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House of Commons Hansard
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Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age)
05 September 2018
Volume 646

Motion for leave to introduce a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

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I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to raise the minimum age of consent to marriage or civil partnership to eighteen; and for connected purposes.

Young people in this country have to stay in education or training until they are 18, although they can marry before that, at the age of 16, but only with parental consent. UNICEF believes that marriage before the age of 18 is a fundamental violation of human rights. I agree, and believe that it should be banned in this country. Following the first Girl Summit in 2014, the Department for International Development allocated up to £39 million over five years to support global efforts in preventing child marriages. By its proactive contribution, the UK recognised that child marriages resulted in early pregnancy and girls facing social isolation, interrupted schooling, limited career and vocational opportunities, as well as the increased risk of domestic violence. So why are we not leading the way by increasing the legal age of marriage in this country from 16 to 18—the recognised age of adulthood?

Under the United Nations sustainable development goals, states around the world pledged to end by 2030 marriages in which one or both spouses are under 18, but many Commonwealth countries still follow the legal lead of the UK. In Bangladesh, for instance, the official minimum age of matrimony is 18 for women and 21 for men, but a new provision allows child marriage to take place under special circumstances—that is, with parental consent and with permission from the courts. Lobbyists for this provision cited the current UK law as an example of why the legal age of marriage in Bangladesh should be lowered. Changes to laws in the UK reverberate around the world but this is not the only reason that fresh impetus should be given to increasing the minimum age for marriage from 16 to 18. It should be our priority to protect children, and that may mean from themselves as well as from potential dangers from others.

As we celebrate the centenary of the suffragette movement this year, we should recall that it was pressure from magnificent campaigners that brought about the Age of Marriage Act 1929. Until then, there was no defined minimum age, and making it 16 was seen as protecting children. However, 90 years ago, most young people would have been wage earners, unlike now when, in England, they must stay in full-time education, training or start an apprenticeship. None of these is compatible with a married environment. In fact, my own mother—along with very many others—began her working life after leaving school at 14. Life was very different in those days.

In the United Kingdom, children of 16 and 17 need the consent of their parents to be married. Surely this shows that they are not mature enough to make the decision themselves. But this is not the safeguard that it may once have been because it opens the door for forced marriages, or at least for pressure to be exerted on young people to marry to fulfil family demands. We have outlawed forced marriages here, due to a campaign by Jasvinder Sanghera of Karma Nirvana, which started in Derby. I would like the Minister for Women and Equalities to meet her at some point.

Marriage is a major life decision for which children are not emotionally and physically ready. Setting the minimum age of marriage at 18 provides an objective, rather than subjective, standard of maturity, which safeguards a child from being married when they are not physically, mentally or emotionally ready. Many argue that there should be a minimum level of maturity, and free and full consent about whether, whom and when to marry.

The international human rights conventions on the rights of women and children say that countries should end the practice of enabling child marriage below 18; thus the UK is violating these same commitments. International law is very specific about who should be allowed to marry. If a country wants to permit exceptions to the minimum marriage age of 18, “mature, capable” children are allowed to marry only “in exceptional circumstances” at age 16 or older, when

“such decisions are made by a judge based on legitimate exceptional grounds defined by law…without deference to culture and tradition.”

By allowing 16-year-olds to marry without consent from a judge, the UK is breaking international law, but that has not stopped the UK from telling other countries to follow the same rules that it is flouting. It is important to realise that the UK has a duty to live by the very standards that it is keen to advocate for in the developing world. It is crucial that, as well as trying to eradicate child marriage around the world, the UK meets international human rights standards at home to end this harmful practice.

In 1951, Pugh v. Pugh set legal precedent in handling a case relating to the capacity for the young to be married. In his conclusion, Mr Justice Pearce said: “According to modern thought”—this is 1951, remember—

“it is considered socially and morally wrong that persons of an age, at which we now believe them to be immature and provide for their education, should have the stresses, responsibilities and sexual freedom of marriage and the physical strain of childbirth. Child marriages by common consent are bad for the participants and bad for the institution of marriage.”

His words are as relevant today as they were 70 years ago.

We have an outdated system that we need to change. There are all sorts of things that people can do at different ages, but I believe that we should be looking at moving all, or most, of those things to 18. In most people’s view, 16-year-olds are still children. We should be giving them the opportunity to get married when they are more mature, more sensible and more settled in their lives than they are when they are still at school. Can anybody imagine sustaining a married life while at school, with the strains of exams such as GCSEs and A-levels, and education in college? There are so many pressures at that age, and a marriage intruding on that will cause young people, who think they are mature, to face huge strains and will prevent them from fulfilling their potential. We should now show the world how seriously we take this issue, and increase the minimum age of marriage in England and Wales to 18.

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To be clear, I do not propose to divide the House on this matter, but I thought that it would be right to offer my observations and concerns about the motion.

I recognise that getting married at 16 is not the right life choice for many people, particularly if there is any form of coercion, which there should never be in marriage. Marriage should be something that is unique and special, entered into by two loving people of their own free will and free choice. It should not be the case that either side feels a particular obligation to get married. However, the proposal to bring forward this Bill raised quite a number of questions in my mind. The obvious starting point is whether making the age for marriage 18 would mean that we should also make the age of sexual consent 18. Now, that could be a separate debate. Within the last 20 years—in the time of some Members sat in the Chamber this afternoon—there have been quite impassioned debates in this House about the equalisation of the age of consent at 16. Some of the arguments used against that seem rather odd now, even only 20 years later. This Bill raises the question: are we going to reopen the issue of whether the age of consent should be set at 18 or 16?

What would the implications be for those who are currently married? I presume that such a Bill would exempt those who had freely married at 16 or 17. It would be quite onerous suddenly to have a situation where someone who was 16 had legally married after the data law was introduced, yet someone aged 17 now had to wait until their 18th birthday.

I accept the points made, and it is obvious that there is a strong point around the idea that people cannot get married at 16 or 17 without an element of consent, but this is a very long-standing legal age. For me, there are all sorts of arguments about what should be allowed at 16 and what should be allowed at 18. We have just talked about the benefits of the widowed parent’s allowance and the impact of being married or not being married as parents. Under this proposal, someone who decided at 16—legally, if we did not change the age of consent—to make the life-changing decision to have children could not get married until they were 18. That would be a bit of an oddity in our law.

I appreciate the position with regard to the message that this might send internationally, but most countries have similar provisions to the United Kingdom on the age of consent. At the moment, the minimum age of 16 is shared between ourselves and Scotland. If the age in England and Wales were 18, what would be the position if there were a run to Gretna, as was very popular in previous generations when the laws of marriage in Scotland were different from those in the rest of the United Kingdom? What would be the position in terms of recognising marriage certificates? Likewise, Northern Ireland has a separate jurisdiction but is still part of the United Kingdom. How would we recognise that? [Interruption.] I know that it is disappointing for the Scottish National party that Scotland is still part of the United Kingdom, but we would miss the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) too much if it were not. It would a significant moment for me in the UK if there were different ages at which people could get married in the UK. Particularly at a time when some are arguing very powerfully in this Chamber that the situation in Northern Ireland, where those of the same sex cannot get married, should be brought to an end and that equal marriage should be spread across the UK, it would be strange to have a different age threshold for doing that.

Those concerns brought me on to whether it is right that this proposal is in a private Member’s Bill. I accept that private Members’ Bills can be good vehicles for looking at faults in the law, looking at changing things, and looking at areas that may not necessarily be significant but where there is a need to bring in a piece of primary legislation. I passed my own private Member’s Bill about small-scale digital radio through this House. I see one or two Members who participated in those debates sitting in the Chamber. The hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse), who is in her place, has brought up the issue of upskirting—a fault in the law that needed to be resolved to give the law its actual intention.

However, this is a much more significant change. If we were to do it, it should follow a more significant consultation process, and it should be debated in Government time, where we would have the time available to make proper and informed observations. As a regular attender on Fridays, I see this all too often, particularly at this stage of the Session. A ten-minute rule Bill would almost certainly not get any debate on Second Reading or on Report, given the number of remaining stages already listed for the remaining two Fridays of this Session. This Bill would make a significant change to our law and it could have wider implications, so it would be odd to go down that route.

There is clearly an argument around the ages at which we can do things. It is odd, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) said, that such a life-changing commitment can be made at 16, yet someone cannot drive a truck or a steam-powered road roller until they are 21. Certain products can be bought only at 18. Someone can drive a car at 17. There is a whole area to look at. That tempts me towards the view that this is something that should be looked at following a proper review of our law, perhaps through a Government Bill or a Law Commission examination of the knock-on effects if we decided to make such a significant change.

I do not disagree with some of the thrust of the arguments that have been advanced. I see the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), who is a very diligent listener, in his place. I am sure that he will look at how we make sure that provisions around parental consent are meaningful, in a way that they perhaps would have been in the past, but today may not be. In fact, the parents may be the source of the pressure rather than, as the law sees them, a safeguard. That provision is based on an old patriarchal view of society—it would not be the parents; it would be, in effect, the male head of the household who would give consent for the daughter to get married. That is clearly a view from the past that we would not look to codify into law today.

How can we make that more meaningful? Yes, we should look to target forced marriage. However, making such a significant change to a very long-standing provision of law that has a knock-on effect for many other aspects of our legislation should not be done via a ten-minute rule Bill that will potentially receive next to no debate when, in reality, these matters should be more properly considered. That could be done, first, via the Government looking into it—I am sure there will be constructive engagement—and secondly, via consultation. Following that, we could have a Bill via a process that would give us the time for appropriate discussion on the Floor of the House, with the ability to examine in more depth and to have, to be blunt, more than two speakers. Sadly, given the procedures under which we have debated private Members’ Bills for a long time, these are likely to be the only two speeches on this Bill and this issue in the current Session.

As I said, I do not intend to divide the House. I appreciate many of the sentiments that have been expressed. I have written articles myself about the debate about 16 and 17-year-olds and the law with regard to people much older than themselves who are relations. I take the view that once someone is 18 they are an adult and it is up to them who their partner should be, what sex they should be, and any other factors. The only determinant should be that it is a loving and consenting relationship. While it is right that this issue has been brought to the Floor of the House today, my concern is about doing this via a ten-minute rule Bill. Although I will not divide the House, I think it is right that some concerns were expressed about the motion.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Mrs Pauline Latham, Priti Patel, Stephen Twigg, Jeremy Lefroy, Chris Philp, Sarah Champion, James Duddridge, Sir Graham Brady, Mr Virendra Sharma, Henry Smith, Philip Davies and Sir Roger Gale present the Bill.

Mrs Pauline Latham accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 26 October and to be printed (Bill 261).

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On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I seek your guidance and clarification on the business ahead of us today. We have two very important Bills—the Tenant Fees Bill and the Voyeurism (Offences) (No. 2) Bill. Will motion 6, which proposes that my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) be discharged from the Selection Committee and my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker) be added, still be reached even if we go past the moment of interruption?

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Yes, that item can still be reached and can still be moved. It is properly on the Order Paper and the time will come for the House to properly address it. I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to clarify the matter.

Tenant Fees Bill (Programme) (No. 2)

Ordered,

That the Order of 21 May 2018 (Tenant Fees Bill: Programme) be varied as follows:

(1) Paragraphs (4) and (5) of the Order shall be omitted.

(2) Proceedings on Consideration and proceedings in legislative grand committee shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion two hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order.

(3) Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion three hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order.—(Rishi Sunak.)