Government to review future of immigration advisers
The Government is reviewing the future of thousands of licensed immigration advisers after an investigation by The Sunday Telegraph found that they are poorly-trained, under-regulated and sometimes break the law.
And it is understood that the current regulatory body is to be axed or merged as the Government aims to crack down on those attempting to exploit vulnerable people.
The scheme, set up in 1999 by Jack Straw, then the Labour home secretary, was designed to make immigration advice available for less than the cost of going to a lawyer.
But while solicitors must complete university courses, undergo several years of on-the-job training and face scrutiny by the Law Society, anyone can qualify to be an official immigration adviser by passing a number of internet-based multiple choice exams, a correspondence course teaching the rudiments of immigration law and a Criminal Records Bureau check.
There are now almost 4,000 registered advisers.
Once qualified, their supervision is overseen by a taxpayer-funded quango, the little-known Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner (OISC), headed by Suzanne McCarthy.
Despite costing £4.4 million a year to run, it few powers to investigate advisers' activities and cannot suspend them even when they are under police investigation for alleged criminal behaviour.
Earlier this year Muhammed Shakoori, a Manchester-based adviser, was fined for flouting the rules by appearing in court for clients even though he was not qualified to do so.
A licenced adviser in north London was accused by an undercover television reporter this year of offering to arrange a sham marriage for £12,000.
Two years ago Lloyd Msipa, a Zimbabwe-born approved adviser, received a suspended prison sentence after being convicted of charging people hundreds of pounds for advice he was not entitled to provide, while working for a not-for-profit voluntary organisation.
Last year the OISC carried out 542 investigations into complaints of malpractice by advisers, a record for a single year. Among those investigated, 59 were found guilty of wrongdoing and another 161 faced "conciliation".
But, despite the high number of complaints, approved immigration advisers are rarely banned from practising and the OISC said it "could not say" how many it had barred for wrongdoing.
Last week undercover reporters from this newspaper made an appointment with Eustace Okere, whose name appears on the OISC list of approved advisers.
Mr Okere is a "level three" adviser, allowed to represent clients at appeal hearings before an immigration judge. But earlier this year a judge at Nottingham crown court called him a "criminal" for his alleged role in arranging a sham marriage for a client.
His name emerged during the trial of Portuguese-born Jorge Mouchinho and Falana McKenzie, from Trinidad, who were each jailed for 12 months for immigration offences.
The couple were caught after staff at Nottingham Register Office noticed that prior to their wedding they appeared nervous and hesitant, and the groom could not remember his bride's name when asked.
During the trial it was alleged that Mr Okere, a Nigerian-born Dutch national, had arranged the wedding and had charged McKenzie £6,000 to make her application to stay in Britain.
Judge Michael Stokes QC told McKenzie: "You were prepared to pay huge sums of money to this criminal in order to organise this sham marriage".
At the same time, Nottinghamshire police confirmed, Mr Okere, who runs HCI Immigration Services, was arrested and bailed until early next year while police investigate his activities further.
Despite this, last week, Mr Okere, whose CV says he has a BSc in Marketing from Abia University, in Nigeria, and a one-year master's degree in International Human Rights from Birmingham City University, was still trading from large offices in a converted Lloyds Bank branch on the outskirts of Nottingham.
He charged our undercover reporters, one of whom posed as an African woman who had overstayed on a student visa, £100 in cash for a half-hour appointment to discuss how he could help her.
Last night Mr Okere denied that he had ever acted outside the law or helped to arrange a sham marriage.
He said: "I do not want to say anything as this is an on going inquiry. I am still working. The police have no evidence and they have broken their own rules in the way they came to my office.
"They should not come without being accompanied by a barrister or without notifying the OISC. I have never done anything but act within the law for my clients.
"The judge should not have said what he said about me without evidence. It is unfair ... There is no evidence, but this is hanging over me."
Last night a spokesman for the OISC said it was aware of the allegations against Mr Okere.
He said: "We can confirm that the OISC is currently actively considering the continuation of HCI Immigration Consultants' registration as an OISC-regulated firm.
"In connection with this we are in contact with both the Nottinghamshire Police and the UK Borders Agency. The OISC does not have the power in law to suspend an adviser."
He added: "The OISC must act as a proportionate regulator and makes decisions based on evidence. If an adviser appears to be not performing well, we take constructive measures such as additional audits, bringing a Commissioner's complaint against them or retesting competence.
"If more formal regulatory action is necessary, this can take a number of forms depending on the severity of the behaviour ranging from placing conditions on their licence to an application for the adviser to be prohibited from giving immigration advice for a specific period or indefinitely."
Keith Vaz, chairman of the Commons Home Affairs committee, said last night that he would question Mrs May this month about the supervision of immigration advisers.
He said: "I will be asking the Home Secretary to ensure that there are appropriate levels of supervision in place when immigration advisers facing allegations of wrongdoing or giving inappropriate advice.
"It is essential, at a time when Legal Aid is being reduced for immigration cases, that people are getting the right sort of advice from properly qualified people."
He added that the committee would also be calling Mrs McCarthy in to give evidence.
A Home Office spokesman last night said the Government was considering merging the OISC with another body, although the details are still being worked out.
He added: "The new Government has made its commitment to cracking down on immigration crime clear. Disreputable immigration advisers prey on the vulnerable, charging large sums for poor advice and false hope.
"It is crucial that we continue to regulate this industry and ensure that those who insist on breaking the rules are barred from practising."
Immigration adviser charges £350 to write a letter
Eustace Okere, an approved immigration adviser, is still practicing despite being under police investigation after a judge in a crown court trial accused him of having arranged a sham marriage for a client.
Our reporter said she did not. Mr Okere added: "As soon as she has a child with a British national, the child is British ... It used to be that your mother had to be British, but it has changed now. It is all about parents."
Our reporter asked if it would help if "Rita" had a child. Mr Okere said: 'No, you don't have a child to stay in the country. You stay in the country because you have a child – not the other way round.
"You don't marry because you want to keep somebody in the country. That's against the rules.
"You get married because you love each other, and because you love each other you live in this country. And because you live in this county, you don't want to be separated from your partner. That would be your right to a family life."
So, asked "Rita", would it help if she had a partner from a European country. Mr Okere said: "If you came back to me with a partner then I would ask him certain questions.
"I would ask him if he was exercising Treaty rights, do you live in the UK, where do you live? I would test him like that and then I could advise you in that direction."
He suggested "Rita" purchased an airline ticket home – to show she intended to leave Britain – and then ask the immigration authorities for time to sort out her affairs.
Asked how much he would charge, he said: "Basically if you just wanted that, for us to write a letter, it would be no more than £350. If it's a proper application for any sort of leave ... it is more.
"If you make an application outside of the immigration rules then it would be up to £1,500. It depends on the category."