Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:37 pm on 5th September 2018.

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Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Conservative, Torbay 2:37 pm, 5th September 2018

To be clear, I do not propose to divide the House on this matter, but I thought that it would be right to offer my observations and concerns about the motion.

I recognise that getting married at 16 is not the right life choice for many people, particularly if there is any form of coercion, which there should never be in marriage. Marriage should be something that is unique and special, entered into by two loving people of their own free will and free choice. It should not be the case that either side feels a particular obligation to get married. However, the proposal to bring forward this Bill raised quite a number of questions in my mind. The obvious starting point is whether making the age for marriage 18 would mean that we should also make the age of sexual consent 18. Now, that could be a separate debate. Within the last 20 years—in the time of some Members sat in the Chamber this afternoon—there have been quite impassioned debates in this House about the equalisation of the age of consent at 16. Some of the arguments used against that seem rather odd now, even only 20 years later. This Bill raises the question: are we going to reopen the issue of whether the age of consent should be set at 18 or 16?

What would the implications be for those who are currently married? I presume that such a Bill would exempt those who had freely married at 16 or 17. It would be quite onerous suddenly to have a situation where someone who was 16 had legally married after the data law was introduced, yet someone aged 17 now had to wait until their 18th birthday.

I accept the points made, and it is obvious that there is a strong point around the idea that people cannot get married at 16 or 17 without an element of consent, but this is a very long-standing legal age. For me, there are all sorts of arguments about what should be allowed at 16 and what should be allowed at 18. We have just talked about the benefits of the widowed parent’s allowance and the impact of being married or not being married as parents. Under this proposal, someone who decided at 16—legally, if we did not change the age of consent—to make the life-changing decision to have children could not get married until they were 18. That would be a bit of an oddity in our law.

I appreciate the position with regard to the message that this might send internationally, but most countries have similar provisions to the United Kingdom on the age of consent. At the moment, the minimum age of 16 is shared between ourselves and Scotland. If the age in England and Wales were 18, what would be the position if there were a run to Gretna, as was very popular in previous generations when the laws of marriage in Scotland were different from those in the rest of the United Kingdom? What would be the position in terms of recognising marriage certificates? Likewise, Northern Ireland has a separate jurisdiction but is still part of the United Kingdom. How would we recognise that? [Interruption.] I know that it is disappointing for the Scottish National party that Scotland is still part of the United Kingdom, but we would miss David Linden too much if it were not. It would a significant moment for me in the UK if there were different ages at which people could get married in the UK. Particularly at a time when some are arguing very powerfully in this Chamber that the situation in Northern Ireland, where those of the same sex cannot get married, should be brought to an end and that equal marriage should be spread across the UK, it would be strange to have a different age threshold for doing that.

Those concerns brought me on to whether it is right that this proposal is in a private Member’s Bill. I accept that private Members’ Bills can be good vehicles for looking at faults in the law, looking at changing things, and looking at areas that may not necessarily be significant but where there is a need to bring in a piece of primary legislation. I passed my own private Member’s Bill about small-scale digital radio through this House. I see one or two Members who participated in those debates sitting in the Chamber. Wera Hobhouse, who is in her place, has brought up the issue of upskirting—a fault in the law that needed to be resolved to give the law its actual intention.

However, this is a much more significant change. If we were to do it, it should follow a more significant consultation process, and it should be debated in Government time, where we would have the time available to make proper and informed observations. As a regular attender on Fridays, I see this all too often, particularly at this stage of the Session. A ten-minute rule Bill would almost certainly not get any debate on Second Reading or on Report, given the number of remaining stages already listed for the remaining two Fridays of this Session. This Bill would make a significant change to our law and it could have wider implications, so it would be odd to go down that route.

There is clearly an argument around the ages at which we can do things. It is odd, as my hon. Friend Mrs Latham said, that such a life-changing commitment can be made at 16, yet someone cannot drive a truck or a steam-powered road roller until they are 21. Certain products can be bought only at 18. Someone can drive a car at 17. There is a whole area to look at. That tempts me towards the view that this is something that should be looked at following a proper review of our law, perhaps through a Government Bill or a Law Commission examination of the knock-on effects if we decided to make such a significant change.

I do not disagree with some of the thrust of the arguments that have been advanced. I see the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend Edward Argar, who is a very diligent listener, in his place. I am sure that he will look at how we make sure that provisions around parental consent are meaningful, in a way that they perhaps would have been in the past, but today may not be. In fact, the parents may be the source of the pressure rather than, as the law sees them, a safeguard. That provision is based on an old patriarchal view of society—it would not be the parents; it would be, in effect, the male head of the household who would give consent for the daughter to get married. That is clearly a view from the past that we would not look to codify into law today.

How can we make that more meaningful? Yes, we should look to target forced marriage. However, making such a significant change to a very long-standing provision of law that has a knock-on effect for many other aspects of our legislation should not be done via a ten-minute rule Bill that will potentially receive next to no debate when, in reality, these matters should be more properly considered. That could be done, first, via the Government looking into it—I am sure there will be constructive engagement—and secondly, via consultation. Following that, we could have a Bill via a process that would give us the time for appropriate discussion on the Floor of the House, with the ability to examine in more depth and to have, to be blunt, more than two speakers. Sadly, given the procedures under which we have debated private Members’ Bills for a long time, these are likely to be the only two speeches on this Bill and this issue in the current Session.

As I said, I do not intend to divide the House. I appreciate many of the sentiments that have been expressed. I have written articles myself about the debate about 16 and 17-year-olds and the law with regard to people much older than themselves who are relations. I take the view that once someone is 18 they are an adult and it is up to them who their partner should be, what sex they should be, and any other factors. The only determinant should be that it is a loving and consenting relationship. While it is right that this issue has been brought to the Floor of the House today, my concern is about doing this via a ten-minute rule Bill. Although I will not divide the House, I think it is right that some concerns were expressed about the motion.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Mrs Pauline Latham, Priti Patel, Stephen Twigg, Jeremy Lefroy, Chris Philp, Sarah Champion, James Duddridge, Sir Graham Brady, Mr Virendra Sharma, Henry Smith, Philip Davies and Sir Roger Gale present the Bill.

Mrs Pauline Latham accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 26 October and to be printed (Bill 261).