UK Politics

Forced marriage should be criminalised, say MPs

Woman suffering abuse - file pic
Image caption The government's forced marriage unit said it helped almost 500 people last year

Forced marriage should be made a criminal offence to show that it was not tolerated in society, MPs said.

The Commons Home Affairs Select Committee said it was "not at all clear" that current legislation was protecting those at risk.

MPs also expressed concern at how schools and immigration officials were not as effective as they could be in protecting victims.

The government said it was "working hard to stop" forced marriages.

'Positive message' wanted

The MPs warned that support for victims was "at risk from spending cuts".

The MPs said: "We believe that it would send out a very clear and positive message to communities within the UK and internationally if it becomes a criminal act to force - or to participate in forcing - an individual to enter into marriage against their will."

They added: "The lack of a criminal sanction also sends a message, and currently that is a weaker message than we believe is needed. We urge the government to take an early opportunity to legislate on this matter."

Forced marriage protection orders are used to protect victims. If the conditions are breached, people who force others into marriage can be sent to jail for up to two years.

Almost 300 forced marriage orders were issued between November 2008, when they were introduced, and February 2011, but MPs said there was a lack of effective follow-up action, with only one person jailed for breaching an order.

Regarding schools, the MPs said there was evidence that many schools were not fulfilling their statutory responsibilities, 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 more support for teachers from the government, and expressed disappointment at Education Secretary Michael Gove's stance.

'Pupils in danger'

"We are extremely worried about the fact that many schools continue to refuse to engage in preventative activity with children at risk of forced marriage," the MPs said.

"On the basis of the evidence we have received, we do not accept [Mr Gove's] assurance that 'schools will already be aware of the guidance available on forced marriage' or that, if they are, they are acting on it.

"Teachers who are not trained to respond properly to cases of forced marriage can inadvertently put pupils in greater danger by, for example, contacting their families."

The report also highlighted the plight of estranged or abused partners "who are under pressure from their families to sign a request for their spouses to have indefinite leave to remain in the UK".

They are often refused access to information by officials citing data protection laws, but the MPs called for the UK Border Agency to "encourage its staff to make decisions about disclosure on a case-by-case basis".

'Zero tolerance'

British spouses should "have every opportunity to alert the immigration authorities in confidence to cases of marriage breakdown", the committee said.

"Clamping down on these immigration abuses is essential first and foremost in order to protect current and future victims of forced marriage, but also to form part of a controlled immigration policy."

Committee chairman Keith Vaz said: "There should be zero tolerance of this harmful activity that ruins the lives of so many."

A government spokesman, responding to the committee's report, said: "Forced marriage is an appalling and indefensible practice that we are working hard to stop."

Its Forced Marriage Unit helped "nearly 500 people" last year, both in the UK and abroad, he said.

"We provide training for professionals to help them identify potential victims and improve awareness of the issue so that those at risk - including children and young people - know where to go for support."

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