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Campaigners call for stricter marriage visa rules

Stricter rules for those who want to marry a foreign partner are needed to ensure confidence in the immigration system, campaigners have said.

Migration Watch UK called for a crackdown on marriages arranged for immigration purposes, which it said could be "harmful to the cohesion of our society".

Full interviews should be carried out with those wanting marriage visas, with a specific focus on those with a low average age of marriage, and tougher earnings and language conditions should be brought in before a visa is granted, the campaign group said.

The number of people given leave to enter the UK as spouses rose from 21,000 in 1992 to 47,000 in 2006, before falling to 31,000 in 2009, figures showed.

Most foreign spouses come from Pakistan or India, and, together with those from Bangladesh, they accounted for almost one in three foreign spouses in 2009.

In its report, Migration Watch UK said the "virtual abandonment" of the interview process in recent years "leaves the door wide open for marriages where one or both parties have come under pressure to marry against their will".

"It also fails to ensure that the spouse will not become a burden on public funds and that the spouse has the language skills necessary to integrate into wider society," it said.

Sir Andrew Green, the group's chairman, said the measures would be "fair to those who seek to marry a foreign partner while also commanding the confidence of the majority of the population - something which at present is sadly lacking".

"It is now time to move on from marriages arranged purely for immigration purposes, often under a degree of family or social pressure that falls short of being actually 'forced', he said.

"Such marriages cause a lot of misery to those directly involved and are harmful, to the cohesion of our society, as many in the Asian community would privately agree."

He added that British citizens should be able to marry whomever they choose, "provided that they make a free choice without pressure being placed on them".

The report called for the introduction of a minimum salary, of the minimum wage plus 10% for each dependant, an increase in the English language requirement, and a five-year wait after the marriage before permanent settlement is granted.

The couple should also be required to "demonstrate that they had been in the same country and had known and met one another regularly over a period of several months" before any visa is granted, it said.

And elderly dependants should be required to take out private health insurance before admission, it added.

The campaign group said the changes were needed to ensure young people were not put under pressure to marry.

Last month MPs called for the Government to criminalise forced marriage in a bold step that would show it should not be tolerated in society.

Thousands of young people in the UK remain affected each year and it is "not at all clear" that the current legislation is effective in protecting individuals from forced marriage and repercussions from family members, the report by the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee said.

Immigration minister Damian Green said: "We agree that family visas need to be reformed and that is why we will be consulting on a range of proposals to tighten up this route in the coming months.

"Marriages that are arranged for immigration purposes will not be tolerated and we are determined to stamp this practice out."

New guidance has already been published by the Government and the Church of England to crack down on sham marriages, he said.