THE Bishop of Worcester, Dr John Inge, has identified an anomaly in proposed legislation to outlaw child marriages by raising the minimum age for marriage to 18.
Speaking in a debate in the House of Lords on the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Bill this month, Dr Inge said: “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 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.”
He welcomed the Bill, which relates to England and Wales, but asked the Government to re-examine it in the light of his observations.
The Conservative peer Baroness Sugg, who introduced the Bill to the House, acknowledged that he had raised an important point, but said that it should properly be considered outside the Bill.
Responding for the Government, Baroness Penn pointed out that several European countries, including Denmark, Sweden, and Ireland, had set the minimum age of marriage at 18, and maintained a lower age for sexual consent. “The disconnect between age of marriage and age of consent is already evident,” she said. In 2018, the number of 16- and 17-year-olds marrying in England and Wales was 134.
The Bill had the “unreserved support” of the Government, she said. “We must protect the important institution of marriage by ensuring that parties enter into it freely, and that they are mature enough to make a lifelong commitment that has significant legal and financial consequences. By raising the age of marriage to 18, we are ensuring that parties have a suitable level of maturity, which is likely to reduce the risk of relationship breakdown in the future.”
The Bill proposes that those who arranged a child marriage would be prosecuted, and not the children involved. Worldwide, it is estimated that 150 million girls could become child brides by 2030. “We have the opportunity to demonstrate leadership in this area and set the right example both at home and abroad,” Lady Penn said.
“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. Child marriage can deprive them of these important life chances, and girls in particular are at risk of disadvantage.”