This Bill covers a range of issues which I am sure will be covered in full elsewhere. I intend to focus my comments on the Bill’s provisions on forced marriage. Forced marriages in the UK came to light in the past 15 to 20 years. The full scale of the problem is still not known, as only cases of challenged forced marriages become public knowledge. However, forced marriages must not be confused with arranged marriages, which are quite common in some of the minority communities of the United Kingdom and have a very high success rate. I must declare an interest as someone who has enjoyed an arranged marriage for the past 35 years.
Forced marriages are not limited to any one community or any one particular faith. However, most cases registered with the Home Office Forced Marriage Unit are from the Pakistani Muslim community. Forced marriage is not permitted under any faith and the Islamic guidelines are very clear that the marriage is valid only with the consent of both people involved.
To look for solutions to bring an end to this terrible practice that ruins the lives of many young people—most of the victims are known to be young—we need to look at the background and the culture of these communities. We need to look carefully at whether, by declaring those involved in forcing others into a marriage against their will to be criminals, we are going to help resolve the issue or are going to push it more under the carpet. I welcome the fact that the Government are taking this issue as seriously as it should be taken, and I understand why they have come to the conclusion that forced marriage should be criminalised. However, my opinion is that many victims would not want to see their parents, who are normally the main culprits in forced marriages, behind bars. Thus, many cases may not get reported and the proposals in the Bill may have an adverse effect and be counterproductive.
Instead, I argue for more awareness among the potential victims and the schools, colleges and family doctors. Particular emphasis should be given to educating the parents. Most of the victims of Pakistani-origin families are forced to marry either one of their first cousins or a close relative. The medical evidence shows that this may lead to adverse effects. A study done by the University of Bradford concluded that:
“Marriage to a blood relative accounted for nearly a third”—
31%, to be precise—
“of all birth defects in babies of Pakistani origin”.
It was also reported that:
“The risk of having a baby with birth defects—usually heart or nervous system problems which can sometimes be fatal—is still small, but it rises from 3% in the general Pakistani population to 6% among those married to blood relatives”.
I strongly welcome the Government’s drive to reduce prisoner numbers by seeking alternatives that help prevent behaviour which we may consider wrong or dangerous. We should apply a similar approach to the issue of forced marriages. We must look into the awareness and education aspect, rather than creating another category of criminals.
Educating people about the rights of individuals, freedom of choice and mutual respect, along with sharing the findings of medical research, may be more helpful and productive than sending more people to prison. I look forward to discussing these issues further during Committee and I hope that the Minister will reflect on some of the concerns raised about whether criminalisation is the right tool to tackle what we all agree is a problem.