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10 July 2007 : Column 1381

Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Bill [Lords]

Order for Second Reading read.

7.6 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Bridget Prentice): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

May I begin by commending the work done in the other place by Lord Lester, who introduced the Bill? I pay tribute to him for his initial work on the Bill, and thank him for his support for the Government’s amendments and redrafting. The Bill was the subject of much debate in the other place, and it comes to us changed for the better. I hope it will gain similar support in this House as it is much needed if we are to help the young women and, indeed, some men who find themselves in extremely threatening circumstances.

Above all, the Bill’s aim is to offer protection to those faced with forced marriage, whether they are children, teenagers or adults, regardless of background, race or religion. It also offers protection to people who have already been forced into a marriage. As many Members will be aware, the forced marriage unit, which is jointly sponsored by the Home Office and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, does tremendous work in developing Government policy on the subject. It co-ordinates outreach projects and it provides support and information to individuals who are at risk. It receives about 5,000 calls for general advice and it handles about 300 cases a year.

Last year, the Metropolitan police recorded 518 incidents related to forced marriage, so the numbers involved may not be great, but they are significant, and it is likely that many more victims suffer in silence. As well as offering protection to people who are in danger of being forced into marriage, we hope that the Bill will act as a deterrent, sending out a clear message that forced marriage will not be tolerated in our democracy.

The Bill offers civil remedies to those seeking protection from forced marriage. We consulted in 2005 on whether to introduce a criminal offence for forced marriage, but the response from stakeholders and voluntary groups with great experience of such issues was that criminalising it might be seen to target and stigmatise certain ethnic and religious communities, and that criminalisation would simply drive the practice underground, making the situation even worse for victims.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): Everybody in the House will support measures to tackle forced marriage, which is appalling, and I should like to pay tribute to the hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer), who has done an awful lot in the House to highlight the issue. Will the Minister explain which stakeholders she has spoken to, because people are concerned that the Bill will not make forced marriage a criminal offence?

Bridget Prentice: We spoke to a variety of organisations that work with women, a number of faith groups and a series of organisations that have an interest, so the consultation was comprehensive. The hon. Gentleman is right to pay tribute to my hon.
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Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer), which I intend to do later in my contribution.

It is important that victims get help to rebuild their lives and, where possible, to ensure that they have an ongoing relationship with their family. One of the reasons many voluntary organisations were concerned about criminalisation was that it might build a wall between the victim and their family that would be impossible to breach. This Bill is part of much wider programme that involves raising awareness of the problem of forced marriage and protecting women’s rights in that area.

The forced marriage unit has produced a handbook that provides practical support to survivors. It is also part-funding a pilot survivors network to provide emotional support to those who survive forced marriage. We are undertaking a great deal of publicity, outreach and awareness-raising work in key communities, which involves speaking at around 75 events every year. There has been a national publicity campaign involving radio, TV and the national and local press.

Like the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley, who secured an Adjournment debate on the subject back in 1999. Since then, she has worked tirelessly to bring about changes in the legislation to offer protection to victims. I hope that this Bill and the package of work undertaken by the forced marriage unit will stop the wicked practice of forced marriage.

The Bill gives the courts a wide discretion to deal flexibly and sensitively with the circumstances of each individual case, employing civil remedies that will offer protection to victims without criminalising members of their family. The new provisions take the form of a new part 4A of the Family Law Act 1996, placing them firmly in the wider context of domestic violence and family proceedings generally. That was the wish of Lord Lester, who wanted the provisions to be part of the family law package.

The type of orders that we envisage being made under the Bill are ones prohibiting violence or requiring certain steps, such as requiring a person to surrender a passport, for as long as such measures are appropriate to protect the victim. The Bill does not define what actions would constitute force in those circumstances, but it provides that that includes coercion by threats or the use of psychological pressure. The force may not even be directed against the victim, because it can be indirectly aimed at a third party or directed against the perpetrator themselves. For example, a person attempting to force a marriage may threaten to harm a member of the victim’s family or even himself or herself should the victim not agree to go ahead with the marriage. That avoids narrow definitions of behaviour, which might be too restrictive, and gives the courts powers to offer protection to victims in a wide range of circumstances. Victims may have been subject to a variety of pressures aimed at forcing them into marrying without their free and full consent.

An important aspect of the Bill is that it enables third parties to apply for orders on behalf of victims. Many people have asked me about the point that many victims are afraid to come forward. The Bill recognises that and includes an essential provision that offers protection to women who fear making an application
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because of intimidation, or even because they have been imprisoned against their will. The Bill allows a “relevant third party” to apply for a protection order on behalf of a victim. A “relevant third party” is an individual or organisation that has been designated as such by the Lord Chancellor. Other third parties—individuals or groups that are not so designated—would need to obtain leave from the court before their application could be made. That provision is designed to minimise the risk of a third party abusing the process. The wishes and feelings of the victim will be a vital consideration for the courts in dealing with third-party applications.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): Although the Minister is right that we do not want to see an abuse of the process, the measure that she has just outlined is important, because it allows a near relative to make an application if they are secure in the knowledge that somebody is being forced into a marriage.

Bridget Prentice: The hon. Gentleman is right. Working together has produced a Bill that includes that third pillar of protection for the victim.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): It is enormously to the credit of the Government and the Conservative Opposition that they have been prepared to take forward the Bill introduced by my noble Friend Lord Lester. We are grateful for the interest that has been shown—it has been a shared endeavour across the House.

Bridget Prentice: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for those kind and positive words. I am sure that all hon. Members on both sides of the House will work together to ensure that the Bill has a safe and smooth passage. We have always been concerned about the issue. Some time ago, we considered whether criminalisation would be appropriate. However, when Lord Lester introduced his private Member’s Bill, it seemed appropriate to join together.

The Bill provides that the court must attach a power of arrest to an order, if it considers that the respondent has used or threatened violence against the victim, a third party or the respondent themselves. The ability for the court to attach a power of arrest to injunctions will provide a further important protection for women in those circumstances and it will act as a strong deterrent to further action for those covered by the order. Powers of arrest may also be attached to orders addressed not only to named respondents, but to third parties. That means that all orders will be capable of being effectively enforced by a power of arrest, if appropriate.

The Bill provides parallel provisions for Northern Ireland. Although incidents of forced marriage are not common in Northern Ireland, I hope that hon. Members agree that extending these important provisions to Northern Ireland sends out an important signal about the seriousness with which we take the problem.

Before concluding, I want to say a few words about the Bill’s implementation. As with any legislation, implementation will require a significant programme of
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work. The first task will be to develop the necessary court rules, which will implement the procedure for dealing with those cases. The Department will take forward drafting of the rules and necessary court forms in conjunction with the family procedure rule committee.

The cost of court proceedings under part 4A in the form of court fees must also be set. I know that court fees are always a matter of concern in this House and the other place, and I want to reassure hon. Members that the Government are committed to ensuring that vulnerable people who need protection from the courts, but who do not have the means to pay, have access to justice. The intention is that the court fees and eligibility for legal aid will follow the models that are in place in relation to applications for non-molestation and occupation orders under part 4 of the Family Law Act 1996. That means that those on low incomes will be exempt from paying a court fee on the issuing of their applications.

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking) (Con): Will the Minister confirm that legal aid will be available not only to an applicant, but to a respondent?

Bridget Prentice: A respondent will, of course, be eligible for legal aid in the usual way.

The need for proper training and guidance on the issue of forced marriage and on the particular provisions included in this legislation has been rightly identified as key to ensuring that the Bill is implemented successfully and to tackling the problem of forced marriage. In the past year, the forced marriage unit—we are the only country in the world that has a forced marriage unit, so it is unique—has issued guidance to health professionals and undertaken an awareness-raising campaign for registrars. Guidance was issued to social workers in 2004, followed by guidance for the police and for teachers in 2005. We expect that revised guidance will go out for social workers before the end of this year.

The Bill provides a power for the Secretary of State to issue guidance on the Bill and on the issue of forced marriage generally. That will enable us to republish the existing guidance in order to put it on a statutory footing. It is anticipated that future guidance issued by the FMU will usually be published under the new power.

It is anticipated that the Judicial Studies Board, which is responsible for judicial training, will undertake the necessary training for judges in these courts. We will discuss with the JSB the cost of training and how to incorporate the training that it considers necessary within the existing provisions. Training for court staff will be a matter for my Department and for Her Majesty’s Courts Service as standard practice for the implementation of any new legislation affecting the courts. We will also consider with HMCS the provision of interpreters for women in forced marriages as part of the implementation programme.

It is clear that the House is already very supportive of the Bill. I hope that I have given hon. Members a sense of the plans that are in place to ensure that this extremely important piece of legislation is implemented as speedily as possible so that we can take another important step forward in tackling the harmful practice of forced marriage and protecting the rights of
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women, in particular, but of all individuals to choose whom and when to marry. I commend the Bill to the House.

7.20 pm

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): I welcome the Minister’s remarks and her presentation of the Bill. As she will be aware, the Bill commands universal support across the House. It started in another place when it was introduced by Lord Lester as a private Member’s Bill. As the chances of a private Member’s Bill from the other place getting through this House are not usually very good—not because of any obstruction but simply because they tend to come at the very bottom of the Order Paper in private Members’ business—we felt it incumbent on ourselves, as we took the matter so seriously, to ask for time for it to be dealt with, even at the cost of Opposition debating time. We are absolutely delighted to have been able to do that. We are also delighted that the Government responded positively to our proposal and that we have been able to co-operate with the Liberal Democrats on this matter.

Article 16(2) of the universal declaration of human rights says:

That is an aspiration that most people in this country might well assume to be commonplace, but the unfortunate reality is that there is ample evidence that it is not. The Minister referred to the number of calls received by the forced marriage unit—about 5,000 a year—and the identification of some 300 cases that appeared to be ascertained and 518 matters that had been brought to the attention of the Metropolitan police. Of course, in so many of these matters it is very difficult to know exactly what the scale of the problem may be. Speaking on the basis of my constituency experience in an area that might not necessarily be associated with the demographic profile that might lend itself to this, I think that there is ample evidence that people are contracting marriages, especially abroad, where a degree of coercion appears to be involved in the transaction, if I may call it that.

Philip Davies: My hon. Friend highlights one of the main problems. Does he agree that it might help to reduce instances of forced marriage if the age at which people were allowed to be brought into this country on a marriage visa was increased from 18 to 21?

Mr. Grieve: My hon. Friend raises a perfectly sensible point, which might also go to the question of what the general age of consent for entering into marriage should be. He is fully entitled to want to have those matters considered, although they are rather wider than those that we are considering. Historically in this country, at least until the 19th century, marriages were contracted at younger ages than today. Some argue that 16 is too young, while others say that it is right, particularly given the earlier maturity of young people. It is not an issue on which I would wish to pronounce, but it is a legitimate one.

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Coerced marriage involves grey areas. Some people marry under emotional pressure—that may happen frequently in this country, let alone abroad—and may come to regret it afterwards. We must be reasonably pragmatic in our approach. Nevertheless, it is clear that there are some stunning and horrifying cases of individuals who are coerced into marriage. We cannot escape the fact that different cultures have different approaches to marriage. Therefore, as our country has become more multicultural, different examples of coerced marriage have entered into our society—although it would be wrong to suggest that it has not been present here, too, throughout our history.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): The hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) inadvertently focused on the role of entry clearance officers and entry clearance managers. Clearly, legislation is very important and we support the Bill. However, should we not also consider an administrative way of dealing with the issue? ECOs and ECMs abroad should be wary when an application is made and the applicant is too afraid to say that it is a forced marriage, because if she does it then appears in the explanatory statement when it is sent to London and everyone knows that she has scuppered her own application.

Mr. Grieve: The right hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point that I was going to deal with a little later. It is one area that I think we might like to consider a bit further in Committee, if possible. I shall explain in a moment what I had in mind; other hon. Members might have different ideas.

I do not wish to take up the House’s time on an issue on which there is so much consensus, but I should like to say a couple of things about the Bill. As originally introduced by Lord Lester, it was a new piece of legislation. Since the Government’s helpful intervention, it has, in essence, been turned into an amendment of the Family Law Act 1996. There was great merit in that approach. Lord Lester had the ideas and set them out on paper, but translating them into detailed court powers is a rather more complicated process—I see the Minister smiling in agreement—and the 1996 Act provided the necessary mechanisms. Under the powers set out in new sections 63F, 63G, 63H, 63I and so on, we now have a panoply of court powers that were not originally provided for in Lord Lester’s Bill, and which will be very useful.

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