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Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Bill [HL]

Volume 774: debated on Friday 21 October 2016

Second Reading

Moved by

My Lords, child marriage, which is marriage that takes place before one or both of the spouses has reached adulthood, is a global phenomenon although it is most prevalent in the developing world. However, there is evidence that it is still happening in the UK and in other developed countries. While boys can be married when they are children too, it is girls who are disproportionately affected by child marriage. I hope that noble Lords are aware that when really young children are married, the consequences for girls are enormous. They can suffer lifelong injuries following childbirth and, because they then have children to look after, they lose out on education and opportunity.

The all-party parliamentary group that I chair held hearings on child marriage in 2012. We took a great deal of evidence and heard many stories about horrendous child marriages and their consequences as well as taking testimonies from British women who had been married against their will between the ages of 16 and 18. We also learned during those hearings that young girls in the 16 to 18 age group are often badly treated and abused within their new families. The report is entitled A Childhood Lost and it is still available online and from my office. When older girls but still under the age of 18 marry, they also frequently lose out on educational opportunities. I can well remember years ago in one of my clinics giving advice to two sisters, both of whom were being taken out of school after sitting their GCSEs in which they had done very well. They were to be sent abroad to be married. Their parents wished this, and although the sisters desperately wanted to continue with their education and did not know their future partners, they were obedient and were going willingly to comply with their parents’ wishes.

At the moment we do not know exactly how many children under the age of 18 are being married, willingly or not, but we do know that in 2014 the United Kingdom Forced Marriage Unit gave advice about or provided support related to possible forced marriage in 1,267 cases. Of those, 11% involved children aged 16 and 17. Most child marriages are forced marriages, but not all forced marriages involve children—that is an important distinction.

The Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 made forced marriage a criminal offence and strengthened provisions relating to the consent of children when involved in marriage between the ages of 16 and 18. Many such young marriages may not appear to be forced because of the compliance of the young person concerned with their parents.

I wish to concentrate on the 16 to 18 age group. The current minimum legal age to enter into marriage in England and Wales is 16 years, with parental consent required from 16 to 18. I want all young people in this country to fulfil their dreams for the future. Target 3 in goal 5 of the new sustainable development goals commits all UN member states to,

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

by 2030. Numerous conventions exist and have been signed by the UK, including the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which specifies that “child” means every human being below the age of 18.

My Bill is to make illegal any marriage of a young person under the age of 18, straight or gay—and it applies to marriage and civil partnerships. I propose the measure for several reasons and have the support of several NGOs set up to demand change for young people caught by provision in the existing law.

First, as I have already pointed out, girls in particular lose out on educational opportunity, which can seldom be regained. Parental consent in a family where parents are strict and domineering could mean parental insistence and the young person being forced to go along with the decision. I am well aware of the sensitivities around not wanting to offend different cultural groups in this country, but the Bill will benefit their children’s future and that of children who are indigenous here.

Is it really wise in any case to be married at 16, with or without consent? At 16, I would have married Richard Burton given half the chance, but fortunately for me the offer never came. At 16, young people can be sexually active, but that no longer means that they must commit to the first person they have sex with. Marriage is a legally binding process and very expensive to reverse should the great love of youth be lost.

Some noble Lords may argue that if I support voting at 16, which I do, then I should support marriage at that same age, but voting for the wrong party can be corrected in a maximum of five years, but not so marriage —and referenda, it would appear. Yes, 16 year-olds can join the Army—this is another campaign I know about—but in the UK they can opt out of that commitment at any time after the first three weeks up to the age of 18. They cannot opt out of marriage.

It has been pointed out to me in recent days that a problem could arise with refugees and immigrants. It was suggested that I was trying to make immigration difficult for young people who had married as children, or prevent refugees coming here by erecting another barrier. Nothing could be further from the truth. I understand that, according to our present law, marriages are recognised if they took place legally under the laws of the country of origin. The issue clearly needs to be looked at in more detail, with amendments tabled as necessary in Committee. My Bill seeks to raise the minimum age of marriage or civil partnership and will amend Section 2 and omit Section 3 of the Marriage Act 1949 and amend Section 3(1)(c) and omit Section 4 of the Civil Partnership Act 2004. It will also amend those parts of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 which were about forced marriages: subsections (1)(a) and (b) of Section 121 and subsection (2). It will apply only to England and Wales.

Marriage is legally binding and irreversible without great difficulty. We should be protecting our children from this until they are 18 years old by passing this Bill to establish 18 as the minimum age of marriage, with no exceptions for customary law, parental consent or judicial consent. I beg to move.

My Lords, each year, globally, 15 million girls are married under the age of 18. This all too frequently signals the end of their education, it risks early pregnancy and childbirth and it certainly seriously curtails their personal development and potential life chances. Child marriage looks the same no matter where in the world it happens and in the UK, like elsewhere, it perpetuates cycles of poverty, oppression and inequality. A change in the law would provide real protection for our children and empower them to make their own choices when they are physically and emotionally mature enough to do so, so I support my noble friend. I should also say that I am pleased to serve as vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Population, Development and Reproductive Health.

It is time that we put our own house in order. We have been courageous in our international development ambitions and Britain often calls other countries to account for falling behind on theirs. I do not have the figures to hand, but many of our friends around the world are making efforts to ensure that the age of marriage is 18, although I acknowledge that in many ways this may only be emblematic. This was the very subject of a recent European Parliamentary Forum discussion to which Holly Lynch MP and I contributed. It seems that despite good laws being in place, in many countries of Africa, Asia and the Middle East early marriages continue to blight women’s lives. We often speak of women’s education and participation in the labour force being a catalyst for gender advances; however it seems that despite women experiencing levels of equity at university level and participating in the labour force, there remain vast swathes of women who continue to suffer from early marriage.

Our banal imagination can run away with the picture of some remote villages in India, Africa, Bangladesh and Pakistan practising early marriage, but the truth is that we cannot leave room for complacency: we have early marriage written into our laws. While there may be many 16 and 17 year-olds here in the UK who feel they are ready and mature enough to enter into marriage, by our very own law these adolescents are still children until they reach the age of 18. The reality is that having a parental consent clause not only sanctions children to make lifelong, adult decisions while they are still children, it also, sadly, continues to aid practices such as forced marriage in many communities across the UK. While I note significant attitudinal changes in my own area of Tower Hamlets to forced marriage, as a chair of the 1998 task force on forced marriage I am not content with the numbers of reports still being dealt with. Some 40% of calls received by the helpline of the Government’s Forced Marriage Unit concerned minors and 15% concerned children under the age of 15. Our current law on marriage is putting children at risk of being married too early. This is not a risk the Government should be willing to take.

Noble Lords who are wavering in support of the Bill should take a moment to reflect on why it is important to have laws that set a minimum age of marriage. We know that all Governments responsible for the well-being and safeguarding of children have clear and consistent legislation that establishes 18 as the minimum age of marriage, with no exception for parental or judicial consent. Setting the minimum age of marriage at 18 provides an objective rather than a subjective standard of maturity, which protects a child from being married when they are not physically, mentally or emotionally ready. It is also an important step towards ensuring that all individuals have free and full consent about if, when and whom they marry.

More notably, our laws also set an example to the rest of the world. They show how serious we are about practising what we preach. In this case it could be a powerful message of solidarity to many Governments in the world who are also facing societal attitudes and barriers to ending child, early and forced marriage. We have a duty to abide by the human rights and development standards that we have signed up to and are keen to advocate across the developing world and emerging economies. The Department for International Development recently invested £36 million in a global programme to accelerate action to end child marriage in 12 countries around the world. Sadly, these countries include Bangladesh, which has the second-highest number of child brides in the world at just under 4 million. In 2014, the Bangladeshi Government drew a comparison with our minimum age of marriage legislation, using it as an example of why 16 is a favourable age and citing the difficulties that they were facing in enforcing Bangladesh’s legal age of marriage—currently 18, although there is pressure to lower it to 16. We can be a leader only if we lead without any burden of unattended baggage of our own.

I hope very much to see this Bill progress. This is a good opportunity to mention the immensely important campaign on the registration of marriage. If the Bill progresses, I hope that my noble friend and the Minister will consider an amendment to ensure the protection of thousands of women in the UK who are getting married in a religious ceremony and not registering their civil marriage, which leaves many young women unprotected and without recourse to law. The campaign is ably led by Aina Khan, to whom I pay tribute.

On a personal note, I got married at 16, following my mum, who also got married at 16. She fell in love with her husband and married in 1958, causing much contention in our family because her sister had got married well after her education and became the first woman principal in a women’s college. There was utter disgust in my family, but I followed suit in 1976. My mother got divorced but I am still married. Sadly, my daughter never listened to me and she married at what I consider the still immature age of 23. I am sure she will berate me for saying this. It is not necessarily a pattern but I often think about whether I felt I had permission because my mother had married at 16. I hope we do not send the message out that people should get married at 16. I am not a hypocrite. It comes from the experience of 40 years’ labouring at marriage to say that children should be given as much chance as possible to have a life before they marry. I disagree with my noble friend on one point: once you enter marriage, it should not be the be-all and end-all. Although there are emotional and family pressures when a marriage comes to an end, we should not indicate to women that they cannot get out of a bad marriage.

As a leading, progressive and a much-respected donor country in global development efforts, the UK is already at the forefront of setting the agenda for gender empowerment. Therefore, we must set an example to end early marriage worldwide and meet international human rights standards. Critically, this must begin at home in the UK.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, on her work in chairing the APPG on Population, Development and Reproductive Health. On receiving her Bill, I took the opportunity to read the APPG’s report on child marriage published in November 2012, and in line with her request in the introduction I did not just read the summary: I read the whole report. The evidence in that report and the personal testimonies were truly horrific. I strongly recommend that all noble Lords read through it. We have of course seen the shocking exploitation of not only women but young girls—some as young as 10, 11 and 12—being forced into marriage. As the noble Baroness said, it is not only a shocking infringement of human rights and the rights of the child. It has significant health and well-being consequences, which can be lifelong. Those can scar people all their lives.

One issue for me with the Bill is that I acknowledge, as the report does, the significant lead of the United Kingdom in challenging these norms, particularly by challenging violence against women but, more importantly, in terms of how we change things. The most important thing that we can do is to encourage all kinds of activity which empowers women. It is not about limiting ourselves simply to trying to change laws. One thing that would slightly worry me is if the focus were simply on a law that said, “Marriage will be barred below 18”. That would ignore the potential that often, in countries we are dealing with, laws are ignored anyway and the real change comes from the empowerment of women. That means education and job and income opportunities. Significant change happens, including in Bangladesh, when women are properly empowered. That covers all our activities.

As the noble Baroness said, in this country we have had the success of the Forced Marriage Unit, which has worked incredibly well. We also had the passing of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, which made it an offence for someone to force a person into marriage.

Reading through the APPG’s report, I was looking for a little more evidence to back up the case on linking to the UN convention and saying that the Government should take the lead by increasing the minimum age for marriage. I was prepared to hear and see that case but, fundamentally, it comes down to my noble friend Lady Uddin’s point: it is about how we take the lead and strengthen the position through our global advocacy on the protection of the child. That may be what we need to do—I am open to the arguments here—but this is a domestic Bill relating to domestic law. What would its impact be on people throughout the United Kingdom?

Addressing the issue in the past, the relevant Minister in the coalition Government, the noble Lord, Lord McNally, said that that Government did not,

“consider that it is necessary to amend the age at which people can enter into marriage”,

and that the,

“existing provisions that require parental consent for people under the age of 18 to marry provide adequate protection ”.—[Official Report, 15/10/13; col. WA 74.]

Do the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, and the Minister think that case remains?

Fundamental issues were raised in the 1967 House of Commons report on the age of majority. There are debates about the age of majority and the age of consent. I think that getting married at 30 is a bit too young. It is something that you need to take time to consider as it is not something that you should undertake lightly, but then nor is having sex. I do not think that the noble Baroness is suggesting that we increase the age of consent. There is an issue about choice here. I strongly believe that we have to address teenage pregnancy through better education and support, the principles that were raised in the noble Baroness’s original APPG report. All these things need to be undertaken. We need to think extremely carefully about the idea that someone aged 17 who has a baby could be legally barred from marrying, entering into a partnership that has legal protection, in order to bring up a child if they so wish.

The ONC report referred to in the Library briefing states that there has been a substantial drop in the number of people getting married under the age of 20 in the past 10 years but, as the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, said we do not have any clear statistics on marriages involving people aged between 16 and 18. Perhaps the Minister will tell us what problem this Bill seeks to address. What are the numbers? I hope that we will have an opportunity in Committee to go through some of these issues in more detail, but we need to think hard about making statutory changes without being clear about the evidence. I totally support the policy advocacy of the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, challenging cultural norms and empowering women. As she said, the exploitation of women does not start or stop at 18 or 16. In many countries, it is ongoing. It has taken this country a long time to address those issues, and we have still not reached the end of the road. I certainly welcome the promotion of the APPG’s report and that we are debating these issues, but I would like the Minister and the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, to address the evidence and the conclusions we might reach from it.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, for bringing this debate to the House today and acknowledge her work as chair, with Heather Wheeler, my honourable friend in another place, of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Population, Development and Reproductive Health, a committee to which several of your Lordships bring their deep expertise and wide experience.

There can be no doubt that it is the gravest matter when someone is prevented from making a free and informed decision about their future and must suffer consequences that may be abusive, brutal and even fatal. The Government share the noble Baroness’s concerns about this and remain committed to their work in improving the life chances of women and girls around the world.

The UK is a world leader in tackling forced marriage. Internationally, we have demonstrated our leadership through co-hosting the first ever Girl Summit in 2014, which galvanised global action to end child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation. Following the Girl Summit, the UK has supported UN resolutions and advocated a separate target on ending child, early and forced marriage within the global goals.

Child marriage carries specific risks that have been a focus of our international development work overseas, but we know that forced marriage is no respecter of age or boundaries. That is why the previous Government introduced the offence of forced marriage in 2014 and criminalised breach of the existing Forced Marriage Protection Order. To date, over 1,000 orders have been made to protect victims and those at risk, so I suggest there is evidence of protection working.

Stopping forced marriage at home forms an integral part of our cross-government strategy on violence against women and girls, which sets out our ambition that by the end of this Parliament no victim of abuse is turned away from the support they need. Where cases involve a minor, either in the UK or overseas, the Forced Marriage Unit works with the relevant statutory agencies and consular officials to provide advice and expertise to make sure that appropriate safeguarding measures are taken. Last year, the Forced Marriage Unit handled cases relating to 67 countries to which a victim was at risk of being taken in connection with a forced marriage, or had already been taken. Of the 1,220 cases it handled in total, 175 were identified as relating to the United Kingdom.

The Government have committed £36 million towards ending child marriage around the world, including support for civil society organisations working to address a broader range of sexual and reproductive health and gender issues that are associated with child marriage. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Collins, for his sensitive and thoughtful contribution in relation to education and the empowerment of women which are absolutely vital, and his acknowledgement of the Government’s progress on forced marriage.

In the UK, we are fortunate that the conditions, customs and laws that give rise to the high prevalence of child marriage in some other countries bear little resemblance to our own experience. In England and Wales, the number of people marrying at 16 or 17 is small and continues to decrease without any legislative encouragement. In 2013, the latest year for which statistics are available, there were over 240,000 marriages in England and Wales, meaning over 480,000 people entered into marriage that year. Out of these 480,000 people, 210 were aged 16 or 17, of whom 33 were boys and 177 girls, amounting to less than 1/20th of 1% of the total.

The number of civil partnerships each year has been in sharp decline since the Government opened marriage to same-sex couples. In 2015, the number of civil partnerships almost halved, from 1,683 the previous year to 861. Last year, not a single 16 or 17 year-old formed a civil partnership. With this background and perspective in mind, I turn to the measures of the Bill.

The Bill proposes amending the Marriage Act 1949 and the Civil Partnership Act 2004 to raise to 18 the minimum age at which people may enter into marriage or form a civil partnership. Statute generally defines a child as being under 18, but it is sometimes necessary to make different provision for children at different ages. The minimum age for marriage, 16, has not changed since 1929, when the Age of Marriage Act raised it from the common-law ages of 12 for girls and 14 for boys. The freedom to marry in England and Wales at 16 has stood much longer. In recognition of the difference between marrying above and below the age of majority, there has also long been a provision requiring parental or other consent for those people who seek to marry before reaching the age at which they could marry as of right. In addition to that, there is a legal requirement to give public notice of the marriage.

The Government believe that the existing requirement of parental or judicial consent for those under 18 continues to provide adequate protection, and they have seen no evidence of any failing that requires raising the minimum age to 18 in England and Wales. To raise this age would introduce a disparity with the minimum ages in the other UK jurisdictions: provision in Northern Ireland runs on the same age lines as England and Wales, whereas in Scotland, people may marry at 16 without the requirement for parental consent. Raising the minimum age would also introduce a disparity with the age of sexual consent across the United Kingdom. The implications of both these disparities require very careful consideration.

Importantly, the position of England and Wales is not exceptional among more developed countries. Many Council of Europe member states allow marriage at 16 on condition of either parental consent, or judicial consent in certain circumstances. Where member states have raised the minimum age, expressly to prevent child marriage, Governments have not reached consensus about the appropriate age to achieve this. Sweden raised the minimum age to 18 in July 2014, removing capacity to marry at a younger age with consent. Spain, however, raised the minimum age to 16 in the following July but kept the requirement for consents for people under 18, in line with the existing law in England and Wales.

It is not clear that a minimum age of 18 would prevent abuse domestically, as it would have effect only on marriages conducted in England and Wales and in compliance with our marriage Acts. We should be mindful that, in many cases, parents will seek to circumvent the law by taking their children to marry abroad or by marrying them at home in an unregistered ceremony. These ceremonies cannot be scrutinised and, without the legal requirement to give public notice, they do not come to the attention of registration officers.

The third clause of the Bill seeks to include civil partnerships within the offence of forced marriage. This offence, which the previous Government introduced in the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, was drafted to define marriage broadly, by including,

“any religious or civil ceremony of marriage (whether or not legally binding)”.

Government policy takes as its starting point the fact that there should be parity between the protections available in marriage and those in civil partnerships, where such provision is appropriate. The nature of the social and cultural pressures behind forced marriage, however, makes it unlikely that families and communities will force same-sex couples into civil partnerships, and there is currently little evidence of such abuse. With the declining numbers and the rising ages of people forming civil partnerships, the reach of the forced marriage offence is uncertain. However, I make it clear that we are not complacent. The Home Office is currently working with the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to review implementation of the forced marriage offence more broadly to ensure that we do all we can to protect victims of this abhorrent crime.

I conclude by saying that there can be no doubt that the Government understand, share and take very seriously the noble Baroness’s concerns. No one should ever tolerate the abuse which she seeks to eradicate, and it is right that the UK Government should continue their work to bring this to an end, both here and around the world. However, the Government do not see sufficient evidence that the measures in the Bill would be effective in preventing abuse, bringing perpetrators to justice or offering additional protection. It would be disproportionate to prevent people exercising the freedom to marry or form civil partnerships in England and Wales at 16 or 17 with their full, free and informed consent. Their numbers, already small, continue to decline. People are now marrying much later, not because of the law but because of changes over the decades in society and in the educational, employment and economic opportunities open to them. The Bill would not reach those vulnerable people whom others have shielded from social change and who have been denied the opportunities that are rightly theirs, and it would not achieve a just, proportionate or effective means of enabling us to prevent or remedy the harmful impact on people’s lives that both the Government and your Lordships will not hesitate to condemn.

My Lords, I thank the small number of people who contributed. It was scheduled at a very difficult time—I was told that it was the graveyard hour—and I had several apologies from noble Lords who would have spoken had it not been Friday afternoon. Nevertheless, it has been very interesting and has stimulated me to further thought.

The noble Baroness, Lady Uddin—perhaps I can call her my noble friend, because we are colleagues on our all-party group—made the important point that we are very good at telling other countries what to do, particularly in international development. We are always telling them how they can arrange their social affairs and look after their women and girls. While the accepted international definition of a child is up to the age of 18, we cannot then say that we will allow marriage at the age of 16 with parental consent. It is somehow a little bit hypocritical, because in the countries that we preach to—if I dare use the word “preach”—the distinction between a marriage with parental consent and a forced marriage is very shadowy indeed. We had lots of evidence in our committee, when we had those hearings, that that goes on in this country. People may say that they have parental consent but they have been forced into a particular liaison and told to say that they have parental consent. It is a very difficult issue, I agree, but we should stick to the principle that a child is a child until they are 18, and that they should not enter into these contracts, which are difficult to get out of, before the age of 18.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, made a very good point which I should have thought of: what do you do with a teenage girl who gets pregnant at 17 and wants to get married? Looking back on my medical, family and social experience, I would say, “Never mind, you’ve had a baby, there are loads and loads of single parents in this world today—you are one of them”. What is the old phrase about marrying in haste? I cannot remember it. But just to get married because you have a baby and you want to marry the father—

I thank the noble Lord. It is something that we should consider, but I do not think that simply having a baby at the age of 17 means that you have to get married. That is a very old-fashioned view and it should be discouraged until the parents know that they want to be with each other for a long time and did not just have an accidental event one night after clubbing.

The Minister gave us lots of very encouraging figures about the declining rates of young people being married. That is all very encouraging, but I emphasise that we know that coercion is still going on and that it is not called coercion but marriage with parental consent. We know that it is going on and we know that girls are taken abroad to be married. We know, as the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, pointed out, that there are ceremonies in this country that are unofficial but are binding to the couples concerned. That is why the Bill deserves a serious look in Committee —which I hope we shall have.

I thank all noble Lords for their contributions and ask for the Bill to be given a Second Reading.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.