HOWARTH, Sir Gerald

Sir Gerald Howarth is MP for Aldershot and a former Defence Minister.

Since the launch of Theresa May’s counter-extremism strategy, little has been said about its proposed investigation into Sharia courts.  We don’t know the terms of reference, we don’t know its specific timescale and we don’t know who will be appointed to oversee its progress.

We can be sure, however, that the review is necessary.  According to the Home Office, British women have been “divorced” under Sharia law and left in penury; Sharia councils have given the testimony of a woman only half the weight of a man’s; and wives have been forced to return to abusive relationships because Sharia councils have said that a husband has a right to “chastise”.

Of course, not all such forums are implicated by these kind of atrocities.  Many so-called Sharia courts operate legitimately under the terms of the Arbitration Act, helping people to resolve civil disputes in accordance with Sharia principles.  Yet concerns clearly remain about the extent to which Muslim women are suffering in Britain today.

These are sensitive and complex issues, so we can certainly expect the inquiry to hit a few hurdles along the way, as happened with a similar review in 2011, but complexity is not an excuse for inaction.  It is important that the Home Secretary appoints a suitable Chairman soon.

As I understand it, three simple considerations are usually given when appointing a chairman for such a review panel:

  • Do they have knowledge of the issues (i.e. research, guidance and legislation)?
  • Will they understand the context of the main agencies likely to be involved?
  • Can they communicate effectively with both heads of agencies and victims of abuse?

This might lead the Home Secretary to an independent, experienced figure who is not directly associated with any of the relevant stakeholders – perhaps a lawyer, or an academic.  On this occasion, though, a more fitting candidate is required.

Caroline Cox, the independent Peer, is one of the most highly regarded parliamentarians in the Lords.   The nature of her humanitarian work requires her to spend half her life in a jungle or a desert – or part-way up a mountain. It means that she is often required to enter war zones under fire, visiting people off the radar screen and largely out of sight of the world’s media.

She is no less keen on promoting human rights at home.  In 2013, she established the All-Party Parliamentary Group on ‘Honour’-Based Abuse, of which I am the Vice-Chairman.  The group has heard countless testimonies of women oppressed by intense community pressure, by inequalities in access to divorce or by the implicit sanctioning of domestic violence.

In October, Lords debated Baroness Cox’s Private Member’s Bill to protect vulnerable women from religiously-sanctioned gender discrimination.  Read the Hansard, and you’ll soon lose count of how many peers speak of her expertise and compassion.  She is respected by parliamentarians of all parties and, more importantly, trusted by women’s groups who support victims of abuse.  For years, she has been raising these issues in parliament, instigating debates, representing the oppressed, and holding our Government to account.

In other words, Baroness Cox is the go-to expert on the very issues which Theresa May is hoping to explore in the forthcoming review and I very much hope she will be appointed as Chairman or, at the very least, given a position on the panel.

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