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I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the minimum age for marriage and civil partnership.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I thank our new Minister for replying to this important debate and look forward to his response. The debate is about whether the House should consider increasing the legal age of marriage and civil partnership in the UK to 18.
Whatever our differences, I confidently predict that everyone in the House believes that it is sacrosanct that we protect our children; indeed, I suspect that all agree that we should be at the forefront of protecting children across the world. Laws in this country rightly consider young people differently until they are 18, and in the wider world the United Nations convention on the rights of the child relates to those under that age. It is clear that 16-year-olds are not adults. Some may outwardly appear more mature, but the reality is that they are still developing in both body and mind. In their teens, boys and girls are still guided by parents and teachers; after all, it was us who insisted that they need to be in full-time education until they are 18.
Could Members possibly imagine the 16-year-olds they know—their own children or grandchildren—getting married at that age? My granddaughter will be 15 later this year, and the idea of her getting married in just over a year’s time is mind-boggling, and she would agree. She will not be forced into marriage, but sadly that is not true of all young people, either in the UK or, just as importantly, across the globe, and specifically in countries where this country, and indeed this House, still hold significant sway.
The ability to marry under the age of 18 with the consent of parents is an important legal anomaly; I would argue that it is an absurdity. The reality of child marriage is extremely complex and wide-reaching.
My hon. Friend makes a strong point. Has she looked at minimum ages around the world? There seems to be quite a large variation, particularly in places such as Africa, where it can be as low as 13 in some countries. Has she looked at comparative ages in the rest of Europe?
I have not actually looked at comparative ages in the rest of Europe. However, certainly in Africa and other developing countries, there is a wide range. We ask African countries and anywhere that we send development money to not to allow children to marry, and to set the minimum age at 18. They turn to us and ask why they should listen, because we allow children to marry. That is another very good reason why we should increase the age to 18.
The problem cuts across religions, regions and cultures, and it happens at home in the UK too, in the 21st century. The fact that it is possible to marry at 16 effectively means that child marriage is written into British law, which is held up as a guiding light in legal systems across the world. By not changing it, we give regimes an excuse to say, “What’s good for the British is good for us.”
I previously advocated changing our marriage law to increase the legal age to 18—with no exceptions—through a ten-minute rule Bill. Unfortunately, I had to withdraw it on Second Reading. Among the arguments I made in the House in support of the Bill were those relating to maturity levels, negative social implications, meeting international standards and helping to prevent forced marriages. I will reiterate all those arguments in more detail in this speech, to stress the importance of increasing the legal age of marriage in the UK.
Statistics on marriage among 16 and 17-year-olds are limited, but a limited dataset can be found on the Office for National Statistics website. It shows that 40 boys and 200 girls aged 16 to 17 married an opposite-sex partner in 2014, which is the most recent period for which we have data. Same-sex partners can now also marry at 16, but there is no recorded data on same-sex couples getting married at 16 or 17, which might be because there are so few cases, or none at all, of same-sex couples marrying below 18. The numbers might be relatively low, but the negative impact on the individuals involved in the marriage are large and wide-ranging.
Hon. Members should keep in mind the wider influence that our laws have. Increasing the marriage age in the UK to 18 has been gathering political momentum for some time. It should be noted that in 2017 Parliament considered the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Bill, which sought to raise the minimum age of consent to marriage or civil partnership to 18 and create an offence of causing a person under 18 to enter into a marriage or civil partnership. Unfortunately, the 2016-17 Session was prorogued and the Bill made no further progress. I attempted to reignite the process with my ten-minute rule Bill, but this failed on Second Reading.
Frustratingly, previous efforts to amend the existing law have been rejected or delayed for a number of reasons. One argument is that the number of people who get married under 18 is so low—and ever decreasing—that it is not worth the legislative time to change the law. However, for those who get married at such a young age, the social impact is enormous, and as we have not legislated for more than a month, we could have fitted it in. The reality is that the largest body of people that this change in the law will protect are not foolish, love-struck teens but vulnerable young women forced into marriages permitted by their own families for a host of social and cultural reasons.
As a nation, we have a moral duty to do everything in our power to reduce the number of forced marriages and close loopholes that make it possible to obtain such marriages by legal means. This relatively simple and straightforward change to the existing law would have a significant impact on young people. Marriage is a major life decision for which children are not emotionally or physically ready. Marriage is intended to be a lifetime commitment and should not be rushed into. Setting the minimum age of marriage at 18 provides an objective, rather than subjective, standard of maturity, which safeguards a child from being married when they are not ready.
I passionately believe that it should be our priority to protect children, and that may mean from themselves as well as from potential dangers from others. The very fact that children of 16 and 17 need the consent of their parents to be married shows that they are not mature enough to make the decisions themselves—they are children. Increasing the age to 18 ensures that teenagers do not recklessly and naively rush into marriage, but it also protects them from the demands of parents who try to push their offspring to marry early. I say this as somebody who believes in marriage; I am not trying to stop marriage, just for those who are too young. In both cases, child marriages suffer from complications that too often end in divorce.
This year marks 101 years of the suffragette movement. We should recall that it was pressure from those brave campaigners that brought about the Age of Marriage Act 1929. Until then there was no defined minimum age, and making it 16 was seen as protecting children. However, 90 years ago, most young people aged 16 would have been working, probably since they were 14, unlike now, in England, where they must stay in either full-time education or training. My own mother started work at 14, so it would not have been unreasonable for her to get married at 16. She did not; she waited until she was 19, which in my view is still too young. However, life has changed. In other words, that was then and this is now, and we need to move with the times. Culture has changed, and so has our commitment to protecting young people—or at least it should have done.
There are a number of negative consequences from marrying at 16 or 17. 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 violence. A clear example of that is that if married children drop out of school and fail to finish education and training, they can subsequently be locked into poverty. It is clear that that phenomenon disproportionately affects girls. Child brides in particular are often isolated, with limited opportunities to participate in the development of their wider communities and reach their full potential in modern society. It is difficult for child brides to pursue education, employment or entrepreneurial opportunities. Child marriage therefore hampers efforts to eradicate poverty and achieve sustainable development goals. It leaves young brides at risk of premature school drop-out, sexual activity—often without consent or contraception—and the myriad health-related consequences that accompany teenage pregnancy.
The Campaign for Female Education notes that teenage birth rates are highest where child marriage is most prevalent. When girls become pregnant before their bodies are ready, they are at high risk of complications during pregnancy and childbirth, which endanger the life of both mother and child. Human Rights Watch noted that girls who marry are at higher risk of domestic violence than women who marry as adults. The Campaign for Female Education supports that assertion.
It is interesting to note that, in general, fewer people are getting married at a young age. For marriages of opposite-sex couples, the average age for men marrying in 2015 was 37.5 years and for women it was 35.1 years. People are less likely to settle down quickly when they are young.
There is a far greater focus on education for both men and women now. Quite rightly, ambition and expectation are higher for many young people in the modern day and age. The late teens and early twenties are seen as key development years to study, travel and consider options for the world of work. Historically, women may have got married younger, but in the modern world their education and employment prospects are far greater. Some 37.1% of young women go to university, which did not happen in previous years.
The Campaign for Female Education states that women who are employed reinvest 90% of their earnings in their families, lifting themselves, their children, their siblings and relatives out of poverty. However, when a girl is married as a child, that can often mean the end of her education and impede her ability to become financially independent. The campaign concludes:
“One girl’s potential to lift an entire family, and even a community, out of poverty disappears. This is happening millions of times over. As the inter-generational cycle of poverty continues, youth unemployment and economic instability can lead to migration, conflict and violence.”
Every child bride could have been a doctor, teacher, scientist, entrepreneur or politician even. There is a huge social as well as economic cost to child marriage.
British law should act as a gold standard internationally and reverberate around the world. That should be the case with child marriage. We should be using our influence with other countries to end child marriage. Unfortunately, the UK is out of sync with other western countries and ignores the advice of the international human rights conventions on this issue. The international human rights conventions on women’s rights and on children say that countries should end the practice of enabling child marriage below 18. The UK is violating those commitments. Under the UN sustainable development goals, countries around the world have pledged to end child marriage—any marriage in which one or both spouses are under 18—and we have promised to do that by 2030. Human Rights Watch has asserted that the EU could do more to help to end child marriage, and I understand that the European Parliament is working towards that.
Many countries’ legal systems prevent marriage before the age of 18. I said to my hon. Friend John Howell that I had not researched the position in Europe, but I have looked at Sweden, the Netherlands and Spain, because they recently reformed their laws on child marriage, as did the US state of Virginia. Similar laws are pending in other US states, but not in this country yet. Other countries permit marriage among the young only for certain groups. For instance, according to the US State Department’s human rights report on Trinidad and Tobago from 2014, the official marriage age is 18 for men and women, but Muslims and Hindus have a separate Marriage Act.
International law is very specific about who should be allowed to marry. If a country wants to permit exceptions to the minimum age of 18, “mature, capable” children are allowed to marry, but only “in exceptional circumstances” at age 16 or older, when
“such decisions are made by a judge based on legitimate exceptional grounds defined by law” and
“without deference to culture and tradition.”
By allowing 16-year-olds to marry without consent from a judge, the UK is in reality breaking international law. However, the great hypocrisy here is that we ask other countries, in the developing world, to abide by international law and ensure that the legal age of marriage is 18. I believe it is vital that the UK live by the standards that it is keen to advocate for in the developing world.
Following the first Girl Summit in 2014, the Department for International Development allocated up to £39 million over five years to support global efforts to prevent child marriages. There is a vast body of work to do, as globally 15 million girls under 18 are married each year. By its proactive contribution, the UK recognised that child marriages result in early pregnancy and girls facing social isolation, interrupted schooling, limited career and vocational opportunities and an increased risk of domestic violence, so why are we not leading the way by increasing the legal age of marriage in this country?
If I get the opportunity, I hope to catch your eye, Mr Bailey, and raise a couple of points, but in the interim, let me ask this. My hon. Friend Mrs Latham has referred yet again to teenage pregnancy. Can she clarify whether she is seeking to change both the legal age of marriage and the age of sexual consent, or just the legal age of marriage?
With my Bill, if I can bring it back after the next Queen’s Speech, I would be looking to change only the age of marriage. I do not think the House would accept changing the legal age at which sex can take place and I think it would be very difficult to stop that—to change that law. Although it might be desirable, I think it would be impossible—just think of all the young people in this country, with hormones racing round their bodies—to stop sex happening. It has happened throughout the ages, and I think that a measure to try to stop it in this day and age would not get through the House. What I want to do is to change the age of marriage, and perhaps that will have some influence in terms of people deciding to keep themselves pure until they get married. That is a hope I have, but I do not know whether it is a reality.
Why are we not leading the way by increasing the legal age of marriage in this country from 16 to 18, which is the recognised age of adulthood? In Bangladesh, which has the second highest absolute number of child marriages in the world—just under 4 million—some lobbyists are said to be using the current UK law as an example of why the legal age of marriage there should be lowered. They are saying, “You allow children to get married. Why shouldn’t we? Why should we listen to you?”
I have had exactly that experience in Bangladesh. I met the Prime Minister and spoke to her about a law that the country was trying to pass to make marriage legal under 18 in certain circumstances, and she threw back to me, “In your country, you are allowed to marry at 16.” The message was really “Do not come here lecturing us,” so I want to echo the point that Mrs Latham made very well just now.
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. We cannot tell people what to do if we are not doing it ourselves. We have to lead by example, and the change that I propose is one way in which we can do that. We need the three relevant Departments in the UK: DFID; the Ministry of Justice; and the Department for Work and Pensions—no. Which Department is the Minister from?
Those Departments have to work together to bring this change about. Maybe this long debate will be one of the first steps in that process, but as soon as the Queen’s Speech—whenever it is—is over, I intend to bring this matter back as a ten-minute rule Bill or a private Member’s Bill, because it is really important that we set a good example to the rest of the world.
In addition to attempting to stop child marriage on the international stage, it is crucial that we meet the international human rights standards that have been established to put a stop to the practice. I agree with the assertion by the chairwoman of the global advocacy group, Girls Not Brides, Mabel van Oranje:
“Britain’s delay in reforming its own marriage laws is increasingly counterproductive.”
Forced marriage is defined by the Home Office as
“a marriage conducted without the valid consent of two parties, where duress is a factor.”
It is marriage—a lifetime commitment—entered into by an individual against their will. In the UK, law dictates that forcing someone to marry is a criminal offence. It is child abuse, domestic abuse and a form of violence against women and men.
England and Wales outlawed forced marriages in 2014. That was, in part, down to the work of a campaign by Jasvinder Sanghera of Karma Nirvana, which started in Derby. I know her well, and she has worked tirelessly with that organisation to stop forced marriage, to help girls who have been forced into marriage to escape and to make sure that girls in such marriages are safe. Many of the girls who have been married early for cultural reasons do not feel safe in their own homes.
The outlawing of forced marriage was enshrined in the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, which sets out that forcing someone, including children, into marriage is illegal and can lead to a maximum of seven years in jail. Previously, the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007 came into force along with forced marriage protection orders, which are designed to assist those who are threatened with forced marriage, or by a third party on someone else’s behalf. Those orders can be used to prevent a forced marriage from taking place, or to protect someone who has already been forced into marriage.
I welcome the fact that in the UK, forcing someone into marriage now carries a maximum sentence of seven years in jail. I also acknowledge that in many ways the UK is a world leader in the fight against forced marriage. Unfortunately, however, that does not prevent the practice from happening. The Home Office estimates that between 5,000 and 8,000 people are at risk of being forced into marriage every year in the UK. In 2017, more than a quarter of cases dealt with by the Forced Marriage Unit involved children aged 17 and under, and the vast majority of the victims—77.8%—were female.
The ability to marry at 16 with parental consent is a significant discrepancy in the law here. Too often, parental consent means parental coercion for 16 and 17-year-old children, and sometimes for even younger children, because children can be taken out of school in the UK and sent to another country, where they are married at 14 and kept there until they are 16, and then brought back to the UK at 16. We are told that these girls have parental consent. The organisation Girls Not Brides warns that this “legal loophole” means that child marriages, and potentially forced marriages, are still sanctioned in the UK, because in a number of cases parents do not act as the safeguarding mechanism that the law intended them to be.
In some communities in the UK, the legality of marriage at 16 can result in forced child marriage, whereby parents can consent on behalf of their children. Furthermore, many vulnerable teenagers are being sent overseas to marry. Forced marriage is a violation of human rights and is contrary to UK law, including the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973, which states that a marriage shall be voidable if
“either party to the marriage did not validly consent to it, whether in consequence to duress, mistake, unsoundness of mind or otherwise.”
Such marriages must be identified and ended. However, an amendment to the law to increase the legal age of marriage to 18 might stop these marriages in the first place, by making them an illegal impossibility here in the UK. On a personal level, individuals may be more mature and able to resist forced marriages at the age of 18, by which stage they may have managed to get to university, or to get a job after they have finished training.
Although changes to the law have helped to safeguard people from forced marriages, it is important that educational professionals and local communities are fully aware of the signs of forced marriage. The Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation’s executive director, Diana Nammi, recently stressed the importance of education in a televised interview, saying:
“We need to educate the community as well, we need to let them know that child marriage is a brutal situation.
Many of them think it is just a sexual relationship, but it’s a huge responsibility on the shoulders of the children and they are not prepared yet.”
To conclude, I strongly believe that the legal age of marriage should be increased from 16 to 18. It is important that we rewrite marriage law here, so that it is fit for the 21st century and aligns with international law.
I was pleased to learn that 79% of 2,700 respondents agreed with me that the minimum age for marriage and civil partnerships should rise from 16 to 18 in a recent poll, which was conducted between 10 and
At the heart of this matter is a moral dilemma about our values, not only here at home but internationally. This country is an advocate on the international stage for the eradication of child marriage and we must practice what we preach. I am on the International Development Committee and I have been out to many countries and seen how some of them are trying their best to raise the age of marriage, but that is not happening here. As I say, we must practice what we preach. Ultimately, I am in agreement with UNICEF’s assertion that
“marriage before the age of 18 is a fundamental violation of human rights”.
Meanwhile, forced marriage has a profound personal impact. In a recent Sky News feature, one interviewee—Mrs Khan—recalled her experience, which captures the sad reality of forced marriage. She said:
“It took away so much freedom from me. I could have met someone I loved. Instead, I was forced to get married, forced to have children, forced to put up with so many unbearable things.”
Therefore, I would like to see the Government pass clear and consistent legislation that establishes 18 as the minimum age of marriage, with no exceptions for customary law, parental consent or judicial consent. It is also clear that increasing the minimum age of marriage to 18 would provide a vehicle to help to safeguard girls and boys from being married before they are ready, or indeed from entering into a forced marriage by legal means.
I will finish my speech today by quoting the judge, Mr Justice Peace, in the landmark legal case, Pugh v. Pugh, in 1951. He spoke of the capacity of young people to marry and his words are as relevant today as they were then, 70 years ago. He stated in his conclusions:
“According to modern thought it is considered socially and morally wrong that persons of age, at which we now believe them to be immature and provide for their education, should have the stresses, responsibilities and sexual freedom of marriage and the physical strain of childbirth. Child marriages by common consent are bad for the participants and bad for the institution of marriage.”
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Mrs Latham not just on raising this issue but on making what really was a powerful speech. We use the word “powerful” so often in this House, but her speech really was exemplary, setting out so many of the arguments that I am now wondering what I will say. She and I will remember our visit to Ethiopia as members of the Select Committee on International Development. We spent quite some time in a village community where DFID was working to encourage young girls to defer their marriages. It was working successfully, particularly with the community elders—the leaders—and had transformed the lives of some of those young women.
As we have heard from Mabel van Oranje, the chairman of the global advocacy group Girls Not Brides, the UK should practise what it preaches. Girls Not Brides argues that the major impacts of getting married young are that girls are more likely to drop out of school; they never have a chance to develop the vocational skills that will enable them to enter the world of work; and they are at greater risk of marital rape, domestic abuse, serious depression and health problems. All of those issues were discussed with us in those communities in Ethiopia, and the benefits of deferring marriage were clearly shown to us. Indeed, we had the opportunity to meet a number of the young women who were benefiting substantially.
I will give a couple of examples to flesh out the arguments that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire has made. One of them refers to a lady called Amina, whose parents were born in Bangladesh. Interestingly, it has also been made clear to me that the proposals to change the law in Bangladesh to allow marriage at 16 cited British law as a justification. Amina—not her real name—is now a mother of four in her 30s, and lives in London. She had never talked to her husband before her wedding, just after her 17th birthday. It was an arranged marriage, arranged by her parents; it put an end to her studies and plunged her into depression. She says:
“The marriage was all about fear. I was a total stranger in my own house. I was really naive. I felt like a child myself when I had my first children…It was a big sacrifice of my life. I had no chance to explore things. I went through terrible times.”
Another example, that of Zee, has been reported by Reuters. When Zee was 13, she returned home from school one day to find an engagement party underway at her home in the north of England. Her excitement at the celebrations quickly turned to shock when she asked her mother, “Who’s getting married?” and her mother said, “It’s you!” She told Reuters that her betrothed was represented by a photo; he was an older cousin whom she had never met, who lived in Afghanistan, her parents’ country of birth. She said to the reporter:
“One day I’m not even allowed to talk to boys and the next I’m getting married…I was dressed up”— this was at the engagement party—
“to look like a Christmas tree—very sparkly, very bling. Everyone was happy. The only person who was miserable was me”.
Zee escaped by running away from home, but many are not so fortunate. The latest figures I have from the Government’s forced marriage unit—the Minister may have more recent ones—are that of the 1,196 victims dealt with, one in four was below the age of 18. That is around 300 people. Interestingly, one in five was a male victim, so we must not forget those people either.
The points that we are making are serious, because every one of those victims is an individual life. It cannot be acceptable to say that the numbers are not great; those are substantial numbers, and the impact on those young people is lifelong. The impact is not just on them, because if a marriage is good and positive, it is good not just for the people involved within it but for any children they might have and, indeed, for the community around them.
This is national Marriage Week, so the next part of my speech will touch a bit more widely on the importance of marriage. Marriage is a major life-changing decision that establishes a family, often—though not always—with children as part of it. Strong marriages contribute greatly to a stable and flourishing society, including the wellbeing of those children, so it is in all our interests to promote good marriages, including through public policy. It is what everyone wants from marriage.
However, although marriage is a source of great pleasure, it can also be challenging. At times it requires perseverance, which more often than not requires a degree of maturity in understanding human relationships, and understanding both ourselves and others. That must be very difficult at the ages of 16 or 17—and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire has said, remains difficult for many years afterwards. Marriage is far easier if we make a wise choice at the outset about who we marry and who we will be compatible with, because it is going to last a very long time. As I say, that necessitates an understanding of ourselves, as well as of others.
The Church of England marriage service says of marriage that
“No one should enter into it lightly or selfishly”.
“a sign of unity and loyalty which all should…honour. It enriches society and strengthens community.”
We should not expect that of 16 or 17-year-olds, especially in today’s complex world. When my hon. Friend’s mother or grandmother was getting married, life was so much simpler: often, one married someone within one’s local community, who had grown up with the same values and customs. That so often is not the case now. Life is complicated for these young people, and they also have much higher expectations for their life fulfilment than maybe two or three generations ago. It is too big an ask to expect them to be able to make that decision at 16 or 17, even if it is their own decision and not forced on them. The risk of allowing those young people to marry is too great. We should support them and, I believe, protect them from what could be not just their most major, life-changing decision, but the most damaging decision that they could make. Making the wrong major, life-changing decision can be the biggest mistake of a lifetime.
For many reasons, I fully support my hon. Friend’s proposal. Indeed, I would go a bit further and say that anyone contemplating marriage should be offered the opportunity to take advantage of the wealth of resources out there to help people, particularly young people, make the right decision. We as policymakers could do that, for example, by promoting policy No. 11 in the manifesto to strengthen families—the Minister is smiling. I carry a copy in my handbag, virtually permanently.
I am very glad to hear that; we are making some impact. Here is policy No. 11, which as I say, I am unashamedly talking about in national Marriage Week:
“Promote high quality marriage preparation by waiving Marriage Registration Fees for couples who take part in an accredited marriage preparation course.”
Not only would that help remove one of the financial barriers to marriage, but it would encourage the uptake of marriage preparation courses. Those courses could be kitemarked, such as the marriage preparation course for engaged couples produced by Holy Trinity Brompton. We have showcased that course, along with a number of other resources, through the all-party parliamentary group for strengthening couple relationships and reducing interparental conflict. They really are excellent materials for people who want to embark on married life with a greater understanding of what it involves. Indeed, after going through some of those courses, some people decide that they are not going to get married. Is that not success, too? Is that not helping to protect them from the heartache and disappointment that such marriages can entail if they do not work out?
One of my parliamentary staff members, Sophia, attended the marriage preparation course when she was engaged; she is now married. She says that it was
“very helpful and laid a strong foundation for going into marriage”,
and she would recommend it. If a couple are busy, Marriage Care offers a “marriage preparation in a day” course, and there are resources on the web such as marriagebydesign.org.uk, which is made available by Care for the Family. That organisation has a host of other resources—I actually went on one of its marriage preparation courses 29 years ago, so it must work. Harry Benson has written a tiny relationship tip booklet, “Let’s stick together”, which he says contains
“simple guidelines to keep your love alive and keep you together.”
Can I recommend that the Minister considers the whole manifesto, and in particular policy No. 11, this week?
The structure of the house we live in when we start off in married life—I know that it is a struggle for some young people to find a home of their own—cannot be stable without strong foundations. No one would expect a house to stay up for long if it was not built on strong foundations; it would collapse. So, too, with marriage, which is too big an issue to leave to chance. A little help from us as policy makers, including by raising the marriage age, could go a long way to helping facilitate lifelong fulfilment for many people, as well as a more flourishing society.
I will endeavour to be brief. I have just been doing a quick bit of research while the debate has been taking place. To start, I notice that throughout the European Union—I appreciate that that may not be regarded as a particularly good example at present—the average age of marriage is fixed at 18 legally. That varies in some cases between men and women. In the Nordic countries, for example, the age for males to marry without consent appears to be 18, while for women it can be 16, which tells us something about the problems we are facing in this day and age. That is why I asked my hon. Friend Mrs Latham about the age of consent. There are those of us who believe, as she clearly does and as I do, that the age of marriage without or even with consent is too young and needs to be raised to 18, but we then have the problem of promoting unmarried sexual relationships, which many of us would not wish to seek to do. There is a dilemma there.
I was running a yard rule over the ages of consent, and they range from 11 in Nigeria up to Portugal at 21, though the age of consent for marriage in Portugal is 18, which presumably makes for some interesting celibate relationships between the ages of 18 and 21. I am not sure how they square that circle, but happily that is not our problem. We are here to discuss the situation that prevails and the situation we would like to see prevail in the United Kingdom.
I have listened to the arguments of my hon. Friends the Members for Mid Derbyshire and for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), and I concur with virtually everything they said, but I do not think we are here this morning to preach, and I am not here to sit in judgment on my fellow man or, in this case, more particularly, my fellow woman. Relationships and cultures vary, but we live in a United Kingdom that sets its norms and standards by the wishes of our population, and, in so far as it is possible—I think it is right to use the phrase that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire used—we try to set a gold standard. We seek to do what is right for the young men and women of our country, of whatever colour, class, denomination or creed.
I hope you will permit this, Mr Bailey, but I will digress very slightly. During the debates on same-sex relationships—note that I use the word “relationships”—as a Christian and an Anglican, I apparently heretically raised the proposal that marriage, a word I use advisedly, is a relationship between a man and a woman with a view to procreation and that anything else is a partnership. That is something that prevails not only in the Christian faith, but in many other faiths—probably most. I put forward the suggestion that we should recognise the fundamental difference between a civil union and a faith marriage and that the word “marriage” should be reserved for faith. I would have got rid of registry office weddings and civil unions and had one category of civil partnership, whether heterosexual or same-sex, for everything else. That would have made a much safer definition for everyone, but unhappily we did not go down that road at the time, because that was not the way the political wind or political correctness were going.
While seeking to recognise the separation between the age of consent and marriage, or civil union—in this context, I will use “civil union” from now on—it seems to me that one of the duties we have is to protect young people from predatory older adults of whatever sex. I can just about remember when I was 16. I suspect I was fairly vulnerable; I suspect most of us were and I suspect that young people today still are, in the main, in the United Kingdom, which is what we are talking about.
I understand the culture of arranged marriages, but that is not what we practise in our culture. I do not think they are advisable or desirable, but if such marriages are going to take place and that is the nature of the culture, I see no reason whatever why even an arranged marriage should not be arranged at 18, rather than 16. I take the point that has been made that 18 ought to allow a child to have a childhood, an education and a degree of maturity, whether male or female, before entering into what for some of us is the most sacred of unions. By the way, I speak as a hypocrite, because I am a divorced married man. I am happily married now, but I have to concede that my “till death us do part” vows did not hold. I want to set the record straight on that. I am unable, in the terms of my faith, to marry the lady whom I love and live with in a Christian church because technically, in the eyes of the Lord, I am still married.
Although I support the motion, I want to put down one caveat, which is that comparisons with other continents are dangerous. I have worked as an international election observer in many countries for some years, but particularly throughout the continent of Africa, where the voting age is 18, as it is in most countries. I recall very vividly challenging a young lady about her voting intention as she was queueing to vote. I asked her to produce a card, which she did. She had an ID card that claimed she was over 18. Well, that young lady was certainly not a day over 13, but she was carrying a baby on her back, and it was her baby. It was borne in upon me by local people that although this young lady was probably well under 18, sadly, in the terms of that particular country, where the average lifespan for a young woman is still probably only about 35, she was actually nearly halfway through her life.
If we look at it from that point of view, to suggest that that union, inside or outside of marriage, should not have taken place, becomes ridiculous. We have to recognise that while we may set an example and want to raise the bar ourselves and say, “This is what is right for our young people”, it ill behoves us to go to far-flung places to try to tell other people in other countries with other cultures and, sadly, other life expectancies, how to live.
I understand what my right hon. Friend says, but the girl is a child. If he thinks she was only 13, she must have been pregnant when she was 12. Whatever the culture of the country, it is a terrible burden for her, however long her life will be. She could have had the child at that age as a result of rape. She probably was not married. If she was married, it was probably a forced marriage. I cannot agree with his point, because that girl should never have had a child at that age. Whether she lives to 35 or 95, it matters not; her body is not ready for it. I fundamentally disagree with the point that he has made.
I knew it would be a point of disagreement; it was fairly inevitable. That is why I said carefully that I do not think we can come here and preach this morning. Secondly, while we are entitled to set our own gold standards and yardsticks, we should not seek to impose them on other people in other countries with other cultures. We can set an example and help to raise standards of living and life expectancy in other countries through our aid programmes and in other ways, but we cannot tell them what they should do.
The reality on the ground is precisely the reality that my hon. Friend conceded when she said we could not fix the age of marriage in this country to the age of consent. We have to live with the reality internationally. The reality in this country can well be marriage at 18, and in my view and my hon. Friend’s view, it should be, but to say that we are going to stand like Canute at the waves’ side and tell the tide to go away is nonsense. Realistically, politically and practicably, we will not be able to raise the age of consent. It simply will not happen.
There is an incompatibility between the age of consent argument and what we are proposing, which I endorse: the age of marriage at 18. I would prefer people to be married or in a formal, legal civil union before they have children, but in reality that is not the case. With those caveats, I am pleased to support my hon. Friend’s motion.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I welcome the Minister to his place and congratulate Mrs Latham on securing this important debate. I thank Members for their valuable contributions today. The hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire argued for raising the minimum age for marriage and civil partnerships, which I will respond to, but first I will lay out the current position.
The current law in England and Wales states that the minimum age for marriage or civil partnership without parental consent is 18. The number of 16 and 17-year-olds who married in 2016 stood at just 179, so the number of young people deciding to get married with their parents’ consent before they turn 18 is a relatively small group. But we must ensure that access to marriage and civil partnership is equal. The introduction of the Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration Etc.) Act 2019, which Tim Loughton worked so hard to secure, extended civil partnerships in England and Wales to non-same sex couples. The Labour party has a proud history of establishing equality—it introduced the Civil Partnership Act 2004 and equalised the age of consent—and I am very proud that this place introduced an equal marriage Bill that became law. Now civil partners can convert their partnership to a marriage if they so wish.
The hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire has made various arguments for raising the minimum age for marriage and civil partnerships to protect against forced marriage. It is of the utmost importance that we protect vulnerable individuals who are exploited and coerced into a forced marriage. Forced marriage is a vile, dangerous and abhorrent practice, and we must ensure that those who fall victim to it are protected. Sadly, the practice takes place across the UK, and we need to do more to protect the vulnerable and offer them the dignified support that is required to free them from such relationships.
Statistics from the forced marriage unit show that in 2017, where the age was known, 15% of cases involved victims below 16 years of age, and nearly 30% involved those under 18, so the UK Government must do more to ensure that victims of forced marriage are listened to and given the support they require. Those who force vulnerable individuals into marriage—for example, to secure immigration status in the UK—must be challenged. Although I welcome the steps that the Government are taking against forced marriage, including their public consultation into introducing a legal mandatory reporting duty relating to cases of forced marriage, they have been too slow to react and those who are suffering now need urgent help.
I get what the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire says regarding maturity, but if we allow people to join the Army and buy a lottery ticket at 16, and given that Wales is currently consulting on lowering the voting age to 16, we cannot say that they are mature enough to do all of those things, but not mature enough to marry. I know several couples who met in school, married at 16 and have had wonderful married lives together. I also know many people who got married at 40 and within 18 months could not stand the sight of each other.
I do not disagree with the right hon. Gentleman; I was making the case that they were eligible to join the Army at 16.
Couples can fall out of love at any age; I do not believe that age plays any part in how their future develops. If this debate was about protecting people from forced marriage, I would 100% agree with the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire, and if it was about thousands and thousands of 16-year-olds getting married and then finding themselves getting divorced a few months later, I would also agree, but in reality we are talking about a very small number of young people who decide to get married very young for whatever reason. I remain receptive to the arguments, but I want to see a bigger conversation. Far be it from us to stand in the way of love’s young dream. I cannot honestly say that if my 16-year-old son came to me and said he wanted to get married, I would be best pleased, but I would support his decision and help him and his future partner in any way I could.
I really do appreciate the hon. Lady’s sentiments, but can we truly say that by increasing the age for marriage and civil partnerships to 18 we will stop forced marriage and unwanted pregnancies, and stop people remaining in happy relationships purely because they are 16? Let us have a bigger debate and work collectively to ensure that we protect and offer equality for all.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I thank my hon. Friend Mrs Latham for giving me such a fascinating first outing as the Minister responsible for family justice. I had never given the subject a moment’s thought until Saturday morning when I learned it was on the agenda. I have had a fascinating few days thinking about it. I thank my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce and my right hon. Friend Sir Roger Gale for their interesting comments. I also thank Carolyn Harris, my parliamentary next-door neighbour—not geographically, although we share an interest in tidal barrages, but in terms of where our offices are on the parliamentary estate.
The debate has been fascinating. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire has a compelling track record on this issue. I pay genuine tribute to her for the knowledge, advocacy and expertise that she brings to the issue. I have listened carefully and thought deeply about the points she has made, which should be the start of a dialogue. As the Minister, I have to take an administrative approach predicated upon the evidence presented to me. The Government understand the concerns about any possible link between marriages involving parties aged 16 and 17 and forced marriage more generally. As my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton pointed out—in this, national Marriage Week—marriage will always be one of our most important institutions, but only where consenting parties enter of their own free will and free choice. There can be no doubt that it is a serious violation to be deprived of marital autonomy, and the potential cost on victims of any age, gender or background is abundantly clear.
As the hon. Member for Swansea East pointed out, we announced the launch of a forced marriage public consultation, which sought views on issues such as a possible mandatory reporting duty, requiring certain professionals to report cases of forced marriage and how Government guidance should be updated. In answer to a question posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire, the Prime Minister said that we will look specifically at whether there is any link between parents giving consent to marry and instances of forced marriage. When we analyse the consultation responses, we will look specifically for that connection. The consultation is now closed. The responses are being sifted as we speak, and we will take a close interest in the analysis that emerges.
It may be helpful to tell all Members present what they already know and to clarify the position on the age of marriage. All UK jurisdictions require that marriage or civil partnership is entered into freely. In England and Wales, the age of majority is 18, but the law provides for marriage or civil partnership at 16 or 17 if the requirement for consents, including judicial consent when parental consent is unavailable, has been met. That requirement is a longstanding one and operates alongside the work of registration officers, who are trained to spot signs of forced marriage and take notice of the intention to marry without the other party, parents or relatives present.
That goes back to the important point made by the hon. Member for Swansea East about the different ages of maturity that emerge. She rightly pointed out the growing debate about whether we should have votes at 16. At the other end, I believe that someone cannot operate a tarmac roller until they are 21. There is still a spectrum of what we consider, as wider society, to be the point at which we reach adulthood and, as my right hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet pointed out, there is a range of options across Europe and the wider developed world regarding when marriage can occur.
Some US states allow marriage at 18 as of right, and at 16 if some conditions are met. Other countries have taken other approaches. Spain, for example, raised the minimum age to 16, with consents for under-18s, in response to specific concerns about child marriage and forced marriage. Sweden raised the minimum age of marriage in 2014, removing the ability of under-18s to marry with consents. Those differences demonstrate that there is no clear consensus yet in the developed world regarding the minimum age. However, we should continually monitor the impact of changes and their effectiveness, particularly in what goes on around the world more widely.
We have discussed the numbers of people affected in the UK. As the hon. Member for Swansea East pointed out, in 2016, the last year for which we have figures, only 179 people aged 16 or 17 entered an opposite-sex marriage—down from 424 in 2006. Clearly, it is a declining feature of our marriage system. None the less, I strongly take the point that, whether the number of people affected is 400, 100, 10 or one, we should still have the issue at the forefront of our mind.
The British social attitudes report identifies a dramatic shift in British society’s opinions on marriage, and changing norms about formal and informal unions. Men and women have increasingly been marrying at a later age because of their education, employment and economic opportunities, without any prompt by legislative change. I would be fascinated to see any research on the reasons of those 179 under-18s for marriage. I am sure that a charity, think-tank or group out there will take up that challenge, so we will not have to speculate about who those 179 people are. That might help us to identify the extent to which forced marriage is a component.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire made it clear that the fact that consents are needed shows that people might not be mature enough to make those decisions themselves. I understand that, but it is worth pointing out that consents are not a loophole; the law derives from the concept of the age of majority. When the age of majority for getting married was 21, consents were required for anyone under that age. A longstanding provision exists not to make an exception for people to marry at certain ages, but to respect what Parliament has previously determined to be the age of majority.
My right hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet introduced the important point that consequential changes would follow were the proposed change enacted. Where would it leave the age of consent? That is a whole new debate that would open up. There would also be consequential changes on other pieces of legislation that involve marriage, dating well back in our statute book. I realise how deeply felt the implications might be, and any change requires careful thought and engagement. Wider policies are brought in, in terms of what happens in Northern Ireland and Scotland, when we, yet again, have different regimes and disparities are introduced. We need to take into account the legal, moral and societal repercussions of any change such as the one proposed. The Government have a duty to explore that carefully in my view.
Perhaps most pertinently, we have to consider whether any such change would affect the incidence of forced marriage in the UK. Raising the domestic marriage age would not by itself prevent people from marrying informally, such as in a religious ceremony that was not legally binding, or from marrying abroad. Amending the minimum age of marriage would not necessarily deter perpetrators from coercing children into marriage through another route, or make the crime of forced marriage any more visible than it is currently. It is also unclear whether a change in the law would necessarily change the attitudes of families and communities who want to exert control over a young person’s decision to marry.
As I said at the beginning, I will look carefully at the consultation responses to try to identify themes that might emerge and that might help to buttress the case, or perhaps diminish it—who knows? However, there is clearly an important international dimension to the debate, as many Members have set out in much more depth than I could. I will not repeat ad nauseam the points made about the work that we have been doing as a Government with the forced marriage unit. I am immensely grateful for all its efforts. The fact that, of more than 1,900 applications since it came into being, more than 1,800 have been granted demonstrates that there is an issue that we need to deal with and that, so far, our actions are having the desired effect. We are sending a clear message that the abhorrent practice of forced marriage is unacceptable and the UK will not tolerate it, domestically or overseas.
Although the number of 16 and 17-year-olds marrying in England and Wales continues to decline, worldwide one in four women are married under 18, and one in 12, incredibly, is married under 15. There is a broad range of contributors to the problem in less developed countries, including community and cultural pressures, a lack of education or employment opportunities, and stigma around illegitimacy. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet, whose name I saw pop up on the all-party parliamentary group’s 2012 report, which looked into this issue and brought it to the forefront of public debate.
I agree that the international dimension is crucial, and we must continue to have it at the forefront of our mind. I reassure Members that the debate will not end today. I will continue to show an interest, but there are many strands that have to be pulled together. I am open to ongoing dialogue with Members, but I am conscious of the limitations that might be found in merely enacting the proposed change. I thank everyone for their contributions and look forward to seeing Members more frequently, I suspect, in Westminster Hall discussing many similar issues.
It has been a really interesting debate, and I thank my right hon. Friend Sir Roger Gale, my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce and Liz McInnes for taking part. I know that many others wanted to contribute but were unable to attend. I hear what everybody has had to say.
I urge the Minister to work with the Ministry of Justice and the Department for International Development to see if we can agree to look at the issue firmly. I know that the Justice Minister who has oversight of this matter is keen to bring it in—
Order. We have a little time available, so I have been fairly lenient in allowing interventions on what should be just a summing-up speech, but I ask hon. Members not to abuse that leniency.
Thank you, Mr Bailey. The Minister said that there are not many marriages under the age of 18, but actually I think the issue is under-reported: there are more forced marriages than we know about, and we need to protect girls from them.
Carolyn Harris spoke about children being able to sign up to the Army. However, it could be argued that that is education and training, because up to the age of 18 they cannot fight on the frontline. That is just what we have legislated for; we want people to stay in education and training until that age.
It is interesting that this debate has come up in National Marriage Week, which is an important thing. I am not trying to stop teenagers who have fallen in love at school, who are love’s young dream and who want to get married, but I think that they can wait until they are 18. There is no compulsion for them to get married that much earlier; waiting would give them time to reflect.
Northern Ireland and Scotland have been mentioned, but the marriage age should probably be a devolved matter, so we should look just at England and Wales. I am sure that Northern Ireland would not disagree that 18 is the right age, but I think Scotland would argue differently.
Finally, I recommend that the Minister reads Jasvinder Sanghera’s book “Shame”, which tells her life story. She has written several other books, including “Daughters of Shame”. Her story is quite sobering. Her sister had a forced marriage under the age of 18; she was taken away, forced to marry somebody she did not know and brought back to this country. It was a very unhappy marriage, and in the end she decided to cover herself in petrol and set herself alight. That was in the streets of Derby; it is very close to my heart. I recommend “Shame” because it shows the realities of forced marriage. It is slightly out of date, because it happened a few years ago, but the point stands.
Increasing the minimum age will not stop forced marriage, but children of 18 are that much more mature and have more of an opportunity to tell their parents, “No, I don’t want to do this. I want to go to university, study and make something of my life.” I urge the Minister to work with other Departments to make our proposal a reality. I will be bringing it back after the Queen’s Speech, so I urge him to get on with it, please.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered the minimum age for marriage and civil partnership.