LAST month it became a criminal offence in England and Wales to force people into marriage, punishable by up to seven years in prison.

I very much welcome this move to tackle what is a flagrant abuse of human rights.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.”

This new law will protect thousands of potential victims each year who are forced into marriage against their will.

Those parents who may try to avoid prosecution in the UK by forcing their children to marry abroad or to hold them there while they are pressurised to submit will not be able to do so.

This law will apply not only to people forced into marriage in England and Wales but also to British nationals at risk abroad.

The British Government’s Forced Marriage Unit, which directly supports British citizens at risk in the UK and abroad, handled over 1,300 cases in 2013.

Nearly two thirds of these cases related to just three countries, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh.

Figures from the Forced Marriage Unit reveal that forced marriages impact more on women than on men.

The latest figures show that 82 per cent of forced marriage victims were women and 18 per cent were men.

Worryingly 15 per cent of cases involved minors aged under 15.

The need to tackle this appalling abuse and to make forced marriage a thing of the past is overwhelming.

For the first time forced marriage is a criminal offence rather than a civil one.

Since 2008 courts have been able to issue Forced Marriage Protection Orders.

These orders are civil remedies to prevent forced marriage and to assist victims where a marriage has taken place.

Any breach of an order would be dealt with as a civil contempt of court punishable by a fine or a custodial sentence of up to two year’s imprisonment.

Now any breach of a Forced Marriage Protection Order is a criminal offence punishable by up to five years in prison.

Making forced marriages a criminal offence sends a strong signal that they have no place in a modern civilised society and potential victims can be confident they have the full protection of the law.