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UK Borders Bill

Volume 457: debated on Tuesday 27 February 2007

2. What recent discussions he has had with Home Office Ministers on the likely effect of the UK Borders Bill on Scotland. (122161)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues about the effect of Bills on Scotland.

I thank the Minister for that totally inadequate reply. Given that we are supposed to be a United Kingdom, for the time being at least, with a common border, is it not extraordinary that in the UK Borders Bill there are key clauses that Scotland is to be denied which have to do with the power of detention for border control officers and the forfeiture of property? Is it not extraordinary that the Scottish people will be denied the tighter border controls that the Government want to introduce in the rest of the country?

If my answer was inadequate, that supplementary was completely ill-informed. Border immigration officers in Scotland will have the full suite of powers on immigration, including dealing with allegations of illegal immigration, that officers in England will have. The Bill allows border immigration officers to detain an individual for up to three hours until such time as a constable can arrive for reasons to do not with immigration but with other criminal activity.

The hon. Gentleman may or may not know that most matters relating to criminal justice are devolved in Scotland, so any decision to extend those powers would quite properly be a matter for the Scottish Executive. In the meantime, the Scottish Executive and the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland have come to an understanding that an operational solution can be provided. There are only seven international ports in Scotland, as opposed to 44 in England, and they all have a full-time police presence, so it is not necessary to give immigration officers those additional powers because there are police constables at the seven international ports. There is absolutely no difference in the effect, which is that we are protecting our borders and will ensure, not only on immigration but on other criminal activities, that the relevant authorities have the power that they need.

May I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to today’s Order Paper, and to the fact that the Northern Ireland Grand Committee is meeting this afternoon at 4 pm? That made me realise that I cannot remember the last time that the Scottish Grand Committee met. Does the Minister support me in thinking that the Scottish Grand Committee would be an excellent forum in which to discuss the UK Borders Bill and its effects on Scotland? [Interruption.]

That was very well done. There is a key difference between the situation in Northern Ireland and the situation in Scotland, which is that there is not yet an Assembly established in Northern Ireland. As part of the arrangements for operating under suspension, there was a commitment that the Northern Ireland Grand Committee would meet on a regular basis until devolution was re-established. The whole House will share the hope that, following the elections in Northern Ireland next Wednesday, there will be a return to a power-sharing Executive, so that the Province can emerge, after decades of sectarian hatred, as a decent and forward-looking place; that is what the vast majority of its people desire. As for the Scottish Grand Committee, decisions on whether it should sit are a matter for the usual channels and the House authorities.

May I for once commend the Minister on achieving, under the Bill, a solution on detention that recognises the integrity and independence of the Scottish criminal justice system? Any hon. Member who thinks that they know better than ACPOS or the Scottish Executive when it comes to the Scottish criminal justice system would need good reason for doing so. Does the Minister accept that we have established the principle that immigration, asylum and nationality matters can be treated with a bit more flexibility in Scotland, and will he continue to promote that within Government?

The Government do not need me to promote that view, as the Home Office entirely accepts the principle that the hon. Gentleman outlines. That is why there is a national director for the immigration and nationality directorate in Scotland, Phil Taylor, and he is doing an outstanding job. I know that he communicates regularly with all the political parties. We are introducing a new asylum model, so that one individual or team can work with an asylum applicant all the way through their application. We have agreement, in principle, on introducing lead officers, who will consider the wider implications for families. That has all been established through excellent, close co-operation with the First Minister and the Home Office. We fully respect the devolution boundaries, but we recognise that matters to do with immigration and asylum are reserved.

Will the Minister look again at clauses 1 to 4 of the UK Borders Bill, which make it clear that the powers that the House is being asked to give to police officers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland relate to border controls, which are not devolved? He has not explained why a comparable power is not being sought in this place for the Scottish police. Our border controls are not a matter for the Scottish Executive, and there should be parity of treatment throughout the United Kingdom. I understand that in this morning’s Public Bill Committee, the Minister alluded to the fact that the matter might be sorted out after the next Scottish general election, but what does that have to do with it?

I am sorry to tell my hon. Friend that he fundamentally misunderstands the position. On immigration, which is a reserved matter, the immigration officials at ports in Scotland will have the full suite of powers that immigration officials in England have. The measures are about extending those powers to matters that are not related to immigration. For example, if a British national committed a crime in the UK and then attempted to flee the country, and if the crime related not to reserved matters, but devolved matters, that would be a matter for the Scottish criminal justice system, which is devolved. As I said in answer to the first question in this batch, we have an operational solution that respects the devolution divide, but because there are only seven international ports, all of which have a police presence, it is not necessary to extend the powers to immigration officers in Scotland, when it is a devolved matter that is being dealt with.

It is all very well for the Minister to come regularly to the House and lecture us on his party’s Unionist credentials, but on a matter such as protecting our borders, which is pivotal to the purpose of our united kingdom, his Government have failed to deliver a united approach. What possible rationale can the Minister offer to explain why his party proposed different arrangements for immigration officers in Scotland, apart from it being another example of Mr. McConnell allowing the Liberal Democrat tail to wag the Labour dog?

That is a classic example of the perils of writing a question before listening to the first answer. I explained in detail that immigration officers in Scotland will have exactly the same powers on immigration as immigration officials in England. I respect the devolution distinction, and criminal justice on those matters is devolved. The hon. Gentleman spends his entire political career fighting devolution, so we will simply not take any lectures from him on how to preserve the devolution settlement.