Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


The Earl of Sandwich: My Lords, I wish to speak briefly to Amendment No. 23, which stands in my name. The noble Baroness, Lady Williams, raised in Committee the question of the investigative role of registrars. I remain concerned. Many of us are still concerned about the dual purpose of registrars. Is it not quite inappropriate to ask registrars, when they are explaining the importance of a marriage to a couple, to investigate and report back on their conversations? I know that we have had this debate but it should be registered that some people are concerned still about this issue. Surely it is more appropriate for an immigration officer than for a registrar.

Much of the conversation in Committee was about simultaneously reporting to the couple. This is a small point about information being given to the couple about what is being passed on. In this new amendment we have made that subsequent to the interview and within a reasonable time. It meets the Government's point that simultaneous reporting might interfere with the proceedings, as the noble Lord said. It is not the contents but the fact of the report that we are concerned about. I believe that this is a small compromise amendment the Government could take on.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, has spoken to this amendment in his usual extremely reasonable and, if I may so, moderate way. My name is associated with the amendment and I want to put the case a little more strongly.

The noble Earl made the point--he is absolutely right-- that we have amended our amendment to take into account the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, which was also made in Committee, that advance notice should not be given to the couple. We understand that they might decide to do a moonlight flit or marry somewhere mysterious, such as the Cayman Islands. Of course, we are not in the business of trying to encourage sham marriages, but we are profoundly concerned about letting the legislation go ahead with no requirement that at any point should the couple be informed that the registrar has passed on his suspicions about them.

Perhaps I may explain briefly why. The noble Lord, Lord Bassam, said that he felt that that might inhibit registrars in giving the information in the first place. It seems to me that that problem could be overcome by the registrar making it absolutely plain when he saw any couple that he was under a legal obligation to report the matter if he believed the marriage to be a sham; he would cover himself in advance.

However, I am much more deeply concerned about the principle that a report, which can involve people in very substantial consequences, may be given without their having any idea that that has happened and,

18 Oct 1999 : Column 807

therefore, without their having any ability to respond to it. Let me put it in very tough terms. For several years, from 1990 to 1996, I worked in central and eastern Europe. One of the most disturbing characteristics was that the secret police never had to inform anyone about any charge that was made or any criminal action that was to be taken; therefore no possible defence existed.

I am not drawing a parallel between the two situations--it would be quite unreasonable to do so--but for me at least, and I would have thought for many noble Lords, the line has to be drawn with every possible definition that can be drawn. When we bring a criminal action against someone we insist--and rightly so--that the police inform him of the action they are going to take as soon as they have enough evidence to make an arrest. Surely, it is not unreasonable to say that couples who may be charged in a way that may end their marriage or lead to their deportation should at least have the right to prepare a defence against the charge made.

As the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, said, we are not asking for advance notice. We take the Minister's point on that. However, the Government should reconsider circumstances where the couple will receive no information at all. They then cannot prepare what might be a convincing defence. If I may say so, for a country like Britain to allow legislation to appear on the statute book, however minor it may seem, where people can be accused of a grave offence and not know that they have been accused, would be to place a foot into an opening that might lead to very undesirable consequences. I beg the Government to think again.

The Lord Bishop of Oxford: My Lords, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark has had to dash down the river to take a service in his cathedral. He has asked me to speak on his behalf as well as on my own in support of the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia.

We support the amendment because of the injustice which might otherwise be done to those communities such as the Asian community in Leicester where arranged marriage is so common. Often it takes place between a young person in this country and a friend of the extended family overseas. In those circumstances, it would be easy for a registrar who was not familiar with the different cultural norms to leap to the conclusion that the proposed marriage was a sham, entered into to avoid immigration restrictions.

The fact is that a marriage may have many motives, and although I am not so naive as to suggest that arranged marriages are without problems, it is also obvious that there are many examples among our fellow citizens of extremely happy, stable and loving marriages of heart and soul, emerging from what might have seemed an unpromising arrangement.

Mixed motives are present in all walks of life, and neither this House nor the Church is immune from them. I urge noble Lords to respect the mixed nature of all human motives and to accept that unless a

18 Oct 1999 : Column 808

marriage can be shown to be contracted solely for immigration purposes--Amendment No. 24, tabled in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia seeks to insert the word “solely"--it is as likely to be as sincere as any other human act. I very much hope that the Minister will be able to accept the amendment.

Lord Hylton: My Lords, I am glad that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford has touched on the matter of arranged marriages. I believe I also mentioned that point in Committee, although it seems a long time since that stage.

Like the right reverend Prelate, I acknowledge and accept that many arranged marriages work out very well in practice and prove to be happy and successful. Nevertheless, we are faced with a situation where marriages may be fixed in advance over thousands of miles' distance between people who may have never, or hardly ever, seen each other. For that reason, I believe that it is important that registrars should satisfy themselves that consent has been freely given by both parties. That is even more important where one of the parties is under the age of 18 and, technically speaking, still a child.

Are the Government able to comment on that point now? I realise that that may be moving a little beyond the scope of the Bill, but it is an important point and one that bears directly on human rights and on the likelihood of success of marriages arranged between families.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I have listened carefully to the comments of noble Lords, and to those of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford on arranged marriages. I shall take advice on that point.

We must examine the situation that will confront the registrar in his or her office and consider the matter in practical terms. I think the view is generally shared that registrars will need to adopt a pragmatic approach. We are not asking registrars to conduct an in-depth investigation. We are asking simply that they pass on their suspicions. This is not a matter of charges being laid or prosecutions being brought. Registrars are to act proportionate to the situation they see in front of them. I do not believe that noble Lords would condone in any shape or form sham marriages, because clearly that is not the cause of this debate.

Noble Lords have expressed understandable concerns about the proprieties of this matter. Of course we do not wish to blunder into what may be a highly sensitive situation. We think we have the balance right, and that is the reason for our sensible amendment which we believe is helpful, despite having had so much help from the noble Lord, Lord Cope, in this matter. The noble Lord has been extremely obliging in his comments today.

The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, asked that we should insert the word “solely". We think that that would make it extremely difficult for registrars to operate effectively, and it would act as a disincentive to properly report those situations where they have reasonable suspicions. As I said earlier, where there are

18 Oct 1999 : Column 809

reasonable suspicions it will not be for the registrar to intervene. They will not carry out the investigation. That will be for immigration officers who, I am sure, will abide by the proper rules in responding to difficult situations where they have to question those suspected of indulging in sham marriages to get around the immigration legislation.

On the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, we believe that it may be more distressing for a couple to be told that such a report had been made. It would be far better for immigration officers to deal with any concerns directly with the couple involved. That would be a better way of dealing with the matter.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. In his earlier speech, he mentioned “practical considerations". Before we move on from the point, I should like to put a further practical consideration to him. Let us say that, subsequent to conducting a marriage, a registrar writes to the couple to say that he has doubts about it. He does not have to meet the couple; he simply writes to them to report that he is of the view that the marriage may not be genuine. That would enable the couple to consider whether there is evidence they can bring to bear before an immigration officer questions them.

That would meet our concern that the immigration officer will have to reach a conclusion on the basis of having no knowledge of evidence on one side unless he can receive from the couple evidence that theirs is a genuine and not a sham marriage. Will the Minister therefore look practically at the possibility of providing for a letter to be sent by the registrar to the couple saying something along the lines of, “I am not convinced of the bona fides of your marriage?".


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page