Although bigamy is illegal in Britain, men who married more than one woman in countries where the practice was legal and then brought them to the UK have been allowed for years to receive multiple benefits.
Critics claimed the controversial system meant the state is effectively “recognising” polygamous marriages, of which there are thought to be about a thousand in the UK.
The practice is largely confined to Muslim men, who are permitted under some interpretations of Islamic law to have up to four wives in a harem – as long as they spend equal amounts of time and money on each partner.
The system of paying extra benefits for multiple wives was reviewed under Labour in an exercise involving four separate Whitehall branches – The Treasury, the Department for Work & Pensions, HM Revenue & Customs and the Home Office.
The review concluded that recognising multiple marriages which had taken place overseas in the benefits system was the “best possible option” and official guidelines on income support were amended early in 2008.
At the time they stated: “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.”
This has subsequently been increased to £38.45 a week for second and subsequent spouses, while the husband and his first wife are paid the ordinary couple rate of £105.95.
As well as income support, a husband with more than one wife is also eligible for possible housing benefit and council tax relief because of the larger property needed to accommodate his family.
However, the decision meant a man with four spouses could have benefited from up to £10,000 a year from income support alone.
Now, however, the coalition is to change the rules so that multiple benefits can no longer be paid.
Under the new system of Universal Credit, which will replace all mean-tested benefits from next year, polygamous marriages will not be recognised at all.
Instead, a husband and one wife will claim as a couple – with any other adults living in the household claiming as single people.
Chris Grayling, the Employment Minister, said: “We currently have an absurd situation where polygamous marriages are outlawed in the UK but recognised in the benefits system because of a loophole.
“This really has to change. We are now altering our systems as part of the introduction of Universal Credit, to put an end to a situation which only has the effect of undermining confidence in the benefits system.”
Under the 1988 Immigration Act, a man was “generally” banned from bringing a “second or subsequent wife” into Britain “if another woman is already living as his wife in the UK”.
However, even though it was impossible for a married men to obtain a spouse visa for a second wife, some used other means of getting extra partners in including work permits, student visas and even tourist visas.
Britain only officially recognises Muslim couples as “married” if they undergo a register office wedding as well as a Nikah, or religious ceremony.
According to Muslim groups, it is common for men here to undergo more than one Nikah with different wives. This is not counted as bigamy and only the first marriage has legal recognition.
In Britain, bigamy is punishable by up to seven years in prison.