Fiona speaks in debate on Marriage and Civil Partnership - Minimum Age

Fiona said:

“It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey.

I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), to his post. It is good to see him here in Westminster Hall.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) not just on raising this issue but on making what really was a powerful speech. We use the word “powerful” so often in this House, but her speech really was exemplary, setting out so many of the arguments that I am now wondering what I will say. She and I will remember our visit to Ethiopia as members of the Select Committee on International Development. We spent quite some time in a village community where DFID was working to encourage young girls to defer their marriages. It was working successfully, particularly with the community elders—the leaders—and had transformed the lives of some of those young women.

As we have heard from Mabel van Oranje, the chairman of the global advocacy group Girls Not Brides, the UK should practise what it preaches. Girls Not Brides argues that the major impacts of getting married young are that girls are more likely to drop out of school; they never have a chance to develop the vocational skills that will enable them to enter the world of work; and they are at greater risk of marital rape, domestic abuse, serious depression and health problems. All of those issues were discussed with us in those communities in Ethiopia, and the benefits of deferring marriage were clearly shown to us. Indeed, we had the opportunity to meet a number of the young women who were benefiting substantially.​

I will give a couple of examples to flesh out the arguments that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire has made. One of them refers to a lady called Amina, whose parents were born in Bangladesh. Interestingly, it has also been made clear to me that the proposals to change the law in Bangladesh to allow marriage at 16 cited British law as a justification. Amina—not her real name—is now a mother of four in her 30s, and lives in London. She had never talked to her husband before her wedding, just after her 17th birthday. It was an arranged marriage, arranged by her parents; it put an end to her studies and plunged her into depression. She says:

“The marriage was all about fear. I was a total stranger in my own house. I was really naive. I felt like a child myself when I had my first children…It was a big sacrifice of my life. I had no chance to explore things. I went through terrible times.”

Another example, that of Zee, has been reported by Reuters. When Zee was 13, she returned home from school one day to find an engagement party underway at her home in the north of England. Her excitement at the celebrations quickly turned to shock when she asked her mother, “Who’s getting married?” and her mother said, “It’s you!” She told Reuters that her betrothed was represented by a photo; he was an older cousin whom she had never met, who lived in Afghanistan, her parents’ country of birth. She said to the reporter:

“One day I’m not even allowed to talk to boys and the next I’m getting married…I was dressed up”— this was at the engagement party— “to look like a Christmas tree—very sparkly, very bling. Everyone was happy. The only person who was miserable was me”.

Zee escaped by running away from home, but many are not so fortunate. The latest figures I have from the Government’s forced marriage unit—the Minister may have more recent ones—are that of the 1,196 victims dealt with, one in four was below the age of 18. That is around 300 people. Interestingly, one in five was a male victim, so we must not forget those people either.

The points that we are making are serious, because every one of those victims is an individual life. It cannot be acceptable to say that the numbers are not great; those are substantial numbers, and the impact on those young people is lifelong. The impact is not just on them, because if a marriage is good and positive, it is good not just for the people involved within it but for any children they might have and, indeed, for the community around them.

This is national Marriage Week, so the next part of my speech will touch a bit more widely on the importance of marriage. Marriage is a major life-changing decision that establishes a family, often—though not always—with children as part of it. Strong marriages contribute greatly to a stable and flourishing society, including the wellbeing of those children, so it is in all our interests to promote good marriages, including through public policy. It is what everyone wants from marriage.

However, although marriage is a source of great pleasure, it can also be challenging. At times it requires perseverance, which more often than not requires a degree of maturity in understanding human relationships, and understanding both ourselves and others. That must be very difficult at the ages of 16 or 17—and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire has said, remains difficult for many years afterwards. Marriage is far easier if we make a wise choice at the outset about ​who we marry and who we will be compatible with, because it is going to last a very long time. As I say, that necessitates an understanding of ourselves, as well as of others.

The Church of England marriage service says of marriage that “No one should enter into it lightly or selfishly”. It is “a sign of unity and loyalty which all should…honour. It enriches society and strengthens community.”

We should not expect that of 16 or 17-year-olds, especially in today’s complex world. When my hon. Friend’s mother or grandmother was getting married, life was so much simpler: often, one married someone within one’s local community, who had grown up with the same values and customs. That so often is not the case now. Life is complicated for these young people, and they also have much higher expectations for their life fulfilment than maybe two or three generations ago. It is too big an ask to expect them to be able to make that decision at 16 or 17, even if it is their own decision and not forced on them. The risk of allowing those young people to marry is too great. We should support them and, I believe, protect them from what could be not just their most major, life-changing decision, but the most damaging decision that they could make. Making the wrong major, life-changing decision can be the biggest mistake of a lifetime.

For many reasons, I fully support my hon. Friend’s proposal. Indeed, I would go a bit further and say that anyone contemplating marriage should be offered the opportunity to take advantage of the wealth of resources out there to help people, particularly young people, make the right decision. We as policymakers could do that, for example, by promoting policy No. 11 in the manifesto to strengthen families—the Minister is smiling. I carry a copy in my handbag, virtually permanently.”

Paul Maynard said:

“I am not surprised.”

Fiona Bruce MP said:

“I am very glad to hear that; we are making some impact. Here is policy No. 11, which as I say, I am unashamedly talking about in national Marriage Week: “Promote high quality marriage preparation by waiving Marriage Registration Fees for couples who take part in an accredited marriage preparation course.”

Not only would that help remove one of the financial barriers to marriage, but it would encourage the uptake of marriage preparation courses. Those courses could be kitemarked, such as the marriage preparation course for engaged couples produced by Holy Trinity Brompton. We have showcased that course, along with a number of other resources, through the all-party parliamentary group for strengthening couple relationships and reducing interparental conflict. They really are excellent materials for people who want to embark on married life with a greater understanding of what it involves. Indeed, after going through some of those courses, some people decide that they are not going to get married. Is that not success, too? Is that not helping to protect them from the heartache and disappointment that such marriages can entail if they do not work out?

One of my parliamentary staff members, Sophia, attended the marriage preparation course when she was engaged; she is now married. She says that it was “very helpful and laid a strong foundation for going into marriage”,​ and she would recommend it. If a couple are busy, Marriage Care offers a “marriage preparation in a day” course, and there are resources on the web such as marriagebydesign.org.uk, which is made available by Care for the Family. That organisation has a host of other resources—I actually went on one of its marriage preparation courses 29 years ago, so it must work. Harry Benson has written a tiny relationship tip booklet, “Let’s stick together”, which he says contains “simple guidelines to keep your love alive and keep you together.”

Can I recommend that the Minister considers the whole manifesto, and in particular policy No. 11, this week?

The structure of the house we live in when we start off in married life—I know that it is a struggle for some young people to find a home of their own—cannot be stable without strong foundations. No one would expect a house to stay up for long if it was not built on strong foundations; it would collapse. So, too, with marriage, which is too big an issue to leave to chance. A little help from us as policy makers, including by raising the marriage age, could go a long way to helping facilitate lifelong fulfilment for many people, as well as a more flourishing society.”