UK 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.
This newspaper found that it was straightforward for unqualified applicants to set themselves up as officially-sanctioned advisers, leaving the door open for unscrupulous individuals attempting to cash in on the large number of foreigners coming to Britain.
Once registered, advisers can appear in court for asylum seekers and illegal immigrants, and sometimes be paid from the public purse under the Legal Aid scheme.
In one case an officially-approved adviser has been allowed to continuing practising while facing a police inquiry into his activities. Several others have also been caught acting illegally this year, and at least one has been jailed.
Last night senior Government sources confirmed that Theresa May, the Home Secretary, had ordered a review of the system to ensure those who break the law are barred from practising.
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, was jailed after 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." – Telegraph