To go back to the forced marriage unit, it set out additional information on the cases it dealt with in 2020. Of the cases that it provided advice or support to in 2020, 26% involved victims below 18 years of age, 37% involved victims aged 18 to 25 and 9% involved victims with mental capacity concerns, while 79% involved female victims and 21% involved male victims.
Last year, the Government published their tackling violence against women and girls strategy, which sets out a range of actions aimed at tackling acts of violence or abuse that disproportionately affect women and girls, and forced marriage is identified as one such issue. The strategy states that
“the Government remains committed to the goal of ending child marriage in this country. We also recognise the need to signal to other countries that child marriage is something which needs to be tackled.”
The strategy also states:
“Child marriage and having children too early in life can deprive children of important life chances, which is why the Government will support raising the age of marriage and civil partnership in England and Wales from 16 to 18, when an appropriate legislative vehicle becomes available, to help stamp out marriage of minors. The age of 18 is widely recognised as the age at which one becomes an adult, and at which full citizenship rights should be gained.”This Bill is the legislative vehicle to stamp out the marriage of minors, and I wholeheartedly support it and the amendments agreed to today.
I express my very sincere congratulations to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid), who got the ball rolling on this, but principally to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) on her heroic work in getting the Bill to this point. My congratulations go to her family in the Gallery—she married at a respectable age—and most of all to the campaigners. It is a tremendous thing that they have done, and I am very much in awe of their campaigning and their work, so many thanks and congratulations.
As my hon. Friend says, if someone is too young to consent to marriage, they are too young to marry. That is an absolutely inviolable point. I am glad that we are honouring the declarations of various international bodies, such as UNICEF, which says that child marriage is a violation of human rights; our own commitments to the sustainable development goals, which committed this country to eliminate child, early and forced marriage; and the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, which says that there should be no legal way to marry before 18, even with parental consent.
I understand that in 2018, the last year for which data has been collected, there were only 147 marriages of people aged 16 or 17, of whom 80% were female—girls—which tells a tale. Of course, our real concern is about the marriages of children that take place abroad and can then be recognised here in the UK. I echo the point made by my hon. Friend and many other hon. Members that the legislation is not about criminalising the actions of children; it is about seeking to stop adults organising child marriage.
I pay particular tribute to the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma), who spoke so well, passionately and with enormous sincerity about his own mother and the work she did, having been a child bride herself, to found a school in her village to educate girls. What an inspiration she must have been both to her own daughters, who grew up to have professional careers, and to the hon. Member himself. I am grateful to have heard that story.
I applaud the commitment in this legislation to remove what my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire calls the Gretna Green exceptions. I am very pleased to hear that Northern Ireland is consulting on raising the age of marriage, and I hope that Scotland does so, too. I am sure that they will want to align with the sustainable development goals as soon as possible.
I think I speak accurately when I say that I am sure my hon. Friend is not being anti-marriage with this legislation; I know that she has the opposite attitude. We need more marriage in this country. I recognise what the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall said about the life-limiting effects of early marriage, but we can overcompensate as, to a degree, we have in this country. I was dismayed and concerned to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire say that the average age of marriage in this country is now over 30. We have organised the economic and social rewards in our society to put off marriage and children until very late, which I regret. The decline of marriage in our society should be a cause of great regret, as it is a cause of much distress to adults.
We are talking about the rights of children, and the greatest right a child has is to a secure home. We know that marriage is the best means of ensuring this. There are many economic pressures on families in our society, and we have the smallest houses and the longest commutes in Europe. What does that do to family life? We have steadily removed the fiscal support for marriage over the past two generations, and there is a cultural or ideological attack on marriage and the family. There is an assumption that marriage is a patriarchal institution that is inherently abusive and unequal. We have heard stories today of where that can be the case, so we need to remove the danger of fulfilling that false stereotype of marriage.
Marriage is a public act for a reason, and in the Anglican service we are asked to give any just cause or impediment for why a couple should not be married. This Bill removes the possibility of abuse and the opportunity for child marriage. Marriage is fundamentally about the responsibilities of adulthood, and it is the foundation of our society. This Bill restores the integrity of the institution, and I am very proud to support it.
I am pleased to speak in this debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) on introducing this important Bill, which I support.
This is an incredibly complex Bill, and it has been a real team effort. I thank the Ministers and officials, and I pay particular tribute to those in the Public Gallery and other tireless campaigners for raising awareness of this child abuse.
Many of us are parents, and we have all been 16, albeit for some of us it is a distant memory. When I was 16, I thought I would marry David Cassidy. I thought we would have kids called Kylie and Jason and a dog called Freeway. We know how grown-up and responsible we felt at 16, but we also realise just how much we still had to learn and experience at that young age.
In the UK, the average age of marriage is now 30. The fact that official figures for the marriage of 16 and 17-year-olds in the UK continue to fall is evidence that, in general, our society recognises that marriage before the age of 18 is not necessarily the great idea it might seem at that age. It is widely recognised, however, that the official UK data does not reflect the full picture. It does not take account of child marriages enacted through religious and customary ceremonies that are not legally recognised, and there is, of course, currently no way of monitoring the misuse of the loophole that permits parents in the UK to use parental consent to force their children into matrimony.
My hon. Friend’s Bill expands existing criminal law on forced marriage to make it illegal for a person to arrange the marriage of anyone under the age of 18 in England and Wales. Importantly, the offence will apply to any religious or civil ceremony of marriage, whether or not it is deemed legally binding in the UK and whether or not coercion is used.
The amendments debated today add further weight to the Bill, making it more targeted and offering more protection to young girls by removing significant loopholes in the current legislation, including deception, in England, Wales and elsewhere. Elsewhere is important, as marriage is devolved and a child can be taken to Northern Ireland or Scotland to marry. I was pleased to support amendment 4, and I state for the record that Northern Ireland is consulting on the age of marriage. I hope Scotland will do the same, as it is important to remove this dangerous loophole so that all children in the UK are covered.
These changes align with the Government’s tackling violence against women and girls strategy and will provide unequivocal protection to young women in the UK.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech about the need to raise the age of marriage. Does she agree that if somebody is judged too young to buy an alcoholic drink in a bar, drive a car or buy a firework, and too young to be trusted to vote in an election or to consent to a marriage, they must be too young to marry?
I thank my hon. Friend for his powerful words. He makes a powerful statement with which I wholeheartedly agree.
The UN estimates that 110 million girls will marry before their 18th birthday in the next decade. 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. In 2016, it made the recommendation that the UK
“raise the minimum age of marriage to 18 years across all devolved administrations, overseas territories and Crown dependencies.”
The UN sustainable development goals require all countries to eliminate all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation by 2030. It is a duty of the UK Government to take a lead and clearly demonstrate that they take the matter seriously and that child marriage, under any circumstances, is wrong. In doing so, the Bill will not just serve the girls of the UK but help to tackle child marriage globally.
It is a privilege to be the Member of Parliament for Ynys Môn. I entered politics to try to make tomorrow a better day for as many as possible and to try to be a voice for those who have no voice, particularly children. We now have a Bill to protect some of the most vulnerable in this country and around the world, and I am proud to give it my support.
I am honoured to be able to speak today and I was delighted to serve on the Committee with my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) in the earlier stages of the Bill. It is great to follow my hon. Friends the Members for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie), for Devizes (Danny Kruger) and for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart) and others who have made great speeches.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire knows, the Bill will have to go through the other place as well, so it is great to see Baroness Sugg in the Gallery, who has been great in supporting me in some of the legislation that I have been pushing for on banning hymenoplasty and virginity testing. I know that my hon. Friend has also been working with Payzee, Karma Nirvana and others who are also in the Gallery, who have been supportive in pushing this legislation forwards and in pushing for rights for women and girls in many other areas.
We need to concentrate on the small number of people who are using the exemption at the moment. They are not the children themselves, but their parents and other adults who are pushing them into it. The hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma), in his superb speech, mentioned the importance of education and how people should be pursuing objectives in their lives before making big decisions such as marriage. It was a powerful speech and it is great that the Bill has fantastic cross-party support.
I am also delighted that the amendments have been made to the Bill, especially on the issue of deceiving a child, and it is great that progress has been made to tighten up the amendments relating to judicial scope. As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire referred to, the Gretna Green amendment, which relates to domiciliary versus habitual residency, is important and plays into what hon. Members have spoken about relating to Scotland and Northern Ireland. I hope that those devolved nations look at the recommendations of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child and at the superb letter from the Joint Committee on Human Rights by the Mother of the House, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), who emphasised the points that were made and how they support the actions taken in the Bill.
As hon. Members have mentioned, changing the law is one thing but changing attitudes is another. As with my amendments to the Health and Care Bill about virginity testing and hymenoplasty, I hope making this change to the law will actually drive real cultural changes. We are showing leadership by changing the law in this House, but only by embedding those cultural changes will we see changes not only in this country but across the rest of the world.
This is one of the many measures from Back Benchers that this Government have been supporting. I hope that they will do more on women’s rights, which are often one of those things where battles feel that they may have already been won, but that is definitely not the case. As we have seen with various private Members’ Bills and amendments to other Bills over the past year or two, there is still further to go. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire on doing what she has done and thank Members from across the House for their support for her. I hope that we can all continue to push forward on some of these issues, because these battles are still to be won.
Let me start by paying tribute to the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) for his speech and, in particular, what he said about his mother. I was struck by how heartfelt it was and by the opportunity that she gave. My biggest concern was for those who are not so fortunate as to have such an opportunity, which is why this legislation is so important. That leads me on to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham), whom I congratulate on her strength and ability to bring the technical aspects forward and on having the courage of her conviction to stand up and make the statement, “This is wrong.” I wholeheartedly support her.
I got married recently, in 2019. It took me seven years to pop the question and 18 months to organise the wedding.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind compliments. I am the tender age of 39, so there is still a bit of time to go there. Time does pass fast for those who need to wait two years, although my wife may have wished the seven years had passed more quickly.
To me, there are three parts to becoming married: the legal aspect; the religious aspect; and the declaration to one’s friends and family. I am not religious, and I had a legal wedding held in a registry office, with a celebration with my friends and family two weeks later. When I went into that legal office, I was struck by the interviews and questions, with me and my partner being separated in order to find out what was going on, how we were stepping into this and what thought process we had gone through. This was done to see whether there was any coercion. That is what brought my attention to this Bill, because it struck me that it is so important to do that. I thought, “If this is happening to adults, what must happen to children at this point?” The fact that the legislation was not there to protect people was a huge concern for me.
So I am so pleased to see this legislation being brought forward, especially with the extension to the age of 18. Other Members have made the point that we are coalescing around the age of 18 for education, tobacco, tattoos, alcohol and indeed voting. So this seems sensible to me, because that is where we are defining the end of childhood and moving on to later life.
In the past year or so, we have also increased the age at which people can buy a lottery ticket to 18. So we are moving in this direction right across the piece, and that recognition of adulthood at 18 is at the core of all my hon. Friend is saying and of the Bill.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend on that. There is a debate as to whether joining the armed forces should move from 16 to 18 as well, in order to join it all up, from voting to tobacco, alcohol and gambling. Eighteen seems a sensible place to call it, and the House should be able to agree on that.
When I came to look at the Bill, there were concerns about it: would we just drive the practice further underground? How will it actually be tackled? And how will it be enforced? I am so pleased to hear that the provision is being extended to cover anyone who has ever lived in the UK, because that is really important in order to cut out that loophole. I was also pleased to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire so eloquently make the point about the importance of education on this in schools. I would go one step further, because, as a GP, I know it is really important that social services and healthcare workers, who will often see people at their most vulnerable and have the opportunity to pick up on these things, are aware that this is still a problem. We may be talking only about 150 or so cases, but that still means 150 or so lives that could in theory be ruined. Medical professionals and social services should be able to pick up on that and to have the training to be able to do so. There is a concern about whether this is a chicken and egg situation, but we have to start somewhere. I am pleased that the legislation will lead into changing the culture that my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden) has so honestly talked about.
Having a Minister sat in front of me when it comes to talking about the issue of marriage, it would be remiss of me not to lead on to a couple of further points. Here I wish to draw some parallel with what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger), who talked about the institution of marriage. I entirely agree with him that we should be encouraging more people to get married.
The pandemic put a spotlight on marriage and the way in which we do it—how we relaxed the legislation on where it can happen and what it can look like. That is a really important thing, because the culture around marriage is changing, as we have heard in this debate. Going forward, there is an argument for recognising humanist marriages in our current culture, and I was very grateful that the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Tom Pursglove), replied to a letter I wrote about humanist marriages, to say:
“As I expressed during the recent Westminster Hall debate on humanist marriage in England and Wales, marriage will always be one of our most important institutions, and we have a duty to consider the implications of any changes to the law in this area very carefully.
The Government remains committed to considering the case for more comprehensive and enduring reform to marriage law once the Law Commission has completed its fundamental review of the law in this area. The Law Commission will present options for reforms to modernise marriage law, including how marriage by humanist and other non-religious belief organisations could be incorporated into a revised or new scheme that is simple, fair and consistent for all groups. The Government will carefully consider the Law Commission’s recommendations when the final report is published.”
I wholeheartedly agree with that statement, because there is an opportunity here to address some of the religious and cultural aspects of marriage as one of those three pillars that I mentioned. To me, the fundamental part was the declaration in front of my friends and family. That may well be a religious aspect for other people, but we have a chance to create a framework that incorporates all the good work of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire into a wider set of legislation. I hope the Government are listening, because there is a real opportunity to give people the opportunity to enter into marriage and provide that stability for their family, their children, and of course their community. I wholeheartedly support the Bill.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Dr Evans), and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) on having brought forward this Bill. She has campaigned tirelessly on this issue for many years, and I commend her for stepping into the breach and expertly guiding this legislation through Committee to today’s Third Reading. I was privileged to support her in serving on the Bill Committee, and I am pleased to be here to support her today. I know from my own experience that bringing forward a private Member’s Bill is a hugely rewarding process, particularly when it stands a real chance of becoming law, but it can also be a challenging one, and I congratulate my hon. Friend on reaching this stage. I also pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid) for the work that he has done, not just in support of the Bill but on child protection more generally. It was good to see him in his place earlier.
The most important thing to note about this Bill is that it is not an attack on the institution of marriage; it offers marriage significant respect, aiming to ensure that those who enter into a marriage are fully able to judge whether it is the right choice for them. The age of 18 is an appropriate point at which to set a benchmark for such a lifelong commitment, and not before. While statistics show that child marriage primarily affects girls, it must be remembered that this issue can affect boys, too. The Bill is essential to protecting all children, no matter their sex.
Child marriage can have a devastating impact on vulnerable children, denying them the opportunity to fully participate in society. We know that children who are subject to child marriage have significantly worse opportunities and life chances, including a lack of education and job opportunities; the removal of independence; serious physical and mental health problems; and developmental difficulties for children born to young mothers, alongside an increased risk of domestic abuse and divorce. Effectively, the experience for many who are coerced into child marriage is the entrenchment of poverty and being limited to a life of low education. Banning child marriage, which this Bill effectively does, will give those who would have been vulnerable to it a greater chance to fully engage in our society, safeguarding their future so that from the age of 18 they will not have been denied the same opportunities afforded to others.
In 2022, education or vocational training is compulsory up to the age of 18, and the average age of marriage—as we have heard—is now 30. It seems entirely outdated that provision for marriage at 16 remains on our statute books, allowing children to enter into a lifelong commitment as significant as marriage before they have even completed their schooling. However, it is not surprising that the system is not fit for the modern age, given that our current laws date back to 1929.
It is essential that we ensure that children have enough time to grow and mature before entering marriage or civil partnership, which is potentially a lifelong commitment with significant legal and financial consequences. I am delighted that the Bill seeks to close loopholes and address the practice of child marriage in England and Wales while modernising legislation so that it reflects today’s society.
I have already mentioned non-registered religious and cultural marriages that take place in the UK. Indeed, laws on marriage apply only to registered marriage ceremonies; the only requirement on religious marriages is that they are not forced marriages. However, that in itself poses a problem. To prove a forced marriage, the courts must find that there has been coercion or that undue pressure has been exerted on someone to enter into the marriage. That means that, in effect, in the case of child marriages, the child would need to give evidence that may condemn their parents, but children aged 16 are unlikely to go against their parents who look after and bring them up. In effect, they cannot act independently, so the child forced into a marriage will, more likely than not, say that they consented to the child marriage.
I am pleased that the Bill rightly covers those unregistered religious marriages. It will make arrangements so that any marriage, be it religious or civil, that involves a person under the age of 18 will automatically be categorised as a forced marriage. That categorisation will remove the ability of someone to claim that consent was given. We should be mindful of that get-out in the coming months as we consider legislation covering a ban on conversion therapy.
The Bill will ensure that those who facilitate or encourage child marriage will be committing an offence and rightly face criminal charges. I am delighted that it will ensure that those who attempt to coerce children into marriage will face the consequences of their actions. They will face prison time, including a maximum sentence of 12 months in prison, or a fine—or both—in the magistrates court, or up to seven years in prison in the Crown court.
The Bill also tackles child marriages that take place abroad. All too often, a child can be taken abroad to be forced into a marriage that they are in no way old enough to consent to. Under our current legislation, we would be unable to punish those who take a child abroad for marriage unless the child was willing to testify that they had been forced into it. The Bill will close that loophole. Under its provisions, all marriages of under-18s that take place abroad will not be legally recognised in England and Wales if either party is domiciled here. That will not only act as a further obstacle to those seeking a child abroad to marry, but make it clear to professionals such as teachers and social workers that they should report children travelling abroad to marry if they are made aware of it.
I am proud that the UK is committed to achieving by 2030 the UN sustainable development goals, one of which requires all countries to eliminate the practice of child, early and forced marriages. We cannot criticise child marriage around the world and encourage other nations to stamp out that harmful practice until we have stamped it out in our country. The Bill will rightly allow us to live up to our international obligations.
I am delighted to be here to support my hon. Friend’s Bill. It will bring our legislation into the 21st century and ensure that we afford vulnerable children the protection that they deserve from forced and damaging child marriages. I hope that it will pass its Third Reading today and secure its place on the statute book.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) for her outstanding commitment to this issue. I am grateful to be here to respond to this important debate on behalf of the Opposition. It has been good to see significant cross-party co-operation and consensus throughout the Bill’s stages. I support the comments made by hon. Members and the amendments that will ensure that the law cannot be bypassed and that the police will have the powers to prosecute despite lack of evidence of coercion or violence. I hope that the right guidance and training will follow for both the police and the CPS.
I, too, commend the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma). It was an incredibly powerful and passionate speech about a very personal issue involving his mother and about why we must ban child marriage. In 2018, fewer than 150 fifteen and sixteen-year-olds entered marriage, out of a total of 235,000 marriages in England and Wales. But these figures understate the issue. Allowing marriage as young as 16 encourages those who support child marriage at even younger ages and has the potential to set a very dangerous precedent. Raising the age to 18 draws a clear line between child and adult. This Bill ensures that there are no circumstances under which a child can be legally married or enter a civil partnership under the age of 18—something that the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child asked for back in 2016.
Barnardo’s, the children’s charity, has raised concerns that marriage for children aged 16 or 17 can result in their experiencing domestic violence and sexual abuse, and missing out on important educational opportunities. The purpose of the Bill is to address those concerns and the concern that marriage at such a young age can leave vulnerable young people open to coercion and forced marriage. Sixteen and 17-year-olds make up over 10% of forced marriages. These vulnerable children need our protection, and I am grateful to be here on behalf of the Opposition to support the Bill.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights defines child marriage as
“any marriage where at least one of the parties is under 18 years of age.”
It defines forced marriage as
“a marriage in which one and/or both parties have not personally expressed their full and free consent to the union.”
The high commissioner’s view is that all child marriages equate to forced marriages, as a child cannot give full, free and informed consent.
This issue overwhelmingly impacts women and girls. An astonishing 80% of those who married as children in 2018 were girls. As shadow Minister for victims, I have heard at first hand the devastating impact that forced marriages have on young women. I spoke to one young woman recently who bravely shared her story with me. She was terrified, fleeing from her forced marriage—forced to flee her family home, forced to hide from her parents and forced now to remain in hiding. Luckily, she is supported by a wonderful organisation, which I will not name for security reasons.
There are many great organisations out there helping young woman like that, but what about the women and girls who are not supported by anyone—the ones who are all alone, trapped in these marriages? I hope that the Government’s forthcoming victims Bill can help to address those issues, too, and increase the protection of these vulnerable individuals by consolidating their rights in statute, as the Opposition outlined in our response to the Government’s consultation. If victims are made aware of their rights, it will allow those who wish to leave marriages that they have been forced into to be supported.
There is also the issue of individuals who do not report forced marriage. Specially trained staff in schools are absolutely vital in looking out for the signs of forced marriage, but there is a concerning lack of similar training for registry office staff, as has been mentioned. Only about a fifth of reports to the forced marriage unit in 2019 were from the victims themselves. Most reports —64%—were from professionals, such as those in education, social services, and the legal and health sectors, which makes training and support for those sectors much more important.
I am pleased that the Government are supporting the Bill, but they have the opportunity to go further and support victims of forced marriages in the forthcoming victims Bill. The current law is outdated, and family life has moved on significantly since its inception. The fact that a young person must remain in education until he or she is 18 but can marry at 16 is bewildering, and has no place in the 21st century. The Bill is a crucial and substantial step forward in correcting that situation and, on behalf of the Opposition, I wish it well in its remaining stages.
Let me begin by again offering my wholehearted support to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham), who has been a persistent and tireless campaigner on this issue for many years. She has run an exemplary campaign, which Members throughout the House will no doubt want to study and monitor for their own purposes in the years ahead when introducing their own private Members’ legislation.
I pay tribute to colleagues on both sides of the House for their contributions, not just today but throughout the Bill’s passage, and for the constructive spirit in which these matters have been approached. We have seen the House at its very best. I, too, pay tribute to the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) for the way in which he talked about his own personal experiences and those of his mother. What an inspirational story that is for all of us, and one on which we will all no doubt reflect in the days ahead: it was very much a forerunner of this Bill. I think it important also to place on record that my hon. Friend’s campaign has been so persistent and so successful that she has also had brilliant backing from both the Home Secretary and the Deputy Prime Minister in getting the Bill to this stage.
Having the privilege of being the Minister responsible for marriage and divorce, I am particularly aware of how necessary these provisions are. Many people are surprised when I inform them that child marriage is still legal in this country. As our society changes for the better, it is important that our laws are kept up to date. The Bill ensures that children can no longer legally enter into a marriage or civil partnership in England and Wales. It also tackles unregistered marriage ceremonies by expanding the offence of forced marriage to make it illegal to arrange for a child to enter marriage where coercion is not used. The Bill is taking positive action to protect children. Our objective throughout has been to protect as many children as possible from this harm.
The changes to the legal age of marriage only impact individuals who wish to marry aged 16 or 17 on a temporary basis; as soon as they turn 18, they can get married if they choose. In the meantime, they can focus more fully on tasks such as completing their education, which will help to maximise their future potential and life chances. The Bill also promotes equal opportunities. We know that girls are more likely to marry as children, and therefore more likely to be impacted by the adverse effects of child marriage that my hon. Friend helpfully set out.
The Children’s Commissioner recently carried out “The Big Ask”, a national survey of England’s children. When asked about their worries, some children reported their fear of being pressurised into a marriage that they did not want. No child should have to face the horror of forced marriage. As my hon. Friend said, it is not the norm. Pressurising a child in this way is abhorrent and we should call it out for what it is. Through the Bill, of course, we are taking action not just to call it out, but to have in place a strong legal framework to deal with that abuse.
A marriage or civil partnership should only be formed if both parties freely consent and are properly able to make that choice. A family not formed on that basis is unlikely to bring benefits to its members or to society, and may be more likely to lead to issues such as domestic abuse and emotional distress. Increasing the age of marriage to 18 is also likely to reduce the risk of relationship breakdown owing to the increased age and maturity of the parties involved. Marriage is an important institution that we want to protect and strengthen as much as possible, as was so eloquently set out by my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Dr Evans).
I will now turn to the specific asks of Government made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire. I agree with her that it is vital we commence these changes as soon as possible and I know that officials are working on implementation plans. However, as much as I would like to, I cannot make a commitment that the Bill will be ready to be commenced by the school summer holidays. I am keen, however, to expedite as far as feasibly possible the work we need to do to implement the Bill.
The changes made by the Bill require a set of implementation activities, including updating the General Register Office’s IT systems and amending secondary legislation. Forced marriage changes will impact multiple agencies, requiring updates to guidance, systems and processes. Those would most likely affect the police, the Crown Prosecution Service, the courts, the Prison Service and the probation service. We also need to make sure that the public are given plenty of notice that the law is changing and to be mindful of those who may be planning weddings which were perfectly legal at the time that notice was given.
As the Bill would not reach Royal Assent until later this Session, the ask would therefore be commencement within a few months, and I fear that that is too steep a mountain to climb. Much implementation activity cannot happen until Royal Assent, because until then we cannot be certain that the Bill will become law or what its exact shape will be. Like my hon. Friend, however, I have every confidence in Baroness Sugg, who I know will shepherd the Bill effectively through the other place to make sure no time is wasted at that end in getting the legislation into law. At our end, I give my hon. Friend my assurance that we will commence as soon as we possibly can, but just as it is important that this law starts protecting children as soon as possible, it is also important that it does not come in until the relevant statutory agencies are properly set up to deal with it, because there would be nothing worse than a case which was mishandled through lack of knowledge or gaps in the underlying systems. She knows I always like to drive a hard bargain. I am mindful of timeliness and I can assure her there will be no needless or unnecessary delay.
I can also reassure my hon. Friend that the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean), and I will both work with the Department for Education to ensure that we raise awareness in schools about the changes in the law. I understand that next week she will be meeting with the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince), the Minister for children and families, to discuss that very issue. As with so many changes in the realm of hidden harms such as forced marriage, changes in the law are a necessary but by no means sufficient condition to achieve change on the ground. I can also tell her, by way of an update, that I recently had a meeting with the Children’s Commissioner where I raised this very issue. It is fair to say that my hon. Friend would be pushing at an open door in terms of engaging with her, because she has been exceptionally supportive of the Bill and is keen to help on awareness. I am grateful to the Children’s Commissioner for her support for this work.
The hon. Gentleman is one of the most decent and incredibly kind Members of this House. I have to say, however, that I do not think that that is a decision I will have to make, as it is highly likely that the Bill will regularly be referred to as the Pauline Latham Bill and rightly so. All of us in this House are incredibly proud of her for the work she has done in advancing this cause. I think that decision may be taken out of our hands, because that will just be the term by which the legislation will be referred to. We are grateful to her—we really are.
I can confirm that the multi-agency guidance which the Home Office produces on forced marriage will be updated to take account of the changes to the law. That contains chapters for different professions, including the police, teachers and social workers, and we will update all of them to reflect the amendments in the law. I am sure that, as they always do, the College of Policing will update operational guidance for the police in line with the changes to our guidance. While it is not for me to promise changes to the CPS guidance, as the CPS is independent, it will always make necessary changes to its guidance to reflect changes in the law, and I see no reason why it would not do so in this case, too. By way of trying to be constructive, I will undertake to ensure awareness among my ministerial colleagues in different parts of Government, so that the conversations they have with those various agencies in the months ahead touch on this issue, and underline the importance we place on it and the need to get these things right.
One issue we are trying to address today is the cultural issue. Will the Minister commit to at least examining having a proper awareness campaign when the law changes, with a good round of media interviews from Ministers, and reaching out into communities where we know this issue is more prevalent than in others? It is important that we ram home the message from this united House not just that there is a change in the law, but that we are trying to drive a broader cultural change in society.
Having been his Whip, I know my hon. Friend is always brimming with ideas about initiatives that the Government can take forward. He makes a rather good suggestion and it is certainly something I am mindful of and want to take away and consider. Throughout the passage of the Bill, we have heard extremely difficult testimony from individuals who have suffered the pain and trauma of these sorts of marriages. They have talked bravely about the impact that that has had on them, their families and their lives. It is important that we help them to share their stories in a way that they are comfortable with, to ensure that we drive awareness of these changes. I am always keen to do media interviews about positive announcements, as he will appreciate, but often hearing directly from survivors of this sort of unacceptable abuse is the most powerful testimony and will be inspirational in generating that greater awareness, ensuring that people know exactly the signs to spot and articulating the measures that we are taking to clamp down on this.
On the Scotland and Northern Ireland plea, I must respect that the devolved Administrations are independent. Indeed, we have taken great care to respect the devolution settlement, hence the amendments made today, ensuring that the law covers only those situations where there is a clear link to England and Wales. We in England and Wales are levelling up, tackling the awful practice of child marriage. I have put on the record in the House, and will repeat now, my wholehearted hope that Scotland and Northern Ireland will follow our lead. Colleagues in Edinburgh and Belfast cannot fail to have heard the unanimous backing for these vital measures in the House. We have all committed to eliminating child marriage by 2030 under the UN sustainable development goals. Setting a strong example at home will also help to tackle the issue globally. Leadership by example is crucial in that regard.
I have no doubt that the passionate campaign that we have seen in Westminster will now focus its energies on Edinburgh and Belfast with great vigour. I hope that Scottish and Northern Irish colleagues in this House, from all parties, will want to take this forward and champion the agenda in the devolved areas. That is important advocacy. They ought to consider taking up that baton to help the campaign in any way they can.
In closing, I reiterate my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire for introducing this important Bill. I also reiterate, wholeheartedly, the Government’s support for it. It is an enormous privilege to be the victims Minister. One reason for that is that I come across exceptional people who have been through so much and show great courage, despite the trauma, distress, sadness, hurt and upset that they feel. Often, they put others first to ensure that the harm, suffering and distress that they feel does not happen to others. A remarkable group of people have been involved in this work and I wish briefly to pay tribute to and thank them. Naomi, Natasha, Farhana, Sara, Payzee, Charlotte, Lubna and Nana—thank you for the work you have done on this issue. Your advocacy has been extraordinary. I have no doubt that the work that you have done, the courage that you have shown and the effort that you have put in will change the lives of thousands of young people in our country for the better.
I am delighted that we are joined in the House today by the Lathams. I thank Derek, Tracey, Poppy and Harry for your superb support for wife, for mum, for grandma who has done something very special. We are hugely grateful to her and incredibly proud of her, and I know that you will be as well. We just all join in that tribute.
This may not be a long Bill, but the impact is far-reaching, and many lives will be changed for the better because of it. On what is a dark day in our world, this is a chink of light and one that all of us in this House and across the country can welcome. With that, I thank my officials for the work that they have done to bring this forward: the Bill manager, Alice Harrison; Andrew Lewis; Rachel Stark; Nicola Henderson; and Joanna Norris as well as those in my private office, particularly Tomos Macdonald, and Minister Maclean’s private office as well. Everybody who has been involved in the Bill can be incredibly proud of it. I wish it a speedy passage through the House of Lords and I commend it to the House.
With the leave of the House, I would like to say a few words of thanks. It has been a strange day. I cannot remember any time when a Bill has been interrupted by an urgent question and then continued, so it has been a little strange today. I thank those who came to support me for sitting through not just the Bill, which has been exceptionally long, but the urgent question, too.
I thank all right hon. and hon. Members in this House who have contributed to today’s debate, and also to other debates that we have had through the passage of this Bill. It has been a pleasure to hear the resounding support to end child marriage from every corner of the House. As many people know, I have campaigned on this issue for many years—I think it is five years, but it might be six or even four; I forget. The Bill has been supported every step of the way by the charities that make up the Girls Not Brides UK coalition—Karma Nirvana, the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation, the Independent Yemen Group, the Foundation of Women’s Health Research and Development and others. They have been tireless in their support. I am delighted that they can be here to witness this House vote to end child marriage. Like the Minister, I thank them for all their hard work, without which we would not be at this stage today. They have been tireless and they have kept us focused to make sure that this is the best Bill that we could possibly have.
I particularly want to thank two of our amazing ambassadors: Payzee Mahmod and Farhana Raval. They have been incredibly brave telling their stories and inspirational for many of us who have gone on this journey. They have shone a light on the terrible consequences of child marriage. I thank Payzee and Farhana for their support.
On the legal side, I must pay tribute to two superb barristers who work with the group: Naomi Wiseman and Dr Charlotte Proudman. We also have two little ones up in the Public Gallery who have also sat through pretty much most of this today. They will not be allowed to get married when they get to 16; they will have to wait until they are 18. The support of Naomi Wiseman and Dr Charlotte Proudman in drafting and their technological knowledge was instrumental in getting the wording of the Bill exactly right.
I have already mentioned the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Tom Pursglove) and the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean) Without their advocacy within Government, their incredible support and their willingness to listen time and again to my representations—they must have thought, “Oh, she’s at it again”—we could not have got this Bill to the excellent stage in which it now finds itself. Their officials have also been tenacious, hard-working and supportive, and I thank them for engaging with me and the team of experts at Girls Not Brides UK.
The Clerk of the private Members’ Bills has been incredibly helpful, indeed probably more so than even he realises and I am grateful to him and all the House staff, including those in the Library and the Public Bill Office, who have enabled the progress so far of this piece of legislation. Without Government support, this Bill would have gone nowhere; private Members’ Bills get nowhere without Government support. When I went to see the Prime Minister, he suddenly got what I was trying to do, understood it, supported it, and made sure that Ministers supported it, so I am very grateful to him for his incredible support. I have even had a note from him congratulating me on getting to this stage, so he watches what is going on. I am also grateful to those on the Opposition Front Bench. The shadow Minister gave a very supportive speech on Second Reading in November and demonstrated solidarity with this important cause.
From the start of this process, as a ten-minute rule Bill in the Session before last, via Second Reading and Committee, there have been simply too many parliamentary supporters for me to name individually, but I wish to thank my colleagues on the International Development Committee, including the Chair, the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion). She cannot be here today, but she has been a passionate advocate for the cause throughout the process. I also wish to thank, along with many others, the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma), who has been a constant source of support. He never hesitated when I asked, “Will you support this?” He said, “Yes” immediately. Like many of the best achievements in the House, this has truly been a cross-party effort.
Finally, I wish to place on record once again my gratitude to the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid). As Members will know, he was drawn in the ballot for the private Members’ Bills. I have never been drawn in the ballot, but he was on his first time of entering. I was so delighted when he was appointed to the Government as then he could not take up his place, and he graciously gave up his slot to me rather than turn down the job. Without that gesture, the Bill might not have got here today. It only remains for me to say thank you and good luck to Baroness Sugg, who has watched from the Gallery throughout today and will steer the Bill through the other place. I can think of no more appropriate champion for it and I am delighted to place it in her capable hands. Let us put a stop to child marriage once and for all.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.