New bill proposes to make all marriages, civil partnerships under 18 illegal Representational image (iStock)
MPs have backed Tory MP Pauline Latham’s Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) bill to raise the legal age of marriage to 18 to stop vulnerable children from being forced to wed, the BBC reported.
In England and Wales, parental consent is needed for 16 and 17-year-olds. But there is no law against religious or cultural ceremonies which are not registered with local councils taking place under this age.
Latham wants to make all marriages and civil partnerships under 18 illegal, including religious or cultural ones.
She told the Commons it would create a blanket ban on marriage for under-18s in England and Wales and send “a clear message to everyone that child marriage is unacceptable”, according to the BBC report.
The government is supporting her bill as it goes through the Commons – with health secretary Sajid Javid having played a major part in the proposal.
The bill was widely welcomed by campaign groups – but some minority groups want further consultation on the plan.
Latham warned that some children were being made to marry as young as seven without any legal consequences for the adults involved – with figures from charity Karma Nirvana showing 76 known cases of child marriage in England and Wales in the last 12 months alone.
According to her, even those with registered weddings at 16 and 17 could be forced into them when fully reliant on the adults around them – leaving them more open to domestic abuse and damaged life chances.
“This is about breaking a harmful practice legacy that is often handed down from generation to generation. This bill will be an incredibly important tool in safeguarding young people and giving them the best chance for their futures,” Latham was quoted as saying by the broadcaster.
Under the new law, children would not face penalties, but adults could face up to seven years in jail and a fine for facilitating the marriage. This would include adults who took children abroad to carry out the marriage.
The government has also made clear it wants to be a moral leader on this issue globally, and criminalising marriage under 18 sends a clear message, the report added.
But this doesn’t apply to Northern Ireland and Scotland, where the minimum age will stay at 16 – in Northern Ireland you still need parental consent to marry at 16, but in Scotland, you don’t.
The proposal will now continue its process through Parliament to become law – has cross-party support.
Labour’s Virendra Sharma said his own mother was made to marry at 16, and while she was “kind and clever woman”, it had stopped her from getting an education.
“Her gift to her daughters, my sisters, was to offer them access to education,” he said. “Not to marry them off young, but instead to encourage school and university before settling down.
“Marriage under 18 is child marriage [and is] not something we would condone in any other situation.”
Labour colleague, Sarah Champion, said the bill was not about race, religion, or even the institution of marriage, but about child protection.
The chief executive of the Traveller Movement, Yvonne MacNamara, told the BBC that her organisation agreed in principle with the age rise, criminalisation tends to drive problems underground and failed to address the root causes.
Justice secretary Dominic Raab said in a statement, “Forced child marriage ruins lives. We back this bill to keep vulnerable young people safe, by raising the legal age of marriage to 18, and closing gaps in the law which leave them at risk.”