Thank you very much.
I have given evidence before—I'm not sure whether it was to this committee or a different committee—about this bill, so I am going to repeat some of the things I said before.
I've been involved in work around forced marriage and honour-based violence and domestic violence and violence against black and minority women in the U.K. for about 30 years.
Southall Black Sisters, a women's organization that works with minority women in the U.K., has been established since 1979.
I was one of the original members of the Home Office working group on forced marriage, which was established in the late 1990s. It was the first time that the U.K. government addressed harmful practices in this country. I've also been involved in helping to form the Forced Marriage Unit, a government joint Home Office and Foreign Office unit, and also in developing the forced marriage guidelines in the country, as well as in introducing the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act. Furthermore, I've been involved in looking at immigration law and how it affects women who are experiencing domestic violence. I was also involved in reforming immigration laws so that women who were victims of domestic violence could not be deported and left without access to benefits and housing. And I've been involved in a number of high-profile honour-killing cases, and have been looking at battered women killed by men and at reforming the law on provocation.
As I have discussed many of these issues before, I'm going to limit this to some of the more difficult issues regarding the criminal offence of polygamy and around forced marriage.
In the U.K., polygamy is not an offence, although bigamy is an offence. Only one marriage is recognized by civil, criminal, or immigration law in this country. We at Southall Black Sisters do not support the practice of polygamy, but we are concerned about the way in which the Canadian bill is denying the right of access or admission into Canada, or may require permanent residents to leave the country if they practice polygamy.
The problem for us here is that it undermines some basic human rights to settlement, particularly if you're a permanent resident. But also, more importantly, it's because it undermines the rights of children and vulnerable women who may be caught up in these situations. Women who are, for example, in polygamous relationships may be afraid of coming forward if they're fearing criminalization or fearing deportation themselves. Children could be separated from parents, if somebody is deported.
We know that even when there are measures to exempt vulnerable people, such as the domestic violence rules or, if you are a victim of forced marriage, that you may not be removed from the country, we know that these laws don't work perfectly. We know from our own experience from this country that many women will not necessarily come forward to seek help because they are frightened of being criminalized themselves or being deported, or because they don't have enough faith or knowledge of the services available in this country, or because they're not available to them.
Also, we've found that in some of the exemption rules the standard of proof may be too high to prove that you're a victim of domestic violence or forced marriage or something. That can be problematic, if you are going to remove people from the country for being in polygamous marriages.
What I don't understand is, if you have a criminal law that outlaws or bans polygamy already, then why do you need to extend it to the immigration laws? I don't think there is enough evidence to allow for that, to justify extending it to immigration laws.
We have found from our own experiences that under the immigration rules, the standard of proof is much lower than in criminal law. It will be very much dependent on the interpretation of the law by immigration officials in trying to define a polygamous marriage.
Our experience in this country shows that immigration officials can stereotype particular cultures. For example, we had to abolish the primary purpose rule in this country some time ago because immigration officials were denying the right of access to men from the Indian sub-continent primarily because they had some very stereotypical views of Asian cultures and arranged marriages. As a result, they were basically classifying all these marriages as marriages of convenience rather than genuine marriages. That law was abolished because of the way it was being wrongly interpreted by immigration officials. There is a concern that the same thing could happen here.
We also think that immigration laws are not a solution to problems such as polygamy or forced marriage. The example that we have in this country is that the U.K. government introduced an age-related policy in relation to forced marriage that initially said that both parties had to be 18, and then later on they increased it to 21, before an overseas spouse could come to join their British spouse in the U.K. That was done on the grounds that it would prevent forced marriages, because it would prevent sponsorship of an overseas spouse under pressure and duress.
We supported a legal challenge to this, and the Supreme Court in 2001 overturned this rule, because it said it undermined the right to family life. There was no evidence to show...and in fact some of the research showed that the law wasn't actually working, that it wasn't really protecting victims of forced marriage. In fact, it was making the situation worse, because victims were being abandoned abroad, or they were subject to increased pressure to stay in a forced marriage until they could sponsor their spouse to the U.K. at the age of 21.
So I don't think that immigration laws necessarily work. We have argued that in fact the better measures are often around improved services, improved resources, and improved implementation of current criminal law or civil law.
In the U.K., there have been discussions around how to tackle the problem of forced marriage. I think there's a broad consensus that the introduction in civil law of such things as the forced marriage protection orders has been very effective. So there are much more effective ways of tackling such problems as forced marriage.
The issue of criminalization and immigration has been more controversial. Of course, we've opposed the use of certain immigrations laws, and the courts have agreed with us that they are not effective.
Around criminalization, which came into force in June 2014, there was a concern by many women's organizations working in minority communities that it would drive the problem underground, because it could prevent a lot of victims from coming forward for fear of criminalizing their parents.
I did some research in the last few months with about 25 minority women's NGOs in this country, and asked them about the effect of criminalization. Most of them said they don't really know, because the situation doesn't seem to have changed either way. It hasn't really seemed to encourage more to come forward or not to do so. But some of them did say that they had seen a drop in their numbers, and their concern was that criminalization could have been the reason there's been a drop in those numbers.
So we don't know whether criminalization is going to work or not, but I think most NGOs agreed that the far more effective way was through the civil laws and the forced marriage guidelines. Even though they are not always effectively implemented, there needs to be many more resources put into those kinds of measures to address the problem, as well as to address issues such as funding of women's organizations' services or providing direct services to victims.
There's no point in criminalizing forced marriage if you're not going to fund the front line organizations that are operating in the community and helping victims through the civil and criminal justice systems to access safe housing and support and ultimately to obtain some kind of justice. Unless you fund those organizations to support them through the process, the measures on their own will not be effective.
Other areas of concern I have under the bill—