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Chief inspector criticises Home Office handling of sham marriage cases


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The Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration has published a new report on the Home Office approach to sham marriages. The report is critical of the change in approach brought about by new powers conferred on officials by the Immigration Act 2014:

The inspection found that the initial implementation of the new provisions was problematic, indicating a lack of proper planning:

  • the Home Office did not communicate effectively with registrars about its new way of operating, where it no longer attended register offices and prevented ceremonies from proceeding
  • new processes were cumbersome and weakened by their reliance on fragmented IT and by the limited operational support received from local enforcement teams, with the result that cases were not being determined within the extended time limit.

The “new provisions” were those under the Immigration Act 2014 and you can see my write up here: Notice period doubled from next spring for all marriages and civil partnerships.

The change in approach to attending ceremonies was that the Home Office stopped attending ceremonies because even if a marriage was a sham that is not a lawful impediment to marriage. After all, couples have since the dawn of time been getting married for all sorts of reasons, including material personal gain. Instead the Home Office was, arguably rather sensibly, focussed on making sure that there was no immigration gain from such marriages.

The inspection reveals the concept of a “dial” by Home Office officials when assessing potential sham marriages:

The outcomes from piloting Operation Equal showed that a high proportion of couples complied with the investigation and were determined by interviewers not to be sham relationships. This could point to the need to adjust the sensitivity of the ‘dial’ used to assess whether a marriage looks to be sham, or a need to improve ICE teams’ interviewing skills as sham couples are too well-prepared to be caught out giving answers that do not tally.

The report also proposes that officials introduce formal nationality discrimination and target particular nationalities by seeking Ministerial Authorisations for discrimination under the Equality Act 2010. The Home Office accepts this recommendation. How such formalised discrimination will improve case specific targeting is a mystery.

The inspectors here show little or no concern for the couples whose genuine marriages were disrupted by incorrect Home Office suspicions. Instead, the inspection team would rather report Home Office concerns that couples who “passed” the questioning were “too good for us” because, over four hours of interviews, officers could not identify “substantial” discrepancies in the couples’ responses.

Is another explanation not that the officers got it wrong and subjected innocent people to delays in getting married, forced them to travel to a distant Home Office office for interview and then subjected them to several hours of intrusive and personal questioning about their relationship?

The Chief Inspector does not dig much below the surface, despite being tasked with evaluating value for money. There undoubedly are some sham marriages conducted for immigration gain. How many, though, is a matter of real doubt. The numbers of supposed sham marriages previously proposed by the Home Office do not seem robust.

The inspection records a total of 93 confirmed sham marriages detected between January and the end of August 2016, which if annualised works out as about 140 per year. In the same January to August period, 132 marriages referred as suspicious were found to be genuine. The “hit” rate on marriages investigated is therefore around 40% assessed as shams.

Rather worryingly, the report entirely fails to consider the possibility that some of these positive assessments might later be proven to be wrong.

Are all these new powers and investigations not just a bit disproportionate given the scale of the problem is so poorly defined and that so few actual sham cases are detected? The Home Office does have plenty of other fish to fry right now, after all.

Source: The Chief inspector has published an inspection report on the provisions for tackling sham marriage. | Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration

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Colin Yeo

Immigration and asylum barrister, blogger, writer and consultant at Garden Court Chambers in London and founder of the Free Movement immigration law website.