Polygamous husbands settling in Britain with multiple wives can claim extra benefits for their “harems” even though bigamy is a crime in the UK, it has emerged.
Opposition MPs are demanding an urgent change in the law, claiming that the Government is recognising and rewarding a custom which has no legal status and which is “alien” to this country’s cultural traditions.
Officials said yesterday a review was now under way into whether the state should continue to pay out income support, jobseeker’s allowance and housing and council tax benefits to ‘extra’ spouses.
Islamic law allows a man to take up to four wives, providing he can provide for them fairly and equally. But British law only ever recognises one spouse, while bigamy is punishable by up to seven years in jail.
However, if a husband and his wives arrive and settle in Britain having wed in a country where polygamy is legal, then the UK benefits system recognises his extra wives as dependents and pays them accordingly.
The Department of Work and Pensions admitted yesterday it had no figures on how many families are claiming for multiple wives.
Official DWP guidelines on housing and council tax benefit states: “If you were legally married to more than one partner under the laws of a country that permits this, then your relationship is called a polygamous marriage.
“In this case your household consists of you and any partners who live with you and to whom you are married.”
Officials were unable to say when the rules were brought in, claiming they had “evolved over decades”.
Tory MP for Monmouth David Davies condemned the arrangements as “appalling”, and called for an immediate halt to the payments.
He said: “People who come to this country must be prepared to abide by our laws and rules. Polygamy is completely alien to our cultural and legal tradition, and it’s disgraceful that our benefits system is recognising and rewarding it.
“Why are some people in Government falling over themselves to undermine every tradition that has made this country what it is?”
Mr Davies warned that human rights laws and equality regulations could open the door for gays to demand similar recognition for multiple partnerships, with groups of men or women presenting themselves as polygamous “families”.
Hugh McKinney, of the National Family Campaign, said: “Polygamy has never been tolerated under Britain’s legal system.
“People arriving from another country should conform to our laws rather than the other way around.”
There are thought to be thousands of polygamous marriages in Britain not recognised in lawmostly within the Muslim community.
Muslim couples are only married in the eyes of the state if they undergo a register office wedding as well as a Nikah, or religious ceremony.
A spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain said it was quite common for men here to undergo more than one Nikah with different wives. This does not count as bigamy since only the first marriage is legally recognised.
A DWP official insisted the rules did not “reward” polygamy, as second wives receive less in benefits than single women. A single person can claim just under £60 per week in jobseeker’s allowance, while couples receive up to £92.80, but each ‘additional spouse’ in a polygamous marriage receives an extra £33.65.
The custom that refuses to die out
Marrying multiple wives remains a widespread custom in many countries in North Africa and the Middle Eastand is tolerated unofficially in parts of the United States.
Some more secular Muslim countries such as Turkey and Tunisia do not allow polygamy at all, while it is relatively common in traditionalist Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia, although it is estimated that as few as 3 per cent of Islamic marriages across the world are polygamous.
Most of the major world faiths allowed multiple wives in ancient times, including Judaism and Christianity. The Christian church has condemned polygamy-since the late 4th and early 5th century AD.
The U.S. Mormon Church promoted polygamy in the mid 19th Century, but the practice was outlawed in 1862, and the church followed suit 30 years later.
Today, mainstream Mormons are excommunicated for polygamy, but the practice survives among an estimated 40,000 members of extremist splinter groups in Utah, with spin-off “colonies” in neighbouring states, Canada and Mexico.
Police in Utah mostly tolerate polygamy provided those involved do not break other laws. The issue still causes deep concern, however, surrounding underage marriage, forced marriage and inbreeding.