UK’s forced marriage unit underfunded and too Muslim-focused, report to say – The Guardian

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Colin Bloom’s report expected to be most sweeping review of government’s relationship with religion in more than a generation
UK ministers’ efforts to stop forced marriages are failing because the unit set up to tackle them is undervalued, under-resourced and overly focused on Muslim families, according to a report from Michael Gove’s levelling up department.
The 165-page report by Colin Bloom, the government’s faith adviser, will highlight a range of areas in which ministers are ineffective because they are too wary of tackling problems that arise within religious communities. It is expected to be the most sweeping review of the government’s relationship with religion in more than a generation
Bloom said these included forced marriage – including instances where gay people are forced to marry as a type of conversion practice – substandard religious schools and religious nationalism.
Bloom said: “We need root-and-branch reform of how forced and coercive marriage is tackled by the government, because that mainly happens within the context of faith-based communities. At the moment this remains in the ‘too difficult to do’ box.”
He added: “The forced marriage unit is not working well. It is under-resourced and poorly led, which is the fault of politicians rather than the civil servants who work for it. Also, the unit has an Islamic bent to it, but this is not just a Muslim problem – this happens in Orthodox Jewish and other religious communities too.”
The report was commissioned by Boris Johnson in 2019 and has been delayed several times, first by Covid-19 and then by the multiple changes at the top of government last year.
In the four years since it was commissioned, Bloom has received 21,000 responses, making it one of the biggest government evidence-gathering efforts ever undertaken.
Bloom’s 65,000-word report will deal with almost every aspect of government policy where it affects religious groups, praise the work faith groups do and urge ministers to engage with them more.
But it will also risk angering some faith groups with its insistence that ministers should be bolder in tackling abusive and dangerous behaviour by some within them.
Forced and coercive marriage is one of the clearest examples of that, the report will say. Bloom will single out the forced marriage unit for criticism, saying it needs more money, needs to be responsible to just one department rather than two (the Home Office and the Foreign Office), and should broaden its focus from concentrating mainly on Muslim families.
Bloom also warns that Christian iconography is being used to bolster far-right white extremists. In one passage of the report, which has been seen by the Guardian, he said: “Christian religious imagery and language can sometimes be attributed to an imagined past, which is de facto white, where the UK was successful and thriving.
“A belief that the UK is a ‘Christian country, and we need to keep it like that’ can be used to entrench an ethno-nationalist agenda and gain public legitimacy for aggression towards others, regarded as a threat to preserving what is perceived to be the national identity.”
He will also highlight how some gay people are being forced into marriage as a type of conversion practice, as happened in a case in 2013 when a British Sikh gay man murdered his wife six months after they were married.
He will highlight the long-running issue of unregistered and in some cases substandard faith schools, which are allowed to teach children without being inspected by Ofsted thanks to loopholes in the law governing what constitutes a school.
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Ministers’ attempts to clamp down on these schools have previously been thwarted by Church of England leaders who have warned that any new rules could prevent children from attending Sunday schools. But Bloom said: “It is not that hard to make clear that a new law would not target Sunday schools. If something looks like a school, quacks like a school, waddles like a school, it is a school.”
Other parts of the report will touch on religious fundamentalist or nationalist groups, such as Sikh groups that campaign for an independent Sikh state within India. But it will not repeat some of the language of other recent reports on Islamic extremism, which has long been one of Gove’s major policy focuses.
Bloom has a specific warning about Sikh nationalist groups operating in the UK, which have links to previous groups that have been banned by the British government.
While he said it is difficult to prove the overlapping links between the banned groups and the new ones, he urges members of the all party parliamentary group for British Sikhs, chaired by the Labour frontbencher Preet Gill, to “consider the findings of this report”.
While Gove has regularly warned against the risk posed by Islamist extremists, Bloom will advise ministers to be clear that only a tiny minority of Muslims constitute any kind of threat to Britain.
“The government needs to make the distinction between Islamist extremism and Islam,” he said. “The vast majority of victims of Islamist extremism are Muslims themselves.”


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