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.

1.29 pm

Lord Swinfen: 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

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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.

1.33 pm

Baroness Deech: 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

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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.

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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.

1.40 pm

Lord Elton: 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

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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.

1.47 pm

Baroness Uddin: 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

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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.

1.50 pm

Baroness Thornton: 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

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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

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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.

1.59 pm

Lord Gardiner of Kimble: 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.

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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 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.

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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: 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: 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

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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: 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: I thank my noble friend for that intervention because it gives me an opportunity to conclude by saying that the Government are fully

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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: 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: 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: I appreciate that this is my noble friend’s first wind-up from the Dispatch Box and that he has the good will 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: 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: 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: 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.

2.16 pm

Baroness Cox: 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.

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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 want 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: 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: I indeed give that assurance. It speaks exactly to my own commitments, so I am to offer it unequivocally.

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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.

House adjourned at 2.23 pm.