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10 Jun 2009 : Column 253WH—continued

The hon. Gentleman also asked whether I agree that energy companies should show embedded carbon. The idea is interesting. We need people to understand the concept of embedded carbon to bring about more behaviour change. However, we say that we want bills to be simpler and clearer, and I am not certain to what extent we should add information. I agree that we need
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the population to have access to the information, but we perhaps need to be more imaginative about where it is best for that information to sit—sometimes it sits best with the appliance or consumer goods, when they are purchased. We are working, through the Carbon Trust, with several major retailers, to do carbon footprinting and look at embedded carbon.

I want to deal briefly with fuel poverty, to which I have referred in relation to subsidised social tariffs. All consumers need and deserve help and protection, but there is clearly a particular need for safeguards for people who are fuel-poor. The hon. Member for Wealden said that we should not have targets without a road map by which to achieve them. When the fuel poverty strategy was devised, we were in a very different world. It was hugely successful in the early days, and between 1996 and 2004 fuel poverty was reducing steadily. In that time, we brought 4.5 million households out of fuel poverty. It is rising energy prices since 2004 that have reversed that progress. For the Government that means redoubling our efforts. Since 2000, we have spent £20 billion helping the fuel-poor in this country, through a number of initiatives. Yet despite those efforts, and despite our being the only country in the world with a fuel poverty strategy, fuel poverty has increased.

I am fully aware of the challenge, which is why I am undertaking a review of our fuel poverty policies. The review examines whether existing measures to tackle fuel poverty could be made more effective. It considers whether new policies should be introduced to help us make further progress, particularly in the light of market conditions to which we have referred already and our aim of reducing carbon emissions. The initial findings of the review will be available later in the summer. I am glad that the hon. Member for Wealden agrees with us about the complexity of trying to sort out the mechanisms by which we can further assist people who need assistance, and about the fact that the targeting and method are critical. We are carefully examining, as hon. Members have suggested, the way information is shown, so that we can improve targeting. We accept that the Government have a role and that it is not all down to energy companies.

We need always to be vigilant on behalf of the consumer. We cannot be complacent about the service that paying energy customers receive, and we should aim for that to be the best and fairest service possible. Regulation needs to be active and effective in current conditions. Rules must be amended, where necessary, to stop unfair practices creeping in again in future, and to help consumers make sound decisions. I appreciate the interest that has been taken by all hon. Members who have contributed today. It is obvious that there is much common ground between us. We all share the aims that the hon. Member for Billericay put forward in the debate. I am grateful to him for doing that, and I look forward to working with everyone to advance the cause and get a much better deal for consumers from their energy supply companies.

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Mrs. Masuma Jariwalla

10.59 am

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): I begin by thanking Mr. Speaker for granting me this 30-minute Westminster Hall debate to discuss the case of my constituent, Mrs. Masuma Jariwalla.

Mrs. Jariwalla first came to see me at my advice surgery in May 2003. She is a Shi’a Muslim, who was born and married into the Dawoodi Bohra sect. She divorced her husband under English civil law in 1995. The couple have two sons, who are now both over 18. My constituent told me that her ex-husband, a strict religious Shi’a, will not accept that divorce as binding on him, but will consider himself divorced only if he divorces her under Shi’a law. She has a new partner, a Sunni Muslim, but he cannot marry her nor can his parents accept her into the family unless her ex-husband releases her by accepting the English civil divorce or divorces her under Shi’a law. It seemed to me in 2003, and nothing has been achieved to change my mind since then, that I could not help her so long as her ex-husband refused a Shi’a divorce and she, as a religious woman, wished to remain bound by Shi’a laws, which she clearly respects, unless the Government change the law.

Following our first meeting, I corresponded with a number of Ministers on her behalf, to see whether the Government would be able to help, perhaps directly by amending the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973, or indirectly by amending the Divorce (Religious Marriages) Act 2002, or even by passing new legislation to deal with this impasse. I appreciate that Government and Parliament, although sensitive even to a small number of difficult cases, must be careful to consider the wider implications of making statutory changes to the religious customs and laws of a religion of any denomination with which it has no proper business to interfere.

In June 2003, Lord Filkin, then the Under-Secretary of State at the Department for Constitutional Affairs, replied to a letter that I had written in May to the right hon. Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton), then a junior minister in the Lord Chancellor’s Department. Lord Filkin accepted that my constituent was locked into a state of affairs similar to some Jewish chained wives, who are prevented from remarrying because of their husband’s refusal to grant a religious divorce or get. If the husband does not apply to the Beth Din for a get and deliver it to his wife, she cannot remarry under Jewish law. The Divorce (Religious Marriages) Act, which came into force in 2003, provided some assistance by enabling the English divorce courts to require the dissolution of the religious marriage before granting a civil divorce. That means that a husband who refuses to deliver a get to his wife will not be able to obtain a civil divorce and lawfully remarry. That provision is fine so far as it goes, but it does not assist my constituent.

Mrs. Jariwalla’s plight may be numerically unusual, but the size of the orthodox religious Jewish population is large and the number of divorces in that community must, for a host of religious and social reasons internal to that community, be correspondingly small. However, the problem was sufficient to cause the Government to recognise that some measure of reform was required to allow for social harmony and compliance with our
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obligations under the Human Rights Act 1998 and the European convention on human rights.

Lord Filkin accepted that my constituent and other Muslim women faced a similar problem to that faced by the Jewish women, whose husbands refused to grant them the talaq, whose rights and interests were enhanced by the 2002 Act. Mrs. Jariwalla, as a British citizen, was and remains divorced under the law of England but trapped by sharia law in a marriage to which she has no real or emotional attachment.

There are, of course, any number of differences between Islam and Judaism. However, I suggest that as the Muslim population of the United Kingdom grows year by year, and as a greater proportion of that population are and will be British-born rather than foreign-born, and as the cultural, religious and geographical links that bound first and even second-generation Muslim families are attenuated by the exposure of the younger, indigenous generations to the social mores and cultural systems prevalent in the majority population of British citizens, the tensions between English civil and Muslim religious law will increase, and need to be alleviated.

As within the Christian faith, there will always be groups and individuals for whom the religious teachings and tenets of their own faith take precedence over secular civil law, no matter how problematic that can be. However, there will be a cohort of Muslim women brought up within one world from which they do not want entirely to be separated who, in order to live happy and fulfilling lives in modern Britain, need to be able to exist in harmony within both a religious and a secular context.

Since 2003, as well as contacting the two Ministers to whom I have already referred, I contacted Lady Ashton of Upholland and the Leader of the House of Commons, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), who were then Ministers at the Department for Constitutional Affairs. Like Lord Filkin, they said that they could do nothing unless it became clear that there was consensus within the Muslim community, and that the reason why Muslims could not be included under the 2002 Act was that their communities were not able to offer efficient remedies to deal with the problem—and, anyway, that women like my constituent could always approach the sharia council to ask for the marriage to be dissolved. Furthermore, the Government had received no representations from the Muslim community, which they had from the Jewish community.

I am grateful for the Under-Secretary’s attendance here today. She will know that the two great sects in Islam are the Sunni and the Shi’a Muslims, with Sunnis predominating by some measure. The Muslim Council of Britain is the umbrella body covering the many Muslim councils and sub-councils to be found in this country. These councils can resolve marriage disputes such as my constituent’s by issuing a fatwa, but I understand that Dawoodi Bohra wives, like the pre-2002 Act Jewish wives, cannot remarry unless their husbands consent to a religious divorce.

In the autumn of 2008, I wrote to the Janaab Amilsaheb of the Anjuman-e-Saifee in Leicester and to Dr. Idris Zainuddin in Northolt, the relevant Dawoodi Bohra religious leaders, to ask them to intercede in this case. Apart from a polite holding reply from Leicester that
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promised a considered response from Northolt, and despite reminders, I have heard no more from either of them.

I wrote to the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham again in January this year, in her capacity as Minister for Woman; in February the Under-Secretary replied. She told me nothing new. With Mrs. Jariwalla’s consent, I bring the matter to the House in the hope that any publicity generated by this debate will act as a spur to action within the Muslim community and among the Government.

It is far too late for the 2002 Act to include my constituent’s case, as she was long ago granted a decree absolute under English law. There is nothing to be gained in preventing her ex-husband from getting a civil divorce in order to stop him lawfully remarrying, because he already has a divorce and, if he chooses, he can remarry.

If one party has the power to grant or withhold a religious divorce, the power can be abused and used as a bargaining tool to pressure the other party to agree to less favourable terms for residence and contact with children, and for financial provision. That is no longer relevant in this 14-year-old case, but surely neither the Government or Parliament should countenance a continuing conflict between her ex-husband’s refusal to grant a religious divorce and Mrs. Jariwalla’s rights to family life under article 8 of the European convention on human rights, her rights to freedom of conscience and religion under article 9, her right to marry under article 12, her right to equality between spouses under article 4 of the 7th protocol to the convention, her right not to suffer discrimination in the exercise of her convention rights under article 14 of the convention, and her right to an effective remedy to protect her rights under article 13. Similar provisions are to be found in the United Nations universal declaration on human rights, which the United Kingdom voted for as long ago as 1948, and in other more recent treaties to which we are a party.

Of course, we respect the separation between religion and politics, which rightly inhibits Governments from interfering in the practice of religion unless the behaviour of one or more parties is in breach of the local civil or criminal law. However, that is what we have here: the current power held over this woman by her ex-husband is an abuse of her rights as a citizen under the law, and the Government have a duty to put it right. They can no longer wait for consensus within the Muslim community, or for that community to approach the Government.

As a matter of public policy, of fairness, of humanity and of justice, I urge the Government, through the Minister, to apply whatever pressure and influence they can to impress upon the Dawoodi Bohra authorities the need to allow Mrs. Jariwalla—talaq or no talaq—to be freed from this long-dead marriage.

11.9 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Bridget Prentice): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Russell. I congratulate the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) on securing this debate, in which he has outlined Masuma Jariwalla’s poignant and long-running case. As he explained, he has already brought it to my attention and that of a number of my predecessors. I also want to place on the record my sincere and absolute sympathy for Ms Jariwalla.

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I shall explain in a little detail the principles behind sharia law and then try to address some of the issues raised by the hon. and learned Gentleman. Sharia law is the code of personal religious law governing the conduct of Muslims, and, as he pointed out, Ms Jariwalla, and many others in this country, have chosen to live by it and wish to continue to do so. Sharia law is not part of the law of England and Wales and nor do the Government have any intention of changing that position. We believe that social cohesion is best served by people living together under one legal system, rather than a system of personal laws.

The hon. and learned Gentleman rightly points out that it is not Government’s business to legislate to change the laws and customs of a religion; the business of Government is to frame appropriate laws for the country, within which personal choice to practise a religion or follow a religious law can be exercised. We would not want to interfere in the right of people to live their lives according to their religion. Nothing in the law in England and Wales prevents people from abiding by sharia principles if they wish to do so, provided that it does not conflict with the law in England and Wales. If it did, the law in England and Wales would prevail.

The hon. and learned Gentleman asked what the Government can do to bring the predicament of Ms Jariwalla, and possibly others like her, in line with modern British life. He referred to changes made through section 10A of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973. That provision applies to the Jewish faith, and to any other prescribed faith whose representatives apply to the Lord Chancellor to be brought within the scope of the Act. Since the provision came into force in 2003, no other religious group has sought to bring its faith within the scope of the Act. However, given what he has said, I now feel that it might be incumbent on me to suggest to other religious groups that they might like to consider being brought within its scope, rather than to wait for them to come forward. Obviously, it is not my role to persuade them to do so, but I could at least bring the provision to their attention and ask them to think about whether it would be appropriate for them.

Having said that, in Ms Jariwalla’s case, section 10A might not be the answer. The section enables a court to refuse a decree absolute until a recalcitrant spouse has undertaken the necessary steps to enable the parties to obtain a religious divorce. It does not purport to change religious law; it simply enables the civil law divorce to be withheld until the parties have dissolved the marriage in accordance with their religion. In Jewish law, divorce requires the co-operation of both parties. The husband secures a get from the religious court, which is then delivered to the wife. If he refuses to do so, the wife might be able to obtain a divorce under civil law. However, because she would remain married to her husband, in the eyes of Jewish law, she would not be entitled to remarry in an orthodox ceremony. If she is devout, that inhibition might be a major source of distress and unhappiness for her and her family.

Section 10A is of use, however, only if the husband wants a civil divorce. Under the Jewish faith, the man is free to marry again, having been granted a civil divorce, even without obtaining a religious divorce. If he wishes to remarry, he can obtain a civil divorce, so section 10A could be an incentive to the husband to provide the wife with the necessary get by allowing that civil divorce to
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be withheld until the get is provided. However, section 10A would be ineffective against a spouse who has no interest in obtaining a civil divorce. And that is as true of a Jewish religious marriage as of any other.

The hon. and learned Gentleman rightly said that the numerical size of the problem is not the issue—we are probably talking about very small numbers of people. The problem is that section 10A is ineffective in any situation in which the spouse resisting religious divorce has no interest in the dissolution of a civil marriage. Ms Jariwalla’s situation might be similar to those of some Jewish women, but it is not identical, so I am not convinced that section 10A would provide a solution in every case.

The Government have stated that they will consider representation from Islamic communities and organisations to extend section 10A to that religious group. However, that can be done only if it wishes to bring its faith within the scope of the Act. I shall ensure that we remind it of that provision; and it might then wish to consider making representations to be brought within its scope. Having said that, none of this detracts from the very real problems highlighted by Ms Jariwalla’s case and the difficulties of managing a modern life for people of different religions in this country.

The hon. and learned Gentleman rightly and sensitively recognised the need to be very careful about how we best regulate these issues through legislation. He raised the concern that the power to grant or withhold a religious divorce could be used as an unfair bargaining counter in disputes over contact, residence or financial provision. Undoubtedly, it could so be used, but I hope that I can assure him—and you, Mr. Russell—that should parties bring such a matter before a court in England and Wales, any suggested agreement would be vigorously scrutinised by that court, under English legal principles, to ensure that what is agreed meets, for example, the interests of any children and corresponds to appropriate divisions of finances under English law.

The hon. and learned Gentleman then suggested that refusal by one spouse to grant a religious divorce can amount to interference with the other spouse’s human rights. He, more than many, is aware that human rights issues are very complex—much more so than often appears at face value. I am not yet convinced, however, that this situation raises a human rights issue in the terms that he suggests. Under European Court of Human Rights jurisprudence, marriage is not held to be a form of expression of thought, conscience or religion, such as would attract the protection of article 9. Marriage comes under article 12, which provides for the right to marry according to national laws governing the exercise of that right. I am not convinced that the desire to remarry, not through a civil ceremony, but according to religious formats not recognised in English law, would necessarily come under article 12.

Having said that, I do not want to detract from the seriousness with which we take these issues. In this country, many different nationalities, cultures and faiths live cheek by jowl and generally harmoniously. That brings many advantages and enriches our communities. We are taking steps to tackle issues faced by Muslims in modern Britain. For example, we have commissioned a small-scale research project to investigate the number
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and distribution of sharia councils in England and Wales. It will determine how easy it is to obtain information from councils and, where possible, explore administrative structures and the processes for dealing with sharia family law matters.

We have set up the national Muslim women’s advisory group and the young Muslim advisory group, and we have supported more than 120 Muslim women and young people through leadership programmes. We have also supported the establishment of the Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board and the radical middle way roadshows, which have been attended by more than 70,000 people. We are very aware of the issues surrounding religious marriages that do not comply with the formal requirements included in the Marriage Act 1949. I am particularly concerned about cases in which people marry in a purely religious ceremony, because the marriage can be invalid as a matter of civil law if it has not been subject to the rights and responsibilities that accompany legally recognised marriages in England and Wales. I want to ensure that sharia councils around the country realise that mosques need to be registered according to English law in order to validate such marriages.

We appreciate that women can be very vulnerable after the breakdown of a relationship, and we are considering how we can work with Muslim communities and organisations to increase awareness of the legal requirements for recognised marriage and to increase the number of mosques that are registered for the solemnisation of religious marriage. The 1949 Act provides for places of worship to apply to be registered for the solemnisation of religious marriages. That requirement applies to all religious marriages, whether Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Hindu, Sikh and so on.

I appreciate the way in which the hon. and learned Gentleman has put this case forward. I have absolute sympathy with Ms Jariwalla in her unacceptable situation. The hon. and learned Gentleman will know that the Government are not dealing with the Muslim Council of Britain at the moment. However, I am keen to make contact with the Dawoodi Bohra religious leaders to ensure that this case is brought to their attention.

Mr. Garnier: May I thank the Minister by means of an intervention? I would have made a second speech if it were permitted, but I am not entirely sure of the procedure. Before she sits down, I want to thank her for the positive way in which she has dealt with this case. Although it is very sensitive, it does have lessons of general application. One of the things that I am delighted to hear is that she will now go out into the Muslim community to encourage it—I hope that I am not putting words into her mouth—to come within the Divorce (Religious Marriages) Act 2002. However, even if the Muslim community comes within that Act it will not help my constituent; that divorce has gone and been dealt with.

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