Sharia Law Courts — [David Hanson in the Chair]

Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 2:25 pm on 2 May 2019.

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[David Hanson in the Chair]

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley 3:00, 2 May 2019

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered sharia law courts in the UK.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I am extremely grateful to all hon. Members who have turned up on a Thursday afternoon when there is not much business on and at a time of local elections. That shows their devotion to this House and to the subject of this debate.

The genesis of this debate is a report prepared for the Council of Europe in January, at which I happened to speak. The report was led by a paper prepared by a member of the Spanish Socialist party, and it looked at the compatibility of sharia law with the European convention on human rights. I will turn to that topic later. The report singled out the UK, not completely approvingly, for how it approached this issue, as well other countries, such as Greece, which have taken a different approach.

When approaching this issue, I am aware that the charge of Islamophobia may be levelled against us, but it is right that we consider sharia law courts or councils in terms of their conformity with the European convention on human rights, just as we do with other aspects of UK society. I am also aware of “The independent review into the application of sharia law in England and Wales”, which was produced in February 2018. The review was chaired by Professor Mona Siddiqui of the University of Edinburgh, and the panel included distinguished lawyers and religious and theological experts. I read that report with great interest.

The Council of Europe called on the authorities of the United Kingdom to do a number of things. I will read them out but comment on only one of them. First, it called on the UK to

“ensure that sharia councils operate within the law, especially as it relates to the prohibition of discrimination against women, and respect all procedural rights.”

Secondly, it called on the UK to review the Marriage Act 1949, to make it a legal requirement for Muslim couples to civilly register their marriage before or at the same time as their Islamic ceremony, as”— the report claims—

“is already stipulated by law for Christian and Jewish marriages.”

As an aside, I am aware that a number of imams are also qualified registrars and can therefore conduct the civil service at the same time as the religious service. Similarly, a number of Catholic priests are qualified registrars. However, I do not think there is a legal requirement for that to go ahead.

Thirdly, the Council called on the UK to

“take appropriate enforcement measures to oblige the celebrant of any marriage, including Islamic marriages, to ensure that the marriage is also civilly registered before or at the same time as celebrating the religious marriage.”

Fourthly, it called on the UK to ensure that vulnerable women are provided with safeguards against exploitation and informed about their right to seek redress before UK courts. The Council also called for awareness-raising campaigns to be put in place, to encourage Muslim communities to acknowledge and respect women’s rights in civil law, especially in marriage, divorce, custody and inheritance. As an aside, I think there is a lot to be said for emphasising that particular point and ensuring that we indulge in awareness campaigns.

Photo of Nick Thomas-Symonds Nick Thomas-Symonds Shadow Solicitor General, Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Security)

I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s point about awareness. Like him, I carefully read the independent Home Office report, which said:

“It is this misrepresentation of sharia councils as courts that leads to public misconceptions over the primacy of sharia over domestic law and concerns of a parallel legal system.”

Although the hon. Gentleman has been careful with his language, as I would expect, the Order Paper says “sharia law courts”, which is precisely what the Home Office report said we should avoid.

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

I realise that the independent report calls them sharia law councils, but we can come on to look at that in the moment. I was reading out the Council of Europe’s descriptions, which calls them sharia law courts. We should continue with that, at least for the moment.

The Council’s next point was that the UK should

“conduct further research on the ‘judicial’ practice of Sharia councils”— to use that term—

“and on the extent to which such councils are used voluntarily, particularly by women, many of whom would be subject to intense community pressure in this respect.”

The Council of Europe committee held meetings with Professor Ruud Peters of the University of Amsterdam and Professor Mathias Rohe of Erlangen University in Germany. On 5 September 2017 it held another hearing and the participants included Mr Konstantinos Tsitselikis, professor in human rights law and international organisations at the University of Macedonia, and Ms Machteld Zee, a political scientist and author. Finally, I was pleased that the committee held an exchange of views with Professor Mona Siddiqui, whom I have already mentioned.

Professor Sandberg from Cardiff University has recently said:

“Surely the issue of concern is whether people are pressurised into the form of alternative dispute resolution provided by Sharia councils? The Resolution distinguishes between situations where Muslims submit voluntarily and, alternatively, where they submit under social pressure”.

He says that the report does not pursue that any further and:

“That, however, is the nub of the issue.”

He goes on to say:

“Where the decision to use a religious authority for dispute resolution is genuinely voluntary on the part of both parties then this should be no more objectionable than any other form of alternative dispute resolution”— provided that it also conforms with UK law.

As the Council’s report makes clear, sharia law is understood as the law to be obeyed by every Muslim. It divides all human action into five categories: what is obligatory, recommended, neutral, disapproved of and prohibited. It makes two forms of legal ruling: one designed to organise society and one to deal with everyday situations. It also has a legal opinion, intended to cover a special situation.

Sharia law, therefore, is meant in essence to be a positive law, enforceable on Muslims. Although most states with Muslim majorities have inserted in their constitutions a provision referring to Islam or Islamic law, the effect of those provisions is largely symbolic or confined to family law. Those religious provisions may have a legal effect if raised in the courts, and a political effect if they intrude into institutional attitudes and practices.

I shall consider the general principles of sharia law in relation to the European convention on human rights, particularly article 14, on the prohibition of discrimination on grounds such as sex and religion, and article 5 of protocol 7 to the convention, which establishes equality between spouses in law. Other aspects of the convention may also have an effect.

In Islamic family law, men have authority over women, because God has made the one superior to the other. It goes on to say that good women are obedient. It encourages women who stray from those norms to suffer punishment. In sharia law, adultery is strictly prohibited, and legal doctrine holds that the evidence must take the form of corroborating testimony from witnesses to prove an individual’s guilt. In the case of rape, which is seldom committed in public, there must be four male witnesses who are good Muslims, so punishing the rapist is difficult, if not impossible. In practice, women are obliged to be accompanied by men when they go out, which is not conducive to their independence.

Under Islamic law, a husband has a unilateral right to divorce, although it can be delegated to the wife and she can therefore exercise her right to divorce. Otherwise, she may initiate a divorce process but only with the consent of her husband, by seeking what is known as khula, in which case the wife forgoes her dowry. In cases where the husband has deserted the wife, has failed to co-operate with the divorce process or is acting unreasonably, the marriage may be dissolved, but only by a sharia ruling. While divorce by mutual consent is enshrined in Islamic law, the application must in this case come from the wife, since the husband can repudiate his wife at any time. There is also the question of equal rights regarding divorce arrangements, such as custody of children.

For the division of an estate among the heirs, distinctions are made according to the sex of the heir. A male heir has a double share, whereas a female heir has a single share. In addition, the rights of a surviving wife are half those of a surviving husband. Non-Muslims do not have the same rights as Muslims in criminal and civil law under sharia law. That applies, for example, to the weight attached to their testimony in court, which is discrimination on the grounds of religion within the meaning of articles 9 and 14 of the convention.

The European Court of Human Rights had the chance to rule on the incompatibility of sharia law with human rights in the early 2000s, in its judgment on the Welfare party v. Turkey, which held that

“Turkey, like any other Contracting Party, may legitimately prevent the application within its jurisdiction of private-law rules of religious inspiration prejudicial to public order and the values of democracy for Convention purposes (such as rules permitting discrimination based on the gender of the parties concerned, as in polygamy and privileges for the male sex in matters of divorce and succession).”

In that particular case, the decision by the Turkish constitutional court to order the dissolution of the Welfare party, which advocated the introduction of sharia law, was held to be compatible with the convention, and the Court clearly affirmed the following:

“It is difficult to declare one’s respect for democracy and human rights while at the same time supporting a regime based on sharia, which clearly diverges from Convention values, particularly with regard to its criminal law and criminal procedure, its rules on the legal status of women and the way it intervenes in all spheres of private and public life in accordance with religious precepts.”

With respect to sharia law itself, the Court expressly stated that

“a political party whose actions seem to be aimed at introducing sharia in a State Party to the Convention can hardly be regarded as an association complying with the democratic ideal that underlies the whole of the Convention”.

However, although the Court has ruled that sharia law is incompatible with the convention, that does not mean that there is absolute incompatibility between the convention and Islam. The Court also recognised that religion is

“one of the most vital elements that go to make up the identity of believers and their conception of life”.

Accordingly, the Court’s relatively firm position should not be taken as a rejection of all elements of sharia or of Islam as a whole, while taking into account the existence of structural incompatibilities between Islam and the convention which, as far as sharia law is concerned, are sometimes absolute and sometimes relative.

It is also likely that a large number of cases concerning the position of Muslim women under Islamic law never come before the ordinary courts or the European Court of Human Rights because women are under enormous pressure from their families and their communities to comply with the demands of the informal religious courts. Such cases give rise to the question whether to use the concept of public order to refuse to recognise, or enforce, discriminatory decisions, even if they are not challenged by the women concerned.

There is currently no single accepted definition of the term “sharia council” in the United Kingdom, where such bodies generally provide advice and attempt to resolve disputes relating to family or personal issues according to the principles of sharia law. However, little is known about their work, which is conducted in private, and decisions are not published, leading to a lack of transparency and accountability. There is also uncertainty about the number of sharia courts operating in the UK. A study by the University of Reading identified 30 groups involved in such activity, and a report by the think-tank Civitas estimated that at least 85 groups are in operation, although that figure also includes informal tribunals run out of mosques or online forums.

Sharia councils provide a form of alternative dispute resolution, something I am very familiar with, having chaired the all-party parliamentary group on alternative dispute resolution for the past three years. Members of the Muslim community voluntarily consent to accept the religious jurisdiction of sharia councils. Marital issues and the granting of Islamic marriage divorces account for about 90% of their work. They also advise in matters of law, including issues of inheritance, probate and wills and Islamic commercial law contracts, and they provide mediation, counselling and religious ruling services.

Sharia councils are not considered part of the British legal system. They are not courts and their decisions are not legally binding. However, despite having no judicial authority, some councils see themselves as authoritative on religious issues, and the power of sharia councils lies in how they are perceived by their communities.

A significant number of Muslims do not have a marriage recognised under British law. Those who do not register their marriage under civil law, and some who have been married abroad, have little redress available to them, as their position under British law is similar to that of unmarried cohabitants who have few financial remedies on the breakdown of their relationship. A significant number of Muslim couples fail to civilly register their religious marriages, and some Muslim women therefore have no option of obtaining a civil divorce. Some women may have no other option but to obtain a religious divorce, for which the judgment of a sharia council is normally required.

Furthermore, even in cases where women have a civil law marriage, some might seek the decision of a sharia council for reasons of self-identity or community standing, or to provide reassurance that they have the religious freedom to remarry within their faith. Those who obtain a civil divorce but not a religious divorce might find it difficult to remarry—a position sometimes referred to as a “limping marriage”. One of the experts invited to testify before the committee, Ms Zee, denounced what she described as “marital captivity”.

There are numerous reports citing examples of how Muslim women have been discriminated against by sharia councils. Examples of such discrimination include women being pressured into mediation, including victims of domestic abuse; greater weight being given to the husband’s account of reasons for divorce; women not being questioned impartially by council members, who are almost all men, and feeling blamed for the breakdown of the marriage; and unjustified requirements to pay back their dowry.

There are also allegations that sharia councils have issued discriminatory rulings on child custody. The Casey review cited claims that

“some Sharia Councils have been supporting the values of extremists, condoning wife-beating, ignoring marital rape and allowing forced marriage.”

Researchers were told that

“some women were unaware of their legal rights to leave violent husbands and were being pressurised to return to abusive partners or attend reconciliation sessions with their husbands despite legal injunctions in place to protect them from violence.”

The majority of the evidence, however, is anecdotal, as little empirical evidence has been gathered in relation to users of sharia councils. Further research is therefore necessary; I am aware that the Select Committee on Home Affairs has done some work. Mechanisms are required to provide safeguards and ensure that vulnerable women are not exploited or put at risk. Many of the women are not aware of their rights to seek redress before the British courts.

Sharia councils should not be confused with arbitration tribunals. The Muslim Arbitration Tribunal was established in 2007 under the Arbitration Act 1996. It operates within the framework of British law and its decisions can be enforced by civil courts, provided that they have been reached in accordance with the legal principles of the British system. Its legal authority comes from the agreement of both parties to give the tribunal power to rule on their case. In cases where decisions do not conform to the principles of British law, they may simply be quashed. Moreover, the 1996 Act cannot be used to exclude the jurisdiction of the family law courts. The MAT can therefore conduct arbitration according to Islamic personal law on issues such as commercial and inheritance disputes. Many of those issues were considered by Baroness Cox, who promoted the Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill in 2011. I will leave hon. Members to look at that.

The independent review was set up because sharia courts were deemed to be discriminating against women, as I have outlined. It has three recommendations. The first is to ensure that civil marriages are conducted before or at the same time as the Islamic marriage, in line with the way in which most Christian and many Jewish marriages are conducted. It also states that there should be a requirement for Muslim couples to civilly register their marriage, and that there be consequential changes to divorce.

I will skip the second recommendation and go to the third recommendation, which is to carry out some regulation of the sharia courts. The Government have declined to do that, for the obvious reason that that would legitimise the courts as part of the judicial establishment, which they have no intention of doing. To go back one, the second recommendation is for a general awareness campaign to acknowledge women’s rights and to inform women of those rights, including the fact that arbitration that applies sharia law in respect of financial or child arrangements falls foul of the Arbitration Act.

The independent review sets out several bad practices, including inappropriate and unnecessary questioning about personal relationship matters; asking a forced marriage victim to attend the sharia council at the same time as her family; insisting on any form of mediation as a necessary preliminary; and inviting women to make concessions to their husbands to secure a divorce. Lengthy processes also mean that, although divorces are rarely refused, they can be drawn out.

There are several other faults with the system, such as inconsistency, a lack of safeguarding policies or clear signposting, and the fact that, even with a decree absolute, a religious divorce is not always a straightforward process. Civil legal terms are adopted inappropriately, which leads to confusion. There are few women panel members of sharia councils, and some panel members have only recently moved to the UK, so they have no understanding of the UK system.

It is often proposed that, based on the evidence of discriminatory practices in some sharia councils, they should all be shut down and banned. The main problem with that argument is that a ban cannot be imposed on organisations that can set up voluntarily anywhere and that operate only on the basis of the credibility given to them by a certain community. The evidence that the review heard indicates that women use sharia councils almost solely to obtain religious divorces, for a number of different reasons, such as community acceptance of the divorce and their own remarriage hopes.

It is clear from all the evidence that sharia councils are fulfilling a need in some Muslim communities. There is a demand for religious divorce that is being answered by the sharia councils. That demand will not simply end if they are banned and closed down; instead, that could lead to them simply going underground, which would make it even harder to ensure good practice and would make discriminatory practices and greater financial costs more likely and harder to detect.

The main point is that there needs to be an acceptance of the law of the land, as there is within other communities, particularly the Jewish community, whose members accept that British law overrides their religious law. It is impossible to understand why somebody would enter a sharia court voluntarily, when they know that they are going to be under pressure to conform with whatever is said there. I discussed that with another Minister, who had better remain nameless. She was incandescent about sharia courts and told me to warn the Minister not to give a mealy mouthed response, or she would be after him. I mention that as an aside; I do not want to influence what the Minister will say at all, but that is a good indication that, particularly among women—that Minister was a Muslim lady—the effect of sharia courts is quite controversial. I am glad that the Home Affairs Committee took evidence on the issue.

Photo of Naseem Shah Naseem Shah Shadow Minister (Equalities Office) (Women and Equalities) 3:26, 2 May 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I wear many hats in this debate, which I thank John Howell for securing. Contrary to the accusations of Islamophobia, I am a Muslim woman who is a member of the all-party parliamentary group on British Muslims. We have just launched our definition of Islamophobia, which I am proud that the Labour party has adopted; it would be useful if the hon. Gentleman’s party did, too. This debate, which brings the issue of sharia councils to the House, is welcome because it is right that we have such conversations.

I agree with many things that the hon. Gentleman has said. Sharia councils are not entirely fit for purpose, as I am only too familiar with as a former member of the Home Affairs Committee with Stuart C. McDonald. Before the review, the Committee took evidence from many people about sharia councils. Yes, 90% of their work is about divorces, and yes, despite that, they do not offer counselling services. I have raised that privately and publicly with imams and scholars across the board. I would also say, however, that while it is right that we debate the fact that sharia councils have a huge way to go, we must not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

One thing I really struggled with in the previous speech was the idea that God made men superior to women. I am not a theologian; I am a politician, but one thing I am clear about as a Muslim woman is that my God did not make me unequal to a man. He gave me many rights and I enjoy those rights. One of those rights affords me being the Member of Parliament for Bradford West. Many Muslim men chose to vote for me and put me here. I disagree with the idea that in Islam, God makes men superior to women. The idea of needing four witnesses to rape is also news to me.

During our Select Committee inquiry, we also heard the idea that is out there, and peddled by the right-wing media, that sharia courts are taking over and replacing the British legal system and judiciary. There is absolutely no truth in that, because the first law of sharia—the first concept and the key tenet of it—is that the law of the land takes precedence.

I really struggle with the idea that somehow Muslims need to accept the law of the land—Muslims do accept the law of the land. The majority of Muslims in this country, as with the majority of people of any faith or the majority of people of no faith, accept the law of this land. However, many people still break the law of this land. If we look at prisons, we see that the people who are convicted of breaking the law of this land are not just Muslims. Muslims do have respect for the law, and I take it very personally and feel really offended at the suggestion that Muslims need to accept the law of the land. We do accept it.

There is not a requirement for there to be four witnesses to a rape, and as for the idea that a husband has a unilateral right to ask for a divorce, to return to the Select Committee inquiry, we heard lots of evidence against that. As a Muslim woman, I can instigate a divorce. Every Muslim woman in this country can instigate a divorce. A Muslim woman does not need the permission of her husband; she can instigate it, and she can go and get that divorce. That is a right afforded to every Muslim woman.

Yes, there is a question as to whether every sharia council actually implements that and works to the letter of the law and to its essence. And many sharia councils do discriminate. We have heard horrific—horrific—cases of women being discriminated against. The Select Committee took evidence from women who had been forced to go back to the perpetrator of violence against them, rather than reporting that violence. As a Select Committee, we went out and took our inquiry into the community. And yes, we heard of issues involving women where the arbitration service did not work, and where women were discriminated against—of course we did. However, that is no different from any other community. I have heard of lots of cases from constituents who were not happy with what had happened in a court of law because they felt that they had to do things that were not conducive to women’s rights.

I speak from experience. I speak as the daughter of a woman who was convicted of murdering an abusive partner and served 14 years in prison; I speak as a woman who had a forced marriage at the age of 15. So I am absolutely familiar with the patriarchal cultures within which women are oppressed and abused, and I stand very tall against them; I really do. I know that when my mother sought help from the community, she was not afforded it. However, let me say this: more than 25 years ago, when my mother was driven to do what she did, there were many other women in prison at the same time, and many other women who had killed their abusive partner. In fact, the majority of women who are in prison have experienced some form of abuse. Women do not just willy-nilly go and kill people; it is not what we do.

What I am saying is that when women are abused, it is not just the sharia councils that have a responsibility to respond. I won an award in 1998—the Emma Humphreys award—and that was one of the first times that the issue of abuse against women had been raised. Let us be clear: 90% of the sharia councils’ work is about divorce, which affects women. The nub of the issue for me is whether the sharia councils are fit for purpose for women, and treat women with equality and empower women. However, I agree that that is not the case at present.

Emma Humphreys was not a Muslim woman. There were many other women who went to prison for killing their partners. In those days, even judges did not have the understanding of domestic violence that we do today. So we as a country have come a long way. But in this country, which is such an advanced democracy, we have not got it right when it comes to women just yet. We have got a long way to go when it comes to giving women equality in courts of law, where there are years of experience and magnificent judges, but we still get it wrong.

So sharia courts do serve a purpose. They might not be brilliant and I absolutely agree that they need some regulation. Our Select Committee took evidence from the Muslim Women’s Network UK; perhaps the hon. Member for Henley could read the Committee’s report and read the evidence from the Muslim Women’s Network UK about sharia councils.

We all agree that sharia councils cannot be abolished, as that would send them underground and we do not want that to happen. This service has to be available. As a Muslim woman, I need the sharia council; I want to be able to access the sharia council, but yes, I also want it to be fit for purpose.

What I do not want is for this issue to be conflated with anything else. The hon. Member for Henley, at the start of his speech, said that he would be accused of Islamophobia for securing this debate, but I would argue that that is not the case. However, I will also point out something else that he said, which is something I really struggle with, and this is where we enter a grey area.

I do not have an issue with anybody criticising my religion; I have no issues with that whatsoever. The definition—the definition by the all-party parliamentary group on British Muslims—of Islamophobia clearly sets out that there is nothing wrong with people having a debate about what Islam is and what Islam is not. However, in this debate today the hon. Gentleman referred to the Casey review, and when talking about it he said that its findings included sharia councils supporting extremists and wife-beating. I get some of that context, but the whole idea of extremism in sharia councils—I have yet to come across that. That is not the debate that I hoped to have today, and I did not expect to hear the word “extremist” mentioned in this debate.

As I have said, 90% of sharia councils’ work is about divorce. In my constituency of Bradford West I have addressed gatherings, including majority male or male-dominated gatherings, and I have talked to people and said, “Why is it that we have so much money when we spend on the mosques, yet we are not talking about having counselling services for women, even though divorce is such a big deal, tearing children and families apart? We need to have those support services in place.”

So I agree that sharia courts need regulation, but what I do not accept, and will not accept, are all of these ideas about all of the sharia councils, including the idea that God has made men superior to women, the idea that there need to be four witnesses to a rape, and even the idea that someone needs to say the talaq three times for divorce, and that a divorce can just be granted and a woman has to accept it. No, she does not.

Let me tell people something else that the sharia councils could do if they were fit for purpose, which is what we should be working towards. We have a marriage contract—a nikah—and in that nikah a woman can stipulate that the man must forgo his religious idea of a polygamous marriage, such that he can take another wife. A woman can stipulate that in the contract. That contract is absolutely legally binding, as far as the sharia council is concerned, and the woman can divorce if that contract is breached. There is no need for her to have her husband’s permission.

However, what I want is for every Muslim woman in this country to understand that their nikah does not give them legal protection in this country. Their nikah—their marriage contract—does not give them the rights that a civil marriage does. And we should be absolutely promoting that message across the communities, to make sure that women are empowered.

I have come across men who have abused their position and taken on a second wife, even though a nikah is in place, and not respected the rights of their first wife; and I absolutely agree that we should be making sure that that practice does not exist. We need to make sure that women understand that they can write contracts, and we need to train the imams and other people in how to give women their rights, including their contractual rights. And we should say to women, “Look, think outside the box. If you don’t want this in a marriage—in a normal relationship, we have what we like and what we don’t like, and that is the same with a marriage in Islam.” There is nothing to stop any woman from doing that.

There are three things that I really want from this debate today. I want women who are listening to this debate, and the men who are listening to it, from all communities, to know that there is no Islamophobia in talking about sharia councils; in fact, such talk is very welcome. Sharia councils are not brilliant, they are not perfect, they have got a way to go, but we should support them and regulate them, or support them to regulate themselves, because communities have their own solutions; it is not necessary for us as a Parliament to impose solutions upon them.

We need to empower sharia councils; we need to get the regulations in place. We need to get women and men across the communities to understand that that contract does not give those rights under the law. As I have said before—I repeat it because I feel it is so important—the first tenet of sharia law is that the law of the land presides. The Daily Mail, The Sun and the right-wing media would have people believe that we have a parallel legal system running in this country. That does not exist. We are not about to bring sharia law into the country and take over. Less than 5% of the British community is Muslim, but somehow that 5% is taking over the whole of England’s British law? The 650 of us are making all of these laws, but somehow 5% of the community is taking over and is going to abolish all of what we have done for hundreds and hundreds of years? That is not going to happen.

Let us empower the women; let us talk to the Muslim communities, not about the Muslim communities. Let us change how we deal with this issue, not conflate it with words such as extremism when we are having a debate about sharia councils. Ninety percent of what those councils do is about divorce. Please, let’s not go there.

I make a plea to the Minister: please look at the APPG definition of Islamophobia. I have talked to the Home Secretary, I have asked the Prime Minister and many Ministers, and there is an absolute denial that Islamophobia exists in the Government. That needs to be addressed, and when we have addressed it, these debates will be much more constructive. They would not need to start with a Member of Parliament saying that he is going to be accused of being Islamophobic, because this is not Islamophobic; this is the right debate to have for the sake of women, of equality, and of all our communities.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration, Asylum and Border Control) 3:41, 2 May 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson, and I congratulate John Howell on having secured this important debate about sharia councils. I take part in this debate with some trepidation, as it is a complicated issue, touching on family law, freedom of religion, culture, gender relations and many other issues in between. It is quite right to say that our response should first and foremost be informed by the experiences and views of those most affected: those are, of course, Muslim women, 90% of whom are seeking a divorce. Their experience of sharia councils varies greatly, which reflects the fact that sharia councils themselves vary significantly. Unsurprisingly there is no unanimous opinion, even among Muslim women, on how—or whether—we in Parliament or the Government should respond to some of the issues that have been raised, both today and in other reports.

I too was a member of the Select Committee on Home Affairs when it was looking at the issue of sharia councils. It was probably one of the most polarised issues that I looked at during my time on that Committee, involving widely diverging and strongly held opinions. On the one hand, at some of the events that Naz Shah has described, I spoke to women who were absolutely positive about their experience with sharia councils and how they had secured divorces there; others pointed to horrendous practices and discrimination, which we have heard about.

Dr Siddiqui’s report found similar disparities in practice, but that review, as we have also heard, concluded that banning sharia councils is not a realistic option; I support that conclusion. There is demand for advice and guidance, for determinations on the meaning of religious texts and procedures, and for religious divorce. That review warned that if anything, such a ban would likely drive councils underground, making transparency even more difficult and risking more widespread bad practice and discrimination.

The second issue I want to touch on is how civil marriage law can play a role in this area. I make absolutely clear that I am not a family lawyer, so I will not go into fine detail about the specific proposals for marriage law reform in England and Wales that Dr Siddiqui’s review put forward. However, it does seem—the evidence suggests this—that a significant number of Muslim women in the UK have a religious marriage, but not one that is recognised by the civil law. As we have heard, that seriously limits the options and powers available to women, should that marriage then break down.

However, I went on to the website of Glasgow Central Mosque today to see what options there are for marriage. I was met with a well set-out and positive page that starts by celebrating the fact that

“Family life is a building block of a successful society, and marriage is an occasion of great joy.”

That page goes on to say:

“We can perform religious marriages, which are recognised by the law. A marriage ceremony (Nikah) at Glasgow Central Mosque must also be a religious marriage (i.e. the legal equivalent of a civil marriage conducted by a registrar). Our Imams are authorised to solemnise religious marriages, therefore it is not necessary to have a separate civil marriage. If the civil marriage has already taken place, please bring the marriage certificate on the day.”

I read an article by a Muslim woman who is a solicitor in Glasgow, who wrote about how the culture in the Glasgow mosques is one of working together to ensure that the civil requirements are met at the same time as the religious ones. It seems—of course, I stand to be corrected—that the general practice in that city has become to meet both religious and civil requirements at the same time. It would be good to know how that culture has come about. It would be good to find out what impact that has had on the number of women who are without a civil marriage in Glasgow and Scotland, and whether the doubling-up of those processes has been encouraged or helped by provisions in family law—slightly different in Scotland from those in England and Wales—or whether something else has made that happen. That could inform our thinking, both in Scotland and in England and Wales, as to whether there needs to be legal change or whether we can do more in terms of culture and awareness raising, as the hon. Member for Bradford West has said.

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

For many years I have been an organist, and I have played at Catholic weddings. In many cases, the service has been delayed because of the late arrival of the registrar. A marriage conducted by a priest is religiously legal, but in order to make it civilly legal, a registrar has to be there. That seems to be the established position in the Catholic Church; as I understand it, only in the Anglican Church and the Church in Wales is the priest automatically a registrar.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration, Asylum and Border Control)

That is interesting to hear. If there is a way to remove such complications to ensure that such delays can be avoided, it should be looked at. I understand—I repeat, I am not a family lawyer, so I might be completely wrong—that that is not the position in Scotland, where priests are generally able to conduct both the religious and civil ceremonies in one go without the presence of a registrar. To my mind, that clearly makes things simpler.

The second group of recommendations in the Siddiqui report is essentially about empowering women, a topic on which I suspect we will all be at one. That seems to be front and centre of the issue that we face. There absolutely must be awareness raising about rights; for example, many of those who have ended up with a religious but not a civil marriage have done so purely because they did not know about the law or their status.

Awareness-raising about civil rights is only the first step in empowerment. Support is also needed to ensure that all are able to overcome the potentially “huge cultural barriers” described in the report, which can inhibit the exercise of rights even when people are aware that those rights exist. Those barriers stop women choosing to pursue civil remedies instead of religious ones. We need to give greater backing to all the NGOs, advice centres, human rights bodies and others that can provide that support. That is not just about supporting women to overcome barriers; those organisations can help to lower the barriers in the first place, encouraging a culture that respects women who choose to use their civil rights in the first place.

Do we need to go further? That question takes us on to the third group of recommendations in the Siddiqui report. The steps that we have just discussed about empowerment tend to focus on providing alternatives to sharia councils. We also need to ask whether we can improve practices in sharia councils themselves, which is perhaps the toughest issue.

As we have heard, the Siddiqui review recommended a form of regulation via a state-constituted body and a code of practice, and many sharia councils and women’s organisations supported such an approach. Presciently, the report acknowledged that the Government could be reluctant to adopt a wholesale regulatory approach for fear of being seen to legitimise a different system of law. I can understand that response, but it should not be an end to the matter. Not adopting full-scale regulation does not absolve us of the need to look at the seriously bad practices that have been recorded in some cases, how that relates to the law, and whether the law can be changed in other ways to stop those practices. If I understood it correctly, that was what the dissenting opinion in Dr Siddiqui’s report was getting at.

For example, should we require in law that anyone providing advice about family law matters must provide signposting to civil remedies? How should the law respond if an institution is seen to aid and abet domestic violence by coercing a victim to mediate with the perpetrator? Are there existing regulations in respect of “service providers” that could be strengthened and better applied to stop the serious issues that we have seen? What should happen if evidence shows that councils are undertaking tasks that should be exclusively for the courts? Crucially, given that consent is so important, what is the legal response when certain councils are engaging in proceedings, providing opinions and making judgments when there was never genuine consent to the process in the first place? I do not have the answers to all those questions, but we have to consider them and be led by the evidence, particularly the evidence we hear from those who have been caught up in these processes.

On balance the Siddiqui review is correct that banning would be ineffective, counterproductive and not justified. The main objective must be to encourage the use of civil processes and access to civil redress and rights where appropriate. Marriage law changes might help with that, but more importantly, so too might policies that empower women, such as support for NGOs and other groups. While a distinct form of regulation and a complete new regulatory regime may not be the right approach, that does not mean that we should not be looking at whether other civil and criminal laws and regulations could be better applied to stop or prevent some of the bad practice we have heard about. If we do all that, hopefully we can continue to protect the sharia councils that are doing a job that accords with all the values we want to be upheld, while at the same time clamping down on those that are not.

Photo of Nick Thomas-Symonds Nick Thomas-Symonds Shadow Solicitor General, Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Security) 3:50, 2 May 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I begin by commending the speeches that have been made from the Back-Benches, starting with John Howell. I acknowledge his expertise and interest in this issue. I also acknowledge his work in the Council of Europe and the Justice Committee and as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on alternative dispute resolution. I also commend my hon. Friend Naz Shah on her passionate speech. I congratulate her on her work in the all-party parliamentary group and her work in our party on the definition of Islamophobia that has been adopted. I also congratulate her on the experience and expertise she brought to the debate today, both in terms of the workings of sharia councils and the extraordinarily passionate and personal section in her speech on her fight against patriarchal culture wherever it is found in our society. I thought she said something extraordinarily true when she said we should always look to talk to communities, not about them. That is something we can all take away from this debate.

As my hon. Friend set out—I echo it—there is nothing Islamophobic at all in bringing this debate forward. It has been a good debate across the board, but I want to speak about Islamophobia not only in the context of this debate, but in the wider context of our society and the time in which the debate takes place. We all acknowledge that Islamophobia and far-right attacks on Muslims here in the UK and across much of the world are rising. The figures show a record number of such attacks and incidents of abuse, and recently five mosques in Birmingham were vandalised on a single night. That does not happen in a vacuum.

While I do not want to stray beyond the confines of this debate, I do think that not only social media companies but the mainstream media have a responsibility for how such matters are covered. Indeed, the UK’s assistant commissioner at the Metropolitan police—the national head of our anti-terrorism measures in the UK—Neil Basu said:

“The reality is that every terrorist we have dealt with has sought inspiration from the propaganda of others, and when they can’t find it on Facebook, YouTube, Telegram or Twitter they only have to turn on the TV, read the paper or go to one of a myriad of mainstream media websites struggling to compete with those platforms.”

He was referring to the wake of the terrible Christchurch attacks in New Zealand and the fact that mainstream media were spreading the awful streaming of that terrible attack. We even see anti-Muslim sentiment whipped up in relation to the food that many Muslims eat. Clearly we all stand together in condemnation of such discrimination, abuse and hatred.

Protection of the rights of religious minorities is an essential feature of any democratic society, and there is a richness to our culture in the United Kingdom. We have people who practise many different religions. It is right that the state should not prevent people from acting according to their religious beliefs and cultural traditions, provided that, first, it does not break the law—I include in that being compliant with our human rights obligations—and, secondly, it is always a product of free choice and by consent.

In that regard, I think we can pick up certain positive aspects, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford West indicated. Mediation is based on consent with an agreement on process from both parties, and we can see that happening. We have heard about the percentage of divorces that are dealt with by sharia councils, but such things as boundary disputes, housing, wills, probate and estates can be dealt with, too. We can see positive outcomes when there is agreement on process. In addition, the hon. Member for Henley mentioned the work of the 2007 Muslim arbitration tribunal in that regard.

It is important that we stick to facts when it comes to any form of alternative dispute resolution or religious council, because there is no suggestion that they somehow trump or overrule the rule of law.

Photo of Naseem Shah Naseem Shah Shadow Minister (Equalities Office) (Women and Equalities)

Does my hon. Friend share my concern about the title of this debate, which refers to sharia courts, rather than sharia councils?

Photo of Nick Thomas-Symonds Nick Thomas-Symonds Shadow Solicitor General, Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Security)

Indeed. I mentioned that when I intervened on the hon. Member for Henley, who referred to them as councils in his speech. One of the conclusions drawn by the Home Office’s independent report was that the real problem with using “courts” is that it gives the impression that there is a parallel or competing courts system when there is not. That is an extraordinarily important point, and it brings me to my next point, which is that we have to be very wary of misinformation, particularly given the idea that Parliament is somehow introducing this parallel law. That is clearly not the case. It is incumbent on us all to make that clear and to be careful about the language that we use in that regard.

To draw my remarks to a close, the two pillars have to be the rule of law, which will always be paramount, and a basis of consent. My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford West spoke extraordinarily powerfully about the role of women. She is an example of a woman in an extraordinary role and an exemplar to others. We must bear in mind, too, that human rights are always central to how we judge any form of alternative dispute resolution.

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice 3:57, 2 May 2019

It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson, not least because it protects me from being challenged by difficult questions from someone who did my job many years ago with great skill and knowledge.

I congratulate my hon. Friend John Howell on securing this debate, which addresses an area of significant interest and importance. It is right that this House debates such issues. The work of the Council of Europe has no greater champion or more active participant than my hon. Friend. I am very pleased to be able to respond to the debate. It was due to be responded to by my hon. Friend Rory Stewart, until his well-deserved promotion yesterday evening, so I confess that I am not an expert in this area, but I have been fascinated by the debate.

I am grateful to all hon. Members who have taken part late on a Thursday afternoon. I am particularly grateful to Naz Shah, not only for the passion and power that she habitually brings to her speeches, but for the depth of her knowledge and understanding of the subject. I am pleased she was able to be here.

I also recognise the contribution of Stuart C. McDonald, who spoke in his usual measured and sensible tone. His contribution was particularly valuable in highlighting the practice in Glasgow, which he touched on.

Photo of Nick Thomas-Symonds Nick Thomas-Symonds Shadow Solicitor General, Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Security)

I omitted to mention the speech of Stuart C. McDonald not because I did not think that it was impressive, but simply because I treated it as a Front-Bench contribution, not a Back-Bench one. I join the Minister in commending the speech.

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention; I was about to respond to his speech. As ever, he made a powerful and sensible case. He highlighted, as other Members have, the importance of choosing our words with care when we speak in this House, not just on this subject but on all subjects, and the responsibility that we all have, and the broader responsibility of the media and others in this space, to choose our words with care.

I will set out the Government’s position on sharia law. As the Prime Minister has said, and as Members have mentioned today, there is one rule of law in the United Kingdom. In practice, that means, within each of the UK jurisdictions, a single system of law, legislated according to our constitutional arrangements by this Parliament or the devolved Administrations. Our judicial systems interpret, apply and, where necessary, enforce those laws. There is no parallel system of sharia law in operation in the UK; Her Majesty’s courts enforce our laws. My hon. Friend the Member for Henley was right to say that sharia law is not part of the British legal system. We must ensure that we do not succour such misinformation or misconceptions beyond these walls.

Our vision for our communities is that all British citizens, whatever their religious background, should be free to practise individual religious freedom. Many British people of different faiths and none benefit a great deal from the guidance that religious codes and other practices offer. Those values allow us to enjoy our individual freedoms and to lead varied lives in diverse communities. That is one of the great strengths of this great country; however, it has to be within a framework in which citizens share and respect common rights and responsibilities, with unfettered access to national law and our legal institutions to enforce those rights when necessary. Equal access to the law is a key benefit of living in a democratic society. As the hon. Member for Bradford West highlighted, that respect for the law is, I hope and believe, shared by everyone in our country, irrespective of background, gender, religion or any other factor.

If there is any conflict between religious practices and national law, national law must, and will, always prevail. In particular, I highlight the Equalities Act 2010 and, as the shadow Minister, Nick Thomas-Symonds, highlighted, our strong and important human rights legislation and the framework behind it. The Home Office and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government lead on the broader issues surrounding faith, community integration and British values. The Ministry of Justice is responsible for the operation of the justice system, including the use of non-court dispute resolution services such as mediation, and for the law governing marriage.

I heard the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Henley on the use of sharia religious principles and the operation of sharia councils. In particular, he highlighted concerns about various forms of discrimination on the basis of sex or religion in family matters, in particular divorce, in relation to the evidential weight applied. I acknowledge too the views set out by the parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in its resolution, passed in January this year, about the need to combat all forms of discrimination based on religion. As my noble and learned Friend Lord Keen of Elie has said, people may choose to abide by the interpretation and application of sharia principles if they wish to do so, provided their actions do not conflict with national law; however, that must be their free choice, and does not supersede national law.

The resolution reiterated the obligation on Council of Europe member states to protect the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as enshrined in article 9 of the European convention on human rights. That right represents one of the pillars of a democratic society, and we share the council’s view of that important principle. The resolution also noted that the exercise of the right to manifest one’s religion may be subject to some limitations necessary in a democratic society; it is not an unqualified right. Furthermore, it noted that the operation of religion should never act to limit or remove other convention rights or freedoms to which citizens in a democratic society are entitled, and we agree with that too.

While supporting and, I argue, even encouraging pluralism, the resolution expressed concern about the official or unofficial application of what it termed “sharia law” in several Council of Europe member states. As hon. Members have set out, in relation to the UK specifically the Council of Europe set out its concern about what it views as the judicial activities of sharia councils that, although not part of the British legal system, attempt to provide a form of alternative dispute resolution.

The resolution drew attention to members of the Muslim community, sometimes voluntarily but sometimes under pressure from peers or their own conscience, accepting the religious jurisdiction of such councils. The resolution further noted that it occurs mainly with regard to marital issues involving divorce, as the hon. Member for Bradford West said, and some matters related to inheritance and commercial contracts. The resolution expressed concern that the rulings of sharia councils could discriminate against women in divorce and inheritance cases.

The UK Government are clear that all rules, practices and bodies, including systems of alternative dispute resolution, must operate within the rule of law. Our law provides for a formal system of legally binding arbitration under the Arbitration Act 1996, which allows parties to consent to apply a system of law other than English law, with appropriate procedural safeguards to protect against duress or coercion. Arbitral decisions can play an important role, but only if the necessary procedural requirements and legal safeguards are satisfied. Most types of family dispute can be resolved in a legally binding way only if they are adjudicated by the courts.

The Government understand the concerns that some Members have set out about the operation of sharia councils. Indeed, the resolution on the basis of which the debate has been tabled acknowledged and welcomed the Home-Office-commissioned independent review, chaired by Professor Mona Siddiqui and commissioned by the now Prime Minister. That review looked at whether sharia law was being misused or applied in a way that is incompatible with domestic law in England and Wales, and whether there were discriminatory practices against women who use such councils.

Photo of Naseem Shah Naseem Shah Shadow Minister (Equalities Office) (Women and Equalities)

Does the Minister welcome, as I do, the finding in that review that, despite the fact that there is understood to be a conflict in very minute parts of sharia law, in terms of inheritance being discriminatory, in this country that would not apply because the rule of our law would override all of it in any case?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

The hon. Lady is right to highlight the primacy of our national domestic law in that context.

The review was published by the Government in 2018, with the Council of Europe calling the recommendations

“a major step towards a solution”.

The review found evidence of a range of practices across sharia councils, both positive and negative, and made three recommendations, which have been touched upon. Some of them mirror, or are very similar to, the UK-specific proposals set out in the Council of Europe resolution. I will run through them, as other hon. Members have, and respond on behalf of the Government.

The review’s first recommendation was to amend marriage law to ensure that civil marriages are conducted before, or at the same time, as the Islamic marriage ceremony, thereby establishing the right to a civil divorce and to financial protection on divorce. The law already provides the option to solemnise a legally valid Islamic marriage if it takes place in a mosque registered for worship and for marriage, as the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East mentioned. However, we understand and appreciate that many Muslims choose to marry at home and, as the hon. Member for Bradford West said, may be unaware that that means that their ceremony, while religiously recognised, is not recognised under national law.

We will continue to engage with key stakeholders, including faith groups, academics and lawyers, to test their views on the policy and the legal challenges of limited reform relating to the law on marriage and religious ceremonies. I am keen for us to make as rapid progress as possible, but as the tenor of this debate has shown and as hon. Members will recognise, this is a sensitive area that involves the expression of religious freedom, so it is important that we get any changes right.

With respect to the current marriage law, the second recommendation proposed developing programmes to raise awareness among Muslim couples that Islamic marriages do not afford them the legal protection that comes with a civil marriage—a point that the hon. Lady made very powerfully. The cross-Government integrated communities action plan, which is led by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, commits to supporting awareness campaigns to educate and inform couples and their children of the benefits of having a civil marriage alongside a religious marriage. The plan is a powerful opportunity to drive our vision for integrated communities in the UK. As the Prime Minister has said, we will use it to proudly promote the many values that unite us, including democracy, free speech, human rights and the rule of law—values that allow us to enjoy our individual freedoms and lead varied lives in diverse communities.

The third recommendation proposed regulating sharia councils by creating a state-established body with a code of practice for the councils to adopt and implement. The review team’s failure to reach a unanimous agreement on that proposal demonstrates the complexity of the issues involved. The Government consider that a state-facilitated or endorsed regulation scheme for such councils could confer on them a degree of legitimacy as alternative forms of dispute resolution and risk introducing what might be perceived as a parallel system of law. As the then Home Secretary set out at the time, the Government do not consider it an appropriate role of the state to act in that way.

Photo of Naseem Shah Naseem Shah Shadow Minister (Equalities Office) (Women and Equalities)

Does the Minister agree that the role that the Government have to play in these communities, as in any communities, is to support them in getting to where they need to be with sharia councils to make them compliant with our existing laws on non-discrimination regardless of gender?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

The hon. Lady makes an important point. I believe that the Government have an obligation in a range of areas to do what we can to ensure that all bodies and organisations comply with our national laws. She is right that it is incumbent on us all to encourage compliance with the laws that we make in this House.

The Home Office review found some evidence of sharia councils in England and Wales forcing women to make concessions to gain a divorce, of inadequate safeguarding policies and of a failure to signpost applicants to legal remedies. That is clearly not acceptable, as the hon. Lady made clear in her speech. Where sharia councils exist, they must abide by the law. Legislation is in place to protect the rights of women and prevent discriminatory practice; the Government will work with the appropriate regulatory authorities to ensure that that legislation and the protections that it establishes are being enforced fully and effectively.

The Council of Europe’s resolution calls on the UK authorities to do more to

“remove the barriers to Muslim women’s access to justice…step up measures to provide protection and assistance to those who are in a situation of vulnerability…conduct further research on the ‘judicial’ practice of Sharia councils and on the extent to which such councils are used voluntarily, particularly by women, many of whom would be subject to intense community pressure in this respect.”

The Government are clear that we must do more to support people in faith communities to make informed choices about how to live their lives. Key to that is our work on integration and on a shared understanding of British values and the system of law that underpins them. My colleagues in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government will consider those points further as work progresses on the integrated communities action plan.

Photo of Naseem Shah Naseem Shah Shadow Minister (Equalities Office) (Women and Equalities)

The Minister mentions British values again. Does he agree with my view as a Muslim woman that there is no conflict at all between my Muslim values and British values?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to highlight that point. I believe that our values, which include the rule of law and the belief in human rights and democracy, are shared throughout our whole country, irrespective of people’s background, gender, age or religion.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Henley again for giving us the opportunity to debate these important issues. I assure him that what he and other hon. Members have said today has been heard, and that my colleagues across Government and I will consider carefully all the points that have been raised on all sides.

I conclude by repeating what I said at the beginning of my speech: many British people of different faiths benefit a great deal from the guidance that their religious codes, beliefs and practices offer. Such values allow us to enjoy our individual freedoms and lead varied lives in the diverse communities that are a hallmark of our country, but that has to happen within a framework in which citizens can share and respect common rights and responsibilities as they share in the benefits of living in this great country. There is, and remains, one rule of law in the United Kingdom, democratically enacted by this Parliament and the devolved Administrations, and applied by our independent judicial system.

Today’s important debate has been conducted in a manner that does credit to this House, which those who watch our proceedings may not always think is the case. It has been a very worthwhile way of spending our afternoon.

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley 4:16, 2 May 2019

Once again, may I express my gratitude to all Members who stayed for this debate, especially the three Front-Bench Members? It has been very useful.

I said earlier that sharia councils should in no way be abolished, and that they provide a useful function in Muslim communities. I stick by that—they certainly do. However, there are two issues that I think we all agree are important. The first is the protection and empowerment of women; I am as keen that that should happen as any Member of this House, and a lot of my remarks were directed towards ensuring that it does. The second issue is human rights, which Nick Thomas-Symonds mentioned and to which, as a delegate to the Council of Europe, I am absolutely committed. I pointed out how differences in human rights approaches have been raised in the Council of Europe; if we had the time, we could go through the situation in all the countries that the Council has looked at.

I am grateful to hon. Members for their participation and their help in raising this important subject. I agree that it is very sensitive, but that does not mean that we should not raise it or talk about it.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House
has considered Sharia law courts in the UK.

Sitting adjourned.