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Forced marriage to become a criminal offence, announces the Government

Charity warns that criminalisation could put victims at risk

Forcing someone to marry will become a criminal offence in England and Wales, the Prime Minister and Home Secretary Theresa May have announced.

The decision to create a specific offence of forced marriage follows a 12-week consultation which took views from the public, victims, charities and frontline agencies.  The Government says that the new law will be accompanied by a range of measures to increase protection and support for victims with a continuing focus on prevention.

The Prime Minister said:

"Forced marriage is abhorrent and is little more than slavery. To force anyone into marriage against their will is simply wrong and that is why we have taken decisive action to make it illegal.

"I have listened to concerns that criminalisation could force this most distressing issue underground. That is why we have a new comprehensive package to identify possible victims, support those who have suffered first hand and, indeed, prevent criminality wherever possible.

 "We have spent time with those who work tirelessly to raise and address this issue and I want to send a clear and strong message: forced marriage is wrong, is illegal and will not be tolerated."

Home Secretary Theresa May said:

"It is the right of every individual to make their own choices about their relationships and their future. Forced marriage is an appalling practice and by criminalising it we are sending a strong message that it will not be tolerated. But we know that legislation alone is not enough and we will continue to work across government and with frontline agencies and organisations to support and protect victims."

The cross-departmental Forced Marriage Unit runs a helpline providing confidential support and advice to victims and professionals and conducts a nationwide outreach programme with schools and other agencies, including social services and the police.

Between January and May 2012, the Forced Marriage Unit has provided advice and support in nearly 600 cases. Meanwhile the Government emphasised that the UK's embassies and high commissions work to rescue British victims forced into marriage overseas, and help them return to the UK.

The Ann Craft Trust responded to the announcement that forced marriage will be made a criminal offence by raising concerns that this could lead to a fear of reporting forced marriages.

Deborah Kitson, Chief Executive of the Ann Craft Trust — a charity committed to safeguarding disabled children and vulnerable adults from abuse, which is based in the School of Sociology and Social Policy at The University of Nottingham – said:

"Forced marriage has far reaching implications for everyone who works with children or vulnerable adults. 53 of the forced marriages reported to the Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) in 2010 involved a child or adult with a learning disability.

"This figure is likely to be the tip of the iceberg. There is existing legislation that can be applied to the crimes associated with forced marriage including kidnap, assault and rape.  What we must do is build up the confidence of people to report forced marriage. 

"Victims will not be encouraged to report with the additional pressure that by reporting their families will end up facing a prison sentence. In addition, people with learning disabilities very often rely on third parties to raise the issue and report on their behalf — this new criminal offence could result in deterring third party reporting of unsubstantiated concerns which may result in prison for the families that they are working with."

Rachael Clawson, lecturer in social work at Nottingham University and author of the national practice guidance Forced Marriage and Learning Disabilities (FMU, 2010), said:

"It is difficult to see how the proposed new legislation will help protect disabled children and vulnerable adults from forced marriage – it will not make recognition of the problem any easier and scarce resources could be better used on education and support.

"The guidance provides information for professionals to assist them in their work, but this guidance will only be effective if they are aware of, and understand, its relevance to their own particular area of practice. All services working with children and/or vulnerable adults need to have in place robust safeguarding procedures for those individuals who may be in need of protection and these should include forced marriage." 

The Ann Craft Trust believes that collaborative working and increasing confidence to report while implementing the legislation already in place are the ways that forced marriage should be tackled. 

"We fear that the new criminal offence will deter rather than encourage the reporting of forced marriage and so leave the victims isolated and unheard," Rachael Clawson added.