Sharia councils must be penalised if they do not operate within the law of the land in order to allay fear and distrust among Britons, an MP said today.

Tory MP Kris Hopkins (Keighley and Ilkley) called on the Government to to spell out what penalties it would apply to sharia councils breaking the law.

Islamic sharia councils need to "operate within the law and should not form a concurrent legal system in the UK", he said.

He asked the Government to confirm that they "only have one law" and the sharia councils must comply with it, including anti-discrimination, equality and family measures.

Mr Hopkins added that the Government needed to show what steps it has taken to ensure sharia marriages are legally underpinned by civil marriage, in order to uphold women's rights in divorces.

At a Westminster Hall debate, Mr Hopkins said there was evidence that people were getting married before sharia councils but not in legally binding ceremonies, leading to "easy" divorces, where women's rights were not taken into account, and men marrying more than one woman.

He added that there was evidence of child access being determined by sharia councils and called on the Government to pursue and penalise any sharia councils where there was evidence of wrongdoing.

"The word 'sharia' creates more negative connotations than positive images in our country and only by exploring why will we begin to address those concerns," he said.

"Unlike the far-right I do not believe that Islam is evil but we should not underestimate the level of distrust and sometimes fear that exists.

"It is our responsibility to challenge this wrongdoing and therefore allay these fears."

Justice Minister Helen Grant said awareness needed to be raised in Muslim communities about people's rights to redress in UK courts.

She said the use of sharia councils to deal with civil disputes was not illegal but that any decisions made were subject to national law and were not legally binding.

"Provided an activity proscribed as sharia principles does not contravene the law of England and Wales there is nothing that prevents people living by sharia law," she said.

"The use of religious councils or other extra-legal bodies to deal with civil disputes is well established and is non-contentious.

"Communities have the option to use religious authorities to adjudicate disputes and to agree and to abide by their decisions on a voluntary basis.

"But these decisions are subject to national law and are not legally enforceable themselves."

Ms Grant said anyone who felt coerced has a right to redress in court.

"The issue here is more about raising awareness of the existing position under English law," she said.

"We are fully committed to protecting the rights of all our citizens and will consider what is required to further educate people about the protections afforded to them under UK laws."

She added that the Government would be encouraging mosques to carry out legally recognised marriages.