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The age at which someone can apply for a marriage visa will increase from 18 to 21, the Home Office announced today in a white paper, Marriage Visas: The Way Forward.
According to the Government, 30 per cent of the cases dealt with by the Government's Forced Marriage Unit involved victims aged between 18 and 21.
The five key proposals announced today are to:
raise the age of sponsorship for a marriage visa from 18 to 21;
ask foreign spouses to enter into an agreement to learn English before they come to the UK;
introduce a power to revoke leave to remain where there is evidence that the marriage route has been abused;
require all sponsors to register their intention to marry overseas before they leave the UK; and
ensure through a code of practice that specialist teams can identify vulnerable people at risk of forced marriage.
Any British citizen applying to 'sponsor' someone to come to the UK as their spouse will have to declare their intention before they leave the UK and marry abroad.
Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said: Forced marriage leads to victims suffering years of physical and mental abuse and - in extreme cases - unlawful imprisonment and rape. It has no place in our society. That is why we are raising the age limit for visas, checking anyone entering into a marriage does so of their own free will, and demanding that those coming to the UK learn English."
The news has not been welcomed by the Immigration Advisory Service (IAS). Keith Best, IAS' Chief Executive, told Newswatch they "did not see the need for the rise" and "they are not convinced by the Government's argument" which they believe is based on "inadequate evidence". He added that the IAS believes this would place further restrictions on British citizens on when they want to marry and that it is likely to be challenged under the European Convention on Human Rights.
The Forced Marriage Unit handles approximately 5,000 enquiries and 400 cases per year concerning young British nationals at risk of being forced into marriage overseas. In 2007 the Forced Marriage Unit dealt with 215 cases of overseas forced marriage where the age of the victim was known, 69 of which involved people aged between 18 and 20.
Guidance will be provided to the UK Border Agency staff on how to spot people at risk of abuse or those who are vulnerable to forced marriage and prevent them from being coerced into marriage.
Anyone abusing the marriage visa system will be removed from the UK by the UKBA under a new power to revoke people's right to stay in the country.
In addition to the age restriction, before they come to the UK, spouses will need to sign up to an agreement to learn English. Soon after their arrival, the UKBA will check they are fulfilling their promise. If they are not, their leave could be cancelled.
Border and Immigration Minister Liam Byrne said: "British citizens have the right to marry whoever they choose. But we want newcomers to succeed in our society and sign up to the standards we have in common. That means freedom, not being forced to marry someone, and it means newcomers quickly acquiring a command of English, with consequences for those who break the rules."