Forcing someone to marry will become a criminal offence in England and Wales, the prime minister confirmed today. But the legislation will not be introduced until the 2013/14 parliamentary session. The maximum sentence for the offence has yet to be decided.
Breach of a Forced Marriage Protection Order (FMPO) will also be criminalised.
Some £500,000 will be committed over the next three years to measures that will increase protection and support for victims and improve prevention. That will include a major campaign over the summer to raise awareness of the risk of forced marriage abroad and to help teachers and others identify early warning signs. The decision follows a 12-week consultation, during which opponents of the change expressed concern that criminalisation could deter victims from coming forward.
David Cameron announced the move this morning at the Foreign Office to a meeting of stakeholders and campaigners, condemning forced marriage as 'abhorrent' and 'little more than slavery'.
He said: 'To force anyone into marriage against their will is simply wrong and that is why we have taken decisive action to make it illegal.' Cameron said he had listened to concerns that criminalisation could deter victims from coming forward and force the issue underground, which is why measures to help identify and support victims would be introduced.
The Law Society backed the move, saying that criminalisation would ensure victims have a means of legal redress and deter potential offenders.
In its response to the Home Office consultation, Chancery Lane noted that in 2011 the police recorded 2,823 'honour' attacks in the UK, and that during the first two years and four months after the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007 came into force, 293 FMPOs were made, with only one enforced with a jail sentence for breach.
Explaining why criminalisation is needed, the Society said: 'Some communities do not recognise or accept that a forced marriage is not legitimised by either culture or tradition: it is another form of bullying, violence and abuse.
'It is unlike an arranged marriage which is traditional, cultural and, crucially, consensual for both parties who are introduced to one another and who then have the choice of whether to marry or not. Criminalisation of forced marriages would make this distinction clearer,' it said.
But it also pointed out that a change in the law would not combat forced marriages alone, but will require all agencies, including the police, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), schools, local authorities and social workers to work together.
Home secretary Theresa May said: 'Legislation alone is not enough and we will continue to work across government and with the frontline agencies and organisations to support and protect victims.'
Statistics from the Forced Marriage Unit show that between January and May 2012, the unit dealt with 594 cases relating to possible forced marriage, 44% of which involved children under 18.
Between January and December 2011, the unit dealt with 1,468 cases. The oldest victim was 87 and the youngest was five. While most concerned females, 22% involved male victims.
Today the government also signed up to the Council of Europe's convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence.