Baroness Cox (Crossbench) moved the bill, saying: ‘The bill seeks to address two interrelated issues: 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 bill is strongly supported by many Muslims and by Muslim women's organisations such as Inspire, as well as by the Iranian and Kurdish Women's Rights Organisation, the Henna Foundation, Karma Nirvana, British Muslims for Secular Democracy and the National Secular Society. I am grateful to them all for their support.’
She continued: ‘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.’
She went on to give a number of examples of areas the bill will address and concluded that: ‘We cannot continue with the present situation in which so many women are suffering from gender discrimination in our country today in ways that would make the heroines of the suffragette movement turn in their graves. We must address the danger that a parallel de facto legal system may become entrenched, thereby undermining the fundamental principle of our liberal democracy: the principle of one law for all.’
Baroness Donaghy (Labour) supported the bill by saying: ‘As long as some women live in fear and are trapped in their situation, we should act. The government may well feel that this bill is unnecessary as the law in this area is adequate. I would argue that turning a blind eye to fear and exploitation is not adequate. I do not believe that this is confined to Sharia law or the Muslim religion. These parallel laws that discriminate against women exist, sometimes, in other religions. It is important to emphasise that this is not an attack on one particular religion or, indeed, on any right to worship. It could also be said that the bill does not go far enough and that it is too weak to make a difference. I would argue that this can be dealt with by means of amendments to the bill.’
The Lord Bishop of Manchester expressed some concern over the bill, he said: ‘I do not for a moment doubt the sincerity of the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, in her wish not to inhibit religious freedoms through this bill. The point has already been made in this debate that she is a well-known and respected campaigner for the cause of religious liberty at home and abroad. She is much respected, not least by the Bishops' bench. However, as currently drafted, the bill appears to present anomalies which could create problems for those who are well aware of their rights, are independently advised and want to approach their faith tribunals for adjudication in a matter which they believe to be covered by the rules of their faith.’
Lord Gardiner (Conservative), spoke on behalf of the government, stating that: ‘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.’ He continued that: ‘the government are fully committed to protecting the rights of all citizens, and there is legislation in place to uphold those rights... the government are actively working with groups to ensure that there is awareness and a change of attitude.’
Baroness Cox replied: ‘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.’
About the bill
The first reading of the Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill took place in the House of Lords on 10 May 2012. The bill proposes to make:
- further provision about arbitration and mediation services and the application of equality legislation to such services
- provision about the protection of victims of domestic abuse; and for connected purposes.
Background information on the bill
What is second reading?
Second reading is the first opportunity for members of the Lords to debate the main principles and purpose of the bill and to flag up concerns and areas where they think changes (amendments) are needed.
Before second reading takes place, a list of speakers for the second reading debate is opened and interested members add their names to it.
The government minister, spokesperson or a member of the Lords responsible for the bill opens the debate.
Any member can speak in the debate so this stage can indicate those members particularly interested in the bill - or a particular aspect of it - and those who are most likely to be involved in amending the bill at later stages.
Second reading debates usually last for a few hours but sometimes stretch over a couple of days.
Next stage: Committee stage
Detailed line by line examination of the separate parts (clauses and schedules) of the bill takes place during committee stage. Any member of the Lords can take part.
It usually starts no fewer than two weeks after the second reading and can last for one to eight days or more.
The day before committee stage starts, amendments (changes) are published in a marshalled list – in which all the amendments are placed in order. Amendments on related subjects are grouped together and a list (groupings of amendments) is published on the day.
During committee stage every clause of the bill has to be agreed to and votes on the amendments can take place. All proposed amendments can be discussed and there is no time limit – or guillotine - on discussion of amendments.