House of Commons
Tuesday 2 June 2009
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Communities and Local Government
The Secretary of State was asked—
Non-Domestic Rate (Small Businesses)
No formal consideration is made of the effect of the transitional relief scheme in each financial year, but the Government are aware of the impact that large increases in business rate bills can have on all businesses when the transitional rate relief comes to an end. That is why we are allowing businesses to defer, over two years, 60 per cent. of the increase in their business rates bill for 2009-10 caused by the ending of transitional relief. That is in addition to allowing the deferral of 60 per cent. of the increase caused by the annual inflation adjustment.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that the business rates deferral scheme will start to take effect from the end of July and will she give a commitment that the new costs incurred by local authorities in sending out the new bills will be fully funded by central Government?
With 41 businesses now going insolvent every day, the decision by Ministers to withdraw transitional relief has been taken in a totally fact-free zone. No assessment was made of how withdrawing the relief in the first place would hurt businesses. Two months after the decision to introduce the business rate deferral scheme, Ministers have still not calculated the cost of the scheme to local authorities nor assessed its impact on businesses. Is the Secretary of State still going ahead with the next big challenge for businesses, the 2010 revaluation, and will that decision be taken in a fact-free zone too, with no account taken of the impact on businesses, communities and jobs?
The hon. Lady is in a knowledge-free zone. She has failed to acknowledge the tremendous help that the Government have given to businesses. The help includes the small business rate relief—nearly 400,000 businesses have taken advantage of the 50 per cent. relief, which was opposed by the Opposition—the deferral of 60 per cent. of the retail prices index increase, the deferral of 60 per cent. of the transitional element, and the deferral of tax and VAT for more than 100,000 businesses. That is what real help is, and I am afraid that the hon. Lady is not even on the playing field.
Regional Spatial Strategies
Regional spatial strategies have been published for all regions, with the exception of the south-west, where we expect to publish shortly, and the west midlands, which is currently holding an examination in public. All regional planning bodies have agreed timetables for further reviews, and I have put details in the Library.
No, I think that would be a disastrous course of action. The Opposition have said a lot of sweeping things about there being no need for a regional tier of consideration or decision making, but one of the reasons this Government implemented such proposals is because of representations that we received from across the country, including from the business community in particular, about the gap that existed in our decision-making procedures when there was no regional tier.
In the current economic climate, the aspiration to build 3 million new houses by 2020 looks ambitious. In the review of regional plans, will the Minister recognise the pent-up demand for housing that still exists and commit herself to development, in the east midlands and elsewhere, on brownfield sites rather than on greenfield sites?
First, my hon. Friend is entirely right. I hope that everyone in the House recognises the tremendous pent-up demand that exists for new housing and the serious social and economic problems that would be caused if we could not do more to address it. I also entirely accept his other point, although he will know that this Government have a strong record of construction on brownfield sites. I accept completely that that is much the most desirable way, and we will continue to try to pursue it.
If the hon. Gentleman is referring, as I think he is, to the proposals currently before the House, may I inform him that what we are basically trying to do is streamline and simplify the system? He will have many opportunities to make his contribution on those issues as the Bill proceeds through the House. However, I am sure that he will know that there is a strong element of participation by local authorities; perhaps I could therefore remind the Opposition, who sometimes seem to forget this, that the members of those authorities are elected.
It is certainly our hope that people everywhere across the country will take account of that approach, which is obviously the most desirable from every point of view. My hon. Friend will appreciate that sometimes there are greater difficulties in finding suitable sites that meet those criteria, but the Government certainly retain that approach, and we will encourage local authorities to do so too.
But why should anyone believe what the right hon. Lady says when she talks about building only on brownfield sites? She will know that many of the eco-towns proposed by her predecessor were going to be built on greenfield sites. Does she not accept that there needs to be a balance between the urgent need for extra housing and maintaining the rural environment?
Of course I accept that; I do not think that anyone would dispute it. I simply say to the hon. Gentleman that the reason that people should believe what we say about brownfield sites is that the Government have delivered—in fact, more than delivered—on our targets for brownfield sites. We have had many discussions in the House about the proposals for eco-towns, and he is correct to say that some of those proposals involved greenfield development. They involve a variety of types of development, and we shall return to that issue later in the year.
Yesterday, the Prime Minister admitted on Radio 4 that people felt powerless and that politics was not as accountable as it should be. Was there any point at which the right hon. Lady felt that he might have been referring to the unelected, unaccountable regional spatial strategies, which ride roughshod over local communities?
That is certainly not the case. I am sure that is not what the Prime Minister meant, not least because—as I reminded the Opposition a moment ago—there will be very strong local authority involvement and representation in the new bodies that will consider the proposals. They are, as I have said, elected.
But does the right hon. Lady not understand that local government involvement and participation is no good if it is overridden? Unelected regional bureaucrats arbitrarily doubling or trebling the number of homes that local authorities have offered to build on a sustainable basis gives people a feeling of being completely disempowered and confirms their sense that the only way to get a change in politics is to get a change of Government.
I think that the hon. Lady is subtly trying to work round to the proposals that have been put forward by her party, in which, instead of having overall targets that recognise the substantial unmet housing demand identified a moment ago by my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping), we should somehow let a thousand flowers bloom and thereby allow local authorities to build up to meet the housing need. I would simply say to her that I have read with great care the many comments on her party’s proposals, and that I note with interest and some amusement that many official bodies have said, “What a fascinating idea. We look forward with great interest to hearing from the Conservative party how it can possibly deliver housing.”
Housing Revenue Account
Since the launch of the joint review of council housing finance with the Treasury in March 2008, we have received position papers from key organisations in the sector, approximately 45 written submissions in response to our call for evidence, papers from a number of housing experts and four petitions. We have also received direct representations in face-to-face meetings with housing representative bodies, local authorities and trade unions.
Despite our pledge to get councils building again, they are doing so at a rate of only about 200 homes a year, although registered social landlords are completing something like 20,000, suggesting a continuing bias against local authorities providing decent, affordable, accountable new homes for rent. Will my right hon. Friend grasp this once-in-a-generation opportunity to reform seriously flawed housing revenue accounts by announcing a self-financing system in which councils can keep their own rents, reinvest surpluses in existing and new stock and have the same freedom as housing associations to access grants and loans for much-needed new developments?
I entirely share my hon. Friend’s concern about the barriers that had been put in the way of local government’s freedom to provide housing for its local communities by the Conservatives when they were last in government. I can assure him, however, that we are in the last stages of removing those barriers and that local authorities will be able to bid for grant. They will have the special opportunity that was made available to them in the Budget of accessing funds reserved for local authorities, but they will also have an opportunity to bid for social grant on the same basis as housing associations and other bodies.
Back in January, the Prime Minister said that he would
“put aside any of the barriers that stand in the way of”
local authorities providing more housing. The right hon. Lady has mentioned the money announced in the Budget, but that equates to only three homes per authority. Is it not time to acknowledge that the real barrier is the housing revenue account subsidy? Why are the results of the review so overdue? In the current economic climate, surely what we need is swift action, rather than further delay.
As I pointed out a moment ago to my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), we are removing the last of the barriers that obstruct local authorities. I share what I deduce to be the hon. Lady’s hope, which I hope in turn is shared across the House, that local authorities of every political shade will take advantage of this opportunity to begin greater construction. I also understand her point about the structure of the housing revenue account. The review has not, actually, been massively delayed—we had hoped that it would report in the spring, and we now hope that it will do so this summer—but I fully recognise that there are many criticisms of the present system and that they have a great deal of validity. While I very much hope that we will be able to come forward with radical proposals for change that will attract support across the parties, I am conscious of the unwarrantable precedent of the poll tax, whereby it was thought that anything would be better than the then system. Unless we can come up with anything better than the present system, we may have to tinker with that.
I am sure that my right hon. Friend will be aware of the uncertain feelings that managers of arm’s length management organisations are experiencing at the moment. Since the stock is still owned by councils, will she please tell the House when it will be announced that those ALMOs are going to have a certain future ahead of them?
I cannot put a date on the particular concerns that my hon. Friend raises and I recognise, of course, that there are, sadly, a plethora of uncertainties about some of these issues. We will certainly do our best to resolve them as speedily as possible, and if it is helpful, I will write to him if any further information becomes available.
Last year, the Communities and Local Government Select Committee reported:
“The national Housing Revenue Account system creates uncertainty and resentment and does not reward best practice.”
We are now 18 months into the Government’s review of the HRA. When can we expect a conclusion to the review—one that is fair, that supports local autonomy and that will increase the provision of much-needed social housing across the whole country?
It is not 18 months, but never mind. I told the House a few moments ago that we hope to publish some proposals this summer. I fully recognise the justified criticisms of the present system, particularly the volatility and the unfairness, but I view with slight cynicism some of the criticisms we have heard from some Conservative local authorities, which were perfectly happy with the surpluses built up—four and more times the size of last year’s—when the Conservative Government were in power. We will put that aside and welcome their conversion to a better approach.
Houses in Multiple Occupation
Following on from the research work undertaken by ECOTEC, the Department published on 13 May a consultation paper on houses in multiple occupation and possible planning responses.
I thank the Minister for that response and, indeed, for his interest in this subject. He will know that my constituents would like the local authority to have more tools to control the amount of private renting and HMOs in some areas. Will he tell us when proposals to license all private landlords and to alter use classes orders relating to HMOs will be put before the House?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who has done a great deal of work in this sector, not least in her role as chair of the all-party group on balanced and sustainable communities. She has really cajoled me and other Ministers in that respect. On her point about the powers available to local authorities, I have to say that she and her constituents are being badly let down by the City of Durham council, but I believe that the new unitary authority for Durham county will do an awful lot better. Powers are available in the Housing Act 2004 to enable local authorities to exercise control on the basis of evidence of antisocial behaviour. Our consultation on use classes orders and aligning housing and planning definitions of HMOs will end on 7 August. We look forward subsequently to consulting the House on that.
Business Rate Liabilities
Assuming that the regulations are introduced and pass into law before the summer recess, may I point out that all that they do is defer the payment? Will the Minister explain in a little more detail why he decided against supporting the Small Business Rate Relief (Automatic Payment) Bill, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff), which would have enabled all eligible small businesses to halve their rate bills?
We wanted to deal with a bigger problem. The retail prices index meant a 5 per cent. increase in the rates bills of every business, not just small businesses, and there was a particular problem for businesses that experienced the end of the transitional relief for this year. Given the current economic circumstances and the pressure that people are under, we wanted to help them to manage their cash flow and manage this increase by allowing them to pay a lower level of increase this year and spread the payments over the following two years. That is why we are introducing the regulations, and that is why they have been welcomed by business organisations.
It is for Basildon council to manage the process of managing the unauthorised development at Dale Farm. If and when it decides to proceed with eviction action, I expect the council to hold talks with neighbouring authorities to ensure that any eviction that takes place does so in a calm and orderly fashion.
The Minister will be aware that the 85 Traveller families at the illegal site have now exhausted their legal and planning options. The council rightly seeks to reclaim the unauthorised site and return it to the green belt. It hopes to avoid a forced eviction, as we all do: I know that the Minister does as well. The ball is now in the Travellers’ court, and they have to move off peacefully if that is to happen. However, as the Minister will know, there is a shortage of sites.
Given the scale of the problem and given that the Government are partly responsible for it, having granted the Travellers two years’ leave to remain—during which time the number of caravans on the site shot up—will the Minister do what he can to help to identify transit sites outside the district, as Basildon has done more than its fair share locally? Will he also meet me to discuss this important issue?
I understand the concern felt by the hon. Gentleman’s constituents about the friction caused by the unauthorised development and the problems that it has caused for the settled community, but he was present during yesterday’s debate, and will have heard Conservative Front Benchers criticise the Government for trying to work in partnership with local authorities and complaining about the fact that authorities are not given autonomy and power to solve problems.
I told the hon. Gentleman a few moments ago that it was for Basildon council to work with neighbouring authorities. He is now telling me that he does not think it will be able to do so, and that he wants me to intervene and help. I am happy to meet him and discuss with him ways in which he feels that his local authority may need assistance, but it is worth my reminding him of the contradiction between what was said by his party’s Front Benchers yesterday and what he is asking for today.
May I also ask my hon. Friend to do his utmost to find a solution to the situation at Dale Farm, and to do anything that the Government are able to do? As I am sure he knows, yesterday we launched Gypsy Roma Traveller History Month here in Parliament. It was a huge celebration of Gypsy culture, and hundreds of Gypsies, Roma people and Travellers were here. Overlying everything, however, was the worry about the lack of sites.
My hon. Friend will be aware that one of the causes of the problems is the fact that large numbers of Traveller and Gypsy families are on unauthorised encampments and sites. We need to encourage local authorities to provide more and more authorised sites. There are pitches where Traveller and Gypsy families can go, which will lead to fewer of the problems described by the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron).
I am puzzled by the Minister’s response to my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) that the problem at Dale Farm could be solved by Basildon borough council. In relation to the problem in Wiltshire, he has said that not the elected Wiltshire county council but an entirely unelected, undemocratic quango, the South West regional assembly, must make the necessary decision. How do those two answers stack up?
I am always happy to lecture Opposition Members about the planning framework. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that local authorities assess Gypsy and Traveller accommodation needs, and that the results of those assessments are passed to a regional planning body which uses them to allocate pitches to authorities as part of the regional spatial strategy. The proposals are assessed during a public examination at which arguments can be advanced for raising or lowering the number of allocations. It is then for local authorities to draw up development plan documents to accommodate pitch allocations. I shall be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to explain how the planning framework operates.
Unauthorised sites such as Dale Farm exist the length and breadth of the country. What measures are in place to assist local authorities, as it is they—and therefore taxpayers—who have to pick up the cost of clearing up the damage done to sites? What tangible legislative powers does my hon. Friend have to sort this out?
My hon. Friend asks a very important question. Last year, local authorities spent £18 million on enforcement action. There is a local authority in England which has authorised sites, and the cost of enforcement fell from £200,000 a year to £5,000. That is an example of authorised sites reducing the cost to local authorities, and also the huge distress caused to the settled community.
Mortgage Assistance Schemes
Our objective is to ensure that repossession is always the last resort. The mortgage rescue scheme and homeowner mortgage support scheme are just part of a comprehensive package of measures that we have put in place to assist families at risk of losing their homes. The MRS has been operational across the country since 1 January 2009. Since its launch, local authorities have reported that more than 1,000 households each month have come forward and received guidance on what support may be best for their circumstances. Seventy-seven households are in the final stages of receiving assistance and have had repossession action against them frozen by their lenders. Two households have so far completed the Government mortgage-to-rent process, whereby a registered social landlord has agreed to purchase their property and enabled them to remain in their own home as tenants. We expect many more households to be helped in this way in the coming months.
The homeowner mortgage support scheme opened with the first group of lenders on 21 April. Official figures on the number of households entering the scheme will be published later this year, and we are working closely with lenders and money advisers to monitor progress and ensure that the scheme is working effectively.
Well, there we have it. Since the Chancellor announced this scheme, a house has been repossessed every seven minutes, yet the scheme has helped only two families since it was launched. Is this not another example of the Government seeking publicity—in a blaze of glory—to pretend they are helping people when in reality they are failing to deliver any tangible help to people suffering hardship through no fault of their own?
As I have just pointed out, thousands of households have approached the relevant authorities to seek advice. [Hon. Members: “Two.”] Only two have completed the full process. I also pointed out that more than 70 households—77 to be precise—are now well on the way to receiving a formal offer, and I can also tell the House that a further 10, making 87 in all—[Interruption.] I am glad that Opposition Members find this so amusing; 87 households in all are now in the final stages of having a formal offer of assistance. That is 87 more households than received any help whatever under the Conservatives when they were last in government and when repossessions were taking place. They did not lift a finger. I am glad that they think it is funny that people are at risk of losing their homes, but I do not.
Does the Minister agree that if Opposition Members were to consult the transcript of the proceedings of yesterday’s Select Committee on Communities and Local Government and read the remarks of the Council of Mortgage Lenders on this scheme, they would, perhaps, moderate their mirth? The CML is broadly supportive of these two schemes, and it pointed out that the MRS had been extremely helpful in making sure that many more people at risk of repossession were now approaching their lenders at the outset and getting decent advice, instead of burying their head in the sand and waiting for things to hit them. That might be one of the reasons why relatively few of them are going through this entire system and requiring the MRS; instead, they are coming to an agreement with their lenders early on. If the demand is in fact lower than envisaged, will the Minister consider sending the money through for the building of more homes, instead of leaving it in a scheme that might not be required to the level that was originally thought?
My hon. Friend is entirely right, and I agree that it would be wise for the Opposition to look carefully at the evidence that has been given to the Select Committee that she chairs. Opposition Members are so busy trying to be clever about this issue that they completely overlook the fact that, for everybody who is being considered for schemes of this kind, there is forbearance of action that could otherwise be taken against them that could lead to their homes being repossessed. One of the reasons we took the step of making the announcements that we did earlier in the year, which has been much criticised since by the Conservative party, was precisely to encourage people to go to their lenders and get advice at the earliest possible stage, instead of burying their heads in the sand. It is very clear from all the professional evidence that people believe that that has had a substantial effect.
The second effect that we hoped to achieve, which, again, seems perhaps to have come to fruition, was to get lenders to think more carefully about whether taking such as approach is worth their while—the suggestion is that repossessing a home costs a lender, on average, about £37,000. One of our chief aims was to convince lenders to consider the fact that for a lesser expenditure they might save all that misery and disruption to so many families. I am frankly appalled by the frivolous attitude of the Conservative party—I mean that quite sincerely, Mr. Speaker. It is a shattering blow to people when they lose their home—it is much harder than losing one’s job and much harder to recover from.
On the mortgage rescue scheme, it appears that what is happening is that those who are coming through to the end of the scheme—I appreciate that the numbers are comparatively small on the official statistics—are agreeing to forgo their home ownership in order to stay on as tenants. That, in itself, is a major decision, so we should not be surprised that people are taking time to arrive at it.
The Minister will be aware that 75,000 families are expected to face the misery of repossession that she spoke about. Even if we were to add in all the package of measures to which she referred, tens of thousands of families would still be left facing that misery. Why then has she been unwilling to reform mortgage law—Shelter has consistently argued for this—so that we can give the courts the power to intervene? That would give the Government’s pre-action protocol some decent teeth. Why is she unwilling to do that?
I simply say to the hon. Lady that we believe that the pre-action protocol has been really quite effective. I appreciate the point she makes, which is that, sadly, many people could still lose their homes, but she may be aware that even in the best of years over the past decade or so—it was in 2004, as I recall—some 8,000 families lost their homes. There are a variety of reasons why people may find themselves in those devastating circumstances. She referred to the forecast of some 75,000 expected repossessions this year. That forecast came from the Council of Mortgage Lenders, but it has recently said that it now believes that, as a result of the action that this Government have taken, it has been too pessimistic. We certainly all hope that that is the case.
I cannot honestly say that everybody was enthusiastic, but the most important thing is that they have been willing to join. As my hon. Friend may know, 50 per cent. of the lenders in the marketplace have joined the home owners mortgage support scheme and taken advantage—or they could take advantage—of the Government’s underlying guarantee. Although some major lenders did not feel that they needed to use that guarantee, 80 per cent. of mortgage lenders are, in fact, offering comparable schemes.
We are indeed keeping the schemes under review. The right hon. Gentleman may know that in the Budget we brought forward some extra funding, because early experience of the mortgage rescue scheme suggested that there was a greater problem with negative equity than had been anticipated. So, we have already made that change to the scheme and put forward the funding that will enable us to cover that. We are continuing to monitor how the schemes are developing because, obviously, as I said at the outset, our goal is to be as effective as possible in preventing repossessions, by whatever means.
Does the right hon. Lady understand that there is no amusement on this side of the House at the Government’s situation, but there is a great deal of anger at their unwillingness to recognise the failure of these programmes, however well intended they might be, to deliver in practice? She neglected to tell the House that, of the 1,000 a month who register and express an interest in the mortgage rescue scheme, more than half are told that they do not qualify on the Government’s own criteria. She neglected to say that on the current rate of progress the 6,000 who are supposed to be helped over the course of the scheme would, in fact, total about 12.
The Minister refers to the home owner mortgage support scheme. Would it not have been better if she had owned up to the fact that the 50 per cent. of mortgage lenders coming forward is fewer than the 70 per cent. that she said would come forward when the scheme was first trailed? Will she explain why major players such as Santander, Barclays, HSBC and Nationwide have all ruled out participation in the scheme? There is nothing amusing about this: indeed, the Government’s failure is tragic, if not scandalous.
The hon. Gentleman accuses me of misunderstanding the Opposition’s approach. I admit that I was guilty of thinking that people who were roaring with laughter were finding something amusing.
What the hon. Gentleman says is straightforward nonsense, as he should be aware. He talks about a failure to deliver in practice and about the criteria for the scheme. If he has been paying any real attention to the schemes, he will know that the mortgage rescue scheme was only ever intended for some 6,000 families, and was geared towards the most vulnerable households who would be legally entitled to be rehoused by their local authority. That was all announced at the time. It was precisely because that scheme was funded only to deal with a small number of households that the Government then introduced the home owners mortgage support scheme, which is designed to deal with a much larger number—potentially tens of thousands—of households. All the strictures that the hon. Gentleman has levelled against the mortgage rescue scheme are therefore misplaced.
The hon. Gentleman suggests that Barclays, Nationwide and Santander are not participating, but he is wrong. They are offering comparable schemes and therefore have said that they do not see the necessity for the underpinning Government guarantee, and that is why they have not entered the guarantee scheme. They are certainly offering similar schemes, alongside our scheme, which they would not be offering were it not for the fact that this Government have urged them to enter our scheme. They do not need the support and that is why they have not come into that aspect of the scheme.
Home Information Packs
Independent research into the impact of home information packs was undertaken by Europe Economics. The implementation of HIPs is being kept under review and an evaluation of the HIPs programme is currently planned for 2010 by updating “The HIPs Baseline Research Report”.
I dispute what the hon. Gentleman says. Professionals are telling us that information is vital, and giving buyers information about probably the biggest purchase in their lives benefits the whole home buying and selling process. Roger Wilson of Connells, one of the country’s largest estate agents, has said:
“Knowledge is key when it comes to building confidence for any big purchase and prospective home buyers need to do their research and gather as much information as possible. The new PIQ, EPC and other elements of the Home Information Pack mean buyers will have more information about a home from the very first day it goes on the market.”
Professionals are actually welcoming the HIP.
Professionals such as LMS in my constituency are proud of the work that they do in providing HIPs to many people. Will my hon. Friend take this opportunity to say how he intends to continue his drive, after the review, to relieve the downward pressure on conveyancing by moving towards a system of electronic conveyancing?
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. Electronic conveyancing can speed up the process hugely. We remain committed to ensuring that we can simplify and streamline the home buying and selling process. Some £1 million a week is wasted in abortive home purchases and sales, and that can cause heartache to the people involved and disruption to the economy, so we remain committed to HIPs. We want to provide information up front to allow buyers to make an informed choice.
Further to the Minister’s response to my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge), will he guarantee that the review will include consultation with estate agents up and down the country to assess the level of demand from house buyers for home information packs and to assess the number of packs that have been produced but never used, and the cost involved? If the demand is extremely low, as I predict it will be, will he at least make them voluntary and not a statutory requirement?
No, we have no plans to make them a voluntary requirement. The hon. Lady touches on an important point. Sometimes, buyers and sellers—particularly buyers—do not get to see the HIP. That is not in anybody’s interests. One key idea that we are trying to push forward, along with the industry, is that estate agents and others involved in the home buying and selling process should ensure that home buyers see the HIP. As I said in a previous answer, information is key. This is the biggest purchase that someone will make and it is important that home buyers get to see the home information pack and make informed choices accordingly.
We have announced a series of measures over the past 12 months designed to improve delivery of social rented housing in the current difficult market conditions, including a £1 billion housing package in the Budget, focused on maintaining activity and jobs, and further help for those who need it in the short term. We remain committed to the delivery of affordable housing for social rent and low-cost home ownership and we are assessing delivery and targets with the HCA as part of its corporate plan process.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. In my constituency, there are 26 applicants for every social housing vacancy. The Homes and Communities Agency has made a good start in giving £12 million to the Chester and district housing trust to build 350 homes, but 3,500 homes are needed. What more can she and the agency do to put pressure on the banks and building societies to make borrowing affordable for housing associations?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Perhaps I can direct her to the evidence given yesterday to the Select Committee, which will be published. Questions were asked about housing associations’ capacity to raise funding. Although there is general recognition of their concerns about the loans that lenders are making available, it appears that the situation is easing to some degree. I share her anxieties and can assure her that we keep this matter under review.
The Minister’s hon. Friend, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), recently gave an interview to that excellent newspaper the Leicester Mercury, in which he commented on social housing, in particular with regard to Pembury and the proposed eco-town. Is he aware that, with or without social housing, local feeling is entirely opposed to the proposal to build a huge town on a greenfield site? Frankly, I wish that the Government would stop backing that plan and that Ministers would stop interfering in Leicestershire’s affairs.
Will the Minister do her best to ensure that the agency secures rapid delivery of affordable socially rented homes, to get people out of private rented accommodation where landlords are making a killing at the public expense through the housing benefits system? Will she also ensure that houses that are built or bought are appropriate, particularly for two very needy groups—large families and single people, who often do not get any social housing options whatsoever?
I can certainly tell my hon. Friend that I know that the HCA shares the concerns that he has expressed, as do the Government. The agency met its targets last year, even in the present difficult economic circumstances, and will be using the funding put forward in the Budget to the best possible effect to build more housing, which is much needed, as fast as possible.
Decent Homes Programme
Between 1997-98 and 2008-09, the overall capital sum provided by the Department for Communities and Local Government and its predecessor Departments for capital investment in council-owned housing stock was £25.8 billion.
I thank the Minister for that reply, but does he not agree with me and many others in this place and elsewhere who say that if the fourth option had been agreed to, the sum would have been spent more efficiently, effectively and quickly, and to the greater benefit of our tenants and certainly taxpayers, who, of course, ultimately own the housing stock?
But I am sure that my hon. Friend would agree with me that when we came to power in 1997, there was a backlog of about £19 billion in council house maintenance and repairs. We have had to do something about that. One of the true successes of this Government has been the massive investment in a whole generation of social housing. He is right to say that local authorities have a key role to play, and not only in providing the broad strategic assessment of what housing is needed in their area; they have a direct delivery role. In answers to previous questions, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing has said that we are removing disincentives for local authorities, providing additional money in the Budget and elsewhere, and making sure that councils start building council houses again.
The decent homes initiative has transformed social housing in my constituency, but my hon. Friend is aware that the losers among residents are leaseholders who have bought properties that are now subject to major works bills, in some cases of £60,000—works that, in many cases, the leaseholders are totally unable to pay for. Will my hon. Friend assure me that he is, once again, urgently reviewing whether special, targeted help can be given to leaseholders who have, through no fault of their own, ended up owing bills of tens of thousands of pounds?
I am very sympathetic with regard to the scenario that my hon. Friend sets out. She has played a wonderful role in hassling me to death, frankly, on the issue—and she was right to do so. It is important to ensure that we provide targeted help. There is a range of powers in place. The Housing and Regeneration Act 2008 provided interest-free loans and deferred payments for leaseholders in the situation that she describes, but I am continuing to look at the issue, and I will keep her informed.
My Department continues to work to devolve power to councils, communities and citizens; to build strong, cohesive communities; to build new homes where people want to live and bring up their families; and to prevent violent extremism.
I applaud my right hon. Friend’s strong stand against extremism. Does she share my concern about the fact that al-Muhajiroun has regrouped under different names, and about the fact that on 1 March this year, Islam for the UK held an event at a Harrow primary school that featured a live link with the banished Omar Bakri Muhammad? What assurances can she give me that public facilities will not be used to promote extremism in such a way in the future?
I entirely share my hon. Friend’s concern about the activities of extremist groups. I am aware of a number of groups that have used council premises in places including Ealing and Tower Hamlets. Some of the councils concerned have very courageously taken steps to ensure that those groups are banned from their premises on the ground that their activities seek to divide communities. I can also confirm to my hon. Friend that my Department is in contact with those local authorities to support them in making the right decisions to bring our communities together, and not to divide them with the views of extremists.
As I remember, the last time the hon. Gentleman raised the issue he had a particular fanciable pigeon in mind; I have forgotten its name. I can say to him that I did personally take up the issue and found out why pigeon racing was not defined as a sport. Apparently it is because the owners do not take part in any physical activity. [Laughter.] If they ran behind the pigeons, it could be a sport. In terms of empowering the pigeon fanciers, perhaps I can suggest to him that they might like to draw up a petition, so that we can see whether we can take action on the issue.
We undertook a first annual review through the Government office in January, and Derbyshire is making good progress in meeting the priorities that it set itself. The first full independent assessment will be carried out in Derbyshire, as elsewhere, in November. Derbyshire has set itself five important economic priorities, on which it is working and making progress. It has also led a response locally, which is very impressive, helping to make sure that businesses receive the business relief that they deserve; that welfare claimants receive the benefits that they need; that buy-in from the council comes from local firms; and that invoices are paid promptly. It is a council with a proud, successful record over the past four years, and I hope that it will be judged as such by the electorate on Thursday. It certainly deserves to be back as a Labour authority after Thursday.
I have great respect for the CPRE, but in this regard its views are profoundly misconceived. It is all very well to say that it is not going to be easy—I accept that completely—to maintain the balance with quality of life, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. However, if we ignore the number of households who need to be housed, and assume that because the CPRE thinks so, it is not desirable to build them homes, that will certainly damage people’s quality of life, especially among the many thousands of families who will be without homes.
My hon. Friend will know, I hope, that we have initially purchased substantial numbers of unsold homes; in fact, we have mopped up a large amount of stock. He will also know that in the Budget proposals, provision was made to kick-start schemes that are frozen. Every scheme that is being considered will be assessed to see whether housing can be made a priority, and that will very much be part of the key judgment that is made. That is true in the west midlands and across the country.
I was interested to hear the answer given by the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), to the question on planning powers and the interaction with houses in multiple occupation. An issue that I have raised several times with the ministerial team, as have my hon. Friends, is the classification of second homes and whether there is some way of looking at planning and change of use classes orders to deal with the problem. My hon. Friend the Member for Truro and St. Austell (Matthew Taylor) raised that possibility in the report that he provided for the Government, in line with previous reports that the Government have received from, among others, Elinor Goodman. Is there anything that they have drawn on in those reports in order to look at the issue of second homes?
I am afraid that I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that there are currently no plans to require that people receive planning permission to have a second home. We would find that difficult within the planning regime. Planning legislation and the planning framework are based on land use, and if someone lives in a house, the position is similar to that for someone living in a second home, as it were. Nevertheless, councils have considerable powers regarding council tax discounts to provide resources that can be put into the community to help combat the problems experienced in large areas of the country where there are second homes.
I have spoken privately with my hon. Friend about that. I know that she plays a leading role in her area in bringing together various agencies to help enforcement. We have put in place a number of powers to help enforcement. The key factor is local authorities, the police and other agencies using those powers. Directly after oral questions today, I have a meeting with my hon. Friend the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing to discuss how local authorities and police can work effectively together. My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) will be aware that on 12 May we published a consultation paper, “Improving the Management of Park Home Sites”, which proposes the introduction of an improved park home site licensing system. In particular, that will require site owners to be fit and proper people to hold a site licence. We believe that that will drive up management standards. The consultation closes on 4 August, and I encourage my hon. Friend and others to get involved in it.
May I take the Ministers back to the subject of eco-towns, particularly that proposed for Leicestershire in Pembury, which is causing tremendous upset to the people of Leicestershire? There is no demand for it among the people of Leicestershire. Yes, there is a demand for social housing, but what about using brownfield sites? There is a real feeling that the fact that the Co-op is leading the charge for this eco-town may be a conflict of interest between Labour and the co-operative society.
I was about to congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his ingenuity in managing to raise the issue twice, having already worked it into one question to which it was wholly unrelated, although this time, of course, he can raise any topic he chooses. I say to him what I said to him a moment or two ago. We will, I trust, be able to come forward in the not-too-distant future with the results of our consultation and discussion on the set of proposals about eco-towns, and no doubt he and his constituents will have things to say then.
My hon. Friendis, as ever, a champion for her community. She will know that I have visited Thornaby probably half a dozen times over the past 10 or 12 years, and I have seen the dramatic transformation that there has been in that community, which has suffered from a range of deprivation. The shopping centre that has been developed is a marvellous, light, airy, attractive place that will bring people to businesses in that community. The hairdressers in my hon. Friend’s shopping centre did an excellent job, and I was delighted to be able to pay a visit there on my most recent visit.
When local councils are under pressure to identify land for house building under Government targets, can they now adjust the targets downwards to allow for the fact that the actual building rates have fallen dramatically owing to the credit crunch and recession?
I have had the pleasure of visiting Stourbridge with my hon. Friend. She, too, is a champion for her area. We hope to ensure that the £3 million town centres fund is up and running very shortly, and to get the money out so that we can provide support, particularly for local authorities to cover the temporary costs of using those empty premises for something worth while, whether for arts activities or cultural activities, as a drop-in centre for the police service, or for a rehearsal space for young people in bands—a range of activities which, just as in Thornaby, can help to draw people to the town centre. If we get people in, shopping and spending their money, that will help the businesses enormously in my hon. Friend’s area. I will ensure that she gets the details as a matter of priority for her community.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about that. She will be aware of the private rented sector review that we commissioned from Julie Rugg and David Rhodes of the university of York, and we announced our response to the Rugg review on 13 May. One key element of our proposals is mandatory legislation on letting agents. We think that it will be an important step in improving the quality of letting agents—both for good landlords and good tenants.
West Lancashire borough council tells me that if it were to reduce total rents by using the figure of 3.1 per cent., the formula would unfortunately have a perverse consequence when applied to the area. The council would have to reduce services by £67,000, and would risk a potential £500,000 problem on the housing revenue account. Will the Minister look at how those perverse consequences play out when applied to West Lancashire?
Certainly I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. I know that she has been anxious and extremely active on behalf of her constituency and local authority. We believe that there is actually some misunderstanding on the part of the authority about the implications of the change for it, but my officials are, I think, meeting representatives of her local authority this week, and we will work carefully through the detailed implications. I can certainly assure her and other Members that it is no part of our intention that any local authority will be disadvantaged by making the change.
I congratulate the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), from the bottom of my heart on the changes that he has announced to the building regulation part G in order to reduce bathwater scalds in the home. I pay tribute to him on behalf of the Children’s Fire and Burn Trust, the Child Accident Prevention Trust and the British Burn Association, and the plastic surgeons and the anaesthetists who deal with some of the 600 individuals who suffer severe bathwater scalds each year. They say that because of my hon. Friend’s decision, a lot of people will be saved a lot of pain and suffering in the years to come.
I thank my hon. Friend for those kind words, but I must say that through her leadership of the “Hot Water Burns Like Fire” campaign and her enormously positive work with my officials to provide the evidence to push forward the impact assessment that allowed us to make those changes, she has been at the very heart of the work to ensure that vulnerable people, such as young children and older people, can be safe in their baths. It is thanks to her hard work that we have been able to change the building regulations.
Point of Order
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. We are due to meet the Secretary of State for Health next week to discuss the national burn care review in the north-west, which has examined a number of centres in Manchester and Liverpool. However, we found out today that the strategic health authority review group is about to issue a press release and make its recommendations public. How can that happen when we, as Members, are due to meet the Secretary of State next week so that he can hear our views? It pre-empts parliamentary rules and our position as MPs.
Bailiffs (Repeals and Amendment)
Motion for leave to introduce a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make requirements in respect of the use of force and forcible entry by bailiffs; to make provision for the reference to court of certain cases involving vulnerable clients; and for connected purposes.
The recession of the past 18 months has painfully demonstrated the precariousness of many people’s financial situation. Debt and debt recovery action have become a reality for ever larger numbers of people, and the arrival of a bailiff is, for many of those people, the ultimate trauma and humiliation. Indeed, we know of cases in which people have had heart attacks when the bailiffs have arrived. The mental and physical stress that people undergo is one of the worst things that will ever happen to them in their life.
Of course, bailiffs and debt recovery mechanisms have to be used. There are always people who abuse trust, neglect their finances and refuse to engage with their creditors, and, ultimately, they must pay an appropriate price. Indeed, in my constituency role, some examples have been brought to my attention whereby bailiffs have intervened with their clients and been helpful in the extreme. They have been informative and sympathetic, and they have helped people with their predicament. Yet the truth is that many of those subject to such enforcement action are desperate and vulnerable people, and many are also victims of error. For them, even the actions of bailiffs who behave entirely reasonably—and they do not always do that—are disproportionate and excessive.
As I do more and more work with constituents who owe money and I learn more about the process of debt recovery and the enforcement of fines, it has become clear to me that we have got the balance wrong, and that we need to review urgently the position that we are in. We must certainly not, in any circumstances, think of escalating the powers available to bailiffs, and the Government should rethink their approach to regulation.
The bailiff at the door has been an image in literature for many years; it was a common motif in Dickens novels—but it is not a rare visitation on the feckless and the spendthrift, but an occurrence of staggering frequency. In my local authority alone, and in respect of just one debt—arrears of council tax—more than 13,000 cases ended up in the hands of bailiffs over a three-year period. The council has stated that 9 per cent. of council tax accounts—almost one in 10—end up in enforcement action. That is a staggering proportion.
What does it mean to be on the receiving end of such action? It means fear and trauma for people, particularly children. I have heard of moving cases in which children have refused to leave the house or have insisted on having the lights out at home because they are so frightened of a bailiff coming and seizing their television or computer. Being on the receiving end also means an escalation of the original debt, which simply compounds the problems that caused the financial crisis in the first place. Only last week I had to intervene in the case of a single parent with three children, one of whom is disabled. Her parking fine, about which I was making representations, had escalated from an original £60 to £700 by the time the bailiffs arrived.
Another constituent wrote to tell me that she had two sets of bailiffs chasing the same debt. Payments had been made to and acknowledged by the council, but did not then appear on the system. She wrote:
“This has left me in a desperate state—each party refers me to the other, the fees are ever increasing and two companies are threatening the removal of goods for the same amount.”
Some people are the victims of mistaken identity, while others are the victims of identity fraud. I have had cases in which action has been taken against one person because of another person’s criminality. The point is that there is a lack of proportionality in the response, given the likelihood of those at the receiving end being vulnerable, or victims of mistaken identity.
The representations that I seek to make to Ministers through the Bill are threefold. The power of forcible entry into a person’s home and the power for bailiffs even to use force against debtors are far too extreme to be given to civilian enforcement officers. The balance has been tilted too far against the householder’s right to be secure from trespass into their home. The present position overturns a long-standing common law tradition, by which a bailiff peacefully entering a property could not be prevented from going about his or her task. The emphasis was very much on an acceptance of that right in certain cases, but obviously the tradition stopped short of forcible entry.
The powers taken by the Government in the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007 have not been brought into effect by regulation, and we await the regulations that will implement them. However, I believe that it is now clear that such powers should be repealed. Their excessive harshness should not be left on the statute book, even with an indication that the Government do not intend to implement them at present. The powers should be removed entirely.
Of course, the power to enter domestic premises forcibly to enforce the collection of criminal fines is already legal, and that too is creating appalling distress for many vulnerable households. Many of the criminal fines are levied on people on low incomes for offences such as the non-payment of TV licences, fare dodging and truancy. These are indeed offences, and it is only right that if an offence is deemed to have occurred, a penalty must be applied. However, the issue here, too, is one of proportionality, in terms of the sums involved and the manner of the enforcement deployed.
I also seek a statutory procedure requiring bailiffs to return cases involving vulnerable and impoverished debtors to the courts or the creditors, and powers to allow people subject to any bailiff action to apply to the courts for any bailiff warrant to be suspended—something that is missing from the 2007 Act. At present, that recourse is available only to people subject to county court bailiff warrants. People subject to bailiff warrants who have not been subject to county court applications have to rely on the good will and discretion of the creditor.
Some bailiffs and courts rely on case law, which holds that a distress warrant cannot be withdrawn once it has been issued. That directly contradicts the national standards for enforcement agents, which suggests a procedure enabling the bailiff to return cases of vulnerable fine defaulters to the court. The procedure to bypass this anomaly recommended by the Ministry of Justice is to write a letter to the court asking for a re-hearing of the case. In practice, however, neither bailiffs nor fine defaulters seem to know this, and disproportionate fines are being paid by benefit claimants and other low-income groups, intensifying the poverty that pushed many of them into debt in the first place. My Bill would clear up the anomaly by enabling bailiffs to return vulnerable cases to the courts and creditors for reconsideration.
Finally, we need a statutory provision for bailiffs to accept “affordable payments”, with a definition of what that might mean in practice, so that before goods are seized or payment in full is demanded, an assessment is made of what can practically be afforded, at least in a single payment. By way of illustration, one of my constituents wrote to me a few weeks ago in the following terms:
“I received a letter on the 10th of January notifying me that the bailiffs were to visit my house that same day, with regards to £191 arrears of Council Tax. I explained to someone in their office that I was not aware of that debt as I did not live at that address anymore. I made an arrangement to pay the money I did owe in instalments, the last of which—£63—was due on Easter Monday. I had no money at all, and called their office to make an arrangement. They said that unless I paid £195 today the bailiffs would come and carry my goods. I requested him to take the payment of £63 which clears my account, but he said the bailiffs will still come and carry my goods because I made the payment late and incurred a charge of £131!”
This treatment of people simply will not do.
My purpose today is not to put bailiffs in the firing line: some are good, some are bad, but all are operating in a framework that is not as it should be. Likewise, I am not singling out my own council, Westminster. Although I think that it makes too liberal a use of bailiffs, and it has certainly not developed the comprehensive advice and debt service that the local population needs, I do not think that it is uniquely bad. Indeed, I would commend officers in the finance department for the quality of service that they have offered to me in helping to deal with many of the difficult cases that I put to them. Nevertheless, we do have a grave problem with debt and debt recovery services, with disproportionately harsh penalties being applied to hundreds of thousands—if not millions, over years—of some of the most vulnerable people in the country. I believe that they need greater protection, and above all, to be freed from the fear of the implementation of the excessively harsh powers held in reserve in the legislation.
Question put and agreed to.
That Ms Karen Buck, Martin Salter, Fiona Mactaggart, Mr. Gary Streeter, Dr. Alan Whitehead, Clive Efford, Mr. Andrew Dismore, Bob Russell, Mr. Andy Slaughter, Mr. Andrew Love and Mr. David Winnick present the Bill.
Ms Karen Buck accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 16 October, and to be printed (Bill 102).
Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Bill [Lords]
[Relevant Document: The Ninth Report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Legislative Scrutiny: Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Bill, HC375.]
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
This Bill introduces measures to help complete the biggest overhaul of Britain’s immigration system in a generation, strengthening our borders, controlling migration and ensuring that those who come to the UK earn the right to citizenship.
Yes, that is what I am going to do.
Over the past couple of years, we have made real progress in the immigration system. We have launched the UK Border Agency as a single force at the border, and we have toughened up our visa regime, effectively exporting the border by requiring biometric registration of all who wish to travel here on a visa. So far we have enrolled more than 4 million sets of fingerprints, flagging up thousands of cases of people who have swapped their identities.
Thank you, Mr. Speaker. The hon. Gentleman has had lunch, but he did not have coffee.
We are already issuing ID cards for foreign nationals—35,000 since last November. The points-based system is now fully operational, so that only those with the skills that we need can come to the UK to work and study.
The Home Secretary has sought to persuade the House that somehow the Government have suddenly woken up to the problem and are doing something about it. When is she going to apologise to the British people for the overwhelming tide of migration that has hit this country? Since her Government came to power, five times as many are being admitted than were admitted under the Conservative Government. What has she to say to our constituents when she has let 500,000 migrants into this country? Her system has completely failed. When is she going to apologise?
Today is obviously a day for the wagging of fingers, but perhaps if the hon. Gentleman looked at the figures he would realise that the most recent figures for net migration actually show a decrease. I shall go on to explain the Bill, and how the action that this Government have taken has enabled us to control migration to the benefit of this country.
Before that interruption, the Home Secretary was talking about the impact of the Government’s points system. Will she have a chance this afternoon to develop the ideas that the Government clearly have in mind to encourage people to come here to work but to break the link whereby people who do so automatically become citizens?
Yes, I can assure my right hon. Friend that I will take the opportunity to develop that argument and talk about how the infrastructure that we have now put in place enables us both to control the number of people coming for entry and, as he says, to move on to the next stage of reforms to citizenship and settlement.
In July 2007, in one of my first acts as Home Secretary, I announced plans to establish the single border force. Already among the most secure in the world, Britain’s borders have been further strengthened through the success of the UK Border Agency in proving its worth. Since April 2008, better deployment and the use of new technology have led to the seizure of illegal drugs worth more than £340 million and record numbers of dangerous weapons. Last year we prevented more than 30,000 individual clandestine attempts to enter the UK illegally. We have used the e-Borders system to screen nearly 90 million passengers, leading to more than 3,000 arrests including significant counter-terrorist interventions.
My understanding is that approximately 80 per cent. of the people who move to this country are residents or citizens of one of the other 26 member states of the European Union. Are the Government prepared to reconsider the free movement of labour in the European Union?
Free movement, and its relationship to trade and the free market, is an important element of our membership of the EU. We have taken action on new member states to ensure that, through the workers registration scheme—which the Opposition opposed—we are clear about being able to count and tackle benefit entitlement. However, we should maintain that significant ability to travel freely and work in the EU.
No, I believe that the minimum wage in this country protects wage levels. I agree with my hon. Friend that we need to consider the economic impact of migration. We have set up the Migration Advisory Committee to advise us on migration from outside the EU, and I shall say more about that as I develop my arguments.
No, I want to make a little more progress.
We now have more people working to secure our borders than ever—25,000 staff, including more than 9,000 warranted customs and immigration officers operating at the border, in local communities and in more than 135 countries worldwide.
May I raise with the Home Secretary my dismay when arriving at Belfast city airport on parliamentary business on 29 March? A person there who subsequently identified himself as a member of the UK Border Agency, without credentials, used a security firm to demand identity and passports from people on a domestic flight. Officials, not the airline operator, did that. It is an abuse of power, and those officials need their knuckles rapped to ensure that they wear credentials and have a mandate from Parliament to make such demands. Is that endemic and widespread internally in the United Kingdom?
If my hon. Friend believes that that person acted inappropriately, and he wants to write to me about it, we will ensure that the matter is investigated.
Part 1 provides the legal backing for giving front-line customs and immigration staff powers and allows for the formal transfer of around 4,500 officers currently employed by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, to create a single primary checkpoint. That full integration of customs frontier work is a major step forward in our border controls and it provides the platform for even closer co-operation between the UK Border Agency and the police. That is now a day-to-day reality, with enhanced co-ordination between the police and the UK Border Agency on intelligence sharing and joint operations. An integrated single border force works alongside the police, helping us to combat illegal immigration, prevent border tax fraud, take on organised crime networks, stop the trafficking of people, drugs and weapons and counter the threat of terrorism.
What the Home Secretary has said is helpful. However, if what she outlines is not also done with the co-operation of the entry clearance operation, the outcome will replicate the current situation, whereby there are hundreds of bogus colleges in this country and tens of thousands of bogus students who have been admitted because of the entry clearance position. The Minister for Borders and Immigration appeared before the Select Committee on Home Affairs this morning and confirmed the problem. Will the Home Secretary confirm that the Bill will help resolve the problem, and will she also—
I know that my hon. Friend the Minister for Borders and Immigration was before my right hon. Friend’s Committee this morning. However, he was actually confirming that, in introducing tier 4 of the points-based system in particular, but also in tightening up the requirement for sponsorship, which, incidentally, is further strengthened in the Bill, we are taking robust action against bogus colleges and those who purport to enter this country to study.
I am listening to the Home Secretary’s argument, but would she accept that the increasingly rules-based nature of how we handle immigration creates undesirable unintended consequences? One of my constituents, Miss Cunningham, who is seriously ill, has had her request for a carer from the Philippine islands turned down on technical grounds. Does the Home Secretary recognise that the more we depend on a rules-based system, the less latitude Ministers have to interpret the guidelines in a sympathetic way? That can make the Government seem very heartless, as they have to Miss Cunningham.
I think that it is a good thing to reduce the numerous routes that previously existed and to have a clear and fair system, as we have in the points-based system.
Let me return to the strength of the border. Through the work of the e-Borders operations centre, or EBOC, joint working between those at the border and the police is helping to ensure the security of those who travel to and from the UK. I am clear that that is where we should be putting our energy. Such work provides the advantage of robust collaboration, but without the drawbacks of significant further structural change to policing, as advocated by some Opposition Members. We will take practical steps to deliver an effective working relationship between the police and the UK Border Agency, and not just at the border, but across the country.
However, those who argue for greater border security cannot do so in all good faith while opposing the necessary wider protections that we have put in place. It is not enough to have the police and border officials working side by side. They also need the tools for the job, such as electronic border controls and ID cards for foreign nationals. Both of those protections are opposed by Opposition Members.
In making all those changes to our border controls, will the Home Secretary consider creating a new channel of entry for people carrying British passports, so that we do not have to queue up behind hundreds and thousands of people who are coming from other countries? Surely if we are coming into our own country with a British passport, we should have our own way of coming in.
I hope that my hon. Friend has had the opportunity to register in and to see the operation of IRIS, the iris recognition immigration system, which is now in place at many airports, and to see the facial recognition gates operating in Manchester airport, both of which enable people with British passports to get through the necessary border controls, but much more quickly and effectively.
I will give way to my hon. Friend in a moment.
I would also like to set out the Government’s intentions in respect of the Bill’s provisions on the common travel area, which I know has been the subject of considerable debate in another place. There are many benefits to the common travel area, and I am clear that I want it to remain intact. However, to preserve those benefits, we need to strengthen our safeguards, particularly when faced with clear evidence that the arrangements can be subject to abuse by serious and organised criminals and by illegal immigrants. The changes that we propose will not prevent British citizens or Irish nationals from entering the UK freely, as they do now. There is no intention to introduce fixed border controls on routes between the Crown dependencies and the UK. I do not expect any noticeable impact on the journeys of most passengers. Rather, the changes are targeted at identifying third-country nationals who are not travelling to the UK legitimately. In that context I hope that we can look for support from all parts of the House.
I am greatly reassured by my right hon. Friend’s comments about the common travel arrangements. Will she confirm that there will be no possibility of a repeat of the unfortunate incident that occurred a few years ago when Irish citizens who were brought up in this country and may never have set foot in Ireland found themselves victims of custodial sentences, but were then faced with deportation on the completion of their sentences?
That issue is not about the CTA. There are strong constraints, particularly in the EU, on which people can and cannot be deported. However, the UK’s relationship with the Republic of Ireland in the common travel area is an important element, and one that our proposals are aimed at safeguarding. I am of course ready to consider any other options to deliver the policy objectives that I am sure we all share to counter the vulnerability that we have identified.
Alongside our proposals for the integrated border force, and to preserve what is best about the common travel area, the Bill also proposes to strengthen our border controls in other ways. It amends existing powers so that we can take the fingerprints of foreign criminals subject to automatic deportation provisions, and it extends to Scotland a power to allow immigration officers to detain at port for up to three hours a person subject to a warrant for arrest, as is already the case in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Alongside taking the necessary steps to strengthen our border, we need to make immigration work in the interests of Britain, as several of my hon. Friends have already said. The points-based system is now fully up and running, and we have closed down the route to non-EU low-skilled migration. We have always said that the points system will allow us to be flexible in controlling migration, and more effective than the arbitrary cap proposed by the Opposition. It allows us to raise or lower the bar according to the needs of business and the country as a whole, as we showed in February when I announced changes to raise the qualification and salary levels for entering the UK as a highly skilled migrant, and when we announced proposals to give British workers a fair crack of the whip by ensuring that employers must advertise more skilled jobs through Jobcentre Plus before they can bring in a worker from outside Europe, and proposals to ensure that each future shortage occupation list published by the Migration Advisory Committee triggers skills reviews that focus on up-skilling domestic workers for those occupations.
I am grateful for the work of Professor David Metcalf and his advisory committee, and if he advises us that we need to continue to tighten these measures in Britain’s economic interest, we will do so. Overall, the decisions that we have taken to control migration will reduce the numbers of economic migrants coming to Britain and staying, while ensuring that we attract and keep the right people—those with the skills that our economy needs.
Migration has brought us economic benefits, but it should not be a substitute for up-skilling the domestic work force. Nor should there be a right to automatic citizenship based purely on length of stay in Britain. Part 2 sets out the terms of the deal that we will expect newcomers to sign up to if they want to stay and build a life in this country.
The Home Secretary talks about a deal between a migrant seeking citizenship and the state that awards that citizenship. Will she assure the House that there will be no circumstances in which an asylum seeker who has been on temporary admission for a long time because of delays by the Home Office in deciding their case will not have the time that they have been in the country counted as legal residence for the purposes of becoming a citizen, as is currently the case?
There was considerable discussion on this issue in another place. I certainly think that we need to look at situations in which such delays are clearly a result of decision making not being done in time, and to look at ways in which that period of time could contribute to the period of residency for the purposes of citizenship. I do not believe that that should be a blanket provision, but I believe that there can be flexibility in the way in which we deal with that issue.
British immigration policy must be tough, but it must also be fair. Clause 39 refers to exceptions to the application of part 2, which deals with citizenship. In my constituency, there are about 40 families from the Malayali community in southern India. Those people have perfectly respectable jobs as doctors, computer engineers and so on. They have broken not a single rule and are not a burden on the state. They have been working here and they will shortly qualify for citizenship of this country. Under the Bill, unless we keep the amendment that was made in another place, they will not qualify for citizenship because the period of grace will disappear. Will the Home Secretary assure the House that, in the interest of fairness, she will not seek to remove clause 39 from the Bill?
The hon. Gentleman is right that clause 39 was inserted in the other place to deal with transitional provisions, but we do not believe that the drafting of the clause would achieve what the hon. Gentleman outlined in his intervention. There are questions about the length of time that we want to take before the right provisions about earned citizenship come into place. We will, of course, look in further detail at how to deal with people already in this country and the basis on which they are here, but I do not think that we should have to wait until everyone who is here on a temporary basis has worked through the system before introducing what I think is the right deal, spelled out in our earned citizenship proposals. As part of that deal, people who want to make their home permanently here must be able to demonstrate their commitment to Britain by speaking English, working hard and playing by the rules.
Our earned citizenship proposals provide a clearer and fairer journey to citizenship. They deliver simple steps and set the right balance between demonstrating commitment to the UK and gaining access to privileges—privileges such as our benefits system, where we estimate that our proposals could result in savings of at least £350 million in the first five years. Those who show a real commitment to this country by making a positive contribution to the wider community will be able to complete the journey to citizenship more quickly. Requiring migrants to earn citizenship will, for the first time, mean that there is no automatic link, as was mentioned earlier, between coming to the UK to work or study and settling here permanently. I believe that breaking that link is an important new stage in our reform of immigration.
May I welcome the statement that my right hon. Friend has just made, but also ask her to develop her ideas on this very point? The Government are now committed not to growing the population through immigration, and if we are not going to do that, there needs to be a cap on the number of new citizens received in any one year. Will she clarify whether that is now also part of the Government’s thinking?
I know that my right hon. Friend has done a lot of work on this subject, and I think that he is right that now, as we put these measures into place, is the time also to give serious consideration to how we ensure that we have an appropriate level of control over the numbers of people granted the right to settle permanently in this country in the same way that we now have an appropriate level of control over those who can enter temporarily.
No, I am in the process of completing my point. That is why the Government will bring forward proposals before the summer recess on how we can take the next steps towards a points-based system for the path to citizenship as well—in order precisely to put in place the sort of control that my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) has identified.
I am most grateful to the Home Secretary for giving way to me a second time. Is she telling the House that the Government now favour a cap—an absolute number that should not be exceeded—because, if so, that is quite different from what they have said in the past?
What I have said is that while I do not think an arbitrary cap on entry, as proposed by Conservative Members, is the most effective and flexible way to control migration, I do believe that we should control the numbers coming into this country. We are doing that through the current points-based system. What I am arguing today is that we should go further and use what we know about the architecture that has been created to control the number of those granted citizenship at the next stage. That is why we will bring forward proposals on how to introduce a points-based system for the path to citizenship as well as for entry.
To be entirely clear, is the Home Secretary saying that even if a number of people have gone through all the extra hurdles to earn citizenship—done the voluntary work and done everything else—she is going to add on top of that a cap so that those going through those hurdles might well be refused in a single year? That is what she has just told the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz).
No, I said precisely the opposite. It is Conservative Members who believe that an arbitrary cap is the best way to control immigration. I believe that what we have seen through the points-based system—with levels of points that can be raised or lowered to suit the concerns and interests of this country—is the appropriate model to build on for a system to control the route to citizenship. It is a more flexible way of controlling those who go forward to citizenship. [Interruption.]
The question that Conservative Members need to answer is whether they think it is now appropriate to move to the next stage of reform, and to consider the way in which we control—for the benefit of Britain—the number of people who choose to settle here and proceed to citizenship. I have said that I think that that is the appropriate next stage of reform.
The cornerstone of my approach to getting our immigration system right is that it does the right thing by the people whom it serves, and is seen to make decisions that are not only firm, but fair and fast.
No. I must make a little more progress now.
That is why the Bill includes important provisions to enable children born outside the UK to a parent who is a foreign or Commonwealth member of our armed forces to apply for British citizenship, and to ensure that children born in the UK to such parents are automatically British at birth. It is why the Bill amends the British Nationality Act 1981, allowing British mothers to pass on their British citizenship to children born before 1961. It is why the Bill creates a new children’s duty: a duty for the Border and Immigration Agency to change the way in which it works with children so that it discharges its functions in a way that safeguards and promotes their welfare.
May I return the Home Secretary to what she said about a points-based system for citizenship? What she has just said in the middle of her speech seems to me to be fundamentally different from what is in the Bill. I do not know how we can debate and pass the Bill as it stands if we are told that such a measure is in the offing and will come at some point in the future. It is impossible to know what the routes to citizenship will be if we do not know how the new points-based system, which has come out of the blue, will operate.
Furthermore, we have successfully put in place a points-based system—using, incidentally, immigration rules, not primary legislation—in order to provide flexible control over those who come into the country. I consider the logical next stage, on which there will be full consultation, to be consideration of whether and how a points-based system for citizenship would work.
Building on a comprehensive programme of immigration reform, the Bill introduces measures to make our borders more secure, to ensure that only migrants who can be of benefit to Britain are selected, and to set the standards by which newcomers can progress towards citizenship.
It is probably appropriate for me to begin by marking what now appears to be the Home Secretary’s final appearance at the Dispatch Box by noting that she is Britain’s first female Home Secretary. I congratulate her on her decision to preannounce the reshuffle—that will cause a great deal of interest around this place, and may cause a bit more consternation in Downing street; indeed, I suspect that the mobile phones are on the move there again—and on her achievement in becoming Britain’s first woman Home Secretary.
Britain’s migration system has been in crisis for the best part of a decade, but, eight Bills and much rhetoric later, the Government have no solutions to offer. Worse still, they are not even capable of pushing through their own ideas on how to deal with the issues that they face. How do we know that? Well, last summer they published a draft Bill containing a range of ideas, most of which are still where they started—on the drawing board. That is why the Home Secretary had so little to say about the Bill this afternoon. We heard a fair amount about immigration issues, but precious little about the Bill itself. What we have now is not the comprehensive measure that the Government presented last year, but a haphazard mix of a few ideas: some that might help a little; some that are meaningless; and, in between, a few that are just absurd. The Bill will require extensive scrutiny as it passes through the House in order to try to sort out some of its problems.
All that comes from a Government who have clearly run out of purpose. We thought they had run out of ideas until the Home Secretary brought forward some new proposals, rather to the consternation of some of her fellow Labour Members. We will, no doubt, find out a bit more about them as we proceed, and we will discover whether there is any substance to them. We need action to tackle the problems in our immigration system, but this Bill and this Government cannot deliver that action.
May I ask the hon. Gentleman the same question that I asked my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary? Given that about 80 per cent. of immigration into the UK is made up of people who are residents of other EU member states, does the hon. Gentleman think the UK Government should look again at the free movement of labour provisions within the EU?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have always argued for transitional arrangements for new member states. It was this Government, not us, who took the decision not to impose those transitional arrangements, unlike almost every other European country. We would certainly put them in place for new member states. As for existing immigration from eastern Europe, however, that is a result of a decision taken by Ministers of this Government four or five years ago, so that train has long since left the station.
The hon. Gentleman has misunderstood my question. I am not talking about transitional arrangements. Instead, I am talking about one of the fundamental aspects of the architecture of the EU—the free movement of labour. I think there is a case for looking at that again. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?
No, I do not think we are going to look again at the free movement of labour within the EU. However, the hon. Gentleman should recognise—he will discover this, if he looks at the statistics—that migration into this country from outside the EU remains higher than migration from inside the EU. We have long argued for an absolute cap on the number of people coming into this country from outside the EU. That remains our policy and we wish that the current Government would adopt it, but the truth is that they will not do so.
Over the past 10 years, this Government have presided over the most chaotic situation in our immigration system in modern history. Even the Minister for Borders and Immigration has admitted that
“People didn’t believe the authorities knew what they were doing, and there’s a very good reason for that—they didn’t.”
Will my hon. Friend help me by explaining to the House why imposing a limit on the number of people coming in from outside the EU is imposing an arbitrary figure, whereas a figure fixed by the Government for the number of people in any one year who can have citizenship is not an arbitrary figure?
Does my hon. Friend read any significance into the fact that after having announced the new policy on citizenship, the Secretary of State pointedly refused to take no fewer than three interventions from her own side, despite delivering what was a relatively short speech for a Second Reading debate?
My hon. Friend is right, and I have a sneaking suspicion that the next Home Secretary may not be as keen to adopt the policy as the current one is on the eve of her departure from her post.
The reality is stark. Immigration into this country has increased fivefold since this Government came to power. A decade ago, net immigration into the UK was less than 50,000 a year; by 2007, that figure had risen to almost 250,000. On top of that, the Government admit that there are more than 500,000 illegal immigrants in the UK. The UK population is now projected to grow to 71 million by 2031, with half that growth directly attributed to new migration. Public services simply cannot cope with an unplanned rate of change on the scale of recent years. Police forces are struggling with the cost of translation services; schools in areas of high migration face the challenges of large numbers of pupils without English as a first language; health services will struggle to cope with the extra demands of new arrivals; and Ministers do not seem to have much of an idea on what to do about the problem.
The Home Secretary still this afternoon refuses to take the very obvious step of limiting the number of new arrivals. The sensible approach is very simple: introduce an annual limit on immigration and bring immigration down to manageable levels. When Ministers talk about introducing an Australian-style, points-based system for this country, they forget that the Australians themselves set a limit on immigration.
We will have a cap for the United Kingdom as a whole—we have not reached the point of having a Scottish-only immigration system. I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman will do his best to promote Scotland as a place to live, work and invest, and rightly so.
Despite the tough talk of Ministers—I listened with amazement to what the Home Secretary said about our borders and the policing of them—they are failing to police our borders properly. We know that the number of removals from the UK is falling and that even when Ministers have extensive details about illegal immigrants, they fail to act. I keep raising at oral questions the issue of the thousands of illegal immigrants revealed 18 months ago to have been cleared to work in the security industry by the Security Industry Authority. We know that only a handful of those people have been deported, but more worrying still is the fact that Ministers are not even able to give a clear assurance that none of those people are still employed in the security industry. Indeed, the last time I raised the issue it was pretty clear that Ministers had no idea what happened to those people and where they have gone since the situation was exposed.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that there are many people in this country who have been here for quite a long time, who do jobs that nobody else wants to do and who lead a very poor existence. Many people, including me and some members of his party, including the Mayor of London, support the “Strangers into Citizens” campaign to treat these people decently, give them legality and ensure that they are able to live safely in our society. Does the hon. Gentleman not think that, with all his passion, he should say a word or two about them?
There are many people who are living and working in this country at the moment. I believe that people who come to this country should do so legally, through the appropriate systems. They should be able to apply to stay here and should be able to stay if the system judges that that is what should happen. I am not in favour of taking steps that would allow people who are here illegally to justify their existence here and remain. People who want to come to Britain should do so through the proper channels.
We must also consider the Government’s failure to deport foreign prisoners. Only a minority of those from overseas who have been jailed in this country in recent years were actually deported after their release, and we have had hundreds of cases of deportations being aborted because of the disruptive behaviour of the person concerned and the refusal of the airline to take them. That comes after seven immigration Bills since 1997. None of them sorted the problem out, and there is little reason to believe that this one, the eighth, will make more of a difference than its predecessors.
That is particularly the case given all the things that were left behind on the journey from the draft Bill to the Bill before the House today. The original part 1 of the draft Bill, which was on regulation of entry into, and stay in, the UK has gone. Part 4 was on expulsion orders and removals. Among other things, it would have strengthened the Government’s ability to fulfil their pledge on increasing deportations, and it would have broadened the definition of foreign criminals—but it is gone. Part 5 would have strengthened the power to detain, and it would also have helped to deal with the problem of immigrant offenders on aircraft—that is gone, too. Part 6 would have reformed the management of removal centres, and part 7 would have tightened the rules on access to the UK, the use of false documentation, breaches of expulsion orders and absconding from detention.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the problems is that an awful lot of money and effort have gone into the wrong things? We often do not have enough staff at Heathrow and the other main ports of entry to deal courteously and quickly with all the legitimate people coming in and to take the necessary steps to weed out the ones who should not be coming in. Is that not a question of misplaced resources and bad management?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right about bad management; I shall come to talk about the policing of our borders in a moment, because that is one of the big gaps in our system.
The Government have lost part 8 of the draft Bill, which would have addressed carriers’ liability. Part 9 would have introduced tougher rules on employing illegal workers. All the things that I have mentioned have gone, and when the spine of a Bill is ripped out, it is hardly surprising that the Bill collapses under scrutiny. This Bill will do no harm, but little good.
So, what is left? Part 1 of the stripped-down Bill tinkers with the powers given to the UK Border Agency, which was set up by the Government to create a semblance of action, but as usual what this Government are doing misses the point. The Bill only shuffles things around and does not deal with our biggest problem—our porous borders. The fact that our borders are so poorly controlled is a big challenge. A huge proportion of illegal immigrants in Britain arrive in the back of a lorry. People trafficking is causing misery and despair to those caught up in it, yet the lax controls at our borders make us a magnet for the traffickers—no wonder the UK is classified as a high-level destination country for trafficking.
We are pleased that in part 4 the Government have answered our call to amend the law that allowed very young children to be trafficked with impunity. The measure will amend the definition of exploitation to remove the requirement for a child to be “requested or induced” to undertake any activity in order for an act to be regarded as trafficking for exploitation. But that is not enough and more will need to be done. The issue is not only people being smuggled into the country—senior police officers have warned about the scale of smuggling of illegal firearms and replica weapons into the UK, and the Government have admitted the scale of the problem.
I listened with astonishment to the Home Secretary’s remarks about how secure our borders are. Only a few months ago, the Minister for Borders and Immigration—always a useful source for thoughts about why the Government’s policies are not working—told a newspaper:
“We have, compared to other rich countries, been liberal in our border controls.”
A few moments ago, the Home Secretary described those borders as among the most secure in the world. No wonder we do not have joined-up thinking about immigration in Whitehall.
Then we had the Home Secretary boasting about her border force, but—extraordinarily—it has no policing responsibility. I heard a lot of nonsense from her about integrated policing. I have talked to police in our ports in areas where they have to cover points of entry into the country, and they have a constant battle to balance local policing with the need for policing in the ports. A police officer from a port may be policing the town centre on a Friday or Saturday night rather than policing the port, and that is not good enough.
The hon. Gentleman says that he has been round the ports, but I am not sure that he has been to the port of Holyhead in my constituency. I go there regularly, and the system works well. The hon. Gentleman is talking about chief constables who complain about cuts in their forces, but within the ports counter-terrorist units have been set up, with close co-operation between the police and the UK Border Agency. Has he seen that working, or is he only listening to chief constables?
In this country, we have a piecemeal approach to policing our borders, with a pocket of policing here and another there. In too many places we have inadequate policing that is divided between different responsibilities. The Conservatives remain convinced that we need a dedicated border police force—[Interruption.] The Home Secretary is muttering about the e-Borders project. We do not object to the principle of keeping a record of who comes into and goes out of the country. However, I do not believe that we need to maintain detailed records of 10 years of holiday arrangements, holiday partners or credit card statements for every citizen who wants to go on holiday. We need to achieve a balance in what we do, and the Government have completely failed to find that balance.
Part 2 deals with citizenship. We have just heard about the chaotic Government policy on that issue. We have one set of changes in this Bill and now we discover that another set of changes will be introduced “before the summer”, according to the Home Secretary. Why can we not do this properly in one go, if she has a grand plan for the issue? Judging by the comments from those on the Labour Benches, her successor will struggle to get any such measures past the Labour party.
The citizenship proposals in the Bill construct a complicated and bureaucratic set of mechanisms to deal with the adverse consequences of out-of-control immigration—consequences that we have been warning about for years. Now we know that the Government’s plan is to introduce a new points-based system—the second in our immigration system. The new category of probationary citizenship will be a precursor to citizenship, to replace the existing limited leave to remain. What does the new category add of value to the existing arrangements?
As for the concept of active citizenship, the basic principle is that those who wish to become British citizens should contribute to this country, and that is well established. Someone is granted citizenship every five minutes in this country and, of course, they want to play a positive role in our society. British citizenship is a privilege, not a right, but we do not know how the active citizenship proposals will work in practice. As usual, the Government intend to set out the details in secondary legislation, but Parliamentary should have the opportunity to scrutinise the important question of which activities will count towards qualifying for citizenship.
When the Home Affairs Committee considered the issue, we were concerned that there is no list of acceptable activities for people to engage in. Many new immigrants spend their time on informal relationships and attending informal activities, which would not be properly regulated. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it should be for Parliament and the public to send in suggestions about what would constitute active citizenship? More work needs to be done in this area, so that we have a clear list available for people to follow.
The Home Affairs Committee Chairman makes a very good point. I agree with him that input from Parliament and the people whom we represent would be welcome. It is a shame that as usual, sadly, we have to debate such a Bill in this House. It has been reduced in size to such a degree that it will surely allow more detail to be studied in the areas where it is debating change. Surely there will be room for discussion such as that which the right hon. Gentleman proposes.
Before my hon. Friend leaves that point, is this not another example of serious issues that affect the human rights of people in this country being pushed aside into subsidiary legislation instead of being discussed in this Chamber by those people who are elected to deal precisely with these matters? Is that not part of the reason why we have lost so much of the respect of the people?
I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend. We need less legislation done well rather than the glut of legislation that we have had under this Government, which, since we are on the eighth immigration Bill, palpably does not work in the way that we would like it to. We want less legislation done well, with proper scrutiny and proper detail, rather than eight immigration Bills done badly, which is what we have had under this Government.
Has the Home Secretary fully considered the impact of effectively compelling those who want to accelerate their path to citizenship to undertake voluntary work? What will be the impact on the voluntary sector? There is also the question of how the condition will be applied in a fair manner that does not put certain groups of applicants at a disadvantage.
It is perhaps salutary to note that until my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) left, there were people of nine different national origins sitting in this Chamber. Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that under the previous political Administration a person could become a British citizen and not speak a word of English? That is no longer the case. Will he give credit to this Government and this Administration for at least introducing that requirement, which he surely believes in and supports?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Since the Secretary of State has announced a new range of policies in relation to citizenship this afternoon that no one else in the House knew were coming, I think that we should wait with bated breath to see what else the Government bring forward during the course of the Bill.
On consideration of the timetable motion later today, will my hon. Friend make absolutely sure that there is time to debate the issues, which will be put before the House at some point in the future and which will involve something that we do not know about yet? Will he also fight hard to retain clause 39, which was put into the Bill in the other place with the support of our noble Friends? This is a matter of fairness and justice. We can toughen up our immigration policy a great deal, but we must be fair.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. We need a tougher immigration system in this country and we need tougher controls, but above all the system has to be fair and welcoming to those who have the right to be here. It is important that we balance necessary toughness with common human decency, which would characterise the policies on this side of the House were we to hop to that side of the House in the near future.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is very keen to discover Conservative policy, but we are dealing with a situation that is probably a year away. Before we get to that point, I would be delighted to write to him and the public as a whole with more detail about what we intend to do.
Let me move on to what I think is the most absurd portion of the Bill—the proposed change to the common travel area. For most of the past century, people travelling between the UK, the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man and the Republic of Ireland have been able to do so without border and immigration controls. Anyone who is tempted to be reassured by the Home Secretary’s comments should go back and look at the Hansard record from the other place to be absolutely clear about the Government’s intentions.
The common travel area was introduced in 1921, when Ireland was partitioned. It survived throughout the second world war. Only now have the Government decided that change is necessary; we disagree. The Government’s proposals are unworkable and should be scrapped. We oppose them, most importantly because the plan is completely unenforceable. What on earth is the point of having tougher controls at ports and airports between, for example, Britain and the Republic of Ireland if the land border between the two does not exist in any physical form at all? All the security installations between the two have been dismantled, and in many places the border has always been no more than a bend on a country lane.
Unless the Government are now planning to introduce border controls between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, their plans are completely unworkable. I trust that even this authoritarian Administration do not propose to introduce internal movement controls within the UK. That is why we brought forward an amendment in the other place to remove the proposals from the Bill. I very much hope that Ministers will accept that change, but I fear that they plan to continue the battle to secure a change that is not needed and not workable.
In the light of recent events, the glaring omission from the Bill concerns student visas. It is clear that the student visa system is being exploited by thousands of bogus colleges acting as fronts for illegal immigration. We have warned the Government about that for years. Getting a student visa for Britain is big business in Pakistan. High-quality fake documents that will help applicants to get visas are on sale for £100, and self-styled “immigration consultants” are hard at work trying to beat the system. The British high commission in Pakistan previously estimated that half of all students to whom it grants visas disappear after reaching the UK. Just last week, a national newspaper reported that four of the students recently arrested and later released had certificates from a bogus college in Manchester. They were then given places at English universities. The institution in question allegedly brought hundreds of people over from Pakistan before eventually being shut down by the Home Office.
Despite that threat, in April we found that student visa applications from Pakistan are being handled by the UK Border Agency not in Pakistan but in Abu Dhabi, to allow for a reduction in staff in Islamabad. Anxious to appear to be tackling the problem, the Government introduced a new, much shorter, list of approved colleges for sponsoring UK student visas. The Minister for Borders and Immigration boldly claimed that that formed part of
“the most significant changes to our immigration system since the Second World War”.
There were about 15,000 institutions on the Government’s approved register, but now there are only 1,500 institutions on the list. That dramatic reduction prompts the question why many of them were on the official list in the first place.
It is simply not the case that there were ever 15,000 institutions on any approved list. The Government’s estimate was that 15,000 institutions were attempting to attract such people. There are in fact 1,600 sponsored institutions.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will read the evidence that the Minister gave to the Committee this morning. As a direct result of it, we are even more concerned about the number of students in the country at the moment who are seeking an extension. We have decided to extend our inquiry and will invite Ministers from the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills to give evidence, because this is not just a Home Office issue; it is an issue for DIUS, too. We will continue with the inquiry because we believe that it merits the attention.
I am grateful to the Select Committee Chairman for that, and I hope that Ministers will look carefully at the report that he and his colleagues will put together. It worries me that the Minister is so cavalier in his responses this afternoon, when quite clearly the Select Committee has identified a serious issue that remains to be addressed.
This is a weak Bill from a weak Government. In recent months the Minister for Borders and Immigration made a series of tough comments designed to capture headlines in the tabloid press, but the Bill shows the big gap between the rhetoric and the reality. We have moved from the publication of an extensive draft Bill last summer to the formal proposal of a timid and insubstantial Bill this spring. Nowhere do we see any of the changes that should have been brought before the House to deal with the problems of our chaotic immigration system. There are no proposals formally to establish a border police force to deal with trafficking, smuggling and illegal immigration. There is no attempt to establish an annual limit on immigration into the UK, and there are no moves significantly to strengthen the rules to ensure that all new arrivals speak English to an adequate level. Instead, there is a hotch-potch of measures, some of which may make a bit of difference, while others, such as the proposals on the common travel area, make no sense at all. After 12 years in government, and 12 years of failure to manage our immigration system, that is the best that the current set of Ministers can come up with. Small wonder that so many people now think that what we really need to change is not Ministers but the Government.