Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Sham Marriage Precautions

I fear that the Church of England is reacting too strongly to the problem of sham marriages. We’ve already seen the situation in which essential child protection precautions were being interpreted in such a way as to prevent parents sharing transport arrangements to and from sporting events. We are still in the situation where arrangements to prevent money laundering means that even a change in a signatory on a church account involves the church member having to go to the bank to prove his or her identity. We don’t seem to be good at taking necessary precautions which don’t involve new unnecessary blanket restrictions and burdens.

There is a problem about sham marriages and it does need to be taken very seriously. This blog has demonstrated how naive I’ve been locally about this in the past. Exploitation of the vulnerable is quite as much a problem as those seeking to go through a form of marriage simply seeking to gain immigration advantage. Great care needs to be taken if someone who does not have the indefinite right to remain here asks us to conduct a marriage which would assist him or her achieve that right. In those circumstances precautions to establish things like genuine residence in the parish are essential and genuine preparation for a real marriage are important. It is right that we are being strongly reminded of this and offered advice about good practice.

But the Church of England has actually had to apply for an exception to the Equalities Act to put in place new precautions, and the directions we’ve received are contradictory and (it seems to me) place unneccessary restrictions on those who wish to contract genuine marriages; in these ways we’re going too far. We’ve stood up for those whose race has made them disproportionately vulnerable to suspicion and ‘stop and search’, and yet we appear to be making the same sort of mistake ourselves.

Some documentation we’ve received in this diocese directs us not to use Banns for foreign nationals. Other diocesan documentation makes this direction only about foreign nationals from outside the European Economic Area. Still other diocesan documentation makes this direction only where someone does not have indefinite leave to remain in this country. Still other national documentation seems to encourage us to conceal the right to Banns from such couples while going on explicitly to acknowledge that such people may in fact insist on their right to Banns. Some of these documents insist that couples attend the Registry in Lincoln to follow this through even if they are, let us say, migrant workers in the Fens a couple of hours bus ride away.

I attended a meeting before Easter for those who are involved in issuing marriage licences, and I expect that at least some of the discrepancies in the documentation will be ironed out as a result. But the meeting made me all the more anxious about the way in which we are casual about our freedoms and history. An official opined that people are so used to needing to prove their identity these days that the Church of England need not be squeamish about expecting everyone to do so routinely. A clergyman claimed that so much money is spent on marriages that it doesn’t matter if we add an extra small fee to this large sum. Another clergyman thought we ought to get used to thinking of our use of Banns as a ‘privilege’.

At the very least those to whom a fee is paid when a marriage takes place by Licence rather than by Banns are under a strong obligation to restrict direction that this should be so to circumstances in which it is essential.

The photograph of the entrance to the Ugandan Embassy in Trafalgar Square was taken when we were in London to see The Children’s Hour a couple of weeks ago; the crane is Uganda’s state bird.

No comments: