My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.
The serious social evil which the Bill seeks to combat and remedy is the forcing of children and young adults to marry against their will. It gives rise to gross abuses of human rights especially affecting children and young people of either sex within our British Asian communities and elsewhere. It involves inhuman and degrading treatment and punishment of those who resist coercion, even their murder. It is a form of domestic violence and there is a direct link between forced marriages and honour killings, as was noted in the important debate on honour killings initiated by my noble friend Lord Russell-Johnston on 15 December 2005.
Forced marriage is, of course, an oxymoron. It is condemned across and within all communities, including their more religious and traditional sections. It is a form of sexual enslavement, sometimes amounting to domestic slavery. Dowry is often paid and women are bought and sold in the process of being forced into a so-called marriage. As we mark the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade, we should surely take effective measures to tackle this gross abuse.
I am indebted to the Southall Black Sisters and many other dedicated NGOs with practical experience of the actual problems on the ground for their invaluable advice and support.
It is essential that the Bill is not misused or misrepresented politically as a way of demonising British Asians or resisting much-needed reform. As the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland of Asthal, emphasised last March, on the first anniversary of the Forced Marriage Unit:
“Forced marriage affects children, teenagers and adults from all races and religions, including Christians, Hindus, Jews, Muslims and Sikhs. And it is not solely an issue facing Asian communities”.
We are very sorry that the noble Baroness’s bereavement prevents her from taking part in this debate and convey our sympathy to her and her family. But we are delighted that the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton of Upholland, has ministerial responsibility for the Government’s response.
The Bill adopts what the Government have described, in the context of human trafficking, as a,
“victim centred human rights approach”.
It empowers women and children, enhancing the protection given by existing law. It would help the overstretched, under-resourced Forced Marriage Unit, working with other agencies and NGOs, to develop and implement training, to develop victim support networks, and to secure compliance with the unit’s admirable forced marriage guidelines.
There is support from British Asian groups, such as Karma Nirvana and the British Muslim Parliament, as well as the Kurdistan Refugee Women’s Organisation; from women's groups, including the Middle East Centre for Women’s Rights, Rights of Women and Women’s Aid, as well as child protection organisations such as the NSPCC, the Children’s Commissioner, and both Liberty and JUSTICE. Liberty’s briefing paper explains how the Bill gives effect to the UK’s international human rights obligations. The Bill is also supported by senior specialist members of the police service, such as Commander Stephen Allen, whom it would assist to combat this form of serious abuse.
I am grateful to the Members of this House who served on the working party on forced marriage in 2000 and who will take part in this debate: the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, and the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, who has visited Kashmir to obtain direct knowledge of the problem, and other experienced and expert noble Lords. Several noble Lords who cannot take part have written expressing support, including the noble Baronesses, Lady Prashar, Lady Flather, Lady Verma, Lady Young of Hornsey and Lady Whitaker.
I am also grateful to four family law practitioners: Henry Setright QC, Teertha Gupta, Anne-Marie Hutchinson and James Turner QC, who have advised in designing the Bill, drawing on their practical experience. They welcome the way in which the Bill would promote access to justice in county courts as well as in the High Court, making legal aid more readily available and enabling properly interested third parties to apply for injunctive relief on behalf of potential victims who are unable or unwilling to take such action themselves against members of their families. It is essential that the burden of seeking protection should not rest only with victims, who are deterred from seeking help for fear of triggering the criminal justice process against family members. The diversity sub-committee of the Family Justice Council has expressed its strong support, and I wish there were time to explain to the House the marvellous work that it has done.
It is more than 30 years since I warned that,
“it would be entirely misguided for public authorities to tolerate the exploitation of children or the maltreatment of wives and daughters because such practices were condoned by a particular national, religious or cultural group ... cultural tolerance must not be a cloak for oppression and injustice within the immigrant communities themselves”.
Regrettably, the warning was not heeded.
We hope that the Bill will pass speedily into law and that it will be the springboard for effective educational and administrative measures and for leadership and public education within, as well as outside, minority communities. Ram Mohan Roy, the great Bengali social reformer, made common cause two centuries ago with British Benthamites in abolishing the practice of sati. Mahatma Gandhi acted similarly in securing the 1929 Act on Hindu child marriages during the British Raj. Today, the abolition of forced marriages and associated evils will be effective only if there is clear and bold leadership from within minority communities, making common cause with mainstream leaders, irrespective of religious, ethnic or cultural identity, or political party. Reform has to come from within, backed by well designed and well executed legislative, administrative and educational measures.
The violence and cruelty involved in forcing children and young adults into so-called marriages is powerfully described by a remarkably brave survivor, Jasvinder Sanghera, in her book Shame, published this week. On Tuesday, I was privileged to take part in the book’s launch in Derby, where she was born, and to meet other survivors of the most terrible ordeals, who told me that the Bill would have been of vital help to them. Jasvinder is present at this debate. Her experience painfully illustrates the pressing need for effective legislative and other measures.
Jasvinder was born into a Sikh family in Derby, one of seven sisters, all coerced into marrying Sikh men living in the Punjab. She alone escaped by running away and being treated as dead by her parents and siblings for bringing shame on them in the eyes of their close-knit community. Jasvinder describes her struggle to survive the brutality of family and community coercion, her escape aged barely 16 into poverty and destitution, one sister’s suicide to escape being sent back to a brutal husband, and her work on behalf of women affected by honour-based violence, where the suicide rate among Asian women in Britain is three times the national average. Those who stand up to family oppression may receive real threats to kill. If they run away, they have to live in hiding. Hers is a vivid, honest and deeply moving narrative of despair, courage and hope.
As Jasvinder notes, our public authorities,
“can be in a fog of ignorance, and misplaced cultural and religious sensitivity. To put it bluntly, a blind eye was turned to the problem in the name of cultural diversity ... and for those brave and desperate enough to escape, they are dead in the eyes of their parents and their community ... the women brave enough to stand up for themselves, and escape from families who bully, abuse and imprison them face disownment, immense sadness and loss”.
Mr Justice Munby, a family judge with particular experience, has written to me in support of the Bill. He drew attention to a recent judgment in which he noted that,
“a distressing feature of such cases is that too often the marriage is consummated by force—by rape. In one case ... it appeared that the ‘wife’ had been repeatedly raped in the most degrading circumstances until she conceived—the ‘husband’s’ motives apparently being to ensure that he would gain admission to this country without official challenge if accompanied by a pregnant wife”.
The time is over-ripe for effective measures now to be enacted giving enhanced legal protection. Law is not a panacea, but a well designed law can influence anti-social attitudes and behaviour derived from cultural practices, condemned by all religious faiths but embedded in traditions of community, family honour and identity.
Last summer, the Government decided against making forced marriage a crime. The Southall Black Sisters was among many well informed organisations opposing such an extension of the criminal law. It argued that a new criminal offence would add little to the existing body of law on murder, kidnapping and offences against the person; that police intervention would be counter-productive; and that it would be difficult to obtain sufficient evidence to satisfy the criminal burden of proof beyond reasonable doubt.
At the most recent Labour Party conference, the Home Secretary announced that the Government intended to return to the problem of tackling forced marriage, but there was nothing in the Queen's Speech to give effect to his statement of intent. It was because the clear and present danger to vulnerable children and young adults at risk—mainly, but not only, girls and women—requires an urgent legislative response that I decided to introduce this Bill in the hope that it will win the support of British Asians and that, with government support, it will soon become law.
The Bill is concerned with what happens in this country, but it should also assist in tackling abuse overseas and could serve as a model for similar legislation elsewhere. That is important because the problem is international. No other country has used civil law to give protection and legal remedies to victims in this way. If the Bill is duly enacted, it may encourage the introduction of similar legislation in South Asia and elsewhere.
Following public-interest litigation in the Supreme Court of India seeking stricter enforcement of the rather useless law against child marriages, a compensatory mechanism and rehabilitation for victims and preventive measures, last month, India's Parliament passed an Act on the prevention and prohibition of child marriages. It deals with child marriage, but the Minister for Women and Child Development, Renuka Chaudhary, hopes that it will give protection to,
“tens of thousands of children forced into marriage every year”.
The women's commissioner for India, who is actively involved in forced marriage prevention, is taking a great interest in our Bill. Shruti Pandey, an Indian advocate expert in this area, who is present at this debate, believes that if the Bill becomes law, it may influence India's lawmakers in giving enhanced civil protection. The same may be true of Pakistan and Bangladesh.
The Bill is carefully tailored to prevent and deter forced marriage, and to provide practical remedies. It goes further than existing legislation, notably the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 and the Family Law Act 1996. We have placed an Explanatory Memorandum in the Printed Paper Office summarising the Bill's contents. It applies only to England and Wales because of the need to respect the terms of the Scottish and Northern Ireland devolution settlements, but, if enacted in England and Wales, it will no doubt result in similar legislation in those countries.
No provision in existing legislation states that forced marriage is unlawful and a civil wrong. That provision is contained in Clause 1. The Bill covers deception for the purpose of causing another person to enter into a marriage or purported marriage without that person's free and full consent. That is essential and is not covered by existing legislation. Cases of forced marriage frequently involve removal of the victim to another country, on the pretext of taking a family holiday or similar deceptive conduct. Clause 1(1)(b) deals with that form of abuse.
Clauses 2 and 3 apply to the aiding and abetting and the inducing of unlawful acts. That is essential in the context of forced marriages because wider family members are frequently involved. There is rarely a single perpetrator where family or community “honour” is regarded as requiring the victim to enter into a marriage with a partner acceptable to them. I hasten to say that that situation is entirely different from the practice of voluntary arranged marriages. The Bill protects both adults and children. Clause 4(2) goes further than existing legislation by enabling an application for an injunction to be made not only by the victim or potential victim but also by her or his litigation friend or any other concerned person who has the court's permission, which is obviously essential to get access to justice.
Family judges, notably Mr Justice Munby and Mr Justice Singer, have been creative and innovative in their use of the High Court's inherent jurisdiction to fashion remedies for victims. They have relied on their jurisdiction over minors, or have treated potential victims as “potentially incapacitated adults”. But there are clear limits to the remedies they can give, and it is important for their work to be recognised and extended in the Bill, giving jurisdiction to the local and accessible county courts. Clause 7 makes it clear that the Bill does not detract from existing remedies available in the exercise of the High Court's inherent jurisdiction.
Clause 4(4) provides that interim relief may be granted to secure the safety of the person who is or may be the victim of the conduct in question until the first hearing. That is another important advance on the Protection from Harassment Act.
The primary remedy is preventive orders for injunctions under Clause 4. But the Bill, like the recent Act in India, also provides for compensation under Clause 5 for anxiety, distress, injury to feelings, or other detriment caused by unlawful conduct. Clause 5(3) makes it clear that no award of damages may be made unless the court is satisfied that it is appropriate and necessary as an effective remedy in the particular circumstances of the case. To ensure that the law is not abused, we have included a standard of objective reasonableness in Clause 10(2) in determining whether conduct breaches Clauses 1, 2 or 3.
We have received several suggestions for the Bill’s improvement—clearly it can be improved—but that is for a later stage. I thank the Attorney-General for meeting with the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, and me to discuss the Bill’s legal effect. We hope that the Bill will be supported from all sides of the House and that the Government will recognise the need to enact this measure urgently as a matter of high parliamentary priority so that it may become law by the end of this year. We have waited too long, and too many vulnerable children and young adults have been grossly abused for us to delay further. I commend the Bill to the House.
Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Lester of Herne Hill.)
My Lords, I begin by expressing my gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Lester, for introducing the Bill. I would like it noted at this point that it was the then Home Secretary, Jack Straw, and Mike O'Brien who first instigated the original working group to examine forced marriages, following a debate in the Commons in 1999 on human rights of women. I express my thanks to them and pay tribute to the work of Southall Black Sisters, Imkaan and East London Asian Family Counselling Service, among others. I appreciate all the comments that the noble Lord, Lord Lester, has so eloquently made about those who survive forced marriages and I pay tribute to Jasvinder Sanghera, who is present.
I also take this opportunity to thank all those organisations that have worked in this arena for a long time, supporting the victims of forced marriages, often with very few resources. Our debate has been enriched by so many contributions and briefings from so many organisations, but it would be remiss of me not to mention the NSPCC, the Equal Opportunities Commission, Liberty and particularly Khatun Sapnara, who is a part-time judge. I am grateful for their contributions.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Lester, and other noble Lords who will take part in the debate, I condemn this shameful practice. I am deeply committed to rooting out this harmful act of violence. Forced marriage is a fundamental abuse of human rights. It contravenes thousands of universally accepted standards. Any legislation that makes this unlawful, and any measure which supports the victims and provides practical and valuable redress has to be given full consideration. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lester, for detailing the many points that the Bill needs to consider. I shall not refer to all the clauses that he detailed, as I leave that to the many other noble Lords who have decided to take part in this important debate. My contribution will refer to some general points and highlight further considerations that perhaps need to be made at a later stage to ensure the effectiveness of the Bill as it stands and the likely impact on the victims. Together I hope we can reach a satisfactory way of supporting those who suffer or face the indignity of a forced marriage.
My noble friend Lord Ahmed and I come to this discussion having spent the best part of 14 months, in 1999 and 2000, in countrywide consultation, research and conversation. We covered as much ground and as many stakeholders as was evident at the time. The report, A Choice by Right, which we put together, recognised that the definition of “force” is that defined by the victims themselves, which I hope noble Lords will accept. That is very positive and unique. The report recognised that we had been letting down the victims of forced marriages over a number of years. It recommended numerous remedies to prevent the practice and to support the victims, including educating the communities from which significant numbers of victims come.
I note the caution to which the noble Lord, Lord Lester, referred about ensuring that a small section of the community is not criminalised by the acts of a few as a result of the Bill. I believe that we have produced a good framework from which we can begin to address the forced marriage issue.
As well as sending out clear condemnation that forced marriage is unlawful and will not be excused as a cultural practice, we produced numerous recommendations which argued strongly for forced marriage to be dealt with within the existing legislative framework of domestic violence, child protection, abduction and kidnapping. I would still like noble Lords to come back to that in due course.
In addition to getting the Forced Marriage Unit established in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, we called on the Government to commit resources and work across various departments to support women’s organisations, produce educational materials to raise awareness and utilise all means available within the local authority statutory framework to provide protection for potential victims. I am therefore pleased to see this position being reiterated today by the EOC and Imkaan, an organisation representing about 30 or 40 refuges, particularly Asian ones. If properly consulted upon and well resourced, the proposed Bill may be able to provide stronger protection to people affected by forced marriage and send a clear message to all communities that forcing someone into marriage is unacceptable.
However, there is also a concern that the few available appropriate services must be supported to help those at risk. We hope that this debate will help not only to raise the profile of the issue, but force the Government to examine where some of the difficulties have been in supporting some of the agencies campaigning for the eradication of forced marriage. Perhaps the Government have not taken that great responsibility so seriously to date. Here we are, asking for similar assistance and raising the same kind of issues six years later.
I commend some of the work undertaken by Ministers thus far, but hope that the Government will accept that they must work to ensure wider consultation with a variety of women’s organisations which have not come to their doors to date. This is an important opportunity for us to hear the voices of women’s organisations that are not necessarily used to the parliamentary system, and who therefore may not have been able to get their voices or opinions across. I hope that the opportunity to progress the Bill will also give rise to further consultation.
I am being pressed by my noble friends to keep within the six-minute speaking time, but forgive me for pressing my points a little while longer. I support the Bill in principle, but am concerned that it should not be regarded as a panacea: a convenient but empty tool by which well meaning but practically ill-informed individuals and agencies can feel that a shallow victory has been secured, while women affected by this are kept out of the loop, not receiving the services and provisions they desire and rightly deserve.
The creation of a civil remedy must go hand in hand with a broad infrastructure to support its implementation. The Government, wider society, individual communities and the voluntary sector must come together to tackle the practice of forced marriage, as well as ensuring that any new legislation is accompanied by mandatory obligation for training for all professionals involved in the process, including the judiciary, social workers, police officers and so on. In this context, I would like some assurance from the Minister about the genuine concerns raised by members, particularly of Imkaan and SBS, about the resources and financial commitment of the Government. Does she accept that the current trend of reduction and closures of specialised units has put our commitment to the victims of violence and forced marriage under threat? How do the Government intend to address this? I also ask the Minister whether, in considering this Bill, she can say if existing legislation can be amended to incorporate the measures of support and protection desired and stated in this Bill. If so, would she ensure that the consultation process which will need to take place gives this matter further deliberation and includes, as I suggested earlier, a wider number of groups?
I fear that a solitary Act may be a symbolic outlawing of forced marriage—a good thing—but, without sufficient practical and mainstream support such as economic emancipation and opportunities for education and training for women from specific minority communities, it will not be able to eradicate forced marriage. Despite many misgivings, I give this Bill a cautious welcome on the basis that we shall ensure further consultations, widening participation of the numbers of women’s organisations, and make some co-ordinated efforts within the mainstream legislative framework to address this barbaric practice.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill on introducing the Bill and giving us the opportunity to debate this important subject. He has an international reputation as a jurist. When he proposes legislation on individual liberties, we should always sit up and take notice. On this occasion, he also happens to be right.
The Bill is about marriage, an important private and public institution. It is also fragile. It is worth a great deal to those involved—to families and the wider public—if founded on mutual respect. It is worth nothing if founded on fear and mere obedience. The Bill addresses those themes.
I declare an interest as a patron of a recently formed charity, STOP—Stop Trafficking of People in the UK. It has brought together members of the judiciary, experienced police officers and others with professional experience of observing the problems and tragedies caused by people trafficking. Forced marriages are part of the people-trafficking picture which that charity wishes to address. Those of us involved in STOP have observed that the slavery which still exists—not only elsewhere in the world, but in the country in which we live and are debating today—includes a great deal of sexual slavery. It is not confined to prostitution, although that often catches the headlines. The sort of sexual slavery we have observed includes domestic sexual slavery, involving enforced domestic service, which occurs in this country, and, shockingly, enforced marriage.
Enforced marriage destroys the dignity of the person upon whom it is enforced. The spouse faces sexual compulsion, domestic compulsion of all kinds and the abolition of that self-determination which all Members of this Parliament in both Houses value above all things. We must, however, emphasise that we are sensitive to religious and cultural diversity. I have enormous respect for the Sikh community. In my role as independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, I have turned to the Sikh community for advice on international issues from time to time. I have always found it helpful, responsible, ever robust and cogent in what it says. Nobody should get the impression that any community is being targeted in a discriminatory Bill by this legislation. It is intended particularly to enhance the dignity of women living in the United Kingdom and throughout the world.
About a year ago, I was in south Asia, where I encountered by chance some staff of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office whose dedicated work is dealing with forced marriage. I commend their extraordinary work. Sometimes they go, with local police, into pretty hostile places, where the practices they seek to undermine remain traditional. They quite often leave those places with young women who have been forced into unwelcome marriages, who have usually been taken from the United Kingdom in their early teens. It is important that this House recognises the fantastic work being done by government officials in that context.
One of the complaints that judges constantly make about this Government is that they seem to have a compulsion to introduce more and more criminal law—although this week, they seem to be telling judges not to enforce it from time to time, but that is part of the stuff of political life. My noble friend has saved the Government from that compulsion by taking the imaginative course of using civil law to achieve something that could have been achieved with a blunt instrument through criminal sanctions. I applaud him for taking that approach. It is measured and proportional and emphasises that women should control their own lives, which I hope is our shared aspiration. I believe that this measure is widely supported in this House.
After many years in one or other House of this Parliament, I think we see the best of our UK Parliament when a private Member is able to use parliamentary time to introduce legislation that adds to the value of the lives of vulnerable citizens. That is what my noble friend has done today. I hope that the Government will support the enactment of these proposals with as little delay as possible.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Lester, on his Private Member’s Bill. The Bench of Bishops welcomes it. As he eloquently indicated, marriage without freely given consent is wrong and every world religion condemns it. Nevertheless, I know from heart-rending stories in Manchester that forced marriages happen and that the victims of that wholly unacceptable practice—the noble Baroness called it shameful and the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, spoke of slavery—need legislative protection. It is interesting that the Bill provides for claims in civil proceedings rather than for criminal prosecution, which could have been a symbolic and effective way of discouraging attempts at forced marriage. Having said that, I have to admit to hearing mixed messages in my diocese from within the communities likely to be most affected. There are those who feel that forced marriage should become a criminal offence, but who then go on admit that, when it came to it, cultural influences would work against young people taking parents or families to court, and I accept that.
There is a significant expression of views from within the communities that any kind of legislation could make things worse rather than better. There are legitimate fears about forced marriages being pushed further underground in the event of legislation, and there is the danger of victims of forced marriages being taken overseas and held there. It would be foolish to underestimate that risk, and it would be wise for noble Lords to be satisfied that making use of existing legislation, family courts and civil remedies was not a better option, or would be if professionals in the field and statutory agencies were provided with stronger and more effective support. However, the fact that the Bill permits victims to seek protection under the law without recourse to the police is important for some of the communities and potential victims I am aware of. The Bill also strengthens and simplifies the resources available to them, which is a great help.
It is only from the background of Manchester that I am in a position to speak on this matter. Asian ethnic communities are probably most significant in the matter under debate, although, as the noble Lord rightly said, the abuse is not confined to Islam or Sikhism. The Muslim Council of Britain has emphasised that in Islam the consent of the parties is essential to a marriage, and that position is common to all the main religions. But the rub is that that is the official position. I always want to pay tribute to the enormous value of the Muslim Council of Britain, which does its utmost to further social and community cohesion, but from my local experience, in any religion—I do not exclude the Christian church from this—the membership does not in practice always follow the official line, especially on human relationships. There are often different nuances of interpretation and disagreements among local leaders.
As the noble Lord indicated, the abuse within ethnic communities is not confined to people of faith. I realise that I tread on delicate ground, but even though the Muslim Council of Britain, when consulted, expressed the view that there was no need for new legislation on this matter, that such a law could be regarded as targeting ethnic minorities—a view that the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, referred to—and that such coercive methods would not work anyway, there is sufficient evidence of the abuse and evil of forced marriage to show that the Bill is necessary and that even educating communities about current laws would not on its own be a sufficiently effective way of dealing with a continuing and wholly unacceptable feature among a segment of our population.
Forced marriage is not only an abuse of human rights; it is also in faith terms a complete and utter contradiction. From a Christian point of view, marriage is by definition a voluntary union for life between one woman and one man to the exclusion of all others. As the Book of Common Prayer puts it in a poetic style that no other liturgy quite manages to achieve, holy matrimony is,
“an honourable estate, instituted of God … signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church”.
The New Testament, the long tradition of Christian theology and the 1988 General Synod document An Honourable Estate all emphasise that that mystical union is a sign of love that is freely given, not forced. That is why the essence of the Church of England marriage service is the public exchange of vows. The giving of consent is its central and defining feature. Our marriage law in this country is shaped by that Christian understanding and the principle of consent. That is why it is wholly against our culture and legal framework to accept forced marriage that so offends that principle of consent, especially in sexual relations.
The Bench of Bishops is well aware of the cultural and gender sensitivities in this, but believes that there are no grounds for this practice and that a separate, distinct offence of forcing a person to marry, as proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Lester, will be a welcome deterrent and a needed guide for judges. If we want to encourage marriage as a fundamental social institution, as the Minister said in a debate yesterday, then the abuse of forced marriages must be rooted out.
I shall end by saying that, important though the Bill is, we need to beware of the growing tendency in this country to think that patterns of behaviour and deep-seated attitudes can be changed by legislation alone. In addition to taking seriously the advice of, for example, the Muslim Council of Britain, about the need to raise awareness, we would do well to apply our minds to, and provide better resources for, the community work and sensitive education that I hope will, in the end, render unnecessary the use of the legislation so rightly and properly set out in the Bill.
My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Lester, on introducing the Bill. Forced marriage is primarily an issue of violence against women, as is female genital mutilation, and the motivation for its continuance is, in many respects, the same as for that other abuse. It is another way of controlling a woman's conduct and her sexuality.
To counter that, we are told that males are also coerced into marriage, but the Forced Marriage Unit's figures show that of the 300 cases brought to it annually, only 15 per cent of men are victims while 85 per cent are women. Forced marriage is an abuse of women's human rights. It is not a Romeo and Juliet situation, romantic and poetical, but one in which parents assert their perceived right over a daughter, body and soul, and obey a tradition in which there is no place for happiness or marital accord.
The Forced Marriage Unit stresses that a clear distinction must be made between a forced marriage and an arranged marriage. In arranged marriages the families of both bride and groom choose the marriage partner but the final choice remains with the couple. So well and good, but it should not be forgotten that many, if not all, forced marriages begin as arranged marriages but change in character when one of the couple, usually the prospective bride, objects to the arrangement.
A major difficulty here is something which all civilised societies must regard as desirable. I refer to the love and respect which young women of Asian origin have for their parents, a regard far in excess of what we generally see in relations between daughters and parents in white communities. This civilised and honourable attitude makes resisting parental control immeasurably more difficult for young Asians; fear of causing mothers and fathers pain may lead them into marriage situations which have tragic consequences. Refusal can result in the kind of family solidarity which leads to so-called honour killings in horrific circumstances, of which we hear all too often.
I support the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Lester, because I believe that we have need of a law to protect the vulnerable and also that, at present, the criminal offences and protective measures on the statute book are inadequate. But there are great difficulties, not least instanced by that love and respect, which I have mentioned, and which the great majority of these—often very young—girls feel towards their parents. One can easily see how making forced marriage a criminal offence could result in breakdown within the family; and that this, which a non-Asian woman might take quite lightly, may be a tragic outcome of defiance for those whose fate we are discussing. Many such parents, like those of another ethnic minority and country of origin determined on the mutilation of their daughters, are following an age-old tradition and are otherwise law-abiding and good citizens. They are not criminals but often of high moral character; and those intending to force a daughter into marriage against her will are more likely to be deterred from taking such a step when they know they would be acting against the law.
It is a matter of concern that there seems no way around the fact that the majority of victims of forced marriage are young women who have come here, or whose parents or grandparents have come here, from the Asian sub-continent. Whatever may have happened in the past, we are not going to find a 16 year-old white girl coerced into marriage with a boy she has never met. And herein lies an obstacle, not perhaps insurmountable, but very serious. We have heard a great deal in the past fortnight of racism underlying the surface of our society, more of it than perhaps most of us realised. We have heard of disgraceful taunts levelled at innocent people from those who are either vicious or ignorant and whose behaviour is unacceptable. The more enlightened of us will not forget that forms of forced marriage existed here in historical times. Literature and social history have countless instances and it is only wise legislation which finally put an end to it.
As the Bill proceeds along its course, it is important for all who support its recommendations to understand how sensitive a matter it is and what careful handling it needs. There are, apparently, all too many members of the public out there who look constantly for reasons to vilify and condemn black and Asian people—even now, after all these years of immigration and integration. It is important to do nothing to encourage those who call everyone with a brown skin and black hair a “Paki” and are ever on the watch for a chance to abuse those whose customs strike them as bizarre or outlandish.
If the Bill is to become law, as I hope it will, its measures must be implemented. Parallels with female genital mutilation have been pointed out in the several reports on forced marriage, and it should be remembered that the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act, later superseded by the Female Genital Mutilation Act, has been in existence for almost 23 years without a single prosecution having been brought.
It is important to remember that in many instances young women have been deceived into believing they are travelling from the United Kingdom to India or Pakistan, their ancestral home, for a holiday or a visit to relations when, in fact, they are being taken to meet a future husband whom they will be coerced into marrying while there. This is a very close parallel with the provision in the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003 which forbids the taking of a child or young girl out of the United Kingdom to an African country for the purpose of mutilation. As I have said, the Bill, when it becomes law, must not be permitted to lie moribund on the statute book, a fate which threatens the Female Genital Mutilation Act. Many have defended FGM on the grounds that we should not interfere with age-old traditional practices. The same or similar arguments should not be allowed to prevail here.
My Lords, as the chairman of both the Conservative Party's Ethnic Diversity Council and the Conservative Muslim Forum, forced marriage is an issue I deeply care about. Thus, in principle I support the Bill proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Lester. Forced marriages are an abuse against an individual’s human rights. International law is clear. As the Universal Declaration on Human Rights says:
“Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses”.
Concerns have been expressed that in seeking to tackle the issue of forced marriage we are stigmatising Sikhs, Hindus or Muslims. That is simply not the case and I would like to make that absolutely clear. Forced marriage is a global problem affecting communities from all over the world, not just south Asian communities. Victims come from a variety of diverse cultural backgrounds. Furthermore, every major world religion explicitly condemns it. I may add that sadly certain cases of forced marriages have unfortunately resulted in a murder or suicide.
It is also important to make it clear that the Bill is about forced marriage, and not arranged marriage. The distinction lies in an individual’s right to choose. Arranged marriages are facilitated by parents, families and friends who take a leading role in identifying a potential marriage partner. Once identified, these individuals give their full support, knowing that they have every option of refusing the proposal. In my own extended family there have been a number of successful arranged marriages where either both the bride and groom or one of the partners was born in this country.
Currently there is no specific law to prevent forced marriages. Parents or family members can be prosecuted only for offences that are associated with forcing someone into marriage, such as abduction, false imprisonment and child abuse. That is, however, inadequate and does not offer enough protection to those over 17 years of age or those who suffer from emotional blackmail and psychological pressure. Threats of exclusion from the family and social isolation can be just as powerful as physical abuse for many victims. It is therefore right to remember that being forced does not simply mean physical force.
Some might argue that the Bill does not do enough. They propose that we should create a criminal offence with regard to forced marriage. That would be counter-productive because there is a significant risk that the victims of actual or threatened forced marriage would be discouraged from taking their case further if they believed that members of their family might face criminal prosecution. In addition, involvement in criminal proceedings, which are taken by the state in the public interest, could cause distress for victims who could face further pressure not to support a prosecution.
The Bill provides a civil remedy. This will empower individuals with additional tools to prevent and to deter forced marriage. Victims are more likely to take their case further and seek protection in the civil courts. The Bill will send out a clear message that forcing someone into marriage is completely unacceptable. It will make it easier for judges and the police to help victims. It will give them protection through the option of redress and make intervention easier. It will also help to prevent cases where someone is tricked into going overseas where a forced marriage may take place.
As much as I commend the Bill, I also add caution. In a subject this sensitive, it may sometimes be difficult to prove that someone has been forced into marriage. Proceedings that are entirely dependent on the victim’s evidence may give rise to problems, such as the possibility of reprisals. Adequate protection for the falsely accused must also be ensured. It is not uncommon in rape cases, for example, for the course of justice to be perverted by false accusation. Protection is therefore needed from those with personal vendettas, especially as any “concerned person” may bring a case to the court of law.
Forced marriage is a serious issue that has until now been controlled only through factors surrounding the issue, rather than by the offence itself. Therefore, I support the measures proposed by the noble Lord, but for the Bill to be effective, I urge Her Majesty's Government to play a key role by supporting the groups likely to be used for help and guidance with extra training and resources, by building on and strengthening the close relationships that we have with foreign Governments and ensuring that our embassies and high commissions are appropriately guided and adequately resourced.
My Lords, I, too, welcome the long overdue measure introduced by my noble friend Lord Lester and congratulate him on bringing it forward. I also welcome his unequivocal statement that the Bill’s provisions should not be misused politically as a way of demonising British Asians. I identify myself with that sentiment.
Let me say from the outset that within the communities most affected by the issue of forced marriage, there are a number of well-meaning people who have legitimate disagreements on the issue. During the passage of the Bill, we should work together to build a consensus that we can all agree on. That is the least that we owe our young people.
I will address some of those concerns later, but want to share with the House some of the research into the enormity of the problem. The research is international but anyone reading it cannot fail to see that many of the countries affected have significant communities residing here in the United Kingdom. It is therefore extremely relevant to our domestic framework.
In November 2006, the United Nations Population Fund highlighted a series of studies to draw attention to the issue of coercion and violence against women. In UNFPA’s findings, 82 million girls between the ages of 10 and 17 living in developing countries will be married before their 18th birthday. In some countries, half of all girls under 18 are already married. To name a few countries where girls under 18 were married, in Nigeria, 55 per cent were married under 18, in Bangladesh, it was 65 per cent, in India, it was 50 per cent, and in Ethiopia it was 49 per cent.
Although the age at which women are married is generally increasing, it is not uncommon to find girls married before the age of 15. According to UNFPA, in Ethiopia and some parts of west Africa, some girls get married as early as the age of seven. In Bangladesh, 45 per cent were married at age 15. In rural India, 25 per cent of women surveyed between the ages of 25 and 29 were married before their 13th birthday.
What I am trying to demonstrate is that where you have such widespread cultural practice, it is inevitable that values held by British communities from those countries will reflect similar patterns of thinking. Speaking about one community that I know well, the Pakistani community, I know that some sections of my community do not really see the distinction between consent under duress and consent freely given. The very prevalence of obedience as an overarching filial duty makes the distinction negligible. In fact, given the age at which consent is sometimes sought when a girl is “promised” by her parents, the young person would probably be unable to give free consent, as her knowledge of the implications for her well-being, sexual and reproductive health and her own rights would be such that she could not possibly be deemed to have given informed consent.
The Pakistan Human Rights Commission, a well respected independent body, highlighted some of the issues in a report issued in 2004. It cited a recent court case in which a 12 year-old girl was recovered from her husband. She was found to have broken bones and had routinely been given electric shocks. The husband did not deny the charges, but sought to justify them on the ground that she had run away from his house and that her father had agreed with the punishment meted out to her. In another instance, a Pakistani court refused to intervene in the case of a 13 year-old because it could not proceed against a legally wedded spouse.
Unfortunately, even when women in Pakistan are sufficiently courageous to seek police intervention, they are routinely told to obey their husbands and advised by the police that men have the right to apply physical force against “wayward” or “rebellious” women. Furthermore, most of those women suffer acute poverty if they are turned out from their parental or matrimonial home. Refuges and shelters are few and far between. So although the law technically exists in Pakistan to protect women from those abuses, cultural practice is condoned and courts are reluctant to take on cases where religious belief might be confused with cultural practice. The more reactionary political parties are prone to bring out their supporters by the thousands to protest against a brave court's ruling.
I use those illustrations to argue, first, that the practice of coercion to marry women off without their consent is widespread across certain countries and that those communities in Britain have subscribed and currently subscribe to some of those values. The fact that several hundred cases per year are assisted by the Forced Marriage Unit speaks for itself. Secondly, even if it were extremely rare in the UK, we could do much in terms of international leadership by setting an example through making the Bill law. It would send a powerful signal that we intend to stand up for young people's human rights across all our communities.
I turn to whether bringing in the legislation would drive this problem underground or put young people into an invidious position vis-à-vis their families. I know that many in my community feel that this would be the case. One cannot know for sure either way, but I know from many recorded and personal accounts that the line between coercion and consent is often obscured by perceptions of family honour, filial duty and cultural conformity. By the time the young person is strong enough to speak out and seek assistance, children may be involved and more than one life is ruined.
My noble friend Lord Lester has spoken of the pressures of culture: I will go further. I agree that cultural diversity is to be celebrated and that pluralism of values, with the requisite tolerance that must accompany them, is perfectly valid. However, the state has a duty to all its citizens that overrides value pluralism—the duty of non-discrimination. Where a problem is relevant only to certain groups, it still has a duty to uphold their human rights and to accord them the protection of law. If it failed to do so it would be engaging not in value pluralism, but in cultural relativism. To quote the provocative phrase used by the American sociologist, Steven Lukes:
“It would amount to a view that subscribed to liberalism for Liberals and cannibalism for cannibals”.
Thus it would let down all who seek equality.
In my community, there is no doubt among Muslim scholars that marriage is a contract where free consent must be given, a point to which the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester has already alluded. There is no argument as to the religious invalidity of this practice, yet there seems to be much reluctance comprehensively to eradicate the cultural sentiment that underpins it.
We keep hoping that education, support and other soft-touch measures will help to change things. I would argue that with each young person’s life that is blighted, and where physical and mental harm are so profound, we in the communities most acutely affected now need to have the courage to argue the case for legal measures within our own people. It is to us that the job of education and leadership also falls. To wait in hope that incremental change will come is to let down our young people. I am proud that my noble friend Lord Lester has challenged us to rise to this task.
My Lords, I am delighted to support this Bill and congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Lester, and his colleagues on nurturing this important legislation through to Second Reading. Long may the debate continue and may it result in a law to uphold the dignity, autonomy and freedom of women. Forced marriage includes many different violations against women and therefore transgresses international laws and customary norms. The UK has ratified all the main human rights treaties and is the guarantor of women's rights, so there really should not be any objection to the proposed legislation. The Government should welcome it as a logical outcome to earlier consultations during the passage of the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004 when it was agreed, for reasons already expounded, that forced marriage should not be subject to criminal sanctions. In this context, it is disappointing to see that one Member from the other place seeks to misinterpret the Bill for political reasons. If minority political leaders choose not to take a stand, it is perhaps doubly important that this Bill becomes law.
Forced marriage, especially if it involves abduction, is a violation of women's fundamental rights in that it is an act of violence against a woman. The Southall Black Sisters, sponsors of this Bill, note that forced marriage necessarily includes emotional blackmail, assault, harassment, abduction, coercion and, if the woman refuses, possible social ostracism for her family. International law dictates that marriage should take place only with the clear consent of both people. The key international instruments include Article 10 of the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; Article 16 of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) is unequivocal. It states:
“States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in all matters relating to marriage and family relations”.
The treaty recognises that violence against women encompasses physical, sexual and psychological violence occurring in the family, including battering, sexual abuse of female children, dowry related marriages, marital rape, female genital mutilation and other traditional practices harmful to women. It also refers to physical, sexual and psychological violence perpetrated or condoned by the state wherever it occurs. The convention sets out the obligations of states to provide remedies for violation of women’s rights and in the exercise of due diligence in investigating and prosecuting such abuses.
Article 1 of the UN Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriages enjoins that no marriage should be entered into without the free consent of both parties and that such consent must be expressed by them in person after due publicity and in the presence of a competent authority. The former UN special rapporteur on violence against women, Radhika Coomaraswamy, wrote in her first report:
“In the context of norms recently established by the international community, a State that does not act against crimes of violence against women is as guilty as the perpetrators”.
States therefore are under a positive duty to prevent, investigate and punish crimes associated with violence against women. She added that the gender specific nature of domestic violence requires that domestic violence be classified and treated as a human rights concern rather than a domestic criminal justice concern.
This array of international law and opinion should at once banish any idea that the practice of forced marriage is either too widely accepted among certain communities or too entrenched to be eradicated. It must by law be eradicated and there should be no impunity for those who perpetrate it. Multiculturalism does not mean accepting the unacceptable. Traditional practices that reflect and celebrate cultural diversity are warmly welcomed; abuse of women is not. If victims of forced marriage cannot have recourse to the law, to whom can they turn?
I shall end with some words from a Turkish practising lawyer, Seyran Ates, a Muslim who lives in Germany. In a recent article she wrote:
“Minority protection with respect to Islam and religious freedom can only be had at the cost of the equal rights of women and ultimately only serves to perpetuate and reinforce obsolete, archaic, patriarchal structures”.
She asserts that somehow we have all slipped into an almost infinite tolerance of abuses that oppress women and into forgetting that human rights are universal and unconditional. Girls are exempted from swimming, field trips and sex education in the name of cultural norms. Coeducation is undermined and we may find ourselves in danger of creating parallel societies while at the same time demanding respect for women. The view that minorities should be left in peace to integrate if and when they wish, and of their own free will, is of course desirable. But surely this must not mean condoning the abuse of women. Can we adhere to the policy of non-integration and thereby avert our eyes from the brutal practices of female genital mutilation, forced marriage and domestic violence? Has it become too dangerous for the majority society to support the reform process? I hope not.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, for introducing this Bill. He has a distinguished career as an international jurist and his expertise on race relations, equality and human rights is well respected. He is the most qualified person to introduce this Bill, which I am delighted to support. It gives us a real opportunity to discuss a very serious social evil and to try to stop this practice.
Seven years ago, the Government said that even one forced marriage is one too many. That applies even today because forced marriages continue to take place. I will work with colleagues to amend the Bill as it goes through your Lordships’ House to make it more effective legislation. I agree with the Children’s Rights Alliance for England that forced marriage is an abuse of human rights, and a form of domestic violence and child abuse. On many occasions, wonderful quotes can be misunderstood. I want to say again as a Muslim what has already been said today: no religion—Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Sikhism or Islam—condones this practice. In fact, they condemn it. And yet we have heard quoted Home Office figures showing 300 cases, and I am sure that many more are not reported.
The Bill sends a signal to the perpetrators of this heinous crime that such evil practices must stop. Seven years ago I had the pleasure of working with my noble friend Lady Uddin and the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, on the working group, which heard from organisations such as Southall Black Sisters and many others which I do not have the time to list. The Government were right to say at the time that cultural sensitivity is no excuse for moral blindness, and we should continue to say it. But we need to make sure that we do not stigmatise a community. As we have heard, this is a practice to be found in many cultures, religions and ethnic groups. There is a real fear of the demonisation of Asian communities. Sometimes that is right because when noble Lords have expressed concerns about certain communities, with racism on the increase and Islamophobia a contemporary form of it, our speeches can be misunderstood. For example, earlier the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, talked about Pakistan, saying that the practice of forced marriage is widespread. All the media need to do is to take out one little word and report the noble Baroness as saying that the practice is widespread, and it then happens within her community. Suddenly the British Pakistani community is demonised. Our language has to be chosen carefully because Mrs Jones and Mrs Smith next door do not know.
My Lords, I want to put a question to the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed. While it may well be true that certain sections of the media take our words and use them to be sensational or to demonise—as he puts it—a certain community, is he saying that in difficult cases we should not raise difficult issues and that we must censor ourselves in that regard in order not to upset the media?
Absolutely not, and that is the point I am making, my Lords. We have to be proactive. That is why we condemn the practice of forced marriage and why we want to make sure that there is a law to protect people from it. But figures published by the British Crime Survey yesterday show that 50,000 women alleged that they had been raped, but only 1,000 people were convicted or their cases went to court. The crime rate is running at 2.4 million, but that does not mean that the entire British community is demonised. Because there are 50,000 rapes does not mean that we are all blamed. The point I am making is that certain sections of the media will point the finger at the Asian community. They will find a woman from a Pakistani background and they will target the Pakistani community. That is why it is important for people like myself, the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, and my noble friend Lady Uddin to stand up here and condemn the practice.
In fact, I want to go even further. I would encourage Asian and ethnic minority communities to arrange marriages in this country rather than bring people in from abroad where there is no compatibility. In fact I know of so many cases where a marriage takes place and for the next two years the boy or man who has come from abroad will do everything. After two years there will be a baby from the marriage. But then suddenly there is a break-up once the man has secured his citizenship or right to stay in this country. What happens then? He goes for a divorce and he brings over another bride from India, Pakistan or Bangladesh. This means that the community continues to go backwards rather than move forwards.
Another practice is that of bringing young women over to this country. Parents want to organise marriages for boys who might be taking drugs, or who have a girlfriend and there is already a child from that relationship. Because the family wants to save face in the community, they have to arrange a marriage with a girl from India, Pakistan or Bangladesh. For the next 18 months to two years that girl becomes a slave in the household, but just before her two years are up, some fraudulent reason is made to take her on holiday and her passport is taken away. She then does not have the right to come back to this country, and she does not even have a right to life in the country where she lives. I feel so sorry for these girls.
I have gone over my time. I had lots of questions. I support the Bill.
My Lords, I had not originally intended to speak in this debate. I well know that the House admires and respects knowledge and experience, and is less tolerant of ignorance, but I hope noble Lords will accept my wish to support the Bill vocally. My noble friend Lady Verma has encouraged me to do so. She cannot be in her place today as she is in India accompanying her husband, who is receiving an award. Noble Lords who know her will know that she remains a strong supporter of the Bill, and I share her enthusiasm.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, for his commitment and determination in bringing forward the Bill. It is an example of just the sort of legislation, both in subject matter and style, which demonstrates the value of this House. He has constructed and presented his Bill with great skill. We appear to be of one mind, and I hope that the Government will be similarly in step with the feelings of the House. Ten days ago I was able to attend the meeting organised by the noble Lord. It was a significant experience to listen to Jasvinder Sanghera, to hear of the great distress that she had undergone, and to learn from others the extent of the problem. The Forced Marriage Unit is seeing between 250 and 300 cases per year, which may be just the tip of the iceberg. Clearly it is doing a significant job, but the figures point up the need to bring this profound abuse of individual freedom and happiness within the scope of the law.
I also see the reason for steering away from criminalising those involved. All family matters are difficult enough without the inevitable insensitivity that is represented by criminal investigation and prosecution. The Bill quite rightly works to its end through civil protection and the creation of civil wrong. This was reinforced by my companions at a Burns Night dinner, a married couple, both British Asians. She is a Hindu born in Pakistan and her husband is an Anglo-Pakistani Muslim. When I told them about today’s business, they explained that there is a world of difference between arranged and forced marriages. That point was made in what I think the House will consider to have been a very thoughtful and excellent speech by my noble friend Lord Sheikh. Forced marriages are often the consequence of ignorance and social pressures. While the consequences of coercion in the form of psychological and physical abuse are frequently the case and are absolutely appalling, the law must reflect the need for understanding and privacy.
I have a question which I hope the noble Lord, Lord Lester, will be able to answer in his summing up. It concerns the scope of the Bill, a point he addressed in his opening remarks. The Bill as it stands extends only to England and Wales, but I hope that he has plans to work with others to see that it is extended to apply throughout the United Kingdom. There are dangers that the parties may flee to Scotland, for example. What redress, if any, does a British citizen have if they are taken to the Asian sub-continent—whether willingly or not—and the visit turns out to be engineered for a forced marriage there?
I hope that the Government will give the Bill time enough, in this House and in the other place, to be enacted into law. They have been generous with their time today. It will be to their credit, as well as to the credit of the noble Lord, if this is so, and many people will have reason to be grateful.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Lester, on introducing a very important Bill and on his typically humane approach to this issue, which allows for a civil remedy and avoids inflaming by criminal proceedings an already emotionally charged situation.
In my very brief remarks I want to concentrate on the impact on young lives—in extreme cases, as we have heard, of people as young as 12 or 13—of being taken out of the UK to another country with which they are very unfamiliar, under the pretext of a normal family visit, only to find that they are expected to marry. Family members other than parents often, sadly, collude in this deception and coercion. What a dreadful betrayal of trust; what intolerable pressure to place on adolescents when they are coming to terms with adulthood and their own identity. We can scarcely be surprised when what follows is so often isolation, depression, domestic violence, self-harm and even death.
In the UK we can celebrate, justly, great advances in laws on equality and human rights and institutions designed to uphold and promote these values. I declare an interest as a member of the newly established Commission for Equality and Human Rights. Not only do forced marriages breach the most fundamental human rights, but they are overwhelmingly an assault against the rights of young women. The weight of expectation is entirely on such young women to satisfy what are still seen as traditional concepts of honour in certain communities, although more mundane and even mercenary considerations can also lie behind the parents’ choice of a marriage partner.
These inequalities and pressures and the very idea that a family’s honour resides in the conduct of its daughters alone can ultimately result in honour killings. Thankfully, these are rare and not necessarily the outcome of forced marriages. But the two abuses grow from the same beliefs, and it is those beliefs that we have to challenge. We know that they are cultural and not based on any of the great religions.
In one such case of which I have a little knowledge, a 16 year-old girl in London was regularly beaten and eventually killed by her father for having “dishonoured” the family. The law took its course and he is now serving a life sentence. But the damage did not stop with the girl’s death; there were attempts within the community to cover up the crime and the girl’s elder brother—who, like her, had lived most of his life in the UK—felt absolutely powerless to help her. Both these young people were caught between conflicting and irreconcilable values. In a note indicating that she planned to run away from home, this young woman wrote to her father,
“me and you will probably never understand each other. I’m sorry I wasn’t what you wanted, but there’s some things you can’t change”.
I believe the Bill will signal society’s determination to uphold the basic right of young women like her to choose their own emotional path and show that there is nothing dishonourable in doing so.
My Lords, I am pleased to support the Bill. I commend the noble Lord, Lord Lester, for introducing it and thank him for his very full explanation of its provisions. I was, unfortunately, not able to attend the meeting held on 15 January to discuss the Bill. The issue of forced marriages has in recent years become quite a problem in this country. It seems to affect minority communities particularly, and both men and women, and the Bill rightly deals with both sexes.
I wondered at first why the Bill aimed to make use of civil law rather than making forced marriage a criminal offence. However, I have read the excellent article in the current issue of House Magazine and now understand that a new criminal offence would not assist those whom we most want to help; that police intervention at an early stage could be counterproductive and that a civil remedy would be of help to those acting on behalf of possible victims.
I have been particularly concerned about reported cases involving very young women from immigrant communities. The effect of a threatened enforced marriage on a very young woman without friends outside her immediate family must be absolutely devastating. Sometimes a young woman in this situation has taken what must be the extreme action of running away from home. Without the support of organisations such as the Southall Black Sisters she would be absolutely lost and alone. It is therefore gratifying to learn that this organisation and others with a similar objective support the Bill. I understand that the Southall Black Sisters has more than 25 years’ experience of fighting domestic violence and forced marriage within minority communities. That is very important.
Unfortunately, the custom of forced marriages is often claimed to be a cultural requirement, even a religious one. There are extreme versions of some religions where the subjugation of women and a denial of gender equality are regarded as religious necessities. It is this belief that causes male-dominated families to act as though daughters can simply be disposed of as they think fit, sometimes when they are children. Many women from immigrant communities simply do not accept this. I have been told by such women who practise their religion that this outlook is a perversion. There is no requirement, they tell me, for this in the Koran; it is simply a perversion of misogynist clerics.
We must do everything we can to support women who struggle to assert their human rights, and the Bill is part of that struggle. Of course, the Bill also applies to men as well as women because there have been instances of men being forced into marriages, for family and allegedly cultural reasons, with young women whom they have never seen. Again it is a matter of human rights.
I have found this an interesting debate. It has been very stimulating to listen to the contributions of the noble Lords, Lord Ahmed and Lord Sheikh, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Uddin and Lady Falkner, who have told us about their experiences and spoken from their own knowledge of their immigrant communities. I support the Bill. I commend the noble Lord, Lord Lester, for introducing it and I hope it will have support from the Government.
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell of Babergh, has already mentioned Romeo and Juliet. I remind the House that Juliet pleads with her mother not to force her to marry Paris, the choice of her father, Capulet. She says:
“Is there no pity sitting in the clouds,
That sees into the bottom of my grief?
O, sweet my mother, cast me not away!
Delay this marriage for a month, a week;
Or, if you do not, make the bridal bed
In that dim monument where Tybalt lies”.
In other words, “I’d rather die than marry that man”. How does her father respond?
“Look to’t, think on’t, I do not use to jest.
Thursday is near; lay hand on heart, advise:
An you be mine, I’ll give you to my friend;
An you be not, hang, beg, starve, die in the streets,
For, by my soul, I’ll ne’er acknowledge thee,
Nor what is mine shall never do thee good”.
So Capulet’s attitude to his daughter is precisely that of those few who see nothing wrong in marrying their children for what they see as the greater good of their community—erroneously, as we have heard from every speaker today. Forced marriage is not, as we have heard, a characteristic of any religious group. It is worth reminding ourselves that it was pretty much accepted here—if despised—until the 19th century, especially in aristocratic circles where property and the inheritance of it formed the basis of a marriage contract. I have recently been reading with horror the story of the poor 15 year-old Lady Jane Grey, forced, in the 16th century, into marrying the youth Guildford Dudley, who was equally reluctant, it seems; a marriage to promote the tragic ambitions of their families.
Forced marriages are the consequence of medieval feudalism, paternal supremacy and the desperate desire to maintain one’s culture in the face of threats to it posed by there being insufficient local marriage partners of the desired restricted kind for one’s offspring. It is of course the evil end of a wide spectrum of behaviours and attitudes that place some young women in despairing situations, where their education and exposure to wider influences in the UK—by no means would we necessarily say superior influences, but certainly different from those of the communities from which they came—bring them into profound conflict with their parents, and that conflict produces a profound sense of guilt and failure about their obligations.
At St George’s, University of London, where I chair the council, 40 per cent of our medical students are Muslim, largely from the south Asian community. We see every day the challenge that some young British Asian women feel when faced with the freedoms and the need to adopt the assertive, confident social interaction we demand of a doctor in the UK. A conventional medical education can pose serious challenges for some parents of our young women students.
There will be many people who say that has nothing to do with forced marriages, but it does. It is the extreme and totally unacceptable end of a spectrum of cultural attitudes about women and children’s rights and proper place in the family group. The noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, has bravely outlined some of the issues that face communities today. As we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Lester, suicides among young Asian women are three times higher than among their white counterparts, particularly in very young age groups. The victims are often wives who cannot have children, or who produce only daughters, but another group that is at risk are those living in families where there is intergenerational conflict and a clash of ideas.
The Government have explained their reluctance to introduce a specific criminal law against forced marriages. Although I was not at first entirely convinced by them, having seen the responses on the Home Office website, I understand how difficult that would be, with prevention, investigation and prosecution occurring across international boundaries, as well as the dangers of driving the practice even further underground than it already is.
The noble Lord’s Bill today, though, is one way that we can make some major progress. Like many others here, I suspect, I have received emails from groups who feel that it would drive the practice further underground and would not be helpful, but I have observed that they have no satisfactory alternative apart from doing more of what we are already doing. That does not seem to have been enough. The journalist Camilla Cavendish asked in the Times on 31 August last year,
“When so many women are being forced into marriage, why are there not more howls of protest? Where have all the feminists gone?”
Why are we not saying more about the plight of these women who have been treated not as individuals but as possessions?
I hope the Muslim Council of Britain, which was concerned that a criminal law would be yet,
“another way to stigmatise our communities”,
will give its support to the Bill, recognising that a small minority of its community are seriously jeopardising the reputation of Islam. It has declared that it regards men and women as equal partners in marriage. It would be even more encouraging if it gave practical support to those communities to stamp out this abusive and detestable practice. I would like to see it use its influence and financial muscle to support the charities working in this area, and to support the Bill.
The cultural questions are complex, but the feminist cause is clear. Every woman should be able to say no to an unwanted marriage. I give my full support to this Bill.
My Lords, I declare an interest. As a former judge, I tried cases that contained elements of forced marriage.
I strongly support the Bill. I pay tribute to the speeches of the noble Lords, Lord Lester and Lord Carlile, with which I entirely agree, as I agree with all the other speeches that have so far been given in this House. I am aware that the Bill is strongly supported by the NSPCC, the diversity sub-committee of the Family Justice Council—the council is chaired by the President of the Family Division, while the sub-committee is chaired by a British Bangladeshi barrister—and the Family Law Bar Association and its diversity sub-committee, as well as several High Court judges.
I think it is important to remember—it has already been said several times, but I believe it is worth saying again—that an arranged marriage is a well known and well respected way among many communities to safeguard the future of their children and help them to make sensible permanent relationships, so long as it is genuinely consensual. But to require a young person to marry without his—and there are young men in this position as well as young women—or her consent is not only unacceptable, but, as the right reverend Prelate said earlier, contrary to the beliefs of the major religions of the world, such as Islam or Sikhism. It is also an obvious violation of a person’s human rights.
In 2004 I went, at the request of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, to Muzaffarabad, the capital of Jammu and Kashmir, to talk mainly about international child abduction, but also about forced marriages. I met some of the leaders of the communities in Mirpur, from where come a large number of British-born or resident members of the Pakistan community in England. They are actually Kashmiri, not Pakistani. There is, I understand, a practice of marrying within the wider family—to marry one’s cousin—and I was told firmly by the leaders from Mirpur that they were concerned at the number of young people from the United Kingdom who were married to their cousins in Mirpur. They felt that this was often not a consensual arrangement, but they felt unable to take any steps to discourage it. They said that this was an English problem.
We may ask: is there really a problem that needs to be dealt with? Today in your Lordships’ House we have heard many speeches to show that there is. It is a problem right across the world; the community leaders from Mirpur were right to say that it is also here in England. We must tackle it. It is not a problem only of the Muslim community, as has been said, and it may occur among Sikhs or Kurds. We heard at the meeting last week about the Kurdish community, where this happens from time to time. It can happen among Christians, Hindus or Jews. It happens, no doubt, within the Arab communities, but we do not usually hear about it.
I would say in parenthesis that landowning families in the 18th and 19th centuries in England married their daughters in order to consolidate their land. The noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, told us about the sad position of Juliet. The major problems arise from families originating from the Indian subcontinent, but it is important to remember that they are certainly not confined to them.
This issue is a major concern of the NSPCC, and I declare another interest as I am president of another of its appeals, which is just about completed. The NSPCC is involved because forced marriages affect children and young people under 18, as well as adults. The NSPCC has given me an example of a 15 year-old girl, about to take her GCSEs, who wanted to become a doctor. Her sister was married at 16, and her parents were planning to take her to marry the man chosen for her, who lived in the Indian subcontinent, and whom she had never met. They had already booked the flight. How was she to deal with this situation? The parents would not listen to her, and would disown her if she refused.
The NSPCC has an Asian child protection helpline, and 10 per cent of the calls in 2004-05 were about forced marriages. Childline, which is now amalgamated with the NSPCC, had 82 calls last year from children about arranged and forced marriages. The main complaint was that parents did not listen to them. The family judges of the High Court deal with cases of children who are abducted by a parent for the purpose of marriage. Forced marriages affect mainly girls and young women, but they affect young men also.
One way in which we hear about forced marriages is in cases of honour killings, where a member or members of a family may punish another member for refusing to marry the proposed partner or for choosing to marry someone else. They are often reported in the press. I remember being in Birmingham on one occasion as a judge when the judge who was there with me had a case in the Crown Court of a father who knifed his elder daughter because she refused to marry the man he chose for her and then knifed the younger daughter because she went to the aid of her sister. The tragic thing was that the father did not know that he was doing wrong. And that was in Birmingham, not a remote part of some distant place.
There are sad cases told in the family courts by those bringing nullity petitions to end marriages to which they did not consent. Some High Court judges have engaged in a creative use of their inherent jurisdiction to enable them to help these girls. There is a worrying element of domestic violence in some cases, as noble Lords will have already heard. Domestic violence in the family has, as we all know too well, a serious, adverse and long-term effect on the children in the family, and children of these marriages as well as others. I understand that an average of about 300 girls a year go to the police and seek protection from their family who require them to marry. That is a dramatic and tragic step for a girl to take. She is likely to be barred from the family thereafter and live in isolation from the community in which she has been brought up. I pay tribute to the Southall Black Sisters for taking on and looking after so many of the girls who come though their hands.
Another question is whether legislation directed at preventing forced marriages will do any good or will it only demonise or stigmatise a community and be ineffective? I was unhappy about the previous proposed legislation which would have created criminal offences. As we have heard, it had little support from NGOs and other organisations which remain extremely concerned about the plight of many young people in this country. But a civil remedy does not have the same coercive force. It is accessible in the county court and it would be relatively easy to make an application to a family judge.
The Bill would give a message that could be understood by those communities or individuals who consider they have the right to choose the spouse for their child. Speaking as a former judge, I have to say that one of the attractive features of the communities from the Asian subcontinent is their recognition and acceptance of the rule of law. They are generally law-abiding people and are accustomed to using the courts in family and other disputes. The possibility of litigation if the Bill was law might give the family a breathing space and an opportunity for reflection. Our family judges are experienced in defusing a fraught situation and persuading a settlement. It would be far better to have an injunction or the threat of proceedings and then a family discussion than a trial on attempted murder in the Crown Court. There is also the chance of keeping the family together rather than a tragic and permanent family rift.
The Bill provides several remedies, of which the most important is the granting of an injunction, with a power of arrest if the injunction is not obeyed. This is a strong remedy which has been effectively used in domestic violence legislation. Very helpfully, the Bill provides that when a girl is locked in her bedroom at home, for example—I know of such cases—another member of the family or a friend may help her obtain relief by making the application on her behalf if, and only if, the judge gives specific permission. So there will be no unsuitable people making applications about which the girl does not know or to which she does not consent.
The Bill makes provision for granting injunctions against other members of the family who take part in the threats or intimidation to force the marriage on the unwilling young person. It also includes forcing a marriage by deceit as well as by intimidation. It provides the interim relief to secure the safety of the young person, pending the hearing before the court.
In the view of NGOs, including those from the ethnic minorities, the legislation would not demonise any community and would be very effective both in its use and as a preventive measure. It might be said that to change culture is a slow business and would it do any good as it would take so long. My answer is that one has to start somewhere. There are examples of changing culture in other areas of legislation such as public disapproval of drink-driving in the past 10 years, increased disapproval of smoking and a relatively recent understanding and awareness of the evil of domestic violence. The Bill would be a trigger to move people forward.
Does the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 provide protection so that the Bill would be an unnecessary addition to the statute book? With one voice the Family Law Bar Association, the diversity sub-committee of the Family Justice Council and, in particular, Mr Justice Munby from the High Court Family Division advise that it does not give adequate protection. One act of forcing a child or young person to marry would not, I believe, come within the definition of harassment. The county court does not at present have the powers it would have if the Bill were passed. The 1997 Act is also somewhat cumbersome. The Bill is short, to the point and—unusually, perhaps—easy to understand.
Perhaps even more importantly, from time to time legislation appropriately fulfils a declaratory or denunciatory role expressing the view of society that certain behaviour not only is unacceptable but requires to be identified as such. An example would be the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act 1985, and I suggest that forced marriages come within this category.
I very much hope that the Bill will have a strong preventive element and that leaders in the communities will recognise the law and spread the message that to force a daughter or son to marry someone they do not agree to marry is wrong and is against the law as it is against the principles of the major religions.
My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss. I have nothing very technical or legal to say, but first I welcome the Bill and thank the noble Lord, Lord Lester, for introducing it.
It is always said that the law is not really a solution to a problem and that instead we have to change the culture. I remember that when I was a young man in America in the early 1960s, a lot of civil rights Bills were being opposed because people said that legislation about black equality would never be enough and what was really needed was a change of heart. At that time, if one had waited for a change of heart in the American South, there would never have had been any progress whatever. So I strongly believe that in the solution to something like this, the law is always a good first step—perhaps not sufficient, but definitely more than necessary. In the absence of law, there is no incentive to change behaviour.
It is always said that all religions are against all evil. I have heard that before and have never been convinced. All religions, at one level of generality, are for peace and they have all been used as excuses for war. However, I do not want to get diverted into a diatribe. In Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, among Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs, whatever the religion may say, we know that very bad things happen to women. They are forced into marriage and raped in marriage. In India, you hear rumours such as, “Oh, she was cooking and suddenly the kerosene stove flared up and she burnt herself down”. That is a case of dowry murder. Even if a religion allows such things, we should not allow them here. If a religion does not allow them, that is all well and good, but even if it does, that is no reason to condone such things.
People often say, “That is our culture and we do not want our culture to be interfered with by law”. First, culture is not homogeneous, even back in the south Asian subcontinent. I know for a fact that among Hindus—let me stick to a safe pitch and talk about Hindus—there is a tremendous difference in attitudes to forced marriage across castes. Some would never contemplate it. I come from a group where even arranged marriages are frowned on and people want to make their own choices, but there are communities where forced marriages exist. What is much worse is that, often, groups have come from the subcontinent to this country and the culture that they believe in has been frozen in aspic from the time they were there in the 1940s and 1950s. Back in south Asia, the culture has progressed and the position of women has improved, but some people here feel, “We must preserve our culture as we thought it was in the 1940s”. What we call “culture clash” is often generated by the refusal of the immigrant community to advance, not just with the culture here, but with that back in their place of origin. Cultural arguments should be examined with great caution and not be conceded at all.
What is happening is immigration. As many noble Lords have pointed out, one reason for forced marriage is to allow someone from the subcontinent to obtain entrance to this country. Usually, it is a man who wants to come here, although the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, pointed out that to save the family honour some women are brought over like that. When they grant visas to decide entry to this country, Her Majesty’s Government should try to have a separate interview with the bride to see whether she is being used as an excuse for coming here. The interview should include people who can facilitate conversation, not only interpreters but socially skilled people who could reassure the woman that if she tells the truth she will not be victimised. That would go a long way to discourage this practice. At the bottom, all such matters of culture boil down to matters of money. If we can prevent the advantage of a British passport being earned through forced marriage and statutory rape, it would be much better for us.
I have said enough to provoke other noble Lords. My time is up so I shall sit down.
My Lords, I support the Private Member’s Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Lester. I thank him for the excellent, expert Bill that he has produced for us and thank the many organisations that have sent us invaluable material and widened the range of knowledge of what is going on in this area.
The intolerable abuse that some forced-marriage victims suffer cannot be allowed to continue unchecked in a country which prides itself on its human rights record. I realise that if, as I hope, this Bill becomes law, it will operate, as the noble Lord, Lord Desai, has just pointed out, in that hugely sensitive area of divided religious and cultural racial customs.
The Government certainly deserve praise for the steps that they have taken since the whole issue was raised, particularly during the passage of the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004. Their consultation results since then have confirmed the mixed views within the communities concerned about the creation of any kind of new offence, but with a very clear majority against creating any new criminal offence. That is why I see this Bill as an appropriate and far from draconian next step. By creating a civil rather than a criminal offence, it fully reflects the victim’s understandable reluctance to harm his or her family, yet it provides some redress for the victim. Where actual violence or psychological harassment is a serious threat, or aiding and abetting or inducing unlawful acts is involved, it gives the judge the power to issue appropriate injunctions.
There are other important aspects of the Bill, which should help boost the speed at which it becomes accepted that forced marriages are just not acceptable in this country. As other noble Lords have said, something like 250 to 300 cases each year are known to the Forced Marriage Unit, although Liberty says the number is considerably higher, so there is some urgency. The Bill allows a litigious friend of the victim to bring proceedings, with the judge’s consent as the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, just emphasised. Because cases can be brought at county court level, valuable case law will become available to lawyers working at that local level to draw on. In addition, legal aid will be available. We need reassurance on that point, because we hear far too much at the moment about legal aid disappearing into the sand.
There will be other benefits. Once on the statute book, the fact that such a law exists will undoubtedly have a deterrent effect on families who might in the past have felt entitled to use the forced-marriage route for their children. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and Articles 3 and 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights make this move essential. I find it quite ironic that in the many Bills involving children that we have discussed in your Lordships' House, we have constantly referred to the need to ask the views of the children about their own futures and for everything to be done in their best interests. In this case, it is the children who are suffering the most—whether as the children of unhappy forced marriages, or at second or third-generation themselves being recycled at far too young an age into forced marriages with all the misery and suffering that that entails. Any age would be too young, but 12, 13 or 14 is far too young. With this Bill on the statute book, those who are reluctant to involve the law to end the physical and/or psychological violation of their human rights will, once they see others succeed, be much more likely to follow suit in that direction.
This is a Bill brought to your Lordships' House by probably the most dedicated and experienced human rights expert in the land. As adviser to Roy Jenkins when he was Home Secretary, the noble Lord, Lord Lester, was the architect of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and Equal Pay Act 1970. Having worked with him in addressing many equal opportunity issues over the years, I have every confidence that it is the right time for this Bill, amended and improved as it inevitably will be in its passage through Parliament. The EOC was set up by the 1975 Act both to enforce the new law and to promote equality of opportunity. As its first deputy chairman under the leadership, at that time, of the noble Baroness, Lady Lockwood, I am more than aware of the time that it takes to get acceptance of laws that change a nation’s entrenched behaviour. However, although there is still a lot more to be achieved in those areas, I am encouraged by the progress that has been made in this country and indeed across a far wider field in European and other countries on both racial and sexual equal opportunities. I have enough faith to believe that this even more complex cultural misbehaviour will respond to similar treatment.
Many will say that we have allowed this situation to continue for far too long already, and that if people from different races, religions and cultural backgrounds choose to live in this country and become British citizens, the basic human rights law of this country must be accepted. We need to be clear, and other noble Lords have stressed this, that we are not talking about what some regard as harmless cultural customs—arranged marriages—where both parties agree and want the marriage to take place. We are talking about an entirely different, brutal custom, often involving extreme mental and physical cruelty. Anyone who has read even some of the detailed stories of the victims who have been so abused, murdered, had to commit suicide, and had their lives destroyed in so many other ways could not but agree that the sooner these practices are obliterated the better.
The absence of any law such as this undervalues and undermines the role that women can and do play, as mothers and wives, and as equal citizens contributing to their country’s economic well-being. Above all—and women are some 85 per cent of the victims that we are talking about—the continued toleration of the concept of forced marriage reinforces the view of women as second-class citizens. Frankly, that in itself is intolerable. I hope that everyone, but especially the Government, will now take the necessary steps to end what up to now has been a rather blind-eye policy which, no doubt for understandable but misguided reasons, has been allowed to continue for far too long. By adopting this Bill, the Government can redeem their record, which is already excellent in so many other respects.
My Lords, I strongly support this Bill, and I, too, pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Lester, for devising it. It is a very sophisticated mechanism to deal with a very significant evil. I will talk about two things: first, the arguments that might be proposed from cultural communities and groups against the Bill, and secondly, a little about coercion, in Clause 2, because the definition of “forcing” is rather important in a forced marriage Bill.
Critics of the legislation will argue at least two things. First, they will argue that it is wrong for Parliament to seek to regulate the behaviour of well established cultural and religious communities. They will argue that the civil society to which such communities belong should be autonomous and free from state interference and regulation, and that it is not the role of the state to seek to liberalise cultural communities. The reason why such groups might believe that leads to my second point, namely that such liberalisation, in their view, would presuppose that freedom and autonomy are values that are in some sense universal and shared; whereas critics will say that is not the case. They will argue that there are many religions and cultures in which the values of freedom and autonomy do not figure as at all desirable. They will say that to seek to liberalise such communities in terms of such values is oppressive and wrong, that it does not treat such communities with respect, and that it will homogenise all communities and transform them into communities sanctioned by the liberal state.
There are at least three clear answers to this. First, we happen to live in a liberal, democratic society, and it is not wrong to seek to ensure that all groups meet the minimum standards of common morality of such a society—freedom and respect, basic rights and so forth—which forced marriages infringe. Secondly, we need to stand up for common values. There is a big debate at the moment about the idea of Britishness. It is difficult to get far in thinking about a common-sensical view of the nature of Britishness without the ideas of individual liberty, respect for persons and equal rights. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly in my mind, is that cultural groups that are looking for autonomy and self-regulation are in fact demanding freedom from the interference of the state, and they are demanding equality of recognition and equality of rights. They are themselves trading on the very values that they seek to deny the members of those groups. It seems to me therefore vital that, if we accept ideas such as the importance of freedom from interference and equal respect for cultural identity and cultural norms, those freedoms should be extended to members of the groups covered by those norms. So I do not think that there is a good case to be deployed against the general principles of the Bill.
I will say a few words about coercion, which I suspect will prove controversial in Committee. I want to defend Clause 2, which will be controversial because it refers to threats and offers as being coercive. We normally think that, at least in one sense, coercion is straightforward and clear. If I lock you in a room, you cannot then do anything; it is coercive. If I imprison you, you are unable to go outside the prison; that is a form of coercion. It is coercion as physical restraint. That is uncontroversial; there is no question or problem about that. Once we move to threats and offers, the issue becomes a bit more complicated, and we need to think about the complications a little more. We would regard most threats as coercive. They are threats because they impact on our desires. I want to do X; you impose a cost on my doing X, and I abstain from doing it, even though I want to do it, because of that cost. The threat constitutes the cost; we would recognise that as a form of coercion.
If we recognise that as coercion, it is not at all clear that offers are not equally coercive. Offers also operate to change our desires in an unwanted way. I want to do X, and someone comes along and makes either me or someone else in relation to that X an offer which it is very difficult to refuse. That operates on the balance of my desires in exactly the same way as a threat operates on the balance of my desires, but both of them are rather different from physical constraint and physical locking up. We have to get some kind of principle that will extend from coercion as physical restraint and going through to both threats and offers. I do not think that there is a categorical distinction between threats and offers, because a lot of threats can be turned into offers. There is nothing arcane or difficult about thinking in that way.
I consider parking at the side of the road, and there is a notice saying, “Parking penalty £30”. If I am poor, I regard that as a threat, and I do not park. That changes my desire to park. If I am rich, and I come to the same notice, I might decide that it is really an offer; it says that I can park here for £30, and £30 means nothing to me. If we regard threats as coercive, many threats can be reformulated as offers, and we should not therefore think that offers and inducements cannot be coercive. They can be coercive. We cannot say that all offers extend choice and therefore cannot be coercive, partly because we know about mafia offers—an offer you cannot refuse. We know about the highwayman offer—your money or your life. A hard-nosed person might say, “Before the highwayman comes on to the scene, my choices are limited. I am just to keep my money. Now he has made me an offer; I can either keep my money or keep my life”. Threats and offers are very complex things to figure out, and most threats can be reformulated as offers. We have to be clear about some of the complexities about the nature of coercion in Clause 2, which need to be focused on a little more.
Because threats and offers are highly contextualised and depend on the situation of the person—a threat to make someone destitute or a threat to withhold the love and support of the family—the civil remedy approach favoured by the Bill, and the great tribute that it reflects on the noble Lord, Lord Lester, is exactly the way forward, and I give it my wholehearted support.
My Lords, we now come to the concluding part of the debate. The Minister has a very good record on rights and civil liberties. I see that she is taking copious notes, and I have no doubt that she will have taken note of the fact that the legislation is supported by almost all noble Lords who have spoken.
All noble Lords.
All noble Lords. I thank my noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill for introducing this private Member’s Bill, which is a relevant and nuanced solution to a multilayered problem that must be tackled with sensitivity and grace. Forced marriage, in which a victim is pressed into marriage against their will, is a growing problem in this country. This practice can lead to huge stresses on tightly knit communities, and to young students being removed from schools and virtually confined to their homes. It can be used as a tool for immigration violations and, at its worst, has led to honour killings. At least a third of recorded cases affect children aged 17 or under, and, as a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, the UK Government have an obligation to ensure that children’s rights are fully protected. Furthermore, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has urged the national Parliaments of member states to,
“adapt their domestic legislation so as to make it easier for forced and child marriages to be prevented, detected and annulled and to bring to justice the perpetrators of such marriages, as well as those who aided and abetted the contracting of such a marriage”.
This proposed solution is welcome and timely, and has been prepared by an expert in this field, as has been pointed out. My noble friend Lord Lester has a remarkable record in dealing with human rights issues, having campaigned for 30 years to make the European Convention on Human Rights directly enforceable in British courts, and having introduced two private Member’s Bills that became models for the Human Rights Act 1998. He is an expert in this field, and there can be no better person to put forward this legislation.
I begin my remarks on the Bill by highlighting the words of a young woman—a victim of forced marriage:
“A person knows when they are being forced into a marriage against their will”.
That must be the starting point. Thankfully, the Bill understands that sentiment implicitly. It does not attempt to patronise any community or to attempt to speak for the diverse groups of people for whom forced marriage is a problem. The above quotation makes it clear that the Bill distinctly understands the differences between forced marriage and arranged marriage. Arranged marriage should involve active and open dialogue and the consent of all parties, and is a successful practice today in many such communities. It is also worth pointing out that it was actively pursued by the English in Victorian times. By making this distinction clear, we can all be sure that the Bill does not discriminate against specific communities and will lead to prejudice in the future.
Rather, the Bill has made use of a process of consultation to provide proactive solutions to an issue that the Government have been working on since 1999, when the Home Office set up a working group, in which I was directly involved, to investigate the issue. This work was done with the best of intentions, but it did not result in any concrete achievements, except to prove without a doubt the scope of the problem. The Government instructed FCO offices to be more proactive in providing support to those seeking help in forced marriages, but that is not enough. Such an approach is not comprehensive, as FCO locations are few and far between and may not be easy to access. Most importantly, such an approach relies on the victim seeking out an office of the UK Government, rather than the UK Government seeking out ways to help the victim. Legislation is what is needed because, with it, women will for the first time ever be able to know that this practice is illegal. They will be able say to the perpetrators that it is unequivocally wrong, and will be able use the law as a basis for action.
The reason why many years of work resulted in no new legislation hinged on the criminality of forced marriage. There was no consensus on making forced marriage a crime in its own right. It was considered too costly and too complex to introduce, given that existing laws provided a workable form of protection. Most importantly, however, it was considered an unwieldy solution that might drive the problem further underground, prevent reconciliation, isolate the victim and unfairly stigmatise certain communities.
We are dealing with a problem in which fewer than one in 10 cases is reported, which means that the 300 cases reported by the Home Office and Foreign office are simply the tip of the iceberg. We must accept that the problem is far more deeply rooted, and that some cases never come to light. In the diverse communities in which forced marriages take place, it is often the parents or close family members who force a victim into marriage. There is a strong chance that the victims of forced marriages would be unwilling to report their own parents, or other family members, if the punishment included jail or a criminal record. However, by not pursuing other forms of legislation, victims may be less aware of their avenues for redress, and communities may be less aware that such actions are wrong in today’s society.
Multiculturalism must never blunt the fundamental point at the heart of the debate; that it is a person’s right to choose whom he or she wants to marry. It is a tragedy that a victim of forced marriage may have to use charges of rape, kidnapping, domestic abuse or torture as a way of dealing with a forced marriage. If she has not yet been subjected to such depravity, but is in fear of it, where does that leave her? It leaves her in a state of confusion, wondering what her rights are.
One of the key recommendations from the wide consultation process in which I was involved was that,
“Resources should be used to support a holistic approach that addresses the causes, supports the victims and works with communities to eliminate the problem”.
Thankfully, we have such an approach in the Bill, and I sincerely hope that, now there is a solution in sight, the Government will take the necessary steps. We must be aware that change is always frightening, and that changing people’s mindset is difficult. There are always transitional problems for immigrants into new communities, and forced marriage is one such problem. However, this legislation is not about racial profiling or insensitivity, because across south Asia, forced marriages are in the minority, and there, as in any culture, those who abuse the trust of their families are not respected. It may eventually iron itself out in the United Kingdom as second, third and fourth generations of families are born here, but it is our role to spur on this process by smoothing the way for its acceptance and to increase awareness. For this, we need legislation.
We will be looking after the welfare and future of the young generations of British people, we will be making this an issue among first and second generation British people, and we will be fulfilling our role as leaders in the global community by setting an example that countries that face forced marriages within their borders may want to follow.
A law is necessary because the law is an unequivocal statement of public policy, whereas the current patchwork of laws that can be used to challenge forced marriages does not present any unequivocal statement against the act. By using existing and ill defined laws to tackle the issue, we are putting the burden of proof on to the victim—a victim who may be reluctant to come forward anyway—and we will allow the issue to continue to be swept under the carpet.
Most people are law-abiding citizens and most look to their community for support. This legislation will allow people to point out obvious wrongdoing and to pursue an avenue of complaint where prison is not the end result. By making the issue a civil one, the Bill elegantly gives direct redress to victims without any of the drawbacks suggested by the research on the implementation of criminal legislation. The remedies in the Bill focus on the protection of the victim and the prevention of the forced marriage rather than the punishment of a crime. The Bill is proactive and preventive rather than reactionary. A civil remedy to this problem will help to change people’s behaviour because it will allow victims to come forward in pursuit of compensation, mediation and reconciliation—the cornerstones that have been requested by the victims themselves.
The Bill has the support of my party. I believe that all communities, particularly the black and ethnic minority community, owe a debt of gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, whose record on rights and liberty is second to none. He has been right before and he is right today. Let us not dither in the task before us.
My Lords, Her Majesty’s Opposition support this Bill. It is right in both principle and practice to try to prevent forced marriages taking place—they can and they do destroy lives. It is surely better to prevent a forced marriage taking place rather than to leave a person in the invidious position of trying to make an application for nullity after the event of the marriage taking place.
This Bill does make some advances through the civil rather than the criminal law. It should not be seen as a eureka answer to the problem, although it is a worthwhile piece in the jigsaw. The aim of the Bill is laudable, but it needs to be more than window dressing. We have seen enough of that from the Government over the past 10 years.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, for meeting me last week to discuss his Bill in detail. I am certainly convinced that he is making a worthwhile addition to the measures that are currently available to victims of forced marriage and those who are at risk of being victims in the future. As always, this House will wish to scrutinise the Bill’s provisions very carefully at Committee. We will need to consider how effective it will be and how accessible it will be to those who should benefit from it. In particular, we will have to consider what protections it adds that are not adequately covered by existing legislation.
Noble Lords have today been at one in condemning the practice of forced marriage. Noble Lords, such as my noble friends Lord Taylor of Holbeach and Lord Sheikh, who made a particularly powerful speech, were right to draw the attention of the House to the differences between arranged and forced marriages. It is absolutely vital that we do so.
I was interested to read the guidelines on this matter that were issued for the police by ACPO, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Home Office. They are sensible and sensitive—not words I often use in the same sentence as the Home Office these days. The guidelines state:
“The tradition of arranged marriages has operated successfully within many communities and many countries for a very long time. A clear distinction must be made between a forced marriage and an arranged marriage. In arranged marriages the families of both spouses take a leading role in arranging the marriage but the choice whether to accept the arrangement remains with the individuals. In forced marriage at least one party does not consent to the marriage and some element of duress is involved”.
It is right to stress now, and to continue to do so in our examination of the Bill, the difference between arranged and forced marriages and ensure that we do not by mistake or oversight bring arranged marriages within the scope of any measures that are intended to prevent forced marriage. That would not be the right thing for Parliament to attempt to do. But I believe that it is right for Parliament to take an active role deterring forced marriage. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester was right today, as he so often is on these matters, to remind us that legislation should not be our first or only recourse in changing human behaviour. There are other and much better methods, which have to be complementary and, if possible, preferred routes.
There are times when I agree with the Minister, Lady Scotland, who has the policy responsibility in this area—we all regret that, for a very good reason, she is not able to be here today. In her press statement on 7 June last year, she said:
“Forced marriage is an abuse of human rights and a form of domestic violence which cannot be justified on religious or cultural grounds”.
She was right to draw attention to the fact that forced marriage is more than domestic violence. It is violence to the right of the individual to make their own life choices. No doubt when the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton of Upholland, replies to the debate, she will tell the House of the various schemes that the Government have launched in recent years to give aid to those who are the victims of forced marriage. I do not criticise those schemes—far from it. They are important, but I ask whether they are enough.
Noble Lords will be aware that the Government have changed their position regarding legislation. They had promised a criminal offence as requested by police, but then backed off. In September 2005, the Home Office put out a press release about its plans to hold a three-month consultation on whether to create a specific criminal offence of forcing someone to marry. The police had already told the Government that there should be a new criminal offence. They believed that it would make prosecutions easier and send a clear message that intimidating young people into marriages that they do not want is unacceptable in the UK. In the Government’s consultation document, Forced Marriage: A Wrong Not a Right, Ministers accepted that the arguments against creating a new criminal offence outweighed those for it. Despite that, the Government said that they would go ahead and create a criminal offence. Indeed, the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, said that a new offence would act as a preventive measure and “say to people this is wrong”. She told reporters in central London:
“It’s like a clarion call that this is not legal, you are not going to get away with it”.
The Government subsequently changed their mind, and I think that it is important that we hear from them why they did. There may be very good reasons for the Government changing their course on this occasion, but we need to hear them.
Noble Lords who have spoken today have pointed out some of the dangers that may follow from criminalising forced marriage. My noble friend Lord Sheikh set out how a criminal offence in particular could be counterproductive in its effects. I note that there have been concerns in the past that, if there were a criminal offence, young people might not report their parents for fear of criminalising them. Have the Government carried out any further research on that matter? If the concern remains about introducing a criminal offence, surely it should not interfere with having a civil offence. I do not think that the proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, should fall foul of the same arguments; I think that he has found his way round that difficulty.
What work has been done over the past two years to make better use of existing civil remedies and the family courts, and with what success? I would be grateful if the Minister could give us information on that. I am aware that there is a range of criminal offences that can cover some of the aspects of the abuse involved in a forced marriage: rape, false imprisonment, kidnap, and assault. However, that can usually follow on only after the event of the marriage and after the damage has been done. The Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, has the enormous advantage of trying to prevent the abuse in the first place.
As noble Lords from around the House have so correctly pointed out, this a highly sensitive issue, but one that must be addressed, in a sensitive way but strongly and with determination. As my noble friend Lord Sheikh said, it is a global problem. It is not just about one ethnic or religious community. It is not a south-east Asian issue per se. It affects communities across a wide range of countries, including Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Syria, Sri Lanka, the USA, Holland, Somalia, Lebanon, Hong Kong, Turkey and Bosnia—we could go on.
I look forward to the opportunity to examine the detail of the Bill closely in Committee. In relation to Clause 2, there is one improvement that I hope the noble Lord, Lord Lester, may consider, and I have already given him notice of it in advance. I listened very carefully to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Plant of Highfield, because he highlighted the fact that Clause 2 could provide some element of controversy and I hope that we can find a way of overcoming that; I am sure that there are practical ways in which we can address it. I am concerned that the drafting of Clause 2 may not go wide enough to protect those who need to be protected. It covers people who threaten, “If you don’t help me, I will damage you”, or offer a benefit to the person that is being threatened or coerced. I am concerned to assist in circumstances where someone says, “If you don’t help me, I will not necessarily damage you, but I will damage your mother-in-law’s or father-in-law’s business. I will cause damage to another person who is of great importance to you”. We need to ensure that Clause 2 provides all the protection that it needs to, without bringing too much within it.
I note that when the Government published their consultation in 2005, the estimated cost of creating a criminal offence was around £420,000 in the first year of implementation and £220,000 in subsequent years. Can the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, say what he considers might be the costs of implementing the Bill? If not, perhaps he may assist us in Committee.
Clause 5 makes it possible for the victim of a forced marriage to make a civil claim for damages in the last resort. We will have to consider in Committee whether daughters and sons would wish to do that by imposing extra financial burdens on their parents by suing them for payment. We need to explore that legitimate area.
Last month, the Women’s National Commission, ably chaired by the Minister’s noble friend Lady Prosser, published its report from the Muslim Women's Network, She Who Disputes—Muslim women shape the debate. It makes for arresting reading. A respondent from Bradford made the following plea:
“By minimising our problems on domestic violence and forced marriage it will not disappear. It has to be addressed. Women would rather die in their silence—we need confident women; we don't need shattered, battered women”.
I agree with her with all my heart. In the final analysis, that is why my party supports the Bill—I certainly do—and I hope that the Government will support it.
My Lords, it is a great privilege to reply to this debate. I, too, am very sorry that my noble friend Lady Scotland is not with us—she would do a much better job than me, given her expertise and knowledge. I know that noble Lords will not mind that I sent her a text message just before the start of the debate to say that we would all be thinking of her and that we look forward to seeing her back soon. I pay tribute to her commitment and energy—which I am not often able to do in your Lordships’ House, because the occasion does not allow that—particularly on these matters and on issues concerning domestic violence. I have worked with her on these issues for some time and it will come as no surprise to your Lordships that no one is more committed and dedicated to the work that she undertakes.
I also pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Lester. Very few people can stand up and state, “Thirty years ago, I said this”, and, without wavering, continue to press their concerns. Sometimes I wish that he would not continue to press those concerns—but what an important contribution he has made. It is also fabulous to stand here and watch him looking extremely embarrassed, which he has done from time to time when people have paid him tribute; I cannot resist it, too. I welcome and salute the noble Lord’s work and his incredible contribution. As a Minister for human rights, I say that, without him, I would find my job far more difficult.
I want to pay tribute to another group of people who I have met only recently—in fact, I met them only yesterday—the people who work in the Forced Marriage Unit. I had the privilege of spending only an hour with them but I came away with the overwhelming impression that they are completely dedicated to their work. I said to one of them—I shall not embarrass her by naming her—that I could not work out how on Earth she did her job without working 24 hours a day, seven days a week; her wry smile suggested that neither did she. It is a small dedicated band and I thank them on behalf of your Lordships for the incredible work that they do. I want to explain a little more about that work. I think that it is worth doing so, even considering the expertise in your Lordships’ House.
The Forced Marriage Unit is a joint Home Office/Foreign and Commonwealth Office venture. It has six members of staff at present, and the team leads on policy development and outreach work. It has three dedicated caseworkers—one from UK Visas—and one office manager, and all members of the unit handle casework. The FMU has a budget of almost £690,000, including staff wages, and it covers 250 to 300 cases a year, 15 per cent of which are male cases of forced marriage.
Our embassies and high commissions overseas assist, rescue and repatriate around 200 people each year. Around a third of the cases that the unit deals with concern children, some as young as 13. It also assists reluctant sponsors—those forced into marriage and subsequently forced to sponsor a visa application—and it has dealt with more than 100 cases since May last year.
In the past two years, the Forced Marriage Unit has produced guidelines for the police, social services and health and education professionals on tackling forced marriage, and it has started work on producing similar guidelines for registrars. As well as commissioning international guidance for lawyers, the unit will shortly be publishing a handbook of legal remedies for family law professionals, holding a series of seminars for practitioners, and exploring ways of introducing forced marriage on family law courses at universities and colleges.
The Forced Marriage Unit is producing a survivors’ handbook to offer information and practical support to survivors of such marriages. In partnership with Jasvinder Sanghera’s group, Karma Nirvana, the unit is also funding a pilot survivors’ network in Derby to provide emotional support to survivors of forced marriage and to create opportunities to build new friendships and relationships. The unit also undertakes a great deal of publicity, outreach and awareness-raising work in key communities, speaking at about 75 events each year. In 2006, it ran a national publicity campaign on forced marriage, involving radio, TV, and national and local press. That shows what the power of six people can achieve. I pay real tribute to their work.
The noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, asked about the criminalisation issues. As she knows, we carried out consultation on introducing a criminal offence, but the primary reason that that did not happen was that 74 per cent of the police respondents and all those from the CPS and probation services said that it was not an appropriate way forward. As the noble Baroness indicated, at the end of the consultation, we said that we would look at the gaps that existed and at identifying ways to fill them. The debate on this Bill will make an extremely important contribution to that. My noble friend Lady Scotland will no doubt have far more information on the consultation process, and I shall ensure that the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, receives it.
Some common themes developed very quickly in the debate. They included consent, or mutual respect, as the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, described it, and the fragility of marriage. The noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, in particular, talked about consent under duress, where young people do not know what they are agreeing to. The issue of human rights is critical: the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, said that they are universal. The noble Lords, Lord Sheikh and Lord Taylor of Holbeach, and the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, talked about the difference between arranged and forced marriages, and said that it is critical that we differentiate between the two. But, as my noble friend Lady Rendell said, sometimes there is blurring around the edges, and that is also important. It was said that, more than anything else, these young vulnerable people need protection and the law should ensure that they are protected.
I was delighted that my noble friend Lady Uddin was the first person to speak after the noble Lord had introduced the Bill. Yesterday, I had a conversation with my noble friend about her blood pressure. She rightly said to me that this is also about the emancipation, education and training of women so that they feel they can resist this. They need to know where to go, and they need to feel that they have the right skills and attributes and that they are not held captive by their own culture by not being allowed to participate more fully. My noble friend and my noble friend Lord Ahmed will recognise that, whatever else we do, it is important to continue to work very closely with young people and to give them those skills. However important the legislation is, we must not forget that. I agree with her completely.
We must also consider other forms of legislation and whether the domestic violence legislation applies here. I know that the Equal Opportunities Commission has raised that interesting and important point. My noble friend wanted us to look at the definition of force. I shall summarise some points that need to be considered.
The resources dedicated to the Forced Marriage Unit will not be cut. It is important to have that on the record. However, noble Lords might want to press for more resources for that. When debating the Bill, we have to consider existing legislation.
My Lords, the Minister said that the budget for the Forced Marriage Unit had not been cut. But I have been given figures by the department, which she probably has not seen, that show that the budget was cut between 2005-06 and 2006-07 from around £160,000 to around £114,000; and the Home Office contribution to that paltry sum is estimated to rise from 11 per cent of the total to only 13 per cent. That suggests to me that it has been cut and it is pathetically terrible.
My Lords, my information is that it has not been cut. We shall have to reconcile that. Whether or not the noble Lord and I agree, it is clear that a fantastic job is being done, which is important. Perhaps we will unite in our desire to see that my words are right and that the noble Lord’s words on this occasion, however good the information from my office may be, are not.
I endorse what the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, said about the fantastic work of officials in the very difficult circumstances that he described. I also endorse what he said about women controlling their own lives. That fundamentally underpins all we are discussing in the debate.
The right reverend Prelate raised a key issue about whether young victims want to use the law, and particularly the criminal law, in relation to their families. I know that the Forced Marriage Unit, in looking even at the civil law, is concerned that most of the victims with whom it deals want to find a way back to their families; they want to try to change the nature of their relationship with their families and be supported in so doing. We have to consider the remedies in that context. The knowledge of the way in which young people respond to the work that it does is very important.
A central defining feature is consent. I agree with the right reverend Prelate that this is not about legislation alone. That is another theme that has come through the debate. By itself, legislation can achieve some things but not others.
My noble friend Lady Rendell spoke of the distinction between arranged and forced marriages. I agree that sensitivity is extremely important in looking at all these issues.
The Forced Marriage Unit is very concerned that it is much more difficult for young men to come forward to ask for help. It is now considering different ways to improve the services available to men, to enable the unit to reach out to them and to enable them to come forward more easily. I look forward to seeing how the unit does that.
The noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, said that every world religion condemns forced marriages, which, of course, is correct. He spoke of the issue of force and said that force is not just about physical force. We need to be aware of the role of financial assistance that families give to their young people and ensure that we do not mix up things when we consider the legislation. We also need to consider resources and the best use of resources in everything we do.
The noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, talked about attitude and cultural practices. It reminded me of something that came up later: not long ago, women were the property of their husbands in this country and children automatically belonged to their fathers. We seek a combination of the law, education and empowerment, and recognise the critical importance of the duty of non-discrimination in upholding human rights.
The noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, continued the theme of being unable to avert our eyes from human rights issues. We recognise our responsibilities under the convention on the elimination of discrimination against women. We are working hard in a number of ways to live up to those responsibilities.
I have written on my notes the word “passionate” about my noble friend Lord Ahmed. He spoke again about the incredible work going on. I pay tribute to my noble friend’s work. He spoke of being pro-active, and I recognise how important it is that we work with the communities. He was also concerned that the issue is not picked up as one that could be turned against some of our communities. It is important that we work together. I endorse everything he said in that context.
The noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, focused on issues of arranged marriages and forced marriages. I agree with everything he said. He asked specifically about extra-territorial jurisdiction. The consultation on the criminal offence highlighted the difficulties of the lack of extra-territorial jurisdiction and gathering evidence on marriages overseas. The overwhelming majority felt that families might take advantage of this, taking their children overseas to circumvent laws in the UK. That is an interesting and important issue. The noble Lord also spoke of Scotland and Northern Ireland. As the noble Lord, Lord Lester, said at the beginning, it will be interesting to see what happens with this Bill and what colleagues in Scotland and Northern Ireland decide to do. I am sure that there will be dialogue on that for the precise reasons the noble Lord mentioned.
The noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, talked about being caught between conflicting and irreconcilable values, with someone saying, “I am sorry that I am not what you wanted”. That is an important part of this issue. The Forced Marriage Unit works with families to show them that these young women are precisely what they want, and to recognise and respect the contribution that these children and young people can make.
My noble friend Lady Turner talked about some misogynist attitudes which must be challenged. The noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, spoke of the experience beginning with “Romeo and Juliet”, which demonstrates how long this has been an issue in all societies, and how much it takes to deal with it effectively.
The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, has spent a huge amount of time supporting the noble Lord, Lord Lester, on this Bill, and has enormous experience in her role as President of the Family Division. She spoke of the NSPCC and the focus on the child—either because the child is the bride or groom or because the child is the child of the bride and groom. The noble and learned Baroness has overseas expertise and recognises the critical importance of legislation, among many other things, sending a message.
My noble friend Lord Desai spoke of a culture frozen in time, or a cultural clash, an important issue demanding far more time than I can give it now. He also talked about interviewing the bride. The Forced Marriage Unit works with reluctant spouses. There is a special team of entry clearance officers in Islamabad, established to deal with these visa applications. When a victim of a forced marriage contacts the Forced Marriage Unit about the visa application, the unit and team in Islamabad are the victim’s voice, working with the victim to produce a statement about what has happened to—usually—her. With that statement, we can prevent the issuing of a visa. It is a long and complex process, requiring trust between the victim and the Forced Marriage Unit. When the victim does not even give their real name, it can often take many months to build up that trust. It also says on my note that we need more resources to help women through the process, with three exclamation marks. I put that on the record.
The noble Baroness, Lady Howe of Idlicote, raised the issue of legal aid, something we shall again need to look at. I pay tribute to her tireless work supporting women over many years, and its importance in developing women’s opportunities, particularly in the economic and employment fields.
My noble friend Lord Plant of Highfield raised issues about Clause 2 on threats and offers. I shall not get into that, but I was immediately drawn to Marlon Brando and being made an offer you cannot refuse. My noble friend raised an important point, however, which will of course need to be discussed.
Having paid tribute to all the amazing speeches that have been made, I want to say where I think we are with the Bill. I do not yet know whether it is the right answer. As it is a civil justice Bill, my noble and learned friend and I have a real interest in it, and we will work closely with my noble friend Lady Scotland to take it forward. There is clearly huge support for it, rightly so, because it is very important.
Let me pick up some of the issues that will need to be thought about in Committee. A number of noble Lords, including my noble friend Lady Uddin, talked about the importance of consultation and how it should not be only with the obvious places and government. I know the noble Lord would wish to consult many organisations, and that will be an important part of what we do. Resources also need to be thought about. Is this the best use of resources or should they be thought about in a different way? We need to think about the breadth of the provisions and, because this matter has been raised by other organisations, we need to look again at whether the gaps to be filled should be filled in different ways by amending other legislation. Some members of the Family Justice Council diversity committee raised the question of damages, which was also was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, and it is an important area to consider.
The Forced Marriage Unit is worried that we should take real care about the consequences. We must not inadvertently put young people at greater risk because of the third-party provision or take control out of the hands of the victims. However, it recognises that it is often third parties who ring them for advice on how to support an individual. We need to think about that very carefully.
The Forced Marriage Unit needs to think about and work carefully through the Bill to consider its implications. Most of the people it deals with want to get back to their families and find a way through. That needs to be recognised and has to be considered in that context.
The noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, said reasonably that this should not be window-dressing. This must be something that we believe would work. In that spirit, I am delighted that we will be able to see the Bill through its stages in the Lords and consider it. I cannot commit that the Government will decide that this is the best way, but I can commit to work to ensure that we carefully think through all the issues as the Bill goes through.
I shall end with a quotation from Aisha, a survivor of forced marriage who was assisted by the Forced Marriage Unit last year:
“If it wasn’t for the Forced Marriage Unit I wouldn’t be here now. Back then I just needed a cuddle. I needed someone to tell me that everything would be OK. Speaking to the Forced Marriage Unit gave me hope. I felt that somebody who understood me was on my side—no gossip, no judgment and no conditions. I didn’t always like the options the Forced Marriage Unit gave me, but they helped me to take my life into my own hands and understand that I have the right to choose.
Now when I wake up in the morning I can put it all behind me. Sometimes it pops into my head—what I went through—but it’s over now. I’m looking forward to the future, maybe meeting a guy who I have chosen for myself”.
We need more women like Aisha who can speak of their experience of escaping forced marriages and who can describe the new lives that they are now enjoying. We need to enable them to speak to those who need their support. We need to support the excellent work of the unit, and I commend it to your Lordships’ House. History is littered with forced marriages and it is time to end them. I look forward to working with the noble Lord on the Bill.
My Lords, this is a remarkable place. Where else in the world would a legislative body have a debate of the kind that we have had on a Friday? Noble Lords were willing to be here to speak in a long, extraordinarily rich and well informed debate, and I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken, Front-Benchers and Back-Benchers alike. It is clear that one positive thing has come out of this debate, which is that we will today form a parliamentary association of black, Asian and grey sisters and brothers within this House to work together in order to turn the Bill into reality. It is also clear in the light of the wisdom expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, that when the Bill becomes law in whatever form, it will become known as Juliet’s law, which will avoid stigmatising anybody, except ourselves, perhaps.
I should like to deal with some of the points raised. How lucky we are that it is this Minister, that it is a civil justice Bill and that it is her department that will deal with it in its civil partnership capacity; for that is what it will be, between civil society, ourselves as part of civil society, and the Government. She made a number of really important points and dealt with a good many of the speeches. Therefore, I will be extremely brief. Perhaps I may say one or two things before I turn to the points raised.
In framing the Bill, I have remembered two perfectly obvious things. One was that Rab Butler used to remind us that politics is the art of the possible; the other was that a very wise government lawyer once said, “Razors are made to cut and Bills are made to pass”. The point about this Bill is that it has been made to pass; it is not to be window-dressing and it is to be effective.
The noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, was the only person who gave the Bill a cautious welcome. She is a cautious person and I respect her caution, but I am very grateful for her support. She was one of many to emphasise, perfectly rightly, the need for widespread consultation, a proper infrastructure and resources. Those points are all well taken. She and others have persuaded me that when I sit down in a few minutes I shall not ask for the Bill to be committed to a Committee of the Whole House; it is much more sensible that it goes to the Moses Room so that it will not be dealt with on a Friday all the time and there will be much better scope for consultation in that process. Furthermore, it is possible that the Joint Committee on Human Rights, on which I sit, might decide to take evidence on it as well. It is extremely important that this is regarded as the beginning of this process, which is what it is, and that the views of bodies such as Imkaan, which were particularly important in pressing for more consultation, are taken into account.
While on resources, I should say to the Minister—I hope that she will not be cross with me for doing so—that the table which arrived yesterday shocked me. Under a heading about Home Office and Foreign and Commonwealth Office resources, what it shows in terms of the current personnel is a little depressing.
My Lords, I interrupt the noble Lord only because I do not want this to become a running dispute between us, and I have the answer. The money looks less because quite a chunk of it was specifically for the publicity campaign last year. Staff levels and budgets have not been cut. The table says that this has come from the unit itself, so the amount decreased because there was a particular slice of money provided for that. The noble Lord need have no fear. The problem with information without context is something he knows that I feel very strongly about.
My Lords, I am grateful. I am sorry but I need to say one or two more words about resources despite that. The chart shows that we have a head of human rights and assistance policy, and under him or her is a Foreign and Commonwealth Office policy officer who does not deal with casework. Then there is a Home Office policy officer dealing with 15 per cent immigration casework and 15 per cent outreach. Below them is a Foreign and Commonwealth Office caseworker, no doubt dealing with the overseas situation, another Foreign and Commonwealth Office caseworker, and one Home Office caseworker described in the chart as doing 100 per cent immigration casework. Staff costs for all those people in 2005-06 came to £160,000, which then became £114,000 in 2006-07. I will not go into any projected figures, but that simply will not do—if what I have got from the office represents the present position. Maybe it does not.
I wholly admire the work of the Forced Marriage Unit; I wholly admire its guidelines. I do not admire the fact that it is non-statutory.
My Lords, I am sure that that is right. I just wanted to clear up a point that had arisen. Notwithstanding the injunction from my old friend, the noble Lord, Lord Wedderburn, to sit down immediately, I shall deal quickly with one or two other points raised in the debate that need to be dealt with now, out of respect for those who have taken part.
The noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, asked whether the Bill would extend beyond England and Wales. Of course it will need to do so. He also asked what happens when someone goes to the subcontinent and the forcing takes place there. There are answers to that, but I can write to him about them, as the Minister would say.
The noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, pointed out, and I agree, that no practical alternatives are put forward by those who say that we should do nothing. The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, gave judgment. Any wise barrister knows that when the most authoritative family law judge that I know has given judgment, the best thing to do is to say, “I agree”, and I do. The noble Baroness, Lady Howe, asked about legal aid and access to justice. One advantage put to me about the Bill was that it will make it much easier to get legal aid if it is under the rubric of forced marriage. That is important.
The noble Lord, Lord Plant, gave a learned and philosophical discourse on the problem of threats, coercion and offers. The answer is, I hope, in the “reasonable” test in Clause 3 and the test of a civil standard of proof, not a criminal one. I was so pleased to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, speaking on behalf of Her Majesty's Opposition, support the Bill. My old friend Edward Boyle, the late Lord Boyle of Handsworth, would have been so proud to know that the modern Conservative Party was taking that position because he, more than any other friend I had in politics, understood those issues. I miss him very much. The noble Baroness referred to the very sensible guidelines. One practical problem that we will need to deal with is that the guidelines are not enforceable. In schools and local education authorities, for example, they simply do not lead to practical results.
I have not dealt with everything and I am sure that others waiting to speak will be glad if I do not, so I now thank everyone. Neither I nor those who support the Bill will be content with it being rhetorical or kicked into medium-sized or long grass. I hope and believe that all of us can now take the Bill further and ensure that it is put into practice. That must be what we all seek. I need say nothing else because I am not asking for the Bill to go into a Committee of the whole House.
On Question, Bill read a second time.