POLYGAMOUS marriage is flourishing in Britain as the Government admits for the first time that nearly a thousand men are living legally with multiple wives.
Although the families are entitled to claim social security for each wife, no one has counted how many of them are on benefits.
The separate practice of unauthorised polygamy is also believed to have become commonplace in some Muslim communities. The Ministry of Justice admits that it has no estimates of numbers for these unions, which are often presided over by an Islamic cleric.
A senior Conservative MP and immigration expert called for action yesterday to end the scandal of women being pressured into entering unrecognised marriages with no rights.
“The Government has no grip on the situation,” said Humphrey Malins, the former opposition home affairs spokesman and founder of the Immigration Advisory Service. “This is quite clearly exploitation of women.”
MPs and peers have struggled for years to extract figures from ministers about the extent of polygamy. The first official estimate was made in response to a Freedom of Information request by The Times asking for statistics on benefits that are paid to wives who share a husband.
“It is estimated that there are fewer than 1000 valid polygamous marriages in the UK, few of whom are claiming a state benefit,” the Department for Work and Pensions said.
The Government has long reassured parliament that its policy is to prevent the formation of multiple marriages by refusing to allow second wives entry into the country.
Under British law, husbands and wives can have only one spouse at a time. Multiple simultaneous marriages constitute bigamy, a criminal offence.
Britain does recognise polygamous marriages that have taken place in countries where the custom is legal, such as Pakistan and India.