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The Government have taken a proactive approach to addressing forced marriage. First, we have strengthened the legislation through the implementation of the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007. In constructing that Act, the Government listened carefully to stakeholders, who warned us that making forced marriage a criminal offence would deter victims from seeking police assistance, as they would not wish to criminalise members of their family. However, the Act offers civil remedies to protect victims or potential victims of forced marriage and it protects those who are already in such marriages. I listened with great care to the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, on forced marriage. I was entranced by her description of her own marriage. A particular problem has been highlighted. Fortunately, things turned out well for the noble Baroness, but that is clearly not always the case.
Courts can make a forced marriage protection order to prevent a forced marriage from occurring or pre-empt it. The order can contain prohibitions or restrictions on those who would force the victim into marriage. It may be applied for by a third party, if the victim is not able to protect themselves. A person in breach or contempt of an order made under the Act can then be dealt with under contempt of court powers, which
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In addition to this legislative measure, we are working to raise awareness and understanding of the issues among practitioners, communities and potential victims, including children and young people. We are putting together new statutory guidance for police, social services and health and education professionals, as the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, was keen for us to do. We are improving our data collection in this area and we continue to take up individual cases through our Forced Marriage Unit. Again, I was grateful for the tribute that the noble Baroness paid to the unit, which was established in January 2005 to act as the United Kingdoms one-stop shop for providing support and information to those at risk and undertaking extensive outreach work to raise awareness of the issue. It dealt with around 400 cases last year and I expect that number to increase.
We are working particularly hard to ensure that children and young people are aware of the issues around forced marriage. About a third of the cases that the Forced Marriage Unit deals with involve minorspeople under 18 and, in some cases, children as young as 13. These are clearly cases of child abuse. The guidance that we published for schools in January 2007, Safeguarding Children and Safer Recruitment in Education, contains information about forced marriage. In April this year, we wrote to all local authorities and schools to remind them of their responsibilities in relation to forced marriage. We will shortly be sending all secondary schools awareness-raising materials designed for schools and young people, which we will encourage schools to use. In February 2007, we introduced a new statutory duty for local authorities to identify any children who go missing from schools and to follow up these cases to ensure that the children have not come to harm, such as being forced into marriage. Clearly there is more work to do to sharpen and raise awareness.
The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, cited some chilling cases of honour-based violence and the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, usefully drew attention to the issue of honour-based violence in the context of Sharia law. There are few crimes more grievous than violence carried out in the name of honour. So-called honour killings and beatings have no place in a civilised society. They bring dishonour on those who plan and commit them, dishonour on the customs and religions that those people follow and dishonour on the communities that those people come from.
In this country we are rightly proud of our ethnic, religious and cultural diversity. We are proud also of our strong defence of fundamental freedoms, which include the freedom of people to interact with whom they wish and to court, marry and have children with whom they wish. There are those who would have
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We are also working hard to educate communities about these dreadful crimes. We are currently sponsoring a series of regional roadshows and seminars to this effect. Communities are important. People often fail to prevent such crimes and protect the planners and perpetrators or help them to leave the country. They, too, need educating and they, too, may be guilty of serious criminal offences that carry heavy penalties. In those cases, we will pursue them vigorously. I am grateful that examples of this have recently been reported in the national press.
The noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, spoke, as one would expect, with her usual measured passion against the practice of female genital mutilation. We are doing everything that we can to deal with FGM. Noble Lords will know that we used to refer to this practice as female circumcision, but it bears no resemblance at all to its male equivalent. It has no medical, hygiene or health benefits in any form. It is a cruel and brutal practice, often undertaken, as the noble Baroness said, on very young girls who are in no position to defend themselves from it and for whom the devastating consequences can last a lifetime.
The Government have made it absolutely clear that we will pander to no cultural sensitivities whatever in relation to FGM. We have brought in specific offences to deter UK residents from practising FGM either at home or abroad. The Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003 made it an offence for UK nationals or permanent UK residents to carry out FGM abroad or to aid, abet, counsel or procure the carrying out of FGM abroad, even in countries where the practice is legal. The Act also reflected the serious harm that FGM causes by increasing the maximum penalty from five to 14 years imprisonment.
Noble Lords will realise that prosecuting cases of FGM is extremely difficult. At the time of mutilation, victims may be young and vulnerable. They may be too afraid to report offences or to give evidence in court, and there are evidential and other difficulties if cases are reported many years after the event. However, the FGM Act 2003 sends the clearest possible message that FGM, wherever and whenever it occurs, is a wholly unacceptable practice. We have good evidence to suggest that the Act is already preventing FGM in specific cases.
In addition to legislation, the Government have issued guidance to all professionals dealing with children and a training DVD specifically aimed at health professionals. There is also specific guidance from the Association of Chief Police Officers. In London, the Metropolitan Police Service has offered a £20,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and prosecution of anyone carrying out FGM in the capital. We are also supporting work in a large number of countries, particularly in Africa, aimed at eradicating the practice and providing healthcare for girls and
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The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, drew attention to the impact and extent of domestic violence in ethnic minority communitiesalthough the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds said that there was no evidence to suggest that domestic violence was more prevalent in those communities. There is an issue and a debate to be had on this. Domestic violence is a devastating crime that impacts across all communities and the Government are fully committed to improving our response. It is estimated that domestic violence will affect as many as one in four women in this country at some point in their lives. It will affect as many as one in six men, although such incidents are typically less severe and less often repeated.
Our national delivery plan provides the framework through which we are delivering change. Key pivotal planks have been the ongoing expansion of specialist domestic violence courts, the introduction of independent domestic violence advisers and multi-agency risk assessment conferences. As at April this year, 98 specialist domestic violence courts across England and Wales were accredited, including at least one in every region. We plan to embed and expand the programme to have 128 systems in place by 2011. Independent domestic violence advisers guide victims through the criminal justice process and provide specialist advice and practical and emotional support. Involvement with victims of domestic violence has been shown to decrease victimisation and reduce victim withdrawal. We are also rolling out multi-agency risk assessment conferences to protect victims at high risk of serious harm or homicide. That programme will be completed by 2011. Further, we have committed £6.5 million this year for rolling out multi-agency risk assessment conferences and independent domestic violence advisers. These plans are underpinned by the Governments new public service agreements, which, for the first time, prioritise serious violence, including domestic violence.
We are also working through the health service to better detect and intervene early in cases that come to its attention. For example, we know that 30 per cent of domestic violence either starts or escalates during pregnancy, so we now routinely inquire about this, confidentially and safely, as part of antenatal provision. There has to be a cultural dimension to this, which informs and is a critical part of our work.
In 2003, the Government announced a major investment in refuge provision in England. Over £34 million of capital was allocated and, as a result, approximately 511 units of new and refurbished accommodation are being provided. These are in addition to considerable existing provision. For example, housing associations have around 3,200 units of accommodation across the country for women at risk of domestic violence. This is clearly a welcome improvement.
A number of questions have been asked today. Answering them all would be an impossible task and I have no intention of doing so. However, I will put together a compendium letter picking up the important
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The noble Baronesses, Lady Park and Lady Cox, both made the point that Sharia law infringes the rights of women. That is an important argument, as it is clear that Sharia law can infringe womens rights in education, marriage and other areas. As I made plain, Sharia law has no jurisdiction in England and Wales and there are no plans to change that. Moreover, it should be noted that domestic and honour-based violence are in no way condoned under Sharia law and that we must continue to pursue those who commit these crimes through the criminal justice system.
The noble Baroness, Lady Park, made some points about polygamous marriages. We do not support polygamous marriages, although the United Kingdom is a receiver of polygamous marriages conducted in other countries and cultures. We support the law that prohibits parties from contracting polygamous marriages in this jurisdiction. We have to recognise that those marriages have been lawfully made in other jurisdictions by citizens of other countries, but we believe that there are probably fewer than 1,000 such marriages in existence in the United Kingdom. Some of the issues surrounding polygamous marriage obviously spill over into issues relating to the benefits system. They are many and complex and I do not think that I have time to go through them this afternoon, much as it might provide some interesting arguments and debates, but I will try to address the subject in correspondence.
The noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, valuably, as ever, drew attention to the importance of women in science and in particular the Asian Women of Achievement Awards and the BME women in science awards. The Government obviously strongly support the Asian Women of Achievement Awards and we have helped to sponsor the event. We wish to continue to see it flourish and I commend it to all noble Lords. I also commend the efforts of the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, to get more well qualified women from all backgrounds to stay in science and related careers. We very much share that objective. I am sure that she will not blush when I say that she has played a fantastic role in advancing the cause of women in science.
The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, asked about changes in forced marriage law and visa applications. We have just completed a consultation exercise on a range of issues related to visa applications in marriage cases, including on whether to increase the age requirement from 18 to 21 for sponsored visas. We are giving careful consideration to all the contributions and we will be reporting on that issue shortly. I recognise how important it is. It is obviously a complicated matter but I think that we can feasibly make some improvements and changes that may begin to tackle some of the issues relating to forced marriage and the bringing of spouses into the United Kingdom.
The noble Baroness, Lady Verma, referred to the value of the work of the Southall Black Sisters and to possible threats to their funding, which surprised me. Like the noble Baroness, I respect their work greatly and we would be very concerned if that were the case. However, I understand that they have been invited to
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My time is up. I apologise for not having covered all the points but, as I said, I shall make sure that we pick those up and respond to them directly. I shall ensure that all Members of your Lordships House who have contributed to the debate receive a copy of my letter.
This has been an extremely valuable debate. We take this issue seriously: the rule of law must remain paramount. The Government will pander to no cultural or other consideration in dealing with these important issues and the sensitivities that arise from them. I pay tribute to the noble Baroness for raising this matter in the way she did, naturally following on from the earlier debate, which certainly in its conclusion was also valuable.
Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, I had serious doubts when I realised what a splendid debate had preceded this one and how many things had been said that were probably extremely relevant to our discussion. However, I do not regret introducing this debate, because all the speakers today have been fascinating in their completely different ways. I am deeply grateful and I think that the House owes a great debt of gratitude to them.
A very great Ghanaian called Robert Gardiner once said that the British left a major legacy in their former colonial countriesthe language of English and the rule of law. I think that that is still true in this country today. English matters because everyone can communicate and, as many speakers have said today, communication is one of the great issues. The rule of law is the other and it is deeply important.
Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill do now pass. I hope not to detain your Lordships for too long. I need to declare an interest as joint president of London Councils, the representative body of the 33 London borough councilsthat is, the 32 boroughs and the City. I am delighted to see in his place my fellow joint presidentor co-joint president; I am not sure how to express itthe noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin of Roding, would have been here but he has to be abroad. On this occasion, I am also speaking on behalf of Transport for London, which, with Westminster City Council, is the joint promoter of the
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The Bill contains a number of important measures for the councils and for Transport for London in their roles as highway, street and traffic authorities. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, has made a valuable contribution to the penalty-charge provisions of the Bill from his questioning of that issue.
First, however, I should like to mention one other topicthat is, filming in London. The promoters of the Bill have worked closely with Film London, the capitals film and media agency funded by the UK Film Council and the London Development Agency, and have come forward with clauses which will enable the London authorities to close streets for the purposes of filming. The provisions take up and modify existing legislation which was originally introduced to enable the Tour de France to take place in England last year. Unfortunately, the provisions were not drafted widely enough to enable closures to take place for filming. Your Lordships will appreciate the importance of the film industry to London and to the country as an income generator. Huge expertise is concentrated here and we have already made films set in the centre of London. It would be nice if the outskirts of London were used a bit more. When I was a member of the London Assembly we looked at the constraints on filming and we heard what a difference a supportive local authority can make. I am delighted this Bill will assist.
The main area of discussion today and the largest part of the Bill is Part 5, the provisions proposed to deal with the problem of those who persistently evade parking and other penalty charges. The problem is serious. There is a hard core of persistent evaders who rack up thousands of pounds-worth of penalty charges which are never paid. They do this in not only the parking regime, but congestion charging, bus lane infringement and other traffic regimes. There is evidence to show that those responsible are quite often involved in criminal activity as well; I have heard tell of that on a number of occasions. I do not understand why some people will fail to pay their car tax, which is quite easily noticed, since being stopped for this apparently leads to their being discovered to be responsible for a whole raft of other crimesnon-driving ones as wellbut it seems that there is a mindset about evading every rule rather than being smart about the ones evaded.
Part 5 provides what is, unavoidably, a complex framework for enabling the London authorities to recover outstanding penalty charges. In summary, the authorities would ultimately be able to immobilise and remove offending vehicles to the pound if three or more outstanding penalty charges have been incurred and remain unpaidoutstanding is defined in the Bill. Based on the experience of the congestion charging regime, which has similar provisions, the authorities have every reason to believe that it is unlikely that innocent motorists will be caught up in these procedures. However, they recognise that there may be the very occasional case where, through no fault of his own, an owner of a vehicle finds that action has been taken against it under Part 5. The obvious example is where
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Your Lordships will not be surprised that the actual level at which the bond will be set is not set out in the Bill. It will be decided jointly by the London borough councils and Transport for London once the Bill attains Royal Assent. The promoters have assured me that, on introduction of the scheme, the level of the bond will be less than the total cost of three outstanding penalty charges. The view is that the figure will be in the region of £250, an amount which anyone who can afford to drive is likely to be able to access without too much difficulty.
The other issue which has been raised with the promoters by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, is the clarity of information given to claimants of vehicles who have discovered that their car has been impounded. In particular, I believe he is understandably concerned about information given about how representations and appeals can be made. I entirely agree with him about the importance of ensuring that peoplein this case, driversknow their rights and are not baffled by legalese.
Where a bond is paid and the vehicle is released the claimant will be entitled to make representations to the authority and subsequently, if necessary, appeal to an independent adjudicator on a number of grounds. For example, this will enable somebody who has bought a vehicle second-hand to allege that it was the person from whom he bought the vehicle who is responsible for the debts. The promoters will take particular care to ensure that the rights to make representations are clearly explained. The wording used on penalty charge notices under the existing regimes was revised recently to give more clarity in this respect. The promoters will ensure that the complex procedure in Part 5 will be set out in a form that can be readily understood by those who fall within its scope.
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