Manchester is reporting one ‘bogus’ marriage a day on average, according to a damning report from the Commons Home Affairs Committee.
The number of suspect couples being referred annually to the Home Office has more than doubled in three years to 2,135 across the UK, and the committee believe the true figure is far higher due to under-reporting.
They concluded that registrars received too little information from immigration officials about what action was being taken, leaving them obliged to officiate ceremonies they believed to be fraudulent.
Committee chair Keith Vaz said: “There is an industry of deceit in the UK which uses sham marriages to circumvent immigration control.
“The estimated 10,000 sham marriages appears to be increasing at an alarming rate.
“One sham marriage can provide UK residence rights to an entire extended family who would otherwise have no right to be here.”
In 2010 there were 934 reported suspect weddings but that rose to 2,135 by 2013.
The committee said it was ‘implausible’ that a number of towns and cities which had reported no cases to the Home Office did not have any bogus marriages taking place in their area when others, such as Manchester, were referring almost one a day.
“Data is not being collected in a consistent manner across the UK,” Mr Vaz said. “We cannot afford for any town or city to become a back door entry to our country.
“The Government needs to publish the total number of interventions, arrests, prosecutions and removals to prove that action is being taken.”
He added: “It is absurd that we willingly accept as valid, marriages where the two parties do not attend the ceremony.
“This allows an easy ticket into the UK and this proxy marriage loophole must be closed immediately.
“Without taking these steps the Government will never get a firm grip on a situation which is spiralling out of control.”
The most common cases involve individuals from outside the European Economic Area seeking marriages with EEA residents in order to gain residence rights for themselves and extended families.
Portugal, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia are suspected to be the biggest culprits at present, though it goes in waves.
It is believed that some young vulnerable women from Eastern Europe are even being offered cash and a new life in the UK for taking part.
Attempts have been made by ministers this year to try and curb the issue, such as a longer minimum period between a marriage being announced and a ceremony going ahead and civil-style checks on church marriage.
However, Shadow immigration minister David Hanson gave a damning assessment of the situation, accusing Home Secretary Theresa May of ‘shambolic mismanagement.’
He said: “This report exposes another crisis at the Home Office of the Home Secretary’s making: when will the Home Secretary take responsibility, get a grip and apologise for her shambolic mismanagement which has allowed a sham marriage industry to develop on her watch?
“Six months ago we asked ministers to ensure more was being done to ensure when sham marriages were suspected, action was taken.
“Last month the chief inspector of borders made clear there was a growing and significant problem that the department just wasn’t tackling, and now we have the Select Committee’s damning report.”
He added that the Home Secretary can’t ‘bury her head in the sand any longer’.
“People will rightly be angry at how it was ever allowed to get this bad,” he said.
“This Government are lurching from crisis to crisis in immigration, and clearly can’t be trusted to make it work for the UK.”
Registrars complained of having to go through with what they called a ‘charade’, because of a lack of Home Office intervention, with one telling MPs it was like ‘being mocked in your own job’.
The committee have now called for registrars to be given the power to refuse to conduct marriages they believe are ‘bogus’.
MPs warned that more needed to be done to counter what had become an immigration scam ‘industry’.
They have also called for tougher sanctions, including well-publicised prosecutions and asking embassies representing the worst-offending nationalities to issue warnings.
“We recommend that the law be changed so that if the Home Office enforcement team do not act on a section 24 report from the Registrar and the Registrar is confident the wedding is a sham, then the Registrar should have the power to cancel the wedding,” the report recommended.
“The Home Office should provide training on how to identify potential shams and, most importantly, it should provide full, accurate and timely information to the Registrars to tell them what action is being taken as a result of their reports.”
A Home Office spokesman said: “We are taking ever tougher action, including through the new Immigration Act, to crack down on those who try to cheat our immigration system by abusing marriage laws.
“We are also focusing on cutting out the abuse of free movement between EU member states and addressing the factors that drive European immigration to Britain.”
Image courtesy of Leland Francisco, with thanks.