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.