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People often say, “That is our culture and we do not want our culture to be interfered with by law”. First, culture is not homogeneous, even back in the south Asian subcontinent. I know for a fact that among Hindus—let me stick to a safe pitch and talk about Hindus—there is a tremendous difference in attitudes to forced marriage across castes. Some would never contemplate it. I come from a group where even arranged marriages are frowned on and people want to make their own choices, but there are communities where forced marriages exist. What is much worse is that, often, groups have come from the subcontinent to this country and the culture that they believe in has been frozen in aspic from the time they were there in the 1940s and 1950s. Back in south Asia, the culture has progressed and the position of women has improved, but some people here feel, “We must preserve our culture as we thought it was in the 1940s”. What we call “culture clash” is often generated by the refusal of the immigrant community to advance, not just with the culture here, but with that back in their place of origin. Cultural arguments should be examined with great caution and not be conceded at all.

What is happening is immigration. As many noble Lords have pointed out, one reason for forced marriage is to allow someone from the subcontinent to obtain entrance to this country. Usually, it is a man who wants to come here, although the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, pointed out that to save the family honour some women are brought over like that. When they grant visas to decide entry to this country, Her Majesty’s Government should try to have a separate interview with the bride to see whether she is being used as an excuse for coming here. The interview should include people who can facilitate conversation, not only interpreters but socially skilled people who could reassure the woman that if she tells the truth she will not be victimised. That would go a long way to discourage this practice. At the bottom, all such matters of culture boil down to matters of money. If we can prevent the advantage of a British passport being earned through forced marriage and statutory rape, it would be much better for us.

I have said enough to provoke other noble Lords. My time is up so I shall sit down.

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1.03 pm

Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, I support the Private Member’s Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Lester. I thank him for the excellent, expert Bill that he has produced for us and thank the many organisations that have sent us invaluable material and widened the range of knowledge of what is going on in this area.

The intolerable abuse that some forced-marriage victims suffer cannot be allowed to continue unchecked in a country which prides itself on its human rights record. I realise that if, as I hope, this Bill becomes law, it will operate, as the noble Lord, Lord Desai, has just pointed out, in that hugely sensitive area of divided religious and cultural racial customs.

The Government certainly deserve praise for the steps that they have taken since the whole issue was raised, particularly during the passage of the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004. Their consultation results since then have confirmed the mixed views within the communities concerned about the creation of any kind of new offence, but with a very clear majority against creating any new criminal offence. That is why I see this Bill as an appropriate and far from draconian next step. By creating a civil rather than a criminal offence, it fully reflects the victim’s understandable reluctance to harm his or her family, yet it provides some redress for the victim. Where actual violence or psychological harassment is a serious threat, or aiding and abetting or inducing unlawful acts is involved, it gives the judge the power to issue appropriate injunctions.

There are other important aspects of the Bill, which should help boost the speed at which it becomes accepted that forced marriages are just not acceptable in this country. As other noble Lords have said, something like 250 to 300 cases each year are known to the Forced Marriage Unit, although Liberty says the number is considerably higher, so there is some urgency. The Bill allows a litigious friend of the victim to bring proceedings, with the judge’s consent as the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, just emphasised. Because cases can be brought at county court level, valuable case law will become available to lawyers working at that local level to draw on. In addition, legal aid will be available. We need reassurance on that point, because we hear far too much at the moment about legal aid disappearing into the sand.

There will be other benefits. Once on the statute book, the fact that such a law exists will undoubtedly have a deterrent effect on families who might in the past have felt entitled to use the forced-marriage route for their children. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and Articles 3 and 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights make this move essential. I find it quite ironic that in the many Bills involving children that we have discussed in your Lordships' House, we have constantly referred to the need to ask the views of the children about their own futures and for everything to be done in their best interests. In this case, it is the children who are suffering the most—whether as the children of unhappy forced marriages, or at second or third-generation themselves being recycled

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at far too young an age into forced marriages with all the misery and suffering that that entails. Any age would be too young, but 12, 13 or 14 is far too young. With this Bill on the statute book, those who are reluctant to involve the law to end the physical and/or psychological violation of their human rights will, once they see others succeed, be much more likely to follow suit in that direction.

This is a Bill brought to your Lordships' House by probably the most dedicated and experienced human rights expert in the land. As adviser to Roy Jenkins when he was Home Secretary, the noble Lord, Lord Lester, was the architect of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and Equal Pay Act 1970. Having worked with him in addressing many equal opportunity issues over the years, I have every confidence that it is the right time for this Bill, amended and improved as it inevitably will be in its passage through Parliament. The EOC was set up by the 1975 Act both to enforce the new law and to promote equality of opportunity. As its first deputy chairman under the leadership, at that time, of the noble Baroness, Lady Lockwood, I am more than aware of the time that it takes to get acceptance of laws that change a nation’s entrenched behaviour. However, although there is still a lot more to be achieved in those areas, I am encouraged by the progress that has been made in this country and indeed across a far wider field in European and other countries on both racial and sexual equal opportunities. I have enough faith to believe that this even more complex cultural misbehaviour will respond to similar treatment.

Many will say that we have allowed this situation to continue for far too long already, and that if people from different races, religions and cultural backgrounds choose to live in this country and become British citizens, the basic human rights law of this country must be accepted. We need to be clear, and other noble Lords have stressed this, that we are not talking about what some regard as harmless cultural customs—arranged marriages—where both parties agree and want the marriage to take place. We are talking about an entirely different, brutal custom, often involving extreme mental and physical cruelty. Anyone who has read even some of the detailed stories of the victims who have been so abused, murdered, had to commit suicide, and had their lives destroyed in so many other ways could not but agree that the sooner these practices are obliterated the better.

The absence of any law such as this undervalues and undermines the role that women can and do play, as mothers and wives, and as equal citizens contributing to their country’s economic well-being. Above all—and women are some 85 per cent of the victims that we are talking about—the continued toleration of the concept of forced marriage reinforces the view of women as second-class citizens. Frankly, that in itself is intolerable. I hope that everyone, but especially the Government, will now take the necessary steps to end what up to now has been a rather blind-eye policy which, no doubt for understandable but misguided reasons, has been allowed to continue for far too long. By adopting this Bill, the Government can redeem their record, which is already excellent in so many other respects.

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1.12 pm

Lord Plant of Highfield: My Lords, I strongly support this Bill, and I, too, pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Lester, for devising it. It is a very sophisticated mechanism to deal with a very significant evil. I will talk about two things: first, the arguments that might be proposed from cultural communities and groups against the Bill, and secondly, a little about coercion, in Clause 2, because the definition of “forcing” is rather important in a forced marriage Bill.

Critics of the legislation will argue at least two things. First, they will argue that it is wrong for Parliament to seek to regulate the behaviour of well established cultural and religious communities. They will argue that the civil society to which such communities belong should be autonomous and free from state interference and regulation, and that it is not the role of the state to seek to liberalise cultural communities. The reason why such groups might believe that leads to my second point, namely that such liberalisation, in their view, would presuppose that freedom and autonomy are values that are in some sense universal and shared; whereas critics will say that is not the case. They will argue that there are many religions and cultures in which the values of freedom and autonomy do not figure as at all desirable. They will say that to seek to liberalise such communities in terms of such values is oppressive and wrong, that it does not treat such communities with respect, and that it will homogenise all communities and transform them into communities sanctioned by the liberal state.

There are at least three clear answers to this. First, we happen to live in a liberal, democratic society, and it is not wrong to seek to ensure that all groups meet the minimum standards of common morality of such a society—freedom and respect, basic rights and so forth—which forced marriages infringe. Secondly, we need to stand up for common values. There is a big debate at the moment about the idea of Britishness. It is difficult to get far in thinking about a common-sensical view of the nature of Britishness without the ideas of individual liberty, respect for persons and equal rights. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly in my mind, is that cultural groups that are looking for autonomy and self-regulation are in fact demanding freedom from the interference of the state, and they are demanding equality of recognition and equality of rights. They are themselves trading on the very values that they seek to deny the members of those groups. It seems to me therefore vital that, if we accept ideas such as the importance of freedom from interference and equal respect for cultural identity and cultural norms, those freedoms should be extended to members of the groups covered by those norms. So I do not think that there is a good case to be deployed against the general principles of the Bill.

I will say a few words about coercion, which I suspect will prove controversial in Committee. I want to defend Clause 2, which will be controversial because it refers to threats and offers as being

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coercive. We normally think that, at least in one sense, coercion is straightforward and clear. If I lock you in a room, you cannot then do anything; it is coercive. If I imprison you, you are unable to go outside the prison; that is a form of coercion. It is coercion as physical restraint. That is uncontroversial; there is no question or problem about that. Once we move to threats and offers, the issue becomes a bit more complicated, and we need to think about the complications a little more. We would regard most threats as coercive. They are threats because they impact on our desires. I want to do X; you impose a cost on my doing X, and I abstain from doing it, even though I want to do it, because of that cost. The threat constitutes the cost; we would recognise that as a form of coercion.

If we recognise that as coercion, it is not at all clear that offers are not equally coercive. Offers also operate to change our desires in an unwanted way. I want to do X, and someone comes along and makes either me or someone else in relation to that X an offer which it is very difficult to refuse. That operates on the balance of my desires in exactly the same way as a threat operates on the balance of my desires, but both of them are rather different from physical constraint and physical locking up. We have to get some kind of principle that will extend from coercion as physical restraint and going through to both threats and offers. I do not think that there is a categorical distinction between threats and offers, because a lot of threats can be turned into offers. There is nothing arcane or difficult about thinking in that way.

I consider parking at the side of the road, and there is a notice saying, “Parking penalty £30”. If I am poor, I regard that as a threat, and I do not park. That changes my desire to park. If I am rich, and I come to the same notice, I might decide that it is really an offer; it says that I can park here for £30, and £30 means nothing to me. If we regard threats as coercive, many threats can be reformulated as offers, and we should not therefore think that offers and inducements cannot be coercive. They can be coercive. We cannot say that all offers extend choice and therefore cannot be coercive, partly because we know about mafia offers—an offer you cannot refuse. We know about the highwayman offer—your money or your life. A hard-nosed person might say, “Before the highwayman comes on to the scene, my choices are limited. I am just to keep my money. Now he has made me an offer; I can either keep my money or keep my life”. Threats and offers are very complex things to figure out, and most threats can be reformulated as offers. We have to be clear about some of the complexities about the nature of coercion in Clause 2, which need to be focused on a little more.

Because threats and offers are highly contextualised and depend on the situation of the person—a threat to make someone destitute or a threat to withhold the love and support of the family—the civil remedy approach favoured by the Bill, and the great tribute that it reflects on the noble Lord, Lord Lester, is exactly the way forward, and I give it my wholehearted support.

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1.20 pm

Lord Dholakia: My Lords, we now come to the concluding part of the debate. The Minister has a very good record on rights and civil liberties. I see that she is taking copious notes, and I have no doubt that she will have taken note of the fact that the legislation is supported by almost all noble Lords who have spoken.

Noble Lords: All noble Lords.

Lord Dholakia: All noble Lords. I thank my noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill for introducing this private Member’s Bill, which is a relevant and nuanced solution to a multilayered problem that must be tackled with sensitivity and grace. Forced marriage, in which a victim is pressed into marriage against their will, is a growing problem in this country. This practice can lead to huge stresses on tightly knit communities, and to young students being removed from schools and virtually confined to their homes. It can be used as a tool for immigration violations and, at its worst, has led to honour killings. At least a third of recorded cases affect children aged 17 or under, and, as a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, the UK Government have an obligation to ensure that children’s rights are fully protected. Furthermore, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has urged the national Parliaments of member states to,

This proposed solution is welcome and timely, and has been prepared by an expert in this field, as has been pointed out. My noble friend Lord Lester has a remarkable record in dealing with human rights issues, having campaigned for 30 years to make the European Convention on Human Rights directly enforceable in British courts, and having introduced two private Member’s Bills that became models for the Human Rights Act 1998. He is an expert in this field, and there can be no better person to put forward this legislation.

I begin my remarks on the Bill by highlighting the words of a young woman—a victim of forced marriage:

That must be the starting point. Thankfully, the Bill understands that sentiment implicitly. It does not attempt to patronise any community or to attempt to speak for the diverse groups of people for whom forced marriage is a problem. The above quotation makes it clear that the Bill distinctly understands the differences between forced marriage and arranged marriage. Arranged marriage should involve active and open dialogue and the consent of all parties, and is a successful practice today in many such communities. It is also worth pointing out that it was actively pursued by the English in Victorian times. By making this distinction clear, we can all be sure that

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the Bill does not discriminate against specific communities and will lead to prejudice in the future.

Rather, the Bill has made use of a process of consultation to provide proactive solutions to an issue that the Government have been working on since 1999, when the Home Office set up a working group, in which I was directly involved, to investigate the issue. This work was done with the best of intentions, but it did not result in any concrete achievements, except to prove without a doubt the scope of the problem. The Government instructed FCO offices to be more proactive in providing support to those seeking help in forced marriages, but that is not enough. Such an approach is not comprehensive, as FCO locations are few and far between and may not be easy to access. Most importantly, such an approach relies on the victim seeking out an office of the UK Government, rather than the UK Government seeking out ways to help the victim. Legislation is what is needed because, with it, women will for the first time ever be able to know that this practice is illegal. They will be able say to the perpetrators that it is unequivocally wrong, and will be able use the law as a basis for action.

The reason why many years of work resulted in no new legislation hinged on the criminality of forced marriage. There was no consensus on making forced marriage a crime in its own right. It was considered too costly and too complex to introduce, given that existing laws provided a workable form of protection. Most importantly, however, it was considered an unwieldy solution that might drive the problem further underground, prevent reconciliation, isolate the victim and unfairly stigmatise certain communities.

We are dealing with a problem in which fewer than one in 10 cases is reported, which means that the 300 cases reported by the Home Office and Foreign office are simply the tip of the iceberg. We must accept that the problem is far more deeply rooted, and that some cases never come to light. In the diverse communities in which forced marriages take place, it is often the parents or close family members who force a victim into marriage. There is a strong chance that the victims of forced marriages would be unwilling to report their own parents, or other family members, if the punishment included jail or a criminal record. However, by not pursuing other forms of legislation, victims may be less aware of their avenues for redress, and communities may be less aware that such actions are wrong in today’s society.

Multiculturalism must never blunt the fundamental point at the heart of the debate; that it is a person’s right to choose whom he or she wants to marry. It is a tragedy that a victim of forced marriage may have to use charges of rape, kidnapping, domestic abuse or torture as a way of dealing with a forced marriage. If she has not yet been subjected to such depravity, but is in fear of it, where does that leave her? It leaves her in a state of confusion, wondering what her rights are.

One of the key recommendations from the wide consultation process in which I was involved was that,

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Thankfully, we have such an approach in the Bill, and I sincerely hope that, now there is a solution in sight, the Government will take the necessary steps. We must be aware that change is always frightening, and that changing people’s mindset is difficult. There are always transitional problems for immigrants into new communities, and forced marriage is one such problem. However, this legislation is not about racial profiling or insensitivity, because across south Asia, forced marriages are in the minority, and there, as in any culture, those who abuse the trust of their families are not respected. It may eventually iron itself out in the United Kingdom as second, third and fourth generations of families are born here, but it is our role to spur on this process by smoothing the way for its acceptance and to increase awareness. For this, we need legislation.

We will be looking after the welfare and future of the young generations of British people, we will be making this an issue among first and second generation British people, and we will be fulfilling our role as leaders in the global community by setting an example that countries that face forced marriages within their borders may want to follow.

A law is necessary because the law is an unequivocal statement of public policy, whereas the current patchwork of laws that can be used to challenge forced marriages does not present any unequivocal statement against the act. By using existing and ill defined laws to tackle the issue, we are putting the burden of proof on to the victim—a victim who may be reluctant to come forward anyway—and we will allow the issue to continue to be swept under the carpet.

Most people are law-abiding citizens and most look to their community for support. This legislation will allow people to point out obvious wrongdoing and to pursue an avenue of complaint where prison is not the end result. By making the issue a civil one, the Bill elegantly gives direct redress to victims without any of the drawbacks suggested by the research on the implementation of criminal legislation. The remedies in the Bill focus on the protection of the victim and the prevention of the forced marriage rather than the punishment of a crime. The Bill is proactive and preventive rather than reactionary. A civil remedy to this problem will help to change people’s behaviour because it will allow victims to come forward in pursuit of compensation, mediation and reconciliation—the cornerstones that have been requested by the victims themselves.

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