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

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

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Photo of Baroness Sugg Baroness Sugg Conservative 10:37 am, 1st April 2022

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.