Previous Section Index Home Page

I cannot find adequate words to describe the rage and distress of young people who have been tricked or
10 July 2007 : Column 1406
forced into marriage. It is overwhelming and absolutely disabling for them. It is profoundly disempowering. I hope that the Bill will help to remedy that by giving them power in such circumstances. It is in a long tradition of legislation on human rights. We have an opportunity during the summer to ensure that the sort of consultation that I have talked about is delivered.

We have a fantastic track record on families and marriage, and this Bill will be one example of it. I was therefore enraged today to hear Conservative Members saying that my party does not care about families and marriage. [Interruption.] I am sure that the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), who is my neighbour and for whom I have a great deal of respect, has not made such comments; I heard those comments on the radio today, however, in relation to tax allowances being shared between husbands and wives. Actually, the Government have a great record on human rights, families and children and on enabling families to cope in the circumstances they face.

The Bill has support across the piece. All Members who have spoken stressed that it is supported by the three parties represented in the Chamber. This is a great opportunity, but we need to make sure that such widespread support does not slide into complacency about the detail of the legislation and how we actually deliver refuge and support for women. We need good practice in every Department—whether on regulations for the courts about witnesses with learning difficulties, the treatment of women by the immigration service or the advice that police and schools are given about women who are at risk. The forced marriage unit sends out advice on such things, but it is often put at the bottom of the pile. The Bill gives us the chance to bring it to the top of the pile and to make sure that it is absolutely what is required in practice. It will allow us to change the lives of disempowered young women and men who have been forced into marriage against their will.

8.51 pm

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), who made her case in a typically powerful manner. I am sure she also made a powerful case for membership of the Public Bill Committee.

It is not often that I rise to congratulate the Government, but I do so on this occasion. I am delighted that they have taken forced marriage so seriously and I commend them for introducing the Bill. All-party consensus usually precedes a mess—the Child Support Agency and membership of the exchange rate mechanism jump instantly to mind—but in this case it has delivered a sensible result. I certainly endorse the comments of the hon. Member for Slough that we should not be complacent about the detail simply because we all support the aims of the Bill.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer), whom I mentioned earlier. She is both my parliamentary neighbour and my constituent, and has been incredibly persistent about forced marriage for many years. She has also been immensely brave for many years and should take much of the credit for the Bill. I know how sorry she is that she cannot be here to take part in the debate, but that should not detract
10 July 2007 : Column 1407
from all the work she has done on the issue over many years and for which she is extremely well respected both in the House and in our local area.

I supported much of what the hon. Member for Calder Valley (Chris McCafferty) said in her speech, on which I congratulate her. Whatever legislation is enacted, some cases will always slip through the net; they will go undetected and will not be dealt with. The Bill has two objectives that we all share. The first is that the number of cases should go down. We should like them to be eliminated, but given that some will slip through the net, let us hope that the number goes down. Secondly, we want the people responsible for the practice of forced marriage to be properly prosecuted.

I, too, was shocked at the scale of the issue. The forced marriage unit deals with a massive 5,000 complaints a year—100 a week—in 300 of which the unit is certain a problem has occurred. That is an immense problem and we should be doing everything we can to deal with it.

We need to find ways to reduce the number of cases and to prevent such things from happening, as well as making sure that people are properly prosecuted. As I said earlier, part of the solution must lie in dealing with the issue of people entering the UK on a marriage visa—a point mentioned by the hon. Member for Calder Valley. I would not go quite as far as the hon. Lady, but raising the age from 18 to 21 would certainly help.

The older people are when they are allowed into the country on marriage visas, the greater the chance that they will be mature enough to resist some of the pressures that they face when being forced into marriage, and we should not underestimate those pressures. This is not a silver bullet, but if those people were a bit older, it might help to reduce the number of cases.

There has been lots of talk during the debate—it has been very interesting—about whether this should be a civil or a criminal offence. My hon. Friends the Members for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) and for Woking (Mr. Malins), who are very distinguished lawyers and parliamentarians—certainly far more distinguished than I am or ever will be—made powerful cases for why we should support this being a civil matter. I am not entirely convinced that the offence should be a civil and not a criminal one.

Making forced marriage a specific criminal offence would send out a powerful message that it is not tolerated in our county and might act as a deterrent. I certainly would not want anyone to think that, because it is not a criminal offence, forced marriage is not a problem and that they can carry on with forced marriages, because doing so is not a criminal offence. I would not want anyone to take away such a message from the debate. Making it a criminal offence would help to make it clear that forced marriage is completely and utterly unacceptable.

The hon. Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran) raised the issue of promoting the use of English, which would also help. I should certainly like more to be done to ensure that people who come into this country have a better grasp of English. If we are trying to encourage people to come forward with their complaint, they would certainly have more confidence
10 July 2007 : Column 1408
in approaching our legal system, which can be daunting at the best of times to those of us who are fully conversant with English, if they had a better grasp of English. We need to deal with that important aspect.

Above all, I should like to know from the Minister how we will measure the Bill’s success. As I said earlier, presumably we have two objectives: a reduction in the number of cases and ensuring that the people involved are properly prosecuted. I should be grateful to the Minister if she gave an indication of how many people she envisages will be prosecuted as result of the Bill. Everyone supports the objectives and the motives, but the focus of my concern is on how effective the Bill will be in tackling the issue. I am interested to know how much of a reduction in forced marriage we can expect as a result of the Bill.

If the Bill does not lead to the number of prosecutions that we hope for and a reduction in this evil practice does not occur, I hope that the Government will give a commitment to look again at the issue to see whether making forced marriage a criminal offence will deliver the reductions and the change in culture that we want.

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree, however, that the consultation process should not end with the passing into law of the Bill? The Bill provides that guidance can be prepared by the Secretary of State. Is it not important in formulating that guidance that the Minister continues to listen to representations?

Philip Davies: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that intervention. He is entirely right, and I was certainly heartened by the Minister’s comments in her speech, when she told us how much consultation had taken place before the Bill was drafted. That was a perfectly proper process, but my right hon. Friend is absolutely right that that should be an ongoing process, rather than being seen to be done and dusted.

We need to see how the Bill works in practice and we need to continue to consult the people the Minister consulted before the Bill was produced to see whether it is having the desired effect. If it does not have the desired effect, I hope that the Government will commit to look again at whether forced marriage should become a criminal offence. Despite the persuasive skills of my hon. Friends, I am still not entirely convinced that we as a House should not send out a clear message to the country that we will not tolerate this evil trade any longer. It is completely unacceptable in this country and in this day and age. The number of cases that are referred to the authorities is completely unacceptable too. I hope that the merits of making it a criminal offence will be considered further in Committee, but, whether or not that occurs, I am delighted that the Government are making a giant step in the right direction with the Bill and I commend it to the House.


Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): More than 20 years ago, before I ever dreamed that I would end up in this place, I met a young man called Mooli. He was the son of an Asian manager where I worked. Mooli was at university. He had a girlfriend and a happy, fulfilling
10 July 2007 : Column 1409
life. I then heard that Mooli had got married. In his holidays he had been working at a petrol station and, apparently, on his wedding day, he had gone to work, left halfway through his shift, gone through a marriage ceremony and then gone back to work. A bride had been brought over from Pakistan—someone he had never met and certainly did not want to marry. I was quite shocked, as you might imagine, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

That was a forced marriage at one end of the spectrum that was so ably described by the hon. Member for Calder Valley (Chris McCafferty). Mooli decided to comply with the marriage and retain his standing in the community. He went back to his university studies and at least had something of a life. However, for those who disobey, running away and often being treated as dead by one’s family—with the ultimate conclusion of the reality of death itself—is all too real a prospect in some circumstances.

We have discussed the difference between a forced marriage and an arranged marriage, so I do not want to dwell on that. I echo the point made by hon. Members on both sides of the House that it is certainly not for us to consider whether arranged marriages or traditional western types of marriage have advantages over each other. As long as the people who enter into the marriage do so consensually, clearly it is perfectly acceptable.

Lord Lester originally introduced the Bill in the Lords in January. I am delighted that the Government have adopted it and I thank all the other noble Lords who worked so hard to make it a sensitive and workable document. We have talked about the difference between civil and criminal redress. It is right to adopt a pragmatic perspective, because how can a young person take out criminal proceedings against their own family? Forced marriage is a violation of the European convention on human rights, the right freely to enter into marriage and the right to bodily and sexual integrity.

Mr. Greg Knight: The hon. Lady’s comment about criminal proceedings left me a little puzzled. She asked how a wronged person could take out criminal proceedings. Surely if this was to be a criminal offence, a complaint would be made and it would then be a matter for the police and the Crown Prosecution Service. In other words, the decision to prosecute would be at arm’s length from the person complaining.

Lorely Burt: Regrettably, the hon. Gentleman was not in the Chamber when others explained that point much better than I can. Earlier, the question was asked: how can someone criminalise a member of their family and still try to maintain their family circle? It is particularly difficult if it is an extended family; when someone is ostracised by their family, the repercussions are severe. The Bill will act as a preventive measure wherever possible. It provides for swift injunctions to prevent marriages, and it will hopefully result in the restoration of family relationships. I hope that that answers the hon. Gentleman.

I mentioned the violation of the European convention on human rights. Forced marriage also contravenes its
10 July 2007 : Column 1410
underlying principles of self-determination and human dignity, and it contravenes the United Nations convention on the rights of the child. It is a form of sexual slavery; women are bought and sold by means of a dowry. We recently marked the bicentenary of the abolition of slavery, but it is alive and well in our own backyard. It is an affront to everyone in society that we allow that slavery to continue in our midst.

The Government’s forced marriage unit deals with 300 cases a year, although the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) shocked me—and, I am sure, many other hon. Members—when she said that it receives more than 5,000 inquiries a year. Some 85 per cent. of those 300 cases involve women and girls, and at least a third of cases involve young people under the age of 17. Children as young as 12 and 13 come forward as victims. The immediate family, the wider family, and often the community seek to impose on the young and control their behaviour.

As my hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) remarked, the cases that we know about are the tip of the iceberg. Forced marriage is often secret, unseen and unreported. Even in Woking, where the sun always shines and everyone shares their deepest family secrets, I am sure that there are instances of forced marriage. It is a bit like domestic violence: it pervades all classes and communities. We do not know what goes on behind closed doors. Homophobic bullying is also similar. Head teachers may say, “Oh no, we don’t have anything like that here,” but that often means that they are not looking or listening for it, and that children do not feel that they can come to them with their problems.

In some communities, the problem is overt. Recently, I listened to chilling interviews on the streets of Birmingham following a so-called honour killing. Some of the men interviewed openly expressed the view that the family had the perfect right to use that ultimate sanction on a young woman or girl who disobeys. Honour killings are clearly already covered in British law as murder. What we need, and what the Bill provides, is legislation to help fix a lesser crime.

We have talked about the fact that the Bill offers civil, not criminal, remedies, but I am sure that it will send a strong message that those practices are not acceptable in this country, regardless of one’s community or background. It will embolden young people to assert their human right not to be forced into marriage, and it will enable people who are concerned for young people’s welfare to act for those who are unwilling or unable to act for themselves. It sends a strong message to those who use many subtle means of exerting pressure on a young person, including emotional blackmail, physical violence, deception, aiding and abetting, and inducement of extended family members. Deception is particularly important. Young people may be lured abroad on the pretext of a holiday or other matter. The wider family may be the ringleaders, and the Bill makes it clear that they may be just as culpable as close family.

Fears have been expressed that the Bill will drive such activities even further underground, with families taking children abroad at an even earlier age. There are also fears that the Bill will stigmatise some ethnic minority communities and lead to entrenchment and further discrimination. However, the emphasis is on the
10 July 2007 : Column 1411
protection of the victim and avoidance of forced marriage rather than prosecuting perpetrators, which is right. As I have said, an injunction will enable swift action to be taken to stop a forced marriage, which will enhance the chance of reconciliation with the family.

As I have said, the cases covered by the FMU are the tip of the iceberg. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has reported that one in 10 calls to its Asian child protection helpline relates to forced marriage, although callers do not always say that that is the problem in the first instance. The initial problem described may involve domestic violence, rape, self-harm, young runaways, suicide or even the threat of murder. In 2006, 82 young people called ChildLine about arranged and forced marriage, describing problems such as their parents not listening to them, the prospect of being disowned, fear of violence from family members and physical abuse that they were already experiencing.

Education is a big issue for girls who, once married, tend not to go to school. There is a huge pool of underused talent that we must exploit for our country. The Equal Opportunities Commission has reported that Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Afro-Caribbean women are aspirational, confident and increasingly well-qualified. However, even if they enter the world of work fully supported by their families, they can be held back by the work culture. I recently managed to secure a short Westminster Hall debate to bring the issue of cultural intelligence—sensitivity on behalf of employers—to the awareness of the Government and, hopefully, the wider world of work.

Leaving aside the issue of justice, if we do not do all that we can to enable those young women to achieve their true potential, we, as a society, will miss out on their talents and their economic potential to increase the overall wealth of this country. It is all interconnected: the empowerment of women through better education and increased economic power gives them greater awareness and the ability to exert their own human rights, but they need joined-up support.

The group Rights of Women has asserted the need for continued civil legal aid. I was glad when the Minister confirmed in response to an intervention that legal aid will be available, where it is appropriate. Liberty has pointed out the importance of non-legal mechanisms such as funding, women’s groups, non-governmental organisations, community groups, leaflets, websites and videos. The need for the proper training of social workers and others in the field has already been raised, and it is clearly important.

By placing forced marriage within family law as part of domestic violence, the Bill will hopefully avoid the stereotyping of any specific community, which would be entirely wrong. The newly introduced gender equality duty will require agencies that deal with the victims, who include men as well as women, to be sensitive to culture, race and gender.

Violence against women and men is pervasive. As I have said, it occurs in every social group and every class, and it affects every sexual orientation. The Bill provides a sensitive framework that will enable victims of forced marriage and their supporters to gain justice, hopefully without irreparably damaging family and wider relationships, by preventing that form of sexual violence from ever taking place.

10 July 2007 : Column 1412

Unlike the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), I think that if the Bill is successful, a measure of its success will be that the number of complaints goes up as more people feel able to come forward. With the words of the hon. Member for Slough about the importance of consulting and ensuring that we do not go forward with a cosy consensus ringing in our ears, I look forward to examining closely some of the practical implications of the Bill in Committee.

Next Section Index Home Page