To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress they have made in implementing the recommendations of the independent review into the application of sharia law in England and Wales published in February 2018 (Cm 9560), in order to protect Muslim women, and what assessment they have made of Resolution 2253 (2019) by the Council of Europe that all Islamic marriages should also be registered as civil marriages.
My Lords, further work on the issues raised began in the spring, as announced in the Integrated Communities Action Plan. This work will explore reform possibilities in relation to the issue that some people may marry in a way that does not create a legally recognised marriage. This exploration will be conducted independently of the wider Law Commission review of marriage ceremony law.
My Lords, in thanking the Minister for his reply, I ask whether he is aware that my Question is almost identical to the one I asked on 28 February. I have had no response, nor seen any evidence of progress on this crucial issue, which causes such suffering to Muslim women through the application of sharia law. Many come to me desperate, destitute and even suicidal, with no rights following asymmetrical divorce inflicted by their husbands, or trapped in unhappy polygamous marriages. The recommendations of the sharia law review and the message from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe are totally consistent with the objectives of my Private Member’s Bill, which requires all religious marriages to be registered, thereby giving women the rights they so urgently need. Therefore, I ask the Minister for an assurance that the legislation will be introduced with great urgency, as so many women are suffering in ways that would make the suffragettes turn in their graves.
My Lords, we understand and recognise that there is a very real issue here, but it is more of a social issue than a legal one. I cannot accept that the proposed way forward set out by the noble Baroness in her Private Member’s Bill is appropriate. Her proposals would effectively deregulate marriage ceremony law and undermine the safeguards in it, including those relating to sham and forced marriages.
I disagree with my noble and learned friend the Minister. It is not a social issue, but a legal one. Therefore, I entirely agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, that this needs to be looked at urgently. We can have a register that allows imams to register nikah ceremonies easily. We need to do this as quickly as possible.
My noble friend is perfectly entitled to disagree with me, and I in turn disagree with her. Let us be clear on what the position is, because some of this proceeds on a misapprehension. It is perfectly possible to perform a lawful marriage in England and Wales under sharia law provided that the relevant mosque has been identified and registered by the registrars as a place for the performance of that ceremony, and a person has been identified by the registrars as suitable to be present for that ceremony. The law of England and Wales has then to be adhered to. Sharia law is not the law of England and Wales; it has no standing. Our national marriage law prevails in these matters. I reiterate: we understand and appreciate that there is a social issue here, because many are not aware of the true position of our law in respect of marriage. Indeed, many are not prepared to adhere to that in circumstances where one or other party may be ignorant of their true position and its consequences.
My Lords, the Council of Europe, referred to in the Question from the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, is very clear that where human rights are concerned there is no room for cultural exceptions. The independent review, commissioned by the Government in 2016, is also clear on its main recommendation that Muslim women undergoing Islamic marriage must be protected by British civil law. Too many vulnerable women are suffering and will suffer until the Government pull their finger out and implement this recommendation.
My Lords, with great respect, some of what has been said by the Council of Europe in its Resolution 2253 does not reflect the true position of marriage law in England and Wales. In particular, the reference to civilly registering a marriage is inept. It does not reflect the true position of our law in England and Wales. Civil registration per se is not a route to a lawful marriage.
My Lords, in the present circumstances, what is the position of triple talaq? Is it still possible for a Muslim man to divorce his wife just by saying, “Talaq, talaq, talaq”? Is the Minister aware that in India a Bill is before the two Houses of Parliament to reform the triple talaq Act? Will Her Majesty’s Government follow that example?
My Lords, divorce in England and Wales is determined by the national law. It is not determined by religious observance or religious laws. Therefore, it will be necessary for a party seeking a divorce from a lawful marriage made in England and Wales to proceed under our national law. We appreciate that there are social difficulties regarding some religious groups in circumstances where a person might believe that they have been divorced under religious provisions, whether of the type the noble Lord just referred to, under sharia law, or indeed sometimes regarding the get in the context of the Jewish religion.
Does my noble and learned friend agree that it is perhaps a little misleading to refer to sharia rules as law? All religions have a perfect right to set out the regulations of their faith, but is it not wrong to refer to those regulations as law? With the exception of the Church of England’s ecclesiastical and religious regulations, they are subject to UK law. Consequently, does my noble friend agree that if sharia regulations—for example, on the treatment of women—conflict with UK law, then UK law, being sovereign, overrides these regulations?
My noble friend is absolutely right. Clearly, national law must be adhered to. I do not take exception to the reference to religious law, or sharia, in a social context. There are parties who wish to adhere to that because of their religious beliefs, but they must understand that it is subject to the law of the land, and that sharia is not the law of the land and has no standing as such.