On 1st April 2022, the House of Lords debated the Marriage and Civil Partnerships (Minimum Age) Bill in its second reading. The Bishop of Worcester spoke in support of the bill, raising points regarding marriage and the age of consent:
The Lord Bishop of Worcester: I welcome the Bill warmly and in doing so, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Sugg, and all those who have worked very hard on it. It takes very important steps to protect exploited young people, especially girls. Having welcomed the Bill, I want to raise one consideration that seems, so far, to have gone relatively unremarked upon during its passage. I hope that it will be noted by the Government and returned to at a later date.
The legislation will leave unchanged a person’s being presumed under the law to be able to consent to sex from the age of 16, and to the bearing of children as a result, but under it they will not be able to have sex or a bear a child within a married relationship until they turn 18. While society has long abandoned the ideal that all sex and childbearing belongs within marriage, and marriage law had failed to recognise same-sex relationships until recently, I think this will be the first time that the law would specifically prohibit a legally conceived child of two consenting parents from being born inside a married relationship. I expect that for very many people this falls into the category of “who cares”, but it is at least worth registering this precedent, and that it constitutes a removal of a choice.
At the Second Reading in another place, Pauline Latham seemed unconcerned:
“It is outdated to talk about people having children out of wedlock being a sin. If a girl becomes pregnant on her 16th birthday, she will not have the baby until she is almost 17—16 years and nine months—and she has to wait for only another year and three months until she can get married. In that time, she and the person that she has become pregnant by—whether that is by design or not—will, between them, be able to judge whether that is the right choice for them. Clearly, children being brought up in a loving household is obviously the best thing for everybody. Eighteen is the age at which marriage should happen, not before.”—[Official Report, Commons, 19/11/21; cols. 816-17.]
The issue here is the incoherence of much current age-based consent policy. While the trend has been downward on sexual maturity, it has been upwards on public health, criminal and other responsibility. It is surely an oddity that you can conceive and give birth to a child at 16, or leave home, but you cannot get a tattoo or, soon, get married.
There was a speech in Committee in the Commons about consent and mental capacity generally from Ben Spencer, who is a doctor, but he did not want to delay progress by tabling any probing amendments. The most we have had by way of deliberation is an exchange between Tim Loughton and Pauline Latham. Tim Loughton said:
“given this important legislation, does she now think that there are other areas of this whole grey area of what constitutes a child—16 or 17, up to 18 —that the Government need to look at as well?”
Pauline Latham responded:
“yes, I think that the Government need to look at everything to do with a child’s rights up to the age of 18. Perhaps the Minister will take that back to Government for them to look at all sorts of things that happen at all sorts of different ages, so that we know where children can and cannot do things. I think that would make it much simpler.” —[Official Report, Commons, Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Bill Committee, 12/1/21; col. 6.]
In supporting this Bill and welcoming it warmly, I ask that the Minister take note of these considerations and take them back to the department.
Extracts from the speeches that followed:
Lord Cormack (Con): We have to face the fact—this was alluded to by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester—that it is still going to be legal for a young couple aged 16 or 17 to have a child. That troubles me, I am bound to say. I wish that we could move towards the universality of adulthood at 18. I think that would be a social advance of real importance. However, clearly, the forced marriages that we are essentially concerned with today are things that deface our society when they happen and when young people are whisked away to a foreign country, as has been said.
Baroness Penn (Con): I note the point made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester and my noble friend Lord Cormack and acknowledge that there are different minimum age limits for different activities. I point out to noble Lords that a number of European countries have set the minimum age of marriage at 18 and maintained a lower age for sexual consent, including Denmark, Sweden and Ireland. The disconnect between age of marriage and age of consent is already evident in the low numbers of 16 and 17 year-olds marrying; as noble Lords noted, it was 134 in 2018. The Government are committed to ensuring that children and young people are both protected and supported as they grow and develop in order to maximise their potential and life chances. This includes having the opportunity to remain in education or training until they reach the age of 18. Child marriage can deprive them of these important life chances, and girls in particular are at risk of disadvantage.
Baroness Sugg (Con): My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have participated in this short but important debate. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester raises an important point that should properly be considered outside the Bill, and I thank him for doing so.