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.