RELIGIOUS leaders in the town celebrated as a new law banning forced marriage came into force yesterday.

Anybody convicted of forcing someone into marriage in England and Wales could now receive a maximum jail term of seven years under the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014.

The Government hopes the new law, which also criminalises forcing a British national into marriage outside the UK, will protect thousands of potential victims at home and abroad and give victims the confidence to speak out.

Canon John Cunningham, parish priest at Holy Rood Catholic Church, joined religious leaders and politicians around the country in welcoming the new legislation.

He said: “I think sometimes arranged marriages can work but nobody should have to be forced to marry anybody that they don’t want to. So I think the law aims to protect people from these kinds of situations and overall I would be in support of that law.”

In the past, courts have only been able to issue civil orders to prevent victims being forced into marriage, and last year the Government’s Forced Marriage Unit dealt with 1,302 cases.

Some 15 per cent were under the age of 15, with 43 per cent of cases relating to Pakistan, 11 per cent to India and 10 per cent to Bangladesh.

Mansoor Khan, a spokesman for the Broad Street Mosque, was also pleased the practice has been banned.

He said: “Forced marriage is a problem in Asian communities whether it is Hindu, Sikh or anything else. But our religion does not allow it. It goes against our teachings.

“Our religion does not allow for forced marriage.

“I agree with the new law and it’s a really good thing. Forced marriage is disgusting.

“If a young man meets a girl he can go visit her at her home with a chaperone and if all is well they can go forward. That way nobody is hurt.”

A forced marriage is described as one in which one or both parties do not consent to the marriage but are coerced into it by physical, psychological, financial, sexual or emotional pressure.

Carol Ennis, from the local Jewish community, said: “As far as I am aware, Jews are not forced into any marriage of any kind in this country.

“As far as Jews are concerned, I am sure this does not happen.”

The Bishop of Swindon, the Rt Rev Dr Lee Rayfield, was unavailable for comment.

The change in law was originally announced in 2012 by Prime Minister David Cameron who said forced marriage was “abhorrent” and “little more than slavery”.

As well as outlawing the practice, breaching a civil Forced Marriage Protection Order (FMPO) will be punishable by five years in prison.

Home Secretary Theresa May said she was pleased this step had been taken.

She said: “Forced marriage is a tragedy for each and every victim, and its very nature means that many cases go unreported.

“I am proud to say that the UK is already a world leader in the fight to stamp out this harmful practice with the Government’s Forced Marriage Unit working hard to tackle this terrible practice in the UK and overseas.”