To ask Her Majesty’s Government, following Resolution 2253 (2019) passed on 22 January by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, what plans they have to review the Marriage Act 1949 to make it a legal requirement for Muslim couples to civilly register their marriage before, or at the same time as, their Islamic ceremony.
My Lords, we recognise that the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, has brought a number of proposals for reform to the House. We are aware of Resolution 2253 from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. We remain committed to exploring the legal and practical challenges of limited reform relating to the law on marriage and religious weddings, as outlined in the Government’s recently published Integrated Communities Action Plan.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply and his reference to the fact that I have introduced Private Member’s Bills for eight consecutive years in an attempt to highlight the suffering from gender discrimination in the application of sharia law of many Muslim women, many of whom have come to me desperate, destitute and even suicidal, with no rights following asymmetrical divorce inflicted by their husbands. Therefore, while I welcome Her Majesty’s Government’s commitment to explore the legal and practical challenges of marriage reform, I ask the Minister for an assurance that this legislation will be introduced as a matter of great urgency, as so many women are now suffering in this country in ways that would make the suffragettes turn in their graves.
My Lords, we share the noble Baroness’s concern that some may feel compelled to accept decisions made informally, such as those made by religious councils. But marriage is a complex area of law and the issues will require careful consideration. We intend to explore those, as I indicated. Where sharia councils exist, for example, they must abide by the law. Where there is a conflict with national law and the court is asked to adjudicate, national law will always prevail.
My Lords, almost two-thirds of Muslim women married in the UK are not legally married and, as the Prime Minister has acknowledged, after divorce may be subject to penury, so what will the Government do? This is not discriminatory because the independent review suggests only that sharia courts also have a civil component, or at least there is a parallel civil ceremony, that puts Muslim women on the same basis as Jewish and Christian women. A year has passed since the independent review. Why will the Government not protect these very vulnerable Muslim women?
My Lords, we are concerned that these people should be protected. The decision to go through with what is sometimes termed a nikah ceremony is widespread and unfortunately it does not give rise to a lawful marriage in England and Wales. But, as from April, we are taking forward detailed work to determine the best course of action to address such issues.
My Lords, recent High Court decisions show that this is an issue that affects religious ceremonies generally, but such ceremonies are marriages under UK criminal law if they are forced marriages. However, a victim of a forced religious marriage can then be left destitute as there are no remedies that follow to get access to the matrimonial property—unfortunately, Parliament left that gap. So can my noble friend please outline when this injustice will be remedied, as it is certainly a barrier to victims of forced marriage coming forward if they face destitution because they cannot get hold of their rightful matrimonial property?
My Lords, I must make it clear that the offence of forced marriage does not give legal recognition to marriages but is intended to protect victims from this abhorrent practice, regardless of the validity or otherwise of the marriage. Access to financial orders available on divorce depends on whether or not there has been a legally void or dissolved marriage and is governed by an entirely separate legal regime.
My Lords, marriage is not just some romantic notion of happily ever after—after 25 years of marriage, I have learned that it is much more than that. It gives protections and rights that should be available to all couples regardless of whether or not they are religious. But these Muslim women, who believe that they are legally wed, may not find out that they do not have the protections of the law until far too late. That is why the requirement for a civil ceremony as well, as recommended by the Home Office’s own independent review last year, is so important. Is it not high time now for a fundamental review of the Marriage Act 1949 to recognise all forms of marriage in the 21st century?
The general proposition that we should recognise all forms of marriage raises issues in itself. Our marriage law actually goes back to Lord Hardwicke’s Act of 1753 rather than just to 1949. It is a complex area that we will consider from the spring onwards and in which we will have to move with care. But we cannot simply recognise all informal types of marriage. We have a basic marriage law in this country based on the place in which it is celebrated and the fact that that place is open to the public and that it should be witnessed. We cannot move away from that. Indeed, to do so would create other issues and problems for ourselves.
My Lords, we all recognise that this is a very complex issue, as the Minister has said. I pay tribute to the efforts of my noble friend Lady Cox, who has been on this case for years and years. Does the Minister not recognise that literally tens of thousands of women are in a very disadvantaged position? The Government produce one excuse after another but when will they actually take some effective action to end this outrageous situation?
My Lords, there is a very real issue out there and it has to do with education and information as much as anything else. Many vulnerable people are not aware of what is required for a valid marriage ceremony in England and Wales. Therefore, we must address that issue—I accept that. But simply to move in the direction of recognising, for example, the nikah form of ceremony creates very real difficulties in itself. To take one example, how will you then police the issue of sham marriages?
My Lords, as one who has attended a number of meetings arranged by the noble Baroness and wishes to salute her courage and persistence, I ask my noble and learned friend on the Front Bench to try to inject a sense of urgency here. It is all very well saying, “We have considered it”, and “We will look at it”. We need action. It is a complicated subject but we need some real urgency here.