Forcing someone to marry is to become a criminal offence in England and Wales, leaving parents who coerce their children into a marriage facing the prospect of prison, David Cameron has confirmed.
The prime minister said he had listened to concerns that making forced marriage a specific criminal offence could deter victims from coming forward and would in response put into place a comprehensive package of protection and support to ensure “this most distressing issue” was not driven underground.
The announcement by the prime minister and the home secretary, Theresa May, of their intention to introduce legislation is light on detail but it is expected that the existing civil remedy of forced marriage protection orders will continue to exist alongside the new criminal offence.
This is designed to give victims the choice of taking the civil route or making a complaint to the police leading to a possible criminal prosecution. Victims will also be guaranteed that they will not be forced to support a prosecution against their wishes. However, ministers have ruled out giving victims a veto over whether a prosecution already begun should continue, which would have been a radical departure from existing English criminal law practice in which all prosecutions are carried out in the name of the crown.
The precise timetable to create the offence is unclear but it is expected that any legislation would be published in draft form for consultation and is unlikely to be put before parliament before 2013.
As expected, ministers also want to introduce criminal penalties for breaches of civil forced marriage protection orders, which can be used to prevent children being taken abroad to marry.
Home Office civil servants have indicated that a new forced marriage offence could also involve the creation of a new criminal offence of “luring” somebody into a forced marriage. Ministers stress that there is a clear distinction between arranged marriages and forced marriages, where no consent is involved.
A Home Office impact assessment published earlier this year said that a new offence could mean about 20 extra prosecutions a year and would need only eight additional prison places. Officials have long argued that existing offences of kidnap, abduction and harassment can be used to prosecute in most cases.
Friday’s announcement also includes a £500,00 fund to help schools and other agencies to spot early signs of a forced marriage over the next three years. A major summer campaign to raise awareness of the risk of forced marriage abroad is also to be launched.
“Forced marriage is abhorrent and 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,” said Cameron.
“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,” he said.
“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, illegal and will not be tolerated.”
The Home Office said the government’s forced marriage unit had provided advice or support in nearly 600 cases this year, including 14% involving children below the age of 15. Nearly half the cases involved families living in Britain from Pakistan; others involved families from Bangladesh, India, Afghanistan and Turkey.
Nearly 10% of cases involve British-born families. The forced marriage unit helped in 1,468 cases last year including one case involving a five-year-old victim and another involving an 87-year-old.
The Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation, which has been campaigning for criminalisation since 2006, welcomed the announcement. “Perpetrators of forced marriage will now be held accountable for their actions and could be sent to prison,” said its director, Diana Nammi. “Forced marriage is a violation of human rights itself, and can lead to physical violence, imprisonment, rape and even ‘honour’ killing. Women and girls from minority communities have suffered these violations for too long. The new law will empower them with the knowledge that what is happening to them is wrong and can be stopped.”
The shadow equalities minister, Kate Green, said the law should be strengthened to build on the work already done to stop forced marriage. “The government needs to work with experts to get the detail right and also to make sure that cuts to refuges or legal aid don’t undermine the support victims need in practice,” she said.
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