Deborah Orr: The price of ditching multiculturalism

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The Independent Online

A slew of statistics, some accurate and others projected, have catapulted concern about the extent of forced marriage in Britain to the top of the political agenda. But the most worrying statistic I've heard on the matter was published two years ago.

In 2006 the BBC's Asian Network conducted a survey of "Hindus, Sikhs, Christians and Muslims" between the ages of 24 and 35, and found that no fewer than 10 per cent "would condone the murder of someone who offended the family honour".

None of these religious groups claims to support either forced marriage, or the family reprisals that can be exacted when they are resisted. All of them, however, subscribe to the idea of "honouring thy father and thy mother". For all the effort that is made to emphasise that there is a great difference between arranged marriages and forced ones, both the consensual and the coercive forms of parental "match-making" draw their legitimacy, real or imagined, from this basic religious tenet. That 10 per cent statistic suggests that the imagined legitimacy of forced marriage has quite a tenacious hold in this country, however abhorrent the practice is considered to be by the general population.

Neither I nor Baroness Warsi, the Conservative peer who campaigns against forced marriage, considers it particularly useful to replay again, in discussing the issue of forced marriage in Britain, the usual arguments about Islam. They were exhaustively explored during national discussions about the veil, and again, more recently, in the uproar about sharia that was prompted, inadvertently, by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

There is not much point in insisting to a large and disparate group of people that their religion is institutionally misogynistic, when they are so very tenacious in their insistence that the problem is not with their religion, but with tradition and with patriarchy. This, I suppose, is why Baroness Warsi is at pains to underline that forced marriage is a problem in many communities other than Muslim ones, notably Chinese and Somalian, and that making collusion in forced marriage a criminal offence is not an attack on the beliefs of any religious group.

There was much disappointment, and some measure of disgust, when the Forced Marriages Act of 2007 stopped short of making forced marriage a criminal offence, but instead opted to make it merely "unlawful" and subject only to civil prosecutions.

It was suggested then that the fudge was made out of the same misguided deference to "cultural differences" that has allowed the practice to continue and flourish in this country.

This deference took the form of a practical consideration, which was that while young women might wish to turn to the authorities in an attempt to escape a forced marriage, they might not be so keen on doing so if they believed they would be expected then to co-operate in the arrest and conviction of their parents. It appears now that a substantial number of the victims of forced marriage in Britain are children.

It is therefore even more crucial that any measures put in place to combat this terrible perversion of parental duty should put the needs of the victim first.

I still believe that forced marriage should be a criminal offence. But I understand also that there is indeed a concern that aggressive rhetoric risks further isolating very vulnerable people.

So far, the only specific way of helping children at risk of forced marriage I have heard is the usual one, whereby it is suggested that teachers should extend their pastoral care into attempting to spot children who may be at risk of forced marriage, and try to help them. This new addition to their social-work duties is unlikely to be much comfort to many of the teachers who already complain that schools cannot be expected to be the main buttress against parental failure. Anyway, it puts teachers in an extremely difficult position when there are no specialist resources they can consult in the first instance.

The BBC's "white" season has exposed the large degree of resentment that excluded white communities feel about what they see as discriminatory funding, directed at ethnic minorities but not at them. What has been emphasised less is the fact that government policy moved away from such funding a good while ago. The Commission on Integration and Cohesion published its influential report in 2006, advising that "single group funding should be the exception, not the rule", arguing that funding for specific groups fosters "a sense of separation" and is "a hangover from the old identity politics". This can clearly be recognised as a move away from multiculturalism, which we now all simply hate because it is now seen as the sole progenitor of home-grown islamofascism. But the policy is already having some perverse results. Specialist funding for black and ethnic minority people is by no means always directed at groups who exist to promote difference. Sometimes it is necessary to give specialist funding to groups that exist to combat the ills and the unfairnesses that persist in minority groups. Yet fewer than 10 councils have specialist services that are equipped to offer specific support for black and ethnic minority women suffering because of the very "cultural differences" we are supposed to be so keen to drive out.

Imkaan, an organisation that advocates for a network of refuges for black and minority ethnic women, is warning that the policy is already having unfortunate effects. Local authority commissioning, following the new national guidelines, is squeezing out small providers of specialist refuge places. I've already written about the way in which Supporting People – the policy and funding framework for supported accommodation of all kinds – has made life difficult for many elderly people in sheltered accommodation. But its emphasis on "mainstreaming" and cost-saving also means that England's 28 refuges for Asian women – providing 265 bed spaces – are first in line to have their funding cut. It takes little imagination to work out that women or children needing to escape from familial abuse must have somewhere to escape to, and that the somewhere in question must have sensitive understanding of what they are escaping from.

It is a little messy that the very policies that were framed with the promotion of cohesion in mind, are actually legitimising the withdrawal of local funding from the organisations already in place to tackle the problems that lack of cohesion has landed us with. Perhaps most paradoxically of all, one of the specialist groups that is threatened with the removal of its £100,000 core funding, under the new policy regime, is the Southall Black Sisters, in Ealing, London.

Not only is this group justifiably celebrated as one of the most courageous and radical advocates of ethnic women suffering from domestic abuse, it also co-authored the Forced Marriages Act in the first place. We need this group, and groups like them, more than ever. How ghastly that they are being attacked at this crucial time.