6. To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to the position set out by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, in its concluding observations on the combined sixth and seventh reports of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland regarding the legal minimum age of marriage in Scotland. (S6F-02208)
We recognise and pay close attention to the comments that have been made by the UN committee, as well as recognising that young people in Scotland acquire a number of important rights at the age of 16. All marriages and civil partnerships must be entered into with the full consent of both parties, and there is existing legislative provision against forced marriage. We hope that, with the Parliament’s approval, protections will also fully extend to forced civil partnerships later this year.
We would want to balance any concerns that 16 and 17-year-olds may need more protection in relation to marriage with concerns that are related to the removal of the current rights that they have. I know that Claire Baker is aware of that balance. We are gathering views from stakeholders on the minimum age of marriage and are actively considering our next steps in that area. The UN’s comments will be taken into account as part of that process.
The UN’s observations make it clear that the prohibition of marriage for children under the age of 18 is part of ensuring that 16 and 17-year-olds receive protection as children in practice. It strongly recommends that the Scottish Government prohibit all marriages for those under the age of 18, without exception. I recently met Scottish Women’s Aid on this. The Scottish Government has previously stated that there would have to be a full public consultation before taking any steps to raise the minimum age for marriage, either through legislation or by supporting it. I urge the First Minister to bring that consultation forward so that we can have a public discussion about the appropriate age of marriage and can take the UN’s recommendation into serious consideration.
A consultation and discussion is under way, and I welcome Claire Baker’s comments on that. Rightly, it is often the case in this Parliament that, when considering matters such as this, we are pressed to talk to the people who are the most directly affected and impacted by them. We are making sure that we are talking to children and young people, such as members of the Scottish Youth Parliament as well as many others, to gather their views. As I have said, I would welcome Claire Baker’s thoughts on the issue in more detail.
We know that only around 0.1 per cent of marriages involve young people who are 16 and 17 years old. Records from the National Records of Scotland show that fewer than 30 people who were aged 16 and 17 entered into a registered marriage in 2019, which was pre-pandemic, and that there were fewer than that during the years of the pandemic. Nonetheless, I recognise the issues that have been raised by a number of stakeholders regarding concerns about forced marriage. We are undertaking the consultation, and, if we believe that there is a requirement to change the law, there will be a full public consultation on the issue. In the meantime, I would be more than happy to hear from Claire Baker with her thoughts.
Another of the UN committee’s observations was that the Scottish Government should
“expeditiously bring forward the amendments necessary to enact the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill in Scotland”.
What does the Scottish Government understand by the word “expeditiously”?
I believe that we should bring that bill forward for reconsideration, and I have made that commitment in various public comments. Most recently, on Tuesday, we had our Cabinet takeover with children and young people, and—quite rightly—members of both the Children’s Parliament and the Scottish Youth Parliament pressed us on the matter. I do not want to bring the bill back for the reconsideration stage only for another referral to be made to the Supreme Court and for it to be back at this stage once again. It is incredibly important that we take the little bit of time that we are taking in order to continue to work with and engage the United Kingdom Government. That is important in ensuring that we have a bill that is within our devolved competence and that will not be challenged by the UK Government.
The very last point that I will make is that we have read the detail of the Supreme Court judgment and it requires us to distinguish between not only acts of the Scottish Parliament and acts of the UK Parliament, but subordinate legislation made under both acts. It does take time to make sure that we have a bill at the reconsideration stage that, I hope, not only will command support, as the previous bill did, but will not end up in a referral to the Supreme Court by the UK Government.