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That brings me to what my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) said about whether criminal sanctions are required. That is an important issue. If somebody is forced into marriage, and it can be shown to the criminal standard of proof that that is what has happened, there is no doubt that a great range of criminal offences may have been committed, depending on the circumstances, such as blackmail, threats to kill, assault, false imprisonment, child abduction, kidnapping or sexual offences. However, the problem is that it is questionable whether putting in a criminal standard of proof will get a better result, particularly where somebody is extremely unwilling to come forward. The merit of the way in which this has been approached is that, first, it will encourage people who have been forced into marriages to come forward, and secondly, it allows the courts much greater flexibility to look in the round at what is going on—for example, to
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listen to a relative or friend who comes forward and says, “I think this is a forced marriage, as the person is clearly not happy about it”, and then do something practical about it. If it becomes clear, in the course of all that, that a criminal offence has been committed, I have no doubt that the opportunity for prosecution may still ensue. My hon. Friend needs to bear in mind the question of whether having a criminal offence of forced marriage would leave us with some serious definitional problems and then the problem of proving to the requisite standard that that is what happened.

Philip Davies: My hon. Friend makes a very powerful case and, as he knows, I respect his opinion hugely. Does he agree, however, that a stated and clear criminal offence in this area may well deter people so that such things do not happen in the first place? A criminal offence would send a powerful and important message to people that such activity is not tolerated in this country.

Mr. Grieve: Criminalisation sends out a powerful message, but the question is whether a criminal offence would be workable. If in many cases where an attempt is made to prosecute the criminal offence becomes impossible to prove, people will start to disregard it or treat it with contempt. The merit of Lord Lester’s approach—derived from a lot of consultation and adopted by the Government—is that it maximises the possibility of people coming forward. After all, it is currently true that individuals can come forward. Somebody who has been coerced into a marriage in India, for example, and comes to this country would probably be able to secure a decree of nullity if they so wanted, as it exists today. The difficulty is that that is not happening.

We cannot achieve perfection in such matters, but in so far as we can see a way forward, what is proposed in the Bill maximises the chances of a forced marriage coming to the attention of the courts and of something being done about it. I am sure that many will still slip through the net, but some will end up in prosecution. If someone is prepared to come forward and say that they were, effectively, kidnapped before the marriage, that may provide a powerful ability to do something about it.

The other problem my hon. Friend must bear in mind is that some such marriages may have been contracted abroad. In this country, there is a wide degree of recognition of foreign marriages on the whole, even if they do not necessarily comply with our regulations. That raises a number of problems that the legislation has probably successfully addressed, as far as I can see—we shall look at the matter more closely in Committee.

I do not want to take up the House’s time; there is no point in repeating what the Minister said when I agree with every word she has spoken. To return to the important point of the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), I will simply say that we know that the majority—not necessarily all—of these marriages often take place abroad. One reason for that is that any marriage in this country has to undergo the scrutiny of the registrar of marriage, or a person who has been licensed as such, who must see both parties and ascertain consent.

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We shall try to return to this matter in Committee—the Bill largely amends the Family Law Act 1996, so that may cause problems—but I wonder whether there should be a system of compulsory re-registration of foreign marriages when someone comes from abroad, so that the facts of the marriage and the consent of the parties can be ascertained. That would go a little further, but it might deal with some of the problems raised by the right hon. Member for Leicester, East about executive officers in consulates who give out visas and often find it difficult to be satisfied that consent has been given.

Keith Vaz: I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, but there is a simple way round this problem. Such officers could accept a confidential statement made by the applicant because they would interview the applicant separately, even though the spouse might be sitting outside, having flown from the United Kingdom, and that would not be disclosable—if there were an appeal, it is disclosable only to the judge. That is one way round the problem. There is an administrative way to help the situation that would prevent the spouse having to enter the country against their will in the first place.

Mr. Grieve: The right hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point. I do not know whether he will have the opportunity to serve on the Committee dealing with the Bill.

Keith Vaz indicated dissent.

Mr. Grieve: Notwithstanding that, I hope that we will consider those issues; it is the one area that I would like to look at in Committee. Given that I am standing at the Dispatch Box, the right hon. Gentleman can infer that it is likely to fall to me to do the job.

With those thoughts in mind, I would like to thank the Government for their approach to the matter. I say again how pleased and privileged we are to help to ensure that the Bill passes through the House. I look forward to Committee, where we can see whether there are any—probably minor—improvements that can be made to it.

7.35 pm

Chris McCafferty (Calder Valley) (Lab): The word “delighted” would be inappropriate, but I am certainly pleased to speak about the Bill because forced and child marriages constitute serious and recurrent violations of human rights, and the rights of the child. In Britain, the root causes of this practice lie mainly in the tendency for traditions to become fossilised in migrant communities that are often more conservative than those remaining in home countries. Let us face it, the practice occurs predominantly in Muslim communities, but also in others.

It is almost entirely women and girls who are subjected to this infringement of their personal liberty, but men may also be forced to marry—for example, when young men display gay tendencies, which is not acceptable in their community. It is quite outrageous that under the cloak of “respect” for the culture and traditions of certain communities, some authorities tolerate forced marriages, even though such marriages
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violate the fundamental rights of each and every victim. It is a case not of stigmatising Islam, but of saying that tolerance or feeling for culture cannot serve as an excuse for condoning such marriages, or for hiding behind moral blindness.

Keith Vaz: I welcome the way in which my hon. Friend has put her arguments, and she is at the forefront of campaigns to bring religions together. Does she agree, however, that when the Bill becomes an Act, it will be important for us to raise awareness in the community to make people aware of its provisions and effects?

Chris McCafferty: I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend, who makes a very valid, and crucial, point. Legislation is only a part of the whole. Education and consultation of the communities involved is important; they must be brought on board. That is of paramount importance.

Forced marriage is defined as the union of two persons, at least one of whom has not given their free and full consent to the marriage. Arranged marriage, by contrast, is typified by the intervention of someone outside the future couple—usually the parents of the future spouses or a broker. However, the ultimate choice of accepting the arrangement rests with each of the future spouses. It can, of course, be difficult to ascertain how far it is possible for them to choose and make up their minds in a properly informed manner because the family environment can be so powerful that choice is induced by upbringing or deference to custom.

Forced marriage is chiefly characterised by the absence of consent. In other words, one future spouse, or both, does not have the choice of opting out because the family resorts to coercive methods, such as emotional blackmail, physical duress, violence or even abduction, confinement and confiscation of official papers, such as passports. For practical purposes, the future spouses have no possibility of choosing whether or not to marry.

Forced marriage, when consummated—as it is in the vast majority of cases—is primarily an act of rape. The young bride does not have the freedom to accept or refuse sexual relations or to exercise her reproductive rights. She must submit. Indeed, a catalogue of elementary and fundamental rights are simply trampled underfoot. Deprivation of happiness and infliction of violence upon them are often the victims’ daily lot. Forced marriage is a modern-day form of slavery. From “rape” to “wrongful seclusion”, no terms are strong enough to condemn those repeated violations of human rights.

The issue of forced marriage hinges on the delicate balance between respect for cultural diversity and respect for human rights. The Government now have an active duty to enforce human rights in this country. Appropriate legislation is necessary but, unfortunately, it is not sufficient to end those undesirable situations. We must also make significant other efforts to guard against such marriages.

In that context—for once, I find myself in slight agreement with Conservative Members—I ask the
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Government to consider seriously raising the age at which a young person can sponsor a potential spouse to come and live in Britain not to 21 but to 23. That would allow vulnerable youngsters time to receive a full education and mature into young adults. It would make it easier for forced marriages to be prevented, detected and annulled.

The Bill’s central purpose is to provide protection to those at risk of forced marriage and recourse for those who have already been forced into such a marriage. I hope that it will help facilitate the annulment of forced marriages, and perhaps lead even to their automatic annulment. Perhaps the Under-Secretary can tell us whether there will be a time scale for courts to investigate and rule on an application for annulment of a forced marriage.

Naturally, the Bill does not prohibit arranged marriages, when genuine consent exists on both sides. Will the Government therefore expand age-appropriate prevention campaigns, perhaps building on the wonderful website, to ensure that young people know the difference between forced and arranged marriages? Such campaigns could inform them of their rights, especially the right to make up one’s own mind about marriage and the right to choose one’s future partner. It could also inform persons under threat of forced marriage of the practical steps that can be taken to forestall such a marriage, such as placing one’s passport in safe keeping or lodging a complaint, for example, of theft of papers, in the event of confiscation.

I would have preferred forced marriage to be made a criminal offence because that would enable the police and social services to intervene more readily in forced marriage and its connection to honour-based violence, which is an increasing menace in this country. However, I am delighted that the Government are supporting the Bill, which will provide some protection to those at risk of forced marriage and recourse for those who have already been forced into such a marriage.

The Bill will change the law to enable courts to order injunctions to prevent forced marriages and, in some cases, to attach powers of arrest if those orders are breached. If used properly, it will become a powerful and useful new tool for those who try to protect the victims of forced marriage.

Forced marriage is an abuse of fundamental human rights. The Bill sends out a clear message that it involves serious wrongdoing and that we will not tolerate it. The Bill creates a civil wrong of forced marriage. I accept that it is a serious attempt to provide suitable remedies for victims and I respect the conclusion of the recent Government consultation that a new criminal offence would not be helpful.

The Bill is in keeping with international human rights standards, including: the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women—CEDAW; the UN convention on consent to marriage; the minimum age for marriage; the registration of marriages, and many other treaties to which the UK is a party.

I believe that primary legislation using civil remedies will contribute towards changing public opinion, perception and practice, and will have a strong deterrent effect. It will help victims defend themselves
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against forced marriage. It will empower young people with more tools to negotiate with their parents. In some cases, it will help parents who face pressure from their relatives. It will provide a victim-centred remedy, allowing victims to retain control over the process.

The Bill acknowledges the increasing and inhumane practice of forced marriage and its devastating impact on the lives of many young women and some young men. Forced marriage is a culturally sensitive issue, but cultural practices should be sacrosanct only when they do not militate against human rights. Nothing is more important than an individual’s basic human rights. We must ensure that the measure is only the beginning of the process of making forced marriage socially unacceptable as well as illegal.

7.45 pm

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): I am delighted to give Liberal Democrat support to the Bill. My noble Friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill, who is a great champion of such issues, introduced the measure in the other place. It is to the Government’s credit that they adopted it, and I want to place on record my thanks and appreciation to them for that and for, with Conservative support, providing parliamentary time to ensure that it reaches the statute book. It is a good example of consensual, cross-party working to tackle an appalling problem.

The concept of marriage is one of an equal and loving union and a commitment that is entered into willingly. If the commitment is forced, it is no longer marriage but can be tantamount to a prison sentence for the victim. As we have heard, forced marriage can lead to horrendous crimes: abduction; rape—often repeated rape; honour killings and other violence. Some victims are effectively turned into domestic or sexual slaves.

Although laws that are already on the statute book could be used to punish people who force someone into marriage, waiting until the crimes are committed before we act is too late. The Bill is therefore essential. “Prevention is better than cure” is an old adage; it is much better to stop such marriages happening.

It is important to acknowledge that the coercion does not need to be physical but can be psychological. The huge psychological pressure that can be put on an individual and the stress that that causes can lead to a forced marriage.

There is currently no offence of forced marriage and that must be remedied. As we have heard, the forced marriage unit processes about 300 cases a year and has made great progress in tackling the problem. However, that is not enough to get to grips with the matter. Those 300 cases may be the tip of the iceberg—many go unreported. We therefore hope that, with publicity and education awareness of the legislation, more individuals will be encouraged to come forward.

That leads me to consider whether the offence should be criminal or civil—a point that the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) raised. Although much discussion and debate has taken place, the civil route is the right approach. It is vital not to discourage people from coming forward, which could happen if they felt that they were effectively criminalising members of their family. Although the Bill does not
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create a criminal offence, we must recognise that it provides for powers of arrest, so effective action can be taken if a forced marriage protection order is broken.

The application by a third party is a vital element of the Bill, especially—though not only—when children are involved. We cannot expect those who are under age to have full cognisance of the different legal options at their disposal and we must rely on others to look after them and highlight the matter to the courts.

Support for the Bill comes from a wide range of organisations, which speaks volumes. They include: the Association of Chief Police Officers, Liberty, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Newham Asian Women’s Project, Rights of Women, Southall Black Sisters, the three main parties in the House, and, I am sure, many other political organisations. It is welcome to see so much support for tackling the issue.

I should like to touch on the point that the hon. Member for Calder Valley (Chris McCafferty) made about the difference between forced and arranged marriages. We must be clear about that distinction. The regulatory impact assessment identified a potential risk that the Bill would disproportionately impact on black and minority ethnic communities and might be interpreted as a cultural criticism of them. That is why we must be clear that forced marriage is an abuse of human rights and can never be acceptable. By contrast, arranged marriages are a union between two consenting adults and have taken place for centuries, across all cultures.

Indeed, we do not need to go back very far in British history to see many examples of arranged marriages, particularly among members of the aristocracy and the upper classes. I must confess that I am quite a fan of Jane Austen’s novels. One only has to read “Pride and Prejudice” to find characters such as Mrs. Bennet who are masters of arranged marriages. Arranged marriages have taken place for a long time and, although they have more recently become less common in British culture, they obviously still happen in our south Asian communities.

I recently met a group of young Asian women in my constituency and we discussed a wide range of topics. The issue of arranged marriages came up, on which I was genuinely interested to listen to their views. They likened the process to an introduction service or a dating agency almost, with their parents making the first move so that they did not have to. They talked about arranged marriages in an incredibly relaxed way, because no pressure would be put on them to marry someone whom they did not want to marry. In fact, they welcomed arranged marriages as something valuable.

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