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Integrated Communities Strategy

Volume 807: debated on Tuesday 17 November 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress they have made towards their commitment in the Integrated Communities Strategy Green Paper, published on 14 March 2018, to “explore the legal and practical challenges of limited reform relating to the law on marriage and religious weddings”.

[Inaudible]—difficulties in addressing this issue that mean we are doing so with the greatest care. The Law Commission separately is looking at aspects of the problem and has consulted with a wide range of groups with an interest. The Government continue the exploration both of limited reform and of non-legislative options. Any proposals affecting how religious groups are permitted to conduct marriages must be thoroughly assessed for fairness.

My Lords, I remain deeply concerned, because there is no evidence of any significant progress since the publication of the Integrated Communities Strategy Green Paper over two years ago. Given the strong recommendations of the Casey review, the sharia law review, the new Civitas report and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, and the Private Members’ Bills I have submitted since 2011, with cross-party support and the support of Muslim women’s groups, will the Minister give an assurance at last that government legislation will be introduced as a matter of urgency? So many Muslim women in this country are suffering in ways which are totally unacceptable and, as I always say, would make our suffragettes turn in their graves.

My Lords, my noble friend’s concern about this matter is indeed a matter of record. The Government are aware that the Law Commission is tasked with investigating the matter and reporting. Its report is anticipated by the middle of next year. The Government’s manifesto commitment was to explore the matters; that exploration will be based upon the thorough and meticulous research which is being carried out.

The Government previously assured the House that there is no need for a change in the law because all citizens can access their rights according to law. Yet 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. Is the Minister able to assure the House that repeated commitments to “continue the exploration” of reform are not used to kick these issues into the long grass?

My Lords, the Government have no intention of kicking the matter into the long grass. The Law Commission’s report is anticipated in the second part of next year. In the mean- time, the Government are contemplating also the introduction of interim measures and continue to explore the matter themselves, alongside the work being carried out by the Law Commission.

My Lords, the Government have a clear responsibility to protect the legal rights of vulnerable girls entering into that religious marriage. Simply saying all citizens can access their legal rights is like saying that all citizens have a right to dine in the Dorchester. Will the Minister agree that, while religious ceremonies should be respected, both marriage partners should be made aware of the law of the land on gender equality and women’s rights?

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord’s point. As my predecessor, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen of Elie, has remarked in your Lordships’ House in the past, the matter is a social and educational question as much as it is a legal one. It is in order to establish the extent of the problem that the Government are continuing to await the findings of the Law Commission and to look in detail at the meticulous research being carried out.

My Lords, does the Minister understand that it is relatively common for couples to come to family courts in England and Wales saying that they are married under sharia law, only to be told that the court does not recognise this status of marriage? The Government plan to support awareness programmes arising out of Dame Louise Casey’s review of marriage published in 2015. Can the Minister tell us what steps have been taken to provide such educational material in the citizens advice bureaux and in the family courts across the country?

My Lords, sharia law is not part of the legal system of England and Wales, and that has been made clear in the past. In relation to the provision of material via the citizens advice bureaux, to which the noble Lord refers, I will write to him about the availability of that material and how it is being promulgated through these bodies.

Last month, I attended a nikah ceremony at the impressive Cambridge eco mosque, and I was impressed by the young imam there, who made it perfectly clear that he would refuse to perform a nikah for non-British couples and those who had not already taken part in a legal marriage in this country. Are the Government satisfied that this good practice is happening in all religious ceremonies across the country?

My Lords, the point raised by the noble Baroness is important. To repeat the terms of a previous answer, that matter is part of the social and educational function, which the Government are exploring.

My Lords, for the record, may I set straight that it is not sharia marriages but sharia-compliant marriages, or religious ceremonies? My generation of women understood implicitly that a valid marriage is a registered one. This appears not to be the case for a significant proportion of my daughter’s generation, because the law has allowed this ambiguous anomaly to continue. The Government are fully cognisant that up to 100,000 religious ceremonies do not proceed to civil register. Will the Minister undertake to address this at the Government’s earliest convenience, through a small amendment to the Marriage Act, which has been called for for some time by leading organisations? That would not only safeguard women but empower women with their full rights.

My Lords, I am obliged to the noble Baroness for her correction. With regard to a change in the law, it is precisely to avoid the creation of inconsistency and anomaly that the Government are waiting for the conclusion of the Law Commission’s investigations and their own work before considering whether legislation is appropriate.

My Lords, there seem to be complex reasons behind the number of marriages that are not legally binding. Does my noble and learned friend agree that any way forward must take account of these issues?

Some couples have a legally binding religious marriage, while others do not, whether by choice or because they did not know that they could. We need a much better understanding of the factors behind this because, without such real insight into these matters, no solution can change what is happening or be sensitive to the issues facing individuals and the differing voices within communities. That is the Government’s approach.

My Lords, the honourable Member for the Medway area recently introduced the Marriage (Authorised Belief Organisations) Bill in the other place. It would mean that people who wished to be wedded at a humanist ceremony would not to have to attend a registry office afterwards to make the marriage legally binding. Will the Government support this Bill? Secondly, nearly a decade after the issue of unregistered Muslim marriages was first discussed by a Conservative-led Government, how do the Government reconcile their stated support for the rights and protection of women with their failure to act on this issue for over 10 years?

My Lords, the Government invited the Law Commission to make recommendations about how marriage by humanist and other non-religious belief organisations could be incorporated into a revised or new scheme for all marriages that is simple, fair and consistent. The Government will decide on provision on the basis of those recommendations. The Law Commission published a consultation paper on 3 September as part of its review, and welcomes responses from all.

My Lords, does the Minister appreciate that the right to a legally recognised marriage in their own place of worship was secured after a long struggle by non-conformists in England and Wales, and that nothing should be done to diminish that right or, indeed, to prevent us extending it to other groups? But what constitutes a legally valid religious wedding, and what rights, protections and obligations in law it confers, also needs to be clear. Nobody should be tricked, misled or pressured into a form of marriage that is not valid in law.

My Lords, I wholeheartedly endorse the noble Lord’s observation that nobody should be tricked or compelled into a marriage that is not recognised by law. To continue the theme of my earlier answers, the Government are very concerned that, as well as being an opportunity for legal reform, these matters are socially and educationally important, and the Government continue to investigate the social and educational reasons why people enter into marriages that are not valid.