Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Bill Unanimously Passes Second Reading

The Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Bill unanimously passed its Second Reading today. For background on the Bill, see my previous post. This post gives a flavour of the debate in the House of Commons (taken from the live tweets I wrote on my Twitter account).

Pauline Latham MP (Conservative), the sponsor of the Bill, began by introducing the Bill saying : ‘In 1949 society was very different. … Life has changed dramatically. … The provision for marriage is outdated’. This is true of child marriage and indeed the law of marriage generally (but that’s an issue for another day)

She argued that the law needs to apply to unregistered marriages. Children under the age of 16 – sometimes as young as 7 – consent to this. She rightly noted that only legal limit on religious marriage is that they are not forced marriages. And that Bill would cover this.

She said that 20 times as many cases involve religious ceremony only but no official statistics on this: ‘just because the law does not recognise unregistered marriages does not mean that it doesn’t exist’. That is why this Bill needs support but also why wider reform is needed.

She explained that forced marriage provisions alone not sufficient to deal with child marriage since requires coercion and would require children to challenge parents. It is clear that a new offence is needed that builds upon forced marriage laws.

She was very clear that the child is the victim here and that the law change would send out a clear message that child marriage in any form is not permitted in this country. The focus is on safeguarding the rights of the child.

It was emphasised that the Bill would cover children who live in England and Wales or who are British citizens regardless of where the marriage takes place or is intended to take place.

Sarah Champion MP (Labour) emphasise that this Bill is about child protection. She noted that the Office of a national Statistics does not capture unregistered marriages – 95% of those dealt by a known a charity were unregulated. This makes safeguarding more challenging which is why it’s important that this Bill covers this.

The Shadow Minister Andy Hammersmith noted that this had been a short but harmonious debate. This Bill would give a clear sign against child marriage. He noted that UN sees child marriages as forced marriages and defines this as where one party is under 18.

The Bill is welcome but more needs to be done on forced marriage and ‘there is much more to do. I think we should be legislating on humanist marriage [and] common law marriage where millions people mistakingly find themselves without rights’. This is an important point and it is to be hoped that the Commons give the Law Commission proposals on marriage law the same level of support they gave this Private Members Bill.

Tom Pursglove, speaking for the Government, said that he looked forward to bringing this Bill to the statute book. The House of Commons had come together to support this important matter. ‘This is a horrendous going on currently’ that it was impossible not to be troubled by.

The Minister noted that there are twoo ways in which child marriage takes place. The first legal marriage, whether religious or civil, can be solved by raising minimum age. The second, non legally binding ceremonies – unregistered marriages – can be dealt by expanding definition of forced marriage.

He stressed that this Bill relates to England and Wales but sends out a clear message of intention of the House in relation to rest of the UK. When reminded by Pauline Latham of the consultation on this in Northern Ireland – on which I have posted on at Law and Religion UK – he said that he hoped other nations will follow suit with this Bill and ‘level up’ and welcomed Northern Ireland consultation.

He added that the Bill means that child marriages conducted abroad or in Scotland / Northern Ireland would not be legally recognised in England and Wales.

The Government believes that full citizenship rights should come at 18 not 16. This law is not about criminalising children but prosecuting third parties who arrange their marriages. This is a significant social reform which is overdue. He concluded by confirming Government support for the Bill.

The Bill therefore passed Second Reading unanimously. No significant points of concern were raised so difficult to foresee any issues that will be raised at Committee Stage, which will come next.

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