Karen Bradley: ‘All communities in the UK need to know forced marriages are never acceptable’

Part 3 of our Save the Brides campaign: The abuse prevention minister tells The Independent that she is determined to see more prosecutions and says education can help potential victims

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The Independent Online

More perpetrators of forced marriage must be brought to justice, the Home Office minister in charge of preventing it has demanded.

Karen Bradley, the first ever minister responsible for preventing abuse and exploitation, told The Independent that just one prosecution since the law came in last summer was not enough.

“I want to see more prosecutions,” she said, “because when there is a prosecution it raises awareness. It has the deterrent effect, it demonstrates to families that this is something that’s not acceptable.”

Last week The Independent called for justice to be served on perpetrators of forced marriage, highlighting that just one has been prosecuted since new legislation came into force last June. We also exposed how schools, social services and the police were still failing victims through inaction or sending them back to their families.

“We need to make sure the frontline professional, which often is the teacher, knows both what the signs are but also what to do about it and how to get support,” Ms Bradley said. “The Forced Marriage Unit’s outreach programme is incredibly important in getting into schools, in making sure that there are lessons to be learnt because … we have communities who see this as being acceptable: an appropriate way to bring a girl into line; an appropriate way to stop a boy from being homosexual; an appropriate way for someone with learning difficulties to be brought into society in the way that they might see it.”

Speaking about social workers, teachers and others feeling wary of intervening for cultural reasons, or for fear of being accused of racism, Ms Bradley said: “There is nothing wrong with arranged, consensual marriage but we have to be clear that what we are talking about is marriage against the will of one of the participants. That’s forced marriage and we shouldn’t be scared of feeling that we might encroach into criticising cultural norms or behaviours.

“This is not culturally acceptable, it doesn’t matter which community we’re talking about, this is not acceptable here in Britain.

“We don’t want to see it happen and we do want people to feel brave enough and confident enough that they know what the differences are … and that they do stand up and stop forced marriages and use the weapons that are available to stop young people being forced into a marriage against their will.”

hundreds of terrified British victims of the tradition are being failed every year by the services they need most

The majority of cases come from families linked to South Asia – 47 per cent of all victims helped by the Forced Marriage Unit originally come from Pakistan, 11 per cent from Bangladesh and 8 per cent from India. No religion advocates forced marriage; the issue is a cultural one.

Ms Bradley wants to send a clear message to families who still practice forced marriage that it will not be tolerated in Britain. “We’ve got to educate those communities that it isn’t acceptable, that that is not something that we will allow to happen here in the UK,” she said.

“But we also need to make sure that the young people that might be affected know that they don’t have to go through with it and that the teachers who see them also understand that and know how to report it.”

Ms Bradley, who has been an MP since 2010, was made minister responsible for fighting modern slavery and organised crime in February last year. Before Parliament her experience was as a chartered tax adviser for KPMG – a job some might see as unlikely training for a role protecting victims of serious crime.

But Ms Bradley is adamant she is up to the job: “I think there’s something quite good about having people coming into an area and not having a preconception about it; to come in fresh with a fresh pair of eyes and say, ‘Right, why do we do it that way?’ Not be too shy to ask a stupid question.”

She says her idea of who a victim of forced marriage might be has already changed. Speaking on a visit to the Forced Marriage Unit, she said: “If I thought about my view on forced marriage six months ago, it would have been always a girl, always being forced into a marriage against her will for some form of domestic abuse.

“And actually from what I’ve heard from today it can be men for LGBT reasons: the family feel that the son can be cured by being married to a woman he doesn’t want to be married to.

“So you know actually it’s not just girls, it’s young women, it’s men, it’s people with learning difficulties. Sometimes it’s for a visa but sometimes it’s because the family feel that shame is about to be brought on the family and this is a way to deal with the possibility of homosexuality or some sort of weird idea that if we marry off this person with learning disabilities that somehow their learning disabilities will be cured.”

Defending the lack of prosecutions thus far, Ms Bradley said: “There’s only been one prosecution … but we’ve had about 800 protection orders that have been put in place since the Forced Marriage Protection Orders were introduced and while, of course, we want to see more prosecutions, that involves making sure that the police understand how to find the evidence and that the prosecution services can use that evidence to get a prosecution.”

She added: “The reality is that the Crown Prosecution Service needs good evidence to make sure it can bring cases forward and there’s always a lead-in time [following new laws]. Clearly we can’t legislate for past behaviour; you can only legislate for behaviour since the criminal offence was introduced and these things take time.

“But I know the CPS is very serious about this.”