Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Bill - Second Reading

– in the House of Lords at 10:37 am on 1st April 2022.

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Baroness Sugg:

Moved by Baroness Sugg

That the Bill be now read a second time.

Photo of Baroness Sugg Baroness Sugg Conservative

My Lords, I am delighted to speak to this Bill, which will end child marriage in England and Wales.

I start with some thanks: to Sajid Javid, whose Private Member’s Bill this originally was before he got promoted, and to Pauline Latham MP, who has campaigned tirelessly on the issue of child marriage and steered the Bill through the other place compellingly and effectively. I also thank the many campaigners—organisations and individuals—who have worked so hard to highlight the issue of child marriage: Girls Not Brides UK, IKWRO, Karma Nirvana, Forward UK, the Independent Yemen Group and Garden Court Chambers. I pay particular tribute to Payzee Mahmod and Farhana Raval, who are joining us today. They have taken their experiences and used them to campaign for positive change. Finally, I thank the Government and the Bill team at the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office, who have supported this piece of legislation and worked with Mrs Latham to ensure that the Bill is as comprehensive as possible, which was reflected in the amendments on Report in the other place.

I will briefly set out the purpose of the Bill. First, it will remove the exception which currently allows 16 and 17 year-olds to get married or enter a civil partnership with parental or judicial consent in England and Wales. The existing law has been in place for over 70 years and reflects social values from a different time. We live in a different world now. The numbers of children that marry given this exception are relatively low—fewer than 200 children every year. So, the impact on those children who wish to marry will be minimal: they will have to wait only a maximum of two years. But the impact of England and Wales setting its legal age of marriage unambiguously at 18 will send a message, both here at home and around the world, that child marriage should be a thing of the past.

The second provision will make it a crime to organise any unregistered marriage involving a child in England and Wales, creating a new offence of arranging the marriage of a child. That is a key part of the problem we are trying to solve. The number of cases of child marriage in the UK I gave earlier does not reflect the true extent of this issue. Of the cases involving potential child marriage reported to the Home Office-commissioned national honour-based abuse helpline delivered by Karma Nirvana in the year to September 2021, only four related to civil marriages. There were almost 20 times as many cases which involved only a religious ceremony—over 95% of all cases. The Girls Not Brides UK coalition, which has done excellent work on this campaign, has shockingly been involved in cases where the child being married was under 10 years old.

We know from first-hand experiences that the religious ceremony is the most important part of the marriage in the eyes of the family and the community of the child. There is currently, unbelievably, no age limit on unregistered marriage. The only requirement is that it is not forced or the victim lacks capacity to consent, and we know that under the current law proving a forced marriage where it involves children is extremely difficult.

This offence will be triggered by any conduct which causes a child—under 18—to enter into a marriage, whether civil or religious. Crucially, unlike in forced marriage, there is no need to prove coercion or control, and this takes the onus away from the child to show that their marriage was forced and will make prosecutions easier and the deterrent that much stronger. We must be clear that the criminal offence is not about criminalising the child. The child is the victim in every case, and the criminals will be the adults who organise these marriages.

The final key provision is on extra-territoriality. The Girls Not Brides UK coalition, as well as the Government’s Forced Marriage Unit, have seen plenty of evidence which suggests that very often children who live in the UK are being taken abroad—often to a country where extended family live—in order to be married. Sometimes they will be taken abroad for just a few weeks, but sometimes for many months or even years, as was the case for Farhana. So, it is crucial that this offence captures this conduct because it is just as damaging to the prospects and life chances of victims if the marriage takes place here in the UK or overseas.

Therefore, this Bill will also cover marriages involving anyone anywhere in the world where the child or the person arranging the marriage lives in England and Wales, and in the case of UK national children also those that have at any point lived in England or Wales, unless they live in Scotland or Northern Ireland or deem one of those countries their permanent home. This offers protection to all children growing up in this country and removes any incentives for the parents to leave the UK in order to avoid the criminal law.

It is not just in the UK that the implications of this legislation will be felt. The UK is of course committed to achieving the UN’s sustainable development goals, target 5.3 of which is to

“Eliminate all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation” by 2030. This specifically applies to both religious and non-religious child marriages.

When I was a Minister at the FCDO, the position here at home risked undermining the excellent work we did on child marriage around the world. Through this Bill we are helping England and Wales to meet the SDGs and set an example to the rest of the world by prioritising children’s futures.

I will end with two asks of the Minister. First, Clause 7 confirms that the Bill will come into force on the day that the Secretary of State appoints. We know that every day before commencement is another day in which child marriage remains possible in this country. This week alone, Karma Nirvana has received calls to its national helpline regarding two girls, both aged 15, with significant concerns that they will be taken abroad over the Easter holidays to get married. We know that many children are taken abroad during school holidays, and with the summer holiday being a notable risk period, I hope the Minister can give me an expected commencement date and explain what needs to happen before then.

Secondly, changing the law, as we know, is only one part of the solution: we must also change attitudes and societal norms. Can the Minister confirm that Ministry of Justice and Home Office will work closely with the Department for Education to ensure that both children and teachers are informed about the change in the law so that they can help spot children who are at risk? It is also important to ensure that the statutory guidance on forced marriage is appropriately updated to reflect the legislative changes.

Please could the Minister also confirm that updated guidance for the police and the Crown Prosecution Service will be swiftly produced to help in the investigation and prosecution of crimes under this legislation?

I hope noble Lords from all sides of the House will give their full support to this Bill. I beg to move.

Photo of The Bishop of Worcester The Bishop of Worcester Bishop 10:43 am, 1st April 2022

I welcome the Bill warmly and in doing so, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Sugg, and all those who have worked very hard on it. It takes very important steps to protect exploited young people, especially girls. Having welcomed the Bill, I want to raise one consideration that seems, so far, to have gone relatively unremarked upon during its passage. I hope that it will be noted by the Government and returned to at a later date.

The legislation will leave unchanged a person’s being presumed under the law to be able to consent to sex from the age of 16, and to the bearing of children as a result, but under it they will not be able to have sex or a bear a child within a married relationship until they turn 18. While society has long abandoned the ideal that all sex and childbearing belongs within marriage, and marriage law had failed to recognise same-sex relationships until recently, I think this will be the first time that the law would specifically prohibit a legally conceived child of two consenting parents from being born inside a married relationship. I expect that for very many people this falls into the category of “who cares”, but it is at least worth registering this precedent, and that it constitutes a removal of a choice.

At the Second Reading in another place, Pauline Latham seemed unconcerned:

“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.”—[Official Report, Commons, 19/11/21; cols. 816-17.]

The issue here is the incoherence of much current age-based consent policy. While the trend has been downward on sexual maturity, it has been upwards on public health, criminal and other responsibility. It is surely an oddity that you can conceive and give birth to a child at 16, or leave home, but you cannot get a tattoo or, soon, get married.

There was a speech in Committee in the Commons about consent and mental capacity generally from Ben Spencer, who is a doctor, but he did not want to delay progress by tabling any probing amendments. The most we have had by way of deliberation is an exchange between Tim Loughton and Pauline Latham. Tim Loughton said:

“given this important legislation, does she now think that there are other areas of this whole grey area of what constitutes a child—16 or 17, up to 18 —that the Government need to look at as well?”

Pauline Latham responded:

“yes, I think that the Government need to look at everything to do with a child’s rights up to the age of 18. Perhaps the Minister will take that back to Government for them to look at all sorts of Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Bill Committee, 12/1/21; col. 6.]">Official Report, Commons, Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Bill Committee, 12/1/21; col. 6.]

In supporting this Bill and welcoming it warmly, I ask that the Minister take note of these considerations and take them back to the department.

Photo of Lord Lilley Lord Lilley Conservative 10:47 am, 1st April 2022

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble and right reverend Prelate, who makes a very important point. I congratulate my noble friend Lady Sugg on her excellent speech and on bringing the Bill to this House, my old friend Sajid Javid for initiating it in another place, and Pauline Latham for carrying it forward.

I want to make two and a half brief points. First, any age limit that we make is bound to be somewhat arbitrary, but the least we can do is try to be consistent. You cannot leave full-time schooling until you are 18, so how can you be allowed to decide the whole of the rest of your life by committing yourself to marriage at a younger age? If you cannot fight for your country, how can you be allowed to commit yourself for the whole of your life in marriage? You cannot buy a knife, or fireworks, or go on a sunbed if you are under 18; you cannot even take out a mortgage to acquire a house in which, as a married couple, you will wish to live, if you are under 18. We have recently been debating in this place how to treat children and to determine whether they are or are not children by whether they are under 18 or above. I can think of no good reason to allow marriage—a commitment for life—at a younger age than 18.

My second point is that if we are setting the age of marriage, we should try to do so to protect the most vulnerable. In setting it at 18, we are clearly not going against the prevailing practice in society at large; there are only 147 registered marriages of people aged under 18 in the most recent year. However, as my noble friend Baroness Sugg pointed out, there is clearly a problem with unregistered religious marriages, which can happen at a lower age in certain communities and indeed abroad, that we need to try to discourage and prevent. This Bill will help protect young people by giving them a defence in law against that and by making it easier for other members of the family to stand up against pressures in the community that force them towards an earlier marriage.

My second-and-a-half point goes beyond the scope of the Bill. It acknowledges that we can to a degree influence through our legislation in this country what happens in other countries. We cannot determine their laws, but we can influence their practice—my noble friend Lady Sugg made that point in another respect. We rightly give priority to spouses of people coming to live in this country, but that can create pressure on people, both men and women—I have known it as frequently among young men as among young women—to marry early in order to bring someone to this country, essentially for reasons of immigration rather than of matrimony. A number of Scandinavian countries therefore give spousal visas only to people over the age of 25. I hope that we will consider that in this country too, if not as part of, or as an amendment to, this Bill, then in some other form.

I support this Bill and wish it every success. I am glad it has the support of both sides of this House.

Photo of Baroness Hussein-Ece Baroness Hussein-Ece Liberal Democrat 10:51 am, 1st April 2022

I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Sugg, for so ably and comprehensively introducing this Bill today in your Lordships’ House. It is hugely welcome and I warmly welcome it. I also thank the honourable Lady, Pauline Latham MP, who introduced it in the other place. I have had the pleasure of working with her as a co-chair—I should perhaps declare an interest, as the noble Baroness, Lady Sugg, Pauline Latham and I are all co-chairs on the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Population, Development and Reproductive Health. We have campaigned for many years to bring this Bill forward and to raise the minimum age for marriage to 18. Indeed, I tried unsuccessfully to introduce a Private Member’s Bill in 2020, so it is a huge pleasure to be here to support this Bill.

As others have said, it seems extraordinary that it is still legal for children to marry in the UK with parental consent. We have finally accepted that we must ensure that young people are protected and are no longer potential victims through this loophole. Many unregistered child marriages are never reported nor captured by statistics, so we do not know the full extent of the numbers. The current ambiguity in the law has been a barrier to protecting young people. I think and hope this Bill will address this and offer more protection for those unregistered marriages.

The UNICEF definition of child marriage is very clear: child marriage is

“any formal marriage or informal union between a child under the age of 18 and an adult or another child.”

In its 2016 report, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child recommended that the UK raise the minimum age of marriage to 18 across all UK jurisdictions, overseas territories and Crown dependencies. As has already been mentioned, under the UN SDGs, the UK pledged to end all harmful practices, including child marriage, by 2030. I am very pleased that we are well ahead of this, in bringing this Bill forward now. It is important that, while the UK has quite rightly been forthright in asking other, developing countries to raise the minimum age to 18, it has lagged behind in getting its own house in order. This Bill will ensure that that work is no longer undermined.

Parliament has already recognised that, by raising the minimum age for leaving education or training to 18, childhood should be safeguarded as an important time for learning and development; and 18 is the minimum age for entering into most contracts, as has been mentioned, purchasing alcohol and tobacco, and even getting a tattoo. I did not know that you could not have a tattoo until you are 18, not that I have one—there is still time.

Child marriage is impacting children from the UK and is also being perpetrated by men from the UK against children overseas. These are registered marriages, which are recognised under British law, as well as religious or customary traditional ceremonies, which we know can happen at any age—there is no minimum age for those. We know unregistered child marriages cause similar damage to registered marriages.

I was pleased to attend a religious marriage ceremony of a close family relative about 18 months ago in the Cambridge Mosque. I heard from the couple who were taking part in the Muslim blessing and ceremony that, before the service took place, they were required to show their passports and ID to prove that they were over 18 as well as resident in the UK. In addition, before the ceremony took place, the imam conducting it emphasised that this ceremony was not recognised in UK law and that they must hold a civil service at a registry office or similar place to ensure their marriage was legitimate and legal, as soon as possible. I thought this was a very welcome example of good practice that really needs to be rolled out more widely. Unfortunately, we hear stories that this does not always happen in other religious ceremonies.

I ask the Minister: how will we ensure that proper guidelines will be updated by all agencies and appropriately enforced, as well as sending guidelines out to the various religious temples, mosques and other places where these ceremonies are likely to take place? Education and enforcement, as well as proper guidelines, will be key to ensuring that this is a success. This Bill, although overdue, is nevertheless a significant and hugely welcome social reform and I am very pleased it has the Government’s support.

Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative 10:56 am, 1st April 2022

My Lords, speaking briefly in the gap, I add my congratulations to my noble friend Lady Sugg. This is an important piece of legislation. Let us not mince our words: this is directed at not arranged but forced marriages, of which one is too many. I was very glad that the noble Baroness, Lady Hussein-Ece, talked about her experience at the Muslim marriage last year. That was exemplary good practice and should be the common practice.

We have to face the fact—this was alluded to by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester—that it is still going to be legal for a young couple aged 16 or 17 to have a child. That troubles me, I am bound to say. I wish that we could move towards the universality of adulthood at 18. I think that would be a social advance of real importance. However, clearly, the forced marriages that we are essentially concerned with today are things that deface our society when they happen and when young people are whisked away to a foreign country, as has been said.

The thing that has really provoked me into making a brief contribution today has been the work of the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, who is not here this morning. She has done some absolutely superb work in persuading or instructing a number of us on just what problems are caused by the application of sharia law and what is, frankly, the abduction of children of 14 or 15, who are taken away and forced into marriage. I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, in her absence for all the campaigning work she has done in your Lordships’ House on so many humanitarian fronts over so long.

I end by again endorsing what the noble Baroness, Lady Hussein-Ece, said: 18 is the right age. It should be recognised by all imams, as it was by the one at the marriage ceremony that she attended. We are going to take a step forward in helping a few young people— 147 was the number quoted by my noble friend Lord Lilley. It is not a vast number, but it is certainly 147 too many. If this new law can come into force and the Minister can expedite its introduction, my noble friend Lady Sugg, my right honourable friend Sajid Javid, and my honourable friend Pauline Latham will, together, have performed a very notable service, with the backing of Members from all parts of both Houses. I give my total support.

Photo of Lord Blunkett Lord Blunkett Labour 11:00 am, 1st April 2022

My Lords, given how long I have been in this House, I ought to know the rules and conventions relating to the gap—but I do not, so I will be extremely brief. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Sugg, on her very articulate and clear explanation of the rationale for this legislation, and all those who have campaigned and made this possible. I have to be clear: I did not know that this was coming through to us until I met Pauline Latham on a train and had a conversation about it. I should, as a parliamentarian, have been aware of what was coming down the line, but, if I did not know, I am presuming that a large number of the population out there did not know that we were taking this Bill through the Lords, and hopefully getting assent before the end of this Session.

I just want to make two or three points. One, which the noble Baroness, Lady Sugg, made very clearly, is that we do now need to reach out and make sure that all those who are related to public policy implementation or who work with young people are actually aware of the change. Secondly, to pick up the point made by the right revered Prelate, it is interesting that public policy and private practice are sometimes different and sometimes have to be brought together. I was responsible for piloting the Sexual Offences Act through in 2003. Much has been built on that since, as we make progress in an incremental way.

I just want to counsel that we need to be very careful about hectoring, especially—if I may say this to my good friend, because I have done a lot of business with him, the noble Lord, Lord Cormack—when old men are talking about what 16 and 17 year-old men and women—children, if you will—are actually doing in their private lives. I did bring in clarity—and clarification was needed—in relation to rape for those affected who are under the age of 16, which did not exist until the 2003 Act. We should be careful how we deal with this, because the public policy changes that we are bringing about in this Bill, which I very much welcome, are sensible, rational and have a very clear intent. Let us not move at this stage down the road of telling young 16 and 17 year-olds, who are experimenting in their lives and coming to adulthood, what they should do, other than guiding them to be extremely careful about their private behaviour and how that might affect the rest of their lives.

I take the point entirely about loving relationships. I was going to say “preach”, but actually, in my early days—God help me—I was a Methodist local preacher. I still have some of it inside me. They asked me if I would stop doing it on the grounds that I clearly was going to be a politician, not a minister, so I am not going to go down that road other than to say that when the late Simon Hughes suggested changing the law to make marriage legal at 17, I was very supportive of that, and I am incredibly supportive of this legislation today. But let us not muddle the different aspects of what we are trying to achieve because, if we do, I fear that there might be a revolution out there, as Members of the House of Lords dictate to 16 and 17 year-olds how to conduct their lives.

Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 11:04 am, 1st April 2022

My Lords, I too thank both the noble Baroness, Lady Sugg, for introducing this Bill, and Pauline Latham MP, who led it through the Commons. Many of my colleagues would have liked to have been here to support this Bill, but they are attending the memorial service for Ted Graham, our former Chief Whip, in Enfield.

I reiterate that the Bill has full Labour support. My honourable friend Andy Slaughter, Shadow Justice Minister, called it an

“important and substantial step forward”.

I too would like to pay tribute to all the campaigners who have delivered this. It is often politicians who do the last bit of the legwork, but it is the campaigners out there, in civil society, who do the work to see this sort of legislation through. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Sugg, I pay tribute to two here today: Payzee Mahmod and Farhana Raval. It is good to see them, and I hope they will be pleased with the debate we are having today.

This Bill has already passed through its Commons stages, so hopefully it will progress very quickly to become law before Prorogation. There has been significant cross-party co-operation and consensus throughout the Bill’s stages. As we have heard today, in 2018, fewer than 150 15 and 16 year-olds entered marriage, out of a total of 235,000 marriages in England and Wales. However, these figures understate the issue. Allowing marriage as young as 16 encourages those who support child marriage at an even younger age, and has the potential to set a dangerous precedent.

Raising the age to 18 draws a clear line between child and adult. This Bill ensures that there are no circumstances under which a child can be legally married or enter a civil partnership under the age of 18—something that the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child asked for back in 2016. As the noble Baroness, Lady Sugg, said, it conforms to the SDGs, which we are committed to deliver on, certainly including the rights of women in relation to this Bill.

Barnardo’s, the children’s charity, has raised concerns that marriage for children aged 16 or 17 can result in their experiencing domestic violence and sexual abuse, and missing out on important educational opportunities. Adopting this Bill will enable the concerns to be addressed that marriage at such a young age can leave vulnerable young people open to coercion and forced marriage. Sixteen and 17 year-olds make up over 10% of forced marriages. These vulnerable children need our protection, and I am grateful to be here on behalf of the Opposition to support the Bill.

The office of the United Nations 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 High Commissioner’s view is that all child marriages equate to forced marriages, as a child cannot give full, free and informed consent.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Lilley, and my noble friend Lord Blunkett that the issue is about addressing a specific problem: that children need protection. As my noble friend said, it is not about intruding into their lives in the bedroom—or wherever else they may be in developing their sexuality. That is a matter for them, and we should not interfere with that.

This issue of forced marriage overwhelmingly impacts women and girls. An astonishing 80% of those who married as children in 2018 were girls. There is also the issue of individuals who do not report forced marriage. Specially trained staff in schools are absolutely vital in looking out for the signs of forced marriage but there is a concerning lack of similar training for registry office staff. We need to look at that in terms of developing the best practice that the noble Baroness, Lady Hussein-Ece, referred to.

Only about a fifth of reports to the Forced Marriage Unit in 2019 were from the victims themselves. Most reports—64%—were from professionals, such as those in education, social services and the legal and health sectors. I reinforce the point made by my noble friend Lord Blunkett that this means that training and support for those sectors is even more important than ever.

The current law is outdated, and, as the noble Lord, Lord Lilley, said, family life has moved on significantly since its inception. The fact that a young person must remain in education until he or she is 18 but can marry at 16 is a bit bewildering, and there is no place for it in the 21st century.

Photo of Lord Blunkett Lord Blunkett Labour

Before my noble friend sits down, I need to apologise to the House and in particular to the right honourable Simon Hughes. It has been pointed out to me that he is well and alive. I had better get that on the record.

Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

I happen to know he is well and alive too, having seen him fairly recently. I thank my noble friend for that intervention.

I conclude by saying, as I said at the beginning, that the Bill is a crucial and substantial step forward in correcting the situation. On behalf of the Opposition, I wish it well in its remaining stages.

Photo of Baroness Penn Baroness Penn Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 11:11 am, 1st April 2022

I thank my noble friend Lady Sugg for introducing this important Bill. I also acknowledge the work of Pauline Latham MP in successfully taking it through the other place so that we can be here today, and thank Sajid Javid for his work on initiating the Bill. I confirm my unreserved support for the Bill on behalf of the Government and hope to see it complete its journey so that our society can benefit from the positive change that it seeks to bring.

I also thank all other noble Lords who have taken part in this short debate, particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Hussein-Ece, who, as she herself noted, has made her own efforts to legislate in this area. I also thank the campaigning organisations highlighted by my noble friend Lady Sugg and echo her words about our visitors today, Payzee Mahmod and Farhana Raval.

The purpose of the Bill is to stop child marriage and civil partnership in England and Wales. There are two ways in which children can currently marry. First, they can have a legally binding ceremony at 16 or 17 if they have permission from their parents or a judge. We will end this aspect of child marriage by requiring all parties to be 18 before they can enter a legal marriage or civil partnership.

Secondly, at present, children of any age can take part in “marriage ceremonies” which are not legally binding. Often these will take place in community or traditional settings. Although not legally recognised, these marriages are recognised by the communities in which they take place and they come with many of the same expectations. We must ensure that children are protected from such marriages. The Bill therefore also expands the offence of forced marriage to make it illegal to arrange for any child to enter into any type of marriage without the need to prove that coercion was used.

The changes to the legal age of marriage impact only individuals who wish to marry aged 16 or 17. The impact is therefore temporary. As soon as they turn 18, they can get married if they choose. We must protect the important institution of marriage by ensuring that parties enter into it freely, and that they are mature enough to make a lifelong commitment that has significant legal and financial consequences. We must give relationships the best possible chance of success. By raising the age of marriage to 18, we are ensuring that parties have a suitable level of maturity, which is likely to reduce the risk of relationship breakdown in the future.

I note the point made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester and my noble friend Lord Cormack and acknowledge that there are different minimum age limits for different activities. I point out to noble Lords that a number of European countries have set the minimum age of marriage at 18 and maintained a lower age for sexual consent, including Denmark, Sweden and Ireland. The disconnect between age of marriage and age of consent is already evident in the low numbers of 16 and 17 year-olds marrying; as noble Lords noted, it was 134 in 2018. The Government are committed to ensuring that children and young people are both protected and supported as they grow and develop in order to maximise their potential and life chances. This 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, and girls in particular are at risk of disadvantage.

Child marriage does not only carry a risk of relationship breakdown; research shows that it is often associated with leaving education early, limited career and vocational opportunities, serious physical and mental health problems and an increased risk of domestic abuse. Girls are more likely to be the victim of child marriage and are therefore more likely to suffer these adverse effects. The Bill plays an important role in the Government’s ambitions to end crimes which disproportionately affect women and girls—in this case girls. Indeed, in our Tackling Violence against Women and Girls Strategy, published last July, we committed to ending child marriage as soon as a legislative vehicle became available, as we are now doing.

The Tackling Violence against Women and Girls Strategy is not the only place in which the Government have committed to ending child marriage. As my noble friend helpfully explained, we have also signed up to the UN sustainable development goals, which require all countries to

“Eliminate all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation” by 2030. This is not an issue unique to England and Wales but a global injustice which must be stopped. It is estimated that 150 million girls will become child brides by 2030 if more is not done to prevent this happening. We in England and Wales have the opportunity to demonstrate leadership in this area and set the right example both at home and abroad.

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 16 with parental or judicial consent, although we note that colleagues in Northern Ireland have recently consulted on changing that. Of course, we hope that Scotland and Northern Ireland will soon also raise their legal age of marriage to 18. If a couple travels to Scotland, Northern Ireland or any other country abroad to marry, if either of them is 16 or 17, and if either of them 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.

As I mentioned, the Bill also expands the offence of forced marriage such that it is always illegal to cause a child to enter into a marriage. Currently, that is illegal only if violence, threats or other forms of coercion are used, or if the child lacks capacity to consent to the marriage under the Mental Capacity Act 2005. This Act does not cover all children merely by virtue of their being children; other capacity criteria must also apply. Now it will be illegal to carry out any conduct for the purpose of causing a child to enter into a marriage before their 18th birthday, whether or not the conduct amounts to violence, threats or any other form of coercion or deception.

The person carrying out that conduct will be subject to this new part of the forced marriage offence if the marriage is to take place in England or Wales, or at least one of the victim or the perpetrator is habitually resident in England and Wales, or the victim is a UK national who has at some point been habitually resident in England and Wales, and who is also neither habitually resident nor domiciled in Scotland or Northern Ireland. This ensures that the law covers all circumstances where there is a connection to England and Wales even if the marriage takes place elsewhere, helping to prevent children being taken out of the country deliberately to marry.

It is not the intention or the expectation that children who are parties to the marriage will be prosecuted. This change, as with existing forced marriage legislation, is principally about third parties who arrange the marriage.

It may be helpful if I say a little more about what conduct counts as “causing” a child to enter into a marriage. It will of course be for the courts to interpret this in practice, but we expect and intend that the behaviour covered will be that which is involved in initiating the process of marriage, such as inducing and persuading the child to marry. This aligns to the behaviour generally covered by the existing forced marriage offence and is the natural meaning of the word “cause”. It will often, although not always, be the parents who do that in these cases.

We do not envisage that the offence would extend to people who contribute to a process which is already under way, such as people who make financial contributions towards a marriage or those who assist in practical arrangements, such as hiring out a hall. On the same basis, it should also not cover the activities of registrars and celebrants in facilitating the proceedings of a legal marriage. This is unlikely to become an issue for those in England and Wales, given the increase in the age of marriage in the Bill, but is potentially an issue in the odd case involving, say, the marriage in Scotland or Northern Ireland of a 16 or 17 year-old who is habitually resident in England and Wales.

I now turn to the specific asks of the Government made by my noble friend Lady Sugg. First, she asked for a date when the Government expect commencement to take place. As Minister Pursglove stated during Third Reading in the other place, a number of implementation tasks must be completed first. This includes updating the General Register Office’s IT systems, so that it is no longer possible to give notice to marry at age 16 or 17. It also includes updating secondary legislation impacted by the law change. Forced marriage changes will impact on multiple agencies, requiring updates to guidance, systems and processes, and we also need to make sure that the public are given plenty of notice that the law is changing, and be mindful of those who may be planning weddings which are perfectly legal at the time that notice was given. As the Bill will not reach Royal Assent until late in the Session, the ask for commencement by the school holidays would therefore be in two or three months, which is not possible. I reassure noble Lords that we will work to commence the changes as soon as we possibly can.

Secondly, I reassure my noble friend that the Ministry of Justice, the Home Office and the Department for Education will all work together to ensure that we raise awareness in schools about the changes in the law. I understand that the Member for Mid Derbyshire met Minister Quince at the Department for Education on 1 March and was reassured that the relevant actions would be taken, including updating guidance and training materials.

Thirdly, I can confirm that relevant Government guidance will be updated in a timely manner and that our colleagues at the College of Policing and the CPS will be encouraged to do likewise.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hussein-Ece, asked about guidance for religious and community groups. I reassure her that the MoJ and the Home Office are already engaging with community groups, and will continue to do so, to ensure that they are aware of the changes to the law.

In summary, this Bill will end child marriage in England and Wales, protecting our children and ensuring that marriage is entered into only by choice. It will expand existing forced marriage legislation to include arranging the marriage of a child, recognising that such actions are not acceptable and will not be tolerated. We must listen to brave survivors such as Payzee and Farhana to ensure that no more children have to suffer like they and so many others have done. In closing, I reiterate my thanks to them and to my noble friend Lady Sugg for bringing this Bill before the House. Its anticipated impact is important and far-reaching, and I confirm with great pleasure that the Government are supporting it.

Photo of Baroness Sugg Baroness Sugg Conservative 11:23 am, 1st April 2022

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have participated in this short but important debate. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester raises an important point that should properly be considered outside the Bill, and I thank him for doing so. The noble Baroness, Lady Hussein-Ece, has long been a campaigner in this area and, as we heard, tried for her own Private Member’s Bill, so I am delighted that this Bill delivers her goals. My noble friend Lord Lilley made the clear case for why the age limit should be raised to 18 in everything from education and training to tattoos. As someone who got a tattoo at the age of 18, I am certainly pleased that I was not able to at an earlier age.

I thank my noble friend Lord Cormack and the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, for their support of the Bill. I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, for such full support from the Labour Party. It has been heartening to hear support for the Bill from all sides. I hope that it makes very swift progress through its remaining stages in this place. I thank my noble friend the Minister for her response and for stepping up to the plate this morning to do so. It is so important that it is commenced as soon as possible and that we get the guidance and education right. She can be assured that I and Mrs Latham will continue to check in on this with the department to make sure that we are making good progress.

I should like to close by sharing some words from Payzee, with her kind permission:

“I did not choose child marriage, it ruined my future. It led me astray from my dreams of focussing on my education, it took away the best years of my life. I’ll never again be that innocent 16-year-old … it is for us to change things for the next generation and make child marriage a crime, so they don’t suffer like I have.”

This Bill is for her, for her sister Banaz, for Farhana, and for everyone who has been harmed by child marriage.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.