Ministers are understood to be ready to back a private members’ bill by Sajid Javid, the former Home Secretary, which will end the current practice that allows 16 year olds to marry with their parents’ consent.
His bill, to be introduced to Parliament next week, will make it illegal for anyone to marry under 18 in an attempt to end forced nuptials.
It follows a cross party campaign to close a loophole that can lead to children being pressured or coerced into a marriage.
The current law allows child marriage under 18 through the “legal exception” of parental consent. The onus is on the child to protest if they feel the marriage is forced but it is rare for them to report it to the authorities as most are still at school and just 16 or 17.
There were 3,354 marriages involving 16 and 17 year olds in the 10 years to 2016 although figures do not include non-registered or cultural marriages or marriages abroad. Additionally, the Home Office’s forced marriage unit dealt with 574 cases involving children aged 17 and under last year.
The minimum age of 16 was set in 1929 when living together or pregnancy outside marriage was socially unacceptable but campaigners say this is now “out of date and in need of revision.”
Despite the change, which could be enacted within a year, 16 year olds can still drive a moped or invalid carriage, consent to sexual activity with others aged 16 and over, drink wine or beer with a meal if accompanied by someone over 18, get a national insurance number and join a trade union.
As well as marriage, they also have to wait for the right to vote (though not in Scotland), to open a bank account in their own name, perform professionally abroad, serve on a jury, get a tattoo, buy cigarettes or alcohol or sue or be sued.
Speaking to The Times, Mr Javid said he had looked into changing the law when he was Home Secretary in Theresa May’s Government.
He said he viewed 16-year-olds being forced to marry as “child abuse”. “The British government is working tirelessly to end child marriage in the developing world and yet our own laws are permitting child marriage by the back door,” he said.
“Indeed, when Bangladesh lowered the legal age of marriage from 18 to 16, ministers there were said to have directly pointed to our laws to justify their move.
“It’s clear that we must legislate to close this loophole so that vulnerable children cannot be pushed into such serious and life-changing commitments before they are ready.”
Justice ministers have indicated to Javid that they will back his bill and give it time on the floor of the House of Commons, all but guaranteeing it will be passed. It is expected to get cross-party support.
A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: “The Government supports raising the legal age for marriage to protect vulnerable children and will outline its next steps in due course.”
Conservative MPs who have back the change are Pauline Latham, who unsuccessfully presented a similar private member’s bill in 2018, Immigration minister Chris Philp, then Parliamentary Private Secretary to Mr Javid.
A 2019 attempt to change the law by Labour MP Sarah Champion was supported by Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the powerful 1922 committee of Conservative MPs who said there was “a case for a single age of majority for everything” although the detail of any legislation would need to be studied closely.