Council registrars should be given the power to call off suspected bogus weddings with the numbers soaring to thousands every year, MPs said today.
The exploitation of immigration laws through a single sham marriage can lead to an entire extended family securing rights of residency, but the Home Office has failed to gather intelligence on what has been described as one of the greatest threats to immigration control, according to a new report.
Official estimates of the level of sham marriages range between 4,000 and 10,000 every year but the figure is based on limited research and civil servants believe the number is higher, according to John Vine, the chief inspector of borders and immigration.
Registrars – who interview couples before they marry them at civil ceremonies – provide the early warning system for bogus marriages but some are failing to report their concerns to the authorities despite having a statutory duty to do so.
In Manchester, registrars are reporting suspicious matches daily while some cities are flagging up none at all, the report showed. Despite the concerns, registrars still reported 2,135 cases in 2013 – more than double the figure from three years before.
Even when registrars raise concerns, failure to act swiftly by immigration authorities means they have to conduct the wedding ceremony even if they have doubts. Registrars have reported incidents of couples requiring interpreters at ceremonies because they do not speak the same language and do not know their partners’ full names.
But the MPs’ demand for registrars to have powers to halt weddings was greeted with scepticism. Alicja Gilroy, superintendent registrar for Oxfordshire, said: “It would be difficult. It would throw us into the role of being immigration officers.”
Marriages of convenience normally involve one person from the 30 nations of the European free trade area and someone from outside the zone. Under the freedom of movement directive, marriage provides them and their extended family with indefinite rights of residency in Britain. The lack of tight controls and the potential to make thousands of pounds – a fixer can be paid around £7,000 – has led to what the MPs believe is a sharp rise in the number of cases.
“There is an industry of deceit in the UK which uses sham marriages to circumvent immigration control,” said Keith Vaz, the chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, which produced the report. “Marriage is a precious institution and should not be hijacked to make a mockery of the law or our immigration system.”
In 2012, a Church of England vicar was jailed for two and a half years after carrying out dozens of sham marriages. The Rev Canon Dr John Magumba “asked no questions” when marrying a stream of Nigerian men and eastern European women in Rochdale, Greater Manchester.
The Government has claimed a “step up” in enforcement with 466 arrests in the six months to December 2013, more than double the total for the entire previous year.