27 Apr 2007

Why the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Bill should include a clause about marriage preparation

The Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Bill should include specific guidance towards marriage preparation and not rely upon the Secretary of State to publish it.

I am suggesting additional clauses should be added to section 2 of the draft Bill concerning 'guidance', which starts with 2 (a) the difference between arranged and forced marriage:

(e) the opportunities and advantages for the parties to participate together in a research-based educational programme of marriage preparation - including an assessment tool or pre-marital inventory that meets international standards.

(f) this programme is to assist them in preparing for a healthy marriage and to:
  1. confirm to the Registrar or deputy Registrar the voluntary nature of their commitment to the marriage, and
  2. protect themselves and each other against any possible accusations about the marriage being one that is forced or bogus.

(g) the advantage of obtaining a certificate from the facilitator of the programme of marriage preparation that they have satisfactorily completed both the educational programme and the inventory.

the purpose of the Bill is described as:

“Make provision for protecting individuals against being forced to enter into marriage without their free and full consent; and for connected purposes.”

In the SUMMARY OF CONSULTATION RESPONSES provided by the Odysseus Trust they refer to:

3.4 Any other changes

The consultation asked for suggestions about any other changes to the Bill. Respondents made various suggestions of other issues relevant to forced marriage, including:

• The need for increased resources to tackle the problem of forced marriage, including for community groups and the voluntary sector;
• The importance of tackling domestic violence, including forced marriage, in a comprehensive, holistic way;
• The need for greater understanding of the obligations of marriage and the voluntary nature of marriage;

Among the proposed amendments is:

63Q Guidance
(1) The Secretary of State may from time to time prepare and publish guidance to such descriptions of persons as the Secretary of State considers appropriate about—
(a) the effect of this Part or any provision of this Part; or
(b) other matters relating to forced marriages.
(2) A person exercising public functions to whom guidance is given under this section must have regard to it in the exercise of those functions.

Based on what happened to the attempts to have provision for marriage preparation included in the Family Law Act of 1996, I doubt if anyone except a horse marine will believe people can rely upon the Secretary of State in any government getting around to giving guidance to persons exercising public functions concerning marriage.

As evidence for this view, in an earlier debate [4th November 2002] Ruth Kelly said:

"In our White Paper, [Delivering Vital Change] the Government explained that the registration service is ideally placed to act as a focal point for information about services associated with births, deaths and marriages, such as ........ marriage preparation ...... I believe that there is a genuine opportunity for local authorities to develop those services innovatively to meet the needs of their communities, now and in future. A wider role for the registration service will improve on the current piecemeal approach by local authorities and will be underpinned by the proposed national standards."

The Family Law Act was over ten years ago. ‘Delivering Vital Change’ was five years ago. The proposals “to develop …. services innovatively to meet the needs of their communities” - which were contained in a Regulatory Reform Order, not a Bill - eventually failed to come into effect. Have they now been dropped completely? It seems likely. Governments have no stomach for ‘delivering vital change’ in this field, even though they use words to indicate that is their intention.

My conclusion is the principle of guidance for marriage preparation needs to be in the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Bill and not left to future Secretaries of State to determine. There is another reason for this: how can a Registrar distinguish between a couple entering an arranged marriage from a forced one, unless the couple have undertaken a valid assessment with a suitable facilitator who is willing to sign a certificate that he/she believes the couple have completed the programme in good faith? If the authors of the Bill are really intent upon trying to prevent forced marriages – and not just provide remedies - they should be willing to accept my proposed amendments and Peers and MPs should support it. The Government is perfectly willing to adopt evaluation methods proved to work in other countries. They should follow the example of the Healthy Marriage Initiative in the US.

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