Benedict Rogers is co-founder and Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission. He works for the human rights advocacy organisation Christian Solidarity Worldwide, and was PPC for City of Durham in 2005.
In 1807, the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act was passed by Parliament. The legislation’s primary author, William Wilberforce, spent 40 years campaigning for it. In 1833, three days before his death, the Abolition of Slavery Act passed.
On 19 January this year, a modern-day Wilberforce – Caroline Cox – saw her private member’s bill, the Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill, pass its third reading in the Lords, after five years of repeated attempts. It now goes, in theory, to the Commons, although there is such a queue of legislation that, even though it has the support of many MPs, especially Conservatives, it will only be given time if the Government looks kindly on it.
What does Baroness Cox’s bill seek to do, and what is the connection with Wilberforce? In essence, the bill seeks to end the slavery of thousands of women in Britain today. As Baroness Cox said in the Lords last October, there are two interrelated issues to address: “the suffering of women oppressed by religiously sanctioned gender discrimination in this country; and a rapidly developing alternative quasi-legal system which undermines the fundamental principle of one law for all.”
The Arbitration Act 1996 permits a variety of ways of settling certain civil disputes, including arbitration according to sharia principles. The bill will not directly prevent this, but it will introduce better protections for women involved in such disputes, to tackle discrimination and intimidation by religious courts, as well as requiring public authorities to inform women of their legal rights and how to access them, and criminalising anyone attempting to establish a parallel legal system.
It is a vital piece of legislation which, crucially, has drawn widespread support from a diverse range of people and organisations. Many Muslim women have given evidence as part of the preparation for the bill. The Muslim Women’s Advisory Council supports the bill, along with the National Secular Society, Karma Nirvana and Passion for Freedom. A coalition has been formed to highlight the reasons for the bill, called Equal and Free. In the House of Lords, the Bill has drawn cross-party support from Lord Mackay of Clashfern, the former Conservative Lord Chancellor; Baroness Donaghy, the former chair of ACAS and Labour peer, Lord Green of Deddington, the former British Ambassador to Saudi Arabia; Lord Cormack, the former Conservative MP; Lord Carlile, the eminent barrister and Liberal Democrat peer and Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, among others.
As the Muslim author of Equal and Free? 50 Muslim Women’s Experiences of Marriage in Britain Today, Habiba Jaan, puts it: “there is growing concern that many Muslim women in Britain today are suffering severe gender discrimination but lack knowledge of their rights under British law.” Another brave Muslim woman who spoke out said: “I feel betrayed by Britain. I came here to get away from this and the situation is worse here than in the country I escaped from.”
Three years ago, the BBC’s Panorama exposed Britain’s sharia councils in a remarkable documentary. Anyone who doubts that there is a problem should watch it, read Baroness Cox’s Bow Group pamphlet A Parallel World: Confronting the abuse of Muslim women in Britain, examine the evidence in Habiba Jaan’s report and on the Equal and Free website, and read the House of Lords debates on the bill.
As Lord Green noted, the provisions of the bill are based on three essential propositions: “that there can be only one law in our society; that religious freedom shall be protected for all religions; and that women in Britain should not suffer discrimination in the resolution of disputes and, to this end, should be made aware of their rights.” He concluded: “It is time to make a stand against the abuse of women of whatever community and in favour of the rule of law – one law.” Baroness Flather echoed this second point, emphasising that this is not just a women’s issue. “It is an issue for the country and for all of us. We should not have any parallel system in this country.”
It is hard to see why the Government would disagree with that.
And yet, so far, the Government has not supported the bill. It has, to be fair, moved somewhat in the right direction by establishing, as part of its Counter-Extremism Strategy, a full, independent investigation into the application of sharia law in England and Wales. The Home Secretary has acknowledged that “there is evidence of … wives who are forced to return to abusive relationships because Sharia councils say a husband has a right to ‘chastise’”. She has added that “we know enough to know we have a problem”. And she has observed that “across the country, there are concerns about the way Sharia law is being applied, the way women are told to live and the intolerant attitudes shown to people of different beliefs and ways of life”. Baroness Cox’s bill won’t solve all these problems, but it will make a contribution to protecting vulnerable women.
Baroness Buscombe recalled her experiences as a Conservative parliamentary candidate in Slough in 1997. “I will always remember one young Muslim who I knew quite well and who was born in this country. He came up to me one day and said, ‘The trouble with you British people, we do not respect you; you are weak because you do not stand up for what you believe.’” As she argued, “that young British man who said that we are weak was quite right.” We take our freedoms for granted, and despite celebrating 800 years of the Magna Carta we are too often unwilling to defend them with the rigour required.
She concluded: “at the core of a safe society, one that our Prime Minister rightly regularly refers to, is a cohesive society. If we are to gain the respect of everyone of all religious beliefs living in this country, we must now do two things: allow this Bill to pass into law, and seriously rethink and introduce rigour into our rules for citizenship of this country, including rules that spell out and demand equal rights, regardless of gender, under one rule of law – our rule of law – with one system of justice for all.”
The Minister, Lord Faulks, said of Baroness Cox in his response to the debate: “She has done the House and the country a great service by bringing [these issues] to the attention of the House and more widely. She has contributed greatly to raising awareness … She deserves our congratulations.” But she deserves much more than appreciation – she, and the issues she has so bravely raised, deserve and need action. As Lord Maclennan, a Liberal Democrat peer, said: “This Bill is very worthwhile and needs to be enacted”. As it makes its passage through Commons, with many Members of Parliament from all parties already pledged to support it, it deserves two things: appropriate time on the order paper, and the Government’s support.