All 2 Debates between Baroness Flather and Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon

Local Government (Religious etc. Observances) Bill

Debate between Baroness Flather and Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon
Friday 13th March 2015

(9 years, 3 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Baroness Flather Portrait Baroness Flather
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My Lords, we have heard how councillors go to functions such as celebrations of Diwali and Eid, which are organised by other faiths, and that is wonderful, but they do not have anything to do with the council. It is not the council that is facilitating such gatherings. It is not the council saying, “We will help you to organise your Diwali function”. That needs to be borne in mind. Facilitating or supporting religious functions usually means facilitating and supporting Christian festivals, not others. If that could be included, I would be much happier.

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon
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My Lords, again I thank noble Lords for our debate and I want to clarify again the Government’s support for the Bill as it stands. Just on the final point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, councils up and down the country provide great examples of supporting all faiths and none, and indeed of supporting faith festivals. That support is not only right, it is also welcome and should be encouraged. Down the road from me we have Tooting in the London Borough of Wandsworth, which some noble Lords may know well. Quite often, you will see celebrations and lights going on for Diwali or for Eid, and for other festivals of every religion, including Christmas. In the multifaith society in which we live, it is right that all of these are celebrated and respected. People of all faiths and none come together for these religious festivals. Indeed, the noble Baroness probably knows better than most Members of your Lordships’ House how they can bring communities together.

Baroness Flather Portrait Baroness Flather
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Very briefly, I have seen these festivals take place and I have attended them, but I am trying to point out that they are not supported by councils as such. They do not receive the council’s formal support and facilitation, nor are they given any help with money and so on.

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon
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It is not often that I beg to disagree with the noble Baroness, but in many cases councils support the lights being put up and the closure of streets to allow them to be put up. We could take this down many paths, but I am sure that when the noble Baroness attends these events, she brings to them her glitter, glamour and expertise and that her presence is always most welcome.

Moving on to the specific amendments, let me be clear that, as I said in my earlier remarks, faith is part of what defines our nation today. Belief plays a part in all our communities. Respect for faith and belief and for those of all beliefs other than our own goes hand in hand with respect for those of no faith. That is the cornerstone of what defines the British character. Belief and faith in this nation are happily not locked behind the walls of churches, temples, mosques, gurdwaras or any other places of worship, and I celebrate that, as I am sure do all noble Lords. Faith is celebrated in our high streets and through the observance of prayers every day in this House, as several noble Lords pointed out in the previous group.

Faith extends into the fabric of our government as well. We support projects that are run by faith groups in our communities. The Near Neighbours programme is an excellent example of that. I can give a practical example of how it is not restrictive. The Near Neighbours programme comes under the auspices of the Church of England, but an excellent example can be found in Leicester where a Near Neighbours project celebrated Mitzvah Day, which is a Jewish festival. I can tell noble Lords that the director of that centre in Leicester is a Muslim. That is what defines our country: it is about bringing communities together, not dividing them. This is a working example of how it happens in practice.

It is right that authorities should be able to support, facilitate or be represented at religious events and events connected with a belief. It is right that, at services held on Remembrance Sunday throughout the nation, elected representatives should be there. It is right that if a council needs to close a road to ensure that such a service can take place safely, it can do so without challenge; it does not have the power to do so because it is a religious event. The same goes for scout parades and other ceremonies that mix a religious element with civic pride and community spirit. These are all examples of councils’ proactive support, and it is right that they should continue. We should be able to trust our councils and councillors to exercise their powers appropriately when supporting or facilitating such events, and we should trust the electorate to hold their councils to account on such decisions.

Amendments 6, 7 and 8 would remove the second fundamental purpose of the Bill and send a somewhat concerning message about the restrictions that might be placed on the freedom of councils to ensure properly and safely that communities are able to celebrate not just behind the walls of places of worship, but as communities within their communities and serving their communities.

Amendments 9 to 19 appear to seek to restrict the authorities that the Bill may extend to. My response to my noble friend Lord Avebury is a simple one: let those authorities and organisations decide for themselves. It is all about having a choice over whether they wish to take advantage of the freedoms that the Bill offers. There is no compulsion on them to do so and no requirement.

I reiterate that the Bill is about freedom and choice. To deny local councils that freedom to make that choice would be wrong. With those assurances, I hope that, after we have heard from my noble friend, the noble Lord will be minded to withdraw his amendment.

Sharia Law

Debate between Baroness Flather and Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon
Thursday 11th December 2014

(9 years, 6 months ago)

Grand Committee
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Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Baroness for initiating an important debate. It is important to reflect on where we are now. I am glad to see that both the diversity and the gender balance in this House are alive and kicking. We have had contributions in a ratio of four to one: four women and one man. We have also had a healthy sprinkling of different religious identities: contributions from—if I may sum the noble Baroness up thus—a Hindu humanist; from a Muslim; from a committed—and, I know, strong—Christian, and from a Jewish atheist. I suppose that with a debate such as one on Sharia it is entirely appropriate that there is a slight bias towards a Muslim man responding to bring it all into proportion.

I stress from the outset, in order to make it abundantly clear—the noble Baroness, Lady King, made the same point—that Sharia law has no jurisdiction in the court systems of England and Wales: we do not recognise it. There is no parallel court system in this country. Again reiterating what the noble Baroness said, we have no intention of changing this position in relation to any part of England and Wales. I make that statement from the outset because it is important to get it on record—that that is the law of the land and the law of the land will prevail irrespective of what religious practice or community you may belong to.

A question posed very ably—I would expect nothing less—by my predecessor in this role of faith Minister is: what does Sharia and the distinction between Sharia and Sharia law mean? As we have heard—the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, also alluded to this—Sharia can mean many things. Essentially, the first code of Sharia is: do not lie. That is perhaps a teaching and a learning for us all. It is also about halal food, and we see plenty of that. It is abstention from alcohol—I am teetotal, I can commit to that. It is also about service to charity and humanity. It is about welfare for all. If you look at the diversity of our great country today, specifically the Muslim community, the charitable nature of what they do is guided by Sharia law, which we are debating today. As law-abiding citizens of our great country they reflect that code of conduct in their charitable giving—their alms giving—to the poor, the needy, across the country. We are at the forefront of that. That is something that, across the country, irrespective of faith or religion, we should be proud of.

The noble Baroness, Lady King, asked specifically about Sharia councils. She talked about the figure of 85 in 2009. The Government have not made a specific assessment of Sharia in this country and are not involved in the administration—which she also asked about—of Sharia councils in any way. However, I emphasise again that the law of the land is supreme: regardless of our beliefs we are all equal under the law of the country.

I move on to some of the pertinent issues that have been raised. The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, gave some quite specific examples. I totally relate to them and they are true not just of one particular community but of many. Women have suffered terrible abuse and had terrible dilemmas. Because of limits on time, all I would say at this juncture is that she will know as well as I do—and as I am sure all noble Lords will agree—that the faith in its actual learning and theory protects women. It is unfortunate that we see practice failing with individual abuses or abuses in certain communities. These have to be eradicated and the full force of the law must apply.

Again, I need to make it absolutely clear that Sharia councils, Sharia courts—whatever name may be attributed to them—have no part in the court system in this country and no means of enforcing their decisions. If any of the decisions or recommendations made by Sharia councils or committees are illegal or contrary to national law, national law will prevail every time and where it does not criminal sanctions should apply. Any member of any community should know that they have a right to refer to an English court at any point, particularly if they feel pressured or coerced.

The noble Baronesses, Lady Cox and Lady Flather, highlighted the fact that where women are vulnerable they are not perhaps informed or educated. Therefore, it is also important that we work with communities in identifying these women. As Minister for Communities I am encouraged by the programmes and am laying greater emphasis on learning English, empowering women in particular through language. There are some excellent programmes targeting these very vulnerable groups. I recently saw QED, a practical project in Bradford. Muslim women who came from abroad, as spouses of husbands, actually had the education and knowledge but did not have the confidence to extend themselves into the fabric of the country. It is projects such as that one about empowering women where a lot of our focus should be, and rightly.

I also pay tribute to my predecessor in this role, the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, for setting up the integration roadshows. I am pleased to say that I will be nimble-footed from this debate because I am travelling up to Manchester immediately afterwards to conduct one of the integration roadshows. There we take some of the challenges facing different communities—in particular Muslim communities—that come out of practice that is founded not on the religion but unfortunately on interpretations that are removed from the faith. I totally take what the noble Baroness said. We need to tackle these head on.

Baroness Flather Portrait Baroness Flather
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Is the Minister saying that a woman who does not have a registered marriage and is trying to get a Sharia divorce can get a divorce in British law? Can she go to court without a registered marriage? I do not think that that is correct.

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon
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No, I am not saying that, and the noble Baroness is correct to point that out. The same common law principles would apply in that case. I would like to clarify one thing. The point was made on a couple of occasions about access within Sharia for a woman to take a divorce. Again, this is the difference between theory and practice. The avenue does exist. There is the concept of Khula which allows a woman to take a divorce without citing a reason. The problem arises in certain communities because although some practise this very well, others unfortunately do not make it available. That is where the focus should be. I want to be absolutely clear that, in the context of concerns about Muslim marriages and Sharia councils, the Government believe that the key issue is raising the primacy of English law and the importance of a clear understanding of how English law works.

My noble friend raised the issue of recognising the nikah in terms of the law of the land. She will know from her experience as a Minister, and she also speaks very ably as a lawyer, that there are certain complexities that we need to address. This is far more than just a simple issue, a simple adjustment to make. It would need careful consideration before the Government could give any commitment. I am sure she appreciates that there are things that need to be discussed fully to balance out what the implications of that would be. I have already alluded to the importance of communities coming together to effect real change. We can amplify the message of those communities where women are not empowered to speak up and help them to get their messages out, but we believe that building integration is ultimately the responsibility of everyone in society.

This is a useful and timely debate. Let me assure the noble Baronesses, Lady Flather and Lady Cox, and, indeed, all noble Lords, that, as they know, I am personally committed to ensuring the eradication of some of the challenges we have seen, such as the evils of forced marriage. The Government have been very serious about this. Indeed, as noble Lords will know, we took steps by criminalising this heinous activity. As we have seen with FGM as well as with forced marriages, the important thing is first of all to ensure that this is communicated effectively, and that people understand what the law of the land means. It is important to make that accessible to all people and to educate people in that respect as well.

I wish to conclude my remarks today by thanking all noble Lords who participated in what has been a very useful debate. I again underline the fact that what defines our great country of Britain is that it allows people to practise, profess, propagate and preach their faith with great freedom and liberty across all boundaries. It does not matter who or where you are.