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Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Bill

Volume 709: debated on Friday 25 February 2022

Consideration of Bill, not amended in the Public Bill Committee

Before we get to proceedings, I remind Members of the difference between Report and Third Reading. The scope of the debate on Report is the amendments that I have selected; the scope of the Third Reading debate to follow will be the whole Bill as it stands after Report. Members may wish to consider those points and then decide at which stage or stages they want to try to catch my eye.

Clause 2

Offence of conduct relating to marriage of persons under 18

I beg to move amendment 1, page 1, line 11, leave out “(2)” and insert “(3)”

This amendment would insert the subsection which provides for the new offence of carrying out conduct for the purpose of causing a child to enter into a marriage after section 121(3) of the Anti-social Behaviour, Policing and Crime Act 2014 rather than after section 121(2) of that Act.

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 2, page 1, line 15, leave out “threats or any other form or coercion” and insert “threats, any other form of coercion or deception, and whether or not it is carried out in England and Wales”.

This amendment would state expressly that for the new offence of carrying out conduct for the purpose of causing a child to enter into a marriage, the conduct may take place in England and Wales or elsewhere and may, but does not have to, involve deception.

Amendment 3, page 1, line 17, leave out subsection (3).

This amendment would remove the cross-reference to the new offence of carrying out conduct for the purpose of causing a child to enter into a marriage.

Amendment 4, page 2, line 3, leave out subsection (6) and insert—

‘(6) After subsection (7) insert—

“(7A) A person commits an offence under subsection (3A) only if—

(a) the conduct is for the purpose of causing the child to enter into a marriage in England or Wales,

(b) at the time of the conduct, the person or child is habitually resident in England and Wales, or

(c) at the time of the conduct, the child is a United Kingdom national who—

(i) has been habitually resident in England and Wales, and

(ii) is not habitually resident or domiciled in Scotland or Northern Ireland.”’

This amendment would mean that a person may commit the new offence of carrying out conduct for the purpose of causing a child to enter into a marriage only if the conduct is for the purpose of causing a child to enter into a marriage in England or Wales, or the person or the child has a specified connection to England and Wales.

Amendment 5, page 2, line 4s, leave out subsection (7).

This amendment would in respect of the new offence of carrying out conduct for the purpose of causing a child to enter into a marriage remove the exception for marriages of 16 and 17 year olds that take place in Scotland or Northern Ireland, so that conduct related to such marriages may amount to an offence.

I am pleased to speak to these amendments, which I am confident will make the Bill clearer and cleaner, and provide more effective, targeted and proportionate safeguarding. Before I come to the details of the amendments, I remind hon. Members of the purpose of clause 2, to which all five amendments relate.

Clause 2 will create a new part of the forced marriage offence within the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014. Currently, it is only an offence to cause a child to marry if violence, threats or another form of coercion are used, or if the child lacks capacity to consent to marry under the Mental Health Capacity Act 2005. It is not an offence to cause a child to marry if coercion is not used and the child is not covered by that Act. As I set out on Second Reading in November, this is a real loophole. To ensure that all children are protected, the Bill needs to ensure that it is always an offence to cause a child under the age of 18 to enter into a marriage, whatever the methods used.

I propose to start by going through the first three broadly technical amendments, beginning with amendment 3. The existing offence of forced marriage contains a subsidiary offence of deceiving someone into going overseas with the aim of forcing them into marriage there. That is an important addition, because such behaviour is far from uncommon. As it stands, the Bill expressly extends that deception offence to encompass the behaviour entailed in the new offence. However, on reflection, Ministers and I feel that it is not necessary. The new offence that we are adding, of causing a child to marry, refers to

“any conduct for the purpose of causing a child to enter into a marriage before the child’s eighteenth birthday, whether or not the conduct amounts to violence, threats or another form of coercion.”

That would include deceiving a child into going overseas. That means that the provision in the original Bill is unnecessary duplication, and it makes the law less clear than it could and should be. Amendment 3 would remove the express extension of the deception offence to cover the conduct entailed in the new offence of causing a child to marry. I would like to put beyond doubt, on the record, that that new offence does include deceiving a child, be that into going overseas or otherwise.

To reinforce this, amendment 2 adds specific reference to “deception” as one of the types of conduct that it might encompass, as well as specifying that it does not matter whether or not the conduct was carried out in England and Wales. Finally, and purely consequentially, amendment 1 merely moves the new offence of causing a child to marry from before the deception offence to after it, where it more naturally fits.

Amendments 4 and 5 make substantive changes to the nature of the offence, in such a way, I believe, as to improve the Bill. They relate to the jurisdictional scope of the offence—the scenarios that can lead to prosecution, based on where the parties are, where they live, what their nationalities are, and where the marriage is to take place. Currently, the new offence of causing a child to marry essentially inherits the jurisdictional scope of the existing forced marriage offence. It also required a carve-out provision—clause 2(7) of the original Bill—which removed liability where marriages of 16 and 17-year-olds take place in Scotland or Northern Ireland. Hon. Members will be aware that that was necessary because marriage policy is devolved and the age of marriage is different in those countries.

On reflection with Ministers, that presented two problems. First, those wishing to carry out a child marriage in England or Wales would, in many cases, have been able to get around the offence simply by having the marriage take place in Scotland or Northern Ireland—I refer to that as the “Gretna Green” exception. Secondly, the law as drafted would inadvertently include UK nationals resident in Scotland, and Northern Ireland residents who, perfectly legally under their own law and under the law of another country, wished to marry at 16 or 17 in that third country. That could be seen as a lack of respect for the devolution settlement. It is evidently not appropriate for the law to reach that far, but on the other hand, we would like to close the Gretna Green loophole. I am therefore grateful to Ministers for their help and support in reaching a solution that both respects the devolution settlement and removes that dangerous loophole.

Amendment 5, which is the first part of the solution, removes the current exemption in clause 2(7) for marriages of 16 and 17-year-olds taking place in Scotland and Northern Ireland. That will remove the Gretna Green exception. However, the offence would then cover all UK nationals marrying overseas, which could include those living in or domiciled in Scotland or Northern Ireland, where child marriage is—unfortunately—still legal. Amendment 4 will therefore make the jurisdictional provisions more proportionate and targeted while still ensuring maximum safeguarding. That will provide that a person can be prosecuted in one of three situations.

Will my hon. Friend, like me, welcome the fact that Northern Ireland is consulting on raising the minimum age of marriage to 18? Will she join me in expressing a desire that the Scottish Government should reflect on that and do the same?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Northern Ireland is consulting, and I think that Scotland is about to do so. That is so important, because, if they do not change, they will not reflect the sustainable development goals that they have signed up to along with us. If they want to abide by those goals, they will have to move forward on that. I look forward to us being one nation all doing the same thing. I thank him for that point.

The first situation is if a marriage is to take place in England or Wales. It can never be right for us to allow the marriage of a child to happen within our borders. The second situation is if the perpetrator or victim is habitually resident—they ordinarily live—in England and Wales. That will ensure that we protect children who live in this country and that those people who live here obey our rules and norms. The final situation is if the child is a UK national who has been habitually resident in England or Wales and who is neither habitually resident nor domiciled in Scotland or Northern Ireland. Domiciled is a slightly different concept from habitual residence: it means the place that someone regards as their permanent home, even if they are actually living somewhere else. So, all UK nationals who have at some point lived in England or Wales, unless they live in or have their permanent home in Scotland or Northern Ireland, will be covered.

One of the effects of those changes is, as I indicated, to show respect for the devolution settlement in a more effective and meaningful way than the Bill does currently. The offence would no longer encompass situations where a parent arranges for their 16 or 17-year-old UK national child who lives in Scotland or Northern Ireland to marry outside the UK, so it would not stop such Scottish or Northern Irish children from exercising the rights under the laws of those countries.

We did consider removing the UK national criteria of the offence in its entirety, but that would mean that, when it came to marriages happening outside England and Wales, we would have had to rely solely on habitual residence, which is a fluid property that can be lost if a person has sufficiently severed their ties with England and Wales. The Girls Not Brides UK coalition, who are experts in this area, were concerned that that could cause perverse behaviour, namely that parents might keep their children overseas before causing them to marry until such time as they lost their habitual residence and, therefore, the protection of the law.

We have therefore kept the UK national criteria, but only for a child who has been habitually resident in England and Wales at some point in their life, to ensure intervention in matters overseas only if there is a reasonable connection to England and Wales. Out of respect for the devolution settlement, the offence would apply only if the child were not at that time habitually resident or domiciled in Scotland or Northern Ireland.

The amendments will create a more rounded and focused regime. As such, I commend them to the House.

I am delighted to respond to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham), both for her continued steerage of this vital Bill and for tabling these important amendments. It will not be me who responds to the final stage of the Bill, so, if I may, I will put on record my appreciation, and that of the entire House and I think the whole country, for the work she has done over her whole parliamentary career.

My hon. Friend has been assisted by a number of charities—I believe some are in the Gallery or elsewhere in the House today—and I want to thank them for all the work they have put in. It has been an extremely complex piece of legislation but, together with the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Tom Pursglove), we have all worked together to navigate through those difficulties. I am also very grateful to Home Office and Ministry of Justice officials, who put in considerable time and effort. We now have a Bill, with the amendments, that will properly protect vulnerable children—very often girls and mostly young girls—who have, unfortunately, suffered the experience of being coerced into marriage without the use of force. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire, I believe that no child should be in a position to be contracting a marriage under the age of 18.

As my hon. Friend set out in her speech, amendments 1 to 3 are minor and technical, and essentially address a duplication in the Bill as it stands. The new offence, which clause 2(2) introduces, would make it illegal to carry out any conduct for the purpose of causing a child to enter into a marriage. Any conduct includes deceiving a child into going overseas for marriage, so we do not need the separate provision for that which clause 2(3) would make. The amendments would therefore remove that duplication, and are in the interests of making legislation which is as clear as it can be to everyone. They also make it clear that the new offence of causing a child to enter into a marriage does include deceiving the child, whether or not that relates to going overseas, although it does not have to include deception.

Amendments 4 and 5 are more substantive and relate to the jurisdictional impact—the territorial reach, if you like—of that new behaviour of causing a child to marry even if coercion is not used. At the moment the jurisdictional provisions for that behaviour mirror those in the existing forced marriage offence: namely that prosecution may occur when the perpetrator and/or the victim is physically present in England and Wales, or if at least one of them is habitually resident in England and Wales, or if both of them are outside the UK and at least one of them is a UK national. The sole exception is that marriages of 16 and 17-year-olds in Scotland and Northern Ireland would never be covered. Let me agree with my hon. Friend in her hope that we see our United Kingdom coming together as one to abide by our commitments to the sustainable development goals to safeguard more young girls from this frankly abhorrent practice of marrying a child before they are ready to do so.

Amendment 5 would remove that exception relating to marriages of 16 and 17-year-olds in Northern Ireland and Scotland. While we made that provision in recognition of the devolution settlement, we came to judge that the potential impact on enforcement was too great. There are too many circumstances in which a parent could evade the law by taking their child to Scotland or Northern Ireland to marry, even if there were no connection with either of those two countries. My hon. Friend has done an extremely good job in setting out clearly the multiple number of scenarios that could apply. I believe that the Bill, once the amendments are agreed to, will have that targeted and proportionate effect.

We also took the view that there were better and more effective ways of respecting the devolution settlement, and that is where amendment 4 comes in. The amendment would replace existing jurisdictional provisions for the new offence of causing a child to marry with provisions that state that a prosecution may occur if the marriage was to take place in England or Wales, or if at least one of the victim or the perpetrator is habitually resident in England or Wales, or if the victim is a UK national who has at some point been habitually resident in England or Wales and is also neither habitually resident nor domiciled in Scotland or Northern Ireland.

Taken together, this will ensure that the law extends only to those circumstances where there is a proper connection to England or Wales and not to, for example, UK national children who live in Scotland and marry overseas or UK national children who live and have always lived overseas. The amendments would therefore ensure, for example, that a parent who lives in England could not take their 16-year-old child who also lives in England to Scotland for a traditional ceremonial marriage merely to get around the law, but also that, where a 17-year-old child lives in Scotland and the parent does not live in England or Wales, there is no bar to their seeking to arrange for the child to marry outside the UK. Likewise, if a parent who was a UK national but lived, for example, in Austria arranged for their 17-year-old child, who also lived in Austria and was not even a UK national, to marry in, say, Salzburg, they will now not be caught by this law.

All in all, these amendments make for a Bill that is better targeted, provides more effective safeguarding, is more proportionate and ensures that ultimately, as my hon. Friend said, we capture the people who we want to capture and not those who we do not. Before I conclude, may I once again say a tremendous thank you to my hon. Friend? I commend her for this incredible piece of campaigning work, which she has steered through the parliamentary procedures with admirable determination and drive. It is a tribute to her passion for safeguarding and protecting young girls. I am absolutely inspired by the work she has done. These amendments will make for a more effective Bill, and I confirm the Government’s wholehearted support for them.

Amendment 1 agreed to.

Amendments made: 2, page 1, line 15, leave out “threats or any other form or coercion” and insert “threats, any other form of coercion or deception, and whether or not it is carried out in England and Wales”.

This amendment would state expressly that for the new offence of carrying out conduct for the purpose of causing a child to enter into a marriage, the conduct may take place in England and Wales or elsewhere and may, but does not have to, involve deception.

Amendment 3, page 1, line 17, leave out subsection (3).

This amendment would remove the cross-reference to the new offence of carrying out conduct for the purpose of causing a child to enter into a marriage.

Amendment 4, page 2, line 3, leave out subsection (6) and insert—

“(6) After subsection (7) insert—

“(7A) A person commits an offence under subsection (3A) only if—

(a) the conduct is for the purpose of causing the child to enter into a marriage in England or Wales,

(b) at the time of the conduct, the person or child is habitually resident in England and Wales, or

(c) at the time of the conduct, the child is a United Kingdom national who—

(i) has been habitually resident in England and Wales, and

(ii) is not habitually resident or domiciled in Scotland or Northern Ireland.””

This amendment would mean that a person may commit the new offence of carrying out conduct for the purpose of causing a child to enter into a marriage only if the conduct is for the purpose of causing a child to enter into a marriage in England or Wales, or the person or the child has a specified connection to England and Wales.

Amendment 5, page 2, line 4, leave out subsection (7). —(Mrs Pauline Latham.)

This amendment would in respect of the new offence of carrying out conduct for the purpose of causing a child to enter into a marriage remove the exception for marriages of 16 and 17 year olds that take place in Scotland or Northern Ireland, so that conduct related to such marriages may amount to an offence.

Third Reading

May I begin by thanking the Public Bill Committee, which met on 12 January to consider the Bill in detail? The Committee submitted the Bill to detailed scrutiny, and I am confident that the cross-party spirit that has run throughout this process has made it a much better piece of legislation.

After Second Reading in this House on 19 November last year, I was inundated with media and interview requests to talk about child marriage. Many of the issues and specific cases that hon. and right hon. Members from across the House raised were ones that there is not enough awareness of. Indeed, I am absolutely delighted that two of the incredibly brave survivors of child marriage whose stories I told in November, Payzee Mahmod and Farhana Raval, are here today in the Gallery to witness this historic moment, when the House of Commons will vote to end child marriage in this country.

Child marriage exists as both a legal and a social phenomenon. We in this House can, and I hope that we will, change the legal position by criminalising those who arrange child marriages and refusing to recognise unions involving children. However, the social aspect—raising awareness of child marriage among children, parents, educators, social care professionals and community leaders—is equally important. We must send a message that child marriage is illegal and is unacceptable under any circumstances.

May I take this opportunity to commend my hon. Friend for her tireless campaigning on this most important of issues? She has shown hon. Members and the public exactly why child marriage is child abuse and why it is absolutely right that we put an end to it.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that, and he is absolutely right. I know that he, too, has been passionate about raising awareness about this issue. If it were not for his now being Health Secretary, I would not be doing this today, because he had the private Member’s Bill, which I never got, and he generously gave it over to me. He did that because he knew that I had been working with the charities represented in the Public Gallery for many years. So I thank him for the help he has given in my being able to do this.

It is undeniable that changing this law and making it unequivocally clear that it will be illegal to arrange any child marriage, whether for a boy or a girl, in England and Wales, irrespective of alleged consent, coercion or persuasion, is a huge step in the right direction, because many children are brought up to believe that this is the norm, but it is not the norm in this country to be married as a child. This legislation will send a huge message out and that is the purpose of the Bill. Let me briefly mention the effect of each of its key provisions. First, the Bill will remove the exception that currently allows 16 and 17-year-olds to get married and to enter into a civil partnership with parental or judicial consent in England and Wales. People who are too young to consent for themselves are too young to be married. Getting married is a huge decision, no matter at what age someone decides to marry. The existing law has been in place for more than 70 years and reflects social values from a different time, one in which a school leaving age was 14 and the average age for marriage was just 23. Many girls like my mother left school at 14 and went to work. In that context, a marriage at 16 was not unreasonable. Of course, there were many shotgun weddings before the age of 18 where a pregnancy was involved, because in the eyes of many being pregnant without being married was a sin. This was before contraception and life is completely different now.

Now, the Government have legislated to ensure that all children must be in education or training until 18, providing greater opportunities for academic and professional development for all children. Furthermore, the average age for marriage is now over 30. There are substantially fewer than 200 children utilising this exception every year, which is evidence that as a society we are moving away from this practice. So there is a real need to remove that exception. When I have tried to bring this before the House previously, I have been told by previous Ministers, not the excellent Ministers we have in place today, that it was not relevant, because there were so few cases and it did not really matter.

My hon. Friend says that it is the children using this exemption, but in Committee, where I supported her, she made the point powerfully that it is not children using the exemption, but their family members, who are seeking to pressurise them into marriage. That entirely shows the point of this piece of legislation.

My hon. Friend is right: this is about coercion, persuasion and accepting that this is the norm in a family. It is not the norm, and should not be, in this country. If a child is unable to sign that piece of paper to say that they are getting married, they are too young to have somebody else do it for them, and to persuade them and make them get married at that stage. So this Bill is very, very important. The impact on those children who wish to take advantage of the exception will be minimal. They will only have to wait a maximum of two years to marry; if they are 16 and a half, it will be only 18 months. So we are talking about only a very short time, although I do accept that when someone is 16, two years seems a very long time—in reality, as all know in this Chamber, that is not true. The impact on victims of child marriage around the world of England and Wales setting its legal aid of marriage unambiguously at 18 will be enormous.

The second key provision will make it a crime to organise any unregistered marriage involving a child in England and Wales. This is a huge part of the problem we are trying to solve. As I set out on Second Reading, the cases of child marriage in the UK that cause the most concern often do not show up in the statistics. Of the cases involving potential child marriage reported to the Home Office-commissioned national honour- based abuse helpline, delivered by Karma Nirvana—representatives of which are in the Gallery today—in the year to September 2021, only four related to civil marriages. There are almost 20 times as many cases that involve only a religious ceremony—more than 95% of all cases—and those are the people who go to Karma Nirvana for help, so Members can imagine how many do not do that and are persuaded to be married.

We know from the experiences of Payzee—who is also in the Gallery—among many others that the religious ceremony is the most important part of the marriage in the eyes of the family and the community of the child. They do not need the registered part: they are not interested in that. It is the unregistered part that makes the difference for them, and currently, there is no age limit on an unregistered marriage. The only requirement is that it is not forced, and we know that under the current law, proving a forced marriage where it involves children is extremely difficult. The Girls Not Brides UK coalition, which has done so much in the campaign to end child marriage, has been involved in shocking cases where the child being married was under 10 years old.

Therefore, my second key provision updates forced marriage legislation to create a new offence of arranging the marriage of a child. This offence will be triggered by any conduct that causes a child under 18 to enter into such a marriage, whether civil or religious. Crucially, unlike with forced marriage, there is no need to prove coercion or control. This takes the onus away from the child to show that their marriage was forced, and will make prosecutions easier and the deterrent that much stronger. I should make it absolutely clear that this criminal offence is not about criminalising the child. The child is the victim in every single case; the criminals are the adults who organised these marriages.

A key provision that I would like to highlight is the provision of extraterritoriality. The Girls Not Brides UK coalition, as well as the Government’s forced marriage unit, have seen plenty of evidence to suggest that very often children who live in the United Kingdom are being taken abroad, often to a country where extended family live, in order to be married. Sometimes, they are taken abroad for just a few weeks, but sometimes they are taken abroad for many months or years—as in the case of Farhana, who is also in the Gallery today. It is crucial that the offence captures that conduct, because it is just as damaging to the future prospects and life chances of the victims as a marriage that takes place in the United Kingdom. If a child is out of education for months or even years, they will find it much harder to enter the workplace and become economically productive, if they ever do so.

I have been working very hard with the Government since the Committee stage to ensure that the Bill is comprehensive and covers as many situations as possible. My thanks go to the Ministers and the teams of officials who have worked so hard to get it right, resulting in the amendments on Report. I did not want to come back next year or the year after with more amendments; I wanted the Bill to be right from the start, because loopholes need to be closed. Therefore, I am delighted that this Bill will cover not just marriages taking place in England and Wales, but marriages anywhere in the world involving a child or a person who lives in England or Wales, as well as those involving UK national children who have at any point lived in England or Wales. That offers a huge amount of protection to all children growing up in this country, and removes any incentive for parents to leave the UK in order to avoid our marriage law.

Having considered the Bill’s key provisions, I shall briefly reflect on its importance. Primarily, the Bill is important because it will offer protection from marriage to every single child who grows up in England and Wales, forever. At a stroke, it will stop both registered and unregistered marriages under the age of 18 and ensure that this protection cannot be avoided simply by someone temporarily leaving the country. I often talk about safeguarding futures, because that is what we are doing: safeguarding children’s futures so that they can have decent lives.

Child marriage is so harmful to the future prospects of the victims and almost always results in their leaving education, thereby reducing their career prospects and overall life chances. Before I came to this place, my political background was in education, which I firmly believe is the most powerful tool we have to create opportunities for young people. It is an enormous disadvantage if young people are deprived of education—an education that we in this House have determined to provide up until the age of 18—because of child marriage.

It is not an understatement to say that the Bill will protect and affect the lives of literally millions of young boys and girls in this country. It will protect them from child marriage and enable them to have the best chance in life, because they will be able to continue in education until the age of 18. It will also strengthen their ability to say to their parents, “I want to go to university” or get an apprenticeship or a job. It will be much easier, because at 16 a young person is totally dependent on their parents and cannot live independently.

The legislation’s implications will be felt not just in the UK. The UK is committed to achieving the UN’s sustainable development goals, target 5.3 of which is to

“eliminate all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilations”

before 2030. This applies specifically both to religious and to non-religious child marriages. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child recommends that there should be no legal way for anyone to marry under the age of 18. The Bill will therefore also help the UK to set an example to the rest of the world by prioritising children’s futures. The UK will finally be in a position to take a lead on child marriage around the world and on championing children’s futures. To be able to persuade other countries of the importance of banning child marriage, we must first ban it ourselves. When we have said to countries, “You need to raise the age of marriage,” they have come back to us and said, “Why should we? You don’t—you allow children to marry.”

I have set out the main provisions of my Bill and the enormous impact it will have on children in this country and around the world. Before I conclude, I wish to make an appeal to the Government. I thank the Minister, my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Corby, and his colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch, who has also worked closely with us on the Bill, for their patience and shared determination that the Bill should be as comprehensive and effective as possible. I am sure, though, that it will come as no surprise to the Minister that I have three final asks of the Government.

First, I impress on the Minister the importance of the Bill’s swift commencement. Clause 7 confirms that the Bill will come into force on the day appointed by the Secretary of State. However, every day before commencement is another day on which child marriage remains possible in this country. Will the Minister please do everything in his power to arrange for commencement to take place as swiftly as possible? In particular, will the Minister give his view on whether, should the Bill make good progress through the other place and pass into law, a commencement before the summer holidays is possible? So many children are taken abroad in the summer and I fear we will be failing in our duties in this place if we do not offer them the protection this summer that we in this House believe is necessary.

Secondly, as I mentioned at the start of my speech, changing the law is only one part of the solution. Changing attitudes and societal norms is the second stage, and I have already raised that with the Department for Education. Will the Minister please confirm that he will work closely with the Department to ensure that both children and teachers are informed about the change in the law in advance of the summer holidays, so that children who are at risk can be spotted? Not only schools will need updated guidance. Will the Minister also please confirm that updated guidance for the police and for the Crown Prosecution Service will be swiftly produced to help in the investigation and prosecution of crimes under this legislation?

Finally, but no less importantly, I would like to note one final point, which is one I regret. Unfortunately, due to marriage policy being devolved, the protections in this Bill extend only to children in England and Wales, or to children with a specific connection to England and Wales. At the moment, the Scottish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive do not have equivalent legislation, so children there will not be safeguarded. They also prevent the UK from completing its international obligations to end child marriage.

However, there are signs of change. The Northern Ireland Executive have launched a consultation on changing their marriage laws, and I hope that the Scottish Government will do the same. Will the Minister join me in a determined lobbying campaign to ensure that our colleagues in the devolved Administrations do the right thing and ban child marriage in their jurisdictions, too? I would be absolutely delighted if, in two years’ time, we were once again debating child marriage in this House to celebrate Scotland and Northern Ireland implementing similar pieces of legislation, so that all UK children would be covered and we would then be able to take out those provisions in this Bill.

In conclusion, I urge all hon. and right hon. Members to support my Bill. It will safeguard young people by establishing 18 as the legal age of marriage in this country, with no exceptions, giving a clear message to all that child marriage is totally unacceptable. Secondly, it criminalises anyone who causes a child to enter a marriage, offering protection from child marriage to all children growing up in England and Wales—a protection that applies both in this country and around the world.

Finally, the Bill helps the UK on its way to living up to its international obligations by banning child marriage in all its forms, and encourages the Scottish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive to follow suit. The Bill has the potential to impact millions of young people, and to prevent untold numbers entering into miserable child marriages. For the sake of children growing up now and yet to come, I commend the Bill to the House.

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak on such an important Bill. I feel proud and privileged to be speaking here this morning and supporting the Bill.

I thank the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) for her tireless work in taking this Bill through Parliament. Her passion was evident in her powerful speech this morning. She has been tireless in her fight and deserves praise from all of us. I also want to register my thanks to the right hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid), who is no longer in his place, who began this journey for us before his return to the Cabinet. Indeed, I thank all fellow sponsors of this Bill, and all Members here supporting this important legislation.

Child marriage is not a thing of the past, but it should be. It is something that harms everyone—boys and girls, parents and children. It makes young girls into a commodity to be bought and sold. They are made to be women long before they are anything but children.

Marriage at 16 is a hangover from a different age, and it is right that we now step forward to close this loophole. We do so because it is the right thing to do. We do so because not to act risks consigning thousands more girls to abuse and controlling marriages, and because to act will empower thousands each year to seek education and employment for their own and indeed everyone’s good. The single biggest step that we could take today to invigorate the economy around the world is the economic empowerment of women.

Child marriage is outlawed in many countries around the world. It shames us that we lend some tacit approval to its continuation by allowing marriage at 16 here. We can lead by example, and live up to what we say abroad. We can slap down charges of hypocrisy by acting for ourselves and reaffirming our commitment to childhood.

Child marriage is often just another form of coercive control and abuse. Sadly, too often it is perpetrated by parents and siblings to force young women and girls into outdated behaviour owing to a misplaced and frankly heinous sense of so-called honour. The horrific murder of Banaz Mahmod in 2006, and the testimony of those who actually cared about her, including her sister Payzee Mahmod, show that honour and love have nothing to do with so-called honour killings and child marriage.

As a member of Ealing Council, I was proud to support the organisation Southall Black Sisters by providing their first official funding, because the work that they do matters. Sadly, that work is as necessary now as it was then. Not all child marriage is about abuse, and I know that some end in happy marriage, but that choice should be made by an adult for themselves, not forced on a child.

I must now share my personal family experience. My own mother, the late Ram Piary Sharma, married young, at only 14, and had her first child shortly after her 17th birthday. She had already brought one life into the world, and she was still a girl—a child. She was bright, intelligent, interested and driven, but poorly educated. Education was something that she insisted on delivering for her own daughters when life had denied it to her. She took the extraordinary step of starting a small school for girls in our village. While there had for many years been opportunities for boys to study, there was nowhere in my village, Mandhali, for a girl to learn. My mother secured a small room, hired a teacher from the next village to come and teach girls, and Bimla, my sister, was the first pupil. It was a great success, and soon many of our friends and neighbours were sending their girls too. My sister was the first to matriculate, and eventually went into further education, followed by my other three sisters. My mother put such value on learning and education, and it changed so many lives. Bimla trained to become a teacher and came back to Mandhali to teach another generation of girls, to change lives and make a difference, all because of the opportunities that not marrying young gave her.

My other three sisters also went into professional jobs, and none married young—they all married after the age of 22. My mother ensured that they knew the value of their learning and their responsibility to live the best life they could. That is the opportunity banning child marriage offers: the ability to shape lives for the better. Banning child marriage is not a ban on love and it is not state control; it protects the right to childhood, the right to a decent education and the right to a brighter future.

I feel honoured to participate in this debate.

I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) for this Bill and for her tireless work and efforts to protect children and end child marriage. It is no surprise that this Bill has received cross-party and Government support, which reflects her thorough and attentive approach, alongside the strong necessity to update this area of law.

As my hon. Friend outlined, the Bill seeks to raise the minimum age of marriage and civil partnerships from 16 to 18 in England and Wales, which will bring an end to provisions allowing for 16 and 17-year-olds to marry or enter a civil partnership with parental or judicial consent. This Bill will also make it illegal for a person to arrange the marriage of another person under the age of 18 in England and Wales in those circumstances where it is not already illegal.

At the age of 16, a person cannot get a tattoo, vote, drive or buy alcohol. Most importantly, they are defined as a child under both the UN convention on the rights of the child and the Children Act 1989. A marriage or civil partnership is a lifelong commitment with significant legal and financial implications, and this Bill will allow girls and boys more time to grow, to be educated and to mature before making this serious commitment so that they can decide their own future.

At the grand old age of 34, I am still young enough to remember some of the mistakes I made at the age of 16 and 17, and they were not limited to my choice of clothes or haircut—some might argue that neither has improved. I could not fathom entering a marriage at the age of 16 or 17, nor having the maturity to make such a major decision when my experience of the world was so limited.

In discussing marriage today, this is certainly not the first time I have reflected on my life journey compared with that of my parents and grandparents. When I look at old family photos, often hiding in a dusty cupboard rather than in the cloud or on Facebook, I am always amazed at how young they look in their wedding photos. That is a reflection of how much times have changed even within my generation and my parents’ generation, let alone since these laws were originally made back in 1929.

I welcome the comprehensiveness of the Bill in closing the loopholes on child marriage and removing the significant barriers to protection and safeguarding in child marriage cases. The existing law covers cases where a parent or other third party uses violence, threats or another form of coercion to cause a child to enter into a marriage, and my understanding is that this does not cover situations where a child is caused to enter into a marriage where coercion is not used. This Bill closes that loophole by making it an offence to cause an under-18 to enter into marriage in any circumstances.

I also welcome that the Bill not only removes the parental consent exception but covers both civil and unregistered religious ceremonies, which are often the main source of child marriages, as we have heard. This helps to fulfil the safeguarding aim of the Bill, as the life-changing consequences of marriage are derived not only from the legal procedure but from the traditional or religious aspects, which are regarded as just as much as marriage by the parties, their families and their communities.

Again, I thank my hon. Friend and all the charities involved for shining a spotlight on this issue. It is also so important and significant that this Bill includes marriages that do not take place in this country as long as the child is a UK national and resident in England or Wales. Far too often, we see in the media extreme examples of outdated cultural practices of children being married to fully grown adults in foreign countries, and this Bill helps to protect children in both England and Wales. I hope—it is my sincere hope—that Scotland and Northern Ireland follow suit and we can protect all UK children.

I commend the holistic coverage of this Bill in closing those loopholes. I believe this to be a reflection of my hon. Friend’s years of focused work on the Bill and of the thorough manner with which she has steered it through the House, including by working closely with charities, Ministers and schools on its intent and provisions, which really get to the crux of the issue.

One of the main reasons I entered politics was to ensure that children are given the best chance in life, particularly through education and better opportunities. That is why I fully support the Bill. Throughout the pandemic, we have seen that the classroom really is the best place for our children—not only for learning, but for their safeguarding, mental health and wellbeing. The teachers and schools of Old Bexley and Sidcup do a remarkable job of giving local children the best life chances, and they rightly remain a source of local pride.

I am pleased that the Bill strengthens the safeguarding of children, because too often teachers spot the signs of child marriage, but unfortunately the police are unable to take any further action due to the parental consent given, the marriage not being legally binding or its not taking place in England or Wales. This is the perfect example of how the Bill gets to the heart of the issue and tackles all forms of child marriage.

I welcome the fact that evidence has shown that the number of people marrying at 16 and 17 in England and Wales has been in decline over the years. In 2016, there were 153 marriages involving 16 and 17-year-olds, which went down to 125 in 2019. Despite that decline, more needs to be done because every single child matters and deserves such protection, particularly as, unfortunately, child marriage is often a mechanism for abuse, as we have heard. Marriages under 18 often lead to a lack of education and job opportunities, physical and mental health problems, a loss of independence and an increased risk of domestic abuse.

While child marriage can impact on both girls and boys, the issue overwhelmingly affects girls, with 80% of those who married as children in 2019 being girls. I am proud that this Government are leading the way in protecting girls and women globally, including by making international commitments to end child marriage. This Bill will ensure that our country leads by example to eradicate the practice worldwide. As part of the UK’s world-leading efforts in tackling violence against women and girls—an agenda to which I am fully committed—the UK Government have announced £18 million of new UK funding to end child marriage, through partners at UNICEF and the United Nations Population Fund, and to benefit women and girls in 12 countries, including Sierra Leone, Uganda, Ethiopia, Bangladesh and Yemen.

As a nation we must continue to champion and promote girls’ education around the world, and I believe that this Bill complements that aim for the reasons outlined earlier, including, unfortunately, that one of the main consequences of child marriage is a lack of education. I therefore welcome the fact that this Bill will align our domestic and foreign policy, and help us in our goal to end child marriage and promote girls’ education around the world.

I fully support this Bill and herald it as a landmark piece of legislation that delivers significant social reform, provides a huge step forward in preventing child abuse, and allows the UK to continue to lead by example in protecting children, particularly girls, and women globally as well as here in the UK. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who has campaigned with such tenacity on this important issue and worked so hard to ensure that the Bill satisfies the overarching policy objectives so well.

Order. Mr Speaker will come in just before 11 am for the urgent question. Whoever is on their feet at 11 am will be asked to resume their seat for the urgent question, and afterwards they can continue their speech, so do not be surprised by that if you are on your feet at that time.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) for introducing the Bill and allowing me to be part of this debate. The Bill seeks to bring laws on marriage into the 21st century. As my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr French) pointed out, this is an issue that overwhelmingly affects women and girls, with 80% of under-age marriages in 2018 being undertaken by girls. It should be made clear that the introduction of the Bill is not about removing choice: it is about essential protections for children.

The Bill seeks not only to make marriage illegal for under-18-year-olds, but to create an offence for anyone to arrange the marriage of a person under the age of 18. The commitment of a marriage or civil partnership is not one that anyone should enter into lightly or without full knowledge and consent. Child marriage happens across countries, cultures, religions and ethnicities. It happens all around the world, but in this debate it is essential that we address the fact that many such marriages are created out of coercion.

Forced marriages are illegal in the UK, however when a person under the age of 18 is pressured to get married, research has shown that it is often by a family member. Reports show that young people in those situations do not merely lack the resources to report coercion but are often put in the impossible position of having to report on a parent or loved one. That can leave young girls of 16 faced with a choice between sending a parent to prison and being forced to marry. Other repercussions reported by survivors include being ostracised by their families and even communities. No child should be put in that position, and the Bill will take us one step closer to ensuring that no child will have to make that choice.

Child marriage has also been shown to be strongly linked to female genital mutilation, the practice of the cutting or removal of some or all of the external female genitalia. Female genital mutilation is growing every year in this country and we must be clear that it is not a cultural practice and has nothing to do with ethnicity or religion. As mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who is no longer in his place, it is a form of child abuse, and it should not be treated as anything less. Social stigma is often the reason the practice continues, and that must be tackled in our schools and local communities.

UNICEF estimates that 720 million women alive today were married when they were children. Research by Girls Not Brides has shown that every year 12 million girls are married before the age of 18. That amounts to 23 girls every minute, or one nearly every three seconds. The UK should rightly be proud of our record in supporting and championing the rights of women and girls at home and abroad. For years we have fought to end child marriage in other countries, and in fact the UK has signed two international human rights conventions demanding that child marriage be ended in signatories’ jurisdictions. However, how can we continue to advocate so passionately for the end of the practice when we still have loopholes in our own law that allow under-18-year-olds to marry? It is vital that we demonstrate that a child marriage is not accepted in the UK, and we will do so through the Bill.

Studies are clear: under-age marriage has been shown to lead to lower education and employment opportunities, an increase in mental health problems and a higher incidence of domestic violence. During the covid-19 pandemic, it was reported that cases of child marriage were on the rise. Children were not in school and therefore were less able to access support, which meant that it was far harder for schools and communities to provide that support. We have a duty of care in this country to protect our children. As a father, I cannot imagine how I would feel if a child of mine were in a situation in which they were made to marry.

If we can pass the Bill and ensure that fewer children are put into that position, we must do so. As child marriage does not have one cause, it does not have one solution. Ending the practice of child marriage will take the efforts of many communities, individuals and Governments, but the Bill will continue the process of its eradication. We have a duty, as Members of Parliament, to ensure that no more children enter into marriage, which is why I must support the Bill today.

I welcome the Bill, which is to:

“Make provision about the minimum age for marriage and civil partnership, and for connected purposes.”

When I was researching the Bill to write this speech, I came across an American news channel reporting that the minimum age for marriage in Carolina was going to be raised from 14 years old to 16 years old, that the teen’s spouse would be required to be no more than four years older, and that the teen’s written parental consent would be required to marry. I have to admit that I was rather flabbergasted. A 14-year-old is a child. A 16-year-old is a child.

Time and again, as with the trauma of the poor Russian skater, Kamila Valieva—who is a child at 15—at the recent winter Olympics that I am sure many hon. Members witnessed, we see situations where adults are not making the right or best decisions for children. Children are children until they reach adulthood at 18 years old. It is absolutely right that the Bill has been brought forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham), and I welcome the fact that it and the amendments discussed earlier today have been supported by hon. Members on both sides of the House and by the Government.

Children need to be children, to be permitted to be children, and to enjoy all the joy and freedom without adult responsibilities. Child rights are fundamental freedoms and must be inherent in all children under the age of 18, irrespective of race, religion, sex or any other status. Children are not the property of their parents. They are human beings and they have rights.

The convention on the rights of the child sets out the rights that must be realised for children to develop their full potential. It offers a vision of the child as an individual and as a member of the family and community, with rights and responsibilities appropriate to his or her age and stage of development. In recognising children’s rights in that way, it firmly sets the focus on the whole child.

All children should have and deserve to have access to opportunities. Children are innocent. They are full of hope and joy, and they are trusting. Rather than be thrown or forced into an adult life, they should be allowed to mature gradually through new experiences that are age appropriate. It is a travesty that for far too many children, the reality of their childhood is all too different. Throughout history, children have been abused and exploited by adults, whether through slave labour, hunger, homelessness, limited education opportunities and so on.

Childhood must be protected and children should be allowed and encouraged to develop in their own time. Marriage or a civil partnership is an adult decision and requires thought. A party to a marriage should not take a passive approach. It is not something for someone to go along with or have done to them—it requires mature thought. Marriage is an important part of building healthy and protected relationships, families and societies.

Marriage should not cause harm to either party. Early and forced marriages often take place in communities where there is a wider social context that denies women’s and children’s rights. Currently, in England and Wales the minimum age for marriage or civil partnership without parental or other third-party consent, or judicial consent, is 18. A person who is 16 or 17 may marry or form a civil partnership only with consent—with some very rare exceptions, in which a 16 or 17-year-old is a widow or widower, or a surviving civil partner. A marriage or civil partnership is void if either of the parties is under the age of 16.

The Bill would raise to 18 the minimum age for marriage and civil partnership in England and Wales. That might affect marriages and civil partnerships that take place outside England and Wales. A change in the common law will also mean that any marriages involving under-18s that take place overseas, or in Scotland or Northern Ireland, will not be legally recognised in England and Wales if one of the parties is domiciled in England or Wales. That change to recognition will also apply to civil partnerships. I acknowledge the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire about issues to do with Scotland and Northern Ireland; I, too, encourage Scotland and Northern Ireland to take the Bill on board.

The Bill will also make it illegal for a person to arrange the marriage of a person under the age of 18 in England and Wales in circumstances where that is not already illegal. In 2018, the most recent year for which data is available, 147 16 to 17-year-olds entered into a legally binding marriage with a person of the opposite sex, representing a very small proportion—0.06%—of all marriages that took place in England and Wales in 2018. Marriages of same-sex couples or civil partnerships are not reported with a detailed age breakdown. The issue is about not the small number, but each of those individuals who have had something done to or for them over which they have had no control.

The majority of 16 to 17-year-olds who marry are female. In 2018, 119 of the 16 to 17-year-olds getting married were female, while 28 were male. Over the past five years, an average of 79% of all 16 to 17-year-olds getting married have been female. UNICEF considers that child marriage is a violation of human rights, regardless of sex, but has emphasised that child marriage often compromises a girl’s development by resulting in early pregnancy and social isolation, interrupting her schooling, limiting her opportunities for career and vocational advancement, and placing her at increased risk of domestic violence. Although the impact on child grooms has not been extensively studied, marriage may similarly place boys in an adult role for which they are unprepared and may place economic pressures on them and curtail their opportunities for further education or career advancement.

Gender equality and ending the exploitation of women and girls are vital. One of the United Nations sustainable development goals agreed by world leaders is to eliminate all harmful practices such as child early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child recommends that there should be no legal way for anyone to marry before they turn 18, even if there is parental consent.

The Bill would also expand the existing criminal law on forced marriage to make it illegal for a person to arrange the marriage of a person under 18 in England and Wales. In 2020, the forced marriage unit gave advice or support in 759 cases related to a possible forced marriage and/or possible female genital mutilation. A significant majority related to forced marriage, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire has already pointed out. The forced marriage unit notes that the overall case number represents a 44% decrease on the average number of cases received annually between 2011 and 2019, which was 1,359. The decrease is thought to be attributable to the pandemic, owing to restrictions on weddings and overseas travel.

Proceedings interrupted (Standing Order No. 11(4)).