have our response to the Casey report in the spring. The noble Lord might want to contemplate further discussion in that context. We are not seeking to delay; we are seeking to get this right.
We have not left the matter there, either. I do not wish to detract from the immediate focus of today’s debate, but there are other areas in which we are taking matters forward. Many noble Lords have spoken on the issues of understanding, of education and of the appreciation of rights which underpin many of the difficulties that Muslim women face in the context of sharia councils. We are now spending substantial amounts each year on assisting people to integrate into our society, particularly by arranging for the teaching of English. That is but one step, I appreciate—but it is a step in the right direction.
Turning again to the issue of unregistered religious marriage that underlies much of the recourse that women have to sharia councils, I note that there is no consensus on the issue—or, indeed, on sharia councils themselves—even among Muslim women’s groups. Several divergent suggestions have been put forward on the matter of marriage. One, for example, suggests regarding Islamic marriages as void, so that parties can seek financial remedies. Another suggests requiring religious ceremonies to be preceded by a civil ceremony, as in some other jurisdictions. The Casey report emphasised the importance of registration of marriage. All these issues will have to be considered.
The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, moved an amendment a few months ago in Committee on the Policing and Crime Bill. It required celebrants of religious marriages to comply with marriage law and to register the marriage, as well as introducing a criminal offence of failing to meet the requirements. However, as my noble friend Lady Chisholm said in the debate, it is unclear how many unregistered marriages would continue. Marriage is not a straightforward area of law, as these divergent suggestions show, and particular difficulties arise when women are unaware that their marriage has no legal effect.
My noble friend indicated that the Government will consider unregistered religious marriages in light of the sharia review which is expected to report this year. That remains the case. It is clear from Dame Louise Casey’s report that integration, education and understanding are significant in how we address the issues we have been debating today—many noble Lords acknowledged that. We await the Government’s response to the report so that we can take this matter forward.
I turn to particular points made by noble Lords in the debate. The noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, referred to the continuing fight for women’s equality. I do not intend to engage in a fight with the noble and doughty Baroness, but I see women’s equality—indeed, all aspects of equality—as more than just a goal: it is a journey. As any wise traveller knows, when you are on a journey you constantly and regularly check your progress, your destination and the obstacles in your way. The spikier parts of inequality have been addressed, but the issue has not been resolved, and it will be a continuing journey.
On the question of the independent review, I indicated that that will report this year. As for the Law Commission, we are considering its report in conjunction with that of Dame Louise Casey. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, among many noble Lords, referred to the subtle pressures that are brought to bear on women in the present context and the need to identify the reality of consent. Again, that goes back to the theme of education and understanding, rather than sharp-end legislation. The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey of Clifton, talked about the need for sharia courts to comply with civil law. I do not even recognise the concept of a sharia court, but I take him to refer to sharia councils—and, yes, they are bound by the rule of law, and the law is there to correct abuse.
The noble Lord, Lord Anderson, assured us that he agreed with himself—I am sure we all take comfort from that. He talked about the judiciary making women aware of what their rights are. Yes, that is important, but it should be more than just the judiciary: we should all be making an effort, whether it be central government, local government, social services or police forces, to make women aware of their true rights and what their families’ true obligations amount to.
The noble Lord, Lord Carlile of Berriew, whom I was pleased to hear from behind me—if perhaps a little too far to the right—also talked about the need to intervene in circumstances where there is an abuse of alternative dispute resolution. Such alternative dispute resolution, as many noble Lords said, is to be welcomed, but it must operate within the law, and we must make that clear.
A question was raised about the extent, if any, of central government funding to sharia courts. Again, I say that I do not recognise the existence of sharia courts. I am not aware of UK government funding to sharia councils. It is possible that there is funding for particular projects carried out by such councils. Although I do not have such details to hand, I undertake to write to my noble friend Lord Bridgeman to confirm such details as we have of any alleged UK funding for sharia councils.
Finally, the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, spoke of all those rights that we enjoy, or that we are at least entitled to enjoy, within the United Kingdom. But those rights also include the right to religious freedom. That is why it is so important to ensure that we do not upset a delicate balance between rights and obligations. That is why the Government will look at this matter with great care in light of the sharia review, the Casey report and the recommendations of the Law Commission.
I think my noble and learned friend has acknowledged that the cases quoted by all noble Lords who have spoken are real and genuine—there is grave injustice there—but he has shot down every suggestion in the noble Baroness’s Bill to deal with them—and he has just said that the Government will look “with great care” following the sharia review. I hope your Lordships will forgive me for being cynical, but that sounds like kicking this into the long grass again. Looking at it “with great care” sounds like rather slow motion. If the sharia review suggests there is a problem, can we have a guarantee that there will be government legislation sooner rather than later?
The noble Lord will appreciate that, even at the Dispatch Box, I cannot give guarantees of government legislation.
But you are the Government.
That is beyond my pay grade. However, I challenge the suggestion that I have sought to shoot down the various proposals made by the noble Baroness, Lady Cox. I acknowledge the importance of the issue that she has brought before this House. I acknowledge the importance of us being able to address these issues openly and effectively. I acknowledge the importance of considering whether all persons within the United Kingdom—and they are not required to be British citizens for this purpose—have the protections of the rule of law in the face of coercion or threat, even if it is supposedly religious-based. Therefore, I do not accept that I have sought to shoot down the proposals put forward by the noble Baroness, Lady Cox.
There are aspects of the Bill which we would say are legislatively unnecessary because of existing legislation. There are aspects of the Bill which we would consider need to be thought through with greater care. There are issues here that should be considered in light of the sharia review, which is coming out this year, and in light of the report from Dame Louise Casey, which we received in December, just one month ago—and we intend to do that. We do not intend to head in the direction of any long grass in that context.
We have not heard any mention of the principles on which the Government rest. Do they at least accept in principle that to give less weight to a woman in any adjudication is wrong?
Do I need to repeat that? With the greatest of respect, this Government and certainly I would never consider that there was any basis for such a proposition. I acknowledge the need for equality not just of gender but in all respects. This Government acknowledge the importance of equality not just in respect of gender but in all respects. But in pursuing it we must have regard to the rights of individuals to perform their own religious functions in a way they see fit. But above all of this stands the rule of law and we remain determined to ensure that those who purport to carry out religious functions do so in accordance with the rule of law and with respect for all individuals, whatever their gender or ethnic background.
I assure the noble Baroness that this Government are concerned about the issues that have been raised, understand the seriousness of the issues that have been raised and appreciate the contributions that have been made by your Lordships’ House in addressing these points. I therefore express to her and all noble Lords who have spoken today my sincere appreciation of their contributions on what is not only an important issue but a complex one.
We have all heard the Minister’s concern, his appreciation and everything else—but can he just tell us what is going to happen next for the Government?
My Lords, I thought that I had already explained it. Lest the noble Lord was not in the Chamber at that stage, we are considering the Casey report, which was received in December of last year; we are awaiting the sharia review; and we will bring these materials together in order that we can establish an informed view of the extent of the problem and what the potential solutions may be.
I thank the Minister for that. I am very worried now when I hear the word “review”. I tabled a couple of Written Questions asking what “review” means when it is mentioned at the Dispatch Box. I was told in a Written Answer from the Government that there is no definition of a review. The Minister will appreciate that when I hear that word I am very worried about what it actually means. I hear what the Minister says but, equally, I hope that he has heard the concern from all round the House in this debate.
I have of course heard the concerns that underpin this Private Member’s Bill. I have of course also understood the depth of feeling and the depth of concern that there is to see these problems addressed.
My Lords, I record my very deep gratitude to all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate, bringing so many distinctive and diverse contributions, with so much experience, professional expertise, compelling arguments and compassion in support of the Bill. I wish I could also thank the Minister for his response. I think the word “brush-off” has been used more than once when referring to the responses I often receive from the Front Bench. Much more importantly, the Minister’s reply will disappoint countless people who are hoping for some effective government action to be taken as a matter of urgency to help alleviate the problems that have been widely documented and highlighted in this debate. It seems that Her Majesty’s Government are living on a different planet of reality from the realities which have been put on the record in this debate. Those realities are widespread and the examples given are just the tip of an iceberg of great suffering. Instead, we have another delay during which countless women will continue to suffer, without any of the very modest remedial measures which the Bill could provide and which they emphasise would be of great help to them. They will be deeply disappointed.
There is much important subsequent business awaiting your Lordships so I will not take up any of the points raised in the debate, although I would wish very much to take up the points raised by the Minister, some of which I fundamentally disagree with. But I greatly look forward to working with all who have shared their concerns and expertise, to continue to seek ways forward in which we may address the serious problems we have discussed today. I give renewed thanks to everyone who has contributed to this debate and supported the Bill.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.