Because our Parliament discusses little of significance anymore, most of the public tend to ignore it. The perception that the weekly silliness of Prime Minister’s Questions constitutes Parliamentary business is enough to put any normal person off. And apart from that weekly bun-fight, even the media barely bothers to report on the work of either House any longer.
Occasionally something still happens in the Commons or the Lords that is worthy of serious attention but because of its form elsewhere, such occasions fail to get the attention they deserve.
Such is the Bill proposed by Baroness Cox, which had its second reading in the Lords on Friday. Beneath its title (‘The Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill’) lies a debate which heads straight at one of the most important issues of our time: whether this country will make a stand on the principle of ‘one law for all’ or whether competing laws will be allowed to operate unchallenged by a timid government and weak legal system. As Baroness Cox said in her opening remarks:
'Awareness of the need for the Bill arose from mounting evidence of serious problems affecting some women in this country from the application of Sharia law. I immediately reassure your Lordships that I am not anti-Muslim. Indeed, I am deeply concerned that Muslim women enjoy their full legal and civil rights under the law of this land. If women from other faiths experience comparable problems of systematic discrimination, the provisions of this Bill would also be available for them as it does not name any religion.
The problems I will highlight often arise because many women believe that Sharia courts are real courts and do not know that they have other rights under English law or they are pressured by their family or community not to seek those rights outside their community. I give two examples of the kinds of problems afflicting women in this country. I have met these women and witnessed their distress. One suffered such severe domestic violence that she was hospitalised. She was pressured by her family not to seek help from the police as this would bring "shame" on the community. She went to the local Sharia court or council and was told to return to her husband. She did so and suffered more domestic violence. Then her husband divorced her, went back to his country of origin and returned with a second wife. As a devout Muslim, she wanted a religious divorce to allow her to remarry in accordance with her faith but the Sharia court demanded her marriage certificate which her husband's family kept. Attempts to retrieve it resulted in violence in the name of "honour", as she was blamed for bringing shame on the family by seeking a divorce. Seven years later this devout and desperately lonely Muslim lady is still unable to obtain her divorce and remarry.
Secondly, a Muslim widow wanted to remarry but was told by the Sharia council or court that she must obtain the permission of a male relative. She had no male relative in this country so she had to travel to Jordan to obtain the written permission of a seven year-old boy relative in order to be able to remarry in this country. It is not surprising that another young woman complained, "I feel betrayed by Britain. I came to this country to get away from all this but the situation is worse here than in my country of origin".
Other examples concern children. Under Sharia law a father who divorces his wife can claim custody of his children once they reach the age of seven. This gender discrimination violates the fundamental legal principle in this country that custody should be determined according to the best interests of the child. These examples are just the tip of an iceberg as many women live in fear, so intimidated by family and community that they dare not speak out or ask for help. A lady came to see me in my home. I shall never forget seeing her hide behind a tree because she was so terrified of being seen. We should not have such fear in this country.'
In an important contribution Lord Carlile of Berriew, the former independent reviewer of terrorism legislation in the UK said:
'I have particular concerns about Muslim arbitration tribunals-MATs, as they are known-which, as I understand it, have been in existence since 2007. Their effect is that dominant interpretations of Sharia law have effectively been given formal recognition within the law of England and Wales, even though they contradict the law of England and Wales. I have a real concern that MATs have strayed into criminal law, particularly in relation to its impact upon women.'
As Lord Kalms of Edgware said in his contribution to the debate:
'The substance of the Bill is straightforward, and it should be acceptable to all Members of this House. It is this: that the law of the land is, and must remain, paramount; no law should ever override or sit above the law of this land; and, while amendments can and will be made to our laws, the fundamental bedrock principles on which our legal system is based not only cannot but must not be open for negotiation. Among our absolutely non-negotiable principles must be the principle of equality before the law. This hard-fought-for concept of one law for all remains among the greatest achievements not only of our country but of humankind. Any court not abiding 100% by the law of the land has no more status than a kangaroo court.'
And in conclusion:
'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.'
Sadly, after a number of other important contributions to the debate, Lord Gardiner of Kimble, speaking for the government brushed the whole thing away. After a range of abstract objections he said:
'The Government are not convinced that introducing the measures proposed in this Bill…'
Fortunately Lord Carlile was back:
'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 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.'
More of the same wind follows. You can read the whole debate from here onwards.
Of course the official line of the government remains that there is no need for a clarification or amendment of the arbitration act. The government’s line continues to be that there is nothing to see here, and please could everybody look away and move on. It is the view of a number of people who have recently been in the cabinet, and some who remain there.
Thank goodness for Baroness Cox, that she and a range of other peers remain committed to highlighting issues which Parliament must address but all too rarely does address. If there were more people like Baroness Cox in the House and fewer Gardiners, Parliament might recover some of the esteem among the general public which it so conspicuously currently lacks.