It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George, and to bring the Bill through Committee. I have been working on it for more than four years, so it is good to be at this stage with Government and cross-party support. This is a groundbreaking piece of legislation that will affect millions of young people over time. I am delighted to be at this stage.
I will deal with clauses 1 to 9 and the schedule together. The provisions end child marriage in England and Wales. They do so first by removing the ability of parents or a court to consent to 16 or 17-year-olds entering into a marriage or civil partnership. Secondly, they extend existing forced marriage legislation by making it a criminal offence to arrange the marriage of an under-18 even if violence, threats or another form of coercion are not used. Those provisions are targeted at unofficial, non-binding marriages that are beyond the reach of the change to the legal age of marriage. Together, the changes will end child marriage in this country.
The number of people marrying legally in England and Wales at 16 or 17 is small and continues to decline. Of nearly 235,000 marriages in 2018, only 134 involved one or both persons aged 16 or 17. Despite the low numbers, there remains undeniable concern that our law should not allow children to enter marriage under any circumstances. Research has shown that child marriage is often associated with leaving education early, limited career and vocational opportunities, serious physical and mental health problems, developmental difficulties for the children born to young mothers and an increased risk of domestic abuse.
On Second Reading, I set out some of the harrowing and inspiring stories of child marriage that have been shared with me since I began this project. In particular, the story of Payzee Mahmod, who was subject to child marriage in this country, is a powerful reminder that overall statistics are not the most important metric in this discussion. Every single child matters and ought to receive our protection. Protecting children is our obligation and our priority. The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child recommends that there be no legal way for anyone to marry before they turn 18, even with parental consent.
The fact that it is possible to marry at 16 sets the wrong example, both at home and abroad; having laws that enable child marriage weakens our voice in discussions with other countries and damages efforts to end child marriage globally. This is an area where we should lead by example, and the Bill will enable us to do that.
Setting the age of marriage at 16 was a decision made in 1929, when life was very, very different. Children often went to work at 14, as my mother did, and life expectancy was 20 years lower. Now, children in England must remain in education or training until they are 18, and couples are choosing to marry much later. We must celebrate the improvements we have made to quality of life and ensure that our laws align with that.
Increasing the minimum age of marriage to 18 is a necessary condition for ending child marriage in this country, but not a sufficient one. It will ensure that legal marriages cannot happen before the parties turn 18, but it can do nothing about those marriages enacted in traditional and some religious settings that are not recognised by the law of England and Wales, but are regarded just as much as a marriage by the parties, their families and their communities. Those marriages can have all the disadvantages for the children involved that legal ones do, and arguably more; not only can the parties be under the age of 16, but they fail to benefit from the legal protections inherent in marriage law.
In 2020, the Government’s Forced Marriage Unit provided advice and support in 113 cases involving the actual or potential marriage of a child aged 15 or under. The charities I work with have supported girls as young as seven who have been married in religious or cultural ceremonies in the UK. The Bill therefore extends the offence of forced marriage to cover all attempts to make a child under the age of 18 enter into a marriage, whether or not that marriage would be legally binding.
The offence as it stands covers cases where a parent or other third party uses violence, threats or another form of coercion to cause a child to enter into a marriage. It does not cover situations where a parent or other third party causes a child to enter into a marriage if coercion is not used. The Bill closes that loophole by making it an offence to cause an under-18 to enter into a marriage in any circumstances.
The distinction between the marriage of a child that involves coercion and one that does not is often false. Children may not realise that they have a choice as to their marriage partner. They may not realise that they can resist, or they may be too afraid to do so. In such cases, the parent would have no need to use coercion. This is not just a theoretical gap; we have heard from the Forced Marriage Unit, the police and charities of cases where marriages have been arranged for children who are in this position. Ultimately, children can be put in the impossible position of either “consenting” to a child marriage, or testifying against their parents. That is why it is so crucial that we automatically categorise any marriage involving a child as a forced marriage—to close this loophole and ensure that all children are protected from all forms of marriage.
Having given that background, I turn to the clauses. Clause 1 increases the minimum age of marriage in England and Wales to 18. It amends the Marriage Act 1949 so that a marriage solemnised where one party is under the age of 18 is void. It also removes all provision for 16 to 17-year-olds to marry with parental or judicial consent. It applies both to civil ceremonies and religious ceremonies that take place in registered religious buildings such as churches and mosques. The clause does not make specific provisions relating to marriages that take place abroad. However, it is anticipated that, following the changes made by the Bill, the common law in England and Wales will not recognise marriages that take place abroad involving under-18s where either party is domiciled in England and Wales.
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 will remain 16 in Scotland, and 16 in Northern Ireland with parental or judicial consent, although I believe that Scotland is looking at moving the age to 18 and Northern Ireland is considering it by consulting.
Clause 2 expands existing forced marriage legislation to ensure that it is always illegal to arrange the marriage of a child, even where no force or coercion is used. Subsection (2) amends section 121 of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, “Offence of forced marriage”, by inserting a proposed new subsection (2A) which would criminalise any conduct that is for the purpose of causing a child to enter into a marriage before their 18th birthday.
Clause 2(3) would amend section 121(3), under which, as it stands, it is an offence to deceive someone into leaving the UK so as to force them into marriage. The clause would expand the scope of that offence to encompass the new, non-coercive behaviour in proposed new subsection (2A). It would therefore be an offence to deceive a child into leaving the UK for the purpose of causing them to marry, even when no actual coercion was involved upon the child’s arrival in the foreign country.
Clause 2(4) would insert proposed new subsection (5A) into the 2014 Act to clarify that “child” means a person under the age of 18. Subsection (5) would extend section 121(6). Subsection (6) of that existing section provides that the offence of forced marriage is committed even if the perpetrator uses coercive behaviour against someone other than the person whom they intend to force into marriage. Clause 2 would provide that that applies equally to the new, non-coercive behaviour under proposed new subsection (2A).
Clause 2(7) would insert proposed new subsection (7A), which would exclude from the new offence conduct that causes 16 and 17-year-olds to enter into a marriage in Northern Ireland or Scotland. That reflects the fact that in Scotland it remains possible for 16 and 17-year-olds to marry in all circumstances, and in Northern Ireland if their parents or a court consent.
Aside from the Scotland and Northern Ireland exemption I have just set out, clause 2 would inherit the existing provisions of the forced marriage offence in terms of definition of marriage, territorial scope and sentencing. The offence therefore applies to any religious or civil ceremony of marriage, whether or not it is legally binding, and carries a maximum sentence of seven years.
Clauses 3 and 4 are both concerned with amendments to the Civil Partnership Act 2004.