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

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

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Photo of Baroness Penn Baroness Penn Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 11:11 am, 1st April 2022

I thank my noble friend Lady Sugg for introducing this important Bill. I also acknowledge the work of Pauline Latham MP in successfully taking it through the other place so that we can be here today, and thank Sajid Javid for his work on initiating the Bill. I confirm my unreserved support for the Bill on behalf of the Government and hope to see it complete its journey so that our society can benefit from the positive change that it seeks to bring.

I also thank all other noble Lords who have taken part in this short debate, particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Hussein-Ece, who, as she herself noted, has made her own efforts to legislate in this area. I also thank the campaigning organisations highlighted by my noble friend Lady Sugg and echo her words about our visitors today, Payzee Mahmod and Farhana Raval.

The purpose of the Bill is to stop child marriage and civil partnership in England and Wales. There are two ways in which children can currently marry. First, they can have a legally binding ceremony at 16 or 17 if they have permission from their parents or a judge. We will end this aspect of child marriage by requiring all parties to be 18 before they can enter a legal marriage or civil partnership.

Secondly, at present, children of any age can take part in “marriage ceremonies” which are not legally binding. Often these will take place in community or traditional settings. Although not legally recognised, these marriages are recognised by the communities in which they take place and they come with many of the same expectations. We must ensure that children are protected from such marriages. The Bill therefore also expands the offence of forced marriage to make it illegal to arrange for any child to enter into any type of marriage without the need to prove that coercion was used.

The changes to the legal age of marriage impact only individuals who wish to marry aged 16 or 17. The impact is therefore temporary. As soon as they turn 18, they can get married if they choose. We must protect the important institution of marriage by ensuring that parties enter into it freely, and that they are mature enough to make a lifelong commitment that has significant legal and financial consequences. We must give relationships the best possible chance of success. By raising the age of marriage to 18, we are ensuring that parties have a suitable level of maturity, which is likely to reduce the risk of relationship breakdown in the future.

I note the point made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester and my noble friend Lord Cormack and acknowledge that there are different minimum age limits for different activities. I point out to noble Lords that a number of European countries have set the minimum age of marriage at 18 and maintained a lower age for sexual consent, including Denmark, Sweden and Ireland. The disconnect between age of marriage and age of consent is already evident in the low numbers of 16 and 17 year-olds marrying; as noble Lords noted, it was 134 in 2018. The Government are committed to ensuring that children and young people are both protected and supported as they grow and develop in order to maximise their potential and life chances. This includes having the opportunity to remain in education or training until they reach the age of 18. Child marriage can deprive them of these important life chances, and girls in particular are at risk of disadvantage.

Child marriage does not only carry a risk of relationship breakdown; research shows that it is often associated with leaving education early, limited career and vocational opportunities, serious physical and mental health problems and an increased risk of domestic abuse. Girls are more likely to be the victim of child marriage and are therefore more likely to suffer these adverse effects. The Bill plays an important role in the Government’s ambitions to end crimes which disproportionately affect women and girls—in this case girls. Indeed, in our Tackling Violence against Women and Girls Strategy, published last July, we committed to ending child marriage as soon as a legislative vehicle became available, as we are now doing.

The Tackling Violence against Women and Girls Strategy is not the only place in which the Government have committed to ending child marriage. As my noble friend helpfully explained, we have also signed up to the UN sustainable development goals, which require all countries to

“Eliminate all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation” by 2030. This is not an issue unique to England and Wales but a global injustice which must be stopped. It is estimated that 150 million girls will become child brides by 2030 if more is not done to prevent this happening. We in England and Wales have the opportunity to demonstrate leadership in this area and set the right example both at home and abroad.

The Bill will not change the age of marriage in Scotland or Northern Ireland as marriage is a devolved matter. Therefore, the age of marriage in Scotland will remain at 16 and in Northern Ireland 16 with parental or judicial consent, although we note that colleagues in Northern Ireland have recently consulted on changing that. Of course, we hope that Scotland and Northern Ireland will soon also raise their legal age of marriage to 18. If a couple travels to Scotland, Northern Ireland or any other country abroad to marry, if either of them is 16 or 17, and if either of them has their permanent home in England or Wales, that marriage will not be legally recognised in England and Wales. It will also not be legally possible for that couple to marry in Scotland due to existing Scottish law.

As I mentioned, the Bill also expands the offence of forced marriage such that it is always illegal to cause a child to enter into a marriage. Currently, that is illegal only if violence, threats or other forms of coercion are used, or if the child lacks capacity to consent to the marriage under the Mental Capacity Act 2005. This Act does not cover all children merely by virtue of their being children; other capacity criteria must also apply. Now it will be illegal to carry out any conduct for the purpose of causing a child to enter into a marriage before their 18th birthday, whether or not the conduct amounts to violence, threats or any other form of coercion or deception.

The person carrying out that conduct will be subject to this new part of the forced marriage offence if the marriage is to take place in England or Wales, or at least one of the victim or the perpetrator is habitually resident in England and Wales, or the victim is a UK national who has at some point been habitually resident in England and Wales, and who is also neither habitually resident nor domiciled in Scotland or Northern Ireland. This ensures that the law covers all circumstances where there is a connection to England and Wales even if the marriage takes place elsewhere, helping to prevent children being taken out of the country deliberately to marry.

It is not the intention or the expectation that children who are parties to the marriage will be prosecuted. This change, as with existing forced marriage legislation, is principally about third parties who arrange the marriage.

It may be helpful if I say a little more about what conduct counts as “causing” a child to enter into a marriage. It will of course be for the courts to interpret this in practice, but we expect and intend that the behaviour covered will be that which is involved in initiating the process of marriage, such as inducing and persuading the child to marry. This aligns to the behaviour generally covered by the existing forced marriage offence and is the natural meaning of the word “cause”. It will often, although not always, be the parents who do that in these cases.

We do not envisage that the offence would extend to people who contribute to a process which is already under way, such as people who make financial contributions towards a marriage or those who assist in practical arrangements, such as hiring out a hall. On the same basis, it should also not cover the activities of registrars and celebrants in facilitating the proceedings of a legal marriage. This is unlikely to become an issue for those in England and Wales, given the increase in the age of marriage in the Bill, but is potentially an issue in the odd case involving, say, the marriage in Scotland or Northern Ireland of a 16 or 17 year-old who is habitually resident in England and Wales.

I now turn to the specific asks of the Government made by my noble friend Lady Sugg. First, she asked for a date when the Government expect commencement to take place. As Minister Pursglove stated during Third Reading in the other place, a number of implementation tasks must be completed first. This includes updating the General Register Office’s IT systems, so that it is no longer possible to give notice to marry at age 16 or 17. It also includes updating secondary legislation impacted by the law change. Forced marriage changes will impact on multiple agencies, requiring updates to guidance, systems and processes, and we also need to make sure that the public are given plenty of notice that the law is changing, and be mindful of those who may be planning weddings which are perfectly legal at the time that notice was given. As the Bill will not reach Royal Assent until late in the Session, the ask for commencement by the school holidays would therefore be in two or three months, which is not possible. I reassure noble Lords that we will work to commence the changes as soon as we possibly can.

Secondly, I reassure my noble friend that the Ministry of Justice, the Home Office and the Department for Education will all work together to ensure that we raise awareness in schools about the changes in the law. I understand that the Member for Mid Derbyshire met Minister Quince at the Department for Education on 1 March and was reassured that the relevant actions would be taken, including updating guidance and training materials.

Thirdly, I can confirm that relevant Government guidance will be updated in a timely manner and that our colleagues at the College of Policing and the CPS will be encouraged to do likewise.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hussein-Ece, asked about guidance for religious and community groups. I reassure her that the MoJ and the Home Office are already engaging with community groups, and will continue to do so, to ensure that they are aware of the changes to the law.

In summary, this Bill will end child marriage in England and Wales, protecting our children and ensuring that marriage is entered into only by choice. It will expand existing forced marriage legislation to include arranging the marriage of a child, recognising that such actions are not acceptable and will not be tolerated. We must listen to brave survivors such as Payzee and Farhana to ensure that no more children have to suffer like they and so many others have done. In closing, I reiterate my thanks to them and to my noble friend Lady Sugg for bringing this Bill before the House. Its anticipated impact is important and far-reaching, and I confirm with great pleasure that the Government are supporting it.