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Illegal Immigration

Volume 524: debated on Monday 7 March 2011

6. What further steps she plans to take to control illegal immigration; and if she will make a statement. (44045)

UK Border Agency enforcement officers are continuing to crack down on immigration crime and remove illegal migrants. Our proposals to tackle abuse by foreign nationals using student visas to gain work in the UK, alongside new plans to toughen up marriage and family routes, will further tackle illegal migration into the UK.

As Members of Parliament, we are approached all the time by constituents who want to marry somebody from abroad and it is only humane and right that we should try to help them, but our job is made doubly, even trebly, difficult by the existence of sham marriages. What is my hon. Friend doing to tackle the problem without making the system so bureaucratic for everyone else?

My hon. Friend identifies one of the key loopholes that did exist in the immigration system. Last summer, I asked our enforcement teams to focus on sham marriages, and 53 sham marriage operations were undertaken, resulting in 126 arrests. Between November and January, a further 86 operations followed that up, focusing on sham marriages, with an additional 29 arrests. This has been one of the big loopholes in our immigration system, but we are becoming ever more effective in closing it.

In seeking to strike the right balance on student visas, will the Minister and the Secretary of State give the House an assurance that they will listen carefully to the representations of universities in the UK, including mine in Exeter, and of our reputable language schools, which say that the current proposals would be devastating to their sector and to the economy as a whole?

We are indeed speaking to many universities and listening to their representations, and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has met the vice-chancellor of Exeter university. I am sure that when our proposals are put forward, universities will discover that they defend the rights of legitimate students to come here to study legitimately at legitimate institutions. At the same time, we will also crack down on the huge and widespread abuse of the student visa.

Which three countries are responsible for the largest number of illegal immigrants into Britain and what specific steps are being taken with those countries to take those people back when they are caught?

By definition, illegal immigrants do not go through the system, so it is quite difficult to give accurate figures about where they come from, but we know the main routes by which people come into the country, one of which is from Asia, through Turkey into Greece. We are working very hard with both the Greek and Turkish Governments to stop that route and minimise the problem. One of the most effective things we are doing is improving our border controls at Calais, which mean that the number of people who are identified as coming across illegally into Britain is now running at about a third of the level it was 18 months ago. That is a significant strengthening of our border defences.

Any action to control illegal immigration depends upon a properly staffed and effective border agency which can both detect and remove illegal immigrants. With cuts of 20% and job losses of 5,200 for the UK Border Agency, detection and enforcement officers are already warning that their work is being undermined. The Government are talking tough on illegal immigration. Is the Minister sure that the Home Secretary has given him the resources to deliver?

Yes, absolutely. The hon. Lady will, of course, recognise that the reason there must be cuts in public services is the appalling state of the public finances that her Government left us with. We are confident that by using technology, better intelligence and flexible working, we can maintain and improve levels of border security with fewer staff. I invite her to consider the example of Calais. We can now check 1.5 million lorries a year, and in the past year we have found just over 9,700 individuals trying to cross illegally, compared to just over 29,000 in 2009, so the new system that we are operating does work.