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MPs debate sham marriages

25 October 2013


Demonstrators: a woman holding a placard joins hundreds of protesters outside the Houses of Parliament on Tuesday as Parliament debated the Immigration Bill

Demonstrators: a woman holding a placard joins hundreds of protesters outside the Houses of Parliament on Tuesday as Parliament debated the Immigrat...

PROPOSALS to tighten rules for foreigners wanting to get married received a cross-party welcome when the Government's Immigration Bill received its second reading in the House of Commons on Tuesday (News, 18 October).

Introducing the Bill, the Home Secretary, Theresa May, said that "between 4000 and 10,000 applications to stay in the UK are made on the basis of a sham marriage or sham civil partnership" each year.

"Registration officials already have a duty to report suspected sham marriages and sham civil partnerships to the Home Office," she said. "At the moment we have the ridiculous situation whereby we cannot always stop a marriage or civil partnership that a registrar believes to be a sham. The current 15-day notice period provides very little time for the Home Office to act before the ceremony takes place."

The number of suspected sham marriages being reported had risen in recent years, Mrs May said, with 1891 reports in 2012.

The Shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper, said that she welcomed "stronger action against sham marriages". She said: "Like the Government, we listened to the concerns of registrars about cases where they feared abuse but had too little time to ensure that investigations took place."

The Conservative MP for Thurrock, Jackie Doyle-Price, highlighted the part played by the Rector of St John the Baptist, Tilbury Docks, the Revd Tim Codling, in tackling sham marriages in her "very ethnically diverse" constituency" (News, 10 September 2010).

The priest "was very brave in taking this on because, as he would articulate, once the licences have been issued, the priest is under an absolute obligation to undertake the marriage," she said. "However, having seen the same ill-fitting wedding dress a number of times, he smelled a rat. . . It was a very scary concept for him, because this was an organised criminal gang and he felt very intimidated, as did many of the brides. It was clearly a great money-making business."

She said that "a great debt of gratitude" was owed to the priest "for participating in that police sting to bring the perpetrators to book. It is estimated that they had organised more than 30 sham marriages in that church in Tilbury alone. This is a shining example to everyone involved, showing that we should bring people to book when these things happen."

But not everybody welcomed the measures. The Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington, John McDonnell, described the Bill as "racist", and said that it was "not about good governance or the long-term interests of the country". He said: "I fear for our long-term interests if we are to be governed by prejudice in this way. I abhor the society that the Bill seeks to create.

"Nearly 50 per cent of my constituents are black or people of colour. The Bill will mean that any person who is black, is of colour, or who just looks foreign will be challenged. They will be challenged by bank managers and landlords, and by the vicar if they want to get married. They will also be challenged if they apply for legal aid. I find that offensive."

The Conservative MP for Sleaford and North Hykeham, Stephen Phillips, replied that it was "disappointing" that some MPs had focused on issues of race. "It is a great shame that we continue to have a debate about immigration in which race plays such a large part. . . It is immigration we are talking about today, in particular unlawful or illegal immigration. We should be discussing that and nothing else."

The Home Office predicts that the measures in the Bill would deter up to 10 per cent of sham marriages and civil partnerships in its first year; rising to 60 per cent by the fifth year of operation.

At the conclusion of the Second Reading debate - a general debate about the Bill as a whole - 303 MPs voted in favour with just 18 against. The Bill now moves to its Committee stage for detailed clause-by-clause scrutiny, which will be completed by 19 November.

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