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Immigration Rules (Small Businesses)

Volume 487: debated on Wednesday 11 February 2009

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Ms Butler.)

Thank you, Mr. Speaker, for selecting this subject for debate. As will become apparent, much of what I shall say concerns one particular firm in my constituency. I hope that the result of the pressure put on the Government to address the issue will be the saving of 80 jobs in my constituency that would otherwise have been strangled as a result of Government red tape and regulation. Indeed, the debate will be a test of whether the Government are true to their avowed word of being intent on offering “real help for businesses” as expressed by the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform in his letter of 9 February, which was distributed to all Members of this House.

In that letter, the Secretary of State said:

“During these difficult times, the Government is committed to doing everything it can to help UK companies and prevent the loss of people’s jobs.”

My application for this debate emanated from the failure of the Government to respond adequately, or at all, to the letter that I sent to the Secretary of State on 10 December last year about a problem created by the Government with regulatory changes imposed on customers of European Skybus flight training.

In more than 13 years of existence, Skybus has successfully dry leased flight simulator equipment to more than 80 foreign airlines, Governments and militaries. The company has links with the Minister’s Department to establish Skybus’s eligibility to trade with various different airlines and countries around the world. It has links with the Metropolitan police on security over ID and passport checking, and that often takes place hourly and affects every person who enters the training centre to fly or even to observe in a flight simulator. The company also supplies flight simulator equipment for use in anti-terrorist training by the Metropolitan police and is very proud of its contributions to both overseas trade and national security. The simulator dry leasing business for foreign airlines represents 85 per cent. of the company’s business. In my letter to the Secretary of State, I pointed out how changes in Government regulation were adversely affecting the business of Skybus with two overseas companies in particular, Transaero from Moscow and IranAir.

Changes to the immigration rules meant that previous procedures whereby names of airline crew members were provided, letters of invitation issued and UK business visas obtained were invalidated. The next stage saw applications being delayed and visas were sometimes issued too late to be of any use. When they were issued, they were of only four weeks’ duration in contrast to the previous system of six or 12 months. Members of airline crew attending for standard recurrent training were faced with substantial additional bureaucratic hurdles before they could access Skybus services.

In the case of IranAir, individuals were required to stand in a queue for personal application. Obviously, that was highly inconvenient for air crew employed by that airline company who had to be removed from their scheduled flying responsibilities merely to apply for a visa. I asked the Secretary of State to intervene to ensure that the increasing bureaucracy around UK visa entry did not result in the inability of companies such as European Skybus flight training to continue to operate successfully.

Despite making chasing telephone calls and tabling a written question and an oral question, I did not receive a response until this morning when an e-mail was sent to my office to which was attached a letter from the Minister, intriguingly backdated to 9 February. The letter does not provide a solution, unfortunately, because it is based on the false premise that European Skybus flight training is eligible for accreditation under new rules for student visitors that commence at the beginning of March.

The UK Borders Agency had advised that the solution for Skybus was to register with the Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills, and at the end of January that registration was completed and a reference number was provided. However, it has since become obvious to the accrediting authorities that Skybus does not fit their criteria, because it is engaged in the dry leasing of simulator equipment and not in the instruction of pilots on that equipment. Therefore, although the DIUS reference number will suffice for visa applications made before the beginning of March, it will not work thereafter because Skybus will be unable to comply with the new rules about student visas.

As a result of the pressure placed on the Government by the knowledge that they have to answer this debate, the dilemma facing Skybus has doubtless been recognised. Unfortunately, however, a solution has still not been provided; I hope that the Minister will provide one this evening. Today I spoke to Mary Batchelor of the UK Border Agency; she is, I believe, briefing the Minister. She has told me that the matter now has to be checked with lawyers to see whether a possible solution—that she has in mind, but has not disclosed to me—will work. She forecast that the Minister would be able to offer a decision within days, and I hope that she meant within hours.

This evening, I seek nothing less than a guarantee from the Minister of not only a decision but a solution. Eighty jobs in my constituency depend on that, as does the credibility of the Government’s policy. It is not Government policy to undermine the work that Skybus does, but that is the consequence of the various regulatory changes that have been made and which have already had such an adverse impact on Skybus’s customers, who do not experience anything like the same problems in using simulator services in France or Spain.

At a time when the value of our currency has been greatly devalued by Government action, the firm should be getting a competitive advantage. However, it is not because of the bureaucratic problems that I have described. The name of the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform contains all the buzz words—“business”, “enterprise” and “regulatory reform”. However, from this case it is apparent that even the constituency correspondence has not been handled in a businesslike fashion. It is clear that the consequence of the changes in regulation has been to undermine enterprise and that all the talk of regulatory reform, regulatory impact assessments, small business litmus tests and all the rest, has counted for nothing in the scenario that I have described.

It is truly intolerable that a successful business such as Skybus should be threatened with extinction because of the Government’s failure to practise what they preach. When the immigration rules were last amended, they contained an assertion that there had been an assessment of whether they had an adverse impact on small business and it was said that they would not. So there has been a regulatory impact assessment, but it was obviously based on a false premise.

I hope that the Minister will be able to explain what Skybus customers need to do to be able to carry on coming to this country and using the simulator equipment in Christchurch on the Bournemouth airport complex. I fear that this is but one example of the impact on many other small businesses of changes in the immigration rules. As I prepared for this debate, I received representations from other small companies hoping that I would take up their cases for them. I am not doing that except in the sense that I am trying to get the Minister to accept that the changes were not properly thought through, particularly in respect of their impact on different groups of organisations. It is manifestly absurd to try to force a company that is not an educational establishment into the straitjacket of accreditation with DIUS and then into trying to obtain accreditation from an organisation such as Ofsted.

The solution, it seems to me, is for customers who wish to use the flight simulation facilities to be able to obtain business visas in the same way that they were able to before. The Minister is making an expression that suggests he is uncertain whether that is the solution. Unfortunately, I am not in government, but he is, and he is therefore in a position—indeed, under an obligation—to provide a solution to a problem that the Government have created. I hope that we will hear something positive from him.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) on securing this debate. Let me start by saying that this is a good example of how our parliamentary system works for the best, in that a constituent—or in this case a company in his constituency, European Skybus flight training—can raise a matter with the Member of Parliament, who can raise it with the Government in the House to bring the matter to Ministers’ attention, as he successfully has. I hope to be able to provide a solution to the problem for him. I have always been a supporter of the idea of a single-Member constituency, whether across party lines or not. This is not a partisan issue. The hon. Gentleman is rightly trying to protect his constituent, and I am happy to try to help.

I have, of course, looked into the background to this case. The hon. Gentleman wrote to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform on 10 December and received a reply from the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, South (Ian Pearson), dated 9 February. I am pleased that he got a reply before this debate. The system works in wonderful ways. I do not think that it is cause and effect, but he has his reply, so that is good. The reply outlines part of the solution that he wants to take forward. To be fair—as I always am, I hope, to other Government Departments—this is a matter primarily for my Department and I take responsibility for finding the solution that he looks for.

As a result of the information that we now have, the UK Border Agency is looking afresh at the immigration position of persons coming to the UK for training in techniques and work practices used here where solely training facilities are involved and no teaching is provided. I will be trying to give the hon. Gentleman a satisfactory answer very quickly, and I am confident that I will be able to do so. The additional information has been helpful, and officials have spoken to European Skybus flight training.

To reassure the hon. Gentleman that we are not the bureaucratic blunderers that he has sometimes accused us of being, I have looked into the situation in his constituency, and it is a good situation. Four companies have received a licence under the new scheme, another is under consideration, and another has been refused. I am happy to share the details with him should he so choose. Let me emphasise that our approach with companies is not to act in a policing way. If people are refused, we have mechanisms in place to help them. We do not approach this in a heavy-handed way at all. We are trying to help our businesses.

We are also, of course, trying to introduce a new immigration system. Consequences are inevitable if one makes a radical change to a system, and this is the biggest shake-up in the immigration system since Empire Windrush arrived in 1947—I genuinely think that that is the case given the introduction of e-borders and the points-based system. Some would say that we are taking too long to implement it, but it is a big change and we are taking our time to get it right. I hope that the hon. Gentleman would be charitable enough to say that when one makes a big change in public policy, there are unintended consequences. That is why it is right that the House can debate such issues, and that right hon. and hon. Members can bring matters to the attention of the Executive, or the individual Minister concerned, which the hon. Gentleman has done.

This is the most radical reworking of the immigration rules for a generation, even if one does not accept my time scale. We have created a clear, defined and targeted points-based system that allows a fair, transparent and objective set of rules for decisions, which will improve compliance and reduce the scope for abuse. I know that the hon. Gentleman supports those goals in immigration policy. I and my colleagues have attempted to build a consensus across the House on those principles; he has supported them and I am grateful for that.

We have increased control over migrants entering the United Kingdom, especially those from outside the European Union. We now have greater flexibility to respond to UK skills shortages. In the current economic circumstances, it is more important than ever that we can decide on the number of highly skilled and temporary workers we need and on the sectors of the economy that need them, so we have set up this new superstructure. Under the old regime, the employer had to apply to the Home Office for a work permit for each individual migrant that they wished to employ. Even if that were approved, the migrant would have to apply separately for entry clearance, which might be refused, leaving the employer to start all over again. Under the new points-based system, an employer issues a certificate of sponsorship to a migrant worker who then applies for entry clearance overseas. If that is granted, the migrant can travel to the UK and begin work straight away.

We are particularly keen to reduce the burdens of the system on small businesses, which is why the example that the hon. Gentleman highlighted is quite important when ensuring that we get the system right. With that keenness to reduce burdens in mind, we issue a small charge to small businesses, as well as to charities, of £300 for sponsorship, as opposed to the £1,000 charge for larger companies. There is evidence of a strong take-up of that system. By the beginning of this month, almost half the applications decided were submitted by small businesses. I would have expected a greater proportion of large businesses, but that has proven not to be the case.

Where necessary, employers will need to undertake resident labour market tests to ensure that no British or EU national could be found for advertised posts before an offer of employment is made to an overseas national. We are asking businesses to take an active role in ensuring compliance—we are now coming to the detail that relates to the problem encountered by the hon. Gentleman’s constituents. We require UK organisations of any size to apply for a licence in order to bring migrants to the UK to work or study and if granted, sponsors are given a rating of A or B. The A rating is given when they comply, and a B is given when they need a little help in order to do so. That backs up my point about the system not being heavy-handed. So far, we have issued just under 10,000 licences. We are meeting our commitment to processing complete applications within six weeks and we intend to reduce that time to four weeks by April this year.

I mentioned that six licence applications have been received from the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, and I am happy to repeat that four companies from Christchurch sit on the sponsored register as A-rated—in other words, no problems. A further application is under consideration and one has been refused. The particular case that he highlighted falls into a category that, frankly, was not fully understood when the rules were drawn up.

We are trying to prevent abuse and prevent the system from being subject to clandestine illegal immigration. There is no suggestion whatever that that is happening in the case of European Skybus flight training. As I understand it—the hon. Gentleman will correct me if I am wrong—it comes down to the fact that the people involved are primarily coming for the purpose of training that is related to the service that the company offers. As a result of the information that he and the company have provided, we are looking afresh at the immigration position of persons coming to the UK for training in techniques and work practices used here, where only training facilities are provided and no teaching. It is a matter of definition.

It is incumbent on me to say to the hon. Gentleman that we will make a decision very shortly. He asked for more than a decision—a solution—and I am confident that I will be able to give him one. I understand his point, and I hope to provide such a solution to him and to others in a similar situation. He has highlighted a problem that has arisen, but he will know from his experience as a Minister that sometimes, in providing a solution to a specific problem, one creates a general problem for others. I do not want to be back here in three months’ time responding to further Adjournment debates as a result of another unintended consequence. That is why I do not want to take a snap decision; I want to find him a solution, but I do not want to do so immediately, just in case there is a consequence that I have not foreseen.

I am grateful to the Minister for what he has said, but may I impress upon him the urgency of the case that I mentioned? If the solution that is provided necessitates obtaining accreditation from one of the organisations that have been mentioned, the company has been informed that that process might take up to three months. If so, not only will it have lost the business that it should have had in January, it will probably not have business in March, April or May. The situation is urgent.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point. I shall give him a decision next week, and I hope to give him a solution. Perhaps we could talk about the matter and try to solve the problem, but I do not wish to take a decision and then find out through correspondence that it has made the situation worse. I have been a Minister long enough to know that that sometimes happens, as has he. The best thing that I can do for him and his constituents is to guarantee to get them a decision next week, and say that we hope to find a solution. At this point, the best thing for me to do is shut up and sit down.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.