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The Bill has the support of my party. I believe that all communities, particularly the black and ethnic minority community, owe a debt of gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, whose record on rights and liberty is second to none. He has been right before and he is right today. Let us not dither in the task before us.

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1.31 pm

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, Her Majesty’s Opposition support this Bill. It is right in both principle and practice to try to prevent forced marriages taking place—they can and they do destroy lives. It is surely better to prevent a forced marriage taking place rather than to leave a person in the invidious position of trying to make an application for nullity after the event of the marriage taking place.

This Bill does make some advances through the civil rather than the criminal law. It should not be seen as a eureka answer to the problem, although it is a worthwhile piece in the jigsaw. The aim of the Bill is laudable, but it needs to be more than window dressing. We have seen enough of that from the Government over the past 10 years.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, for meeting me last week to discuss his Bill in detail. I am certainly convinced that he is making a worthwhile addition to the measures that are currently available to victims of forced marriage and those who are at risk of being victims in the future. As always, this House will wish to scrutinise the Bill’s provisions very carefully at Committee. We will need to consider how effective it will be and how accessible it will be to those who should benefit from it. In particular, we will have to consider what protections it adds that are not adequately covered by existing legislation.

Noble Lords have today been at one in condemning the practice of forced marriage. Noble Lords, such as my noble friends Lord Taylor of Holbeach and Lord Sheikh, who made a particularly powerful speech, were right to draw the attention of the House to the differences between arranged and forced marriages. It is absolutely vital that we do so.

I was interested to read the guidelines on this matter that were issued for the police by ACPO, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Home Office. They are sensible and sensitive—not words I often use in the same sentence as the Home Office these days. The guidelines state:

It is right to stress now, and to continue to do so in our examination of the Bill, the difference between arranged and forced marriages and ensure that we do not by mistake or oversight bring arranged marriages within the scope of any measures that are intended to prevent forced marriage. That would not be the right thing for Parliament to attempt to do. But I believe that it is right for Parliament to take an active role deterring forced marriage. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester was right today, as he so often is on these matters, to remind us that legislation should not be our first or only recourse in changing

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human behaviour. There are other and much better methods, which have to be complementary and, if possible, preferred routes.

There are times when I agree with the Minister, Lady Scotland, who has the policy responsibility in this area—we all regret that, for a very good reason, she is not able to be here today. In her press statement on 7 June last year, she said:

She was right to draw attention to the fact that forced marriage is more than domestic violence. It is violence to the right of the individual to make their own life choices. No doubt when the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton of Upholland, replies to the debate, she will tell the House of the various schemes that the Government have launched in recent years to give aid to those who are the victims of forced marriage. I do not criticise those schemes—far from it. They are important, but I ask whether they are enough.

Noble Lords will be aware that the Government have changed their position regarding legislation. They had promised a criminal offence as requested by police, but then backed off. In September 2005, the Home Office put out a press release about its plans to hold a three-month consultation on whether to create a specific criminal offence of forcing someone to marry. The police had already told the Government that there should be a new criminal offence. They believed that it would make prosecutions easier and send a clear message that intimidating young people into marriages that they do not want is unacceptable in the UK. In the Government’s consultation document, Forced Marriage: A Wrong Not a Right, Ministers accepted that the arguments against creating a new criminal offence outweighed those for it. Despite that, the Government said that they would go ahead and create a criminal offence. Indeed, the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, said that a new offence would act as a preventive measure and “say to people this is wrong”. She told reporters in central London:

The Government subsequently changed their mind, and I think that it is important that we hear from them why they did. There may be very good reasons for the Government changing their course on this occasion, but we need to hear them.

Noble Lords who have spoken today have pointed out some of the dangers that may follow from criminalising forced marriage. My noble friend Lord Sheikh set out how a criminal offence in particular could be counterproductive in its effects. I note that there have been concerns in the past that, if there were a criminal offence, young people might not report their parents for fear of criminalising them. Have the Government carried out any further research on that matter? If the concern remains about introducing a criminal offence, surely it should not interfere with having a civil offence. I do not think that the proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, should

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fall foul of the same arguments; I think that he has found his way round that difficulty.

What work has been done over the past two years to make better use of existing civil remedies and the family courts, and with what success? I would be grateful if the Minister could give us information on that. I am aware that there is a range of criminal offences that can cover some of the aspects of the abuse involved in a forced marriage: rape, false imprisonment, kidnap, and assault. However, that can usually follow on only after the event of the marriage and after the damage has been done. The Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, has the enormous advantage of trying to prevent the abuse in the first place.

As noble Lords from around the House have so correctly pointed out, this a highly sensitive issue, but one that must be addressed, in a sensitive way but strongly and with determination. As my noble friend Lord Sheikh said, it is a global problem. It is not just about one ethnic or religious community. It is not a south-east Asian issue per se. It affects communities across a wide range of countries, including Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Syria, Sri Lanka, the USA, Holland, Somalia, Lebanon, Hong Kong, Turkey and Bosnia—we could go on.

I look forward to the opportunity to examine the detail of the Bill closely in Committee. In relation to Clause 2, there is one improvement that I hope the noble Lord, Lord Lester, may consider, and I have already given him notice of it in advance. I listened very carefully to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Plant of Highfield, because he highlighted the fact that Clause 2 could provide some element of controversy and I hope that we can find a way of overcoming that; I am sure that there are practical ways in which we can address it. I am concerned that the drafting of Clause 2 may not go wide enough to protect those who need to be protected. It covers people who threaten, “If you don’t help me, I will damage you”, or offer a benefit to the person that is being threatened or coerced. I am concerned to assist in circumstances where someone says, “If you don’t help me, I will not necessarily damage you, but I will damage your mother-in-law’s or father-in-law’s business. I will cause damage to another person who is of great importance to you”. We need to ensure that Clause 2 provides all the protection that it needs to, without bringing too much within it.

I note that when the Government published their consultation in 2005, the estimated cost of creating a criminal offence was around £420,000 in the first year of implementation and £220,000 in subsequent years. Can the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, say what he considers might be the costs of implementing the Bill? If not, perhaps he may assist us in Committee.

Clause 5 makes it possible for the victim of a forced marriage to make a civil claim for damages in the last resort. We will have to consider in Committee whether daughters and sons would wish to do that by imposing extra financial burdens on their parents by suing them for payment. We need to explore that legitimate area.

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Last month, the Women’s National Commission, ably chaired by the Minister’s noble friend Lady Prosser, published its report from the Muslim Women's Network, She Who Disputes—Muslim women shape the debate. It makes for arresting reading. A respondent from Bradford made the following plea:

I agree with her with all my heart. In the final analysis, that is why my party supports the Bill—I certainly do—and I hope that the Government will support it.

1.43 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My Lords, it is a great privilege to reply to this debate. I, too, am very sorry that my noble friend Lady Scotland is not with us—she would do a much better job than me, given her expertise and knowledge. I know that noble Lords will not mind that I sent her a text message just before the start of the debate to say that we would all be thinking of her and that we look forward to seeing her back soon. I pay tribute to her commitment and energy—which I am not often able to do in your Lordships’ House, because the occasion does not allow that—particularly on these matters and on issues concerning domestic violence. I have worked with her on these issues for some time and it will come as no surprise to your Lordships that no one is more committed and dedicated to the work that she undertakes.

I also pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Lester. Very few people can stand up and state, “Thirty years ago, I said this”, and, without wavering, continue to press their concerns. Sometimes I wish that he would not continue to press those concerns—but what an important contribution he has made. It is also fabulous to stand here and watch him looking extremely embarrassed, which he has done from time to time when people have paid him tribute; I cannot resist it, too. I welcome and salute the noble Lord’s work and his incredible contribution. As a Minister for human rights, I say that, without him, I would find my job far more difficult.

I want to pay tribute to another group of people who I have met only recently—in fact, I met them only yesterday—the people who work in the Forced Marriage Unit. I had the privilege of spending only an hour with them but I came away with the overwhelming impression that they are completely dedicated to their work. I said to one of them—I shall not embarrass her by naming her—that I could not work out how on Earth she did her job without working 24 hours a day, seven days a week; her wry smile suggested that neither did she. It is a small dedicated band and I thank them on behalf of your Lordships for the incredible work that they do. I want to explain a little more about that work. I think that it is worth doing so, even considering the expertise in your Lordships’ House.

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The Forced Marriage Unit is a joint Home Office/Foreign and Commonwealth Office venture. It has six members of staff at present, and the team leads on policy development and outreach work. It has three dedicated caseworkers—one from UK Visas—and one office manager, and all members of the unit handle casework. The FMU has a budget of almost £690,000, including staff wages, and it covers 250 to 300 cases a year, 15 per cent of which are male cases of forced marriage.

Our embassies and high commissions overseas assist, rescue and repatriate around 200 people each year. Around a third of the cases that the unit deals with concern children, some as young as 13. It also assists reluctant sponsors—those forced into marriage and subsequently forced to sponsor a visa application—and it has dealt with more than 100 cases since May last year.

In the past two years, the Forced Marriage Unit has produced guidelines for the police, social services and health and education professionals on tackling forced marriage, and it has started work on producing similar guidelines for registrars. As well as commissioning international guidance for lawyers, the unit will shortly be publishing a handbook of legal remedies for family law professionals, holding a series of seminars for practitioners, and exploring ways of introducing forced marriage on family law courses at universities and colleges.

The Forced Marriage Unit is producing a survivors’ handbook to offer information and practical support to survivors of such marriages. In partnership with Jasvinder Sanghera’s group, Karma Nirvana, the unit is also funding a pilot survivors’ network in Derby to provide emotional support to survivors of forced marriage and to create opportunities to build new friendships and relationships. The unit also undertakes a great deal of publicity, outreach and awareness-raising work in key communities, speaking at about 75 events each year. In 2006, it ran a national publicity campaign on forced marriage, involving radio, TV, and national and local press. That shows what the power of six people can achieve. I pay real tribute to their work.

The noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, asked about the criminalisation issues. As she knows, we carried out consultation on introducing a criminal offence, but the primary reason that that did not happen was that 74 per cent of the police respondents and all those from the CPS and probation services said that it was not an appropriate way forward. As the noble Baroness indicated, at the end of the consultation, we said that we would look at the gaps that existed and at identifying ways to fill them. The debate on this Bill will make an extremely important contribution to that. My noble friend Lady Scotland will no doubt have far more information on the consultation process, and I shall ensure that the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, receives it.

Some common themes developed very quickly in the debate. They included consent, or mutual respect, as the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, described it, and the fragility of marriage. The noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, in particular, talked about consent under duress, where young people do not know what they

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are agreeing to. The issue of human rights is critical: the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, said that they are universal. The noble Lords, Lord Sheikh and Lord Taylor of Holbeach, and the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, talked about the difference between arranged and forced marriages, and said that it is critical that we differentiate between the two. But, as my noble friend Lady Rendell said, sometimes there is blurring around the edges, and that is also important. It was said that, more than anything else, these young vulnerable people need protection and the law should ensure that they are protected.

I was delighted that my noble friend Lady Uddin was the first person to speak after the noble Lord had introduced the Bill. Yesterday, I had a conversation with my noble friend about her blood pressure. She rightly said to me that this is also about the emancipation, education and training of women so that they feel they can resist this. They need to know where to go, and they need to feel that they have the right skills and attributes and that they are not held captive by their own culture by not being allowed to participate more fully. My noble friend and my noble friend Lord Ahmed will recognise that, whatever else we do, it is important to continue to work very closely with young people and to give them those skills. However important the legislation is, we must not forget that. I agree with her completely.

We must also consider other forms of legislation and whether the domestic violence legislation applies here. I know that the Equal Opportunities Commission has raised that interesting and important point. My noble friend wanted us to look at the definition of force. I shall summarise some points that need to be considered.

The resources dedicated to the Forced Marriage Unit will not be cut. It is important to have that on the record. However, noble Lords might want to press for more resources for that. When debating the Bill, we have to consider existing legislation.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, the Minister said that the budget for the Forced Marriage Unit had not been cut. But I have been given figures by the department, which she probably has not seen, that show that the budget was cut between 2005-06 and 2006-07 from around £160,000 to around £114,000; and the Home Office contribution to that paltry sum is estimated to rise from 11 per cent of the total to only 13 per cent. That suggests to me that it has been cut and it is pathetically terrible.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, my information is that it has not been cut. We shall have to reconcile that. Whether or not the noble Lord and I agree, it is clear that a fantastic job is being done, which is important. Perhaps we will unite in our desire to see that my words are right and that the noble Lord’s words on this occasion, however good the information from my office may be, are not.

I endorse what the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, said about the fantastic work of officials in the very difficult circumstances that he described. I also

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endorse what he said about women controlling their own lives. That fundamentally underpins all we are discussing in the debate.

The right reverend Prelate raised a key issue about whether young victims want to use the law, and particularly the criminal law, in relation to their families. I know that the Forced Marriage Unit, in looking even at the civil law, is concerned that most of the victims with whom it deals want to find a way back to their families; they want to try to change the nature of their relationship with their families and be supported in so doing. We have to consider the remedies in that context. The knowledge of the way in which young people respond to the work that it does is very important.

A central defining feature is consent. I agree with the right reverend Prelate that this is not about legislation alone. That is another theme that has come through the debate. By itself, legislation can achieve some things but not others.

My noble friend Lady Rendell spoke of the distinction between arranged and forced marriages. I agree that sensitivity is extremely important in looking at all these issues.

The Forced Marriage Unit is very concerned that it is much more difficult for young men to come forward to ask for help. It is now considering different ways to improve the services available to men, to enable the unit to reach out to them and to enable them to come forward more easily. I look forward to seeing how the unit does that.

The noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, said that every world religion condemns forced marriages, which, of course, is correct. He spoke of the issue of force and said that force is not just about physical force. We need to be aware of the role of financial assistance that families give to their young people and ensure that we do not mix up things when we consider the legislation. We also need to consider resources and the best use of resources in everything we do.

The noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, talked about attitude and cultural practices. It reminded me of something that came up later: not long ago, women were the property of their husbands in this country and children automatically belonged to their fathers. We seek a combination of the law, education and empowerment, and recognise the critical importance of the duty of non-discrimination in upholding human rights.

The noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, continued the theme of being unable to avert our eyes from human rights issues. We recognise our responsibilities under the convention on the elimination of discrimination against women. We are working hard in a number of ways to live up to those responsibilities.

I have written on my notes the word “passionate” about my noble friend Lord Ahmed. He spoke again about the incredible work going on. I pay tribute to my noble friend’s work. He spoke of being pro-active, and I recognise how important it is that we work with the communities. He was also concerned that the issue is not picked up as one that could be turned against

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some of our communities. It is important that we work together. I endorse everything he said in that context.

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