[Relevant documents: Fifth Report from the Home Affairs Committee, Session 2005-06, HC 775, and the Government’s response thereto, Cm 6910.]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Steve McCabe.]
I am grateful to the usual authorities for arranging the debate and for the opportunity to discuss one of the first major reports produced by the Select Committee on Home Affairs since the general election. The Committee is fortunate in that most of its work attracts a fair amount of public attention, but it is fair to say that this inquiry attracted more attention than most. It was the inquiry in which a Home Office witness told us that it did not have the “faintest idea” how many illegal migrants there are, leaving the unfortunate, although erroneous, impression that no one cared. It was the inquiry that considered the problem of foreign prisoners and the failure to consider them effectively for deportation in due time. Obviously, it was also the inquiry in which the Home Secretary, who was new to his role, told us that parts of the Home Office, in particular the immigration service, were not fit for purpose. I hope that the Minister will update us on some of the progress that has been made since our report was published just before the summer and since the Government introduced their plans to overhaul the operation of the immigration service.
In such inquiries, Members are always grateful for the support that we receive from the Clerks, House of Commons staff and the Departments concerned, but I particularly want to thank them on this occasion. The Committee undertook two overseas visits, with half the Committee going to west Africa and the other half to India and Pakistan. That involved a great deal of work for officials from the House of Commons and Home Office staff, and we are grateful to them for the work that was done to support the inquiry, which undoubtedly enabled us to produce what has generally been seen as a valuable and useful report.
Let me start by referring to the immigration and nationality directorate staff and those we met during the course of our inquiry. Some of the evidence that we received invited us to take the view that the staff whom we would meet would generally be poorly motivated, low-skilled and would bring a set of unreasonable and irrational prejudices to their work, but that was not what we found. I draw attention to conclusion 139 of the report, which states:
“There is little doubt that the great majority of those who are in employed in the immigration system are working hard and diligently,”
but as we said,
“often under trying circumstances.”
The Committee felt, and this is reflected in the report, that in the great majority of cases, the problems that arise lie with management and the lack of clear lines of responsibility and accountability, rather than with the deficiencies of front-line or more junior staff.
I shall not try to cover all the recommendations of what is a lengthy report, but let me set out some of the major issues. The first is the context in which we now consider immigration control. In the popular view, which is reflected in much of the media, immigration control is simple: it is about issuing visas, enforcing physical border controls and what we do to try to prevent the wrong people from getting into the country. Those activities are important, and I shall discuss some of the ways in which they could be strengthened.
However, one of the report’s fundamental conclusions was that we should challenge the idea that immigration control is simply about control over visas and borders. The truth is that an immigration control system that was so tight and robust that it could always stop all the people who we do not want to get into the country from getting in would change our economy, society and the nature of the country so much for the worse that we would not want to live here. The truth is that our society depends on millions of people moving across our borders in both directions every month. That is for business, tourism, study and, let us not forget, for ourselves. As British citizens, we want to be able to travel. Millions of people in this country have family overseas who they want to visit, and who they want to come here to visit us. It is because such mass movement is an integral part of the type of country that we are that we have to reconsider how we want our immigration controls to operate.
While we set out a series of recommendations to strengthen visa and border operations, the report has put a much sharper focus than any previous parliamentary report on what happens within the country: on enforcement, removals and the appeal system. Our message to the Government was that getting our internal controls right is every bit as important as getting the external visa and border controls right. I shall return to some of that in a moment.
The report starts by discussing the visa process. The key conclusion that I want to underline is that investment in front-line decision making will pay dividends all the way through the immigration system. On our visits, we saw no reason to criticise individual staff, but there are too many temporary staff and too many who have not been doing their jobs long enough and with sufficient training to be fully effective in those roles. Also, the staff work under a great deal of pressure to reach decisions quickly. The lesson to be learned must be that pennies saved in that part of the system cost thousands or even tens of thousands of pounds further down the line if the wrong visas are issued to the wrong people, which puts us into the lengthy and laborious process of going through the appeals system, of enforcement and removals, and everything that goes with that.
One of the first things that the Committee will look for in the years to come is significant investment in the training and remuneration of front-line staff, and in changing the conditions in which they work and the time available to them, so that a much greater proportion of them are permanent, skilled and able to do their jobs month in, month out. It may be that those things can be organised in a way that is more cost-effective. The proportion of visas that are relatively straightforward, processed on paper and for which there is no question of checking for fraud or of needing to haul people in for interviews might well be done much more cost-effectively at regional processing centres rather than in the country itself. We would point to such ideas to offset some of the investment that we think should be made.
My second point is that it is right and in many ways essential that the visa service offers a high-quality and fast service to its users, whether they are the family members of our constituents, in a country such as India, or one of the increasingly large number of prosperous, business-class temporary migrants who want to enter the country for business reasons. The Committee concluded that the time pressures—the public service agreement pressures—that our staff are working to meet are much more demanding than those in any other of the western countries to which we spoke, certainly than in the USA, which interviews every applicant, and Germany and other Schengen countries.
It is probably the case that the pressure to meet time targets means that occasionally staff do not undertake further investigations that might be necessary, such as checking potentially fraudulent documents or that an offer of a course at a British university is genuine. In the report we suggest that perhaps there should be greater flexibility to enable individual post-holders overseas to negotiate their performance targets in a way that takes into account the level of risk and potential for abuse in that country. We want neither targets to be relaxed across the piece, nor a regime in which there are no targets, because all the managers to whom we spoke said that if that were case, the waiting lists would simply grow and there would be no improvement in the quality of decision making. However, greater flexibility would be enormously helpful. It is important to get the right balance between the high quality of customer service that we want to offer and good security, and to ensure that the systems that operate in posts overseas are effectively linked to what we do in this country.
Those of us who were in Islamabad witnessed something that might be illustrative of problems in the system. We oversaw one application being processed. It was about to be granted when, at the suggestion of a Committee member, we asked that the sponsor’s address be checked on the computer. It revealed that 134 sponsorship applications had been made from the same address in Luton in the relatively recent past, of which 30 had been granted. It might be that all 30 were genuine, and, as sometimes happens, the details of the address had been sold on the black market. The lack of time to carry out such checks in every case is a problem. It was also apparent that there is no obvious system for feeding information about such an address back to the police or the immigration authorities in this country so that it can be checked out and possible abuse tackled. We need that sort of integration between what happens overseas and what happens here.
We became concerned about aspects of the current system’s operation. It is clear that the development of a list of colleges by the Department for Education and Skills which is not subject to proper quality appraisal has made things worse when it comes to the business of post-holders trying to check out fraudulent applications to colleges. The fact that something is on a Government list gives a college an authority that it did not have previously and weakens the immigration officer’s ability to challenge an application. It is high time that that was brought into order so it is clear that none of the colleges on the list are not genuine educational institutions. This is one of the areas where we found that other bits of Government were not playing their role as fully as they might in supporting the Home Office. I shall return to that.
On internal decisions—decisions about the right to remain, change of status, confirmation of ability to stay, and so on—the Committee visited Croydon and, although we were again impressed by much of what we saw, we recognised real problems. Some of them might be addressed in the new system that the Government are going to introduce. The ability for someone who works in domestic service to come to the UK to work with no visa requirements, which translates into a long-term right to reside and bring their family here, is odd. The Government are trying to remove such anomalies from the system, and that must happen quickly.
We were concerned that the generally highly praised fast-track system might give people lower levels of scrutiny than other types of application. There have been issues and allegations relating to corruption at Croydon, and those must be tackled effectively. Our concerns about the internal side of the operation centred on three things: the operation of the appeals system; the removal strategy; and internal enforcement, particularly in respect of illegal working.
It is clear that decisions of the appeals system need to be independent from the rest of the system, but it should not be as managerially independent as it is currently. The lack of co-ordination between the appeals system and the posts overseas has created the long backlogs in appeals cases, which we were all being told about at the time of our inquiry.
Another problem is that the nature of the appeals system still does not provide a simple one-stop appeal examining all the issues, despite the Government’s aim to achieve that. Moreover, the procedural rules that have been introduced allow a large amount of new evidence that was not considered when the original decision was made to be introduced at the appeal stage.
Our report suggests that it might be impossible to limit the appeal very narrowly to the original grounds of the decision because the courts have regularly challenged that by saying that not taking relevant information into account breaches people’s rights. If the appeal system is to take into account new information, such as further financial details from the sponsor or something of that sort, it would be much quicker and better to have a “minded to refuse” stage in the process, as we have called it.
Such a stage would enable an applicant to be told, “We are thinking of turning you down because you haven’t provided the necessary financial documents.” They could be provided straight to the entry clearance officer so that they could take a new decision rather than, as happens now, the whole system going right into the appeals process, where it gets held up for months and is expensive, and we end up with a process where the entry clearance officer has interviewed the applicant but the appeals tribunal interviews the sponsor. Those two different people might present the case in two entirely different ways, and that is unsatisfactory.
We said that we did not feel that we could have confidence in the ability of the appeals system as it currently operates to do the job required. We encountered a symptom of that when we spoke to front-line decision-making staff about the system. We asked them whether they looked at the results of appeals against their individual decisions to inform the quality of their future decisions, and were told by everyone, “We take no notice of what happens in the appeals system. They don’t understand the job we are doing or the information we are working with. We have interviewed people, but they have not.” There was a similar atmosphere around the appeals tribunal: a feeling that many of those taking these decisions did not understand their jobs properly.
It is not satisfactory to have an appeals system and a decision-making system where neither element has much confidence in the other key decision makers in the system. A great deal needs to be done to bring those together. A minded-to-refuse stage would be helpful and would allow a lot of straightforward cases where people simply have not provided the right factual information at the outset to be changed and got right without things ever coming anywhere near the appeals system.
The second concern, which sometimes, although not always, follows the appeals system is that there is no alignment between decisions that are made which usually end up in the appeals system, and action to remove people from the country. Ultimately, the expensive operation of trying to get visas and appeals right means nothing unless those who are told that they should leave the country are required to do so. That is the part of the system in which we can have least confidence at the moment.
We examined where the priorities for removal activity lie and found that they do not lie in aligning removals with decision making. Unless we can operate a system whereby a decision that someone cannot stay in the country is swiftly followed by removal, the system clearly will not provide much of a deterrent to fraudulent applications. I hope the Minister will tell us that much greater effort will be made to align removal with decision making.
The Committee was concerned that the way removals are currently organised often means targeting the softer targets. It is easier to find and try to remove a family with children, because they are settled, resident and might have been here for five or six years, than to remove someone else in the system. We are not tackling the bigger part of the problem by targeting families that have settled in the country and have integrated themselves into communities. We need to change the priorities in the removal system.
My final point on the current operation of the system is linked to internal enforcement. A substantial number, although we cannot know how many, of those who are in the country illegally first entered legally then changed their status and became illegal, although some come in through entirely illegal routes. Overwhelmingly, the one thing that both attracts and enables them to do so is the ability to work illegally. We felt that the Government’s strategy for tackling illegal working was not as good as it should be. Trying to tackle individual groups of employees with occasional fines against employers will not lead to effective enforcement.
We had persuasive evidence from both sides of industry suggesting that we should target those employers and companies who deliberately and systematically abuse illegal labour and do not pay their tax and national insurance, do not abide by the minimum wage, do not follow health and safety requirements and so on. Those sources of illegal work undermine legitimate employers in agriculture and other sectors who want to play by the rules but also provide the pull factor for illegal labour. We need more effective enforcement of all aspects of employment law—not just that covering the employment of illegal labour—and particularly that covering tax and national insurance evasion if we are to deal effectively with illegal working and reduce some of the pull factor.
That is another area where the Home Office alone cannot deliver the answers. The Department for Work and Pensions, the Revenue and the Department of Trade and Industry must deal with illegal working, just as the Department for Education and Skills must deal with dodgy colleges.
We welcome the Government’s comments about improved cross-Government working and we welcome the fact that a committee will examine the way in which migration is handled, although it should go wider than just examining how many jobs we need to fill and consider some of the other social issues that come on to the agenda.
When drafting the report, it was difficult to get the balance right. Inevitably, much of it—as with my comments this afternoon—concentrates on what we need to do to tackle illegal immigration and to prevent people whom we do not want coming into the country from doing so, and dealing with them if they do. We tried to be careful not to feed the anti-migration debate and I want to make two points about that.
First, we face such challenges in this country because we can operate only if millions of people move in and out every month. That is essential to our society and our economy, and the Committee recognised that. Secondly, we discussed more investment in front-line staff, a better way of dealing with challenged decisions earlier and before they reach the appeal stage, and how to tackle exploitation in illegal migration. That would not only make us more effective in dealing with illegal migration, but make the quality of the service we offer much better for the vast majority of people who we need to come to this country, who should be able to get visas simply, and who should be able to travel in and out freely. That would be a win-win situation because we would deal with the problems that we need to tackle, but we would improve the quality of service for the vast majority of people who we want to come to this country, not just once but many times in the future.
I found the report useful and interesting and, as the Chair of the Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham), said, it covers a huge range of issues. I shall not attempt to deal with all of them, but will comment briefly on two or three points and then concentrate on one issue. I am sorry if that makes my comments a little disjointed.
My first point concerns appeals: how they operate and whether it would be useful to incorporate into the system a “minded to refuse” decision. I have read the Government’s response and understand where they are coming from—for example, on the points-based scheme. If we had a more transparent points-based scheme, it would be easier for people to see fairly quickly whether they were likely to be granted a visa. That is a small part of the system and applies only to people who apply to come here to work. However, people apply to come here in all sorts of other capacities and some make internal applications in the UK. One problem, which other hon. Members will have come across in their constituencies, is that information that could be supplied is not always supplied. There may be simple documentation that could clear up an argument one way or the other. There is merit in considering how to avoid the present situation in which perhaps one third of appeals end up being granted because information is eventually provided but was not provided with the initial application. I hope that the Government will re-examine that.
My second point concerns marriage cases. I understand perfectly well the argument about switching and queue-jumping. We introduced rules to prevent people from coming to this country on a visitor’s visa and then switching to a marriage application. I recall seeing the statistics and it was highly unlikely that so many people who visited this country met someone within a few weeks with whom they wanted to spend the rest of their lives. Some of those applications were very dubious. They did not necessarily involve sham marriages, although some undoubtedly did, but that was a mechanism for avoiding queues. If the queues had not been so long in the first place, we would not have encouraged that mechanism.
What concerns me is the people who legitimately enter into a relationship in this country, but at a time when they are unable to make a marriage application, perhaps because they had come on a visit or made a failed asylum claim. There are cases of people being told that they must return to their country of origin and apply from there when it is impossible for them to do so. As the report stated, their country might be one to which the Foreign Office is advising people not to travel, or there may be no British embassy or high commission where an application could be made. We should re-examine some of those cases.
There seems to be little flexibility in the way in which some cases are considered when decisions could be made outside the rules. Someone may have lived in this country for 10 or 12 years and then be told to go back to their country of origin to make a valid application when it is pretty obvious from the facts of the case that it is almost a foregone conclusion that the application will succeed. Not only does that create problems for the applicant, it creates more work for entry clearance and visa officers, and I suspect that they could well do without that.
We all have such cases in our constituencies. I want to link the problem to the role of MPs. One of our key roles is to act as advocates and to try to provide information that may not have been in the system. We do that genuinely and as honestly as we can. In a recent case, the high commission in Jamaica accused me of telling deliberate untruths and contriving in a sham marriage. That was utterly reprehensible. I could only provide information that I had and, having met the constituent, I did so in good faith. That cannot be acceptable and theremust be better ways in which the system could be progressed.
I absolutely agree and if I had received such a response I would have reacted in exactly the same way as my hon. Friend. The section of the report that discusses the role of MPs rightly says that we should not have been drawn into the process as we have. We are now seen as a conduit for immigration and asylum applications and decisions, and I am sure that other hon. Members are finding their immigration and asylum caseload overwhelming.
I am sure that my hon. Friend’s experience as a London MP is not dissimilar to mine. Half my new casework is about immigration. The House does not provide resources for us to deal with those people’s cases, because by definition, most are not on the electoral register. The net result is that we must provide additional services from the money made available to us to deal with our constituents, and that takes up the time and effort of our offices. I find it particularly annoying that frequently, immigration advisers charge the customers —our constituents—for the privilege of writing to us to undertake work for them.
Absolutely right. I am in roughly the same position: I guess that half—it might even be more—of the casework coming to my office is about immigration and asylum. Frequently, it is solicitors and advisers who have told people to come to us. They also tell people, and people get the idea, that we can short-cut the processes and jump people up the queue. We cannot, and it would be wrong if we could. The fact that somebody has come to us should not be a reason for pulling them out of the queue. We ought to deal with cases that are going fundamentally wrong, rather than with cases that sit at the end of a queue, taking months to receive any answers, as we so often do.
The Government’s response to the report suggests better systems for dealing with correspondence and for replying to letters from Members. That is fine, but we need much more than better correspondence systems. We need better and faster decision making. That is the root of the problem. It is not that I do not receive a letter for a few weeks, but that a case has been sitting around for six months and nothing has been done about it. I agree with the report’s point that one effect of IND targets is that the easy cases are dealt with and the more complicated cases—exactly the sort that people are likely to come to us about—end up sitting at the bottom of the pile. People seem almost frightened to take a decision about a complicated case, and all that does is generate more work for us, because claimants and their representatives keep coming to us again and again. The problem must be dealt with.
I suspect that I am in a minority on the subject of illegal working and over-stayers. If we go for a points scheme and do nothing about illegal working, we are heading for trouble. I have no problem whatever with taking action against employers who knowingly and deliberately employ people who are in this country illegally. I remember saying in Committee on an asylum and immigration Bill several years ago that we ought to consider those employers’ payment of tax and VAT, because I bet my life that some do not file proper VAT returns, or pay national insurance or tax as they should. I recall reminding one of the Minister’s predecessors that Al Capone went to jail for tax evasion. There are always different ways of getting people who play the system.
I am concerned about what happens to the individuals who work in this country illegally. The point has been made that many entered this country legally through various routes, and that their numbers are large. Obviously, we do not know exactly how many people are here, but the estimates go up to 500,000. Many have effectively settled here, they have families and they engage in family and community life, and some sections of the economy, particularly London, would be in serious trouble if they were to disappear overnight. However, their working here illegally leaves them wide open to exploitation, and it is impossible for them to enforce the normal rights of anybody at work. They dare not do so, because they would make themselves an easy target and lose their job. Further, if working conditions can be depressed, it has an effect on other people working in the same area, sector or company.
The question is what do we do about the situation? If we are honest about the situation and about the number of people involved, we are not going to remove up to 500,000 people. But if that is not going to happen, what are we going to do? Are we going to address individual cases in a piecemeal fashion, or are we going to develop a systematic means of dealing with the situation? We ought to have the latter. We are heading for trouble if we introduce a points scheme that leaves an unskilled person who comes to this country with no route to stay here permanently, but do not deal with the people who are already here and working illegally.
We must seriously consider a regularisation scheme. I do not suggest a blanket amnesty for everybody working here, because I am conscious of the argument that we do not want to create a pull factor.
I am sure that my hon. Friend, who has studied those matters very well, will have seen paragraph 479 of our report, in which we discuss the pros and cons of an amnesty. I think we unanimously agreed to the paragraph. As expected, my hon. Friend has put forward powerful arguments, but is there not the danger that an amnesty would encourage illegal immigration and, despite the advantages, reward people who have broken our laws? In many instances, they have come to this country not because they are fleeing persecution—long may our country retain its reputation for providing asylum—they have come deliberately to break the law. In order to gain work, their actions are understandable, but they have still broken the law. Should they be rewarded?
I understand the argument, but a balance must be struck. If we were to have a regularisation scheme, the question is, what would it look like? A blanket amnesty, which says, “If you are here working illegally, come forward and we will give you indefinite leave to remain,” could become a magnet. I am sure that the Minister has seen the report on the subject by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, and the suggestions from unions such as the Transport and General Workers Union. They discuss a scheme that would consider the length of time that somebody had been in the country. In the first instance, the scheme would not provide indefinite leave to remain, but regularise their position and provide them with temporary legality, thus allowing them to earn indefinite leave to remain.
A scheme along those lines has real merit and is worth serious consideration. There will be a real problem if we introduce a points scheme that allows no route for an unskilled person who comes to this country to obtain indefinite leave to remain. There are large numbers of people here illegally, often in low- skilled jobs—that is certainly true of London’s economy—whom we know we will never remove, because their numbers have built up over the years.
Other countries have had regularisation schemes. Indeed, this country has had a whole series—we call them concessions. We have had a concession for people with children who have been in the country for seven years and a family concession for failed asylum seekers, so there is nothing new about us having concessions to deal with big backlogs. However, we have never had concessions around work, and that is something that we should be seriously considering. If we do not, I suspect that the problem will fester, which will make it much more difficult to introduce a proper managed migration scheme. In introducing and talking about managed migration, the Government have started a debate and started to move towards a policy that is long overdue. I very much welcome that change in policy, but the problem that I have described is one of the big holes in it.
I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in the debate. I start by thanking my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) for helping, guiding and leading us throughout the inquiry. He certainly tried to keep us timely and in order when we were having our meetings in Pakistan. I also thank the Committee’s officers, who are very good at keeping us in line. In particular, I thank them for all their effort in organising our work throughout the inquiry. Finally, I thank those whom we met in this country and abroad for their help, support and advice.
Our inquiry emphasised how important and necessary it was to go abroad and visit the visa posts. If we had not, we would have had a distorted view of our immigration service. I have a large community from Pakistan in my constituency, and some of my constituents are from India, so the visit to Pakistan and India was informative. It was certainly good to see Gerry’s I FedEx, for instance, because I had only heard about it, and it was great to visit it.
I endorse what the Chairman of the Committee said about the people we met. Wherever we went, we saw people who were dedicated not only to providing individuals with a good service, but to protecting our borders from those who have no right to enter the UK.
It is important that we look at the immigration service in the context of the numbers who are entering and leaving the UK. It is also important, as the Chairman of the Committee said, that we bear in mind the need to ensure that people can travel freely, while those who are not entitled to be here or to stay here are dealt with accordingly. Some 97.2 million passengers arrived in the UK in 2004. Of them, 68.2 million were British citizens, 17 million were from the European economic area and nearly six million were from the US, Australia and Canada. All those people want to come here when they like, just as we want to return from abroad without too many problems crossing the border. In that respect, it was interesting to hear on the news today that more than 1,000 people a day are leaving the UK—half of them are UK citizens going abroad for more than a year—and that 1,500 people are estimated to be entering. The programme also said that we have the lowest number of asylum seekers for 15 years.
Getting decisions right at the initial stage is key to making sure that the system works well, and one of the main issues is ensuring that applicants know what is required. We must ensure that they know which forms they need to bring with them and what evidence they need to provide. One issue that was raised with us in Pakistan was the need for entry clearance officers at our visa posts to be given feedback on cases that they have dealt with so that they can learn from their decisions when handling future cases. We also need to ensure that those working in the appeals system gain experience of initial decision makers’ work and that initial decision makers are more aware of those working in the appeals system.
Another key issue in the report is the need to enhance training for everyone working in the service, whether abroad or in the UK. As my right hon. Friend said, it is vital to give decision makers sufficient time to make the necessary inquiries. The UK has tighter targets than most other countries, and we need to balance that with the need to get the decision right in the first place. As we said in the report, seven minutes is not long enough to decide a case, even for straightforward applications. It is important that there is sufficient time for decisions to be made to ensure not only that inquiries can be made into whether the case is genuine, but that the decision is accurate. By allowing enough time and making inquiries, we might prevent refusals from being made mistakenly. Getting the information right can therefore work both ways.
The report also focuses on the quality of immigration decisions taken in the UK. We suggest that it would be helpful to introduce a network of immigration application centres, perhaps in post offices, which we already use for checking passports. It would certainly help my constituents if they could go to the post office to have their documents checked. That would help to prevent failures in the system and relieve the burden of financial administration on the IND. That would be similar to the situation with Gerry’s FedEx and other agents overseas, which help to relieve the administrative burdens involved in supplying UK visas. Indeed, using such agents prevents the backlogs that would otherwise occur when security problems prevent people from going to the visa post. Work can carry on because it is transferred from a safe place—the agents—to those dealing with UK visas.
The vast majority of students who come to this country bring income to our colleges and universities. They come here because we have a good education system. They complete their course, abide by the conditions and return home. However, there is a problem with students coming to universities or colleges that do not really exist or which are in the upper room of a shop. Such places cannot offer students anything and students who really believed that they were genuine are disappointed.
I therefore welcome the Government response to our recommendation and the fact that the managed migration intelligence unit will have increased resources and staff. When we went to Croydon, we saw that the unit could manage only a tiny proportion of the inquiries that it needed to make. As my right hon. Friend said, the Department for Education and Skills has a great responsibility to ensure that there is no fraud, that institutions are genuine and that the register of genuine institutions is corrected to ensure that the institutions on it are genuine. That is important now, but will be vital when the points-based system is introduced, because we will be relying on colleges to ensure that students attend and that the education on offer is genuine. If we do not ensure that those institutions are genuine, we will not be able to rely on the information that they provide.
To pick up one or two key issues about spouses, I commend the work that is being done here and overseas to protect those who are, or are likely to become, victims of forced marriages. When we were in Pakistan and India we heard of work that is being done there, on occasion, to rescue people who are likely to be forced into marriage. We recommend, at paragraph 311, further steps that the Government could take to protect young British people. The report states:
“Forced marriage cases are now handled more sensitively than before, but better arrangements should be made for refusing spouses’ visas or settlement applications on the basis of confidential information from a reluctant sponsor. The Government should consider further steps which might protect young British people from forced marriages, including interviewing all visa applicants for marriages which have been arranged at short notice. The Government might also consider encouraging visa applications for arranged marriages to be submitted before the British spouse leaves the UK.”
I hope that the Government will consider that.
Other Members have touched on the question of people having to go abroad. Paragraph 300 of the report states:
“In view of the serious difficulties caused to some applicants by the requirement to return home to apply for permission as a spouse, we recommend that where the Foreign Office advises against all travel to a particular country, applications for leave as a spouse or unmarried partner from nationals of that country who are already living in the UK be decided in the UK with an interview.”
We have all come across cases of people being advised that they must go home to apply to marry or to stay here, if they are married. We heard evidence about that matter in the inquiry. We also came across people with health problems. It is not always a matter of people having difficulty going back to a country because it is not a place that one would want to send people back to. Some people have health problems. Sometimes a couple with children is being asked to go back to a country that none of us would want to go to, and to which they certainly do not want to return. I hope that the Government will look again at the help that might be given in such instances.
The Chairman of the Select Committee has referred to the “minded to refuse” issue. That is another key issue, and many appeals could be saved if people were warned that they had not provided sufficient information and that without it the case might be turned down. Again, in our constituency work we have all come across such cases. Ideally, people should provide everything necessary in the first place. however, for those who do not, appeals could be avoided if there was the option to provide the material before that stage was reached.
I have picked up on only a few issues in the report, but I hope that the report will go some way to helping the Government to continue to improve the system.
I am not a member of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, so I am a bit of an interloper in the debate, but I have read the report with interest. I come at the issues that it raises from a slightly different and quite particular angle. I am chairman of the all-party Chinese in Britain group, members of which have raised concerns with me about the highly skilled migrant programme and work permits for skilled migrants. The issue is one that, I have rapidly found, has an effect way beyond the Chinese community in the UK. It affects many people.
The problem that has been raised with me is the change to the qualifying period for settlement in the UK from four to five years. That change was announced in February 2005, but it took effect in April 2006. I have no objection in principle—nor have the people on the highly skilled migrant programme—to the change in the rules, which is supposed to align the UK rules with those in the rest of Europe. However, there is a strong objection to retrospective application of the rules—the decision that the new rules will apply to people who have already come to the UK expecting to be able to settle here permanently after four years. That is utterly unfair.
In the summer my hon. Friend the Minister met a delegation of people affected by the change, whom I brought to meet him. He gave them a sympathetic hearing and I thought that I should make progress in convincing him of the utter injustice of what had happened. I also presented him with a large petition, which stood about 3 ft high, from people throughout the UK who were concerned about the matter. I was told in a letter that I received a few days ago that the rules were not going to be changed back and that there would be no transitional arrangement. The Minister thought that the people concerned would now need to be in employment for five years rather than four, and added:
“I do not believe that this should be a problem for those people who want to settle in the UK and make a positive contribution here.”
I think that he must have been at a different meeting from the one that we attended, because we gave many examples of real people with problems caused by the change.
One of the people who went to see the Minister was Mr. Mikhail Spivakov, who is a molecular biologist, originally from Moscow. He is working on a four-year fellowship at Imperial college, having previously turned down offers at some of the world’s leading universities, such as Harvard. He was promised that he could get settlement after his current four-year contract expired. A permanent visa was important to him because research scientists freely change employment to get experience in different laboratories. It would have meant that he could get a mortgage. More importantly, from his professional point of view, he would be able to travel far more easily to overseas conferences, which he has to do about once a month. Now he has found that he is no longer eligible when his current contract and visa expire.
Mr. Spivakov says that it is no longer in his interest to stay in the UK and that he wants to move on. He would have to get any new employer to apply for a work permit for him and renew his visa and, even more importantly, it would be necessary to seek a restricted range of grants to fund his research compared with what would be available to him if he were here permanently. All that would take time. There would be a gap in his employment history and because of that he would be back to square one, having to start all over again with a five-year period. He says:
“This makes me feel betrayed by the country I chose to contribute to, since it now looks like I was tricked into coming here…I am…now considering moving out of the UK and to the US, following…the scientists’ ‘brain drain’…which UK science managers are so much trying to prevent.”
Someone else who went to see the Minister was Mr. Omar Massoud, who is Egyptian and works as a consultant for a British international engineering consultancy. He is here on the highly skilled migrant programme. He says that the change has had
“a significant professional, financial and personal impact”
on his life and the lives of his wife and newly born child. He now has to pay prohibitive international fees if he wants to continue professional development at any university, and he has missed the opportunity of doing a PhD as a result. His wife has had to return to Egypt with their baby, to study at the American university in Cairo, even though the couple have been paying taxes and national insurance in the UK, because they cannot afford the international fees.
The change has also meant that for another year Mr. Massoud cannot participate in some of his company’s international projects, because of the visa problems; this is especially relevant when his UK visa is near expiry. He tells me that last year his company missed a new business deal in the middle east, costing it at least three months’ worth of work and revenue. He says that it is difficult to get a mortgage on a house, because he is stigmatised as a non-resident. When he and his wife borrow money it has to be at exorbitant rates because he is regarded as having a high-risk profile for financial transactions and dealings. They can get loans only at 14 and 17 per cent. interest rates, because they are not residents. Of course, although their child was born in the UK, they cannot claim child benefit because of the additional year’s requirement. Mr. Massoud’s family is now divided between the UK and Egypt and he and his wife feel vulnerable to what he calls the “inexplicable swings” in the Government’s mood regarding highly skilled immigrants. He says:
“We never thought that the government would pick on those who contribute most to the economy…we feel deeply betrayed”.
There are many similar examples, such as that of Mr. Yan Zhuang, a highly skilled migrant worker who came from China to the UK to work as a senior engineer for the European Space Agency. He is working with his wife and is a higher rate taxpayer. He needed additional qualifications and was going to read for an MPhil at Cambridge. Now he has had to put that back and the rest of his career progress has been severely disrupted. He and his wife have lost confidence in the Government and he feels that they have failed to give him the trust that he should have from them.
Mr. Nizar is part of an international team based in the UK working for Barclays bank. It has 40 other employees who are either work permit holders or work in the highly skilled migrants programme. The new arrangements do not make clear how much time he can spend outside the UK, but as highly skilled professional bankers he and his colleagues are required to travel all over the world. If they unknowingly stay too long, they will probably be refused entry when they come back to the UK. Mr. Nizar also says that he has lost confidence in the UK. He is a highly skilled banker working in one of the largest financial institutions in the world.
There are many more such examples, including scientists. Another is that of a teacher, Nirvani, who came from South Africa. She faces losing her job because she could not apply for indefinite leave to remain in the summer as she was expecting to. The school says that it is too late to reapply for a work permit and wait for approval because it wants to know who will be on its staff in the new term. Nirvani and her husband left good jobs in South Africa and their children were uprooted. Her husband resigned as a captain in the South African police force and is now working as a security guard because he cannot join the police here. He would have been able to do so in September when the four years were up.
Dr. Badri is a Cambridge-based public health consultant with an international reputation. He came from southern India in 2002 and his 19-year-old son had been accepted at university. He now has to pay £12,000 in fees. There are many more examples, with which I shall not bore the House, but plenty of people’s lives have been disrupted. They believe that the Government have shattered the legitimate expectations of their families, themselves and their employers through what they consider a unilateral change in the terms of the agreements under which they came.
Such people now have to apply for extensions, and thousands of people are making new applications to the IND which, as the report shows, is already overworked. There are already delays for a lot of people and we have just increased the work load by thousands of unnecessary extension applications. That means more bureaucracy, and the individuals concerned have to pay an additional £300 fee.
Highly skilled migrants pay taxes and national insurance contributions, but more importantly, by definition, they fill important gaps in our labour market. They are part of the international labour market and have skills that are in short supply. They are the sort of migrant that our country needs and whom my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) mentioned. We should be attracting them to the UK, but they feel cheated and betrayed. That feeling is relayed back to their home countries, so the people whom we want to attract from Russia, India, China or the United States will think, “Well, if the Government have changed the rules this time, what is to stop them doing it again retrospectively? What is the point in going to the UK? We might as well go somewhere else where we feel we will not be cheated in this way.” It will deter from coming here the people whom our economy desperately needs.
The Government accept that some lessons have been learned from how the change was introduced, and I believe that they are going to set up a body, the migration advisory committee, to try to ensure that such problems are dealt with more sympathetically in future. That is simply not enough for such people as I have mentioned, who make a huge contribution to our economy and pay their taxes. They are not the sort of people who are at the bottom of the pile, who come illegally as economic migrants to work in the sweatshops to which my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) referred.
We must reflect on what has happened and introduce transitional arrangements so that those who arrived in the UK under the programme in question before the changes were announced in April 2005 can be allowed to settle after four years rather than five. That is the only decent, honest thing for our Government to do. I fully understand the feelings of betrayal and of being cheated that many people have expressed to me since I got involved in the matter. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will think again and reflect on the human tales that he has heard from the people who have come to see him. I thought that he had sympathy for them when he heard those stories, but he has rejected their tales of hardship, family break-up, financial loss and disruption to careers.
I congratulate everyone in the room on tolerating the conditions of a miserable, cold Chamber. I wonder if you could pass that message on, Mr. Hood. I cannot see why we should not have daylight and a bit of heat. It is very cold. That is my moan.
I want to refer to the part of the report on forced marriages, which begins on page 77. I seem to spend an increasing amount of my time helping the victims of forced marriages. I pay tribute to the staff who have looked after us on the Committee, particularly those who did all the donkey work of writing the report. When I was with the group in Accra and Lagos, the Clerk who was with us worked until midnight to draw up all the information and evidence that we had acquired.
I wish to give the background to my comments. I represent Keighley, which forms one fifth of the Bradford metropolitan district. Some 80 per cent. of all marriages in the Muslim community there—mainly Pakistani couples but some Bangladeshi—take place transcontinentally. Girls and young men go to Pakistan or Bangladesh, marry someone and eventually bring them back. Approximately 800 immigrants from the sub-continent enter the district each year. Many of them come on compassionate grounds, and I have absolutely no argument with that. They are elderly people who come to join daughters and sons to be looked after in their old age. Many, however, are husbands and wives coming for permanent settlement. I would guess that at least 600 of them enter the district for that reason. I look forward to a time when more young men and women will enter Bradford because they have a job than because they have a wife or husband.
The Pakistani community in Bradford hails mainly from Mirpur, where there is a strong tradition of first-cousin marriages. That makes it even more difficult for young men and women to duck out of arranged marriages, which therefore become forced marriages. The Bangladeshi community comes from Sylhet, and one of the less attractive traditions of the Sylhetis is that they tend to go in for child brides. I have dealt with several cases of 14-year-old girls being carted off back to Bangladesh for marriages that they did not want and should never have had inflicted on them.
I pay tribute to the work of the various Departments involved. A great deal of work has been done since I raised the subject of forced marriages in 1999. We now have the forced marriages unit, which is paid for and staffed by the Home Office and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It gives advice on forced marriages by phone or person-to-person, to help girls avoid being forced to marry or be reluctant sponsors to a marriage. Through various voluntary groups, the Government provide refuges in my constituency and in the rest of Bradford so that girls wishing to leave an unfortunate marriage can do so and be safe. The West Yorkshire police are absolutely brilliant—
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
Forced marriages are covered in pages 77 to 79 of the report, and I pay tribute to various people who, since 1999, when I first raised the subject, have improved the situations of reluctant sponsors and victims of forced marriages.
The consular section of the Islamabad high commission is wonderful in tracking down young women, often held in dire circumstances and against their will so that they can be forced to marry. Usually, a threat is used. The parents remove a woman’s passport and say, for example, “You will not come back to Keighley and your friends until you have married this man.” Sometimes the women are told that they cannot go back until they consummate the marriage or even that they cannot return until they are pregnant. Such girls are getting to know that they do not need a passport to get back. With the help of the consular section, they can be removed and housed safely. They can be brought back to the United Kingdom and, if they so wish, be placed in safe housing here.
I have not mentioned someone who has been crucial to many girls in the Bradford district. Philip Balmforth is employed jointly by Bradford social services and West Yorkshire police. He is the knight in shining armour who often helps girls out of a difficult situation, saving them from a forced marriage or violence that has erupted following one.
I have one or two suggestions, at least one of which is also in the report. I want the age limit for sponsors and applicants to increase from 18 to 21. A few years ago, the Government increased it from 16 to 18. That was a good move, but if we got the limit up to 21, young ladies would have the wherewithal, confidence and often the financial resources to withstand parental pressure to marry someone whom they do not want to marry. In Denmark, the age limit has been shoved up to 24 for the same reason. I would not suggest 24; that is, to say the least, draconian. However, I should like the age limit to go up to 21 for both sponsors and applicants.
I should also like the right of people on indefinite leave to remain to bring in a wife or husband to be removed. Increasingly, young women come to me who are loyal to and who want to please their parents. They marry the man from the subcontinent—sometimes as a result of force, sometimes not. The young man comes here, lives with the young lady, then leaves her, for whatever reason, before the end of the two-year probationary period required to qualify for indefinite leave to remain.
At that point, he disappears into his extended family—men in first-cousin marriages have lots of people to go to. She gets very cross and comes to me to ask for the man to be removed. She has every right to do that; he is without indefinite leave to remain. I report the matter to the Home Office and request that the young man be removed. We often know where he lives, and she often lives in fear, because he still has keys to the house. We are told, “Yes, we will take on this case and he may well be deported. Unfortunately, however, you and she become third parties.”
Does my hon. Friend sometimes find it difficult to get the authorities to take action in such cases? Sometimes the young woman—it could be a young man, but I have only ever dealt with women— knows that her husband is still in the country and that he should not be here. Yet it appears that no action is taken. As victims, such women feel that they are being treated worse than the person who is not obeying the law, especially because of the third-party issue.
I thank my hon. Friend for that. Those women feel badly done by, not only because of their husbands, but because of the establishment. Such women are not given help. As has rightly been said, in such a situation they are told that they are a third party and I am told that I am. The issue has been considered, and it is mentioned in the report. We have been told that we will stop being treated as third parties and the young lady will be kept informed about what is being done to remove the young man.
In other cases, indefinite leave to remain has been granted. The young lady has dutifully filled in the forms and has got her husband indefinite leave to remain, on receipt of which he waves it in front of her and says, “Right, I’m off. I didn’t really want to marry you. You’re very stroppy and cheeky; I don’t want to live with you any more, so I’m leaving. I shall be sending to Pakistan for another wife.” Once he gets indefinite leave to remain, he has every right to sponsor another wife.
The man has to divorce the first one, of course. However, since he was married in an Islamic ceremony, he can divorce in an Islamic ceremony and go on to sponsor another wife to come here. That is extremely annoying for me and my constituent, who has done everything that she should have. She has abided by her parents’ decision and brought the young man in. Often, she will have bought a house. She has kept him for two years and receives that stunning treatment.
We should at least consider saying that no one can act as a sponsor until they get citizenship. That would mean that the young man entering would have to wait five years after entering—three years after being granted indefinite leave to remain—to be able to sponsor a wife to come here. That would make him think a little more carefully before using the young ladies in my constituency simply as a way around immigration control.
My other suggestion is mentioned in the report. Victims of forced marriages who are being forced to be sponsors—are reluctant sponsors—should be allowed to give evidence to me, and, through me, to the Islamabad high commission, about the fact that they have been forced into marriage. At the moment, I can give that information and could back it up with good, sound reasons why the man should not be allowed to enter—perhaps the young lady is not earning enough, she has not got a house or she has no money in the bank. Those are all sound reasons for refusal; we do not have to make it known that the real reason for refusal is forced marriage.
Unfortunately, or fortunately, some of the young ladies who come to me fulfil all those criteria, but we have no way of getting a refusal to the application other than saying, “She was forced into marriage.” If that happens, the high commission tells us that it has to make that reason known to the young man, and through him to her parents. It should not be beyond the wit of clever civil servants to think of a new wording of the law so that a woman can safely give evidence of forced marriage and safely have the husband refused without him or her family knowing why. I understand the complications and how such a law could be abused but, for the safety of some of the most vulnerable young ladies in my constituency, I ask that that sort of thing be considered when the Government draw up another immigration Bill.
Most of the young men and women who come in as husbands or wives are, in fact, economic migrants. As I said, I would prefer them to enter because they have a job rather than simply because they have a wife or husband. In respect of the comments by my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard), Keighley has some excellent examples—perhaps I should say poor examples—of people who are working illegally, or, in the case of the Polish, legally, for employment agencies or cheapskate employers. They are paid the minimum wage, but it does not end there. The employer makes deductions for the cost of housing and sometimes for food—any trick that they can get up to. Many legal and illegal immigrants work hard at some of the dirtiest, hardest, most horrible jobs but at the end of the day are paid as little as £2 or £3 per hour because so many deductions have been made from their pay.
Several things could be done about forced marriages, and I have mentioned most of them. I also want to mention something that is not part of the Committee’s remit, although it could be in another context. Perhaps we should consider a specific criminal offence of forcing to marry so that a girl can report to the police once she gets back that her parents have forced her to marry.
I am thinking of a 14-year-old Bangladeshi girl who was forced by her grandparent to marry in Bangladesh. She was allowed to come back here only when she had a baby, by which time she was 16. The police did nothing, although they knew about the situation. In fact, before the grandfather took the girl to Bangladesh, he was told by a judge that he must not take her there to force her into marriage. Although we all knew what had happened, the police took no action against the grandfather when the girl returned. It is high time that we introduce a specific criminal offence of forcing to marry. It may put the frighteners on some of the parents who currently really do not care.
Before I begin my own remarks, I wish to pay tribute to the previous speaker, the hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer). She eloquently set out the case for changes to the way in which this country deals with the problem of forced marriages. I am sure that the Minister will want to respond to her contribution.
I am pleased that this topic has been introduced for debate in the House this afternoon. Immigration in general terms and, more specifically, the way in which we deal with the pressures of increasing migration are of huge importance to our country and are likely to be even more critical in coming years. Indeed, reports in the national press today reveal that we are currently experiencing the second-highest levels of long-term immigration into Britain since 1991.
It is difficult to overestimate the positive contribution that immigrants have made to our country over the years in economic, cultural and social terms, and I do not hesitate to preface my speech with that assertion. However, the system must be managed in a fair, efficient and humane way. That must be done to ensure that abuses such as we have heard about today are not allowed to flourish, that our economy can grow and that we can maintain community cohesion.
It is crucial that we continue to debate immigration in Parliament. Of all the issues that we deal with on a day-to-day basis, it is perhaps the one that most requires open and frank debate. Hon. Members will be fully aware of the myths and scare stories that abound if we allow a vacuum to develop. It is up to us to lead the way and to inform the public in a reasonable and rational way.
It is also important that we do that because the success of an immigration policy relies, to a great extent, on public confidence. The repercussions of a situation whereby the population lose faith and trust in the Government’s ability to control the borders are serious, to say the least. We all know that, without confidence, extremism will thrive and community cohesion will be damaged. Even the Government have to concede that events of the past few months have dented public confidence in Britain’s immigration system. Those failures have been amply demonstrated by the Home Affairs Committee, which deserves our gratitude for its thorough work.
The foreign prisoners debacle, corruption, deception and, of course, a Home Secretary admitting that his Department was not fit for purpose—all those calamities demonstrate the urgency of an inquiry such as this one. Reading the Select Committee report and the Government’s subsequent response, one gets an interesting insight into how our immigration system has functioned under this and, indeed, previous Governments.
The various reports we have before us today demonstrate starkly that the Home Office and, in particular, the immigration and nationality directorate have suffered from political mishandling on such a scale that it has made effective management of the operation virtually impossible. Perhaps most damaging is the assertion that political interference in respect of asylum statistics allowed the foreign prisoners scandal to emerge. There certainly seems to be evidence that the political pressure to remove failed asylum seekers directly influenced the rest of the operation.
However, it would not be entirely fair to suggest that the Select Committee’s inquiry and the Government’s response are purely negative. I hope that the various reports will serve as a wake-up call to the Government to remind them to focus on making the system work. Some of the suggestions made by the Committee reveal the surprising levels of incompetence that have existed in the system. The fact that guidance notes need to be made more accurate, that various authorities involved in the system need to work together better, that training, particularly for temporary staff, has been inadequate all point to a failing system that has been meddled with by politicians who in some cases prefer to talk tough and raise public expectations while not necessarily acting competently. As the Government have rushed to appease sections of the press on asylum seekers, they have lost their focus on managing the system as a whole.
As I said, there are things in the reports to be welcomed. Improvements in the quality of information for applicants are certainly welcome, and, if implemented properly, will no doubt provide positive outcomes for applicants and the Home Office staff who have to deal with them.
The overall simplification of immigration rules, laws and guidance is also to be welcomed. The complexity of the current situation is testament to a series of reflex—some might say panic—measures brought in by successive Home Secretaries. In many cases, they have caused chaos. The points-based system for immigration, which is supported by Liberal Democrats, will, I hope, assist in achieving simplification. However, as we have seen time and again with this Government on home affairs issues, their reflex action is to legislate and complicate the issue rather than concentrate on getting the basics right. Endless new legislation is self-evidently not always the right action, as events of the past few years have amply demonstrated.
“Exporting the border” is a welcome ambition, but it will rely on staff and management systems being joined up in a coherent way. That simply is not the case at present, and I am nervous about the greater use of contract staff abroad if we want to achieve a smoother operation.
In their response to the Select Committee’s findings, the Government have given a large number of undertakings which, if fulfilled, will undoubtedly improve the current system, and I am pleased that their response to the criticisms has been more candid than is sometimes the case. I congratulate them on that. I do not, however, have complete confidence that the Government will change their ways, for several key reasons. Primarily, I am not convinced that Ministers will be able to resist further meddling in the system. It would take a shift of seismic proportions in the way in which the Government do business for them to resist the urge to please the media at the expense of running a competent immigration system.
Only in the past few weeks, the Government have found themselves forced into intervening on the issue of immigrants from new European Union accession states. Instead of liaising with their partners in the European Union over the past few months to ensure the pressure on our borders was reduced, they appear to have panicked once again and emergency measures have had to be taken. That is another knee-jerk reaction that could and should have been avoided months in advance. It demonstrates, too, that the lessons of immigration from Poland were not learnt adequately or quickly enough.
Who could forget the badly thought-through suggestion that we could have an amnesty for illegal immigrants? Of course the idea was dropped as hastily as it seems it was dreamt up, but it hardly inspires confidence. Furthermore, I do not have complete confidence that we have heard the end of the corruption scandals, such as the one that was revealed at Lunar house a few months ago. If the Minister can tell us how many police investigations are ongoing in that regard, I would be grateful. The anecdotal evidence that I have heard suggests that there is a danger that we may have seen only the tip of the iceberg. It is as yet unclear whether corruption in the service is systemic or not.
Many of the proposed improvements we have read about also include new information technology systems. Throughout government, we have witnessed disaster after disaster in that regard and I am afraid that it will take a major change in fortune for the proposals to be implemented without further difficulties.
Overall, I urge the Government to take the recommendations of the Select Committee seriously, and I am sure that they will. They should look to ensure that politicians can no longer stifle the sound management of our immigration system. They should perhaps take a leaf out of my party’s book. We have suggested making asylum issues more independent of government through a new asylum agency, in a way that has operated successfully in Canada for some time. In fact, it is worth noting that in Canada only 1 per cent. of asylum appeals are overturned on appeal compared with a figure closer to 20 per cent. in the UK. The Government should concentrate less on sounding tough and devote more time to allowing staff to get on with the job. Only then will we be able to say that we have confidence in our immigration system.
I agreed with quite a lot of what the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mark Hunter) said in the early part of his speech, before he went slightly off the rails on Romania and Bulgaria. Regardless of what he thinks about the merits of what the Government did, it is deeply unfair to accuse them of a knee-jerk reaction. There were fully two months between when I and the Conservative party started to call for restrictions and when the Government acted. Whatever they did, it certainly was not knee-jerk.
I, too, want to pay tribute to the hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer), not only for her eloquent and passionate speech about forced marriage where she made a number of powerful points that we all hope the Minister will take on board, but for her remarks on the heating. I had assumed that in the developing cross-party consensus about climate change and global warning we had decided to set an example by keeping the Chamber unheated throughout the year.
I want to pay more than the conventional tributes to the Committee for the report. It is not just an extremely good report, but the hearings were fantastically illuminating, too. The phrase “not fit for purpose”, which now resounds around the political world, was of course originally said by the Home Secretary at one of the hearings. Indeed, as the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) mentioned, by saying that he did not have the faintest idea how many illegal immigrants were in this country, Dave Roberts in one vivid phrase swept away years of artifice and spin, saying the exact truth and something that we all knew was true, which needed saying. It reflects well, not only on him as an honest official, but also on the Committee for asking the right questions to obtain that answer.
The report is full of extremely interesting ideas. I want to deal with the larger matters that the Committee brought up, to which the Government have responded. It is sensible to look at them with three questions in mind: are things improving at all, are they improving fast enough and if not, why not?
I am conscious that the Committee reported in July, at a time when the Government set out their own ideas, that the Government responded in September and that it is now early November. I do not want to be unrealistic in my expectations of what the Government can have achieved by now, but I think it is fair to look at the direction of travel—to use the newly fashionable phrase—that the Department is moving in.
The first matter that is worth addressing is over-stayers. The right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen made an important point that too often the entire debate about the integrity of our borders and our immigration system is based purely on border controls. Clearly, they are hugely important. If we do not have proper border controls, no other part of the system will work effectively. Equally, our borders have sadly been porous for so long that there is now an enormous backlog of people who are here, but have no legal right to be here. One of the tests that the Minister and the Department have to pass is whether they can deal with that effectively.
In their response, the Government say that they want to take action against over-stayers. They say that they will
“immediately extend exit controls in stages based on risk, identify who overstays, and count everyone in and out by 2014”.
I am sure that the Minister will admit in private moments, if not publicly, that promising to get that right by 2014 is not adequate. To say that from a standing start the system will be working in eight years’ time, only two years longer than it took to fight and win the second world war, does not seem ambitious, to put it no more strongly than that. I hope that significant progress can be made in that vital area some time before 2014.
The second, related issue is illegal working. Again, the Government set out in their response a large number of areas that they propose to act on, all of which, apart from the last, concern action against employers. The hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) made some powerful points about that. Of course, those measures are important but, as the Committee said, many of the problems spring from actions not of the Home Office and the IND, but of other Departments, which are not rowing in successfully enough behind attempts to crack down on illegal working. The last point that the Government make is that they need a “cross government enforcement strategy”. Yes, they do. So far, there is no evidence that such a strategy is being employed.
One of the scandals this year was that of national insurance numbers, which the Department for Work and Pensions appears to dish out more or less for the asking. In the current situation, such behaviour is unacceptable. I would be grateful if the Minister could find some reassurance for us today that that will stop happening and that mechanisms are in place to ensure that national insurance numbers are not freely available. I take the distinction made by the hon. Member for Walthamstow about employers who knowingly employ illegal labour and those who may be caught up themselves. If someone presents a national insurance number, it is not unreasonable for an employer to think that they have gone through some checks. If that is not the case, that is unacceptable and it will render nugatory any other attempts at control.
My third point is the promise of a step change in enforcement activity, specifically the Government’s response that they will aim to
“remove the most harmful first.”
I echo the point made by the hon. Member for Cheadle that such promises do not work if the original targets are wrong. Many would observe—I would agree with them—that the tipping point target, on which the Government, from the Prime Minister down, have set so much store, has diverted attention from the more important enforcement activities that the IND should have been undertaking. In many cases it has taken the directorate in the wrong direction. In particular and specifically, it has meant that enforcement activities have not been concentrated first on the most harmful. That may be doing more harm than good.
I urge the Minister to consider that again. If he must have targets, he should set the right ones, because there is anecdotal and better evidence of the IND concentrating on families rather than on single men. As was said earlier, the former are clearly an easier target but, equally clearly, they may not be the best target, for reasons of efficiency and common humanity. The Government may wish to reconsider that.
The next point, on which the report is most interesting, is the quality of decision making, particularly by the entry clearance officers. They are under enormous pressure. They have to make their decisions in only a few minutes, but those decisions are hugely important to the people involved. I have spoken to members of the Committee since the report was published and I get the impression that they originally felt that it would prove to be one of the weaknesses of the system. However, regardless of whether or not it was a weakness, the Committee was impressed by the quality of many of those individuals. They are forced to take difficult decisions, even though, as the report says, many of them are in temporary posts. I recall a reference to a minibus load of entry clearance officers in Lagos, who had been bussed in to cope with a crisis. People who work hard and conscientiously under such conditions deserve praise, but the system is clearly not good enough. Again, reverting to my three basic questions, I would be interested to know whether any improvement has yet been made in that area.
On foreign prisoners, the Government say in their response that the system is improving. I would be delighted if the Minister were to devote some of the large amount of time that remains to giving us some evidence of why and how it is improving. He has genuine problems with deporting people to certain countries—it is obviously difficult to enforce deportation to countries that do not have a proper legal regime—but it would be interesting for the House to hear where the Government have got to.
The next point is about corruption, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Cheadle. It is festering inside the system and has not been properly addressed. We have had at least two seriously big examples of corruption within the immigration system this year, but the Committee revealed some startling figures. It found that 703 allegations had been made, of which 409 were investigated, and that another 169 cases went to the immigration service operational integrity unit, 120 of them being pursued.
The report on the first corruption case described it as a one-off, a bad apple and not systemic and used other such phrases. The Committee’s report candidly suggests that that is not true. It seems that widespread corruption is at least suspected inside our immigration system, and everyone agrees that that is completely unacceptable. One of the Minister’s earliest and most urgent tasks must be to root it out. If we cannot have confidence in the honesty and integrity of the system, the already low level of public confidence will fall even further.
The final general area that I want to consider is the appeals system. I am sure the Minister will be aware that when the Countess of Mar resigned from the immigration appeal tribunal, she said:
“The whole process is a farce and needs to be revised.”
Those of us who have spent time observing immigration tribunals have seen many people trying hard to make the system work, but it is in such a state that it does not work at all well. I spent a day at Taylor house and saw that many cases had to be postponed because the Home Office presenting officer had not turned up or the papers had not arrived in time, so people had not been able to read them. The system is under so much strain that it cannot cope with the important job being asked of it. I wonder if the subject could be included in a Bill during the next Session.
In summary, the picture painted by the report is of a shambles. That was remarked at the time and was not controversial. The Home Secretary agreed and set himself the task of turning things around. I am sure that the Minister will argue that it is early days yet, and he would be right. My concern, however, looking back over the report and the catalogue of horrors that it exposes and for which it has suggested remedies, is that in too many cases there is no evidence of progress, especially in those areas that involve other arms of Government.
I am sure that the Committee will want to return to the subject in coming years, spoiled though it is for choice on subjects about which useful and constructive reports could be made, but I genuinely hope that the next time it returns to the subject the picture is rather less bleak.
Order. Before I call the Minister, I inform hon. Members that the House authorities have been doing their level best to try and effect a repair to the heating system. Unfortunately, it cannot be done without the engineers’ physical presence in the Chamber, which would have been disruptive. However, I am assured that before the House discusses the next report of the Select Committee the heating will be working.
I shall do my best to fill the Chamber with hot air, although hon. Members will be pleased to hear that I may not take the entirety of the 63 minutes that are available to me. Nevertheless, I shall try to respond to as many of the points raised by right hon. and hon. Members as I can.
The Home Secretary, in one of his more jocular moments, advised me that I should introduce myself at meetings as the “Immigration Minister for now”. While I remain Immigration Minister, I shall keep the Select Committee’s report close at hand. It was a privilege to read it over the summer, and I add my congratulations to the Committee. Its members worked hard both here and abroad, undertaking research and then structuring it with such analytical insight. In particular, I congratulate the Committee Chairman, my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham), not only on his work in leading the Committee but for the advice that he rendered to the Home Office when I wanted to pose questions.
I, too, enjoyed many of the evidence sessions; I watched them on television. I certainly enjoyed many of the comments made by Dave Roberts. Indeed, he paraphrased a remark that I had read much earlier, which was:
“By its very nature, illegal immigration is difficult to measure and any estimates would be highly speculative.”—[Official Report, 20 April 1995; Vol. 258, c. 328.]
That remark was, of course, made during Home Office questions by the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), the former leader of the Conservative party.
I also thank those right hon. and hon. Members who congratulated many of the Home Office staff and the immigration and nationality directorate. Some of those officials are today sitting behind my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen. I was tempted earlier to offer to throw one of them on the fire to generate a bit of heat, but I would not go that far as they have sacrificed enough in helping the Committee in its work over the past few months.
I also want to praise my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) for the courage with which she has, over many years, campaigned on the issue of forced marriage. That is something I tried to understand in more detail during time I spent in Islamabad. It is an issue that affects my constituency, and as a constituency MP I am grateful for the leadership she has shown—it is something that is important to many hon. Members.
This is a seminal report and I hope that, alongside the IND review and the review that the Home Office composed on the report under the instruction of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, when our colleagues look back in future years they will consider it a landmark in the development of our immigration system. I am particularly glad that the Committee centred so much of its analysis and remarks on the insight that actually immigration is not something that can be managed by part of the Home Office on its own. In a global society, immigration is a cross-government effort and will only be managed to the benefit of the country and every corner of every community if all of government works together to help all sections of society shoulder the risks and share the benefits.
It is no surprise that there are large areas of the report where the Home Office and the IND are in complete accord with some of the recommendations—for example, that current enforcement efforts are inadequate and not based on harm reduction. In the IND review we said that we would seek to double enforcement and compliance over the next few years and in the future seek to prioritise harm reduction. The Committee said that it was important that the IND secured the benefits of migration for the country, and the IND review said that we would set out a new strategic objective to
“boost Britain’s economy by bringing the right skills to this country from abroad and to ensure that Britain is easy to visit legally”.
Where the Committee said that reform for the future was vital, we set out what we think is one of the biggest reforms of the immigration service in its history.
The starting point for those changes has to be a set of principles, which, for those who were not in Manchester earlier this year, were set out with admirable clarity by the Home Secretary. I will remind hon. Members what he said:
“It isn't fair when desperate people fleeing persecution who need asylum are put at risk because criminal gangs abuse an antiquated asylum system. It isn't fair when someone illegally enters our country and jumps the queue. It isn't fair on British workers if they find their terms and conditions undermined by unscrupulous employers deliberately taking on cheap illegal labour. And it isn't fair, or sensible, if in assessing immigration levels we don't take into account the effects of immigration on the schools, and hospitals and housing.”
That was also at the heart of the remarks made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen.
In the IND review we set out some of the ways in which we would respond to the analysis presented by the Committee. We did not have to start from scratch due to the achievements of the immigration service, which did not just act on its own, but in partnership with colleagues from across Government. We should consider what has happened at our borders, which is where the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) started his comments. At Calais, around 15,500 would-be illegal immigrants have been detected while concealed in vehicles by using new equipment. Of those, 12,500 were intercepted before they reached the UK. If we look beyond Calais and around the world, we have in place a global network of airline liaison officers who have helped to stop 33,000 inadequately documented passengers coming into this country. On the asylum system, there were fewer applications for asylum in 2005 than in any year since 1993. Initial decisions are now much faster: it took around 22 months to get an initial decision in 1996, now three quarters of decisions are made in about eight weeks. In cases where claims fail, more people are now removed. When I looked at some of the figures over the past week, I calculated that we now remove someone whose asylum claim has failed approximately every half an hour.
We do, of course, have to strike a balance. That is why this is often an emotive debate. I welcome the comments made by the hon. Gentleman in the Daily Express—a paper that I read every day—on 19 May this year when he said that immigration has benefited this country economically and culturally. After the election campaign earlier this year, I thought that was an important message for him to express. Migrants now account for about 10 to 15 per cent. of GDP growth in this country. It would be impossible to imagine the city of London or the bio-tech sector without immigration. Foreign students today bring in about £5 billion to our universities every year.
In the IND review we set out four areas of work where important change was needed. First, with regard to our frontiers, we said that actually more and more checks need to be made abroad, so that if there were problems with individuals, they could be stopped before they came near our shores. We also said that we wanted to count everybody in and out. I understand why exit controls were dismantled from 1994 and the hon. Gentleman will I am sure be delighted to know that we plan to count around 60 per cent. of people in and out by 2009, so he will not have to hang on until 2014.
Secondly, we will continue reform of the asylum system. Opposition Members have often frustrated attempts to introduce those reforms and I hope that some of the changes that we will seek to make over the next few months and years will receive rather more support. We want to decide the majority of cases in six months, but we are realistic about the way that needs to be done and, by working in partnership with our courts, we think that can be achieved.
Thirdly, our enforcement and removal effort should be changed, sustained, improved and resourced more adequately. The idea of prioritising harm reduction and tackling illegal working must be at the heart of what we do. We will have more to say on that later in the year.
Finally, we have clearly stated that boosting the economy must sit at the heart of the work done by the IND. I was grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mrs. Dean) for welcoming our work on that. I can reassure her particularly in the matter of policing college admission procedures in this country that it is something we take enormously seriously. I and my colleague the Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning frequently discuss that matter. We will announce new measures in due course.
I am sorry that some of decisions we have had to make were not welcomed by all of my hon. Friends. I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) as he has campaigned ceaselessly on the issue that he spoke about. He has lobbied me consistently on behalf of his constituents and I was very grateful for the work that he did in organising the seminar of people who came to see me at the Home Office. I am sorry that I was simply not persuaded that the benefits to his constituents and others did not outweigh the costs a reversal of policy entails. However, I hope that for the future, he recognises that it is important to introduce stability into such decisions. That is why the migration advisory committee will, in due course, be so important.
We also announced in the IND review a series of seven changes that we thought would provide the foundation for a stronger organisation in the future. Hon. Members will be delighted to hear that I will not go through all of them—I will just highlight two or three.
First, there is the need to tackle the increasingly over-complex legislative framework that IND officials administer. The question of decision quality was at the heart of the Committee’s analysis and when I look at the pile of guidance and documents in my office, I wonder how some of our officials manage to master the information to make decisions, much of which involves laws that date back to when I was born. We promised in the IND review that we would overhaul and simplify that legislation.
I was glad the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) welcomed the fact that the IND should be an arm’s length agency. I do not think that that is a silver bullet, something that will change decision quality in itself, but it is part of three changes that are important for the future.
We have to give operational freedom to IND, which is why agency status is so important. We cannot allow IND staff simply to get on with the job. We must have a stronger regulatory framework, so that the work that they do is subject to better scrutiny than is available today. I do not believe that 11 different regulators can sufficiently hold the IND to account, for Ministers, hon. Members or the public. We will, therefore, seek to rationalise the number of regulators, so that there is a bigger, stronger, more consolidated regulator that is better able to hold the IND to account.
Another change that I should like to see involves much clearer regionalisation of the IND, so that members of the public can see how it is doing where they live. They must be able to compare the performance of their regional office with that in other parts of the country. The public should be able to expect accountability and transparency.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen said initially that he hoped for an update on some of the work that we have done since providing our response. I shall update the House on one issue, which was at the centre of some of the remarks that were made—foreign national prisoners. The report contained an echo of much of the analysis that the Home Secretary offered. He went on to set out eight areas in which he thought that change was imperative if we were to learn the lessons of the foreign national prisoners episode. I shall provide a commentary on where some of those measures have got to, because I suspect that some of them will be in the news in the next week or so.
Many people will perhaps criticise the fact that we do not let foreign national prisoners out when they have reached the end of their sentences if we have not yet fully considered their cases. Some people will accuse us of placing undue pressure on the prison system. I understand that criticism. None the less, it would be worse to carry on letting out foreign national prisoners without due consideration. The key for the IND is to get ahead in its decision making, so that prisoners coming to the end of their sentence are considered a good six months in advance. We are not there yet. The result is that more foreign national prisoners will be in our jails awaiting deportation. That is simply the price that we will pay. The Home Secretary was clear: he said that we would not allow foreign national prisoners out until their cases had been fully considered, and he meant it.
To solve the problem for the future, the Home Secretary proposed eight changes. First, we need to solve the problem of the lack of a single identifier throughout the system. Over the summer, therefore, we brought together our plans for identity management and our plans for border controls, and in the next few months we shall publish an identity management action plan. I hope to have that published before Christmas. It will set out some of the principles that we will apply to solve that problem in the criminal justice system.
Secondly, to address the lack of a legal requirement to prove nationality when in contact with the criminal justice system, we have spent a good deal of time over the summer working with front-line agencies in four parts of the country to identify how we can change the situation. We have identified a number of options that will be tested on the ground in the months to come.
Thirdly, to ensure that operational guidance in this area is robust and consistent, front-line staff have been interviewed over the summer and a new framework for ensuring consistency will be put in place early next year. Fourthly, the process for producing policy has been audited and the policy clarified. The immigration rules were changed earlier this year to confirm that deportation is the norm for foreign national prisoners who meet the current criteria.
Fifthly, we said that we would change the law to make the link between criminality and deportation stronger and more straightforward, and I can confirm that we will seek an early legislative opportunity to do that. Sixthly, we have audited the referral arrangements in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and robust new arrangements are in place. Seventhly, new arrangements have been put in place to ensure that foreign national mentally disordered offenders who are removed from restriction are now considered for deportation.
Lastly, arrangements for prisoner transfers are being enhanced. We have changed the Police and Justice Bill, which is making its way through Parliament. The link that we promised between criminality and deportation will, I hope, be made stronger as a result.
My final remarks relate to the point made by the hon. Member for Ashford about the direction of travel. Much of what we need to do in the next three or four months is in the field of enforcement and strengthening decision making, including decision making abroad. First, it is important to talk about money. We said that we would double the amount spent on enforcement and compliance over the next few years. I am glad to say that, on Monday, we began that process by issuing a consultation document about the principle of flexibility in how we raise money from foreign nationals who seek to visit, work or study here, so that we can begin putting in place arrangements to bring that new money on stream, beginning in the next financial year.
My second point concerns the strategy for how some of that money will be spent. In this respect, we have an enormous amount to learn from what the Home Affairs Committee said. Prioritising harm reduction has to be a core element, as do much more effective cross-government working and shutting down the magnet of illegal working.
I listened very carefully to my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) and I have read many of the arguments to which he referred. I have discussed the issue with the general secretary of the TUC and with trade unions in my region. The conclusion that I reach is different. I was quite open with the Committee about my open mind. That got me into a bit of trouble, but I wanted to be honest about it. We rejected the idea of regularisation. Despite my hon. Friend’s analysis, my view is not enormously different from that of my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick). I simply do not believe that a regularisation scheme would be fair. Many people seek to come to this country and apply for the right to work, and I do not believe that those who have come here and broken the rules should be allowed to jump the queue.
That is not to say that we cannot do a great deal more to protect vulnerable workers in this country who are being systematically and ruthlessly exploited by unscrupulous employers in a race to the bottom. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow will take some comfort from the fact that I have started conversations with colleagues at the Department of Trade and Industry about what more the immigration service, the IND and the Home Office can do to support the pilots on vulnerable workers that were announced earlier this year.
As a very strong constituency MP, my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen will be interested in a poll that I conducted among my own constituents in Hodge Hill earlier this year. One idea that we have posed was that employers employing people illegally should pay the price of that. When I asked some of my constituents whether that was a good idea, 92.2 per cent. said yes; only 7.7 per cent. thought that it was not. I am referring to a series of measures that will command a great deal of support in communities up and down the country. We shall clarify our concept of operations over the next two or three months.
My third point involves introducing powers to reinforce strategy and make best use of the new resources that we put in place. There is still work to do to ensure that front-line staff on our borders and in-country have the right powers to do their jobs, and we will make proposals on that to the House in due course.
My fourth point is about infrastructure and how we ensure that, in a society of global movement, our immigration and border staff have the right tools to do their jobs. In the next few months, we will set out why identity and identity management systems are fundamental to policing movement more effectively. That cannot and will not be a policy-free zone: it will not be simply a technology solution, because policy has to change. Once we have put in place our enforcement strategy, I will seek to put in place and publish a new strategy for visas. In that regard, many of the comments made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen and my hon. Friends the Members for Walthamstow, for Burton and for Keighley will be extremely illuminating.
As I said, I followed in the Committee’s footsteps not only to Islamabad but to Mirpur and Gerry’s/FedEx, to which I have been dying to go since I was elected to the House a few years ago. I, too, was struck by some of the changes that we can introduce to make it easier for people to understand whether they have any entitlement or chance of coming here in the first place. That applies particularly to the many of my constituents who are from Dadyal, which is somewhat north of Mirpur. It is an enormous inconvenience to have to go Mirpur to apply for visas. If we can put more of the pre-screening tools online so that people can do some of the assessment before they invest in travelling, we will do a great deal of good.
I expect that in future identity systems will have a triple ring. We will have to make a much bigger investment in biometric visas. In the pilots so far we have found well over 1,000 people through biometric testing who have, shall we say, an adverse immigration history, and who sought to return to the country by misleading us about their identity. The fact that we were able to identify them through the limited pilot that we have in place shows the system’s potential. That system will be integrated with our plans for electronic borders and a system of counting people in and out, and that system will in turn be integrated with our plans for ID cards for foreign nationals.
I was disappointed when the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) said at the Tory party conference on 1 October:
“ID cards are wrong, they're a waste of money and we will abolish them.”
When I asked my constituents whether we should make ID cards for foreign nationals a priority, an extraordinary 80.5 per cent. thought it a good idea, so I think that we are right to press ahead with it, particularly when we contrast our proposals with those of the Opposition parties. All that they offer in place of ID cards is the chaos of a damaging, distracting and disruptive reorganisation of three agencies on the front line into a single border force. That idea is outdated and is rooted in a concept of a frontier that is long past. It is simplistic and dangerous in the disruption that it poses. The number of people who seek to come to this country might double in the next 10 to 15 years, and I simply cannot think of a worse use of time than to consume front-line staff in the process of reapplying for their own jobs in a reorganisation, the benefits of which we are already achieving by equipping different agencies with the powers to do each others’ jobs.
I know that there is an ongoing policy review—I noticed with great interest that it looked as though Dame Pauline Neville-Jones was going to come out in favour of ID cards—and that the Conservative party does not have a strong track record of welcoming all the conclusions of that sort of commission, but I hope that it recommends this one. I hope also that the commission will go further and put the idea of a single border force in the bin, where it belongs.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at eight minutes to Five o’clock.