Further to my earlier post First Official Sharia Courts Joshua Rozenberg in The Telegraph quotes in full what Jack Straw said on the subject of sharia at the Islamic Finance and Trade Conference in London. Talking about the UK Government and then English law is confusing but that aside it may address people's fears on sharia.
"As a Government, it has always been our aim to extend opportunity and prosperity to all – to all parts of the country and to all different communities. This is not about preferential treatment. It is about fairness. This is not about political correctness. It is about respect.
"Whether it is employers with prayer rooms; faith schools; kosher and halal food in work places and public services like hospitals; laws to tackle hate crimes; or the provision of financial products that fit with religious beliefs – we have worked to provide a space in which the rights and diversity of people of all faiths are protected, whilst at the same time setting a clear framework of acceptable behaviour for all citizens.
"This is the thinking which underpins our approach to sharia law. Of course those who live in this country will always be governed by English law and will be subject to the jurisdiction of English courts.
"But there has been much speculation over sharia law in recent weeks, so it may be worth me setting out the true position.
"Many dreadful things have been done in the name of mainstream religions. Barbaric practices such as stoning have been – quite wrongly – justified by reference to Islam, for instance. The same was true in earlier periods, for instance when the state apparatus was used to run Inquisitions in countries like Spain.
"I am firm in disagreeing with those who say that sharia law should be made a separate system in the UK. And there has been much misinformation in recent weeks about this issue.
"There are some countries which do have within their systems of law separate courts to deal with issues of inheritance and family law for different faith groups, such as India and Egypt
"But we do not in the UK and there are overwhelming arguments about why we should not move down this path.
"The facts in the UK are these. If, in a family dispute, parties reach an agreement with the help of a sharia council and want to have that decision recognised under national law, they can submit a consent order to an English court in the terms of the agreement.
"But it is ultimately up to the court to decide whether the agreement complies with English law. In family cases, the court will consider a range of issues including the future welfare of the parties and their children. No court will endorse an agreement which conflicts with English law.
"Likewise, communities have the option to use religious councils to help them come to agreements about other personal disputes. But those agreements will always be subject to English law and cannot be enforced through the English courts, apart from in the very limited circumstances where the religious council acts as an arbitrator.
"The statutory base for such arbitration in these cases is the Arbitration Act 1996 – and nothing has changed in the 12 years since that legislation was passed.
"Crucially, any member of a religious community – or indeed, any other community – has the right to refer to an English court, particularly if they feel pressured or coerced to resolve an issue in a way in which they feel uncomfortable.
"Speculation abounds on this point, so let me say once again: There is nothing whatever in English law that prevents people abiding by sharia principles if they wish to, provided they do not come into conflict with English law. There is no question about that. But English law will always remain supreme, and religious councils subservient to it.
"It is worth me stressing that nothing has changed to the law or to the Government’s position. There has been press comment suggesting that the ability to apply to an English court for a consent order for a sharia ruling is somehow a new development. It is not. We have not changed the position on sharia law established by the previous government in 1996 and nor will we do so. The position remains as before: there is no room for parallel legal systems. Regardless of religious belief, we are all equal before the law."
So there we have it.