Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

In one such case of which I have a little knowledge, a 16 year-old girl in London was regularly beaten and eventually killed by her father for having “dishonoured” the family. The law took its course and he is now serving a life sentence. But the damage did not stop with the girl’s death; there were attempts within the community to cover up the crime and the girl’s elder brother—who, like her, had lived most of his life in the UK—felt absolutely powerless to help her. Both these young people were caught between conflicting and irreconcilable values. In a note indicating that she planned to run away from home, this young woman wrote to her father,

I believe the Bill will signal society’s determination to uphold the basic right of young women like her to choose their own emotional path and show that there is nothing dishonourable in doing so.

12.34 pm

Baroness Turner of Camden: My Lords, I am pleased to support the Bill. I commend the noble Lord, Lord Lester, for introducing it and thank him for his very full explanation of its provisions. I was, unfortunately, not able to attend the meeting held on 15 January to discuss the Bill. The issue of forced marriages has in recent years become quite a problem in this country. It seems to affect minority communities particularly, and both men and women, and the Bill rightly deals with both sexes.

I wondered at first why the Bill aimed to make use of civil law rather than making forced marriage a criminal offence. However, I have read the excellent article in the current issue of House Magazine and now understand that a new criminal offence would not assist those whom we most want to help; that police intervention at an early stage could be counterproductive and that a civil remedy would be of help to those acting on behalf of possible victims.

I have been particularly concerned about reported cases involving very young women from immigrant communities. The effect of a threatened enforced marriage on a very young woman without friends outside her immediate family must be absolutely devastating. Sometimes a young woman in this situation has taken what must be the extreme action of running away from home. Without the support of organisations such as the Southall Black Sisters she would be absolutely lost and alone. It is therefore gratifying to learn that this organisation and others with a similar objective support the Bill. I understand that the Southall Black Sisters has more than 25 years’ experience of fighting domestic violence and forced marriage within minority communities. That is very important.

Unfortunately, the custom of forced marriages is often claimed to be a cultural requirement, even a religious one. There are extreme versions of some

26 Jan 2007 : Column 1342

religions where the subjugation of women and a denial of gender equality are regarded as religious necessities. It is this belief that causes male-dominated families to act as though daughters can simply be disposed of as they think fit, sometimes when they are children. Many women from immigrant communities simply do not accept this. I have been told by such women who practise their religion that this outlook is a perversion. There is no requirement, they tell me, for this in the Koran; it is simply a perversion of misogynist clerics.

We must do everything we can to support women who struggle to assert their human rights, and the Bill is part of that struggle. Of course, the Bill also applies to men as well as women because there have been instances of men being forced into marriages, for family and allegedly cultural reasons, with young women whom they have never seen. Again it is a matter of human rights.

I have found this an interesting debate. It has been very stimulating to listen to the contributions of the noble Lords, Lord Ahmed and Lord Sheikh, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Uddin and Lady Falkner, who have told us about their experiences and spoken from their own knowledge of their immigrant communities. I support the Bill. I commend the noble Lord, Lord Lester, for introducing it and I hope it will have support from the Government.

12.38 pm

Baroness Murphy: My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell of Babergh, has already mentioned Romeo and Juliet. I remind the House that Juliet pleads with her mother not to force her to marry Paris, the choice of her father, Capulet. She says:

“Is there no pity sitting in the clouds,That sees into the bottom of my grief?O, sweet my mother, cast me not away!Delay this marriage for a month, a week;Or, if you do not, make the bridal bedIn that dim monument where Tybalt lies”.

In other words, “I’d rather die than marry that man”. How does her father respond?

Thursday is near; lay hand on heart, advise:An you be mine, I’ll give you to my friend;An you be not, hang, beg, starve, die in the streets,For, by my soul, I’ll ne’er acknowledge thee,Nor what is mine shall never do thee good”.

So Capulet’s attitude to his daughter is precisely that of those few who see nothing wrong in marrying their children for what they see as the greater good of their community—erroneously, as we have heard from every speaker today. Forced marriage is not, as we have heard, a characteristic of any religious group. It is worth reminding ourselves that it was pretty much accepted here—if despised—until the 19th century, especially in aristocratic circles where property and the inheritance of it formed the basis of a marriage contract. I have recently been reading with horror the story of the poor 15 year-old Lady Jane Grey, forced, in the 16th century, into marrying the youth Guildford Dudley, who was equally reluctant, it seems; a marriage to promote the tragic ambitions of their families.

26 Jan 2007 : Column 1343

Forced marriages are the consequence of medieval feudalism, paternal supremacy and the desperate desire to maintain one’s culture in the face of threats to it posed by there being insufficient local marriage partners of the desired restricted kind for one’s offspring. It is of course the evil end of a wide spectrum of behaviours and attitudes that place some young women in despairing situations, where their education and exposure to wider influences in the UK—by no means would we necessarily say superior influences, but certainly different from those of the communities from which they came—bring them into profound conflict with their parents, and that conflict produces a profound sense of guilt and failure about their obligations.

At St George’s, University of London, where I chair the council, 40 per cent of our medical students are Muslim, largely from the south Asian community. We see every day the challenge that some young British Asian women feel when faced with the freedoms and the need to adopt the assertive, confident social interaction we demand of a doctor in the UK. A conventional medical education can pose serious challenges for some parents of our young women students.

There will be many people who say that has nothing to do with forced marriages, but it does. It is the extreme and totally unacceptable end of a spectrum of cultural attitudes about women and children’s rights and proper place in the family group. The noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, has bravely outlined some of the issues that face communities today. As we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Lester, suicides among young Asian women are three times higher than among their white counterparts, particularly in very young age groups. The victims are often wives who cannot have children, or who produce only daughters, but another group that is at risk are those living in families where there is intergenerational conflict and a clash of ideas.

The Government have explained their reluctance to introduce a specific criminal law against forced marriages. Although I was not at first entirely convinced by them, having seen the responses on the Home Office website, I understand how difficult that would be, with prevention, investigation and prosecution occurring across international boundaries, as well as the dangers of driving the practice even further underground than it already is.

The noble Lord’s Bill today, though, is one way that we can make some major progress. Like many others here, I suspect, I have received emails from groups who feel that it would drive the practice further underground and would not be helpful, but I have observed that they have no satisfactory alternative apart from doing more of what we are already doing. That does not seem to have been enough. The journalist Camilla Cavendish asked in the Times on 31 August last year,

26 Jan 2007 : Column 1344

Why are we not saying more about the plight of these women who have been treated not as individuals but as possessions?

I hope the Muslim Council of Britain, which was concerned that a criminal law would be yet,

will give its support to the Bill, recognising that a small minority of its community are seriously jeopardising the reputation of Islam. It has declared that it regards men and women as equal partners in marriage. It would be even more encouraging if it gave practical support to those communities to stamp out this abusive and detestable practice. I would like to see it use its influence and financial muscle to support the charities working in this area, and to support the Bill.

The cultural questions are complex, but the feminist cause is clear. Every woman should be able to say no to an unwanted marriage. I give my full support to this Bill.

12.44 pm

Baroness Butler-Sloss: My Lords, I declare an interest. As a former judge, I tried cases that contained elements of forced marriage.

I strongly support the Bill. I pay tribute to the speeches of the noble Lords, Lord Lester and Lord Carlile, with which I entirely agree, as I agree with all the other speeches that have so far been given in this House. I am aware that the Bill is strongly supported by the NSPCC, the diversity sub-committee of the Family Justice Council—the council is chaired by the President of the Family Division, while the sub-committee is chaired by a British Bangladeshi barrister—and the Family Law Bar Association and its diversity sub-committee, as well as several High Court judges.

I think it is important to remember—it has already been said several times, but I believe it is worth saying again—that an arranged marriage is a well known and well respected way among many communities to safeguard the future of their children and help them to make sensible permanent relationships, so long as it is genuinely consensual. But to require a young person to marry without his—and there are young men in this position as well as young women—or her consent is not only unacceptable, but, as the right reverend Prelate said earlier, contrary to the beliefs of the major religions of the world, such as Islam or Sikhism. It is also an obvious violation of a person’s human rights.

In 2004 I went, at the request of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, to Muzaffarabad, the capital of Jammu and Kashmir, to talk mainly about international child abduction, but also about forced marriages. I met some of the leaders of the communities in Mirpur, from where come a large number of British-born or resident members of the Pakistan community in England. They are actually Kashmiri, not Pakistani. There is, I understand, a practice of marrying within the wider family—to marry one’s cousin—and I was told firmly by the leaders from Mirpur that they were concerned at the

26 Jan 2007 : Column 1345

number of young people from the United Kingdom who were married to their cousins in Mirpur. They felt that this was often not a consensual arrangement, but they felt unable to take any steps to discourage it. They said that this was an English problem.

We may ask: is there really a problem that needs to be dealt with? Today in your Lordships’ House we have heard many speeches to show that there is. It is a problem right across the world; the community leaders from Mirpur were right to say that it is also here in England. We must tackle it. It is not a problem only of the Muslim community, as has been said, and it may occur among Sikhs or Kurds. We heard at the meeting last week about the Kurdish community, where this happens from time to time. It can happen among Christians, Hindus or Jews. It happens, no doubt, within the Arab communities, but we do not usually hear about it.

I would say in parenthesis that landowning families in the 18th and 19th centuries in England married their daughters in order to consolidate their land. The noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, told us about the sad position of Juliet. The major problems arise from families originating from the Indian subcontinent, but it is important to remember that they are certainly not confined to them.

This issue is a major concern of the NSPCC, and I declare another interest as I am president of another of its appeals, which is just about completed. The NSPCC is involved because forced marriages affect children and young people under 18, as well as adults. The NSPCC has given me an example of a 15 year-old girl, about to take her GCSEs, who wanted to become a doctor. Her sister was married at 16, and her parents were planning to take her to marry the man chosen for her, who lived in the Indian subcontinent, and whom she had never met. They had already booked the flight. How was she to deal with this situation? The parents would not listen to her, and would disown her if she refused.

The NSPCC has an Asian child protection helpline, and 10 per cent of the calls in 2004-05 were about forced marriages. Childline, which is now amalgamated with the NSPCC, had 82 calls last year from children about arranged and forced marriages. The main complaint was that parents did not listen to them. The family judges of the High Court deal with cases of children who are abducted by a parent for the purpose of marriage. Forced marriages affect mainly girls and young women, but they affect young men also.

One way in which we hear about forced marriages is in cases of honour killings, where a member or members of a family may punish another member for refusing to marry the proposed partner or for choosing to marry someone else. They are often reported in the press. I remember being in Birmingham on one occasion as a judge when the judge who was there with me had a case in the Crown Court of a father who knifed his elder daughter because she refused to marry the man he chose for her and then knifed the younger daughter because she went to the aid of her sister. The tragic thing was that the father did not know that he was

26 Jan 2007 : Column 1346

doing wrong. And that was in Birmingham, not a remote part of some distant place.

There are sad cases told in the family courts by those bringing nullity petitions to end marriages to which they did not consent. Some High Court judges have engaged in a creative use of their inherent jurisdiction to enable them to help these girls. There is a worrying element of domestic violence in some cases, as noble Lords will have already heard. Domestic violence in the family has, as we all know too well, a serious, adverse and long-term effect on the children in the family, and children of these marriages as well as others. I understand that an average of about 300 girls a year go to the police and seek protection from their family who require them to marry. That is a dramatic and tragic step for a girl to take. She is likely to be barred from the family thereafter and live in isolation from the community in which she has been brought up. I pay tribute to the Southall Black Sisters for taking on and looking after so many of the girls who come though their hands.

Another question is whether legislation directed at preventing forced marriages will do any good or will it only demonise or stigmatise a community and be ineffective? I was unhappy about the previous proposed legislation which would have created criminal offences. As we have heard, it had little support from NGOs and other organisations which remain extremely concerned about the plight of many young people in this country. But a civil remedy does not have the same coercive force. It is accessible in the county court and it would be relatively easy to make an application to a family judge.

The Bill would give a message that could be understood by those communities or individuals who consider they have the right to choose the spouse for their child. Speaking as a former judge, I have to say that one of the attractive features of the communities from the Asian subcontinent is their recognition and acceptance of the rule of law. They are generally law-abiding people and are accustomed to using the courts in family and other disputes. The possibility of litigation if the Bill was law might give the family a breathing space and an opportunity for reflection. Our family judges are experienced in defusing a fraught situation and persuading a settlement. It would be far better to have an injunction or the threat of proceedings and then a family discussion than a trial on attempted murder in the Crown Court. There is also the chance of keeping the family together rather than a tragic and permanent family rift.

The Bill provides several remedies, of which the most important is the granting of an injunction, with a power of arrest if the injunction is not obeyed. This is a strong remedy which has been effectively used in domestic violence legislation. Very helpfully, the Bill provides that when a girl is locked in her bedroom at home, for example—I know of such cases—another member of the family or a friend may help her obtain relief by making the application on her behalf if, and only if, the judge gives specific permission. So there will be no unsuitable people making applications about which the girl does not know or to which she does not consent.

26 Jan 2007 : Column 1347

The Bill makes provision for granting injunctions against other members of the family who take part in the threats or intimidation to force the marriage on the unwilling young person. It also includes forcing a marriage by deceit as well as by intimidation. It provides the interim relief to secure the safety of the young person, pending the hearing before the court.

In the view of NGOs, including those from the ethnic minorities, the legislation would not demonise any community and would be very effective both in its use and as a preventive measure. It might be said that to change culture is a slow business and would it do any good as it would take so long. My answer is that one has to start somewhere. There are examples of changing culture in other areas of legislation such as public disapproval of drink-driving in the past 10 years, increased disapproval of smoking and a relatively recent understanding and awareness of the evil of domestic violence. The Bill would be a trigger to move people forward.

Does the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 provide protection so that the Bill would be an unnecessary addition to the statute book? With one voice the Family Law Bar Association, the diversity sub-committee of the Family Justice Council and, in particular, Mr Justice Munby from the High Court Family Division advise that it does not give adequate protection. One act of forcing a child or young person to marry would not, I believe, come within the definition of harassment. The county court does not at present have the powers it would have if the Bill were passed. The 1997 Act is also somewhat cumbersome. The Bill is short, to the point and—unusually, perhaps—easy to understand.

Perhaps even more importantly, from time to time legislation appropriately fulfils a declaratory or denunciatory role expressing the view of society that certain behaviour not only is unacceptable but requires to be identified as such. An example would be the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act 1985, and I suggest that forced marriages come within this category.

I very much hope that the Bill will have a strong preventive element and that leaders in the communities will recognise the law and spread the message that to force a daughter or son to marry someone they do not agree to marry is wrong and is against the law as it is against the principles of the major religions.

12.57 pm

Lord Desai: My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss. I have nothing very technical or legal to say, but first I welcome the Bill and thank the noble Lord, Lord Lester, for introducing it.

It is always said that the law is not really a solution to a problem and that instead we have to change the culture. I remember that when I was a young man in America in the early 1960s, a lot of civil rights Bills were being opposed because people said that legislation about black equality would never be enough and what was really needed was a change of heart. At that time, if one had waited for a change of heart in the American South, there would never have had been any progress whatever. So I strongly believe that in the solution to something like this, the law is always a good first

26 Jan 2007 : Column 1348

step—perhaps not sufficient, but definitely more than necessary. In the absence of law, there is no incentive to change behaviour.

It is always said that all religions are against all evil. I have heard that before and have never been convinced. All religions, at one level of generality, are for peace and they have all been used as excuses for war. However, I do not want to get diverted into a diatribe. In Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, among Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs, whatever the religion may say, we know that very bad things happen to women. They are forced into marriage and raped in marriage. In India, you hear rumours such as, “Oh, she was cooking and suddenly the kerosene stove flared up and she burnt herself down”. That is a case of dowry murder. Even if a religion allows such things, we should not allow them here. If a religion does not allow them, that is all well and good, but even if it does, that is no reason to condone such things.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page