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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 10:43 am on 1st April 2022.

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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“It is outdated to talk about people having children out of wedlock being a sin.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.