Fears over forced marriages in Birmingham
Mar 11 2008 By Jonathan Walker, Political Editor
Children are missing from Birmingham classrooms who may be victims of forced marriage, the Government has warned.
A House of Commons inquiry is to investigate the problem of forced marriage in the city after the warning was issued by Children's Minister Kevin Brennan.
One member of the inquiry, Walsall North MP David Winnick, said: "Forced marriage is a disgusting practice which should have been taken far more seriously than it has been."
The Government has revealed it is worried about the extent of the problem in Birmingham in a letter to the Home Affairs Select Committee.
It named the city as one of 13 local authority areas where the problem is particularly serious.
Mr Brennan said a total of 2,056 children in the areas involved were identified as "not receiving a suitable education," including some who had simply stopped coming to school.
It followed a hearing last week when Mr Brennan told the committee there were 33 children in Bradford missing from school rolls.
Now the committee is to ask education authority officials from the areas affected to attend hearings in the Commons and explain what they are doing to tackle the problem, and to ensure police are informed when girls vanish from school rolls.
The committee has not yet decided which officials to summon.
Mr Winnick said: "We know that this is a problem only for a very small proportion of the Asian community, but we also know that it does happen.
"Girls are taken to the Indian sub-continent to be married against their will, and either stay there or come back with a husband. This is a problem which should have been treated with far more urgency than it has been."
He added: "Forced marriage is not the same thing as arranged marriage, which is not part of our inquiry."
Keith Vaz, the chair of the select committee, added: "Whilst I welcome the speed with which the Government provided this information to us, it has certainly raised more questions than answers.
"The committee has decided to extend its inquiry in order to examine the issues raised in further detail."
Local authorities said there was often little they could do to trace missing pupils.
A spokesman for the Local Government Association said: "It is a serious concern when any child is unaccounted for and local authorities are working hard to improve the way they keep track of children who are absent from school for extended periods.
"However, this is an extremely difficult problem to tackle because if parents tell schools that they are taking their children abroad for an extended holiday, there is very little that councils can do. In some of our communities there appears to be widespread acceptance of this practice, so neighbours and friends are reluctant to come forward to report it." Yesterday a Home Office-funded study into the issue in Luton concluded that the problem of forced marriages may be widely underestimated. There are 300 inquiries about forced marriage in the town every year said the reports author, Nazia Khanum.
But the Government's forced marriage unit dealt only with 300 cases each year across the entire country.