Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

The creation of a civil remedy must go hand in hand with a broad infrastructure to support its implementation. The Government, wider society, individual communities and the voluntary sector must come together to tackle the practice of forced marriage, as well as ensuring that any new legislation is accompanied by mandatory obligation for training for all professionals involved in the process, including the judiciary, social workers, police officers and so on. In this context, I would like some assurance from the Minister about the genuine concerns raised by members, particularly of Imkaan and SBS, about the resources and financial commitment of the Government. Does she accept that the current trend of reduction and closures of specialised units has put our commitment to the victims of violence and forced marriage under threat? How do the Government intend to address this? I also ask the Minister whether, in considering this Bill, she can say if existing legislation can be amended to incorporate the measures of support and protection desired and stated in this Bill. If so, would she ensure that the consultation process which will need to take place gives this matter further deliberation and includes, as I suggested earlier, a wider number of groups?

I fear that a solitary Act may be a symbolic outlawing of forced marriage—a good thing—but, without sufficient practical and mainstream support such as economic emancipation and opportunities for education and training for women from specific minority communities, it will not be able to eradicate forced marriage. Despite many misgivings, I give this Bill a cautious welcome on the basis that we shall ensure further consultations, widening participation of the numbers of women’s organisations, and make some co-ordinated efforts within the mainstream legislative framework to address this barbaric practice.

11.35 am

Lord Carlile of Berriew: My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill on introducing the Bill and giving us the opportunity to debate this important subject. He has an international reputation as a jurist. When he proposes legislation on individual liberties, we should always sit up and take notice. On this occasion, he also happens to be right.

The Bill is about marriage, an important private and public institution. It is also fragile. It is worth a great deal to those involved—to families and the wider public—if founded on mutual respect. It is worth nothing if founded on fear and mere obedience. The Bill addresses those themes.

I declare an interest as a patron of a recently formed charity, STOP—Stop Trafficking of People in the UK. It has brought together members of the judiciary, experienced police officers and others with

26 Jan 2007 : Column 1327

professional experience of observing the problems and tragedies caused by people trafficking. Forced marriages are part of the people-trafficking picture which that charity wishes to address. Those of us involved in STOP have observed that the slavery which still exists—not only elsewhere in the world, but in the country in which we live and are debating today—includes a great deal of sexual slavery. It is not confined to prostitution, although that often catches the headlines. The sort of sexual slavery we have observed includes domestic sexual slavery, involving enforced domestic service, which occurs in this country, and, shockingly, enforced marriage.

Enforced marriage destroys the dignity of the person upon whom it is enforced. The spouse faces sexual compulsion, domestic compulsion of all kinds and the abolition of that self-determination which all Members of this Parliament in both Houses value above all things. We must, however, emphasise that we are sensitive to religious and cultural diversity. I have enormous respect for the Sikh community. In my role as independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, I have turned to the Sikh community for advice on international issues from time to time. I have always found it helpful, responsible, ever robust and cogent in what it says. Nobody should get the impression that any community is being targeted in a discriminatory Bill by this legislation. It is intended particularly to enhance the dignity of women living in the United Kingdom and throughout the world.

About a year ago, I was in south Asia, where I encountered by chance some staff of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office whose dedicated work is dealing with forced marriage. I commend their extraordinary work. Sometimes they go, with local police, into pretty hostile places, where the practices they seek to undermine remain traditional. They quite often leave those places with young women who have been forced into unwelcome marriages, who have usually been taken from the United Kingdom in their early teens. It is important that this House recognises the fantastic work being done by government officials in that context.

One of the complaints that judges constantly make about this Government is that they seem to have a compulsion to introduce more and more criminal law—although this week, they seem to be telling judges not to enforce it from time to time, but that is part of the stuff of political life. My noble friend has saved the Government from that compulsion by taking the imaginative course of using civil law to achieve something that could have been achieved with a blunt instrument through criminal sanctions. I applaud him for taking that approach. It is measured and proportional and emphasises that women should control their own lives, which I hope is our shared aspiration. I believe that this measure is widely supported in this House.

After many years in one or other House of this Parliament, I think we see the best of our UK Parliament when a private Member is able to use parliamentary time to introduce legislation that adds to the value of the lives of vulnerable citizens. That is what my noble friend has done today. I hope that the Government will support the enactment of these proposals with as little delay as possible.

26 Jan 2007 : Column 1328

11.41 am

The Lord Bishop of Manchester: My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Lester, on his Private Member’s Bill. The Bench of Bishops welcomes it. As he eloquently indicated, marriage without freely given consent is wrong and every world religion condemns it. Nevertheless, I know from heart-rending stories in Manchester that forced marriages happen and that the victims of that wholly unacceptable practice—the noble Baroness called it shameful and the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, spoke of slavery—need legislative protection. It is interesting that the Bill provides for claims in civil proceedings rather than for criminal prosecution, which could have been a symbolic and effective way of discouraging attempts at forced marriage. Having said that, I have to admit to hearing mixed messages in my diocese from within the communities likely to be most affected. There are those who feel that forced marriage should become a criminal offence, but who then go on admit that, when it came to it, cultural influences would work against young people taking parents or families to court, and I accept that.

There is a significant expression of views from within the communities that any kind of legislation could make things worse rather than better. There are legitimate fears about forced marriages being pushed further underground in the event of legislation, and there is the danger of victims of forced marriages being taken overseas and held there. It would be foolish to underestimate that risk, and it would be wise for noble Lords to be satisfied that making use of existing legislation, family courts and civil remedies was not a better option, or would be if professionals in the field and statutory agencies were provided with stronger and more effective support. However, the fact that the Bill permits victims to seek protection under the law without recourse to the police is important for some of the communities and potential victims I am aware of. The Bill also strengthens and simplifies the resources available to them, which is a great help.

It is only from the background of Manchester that I am in a position to speak on this matter. Asian ethnic communities are probably most significant in the matter under debate, although, as the noble Lord rightly said, the abuse is not confined to Islam or Sikhism. The Muslim Council of Britain has emphasised that in Islam the consent of the parties is essential to a marriage, and that position is common to all the main religions. But the rub is that that is the official position. I always want to pay tribute to the enormous value of the Muslim Council of Britain, which does its utmost to further social and community cohesion, but from my local experience, in any religion—I do not exclude the Christian church from this—the membership does not in practice always follow the official line, especially on human relationships. There are often different nuances of interpretation and disagreements among local leaders.

As the noble Lord indicated, the abuse within ethnic communities is not confined to people of faith. I realise that I tread on delicate ground, but even though the Muslim Council of Britain, when consulted, expressed

26 Jan 2007 : Column 1329

the view that there was no need for new legislation on this matter, that such a law could be regarded as targeting ethnic minorities—a view that the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, referred to—and that such coercive methods would not work anyway, there is sufficient evidence of the abuse and evil of forced marriage to show that the Bill is necessary and that even educating communities about current laws would not on its own be a sufficiently effective way of dealing with a continuing and wholly unacceptable feature among a segment of our population.

Forced marriage is not only an abuse of human rights; it is also in faith terms a complete and utter contradiction. From a Christian point of view, marriage is by definition a voluntary union for life between one woman and one man to the exclusion of all others. As the Book of Common Prayer puts it in a poetic style that no other liturgy quite manages to achieve, holy matrimony is,

The New Testament, the long tradition of Christian theology and the 1988 General Synod document An Honourable Estate all emphasise that that mystical union is a sign of love that is freely given, not forced. That is why the essence of the Church of England marriage service is the public exchange of vows. The giving of consent is its central and defining feature. Our marriage law in this country is shaped by that Christian understanding and the principle of consent. That is why it is wholly against our culture and legal framework to accept forced marriage that so offends that principle of consent, especially in sexual relations.

The Bench of Bishops is well aware of the cultural and gender sensitivities in this, but believes that there are no grounds for this practice and that a separate, distinct offence of forcing a person to marry, as proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Lester, will be a welcome deterrent and a needed guide for judges. If we want to encourage marriage as a fundamental social institution, as the Minister said in a debate yesterday, then the abuse of forced marriages must be rooted out.

I shall end by saying that, important though the Bill is, we need to beware of the growing tendency in this country to think that patterns of behaviour and deep-seated attitudes can be changed by legislation alone. In addition to taking seriously the advice of, for example, the Muslim Council of Britain, about the need to raise awareness, we would do well to apply our minds to, and provide better resources for, the community work and sensitive education that I hope will, in the end, render unnecessary the use of the legislation so rightly and properly set out in the Bill.

11.50 am

Baroness Rendell of Babergh: My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Lester, on introducing the Bill. Forced marriage is primarily an issue of violence against women, as is female genital mutilation, and the motivation for its continuance is,

26 Jan 2007 : Column 1330

in many respects, the same as for that other abuse. It is another way of controlling a woman's conduct and her sexuality.

To counter that, we are told that males are also coerced into marriage, but the Forced Marriage Unit's figures show that of the 300 cases brought to it annually, only 15 per cent of men are victims while 85 per cent are women. Forced marriage is an abuse of women's human rights. It is not a Romeo and Juliet situation, romantic and poetical, but one in which parents assert their perceived right over a daughter, body and soul, and obey a tradition in which there is no place for happiness or marital accord.

The Forced Marriage Unit stresses that a clear distinction must be made between a forced marriage and an arranged marriage. In arranged marriages the families of both bride and groom choose the marriage partner but the final choice remains with the couple. So well and good, but it should not be forgotten that many, if not all, forced marriages begin as arranged marriages but change in character when one of the couple, usually the prospective bride, objects to the arrangement.

A major difficulty here is something which all civilised societies must regard as desirable. I refer to the love and respect which young women of Asian origin have for their parents, a regard far in excess of what we generally see in relations between daughters and parents in white communities. This civilised and honourable attitude makes resisting parental control immeasurably more difficult for young Asians; fear of causing mothers and fathers pain may lead them into marriage situations which have tragic consequences. Refusal can result in the kind of family solidarity which leads to so-called honour killings in horrific circumstances, of which we hear all too often.

I support the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Lester, because I believe that we have need of a law to protect the vulnerable and also that, at present, the criminal offences and protective measures on the statute book are inadequate. But there are great difficulties, not least instanced by that love and respect, which I have mentioned, and which the great majority of these—often very young—girls feel towards their parents. One can easily see how making forced marriage a criminal offence could result in breakdown within the family; and that this, which a non-Asian woman might take quite lightly, may be a tragic outcome of defiance for those whose fate we are discussing. Many such parents, like those of another ethnic minority and country of origin determined on the mutilation of their daughters, are following an age-old tradition and are otherwise law-abiding and good citizens. They are not criminals but often of high moral character; and those intending to force a daughter into marriage against her will are more likely to be deterred from taking such a step when they know they would be acting against the law.

It is a matter of concern that there seems no way around the fact that the majority of victims of forced marriage are young women who have come here, or whose parents or grandparents have come here, from the Asian sub-continent. Whatever may have happened in the past, we are not going to find a

26 Jan 2007 : Column 1331

16 year-old white girl coerced into marriage with a boy she has never met. And herein lies an obstacle, not perhaps insurmountable, but very serious. We have heard a great deal in the past fortnight of racism underlying the surface of our society, more of it than perhaps most of us realised. We have heard of disgraceful taunts levelled at innocent people from those who are either vicious or ignorant and whose behaviour is unacceptable. The more enlightened of us will not forget that forms of forced marriage existed here in historical times. Literature and social history have countless instances and it is only wise legislation which finally put an end to it.

As the Bill proceeds along its course, it is important for all who support its recommendations to understand how sensitive a matter it is and what careful handling it needs. There are, apparently, all too many members of the public out there who look constantly for reasons to vilify and condemn black and Asian people—even now, after all these years of immigration and integration. It is important to do nothing to encourage those who call everyone with a brown skin and black hair a “Paki” and are ever on the watch for a chance to abuse those whose customs strike them as bizarre or outlandish.

If the Bill is to become law, as I hope it will, its measures must be implemented. Parallels with female genital mutilation have been pointed out in the several reports on forced marriage, and it should be remembered that the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act, later superseded by the Female Genital Mutilation Act, has been in existence for almost 23 years without a single prosecution having been brought.

It is important to remember that in many instances young women have been deceived into believing they are travelling from the United Kingdom to India or Pakistan, their ancestral home, for a holiday or a visit to relations when, in fact, they are being taken to meet a future husband whom they will be coerced into marrying while there. This is a very close parallel with the provision in the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003 which forbids the taking of a child or young girl out of the United Kingdom to an African country for the purpose of mutilation. As I have said, the Bill, when it becomes law, must not be permitted to lie moribund on the statute book, a fate which threatens the Female Genital Mutilation Act. Many have defended FGM on the grounds that we should not interfere with age-old traditional practices. The same or similar arguments should not be allowed to prevail here.

11.55 am

Lord Sheikh: My Lords, as the chairman of both the Conservative Party's Ethnic Diversity Council and the Conservative Muslim Forum, forced marriage is an issue I deeply care about. Thus, in principle I support the Bill proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Lester. Forced marriages are an abuse against an individual’s human rights. International law is clear. As the Universal Declaration on Human Rights says:

26 Jan 2007 : Column 1332

Concerns have been expressed that in seeking to tackle the issue of forced marriage we are stigmatising Sikhs, Hindus or Muslims. That is simply not the case and I would like to make that absolutely clear. Forced marriage is a global problem affecting communities from all over the world, not just south Asian communities. Victims come from a variety of diverse cultural backgrounds. Furthermore, every major world religion explicitly condemns it. I may add that sadly certain cases of forced marriages have unfortunately resulted in a murder or suicide.

It is also important to make it clear that the Bill is about forced marriage, and not arranged marriage. The distinction lies in an individual’s right to choose. Arranged marriages are facilitated by parents, families and friends who take a leading role in identifying a potential marriage partner. Once identified, these individuals give their full support, knowing that they have every option of refusing the proposal. In my own extended family there have been a number of successful arranged marriages where either both the bride and groom or one of the partners was born in this country.

Currently there is no specific law to prevent forced marriages. Parents or family members can be prosecuted only for offences that are associated with forcing someone into marriage, such as abduction, false imprisonment and child abuse. That is, however, inadequate and does not offer enough protection to those over 17 years of age or those who suffer from emotional blackmail and psychological pressure. Threats of exclusion from the family and social isolation can be just as powerful as physical abuse for many victims. It is therefore right to remember that being forced does not simply mean physical force.

Some might argue that the Bill does not do enough. They propose that we should create a criminal offence with regard to forced marriage. That would be counter-productive because there is a significant risk that the victims of actual or threatened forced marriage would be discouraged from taking their case further if they believed that members of their family might face criminal prosecution. In addition, involvement in criminal proceedings, which are taken by the state in the public interest, could cause distress for victims who could face further pressure not to support a prosecution.

The Bill provides a civil remedy. This will empower individuals with additional tools to prevent and to deter forced marriage. Victims are more likely to take their case further and seek protection in the civil courts. The Bill will send out a clear message that forcing someone into marriage is completely unacceptable. It will make it easier for judges and the police to help victims. It will give them protection through the option of redress and make intervention easier. It will also help to prevent cases where someone is tricked into going overseas where a forced marriage may take place.

As much as I commend the Bill, I also add caution. In a subject this sensitive, it may sometimes be difficult to prove that someone has been forced into marriage. Proceedings that are entirely dependent on the victim’s evidence may give rise to problems, such as the possibility

26 Jan 2007 : Column 1333

of reprisals. Adequate protection for the falsely accused must also be ensured. It is not uncommon in rape cases, for example, for the course of justice to be perverted by false accusation. Protection is therefore needed from those with personal vendettas, especially as any “concerned person” may bring a case to the court of law.

Forced marriage is a serious issue that has until now been controlled only through factors surrounding the issue, rather than by the offence itself. Therefore, I support the measures proposed by the noble Lord, but for the Bill to be effective, I urge Her Majesty's Government to play a key role by supporting the groups likely to be used for help and guidance with extra training and resources, by building on and strengthening the close relationships that we have with foreign Governments and ensuring that our embassies and high commissions are appropriately guided and adequately resourced.

12.03 pm

Baroness Falkner of Margravine: My Lords, I, too, welcome the long overdue measure introduced by my noble friend Lord Lester and congratulate him on bringing it forward. I also welcome his unequivocal statement that the Bill’s provisions should not be misused politically as a way of demonising British Asians. I identify myself with that sentiment.

Let me say from the outset that within the communities most affected by the issue of forced marriage, there are a number of well-meaning people who have legitimate disagreements on the issue. During the passage of the Bill, we should work together to build a consensus that we can all agree on. That is the least that we owe our young people.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page