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Draft Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc) Act 2004 (Remedial) Order 2010

Volume 726: debated on Monday 4 April 2011

Motion to Approve

Moved By

That the draft order laid before the House on 20 December 2010 be approved.

Relevant document: 9th Report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights.

My Lords, the purpose of this draft remedial order is to abolish the certificate of approval scheme to prevent sham marriages. A certificate gives migrants written permission from the Home Office to marry. I am grateful to the Joint Committee on Human Rights for its support in this matter.

In its first report on the order published on 16 November 2010 the JCHR agreed that the scheme should be abolished. It also agreed with the Government’s approach in using this order to achieve abolition. The Government laid a revised order in December 2010 making minor technical changes recommended by the JCHR. In its second report published on 14 March the JCHR recommended that Parliament now approve this order.

The Government want to bring this order into force subject to your Lordships’ agreement. We are doing so for two reasons. First, the domestic courts have declared that the scheme is incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. Abolishing the scheme will remove this incompatibility. Secondly, changes made following rulings from the domestic courts have weakened the scheme and the Government do not consider it any longer to be an effective method of dealing with sham marriages.

The certificate of approval scheme was introduced in 2005 by our predecessors to protect the immigration system and marriage laws from abuse, in particular from those entering into sham marriages. The scheme did not and still does not apply to Anglican marriages taking place in England and Wales and this different treatment for non-Anglicans is at the heart of the judgments against the scheme. The House of Lords ruled the scheme unlawful in the case of Baiai by making a declaration of incompatibility relating to the discrimination between civil and Anglican marriages.

The scheme has been modified in several ways to comply with court rulings. This included allowing people who had been excluded from the original scheme to apply for permission to marry—for example, illegal immigrants—and we also suspended the application fee. However, the current scheme is now frankly a shadow of its former self. It is ineffective as a means of preventing sham marriages and we believe that there is no merit in continuing with it. The Government therefore intend to end the scheme, subject to approval, on 9 May. Your Lordships may ask what the effect will be. Indeed, it is hard to know. There is a risk that reports of sham marriages from registrars will rise when the scheme ends. Common sense indicates that this could well be the case. The Government will do their level best to combat the risk with the remaining powers at their disposal, which I am about to outline.

Reports of sham marriages are already rising. In 2009, there were 561 reports of suspected sham marriages; in 2010, there were 934 such reports. We do not know the extent to which this constitutes a real rise or simply better reporting. Either way, there is a problem here to tackle, which must be of concern to everyone in this House. Therefore, when the scheme is abolished, the UK Border Agency will use the powers it still has to tackle sham marriage abuse. It is looking at ways in which it can use them more effectively to stop what is obviously covert immigration. It will obtain sham marriage information from the register office.

The registrars will play a very important role in the future. It is already a key role and it will become even more important. Civil registrars will continue to exercise their duty to report any suspicious marriage to the UK Border Agency, under Section 24 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. The existing rise in the number of reports reflects the work that is already being undertaken by registrars to focus on tackling this abuse. This work will be intensified. It will also ensure that migrants will still be permitted only to give notice to marry at one of a number of designated register offices throughout the UK. This will mean that the UKBA can focus resources on a limited number of locations.

The UK Border Agency will also act on information so that immigration officers will be able to disrupt sham marriages scheduled to take place in churches. The UKBA is building on existing relations with the Anglican Church so that suspicions about sham marriages are reported by clergymen and clergywomen. The UK Border Agency has developed training for members of the clergy to help them identify potentially suspicious marriages. Immigration officers and police will continue to work together to arrest facilitators, brides, grooms, witnesses and guests—anybody who is involved—at ceremonies across the country that are, in fact, sham.

The aim will be to destroy a criminal business if one is taking place. We have already had some notable successes. In the north-west, for instance, seven Czech nationals were recently sentenced to between 16 months and five years for their part in facilitating sham marriages, some of which were also bigamous. Two of the group also received custodial sentences. An operation in the Midlands has so far seen 13 people convicted, with sentences totalling 20 years. Last month the agency mounted its largest sham marriage operation to date, which saw officers swoop on geographically spread addresses in London, Birmingham, Nottingham, Devon and Kent, while a simultaneous operation took place with the Dutch police in Rotterdam and Tilbury. There have also been a number of successful operations where churches have supplied information when they believed a marriage might be suspect. This included the conviction of an Anglican vicar, Alex Brown, and his two co-conspirators, who were recently found guilty of facilitating more than 300 sham marriages.

The UK Border Agency will also prevent a person who has entered into a sham marriage acquiring any immigration rights. The legal position is clear. Those who enter into sham marriages are not able thereby to rely on that marriage to obtain leave to remain or to acquire the right to reside in the UK as the spouse of an EEA national. Third-country nationals wishing to enter the UK on the basis of a marriage to a British citizen or person settled here are and will remain subject to our Immigration Rules. If we believe a marriage to be a sham, an application for leave to remain under the Immigration Rules will be refused. That still has to happen. Those who are discovered taking part in, or facilitating, sham marriages will be prosecuted.

We are closely scrutinising the marriage route to the right to remain and looking at measures to tighten it. We have already announced that we intend to consult on extending the spouses’ probationary period before settlement beyond the current two years. An additional period would allow a longer time to test the genuineness of the relationship. As I said, the Government will do their best to combat the abuse of immigration through sham marriage. I commend the order to the House.

My Lords, of course we welcome this order, which corrects a serious error of judgment by the previous Government. We also welcome the Minister’s careful explanation of its purpose and consequences. She said that there was evidence of an increase in the number of sham marriages in the figures for 2009 to 2010. If I have the correct figures, the number of sham marriages increased from 561 in the first of those years to 934 in the second. However, is it not a fact that people do not acquire any additional rights to remain as a result of a marriage when they have entered the country for some other purpose? It would be interesting to find out what the subsequent immigration experience of the people was whose marriages were reported as possibly being sham. I am sure that the UK Border Agency carefully followed up all the reports that the Minister has mentioned. For future reference it would be useful to know how many of the people were subsequently prevented from remaining in the country because it was established that the marriages were not only suspected of being sham but were actually false.

The Minister also spoke about the experience of the police in detecting particular cases. She mentioned the Czechs who were convicted and sentenced to between 16 months and five years for facilitating sham marriages, and said that in some cases those marriages were proved to have been bigamous. Obviously, an offence was committed by those people quite apart from the immigration offence and they would have quite properly been convicted for that reason.

When the Labour Government introduced certificates of approval for marriages between people, either or both of whom were subject to immigration control, there were immediate warnings from those with experience of immigration law and the European Convention on Human Rights that the scheme was discriminatory. The Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association briefing to your Lordships for the Third Reading of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Act said that the provisions on sham marriages did not apply to those who marry in the Church of England and were therefore discriminatory against all other religions, a point that was taken up by the Joint Committee on Human Rights in its report of 30 June 2004 and by every single court that subsequently ruled on the matter.

The incompatibility with the convention was identified by the domestic courts as early as 2006, so the remedial order that we are now considering, which is intended to be “fast track” corrective action following a declaration of incompatibility, has taken five years to mature. Not surprisingly, the Joint Committee on Human Rights regrets the substantial delay. Having set out their intention to use a non-urgent remedial order under Section 10 of the Human Rights Act 1998, this Government acted as quickly as possible to abolish the certificate of approval scheme in response to the House of Lords judgment in the case of Baiai, which had been delivered on 30 July 1998. Will my noble friend say whether it would have made any difference if the matter had been treated as urgent? Does she think that there is any way of speeding up the process generally in any future cases, of which, fortunately, there have been very few so far?

The lesson to be learnt from this episode, however, is that it is dangerous to rush solutions to immigration problems through Parliament towards the end of the proceedings on a Bill without any consultation and in the face of reasoned criticism. The clauses embodying the certificate of approval scheme were introduced on recommitment, a wholly unsuitable mechanism for radical proposals that affect the very institution of marriage, as we said at the time. We were not satisfied that the scheme was effective, proportionate and compatible with the ECHR. The failure of the previous Labour Government to listen to the warnings by the Liberal Democrats, the JCHR and the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association has cost the taxpayer perhaps hundreds of thousands of pounds in litigation and compensation, and there may be further claims still to come. In particular, there is one case before the European Court of Human Rights, and the JCHR proposed in its 31st report of Session 2007-08 that where there are multiple claims for compensation, the Government should adopt an approach that minimises the burden on the court and expense for the taxpayer. The Government do not consider that there is a significant risk of multiple repeat cases because potential litigants have had plenty of time to challenge the certificate of approval scheme since it was ruled to be unlawful.

There was a scheme for reimbursement of the certificate of approval fee of £295, or £590 where both partners to a marriage were subject to immigration control, but only where the payment caused the applicants real financial hardship at the time of payment. Of the 1,213 requests for repayment of the fee, only 170 had been granted and 49 remained outstanding at the end of January this year. In his letter to the JCHR of 21 December 2010, the Minister said that ILPA was wrong to say that the test for repayment was difficult to satisfy, because anyone able to meet the financial hardship test would qualify. However, the point that ILPA was making was that there was a four-and-a-half year interval between the introduction of the scheme and the date on which the UKBA first made arrangements to reimburse those who had suffered financial hardship. Most people do not keep records for that length of time and might well be unable to produce the evidence required. It does not seem to have occurred to the Minister that this could partly explain the relatively small number of applications for repayment and the 82 per cent failure rate of the ones that were made. I would be grateful if the Minister could comment on that measure.

My Lords, this order removes the requirement, known as the certificate of approval scheme, for those who are subject to immigration control to obtain the Secretary of State's written permission to marry in the UK. The Minister has set out the Government's reasons for terminating the scheme on 9 May this year, namely that our courts have ruled that the scheme is incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, and the changes that were made following those rulings have significantly weakened the effectiveness of the scheme.

The certificate of approval scheme was introduced in 2005 and clearly had a not inconsiderable effect on addressing the issue of sham marriages. During the life of the scheme there were 120,000 applications for a certificate of approval, of which 5,463 were refused. As has been said, under Section 24 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, civil registrars have a duty to report any suspicious marriage to the UK Border Agency. In 2004 there were 3,578 reports of suspected sham marriages. Following the introduction of the certificate of approval scheme in 2005, reports fell to 452 in 2005, or one-eighth of the total in the previous year, and stayed below 400 cases each year until 2009, when 561 reports were made.

In the light of the court judgments, we support the order, but we need to know a little more than the Minister told us about the measures that the Government are now taking to address the issue of sham marriages, and why they believe that those measures will be successful. The Government have said that the increase in 2009 and the further increase in 2010 to 934 reports of suspicious marriages is an indication of the work that they have undertaken with registrars to focus on this issue. In other words, if the figure increases, we are having more success. However, the figure reduced dramatically when the certificate of approval scheme came in during 2005. That would suggest that a reduction in the number of reports, rather than an increase, indicates success. It could well be, in the light of the current Supreme Court ruling that has reduced the effectiveness of the current scheme, that those involved in sham marriages have started to become somewhat bolder again, and that the increase in the number of reports in the past two years is because of a significantly larger increase in the number of sham marriages.

It would be helpful if the Minister could say why she believes that the possible scenario that I have painted to explain the increase in the number of Section 24 reports is not likely to be the case, and that the scenario that the Government have painted to explain the increase in the number of Section 24 reports is correct. Mr Damian Green MP, the Minister for Immigration is on record in Hansard as saying that the increase in the reports of suspected sham marriages in 2010,

“shows that the certificate of approval scheme was becoming less effective, as well as the success of our crackdown on sham marriage and the subsequent publicity”.—[Official Report, Commons, Fifth Delegated Legislation Committee, 29/3/11; col. 4.]

That could be the case; but if it is, what is the hard evidence that shows that the recent work by the UK Border Agency is actually having an impact on reducing the number of sham marriages, as opposed to simply scratching the surface of an increasing problem?

The Minister for Immigration also referred at the end of last month to more than 130 operations having been carried out over the past 10 months, leading to more than 150 arrests. There is, of course, a big difference between being arrested and being charged, and between being charged and being convicted. Of the 150 arrests to which the Minister for Immigration referred, how many led to charges and how many then led to convictions in relation to sham marriages? Are we to assume from the comments of the Minister for Immigration that the number of people being charged and convicted for involvement in one way or another with sham marriages has increased in the past couple of years as the number of reports of suspicious marriages has started to increase again?

If the number of sham marriages being reported is increasing, how many more years can there be, with figures increasing year on year, before the noble Baroness is no longer convinced that more reports are a reflection of the work done by the UK Border Agency and instead that the increase in reports could be because the measures the Government are pursuing are not as effective as the certificate of approval scheme, and that the problem of sham marriages is getting worse?

I appreciate that targets have gone out of fashion as far as this Government are concerned, but how do they intend to measure the success or otherwise of the measures they are taking to combat sham marriages that were set out in the letter dated 21 December 2010 from the Minister for Immigration to the chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights? I should also be grateful if the noble Baroness could say something about resources available to combat sham marriages, both human and financial—particularly since sham marriages are a route for illegal immigration—and that dealing with sham marriages is a declared priority for the Government. What will be the number of full-time equivalent staff at the UK Border Agency at the end of this year dealing with sham marriages, compared to the number of full-time equivalent staff in the agency doing so at the end of last year? Is the number projected to increase or decrease in future years? Is the Minister satisfied that sufficient resources are being devoted to this issue to prevent an increase in the number of sham marriages, and is there a plan B if there is compelling evidence that the number is increasing?

For the reasons that I have mentioned, we support the order, but I hope that the Minister will respond to some of the points I have made.

My Lords, I take an interest in these matters because I believe that when I represented the constituency of Glasgow North East there were more asylum seekers in my constituency than in any other in Scotland. That must have been the case, because when I held surgeries on a Friday night after I had finished Speaker's work and come to Glasgow, I used to finish at 8 pm, but when the asylum seekers came in large numbers, it was more like 11 pm.

If I understood the Minister correctly, she said that approved register offices would accommodate immigration officers. It should be remembered that the marriage of a young local girl to someone from abroad is in most cases a time of celebration. Often, friends and relatives want to come along to witness the marriage. If the dedicated register office for the young lady and her new husband to get married in is a distance away from where that person lives, it will create a social difficulty and mean that relatives cannot come along to the marriage.

There is something else that I would like to know. I keep hearing the term “sham marriages”. I understand what is meant by it, but I would rather use the term “suspect marriages”. Has the Minister given any thought to arranged marriages? I have experience of situations where a young girl who is a member of a family that comes from the Indian subcontinent has left her native city of Glasgow and gone back to marry a young man. In the eyes and in the tradition of that family, it is a genuine marriage: the family would not call it a sham marriage. However, the groom may have ideas of getting into the country as a married man and, at a later stage, will perhaps apply to join his bride. They have not been married in this country but abroad. Has the Minister given any thought to arranged marriages where these circumstances often arise?

The second paragraph of the Explanatory Note refers to,

“persons who are subject to immigration control”.

I well understand that someone who is an asylum seeker is subject to immigration control. However, my experience as a Member of Parliament was that often the asylum seeker was refused the right to remain. Sometimes he exhausted the appeal process but stayed in the country for longer than the period when he was applying for asylum. In other words, he stayed on as an illegal immigrant for longer than he had enjoyed the legal status of being an asylum seeker, in the hope that the community would support him or that he might find a lawyer who would find a new way of allowing him to remain in the country. What about the person who has been refused, having exhausted all legal applications and tribunals to stay, but decides to remain? It has been my experience that, in some cases, those who have remained after exhausting all the procedures have sometimes stayed three or four years in the country. Is that person subject to immigration control or is there another category for them? Sometimes before a couple get married they enter into a partnership which may produce children before the actual marriage takes place. What consideration is given to the children of that union and the opportunity for a father or a mother to visit their children in this country?

My Lords, a number of points have been raised. I will deal first with those raised by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. He is right to say that no additional rights are acquired by this conduct. On the question of the measures that we might be putting in place to deal with the absence of the certificate, I will say two things. The noble Lord asked whether we could have done this more speedily. We laid the orders within three months. The other thing is that it is wise, in order to limit the extent of the abuse and the absence of having the certificate scheme, to intensify and put in place really effective measures. One of the things we have been doing during the time between laying the order and being able to bring it to the House is ensuring that the measures that we have in place are as effective as we can make them. So the time has not been wasted. We have been as fair as we can be about the question of payments and when there has been a question of hardship the money has been refunded. The reason why there are relatively few applications, as the noble Lord said, is that people have had good warning. We do not believe that there is going to be a great splurge of demands following the repeal of this order.

The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, misquoted me and then asked me to approve a whole lot of assertions that I had not made. I did not say that I had a strong belief or confidence that our remaining powers would be effective. It is most unfortunate that the previous Government put in place, as the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, rightly said, a scheme which they were warned would be discriminatory and which has now been struck down. It would have been better if they had put in place one that was capable of continuous implementation. What I said was that it was hard to know what the effect of the abolition of the certificate would be. I also commented that we did not know the extent to which the rise in numbers was attributable to better reporting or to increases.

The quote I gave was actually from Mr Damian Green, the Minister for Immigration, who is on record in Hansard as saying that the increase in the reports of suspected sham marriages in 2010,

“shows that the certificate of approval scheme was becoming less effective, as well as the success of our crackdown on sham marriage and the subsequent publicity”.—[Official Report, Commons, Fifth Delegated Legislation Committee, 29/3/11; col. 4.]

So the person to whom I was attributing the success of the Government’s measures was not the noble Baroness but Mr Damian Green, the Minister for Immigration.

My honourable friend in another place was pointing to the efforts that the Government are making to compensate for the absence of a scheme that, had it not been discriminatory, might still exist. Great efforts are being made to ensure that the hinge position now occupied by registrars will be effective. That is why the links between UKBA and registrars’ offices are being increased and intensified, why guidance is being issued to the clergy and why registrars’ offices are being given training to ensure that they can recognise an application for a suspicious marriage if it comes their way.

We have to intensify all those methods. It is difficult to know at this stage whether that will be effective. The Government will do our very best, because it is important and in the public interest that this should not be a route for covert immigration, which it has been becoming—people have been engaged in what we can only call organised crime to get people into this country via that route. We have conducted two publicity campaigns, as my honourable friend in another place mentioned, designed to alert both those who enforce and those who may try to abuse the system that measures are being taken against that.

I say to the noble Lord, Lord Martin, that in Scotland all register offices are designated, so the issue of having to travel does not arise. Only the application has to be made through approved offices. For people who marry abroad, other immigration rules still apply, including an English-language test, so not all the barriers against abuse fall away as a result of the absence of the certificate scheme. The answer to the noble Lord’s question—is a failed asylum-seeker subject to continuing immigration control?—is definitely yes. Anyone without status that enables them to stay will certainly be subject to immigration controls.

No other route will arise from the absence of the certificate scheme that will make it easier for people to abuse the system. We are doing our very best to ensure that the absence of the certificate scheme does not render either the sham marriage route—the suspect marriage route—or any other route to abusing the immigration system any easier to operate. As a general proposition, I think that the House would agree that there is increasing effort both to publicise the fact that the Government intend to act against abuse of the system and to put in place effective measures to ensure that, having said that we will do that, that is the outcome.

Although there is some anxiety in the House, which I share, about our ability to control the situation, we will be monitoring it carefully and making our best efforts to ensure that that route is not used. I hope that the House will feel it necessary to abolish the scheme and, on the basis of the Government putting in place the best methods that we can to control this, approve the order.

Motion agreed.

House adjourned at 8.30 pm.