POLITICAL and religious leaders have praised prosecutors in the North West for taking out the most Forced Marriage Protection Orders of any English region in the past twelve months.

Ministry of Justice figures show they took out 39 orders compared with 24 in the North East region, 24 in the Midlands and 21 in the London area.

Seven were taken out through Blackburn county court and 32 through its equivalent in Manchester.

The new statistics came as the government announced a new criminal offence of breaching a Forced Marriage Protection Order (FMPO) with a maximum five years prison sentence from May.

Chairman of the Lancashire Council of Mosques and Mayor of Blackburn with Darwen Salim Mulla and Pendle Tory MP Andrew Stephenson backed the tough action.

Nazir Afzal, chief crown prosecutor for the North West, said: “Forced marriages are one of the last forms of slavery in the UK. They are a violation of human rights and lead to a lifetime of suffering and abuse for victims.”

“It is an issue which is particularly prominent in Lancashire and Manchester. As the CPS national lead on forced marriage, I have worked closely with the Home Office to develop initiatives to tackle forced marriage but there is still a great deal of work.”

Coun Mulla said: “Forced marriages are abhorrent. They are not part of Islam.”

Mr Stephenson said: “I have raised this issue several times in the House of Commons.”

For the first time the new legislatation will make forcing a person to marry a criminal offence with a maximum 7 years jail.

Blackburn MP Jack Straw said: “I regard these figures as evidence of greater action in the North West.”

Justice minister Damian Green said: "Forced marriage is abhorrent and little more than slavery. To force anyone into marriage against their will is simply wrong and this continued practice in modern Britain is a stain on our social fabric. That is why we are legislating to make it illegal."