MPs press for forced marriages to be made criminal offence

FORCED marriage should be made illegal in a “bold” move to stamp out the practice, according to a committee of MPs.

Action to tackle the issue – which affects hundreds of young people in the UK – has been too slow and the lack of a criminal sanction sends out too weak a message, the Home Affairs Select Committee said.

During her time as Keighley MP, Ann Cryer led a campaign to crack down on the practice which was prevalent in West Yorkshire and secured the introduction of Forced Marriage Protection Orders, injunctions to protect victims.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

But the committee criticised a lack of action to enforce the 293 orders which have been introduced, and last night Mrs Cryer said making forced marriage a criminal offence as well would “send out the right message”.

Her Tory successor also stepped up the pressure on the Government to act by urging Ministers to legislate “as a matter of priority”.

Keighley and Ilkley Conservative MP Kris Hopkins said: “It is vital that we differentiate between arranged marriages, which are perfectly acceptable, and forced marriages which are clearly not.

“Forced marriages should have been legislated against by the last Government, particularly in the wake of the highly effective campaign led by my predecessor, Ann Cryer.

“I hope the coalition will now accept the select committee’s recommendation, which has my full support, and implement it into law as a matter of priority.”

The Government’s Forced Marriage Unit dealt last year with nearly 500 cases of possible forced marriages, which are most prevalent in the Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Indian communities. In today’s report, the committee welcomed more people coming forward to seek help, but said there was insufficient support available to potential victims and said this was likely to get worse as spending cuts kick in.

A lengthy campaign by Mrs Cryer led to the introduction of Forced Marriage Protection Orders, which can protect someone at risk of being forced into a marriage or gives protection to those who have already fallen victim.

The committee said that there was little being done to ensure the orders were complied with and when breaches were discovered little action was taken, with only one person jailed since their introduction in November 2008.

The MPs said there was also clear evidence that many schools were not fulfilling their responsibilities with regard to forced marriages, partly because of a “great deal of ignorance and a culture of disbelief around the risks involved” and “an enormous fear of tackling the issues in case they get it wrong and appear racist”.

They called for the Government to provide more support for teachers, saying it was “disappointed” with assurances from Education Secretary Michael Gove that schools would already be aware of the guidance available.

The committee chairman, Keith Vaz, said: “Forced marriage is a serious issue that affects some of the most vulnerable individuals in the UK. I am very disappointed that progress on protection and awareness remains slow.

“We believe that the best way to deter people from forcing individuals into marriage is through criminalising forced marriage. Taking this bold step alongside providing a range of services supporting victims of violence and raising awareness in schools must be a priority for the Government.

“There should be zero tolerance of this harmful activity that ruins the lives of so many.”

Mrs Cryer added: “By and large the orders work but what’s needed is a further measure which is criminal if they persist and go against the order. I think that sends out the right message.”

A Government spokesman said: “Forced marriage is an appalling and indefensible practice that we are working hard to stop. We have strengthened the protection for those facing forced marriage and already in a forced marriage.”

In a speech on immigration recently, David Cameron identified the failure to “confront the horrors of forced marriage” as an example of “hands-off tolerance” which had encouraged community divisions.