To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will reverse the policy of charging the victims of forced marriages the cost of their return to the United Kingdom.
My Lords, today my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has announced that victims of forced marriage who are helped to return to the United Kingdom by the Forced Marriage Unit will no longer be asked to take out a loan for their repatriation costs. Furthermore, no individual assisted by the Forced Marriage Unit who would previously have been offered a loan will have to cover the costs of their repatriation.
My Lords, I am extremely grateful for that Answer. I am very glad that I do not have to berate the Minister—for whom I have the greatest respect—on an issue which, frankly, was a disgrace, and which the Times did us all a service by highlighting. I am also glad to understand that the debts that are still around the necks of some of these very vulnerable women who have been repatriated to this country will be wiped out. Will the Minister reassure me that their passports, which were confiscated, will also be returned to them? Will he look very carefully at whether other such practices go on when British citizens abroad need consular help in order to come home after a crime has been committed against them?
My Lords, I reassure the noble Baroness and your Lordships’ House that we are not just waiting in respect of those with outstanding loans but are proactively reaching out to anyone who has been impacted. Those loans will no longer apply, and those who have had passports blocked will have them returned; I can provide those reassurances. On the third point, I think the noble Baroness may well have been listening in to my briefing with officials earlier today because I raised that exact point, particularly with regard to FGM, to ensure that no one who suffers as a victim of this crime abroad has to bear the cost of repatriation.
My Lords, I welcome the commitment the Minister has given today on behalf of the Government. Will the FCO look at getting compensation out of the perpetrators who force the victims to return with no money? As part of this review, will the Government consider that families who have lost a loved one to homicide abroad should not have to refund the Government for the cost of returning the body to the UK? There are victims’ families who are crowdfunding, and I do not think it right in the 21st century for the FCO to suggest to them that it is cheaper to cremate the body and collect the ashes.
My Lords, in any of these cases, our embassies, the FCO and indeed any government department should display empathy towards the victim and their family and ensure that we minimise any distress that has been caused. Perhaps I may suggest that she, in her role as victims’ commissioner, and I could meet to discuss her proposal further. I dealt with the issue of forced marriage when I was at the Home Office—I am glad to see the noble Baronesses, Lady Smith and Lady Thornton, in their places—and I remember that when the Government made this a criminal offence, we worked across the House to ensure that we made the legislation as strong as possible. I recognise the great work that has been done in this House to improve the legislation, but where there is a weakness or more to be done, we need to step up to the mark and do just that.
My Lords, I wonder whether the Minister has considered the damage done to our reputation internationally with those countries that are not as caring about human rights and addressing forced marriage as this country is. What are the Government going to do to repair that damage, so that this is not seen as a green light by other countries to continue bad practices?
My Lords, let us be clear: forced marriage is a crime. We need to ensure that we stand up for the rights of any individual—it is mainly girls, but young boys also have to endure this crime—and provide dignity and a safe return home in instances where they need to do so. The noble Lady asks about reputation. It is important to recognise, as I hope she does, that when this issue arose in the last few days, my colleagues in the Foreign Office, including my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary, acted decisively and promptly to address a wrong—which we have put right.
My Lords, I am also very grateful to the Minister for this good outcome today. However, there have been reports of women being sold into slavery, or who cannot come back because of the charges. Have any attempts been made to contact and repatriate those who have been unable to pay and found themselves destitute and trapped in those countries?
My Lords, the issue of data is an important one. As I said in an answer to an earlier question, the Foreign Office has been proactively reaching out to those for whom we do have a record to ensure that they are aware of the situation and the change that has been effected. The noble Lady raises an important point about modern slavery and human trafficking. As she will know, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has made this a particular priority on the global stage, and we are working with international partners to ensure that anyone caught up in modern slavery or human trafficking can also be repatriated to the country to which they belong.