Expert advice from Cowboy and Co

The Government is cynically failing to protect immigrants against fraudulent 'consultants', writes Bernie Grant
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The Independent Online
John Bulled, a convicted sex attacker posing as an immigration expert, was jailed for eight years in April for raping women who sought his advice. He had lured his victims by advertising an immigration legal service in the newspapers.

Many of my constituents, expecting proper legal advice and representation, have paid hundreds of pounds to bogus "advice services" and "consultancies". The standard of work done by these organisations is appalling. Letters to the Home Office are full of spelling mistakes and crude, ungrammatical English. I repeatedly see cases where vital representations have not been made or where the advice given is wrong. In some, false information has deliberately been given to the Home Office without the client's knowledge.

The results can be catastrophic. Often there is very little a good immigration solicitor can do to mend the damage caused by bogus advisers.

Bogus advisers easily disappear without trace to set up under a different name in another area. Their clients have no means of redress. One of my constituents, a young Nigerian, approached a "consultancy" for help. He was told not to worry, his case would be sorted out. He found himself arrested and facing deportation. A friend tried to contact the so-called consultant. He found the office closed down with no forwarding address or telephone number.

A Jamaican woman was charged pounds 250 for the handling of an entry clearance application for her husband. Not only was the application filed incorrectly but the "consultant" failed to give her important advice about immigration rules.

Another Jamaican woman was shocked when an advice service actually lied about her daughter's case in a letter to Immigration. This mess had long- term consequences, as it proved difficult to convince Immigration that she was not responsible for the false information given.

There are some ethnic minority consultants who specialise in exploiting their own ethnic group. They pretend to have superior understanding and sympathy because of shared culture or common language and play on people's instincts to trust their own community.

Typically, cowboy organisations demand a substantial sum of money on account before agreeing to take a case. Later they say the case will succeed only if further representations, and further payments, are made. They can often sound very plausible to a lay person who will rarely have the confidence to challenge an expert. And of course it is in these advisers' interests to drag the case out as long as possible to make more money.

Not all immigration consultancies and advice services are crooks - some work to a high standard. The difficulty is distinguishing between the good ones and the bad. Hence the need to regulate to ensure minimum standards of education and training in this field.

Last year the High Court granted an asylum seeker the right to reapply because of the poor handling of his original application. Mr Justice Sedley pointed out that the court was familiar with the injury to the rights of applicants caused by unqualified immigration advisers; he stated that a system of control would be to the advantage of all concerned in immigration cases.

The Home Affairs Select Committee has recommended the registration of immigration and asylum advice agencies. The Law Society and the Immigration Law Practitioners Association are in favour. The Government knows of the need to improve the standard of immigration advice offered to vulnerable people and provide a complaints system. Registration schemes operate in other countries; Australia, for example, has a Migration Agents Registration Scheme, which has operated a legally binding code of conduct since 1992.

Yet the Government has now refused to implement a registration scheme of any kind. In answer to a recent parliamentary question, the Home Office minister Timothy Kirkhope bluntly informed me he had "no plans" to do so. As the Government clamps down on immigration in the run-up to the election, it suits its interests if there is little expert help available for those who fall foul of its removal and deportation drive. Exploitative immigration advisers have become an integral part of a system that is shoddy, inhumane and a ghastly lottery.

The writer is Labour MP for Tottenham.