On 9 February, the Government published its Integrated Communities Action Plan for England. The Plan does not include any express proposal to criminalise “bare” religious marriages undertaken in the absence of any civil registration. The relevant extracts in relation to religious issues are as follows:
“Ministers of religion
We will amend the Immigration Rules to prohibit Religious Workers (granted a Tier 5 visa) from acting as a Minister of Religion. In doing so, individuals wishing to come to the UK and fill roles which meet our definition of a Minister of Religion will be required to do so via Tier 2, which requires demonstration of a higher level of English.
Lead Department: Home Office – Delivery date: Changes to the Immigration Rules implemented in January 2019.
We will establish a new taskforce to identify the barriers to Dar ul Ulooms(Islamic theological institutes) and other religious seminaries achieving higher education accreditation of the qualifications they offer.
Lead Department: MHCLG – Delivery date: May 2019.
We will support awareness campaigns to educate and inform couples and their children of the benefits of having a civilly registered marriage, including funding for voluntary organisations led by Register Our Marriage to roll out local targeted awareness campaigns in three areas.
Lead Department: Home Office / MHCLG – Delivery date: early 2019.
We will ensure our response on forced marriage is as robust as it can be, by:
- consulting on the possible introduction of a mandatory reporting duty for forced marriage cases;
- consulting on updated multi-agency guidance on forced marriage to help ensure professionals understand forced marriage and their responsibilities.
- launching a communications campaign to raise awareness of the issue;
- consulting on including an explicit reference to forced marriage in the immigration rules to demonstrate that forced marriage is unacceptable in the UK;
- working with the judiciary to examine whether anonymous evidence of forced marriage can be admissible as closed evidence in the appeals process.
Lead Department: Home Office – Delivery dates: Consultation on mandatory reporting duty and guidance closed in January 2019 – launch of communications campaign announced in November 2018 – consultation on the immigration rules to be launched early 2019.
We will support training of faith leaders to ensure they understand the English legal system, including equalities and marriage legislation, British culture and our shared values, and that they are well versed in their rights and responsibilities to better support their congregations.
Lead Department: MHCLG – Delivery date: Spring 2019.”
Responses to the Green Paper
At the same time, the Government published its response to the consultation on the Integrated Communities Strategy Green Paper. On Question 12 – “The Green Paper proposes measures to encourage integration and resist divisive views or actions. Do you agree with this approach?” – the response was as follows:
“There were 2,865 responses to this question. Of the 234 organisational responses, 50% agreed with the question, 15% disagreed with a further 35% not sure (for a variety of reasons). Of the 2,631 individuals who responded, 16% agreed with the question, 67% disagreed (for a variety of reasons) with a further 17% not sure. Points raised include:
- The majority of organisational respondents agreed with the approach, but some suggested the need for more tangible action than was contained in the Green Paper.
- A number of respondents suggested that language relating to extremism was ill-defined and felt that some of the language in the Green Paper should be altered to avoid a “them” and “us” narrative and the need for care in public narratives.
- Some were concerned that there should not be a disproportionate focus on Muslim groups, and the need to recognise other forms of extremism, risk and other minority groups.
- Some respondents suggested authorities should build stronger relationships with faith groups and schools to increase the reporting of hate crimes. Some respondents believed that more should be done to ensure media reporting on ethnic minority groups is done more responsibly and with more sensitivity.
Promoting and protecting equality and tolerance are the cornerstone of the Government’s approach on rights and freedoms in communities, including the principle of freedom of religion and belief, to which the Government remains firmly committed. People in Britain are free to worship who and how they wish, or to not worship at all, and, with only a few exceptions, people can choose how they manifest that faith or belief. This religious tolerance is part of what makes Britain the resilient and vibrant country it is today.
The Government understands and appreciates that faith groups make a valuable contribution to our society. Churches and other faith groups give time worth more than £3 billion to their communities every year. Two million people from faith groups give at least 384 million hours, of which the majority are unpaid, to projects supporting 48 million people. Faith organisations, and many non-faith organisations, provide a framework to encourage social mixing between people of different backgrounds. We will continue to fund programmes which help promote social mixing, such as Near Neighbours and Schools Linking, which show that bonds can be formed with people from very different backgrounds and that people often find shared values and concerns, regardless of background.
Our priority is to ensure equality of opportunity for all. We do not expect everyone to agree with, or to accept, the same beliefs and practices. But we do expect everyone to be afforded equal respect and acceptance and be able to live free from fear or prejudice. We expect all organisations we work with, including those we fund or support in other ways, to abide by those same principles and we will not hesitate to challenge intolerance where we see it. Our refreshed Hate Crime Action Plan, published in October 2018, sets out how we will tackle the harms directed at particular groups.”
Faith Leader training
At the same time, the Government announced that, following an open tendering process, the Edward Cadbury Centre for the Public Understanding of Religion had been selected to deliver the the Faith Leader Training initiative. The Government anticipates that the initiative will complement the following programmes:
Strengthening Faith Institutions (SFI): “A programme which helps places of worship build effective governance structures, develop robust financial management procedures and support Charity Commission registration”; and
Register Our Marriage (ROM): “A campaign working with faith communities to raise awareness on elements of marriage legislation (ie the need for UK religious marriages to be registered / the fact that spouses are not protected by English law in unregistered religious marriages which have been conducted in the UK)”.
“Promoting and protecting equality and tolerance are the cornerstone of the Government’s approach on rights and freedoms in communities, including the principle of freedom of religion and belief, to which the Government remains firmly committed.”
It is a sign of the times that a great many people will nowadays react to a sentence like that, which fifty years ago would have seemed heart-warmingly reassuring, music to most people’s ears, with terrified suspicion that what the government really means nowadays by this sentence is the exact opposite of what the words actually say, the opposite of the liberal, straightforward meaning which the sentence would naturally have been assumed to have conveyed fifty years ago.
I hope I don’t need to explain why I say this.