Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill [HL]
Baroness Cox (Crossbench)
My Lords, I am most grateful to all noble Lords speaking in this debate and to many other noble Lords, too many to mention by name, who have expressed their support for the Bill but are unable to be here today. The Bill seeks to address two interrelated issues: the suffering of women oppressed by religiously sanctioned gender discrimination in this country; 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 Muslims and by Muslim women's organisations such as Inspire, as well as by the Iranian and Kurdish Women's Rights Organisation, the Henna Foundation, Karma Nirvana, British Muslims for Secular Democracy and the National Secular Society. I am grateful to them all for their support.
Awareness of the need for the Bill arose from mounting evidence of serious problems affecting some women in this country from the application of Sharia law. I immediately reassure your Lordships that I am not anti-Muslim. Indeed, I am deeply concerned that Muslim women enjoy their full legal and civil rights under the law of this land. If women from other faiths experience comparable problems of systematic discrimination, the provisions of this Bill would also be available for them as it does not name any religion.
The problems I will highlight often arise because many women believe that Sharia courts are real courts and do not know that they have other rights under English law or they are pressured by their family or community not to seek those rights outside their community. I give two examples of the kinds of problems afflicting women in this country. I have met these women and witnessed their distress. One suffered such severe domestic violence that she was hospitalised. She was pressured by her family not to seek help from the police as this would bring "shame" on the community. She went to the local Sharia court or council and was told to return to her husband. She did so and suffered more domestic violence. Then her husband divorced her, went back to his country of origin and returned with a second wife. As a devout Muslim, she wanted a religious divorce to allow her to remarry in accordance with her faith but the Sharia court demanded her marriage certificate which her husband's family kept. Attempts to retrieve it resulted in violence in the name of "honour", as she was blamed for bringing shame on the family by seeking a divorce. Seven years later this devout and desperately lonely Muslim lady is still unable to obtain her divorce and remarry.
Secondly, a Muslim widow wanted to remarry but was told by the Sharia council or court that she must obtain the permission of a male relative. She had no male relative in this country so she had to travel to Jordan to obtain the written permission of a seven year-old boy relative in order to be able to remarry in this country. It is not surprising that another young woman complained, "I feel betrayed by Britain. I came to this country to get away from all this but the situation is worse here than in my country of origin".
Other examples concern children. Under Sharia law a father who divorces his wife can claim custody of his children once they reach the age of seven. This gender discrimination violates the fundamental legal principle in this country that custody should be determined according to the best interests of the child. These examples are just the tip of an iceberg as many women live in fear, so intimidated by family and community that they dare not speak out or ask for help. A lady came to see me in my home. I shall never forget seeing her hide behind a tree because she was so terrified of being seen. We should not have such fear in this country.
The first fundamental concern my Bill seeks to address is the development of a parallel quasi-legal system based on inherently discriminatory principles. This may involve proceedings operating under the terms of the Arbitration Act or it may involve less formal community forums for resolving disputes. While some operate in ways which are not problematic, others give cause for the second and related concern that many women suffer from gender discrimination in these contexts. This discrimination includes unequal access to divorce as between a husband and wife. A husband can obtain a divorce merely by saying, "I divorce you" three times, whereas a wife has to go through all sorts of procedures at a Sharia court or council. It also includes tolerance of certain forms of domestic violence, a man's right to polygamy, inequality between men and women with regard to child custody and inequality with regard to inheritance provisions. It even affects rules of evidence, since under Sharia law a woman's testimony counts for half that of a man's.
Let me make clear what the Bill does not do. The Bill does not interfere in the internal theological affairs of religious groups. If people wish to submit voluntarily to the rulings of any body, religious or otherwise, even if that means surrendering their rights under English law, they are free to do so. The Bill does not force them to give up religious law or abnegate conscience in favour of the law of the land. The Bill also recognises existing legally sanctioned forums for arbitration, including Muslim arbitration tribunals or MATs and various forms of mediation available in religious or secular contexts. The Bill will not affect the continuation of these provisions or their growth and development in accordance with the law of the land.
Let me here acknowledge valid concerns raised by the noble Lord, Lord Marks, and others, and say that I accept the need to amend the Bill to reflect recent developments in relation to family law arbitration. I intend to remove the references to family law in the new criminal offence created by the Bill. Family law arbitration will therefore continue to be permitted. However, the non-discrimination provisions of the Bill will apply. Therefore, this will not be an obstacle to mainstream family law arbitration, but will reinforce the need to address sex discrimination in religious arbitration.
I now turn to some specific concerns and how the Bill addresses them. The Arbitration Act 1996 facilitated the establishment of arbitration tribunals. Some operate according to Sharia law. They allow parties to settle certain civil, largely financial, disputes in such a way that the arbitration awards can be enforced in UK courts. However, there is a concern that even when these tribunals are operating within the terms of the Arbitration Act, some are practising sex discrimination. For example, a tribunal in Nuneaton adjudicated on an inheritance dispute between three sisters and two brothers and, in accordance with Sharia law principles, the men were given double the inheritance of the women.
Some arbitration tribunals appear to act outside their legal remit. The MAT claims on its website to be able to hear disputes involving,
"allegations of money squandering/misappropriation".
There have also been reports of MATs dealing with acts of grievous bodily harm. An investigation by Edna Fernandes, reported in the Daily Mail on
"scores more imams dispense justice through their own mosques",
"sharia is being used informally within the Muslim community to tackle a plethora of crime".
The Arbitration Act does not empower MATs to arbitrate on criminal matters, and it is surely unacceptable to condone a situation where non-Muslim offenders get a criminal record, but Muslims do not. My Bill would make it a criminal offence to falsely claim legal jurisdiction. Any person who purports to arbitrate in any matter which is within the jurisdiction of the criminal courts would be liable, on conviction, to a maximum penalty of five years in prison.
One report has estimated that there are at least 85 Sharia forums in the United Kingdom. As far as we can ascertain, the Sharia courts or councils keep scant records, and have no right of appeal. There is nothing like the control over justices' appointment and conduct that apply in secular courts. Most do not operate under the Arbitration Act. Instead, they informally resolve disputes under what is loosely termed "mediation". As I have said, many women wrongly that think these informal tribunals are real courts and submit to their rulings accordingly.
The Bill cannot solve every problem, but it does offer one opportunity for redress. Where a negotiated agreement is formalised in a consent order, the Bill would make it easier to set aside the consent order if it was reached under duress, or where a party's consent was not genuinely informed-for example, where a woman was not aware that she would have had different rights according to UK civil law. Also, my Bill would make it easier for women who are unhappy with discriminatory rulings to apply to the courts to have them overturned on the grounds of gender discrimination. The Bill also strengthens the power of the police and courts to protect victims of domestic violence from coercion and intimidation. It also enhances the public sector equality duty. For example, police, social workers or healthcare workers interacting with Muslim women would be encouraged to explain to Muslim women how their legal rights are diminished if their marriages are recognised only under religious law and not civil law. Many women have described how they are discouraged from having a civil as well as an Islamic marriage. This gives rise to grave problems, especially when, as often happens, a husband subsequently divorces his wife, leaving her with no civil rights.
In conclusion, as these are such complex, sensitive and delicate issues, I intend to request the Liaison Committee to consider the subject for one of the ad hoc committees in the New Year, or to establish an independent committee of inquiry to enable a wide range of views to be presented, reflecting a broad spectrum of experts and personal testimonies, and those with concerns about the Bill. A full report will be made available which will, I hope, help greatly to clarify many of the issues, explore ways in which the Bill can be amended to make it more appropriate, and open up these issues for broader public discussion.
We cannot continue with the present situation in which so many women are suffering from gender discrimination in our country today in ways that would make the heroines of the suffragette movement turn in their graves. We must address the danger that a parallel de facto legal system may become entrenched, thereby undermining the fundamental principle of our liberal democracy: the principle of one law for all.
Lord Eden of Winton (Conservative)
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, on her eloquent and well informed speech, and I thank her for introducing the Bill and for all the hard work that I know preceded it. The noble Baroness is a redoubtable and fearless campaigner. For many years, she has worked tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of oppressed people, many of whom, in far away places, are the victims of despotism, discrimination and prejudice. Without her persistent efforts, it is certain that their yearning for a peaceful existence would never have been acknowledged. The noble Baroness has shone a light into some of the world's darkest places. People crying out for help have found in her a determined and committed champion.
The plight of women in male-dominated societies is of particular concern to her. There are practices enforced in this country which deprive women of fair, let alone equal, treatment. Sharia courts actively discriminate against women, especially in matters affecting family relationships. Their rulings in such cases are directly contrary to the laws of this land. They deny equality of treatment for women and it is near impossible for the injured party to obtain redress though our civil courts.
In the United Kingdom, we rightly pride ourselves on being tolerant and generous towards people of other cultures whose faith may differ from our own. But we must guard against the encroachment of practices hostile to basic concepts of British justice. We might take note-careful note-of the current debate in Egypt, where attempts are being made to agree a new constitution. In today's International Herald Tribune, Roger Cohen, writing from Cairo, reports on the conflict there between liberals and Islamists. A new draft article states:
"The state shall take all measures to establish the equality of women and men in the areas of political, cultural, economic and social life, as well as all other areas, insofar as this does not conflict with the rulings of Islamic Shariah".
As Roger Cohen puts it:
"The phrase 'rulings of Islamic Shariah,' offers no wiggle room. It contradicts the provision elsewhere in the draft constitution that, 'All citizens are equal before the law, equal in their rights and public duties, there shall be no discrimination between them on grounds of sex'".
In Egypt, the ultra-conservatives are making a strong bid to outmanoeuvre and overturn the moderates. We must be vigilant to be certain that nothing similar could happen here. It needs to be stated firmly that attempts to impose on British citizens-of whatever faith-a set of rules that run counter to the laws of this land is wrong. Parallel courts are unacceptable. For all our citizens we must be alert and active in protecting and preserving the very foundation of our civilisation-namely, equality of treatment under the law. It is to that end that the Bill is dedicated. I hope that it gets a favourable wind to carry it forward to the statute book.
Baroness Donaghy (Labour)
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, for her Bill and support it in principle for two reasons. First, as a former chair of ACAS, where arbitration and mediation are its bread and butter, I feel strongly that the law in this area should not be brought into disrepute. Secondly, as someone who has played a part in fighting for the rights of women, I feel that we cannot allow the clock to be turned back.
ACAS uses both mediation and arbitration. Arbitration is where two or more parties agree on an independent person who will decide on their dispute. The terms of reference have to be mutually agreed beforehand and there has to be acceptance of the final outcome. Mediation involves a neutral person trying to help the parties to a dispute identify common ground and reach a mutually satisfactory agreement. It is the parties which settle, not the mediator.
ACAS has panels of experts for both arbitration and mediation and I believe it is still one of the jewels in the crown of our national services. That is all the more reason therefore to be concerned about the many reports that mediation and arbitration are being confused in the name of the law and that their remit is sometimes unclear and sometimes exceeded. I am also concerned that the definition of mutuality is sometimes being stretched to such limits that a women is said to consent to a process when in practice, because of a language barrier, huge cultural or family pressure, ignorance of the law, a misplaced faith in the system or a threat of complete isolation, that mutuality is as consensual as rape.
Listening to and reading some of the stories of women who have experienced some of the abuses of a system that claims to follow Sharia law take me back to women's rights 45 years ago. I lived in Chiswick Park, where a women's refuge had just been opened for victims of domestic violence. It was not called domestic violence of course; it was called "domestics", as if it was some kind of cleaning product. The police would never get involved in "domestics". If you were a man, you could batter the living daylights out of a woman and the police would not get involved, mainly because a woman would never dream of going to the police. The people who ran the refuge were regarded as weirdos and the women who were desperate enough to flee there were often shunned by their own families.
All this was brought back to me when I listened to some of the women asking for this change in the law. My own experience at that time was that I went along to the electricity showroom-which still existed- on Chiswick High Road to take out a hire-purchase agreement on an electric fire and was told that I needed my husband's signature, for something I was paying for. I turned into a feminist overnight. I am not trying to compare something as trivial as the hire of an electric fire to decisions now being taken on behalf of women about their marital status, inheritance or personal safety. However, I am trying to remind the House that it is not that long ago historically that women were unequal before the law, that "domestics" were not a police matter and that women lived in fear and anonymity.
As long as some women live in fear and are trapped in their situation, we should act. The Government may well feel that this Bill is unnecessary as the law in this area is adequate. I would argue that turning a blind eye to fear and exploitation is not adequate. I do not believe that this is confined to Sharia law or the Muslim religion. These parallel laws that discriminate against women exist, sometimes, in other religions. It is important to emphasise that this is not an attack on one particular religion or, indeed, on any right to worship. It could also be said that the Bill does not go far enough and that it is too weak to make a difference. I would argue that this can be dealt with by means of amendments to the Bill.
No one pretends, as the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, said in her able and moving speech, that passing this Bill into law will solve all the problems of women who live in fear and at risk of exploitation. However, it is about equal rights for women and will go some way to promoting what one of the campaigners called,
"a shared vision of citizenship".
I support the Bill.
Lord Carlile of Berriew (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, along with other noble Lords who have spoken so far in the debate, I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, for introducing this Bill, which I too support strongly in principle. The noble Baroness has shown extraordinary commitment to this issue and has prepared extremely well, including many other noble Lords on this issue. This debate is as well informed as any debate that occurs on a Private Member's Bill. We can also rely on the noble Baroness to tell the House when there are new issues, which we may not have noticed, that are concerned with the safety and rights of women around the world. As it happens, on my way to your Lordships' House this morning, I heard a horrifying report on the BBC's "Woman's Hour", which described how the abhorrent practice of breast ironing of teenage girls may have been carried out in this country. I apprehend that this may well be the next issue that the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, will be discussing in your Lordships' House. There is a great deal to do on women's rights and nobody can be relied on more than the noble Baroness to draw our attention to these issues.
There has been a good deal of lobbying on this Bill, and I commend to your Lordships material that has been made available, certainly to me, by the Southall Black Sisters. That material is extremely detailed, very cogent and provides a guide to the Committee stage or any independent consideration of the issues in this Bill.
The abolition of legal aid in many spheres, particularly its reduction in relation to family law, places women and their children in a very difficult position. I am not a religious person myself so do not feel any sense of antipathy to any religions. If I have an antipathy to religions, it is to all of them, not some of them, and I wish to be clear that what I say is not directed at any particular religion. I also recognise that some tribunals based on religious organisations provide very valuable assistance to those faced with litigation or potential litigation, particularly in the commercial sphere. As your Lordships know, I am a member of the Bar. I would say, as a member of the Bar, that my learned friends need no additional commercial transactions to litigate over. If anyone can save money by resolving disputes by other means, that is to be encouraged. However, there is evidence that mediation through Sharia courts is not mediation in any real sense at all.
We in your Lordships' House, and indeed in the other place, should surely be reluctant to support any form of mediation or arbitration that grants to people who do not have fully informed consent rights any less than they would be able to obtain through the ordinary courts of the land. I make an analogy here with the medical profession. If I go and see a doctor who wishes to advise me that he or she thinks I should have an operation, I wish to be informed about the nature of the operation and the risks that it may bring about. Above all, I wish the doctor to be able to say to me that I do not need the operation at all and that there is alternative non-invasive treatment that may make me feel entirely better too.
In the Sharia tribunals that I have been able to examine through the evidence that has been placed before me, there is no equivalence to what one would expect ordinarily of doctors. Women are not told that they have a right to a much higher level of provision from their husbands after divorce. There are many documented cases where that can be shown. In many instances, women are not told that in the Sharia court they may have a lesser right to custody and residence of their children and that they should go the civil courts if they want to have their full rights under the law of the land.
It is all too easy to say that these are community issues and that it is very important to reflect the mores of the community. Of course, I agree with that. I was a Member of the other place for a rural Welsh constituency for a number of years. Culture is no less strong in rural Montgomeryshire than it is in some of our inner cities, and we must give full respect to that. However, that respect must not dilute people's rights. I believe that if one child in this country is taken away from his or her mother because of a religious doctrine and placed with what are essentially strangers, possibly in another country, that is a fundamental flaw in our law and it should not be allowed. That is something that the noble Baroness seeks to address.
I believe that the Bill will require detailed consideration. Earlier, I mentioned the Southall Black Sisters. They and other organisations which have contacted me have expressed the desire for some amendment, and I know that the noble Baroness accepts that as a principle. For example, we might consider whether we should adopt at least some of the provisions of the Ontario Family Statute Law Amendment Act, which, I understand, provides in Ontario for a working model. There, any decision made by a third party in arbitration or other proceedings has no legal effect unless it is exclusively in accordance with the law of Ontario or of another Canadian jurisdiction. That kind of principle can be applied in the United Kingdom, particularly as we have separate jurisdictions, not in Wales but in Scotland and, to a great extent, in Northern Ireland.
I have particular concerns about Muslim arbitration tribunals-MATs, as they are known-which, as I understand it, have been in existence since 2007. Their effect is that dominant interpretations of Sharia law have effectively been given formal recognition within the law of England and Wales, even though they contradict the law of England and Wales. I have a real concern that MATs have strayed into criminal law, particularly in relation to its impact upon women. I, for one, am very reluctant to see determined in a court the proposition that a woman is obliged to have sexual intercourse with her husband on a set number of days in a month, but I have recently seen that proposition seriously set out as one that should be enforceable under Muslim law. It certainly is not any form of law that would be recognised in a rape trial, taking into account the provisions of the Sexual Offences Act 2003.
I am also concerned about the lack of rights of appeal and the lack of detailed reasons being given in writing in such tribunals. I am very concerned, too, about the use of the word "sacred", or anything like that word, in relation to the judgment of relationships between citizens. For those and many other reasons, on which I could spend a great deal of time if we were not advised to take no more than nine minutes, I support the Bill and look forward to further discussions on it.
Baroness O'Loan (Crossbench)
My Lords, I am very pleased to rise today in support of the Bill of the noble Baroness, Lady Cox. I, too, wish to convey to her my congratulations not just on her commitment and determination in bringing this Bill forward but, indeed, on all the work that she does-often in hot, distant and dusty places-for people who live in difficult circumstances.
This is a profoundly important Bill. It seeks to make the necessary amendments to entrench in law a very clear articulation of the restrictions under the rule of law in this country, which must necessarily be understood to be applicable to the processes of Sharia law as they operate in the United Kingdom today.
It is important to say, as previous speakers have done, that this is not in any way a matter of prejudice. However, there is evidence that even before Muslim women enter into marriage some 60% of them experience some degree of coercion before marriage. This Bill seeks to give Muslin women who may be coerced or pressed into allowing a dispute to be settled in the Sharia tribunals the capacity to understand and to be able to assert their rights under the law. Most particularly, it seeks to restrict abuses of the law by communities and individuals which may ensue in the course of the Sharia processes. The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, described graphically the terror that may be suffered by women in these circumstances.
Noble Lords will be very well aware of the history of the legal system of the United Kingdom. We are very proud of the way in which, generally speaking, the principles of law here have developed over the years and of the fact that we have a fine record of at least attempting to protect the rights of individuals-a protection which has grown infinitely since the passing of Magna Carta in 1215. Of course, there are many inadequacies in our legal system and these can result in great injustice and harm. Where we identify serious gaps-and the noble Baroness has identified a very serious gap today-then it is incumbent on us to address them as best we can.
We profess that certain rights are protected under UK law and that those whose rights are abused should have access to the legal system to seek redress. People who have suffered criminal assaults and those who seek relief in matrimonial matters have the right to anticipate that those matters will be dealt with in accordance with the principles of our law. Part 2 of the Bill states very clearly that in any arbitration agreement under the Arbitration Act 1996 the evidence of a woman shall be equal to that of a man. This may well be resisted by some of those involved but it is not acceptable that decisions made under the protection of UK law are based on profoundly discriminatory processes.
The reality today is that many women living in the UK have suffered as a consequence of the way in which these tribunals have been permitted to operate; the extent to which they have claimed jurisdiction which they do not necessarily have in areas such as criminal law and, I think, previously matrimonial law; the fact that they do not operate to provide equality of arms-a matter addressed by the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, a moment ago-in terms of representation, information and so on; and of the way in which their proceedings have been conducted. In addition, there is often a history of violence and duress, to which many women have been subjected over decades, leaving them in a position in which they may become physically incapable of asserting their rights.
It is Muslim women who are articulating these problems. The Iranian and Kurdish Women's Rights Organisation stated:
"Sharia law discriminates against women and children and puts those who have experienced violence and abuse at further risk. Its rulings are incompatible with UK legislation including the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, the Children Act 1989 and the Human Rights Act 1989".
In these circumstances, Clause 4 is vital. It is an absolutely clear statement that where the criminal courts have jurisdiction, arbitration is not a possibility, and that discrimination is unlawful. Clause 7 gives necessary teeth to this provision by making it a criminal offence, attracting serious sanctions, falsely to claim legal jurisdiction.
Under UK law, children's interests are required to be the final determinant in matters affecting them, yet in many cases under Sharia law women are forced to give their husbands access to their children even where British courts have ruled that they should have no such access because it would not be in the interests of the child, perhaps because of a history of violence.
Many women who seek redress through their imam are subject to multiple disadvantages. The English language may form an impenetrable barrier for many. Women who are isolated in non-English speaking communities are completely subject to their husbands, just as English women were a century ago. They will have no access to, and no capacity to seek, justice. If a woman cannot speak the language, cannot get independent advice, is fettered by a loveless and violent marriage, is caught in a culture which accords precedence in virtually all matters to the husband, life will be profoundly difficult. The psychological consequences of that situation are well known. Such women simply have no idea of their legal rights. They may be cowed and beaten into submission to Sharia law, under which there may be no redress for them and their testimony will not be accorded the same value as that of men. That is a very lonely place for a woman of whatever age to find herself. Many of these women find themselves locked in a violent or polygamous marriage when they had thought that they were entering a monogamous union registered under UK law, yet the only place they can go to seek advice is the imam.
The Bill of the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, seeks to address a very serious wrong. It will have wonderful effects. I accept that it may require some amendment, but it will outlaw once and for all the Sharia practice of giving women's testimony half the weight of men's; it will make clear the redress that women can seek under civil law; it will make discriminatory the assumption in Sharia law of unequal distribution of an estate between male and female children; it will make discriminatory the assumption that a woman has fewer property rights than a man and vice versa; it will give women who have sought refuge in the United Kingdom a clear articulation of the limits of the Sharia tribunals; and it will mean that any future unlawful assumption of jurisdiction can result in prosecution.
The Bill has the support of many lawyers and organisations working to help Muslim women in these difficult situations. The noble Baroness listed a number of them, so I will not do so again. I simply reiterate my support for the Bill.
The Bishop of Manchester (Bishop)
My Lords, I echo the warm words of congratulation and appreciation for the characteristically heartfelt and informed speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Cox.
In February 2008, many column acres in the national media were given over to my friend and colleague, the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, and to his supposed views on Sharia law. I say "supposed" because a large amount of the media response to his scholarly and considered lecture on Islam and British law bore no relation to the substance of his arguments. What the episode highlighted very effectively is that for the vast majority of people, this is both a highly emotive and little understood area of our legal landscape. I claim no special expertise, so rather than test your Lordships' patience, I will quote from the most reverend Primate's 2008 lecture because his words have some relevance to the issues before us today.
The Archbishop said that the,
"recognition of 'supplementary jurisdiction' in some areas, especially family law, could have the effect of reinforcing in minority communities some of the most repressive or retrograde elements in them, with particularly serious consequences for the role and liberties of women".
He went on to say that no supplementary jurisdiction, or minority legal order, should have,
"the power to deny access to the rights granted to other citizens or to punish its members for claiming those rights".
I think few would wish to argue with what the most reverend Primate said, although many may regret that he was not quoted sufficiently and properly in the media.
The Bill introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, seeks to frame a legislative response to such anxieties. It may not have got it right in all regards-I will come to my contribution on that shortly-but the noble Baroness has provided us with a welcome opportunity to begin to grapple with some genuine and pressing questions of principle and legal practice in this area, such as the proposal to make it unlawful for an arbitration agreement to include provision that treated parties differently on the basis of their sex, the value of their evidence, rights in the division of estates and their property rights generally.
The functioning of religious courts in the United Kingdom requires greater discussion and research, taking particular account of women's organisations such as Women Living Under Muslim Laws. The briefing produced for this debate by the British Academy's policy centre reminds us that:
"There are substantial gaps in our understanding of how minority legal orders are being adapted, interpreted and applied, and we know very little about the experience of their users. There is need for research on the interrelationship between these orders and the state legal system. This argues for extreme caution in proposing legislation that can significantly impact on any of these orders".
With the need to consider caution foremost, I offer four questions to ponder. First, do the problems that the Bill is designed to address require fresh legislation or is sufficient redress already available under existing discrimination law and the Equality Act for those who are undoubtedly poorly served by the arbitration process? Is it not already the case that the High Court will not enforce an arbitration award that has been obtained unfairly and where coercion, tacit or explicit, is involved?
Secondly, what will be the impact of the creation in Part 5 of the new criminal offence committed by arbitrators purporting to exercise a judicial function in family matters on the work of family law arbitration schemes, such as that recently set up by the Institute of Family Law Arbitrators, to which the noble Baroness referred?
Thirdly, again in that part of the Bill, is there sufficient evidence to show that, for those Sharia councils that may be claiming false jurisdiction on criminal and family cases, making such conduct a specific criminal offence is the best way of preventing it from happening? Most religious courts are not arbitration courts so the majority of practices in these courts would be unaffected by the Bill. It is true that most Sharia councils in the United Kingdom do not claim to be civil or state courts but mainly function to unbind non-legally recognised religious marriages. Claiming secular authority would contradict their nature, which is to apply religious not secular law. The real problem may not be so much false claims to civil legality but a lack of awareness of and engagement with civil legality, which itself is a symptom of a wider religious alienation from state and civil society.
Fourthly, is the trend towards non-legally recognised marriages likely to be stemmed through legislation, and specifically through the measures included in the Bill? That is a problematic area requiring attention. The few academic studies that have been carried out indicate that the majority of issues in religious courts are in relation to divorce. My concern is that the legislative solution proposed in the Bill, with its implied emphasis on Muslims and Sharia, could have the opposite, and doubtless unintended, effect of stigmatising those individuals in communities it is aiming to help. Dr Aisha Gill of Roehampton University published a paper in 2007 discussing this issue in relation to the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act. She argued that it may be better all round to channel resources into education and prevention rather than to develop targeted legislation.
Reference has already been made to other religions. In my capacity as the chairman of the Council of Christians and Jews, I would like to register a concern about what I again take to be the unintended side effects of some of the Bill's proposals. I refer especially to the Beth Din, the Jewish religious courts. One such effect is that under the Bill any Jewish couple who may seek guidance from a Beth Din about their rights and obligations relating to property or children on the break-up of a marriage will have to be turned away if those adjudicating are not to break the law. For those Orthodox Jews who wish to follow ancient Jewish law and bequeath their estate to their sons while conferring substantial dowries on their daughters, if a man died intestate his children would not be able to seek an adjudication of the Beth Din as to the disposition of the estate.
I do not for a moment doubt the sincerity of the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, in her wish not to inhibit religious freedoms through this Bill. The point has already been made in this debate that she is a well-known and respected campaigner for the cause of religious liberty at home and abroad. She is much respected, not least by the Bishops' Bench. However, as currently drafted, the Bill appears to present anomalies which could create problems for those who are well aware of their rights, are independently advised and want to approach their faith tribunals for adjudication in a matter which they believe to be covered by the rules of their faith.
Lord Singh of Wimbledon (Crossbench)
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester. I also sincerely thank the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, for her initiative and hard work in bringing this important Bill before the House. I applaud her courage in addressing an issue on which most people find it expedient to remain silent out of fear of being seen as attacking the important freedom of religion. I speak from the perspective of the Sikh religion. In a recent BBC interview with J K Rowling about her new book, The Casual Vacancy, which looks at the life and fortunes of a Sikh family, she acknowledged her admiration for the Sikh faith. From its very beginning it gave Sikh women equal rights in all aspects of life. Unfortunately, Sikhs do not always live up to the high ideals taught by Guru Nanak and his successors. The main reason is a male-dominated sub-continent culture which is shared in many other parts of the world. Understanding this negative culture is central to understanding the importance of this Bill.
Aneurin Bevan, the founder of the health service, may have been a little over the top when he famously said that whenever he heard the word "culture" he immediately thought of bacteria. He was talking about nasty practices being justified on the grounds of culture. He had a point. We all know that as well as the nasty sort of bacteria that can cause disease and infection, there are also good bacteria that help to keep us healthy. It is the same with culture. In its respect for family life and emphasis on responsible living, it benefits us all, but there is also a negative culture that supports, legitimises and perpetuates evils such as male domination and discrimination against women. The problem for all our different faiths is that unthinking and discriminatory cultural attitudes attach themselves to religious beliefs and distort them beyond recognition. This sometimes makes it difficult for followers of our different faiths to distinguish between uplifting ethical teachings and dubious social practices based on the prejudices of the day. It is this negative culture, particularly in regard to women, that Guru Nanak both exposed and opposed.
Unfortunately negative culture, which over the centuries has given power and privilege to some at the expense of others, is extremely difficult to eradicate. Today on the Indian sub-continent and in many other parts of the world, the treatment of women often varies between discriminatory and barbaric. This is particularly true of the Muslim world where, as we have seen in the Arab Spring, long-oppressed communities are bravely trying to find and assert a forward-looking identity, looking to enlightened attitudes towards women and respect for other communities. Unfortunately, a powerful and strident minority has a totally different agenda of contempt for other communities and a total rejection of enlightened social norms. It was this desire to return to a muscular, male-dominated past that led to the recent shooting in the head of a 14 year-old girl in Pakistan simply because she asked for education for girls. Such barbaric behaviour is light years away from the teachings of the Koran on the need for compassion and concern for the oppressed. This same point was made yesterday by the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, on BBC television when talking about the same subject. This Bill seeks to support those trying to carry the Koranic imperative of compassion into 21st century behaviour and practices.
I have many Muslim friends and, as a founder member of the Inter Faith Network for the United Kingdom, I have regular contact with people at all levels of Muslim society. They are both ashamed and stunned by extremist and bully boy behaviour. There is also growing disquiet in both religious and secular society about an apparent widespread conspiracy of silence in addressing such issues out of fear of offending cultural sensitivities, but silence simply encourages the bully boys and perpetuates injustice. As Edmund Burke reminded us, evil triumphs when good men do nothing. We need to remember that when Islam was founded, its teachings were far more enlightened than those of the surrounding cultures. Sharia law was developed to translate Islamic teachings into detailed guidance for everyday living. But society is always changing and what was acceptable hundreds of years ago, or even 20 or 30 years ago, may be considered oppressive today. As James Russell Lowell, the poet and social reformer, reminds us in a hymn:
"New occasions teach new duties; Time makes ancient good uncouth;They must upward still, and onward, who would keep abreast of Truth".
Arbitration and mediation in resolving differences in religious communities is fine if carried out on the basis of equality between all parties. Today, laws, codes or social practices that seek to perpetuate discrimination against women in any society are no longer acceptable. It is for these reasons that I welcome and give my full support, and that of my community, to this Bill. I am confident that it will have the support of many people of all faiths, those in secular society and, I hope, from all political parties in a common quest for a fairer and more cohesive society.
Lord Cormack (Conservative)
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Singh, in his thought for the day. I would just ask him to take comfort that Sikhs are not the only people who fail always to live up to their religious ideals. Christians are quite good at that too. I join the universal thanks and tributes to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox. She really has been a lodestar for so many people for such a long time that we are all, directly or indirectly, in her debt. She goes where many of us ought to go and she does what many of us ought to do, and in introducing this Bill today she has performed another signal service for which we are all very grateful.
I do not like to see the law of my country sidestepped, overridden, ignored or, even worse, subverted, and I am therefore extremely grateful, as I am sure we all are, for the initiative taken by the noble Baroness, but the Bill is not enough. She has been extremely generous in what she has said about her willingness to listen to amendments. She has been very generous in recognising that any Private Member's Bill is an imperfect vehicle for change. I give the Bill my support. I hope that it proceeds and is amended in Committee, and I would like to see it on the statute book, but I repeat: the Bill is not enough, because what we have got to seek to do in this country is to ensure that the rule of law, which means the protection of the law, is available for everyone. The Bill, whenever enacted, is not going to reach out into every community. I am just sorry that not one of our Muslim Peers is taking part in this debate today- I am sure that there are excellent reasons for that-because we have some very fine men and women of the Muslim faith who could have further enlightened our deliberations.
Yesterday, we had a very interesting debate on education. We were all constrained in the time we had to speak, but one point that I made, I should like, if the right reverend Prelate will forgive me, to repeat in part. A number of Peers in this House, from all parties and the Cross Benches, have been meeting in recent months to discuss citizenship and our young people. We are very anxious to reach the stage where every young person leaving school in this country has had a proper course in citizenship and goes through a citizenship ceremony and receives a certificate. What is the connection with the issue before us today? Well, it is a very simple one: it is only in that way that you can get across to every young man and woman in this country just what the rule of law is, what it means and what it means for them individually and collectively. Among the reading matter for such a course, I would certainly include Lord Bingham's magisterial short volume, The Rule of Law, a fine distillation of the wisdom of a great mind.
It is very important that all the young people in our schools, who have such diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds, realise that we are all subject to the same law and that we all have the same obligations, responsibilities, rights and protection. It is only by getting that across to every young person coming out of school that we will achieve what the noble Baroness is seeking to achieve with this Bill.
We have a golden opportunity for this. The noble Baroness, Lady O'Loan, made a very brief, passing reference to Magna Carta. On
We have always prided ourselves in this country, and in this Parliament in particular, on the rule of law and the fact that we are the custodians of it. One only has to think of Palmerston in another place-he was an Irish Peer so did not sit here-and that extraordinary Don Pacifico incident. To protect one harassed shopkeeper, he invoked those immortal words, "Civis Romanus sum", "I am a citizen of Rome", thinking back to St Paul who used that in his day-not that St Paul was entirely good and sound on the women issue. In a very dramatic and graphic way, Palmerston was saying that everyone who was subject to the sovereignty of the Queen-in that case, Queen Victoria-was deserving of the protection of the law. That is a bold claim for us to make but, in our multilingual, multiethnic and multifaith society, we must see that in the 21st century all people have the protection of the law.
I have had the good fortune to attend a couple of the briefings that the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, organised for those with an interest in the Bill. Until I got her first letter, I had not really given it much thought, but I came along and listened. Some of your Lordships here this afternoon were there last week when we heard the testimony of two brave young Muslim women who had been the victims-that is the only word one can advisedly use-of the injustice of Sharia law. The noble Baroness referred to others in her speech. I defy anyone to have listened to those testimonies and then come out of that meeting unmoved and undetermined. We are only as good as the way in which we treat the least of our citizens. Far too many in this country, through ignorance among other things, do not get the benefit of the protection of our laws. If we make a small step in the direction of remedying that deficiency by passing this Bill, we will have performed a real service.
Baroness Turner of Camden (Labour)
My Lords, I support the Bill and at the same time express my appreciation for the work of the noble Baroness, Lady Cox. She has undertaken a great deal of research in support of the Bill. I have learnt a great deal from her and am grateful for it. I want to emphasise, as many others have done, that the Bill is not an attack on religious faith. I am a secularist but I believe strongly that everyone has a right to religion or faith, and to practice it without discrimination if they wish. I am concerned only if attempts are made to impose practices on those who do not share religion by citing religious or cultural reasons.
The Bill seeks to protect vulnerable people, mostly women, who may find themselves in a situation in which UK law would protect them but who nevertheless are not aware of the legal situation which provides such assistance or are prevented from accessing such a system because of community pressure. We have seen the development in this country of so-called Sharia courts that seek to give advice and judgments which often discriminate against women. They do so in areas where there is quite specific UK law in family and criminal matters.
That is particularly the case regarding divorce, where the woman may not be aware of her rights under UK law and may seek a decision from a Sharia court. She may encounter very much difficulty in that, as is covered in much of the research undertaken by the noble Baroness, Lady Cox. The so-called court may first try mediation, even in cases where there has been domestic violence against the woman. It may claim that the decision of the court requires the consent of the husband. Moreover, the woman's evidence is worth less than that of a man. A woman who has been widowed may not remarry without the permission of a male relative. There may well be financial problems. A woman may not inherit on the same level as a man. There may be problems about children. Children over the age of seven automatically pass into the care of a man following a divorce decision by a Sharia court. Furthermore, polygamy is culturally acceptable.
Occasionally, the suggestion is made that there should be a parallel system of law to assist minority communities, and particular reference is made to so-called Sharia courts. When one looks at the cultural differences involved and the protection available to women via UK law, in my view, that is clearly unacceptable. There must be one law for all.
The previous century saw substantial improvements in women's rights in the UK. Generations of women fought for those rights: the right to vote, to participate in public life, to equal pay, access to the professions and higher education, laws relating to the family and divorce and, of course, our current equality law. We will not have these advances undermined by the establishment of some form of parallel law at a much lower level. That is what so-called Sharia law envisages.
The Bill is intended to make it easier for women to bring claims for discrimination to the county court, and provides a positive obligation on public authorities to ensure that women in the situations to which our research draws attention know what are their rights and how to get them enforced. Social or religious pressure may often be imposed to prevent them accessing the UK justice system. That may be a problem, but there are already provisions in law relating to witness intimidation. The Bill is intended to cover those where a witness is assisting the police and is a victim of domestic violence. That sometimes happens. That should be included so that protection in such cases becomes a priority.
Clause 7 would make it an offence for people to assume judicial authority that they do not have. That would apply to community councils or groups of elders claiming to have legally enforceable powers and thus able to issue decisions of a discriminatory nature in defiance of the law.
Of course, all that is quite complicated, and many women who opt for a religious marriage do not realise that there will then not be protection under UK law unless they have a UK-registered marriage. The Bill is an attempt to deal with that by ensuring that there is a public duty to ensure that women are fully advised of their rights under UK law. We cannot continue to accept a situation in which women are suffering from forms of discrimination which we believed had been outlawed many years ago.
During discussion on the Bill, we have had the opportunity to meet women who have suffered from discrimination of the kind that the Bill is intended to eradicate. Many have had to cope with social and community problems and, often, domestic violence. They have often felt very alone. Fortunately, there are organisations that have been able to help such women. One such organisation is Southall Black Sisters, the organisation to which the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, has already referred. It supports women caught up in domestic or community pressure. It supports the Bill, although it thinks that it does not go far enough. It is concerned about the increasing pressure being exerted by many religious organisations which seek to intervene in family matters. It would like amendments to be introduced to the Arbitration Act 1996 so as not to allow any religious laws to be used in family matters. It also thinks that anyone seeking to arbitrate on family matters and using religious laws should be deemed to be committing a criminal offence, punishable with a fine or imprisonment. I have some sympathy with its point of view but have said that the Bill as it stands represents a very substantial step forward. There will be an opportunity in Committee or on Report for some of these views to be discussed.
During the discussion this afternoon I have received a message saying that the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, who had intended and very much wanted to participate in the debate, is unfortunately ill and unable to be here. I know that she would want me to say that she fully supports the Bill, which is in line with the campaign that she has been engaged upon all her life in support of vulnerable women, particularly those who are often not of a European background. She heartily hopes, as I, too, hope, that there will be support for the Bill from the House.
Lord Williamson of Horton (Crossbench)
My Lords, this Bill is intended to deal with a number of problems and injustices which have arisen at the interface between actions, whether formal or informal, by Sharia bodies and the application of UK law. The Bill is particularly important for the protection of women; it would be morally indefensible to turn a blind eye to this.
The first point which the Bill deals with is arbitration proceedings that operate according to Sharia and discrimination against women. The Bill does this in Clause 1(2) by making it clear that sex discrimination law applies to arbitration tribunal proceedings. This is to close a possible loophole in the Equality Act 2010 so that tribunals which operate legitimately under the Arbitration Act 1996 cannot use discriminatory Sharia rules, such as a woman's testimony being worth half that of a man. It would be sad indeed if, having spent centuries in the United Kingdom on action to eliminate discrimination against women, we were to allow it to be re-established because we did not have the courage to speak out.
Secondly, Clause 1(4) sets out to make better information available to women in polygamous households and women who have had a religious marriage but may not be aware that it is not recognised under UK civil law. It has been estimated-although the reliability of these estimates is pretty difficult to assess-that about two-thirds of Muslim marriage ceremonies in Britain are not registered under the Marriage Act.
Thirdly, the Bill strengthens a court's powers to set aside rulings where discrimination has taken place, thus making it possible for a decision of an arbitration tribunal to be struck down. Clause 4 is an important clause, expressly stating in the proposed legislation the present position that arbitration cannot deal with family or criminal law matters. This is a restatement of the current defence against a parallel legal jurisdiction in this country, described in the British Academy report as a minority jurisdiction.
Clauses 5 and 6 deal with intimidation. Thirteen cases of intimidation are quoted in our briefing and are said to be the tip of the iceberg. More specifically, Clause 5 strengthens court powers to set aside court orders where there is evidence that consent to the agreement was obtained under duress including, importantly, the possibility for third parties other than the women affected to apply for the court order to be struck down. Clause 6 makes clear that a victim of domestic abuse is a witness to an offence and should be expressly protected from intimidation.
The Bill creates a new criminal offence for a person who purports to legally adjudicate on matters that ought to be decided by Crown, criminal or family courts. This is designed to prevent the creeping loss of our legislative system, to the detriment of the rule of law in the United Kingdom.
In conclusion, the Bill is a step towards the respect of the quality of all under a single law of the land. For society as a whole, this is a very important point. In addition, and perhaps for me personally even more importantly, it may lead to some progress in reducing pressure, intimidation and discrimination against women, which should not be tolerated in Britain today. I thank my courageous colleague, the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, for bringing the Bill forward.
Lord Kalms (Conservative)
My Lords, the substance of the Bill is straightforward, and it should be acceptable to all Members of this House. It is this: that the law of the land is, and must remain, paramount; no law should ever override or sit above the law of this land; and, while amendments can and will be made to our laws, the fundamental bedrock principles on which our legal system is based not only cannot but must not be open for negotiation. Among our absolutely non-negotiable principles must be the principle of equality before the law. This hard-fought-for concept of one law for all remains among the greatest achievements not only of our country but of humankind. Any court not abiding 100% by the law of the land has no more status than a kangaroo court.
Before addressing the specific legal system that poses most threat to these principles, I shall first address a misleading counterexample that is often thrown up and will doubtless emerge from this debate. As a consequence of the Arbitration Act 1996, all sorts of individuals, authorities and quasi-authorities can provide, or hold themselves up as providing, a form of legal arbitration in the UK. This includes secular, non-religious organisations as well as religious organisations. Among the latter are the Jewish courts, or Beth Din, which arbitrate between Jews who volunteer themselves up to arbitration and its auspices. However, not only are the rules of the Beth Din complementary to UK law but they are, and of course must always remain, wholly subservient to it. It is not possible, for instance, for a Jewish court to adjudicate any arbitration case in such a fashion that the judgment runs contrary to the law of the land. In addition, the Beth Din are highly regulated by central regulating bodies.
This brings me to the case of Sharia courts. It was the Labour MP Sadiq Khan who said four years ago that Sharia was utterly unsuitable for the UK because, among other reasons, there was a lack of sophistication or regulatory power in the Muslim communities of Britain. It is no insult to Muslims to remark that, unlike the Jewish community, Muslim authority in the UK, as worldwide, is highly diffuse and lacks any centralising authority. Additionally, we have already seen that Sharia courts in the UK not only seek to tread outside the remit of the Arbitration Act but already do so. For instance, the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal says by its own admission that most of its work falls outside the remit of the Arbitration Act, and is instead work that treads right into the realm of family law.
On the substance, there are two primary reasons why Sharia law provides a new type of challenge to the law of the land and why the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, is right to bring this matter to our attention. The first is the issue of competing legal frameworks. To say that there might in future be cases in which Sharia courts overstretch their remit is to be grossly unaware of the present. There are already a large number of such cases which are publicly known, widely reported and the source of significant public concern. Self-described Sharia courts have, on a number of occasions, already reached beyond what might be acceptable in a case of arbitration and over into cases which include the criminal. To my knowledge, none of these cases has ever received police attention or investigation, and this is a scandal for which the police, among other authorities, must be held responsible.
Secondly, there is the clear issue of the contravention of a fundamental of our law. Foremost among the fundamentals being violated is the principle of equality of the sexes. This House must of course be careful to ensure that religious liberty is protected, but religious liberty and legal liberty are different things. Where religious liberty runs in direct contravention of the law of the land, the religious demand must be put into its correct place. It should be totally unacceptable to this House that a situation should exist in Britain in which women are routinely awarded second-class status to men. The principle by which, for instance, the testimony of women is regarded as being worth half that of a man is, sadly, a principle with a long, historical basis in Islamic law, and is practised in jurisdictions around the world in which Sharia law is implemented.
Even in the case of arbitration, that appears to me to be totally unacceptable. How can this House permit a situation to arise-or be permitted, let alone encouraged-in which a woman is given a second-class status? How can this country in any way hold its head up as a standard-bearer of human rights and genuine equality, so long as some women in our country are born to the same rights as men, and others born in the same country are not?
Doubtless, there will be Members of this House who protest that women who choose to submit themselves to decisions made by a Sharia court for arbitration must have their wishes respected, even if those wishes do lead, as they must, to their second-class status. This demands two points in response. First, there is the issue of whether this House and this country have any confidence in their own values. If we do not have that confidence, then we should say so, but we should know that it will lead to a situation in which people in this country can break the law, ignore any concept of jurisdiction and place themselves in a legal community apart from all other people in this country. That appears to be the basis not for national cohesion but for national breakdown.
The second issue, which cannot be stressed enough, is raised by the concept of "voluntary". It is extremely easy for Members of this House to presume what those outside this place do is "voluntary" or otherwise. But around this country, as numerous experts in this field can attest, the question of what is and is not "voluntary" is highly contestable. We may, for instance, say in this place that no woman should submit to a ruling by a Sharia court unless she has volunteered to do so. But how on earth are people here to know whether such acts are voluntary? What protection does the state provide when the police and social services, where they are not drawn from the same community as the girl in question, are too timid or fearful of anything which runs counter to the community's professed traditions or beliefs? There are many accounts of women who have found themselves trapped in precisely those situations. Whole groups and organisations have begun to be set up to support such women. The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, has brought some women from such organisations to speak to Members of this House, as we heard the other day.
Many of these areas are distinctly cut-off, ethnic and religious enclaves. How do people in this House suppose that a young girl born in such a town, and brought up to defer to religious leaders should behave when those same religious leaders hold themselves out also as legal authorities, when such authorities are in a position not merely to give religious advice but to lay down legal judgments? There is now substantial evidence that far from volunteering themselves up to judgment by Sharia courts, many women in Britain at this time are in fact forced to do so.
Today this House has an opportunity to make a stand and draw a firm line. It should be this: that no British citizen should ever sit before a court or judge whose basic principles are in opposition to the most cherished principles of this country and its law. Whether we have the confidence to draw this line clearly will not only affect the issue of integration in this country, it will send out a signal about the kind of country we and our children would wish to live in.
Lord Swinfen (Conservative)
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, on bringing this Bill forward. Members of this House of many religions have spoken today and, like my noble friend Lord Cormack, I am sorry that so far we have not heard any representatives from the Muslim faith, which I think would have been very useful.
It is well over 50 years since I was at school and most of the history that I learnt I have probably forgotten. However, I can remember being taught that in the Middle Ages we had the Royal Courts of Justice, but that those who worked for the church as clergy, or just worked for or were connected with it, were judged by ecclesiastical courts. The punishments and decisions of the two systems of justice were not always the same. I am glad to say that we got rid of that because everyone should be treated the same and fairly under the law. Unfortunately, another form of religious court appears to be coming into being. In due course, it could produce division through the peoples of this country, which we wish to avoid. We must have equality and fairness for all under the law.
In the briefings that I have read on this subject, I understand that many Muslim marriages are invalid under British law and that very few mosques have a licence to perform marriages. The vast majority of Christian churches are licensed to perform marriages and to register those marriages under the law of the land. In the Minister's reply, I should like to know what is being done to encourage and ensure that mosques, Hindu temples and other religious establishments in this country are licensed to perform marriages so that all people are properly protected, particularly the wives and children of those marriages. In the eyes of God, I am sure that the marriage is the same whether it has the right piece of paper or not, but it helps in this world to have the right piece of paper to produce at the right time.
What is being taught in schools on the operation of the law with regard to fairness under the law, mediation and arbitration? We have heard from others that the results are not always the same. The rulings of Sharia courts, Jewish courts, Hindu courts or Sikh courts should be confirmed by a judge in the Royal Courts of Justice, probably in chambers, to see that they are compliant with the law of the land and that the rulings are being fair to all, no matter what their religion and what part of the country they come from. I support this Bill.
Baroness Deech (Crossbench)
My Lords, I very much welcome this Bill and appreciate all the hard work and research that has gone into it. I join others in applauding the bravery of the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, whose record in speaking up for human rights and the oppressed is magnificent. While we are adjusting to multiculturalism-I think that in the future I will have to think of it as multibacterialism-in this country, there are some ground rules, some lines that cannot be crossed, no matter how compelling the religious practices at issue. Thus, the equality law of this country has caused, for example, Catholic adoption agencies to close because human rights trump religious beliefs in matters of equality. Very recently, the same test was applied to whether two men could share a room in a bed and breakfast rented out by a couple with religious objections.
The Bill has to face up to the difficult issue of drawing a line between good helpful mediation and arbitration on the one side and, on the other, the processes and principles that are contrary to equality law. Religious bodies certainly should not claim to deal with criminal offences or claim exclusive jurisdiction over civil issues, but much turns on the power and knowledge of those who appear in the courts, and we have to assume vulnerability in many, if not most, instances. Mediation can help in family law disputes provided that the parties meet on equal terms. Arbitration, however, may perpetuate irregularity of status that goes down the generations to the disadvantage of children if it is presented as the legal solution to a situation that needs finality in civil law.
In this Bill, the fundamental principles of British equality and respect for the rule of law, which imply one law for all, are fleshed out and serve as the parameters. Religious courts of all persuasions have to be subservient to the family law of this country. Yes, agreements can be reached and acted on with consent or presented to the court for enforcement, but we cannot allow shadow, and possibly unfair, family law and marriage law to go on sub rosa, to the detriment, in particular, of women and children. Their status, their dignity and their support have to be open under the law. They must have access to our courts, without being blocked, to enforce their family law rights. Each person in this situation needs to have knowledge about their situation and their rights in our common law in a language that they can understand. They must not be coerced into religious law, any more than any citizen should ever be coerced. In our law, duress vitiates contracts and marriages whoever you are.
Members of any religious community must not be left with the impression that they are outside the law of the land. For example, it is suspected that many marriages are entered into which are valid only under religious law and not under civil law. That must be wrong. There needs to be an effort to ensure that all religious marriages are properly celebrated under English law and polygamy is stamped out. There is no reason why all, or more, mosques should not register for legal civil ceremonies.
The law is encouraging private agreements in family disputes through prenuptial agreements and in relation to children's residence and money. This is partly in order to save legal aid and partly in the interests of harmony. However, these agreements are made in the shadow of English law and can always be taken to court. There may be loopholes in the drafting of this Bill, but I understand that it is intended to try to assist with the fall-out effects of unrecognised marriages. I am sure wording can be found to ensure that that is the case.
The Bill has the support of a group mentioned earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, Southall Black Sisters, a black and minority women's organisation that has existed since 1979 and has a national reach. Indeed, it thinks that it does not go far enough. It points out that cuts in legal aid will have the effect of causing more women and vulnerable people to use religious courts, which are, by and large, cheaper, and that these people will not be able to afford civil legal advice. This is another adverse effect of the drastic cuts in legal aid that have come about in recent years. This risks the growth of a second-rate justice system for minority communities, one which is not compatible with universal human rights principles. Southall Black Sisters is well aware of how women may be coerced into going before religious bodies and accepting decisions that are not in their interests within a system that lacks transparency and accountability and offends against the rule of law.
This Bill is important and will be welcomed by thousands who know about it and by many more who may be unaware of it but could benefit. I urge the House to progress with it.
Lord Elton (Conservative)
My Lords, I join my noble friends and others who have congratulated my friend, the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, not just on this Bill but her general work. My noble friend Lord Cormack referred to her as a "lode star". Having seen a good deal more of her work than perhaps he has, I would say that she is more like Halley's Comet during her visits here. This is a rare occasion when she focuses on the troubles in our little patch. She is active on all five continents and is often in considerable physical danger. However, this is not a party called to celebrate her gallantry and generosity. I will therefore move swiftly on to the substance of the Bill that she brings before us.
The general principle in the Bill is pretty clear, and it is a principle that is subscribed to by all your Lordships: if we are to have two strata of law-a national and universal law, and some sort of minority laws within it-it is absolutely essential that the minority laws shall be in conformity with the national law. That is simple and it is a secular, not a religious, statement. I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, is here specifically as a secular being and is pronouncing on this so that those of us who are known to be of particular faiths can look to him to validate what we say as regards the logic and history of law.
It seems pretty simple to adumbrate that general statement that there must be conformity between the minor and the major systems of law, but it is not quite as straightforward as that. This debate and the Bill have focused attention on the particular faith of the Muslims and a particular form of practice in the Muslim faith with regard to the implementation of religious laws. It is not just sad but a desperate pity that there is no Muslim voice in this debate. I, for one, long to have some illumination as to what the regard for Sharia is among the different groupings of the Muslim faith, and what sort of material and emotions we are dealing with as we discuss it. My friend the right reverend Prelate said that we have to go carefully in this, and he is right. At the bottom of all this is a religious faith.
My noble friend has emphasised, as have others, that it is actually ignorance that is the great weakener of the female sex in these situations because they are not aware of the rights that they might otherwise have. However, it is not ignorance that takes all of them into those courts or leads all of them to be governed by their decisions; it is the faith of the participants that does so. As long as women believe that it is natural justice that they should be treated as they are under Sharia law, they will not seek to liberate themselves from it and, regardless of what the civil courts may say, they will abide by it.
The question of education is of prime importance. I admired my noble friend's diatribe in favour of citizenship, and I rather think that I shall join his ranks. I think that Runnymede was actually a conference of barons securing their rights, which have filtered down more widely to us now, but that is a small point of history. I must not be drawn astray in the short time we have left.
The Bill has to be studied in detail in Committee. I support the right reverend Prelate in saying that of course it is bad legislative practice, and unnecessary, to put into law something that is there already. I strongly suspect that a good deal of this is there already, but the difficulty is that it is spread out in different pieces of legislation and amendments to them, and is not known about. This relates to education again-not of the people who go to the courts but of the courts themselves. I wonder if there is any requirement for people who sit on these bodies to be qualified in any way that is recognised by the British legal system. It would be a very good thing if they were, so that they are aware of the detail of the civil law with which they must conform. At some point there will be a conflict-and we should not be shy of that fact-between those who believe passionately that Sharia law is the be-all and end-all of their faith and those who do not. However, we do not know, because of the absentees from this debate, what proportion of the population of this country who subscribe to the Muslim faith fall into either group. We have to go cautiously, but if we are to have justice for our citizens, which is what they now are-brothers and sisters, as we would say-they must be protected in some way.
My noble friend has taken a bold step. In Committee, we shall be able to discover how much further, in what direction and how much more cautiously we have to proceed. I thank her for what she has done.
Baroness Uddin (Labour)
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, for enabling me to stand in the gap and say a few words. I apologise to the House that, having overlooked today's business, I am not much more prepared. I, too, thank and commend the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, and her international work, in particular in respect of the protection of minority rights and minority Christian rights abroad. She is venturing into a new arena and I commend her work.
Many of the concerns expressed about religious courts in the Muslim traditions are valid. However, such concerns could also be expressed about religious courts in other traditions. As has already been mentioned, it would be much more appropriate for reforms to be undertaken by the Government. It is wrong that this should be flying under the flag of religious persons, or certain groups and their interests. Despite the number of protestations today that this is not rooted in hostility to any one religion, the perception outside this House is that this is another assault on Muslims. The way forward, therefore, is for the Government to look at this, in partnership with the communities affected and in particular with women's organisations such as Southall Black Sisters and people such as Dr Aisha Gill, whose work I commend to noble Lords.
I also agree that no laws should supersede the laws of the land where citizens reside. Coercion into religious law is unacceptable, especially for women as vulnerable as they are when facing such critical conditions as divorces, separation or violence against them. The evidence about violence against women leads us directly to gender injustices and inequality. As has also been said, by the noble Baroness, Lady O'Loan, lack of adequate information and language barriers may indeed be culpable when it comes to why Muslim women in particular are not seeking mainstream legal protection; as must be the lack of funding for many of the well established organisations that have been working in this field and struggling to survive on their own.
The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, eloquently described the need for more than just enacting this law. Education and citizenship are absolutely imperative in achieving informed citizens and equal rights for women. I submit myself to his ongoing work in this area.
Finally, I humbly echo the thoughtful contribution of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester and urge caution in our deliberations. We must not journey along a path that further marginalises those who seek our protection.
Baroness Thornton (Labour)
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Uddin for her remarks and, indeed, I echo her final comments to the House.
I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, on successfully introducing her Bill. I also thank her most sincerely for sending me the excellent briefing that she prepared on why she felt moved to bring forward this Private Member's Bill.
There is no doubt, as this debate reveals, that there is very serious disquiet about the fate of some women who are subject to some religious laws-particularly Muslim women under Sharia law, although, as the noble Lord, Lord Kalms, pointed out, it is not limited to the mediation and arbitration services of the Sharia law councils. We cannot ignore those concerns. What contribution this Bill will make to remedy that discrimination is the question before us today, and the right reverend Prelate posed four excellent questions.
We on these Benches are proud of our record both in government and in opposition in championing women's equality and fighting hard against discrimination wherever it is found. Indeed, almost all the legislation that seeks to protect women, dealing with discrimination and violence against women, has been introduced by Labour Governments. We massively increased the resources available to tackle violence against women; we recast the legislative framework; and we increased sentences for offenders. An irony here is that, because of the forthcoming reductions in legal aid, women who seek redress on domestic violence grounds will find that even more difficult, and we know that, because of the austerity agenda, things such as refuges will not be as widely available as they were.
It is not surprising that we would be very concerned if the Equality Act, which I helped to steer through your Lordships' House in 2010, were deficient in the protection that it offers against discrimination. Therefore, my first question is directed at the Minister, as well as at the noble Baroness. Have the Government carried out, as it were, a sweep and identified the loopholes that this Bill seeks to plug, and does the Bill succeed in strengthening the existing legislation in the way that the noble Baroness proposes, or is part of the issue here enforcement of the existing legislation? If so, in what way, and how can we remedy that?
I am aware that many organisations are very concerned about the position faced by some Muslim women in the terms outlined by the noble Baroness and others today, particularly with regard to the rights of women who are not married under British civil law. I completely accept the argument that has been made by most noble Lords-that, as citizens of the UK, we are all subject to the same laws. We have to ensure that that is not just something that we say but a reality, and that is partly what the Bill is about.
I read with interest the media coverage that this issue received when the noble Baroness launched her Bill. I have read her briefing and that of the British Academy, which has already been referred to. I have also read what the Islamic Sharia Council has to say. Southall Black Sisters supports the Bill in general but is concerned about some of its detail. I was also very struck by the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, many of whose reservations I think we may share.
I come from and grew up in Bradford, and this whole discussion has reminded me of something that we have had to deal with in Bradford in the past few years. The issue was the treatment of children, particularly boys, in the madrassahs and mosques. The IPPR think tank, with the support of the Gulbenkian Foundation, published a generally very positive report about the work of the madrassahs and supplementary schools. However, it pointed to the ill treatment of children, particularly boys. There was also a television programme and a radio programme, which noble Lords might remember.
I will reflect on how that was dealt with in Bradford. Using existing powers and the current legal framework, Bradford Council required that all supplementary schools receiving its support, including madrassahs, had to comply with certain conditions. All staff working with children had to undergo enhanced CRB disclosure; there had to be a fully operational child protection policy and a designated person for child protection; and there had to be attendance at child protection training.
To encourage supplementary schools, the council, through its diversity and cohesion service working, with the local safeguarding board, produced a model child protection policy in 2007. This was translated into the many community languages that we have in Bradford, including Urdu and Bengali, to ensure that staff working with children in faith-based organisations fully understood their roles and responsibilities when it came to safeguarding the children and young people in their care. This was backed up by child protection training from the council. Positive behaviour management courses were introduced in 2009 to help the supplementary schools address challenging behaviour by young people. In 2011, the Council for Mosques and the local safeguarding board jointly funded a child protection social work post, based in the Council for Mosques, to advise madrassahs on safe childcare practices.
The reason I mention the ongoing programme in Bradford is that no new legislation was required to remedy what was clearly a matter of very great concern. What was required was the enforcement of existing legislation and practice and a great deal of communication on the ground. A great deal of sensitive work was carried out with local mosques and community leaders, and very firm signals were given about how child protection law applied in this case. The programme was led by members and officers of the council, and it remains part of its ongoing community cohesion work.
My question to the noble Baroness, and to the Minister is: how much work has been done to have those types of discussions and to apply those sorts of approaches to enforce the existing legal framework and ensure that the anti-discrimination law that we already have applies across the piece in the way that was intended? My question is about discussions that the noble Baroness may have had with the Government, law officers and community leaders to explore ways of ensuring that our equalities legislation is enforced and underpins the work of the arbitration and mediation services, as it should.
I was struck by a suggestion that the British Academy made. It stated:
"The EHRC should introduce a benchmark within its Equality Measurement Framework to capture the experience of women users of minority legal orders. The result should be published as part of the Triennial Review which monitors progress on equality, dignity and respect for UK citizens. This could form the basis for considering whether the EHRC has a role in supporting religious women who are users of minority legal orders, as suggested by the EHRC's recent research on understanding equality and human rights in relation to religion and belief".
I wonder whether this has happened, and whether it would be a very good idea.
We are tackling a very serious problem. It may be that equalities and other legislation need to be strengthened. I was very reassured when the noble Baroness said that the issue is complex, sensitive and delicate, and that it would be a very good idea to open it up for broader examination and debate in Committee. Ultimately, if action needs to be taken, there is no question that we will support it, but it needs to be at the end of that process. I accept that. The proposals in the Bill are very important. We on these Benches will dedicate ourselves to finding legislative or other solutions to the discrimination that has been outlined. We support the Second Reading and look forward to working with the noble Baroness and the Government to find solutions to these problems.
Lord Gardiner of Kimble (Conservative)
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, for bringing this matter for debate in the House today and explaining why she wants to see the measures in her Bill come into force. Her support of women's rights across the world is well recognised and I admire her courage and determination in seeking decency and justice.
I have listened carefully to all the points that noble Lords have made, yet the Government have reservations as to whether the measures in the Bill are the best way forward, some of which have already been articulated sensitively by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester.
The noble Baroness's Bill is driven by the concern that all citizens should have the same rights. It has been suggested that religious law principles applied by arbitral tribunals and religious councils in this country may undermine the principle of equal rights under the law. Let me make it quite clear that religious principles can be applied legally in the national courts context only if both sides have freely agreed to be bound by them. Regardless of religious belief, every citizen is equal before the law.
The Bill prohibits the use of arbitration in family disputes. The Government, like their predecessors, are keen to promote the use of non-court dispute resolution services for family and other disputes. Typically this is through mediation. However, couples, communities and other groups have the option to use arbitration and to apply religious considerations. For example, the Jewish Beth Din has long been recognised as able to conduct arbitrations applying Jewish law considerations. The Muslim Arbitration Tribunal, established in 2007, provides an alternative route to resolve civil law disputes in accordance with Sharia principles. In both cases this is because the Arbitration Act 1996 allows parties to an arbitration to agree any system of law or rules, other than national laws, to be applied by the arbitral tribunal. Crucially, both parties must freely have agreed to arbitration and to the use of religious principles. Even where religious law considerations have been applied to an arbitration, the resulting decisions are subject to review by the national courts on a number of grounds, including whether the agreement was freely concluded.
Religious councils that are not governed by the provisions of the Arbitration Act are different. The recommendations of religious councils such as Sharia councils and the marriage tribunal in the Catholic Church are not binding in law because of this. Such recommendations are subject to the law of the land.
The noble Baroness raised concerns over coercion. No one should feel pressurised or coerced into a using a Sharia or other religious council to resolve their dispute. Any member of any community has the right to refer to a civil court at any point, particularly if they feel pressured or coerced to resolve an issue in a particular way. If there has been coercion, the outcome of any mediation or arbitration cannot be enforced.
The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, has raised concerns about religious councils adjudicating on matters of domestic violence and violence against women. Quite clearly domestic violence is a dreadful form of abuse and is unacceptable in our society. We are determined to do all we can to tackle it and the Government's approach is set out in the action plan Call to End Violence Against Women and Girls. It is essential that victims and potential victims are aware of the support and advice available. Indeed, the Government have been working with many groups on this. The Government are working with statutory, faith and other organisations to ensure that messages reach across all communities.
Many of the issues that the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, raises are already addressed in existing legislation. For example, the Equality Act prohibits discrimination on the grounds of sex. The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act prohibits intimidation of all witnesses. Common law already restricts what can be arbitrated and the Government have no plans to change this. Several noble Lords raised consent orders being checked by the courts. The court is under a duty to question any order which appears unfair and can refuse to make the order.
Turning to the specific proposals in the Bill-and answering the question of the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton- in Part 1 changing the Equality Act so that it applies to arbitral tribunals is considered unnecessary. Under the Arbitration Act tribunals must act fairly and impartially. Awards can be challenged in court if this duty is breached or there is other irregularity. Section 142(1) of the Equality Act already makes contracts unenforceable if they treat someone in a discriminatory way. This would apply to the results of mediations facilitated by a religious council if they were discriminatory. A consultation under Section 149 of the Equality Act is under way to establish whether the public sector equality duty that it creates is operating as intended. It would be wrong to amend Section 149 while the Government are carrying out such a review.
Turning to Part 2 of this Bill, arbitral tribunals must act fairly and impartially and can apply religious considerations only if all parties agree. It is already the common law that criminal acts and some family matters, such as child residence and contact, cannot be arbitrated. As I said, it is government policy to encourage alternative dispute resolution, including arbitration in limited circumstances to resolve family matters. However, it is important for people to be aware of their rights under our country's legal system. In Part 3, the proposed changes to the Family Law Act 1996 are deemed unnecessary, as contracts are unenforceable if made under duress. The judge will not make an order unless he or she is satisfied that there was consent and equal bargaining power between the parties.
In Part 4, Section 51 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act already makes it an offence to intimidate those assisting an investigation, witnesses and potential witnesses. This includes victims of domestic violence.
In Part 5, I finally turn to the proposed new crime of falsely claiming legal jurisdiction. The Government believe that introducing the proposed offences is unnecessary. This is because Sharia councils and other religious councils have no jurisdiction in this country, therefore any decision they make can never be legally binding. If any decisions or recommendations made by any religious councils or arbitration tribunals were illegal or contrary to public policy or national law, then national law would always prevail.
Baroness Deech (Crossbench)
The noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, has said more than once that if something improper happened in a religious court, the courts of the land would ignore it or undo it. Is not the problem that those who have these religious orders made will never know about the courts of our land or will never get to them? Therefore the English courts do not have the supervisory power that the Minister has suggested and which we wish they had.
Lord Gardiner of Kimble (Conservative)
I am most grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, because that is precisely what I wish to come to. I was setting out what I call the legalistic frame of why the Government have reservations about the Bill's provisions, but I assure the noble Baroness that there is much more to come.
Increased awareness requires changes to society, not changes to the law. This means that it is not just a job for the Government. Communities and community organisations must also give a lead in communicating so that the rights of all our citizens are understood and protected. The Government are committed to working with communities and faith groups to take this forward. Practical co-operation between faith groups is crucial to the integrated society we want to build. It is about people from different backgrounds working together for a common good and tackling shared social problems.
The Government work with many faith bodies: the Church of England, the Catholic Bishops' Conference, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Network of Sikh Organisations UK and national Muslim organisations including the British Muslim Forum, Muslim Hands UK and the Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board. Perhaps I may also say, as noble Lords have referred to the Southall Black Sisters, that the Government have worked in conjunction with that organisation and others to raise the points made particularly by the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, and other noble Lords, and in formulating, among other things, an information pack to ensure that rights are better and more widely known.
Noble Lords have also highlighted their concern about those Muslim marriages which are not registered. These are not legally valid in England and Wales and do not enable parties to seek a financial settlement in the family court if the marriage breaks down. The Government are aware of the problem and the great hardship it can cause. As a result, the Government are examining ways to increase awareness of the legal consequences of religious-only marriages so as to ensure that the rights of families and children are protected. The Department for Communities and Local Government also works with local bodies such as the St Philip's Centre in Leicester and the East London Three Faiths Forum. These bodies, along with many others, do excellent work to encourage and help link up faith-based social action, including people from different ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds.
For all the reasons I have set out, the Government are not convinced that introducing the measures proposed in this Bill-
Lord Carlile of Berriew (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for giving way. He has given an Olympian exegesis of the processes and laws and consultations that are available to deal with the intellectual problem that underlies the Bill of the noble Baroness, Lady Cox. However, we are concerned here with real people and real cases. How long does my noble friend expect it will take before these Olympian provisions and attentions lead to the removal of these injustices from the history of real people in the United Kingdom?
Lord Gardiner of Kimble (Conservative)
I thank my noble friend for that intervention because it gives me an opportunity to conclude by saying that the Government are fully committed to protecting the rights of all citizens, and there is legislation in place to uphold those rights. What I said earlier is that the Government are actively working with groups to ensure that there is awareness and a change of attitude. The Government believe that that is the best way forward to ensure that the points of view that have been expressed so widely around the House-
Lord Elton (Conservative)
I am sorry, I am right behind my noble friend-in one sense only. I intervene just to ask my noble friend whether, when he develops the policies he has told us about in Olympian terms, he will be very careful as regards the sources of the briefings he is given and the research that has gone into them. It is clear that some of the briefings I have seen have simply been drawn from the bodies that are being investigated themselves, with no connection at all with those who have suffered at their hands, or indeed did not even know that they had any recourse.
Lord Gardiner of Kimble (Conservative)
I can assure my noble friend that the Government and all the other groups that are interested in resolving this issue will be looking at all the evidence. In reaching the conclusions on how best to take it forward, we will be bringing forward a matter that is sensitive, and therefore the Government are working hard with other groups to ensure-
Lord Cormack (Conservative)
I appreciate that this is my noble friend's first wind-up from the Dispatch Box and that he has the goodwill of the whole House. However, will he discuss with his colleagues in government some of the citizenship points that I raised during this debate, because it is only through having a thoroughly well educated population aware of its rights and responsibilities that we can finally lay to rest the things which concern us so much in this House?
Lord Gardiner of Kimble (Conservative)
My Lords, I am delighted to agree with my noble friend. I shall certainly raise those matters that he raised as well as those points that all noble Lords have expressed in this debate.
Lord Swinfen (Conservative)
Before my noble friend sits down, could he answer the question that I asked when I spoke as to what the Government are doing to ensure that mosques are licensed to carry out marriages and that there is a civil document for those who are married rather than a purely religious document which is not valid in English law?
Lord Gardiner of Kimble (Conservative)
My Lords, as I have said, the Government are working with faith groups. One of the points that will be considered is that some mosques are registered but not all. I certainly think that this is an interesting way forward.
Baroness Cox (Crossbench)
My Lords, I am deeply grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken and for the widespread support for this Bill from all parts of your Lordships' House. I have also listened carefully to criticisms, reservations and suggestions for improvement and will ensure that all of them are taken into account as I and my colleagues working on the Bill proceed to the next stage.
Perhaps I may briefly respond to two of the questions raised by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester just to have it on the record. First, he asked whether it is not already the case that the High Court will not enforce an agreement if it is discriminatory. It is very rare for the High Court to inquire into the facts behind an agreement; for example, to find out whether there is real consent. The evidence proves that the current legal framework is not enough. My Bill, as I said, will make it easier to overturn a discriminatory agreement. Advocacy groups which work with Muslim women what this Bill for precisely this reason. I hope that that may reassure the right reverend Prelate.
The right reverend Prelate also asked whether people who go to religious bodies for advice on property rights and child custody have to be turned away for fear of breaching the new criminal offence. I understand that the answer to that is absolutely not. As I said in my introduction, people can submit voluntarily to any rulings or advice they wish; there is no coercion with regard to people who voluntarily accept discriminatory proceedings because of their faith commitments or for any other reason. My Bill serves only to try to help people who decide that they do not wish to submit to discriminatory rulings.
As I mentioned, we will seek to explore the very important and, I repeat, complex and sensitive issues which the Bill seeks to address either in ad hoc committee or an independent committee of inquiry. This will provide an opportunity to obtain further evidence of the need for some legislation and to fine-tune the Bill with amendments in Committee. I am delighted that the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, filled the gap in more senses than one by not only speaking in the speakers' gap but also bringing a Muslim voice to this debate. We really appreciate that and we look forward to representatives of all different faith traditions, as well as those committed to secular viewpoints, coming to the committee of inquiry, whichever form it takes. All will be able to bring wisdom, experience, concerns and evidence to such a committee and, therefore, I hope that it will be very representative in the evidence that it receives.
Baroness Uddin (Labour)
Will the noble Baroness accept that in any proposition made or further work done in relation to this matter, she and her other colleagues will ensure that there is proper leadership from Muslim women-not just their participation, willing or otherwise, but their proper leadership? In that way, she will achieve better, more constructive results.
Baroness Cox (Crossbench)
I indeed give that assurance. It speaks exactly to my own commitments, so I am to offer it unequivocally.
Briefly, I respond in two ways to the points made by the Minister in putting the Government's position. First, I am not sure whether during my speech the Minister heard me clearly take on the point of arbitration. I said that we will amend the Bill to meet exactly the concerns that he raised in his response to the debate. That point has been anticipated and dealt with.
Secondly, the position of the Minister and the Government is, among others, that the Bill is unnecessary because Sharia courts are not proper courts with powers of jurisdiction. The Minister made the point that every citizen in the country has access to the UK justice system. However, the power of Sharia councils lies in how they are perceived by their communities, allowing the creation of de facto legal structures and standards which contradict fundamental British legal principles-and the fundamental principle in this country of promoting gender equality and eradicating gender discrimination. Moreover, as my noble friend Lady Deech just highlighted, many Muslim women do not know what legal rights are available to them. Social or religious pressure is often put on them to participate in proceedings of a profoundly discriminatory nature. The Government do not seem to recognise the very real existence of an enormous disparity between the de jure situation and the de facto reality that causes such problems for so many women in this country today.
In due course and with the benefit of the further findings which will become available, I hope that we may help the Government to move in a more sympathetic direction to consider the much-needed measures to address the problems which currently threaten that fundamental principle of one law for all and alleviate those problems associated with gender discrimination which cause so much suffering to so many women in the country today. If the Minister had met some of the ladies who gave evidence to our briefing sessions, heard their stories and realised that they are just the tip of the iceberg-they speak about so many other women who dare not come forward because of the intimidation and pressure in their communities-then he would take the suffering more seriously than perhaps the timescale he has set out indicates.
I repeat my gratitude to all noble Lords in the Chamber today and to the many others-as I said, too many to name-who support this initiative. It seeks to protect our precious heritage of the legal system enshrined in our democracy and our much cherished commitment to the eradication of gender discrimination. I commend the Bill to the House.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.