I thank the members of the Equal Opportunities Committee, its convener, Margaret Mitchell, and the committee clerks for their work on the bill. I thank also my Government team, which has worked extremely hard, proficiently and efficiently on the bill.
It has been clear since the bill’s introduction that there is a shared commitment between the Government and committee members—and, I believe, the Parliament as a whole—to make the legislation the best it can be and to ensure that it provides the protection that the very vulnerable victims of forced marriage require and deserve.
I know that in some cases there has been a learning experience in relation to the complexities of the issues surrounding forced marriage. I think that we would all like to thank the excellent witnesses who during stage 1 brought the issues to life with powerful and compelling evidence, which went on to inform the bill’s development through the parliamentary stages.
However, what no one in the chamber needed to be told was the unacceptability of having one’s life choices and one’s connections to one’s family and community taken away and, in many cases, of suffering a spectrum of abuse including threats, blackmail and violence. We know that forced marriage is a human rights violation, as well as a form of violence against women in particular and, in many cases, of child abuse.
I was pleased to hear from those who gave evidence on the bill at stage 1 that the bill’s purpose is clear and its principles sound. Witnesses told us that they welcomed the introduction of forced marriage protection orders because the existing legal remedies are not flexible or accessible enough to offer the required level of protection to victims. I believe that our provisions for forced marriage protection orders will meet the needs of those who have been, or who are at risk of being, forced into marriage.
The orders can be tailored to address individual circumstances. Although we give some examples in the bill of actions that a court might require to be taken or actions that are prohibited, the court can include any such provisions that it deems necessary for the safety of the victim. That means that forced marriage protection orders will genuinely be able to provide the highest level of protection to each individual victim.
I made it clear from the development stages of the bill that I wanted it to have teeth, so I was pleased that the inclusion of a new criminal offence of breach of a forced marriage protection order was welcomed by support organisations such as Scottish Women’s Aid, and by the Law Society of Scotland, the police and the Equal Opportunities Committee.
I also wanted the legislation to be as easy to use and accessible to victims as possible. That is why I included the provision for relevant third parties to be able to step in and take forward the process of having a protection order put in place. That is because in many cases, disturbingly, the victim is not at liberty to do that. In some cases, the victim might not even be in this country and might therefore be unable to apply for such an order.
The bill has survived relatively unscathed from the version that was introduced to Parliament last September and the amendments to it have made it stronger. The amendments very much had an eye on how the main provision—the introduction of forced marriage protection orders—would be implemented in practical terms.
I listened to what the witnesses and committee members had to say when I considered the recommendations in the committee’s stage 1 report. Even when I felt that amendments were not strictly necessary, there was a clear feeling that they would assist those who would use the legislation at grass-roots level. For that reason—and because they did not detract from the effect of the bill—I was happy to accept the amendments.
We have now debated all the amendments and reached an agreed position on them. Once again, I thank members, particularly members of the Equal Opportunities Committee, for the supportive manner in which they have dealt with matters. It is clear that we in the chamber are united in a desire to ensure that the victims of forced marriage have the best possible protection.
On implementation, we all know that what we do here in Parliament in relation to shaping the law of Scotland is only part of the picture. With an issue such as forced marriage, which we hope will not happen every day and therefore will not be a common issue for those who are asked to support victims, the legislation will not do its job without an appropriate implementation package. I know that support must therefore be in place to help the users of the legislation understand its effects and get the most out of it.
Quite rightly, the implementation phase of the legislation has been a particular focus of the committee’s attention. The consultation on draft statutory guidance will begin later today. I felt that it was important to get it under way before the pre-election period began. I want to ensure that, in producing the guidance, we can take on board the views of Scotland’s public sector, including police and local authorities, while ensuring that it is in place in time to allow organisations to be ready for the introduction of forced marriage protection orders in the autumn. I will ensure that the Parliament is informed of the developments from the consultation and that the revised guidance is shared with members.
Witnesses, the committee and members have regularly raised the lack of good data on forced marriage. I am very aware of the need to have more robust data for Scotland and I am confident that the bill will act as a driver for data collection, as has happened in England.
Training on forced marriage is another important issue. Particularly important is training for key professionals, which will be developed in the months ahead to ensure that anyone who might come into contact with a victim of forced marriage knows what to look for, how to support them and what remedies are available.
We do not expect a large number of people to apply for forced marriage protection orders on their own behalf or via third parties.
I am afraid that I am just finishing my speech.
We expect the bill to result in more victims seeking help because—for the first time in Scotland—a focus will have been created for the message that such behaviour is unacceptable.
I thank everybody who has been involved. I look forward to the debate and—I hope—to the bill’s successful passage.
That the Parliament agrees that the Forced Marriage etc. (Protection and Jurisdiction) (Scotland) Bill be passed.
For once, I might not use my full quota of minutes, but that does not mean that the bill is not significant. It is relatively straightforward and short, and it has managed to be the subject of consensus in the end, but that does not necessarily mean that it is not significant—perhaps that reflects how people have come together in committee and externally. As the minister said, amendments were agreed to so that people could reach a consensus on the issue’s significance and on the measures that are outlined in the bill.
In reading the stage 1 debate again, I noted Malcolm Chisholm’s comments on the original consultation, in which people expressed anxiety that legislating to create legal consequences might deter victims from coming forward. It is interesting that we had a difficulty or challenge in making a judgment on that. The way in which the committee has considered matters reassures us, because we do not want to do something that will make the situation worse.
What the minister said about implementation is important, and his plan for that provides reassurance. Post-legislative scrutiny is also important. The committee will have a role in making us alive to ensuring that the anxieties that were expressed in the original consultation in 2005 and 2006 are no longer a concern. The Parliament will have a role in that.
We should remember the power of the message that victims have sent to Parliament. In the stage 1 debate, Anne McLaughlin and Elaine Smith gave voice to victims’ experiences. It is important to recognise that the experience of forced marriage is horrific. For someone to force another person into marriage is a horrific crime. That underlines the bill’s significance.
One of the Parliament’s strengths, on which we should reflect, is that we do not just tick boxes for a bit of legislation and then move on. In implementing the bill and in post-legislative scrutiny, it will be critical to ensure that the bill meets its intended purpose. A strength in the Parliament’s culture is that Parliament does not simply move on; the opportunity exists to refresh legislation and to consider the issues that drove the legislation to be created in the first place.
In all the debate about the bill, it has been emphasised time and again that what matters is not just the bill. The bill is not just symbolic: it does send signals and it is a symbol of what we say about the offence, but it will also provide protection and offer people legal measures that are not insignificant.
We must place the bill in the context of education of our young people. We must give people the confidence to know that, despite what they have been told, forced marriage is not acceptable or reasonable, is not to do with their culture and is not expected of girls. There is a specific role for that educational side of the bill to be rolled forward. Public education is also important, given the anxieties about the degree of stereotyping around forced marriage. The challenge in the public debate is for people not to be allowed to retreat into such attitudes.
We also have to recognise that many women in such circumstances may be very isolated—perhaps deliberately so. We have to think carefully about the trusted intermediaries who will reach out to those women. An important bit of work that needs to be done is to consider which organisations—which women’s organisations—may be best placed to support women in the circumstance of forced marriage. If evidence emerges of a need for support, it is essential that the Government, of whatever colour, wills the means for that support to happen. The amount of funding that is required for such support may not be huge; small bits of funding can allow organisations to offer it. If the support is not there, victims may not have the confidence to come forward. Ignorance or fear of family consequences are not always an issue—it may be lack of confidence.
We all understand that forced marriage of any kind is unacceptable. In saying that, we recognise that forced marriage is not particular to women; it affects men, too. It is also fair to say that the issue must be seen in the broader context of the rights and role of women and their abuse in society.
The bill shines a light on the issue and challenges the attitudes that underpin forced marriage. I, for one, welcome the legislation. It will be good to come together at the end of this session of Parliament to vote on the bill before we go our separate ways. We have reached consensus on a difficult issue for which we have worked out a solution. The bill will make a difference.
The Forced Marriage etc (Protection and Jurisdiction) (Scotland) Bill is important legislation that the Equal Opportunities Committee had the opportunity to consider in detail, and to comment on, as the lead committee. As convener of the Equal Opportunities Committee, I outlined the committee’s recommendations and views in what was a productive stage 1 debate. I thank committee members and the EOC clerks for all their hard work on the bill.
I speak in this stage 3 debate not as the convener of the Equal Opportunities Committee but from the Conservative benches. I acknowledge and thank the minister and the Scottish Government for their willingness to listen to and take on board the committee’s concerns and suggestions to improve the bill at stage 1. Thanks to the amendments that the Government lodged or did not oppose at stage 2, the definition of “force” is now more explicit. The definition in the bill is now
“coerce by physical, verbal or psychological means, threatening conduct, harassment or other means”.
The wording was included in an amendment that Marlyn Glen lodged. As many members know, Marlyn is stepping down as a member. I record my thanks to her for her support as a member of the Equal Opportunities Committee and as the committee’s deputy convener. As an original member of the committee, Marlyn’s knowledge and experience since 1999 have been invaluable. I know that her commitment to and passion for equality issues will continue in whatever she chooses to do henceforth. I thank Marlyn and wish her all the best in whatever she chooses to do in the future. [Applause.]
I turn to other stage 2 amendments. The bill now includes a provision to enable constables to arrest without warrant persons whom they reasonably believe have breached or are breaching forced marriage protection orders. The jurisdiction of the protection orders was also clarified to include the requirement from a person to refrain from taking a protected person to another part of Scotland or outside Scotland. A new section 67 ground was created under which a child who has been, or is likely to be, forced into marriage can be referred to the principal reporter. Also, guidance on implementing and using the legislation “will” rather than “may” be issued. That will be critical to ensuring that the legislation works effectively.
The bill brings Scotland’s legislation into line with existing legislation in the rest of the United Kingdom that is aimed at preventing forced marriages and protecting the victims of forced marriage. It will help to eradiate an abhorrent practice that has no place in a civilised society. It is victim-centred legislation that provides for third-party applications where it may be difficult for a victim to seek protection from family members. It strikes the right balance on criminal and civil sanctions and addresses victims’ concerns about criminalisation of family members by providing that only breach of an order by the perpetrators will be a criminal offence, which may result in up to two years in prison.
In addition to the primary legislation, I support the call for a public awareness and education campaign, which I consider to be essential, to be carried out in Scotland, to ensure that the issue is understood and addressed.
Forced marriage is a violation of fundamental and internationally recognised human rights. On this last day of its third session, the Scottish Parliament can be justifiably proud of passing the Forced Marriage etc (Protection and Jurisdiction) (Scotland) Bill, as I have every confidence it will do later today.
There is an oxymoron at the heart of the debate—it is “forced marriage”. If something is forced, there cannot be a marriage. The evidence that we took on the bill indicated that there are clearly cases of this abhorrent practice. Scotland needs to stand above the rest of the world and to send the message that we are not prepared to accept it.
During debate on the bill it has been clear that, although the number of cases might be relatively low, underlying the vague data that we had—which the minister has kindly accepted—was the prospect that there were people who for some time had been without the protection that the legislation will bring them. I am especially pleased that many of the amendments, recommendations and suggestions that the committee put forward during the bill’s process were accepted—occasionally with a bit of tweaking—by the Government. That is a good indication of how Governments of any shade can work closely with committees to fine tune legislation to ensure that it is as effective as it can be and most beneficial to those whom it affects.
The bill will send a clear message to the wider public in Scotland. As Margaret Mitchell said, it is clear that we need an awareness-raising campaign to ensure that people understand what rights and protections the bill provides.
Back benchers do not often get an opportunity to claim even a bit of credit, and it may be a bit tenuous for me to do so in this case, but I will do so anyway. I first raised the issue of forced marriage with Kenny MacAskill back in 2007. All too often, when issues that are small but of considerable concern are raised, they disappear off the radar. I was pleased that the Government took up the issue, looked at what had happened in previous sessions and decided to run with it. I take small credit for at least bringing the issue back on to the agenda.
I hope that the bill will give some protection to those who deserve it. Like other members, I look forward to the bill being passed at decision time today.
This will be my final speech as an MSP. I have decided to set myself a challenge. Instead of having the speech written out in front of me in 16-point bold, with double spacing, I have a few notes. I am beginning to regret that, because I am not sure in what order the notes are supposed to go, but I will do my best. Presiding Officer, I am glad that you said that we have a bit of extra time. When I told Bill Kidd that I was challenging myself, he said that the challenge would be to shut me up.
It is less a challenge than a pleasure to speak on the bill, for three reasons. First, it allows me to reiterate the point that I made when I last spoke on the bill, which is that forced marriage bears no relation to arranged marriage. All of us must continue to make that point. Somebody recently said to me that I should stop talking about the two in the same breath, so that people would not associate them, but it is not as easy as that. People believe that they are one and the same thing. Even an MSP colleague asked me this morning, “Are you speaking in the arranged marriage debate?” Just after that, he said, “No—I couldn’t have said that; I must have said ‘forced marriage’.” There is something in people’s minds—they see the two as one and the same thing, and we have to keep making the point.
It is not just we who need to be educated. The Law Society of Scotland made a good point when it wrote to us all yesterday saying that the legal framework is very helpful and that it supports it. As Johann Lamont said, we have to educate children and let them know that they do not have to put up with forced marriage. We have to educate the whole of Scotland, and we have to keep doing it.
The second reason is that the debate allows me to pay tribute to the constituent of mine about whom I spoke at stage 1, whom I have called Nina. She came to me with a housing problem. She had been housed on a main road in Glasgow. We might not think that that would be a problem, but this young woman has been terrified that her family will find her. Every time a car door has shut—which can be heard pretty often on a main road—she has thought that they might be coming to get her.
No wonder Nina was frightened. She had escaped a flight to a forced marriage at the age of 15. When her parents caught up with her, they put her in a room for a week. They starved her, giving her nothing to eat for a week—they gave her only water. This is the part that really shocked me: her teachers came round and, while they were downstairs, her mother poured a sugar solution down her throat so that she could at least look healthy and pretend that she had just been a little bit unwell.
Not everyone has the guts that my constituent Nina has. She escaped, and she has built a life for herself. She works full time—she does not earn very much, but she works really hard. She always goes to her work, as well as looking after her child. I pay tribute to her.
Because not everyone has the guts that Nina has, it is of crucial importance to have provision in the bill for local authorities and the Lord Advocate to apply on behalf of a victim for a forced marriage protection order.
What happened to Nina was not cultural; it was abuse. Someone once said:
“Forced marriages are, and always will be, an abuse of human rights and human dignity carried out by cowards who hide behind the veil of honour, shame and family pride.”
Those were the words of the late Bashir Ahmad, who is the reason I am here today. He is the reason I have been here for the past two years. It was a terrible reason, but it has been an honour to attempt to follow in his footsteps. Bashir has had a great influence on my time here. Any time that I have read something about myself that bears no relation to the truth, or that I have felt frustrated with the political process—as we all do from time to time—I always try to think of what Bashir would have said. He always said that everyone had their reasons for the way in which they behaved, and that there was good in everyone. I have always tried to believe that, too—although it does not always work.
Bashir Ahmad is not just the reason why I am here today; he is one of the reasons why the bill is before us. He was passionate in his support of victims of forced marriage, and he was determined not to allow any community, race or religion to be stigmatised by it. Had the bill before us today not been introduced, he would, he said, have introduced a member’s bill. I will end with his words:
“I am pleased that the Scottish Government and indeed all political parties in Scotland are recognising the need to act against this horrific crime. Today in the Scottish Parliament we will be debating the way forward in tackling forced marriages.”
If the late Bashir Ahmad MSP is watching now, I am sure that he will be so proud to know that today, the final day of the Scottish parliamentary session in which he became the first Muslim MSP, we are not just debating the way forward; we are finally passing laws that will protect the victims that he was so passionate about.
I am pleased to make my final contribution in the Parliament during this important debate on forced marriages. The Forced Marriage etc (Protection and Jurisdiction) (Scotland) Bill can, and I hope will, make a profound difference to people’s lives. As a Law Society witness rightly described the situation,
“although forced marriage is low incidence, it has an extremely high impact”.—[Official Report, Equal Opportunities Committee, 23 November 2010; c 2172.]
I am confident that we understand by now what forced marriage is. It is not arranged marriage, and it is not just an incompatible marriage. It is a marriage where one or both parties do not or cannot give consent.
Members of the Equal Opportunities Committee heard some pretty powerful evidence about rape, torture and assault carried out in the name of marriage. The Scottish Parliament has to put out the strongest signal that that is wholly unacceptable in our society—and neither is it condoned by any religion. The fact that breach of a forced marriage protection order is to be a criminal offence leaves no one in doubt about how serious a matter it is.
I am pleased that there is a commitment to include in the consultation on the statutory guidance a question on the definition of forced marriage. The UK forced marriage unit’s definition includes the phrase “and duress is involved”. We are well aware of the mental and physical duress that can be involved, but there is concern about individuals who might be forced to marry through much more subtle means, in particular if they have learning difficulties or if they are unaware of what is happening.
The bill’s passage has not been contentious and is an example of the cross-party working that has made it a pleasure and a privilege to be part of the Equal Opportunities Committee. I thank the minister and the bill team for their work in response to the committee’s report. I thank them for the amendments that they lodged and for accepting the amendments that I lodged at stage 2.
The amendments that I lodged arose from our discussions with agencies such as Scottish Women’s Aid. It is essential that people who want the bill to help them to do preventive work as well as work with victims are confident that the new legislation will make a difference. A strength of the Equal Opportunities Committee is its relationships with groups and its openness in discussing their concerns. We worked not just with groups that represent the legal profession but with equality groups, which were diligent in responding to our work.
Yesterday, I had the privilege of being interviewed for a film on forced marriages, which was initiated and is being directed by Loudy Othman. Students from Stevenson College’s creative industries department are working on the project with Saheliya and it is heartening to know that they are spreading the word and beginning the essential education process that is needed to accompany the bill.
It is sad that instances of forced marriage are being uncovered all the time. Although we know that it is usually women who are the victims, Saheliya is working on a small but important project, my story of drug addiction, with young men who are being forced to marry in a perverse attempt by their families to deal with their addiction and find support for them. The fate of the young women who are involved in such marriages does not bear thinking about. We must hope that the passing of the bill sends the strongest signal that forced marriage will not be tolerated in Scotland.
I give special thanks to the clerks and to members and former members for making the Equal Opportunities Committee’s work such a worthwhile part of my work as a member of the Scottish Parliament.
I am pleased to speak in the debate on the second-last bill that we will pass in this session of the Scottish Parliament—the first session in which I have had the privilege of being elected to serve.
It seems to me that the bill is an appropriate one to pass today with the support of MSPs from all sides, with support from all parties—I am sorry, Presiding Officer, I thought that I had put my teeth in—
Perhaps they are.
When the Parliament was established, human rights and equality were written into its proceedings from the outset. The Parliament was established to represent and serve all the people of Scotland.
The Forced Marriage etc (Protection and Jurisdiction) (Scotland) Bill is emblematic of the Parliament’s principles. It was introduced to counteract one of the worst violations of human rights that can be perpetrated on a person. At its heart is an insistence on freedom of choice, which is essential to any meaningful concept of equality.
The bill was designed to tackle a crime that happens to only a small number of people in Scotland, which in itself makes the bill even more important. There have been occasions when critics of the Parliament accused us of using legislation as a sledgehammer to crack a variety of nuts, but just because a problem affects a small number of people, that does not make it insignificant. On the contrary, the smaller the number of victims, the more vulnerable the victims are and the more vital it is that their elected representatives step up on their behalf. When we decide today to legislate against forced marriage, we will give strength to people who were powerless and give protection under the law to people who previously lacked such protection.
During the Equal Opportunities Committee’s consideration of the bill, we discussed the imperative of avoiding the perception that the bill is directed at a particular ethnic group or culture. I will say a couple of things about that. First, forced marriage is not about religion, culture or race; it is a crime. It is a complex crime, to be sure, which stems from old and deep-seated attitudes about the role of women and girls—and sometimes, as we heard from Marlyn Glen, boys—but, as Burns said many years ago,
“The Rights of Woman merit some attention.”
Forced marriage happens in society and within families, but it is a crime nonetheless. What is more, it seldom happens in isolation. Almost by its nature, it is a precursor to other crimes: child abuse, rape, domestic violence and sometimes even murder. Those crimes and their victims must be pre-eminent in our minds, and I applaud the Scottish Government for sticking to those facts in introducing the bill.
Nonetheless, there are complexities of which we must be aware, such as the need to make clear the distinction between arranged and forced marriage. Other speakers have addressed that point, so I will not go into it.
I thank all the witnesses who came forward. I especially thank the clerks, who tried hard to ensure that we had a cross-cultural group of witnesses. We could not find some of the evidence that we needed even though we knew that it existed, which shows how deep-seated some of the issues are. The clerks tried hard to ensure that we had witnesses to provide that evidence.
I also thank the committee members for their diligence in scrutinising the evidence, which was helpful for me.
At stage 2, we linked the bill with the Children’s Hearings (Scotland) Act 2011, which is a particular interest of mine. When we passed the 2011 act, I was concerned that, although forced marriage was a ground for referral, the term was not defined. I thank the minister for lodging amendments at stage 2 that fixed that anomaly and will bring the two pieces of legislation together to ensure that young people are supported in a welfare-based system. That further strengthens the approach of the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament to protecting children and young people.
I am very proud that the Parliament can come together to ensure that we continue to enshrine human rights in our laws. That shows our Parliament working at its best.
I said earlier that choice is essential to a meaningful definition of equality. If I had to pick one word to sum up what the Forced Marriage etc (Protection and Jurisdiction) (Scotland) Bill is about, it would be choice. The bill will write clearly into Scots law that it is an individual’s—a woman’s—choice to enter freely into a marriage or to reject it. That choice, as the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women puts it,
“is central to her life and to her dignity and equality as a human being.”
That is the core of the bill, and I commend it to the Parliament.
Having served on the Equal Opportunities Committee since 1999, I am pleased that the last debate of the parliamentary session in which I will participate concerns a bill that was subject to scrutiny by that committee.
Before I address forced marriages, I pay tribute to the work that my friend and comrade Marlyn Glen has carried out in her role as deputy convener. She has been on the committee since being elected and her contribution has been invaluable over the years, particularly on the bill. Marlyn is off to pursue new challenges. Knowing her ability, work ethic and commitment to her values, I am sure that she will succeed at whatever she does next. I wish her all the best.
The Scottish Government accepted Marlyn Glen’s stage 2 amendments. Sadly, it did not accept mine—I note that the minister did not mention that in his opening speech. At stage 2, I put the case for replacing the term “equitable jurisdiction” with “nobile officium”. That suggestion came from the Law Society, whose reason for wishing to replace the term used in the bill was that it was not a recognised term in Scots law. What is meant by equitable jurisdiction in the context of the bill is the extraordinary equitable power to do justice where ordinary procedure would provide no remedy, which in Scotland is called the nobile officium of the higher courts. However, the Scottish Government believed and argued that equitable jurisdiction includes the nobile officium. Therefore, I did not bring the amendment back at stage 3, as it seemed we would just have the same disagreement.
Overall, the Law Society was not entirely convinced that section 12 is necessary, so I helpfully suggest that it be subject to post-legislative scrutiny at a future date, which adds to the comments that Johann Lamont made about the need for such scrutiny.
Aside from that minor disagreement, the committee was pleased to recommend support at stage 1 for the general principles of the bill, which is an important piece of legislation, and its suggested amendments were accepted at stage 2. There was certainly no disagreement about the need for the bill or the principle that everyone should be able to enter into a marriage or civil partnership without being forced or coerced to do so. When the bill is passed later today, it will bring us into line with other parts of the UK with similar legislation; indeed, I think that our legislation will be better.
We in the Labour Party are clear that the bill is needed to try to stop the horrendous practice of forcing anyone into marriage, whether male or female. However, we know that it is mostly young women and girls who are likely to be in that situation and that forced marriage is part of the continuum of violence against women and is completely unacceptable. As Marlyn Glen pointed out, it is linked with horrendous acts of violence, rape and domestic abuse. We need to be clear that forced marriage is not a cultural phenomenon but is abuse.
Sadly, the people in victims’ families who should protect them are often the perpetrators, as Anne McLaughlin pointed out. When the bill was first proposed, it was welcomed by a victim, who chose to remain anonymous, in a statement that was provided through Shakti Women’s Aid. The victim described the experience of forced marriage as surreal and immensely traumatic. She added:
“We often rely on our families for support but when that family subjects you to marry unwillingly you feel it is impossible to escape.”
It is up to us as a society to protect vulnerable people, and we have a duty as lawmakers to ensure that appropriate legislation is in place to help to do that. We also need to raise awareness about the issue of forced marriage and ensure that victims know what support is available to them, as other members have said. If the number of victims coming forward increases, we may need to consider the resources for support agencies.
I thank all the witnesses who helped the committee with the work of scrutinising the bill and I acknowledge that all committee members worked together in a non-partisan fashion to ensure that the bill would be the best legislation possible. I note the consensual way in which the Government accepted most of the amendments that were proposed to improve the bill, which meant that there was no need for a great deal of amendments at stage 3 today. Last but not least, I thank the clerking team who, with the Scottish Parliament information centre, helped to draw information together for the committee.
The bill is not a major piece of legislation in parliamentary terms, but it will have a major impact. It will not affect vast numbers of people but, for those whom it helps, its impact will be substantial. With the passing of the bill later, the Parliament will send out a clear message that forced marriages are completely unacceptable, are part of the spectrum of violence against women and girls and will not be tolerated in Scotland.
This has been a short and sweet, consensual debate. However, I suspect that another event later this morning, commonly known as First Minister’s questions, is likely not to take a lesson from the way in which we have conducted ourselves in dealing with the politics of this place.
As other members have said, the bill demonstrates Scotland choosing a piece of legislation that is desperately needed, taking it forward in a constructive and positive manner and arriving at a conclusion to which everyone who has spoken in the debate contributed, such as Anne McLaughlin, who gave an emotive recounting of a constituent’s experience, Christina McKelvie, Marlyn Glen and Elaine Smith, who again demonstrated her command of the Latin language.
As has been said, we will need a mechanism to allow us to undertake post-legislative scrutiny. If I have had a theme as a member of the Scottish Parliament for the past four years, it is that, although the process is sometimes contentious, we as a Parliament are good at taking legislation forward but are not necessarily as good at reviewing its effectiveness and usefulness. In that regard, I am pleased to have been a member of a committee that has reviewed legislation on mental health and other issues.
As my final contribution to this session of Parliament, I ask that, whoever is in government in the next session, we consider what we have done as well as what we would like to do and ensure that it all works for all the people of the country.
I, too, thank Marlyn Glen for everything that she has done in the Parliament and wish her happiness and success in the future.
It is a pleasure to close for the Scottish Conservatives in this short debate on the last day of the present session. Like others, I pay tribute to the work of the Equal Opportunities Committee, ably led by my friend Margaret Mitchell, for a very good stage 1 report and for its subsequent work at stage 2. All those who gave evidence to the committee are to be commended, as are the staff members of SPICe, who produced two extremely useful briefings that helped to inform our debates.
The bill has enjoyed widespread cross-party support since its publication last year, and rightly so. The whole Parliament is united in seeking to ensure that people who wish to marry or enter into a civil partnership can do so freely and without coercion of any kind. It is the duty of any Government to protect the citizens who elected it from bullying, harassment and threats, especially in the case of marriage. It is appropriate that the bill will bring Scotland into line with legislation elsewhere in the UK. The value of the bill also lies in the public message that it sends: that the Parliament is prepared to bring the matter out into the open and to take the lead in achieving a consensus that forced marriage will not be tolerated.
As we heard earlier and during the stage 1 proceedings, although the evidence suggests that the incidence of forced marriage in Scotland is low, it is an extremely high-impact occurrence, and one that it is right that the Parliament takes strong action against. The ability for victims of forced marriage to apply to a civil court for a forced marriage protection order has been widely welcomed. As Louise Johnson told the committee,
“it does what it says on the tin”.—[Official Report, Equal Opportunities Committee, 23 November 2010; c 2180.]
In conclusion, the Scottish Conservatives welcome the improvements to the bill that were made at stage 2 and are very happy to support its passing at stage 3. All of us hope that, when its provisions are enacted, the bill will prove to be of real use in preventing forced marriages and assisting the victims of such a dreadful occurrence. Our Parliament can be proud to pass the bill.
Hugh O’Donnell described this as a short and sweet debate. Neither the minister nor I often contribute to short and sweet debates, so we should cherish the moment—it is possible for anything to happen in this world.
It is an important debate and, as has been said, the bill is significant. Its journey through the parliamentary process has been highly productive. Now, the challenge is to ensure that it makes the difference that we aspire for it to make. I add the thanks of Labour members to the clerks, the committee’s convener, Margaret Mitchell, the witnesses, committee members—for taking their job so seriously—and the bill team, who will have had to wrestle constantly with what was possible from the point of view of the legal people and with the political imperative of addressing what the witnesses brought to the table.
Forced marriage is an important issue, but it is fair to say that it does not form part of mainstream discourse on a regular basis. The bill is not one that I expect will create a huge number of headlines but, for all that, we must recognise that it may make a difference to the lives of women and to the attitudes and views of families, individuals and communities, and in that regard it is important.
I know that I have a great deal of time to speak, but I plan to make only a couple of points. One point that it is worth making is that, although the Parliament has a proud record of exposing and highlighting issues to do with violence against women, I would not want anyone to think that, in debating issues to do with violence against women and abuse, we can somehow always reach a consensus. In fact, those who first raised such matters, who first challenged attitudes to marriage and who first discussed the role of women did so in a context of hostility, not one of consensus. It is a mark of the journey that we have made that we can discuss such an issue as forced marriage in a Parliament that has constructed a consensus. However, we must understand how that has happened, because it was not by accident. It has happened because women’s organisations have spoken out on behalf of women and have found a way of bringing the experience of individuals into the political process. Parliament must continue with that important job, not with a sense of self-satisfaction but recognising how challenging it is. It is about changing lives, expectations and people’s fundamental roles in life.
Women are suffering disproportionately in these challenging economic times and we must also challenge that situation. The economic challenge that women are facing is an expression of their inequality.
It is also true to say that one reason why the Parliament has got to a place where it can spend time talking about issues to do with women’s role in society and violence against women, and where Governments of all colours fund organisations that help it to do that job, is that there are a significant number of women in the Parliament—some feminists and some not, but women who understand the important job that Parliament might have in making a difference to women’s lives. Across the chamber are women who are choosing to leave the Parliament today. Those of us who have to face the electorate have yet to have that verdict passed upon them. However, we know that there will be a challenge in future to make sure that women’s voices continue to be heard in Parliament.
Although I recognise and celebrate all the women who have chosen to go today, I am sure that I will be forgiven if I mention in particular my sister Marlyn Glen, who has a long and proud record of fighting to ensure that women’s voices are heard. Her persistence and passion for working on behalf of those who are without power, particularly women, are probably without match. She played a part in shaping the Parliament and has a played a significant part in its work since she became a member. I wish her all the best. Should I be in the privileged position of coming back to Parliament, I know that Marlyn Glen will continue to work from outside Parliament to ensure that we continue to understand the importance of speaking out about the needs of the most vulnerable people in our communities—those without voices.
The message to all parties is that, if we want to form a consensus around difficult issues, it is critical that all ensure that women’s representation in Parliament is sustained. The first parliamentary session was record breaking and there has been some retreat in all parties. Parliament will be weaker if we go back to not reflecting the experience of women, not representing women and not facing the continuing challenge to reflect society’s diversity. It is not simply that the representation of women and black and minority ethnic communities is important in itself but that that representation helps Parliament to understand disadvantage and inequality and brings us to this bill and issues that matter to communities across Scotland. I support the bill and look forward to it being passed at decision time.
Johann Lamont started by saying that it is not often she and I do short and sweet. I disagree. We do short and sweet all the time: she does the short, and I do the sweet. [Laughter.]
I endorse all the comments that have been made about Marlyn Glen. SNP members will miss her input, particularly in relation to equal opportunities issues. We appreciate and admire her contribution to the Equal Opportunities Committee and to issues around equal opportunities, human rights and women’s rights. We wish her all the best in whatever she decides to do next.
I endorse Anne McLaughlin’s comments about the late Bashir Ahmad. In this four-year session, the high point at the beginning was when he was elected as the first Muslim MSP; the low point was when he passed away so suddenly halfway through the session. The bill is as much a tribute to him, his philosophy and his thoughts as it is to anyone else.
Bashir would have been not just very proud of our passing the bill but proud and appreciative of the tremendous contribution that his successor Anne McLaughlin has made to the Parliament and, particularly, to the kind of issues that we are discussing this morning. She has been an able and fit successor to him.
As members from all sides of the chamber have said, forced marriage has no place in any civilised society. Today the Scottish Parliament is taking an important step towards eradicating this dreadful practice in Scotland. I thank members from all sides of the chamber for their excellent contributions to the debate. As I said in my opening speech, I have been encouraged by the support for the bill throughout the parliamentary process and throughout the country. It truly has been an example of the Parliament at its best, and it has been a pleasure to be the minister in charge of the bill.
Nearly every member who spoke raised the importance of awareness raising. A big part of the success of the bill’s implementation will be that people know about the legislation and the issues surrounding forced marriage. As a Government, we share the Parliament’s view that significant work is required to raise awareness and understanding of forced marriage in Scotland—especially, although not exclusively, among young people. We are committed to undertaking that work and have established a group of forced marriage network members to develop and take it forward as a matter of priority over the coming months. The group has already met and is due to meet again in early April. Members will also know from the bill’s financial memorandum that I have allocated resources to that work over the next three years.
I want to pick up on the point made by Hugh O’Donnell, Johann Lamont and Elaine Smith that it is important for the Parliament to engage in post-legislative scrutiny. As a Government we will take measures to monitor the effectiveness of the implementation of the legislation. That will be done 12 months on from the bill’s passage today. We have already put resources in place for that, and we will share all the information with the Parliament and with the relevant committee in particular. If we identify any issues that need to be taken forward to make the implementation of the legislation more robust and effective, we will be prepared to address them.
On the wider issue of representation, we have identified a budget of £90,000 over the next three years to support implementation. Half will be committed during this financial year to the development of practitioner guidance and the delivery of training. In subsequent years, resources will be committed to monitor and evaluate the success of the legislation, as I just said.
Although as everybody has said the bill concerns an issue that affects a relatively small number of people, it potentially has a huge impact on the lives of that small number of people. I believe that it also sends an important message to wider Scotland about the kind of country that we want Scotland to be: a Scotland where no one is at risk of abuse or is forced to do anything against their will and where everyone is free to participate in society and achieve to their fullest potential. A country that does nothing to tackle the evils of forced marriage fails on all those counts. Today we have taken the first important step towards ridding Scotland of that totally unacceptable practice. Importantly, we have made it clear that we are just as concerned about issues that impact on the few as we are about issues that impact on the many.
Earlier, we agreed amendments to the bill that will ensure that it is as clear and unequivocal as it can be. I thank individual members and the committee as a whole for their suggestions on amendments, which I think have strengthened the bill and made it much more lucid and therefore much more effective.
I apologise that I could not accept Elaine Smith’s amendment on nobile officium—a common term in Coatbridge—but as I said to the committee the advice that we received was that the equitable distribution provision in the bill incorporates the points validly and lucidly made by her and by the Law Society of Scotland about nobile officium. On the campaign trail, therefore, we can all discuss nobile officium knowing very well that we all know what it is, as does everyone out there.
Before I close, I pay tribute to the most important people in the debate: those who have been the victims of forced marriage. They have helped us to understand the importance of the issue and what we needed to do to protect others from ending up in a similar situation to theirs. It is hard to imagine how horrifying it is for someone to be told that they are going to be married against their will and perhaps taken from Scotland, where they have lived all their life, to another country where they know no one, possibly do not even know where they are being held and are cut off from any source of support or help. That is not only humiliating but dehumanising.
The bill will not eradicate forced marriage overnight. We know that there is a long road ahead, involving awareness raising, training, monitoring and robust enforcement of the legislation. We must all play a part in taking us closer to where we want to be: a Scotland in which everyone is free to marry or not, as they choose for themselves. In passing the bill on the final day of this parliamentary session, it is important that we do so on a totally consensual basis. I look forward to decision time at 1 o’clock today, which I believe will be a celebratory decision time because we are passing the bill. Given the provisions that I introduced this morning in relation to the protection of Her Majesty, I do not expect any problems with royal assent.