The imperative that "something must be done" is a bane of political life. Faced with an unacceptable situation, the temptation for the politician is to act to satisfy the public hunger for a solution. But what seems the obvious response may be counterproductive
The issue of forced marriage is a case in point. Last year, the Home Office dealt with 1,468 instances of British women, and occasionally men, being forced by their families to marry against their will. As a result, the Government is consulting on whether to make forced marriage a criminal offence. It should not.
Although the general public largely supports the proposal, many experts working in the field fear that legislation will simply drive the problem further underground and increase the difficulties its victims face.
The words forced marriage may conjure up notions of abduction, false imprisonment and even honour killings. But coercion can take many, more subtle, forms – emotional, psychological or financial – which perhaps explains the shocking 85 per cent of Pakistani women in one survey who reported at least one forced marriage in their family.
Appalling as the situation is, there are already adequate laws to deal with it. The problem is that they are not implemented effectively. In part this is because of the unwillingness of victims to invoke such intervention – many fear violent retaliation if they talk to the police. But it is also because professionals in the field have held back to avoid accusations of racism or cultural insensitivity. And it is in those areas that the Government might fruitfully act.
The Home Affairs Select Committee last year warned that the existing system of civil protection orders is poorly monitored. Worse still, there is too often a lack of effective action when a breach is found. To remedy the situation, the breach of such an order should be made a criminal offence. Judges should also be given the power to consider forced marriage as an aggravating feature when sentencing on other charges.
A law against forced marriages might eventually be needed. But making the existing system work better is a more sensible first step.