My Lords, as the chairman of both the Conservative Party‘s Ethnic Diversity Council and the Conservative Muslim Forum, forced marriage is an issue I deeply care about. Thus, in principle I support the Bill proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Lester. Forced marriages are an abuse against an individual’s human rights. International law is clear. As the Universal Declaration on Human Rights says:
“Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses”.
Concerns have been expressed that in seeking to tackle the issue of forced marriage we are stigmatising Sikhs, Hindus or Muslims. That is simply not the case and I would like to make that absolutely clear. Forced marriage is a global problem affecting communities from all over the world, not just south Asian communities. Victims come from a variety of diverse cultural backgrounds. Furthermore, every major world religion explicitly condemns it. I may add that sadly certain cases of forced marriages have unfortunately resulted in a murder or suicide.
It is also important to make it clear that the Bill is about forced marriage, and not arranged marriage. The distinction lies in an individual’s right to choose. Arranged marriages are facilitated by parents, families and friends who take a leading role in identifying a potential marriage partner. Once identified, these individuals give their full support, knowing that they have every option of refusing the proposal. In my own extended family there have been a number of successful arranged marriages where either both the bride and groom or one of the partners was born in this country.
Currently there is no specific law to prevent forced marriages. Parents or family members can be prosecuted only for offences that are associated with forcing someone into marriage, such as abduction, false imprisonment and child abuse. That is, however, inadequate and does not offer enough protection to those over 17 years of age or those who suffer from emotional blackmail and psychological pressure. Threats of exclusion from the family and social isolation can be just as powerful as physical abuse for many victims. It is therefore right to remember that being forced does not simply mean physical force.
Some might argue that the Bill does not do enough. They propose that we should create a criminal offence with regard to forced marriage. That would be counter-productive because there is a significant risk that the victims of actual or threatened forced marriage would be discouraged from taking their case further if they believed that members of their family might face criminal prosecution. In addition, involvement in criminal proceedings, which are taken by the state in the public interest, could cause distress for victims who could face further pressure not to support a prosecution.
The Bill provides a civil remedy. This will empower individuals with additional tools to prevent and to deter forced marriage. Victims are more likely to take their case further and seek protection in the civil courts. The Bill will send out a clear message that forcing someone into marriage is completely unacceptable. It will make it easier for judges and the police to help victims. It will give them protection through the option of redress and make intervention easier. It will also help to prevent cases where someone is tricked into going overseas where a forced marriage may take place.
As much as I commend the Bill, I also add caution. In a subject this sensitive, it may sometimes be difficult to prove that someone has been forced into marriage. Proceedings that are entirely dependent on the victim’s evidence may give rise to problems, such as the possibility of reprisals. Adequate protection for the falsely accused must also be ensured. It is not uncommon in rape cases, for example, for the course of justice to be perverted by false accusation. Protection is therefore needed from those with personal vendettas, especially as any “concerned person” may bring a case to the court of law.
Forced marriage is a serious issue that has until now been controlled only through factors surrounding the issue, rather than by the offence itself. Therefore, I support the measures proposed by the noble Lord, but for the Bill to be effective, I urge Her Majesty’s Government to play a key role by supporting the groups likely to be used for help and guidance with extra training and resources, by building on and strengthening the close relationships that we have with foreign Governments and ensuring that our embassies and high commissions are appropriately guided and adequately resourced.