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12.23 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Mike O'Brien): This has been an important and good debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) on raising it.

I shall focus on the issue of forced marriages, but first I shall respond to some of the other issues that were raised. The hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) asked for the Government's general position on human rights. We now have more women in Parliament and in the Government than ever before, and the Government seek to address the issues of access to education, domestic violence and child care in a cross-governmental and progressive way. We shall continue to develop our programme to enhance women's rights. She specifically asked about the human rights commission. It is an open debate and we are waiting to see how it develops once we have passed the Human Rights Bill.

My hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) discussed the appalling evidence of female genital mutilation. It is unlawful in Britain and I agree with my hon. Friends the Members for Halifax and for Calder Valley (Ms McCafferty), and with the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan), that we must outrightly and forthrightly condemn that barbaric practice. On behalf of the Government, I condemn it. The Department for International Development is working hard in other countries to try to stop female genital mutilation.

I shall now deal with the issue of forced marriages. I wish to state clearly that forced marriages are wrong. It is distressing to hear of instances of young people entering marriages not with joy and expectation, but with trepidation and fear. That treatment of a woman within a

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marriage or a relationship is unacceptable. We cannot tolerate compulsion on individuals to marry. The Government have put human rights at the heart of their agenda, and incorporated the European convention in UK law. The United Nations universal declaration on human rights states that

    "marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses".

Individuals' human rights should be respected by everyone. All British citizen should have equal rights and responsibilities, and respect for women's rights is central to that. It is incumbent on men and women in every community in this country to respect their partners, sisters, daughters and wives, and support them in making choices that will lead to fulfilling lives. Respect for the choices of others is important.

Different communities have different traditions, and we are proud that Britain is a multiracial society. We are the stronger for it. Our multiracial and diverse society should give due respect to different beliefs and traditions, but not at the price of conflict with the fundamental rights of individuals or the laws of this country.

The Government must respond sensitively on those issues, but multicultural sensitivity is no excuse for official silence or moral blindness. We long ago abolished laws that treated women as chattels. We cannot shelter or tolerate bad practices under the guise of sensitivity. The Bible, the Koran and other religious texts teach respect for women; the Government's position on this issue does not conflict with those great religious teachings. We must be careful that, in highlighting aspects of laws in some Muslim countries, we do not fall into the trap of branding Muslims as fundamentalists. British Muslims are, by and large, a sensible and moderate community that forms part of Britain's mainstream religious debate. This debate is not about Muslims--as one of my hon. Friends said, all faiths have their zealots; it is about behaviour which the vast majority of British Muslims would have no part in.

It is important to keep this issue, particularly its scale, in perspective. It is difficult to be precise about the scale, and I do not believe that the number of cases is large. The vast majority of families, from whichever community, want for their children more than they themselves achieved. That aspiration may include access to education, professional achievement, or marriage and family. We must recognise and understand the pressures on some families in this country today, and the problem of young people who may be forced into marriage.

Families that brought with them their traditions and values, and blended those with their responsibilities as citizens in this country, have contributed to our society in

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a tremendous way over the past 40 or 50 years. Their children and grandchildren have had educational opportunities, and their families have encouraged them in that. Many of those young women may wish to take a different path in life from their parents, and a different path from that which their parents may choose for them. That is not unique to a particular community. Young men in many of our communities, particularly in areas like Yorkshire, where some of my hon. Friends come from, have suffered severely from downturns in the local economy, the closing of mills and the loss of jobs. They hold on to marriage and the prospect of marriage as fundamental to their dignity and self-pride.

Expectation of an arranged marriage may be different on the part of the parents, the young man and the young woman. When one party to the marriage still lives overseas, another factor enters the equation of whether the marriage will succeed. However, the idea of arranged marriages should be separated from that of forced marriages. Many religious and ethnic communities have a long tradition of arranged marriages, and that tradition often works well. Indeed, I am aware of no evidence that arranged marriages are less successful than marriages that involve a greater freedom of choice. I have spoken to many women whose voluntary but arranged marriages have brought them great happiness.

The concern is not about arranged marriages; it is about forced marriages. Conflicting expectations can cause marriages to break down and it is important to ensure that communities get the message that any kind of marriage needs support to ensure that it is voluntarily entered into and successful. Organisations like Women's Aid and Southall Black Sisters have made an important contribution in raising the issue of forced marriages and putting the subject on our agenda.

We have heard about the important work being done in Bradford to deal with issues such as those raised by the case of Zena and Jack, which my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley described in her speech. We also heard the story of Asiya, who is on the run at 16 years of age. Those are appalling stories. The Government seek to support the Bradford police's work. I had intended to go into that matter in more detail, and to discuss issues related to entry control and to Afghanistan, but lack of time prevents that.

The Government are aware of the issue of forced marriages. We will not retreat into silence on these matters. The communities involved should not ignore the fate of these girls. The victims may be small in number, but their voice will not be ignored. The vast majority of members of their community condemn their ill treatment, and many of them have spoken out--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin): Order.

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University Students (Accommodation)

12.30 pm

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): I am grateful for the opportunity to express my concerns about student accommodation, and to raise these issues within hours of my noble Friend Lord Tope's doing so in the other place. I trust that the Minister will agree that the current registration, inspection and enforcement of health and safety standards for student accommodation are confused and unsatisfactory. Indeed, that applies to much of the rented housing sector.

I hope that the Minister will also agree that reform of the rented housing sector is necessary. Indeed, it was one of Labour's now famous manifesto promises:

The Liberal Democrats share that manifesto commitment, and I would expect any future leader of my party vigorously to fight for it.

At present, 1.5 million students in higher education live in halls of residence, university-owned premises or private sector rented accommodation. Many of them live in shared houses. Students make up a significant proportion of the rented sector, and they suffer disproportionately because of their circumstances. For many students, that is their first experience of independent living, and it can often be a nightmare. I should declare an interest in that my son is a first-year undergraduate at Lancaster university and is discovering the joys of finding suitable accommodation for his second year.

It is not my intention to shroud-wave, but I remind the House that research on fire risk in HMOs published by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions in 1997 found that bedsit tenants are six times more likely to die as a result of fire than adults in houses occupied by a single household, and that 45 per cent. of fire deaths in houses of multiple occupation occur in buildings with one or two storeys. Deaths from leaking gas appliances and from carbon monoxide fumes are still common. Ten students have lost their lives unnecessarily since 1990.

In 1996, the English house conditions survey reported that 12 per cent. of shared houses were unfit for human habitation, rising to 23 per cent. of houses that were divided into bedsits. Both types of accommodation are typical student accommodation. The situation has, if anything, worsened since 1996. Last year, that prompted the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health to issue a hard-hitting press statement, which said:

The 1997-98 National Union of Students survey of student accommodation costs revealed that 60 per cent. of a student's income goes on housing.

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