Polygamous marriages conducted by Muslims outside the UK are reported to have been given legal recognition by the British government, even allowing husbands who bring more than one wife to the country to claim welfare benefits.
The government in December last year concluded a year-long review that found recognition of polygamous marriages conducted overseas as "the best possible" option, the UK's Daily Telegraph newspaper reported. The decision has not been publicly announced.
Islamic law permits men to have up to four wives at any one time provided the husband spends equal amounts of time and money on each of them. In Britain, bigamous marriages conducted in the UK are punishable by up to seven years in prison.
Four governmental departments - the Treasury, Department for Work and Pensions, HM Revenues and Customs and the Home Office - were involved in the review, launched by ministers in November 2006 after it had emerged that some families benefited financially from the arrangement.
Though Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE permit polygamy, a UN committee on women's rights on February 1 called on the Saudi government to end the marital institution saying it "runs counter to the principle of equality between the sexes", newswire AP reported.
In the UK, the review also concluded that extra welfare benefits can continued to be paid to those already in polygamous marriages, of which ministers estimate a thousand partnerships exist in the country.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has issued new guidelines for income support which state: "Where there is a valid polygamous marriage the claimant and one spouse will be paid the couple rate... The amount payable for each additional spouse is presently 33.65 pounds ($66.41)."
If the family agrees, income support for all of the wives may be paid directly into the husband's bank account. A husband with many wives may also be eligible for additional housing benefit and council tax benefit under the deal agreed by ministers, in order to reflect the larger property needed for his family.
The decision has been condemned by opposition political party the Conservatives, who accused the British government of favouring a particular group and also of setting a precedent that would lead to demands for further changes in British law.
A DWP spokesperson told the Telegraph that the number of people in polygamous marriages entering Britain had declined since the 1988 Immigration Act, which "generally prevents a man from bringing a second or subsequent wife with him to this country if another woman is already living as his wife in the UK".
While a married man is not allowed to obtain a spouse visa to bring a second wife into Britain, some multiple partners can enter the country via other legal routes such as tourist visas, student visas or work permits.
In addition, officials have identified a potential loophole by which a man can divorce his wife under British law while continuing to live with her as his wife under Islamic law, and obtain a spouse visa for a foreign woman who he can legally marry.
"Entry clearance may not be withheld from a second wife where the husband has divorced his previous wife and the divorce is thought to be one of convenience," an immigration rulebook advises. "This is so, even if the husband is still living with the previous wife and to issue the entry clearance would lead to the formation of a polygamous household."
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