I want to make it clear, however, that clause 63R of the Bill signposts the existing protection that is available under criminal law as well as under other civil legislation. That includes the inherent jurisdiction of the High Court, the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, the Family Law Act 1996, a civil claim for damages, and an application under the Children Act 1989. The clause also makes it clear that the Bill will
not prevent a person from seeking a remedy provided in other areas of law. So, when a crime is committed as part of a strategy designed to force someone to marry, it should be reported to the police and can be prosecuted in the normal way.
The primary purpose of the Bill, however, is preventive. It is aimed at protecting the victim from being forced into marriage. Nevertheless, there are some cases in which the victim may wish to seek additional remedies, such as making a civil claim for damagesin cases where she could do so anyway. The clause makes it clear that nothing in the Bill prevents such an application.
Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): The Minister is absolutely right to say that the whole purpose of the Bill is preventive. Is she satisfied that there are enough other policies in place to alert young people, as they come through our schools and as they come to adulthood in this countrywhether they were born here or came hereabout their rights and the protection that the law will give them? Often, by the time they learn about the law, it may be too late. If they can learn in a multicultural environment, they may have some support systems in place before it comes to the point of a forced marriage.
Bridget Prentice: The hon. Gentleman makes an important and valid point. I will come on to that and describe in some detail some of the things that the Government will do once the Bill becomes law. He is quite right that this is something that we need to raise awareness of, not just among community groups, but within schools, so that the support of the school will be one of the protections that young people can have if they feel that they, or their brothers or sisters, are being forced into a marriage. The Bill will allow a teacher, as a third party, to respond appropriately.
The other aspect of the Bill is deterrence. Each year, the forced marriage unit receives about 5,000 calls for general advice and it ends up handling some 300 cases. Last year, the Metropolitan police recorded 518 incidents related to forced marriage. That gives us the beginning of an indication of the scale of the problem. I believeI suspect that other hon. Members will agree with methat, like other forms of domestic violence, forced marriage is seriously under-reported. There are likely to be many more victims who have been suffering in silence. We hope that, as well as offering protection to those who are in danger of being forced into marriage, the Bill will act as a deterrent, sending out a clear message that forced marriage will simply not be tolerated in our democracy.
The hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) raised the issue of whether we should require all British nationals who wish to marry abroad, or who may marry abroad, to register the marriage in this country before it takes place. I have considered that and I understand the point that he is making. He may wish to expand on it in this Third Reading debate. However, I repeat that such a provision may well send out the wrong message: that forced marriages only take place abroad and that the only authorities that can be trusted to recognise whether there is free and full consent are those in England and Wales. Clearly, that is not the case.
As I said in Committee, as part of its review of immigration policy, the Home Office is working on issuing a public consultation paper about new arrangements for marriage visas entitled Marriage to partners from overseas. One aspect of the consultation will focus on what steps can be taken as regards the requirements for sponsoring a marriage visa; for example, the minimum age could be raised to help those who are pressurised into sponsoring such a visa. That might be a more fruitful way to tackle the problem than requiring everyone who marries abroad to register their marriage in this country. I understand that the Border and Immigration Agency hopes to publish that consultation before the end of July, and to receive responses in the autumn. The forced marriage unit already works with UKvisas and the Border and Immigration Agency to stop visas being granted on the basis of a forced marriage. There were over 100 such cases involving Pakistan alone in 2006-07.
My other concern about the proposal is that it might be disproportionate. It would affect all marriages entered into abroad, the vast majority of which are clearly legitimate and voluntary. In addition, it could catch two British citizens who are resident in the UK and who choose to marry overseas, as is quite popular nowadays. The proposal would have a significant effect on legitimate marriages, and it might make them invalid in the United Kingdom if a notice of intention to marry had not been registered. That would result in what is called limping marriagesmarriages that are recognised in one country but not another. That could leave couples uncertain as to their legal rights. In the end, the measure might have a detrimental effect on legitimate marriage, rather than prevent forced marriages. For that reason, on the whole I do not think that the measure would be appropriate, although I understand what the hon. Member for Beaconsfield was trying to achieve.
The forced marriage unit has had regard to the Bill in its presentations and has discussed its provisions on an ad hoc basis with a variety of audiences in the past six months. When the Bill reaches the statute book, the unit will of course formalise that arrangement, and it will become one of the Governments foremost means of discussing the Bill with stakeholders across the country. The unit will also re-prioritise its outreach programme. As part of that, it will look to target the specific audiences on whom the Bill will have the greatest impact.
The unit has great access to a wide network of black and minority ethnic media outlets, and it will explore the possibility of generating further media coverage in those specialist outlets when the Bill becomes law. In the past two years, the unit has produced guidelines on tackling forced marriage for the police, social services, and health and education professionals, and it is producing similar guidelines for registrars and legal professionals. The unit recently launched a survivors handbook, which offers information and practical support to survivors of forced marriage. Once the Bill is law, the unit will issue revised editions of its guidelines for all those organisations, in accordance with the statutory power that requires those people who exercise public functions to have due regard to relevant guidance. The new version will include advice on how professionals can use the Bills new provisions.
In Committee, the issue of the Bills application to people other than named respondents was raised. New
section 63B(2)(c) of the Family Law Act 1996, which is inserted by the Bill, provides that a forced marriage protection order can be directed at unnamed persons who are, or may become, involved in other respects, such as members of the family. However, an order can be so directed only if the court believes it appropriate to make such an order for the purposes of protecting the individual concerned. That provision is necessary to reflect the real nature of forced marriage, which can come about following the involvement of a large group of people, possibly a whole family or even a community group. In many cases it simply is not feasible for the applicant to name all the potential respondents, especially if there is an urgency to the application, and it has been brought by a third party. The provision allows the court to make orders against people who appear to be involved in coercion, even if they cannot be readily identified.
It was suggested in Committee that those categories of people should be captured by the order only if they knowingly acted in a way that might force a person into marriage, but that would be extremely difficult for any applicant to prove, and it might in effect make the provision unworkable. For the most part, being involved in other respects will generally require some kind of knowledge of what the lead respondent is doing; for example, counselling, encouraging or conspiring all presuppose some sort of knowledge. However, orders to protect the victim could still in theory be addressed to people who are not morally culpable in any way. An order could be addressed to any person prohibiting them from aiding, abetting or encouraging the victim to marry. To use the example mentioned in Committee, that would include the priest, if the court thought that the circumstances justified it.
However, it is necessary to distinguish between making an order and enforcing it. The Bill does not change the current law of contempt. Before a person can be committed for contempt, the court must be satisfied that that person had sufficient knowledge of the order to know that his actions would frustrate its intention. To continue with the example of the priest, the order could not be enforced against him unless he had knowledge of the order, and intended to interfere with the administration of justice by frustrating it.
I shall say a few words about the implementation of the Bill, because that issue is clearly of interest to the House. The first task will be to develop the necessary court rules, which will put in place the procedure for dealing with the kind of cases that we are talking about. We will take forward the drafting of the rules and the necessary court forms in conjunction with the family procedure rule committee. An early task for us is to discuss with the president of the family division the possibility of his issuing a practice direction to promote the effective handling of such cases in courts that have jurisdiction over such cases. A key element of such a practice direction is to set out what special measures are available to assist vulnerable witnesses in giving evidence.
Committee members rightly identified the need for proper training and guidance, both on forced marriage and on the legislation, as key to ensuring that the Bill is implemented successfully, and to ensuring that we really tackle the problem of forced marriage. As my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General said on Second Reading, we have the great advantage of having
experienced judges in the family division, who are already used to handling such cases under the inherent jurisdiction of the High Court. They will be key to ensuring the success and early implementation of the Act in the High Court and in those county courts where we expect such cases to arise. In addition, the experienced staff in the forced marriage unit will be a key resource in promoting knowledge of the Act among the public service professionals on whom weand, more importantly, the victims of forced marriagewill rely to make the legislation a success.
The expertise of the forced marriage unit will be essential when it comes to designing the initial process to identify and consult on which bodies might be designated relevant third parties under the legislation. I gave the example of a teacher, but that would be a one-off; there are obviously more established third parties, the forced marriage unit being one of them, which could be designated relevant third parties under the legislation. Such bodies will be enabled to bring actions on behalf of victims of forced marriage without first obtaining the leave of the court.
We have had a thorough debate on the Bill, not just on the Floor of the House and in the other place, but also in Committee. The thoughtful contributions made by all concerned have ensured that the Bill is worthy of the Houses support, and I commend it to the House.
Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): It gives me great pleasure to follow the Minister. This is the first Bill in which I have ever been involved where the Report stage has passed without amendments being tabled. Although one worries that we may have missed something if there is too great a degree of consensus across the House, I should like to think that that properly reflects the care that has gone into making the Bill effective, and also the fact that it has commanded so much support across the House.
We believe that the Bill will be a powerful tool in helping to prevent forced marriages or, if they have taken place, in trying to ensure that their appalling effects may be mitigated or removed. We greatly welcome the fact that the noble Lord Lester of Herne Hill introduced the Bill, and the fact that the Government were willing to take it over and to provide their expertise in its redrafting, which was substantial, while respecting the intention that had led Lord Lester to propose the measure in the first place. As a result of incorporating the provisions in the Bill into the Family Law Act 1996, the Government have produced a sensible measure that will give the courts maximum flexibility in dealing with the problem.
I do not intend to go over the ground that the Minister covered so well. That is not the purpose of debate in the Chamber. For the Opposition, it has been a privilege to participate in the process and to make time available to ensure that the Bill could get through, whereas private Members Bills coming from the other place usually encounter difficulty. As the Minister commented, a number of aspects that were raised in Committee merit passing reference before we send the Bill on its way.
The first, with which the Minister dealt at some length a few minutes ago, was whether there ought to
have been a criminal offence of causing a forced marriage or participating in causing a forced marriage to take place. I know that a number of Opposition Members have been exercised about that. Because forced marriage is such an unpleasant concept, there are many who feel that only by making it clear to those who participate in such enterprises that there is a criminal sanction will we mark our disapproval. That merits consideration, but a powerful case was made, particularly by those whom the Government consulted on the measure, that one of the consequences would be to discourage individuals from coming forward because of the fear that by doing so, they would bring about criminal sanctions against close relatives.
Trying to apply my lawyers mind to the matter, I am left with the sensation that to construct such a criminal offence would require us to look far more narrowly than the very wide definition that we have been able to give in civil proceedings. That would oblige us to highlight the fact that the offence was difficult to define. We know, for example, that it is made up of constituent ingredients, most of which are already criminal offences in themselves. Trying to encapsulate that in a single offence might be very difficult. For that reason I have consistently shied away from attempting to do so.
If the legislation does not prove to be as effective as we hope, we may have to return to the issue. I am conscious that the record for prosecutions linked to forced marriages does not suggest that these are easy offences to prove, even though the individual offences that might currently be committed are pretty clear. I endorse the Governments approach and I hope that the flexibility gained by using the Family Law Act will produce a more effective measure than would result from introducing criminal sanctions.
On the second matter, the registration of marriages contracted outside the UK, I am grateful to the Minister for writing to me about that and for dealing with it in this evenings debate. She made a good point when she said that we do not wish to leave people in limbo. I accept that the amendment that I proposed in Committee was never capable of being incorporated in the Bill because of the rather narrow way in which the Bill is drafted in amending the 1996 Act, and it was not my intention to leave people in limbo. There might have to be another approach, allowing registration after marriage, as well as before.
I disagree slightly with the Minister in that I do not see the proposal as being essentially too onerous or discriminatory against the world in general. I fully accept that many countries have effective mechanisms for ensuring that forced marriages do not take place, but quite a few countries probably do not. The merit of the proposal in principle is that by requiring the intention of a resident British national to marry to be registered before the marriage takes place, it allows the registrar, for example, to make an assessment as to whether the person coming to register the marriage, who would have to be the person intending to marry, has the intellectual capacity to be capable of contracting marriage, and appears not to be coerced and to be happy at the prospect of coming along to carry out that registration.
I hope that that ideaI say no more than thatwill be borne in mind by the Government when they come to consider the other measures that the Minister helpfully outlined to the House in respect of the granting of visas and entry to the United Kingdom. A procedure that allows a British registrar of marriages or some other person to make a gentle assessment as to whether what is taking place is voluntary or not is an essential prerequisite to stopping such marriages taking place or, if they have taken place, to provide a mechanism by which a reference might be made to the court.
Secrecy is clearly the handmaiden of such marriages. I know from personal experience, as I explained to the Minister in Committee, that there are women who are sent abroad to marry in circumstances where it is clear that their participation is not voluntary or that they are not capable of deciding whether they wish to marry. Once the marriage has taken place, it becomes much more difficult to help the person concerned and put right the evil consequences that flow from it. If it could therefore be picked up prior to the marriage taking place, that would be valuable.
Simon Hughes: Would the hon. Gentleman apply that principle in general to marriages contracted in this country? He knows that people like Paul Kenyon, who works for the BBC, have done very good work exposing the bogus marriage business. I have always had an inkling of a view that before registrars sign people up for next Saturday week, they ought to see the two parties separately to discover whether there is a valid marriage in prospect, rather than a contrived one.
Mr. Grieve: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Until quite recently, the rules in this country were extremely lax, although we have gone some way towards tightening them up. I am sure alsothe point was well made by the Ministerthat there are forced marriages taking place in this country under the very eyes of registrars or clergy of whichever denomination it may be. We have to put our own house in order. I think that we are capable of doing that, and the proposals mentioned by the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) are highly pertinent in that regard.
Although forced marriages clearly take place here, they also take place abroad, and when they take place abroad, it provides a mechanism by which people think that they can subvert scrutiny, which is something that we need to think about. However, I fully accept that the Bill is not the place to address that issueindeed, as drafted, I could not include such a measure in the Bill, no matter what ingenuity I deployed. I hope that the Minister will forgive me for raising the matter yet again, because when we come on to other matters at some later date, I hope that the general point will be addressed, even if that does not involve my particular draftingI accept that my provision was not well researched, because I could see the flaws in the arguments even when I was drafting it. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the Government should bear in mind the intention behind that provision.
I do not want to take up any more of the Houses time. The Bill is a good Bill, and I commend it and share its commendation to the House. I simply express again the great hope that it will go some way to alleviating this serious evil.
Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): I am delighted at last to find myself in the House discussing the implementation of legislation to counter forced marriages. How times have changed since February 1999, when I, with the support of the then Member for Halifax, Alice Mahon, first raised the issue in an Adjournment debate.
At that time, the self-appointed leaders of communities met my comments with hostility and denial. Eight years on, it is extremely gratifying to see cross-party support to challenge what is a brutal crime against humanity based on a mediaeval, patriarchal culture that should have no place in our society. However, my delight must be tempered by a note of caution. This Bill, which has been much welcomed, cannot be the end of the matter, and there is a great deal more to do. Over the past three years, I have argued the case for a new specific criminal offence of forcing or conspiring to force someone into marriage. The main thrust of the argument in opposition to my view is that adequate criminal legislation is already in place.
My daughter happens to work for the Crown Prosecution Service, and she kindly obtained a coffee matI must point out that it is not a beer matproduced by the CPS that is headed Forced marriage. It states: