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Immigration (Stranraer/Cairnryan)

Volume 536: debated on Tuesday 22 November 2011

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

I am pleased that I have managed to secure this debate this evening. That said, I am disappointed that it has needs this action to try to secure answers from the Minister. That, along with a number of freedom of information requests, has meant I have had to bring my concerns to the Floor of the House.

My concerns are about one of the most irresponsible cuts this Government have imposed—the withdrawal of UK Border Agency funding from the police ports unit protecting the Galloway ports in my constituency. At the end of this week, I will be attending the official opening of Stena Line’s new terminal building on Loch Ryan. This has replaced its old base in the heart of Stranraer, where ferries have crossed the Irish sea for 150 years. There is also a ferry port operated by P&O just a few miles further round the loch, in the village of Cairnryan.

The Galloway ports are the second busiest ports in the UK, and they have more immigration issues than anywhere else in Scotland. Even though they are entry points to the UK mainland, they are internal ports and a well-known route for illegal immigrants seeking to gain access, and for organised criminals to smuggle contraband goods or illegal drugs. It is well recognised that those last issues were a regular source of funding for terrorist activity in the past.

The chief constable of Dumfries and Galloway constabulary has described the ports as a

“nexus point for illegal immigration”.

My hon. Friend has been a champion for Dumfries and Galloway for the 13 or 14 years that he has been a Member. I am disappointed that not a single Scottish National party Member has bothered to come to support his case tonight. He has mentioned the chief constable. Will he say whether there have been any further cuts recently to the number of police officers in the region, from which the ports might have suffered?

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I will come on to that point.

The chief constable’s comments did not stop the Government deciding last summer completely to withdraw the UKBA funding that paid for three officers in Dumfries and Galloway police’s ports unit. That funding had been put in place in 2006. A former Home Office Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), visited the Stena facility with me early last year and agreed that we needed to increase the resources to ensure security. She was astonished by what she witnessed.

Just a few weeks after the general election, the position was turned on its head and the Government announced the complete withdrawal of the UKBA funding. Clearly what had changed was that the Government had embarked upon deep cuts, whatever the price. That was confirmed by the UKBA’s regional director for Scotland and Northern Ireland, Phil Taylor, who admitted in a letter to the Scottish Government’s Justice Secretary that the cuts at the Galloway ports were due to the

“government’s requirement to bear down on the cost of the public sector”.

It is pertinent to note that the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch was based on witnessing at first hand the difficulties at the ports. The decision to terminate the UKBA funding at the ports was decided without anyone having the decency to visit the facility to witness how the system operated. In fact, no Minister, not even the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland who represents part of the region—I appreciate the fact that he has turned up this evening—has visited the Galloway ports, despite imposing major cuts on them.

I come now to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty). It is worth mentioning the role of the SNP Scottish Government in this. Although they have been quick to join the chorus of criticism of the UK Government’s cuts, they themselves cut the equivalent of 14.5 officers from the ports unit over the previous couple of years. The crocodile tears from the Scottish Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill, who visited the ports to discuss security issues yesterday, are shameful in the extreme. The truth is that the Galloway ports have suffered from a double whammy of cuts, first from the SNP Government in Edinburgh and then from the Conservative-led coalition Government.

Today I call on the UK Government to consider either reinstating the UKBA financial support to the Dumfries and Galloway ports unit or providing UKBA staff at the ports. The case is overwhelming and I want to highlight three areas. First, the Government must take heed of their own national security strategy, which identified a

“significant increase in the levels of terrorism relating to Northern Ireland”

as a tier 1, or priority, risk to the country. It makes no sense to recognise an increased threat and then to essentially downgrade the security at the route on to the mainland through the Galloway ports.

Secondly, Dumfries and Galloway constabulary has revealed that the scale of the illegal immigration is worse than had been measured previously. Indeed, a UKBA study earlier this year found that the number of illegal immigrants detected at the ports had rocketed by 65% since the previous year. The Government clearly decided to cut the resource based on an estimation of the number of illegal immigrants passing through the ports. Surely the Minister must concede that if the facts change, so must the conclusions. The most recent figures show that the number of immigration cases between 1 September and 10 November increased by 20% compared to the same period last year, and that whereas in the past one in every six people who were stopped were non-EU citizens, that has now increased to one in five.

Thirdly, the cut at the Galloway ports was made with the assurance that greater effort would be put in at the Northern Ireland end. That approach has so far failed. In September, Dumfries and Galloway police told me that

“a lack of checks/coverage at the Northern Ireland side…has led to more offenders getting through the Northern Ireland ports undetected.”

It is clear that the UKBA failed properly to plan how the ports would cope with the withdrawal of the funding support. New procedures came into place only in September this year, 10 months after the cuts. That should have been done before any decision was taken but it was not, because the cuts were rushed through in a matter of weeks. The consequence is that the Government not only reduced security at the ports but left us exposed for almost a year as they decided how to try to compensate for that.

I thank my hon. Friend for introducing this debate, especially following last week’s debate on immigration. Is it not the case that the Government did not understand, and still do not understand, the importance of people coming into the UK from Ireland, and how easy it is to do that? Will that situation not be exacerbated at the new terminal, which is expected to take in far more people through that same gateway? Unless the number of staff there is increased, there will be a real problem in future.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. As I said earlier, the previous Immigration Minister came to see the site and was quite shocked by what she witnessed. My plea all along has been that before the Government withdraw the funding, somebody should come to have a look. According to Stena’s figures, we are expecting a potential 50% increase in traffic. Thankfully, the Scottish Government Justice Minister has decided that he will look favourably on another four officers, but that will simply take us back to a situation that the chief constable sees as having been sustainable; it does not take account of the additional traffic that there will be.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. As well as the issue of terrorism, does he accept that there is great concern in Northern Ireland about the fact that people can so easily enter the Northern Ireland part of the United Kingdom across the border with no real check, as a result not only of cuts but of a deliberate policy?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention and his concern. This is a serious issue, and I hope that even if the Minister cannot give us answers this evening, he will give the matter serious consideration and take the time to come to have a look at what we are experiencing.

One of the most damning aspects to emerge from the situation is the revelation that no one has any idea how many illegal immigrants simply disappear after being stopped at the ports. The police have no authority to seize and arrest any of them. Two weeks ago the Home Secretary was under fire for immigration failings over the summer. The scandal is that she has known for more than a year that there is no way to keep track of illegal immigrants entering through the Galloway ports, and she has not done a thing about it.

Upon detecting illegal immigrants at the ports, Dumfries and Galloway police issue them with an instruction and an appointment to appear at a UKBA office in Glasgow or Manchester. They then release the offenders, in the hope they will keep their promise. That is shockingly lax. If someone has entered the country illegally, are they really going to hand themselves in the next morning?

I, too, congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this matter to the Chamber tonight. Obviously Stranraer and Cairnryan are critical, but there also has to be a domino effect. Perhaps it is time to go back to where people come in. Does he feel that the Minister should consider how he can curtail immigration from the Republic through to Northern Ireland and into Scotland?

I thank the hon. Gentleman. There is no doubt that there appears to be a weak link, because people can get easy access to Northern Ireland. People can get on a bus in Belfast, and the next stop could well be Birmingham or London. It is as simple as that. The Immigration Minister told me in correspondence that it would be too expensive to find out how many illegal immigrants had absconded on their way to a UKBA office. How on earth can the Government make those cuts and then not monitor the effectiveness of the processes in place?

Dumfries and Galloway police have told me of an alarming case of two illegal immigrants. They were detained in Belfast overnight and told to report to the UKBA the following morning, but instead were detected disembarking at Stranraer after crossing on the ferry. Despite flouting the rules once, the only course of action available to the local police was to release them with instructions to attend the UKBA office in Glasgow. As the police said:

“Do we honestly think, given this course of conduct, that they would have any intention of attending?”

The Minister needs to tell us why he is not doing anything to close this massive loophole in our border security. The Government have turned a blind eye throughout to worries about security at the ports. The Prime Minister told me during Prime Minister’s questions on 24 November last year that he would

“look very carefully…to make sure that the system is working.”—[Official Report, 24 November 2010; Vol. 519, c. 260.]

Perhaps the Minister will clarify whether the Prime Minister followed that up, or whether, as I suspect, they were nothing more than empty words.

In a letter to me dated 4 January this year, the Immigration Minister promised personally to review the security arrangements at the end of February. Perhaps he could tell me today what he found, because I can find no record of his review. The only study of the arrangements since the Government’s cut was carried out by the UKBA and published in August this year. The scope was extremely narrow, and Dumfries and Galloway police have confirmed that there was no contact from any Government Minister. Both the Prime Minister and Immigration Minister promised me they would look at this issue personally. To the best of my knowledge, neither has done so. I hope the Minister will today commit to a full independent review of the arrangements in place at the Galloway ports.

The Government’s first duty is to the safety and security of citizens. The removal of financial support for ports police from Galloway ports is putting that at risk simply to save money. The Minister has serious questions to answer today. Will he tell us why he ignored the concerns of Dumfries and Galloway police and pressed ahead with that irresponsible cut? Is he still unable to tell the House how many illegal immigrants disappeared following release after detection at the Galloway ports? Given that we are just scratching the surface of the illegal immigration problems at the ports, will the Government concede that the case for the reversal of the cut in UKBA funding is now overwhelming? I look forward to hearing what he has to say.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr Brown) on securing this debate. I know how strongly he feels and I will deal with the specific matter of the common travel area and Ireland in a minute. However, I must first tell him that it is slightly bizarre for him to say that he was expecting a review, that a review was done by UKBA, and that that somehow had nothing to do with me. I am the Minister responsible for UKBA, so if it does a review, it has something to do with me. That is how these things are done.

I am sorry, but the hon. Gentleman overran his time slightly, so I will not be able to take interventions from him—he has had a good go.

As I am sure the hon. Gentleman recognises, and as I need to make explicitly clear, Stranraer and Cairnryan are domestic ports. Those western Scottish sea ports are not designated ports within the meaning of immigration legislation. They are not international ports of entry such as Dover. The ferry routes between Northern Ireland and Scotland are domestic UK services. Legally and in immigration control terms, they are no different from ferry services between the Scottish mainland and the western isles or between Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. There are no international passenger services between Stranraer or Cairnryan and any foreign country. We must be clear that we are talking about people moving within the UK; we are not talking about people coming into the UK.

I am sure that, beneath the rhetoric, the hon. Gentleman recognises that it would be wholly inappropriate to introduce passport controls at domestic UK ports. Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom. Journeys within the United Kingdom are not subject to border controls, and nor should they be. Our intelligence shows that the route is subject to abuse. The UKBA knows that some come here with the intention of flouting the immigration laws, and that those here illegally deliberately move around the UK to avoid detection. That is why we work closely to clamp down on those who come here and abuse the system.

The UKBA works closely with the police in Dumfries and Galloway, and I welcome that close working relationship. The agency is also working closely with the Irish Garda to tackle people who start in the Republic of Ireland and then try to enter Northern Ireland illegally. Relations with the Republic of Ireland are strong. Together we are working to secure and strengthen the whole of the common travel area and to narrow the opportunities to exploit it, as well as reinforcing the excellent co-operation that already exists between the UKBA and the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service in relation to the protection of the common travel area. Of course, I recognise the importance of that, and we are working hard to ensure that the CTA becomes a stronger border area as a whole.

I recognise that we are in difficult economic times and that changes to the structure of the UKBA may have been unwelcome to the hon. Gentleman. His concerns about last year’s decision to remove UKBA police funding to Stranraer and Cairnryan have been noted—he has made them clear in the intervening months—and we appreciate the impact that it has had on the Dumfries and Galloway constabulary. As he made clear, however, that came with a much greater reduction in funding from the Scottish Government of the force’s counter-terrorism work.

Dumfries and Galloway is Scotland’s smallest police force. I know that Chief Constable Pat Shearer has made his concerns public, as the hon. Gentleman said. Pat Shearer said last September that cuts in staff numbers meant that the force was going

“closer and closer to the bone”,

and he believed that there was a limit to how far cuts to the constabulary could go without adversely affecting police performance.

As we all know, policing in Scotland and its funding are devolved matters. The police have a duty to uphold and enforce the law and maintain the peace in Scotland. Dumfries and Galloway constabulary, like other forces across the UK, carries out a range of work, and it is its decision—the chief constable’s decision—how its prioritises and manages that work. The UKBA officials work with it to tackle irregular migration. Like the Dumfries and Galloway constabulary, the UKBA must spend public money carefully. The agency therefore took the decision to realign its deployment of seconded police. That decision affected seconded officers throughout the UK.

It was reasonable for the hon. Gentleman to ask what changed. When the UKBA began funding police officers in Stranraer, it had a limited presence in Northern Ireland. At that time, officers had to be deployed from other areas to conduct operations in Northern Ireland. In July 2009, the agency formed a new local immigration team in Belfast. From its offices in Drumkeen house, the UKBA now conducts a wide range of immigration services. A key part of that is tackling immigration crime. The UKBA therefore has more officers than ever before on the ground in Northern Ireland tackling irregular migrants.

The UKBA operates right across the United Kingdom, so it is right that we consider where best across the UK to place our resources to tackle illegal immigration. Tackling abuse of the immigration system is fundamental to the work of the UKBA, and our enforcement work produces real results. This year, a targeted summer campaign involved more than 600 operations across the country resulting in 557 arrests. Some 65 prosecutions have been initiated so far, and there have been 22 successful prosecutions.

I shall touch on specific examples of immigration enforcement work at the western Scotland and Northern Ireland ports. In September, an immigration fraudster was jailed for 18 months after being caught with a bundle of fake identities. Fayyaz Ahmed was arrested at Belfast docks in February while trying to get on the Belfast-to-Stranraer ferry. He was found to have three computer memory sticks and two mobile phones containing more than 700 false and fraudulently altered identity documents. His case, which involved a sophisticated criminal operation, underlines what we all know: that some migrants will seek to abuse our immigration controls. It also highlights the importance of the work that our team does on the ground in Northern Ireland.

Intelligence shows that the majority of illegal migrant traffic comes from the Republic of Ireland through Northern Ireland, and then on to Scotland. It therefore makes sense to transfer the responsibility for identifying those illegal migrants to the border agency’s local immigration team in Northern Ireland, where UK Border Agency staff replicate the work already done at the Northern Irish airports. The agency has more substantial resources on site in Northern Ireland, which is more conveniently located to service the ports and enable the agency to be more operationally effective. The UK Border Agency’s immigration officers in Northern Ireland therefore check the status of passengers arriving from or leaving for Great Britain, targeting routes shown to be most at risk.

In the medium term, UKBA resources will shoulder more of the work of dealing with immigration offenders using that route, which will ease the pressure on Dumfries and Galloway police. For now, early results suggest that, with appropriate levels of co-operation, smart deployments and an increased ratio of detections by the UKBA in Northern Ireland, further improvements can be made in the detection rates of immigration offenders using the Galloway ports as a transit route between Northern Ireland and Scotland. In the long run, the new arrangements, with more effective controls on those routes, will lead to an overall reduction in immigration arrest rates and minimise the burden on Dumfries and Galloway constabulary. An early review of UKBA operations found that an increasing number of immigration offenders are being detected in Northern Ireland, which happens before they can travel to Scotland by ferry or the rest of the UK by air.

I thank the Minister for giving way, and I wholly agree with him—I have here the UKBA report on the common travel area. Although more effort is being made in Northern Ireland—rightly so, because a commitment was given on that—and although more people are being detected, the reality is that more people are still coming on to the mainland through the Galloway ports. I think I mentioned this earlier, but we have all underestimated how serious the problem is; I hold my hand up to that as well. More needs to be done.

Of course, more always needs to be done, on every route. However, what I hope I am explaining to the House and the hon. Gentleman is what is being done and why I believe that the changes being made—which focus the operation more in Northern Ireland, which is the source of the problem in his constituency—are a more effective long-term way of tackling illegal immigration and, as a beneficial side effect, reducing the stress on the Dumfries and Galloway police.

I am grateful for what the Minister has said about what is being done in Northern Ireland, and he is absolutely right. However, he also said that the source of the problem was Northern Ireland, but is not the real problem people coming in from the Irish Republic? There are checks at the border at the ports and the airports, but what about the illegal immigration into Northern Ireland? What is being done to tackle that problem?

The right hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly reasonable point. I am in close negotiations with my Irish counterpart to ensure that the common travel area becomes more effective, as I have explained. We need to help the Irish Government to strengthen their border, because, as we are in a common travel area, to some extent their border is obviously our border. The closer we can co-operate and the stronger we can make that border, the better it will be.

Let me demonstrate what has happened. If we look at UKBA work, as seen in the review into working arrangements, we find that impressive results have been produced both in Scotland and Northern Ireland. In just four months—January to April—175 immigration offenders were detected at Northern Irish sea and airports and at west of Scotland sea ports. That is a 200% increase on the same period in 2010, which suggests we are doing much better at getting to the root of the problem.

We have produced and agreed a 10-point plan between the Border Agency and the Dumfries and Galloway constabulary to improve co-ordination and liaison. The plan will cover a wide range of aspects, including the systematic sharing of intelligence, joint tasking and co-ordination of deployments, which optimises coverage at the highest-risk times at Northern Ireland sea ports and reduces the number of immigration offenders who need to be processed by the police in Scotland. Again, that is a double benefit. There are now also monthly operational and quarterly strategic meetings to share results, learn from experiences, identify and introduce best practice, and review the progress of current arrangements. The joint objective over the next six months is to introduce all these measures fully and to refine them, to deliver the majority of detections and detentions in Northern Ireland and to reduce Dumfries and Galloway constabulary time and the work needed to deal with immigration suspects and offenders encountered at the Scottish sea ports.

This debate is particularly timely, as I know that Kenny MacAskill, the Scottish Government Cabinet Secretary for Justice chaired a meeting yesterday at the new port of Loch Ryan where he met David Ford, the Northern Ireland Assembly Minister of Justice, as well as representatives of both Scottish and Northern Irish police forces and the regional operation leads from the UKBA. I understand that it was a very constructive meeting, and I think it is important to recognise that the working relationship at the operational level among the Border Agency, the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Dumfries and Galloway constabulary goes a long way to make our ports an unwelcoming place for criminals.

Of course, all police forces come across illegal immigrants—

House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).