This morning, 15 May, the House of Commons held a debate in Westminster Hall initiated by Mrs Pauline Latham (Mid Derbyshire) (Con) on the minimum age for marriage and civil partnership. Following is a brief summary of the opening and closing speeches.
Mrs Latham began by saying that the debate was about whether the House should consider increasing the legal age of marriage and civil partnership in the UK to 18. The ability to marry under the age of 18 with the consent of parents was “an important legal anomaly; I would argue that it is an absurdity. The reality of child marriage is extremely complex and wide-reaching” and she suggested that the fact that it is possible to marry at 16
“effectively means that child marriage is written into British [sic] law, which is held up as a guiding light in legal systems across the world. By not changing it, we give regimes an excuse to say, ‘What’s good for the British is good for us’.”
Her arguments, in short, were:
- that the negative impact on the individuals involved in such marriages “are large and wide-ranging”;
- that the largest body of people that a change in the law would protect “are not foolish, love-struck teens but vulnerable young women forced into marriages permitted by their own families for a host of social and cultural reasons”;
- that the UK and the Government have a moral duty to do everything in their power to reduce the number of forced marriages and close loopholes that make it possible to obtain such marriages by legal means; and
- that marriage is a major life decision for which children under 18 are not emotionally or physically ready.
Research had shown that child marriage was often associated with leaving education early, limited career and vocational opportunities, serious physical and mental health problems, developmental difficulties for the children born to young mothers and an increased risk of domestic violence. Child marriage hampered efforts to eradicate poverty and achieve sustainable development goals: “It leaves young brides at risk of premature school drop-out, sexual activity—often without consent or contraception—and the myriad health-related consequences that accompany teenage pregnancy.”
She noted that the UK was not in step with other western countries and was ignoring the international conventions on women’s rights and on children. Under the UN sustainable development goals, countries had pledged to end child marriage—any marriage in which one or both spouses are under 18—and the UK had promised to do so by 2030. She asserted that, by allowing 16-year-olds to marry without consent from a judge, “the UK is, in reality, breaking international law”.
In reply, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice, Paul Maynard, said that the Government understood the concerns about any possible link between marriages involving parties aged 16 and 17 and forced marriage more generally. The Government had announced a forced marriage public consultation which sought views on issues such as a possible mandatory reporting duty, requiring certain professionals to report cases of forced marriage and how Government guidance should be updated. That consultation was now closed and the responses were being analysed.
Under the current law, all UK jurisdictions required that marriage or civil partnership be entered into freely. In England and Wales, the age of majority was 18 but the law provided for marriage or civil partnership at 16 or 17 if the requirement for consents, including judicial consent when parental consent is unavailable, had been met:
“That requirement is a longstanding one and operates alongside the work of registration officers, who are trained to spot signs of forced marriage and take notice of the intention to marry without the other party, parents or relatives present.”
There was no clear consensus: for example, some US states allowed marriage at 18 as of right and at 16 if some conditions were met. Spain raised the minimum age to 16, with consents for under-18s, in response to specific concerns about child marriage and forced marriage. Sweden raised the minimum age of marriage to 18 in 2014. In 2016, the last year for which figures were available, only 179 people aged 16 or 17 entered an opposite-sex marriage – down from 424 in 2006. It was a declining feature of the marriage system.
Consents were not a loophole; the law derived from the concept of the age of majority. When the age of majority for getting married was 21, consents were required for anyone under that age. Consequential changes would follow if the proposed change were enacted:
“Where would it leave the age of consent? That is a whole new debate that would open up. There would also be consequential changes on other pieces of legislation that involve marriage, dating well back in our statute book.”
Any change required careful thought and engagement and there were wider policy issues in Northern Ireland and Scotland, where there were different regimes [in Scotland, the minimum age for marriage is 16 and parental consent is not required]. He also doubted that a change would affect the incidence of forced marriage in the UK. Raising the domestic marriage age would not by itself prevent people from marrying informally, such as in a religious ceremony that was not legally binding, or from marrying abroad. He agreed that the international dimension was crucial and that ministers must continue to have it at the forefront of their minds; but he was “conscious of the limitations that might be found in merely enacting the proposed change”.
The House of Commons Library has produced a helpful background note: Minimum age for marriage and civil partnership.