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Children: Forced Marriage

Volume 792: debated on Tuesday 10 July 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what work they are undertaking with schools, particularly in preparation for the school holidays, to safeguard children at risk of being taken abroad and forced into marriage.

My Lords, the UK is a world leader in addressing forced marriage, with our dedicated Forced Marriage Unit. Schools play an important role in identifying and responding to the needs of victims and potential victims at an early stage and making referrals to the police and social services. Our statutory guidance, Keeping Children Safe in Education, makes it clear that all school staff should look out for, and safeguard pupils against, this life-changing criminal act.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his supportive remarks, and I thank colleagues throughout the House for wearing the pin in support of the charity Karma Nirvana. Forced marriage is not about culture: it is about being criminal. Many schools do not take the threat to girls as young as five years old seriously enough, or as part of their safeguarding responsibilities. Will the Minister consider making Ofsted responsible for measuring this element of safeguarding? Colleagues throughout the House should consider themselves invited to join Jasvinder Sanghera, the founder of Karma Nirvana, who is sitting in the Gallery, in paying tribute to its 25th anniversary, at 3.30 pm in the Attlee Room.

I thank the noble Baroness for that. I have also heard of the good work that Karma Nirvana does with schools, and of its campaign for an annual day of remembrance. I also very much appreciate the amount of work that the voluntary sector in general contributes to supporting victims and potential victims of forced marriage. However, we believe that a collective response is the way forward. I will certainly take note of her point about Ofsted, and take that back with me.

Does the noble Viscount agree that such cases need not always be forced? Any education or warning should be general and not just directed at those of Asian heritage. I am aware of at least one case in Wales where a young girl was offered the holiday of a lifetime in Bangladesh and returned home, not only married but also seeking to bring her husband back.

There are indeed several cases that can be highlighted. As the noble Lord will know, there is a difference between arranged marriages and forced ones. The main focus is on forced marriages, when children—often young ones—are taken away without their consent. We are looking closely at this important issue.

My Lords, while the Forced Marriage Unit is a joint initiative of the Foreign Office and the Home Office, there is also much government focus and spending through the Department for International Development. Can my noble friend outline whether those Ministers and officials are also inputting into this unit? There seems to be a correlation, or at least an overlap, between the countries where we are spending money through DfID to avoid local girls and women being forced into marriage, and the countries that UK citizens are at risk of being taken to.

The Forced Marriage Unit is very much a cross-departmental exercise—a joint Home Office and Foreign and Commonwealth Office unit that sits within the FCO. Its work overseas is accountable to the FCO and is measured against the consular directorate’s strategic priorities. However, I reassure my noble friend that responsibility for this policy is with Harriett Baldwin, so there is a top of the pyramid for this, which is important for having a cohesive policy.

My Lords, as well as paying tribute to Karma Nirvana, will the noble Viscount also pay tribute to the work of Freedom Charity and its founder, Aneeta Prem? It is a small organisation but, within six years, it has visited 120 schools and touched the lives of many young people, boys as well as girls, who need education in this area. This year, it is also working with airport staff to alert them to the signs of people being taken away for forced marriage. Will he take very seriously its suggestion that there ought to be an audit after this summer’s holidays to establish both the extent of the problem and areas where we need to target resources?

The noble Baroness has made a number of points, and I take her point about having an audit. However, the Forced Marriage Unit now monitors this abhorrent issue very closely. She alluded to the fact that the unit is working very closely with the Border Force. The idea behind the spoon emblem is that children will understand the concept of having a metal spoon they can hide as they are taken forcibly through an airport out of the UK, so that the pinger will go off at security, they will be taken aside on their own and, hopefully, their case will be highlighted.

My Lords, almost 15 years ago my recommendation in Committee brought the Forced Marriage Unit into place. What impact does the noble Viscount feel that that unit has had in reducing the number of forced marriage cases in this country? Will he also, with other noble Lords, pay tribute not only to Karma Nirvana but to Southall Black Sisters and the Newham Asian Women’s Project, which have worked relentlessly on these matters for over 25 years?

I said earlier that I wanted to highlight a number of charities that work together on this important matter, which are led by the FMU. I also reassure the noble Baroness that there have been three convictions since we introduced the new forced marriage legislation in 2014, one in 2015 and two in May 2018. The first of these convictions resulted in a four and a half year sentence, with a maximum of seven years, so we believe that that can be quite a deterrent.

My Lords, victims of this particular crime often find it difficult to come forward because they know that by doing so they will be implicating their parents. Although we know that schools, police and the other agencies that have been mentioned have worked hard over many years to protect young people, there have been examples where local authorities have not always been responsive enough to protect them. What assurance can the Minister give that all children’s services will be alert and intervene appropriately when there is strong evidence that children are at risk?

As the noble Baroness will know, local authorities have ultimate responsibility for monitoring children but much more work is being done within schools. It is important that all young people are equipped to have healthy, respectful relationships and, in particular, that they know how to keep themselves safe. A lot of work goes on in schools to teach them what is appropriate and what is inappropriate behaviour, and, in particular, what is informed and freely given consent.