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Illegal Immigrants

Volume 465: debated on Wednesday 24 October 2007

I thank Mr. Speaker for giving me permission to raise this important subject today, and I warmly welcome the Minister to the debate to listen to what I and other colleagues have to say, and to respond in due course.

The control of illegal immigration is a very important topic, and the Minister is a very important person. Indeed, I reckon that she is one of the most important Ministers in the Government, because the first duty of Her Majesty’s Government should be to defend our island and control our borders. In that regard, we put a lot of faith in her and her Department. However, I must draw to her attention the fact that all is not working as it should. In places as land-locked as Northamptonshire, illegal immigrants are turning up on our doorstep, and it is causing huge concern to local residents, particularly because of the advice that the Border and Immigration Agency has given to Northamptonshire police whenever they have apprehended those people.

There have been in Northamptonshire two recent cases that I want to draw to the Minister’s attention. The first in mid-September was reported faithfully by the Northampton Chronicle & Echo on its front page. It said, “16 immigrants caught by police…were told to make their own way” to the immigration offices in Croydon. Those 16 illegals jumped off the back of a lorry, and three were apprehended by the police, who quite rightly phoned the Border and Immigration Agency, only to be advised to encourage those three to make their own way to the immigration offices in Croydon. Effectively, they were released.

If that was not bad enough, later in the same month, a group of African immigrants were found hiding in the back of a lorry in a Northamptonshire village. They were dropped off at a railway station by police and also told to make their way to the same immigration centre.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on yet again bringing forward for debate a topic that is very important to the people of Northamptonshire. In fact, half the MPs for Northamptonshire are in the Chamber. Does he agree that one problem for Northamptonshire is that if illegal immigrants do not get off the lorries as soon as they arrive from across the channel, the next stop for the lorries is Northamptonshire, where they get out?

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for that pertinent intervention. That is exactly the case. The Northampton Chronicle & Echo reported the second case that I mentioned, and it has a quotation from the lorry driver concerned, Mr. Adrian Coe, who found the men in the back of his truck. He said:

“We’d come from France and loaded the lorry up in Paris. But we had to park up in Dunkirk for a break and we reckon that’s where they got in.

When we got to Long Buckby and found them, we held them and rang the police.

We thought they’d take them away somewhere, we didn’t realise they were just going to drop them off at the railway station.”

According to the paper, a spokesman for Northamptonshire police confirmed that the men had been taken to Long Buckby railway station. She said:

“We called the immigration service to advise them we had these people. We were told to advise them how to get to the nearest immigration centre,”

which in Northamptonshire’s case is Croydon.

In the space of less than a week in the middle of September, there were two nonsensical cases in which illegal immigrants were released to do whatever they liked illegally in this country.

My hon. Friend calls it nonsensical, I call it bonkers. If one travels from the Gare du Nord, there is proper security, including British officials who check one’s passport before one is allowed to board the Eurostar train. Surely that should be replicated at all ports where lorries get on vessels to travel to the United Kingdom, and heat-seeking technology should be used that would be able to show whether any bodies were on the lorries. The best way to control illegal immigrants is to ensure that they do not come to the United Kingdom in the first place.

I am most grateful for that very wise intervention. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Government must ensure that lorries are searched when they arrive in this country.

Before they arrive. I would check them on as many occasions as I possibly could.

There is also an important point about the welfare of those poor individuals. There have been horrible examples of lorries packed with illegal immigrants in dreadful conditions, and some people have died on their way into the country, which is why we need to secure our borders and ports. Being an island nation, it ought to be relatively straightforward.

I have mentioned two cases in Northamptonshire, but I am afraid that it is not just a Northamptonshire problem.

I was the person fortunate—or unfortunate—enough to receive a phone call from the lorry driver in the first incident, and I not only raised the matter with the local police but wrote to the Home Secretary, arguing that although those people were supposed to come from Iraq, we did not know whether they were infiltrators from Iran, terrorists, healthy, criminal or whatever. We were amazed at the response. I therefore wrote to the Minister—

I shall try to keep my intervention as brief as possible.

I asked for a review of the protocols, arguing that they simply were not good enough. Although I have not received a response to my letter, the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) has, and I am told that changes have been made to the protocol. Will the Minister refer to those changes? If they have been made, it could help us in Northamptonshire enormously. Thank you, Mr. Marshall.

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for that informed and helpful intervention.

Before I move on from Northamptonshire, the latest figures with which Northamptonshire police have been kind enough to provide me show that some 27 people have been reported to them jumping off the back of lorries in the county over the past year. Those are fresh figures that are bang up to date. Some 74 other illegal immigration cases have been notified to the police, too.

I am afraid that the problem is not confined to Northamptonshire. I have the honour and privilege to serve on the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill Committee, and in evidence to that Committee on 16 October, Jan Berry, the chairman of the Police Federation, confirmed in response to my question that the examples I cited from Northamptonshire were commonplace throughout the country. She said:

“That is an accurate description of what is taking place in many areas of the country, where there is not necessarily any provision for people to be transported to the different centres. When we call up, that is exactly the advice that we are given. We encourage people to get on a bus, train or other form of transport, and surprisingly very few actually reach the destination. It is certainly something that our members have said to us is of concern.”––[Official Report, Criminal Justice and Immigration Public Bill Committee, 16 October 2007; c. 56, Q108.]

That is a national disgrace, to be quite blunt, and the Government must act and act soon to prevent it from happening again.

In an effort to be helpful to Her Majesty’s Government, I have tabled an amendment to the Bill, new clause 17, which I hope that the Committee will discuss in due course. I seek the Minister’s support, and I hope that she will consider whether the proposed amendment might help to address the concerns that local people in Northamptonshire and, I am sure, throughout the country, have about the issue. My amendment would place a duty on the Border and Immigration Agency to ensure that those immigrants were detained by the arresting authorities.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

I understand that there was some confusion about the time on the clocks when we suspended. I am advised by the Clerk that we suspended at 4.9 pm. We would have had 21 minutes left, so we will continue until 4.46 pm.

Thank you, Mr. Marshall.

I return to the new clause that I have tabled to the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill. New clause 17 would place a duty on the Border and Immigration Agency to arrange with local police for suspected illegal immigrants to be detained in custody until the agency could pick them up. The situation is so serious that there ought to be a legal duty on the agency to ensure that such people are not released. Hon. Members can imagine the concern in Northamptonshire that such people are being set free. Common sense says that they should be detained, but the law allows them to be released, and the agency’s practice effectively encourages their release. We simply do not know what type of people they are, whether they pose a threat to national security, or whether they have some kind of communicable disease that could infect local people.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the problem is even worse in Northamptonshire because of the thousands of legal migrant workers from the European Union who come to the area? There is uncontrolled immigration, everything gets mixed into one pot, and there is a real danger of extremist parties coming in and peddling their wares.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, as usual. I do not think that any of the major political parties realises the extent of public concern about immigration. Until one of the main parties deals properly with this whole issue, we will, as my hon. Friend says, see the growth of extremist political parties that distort the issue for their own ends and do not help at all. Serious issues need to be addressed. This is not a racist topic. Concern about illegal immigrants is nothing to do with where they are from or the colour of their skin. People are concerned about their illegal status and think that they should be detained until that illegality is addressed.

There are about 600,000 illegal immigrants in the country, many of whom are at large. Will the Minister confirm the latest estimates of the number of illegal immigrants in the country? We see precious little sign of any effective deportation programme to ensure that such people are returned to from whence they came. Even if there were an effective programme, it would take 10 to 20 years to remove all the people who have entered the country illegally.

The specific focus of this debate is the practicality of the existing arrangements. Northamptonshire police and other police forces do their best in relation to the illegal immigrants whom they apprehend, but the official advice that they receive from the Border and Immigration Agency is to let such people go.

I hope that the Minister will address the issue of those people who enter the country illegally both by lorry and by air. Will she tell us when there will be proper passport checks abroad? When will the new equipment come in to ensure that those who destroy their documents aboard planes can be caught because we will have a copy of their passports and thus know where they come from? Those people will then not be allowed to enter the country.

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point and I hope that the Minister will address it in her response.

A national scandal is occurring, and we cannot allow the official practice of the Border and Immigration Agency to continue as it is. At the very least, the agency must develop a presence in Northamptonshire. We should also amend the law to close the current loophole. Local law enforcement agencies such as Northamptonshire police are doing their best in difficult circumstances and I have no criticism of them whatever. Indeed, I commend their diligence in reporting cases, as instructed, to the Border and Immigration Agency. However, I utterly condemn that agency’s advice that the people concerned should be released into the wider community.

In my opening remarks I described the Minister as one of the most important people in the country. It is time for her to live up to that position, fully address the responsibility that her proud office confers on her, and take effective action to ensure that there are no repeats of such events.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Marshall. I congratulate the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) on securing the debate, and I thank other hon. Members for their interest in this important issue.

I am aware of the detailed matters raised by the hon. Gentleman, because my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) has been discussing them with the Home Secretary, the Minister for Borders and Immigration and me for a number of weeks—at least since the middle of September. I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has now taken them up directly with Ministers. It is the first time that he has done so, and it is good news that he has, and that hon. Members across Northamptonshire are taking an interest in such important issues.

I shall be brief, because I do not wish to curtail the time available to the Under-Secretary. I wrote to the Secretary of State on 17 September and asked for an inquiry and for changes in protocol. Will the Under-Secretary find out why I have not received a response, and will she write to me personally on that? She mentioned the names of certain other hon. Members but did not include me, and I am worried that my letter might not have got through.

I shall certainly look into that and ensure that the hon. Gentleman receives an answer as soon as possible.

The Government recognise that migration policy needs a new balance between economic benefits and the wider impacts of migration. The Government intend that only those whom Britain needs should come here to work and study. At the end of my remarks, I shall outline a number of new measures that we will introduce in the new year.

Cracking down on illegal migration—within and at the UK’s borders, and before people arrive—is an essential part of achieving that balance. The Government are committed to building stronger borders, and hon. Members who have travelled recently will have noticed, I hope, that all border immigration officers now wear uniforms and that checks have been stepped up. From next year, we shall introduce identity cards for all foreign nationals, which will make clearer which of them are entitled to be in the country and which are not. We also have a watch list, which means that those people trying to enter the country who are known to be dangerous are excluded. The quicker that we can match people to their real identity and tackle multiple identity fraud across the board, rather than only in the context of immigration, the better. I look forward to the firm support of the hon. Member for Kettering for the introduction of identity cards both for foreign nationals and for British citizens, as they are an essential part of maintaining our borders. From what Conservative Members have said, I am pleased to infer that they are leaning towards agreement with that position.

It is important to maintain our borders—within the country but also from outside. It might reassure the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) to know that airline liaison officers are deployed in a number of countries to prevent such people boarding aeroplanes in the first place. Under European initiatives, we shall introduce passenger name records in conjunction with European partners, although we already undertake a certain amount of such activity. The new measures will mean that the details of every passenger who boards an aeroplane will be sent to the UK immigration authorities, so that anyone who should not be entering the country is removed—either before or during the flight. I hope that that provides some reassurance.

Of course. Will the Under-Secretary say when that technology will come into use at airports and at points of embarkation and disembarkation?

It is already in use in some areas, and I shall write to the hon. Gentleman with the details. We are looking to extend the coverage further with our European partners. Our work with some countries is better than with others.

Some detailed points have been mentioned about the incident in Northampton, and I have been asked by hon. Members to explain what the Government and the Border and Immigration Agency plan to do to tackle its cause. I agree that the police should not have released those who were released, and we have ensured that that will not happen again. The senior management at the Border and Immigration Agency have underlined to the regional directors who are now in place up and down the country—including for Northamptonshire—the need to treat so-called “lorry drops” as an operational priority. That advice is effective immediately.

The new directors are meeting chief constables from across the country to ensure that there is proper co-operation with the police, and the Home Office is working centrally with the Association of Chief Police Officers to make sure that there is buy-in nationally from the police. Most lorry drops happen in London and the south-east. In those areas, we have established mechanisms for responding to arrests within four hours in most cases, so that police cells are not filled up with illegal migrants and so that a Border and Immigration Agency member of staff is available to do the processing checks.

If someone applies for asylum, they are not always detained; they might be released. It is a matter of assessing the risk in relation to the individual, making sure that the case is properly documented, and providing that person with proper identity documents so that we know where they are and what they are doing. It is important to stress that that already happens.

We are also in the process of trialling mobile detention vans in Poole until March next year. My hon. Friend the Minister for Borders and Immigration has asked the Border and Immigration Agency to begin planning a second phase of trials, which will include tests on how we deploy mobile detention facilities “in country”. We shall consider Northamptonshire as a possible area for such work.

We shall shortly develop a series of joint activities with the police, one of which is shared intelligence planning designed to target facilitators of illegal immigration. I am sure that Members from all parties would agree that that is a good idea. As you might know, Mr. Marshall, organised crime may account for up to 75 per cent. of illegal immigration to this country, so it is important to have the police on board.

Some of that good work is happening in my own constituency. On Friday, I visited Operation Swale, in which Border and Immigration Agency staff are deployed in a police command unit—in London, a borough command unit—and can check people’s immigration status at the point of arrest and work with the police to ensure that criminals are deported if immigration offences or illegal status are part of the problem. The operation is having a huge impact on the streets of Hackney, Islington, and Waltham Forest, and I have met police officers from each of those three London boroughs. We need more of that kind of work, and I hope that that pilot operation will shortly be rolled out elsewhere. I shall certainly talk to my ministerial colleagues who are responsible for such matters so that they are aware of how well it has worked on the ground.

There is an arrangement in Kent whereby police patrols that come across cases of illegal migration take the relevant people to 24-hour screening units in Dover for processing. We shall continue to encourage the police to arrest illegal entrants so that those entrants can be properly screened and vetted, so that we know where and who they are, and so that they are appropriately dealt with.

There has been some success in preventing people from entering the country in the first place. We deploy state-of-the-art detection technology, particularly at ports abroad, as well as at our main UK ports. I have myself seen heartbeat monitors and devices that can tell whether someone is hidden in a van. That sort of work is important in reducing the number of illegal entrants. We also level civil penalties against hauliers for illegally carrying people into the country. Although I am heartened by the tone of today’s debate, in that Conservative Members clearly want to prevent people from entering the country illegally before arrival in the UK, I am sad that they voted against those fines. The fines have clearly helped.

That, along with our juxtaposed controls in France and Belgium, in 2006 prevented 16,898 people from crossing the channel illegally, and refused 6,801 people entry when they had reached the UK. It is important to put it on the record that we are already preventing many illegal migrants from coming into this country. In Kent, we have had good success in reducing the number of illegal immigrants arriving since 2002 by 88 per cent. We have made important progress.

Since the abolition of embarkation controls by a previous Government in 1994, we have been unable to assess with certainty the number of foreign nationals who enter or leave the country, which is why we are introducing some important changes in the next year. Before I go on to those, I have a little time to explain which other people we are removing because they should not be here. Last year, we removed more than 13,000 non-asylum immigration offenders, which is the highest number on record, and removed more than 16,000 principal asylum seekers who were unsuccessful in their claims—more than during the final four full years of the last Conservative Government.

Alongside that, asylum applications are already down to their lowest level since 1993.

Will the Minister confirm the latest official estimate of the number of illegal immigrants in the country, and will she be kind enough to respond to my request to look at my tabled amendment?

Will the Minister use her good offices to look at my tabled amendment to the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill?

I shall happily look at it, and I am sure that I shall look at more than just the hon. Gentleman’s tabled amendment. Some of the measures that I have mentioned today are already tackling a number of the issues that he raised. We always look at amendments from hon. Members of any party and any point of view.

I shall write to the hon. Gentleman about official estimates, but they are just estimates, and we must deal with facts. That is why we will introduce our e-Borders system next year. It will count people out of and into the country, so the numbers will be clear. Our new points-based, five-tier system is based on the Australian system. Any Australian immigration official can quickly say exactly who is in the country, and who should and should not be there. They are successful in their work of deporting and encouraging those who are not there legally to leave, as we do, but we are hampered at the moment. The new measures, which I am sure that Conservative Members will support, will be welcome.

Last year, we removed nearly 3,000 foreign national prisoners. In the first quarter of this year, we doubled the number of removals compared with the same period last year. We are keen to remove the most dangerous people from the country first. That is important.

On monitoring people in and out of the country, our e-Borders programme has captured data on 29 million passenger movements—as I said to the hon. Member for Ribble Valley, passenger name records and so on are part of that, as are airline liaison officers—and issued more than 15,000 alerts to border agencies about people who are not desirable to have in the country, which resulted in 1,200 arrests. We are having real success in tackling people who should not enter the country and who are dangerous to the UK.

During the next 12 months, we will oversee the biggest shake up of the immigration system in its history, and it will change out of all recognition. The points-based system, which is modelled on the successful Australian system, introduces five tiers for people wanting to enter the country. They range from highly skilled migrants down to agricultural workers. It will clarify and simplify a system that currently has 60 routes for people to acquire legal status in this country. There will be a transition period for people currently in the country under the old regime, but the new approach will begin to ensure that only people whom Britain needs can come here to work and study.

We are listening closely to independent advice from the migration advisory committee on the needs of the economy, to ensure that the people coming into the country will benefit it. The net benefit to Britain is substantial, but there is an impact on different communities. I represent an inner-London community that welcomes migrants and has done so for many years, but we recognise that there are issues for local schools, hospitals and so on.

The migration impact forum, which brings together people from a range of professional backgrounds as well as from different regions of the UK, will advise the Government on society’s capacity. It met on 17 October—I shall correct the record if I am wrong—with my hon. Friend the Minister for Borders and Immigration and the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda), who jointly chair that important forum. In a few years, we will be well on the way to reinstating entry and exit controls to count everyone in and out. By the end of 2010, that system will be fully up and running. We will continue to make use of our new powers and resources to tackle illegal immigration in the UK and beyond our shores.

The Government’s approach is robust. We want a fair, firm and transparent immigration policy that is swift to deal with people whom we know should not be here, and swift to deal fairly with people who can contribute to this country so that they understand their status and position. We shall ensure that we count people out and in to achieve that goal.