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FOI Request (Immigration)

Volume 499: debated on Monday 9 November 2009

(Urgent Question): To ask the Minister for Borders and Immigration if he will make a statement on the Freedom of Information Act investigation into the withholding of immigration documents.

This relates to a policy to clear a backlog of general immigration cases between 2002 and 2004. The incidents in question happened more than five years ago and were the subject of a full inquiry by Ken Sutton at the time, in 2004. The Home Office accepted that report in full and implemented all the recommendations made. The report can be read on the website and has been there since 2004.

A request for information from a Mr. Steve Moxon was received in January 2005. We have followed the processes as set out in the Freedom of Information Act. Some information was released when first requested. As the Act allows, some information was initially withheld on the basis of an exemption under the Freedom of Information Act 2000. The exemptions used were sections 36(2)(b)(i) and (ii), which relate to prejudice to the free and frank provision of advice and exchange of views. Those are qualified exemptions, subject to a public interest test, which means that they can be applied only where the public interest in disclosure is outweighed by that against. The decision was appealed by the individual under the process laid out in the Act. After consideration of that appeal, we upheld our decision.

In line with the procedures set out in legislation, the appellant exercised his right to appeal to the Information Commissioner. In March 2009, the Information Commissioner ruled that further information should be disclosed. We then released that information in April 2009.

This morning the Home Secretary used the front page of a national newspaper to say that he wanted to start a national debate about immigration. It is a shame that he is not here to start that debate this afternoon.

More and more evidence is now emerging to suggest that the Government broke freedom of information laws and tried to cover up a deliberate change of policy designed to encourage much higher immigration, very probably for party political purposes.

Two weeks ago, a former Home Office adviser, Andrew Neather, was widely reported as saying that Ministers had covered up a secret plan to allow in more immigrants and to make Britain more multicultural. When I put those allegations to the Minister, he said, quite extraordinarily, that he had not and that he did

“not know to whom or to which reports the hon. Gentleman refers.”

—[Official Report, House of Commons, 26 October 2009; Vol. 498, c. 7.]

Let us hope that he can do better today.

First, there was what was originally a secret plan. Will the Minister confirm that what he was talking about back in 2002 was a relaxation of the rules for clearing immigration applicants so that those who had been waiting more than 12 months would be granted clearance to stay without any further investigation into their cases? Will he also confirm that the head of the Immigration and Nationality Directorate said in an e-mail to the then Minister that that involved

“pragmatic grants, i.e. not pursing every angle which could conceivably justify a refusal”,

and that the policy meant that

“some risks would have to be taken”?

Will he also confirm that Ministers were aware of that policy change and that they accepted that it involved taking risks with immigration applications?

Then there was the cover-up. Will the Minister confirm that the Home Office tried to withhold documents outlining that policy change from the Information Commissioner? I have copies of those documents, and they are clearly marked “withhold” at the top. Will he also confirm that the Information Commissioner found the Home Office guilty of breaking the law, and ordered the documents marked “withhold” to be released? Will he tell the House why Ministers broke the laws that this Government had passed?

The Home Secretary says that he wants a rational debate on immigration, but why on earth does he think anyone will take him seriously in that debate when it is now clear that this Government have set out deliberately to deceive the British people, and have proved utterly incapable of telling them the truth about their policies on immigration.

Mr. Speaker, I seek your guidance on the hon. Gentleman’s accusation that Ministers deliberately deceived the British public.

My understanding is that no personal charge against an individual Minister has been levelled—[Interruption.] Order. Secondly, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely entitled to seek a ruling on the matter. The infraction occurs if a Member accuses another Member of misleading the House or of dishonesty to the House. I was listening intently, and I have quite big ears, but I did not hear that.

I am very grateful, Mr. Speaker, for your confirmation that that was not the accusation by the Opposition spokesman, who has just, in this House, accused Ministers of breaking the law.

Perhaps I could address what is clearly the hon. Gentleman’s latest political gimmick. He seems to ascribe to Ministers a motive that he had when he made his rather embarrassing gaffe at the Conservative party conference. He has brought before the House this afternoon—[Interruption.] These are serious accusations.

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman. The hon. Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway) has relatively recently toddled into the Chamber—[Interruption.]

Order. If the hon. Gentleman came in earlier, so be it—I am happy to concede the point—but I am concerned with the issue of substance. I do not want sedentary chuntering of the kind in which he regularly indulges. I do not want to hear that.

Let me explain the background to the House. As I said in my answer to the urgent question, the policy issues were dealt with thoroughly and comprehensively by the Sutton inquiry, and are not the subject of the question tabled today. That rather reveals the motive for asking the question. The hon. Gentleman referred to Mr. Neather, the Evening Standard correspondent, who wrote in that paper on 26 October:

“My views have been twisted out of all recognition.”

That is what Mr. Neather, whom the hon. Gentleman prays in aid, said.

On the freedom of information request, the serious allegation was that we broke the law. In fact, the instruction from the Information Commissioner was issued on 5 March 2009, and on 9 April, in line with that ruling, we disclosed the information—to little or no comment at the time, if I may say so. That again calls into question the hon. Gentleman’s motive in asking this question.

The plain fact about the policy issue in 2004, which was the subject of debate at the time, is that the then Minister acted entirely honourably. I do not know whether she is in her place now, but hon. Members will recall that my right hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Beverley Hughes) acted entirely honourably and took full responsibility for what happened at the time. The backlog legacy programme that was put in place was designed to deal with a backlog that had accumulated not only under this Government; as I said in the House last week, it went back to Willie Whitelaw’s time. Once again, we are having to clear this matter up.

We will sustain public consensus behind the value of legal immigration only if controls are effective and illegal immigration is firmly countered. That has clearly not been the case. First, there is clear evidence that immigration policy was to grant applications rather than to refuse them, and to give the benefit of the doubt to the applicant—a policy that was never made public or debated in the House. Secondly, throughout this period, the Government did nothing to reinstate the exit checks that the Conservative Administration had begun to abolish. As a result, we have not been able to check whether nearly 2 million people a year who have been issued with short-term visas have left again. That is just as large a relaxation of policy as the decision to lean towards approvals. Given that just 60 per cent. of those leaving this country this year can be identified, will the Minister make an urgent commitment to introducing manual exit checks until the e-borders scheme is complete? Will he also estimate how many short-term visa holders have definitely left the country, and how many have overstayed? Will he commit to managing immigration properly, so that public confidence can be restored?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support for the border control measures that we are putting in place. Indeed, he and I agree on the need for those border controls. I wonder whether he will join me in asking the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), who has tabled the question today, whether he has dropped his opposition to border controls. The fact is that there are those on the Conservative Benches who talk about civil liberties, and others who talk about the need for databases to control migration. The Conservatives have to make their minds up. At least the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) is consistent.

The Minister and the head of the UK Border Agency gave evidence to the Select Committee last Tuesday, and the Minister gave us a number of important facts and figures. Will he confirm that none of the issues that are before the House today will have any effect on the veracity of the information that he gave last Tuesday, and that he stands by the figures that he gave us? There are also some outstanding points from that meeting. Will he ensure that a reply to those points reaches the Committee by Friday of this week?

I am grateful to the Chairman of the Select Committee. The answer to his first question is yes. Nothing in the question and answer today in any way affects the veracity of the evidence given to the Select Committee last week. Indeed, the question today is about the allegation that we have broken the law in applying the Freedom of Information Act, and that is something that I absolutely reject. It is a very serious accusation. The policy that I have been asked about today relates to incidents between 2002 and 2004. Regarding the specific answers that my right hon. Friend requested by his deadline of Friday, or a week Friday, I hope that he will forgive me if—he is not nodding; he will not forgive me. I will do my very best to comply with the request of the Chairman of the Select Committee, as I always do.

In a spirit of forgiveness, I say this to the Minister: at the time leading up to the resignation of the right hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Beverley Hughes), there were a large number of different failures in the immigration and related systems. If it is true, as has been asserted in the newspapers, that decisions were taken for political reasons, one of the most important aspects of the matter will have been the reduction or relaxation of the citizenship process, which we know took place. Did Mr. Ken Sutton investigate that?

There is a conflation of two points there—I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his political imagination, but he is talking about different things. The issue of controversy was over the then A2 applications and how they were dealt with—

The right hon. Gentleman says from a sedentary position that he was there; I remember it very well. He extrapolates from that the accusation that there was a political plot. There is no evidence of such a plot; indeed, the Government’s Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 was criticised for being too authoritarian on the issue of immigration—[Interruption.] Some right hon. and hon. Members in their places today criticised it from that point of view. A good effort is going on to raise a straw man, if I may say so, but as ever with the Opposition party, there is no substance to the policy because there is no policy.

Would the Minister agree with me that one of the real sources of poor administration in the immigration system are these delays that the policy which was the subject of the freedom of information request was designed to address? I have a pile of letters with me that my researchers expected me to sign, three of which inform my constituents that they should not expect a decision before 2010 in one case and before 2011 in the other two, so what is the Minister doing to speed up this process right now?

Again, that question is about current policy, not about freedom of information. With your agreement, Mr. Speaker, may I say that if Members are concerned as to why we are here five years after the events, the timetable of compliance with the FOI shows the Home Office in very good light indeed? Indeed, I was surprised that I was able to comply so quickly; the delays were not down to the Home Office. On the substance of the question, as I hope my hon. Friend knows, the measures put in place to clear the backlog are substantial and, indeed, as I was able to tell the Select Committee, a further 350 extra members of staff are now being deployed. The date to which she refers is the end-date, the date by which we will have cleared all the backlogs. Again, we recognised the problem and took action to address it. The MPs correspondence tracker system, which I will take this opportunity to advertise, is a superb service to Members who currently send 60,000 letters a year to me and my colleagues.

Order. May I just say to the Minister of State that the dividing line between comprehensiveness and prolixity is thin, but I fear that he has just crossed it?

Does not this information reveal a culture of risk-taking and laxity in government? Is there not a danger of this culture continuing when, as the Home Affairs Select Committee learned last week, the points-based system overrides the discretion of individual immigration officers even when they entertain the gravest of doubts about people seeking to enter the United Kingdom. May we have an immediate review rather than have to wait for another sorry performance like the Minister’s today?

The hon. Gentleman has reported back from the Select Committee in a way that does not reflect what I told that Committee. The allegation that immigration officers and entry clearance officers do not have those powers is simply not the case. If the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that an immigration officer should be able to refuse entry into this country—without any reason, when that is the point in guidance and indeed in law—then let him say so. I would bet that those on my side of the House for one would not wish to see that.

May I welcome the Minister’s statement? At a time when visa and entry clearance officers are under criticism, often unfairly, may I ask him to convey to his staff my deep gratitude for their compassionate handling of the case of Kenny Chan in my constituency, whose funeral I am attending tomorrow? His Chinese girlfriend, and main carer, Bo Ji, has been allowed through discretion to come into the country, and we are deeply grateful to those staff.

I hope that the whole House agrees that immigration and customs officials in the UK Border Agency do an important job professionally and well, often in very dangerous circumstances, and have to take some very difficult decisions. I remind the House that 285 million people were transited in and out of the United Kingdom last year, which represents a significant challenge in immigration and customs control.

The information that was suppressed, and to which we are now privy, contained a warning that the policy was not without risk. Has the Minister made any evaluation of those persons who were let in, and of whether any of that risk has come to light?

I thank the hon. Lady for that question, and I take it that she has read the information that has been disclosed—

She indicates that she has, in which case she will be able to confirm that the information was checked for all people, as is always the case, against the watch lists. That was said at the time. The Brace—backlog reduction accelerated clearance exercise—operation, as it was known in 2002-04, replicated guidelines that had been used in the past by Governments of all persuasions. However, I can reassure the hon. Lady on the point that she raises.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the major issue is not the alleged cover-up of an alleged immigration policy, but the problem of the overt immigration policy of unrestricted free movement of labour in the European Union?

At the time, the A2 countries were not members. My hon. Friend follows such issues carefully, and he will have noted the statement that I laid before the House last week on extending the restrictions to A2. I note that he welcomes that. I am grateful to him for giving me the opportunity to bring that to your attention, Mr. Speaker—[Interruption.] No, I am grateful, because it is a good policy, and I suspect that no one was aware of it before now.

One of the pieces of propaganda being put around is that, somehow or other, there was a deliberate Act of Parliament, or policy decision, to expand immigration. As I said a moment ago, the legal framework under which the Government operated in 1997 was the British Nationality Act 1981 brought in by the Conservative party. We introduced the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, which strengthened our immigration controls, and some years later reintroduced the very border controls that allow us to control and manage migration and that the Conservative party got rid of in 1994. Will the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell therefore drop his opposition to our electronic border system—the very system that protects our borders?

There are no more Conservatives who would be able to answer such a question. Will the Minister accept, however, that the shadow Home Secretary put the question in the context of the Home Secretary’s desire to have a much more open, tolerant debate about the issue of migration, which is healthy in terms of trying to ensure that people do not vote for extremist parties at the next election? In doing so, is it right to recognise that immigration policy was too liberal, with too many mistakes, which puts stresses and strains on the provision of services to others, especially in Croydon where the immigration service is based?

We are very grateful to the good people of Croydon, which, as the hon. Gentleman says, is our major base. The fact is that the major pieces of legislation—the 1961 Bill that led to the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962, the Immigration Act 1971 and the British Nationality Act 1981—are the framework for immigration in this country, and since 1997 the Government have introduced a number of Bills—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Epson and Ewell is keen on chunnering—I think that was your phrase, Mr. Speaker. [Interruption.] Chuntering. I must be careful—that is not chumpering, is it? In the debate on the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Bill, he criticised the Government for introducing too many immigration Bills. Which is it? Is it that we did not have enough immigration Bills, or too many? He must make his mind up.

It would be entirely wrong to cast aspersions on the Minister’s integrity, which is beyond reproach in respect of this and other matters. I am ashamed that Opposition Members should seek to do that. However, will the Minister consider the uncontrolled immigration from the European Union countries, which may not be totally in the British interest, and seek to find a way of reining it in?

I am grateful for what the hon. Gentleman has said.

The debate on European Union immigration is a debate in which I am more than happy to engage. I am more than happy to justify the benefits gained by the United Kingdom. I am thinking of, for example, the 500,000 British people who live in Spain, the work and study opportunities that we have in the European Union, and the story of migration from European Union countries: migration that has benefited mutually, for instance, Ireland and the United Kingdom, Spain and the United Kingdom, and east Europe and the United Kingdom in the current year, and will no doubt do so in future years. That, however, is a debate from which the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell will run a million miles, because it will open up the question of Europe.