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UK Border Agency

Volume 481: debated on Monday 27 October 2008

We are delivering the biggest shake-up of border security for a generation, and we are already seeing the results. The agency—a new single border force that combines the Border and Immigration Agency, UKvisas and Customs at the border—sees 25,000 staff working across 135 countries. Already, thousands of illegal migrants have been barred from entering Britain, while millions of pounds-worth of dangerous drugs have been removed from our streets.

May I begin by welcoming the Minister to his new position? One of his first acts in his new job was to write to me about the immigration status of Hammersmith resident Hany Youssef, who has been given discretionary leave to remain, despite the fact that the Home Office itself says that he appears on the United Nations list of those belonging to or associated with the al-Qaeda organisation. Can the Minister tell us why he has been given discretionary leave to remain? What reassurance can he give my other Hammersmith constituents who are, understandably, very concerned?

The hon. Gentleman has raised the issue on a number of occasions and, of course, he is right to do so. My letter goes into some detail about the law and the rationale behind that decision, but let me give him the reassurance that he seeks. The measures that are being put in place to control our borders, to count people in and count people out using the e-borders system, and the introduction later this year of identity cards with fingerprint data on them will mean that we have the strongest and most secure borders for many, many a year.

Can my hon. Friend assure me that the agency and posts abroad are prepared to implement the new immigration regulations that come into force later this year? I am thinking specifically of the increase in age from 18 to 21 for spouse visas.

This gives me an opportunity to thank my hon. Friend for bravely campaigning on the matter, along with others, over a number of years. I can give her that assurance. It is in the best interests of this country, of our community and of the individuals.

I welcome the shake-up to our border security that the Minister spoke about earlier. Can he tell me how many illegal immigrants we have got rid of in the first 12 months and how many he thinks remain and need to be got rid of?

The hon. Gentleman is right to imply that it is illegal immigration that most concerns the public. That is why I am pleased to be able to report to the House that the successes that have been achieved mean that we are now stopping one illegal immigrant every eight minutes. On the issue of foreign national prisoners, the figures have improved as well. Since April, when the agency came into being—[Interruption.] Those on the Opposition Front Bench are chuntering away because they do not like the facts. Facts are very stubborn things, and the facts are that we are getting illegal immigrants out of the country more quickly than we did before.

Does the Minister accept that as the country goes into recession, the defence of our borders becomes more, not less, important? As skilled workers are laid off in our constituencies, what changes to the points system will the Government make to ensure that those workers get first chance for any vacancies, rather than those vacancies being filled by workers coming in from abroad?

The Government are doing everything they can to mitigate the effects of the global economic downturn, but my right hon. Friend is right to point out that the British public will want to see that all is being done so that vacancies and shortages can be filled by people from our country. The points-based system allows us to look at the skills shortages. I am pleased to say that Professor Metcalf and his advisory committee have submitted their report. We are considering that report and, as my right hon. Friend implies, we have the possibility to change criteria to help those jobs go to where we want them to go.

The biggest task for the Border Agency is indeed the implementation of the points-based system, so can the Minister confirm, first, that the only group covered by the points-based system and not covered by our proposed annual limit are foreign students; secondly, that he told the House last week that he would take no steps to cut the number of foreign students; and thirdly and consequently, that the claims that he repeatedly makes that the points-based system will be more wide ranging than our proposed limit are entirely bogus?

So now we have it. We have the admission that the Opposition do not have a population cap. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, first, for clarifying that. Secondly, it is the case, as he confirms, that our points-based system covers more people under the migration system than their system does. On the point about students, the hon. Gentleman misunderstands the policy. Under the points-based system, the Government will have the ability to look at the criteria within the different tiers, as he knows, to ensure that the right criteria and policies are being met.

Is the Minister aware that many families in this country have sought asylum from war-torn countries and have very strong cases for gaining permanent residence here? Their cases have been delayed by the UK Border Agency and they are forced to live without any benefits or support. In many cases, they are forced to beg. They are willing and able to work, but are denied that right and forced to live off the largesse of friends and family. Does the Minister not think it time to look seriously at the misery and hardship that many asylum-seeking families and their children face in our society while we parade to the world our regard for human rights?

My hon. Friend raises the difficult issue of delayed asylum cases. The whole House would agree that it is right and proper that asylum seekers should be processed not only firmly, but quickly. That is why the focus of the Government’s effort, with success, is to clear the backlog and ensure that we are processing cases better. We are now processing 60 per cent. of claims to conclusion within six months; 10 years ago, the figure was 22 months just to get to an initial decision.