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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:04 am on 1st April 2022.

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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.