HC Deb 17 September 2003 vol 410 cc264-71WH

11 am

Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central)

"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." So begins one of the greatest works in English literature. In her first sentence, Jane Austen plays on the uncomfortable truth that the eligibility of a future wife or husband depends not only on their character, sense of humour and facial symmetry but also on what material comforts and prospects will result from the marriage.

That "universal truth" has not changed during the past 200 years. All other things being equal, the rich and well connected will rarely lack for suitors. Wealth is, of course, relative and the poverty of 18th-century Britain no longer exists in the United Kingdom. However, it is still seen and experienced in much of the world, and a British citizen or a person with indefinite leave to remain in Britain, whatever his or her other qualities, has a significantly enhanced attraction as a marriage partner for those in many other countries.

I represent the diverse and cosmopolitan constituency of Cardiff, Central, which has two universities and a significant Pakistani and Bangladeshi population. Over the past 11 years I have helped hundreds of constituents to obtain visas for their foreign spouses and, as far as I am aware, most of those marriages have been successful. However, some of them are not, and evidence from my constituency suggests that that proportion is increasing.

The typical case that comes to my surgery is that of a young Asian constituent accompanied by one or more senior male members of his or her family. When the foreign spouse has obtained their visa I usually hear no more of the case. However, in an increasing number of instances, the young British Asian comes to see me several months later to complain about the behaviour of their spouse and to ask me to get them sent back. Such complaints are almost always made by young women, who usually come to the surgery alone or accompanied by a sister or friend. Often the young woman will be very anxious that other older members of her family are not informed of the complaint.

My experience suggests that in those cases there is great social pressure on many young Asians to agree to foreign marriages and that the foreign spouse's interest in the marriage is often primarily in gaining access to Britain.

Two recent cases have crystallised my concerns about how the system is working. I cannot mention any names but shall give the specifics of those cases.

Mr. S, whom I know quite well, and his daughter came to see me last year to ask my help in getting his prospective son-in-law into the country. I gave what help I could. However, two months after the marriage the son-in-law absconded. That led to the break-up of Mr. S's family, as the daughter blamed his advice and left home. Somewhat unusually, Mr. S was racked with guilt over his part in the matter and resolved to track down the errant son-in law. He went to India to see the man's family, and through them he eventually tracked him down to an address in London. He phoned the immigration and nationality directorate of the Home Office and told the directorate where the man was. However, nothing seemed to happen, so he went to the nearest police station. The police, contrary to what they should do, looked up the errant son-in-law in their files, and said that they had no information on his immigration status. They had, however, arrested him and he had been prosecuted for shoplifting. Mr. S was perplexed and at a loss to know how the system was supposed to work when the police and the immigration department seemed to have no contact with each other and no one seemed to care that this man, with the marriage a failure, was now in the country—he believed, illegally.

On behalf of Mr. S, I wrote to the Home Secretary, who replied that the issue of whether his marriage persisted would not be pertinent until the end of the probationary period. As that period was now two years, the Home Office was saying, in effect, that it would not care if the marriage had broken down until 22 months after it had done so, and that this man would be in this country legally until then. I was at a loss to explain to Mr. S how this was a sensible way of running a visa system.

The second case is more complicated and involves two families: the J family from Cardiff, with one brother, Mr. J, and two sisters, Ms J1 and Ms J2; and the Y family from Pakistan, with one brother, Mr. Y1, a sister, Ms Y, and a cousin, Mr. Y2. The three members of the J family married the three members of the Y family. All those marriages broke down acrimoniously, and all but one of those people contacted me independently of each other.

Ms Jl came to me complaining of domestic violence and saying that her husband, Mr. Yl, should be deported. Mr. J complained that Ms Y had married him only for immigration purposes and should be deported. Ms J2 complained to me that her husband should also be deported. However, Mr. Y1 and Ms Y—although not Mr. Y2, who, as far as know, is still in the country illegally—obtained indefinite leave to remain. Both have been back to see me asking me to help them to marry new people from Pakistan and bring them into this country.

Mr. Ann Cryer (Keighley)

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this very difficult subject, which I know takes some courage. In many of the cases that are referred to me, the person who entered the country for permanent settlement as a spouse has left his wife within days of receiving indefinite leave to remain, and has attempted to obtain a separation or a divorce. Within weeks, that person has often applied to act as a sponsor for bringing in another wife—usually, in my constituency, from Pakistan. In the case of someone who has entered the country as a spouse in order to be granted permanent settlement and has obtained indefinite leave to remain, I suggest that the law could be changed so that he cannot act as a sponsor until he has received citizenship. If it could, the person would have to wait for another three years before acting as a sponsor. That would not entirely stop the abuse of our immigration laws, about which we are hearing, but it might deter a few young men from such action.

Mr. Jones

The point made by my hon. Friend relates precisely to members of the Y family, who, I am told, have successfully brought new spouses into the country.

This complicated position is extraordinarily difficult to disentangle. I would not be surprised if you were rather confused at the moment, Mr. Conway. The situation is confusing—all the more so because I owe a duty of confidentiality to each of these people and cannot discuss each person's case with any of the others. Whenever I write to the immigration department to inquire about the immigration status of one or another of the spouses, it refuses to answer due to its code of practice on Government information. It is therefore very difficult to understand exactly what has happened.

The cases highlight a number of problems in the system. There is no periodic checking of whether marriages persist during the probationary period, and even when the individuals inform the department that their marriages have broken down, there is no action until the end of the probationary period. There are no checks at the end of the probationary period to ensure that the marriage has persisted, unless there is either an application for leave to remain or a complaint. Many people are just allowed to disappear, and no effort seems to be made to find them. There is no joined-up information sharing on such matters between different agencies, including the police. There is no control on people doing the bare minimum to obtain indefinite leave to remain, divorcing and immediately applying to have spouses come from foreign countries to join them, which was the very point that my hon. Friend has made. Although the point is sensitive, there are insufficient safeguards to ensure that young girls in this country know what they are doing when they enter marriages with men from abroad, and that they are not coming under undue family pressure.

I wrote to the Minister in June with my concern over those cases, and made a number of proposals. I suggested that a computer-generated list of expiring visas could be produced, and letters sent to the sponsor to check whether the marriage subsists and ask whether they will support an application for the spouse to stay. If not, measures can be taken to ensure that the person is sent home. Consideration should also be given to raising the minimum age for a sponsor to 21, in order to encourage more mature relationships, where pressure from families would play a smaller part, to ensure that the sponsor had more control over the choice of partner, and to encourage more marriages between families residing in Britain between people of similar upbringing. Also, I believe that either there should be some sort of delay between the granting of indefinite leave to remain and a person being able to sponsor a new spouse, or only British citizens should be able to sponsor spouses.

In August I wrote to the Department, and I received a reply from the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart). The only argument against my proposals that she could muster was that checking marriages would put more pressure on non-genuine applicants, who might in turn pressurise their sponsors to go along with their proposals, thus perhaps increasing domestic violence. However, I counter that by pointing out that since checking marriages would reduce and shorten the number of sham marriages, the argument is not convincing.

Such difficult and sensitive issues are, for understandable reasons, rarely discussed openly in public, or even within the families and communities concerned; but I have seen too many distraught and heartbroken young constituents in my surgeries to keep quiet about the situation any longer.

11.12 am
The Minister for Citizenship and Immigration (Beverley Hughes)

First, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, Central (Mr. Jones) for raising the issue and for using the opportunity of an Adjournment debate to do so. I also thank both him and my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) for the work that they have done on the topic. She talked about courage, and both my hon. Friends, with sizable populations of minority ethnic groups in their constituencies, are raising some important but difficult issues; I am grateful to them for doing so.

The whole question of how we enforce the law relating to potential abuse in marriage cases is at the heart of the issues that my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, Central raised today, together with the question of what other measures the Government might take to crack down on that route for abuse of the immigration system. I should like at the outset to say something about what we are doing on enforcement at the moment. First, as my hon. Friends know, where a person marries after the commencement of enforcement action, for example, as an illegal entrant, an overstayer or a deportee, we seek to enforce their removal. Secondly, as a general rule, where a person who is liable to enforcement action has a genuine and subsisting marriage to a settled spouse that existed for two years before any enforcement action was taken and where it is unreasonable for the spouse to accompany their partner on removal, we would grant a period of leave. That discretionary leave is now made up of three blocks of two years, with indefinite leave to remain not being granted until the end of a six-year probation period. That restricts the benefits for people who enter, or try to enter, into a sham marriage, because it requires couples to show after two, four and six years that the marriage subsists.

Thirdly, in the immigration service there are teams with the task of investigating the links, which frequently exist, between organised crime, identity fraud and multiple marriages. As my hon. Friends have implied, such links are an attempt at very big business.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

Will my hon. Friend deal with other sham marriages that are entirely fraudulent, including one that I have drawn to her attention involving a constituent of mine, who married a woman whom he met at the wedding ceremony? The sum of £14,000 changed hands a year after the marriage. The woman had been refused admission to, or been deported from, this country five times. A racket is being run in which brides, nearly all from eastern Europe, are advertised freely on the internet. Agents, mainly solicitors, are used to ensure that the money changes hands. It is a criminal activity.

Beverley Hughes

It certainly is. I cannot comment on the particular case that my hon. Friend has raised, but I am happy to give him information about the work being carried out jointly by the Passport and Records Agency, the immigration service and the police. A considerable number of quite big busts have happened, with many people being arrested at once, as the result of long-term investigations in which false identities are picked up and traced back to identify those engaged in the sort of business that my hon. Friend described. I do not know whether the case that he cited was affected by one of those investigations, but activity is certainly under way to break those networks.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, Central raised a couple of examples that clearly suggested that we could do more about enforcement and, particularly in relation to his first example, inter-agency cooperation. I do not find those instances acceptable; I am happy to say publicly that, notwithstanding the many calls on the enforcement teams, if information is put forward about a particular case, and the person in question has been prosecuted for an offence, we should be able to act on it. I shall certainly take up the issue.

My hon. Friend raised a second case, about the J and Y families, which was more about the potential organised abuse of the system. I and my officials are grateful for the information that he has given us. There is a suggestion of anomalies, at least, at this stage, and an investigation is now being carried out.

I should like to give my hon. Friend an example of some of the work that is being done.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones

I know that it is difficult to do so, but will my hon. Friend find a way to provide MPs with information about a person's immigration status when they request it, having received relevant information from someone else? As long as they give guarantees that they will not disclose the information to third parties, MPs should be given it; otherwise, it is impossible for them to understand whether they are being lied to, and whether the Department is carrying out its duty effectively.

Beverley Hughes

I understand the dilemma for my colleagues, and I hate signing the letters in question. I do not know whether it will be of any comfort to my hon. Friend to know that I also receive them. When I take up cases and another Minister replies to me, I am told the same. I have looked into the matter, but there are great difficulties: unless we can guarantee confidentiality there is a prospect that Ministers or officials could be subject to judicial review in the courts. It is not only a code of practice that defines the parameters of the information that we can give out, but human rights legislation, and a range of other legislation, by which we are bound. I understand the point that he made, and I will look into it again.

I will give an example of a case involving an immigration service visit to a British spouse to investigate a potential case of obtaining indefinite leave to remain by deception. Our officials' suspicions were aroused when an immigration officer recognised the family name of a British spouse whose sister was being investigated for contracting two marriages. Further checks were made with the assistance of the marriage section of the Office for National Statistics. An in-depth, two-year investigation took place, which, as I implied earlier, involved a lot of tracking and careful collection of evidence. Finally, the two sisters were prosecuted for marrying 29 foreign nationals between them. They were convicted of bigamy and defrauding the Secretary of State, and received prison sentences of three and two years respectively. Some of the foreign spouses had become naturalised citizens during the investigation, but others were trapped on the immigration service's computerised warning system and were removed as people who had been granted leave to remain by deception.

There will always be cases in which we could have done more, but I assure colleagues that there are also cases in which we vigorously pursue enforcement. We try to focus on cases, such as the one that I described, in which we can achieve a big result in cutting through an organised practice that is highly abusive of the immigration system.

My hon. Friends put forward proposals to which I want to refer. I was asked whether, in the case of those who are given indefinite leave to remain as a spouse, we could delay or require them to have citizenship before they could sponsor other people entering as potential or actual marriage partners. I will investigate, although I will no doubt be told, as I am often told, that such proposals are contrary to the right to human life under article 8 of the European convention on human rights. None the less, I will investigate those possibilities because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley rightly said, they might not stop abuse but they would be a deterrent and a block in the system.

I have replied to the confidentiality issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, Central, but he also raised the possibility of periodically, or at the end of the period of probationary leave, checking everyone who has obtained leave on a temporary basis to remain as a spouse. He has suggested before that we might be able to check using computerised identification of applications. I share his reaction to arguments that that could criticise genuine marriages and lead to domestic violence—I do not think that that would happen.

However, there are practical problems with the current capacity of information technology and the scale of the enterprise. If possible, we would like to use the same system to check that those on student visas and other temporary forms of application, not just relating to marriage, were returning, but there are practical problems with that. Although we are updating the computer system for marriages, we cannot put a "bring forward date" of two years on a particular case—the system does not have that capacity. We can try to address that, but we cannot do so at the moment within the limits of the technology. There are also other practical difficulties about the scale of that exercise.

As we try to strengthen our response to abuse of the immigration system—and the related issues of illegal entry and working—an identity card system for foreign and British nationals could be helpful. That would enable us to have an embarkation control, which would be effective and, because it would be electronic, would not delay people leaving the country and cause queues at our ports. If we can get to that point—no decision has yet been taken—many issues can begin to be addressed without dealing piecemeal with marriage, student visas and so on. Before I finish—

Mr. Jon Owen Jones

I am encouraged by what the Minister has said about ID cards. I raised the matter in the House 18 or more months ago. If she will tell me and my hon. Friends which of her Cabinet colleagues are causing the problem, I promise that we shall do our utmost to get at them.

Beverley Hughes

My hon. Friend will not be surprised to hear that I would not say that any Cabinet colleague is causing a problem. However, it is right that the detail of a scheme that is massive in terms of technological issues, time scale—probably six to 10 years—and cost should be debated. If the Government do decide to proceed, we can do so with confidence that problems that have been identified can be overcome. It will be a significant step in terms of practicality, technology and cost.

Hon. Members will know that our desire to tackle marriage abuse has been strong. On 1 April, the Home Secretary introduced changes to the immigration rules aimed at tackling the growing menace of fraudulent marriages. The measures included increasing the probationary period from one to two years, introducing a no-switching policy into marriage provision for those coming to the UK for a period of six months or less, removing the "legally unable to marry requirement" preventing a fiancé under 16 from applying for leave to enter and preventing persons under 18 from acting as the sponsor in a marriage application.

I very much welcome the approach of hon. Members, who have spoken on the basis of experience in their constituencies. None the less, my colleague the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Slough, and I still come under considerable pressure from many other colleagues who write to us, despite our changes to the rules to tackle abuse, arguing that a particular constituent or sponsored spouse of a constituent should not have to abide by the rules and should be granted leave to remain for marriage on an exceptional basis. To some extent, one can understand that. However, we need to take a clear view that we have introduced rules to prevent people from abusing the system. In fairness to everyone, we should apply them equitably across the board.

Hon. Members will also know the other side of the coin. We have reviewed our position on domestic violence. That concession was introduced in June 1999, and as a result of our review of it, we decided that the range of types of evidence acceptable to meet the terms of the concession should be widened. That was done specifically to help some of the women caught in marriages, whether or not they were abusive of immigration rules, who, having got here, found themselves subject to abuse.

It has also been suggested, although not during this debate, that we raise the age of sponsorship to 21.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones

I suggested it today.

Beverley Hughes

I beg my hon. Friend's pardon; I did not remember his having specifically mentioned that. He knows that on 1 April we raised the age of sponsorship to 18. A lot of views were expressed and we decided that 18 was right in the first instance. However, we shall monitor the effect of the change, and the higher age that is used in some countries, and if we think that we need to alter it, we will.

11.29 am

Sitting suspended until Two o'clock.