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Marriage and Religious Weddings

Volume 813: debated on Monday 28 June 2021


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”.

My Lords, the law regulating legal marriage ceremonies developed over 150 years without systematic reform, so any changes present both legal and practical challenges. That is why the Law Commission is reviewing the law and will report later this year. A separate Nuffield Foundation study, also due to report this year, will investigate why marriage ceremonies occur outside the legal framework in England and Wales. The Government will consider both reports carefully.

My Lords, I remain deeply concerned, because there has been no evidence of any meaningful progress since I first raised these issues over 10 years ago. As the Muslim Women’s Advisory Council told me recently, although the plight of many Muslim women in this country is well-known,

“their cry for help is ignored.”

The Government have continually failed

“to enshrine the rights of Muslim women who do not yet have the protection of legal marriage.”

Will the Minister at last give an assurance that legislation will be introduced, as a matter of great urgency, to ensure that religious marriages are also legally registered?

My Lords, I am aware of the noble Baroness’s work in this area and the Private Members’ Bills she has brought forward in the past. The offence set out in her Private Member’s Bill is one of the potential options on which we are working, but any change in practice must be based on the facts on the ground. We are doing work with the Nuffield Foundation, the Law Commission is looking at this area and we have met with Aina Khan from Register Our Marriage. While I cannot give an assurance on legislation, I can give an assurance that this has a high priority and we are looking at it with real care.

My Lords, during the passage of the Domestic Abuse Bill, now an Act, your Lordships discussed how best to protect migrant victims of abuse. Will the Minister assure me that any reforms, such as those being discussed here today, will safeguard migrant women and children, who are often particularly vulnerable?

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate is right that the position of migrant women and their children, in particular, is of real concern. As we saw in the domestic abuse debates, those groups can be subject to particular intimidation and abuse. We will, therefore, consider their position in any legislation.

My Lords, a Channel 4 survey found that six in 10 Muslim women, who had had traditional Islamic weddings in Britain, are not legally married—a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Cox. Of these, over a quarter— 28%—are not aware that they do not have the same rights they would with a legally recognised marriage. Does the Minister not agree that this is an issue of equal rights for women? May I press him on how the Government will safeguard the rights of Muslim women and ensure that the rule of law is upheld?

My Lords, my noble friend is right: if you are not legally married, under the law of England and Wales, you have a significantly disadvantageous position on divorce and on death. The position is simple: there is only one law in this country, the law of England and Wales. That proposition can be traced back to Jeremiah’s letter to the Babylonian exiles. There is no separate system of law in this country.

My Lords, I declare an interest as the chairman of the National Commission on Forced Marriage. I ask the Minister to bear in mind that any relaxing of the requirements of marriage might have the unintended consequence of not identifying a potential forced marriage.

My Lords, I respectfully agree with the noble and learned Baroness that, in seeking to update marriage law, we must ensure that we do not weaken forced marriage safeguards. Indeed, we criminalised that in 2014. I know that the Law Commission is looking at these issues most carefully.

Can I just clarify my previous answer, before the Advocate-General for Scotland has a go at me? When I said “this country”, I was referring to the law of England and Wales; the law of Scotland is a separate matter.

My Lords, the 2015 review by the noble Baroness, Lady Casey, said that, as of 2015, there were up to 100,000 sharia marriages in the UK,

“many of which are not recognised under UK laws and leave women without full legal rights upon divorce.”

Her review warned that this was worrying in a group with lower levels of female employment and English language. Crucially, the noble Baroness said:

“The potential for women … to find themselves in what they believe to be a binding commitment, be economically and socially dependent on their spouse, and yet have no legal marriage status, is worryingly high.”

The Minister said that this issue is a very high priority. That report was six years ago. When did it become a high priority and what have the Government done in those six years?

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord knows that it is a high priority, because this is one of the issues that both the Law Commission and the Nuffield Foundation are looking at. We have also looked at the sharia review. As I have said, our position is that we want to make sure that people are properly protected, though I would suggest that it is as much a matter of education as it is of legislation.

My Lords, numerous independent reports, including those commissioned by the Government, have confirmed that some sharia councils embed discrimination against women, including against those women who use sharia council services on matters of marriage and divorce. Given that countless women are suffering as a result, may I press my noble friend the Minister for an assurance that we will see government legislation sooner rather than later?

My Lords, people may choose to abide by the interpretation and application of sharia principles if they wish to do so—that is a matter of religious freedom—provided that their actions do not conflict with the national law. But, importantly, all individuals retain the right to seek a remedy through the English courts in the event of a dispute. For these purposes, the law of England and Wales in relation to the inheritance of property will prevail. We are looking at legislation, and I will of course update the House and my noble friend as and when we reach a decision.

My Lords, does the Minister agree with the words of a Christian hymn that

“New occasions teach new duties; Time makes ancient good uncouth”,

and that religion and religious teachings should be interpreted in the context of today’s times and the recognition of full gender equality? Does he agree that the Government’s continuing reluctance to stand up for the rights of Muslim women and girls is not only a betrayal of government responsibility but an insult to the fair name of Islam?

My Lords, I think the theological point put to me will take an answer that is probably longer than the allotted time, but I am happy to consider it further. However, I reject the proposition that we are not concerned about the rights of Muslim women and girls. The history of the work in this area, whether on forced marriage or indeed the matters we are discussing this afternoon, would indicate the opposite.

My Lords, I do not think anybody could dispute my noble friend’s personal commitment, but this is taking a very long time. Can he tell the House what line the Government will take on the Private Member’s Bill from the other place which suggests that the minimum age for marriage should be 18?

My Lords, I think my noble friend will have seen my letter to various groups on that point. Marriage at 16 and 17 has the significant risk of people being forced into marriages and their life chances reducing. Therefore, my noble friend can take it from me that we will be looking very carefully at the Bill introduced by the Member for Bromsgrove, who now appears to be otherwise occupied.

My Lords, I am sure the Minister believes that there should be equality among religions in relation to divorce, and that the law should bring justice to women who are mistreated by religious husbands and religious courts. So will he ensure changes to the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973, so that the court can refuse to finalise a civil divorce until an Islamic religious divorce has been obtained, if unfair pressure is being used in the religious proceedings? This would bring Islamic divorce in line with the Jewish get.

My Lords, the premise behind the question of the noble Baroness is that the bars to effective relief are the same in Judaism and Islam, but that is not in fact the case. As I understand it, it is significantly easier for a woman to obtain a divorce in Islam than it is for a woman to facilitate or obtain a divorce in Orthodox Judaism. Therefore, the Act that the noble Baroness refers to—I believe it is Section 10A—would not have the same advantageous effect in Islamic marriages as it does in Orthodox Jewish marriages.

Sitting suspended.