Minimum legal age for marriage to be raised to 18 as forcing 16-year-olds to wed is 'child abuse'
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Ministers are believed to be ready to support a draft law for private members by Sajid Javid, the former Home Secretary, that will end the current practice of allowing 16-year-olds to marry with their parents' consent.
His bill, due to be presented to parliament next week, will make it illegal for anyone under the age of 18 to get married to end forced marriage.
A bipartisan campaign follows to close a void that can lead to children being pressured or forced into marriage.
The current law allows child marriages under the age of 18 through the "legal exception" of parental consent. The child has to protest if they feel the marriage is being enforced, but it is rare that they will be reported to the authorities as most are still in school and are only 16 or 17 years old.
In the 10 years to 2016 there were 3,354 marriages with 16 and 17 year olds, with the numbers including unregistered or cultural marriages or marriages abroad. In addition, the Interior Ministry's Forced Marriage Division dealt with 574 cases of children under the age of 17 last year.
The minimum age of 16 was set in 1929 when cohabitation or pregnancy out of wedlock was socially unacceptable, but activists say this is now "out of date and in need of revision".
Despite the change, which could come into effect within a year, 16-year-olds can still drive a moped or disabled carriage, consent to sexual activities with others aged 16 and over, drink wine or beer with their meal when accompanied by someone over 18 , get a social security number and join a union.
In addition to marriage, they also have to wait for the right to vote (but not in Scotland), open a bank account in their own name, perform abroad professionally, sit on a jury, get a tattoo, buy cigarettes or alcohol, or sue or be sued.
Speaking to the Times, Mr Javid said he was considering a change in the law when he was Home Secretary in Theresa May's administration.
He said he viewed the forced marriage of 16-year-olds as "child abuse". "The UK government is working tirelessly to end child marriage in developing countries and yet our own laws allow child marriage through the back door," he said.
“When Bangladesh lowered the legal age at marriage from 18 to 16, ministers there are said to have pointed out our laws directly to justify their move.
"It is clear that we need to legislate to fill this gap so that vulnerable children cannot be pushed into such serious and life-changing commitments before they are ready."
Justice ministers have told Javid that they will support his bill and give him time in the House of Commons, but almost guarantee it will pass. It is expected to receive bipartisan support.
A Justice Department spokesman said: "The government supports raising the legal age of marriage to protect vulnerable children and will outline their next steps in due course."
Conservative MPs backing the change include Pauline Latham, who unsuccessfully tabled a similar bill from a private member in 2018, Immigration Minister Chris Philp, then Mr Javid's private parliamentary secretary at the time.
A 2019 attempt by Labor MP Sarah Champion to change the law was supported by Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the powerful 1922 Committee of Conservative MPs, who said there was "an argument in favor of a single age of majority everything, 'although the details of any legislation would need to be studied carefully.
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