FORCED marriage is to become a criminal offence in Scotland, after Holyrood gave the go ahead for Westminster legislation on the issue to be applied north of the border.
The Scottish Parliament overwhelmingly backed a controversial legislative consent motion, allowing proposed new UK laws to be applied in Scotland too.
The vote, by 101 to zero, with four MSPs abstaining, came after Holyrood’s Justice Committee had called for the Scottish Government to consider if it would be practical for to introduce its own legislation on the issue.
Currently there is no criminal offence of forced marriage in Scotland but courts have the power to issue protection orders to those at risk, which if breached could carry a two-year prison sentence.
But without forced marriage being a criminal offence, the country risks failing to comply with the Council of Europe’s convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, also known as the Istanbul Convention.
The Westminster legislation will make it a criminal offence for someone to use violence, threats or any other form of coercion to force another person into a marriage - with this offence having a maximum custodial sentence of seven years.
Minister Shona Robison said that forcing someone to get married against their wishes was “an abuse of their human rights”.
She stated: “Forced marriage is thankfully not an issue that affects the majority of people in Scotland, however it is a blight on those communities where it happens and can have a devastating effect on the lives of victims.”
She told how seven forced marriage protection orders had been granted since Scottish legislation was passed in 2011, saying the law was “working well”
She added: “We’re now seeking to go further in the protections available for victims by creating a new criminal offence of forced marriage through the legislative consent motion on the Antisocial Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill currently going through Westminster.”
Ms Robison conceded the legislative consent motion, allowing Westminster legislation on this area to be applied in Scotland, had been “controversial” with some “valid concerns” raised.
But she said the Istanbul Convention, which the UK Government has signed up to, requires forced marriage to be a criminal offence.
“It’s our view existing criminal offences in Scotland are not adequate to meet the requirements,” Ms Robison said.
“We want Scotland to be compliant. Criminalising forced marriage was therefore necessary to achieve this. “
She added that “in an ideal world” MSPs and others in Scotland would have had a longer period to consider the change, but said if Scotland did not act “a gap would open up between protections in Scotland and the rest of the UK”.
This, she said would leave victims in Scotland less well protected than those in the rest of the UK, describing this as “simply unacceptable”.
While concerns had been raised that making forced marriage a criminal offence could deter victims from coming forward, Ms Robison said at this point in time the Scottish Government did “not have any evidence this would happen”.
She added: “Forced marriage is already a criminal offence in a number of European countries and there does not seem to be evidence reporting of this has decreased.”