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Illegal Immigrants (Employment)

Volume 454: debated on Monday 4 December 2006

To strengthen the existing powers to prosecute and fine the employers of illegal migrant workers, we took action in the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act 2006 to introduce a system of civil penalties for careless employers and a criminal offence of knowingly employing illegal workers. That will come into force by the end of 2007.

Does the Minister agree that certain sectors of industry lend themselves to that kind of abuse more readily than others? Coming from the construction industry, I have considerable experience of that sector. Does he agree that the construction industry is just such a sector? What is he doing and who is he speaking to in the trade unions, trade bodies and other appropriate organisations and Departments to try to halt such abuse?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that comment. We are working with a wide range of employers and the CBI, as well as with trade unions, to understand how we can come down much harder on the cause of illegal immigration, which is obviously not the great British weather, but the opportunity to work in a sustained and growing economy. That is not only why we are doubling the resources that we are investing in enforcement and removal, but why we are proposing a new package of measures, so that those employers who break the rule, undercut competitors and employ people illegally will now face not only civil penalties, but where necessary, unlimited fines and imprisonment.

The Minister must be aware that there is not a Member who does not have within their constituency those who have applied for asylum who often have to wait months, sometimes years, for their asylum applications to be dealt with and, likewise, those who have had their asylum applications turned down who are, again, held in limbo for some considerable time before being removed from the country. Invariably and inevitably, those people are sucked into the black economy. Is not the reason for illegal immigrants simply that the Home Office and the immigration and nationality directorate have not got a grip on the asylum system?

Far be it from me to intrude into the fantasy life of another hon. Member, but if the House will permit me a brief intervention, it is fanciful to argue that we can tackle illegal immigration while opposing penalties for smuggling people in, as the Conservative party did in 1999; while opposing the simplification of the appeals process in 2004; and while proposing to halve, by £900 million, the budget for the IND and to vote against ID cards, too. All those measures are required to police illegal working and illegal immigration in a modern economy. Yes, we need to increase resources. That is why we will double resources over the next few years. Yes, we need to change the law, and proposals will come into place in 2007. But let us not pretend that the kind of measures proposed by the Conservative party would have any impact whatsoever.

Will the situation not be made much worse by the Minister’s decision on Romania and Bulgaria, whereby EU citizens from some countries will be prevented from working, whereas citizens from other countries, such as Poland and Hungary, are allowed to work? Does that not create enormous confusion in the minds of employers? What steps will he take to ensure that he publicises those changes, rather than concentrating on removal, to make employers more aware of the situation, rather than acting in a way that could cause even greater problems for the operation of the lamentable immigration and nationality directorate?

There are very few things about which I disagree with my right hon. Friend but, unfortunately, this is one of them. As he will know, the question that all EU countries must confront upon the accession of Bulgaria and Romania is not whether to lift restrictions on their labour markets but how quickly to lift them over the next four or five years. The decision that we took—it commanded some support not only in the business community, but in the House—was that we should not throw the door open very quickly, but gradually.

We need to understand the impact of the last wave of accession. My right hon. Friend is right to say that it is important that we help employers to understand their obligations. That is precisely why I wrote to 500,000 of them over the last few weeks. We will spend significant amounts more over the next few months so that employers know their obligations. He alluded to an important point: without a means of establishing someone’s identity in this modern economy, the job is difficult. That is why we need ID cards.

One has to admire the Minister’s chutzpah in criticising employers of illegal immigrants when one of the employers caught using illegal immigrant cleaners was the Home Office in July. Tonight, a BBC “Panorama” special will expose how ridiculously easy it is to obtain a fake passport from another EU country and to be allowed freely into this country with it. Will he tell the House what penalty is appropriate for an employer who relies on that same fake passport as evidence of the right to work and will he not admit that the biggest problem is not the employers, but the fact that the Government’s system of border control has been exposed as completely inadequate?

The hon. Gentleman will know something about this matter, because the Opposition abstained on the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act in 2005. The Act proposed a penalty for knowingly employing illegal immigrants and introduced new sanctions of unlimited fines, and imprisonment. The premise of his point is wrong. Business in this country has a responsibility to help to police illegal immigration. That is precisely why the CBI has joined with us, so that it can help draw up the rules that drive out bad employers. He is right to say that we must strengthen border controls—indeed we must, but that is exactly why biometric identity systems will be so important, not just for British nationals, but for foreign nationals and those who seek to visit this country from abroad. Over the months to come, as we debate the matter over and again, I anticipate that many members of the Opposition will join the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), who made it clear on the radio a year or two ago that, where the police have said that they see a case for using ID cards to tackle illegal immigration, he believes that that is true.

What is my hon. Friend doing about people who have been granted leave to stay and allowed to take employment, but whose span of time has run out and who are waiting to renew that permission? Many employers are letting those people go.

We have a number of measures in place, but, ultimately, there is no substitute for a big expansion in the available resources to police that. That is why I am glad that we were able to take the first step a week or two ago, outlining plans to hire 800 extra officers and investigators to uncover those businesses that break the rules. The transformation and overhaul of the IND will not be done overnight. It will take place over months and years to come. Ultimately, there will be no substitute for that in tackling the problems that my hon. Friend outlines.