Previous Section Index Home Page

9.15 pm

Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): I have been delighted to listen to many of the speeches that have been made in this debate. Clearly, there is enormous cross-party support for the Bill. I join others in congratulating the hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) on highlighting this important issue and bringing it to the attention not only of Members of this House but of the wider community.

I will be fairly brief, but I wish to make several points to the Solicitor-General, whose opinion I always appreciate. First, I want to try to understand, from her point of view, the spectrum that has been highlighted during the debate between forced marriage, arranged marriage, matchmaking and the general psychological pressure that is sometimes put on young women to get married. As the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) said, forced marriage often goes hand in hand with violence against women in a symbiotic relationship. Another problem with forced marriages is that of women becoming a form of quasi-forced labour. A lot of the young women who come from abroad have no social or family network. They are brought into this country as a form of slave labour for the household—sometimes, unfortunately, for the mother-in-law, who views her as an adjunct to the family merely as unpaid labour. The hon. Member for Solihull said that sometimes those young girls become, in effect, sex slaves. That is a big problem, because they have nobody to protect them. I hope that the Bill will go some way towards dealing with the three abuses—violence, slave labour and sexual slavery—that these girls have to deal with when they are brought into this country through forced marriages.

I still find it difficult to distinguish between forced marriage, arranged marriage, and psychological pressure. How does one define a forced marriage? As we heard earlier, many women come under enormous psychological pressure to go into a marriage. Is that a forced marriage? If not, why not? Perhaps the Minister can clarify those points.

Secondly, strong community relations are key to this. While there are many benefits to multiculturalism, perhaps one of the unintended consequences has been the prevalence of forced marriage in this country. My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) observed that there are 5,000 such cases; there would have been far fewer 10 years ago. Strong community relations play a key role, and communication is critical. It is important that the infrastructure is in place and that there is a facility to help women caught up in forced marriages to find an easy way out of the trap in which they find themselves. That does not mean we must have a society into which people from different ethnic backgrounds feel they have to assimilate; we
10 July 2007 : Column 1413
need an integrated society in which we respect others’ cultures and backgrounds without making them assimilate.

My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley made an important point about language. As people come into this country, it is important that there is far more encouragement for them to adopt its mother tongue, which is English, so that they can integrate, if not assimilate. Learning English is important because if they have a problem with their marriage, they should be able to communicate, in English, any problem to the facility that the Bill seeks to introduce.

Mr. Malins: I am most intrigued by my hon. Friend’s observations about how to distinguish between a forced marriage and an arranged marriage. The definition in the Bill refers to force, including coercion

whatever that means. What about the situation where there is family pressure for an arranged marriage? Would it not be rather difficult to decide whether that meant it was a forced marriage?

Mr. Newmark: That was very much the point I was trying to make at the beginning of my speech, to tease out from the Solicitor-General how she defines arranged marriages where psychological pressures are created by families at home. They may not come from wealthy backgrounds, and financial pressure may be put on people to get involved in a marriage that ultimately becomes unwelcome and, in many ways, abusive. We want to try to prevent such situations through the Bill.

I want to return to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) made during his speech on the importance of judiciary training. There is no point in introducing legislation to deal with this sensitive issue without ensuring not only that people have proper training to understand the variety of issues that those who go through forced marriages deal with, but that the numbers are there. Will people who have judicial training be required to learn a foreign language, so that they can communicate with some of the young ladies who are being abused?

My fourth point relates to what the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) said about empowering the victim. Many of the women in question are very young and have no family network in this country. I am perplexed about how we can empower somebody who cannot communicate, and has found themselves in a trap—in a family who may well coalesce around the husband and protect him. They might be abusing that young person, and there might not be a mechanism by which the young woman can escape from the trap in which she finds herself.

Lorely Burt: Perhaps I can help the hon. Gentleman. His colleague, the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins), talked about the wideness of the definition of those able to intervene. I am hoping that if an individual finds themselves in such a circumstance, the Bill will enable a friend, social worker or someone to whom they have gone for help to intervene on their behalf by virtue of the wideness of that definition.

10 July 2007 : Column 1414

Mr. Newmark: I understand the spirit in which the hon. Lady makes her point, but the reality is that many of those young women feel trapped in their homes. Many do not get out even to do the shopping. They have no social network in which to communicate with anybody, even extended members of the family, let alone social workers or other parties who could try to help them. That is the Bill’s weakness.

Who is the relevant third party, who will make the application? If there is no way for the individual to communicate, no social network and no social worker with whom to interact, and the position is compounded because the family gangs up on her as she becomes increasingly unhappy, a problem develops. I suspect that, although one, two, half-a-dozen or even 500 women may escape and go to the courts to ask for help, probably 10 times that number cannot escape. I believe that that problem will continue to exist.

Although I support the Bill, and it is great that there is cross-party support for dealing with such an important issue, I believe that there are many outstanding questions, which I hope that the Solicitor-General will now clarify.

9.26 pm

The Solicitor-General (Vera Baird): I compliment all—I stress “all”—the contributors to the debate. The hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) made a characteristically balanced contribution—he will be a huge asset to the Committee. The Bill is good now, but if it can be improved, he is the man to help us do it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Chris McCafferty) made the distinction, which is not such a difficult one, between forced and arranged marriage. Her ability to make that distinction was echoed by that of the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) and the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins). The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire made the powerful point that arranged marriage, as opposed to forced marriage, has existed cross-culturally, and she mentioned “Pride and Prejudice”. She is right, and a slightly parodic Bollywood film, “Bride and Prejudice” makes the same point. The great distinction between forced and arranged marriage is consent. People in forced marriages never live happily ever after.

I was glad to have the professional support of the hon. Member for Woking for the civil route that the Government have chosen to take. I assure him that there will be training through the Judicial Studies Board—we have already thought about that. He was keen to know whether the Bill’s implementation could be extended to the family proceedings court. It contains a power to do that, but training will probably be necessary before that happens. We owe a lot to the High Court, which has cut out a niche in identifying the sort of cases that we are considering. It is therefore important that we stay, for the time being, where the expertise is. Of course, powers to extend can follow.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran) for her work on violence against women. She has done that year in, year out throughout the time that I have known her. She readily acknowledges that the criminal tools are too unsubtle an approach for the problem. A young person would not be encouraged to leave if it were
10 July 2007 : Column 1415
likely that one or more members of the family would find themselves before the criminal courts. She made the powerful point, which was reflected in other speeches, that the scale of the problem may be much greater than any of us know. We must therefore ensure that there is adequate and good quality training if the problem emerges on a larger scale than we expect. We must ensure that, for example, survivor support is well resourced.

The hon. Member for Woking made more points, but they are better left to the Committee.

My hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) said that she believed that there was a need for more consultation. As she acknowledged, the Home Office carried out a consultation in 2005. The result was overwhelmingly in favour of not criminalising the offence but dealing with it through a civil route. Many organisations were consulted then.

After Lord Lester introduced his Bill in another place, the Odysseus Trust, with which he is linked, also carried out a consultation on how it ought to be amended to make it more effective. A large number of organisations were contacted and there were 32 respondents, including Ashiana, the Asian Family Counselling Service, the Commission for Racial Equality, Hounslow domestic violence network, the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation, Imkaan, the Muslim Parliament of Great Britain and the Newham Asian Women’s Project. Southall Black Sisters have been deeply involved from the start, as have Rights of Women. As others have said, we must of course not stop consulting or ensuring that eyes remain fixed on the functioning of the Bill. However, I hope that my hon. Friend can none the less be satisfied that a good deal of consultation has been taken forward.

The hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) still has doubts. Even his colleagues cannot persuade him that the criminal route is not the right one. The problem is that people might be deterred from coming forward if they fear that they will criminalise their families. If they can take a gentler route and just seek help, thereby stopping the situation before it really starts, there might be possibilities for reconciliation and healing that would not arise if the police were called in. That is the line that we are taking. It has met with support throughout the House tonight and, overwhelmingly, among the organisations that we have consulted.

The hon. Gentleman asked me about numbers, but we are talking about a quasi-invisible crime, so it is hard to say. Last year or the year before, the Metropolitan police were aware of 518 cases and, as many hon. Members have said, 300 such cases come to the attention of the forced marriages unit each year. Moreover, the High Court was aware of 30 cases, but I cannot say more about numbers. He talked about whether large numbers of people will be, as he put it, prosecuted—he meant be taken to the civil courts. I cannot predict whether that will be the case, but I hope that the Bill will send out a powerful signal from the House not only that those consequences will follow, but that the practice must stop. Rather than there being a great emergence of new cases, it would be far better if we acted effectively tonight to deter people.

There are a number of people to whom I should pay tribute, including my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice who, as Home Secretary, gave impetus
10 July 2007 : Column 1416
to the original consultation, which took place way back in 2005, my hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Pensions Reform, my distinguished predecessor, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), who launched the document when he was Home Secretary. That document was all about criminal provision, which was overwhelmingly rejected. It is hugely to the credit of Lord Lester that he carried the torch forward and changed the offence into a civil one.

It is also hugely to the credit of my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) that she has championed the cause throughout. She cannot be here tonight for very good reasons and she is sorry for that, but if she was prepared to serve on the Committee, her input would no doubt be most welcome.

The issue that we are discussing applies to all races and all religions—to Hindus, Sikhs, Jews and Muslims. It is also not confined to one society, as many have said. Forced marriage amounts to a serious social evil. It can also amount to sexual slavery and can affect people as young as 12 or 13. Dowries are paid and people are bought and sold. As has been said, resistance can lead to honour killings and submission can lead to suicide. Forced marriages are a dreadful social evil.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): May I ask a delicate and sensitive question of the Solicitor-General? What is she prepared to do about what is clearly the physical abuse, and perhaps even rape, of a young girl who has been compelled to enter a forced marriage? Is that a subject about which the Solicitor-General is concerned? I am deeply worried about what we can do about what has been done to a young woman.

The Solicitor-General: The hon. Gentleman has not had the advantage of hearing the debate, which has covered that territory fairly significantly over the past couple of hours while others of us have been here. Of course, if someone is compelled into a marriage and forced to have sex, that would be rape. The hon. Member for Beaconsfield made that point and also listed the other offences that are frequently committed in the course of a forced marriage and what follows thereafter. No doubt the hon. Gentleman will read the report in Hansard tomorrow—

Sir Nicholas Winterton: But what is your view?

The Solicitor-General: What we are seeking to do is to give young people in danger the tools to prevent the danger from emerging, but if criminal offences are committed and it is appropriate, the people involved should be prosecuted. However, we are not prepared to put the onus on a young person by saying that the only way they can get out of the situation is to go to the police and compel their family to become involved in criminal proceedings. We are not prepared to say that that is the right way forward, because that is not the case. If they can have recourse to someone else, a civil conclusion can be reached that might head the problem off at the pass before it goes into the horrifying areas to which the hon. Gentleman has alluded.

This is not just a national problem; it is an international one as well. India now has a Minister for women and child development, I think for the first
10 July 2007 : Column 1417
time, and I was fortunate enough to meet Renuka Chowdhury recently at a Commonwealth women MPs’ conference in Kampala. She assured me that the Indian Government had legislated to prohibit child marriages in India. She also told me that a women’s commissioner was engaged in a programme to educate people on this matter and to prevent forced marriage. It is possible that the advent of this legislation will encourage legislation over there to give enhanced protection. I also understand from Lord Lester that it is not impossible that similar steps will be taken in Pakistan and Bangladesh. I have read his speeches on this matter, and I met him today. I hope, therefore, that we are creating an influence that will go beyond the four corners of the statute and of our jurisdiction.

Implementation will be important. We have the benefit of the forced marriage unit, which is well grounded in promoting and publicising the issue and in producing guidance. It is a great credit to our High Court judiciary—if that is not too patronising a way to describe such an august group—that they have identified this issue where it has arisen, and responded to it. When the Bill has gone through all its stages, we shall therefore be starting with a body of understanding and support in the judiciary, in the forced marriage unit and in civil society.

The procedure that we shall use involves a tried and tested formula that is to be found in part IV of the Family Law Act 1996, which provides solutions to family problems. It is good that the provisions are to be embedded in family law, because they will not seek to point a finger at any part of society. They will simply accept the issue for what it is, namely, unacceptable family behaviour that can be dealt with by civil injunctions, just as other kinds of violence against family members are now. They are flexible and broad enough to allow a judge to head off the danger and to make all orders that are appropriate for protection.

We are arming ourselves well with the Bill, and we will see whether any more needs to be done in Committee. Cross-party support here today has been most welcome, and I am sure that that will continue. We will all work hard to make the best of the Bill, because we must. We owe it to our young citizens whose young lives are curtailed and whose opportunities, hopes and expectations are blocked by the impossible-to-tolerate evil of forced marriage. We must take steps now, and it is good that we have cross-party support for doing so. We are taking steps now to stop it.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

10 July 2007 : Column 1418

Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Bill [ Lords] (Programme)

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 83A(7) (Programme motions),

Question agreed to .

Next Section Index Home Page