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House of Lords

Friday, 26 January 2007.

The House met at eleven o’clock: the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Manchester.


Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, as the House will know, there is a total of 34 speakers down for the debates today. The debates are not time-limited, but the House should meet the target rising time for Friday of four o’clock if all Back-Bench contributions were limited to about six minutes.

Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Bill [HL]

Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

The serious social evil which the Bill seeks to combat and remedy is the forcing of children and young adults to marry against their will. It gives rise to gross abuses of human rights especially affecting children and young people of either sex within our British Asian communities and elsewhere. It involves inhuman and degrading treatment and punishment of those who resist coercion, even their murder. It is a form of domestic violence and there is a direct link between forced marriages and honour killings, as was noted in the important debate on honour killings initiated by my noble friend Lord Russell-Johnston on 15 December 2005.

Forced marriage is, of course, an oxymoron. It is condemned across and within all communities, including their more religious and traditional sections. It is a form of sexual enslavement, sometimes amounting to domestic slavery. Dowry is often paid and women are bought and sold in the process of being forced into a so-called marriage. As we mark the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade, we should surely take effective measures to tackle this gross abuse.

I am indebted to the Southall Black Sisters and many other dedicated NGOs with practical experience of the actual problems on the ground for their invaluable advice and support.

It is essential that the Bill is not misused or misrepresented politically as a way of demonising British Asians or resisting much-needed reform. As the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland of Asthal, emphasised last March, on the first anniversary of the Forced Marriage Unit:

We are very sorry that the noble Baroness’s bereavement prevents her from taking part in this debate and convey our sympathy to her and her family. But we are delighted that the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton of Upholland, has ministerial responsibility for the Government’s response.

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The Bill adopts what the Government have described, in the context of human trafficking, as a,

It empowers women and children, enhancing the protection given by existing law. It would help the overstretched, under-resourced Forced Marriage Unit, working with other agencies and NGOs, to develop and implement training, to develop victim support networks, and to secure compliance with the unit’s admirable forced marriage guidelines.

There is support from British Asian groups, such as Karma Nirvana and the British Muslim Parliament, as well as the Kurdistan Refugee Women’s Organisation; from women's groups, including the Middle East Centre for Women’s Rights, Rights of Women and Women’s Aid, as well as child protection organisations such as the NSPCC, the Children’s Commissioner, and both Liberty and JUSTICE. Liberty’s briefing paper explains how the Bill gives effect to the UK’s international human rights obligations. The Bill is also supported by senior specialist members of the police service, such as Commander Stephen Allen, whom it would assist to combat this form of serious abuse.

I am grateful to the Members of this House who served on the working party on forced marriage in 2000 and who will take part in this debate: the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, and the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, who has visited Kashmir to obtain direct knowledge of the problem, and other experienced and expert noble Lords. Several noble Lords who cannot take part have written expressing support, including the noble Baronesses, Lady Prashar, Lady Flather, Lady Verma, Lady Young of Hornsey and Lady Whitaker.

I am also grateful to four family law practitioners: Henry Setright QC, Teertha Gupta, Anne-Marie Hutchinson and James Turner QC, who have advised in designing the Bill, drawing on their practical experience. They welcome the way in which the Bill would promote access to justice in county courts as well as in the High Court, making legal aid more readily available and enabling properly interested third parties to apply for injunctive relief on behalf of potential victims who are unable or unwilling to take such action themselves against members of their families. It is essential that the burden of seeking protection should not rest only with victims, who are deterred from seeking help for fear of triggering the criminal justice process against family members. The diversity sub-committee of the Family Justice Council has expressed its strong support, and I wish there were time to explain to the House the marvellous work that it has done.

It is more than 30 years since I warned that,

Regrettably, the warning was not heeded.

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We hope that the Bill will pass speedily into law and that it will be the springboard for effective educational and administrative measures and for leadership and public education within, as well as outside, minority communities. Ram Mohan Roy, the great Bengali social reformer, made common cause two centuries ago with British Benthamites in abolishing the practice of sati. Mahatma Gandhi acted similarly in securing the 1929 Act on Hindu child marriages during the British Raj. Today, the abolition of forced marriages and associated evils will be effective only if there is clear and bold leadership from within minority communities, making common cause with mainstream leaders, irrespective of religious, ethnic or cultural identity, or political party. Reform has to come from within, backed by well designed and well executed legislative, administrative and educational measures.

The violence and cruelty involved in forcing children and young adults into so-called marriages is powerfully described by a remarkably brave survivor, Jasvinder Sanghera, in her book Shame, published this week. On Tuesday, I was privileged to take part in the book’s launch in Derby, where she was born, and to meet other survivors of the most terrible ordeals, who told me that the Bill would have been of vital help to them. Jasvinder is present at this debate. Her experience painfully illustrates the pressing need for effective legislative and other measures.

Jasvinder was born into a Sikh family in Derby, one of seven sisters, all coerced into marrying Sikh men living in the Punjab. She alone escaped by running away and being treated as dead by her parents and siblings for bringing shame on them in the eyes of their close-knit community. Jasvinder describes her struggle to survive the brutality of family and community coercion, her escape aged barely 16 into poverty and destitution, one sister’s suicide to escape being sent back to a brutal husband, and her work on behalf of women affected by honour-based violence, where the suicide rate among Asian women in Britain is three times the national average. Those who stand up to family oppression may receive real threats to kill. If they run away, they have to live in hiding. Hers is a vivid, honest and deeply moving narrative of despair, courage and hope.

As Jasvinder notes, our public authorities,

Mr Justice Munby, a family judge with particular experience, has written to me in support of the Bill. He drew attention to a recent judgment in which he noted that,

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The time is over-ripe for effective measures now to be enacted giving enhanced legal protection. Law is not a panacea, but a well designed law can influence anti-social attitudes and behaviour derived from cultural practices, condemned by all religious faiths but embedded in traditions of community, family honour and identity.

Last summer, the Government decided against making forced marriage a crime. The Southall Black Sisters was among many well informed organisations opposing such an extension of the criminal law. It argued that a new criminal offence would add little to the existing body of law on murder, kidnapping and offences against the person; that police intervention would be counter-productive; and that it would be difficult to obtain sufficient evidence to satisfy the criminal burden of proof beyond reasonable doubt.

At the most recent Labour Party conference, the Home Secretary announced that the Government intended to return to the problem of tackling forced marriage, but there was nothing in the Queen's Speech to give effect to his statement of intent. It was because the clear and present danger to vulnerable children and young adults at risk—mainly, but not only, girls and women—requires an urgent legislative response that I decided to introduce this Bill in the hope that it will win the support of British Asians and that, with government support, it will soon become law.

The Bill is concerned with what happens in this country, but it should also assist in tackling abuse overseas and could serve as a model for similar legislation elsewhere. That is important because the problem is international. No other country has used civil law to give protection and legal remedies to victims in this way. If the Bill is duly enacted, it may encourage the introduction of similar legislation in South Asia and elsewhere.

Following public-interest litigation in the Supreme Court of India seeking stricter enforcement of the rather useless law against child marriages, a compensatory mechanism and rehabilitation for victims and preventive measures, last month, India's Parliament passed an Act on the prevention and prohibition of child marriages. It deals with child marriage, but the Minister for Women and Child Development, Renuka Chaudhary, hopes that it will give protection to,

The women's commissioner for India, who is actively involved in forced marriage prevention, is taking a great interest in our Bill. Shruti Pandey, an Indian advocate expert in this area, who is present at this debate, believes that if the Bill becomes law, it may influence India's lawmakers in giving enhanced civil protection. The same may be true of Pakistan and Bangladesh.

The Bill is carefully tailored to prevent and deter forced marriage, and to provide practical remedies. It goes further than existing legislation, notably the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 and the Family Law Act 1996. We have placed an Explanatory Memorandum in the Printed Paper Office summarising the Bill's contents. It applies only to England and Wales because of the need to respect the

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terms of the Scottish and Northern Ireland devolution settlements, but, if enacted in England and Wales, it will no doubt result in similar legislation in those countries.

No provision in existing legislation states that forced marriage is unlawful and a civil wrong. That provision is contained in Clause 1. The Bill covers deception for the purpose of causing another person to enter into a marriage or purported marriage without that person's free and full consent. That is essential and is not covered by existing legislation. Cases of forced marriage frequently involve removal of the victim to another country, on the pretext of taking a family holiday or similar deceptive conduct. Clause 1(1)(b) deals with that form of abuse.

Clauses 2 and 3 apply to the aiding and abetting and the inducing of unlawful acts. That is essential in the context of forced marriages because wider family members are frequently involved. There is rarely a single perpetrator where family or community “honour” is regarded as requiring the victim to enter into a marriage with a partner acceptable to them. I hasten to say that that situation is entirely different from the practice of voluntary arranged marriages. The Bill protects both adults and children. Clause 4(2) goes further than existing legislation by enabling an application for an injunction to be made not only by the victim or potential victim but also by her or his litigation friend or any other concerned person who has the court's permission, which is obviously essential to get access to justice.

Family judges, notably Mr Justice Munby and Mr Justice Singer, have been creative and innovative in their use of the High Court's inherent jurisdiction to fashion remedies for victims. They have relied on their jurisdiction over minors, or have treated potential victims as “potentially incapacitated adults”. But there are clear limits to the remedies they can give, and it is important for their work to be recognised and extended in the Bill, giving jurisdiction to the local and accessible county courts. Clause 7 makes it clear that the Bill does not detract from existing remedies available in the exercise of the High Court's inherent jurisdiction.

Clause 4(4) provides that interim relief may be granted to secure the safety of the person who is or may be the victim of the conduct in question until the first hearing. That is another important advance on the Protection from Harassment Act.

The primary remedy is preventive orders for injunctions under Clause 4. But the Bill, like the recent Act in India, also provides for compensation under Clause 5 for anxiety, distress, injury to feelings, or other detriment caused by unlawful conduct. Clause 5(3) makes it clear that no award of damages may be made unless the court is satisfied that it is appropriate and necessary as an effective remedy in the particular circumstances of the case. To ensure that the law is not abused, we have included a standard of objective reasonableness in Clause 10(2) in determining whether conduct breaches Clauses 1, 2 or 3.

We have received several suggestions for the Bill’s improvement—clearly it can be improved—but that is for a later stage. I thank the Attorney-General for

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meeting with the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, and me to discuss the Bill’s legal effect. We hope that the Bill will be supported from all sides of the House and that the Government will recognise the need to enact this measure urgently as a matter of high parliamentary priority so that it may become law by the end of this year. We have waited too long, and too many vulnerable children and young adults have been grossly abused for us to delay further. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Lester of Herne Hill.)

11.24 am

Baroness Uddin: My Lords, I begin by expressing my gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Lester, for introducing the Bill. I would like it noted at this point that it was the then Home Secretary, Jack Straw, and Mike O'Brien who first instigated the original working group to examine forced marriages, following a debate in the Commons in 1999 on human rights of women. I express my thanks to them and pay tribute to the work of Southall Black Sisters, Imkaan and East London Asian Family Counselling Service, among others. I appreciate all the comments that the noble Lord, Lord Lester, has so eloquently made about those who survive forced marriages and I pay tribute to Jasvinder Sanghera, who is present.

I also take this opportunity to thank all those organisations that have worked in this arena for a long time, supporting the victims of forced marriages, often with very few resources. Our debate has been enriched by so many contributions and briefings from so many organisations, but it would be remiss of me not to mention the NSPCC, the Equal Opportunities Commission, Liberty and particularly Khatun Sapnara, who is a part-time judge. I am grateful for their contributions.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Lester, and other noble Lords who will take part in the debate, I condemn this shameful practice. I am deeply committed to rooting out this harmful act of violence. Forced marriage is a fundamental abuse of human rights. It contravenes thousands of universally accepted standards. Any legislation that makes this unlawful, and any measure which supports the victims and provides practical and valuable redress has to be given full consideration. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lester, for detailing the many points that the Bill needs to consider. I shall not refer to all the clauses that he detailed, as I leave that to the many other noble Lords who have decided to take part in this important debate. My contribution will refer to some general points and highlight further considerations that perhaps need to be made at a later stage to ensure the effectiveness of the Bill as it stands and the likely impact on the victims. Together I hope we can reach a satisfactory way of supporting those who suffer or face the indignity of a forced marriage.

My noble friend Lord Ahmed and I come to this discussion having spent the best part of 14 months, in 1999 and 2000, in countrywide consultation, research and conversation. We covered as much ground and as many stakeholders as was evident at the time. The report, A Choice by Right, which we put together,

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recognised that the definition of “force” is that defined by the victims themselves, which I hope noble Lords will accept. That is very positive and unique. The report recognised that we had been letting down the victims of forced marriages over a number of years. It recommended numerous remedies to prevent the practice and to support the victims, including educating the communities from which significant numbers of victims come.

I note the caution to which the noble Lord, Lord Lester, referred about ensuring that a small section of the community is not criminalised by the acts of a few as a result of the Bill. I believe that we have produced a good framework from which we can begin to address the forced marriage issue.

As well as sending out clear condemnation that forced marriage is unlawful and will not be excused as a cultural practice, we produced numerous recommendations which argued strongly for forced marriage to be dealt with within the existing legislative framework of domestic violence, child protection, abduction and kidnapping. I would still like noble Lords to come back to that in due course.

In addition to getting the Forced Marriage Unit established in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, we called on the Government to commit resources and work across various departments to support women’s organisations, produce educational materials to raise awareness and utilise all means available within the local authority statutory framework to provide protection for potential victims. I am therefore pleased to see this position being reiterated today by the EOC and Imkaan, an organisation representing about 30 or 40 refuges, particularly Asian ones. If properly consulted upon and well resourced, the proposed Bill may be able to provide stronger protection to people affected by forced marriage and send a clear message to all communities that forcing someone into marriage is unacceptable.

However, there is also a concern that the few available appropriate services must be supported to help those at risk. We hope that this debate will help not only to raise the profile of the issue, but force the Government to examine where some of the difficulties have been in supporting some of the agencies campaigning for the eradication of forced marriage. Perhaps the Government have not taken that great responsibility so seriously to date. Here we are, asking for similar assistance and raising the same kind of issues six years later.

I commend some of the work undertaken by Ministers thus far, but hope that the Government will accept that they must work to ensure wider consultation with a variety of women’s organisations which have not come to their doors to date. This is an important opportunity for us to hear the voices of women’s organisations that are not necessarily used to the parliamentary system, and who therefore may not have been able to get their voices or opinions across. I hope that the opportunity to progress the Bill will also give rise to further consultation.

I am being pressed by my noble friends to keep within the six-minute speaking time, but forgive me for pressing my points a little while longer. I support the

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Bill in principle, but am concerned that it should not be regarded as a panacea: a convenient but empty tool by which well meaning but practically ill-informed individuals and agencies can feel that a shallow victory has been secured, while women affected by this are kept out of the loop, not receiving the services and provisions they desire and rightly deserve.

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