Minister Misled Commons on Immigration
David Leppard, The Times (London), Mar. 14
The minister at the centre of the scandal over unchecked immigration from eastern Europe is facing new controversy over sham marriages and bogus students.
Beverley Hughes, the immigration minister, is accused of misleading the Commons over the true extent of her department’s covert policy that relaxed checks on foreign migrants.
Leaked Home Office documents contradict her claims that the policy to fast track “self-employed” immigrants from eastern Europe was a one-off failure by a small number of civil servants.
Two officials involved in the work and papers show the lax policy also applied to thousands of other migrants, including those seeking to marry or study in Britain.
One internal e-mail reveals that an estimated 15,000 immigrants are getting into the country each year by taking part in sham marriages, 10 times the declared rate.
Another e-mail discloses officials have relaxed checks on migrant students who are applying for courses at bogus British colleges.
Steve Moxon, the civil service whistleblower who exposed the unauthorised policy in last week’s Sunday Times, said the problem is far wider than Hughes had suggested.
“By far the two largest types of applications are students and marriages,” he said. “Yet these are the case types which are dealt with by the most cavalier adherence to immigration legislation, despite clear knowledge by the Home Office that very widespread abuse is taking place.”
The fresh revelations will increase pressure on Hughes, who faced calls for her resignation last week after admitting she knew nothing about the policy to fast-track migrants. She is also now accused of misleading MPs over a series of statements she made in response to Moxon’s claims.
Hughes told parliament the rubber stamping was “rare and untypical” and confined to a “team in Sheffield processing a very particular group of applicants”.
However, a document on the “clearance exercise”, dated February 10, shows there were three teams of 60 civil servants assigned to it.
“ICIS 11 and 12 (teams) have been selected to deal with these cases (as well as) the ECAA team … Other resource/teams may be added to the exercise later,” it says.
Rather than being confined to a particular type of applicant, as Hughes suggested, it appears that her officials adopted a similar lax attitude to those applying for entry into Britain as students.
In an e-mail dated November 26, 2003, Mark Jones, a civil servant, reveals his frustration over the lack of action to tackle the student problem.
He writes: “Unfortunately the common factor I have found in all of my investigation (into) bogus colleges is that although ministers recognise that student abuse is on the increase, there is little commitment from anyone to investigating potentially bogus colleges/students unless a particular case or college has hit the headlines.
“The message from the (immigration service) at quite high level is that this kind of thing is currently low on their list of priorities.”
But suspicious students were still being allowed to enter Britain. A second e mail, on January 27, confirms: “Nobody from the Home Office is going to visit these colleges, so they simply remain under suspicion …obviously, we should not refuse applicants.”
This is supported by an e-mail from Neil Best, an assistant Home Office director, telling staff that students who have illegally overstayed for more than six months should be allowed to remain because “enforcement action is unlikely”.
A fourth e-mail, on December 8 from the Sheffield marriage team, also reveals the Home Office is deeply concerned about the number of immigrants coming to Britain for sham or bogus marriages.
Official statistics show that reports of suspicious marriages from registrars nearly doubled in the past two years to 1,700 last year. However, the true figures could be nearly 10 times that.
The e-mail says: “Marriage abuse within the immigration system is an increasing problem. (The intelligence unit) estimates that there could be in the region of 15,000 sham marriages each year.”
Not only is the laxity within Hughes’s department more widespread than she has suggested, but her claims that the policy was a decision taken at “junior level” also appear to be wrong.
A memo reveals the policy was authorised by Best, an assistant director at Sheffield. Best, a grade 7 civil servant, insisted this weekend that he was a “middle-ranking official”. Grade 7 is five levels above the most junior rank.
Hughes is becoming increasingly unpopular for repeatedly passing the blame on to civil servants. Rather than accepting responsibility, the minister reacted to last week’s crisis by appointing a senior civil servant to oversee an official investigation into her department.
It will look into Moxon’s claims, supported by internal Home Office documents, that thousands of potentially “ineligible” migrants were being allowed to settle in Britain without any proper checks.
In a signed statement this weekend Moxon said that the covert fast-tracking policy -known as Brace -was being applied to all work at Sheffield when he arrived last August. More than 200,000 student applications are processed each year. But Moxon claimed that checks on many applicants were “minimal” and often infringed departmental rules.
“An applicant is supposed to show proof of funds or sponsorship so that they are not coming here to work or draw welfare benefit … But any kind of letter from anyone appears to suffice,” he said.
He added that official guidelines stated that students applying for an extension of their stay must supply detailed bank statements. But when these showed large unsourced deposits that could suggest illegal employment they were often taken instead to be from a sponsor. Anyone who is suspicious is told: “It’s none of our business.”