I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
For many people I speak to, it is a shock for them to learn that child marriage is not illegal in this country already, and it happens far more often than one might think. In the last 12 months, the national charity Karma Nirvana has responded to 76 known cases of child marriage in England and Wales, with the youngest case concerning a seven-year-old girl. We know all too well the devastating impact that child marriage has on vulnerable children.
I commend my hon. Friend on the work that she has done over six years to bring this important Bill to the House, in collaboration with my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid). The current marriage laws enable 16 and 17-year-olds to marry, with permission from their parents, but this can lead to children being coerced into marriage. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to prevent children from being victim to this?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising that point. The whole point of the Bill is to stop young people being victims, because they are. Even if there is a prosecution, we should not expect them to be criminalised, because it is not their fault; they are the victims in these situations. We should be supporting these young children.
May I put on record my deep gratitude to my hon. Friend for her tireless work on this Bill? She and I worked together on it when I was in office. I am also grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid); my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) has stepped into the breach that he left.
The point that my hon. Friend has just made is the crux of all this. This legislation is part of the progressive moves that we have made over the years to stop treating the child as somehow responsible and to start understanding the child as victim. In particular, the mechanism of parental consent, which we all thought was a good safeguard, has sadly become a vehicle for abuse. Does my hon. Friend agree?
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for making that very fair point. These children have been coerced into marriage, as they are too young to make the decision themselves. The whole point of the Bill is to stop them having their parents make the decision on their behalf. The children are not old enough.
Let us consider the case of the inspirational child marriage survivor, the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation campaigner Payzee Mahmod, who I have been fortunate enough to work with throughout this whole campaign. Payzee was just 16 when she was coerced into marrying a man of 32—literally twice her age—who she did not know. That was in this country, not abroad. Payzee did not want to be married. She wanted to continue her education and go to university. As soon as the religious ceremony took place, Payzee was married in the eyes of her community, and expected to leave education and become a wife and mother.
I thank the hon. Member for giving way; she is always very generous with her time. She is making strong points this morning, and I congratulate her on her hard work to bring this Bill before us.
My own mother married at 16. She was a kind and clever woman, but without formal education. Her gift to her daughters—my sisters—was to offer them access to education and not to marry them off young, but instead to encourage school and university before settling down. Marriage under 18 is child marriage and not something we would condone in any other situation. Does the hon. Lady agree that the experience of child marriage for millions is one of entrenching poverty and low education levels for women and girls?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point, because young people who are married are often taken out not only of education, but of society, and hidden away. They do not take a full part in society. This Bill will give those young people—it is boys as well as girls—the opportunity to take full part in society from the age of 18, because it will be their choice.
Payzee’s sister, Banaz, was also the victim of child marriage. Earlier in the same year that Payzee was married, Banaz was married to an abusive husband. When she tried to leave him, her family told her she would be shaming them. She did leave, but then was murdered by men from her own family and community. This tragic case illustrates one of the dangers of child marriages and the responsibility we have in this House to intervene. There is a really good docudrama called “Honour”. If anyone doubts any of what we are saying today, they should watch that, because it is about Banaz and her story.
Banning child marriage is about safeguarding girls’ and young boys’ futures. It includes protecting boys and girls like Banaz from abusive and unwanted relationships, but it is also about ensuring that children like Payzee, who desire an education, are given the best chance in life.
Our current laws stem back to 1929, when the Age of Marriage Act banned marriages between under-16s. Twenty years later, the Marriage Act 1949 permitted children over the age of 16 to marry with parental consent, and the law has not been changed since. In 1949, society was very different. School leaving age under the Education Act 1944 was just 15, and the average age of marriage for women was under 23. In those days, the Queen was not even on the throne, contraception like the pill was not available and being gay was still illegal. Life has changed dramatically in the years since 1949. In fact, in those days, people could not even buy tights, because they had not been invented—they had to have stockings. Life is completely different now.
Contrast that with 2021, where being in educational training is compulsory until the age of 18 in England, and the average age of marriage is over 30. The provision for marriage at 16 is therefore entirely outdated and prevents children from completing their compulsory educational training before entering into a commitment as huge as marriage.
I add my own words of congratulation to my hon. Friend on bringing this important Bill forward and congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid), who has also put a lot of work into this area. It is very clear that there is a real grasp of the facts and statistics and some of the patterns behind this. Is there another pattern to do with communities or particular traditions where this practice takes place?
We are not targeting any community in particular, but there are obviously some areas where people are more likely to have child marriages. There is a point that I will come to later in my speech about international treaties that we have signed up to but not gone through with.
Clearly, we need to stop marriages at 16, but there is a further element to the problem. The laws apply only to registered ceremonies of marriage. Unregistered religious ceremonies in this country are not registered by age at all. In fact, the only requirement on religious marriages is that they are not forced marriages. While the Government’s legislation on forced marriages, inspired by the campaign of my friend and long-time campaigner, Jasvinder Sanghera, is hugely important, it does not work for children. To prove a forced marriage, the courts must find that there is coercion or undue pressure on the child to enter the marriage. In practice, this means that the child needs either to give evidence that will condemn their parents or state that they consented to the child marriage. Very few children of 16 have the strength to go against their parents, because they are totally under their care—I do not want to use the word “control”. Children need to be looked after and brought up by their parents; they cannot act independently at 16.
Karma Nirvana has supported children who do not recognise their child marriage as a forced marriage. They have been conditioned to normalise marriage under the age of 16 and as such, the evidence of coercion or duress is absent. It is frankly unbelievable that, in this country, our legal system allows children, sometimes as young as 7, to consent to unregistered religious child marriages. As long as they are not forced to a standard beyond all reasonable doubt, it is not against the law. My Bill aims to change that. No child should be able to consent to a marriage, whether or not they are under pressure from their parents.
A very small number of children registered their marriage legally in 2019—only 125 legal marriages involving a person under the age of 18 were registered under the parental consent exception. The number of religious child marriages is undocumented in official statistics, however, so it is likely to be higher by a huge factor. Of the cases involving child marriage reported to the Home Office-commissioned national honour- based abuse line in the year to September 2021, only four related to civil marriages. Almost 20 times as many cases involved only a religious ceremony.
It is striking that, this week, the Foreign Secretary announced £18 million to tackle child marriage. It is interesting that our foreign policy seems to be ahead of our domestic policy. My hon. Friend is talking about enforcement. How does she think that the enforcement mechanism would work in the Home Office or relevant Department to ensure that we can crack down on child marriage and get the relevant data to help as many people as possible?
It does seem that certain parts of Government are way ahead. One problem, which I will come on to, is that we are asking other countries to stop child marriage, but they can easily turn around and say, “Why should we, because you do it?”.
As I said, almost 20 times as many cases—more than 95% of all cases—involved only a religious ceremony. It is crucial to understand that, as in Payzee’s case, the religious element is a fundamental part of the marriage in the eyes of the child’s entire community. Just because the law does not recognise unregistered marriage, that does not mean that it does not exist or that it causes any less harm. Having listened to the lived experience of child bride survivors, it is without question that such marriages cause lifelong harms and threaten the futures of all those who are entered into them. That is the problem that my Bill tries to solve.
I will turn to the specifics of how the Bill will try to achieve those aims. It sets a blanket minimum age of marriage in this country of 18, irrespective of whether the marriage is registered. There are two aspects to that. First, it removes the parental consent exception that allows children to marry at 16 or 17 in a civil ceremony with the signature of their parents or a judge. That means that children who wish to marry will have to wait until their 18th birthday.
Fewer than 150 children each year currently use the parental consent exception to get married. A handful of those may be young people marrying without coercion, who will be affected by the Bill, but only to the extent that they will have to wait until they are 18 to carry out their marriage.
Many people marrying under that exception are encouraged, persuaded or conditioned by their parents or families to think that it is a good thing. Such families do not necessarily want to break the law. Karma Nirvana, run by my friend Natasha Rattu, received evidence from some children that their parents would not have arranged their marriages at 16 or 17 except for the fact that it was lawful. Those are the people we are targeting with the change: giving children the protection of the law until they are 18, when they are more able to protest or act independently if they are encouraged to enter a marriage they do not want. Any child by the time they have got to 18 is far more mature to be able to decide their own future than they are at 16, so this change to the law of registration of civil marriages will have an important impact. It will send a very clear message to everyone that marriage under the age of 18 is illegal and not recognised in this country.
Secondly, my Bill will not just remove the parental consent exception, but cover unregistered religious marriages. This is absolutely crucial, and it is complementary to the first ambition. Karma Nirvana’s helpline has worked alongside South Yorkshire police to safeguard two girls who were both married in religious or traditional ceremonies at 15, after they were reported missing by their school when they did not return after the school holidays. Following a police investigation, it was discovered that the two girls had been married in a religious ceremony, and following this had been taken out of school and relocated out of the family home in Sheffield to live in the south-east of England with their in-laws.
Despite the girls only being 15 years old, the police were limited in their ability to safeguard them. There was no offence committed as the marriage was a religious ceremony only and never legally registered. South Yorkshire police did try to pursue forced marriage charges, but it was unable to find any evidence of duress or coercion as both children had consented to the marriages. This highlights a flaw in the forced marriage legislation.
Forced marriage requires evidence of coercion or undue pressure, and in most cases that inevitably means children giving evidence against their parents and families. This hinder prosecutions for forced marriages. My Bill will offer an alternative solution: making arrangements for any marriage, religious or civil, involving a person under the age of 18 will automatically be categorised as a forced marriage, irrespective of any alleged consent, and therefore those who encourage or facilitate child marriage will commit an offence and can face criminal charges.
I will now turn to the penalties and consequences of the Bill. It is worth noting, before I go into more detail, that of course none of the penalties or criminalisation is in any way aimed at the child. We must constantly remember that the child is a victim in these cases and needs our protection, not our judgment or our criticism.
First, changing the law in this way is intended to be a preventive measure in itself. We are sending a very clear message that across England and Wales, irrespective of the type of marriage undertaken, it is against the law for a marriage to include a child. As I have set out, this is powerful in itself and will help to reduce the number of child marriages in families that are not lawbreakers.
A second stage, which already exists under forced marriage legislation, is that where there is a concern for a particular child, the courts can impose a forced marriage protection order. This is an extra safeguarding tool in the powers of the police and social services to prevent child marriages.
Finally, in cases where the deterrent or the preventive action has failed, the Bill will penalise those whose conduct caused a child to enter into a marriage, whether or not the marriage is legally binding and whether or not the marriage has yet taken place. This conduct is punishable by a prison sentence of up to seven years, a fine or both. As such, this scale of penalties is proportionate and aims to safeguard the child at all stages, culminating in criminal sanctions for anyone actually causing a child to enter such a marriage.
One final point about the contents of the Bill is extremely important, and I would like to mention it before moving on to talk about how this Bill satisfies significant policy objectives. This is the extraterritoriality element of the Bill. Very often, child marriages actually take place outside the United Kingdom. A girl from Birmingham was referred to the national honour-based abuse hotline in 2020, after being taken to Pakistan at the age of 18 to get married. She told her teachers about the plans, and they spoke to her parents, who denied them. The child was raped in Pakistan until she became pregnant, and only then was she allowed to return to the United Kingdom. What a tragic and horrifying story. Under normal circumstances, it would be outside the reach of UK law to punish the parents, unless the child was willing to testify against them for having forced her into the marriage, which is highly unlikely and would be asking a huge amount of a child who is in the UK, a victim of child marriage and rape, and unable to act independently. My Bill would ensure that any marriage involving a child who lives in England and Wales, or who is a UK national, is covered, whether or not the actual conduct or marriage takes place in this country. Having talked about the scale of the problem and the contents of my Bill, I will now turn to how it would achieve both its direct aims, and significant policy aims in the future.
It is striking that my hon. Friend is talking about violence against women—next week we have the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women—and the need for us to do more to and to bring perpetrators to justice. We have to shatter the cultural impunity, the idea that people can get away with these crimes. Will she encourage the Minister, and other elements of Government, to go further and ensure that there is a mechanism to document such crimes and lead prosecutions? So often there are no court cases that bring people to justice.
I thank my hon. Friend for that point. We have seen that in the case of FGM, where we have had only one case. That was where a child had to testify against a family member who had conducted the FGM procedure. In this case, however, the child will not have to do that, and it is much better that the child is seen always as the victim, as they should also be in the case of FGM—perhaps that law needs to be tweaked to make it more appropriate. In this case we are not talking about women; we are talking about girls and under-18s. Of course we want violence against any woman or girl to be abolished, and we must do all we can to document that and make sure it never happens.
The Bill’s first objective is to safeguard young people, and in particular to safeguard their futures. This is about breaking a harmful practice legacy that is often handed down from generation to generation. We know that children who are subject to child marriages have significantly poorer opportunities and life chances. Those include a lack of education and job opportunities, the removal of independence, serious physical and mental health problems, developmental difficulties for children born to young mothers, and an increased risk of domestic abuse and divorce. There are many organisations in society with a duty to safeguard children, including social services, the police, and medical professionals. It is telling that when it comes to child marriage, those organisations are turning for support to the voluntary sector, including Karma Nirvana, the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation, and other charities, rather than being able to rely on the force of the law. The Bill will therefore be an incredibly important tool in safeguarding young people and giving them the best chance for their futures.
I came into politics from a background of education, so giving children the best chance in life has always been at the heart of my political motivations. The Bill will support those young people, and help to ensure that they remain in education or training until they are 18, at which point they are far more able to make informed decisions about their futures.
The second area where the Bill achieves its key policy objectives is in covering both civil and unregistered religious ceremonies. I have been working on this issue for over four years, so I understand that crucial importance of covering religious ceremonies in the legislation. If we were only to regulate civil marriages, we would solve fewer than 5% of the child marriage cases with which the national honour-based abuse helpline deals each year. It is common sense to recognise that the responsibilities and life-changing elements of a marriage flow not from the legal procedure, but rather from the traditional or ceremonial wedding. For so many cases dealt with by the charities I work with, and the forced marriage unit in the Home Office, the religious marriage is the important aspect, and the civil marriage is either non-existent or an afterthought. That is why the Bill will be able to achieve its primary aim of safeguarding young people.
The final point that I would like to make in support of the Bill relates to the UK’s international obligations. The UK is committed to achieving the UN sustainable development goals by 2030. Target 5.3 in the SDGs is to
“eliminate all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation”
by 2030. That specifically applies to both religious and non-religious child marriages. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child also recommends that there should be no legal way for anyone to marry under the age of 18, even with parental consent.
By supporting the Bill, we are also helping the UK to set an example to the rest of the world on prioritising children’s futures. It will enable us to further our aims to promote girls’ education around the world, which the Prime Minister has always championed, because, as I have said, dropping out of education is one of the main effects of child marriage.
A practical example is the case of Karma Nirvana ambassador Farhana Raval, who was taken to Bangladesh at 16, under the pretence of visiting a sick relative, in order that she should marry a second cousin. Ironically, and tragically, that marriage was allowed in Bangladesh only because of the UK’s rules. At the time, girls in Bangladesh had to be 18 to be married, but because Farhana was British and the rules were different, the marriage was allowed. Since then, in 2017 Bangladesh implemented a new legal provision allowing younger girls to marry in special circumstances. Human Rights Watch confirmed that Bangladeshi officials repeatedly cited the fact that child marriage is legal in the UK as a justification for that change.
The UK’s position in criticising child marriage around the world and championing children’s future is incompatible with our allowing child marriage at home. To uphold our international obligations under the sustainable development goals and persuade other countries of the importance of banning child marriage, we must first lead by example and ban it ourselves.
May I commend my hon. Friend for bringing this vital piece of legislation to the House? I know that this is something she has championed for many years, and I think all Members are pleased to see the Bill before the House today. Does she agree that this is an opportunity for this House to show unambiguously—to make it crystal clear—that child marriage is child abuse and that it will never be tolerated in our country?
I thank the Secretary of State for his intervention. When he got the opportunity to present a private Member’s Bill, he took this Bill on and wanted to take it through, but the quirk of fate that meant he got promoted meant that I was able to take it through. I congratulate him on his new job—well, it is not so new now—and I am delighted that I was able to step into the breach. It is important that we show the world and the whole of this country that we will not tolerate child marriage, because, as he says, it is child abuse.
We have heard a grim account of some of the problems, and we have properly considered them and looked at the legal implications and the penalties attached. Does my hon. Friend agree, however, that marriage is a noble institution, that it is a thing to be desired, promoted and encouraged, and indeed that it is a building block of our society?
So obviously, the institution of marriage is a good thing. I do not ever want to stop people getting married. It is outdated to talk about people having children out of wedlock being a sin. If a girl becomes pregnant on her 16th birthday, she will not have the baby until she is almost 17—16 years and nine months—and she has to wait for only another year and three months until she can get married. In that time, she and the person that she has become pregnant by—whether that is by design or not—will, between them, be able to judge whether that is the right choice for them. Clearly, children being brought up in a loving household is obviously the best thing for everybody. Eighteen is the age at which marriage should happen, not before.
I have been long aware of and engaged in this issue through my association for more than a decade with Jasvinder Sanghera, who grew up in Derby and originally founded Karma Nirvana there. As I said, it is now run by Natasha Rattu in Leeds. I have been campaigning on this issue in Parliament for several years and proposed a private Member’s Bill in the 2019 Parliament, which fell at Dissolution twice. I am therefore delighted to be able to introduce this Bill today, and I hope that it will pass this stage of the parliamentary process and proceed towards changing the lives of young boys and girls who would otherwise have been subject to child marriage, whether in the UK or around the world.
I must acknowledge the help and support that I have had in bringing the Bill forward. The charities that form the partnership Girls Not Brides UK, which include Karma Nirvana, IKWRO—the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation—FORWARD—the Foundation of Women’s Health Research and Development—and the Independent Yemen Group, have been instrumental in providing me with data, campaign support and a never-ending source of inspiration to keep on pushing for change in this area.
Thanks must also go to those Members who supported me throughout the process, from the Bill’s birth as a ten-minute rule Bill to finally reaching Second Reading today. Like many of the best achievements in this House, it is a truly cross-party effort, and I pay tribute to the hard work and support of colleagues, including the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), my hon. Friends the Members for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) and for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter), the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma), my hon. Friends the Members for Altrincham and Sale West (Sir Graham Brady), for Crawley (Henry Smith) and for Shipley (Philip Davies), my right hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale), my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani) and, not least, my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce). In particular, thanks must also go to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid), who was drawn out of the private Members’ Bill ballot and kindly gave his support to the Bill, allowing me to take it forward in his place when he was appointed Secretary of State for Health and Social Care.
I also place on record my thanks to the Minister for the help and support that he has shown in getting the Bill to this stage. I look forward to working with him if the Bill passes Second Reading today. I have also had productive discussions with and support from the Minister responsible for safeguarding—the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean)—and her predecessor in that role, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins). I thank them both and the officials in their Departments for their hard work on getting this important piece of legislation right.
In conclusion, I urge all right hon. and hon. Members to support my Bill, for three connected reasons. First, it will safeguard young people by establishing 18 as the legal age of marriage in this country with no exceptions, giving a clear message to everyone that child marriage is unacceptable. Secondly, the Bill criminalises anyone who causes a child to enter a marriage, whether or not it is in a legally binding ceremony. The data tells us that many of the cases of child marriage involve only a religious ceremony, so this is an absolutely crucial aspect of the Bill.
Finally, the Bill will help the UK to live up to its international obligations by banning child marriage in all its forms, and allow us to take that message to the rest of the world. We support the UN’s call to end child marriage, but we can do that only if we ban it in this country. Let us finally give our children time to mature and see what life can offer after their 18th birthday. There is so much on offer for everyone to enjoy. [Interruption.]
I cannot tell you, Mr Speaker, how much I welcome this Bill and how grateful I am to my good friend the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) for all her work campaigning on such an important topic over years. I wish to make it clear that this is not about race, religion or even the institution of marriage; it is about child protection. I also thank the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, the right hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid), for all his work on not only this issue but child protection across the board.
I thank the organisations Karma Nirvana and IKWRO and the campaigning group Girls Not Brides; they have been campaigning on this issue and helping us all for many years.
I should clarify one point: the vast majority of child marriages involve girls, but occasionally they involve boys, and that is often when the family believe that the boy might be gay.
Let me talk a little about the scale of this issue. Last year, around a quarter of the 753 cases dealt with by the UK’s forced marriage unit involved children under the age of 18. Between 2007 and 2017, some 3,096 marriages involving children aged 16 and 17 were legally registered in England and Wales, according to the Office for National Statistics. Under the new law in the Bill, it will be absolutely clear to everyone that no child should face child marriage—whether the marriage is registered or not—and the harms it causes.
As the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire said, registered child marriages at 16 and 17 are only part of the picture. The ONS statistics do not capture non-registered and religious marriages in the UK. In the past year, Karma Nirvana has supported 76 cases involving child marriages, and only 5% of them were registered. The overwhelming 95%—72 out of 76 marriages—were non-registered and religious marriages, which is why the Bill is so important: it covers registered and non-registered marriages. The fact that some marriages are non-registered makes safeguarding even harder and, therefore, child protection more challenging.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend and thank him for his decades of campaigning against this abhorrent practice.
The problem is that as things currently stand it is very hard to apply the forced marriage parameters to child marriage. That cannot be right. Let me give an example: if someone has been told from the age of four that they are going to marry their much older cousin, they of course accept that that is going to be normal. When they are then married at 16, whether registered or not, why would they challenge that? I argue that that is coercive control: that child has been brainwashed from a very young age. It is unacceptable that to get a prosecution, a child has to recognise that, go to the police and speak against their family, often with horrific consequences. That is why this new legislation is so necessary.
Until now, children living in England and Wales who are at risk of child marriage have too often been failed by the safeguarding professionals who should have protected them, leaving them to suffer the extreme and lifelong consequences of child abuse. Too often, we even hear about social workers who attend the religious marriages of 15-year-olds; where is their safeguarding head when they do that? As a country, we are signed up to the UN definition of a child being someone up to the age of 18. Legally, we accept that, yet in this country we also accept that a child can be married. I just do not understand that. I try, but the only logic that I can find, apart from historical reasons, is that we are confusing sexual consent with consent to be married.
I agree that at the age of 16 someone is aware of their body and should have some control over it. It is their right to be able to give consent, although unfortunately consent is often not sought by others. However, we recognise legally that someone is a child until age 18, which is most obvious from the fact that they have to go to school until the age of 16. Why is it that in this one area we do not allow that recognition?
I go back to the hypothetical child who gets married, say at 16, to someone 30 or 40 years older or even to someone in their 30s or 40s. For an indefinite period, that child will be subjected to abuse, and for two years it will be child abuse. Unless we pass this legislation, we are just accepting that.
Most cases are religious marriages. I know of an example: a friend of mine I met in my first year at university. We will call her Susan. She was married at 16 to a much older man. She was white British; he was a white American. I will not say that they were religious extremists, but they were both very fundamental in their religious beliefs. Susan had barely met the man. They had corresponded by letter for a year or so before they got married; he came to the country as soon as they were married. As she was married when she went to university, they got married quarters, and I would go and see them there. He was very aggressive and very abusive. I was thinking about it as I was walking in today: I vividly remember him pinning her down in front of me and spitting in her face, saying, “It is your duty to obey me. God says you have to obey me.”
I just could not believe it. I shame myself now by saying this: I used to see her next to me in psychology class, but until I started campaigning with the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire, I never recognised that Susan was in a child marriage—a forced marriage. I get chills as I think about that moment of recognition: “Wow—this is going on among us.”
Internationally, we should be leading the way. I talk to people in countries around the world and try to encourage them to increase their level of child protection, and the one answer that always comes back is, “You allow child marriage in the UK.” If we want to be seen internationally as a country that does the right thing—if we are to have any credibility whatever—we have to pass this legislation.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) for what, to those of us who have not been in the House as long, has been an education in how to progress and deliver a Bill over such a long period. I thank her for the Bill, which is an excellent piece of legislation. I also thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid) for his work behind the scenes to make sure that when we work together as a team, we move things forward. Points have been made about cross-party working; we have all seen on recent Fridays what we can do when we work together and how much stronger we are when we do.
This is such an important issue. So many other things happen at the age of 18 that I think many hon. Members will be surprised that the marriage age is different. People cannot make a will, serve on a jury, become an MP or even get a tattoo until they are 18, yet they are allowed to get married. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Robin Millar) said, marriage is a serious undertaking that is not to be ventured into lightly. With increased life expectancy, we have no end of years to get everything packed in. As a former teacher, I am very keen for youngsters to spend as long as possible in education, whether it is vocational or formal, to ensure that they can fully appreciate their later years and enjoy their marriage when they get there.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire and the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), who are both senior Members of the House, have made the important point that we cannot tolerate child marriage. It is child abuse—that is what we see in society. We have to lead the world. This is one opportunity of so many for us as legislators to lead the world and drive real change.
The charity Action Aid has said:
“Child marriage robs them—
“of their childhoods, education, health and freedom”.
I am delighted to be able to put my thoughts on the record today, and to support the Bill.
Let me give some more details about youngsters who go into marriage. At least four times as many girls as boys do so, but we need to look after the boys as well. We know that child marriage is associated with leaving education early, limited career and vocational opportunities, serious physical and mental health problems, developmental difficulties for the children born to young mothers, and an increased risk of domestic abuse. Surely it is only right for us to allow this Bill to make progress and ensure that children can enjoy their childhoods and we can put an end to this abhorrent practice.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid) on introducing this crucial piece of legislation.
Let me start my brief speech by drawing attention to the importance of the institution of marriage. I think that all Members throughout the House—those who are married, those who are not married and those who are in civil partnerships—would agree that it is a critical, fundamental part of our society. It is important to our communities, to keeping families together and to raising children. I am married, and getting married was without doubt one of the best things that I have ever done in my life. It was a far greater achievement than becoming an MP. I am amazed that I managed to persuade my lovely wife to marry me: that was surely more of an achievement that being elected a Conservative Member of Parliament!
It is important that the institution of marriage is not corrupted but protected, and that we have strong legislation and strong cultural provisions to ensure that the institution has sanctity and significance in our society. I have already given my pitch on the religious aspect of marriage; now I want to say a bit about the legal, contractual elements. It is important to recognise that this is a serious decision, and that two people are entering into a serious contract with incredible long-term consequences involving finances, rules relating to next of kin, and parental responsibility—which applies to men only by default if they are married to the mother at the time of the child’s birth. As we know, when marriages or partnerships unfortunately do not work, there is a high bar which has been very deliberately imposed for unwinding them. This is a contract between two people on steroids. That is why robust measures are required to ensure that those entering into a marriage or civil partnership really know what they are doing, do it willingly, and understand the consequences.
I remember what I had to go through before my marriage: meeting a priest, taking marriage courses—which were fascinating in themselves—and speaking to the registrar, when I was tested on how well I knew my wife. Procedures such as that exist to ensure that people go into marriage with open eyes and understand the gravity of the institution.
I have always thought that allowing 16 and 17-year-olds to be married with parental consent is very odd. Given the personal nature of marriage and all its consequences, to have consent by proxy from one’s parents seems bizarre in itself. I am sure that plenty of children, certainly those over 16, have competence, in the sense of Gillick competence, when it comes to entering into a marriage, because in a way it is quite a simple decision. In our society and our culture, we all learn about marriage and its consequences. It is the gravity of the decision, rather than the decision itself, that is problematic.
In medicine we have parental consent by proxy, and parents give consent for medical procedures on behalf of their children all the time. When children get to 16 or 17, parents can still give consent on their behalf, but a doctor or practitioner is involved who is recommending the treatment. There is a third party, an officer of the state—that is what doctors and nurses are in this context—recommending the medical intervention. That deeply personal contract is very different from marriage, but even medicine recognises that there are some decisions that are so big that parental consent is insufficient. One example is giving electroconvulsive therapy to children under the Mental Health Act, where there is an acknowledgement that we cannot and should not rely on parental consent alone and that we need other legal procedures.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) on introducing this Bill. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Dr Spencer) agree that the Bill will bring legislation into the modern age? I am a big believer that it takes a village to raise a child, but in this Bill we are saying as a society that marriage is not something children should be doing at all. We are giving young people, as they grow, the autonomy to make that decision for themselves without the need for parental control.
I entirely agree. This Bill essentially brings historical views of marriage and marriage legislation into the 21st century, bringing it into line with other areas of law in terms of consent and individual autonomy. One of the principles of the Mental Capacity Act 2005 is essentially to delay a decision, if it does not need to be made there and then, until a person regains capacity. I would argue that the provision we are debating today is in line with the principles of that Act.
I submit there is no urgent need for a 16 or 17-year-old to enter into a contract of marriage or civil partnership. I think it can wait until they are 18 so that we can be confident that this big, important decision—one that will affect the rest of their lives—is one they enter into with full competence, willingness and foresight of all the consequences and benefits of marriage.
We have talked about child abuse and vulnerable people, but it is also about making sure people make the right decision about the person they want to marry. Not to put too fine a point on it, the people we fancied or liked when we were 16 are often different from the people we fancied or liked when we were 17, 18 or in our mid-20s. There is also a question of maturity as people grow up.
I think this is a fantastic Bill, and I am not at all surprised that it has cross-party support. All I can say is that I wish we had been able to introduce it earlier. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire for introducing it.
This has been a short, harmonious and positive debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) on her Bill. She has engaged with this topic for many years and she now appears to be on the brink of prosecuting it successfully, having secured Government support.
As we have heard, a 16 or 17-year-old in England and Wales can currently enter into marriage or civil partnership with parental consent. Looking at the bare figures, the number doing so is low. In 2018, fewer than 150 16 and 17-year-olds entered into marriage, out of a total of 235,000 marriages in England and Wales. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) said, this may understate the nature of the issue, as allowing marriage at 16 blurs the lines and perhaps gives succour to those who support child marriage at even younger ages. By having a clear dividing line at 18 we will unambiguously be saying that there are no circumstances in which children should be entering legal relationships of marriage or civil partnership. The children’s charity Barnardo’s has raised concerns based on research showing that marriage for children aged 16 and 17 can result in their experiencing domestic violence and sexual abuse, and missing out on educational opportunities. As we have heard at length, there are also arguments that marriage at this age can leave vulnerable young people open to coercion and forced marriage. More than 10% of forced marriages involve the 16 and 17-year-old group.
The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights defines child marriage as
“any marriage where at least one of the parties is under 18 years of age.”
It defines forced marriage as
“a marriage in which one and/or both parties have not personally expressed their full and free consent to the union.”
The Commissioner’s view is that all child marriages equate to forced marriages, as a child cannot give
“full, free and informed consent.”
Furthermore, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child recommended in 2016 that the UK raised the minimum age to 18. Overwhelmingly, the issue affects girls and women; 80% of those who married as children in 2018 were girls. That is by far the strongest argument for raising the minimum age for marriage and civil partnership, and it is why we are happy to see this Bill get its Second Reading today.
However, if we are really to tackle forced marriage, this Bill alone will not be sufficient. I would like to see more from the Government on how they intend to protect children and young people at risk. How will the Government support those who wish to leave marriages that they have been forced to enter? How can we provide a safe space for people to report a forced marriage? We also recognise the importance of support staff in schools in helping to look out for the signs of forced marriage. For that matter, can we have better training for registry office staff to spot the signs of coercive marriage? We are talking about not only forced marriage, but the increasingly common practice of taking advantage of those who lack capacity for financial gain. Only about a fifth of reports to the Forced Marriage Unit in 2019 were from the victims themselves, with the vast majority of reports—64%—having been by professionals, such as those in the education, social services and legal and health sectors, as well as some other third party organisations, such as non-governmental organisations.
Obviously, this is a most welcome Bill, but the crucial part of it, which we have not talked about today, is how the police are going to investigate and ensure that these offences are prosecuted efficiently and correctly. There have been numerous examples in recent years where issues of safeguarding, serious sexual offending and the protection of victims have not been investigated in an appropriate way by police forces. That must be fundamental to the success of this Bill.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and I know from the time we spent together on the Select Committee on Justice that he is very passionate about these matters. Last year, the figures were distorted by the pandemic, but before the pandemic the Forced Marriage Unit supported about 1,400 victims in any given year. That probably underestimates the problem substantially, with many cases going under the radar. The Home Office itself has said:
“Forced marriage is a hidden crime, and these figures will not reflect the full scale of the abuse.”
He is right to draw that to our attention. Everybody else has been very economical in their remarks, and I will attempt to do the same—
Does my hon. Friend agree that this is about not only passing this Bill, but raising awareness? On forced marriages and other institutions, we need to go to the education system and all other participating institutions to promote the law, so that the children in schools are fully aware of their rights. That is the way forward, as Members have said.
I am grateful for that intervention as well. It could be argued that this Bill is addressing a narrow and specific, albeit important, point, but the ramifications of the Bill go far wider in drawing attention to exactly the issues that my hon. Friend has raised. As the promoter of the Bill said, the current law is almost a century old and outdated—family life has moved on markedly since then. To take just one example, we now require young people to continue their education or take an apprenticeship up to the age of 18, so being able to marry below that age seems to be somewhat in conflict.
The state should always be hesitant about legislating and intruding on family life and relationships, but our record in the past 20 years is good. We have brought in progressive legislation on civil partnerships and same-sex marriage. I was pleased to sponsor, owing to a constituency connection, the Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration etc) Act 2019 promoted by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), which gave the rights of civil partnership already enjoyed by same-sex couples to opposite-sex couples, thus completing the equation of equal status.
There is more to do: we should legislate on humanist marriage and look at common-law marriage, where millions of people—women in particular—mistakenly find themselves without rights or assets on the death of their partner. However, the Bill is an important and substantial step forward. It is a progressive Bill, and the Opposition wish it well in its remaining stages.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) for introducing this important Bill. It was terrific to have the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid), with us at the start of the debate. There was what I would characterise as an immaculate baton passing from him to my hon. Friend to allow this private Member’s Bill to progress in this Session. I look forward to her taking the Bill further and hope to see it complete its journey so that we can bring this law to the statute book. Perhaps all hon. Members will accept that, in the last few weeks, we have seen a lot of adversarial politics in the Chamber. I think it is refreshing that, this morning, the country sees a House of Commons coming together to deliver an important reform that we can all support.
The hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) spoke eloquently. I also found it chilling when she spoke of the experience of her friend. What her friend went through was horrendous, and it is right that we are coming together to take action to stop young people going through such experiences in future. It is impossible for anybody not to be hugely troubled by those experiences. The hon. Lady put her case well and effectively.
My hon. Friend the Member for Member for Mid Derbyshire did a brilliant job of laying out the provisions of the Bill, the purpose of which is to end child marriage and civil partnerships in England and Wales. There are two ways in which children can currently marry. First, they can have a legal ceremony at 16 or 17 with parental or judicial consent. That includes both civil and religious ceremonies such as those in the Church of England. That aspect of child marriage would be solved by raising the minimum age to 18. Secondly, children of any age can take part in marriage ceremonies that are non-legally binding, which often take place in a community or traditional setting. Those unregistered marriages will be addressed by expanding the offence of forced marriage to make it illegal to arrange for a child to enter marriage where coercion is not used.
Statistics demonstrate that girls are more likely to enter a legal marriage under the age of 18 and, therefore, more likely to be impacted by the adverse effects of child marriage that were so helpfully set out by my hon. Friend. In 2018 in England and Wales, 28 boys under the age of 18 married, compared with 119 girls.
My hon. Friend raises an important point. We are, of course, considering measures that relate to England and Wales. That sends out a very clear message about what our intentions are in this House and, as has been mentioned several times today, the point about the international example that we want to send out is an important one, too. I want the United Kingdom to live up to the rhetoric towards which we ask others to work. That is made more challenging when our law in this country does not reflect what we are asking others to do.
Was my hon. Friend aware that Northern Ireland is consulting on changing the law there? Obviously, he will be aware that Scotland has the same obligations as us to follow the United Nations sustainable development goals. They may end up being complete outliers and not following through, but they may also end up being dragged through with this, which has to be a good thing for children in the whole of the United Kingdom.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend. Of course, devolution and the devolution settlement is very sensitive, and it is right that directly elected politicians in Northern Ireland and in Scotland reach the decisions that are appropriate for the communities that they serve. However, what we are dealing with here is a very serious matter that relates to the welfare and wellbeing of young people. I would like to think that the Scottish Government and the Northern Ireland Assembly will want to level up their provisions in the way that we are doing today with this Bill, so that, as one United Kingdom, we have a consistent position. None the less, I am proud of the fact that, across this House, we are coming together to send out a clear message of our intentions in this area. This is a long-overdue reform and I hope that we will see the other nations of the United Kingdom coming together to follow suit. It is welcome, too, that Northern Ireland is about to embark on a consultation on this issue.
The Bill plays an important role in the Government’s ambitions to end crimes that disproportionately involve violence against women and girls—in this case girls. Indeed, in our tackling violence against women and girls strategy published in July, we committed to ending child marriage as soon as a legislative vehicle became available, which it now has.
The UN sustainable development goals require all countries to
“eliminate all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilations by 2030”.
The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has recommended that there should be no legal way for anyone to marry before they turn 18, even if there is parental consent. The fact that it is currently possible to marry at 16 is setting the wrong example both at home and abroad. Having laws that enable child marriage weakens our voice in discussions with other countries and damages efforts to end child marriage globally. This is an area where we should be leading by example, and this Bill will enable us to do that.
This may be a slightly technical point, but it is an important one to make. The Bill will act as a further obstacle to those seeking to take children abroad to marry. That is not covered in the Bill itself, as it relates to the common law, but we anticipate that, following the changes made by the Bill, the common law in England and Wales will not recognise marriages taking place abroad involving under-18s where either party is domiciled in England and Wales. “Domiciled” is a legal term, which, in its simplest form, means the place where a person’s permanent home is. To give an example of this in practice: if a 16-year-old girl, whose permanent home is in England, is taken abroad by her parents over her school holidays to enter into a marriage that is legally recognised in that country, that marriage will no longer be legally recognised in England and Wales.
The Bill will not change the age of marriage in Scotland or Northern Ireland, as marriage is a devolved matter. Therefore, the age of marriage in Scotland will remain at 16 and in Northern Ireland it will be 16 with parental or judicial consent. Someone who arranges for a 16 or 17-year-old to get married in Scotland or Northern Ireland cannot be prosecuted for forced marriage under the law of England and Wales, unless they had used coercion to do so. That applies even if they, or the party to the marriage, lived in England and Wales. However, as explained above, if a couple travels to Scotland or Northern Ireland to marry, and either of them is 16 or 17 and has their permanent home in England or Wales, that marriage will not be legally recognised in England and Wales. It will also not be legally possible for that couple to marry in Scotland, due to existing Scottish law. This will add an extra layer of protection for children, and will provide clarity to teachers and social workers, enabling them to report all concerns about children being forced to marry—having a marriage arranged for them here or being taken abroad to marry—to the police.
I commend my hon. Friend for the repeated use of the word “child”; we are talking about children. We have seen with many other issues an inability to allow kids just to be kids, so I thank him for the work that he is doing and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) for her Bill.
My hon. Friend is very generous. It is fair to say that this has been a team effort, spearheaded by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire with support from Members across the House, which is extremely welcome.
I invite our friends in Scotland and Northern Ireland to review the position in their respective countries. I believe that Northern Ireland has just issued a public consultation, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire has alluded. I really do hope that this Bill will be the catalyst for levelling up across the whole United Kingdom, so that we have a consistent position and are able to send out this important message internationally.
When I hear my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) and the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) speak, I always feel very fortunate to be able to serve in the same place as them. So much of what is in the Bill is dependent on prosecution and enforcement. I wonder whether the Minister can go further on this, because we need to ensure that we bring people to account. As has rightly been said, this is about not making the child someone to prosecute, but supporting and helping them as victims.
My hon. Friend raises an important point. He, too, has been a vocal champion on these issues—not just here on the domestic stage in the United Kingdom, but globally—including on the issue of overseas aid. Let me speak to the point that he has just raised, particularly regarding how the police will be able to enforce this new offence.
We should be under no illusions about the fact that forced marriage remains a challenging crime to prosecute, but we would like to see more prosecutions. The Government are working closely with the police to achieve this, but the situation will not change overnight. Forced marriage is often a hidden crime and children are understandably reluctant to criminalise their parents, but this change could make prosecution easier—not only for the behaviour that it specifically encompasses, but for cases already covered by forced marriage law. If there is no need to prove coercion, the burden on the prosecution is easier and there would be less of a role needed from the child victim.
The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), raised the wider point about the work that the Government are doing to tackle forced marriage. The joint Home Office and Foreign Office Forced Marriage Unit helps many hundreds of victims and trains many hundreds of professionals every year, and carries out wider outreach activity. The Home Office provides £150,000 a year to the charity Karma Nirvana to run the national honour-based abuse helpline, a large proportion of whose cases relate to forced marriage. The joint police and Border Force operation, Operation Limelight, works to raise awareness of harmful practices at the border, including forced marriage.
The Home Office provides multi-agency guidance and a free e-learning course on forced marriage to assist professionals. The tackling violence against women and girls strategy, which was published in July, confirms that it will develop a new online resources pack to offer further support. The Home Office has produced a leaflet about forced marriage, which is available in 12 languages, and that is also welcome. The Department for Education has added forced marriage to the relationships and sex education curriculum in schools, because it is so important that there is that awareness around the issues.
My hon. Friend touches on an important point. The criminal justice system at present does not deal with matters such as this immediately. The alleged perpetrator will either be released on bail or under investigation, which can lead to many months of delay in any potential criminal prosecution. The period between complaint and charge is therefore crucial, and we need the support in place to ensure that victims are not penalised any further for having the bravery to stand up and make the complaint to the police in the first place.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point, which I am mindful of as the victims Minister in my Ministry of Justice capacity. As I said clearly in the House only a few weeks ago, when asked about progress towards a victims Bill, we need improvements to the process right from somebody reporting a crime in the first instance to the courtroom. We are working towards that objective as we hopefully introduce the Bill in due course, because there is room for improvement.
My hon. Friend’s point is well made and we need to be mindful of that in the context of these offences, particularly for the simple reason that we are dealing with children who require comprehensive wraparound support in the circumstances. We are talking about members of their own family putting them in that position which is actually very difficult for all hon. Members to comprehend.
I will make two points. First, relationship education, where the issue could have been explained to children, should have been mandatory from September 2020. It is still not in force and only one in five teachers have taken the Government’s training on it. Secondly, does the Minister know about the teaspoon campaign, which is worth mentioning? If someone feels that they are being coerced out of the country, they can put a teaspoon in their pants so that when an alarm goes off, the guard knows exactly what they are saying and will put the necessary support around them.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for those points. I was not familiar with the teaspoon campaign, which is clearly valuable and important; Members on both sides of the House will find that intervention informative and useful. I would be delighted to receive more information from her or have a conversation about that work separately after the debate. On the point about teaching, I will pick that up with colleagues in the Department for Education and make sure that she receives a full answer.
I touched on the tackling violence against women and girls strategy in my earlier remarks. I will say a bit more about it and the work that is going on through it to tackle forced marriage and other forms of honour-based abuse. We will seek out community advocates who can talk to community audiences and explain why forced marriage and other honour-based abuse crimes are wrong. We will provide them with resources to back up their messages.
The College of Policing will also produce advice for police officers on honour-based abuse, so that first responders and investigators know how to deal with cases. The product for first responders will be published soon. We will also produce a resource pack on forced marriage for local authorities, the police, schools, healthcare services and others, similar to our existing one for female genital mutilation.
The Home Office will explore options to better understand the prevalence of FGM and forced marriage in England and Wales, given their hidden nature and the lack of robust estimates. We will work to criminalise virginity testing and will bring forward legislation when parliamentary time allows, which will be accompanied by a programme of education in community, education and clinical settings to tackle the misperceptions and misbeliefs surrounding the practice.
The Department for Education will work with a small number of local authorities as part of the children’s social care covid-19 regional recovery and building back better fund to identify the challenges and barriers in effective safeguarding work addressing FGM and to develop and disseminate good practice to other local authorities. Various other general commitments are relevant to tackling forced marriage such as our £3 million programme on what works to prevent violence against women and girls and the appointment of Deputy Chief Constable Maggie Blyth as the first full-time national policing lead for violence against women and girls. That is all important.
I put on record my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) for an excellent private Member’s Bill. I am delighted that the Government are favourable to it.
Given what the Minister has said about the violence against women and girls strategy, does he agree that it is important that local authorities play a massive role and that, as part of that, perhaps there should be some training for local councillors? Perhaps the Home Office could work alongside the Local Government Association to ensure that there is training for best practice, so that local councillors who are not from communities involved in practices such as marriage under 18 for their children can understand the cultural differences, be more understanding and protect our children.
My hon. Friend is a distinguished former council leader in her own right, and she brings an awful lot of experience and knowledge to the proceedings in this House by virtue of that experience at Westminster City Council. I think her point is well made, and it is one that I am very happy to share with the safeguarding Minister—the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean)—who I know looks at these matters very attentively and is always mindful of them.
As someone who has just come into ministerial office, one of the points I have regularly made in the many conversations I have had with officials over the last two months is that cascading best practice is often so important. I always want to be satisfied that we are doing everything we can to cascade best practice where it exists. There are lots of examples out there in lots of different areas of policy, and we do not always need to reinvent the wheel. What we need to do is pick up what is done well, cascade that throughout the wider system and drive forward improvement. My hon. Friend’s point is well made, and I will gladly ensure that it is flagged up.
I apologise for interrupting, but the Minister made reference to a commissioner. I am interested to understand the remit of that commissioner, the response time and the number of reports that will be put forward, how they will act and their purpose, and whether the Government will take on board those things, as we do with the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner.
I think my hon. Friend is probably referring to deputy chief constable Maggie Blyth being the first full-time national policing lead for violence against women and girls. I am certainly very willing to go away and try to find out more information on the points he has raised about her remit and precisely how that new role is going to make sure that he is aware of that important work. I think introducing that role was an important breakthrough. Again, that does not sit directly within my portfolio, but I am keen that my hon. Friends engage with him about that work.
I am so glad to hear that the Minister has recognised the best practices in many local authorities, including mine in Ealing. With such best practice, the number of forced marriages and honour-based abuse will be reduced. I am glad to be the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on honour-based abuse, and we promote that best practice. Can I ask the Minister if he is looking to make more of the relationship with India through the British high commission? India has recently increased its marriage consent age from 18 to 21, so could he take the best practice from there? We can get best practices from outside Britain as well, although the outside world is looking to Britain to be a guide on that.
I thank the hon. Member for talking about the experiences in Ealing and the work his local authority is undertaking, as well as for the point about the international example, which we have talked about in some detail in this debate. Again, if I may, I will feed back to the safeguarding Minister the points he has raised, so that she is mindful of them in the work she is doing in this space.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire has explained, this Bill will also strengthen existing forced marriage legislation. It is critical that we end legal child marriage, but as long as children can be part of a ceremony of so-called marriage that is not recognised by the law, as many now are, the evil of child marriage will persist. We know that it is illegal to force a child—or, indeed, an adult—into marriage, but if coercion is not used there is no criminal sanction against the parent. To eliminate this loophole, the Bill rightly updates forced marriage legislation to ensure that it is always illegal to arrange the marriage of a child, whatever the practices used to bring it about.
This Government are committed to making sure that children and young people are both protected and supported as they grow and develop, in order to maximise their potential and their life chances. That includes having the opportunity to remain in education or training until they reach the age of 18. Child marriage can deprive them of these important life chances. The age of 18—not 16—is widely recognised as the age at which one becomes an adult. The Government believe that full citizenship rights should be gained at adulthood. A marriage or civil partnership is a lifelong commitment with significant legal and financial consequences, and this change will allow individuals more time to grow and mature before making a commitment of this nature.
In closing, I reiterate the key point that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire made in her remarks. I want to be crystal clear that this law is not about criminalising children who get married; it is about prosecuting the third parties that arrange the marriage. That point needs to be underscored at every turn and placed on the record. This debate is a big moment for my hon. Friend, who has run an exceptional campaign over many years. When we look back at this debate and the passage of this Bill, we will genuinely look at this as a significant social reform for the better, and probably one that we will think was long overdue. Hearing the stories of girls such as Payzee brings this issue to life and serves as a sobering reminder of why this legislation is so important. With that, I can confirm with great pleasure that the Government will be supporting the Bill’s passage through this House, and I look forward to its making speedy progress.
I thank everyone who has taken part in this debate today, because it is a life-changing event. It will change the lives and life chances of millions of girls and young boys over time. It will make us a country that can lift its head up high and say, “We did change the law.” I also thank the Clerks of the House, the Department, which has made it possible to get to this stage, and the Minister, but especially the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, who came in specifically to speak in this debate, and the former Lord Chancellor, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Robert Buckland). This is a cross-party initiative, and I am delighted that people on the Opposition Benches have been so supportive of the Bill. I look forward to the Bill going into Committee, if it goes through today, because it will fundamentally change the life chances of so many people.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Public Bill Committee (Standing Order No. 63).