Motion to Take Note
My Lords, it is not before time that your Lordships examined UKBA, a service whose own officials said yesterday is “falling apart at the seams”. There are more than 150,000 people, including 3,900 criminals, who have been refused an extension of stay but whose whereabouts are unknown. Nor is there a strategic plan to manage these cases. The location and removal of absconders is considered a low priority for UKBA and the effectiveness of the intelligence used to support arrest visits is not measured to ensure an efficient use of resources.
The Commons Home Affairs Committee recommended that bonuses amounting to £3.5 million should be withheld from senior UKBA staff but it seems that the banks are not the only enterprises where failure is rewarded. The Prime Minister told the Liaison Committee that he believed in,
“a small bonus … that you only get if you meet some stretching targets”,
so why are UKBA staff still getting bonuses?
The failure over the missing persons is not an isolated case. Major organisational changes at Heathrow, including the introduction of team-based working, a new shift-working system and the amalgamation of immigration and customs roles, were not effectively planned and were introduced at Heathrow’s busiest time of the year. In spite of deploying extra staff to reduce the scandalous queues at Heathrow, the delays were even worse in June, only a few weeks ahead of the Olympic Games. UKBA is bringing in volunteers who will receive three days’ training instead of the six weeks plus four weeks of mentoring that UKBA staff have to undergo before they are let loose on passengers at our ports of entry. The independent monitoring board was scathing about the short-term holding facilities for children at Heathrow, which it described as “disgraceful” and “deplorable”.
Then there was the fiasco of the so-called legacy cases, which were laid aside for a variety of reasons until they reached an estimated total of 450,000, which UKBA promised had to clear by July 2011. It failed in spite of repeated assurances given by Ministers, and there are still 80,000 cases today. Mr Whiteman, the new head of UKBA following the abrupt departure of his predecessor, has said that all these cases will be resolved by the end of the year. But how can anyone have confidence in this new promise when they consider the broken undertakings of the past?
Where cases in the new archive have been processed since July 2011, nine out of 10 have been granted three years’ discretionary leave, so that they have to reapply at the end of that period and yet again after another three years. Is this an efficient way of using UKBA’s diminished resources? Staff numbers are being slashed by 22% in the five years from 2010 to 2015, which means the loss of 5,300 jobs. Asylum Casework is already understaffed, so inevitably less time will be available for individual decisions and more applicants will be wrongly refused.
The wrong way to reduce the workload is to take away the right of appeal against refusal of family visit applications. The success rate of appeals in these cases rose from 19% in 2004 to 45% in 2010 so, in future, half of all applicants who are wrongly rejected will have to reapply, at a cost of £78 for a single visit, to get the decision reversed. By the time the second application is granted, the occasion for the visit, be it a wedding or an anniversary, will be long past and there will be a stain on the person’s record, which is bound to affect any of their future applications. It is contrary to natural justice to refuse an application on the grounds that information has not been supplied, the requirement for which could not have been known at the time the application was made, as the agency is doing. It is up to the UKBA to explain clearly and unambiguously what information the applicant has to supply.
The tribunal statistics for the year to March 2012 give a stark picture of the unreliability of UKBA decisions on immigration and asylum applications overall. Fewer than half the appeals made were dismissed and my noble kinsman may be able to confirm that the 36% of appeals allowed was an all-time record. These figures show that the criteria being applied are too harsh. In addition to the incalculable personal consequences of faulty decision-making, there is also an avoidable burden on the tribunals. The Government told the Home Affairs Select Committee that they are committed to driving up their appeal win rate by improving the quality of decision-making and by withdrawing cases that are no longer sustainable. Should not the UKBA have a definite target for reducing decisions overturned by the First-tier Tribunal, and would my noble kinsman care to give an estimate of the savings if it could be reduced to, say, 20%?
In a high proportion of the cases where people lose an appeal for leave to enter or remain, the decision is taken to deport them. As an official told the chief inspector, the UKBA is operating as though,
“a decision to deport equals a decision to detain”,
despite the presumption of liberty in policy. A study by Matrix Evidence for the NGO Detention Action shows that the UKBA is wasting £377 million over a five-year period on the detention of migrants who are ultimately released. That rises to £390 million if the persons who cannot be deported are given the right to work. No account is taken of the cost of treatment for the mental and physical ill health of long-term detainees, or of their loss of productivity.
About 27,000 migrants enter detention per year and nearly 11% of them are detained for more than three months. Of these longer-term detainees, nearly 40% are ultimately released on bail or temporary admission. The right way to deal with this unacceptable situation would be to detain only migrants who can be deported within a lawful or reasonable period. This applies, for example, to prisoners who are detained at the end of their sentences, even when it is known that their country of origin will not accept them back. Where the decision to detain is based on the risk to the public, the agency should provide the evidence that the migrant would reoffend. Perhaps my noble kinsman could say whether this recommended practice has been adopted.
Some people are being deported with inadequate documentation and are being returned here by their countries of origin. As the Minister will be aware, there are serious allegations of ill treatment during deportation, though G4S was replaced as the contractor following the death of Jimmy Mubenga on a flight to Angola. Its successor, Reliance, admits that its staff are loutish and aggressive and lack respect for minorities and women. On asylum, the Minister for Immigration has received two reports from the UNHCR about errors in the detained fast track, a matter also raised by the chief inspector, who points out that one in three of those initially routed through the DFT is subsequently released.
The treatment of women in the asylum system is raised by Women for Refugee Women and in a recent report for Asylum Aid on gender-related claims in the EU member states, including the UK. Asylum Aid says that although we are often in advance of other EU countries, the UKBA rarely refers to the UNHCR gender guidelines, and practice by the courts is variable. The Minister points to the revised instructions on managing gender-based asylum claims and to a thematic review of relevant cases, but he does not mention the UNHCR guidelines. That review uncovered faults in the decision-making process, such as a lack of investigation in cases involving domestic violence and whether an applicant’s gender would affect her ability to seek state protection. According to Asylum Aid, our own guidelines are not well implemented and they do not include important procedural aspects that are found in the UNHCR gender guidelines.
Women for Refugee Women says that under the LASPO Bill the withdrawal of legal aid in non-asylum cases will undermine the availability of vital legal representation in complicated and often ill-understood asylum cases and it asks whether the UKBA will monitor the impact of LASPO to see whether its apprehension is justified. Its also says that two-thirds of the women who participated in its research become destitute during the asylum process, having to rely on charities for food. This needs to be pursued within the NGO. Our legislation requires that the special needs of asylum seekers and their family members who are vulnerable persons must be taken into account when providing or considering support, but there is no obligation to carry out or arrange for the individual evaluation of a person’s situation to determine whether she has special needs. This is a gap that needs to be filled.
Turning to LGBTI asylum seekers, the UKBA conducted a quality audit to assess the impact of the training. There seems to have been a definite improvement, with a higher proportion of these claims being accepted, but the audit uncovered some concerns. I would be grateful if my noble kinsman could say why the audit has not been published nearly a year after it was produced.
Finally, I would like to mention torture victims, who are routinely being held in immigration detention centres in breach of the Immigration Rules. This is according to a Medical Justice report, The Second Torture, which details 50 such cases. Fourteen of them have now been granted leave to remain in the UK, but only one of the 50 was released from detention pending determination of the asylum claim, as the rules provide. Two of the 50 were forcibly returned to their countries of origin and endured torture for a second time. Both managed to flee again, claimed asylum for a second time, and were detained again in the UK. One of them now has leave to remain on the basis of the risk he faces in his country of origin. All but two of those 50 in the sample have now been released, underlining the failure to house them in the community when they first made credible allegations of their torture. That would have cost £5,000 instead of the £23,000 bill for keeping them in custody for 226 days. That was the average length of time for which the 50 were detained.
The effects of wrongful detention on these torture victims were catastrophic, including attempted suicide, self-harm and hunger strikes. Five of them have now launched individual judicial review proceedings, claiming damages for false imprisonment based on the UKBA’s breaches of Rule 35. The UKBA’s response to this report is to say that it is anecdotal and based on a small number of cases. Obviously a small charity does not have the resources to carry out an investigation of every one of the thousands of asylum seekers detained every year to see whether each one has made a torture claim and been ignored. What is needed is an independent review by the chief inspector with help from independent medical experts on torture. Rule 35 is not working and has not worked ever since it was first introduced. In the face of such an abysmal record of failure extending over many years, this survey by Medical Justice is a wake-up call.
Sacking nearly a quarter of the staff, taking away migrants’ appeal rights, refusing applications without just cause, detaining people who are never going to be deported and ignoring torture claims are not the route to sorting out the enormous problems that beset the agency. The cuts should be stopped before things get even worse and the Home Office should address the many recommendations made by the UNHCR, the chief inspector, the Select Committee on Home Affairs and the many expert NGOs whose wisdom is freely available. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend Lord Avebury for putting the spotlight on the work of the UK Border Agency. He has given us a very thorough tour d’horizon of the many areas that have been complained about. It is also interesting to note from the business plan just produced by the agency that it recognises that,
“its management structures need to adapt”,
“the Board is taking a fundamental look at the way they work”.
I am not sure what it means in the business plan when it says that,
“increasingly we will look for opportunities to use commercial providers, overseas counterparts, voluntary organisations and community involvement to supplement the services we provide directly”.
I am not at all happy to read that the “hubs and spokes” system that operates in regions overseas will reduce 70 hubs to around 25. It seems to me that that is a recipe for disaster and will exaggerate the problems that have already arisen as a result of that system being put in place. Perhaps my noble friend the Minister can shed some light on those two general points in particular.
My interest in the work of the agency is in relation to short-term visa requirements and student visas in particular. I refer back to my short debate in January of last year when I raised a number of concerns, complaints and horror stories. I also refer to the debate introduced by the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, in March of last year. I will not go over that ground.
It is still disturbing to read in the May edition of the Diplomat that obtaining a British visa is now so time-consuming, costly and fraught with bureaucratic obstacles that potential investors are discouraged from doing business in Britain. Student visas, however, continue to give me the most concern. The British Council has researched this and lobbied hard for flexibility but so far with little success. Apparently, only last year 50 British Council scholarship students were turned down as a result of the system.
As a particular example, I should like to cite Mexico, which is the second largest economy in the Americas after Brazil. During his recent visit to the G20, in one of his meetings with the Mexican authorities the Prime Minister stated that he saw education as the main tool to increase co-operation with Mexico. He also undertook to remove unnecessary obstacles. A new Administration is about to take over in Mexico, so it is a good moment to review the situation. Currently, 3,000 students in the United Kingdom are financed by the Mexican Government or their own families. They pay the full overseas student fees and most are doing graduate and postgraduate studies. Mexico’s National Council for Science and Technology, which is roughly the equivalent of our British Council, sends students to the United Kingdom and the United States to look particularly at scientific and technical areas. It has been a very successful story because, happily, the United Kingdom’s academic institutions compare very favourably with those of the United States.
There is no pattern of students overstaying. They all return to Mexico where they are needed as high-flyers to manage Mexico’s vibrant economy and to be the leaders of the future. Earlier this year, on an Inter-Parliamentary Union visit to Mexico, we met a group of Mexican alumni from the LSE. On another occasion, we met students who had studied at other universities throughout the United Kingdom. We were very impressed at their enthusiasm for the courses that they had undertaken and for their wish to continue to have links with the United Kingdom in whatever work they do.
Yet Mexico does not have most-trusted-country status, as do Argentina and Chile in terms of Latin America. I understand that the system of being a most trusted country in some ways eases the formalities. I do not understand why something cannot be done about this as regards Mexico. After all, we have only about 100 students from Argentina. The scale is very different. What about the future as regards Brazil? We have just signed up to a science-without-borders programme, which will bring 12,000 students from Brazil to British universities over the next few years. If, after going through the whole process of applying and being accepted by our institutions, students are faced with this all-too-rigorous visa application process and the costs involved, it can be very off-putting and certainly can seem most unwelcoming. When will a thorough review of this important aspect of the agency’s work take place?
This Government have been brave in reconsidering and reversing some of the previous Government’s policies and decisions, such as the closure of embassies in central and South America. I am delighted about the reopening of embassies in El Salvador and Paraguay. But this is true also in other parts of the world. Will the Government therefore not also consider reversing the decision to use the UK Border Agency to handle visa applications in regional centres and revert to the former practice whereby visa applications were handled with discretion and sensitivity in British embassies? I look forward to my noble friend’s reply.
My Lords, I too thank most warmly the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, for having made this debate possible. There are few people in Parliament in either House who have a more intimate knowledge of the subject and who have more consistently throughout their distinguished political career contributed to the quality of debate and the quality of information available to us all. The noble Lord deserves warm appreciation from us all.
We now are faced with acute pressure. I wish that more time was spent on examining and analysing pressures that are likely to develop and perhaps make a grave situation now seem quite mild compared with what faces us in the future. I think about the implications of climate change and the movement of people. I think about the issues of conflict, not altogether separate from the issues of climate change and what will result from it. We need far more of this analysis so that we can be prepared and not always just reacting to situations.
I always say that the first reality of life is that we are born into a totally interdependent global community. We may like it or we may not but that is the fact. Unless we face up to that, and realise that as politicians the way in which future history will judge us is how far we make a success of that membership of an interdependent global community, we are failing the nation. It is a huge challenge, which always should be before us.
We also must face up to the consequences of the way in which we manage our economic affairs. There is great emphasis on market ideology and, therefore, on the free movement of capital and goods. But we are not able—I am not suggesting that it is possible—to have free movement of people. This of course is a great flaw in the whole market theory but it also leads to great pressures. As long as there is that contradiction, there will be pressure for migration and considerable illegal migration. Obviously, people will follow resources and where they go, and economic activity where it grows.
Of course, we have to think of the management of the situation in an international context. I wish that we would not drag our feet on European institutions. I cannot begin to understand how we are going to look to the successful management of this issue without co-operating as closely as possible with our fellow members of the European Union and in ensuring that the quality of the work they are undertaking in this respect is of the highest order. There is a big challenge there as well.
The UK Border Agency is in the front line of all this. As politicians, we need to ask ourselves very often what kind of context we set for those in the front line handling this difficult issue. Do we set a context of understanding, of wisdom, of concern, and of the need at all times to preserve a commitment to justice? Or do we allow ourselves to be tempted into a seaside auction about the unacceptability of people flooding in from abroad? I am not saying that there are not great needs arising from people flooding in from abroad; there obviously are. But we need to examine the political context we provide, in which the UKBA is expected to undertake its task.
I want to underline the fact that we are dealing with people who, frequently, are in the midst of the most acute trauma. They are in mental and physical anguish. Think of children, who have been through terrible conflict, and have seen killing and maiming in their lives. Think of vulnerable adults, sometimes, travelling the world, who may have in their pocket a letter explaining that they are vulnerable but who, faced with the awe of the border authorities when they meet them, may forget even to produce the letter. There is a need to have imagination and sensitivity in all we are doing.
There is the issue of people who have suffered from torture. I have known at first hand too many cases of people who, years after the torture, are still trying to adjust to a normal life and overcome what they have been through, but are harassed—as they see it and feel it—by the way that we administer our immigration policy in an absence of imagination and sensitivity.
I do not understand the new legislation on families. We hear from the Government on every possible occasion about the importance of family, yet for some people for whom family will be absolutely indispensable in terms of their stability and ability to contribute to society, we introduce these arbitrary rules. There needs to be much more imagination about who is a suitable person to bring in as a relative, and who is not. There also needs to be much more clarity in the regulations about what is acceptable and what is not.
I particularly support the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, in what she said about universities. Universities are going through a nightmare at the moment. There have been no less than 14 major changes in policy towards them in the past three years. We are part of an indivisible international community, and we should ensure that our communities of scholars in universities are international. It is not just a matter of making money from people coming in from outside but of enabling our own students to come to terms with the world in which they live. The quality of their higher education depends upon the presence of an international community. You cannot have world-class universities which are not international communities. There is an absurdity in putting up special barriers.
I am also worried that it is beginning to change the culture in universities. Good universities have operated as communities of mature, responsible, self-motivated people. Now we have to police attendance at lectures, whereas in a good university, as we all know, a highly motivated student may well say, “That is the lecture I’m going to, and that is the lecture I’m not going to”. There is a sort of police system that the universities are being expected to apply, in being able to account for the overseas students in their midst. This is quite contrary to the whole concept of liberal education, and is very worrying. It is also extremely expensive. When we are talking about the shortage of funds for higher education, it is disgraceful that this extra burden has been placed upon the universities.
I conclude by making this point: it is not a matter of fixing this, or fixing that. I am very glad indeed that the UK Border Agency has recognised in its business plan the issues that exist and is determined to do something about them. We should all fall in behind that and enable it to do it. However, it is a question of the culture. We read of the awful things that go wrong—we know that they go wrong too often. We have seen the letters that, with a bit of imagination, could have been written in a more sensitive, firm, clear way, but have come out in the most officious, authoritarian language, to people who are in the midst of uncertainty and trauma. There is a huge cultural challenge here.
In encouraging the UK border authority to move forward with its business plan as stated, I hope that we will stress that leadership is needed to ensure that we have a positive culture behind the organisation which is in the front line of our relationship with the world as a whole. We should be judged by this, as a member of the international community. Are we a good, decent place, or a hostile, negative place? We need to ask ourselves basic questions of that kind.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Avebury for securing this debate. He is probably the best qualified person to speak on border controls. His tireless campaigning on behalf of refugees and asylum seekers is legendary. A lot of people across the world are alive today because of his work on the rights and liberties of the individual.
Headlines in this week’s papers are unlikely to build confidence in the way UKBA conducts its business. Performance has slumped after it lost 1,000 more workers than planned. The report from the National Audit Office is devastating. It talks of loss of focus and poor performance, and of a tendency towards optimism bias in planning, delivery and reporting that has contributed to the current problems.
This is nothing new. Successive Governments must accept blame for this chaos. We have only to cast our minds back to 1997 when the incoming Labour Government found piles of unattended and lost files at Lunar House. The orderly queue of applicants awaiting immigration decisions grew to the extent that the process became unmanageable. All this happened because the number of immigration staff was reduced by 1,000 at that time. The impression given was that asylum seekers were flooding the country, and that tough new measures were required to control the flow of economic migrants, students and others who were seeking admission to the United Kingdom.
I have said before that all political parties subscribe to a fair immigration policy and fair procedures. This has never been in dispute. The policy is to admit those who are eligible and to exclude or—subject to the appropriate humanitarian principles—remove those who are not. But in any administrative system, questions arise about priorities. The administration of the immigration system is no exception.
The problem the UKBA faces is very simple. The need to exclude those who are ineligible means that checks have to be made to determine who is eligible and who is not. The greater the emphasis on excluding those who are ineligible, the more intensive the checks have to be. The more intensive the checks are, and the more complicated they are to administer, the more delay and expense accrue to those who are eligible.
Again, if the objective of excluding those who are ineligible is taken to extremes, in matters that are often not susceptible to documentary proof the risk of excluding those who are eligible to enter but lack the resources to prove it becomes serious. When we add to this the insatiable appetite by politicians to play the numbers game, is it any wonder that a culture develops over time where administrators are expected to deliver results which often lack fairness and justice in the process? The heavy emphasis on excluding those who are ineligible rather than giving prompt and sympathetic attention to the rights of the eligible has led to practices that have an adverse effect on people from the New Commonwealth, and also on refugees and asylum seekers. Often the numbers seeking admission are exaggerated to an extent that asylum seekers bear the brunt of public disgust.
We do not condone illegal immigration. Nor do we condone the entry of those who do not qualify to be here. I suspect that genuine refugees seeking admission under the UN convention are few, and the sooner reliable statistics are produced, the better it will be for building a cohesive society here. We need our Governments to proclaim at the highest level the contribution migrants make to the British economy. We need a shift in priorities towards greater emphasis on the rights of those eligible to enter the United Kingdom. This has been the principle on which Britain’s points-based migration system was introduced. The aim was to remove the subjective decision of immigration staff and to establish objective criteria so as to avoid any misunderstanding about how controls are applied. However, if the final objective is to cut down on numbers, we are back to the starting point of differential treatment offered to different countries, which is more likely to affect applicants from third-world countries.
The argument that often surfaces is about perceived economic and social costs and benefits. We tend to forget that, given that EU immigration is protected by the freedom of movement rules, successive Governments have focused efforts on more tightly controlling non-EU migration. The positive contribution that we forget is that those who benefit from education here also take back with them the soft diplomacy of democratic values which in our case is the envy of the world. No amount of overseas aid could compensate for this very important contribution towards democracy in many parts of the world.
Another matter that I need to stress relates to headlines in the press this week, such as, “Immigrants drive biggest population rise in 200 years”. The figures published by the Office for National Statistics indicated that the population of England and Wales had surged by 3.7 million in the past decade, and about 2.1 million of that was the result of the number of immigrants outweighing the number of those leaving the country. The growth in population obviously presents social challenges, but the calls for an arbitrary population limit such as 70 million are sinister and, frankly, more in keeping with a totalitarian dictatorship than Britain in the 21st century.
If the issue is immigration, the pace of change needs to be managed, but migrants bring major benefits to the country. According to the Office for Budget Responsibility last week, while zero net migration would keep population down below 70 million, it would also lead to the national debt rising to 120% of GDP by the middle of the century. This would mean that the scale of cuts and taxes increases to be borne by the UK population over the next 50 years would be tripled if we are to bring debt back under control at 40% of GDP. The economic impact of cutting migration in this way would turn the UK into a country such as Greece for most of the 21st century. We have to promote a simple message. Let us stop playing the numbers game. Let us think about what makes Britain great. It is our people, irrespective of their origin, who will produce the wealth that will sustain the country’s health, welfare, social services and pensions for years to come.
Some years ago, I was involved in looking at immigration control procedures. What became clear was that there is an appetite by the Home Office to ask questions about the purpose of a visit to the UK, but overall it puts very little faith in the answers provided by applicants. That culture seems to continue even now. I will give noble Lords an example. I was involved with the then chief constable of Sussex, Paul Whitehouse, in raising funds for the Starehe project in Kenya. We raised more than £1 million in this country. The girls’ centre opened in 2005 and provides the only free education in that country, drawing poor girls from the worst slums in and around Nairobi. The original pioneer class of 72 has swelled to 400 in just seven years. The success has been remarkable. The centre has a small farm that grows food and rears livestock. There are also beehives and a small fish farm.
Most importantly, the hub of the matter is that International Produce Limited, the UK’s largest importer of fresh produce, which is owned by ASDA-Wal-Mart, has generously offered an internship for two students from the girls’ centre to come to the UK. They applied, but their applications were rejected. They applied again to come for a shorter period, but again they were rejected. I ask a simple question: what does it say about us that when it comes to raising people out of the poverty syndrome and giving them experience with a company based in this country that is prepared to help them, we turn them down and simply do not believe them? The reasons provided for the rejection of the applications was that the entry-clearance immigration officer was not satisfied that the girls were genuinely seeking entry as business visitors for the limited period, as they had stated.
I come back to the point I made earlier. It is simply this: in order to improve in particular the quality of asylum decision-making, the Home Office should show leadership on the importance of breaking down the culture of disbelief that is particularly obvious the treatment of women. There are many who live among us in the UK who exist in a legal limbo and with the fear of forced removal. Many have fled persecution that we would struggle to imagine. Let us give a lead so that every woman who comes to this country fleeing persecution gets a fair hearing and a chance to build a new life.
I look forward to the day when I can travel through immigration controls here with the Home Office Minister, my noble friend Lord Henley, and not have to wait and provide an explanation of why I am entering the country while he walks on through.
My Lords, like other noble Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, and congratulate him on obtaining this important and timely debate. In doing so, I salute his tireless and determined championing of the causes of those who seek sanctuary in this country following torture or ill treatment in their own country.
I want to concentrate on one aspect of the UKBA’s performance with which I am currently engaged: the enforced removal of those for whom entry has been denied. I declare three interests that will colour my contribution. First, as Chief Inspector of Prisons, I was given the responsibility of inspecting immigration detention centres. To my surprise—but not entirely surprising, given the number of Prison Service officers in the then Immigration and Nationality Directorate—I found that immigration detention rules were not based on UN and European Union detention rules but on UK prison rules, which are wholly inappropriate because immigration detainees and asylum seekers have not been convicted of crimes. My inspectors and I spent 18 months working with the IND, amending the rules to make them fit for purpose. My main concern was the lack of a coherent strategy, or any leadership or direction, in the immigration and asylum process.
My second interest was as an independent asylum commissioner, a commission that reported in 2009. As I had done with detention rules, we deliberately gave the UKBA the opportunity to comment on our findings before we published our recommendations. In commending the then Border and Immigration Agency for making strenuous efforts to deal with asylum claims more efficiently, we found what the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, has just described—the culture of disbelief that persisted among decision-makers. The adversarial nature of the asylum process and the lack of access to legal advice for applicants led to perverse and unjust decisions. My belief in the culture of disbelief was proved by the then Minister, Mr Byrne, the very afternoon that we published the report. He was asked on “World at One” about the remarks that I had made on the “Today” programme. He said, “I have not read the report but I disagree with every word of it”.
The year before, on behalf of Birnberg and Medical Justice, I had written the foreword to a report called Outsourcing Abuse, in which I said that if even one of the 48 detailed cases from a list of nearly 300 alleged assaults by security guards employed by private security companies on contract to the Home Office is substantiated,
“that amounts to something of a preventable national disgrace”.
In 2010, my noble friend Lady O’Loan in her report on the dossier on behalf of the Home Secretary found that although there had been no pattern of systematic abuse by escort officers, it clearly happened, and that there was no management or training of guards. She recommended a review of the training provided for the use of force, involving annual retraining to ensure that in any case in which force is used, officers are trained to consider constantly the legality, necessity and proportionality of that use of force.
This is where my third interest is: as chairman of an independent inquiry into forced removals on behalf of Citizens UK, the largest alliance of civil society organisations in the country, which works on many issues, not just immigration. I want to concentrate particularly on the case of Mr Jimmy Mubenga, who died on 12 October 2010 from cardio-respiratory collapse after being restrained by three G4S detainee custody officers in an aircraft at Heathrow while being removed to Angola.
Two days ago, Mr Gaon Hart of the Crown Prosecution Service concluded that there was,
“insufficient evidence to bring any charges for Mr Mubenga's death … Although counsel advised that there was a breach of duty in the way Mr Mubenga was held”.
However, it was not enough to tell a jury what may have caused a person’s death, and there was,
“insufficient evidence that the restraining methods used … were, in themselves, illegal”.
He added that,
“experts suggested there were shortcomings in the training given to the security guards”,
and that the training on positional asphyxia—where the position of an individual affects their ability to breathe adequately, causing death due to lack of oxygen—and the warning signs for identifying it, were both flawed.
Moreover, although G4S had followed training recommended by the UKBA and the National Offender Management Service, which had been found to be safe and fit for purpose after official review—an official review that incidentally was carried out by the National Offender Management Service on its own techniques—was criticised by experts, as was the lack of specific training for the use of restraint in aircraft. I understand that the CPS is writing to the UKBA, to NOMS and to G4S expressing these concerns; and I ask the Minister whether copies of these letters can be put in the Library.
I have to say that in the face of all the evidence that we have gathered during our inquiry, quite apart from all the other evidence that was available, I find that CPS decision, at kindest, perverse. Passengers reported hearing Mr Mubenga cry out that he could not breathe and that the guards were killing him. There had been Home Office warnings to G4S in 2006 about the dangers of using positional asphyxia. There had been stringent criticisms by the coroner in the case of Gareth Myatt, a 15 year-old who died in Rainsbrook Secure Training Centre following the use of similar procedures for restraint by G4S guards. He, too, had called out that he could not breathe before he died. As an inquest is the only public forum in which this death can now be scrutinised, I ask the Minister to confirm that this will be conducted as soon as possible by an experienced coroner, and that public funding will be made available to ensure full support for Mr Mubenga’s family.
The Home Affairs Select Committee in another place has also investigated rules governing enforced removals, although in nothing like the same depth as my inquiry. The Government’s response has not been as full as I would hope. It confirms that all guards must be certified by the Home Secretary, which includes certification that they have received training in restraint techniques approved by the National Offender Management Service. I believe that that is perverse.
Unfortunately, time does not allow me to cover all the points that I shall present to the Home Affairs Select Committee in the report in November because I want it to follow them up, but they include the recommendation that the regulation of all detainee escort officers by the security industry authority is in line with an amendment to the Private Security Industry Act 2001, which currently excludes them. This must include not just initial licensing but annual top-up training, connected to annual training on a physical intervention skill model. Frankly the current training of security guards is not effective. If the UKBA had bothered to look beyond the inappropriate NOMS techniques, it would have found that special mental hospitals have for years rejected them in favour of those that are non-pain compliant, except in extreme circumstances when removing a weapon. Unfortunately the three special hospitals have used slightly different techniques that have never been codified, and I have written to the noble Earl, Lord Howe, about this.
I asked the UKBA to attend our evidence session, and we heard from the restraint trainer at Ashworth Hospital, who told us that not only had he done what he had done with non-pain techniques, but that the Liverpool police had asked him to devise techniques for getting people on and off crowded Mersey ferries, and that he could do the same for aircraft. Last week, the Minister of Justice announced the introduction of new minimising and managing physical restraint, formerly known as control-restraint techniques, for use in juvenile custody, recommended by a restraint advisory board set up for the purpose. This has now been reconstituted as the Independent Restraint Advisory Panel.
I asked the Minister whether the panel could be charged with similarly examining restraint techniques for the UKBA, independent of NOMS. We found that the measurement of successful returns passed to Ministers is not a qualitative process but merely counts the number of reports received from contractors. The only training received by the eight monitors who report on a contractor’s performance and the conduct of individuals was to watch a session of contractor-run training. Far from recruiting and training staff when contracts change, old ones—no doubt bringing old habits with them—are merely TUPE-ed from one contract to another. The Immigration Service Commissioner is prevented from regulating unscrupulous alleged legal advisers who exploit immigrants, and so on.
We have found good things, such as the Independent Family Returns Panel, whose procedures we have recommended to the UKBA for single returnees as well, not least because the in-depth examination of the appropriateness of return might avoid scandals, such as reported by Freedom from Torture and others, of previously tortured people who, their case being disbelieved by the UKBA, were returned, tortured again, and escaped to seek asylum once more.
My successor as Chief Inspector of Prisons, Anne Owers, coined the phrase “the virtual prison” to describe what Ministers were told by officials as opposed to what she saw on the ground. I fear that one of the most besetting sins of the UKBA, and indeed of the Home Office over the years, has been its continued refusal to listen to facts from outsiders. I just hope that Ministers will discard the former practice and listen, because it really does matter. The image of this country is presented by the UKBA, and currently too much of what we represent is being let down by procedures that, with good leadership, good management and good training, could be avoided.
My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, for securing this debate today. I would like to pick up on some of his points about the UKBA’s faulty decision-making and then go on to highlight a number of areas of concern about the role and performance of UKBA.
On 19 June, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich raised in a supplementary question a concern from the churches about African Christians responding to invitations to enter this country on short visits. It seems that a new economic test was being applied to them. Able well-qualified African clergy were being invited to conferences in this country, or to visit dioceses for short periods endorsed by bishops, and were being turned down simply because their personal income was low. We all know that African clergy do not get paid very much, they are not often paid regularly, and they may not have bank accounts. In his response that day, the Minister said that he could not believe that someone who was being endorsed by a bishop could be turned away. He said:
“Certainly, we would not want that to be the case”.—[Official Report, 19/6/12; col. 1658.]
I am grateful to him for arranging a meeting of officials from the border agency with some of my colleagues from the Church of England.
I am not here to make special pleading on behalf of the church or to argue for any kind of special treatment at all, but that case illustrates some of the failings in the system and in the role and performance of the UKBA. When the right reverend Prelate sent the details of the case to the Minister, the response seemed to show a change in tenor. We were told that the applicants’ intentions and their personal circumstances, including their financial circumstances, are paramount. While the UKBA’s visa sections are able to take into account the support for an applicant’s case, they are unable to accept assurances or guarantees made by the sponsor on the applicant’s behalf. That is because such assurances and guarantees are legal unenforceable, yet the UKBA has insisted in the past that, while the economic circumstances of the individual are considered, they should not be the only deciding factor.
We appear to be in a situation where the decision-making process is at best a muddle. A report published in December last year by the independent chief inspector on entry clearance decision-making touched on that very issue. He commented that in 16% of all sampled cases there was evidence of an application being refused for failing to provide information which had not been set out in the published guidance in the first place as being required. Some applicants were refused entry as a result of failing to demonstrate a subsisting relationship with a UK sponsor despite that being neither a requirement under the rules for general visitors nor cited in the visitor guidance provided by the agency. Applicants have not always been informed of the requirement before they apply, and at the time of the publication of the report, they were not given an opportunity to provide the extra evidence once they were informed.
We appear to be in a double bind. On the one hand, people are refused entry despite having ample evidence of a strong relationship with a UK sponsor, and yet the Minister says that the UKBA cannot accept assurances or guarantees made by the sponsor on the applicant’s behalf. On the other hand, in cases cited by the chief inspector, people have been refused entry because they did not have evidence of such a relationship. As I say, this is a process and a system which is at best muddled and confused, and at worst misleading. Either it is the case that the UKBA is not applying the rules sensibly or that the rules themselves are unable to cope with the actual situations of a number of those applying for short-term entry into the UK for valid reasons, such as to further mutually enriching relationships between dioceses here and overseas.
I understand that a number of UKBA border posts have been amalgamated into larger regional centres with fewer face-to-face interviews and more reliance on documentation. Yet if the rules on which forms of documentation are acceptable are as unclear as they appear to be, then the situation does not inspire confidence in the UKBA’s ability to make accurate judgments.
Nor do such cases appear to be the only areas of concern in relation to the performance of the UKBA. In his report last December, the chief inspector found evidence of poor decision-making, with errors being found in over a third of the cases sampled, alongside a failure to consider relevant positive evidence, misinterpretation of supporting evidence, misleading information about an applicant’s right to appeal, concerns about internal reviews and insufficient retention of supporting documentation by the UKBA. In a later report, the inspector spoke of poor communication, poor managerial oversight and lack of clarity about roles and responsibilities, together with poor communication between the agency, Ministers, managers and operational staff.
There are other areas of concern as well, the first of which is the practice of dawn raids. We believed that dawn raids made by the staff of the UKBA were a thing of the past, but last week another case of a dawn raid being undertaken by UKBA officers was reported. A family of four, including children aged 10 and two, together with their mother who was 31 weeks pregnant, were forcibly removed from their home. The result was that the pregnant mother was hospitalised while the husband and children were removed to the Cedars detention centre in Sussex. That is not an isolated case. In April, another family was subjected to a dawn raid, resulting in another pregnant mother being restrained by four officials and the family’s removal to a detention centre. Other examples can be given. A representative of the Scottish Refugee Council expressed grave concern about these matters:
“After the UK Government promised to end child detention in 2010, the Home Office undertook to improve the way in which children and families were treated in the asylum process. The new Family Returns Processes (FRP) that they have put in place was intended to treat families with children more humanely if their case had been refused. We have grave concerns about how this process is being rolled out in practice”.
It is absolutely vital that UKBA staff working on the ground treat families with respect and care at all stages, particularly at the end of the process when families may be at their most vulnerable. Indeed, that April dawn raid took place within days of the director of asylum at the UKBA telling a conference in the same city that the agency was “more compassionate” with a process that was fair.
A second further area of concern is the administration of the legacy programme for those whose asylum cases have taken several years to be heard. In my own city of Newcastle I know that asylum seekers in that scheme were told by letter that they would hear the outcome of their cases by the summer of 2011, and they are still waiting. A number of those people have been threatened with deportation despite their cases remaining unresolved. In the few cases where solicitors have been able to follow them through and press for a resolution, some were granted leave to remain on the basis that it would be for a period of only three years, while those whose cases were dealt with before the summer of 2011 were in nearly every instance given indefinite leave to remain.
There are other areas of concern, including the disparity between the published timescales for interviews and decisions, and what is actually happening. People are being detained for far longer than the stated timescale —for 13 days as opposed to the three to four-day period the UKBA aims to meet. The detained fast track system also appears to have insufficient safeguards to prevent people being incorrectly allocated to it. I look forward to hearing how the eight recommendations of the chief inspector are being implemented.
I could say more about the evidence that there is still child detention and about the real concerns of our universities, but in conclusion I acknowledge that this is a difficult and even fraught area for officials on the front line, as it were, and I acknowledge that some things are better than they once were. But when we add up the catalogue of errors, misjudgments, muddle and confusion, we are left with a system and an agency that is problematic. I long to see real evidence of the more compassionate and fair agency that the director claimed was the case a couple of months ago. It certainly does not look like it at present.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Avebury for giving us the chance to talk about the border agency. I pay tribute to the things he said about asylum and to what the noble Lord, Lord Judd, said about immigration policy and the philosophy that should underline it. However, I do not intend to deal with those subjects at all. I wish to put my contribution on the UK Border Agency in a wider political context. There was a time when there were two criteria that decided which political party won an election in Britain: political ideology and competence. The divisions caused by political ideology have virtually vanished, along with the philosophical struggle between socialism and capitalism. However, competence remains a deciding factor. In that, the opinion polls tell us that at the moment the Government are not doing well enough to stay in power, let alone win an election.
There can be few areas where the failure of competence has been greater than in the management of the UK Border Agency. There has been inadequate progress over the 26 months that the coalition has had responsibility for the conduct of our affairs. We now have a state of crisis, which needs emergency action to put it right. The United States took emergency action after 9/11. I had the opportunity to observe the homeland security force that protects America’s borders—and the US has a far greater problem with its long southern border. I also know Hong Kong rather well. It is another place that can teach us lessons in the efficiency of protecting borders.
I say at once that guarding our borders is part of the defence of the realm and therefore of the highest priority, especially for a Conservative-led Government. I will make some specific proposals to remedy the defects and will illustrate the defects by referring to two highly critical reports on the border agency. The first is the report of 7 February 2012 by John Vine, the independent chief inspector of the border agency. The second is the 26 June 2012 response of the Government to the 17 January 2012 report of the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee. I shall refer also to some Written Answers that I have received on the matter over recent years.
The first question must be: why did it take 14 months for the Government to set Mr Vine to work? We all knew well before the election that the thing was a shambles. It was, after all, in May 2006 that the then Home Secretary, the noble Lord, Lord Reid, denounced the Home Office immigration department as “not fit for purpose”. What was the reaction of the Civil Service? The head of that department was promoted to head the whole of the Ministry of Defence, which he later left with an even more tattered reputation. Mr Vine concluded that the border agency had,
“poor communication, poor management oversight and a lack of clarity about roles and responsibilities”.
You cannot get more damning than that.
A point highlighted by the Commons committee was the failure to use available modern technology to protect our borders. I will give only two examples. Mr Vine pointed out that there had been no attempt to incorporate the verification of fingerprint systems—on which considerable public money has been spent—to identify any passengers trying to enter the UK using a false identity. The Commons committee complained that the iris recognition system, on which £9 million had been spent, had provided only 12 iris gates. I should emphasise that in the US iris recognition and other advanced biometric systems are widely and efficiently used.
The response of the Government to the report was breathtaking. They merely said that the iris gate was now “planned for closure” because,
“the system is close to the end of its useful life”.
My God! In fact, the failure of the UK iris system was largely due to the ill disciplined, heavily unionised border force being reluctant to use it. Meanwhile, the new facial recognition system also seems to be failing.
I was impressed with the new chief executive of the border agency, Mr Rob Whiteman, with whom I had a long chat. However, he has a huge challenge. The problem with the staff of the border agency is not just that they are of indifferent calibre; they have been shown to be seriously and systemically corrupt. As the Minister knows, because he gave me the Written Answers, some 30 Home Office staff members have received heavy prison sentences for misconduct in public office. The great majority were from the border agency. It was a disgrace.
There needs to be a much tougher recruitment policy, focused primarily on employing those most suited to the crucial role of protecting our borders. I have looked at the application forms for jobs in the agency. They seem more concerned with social engineering, for example ensuring that staff reflect diversity of sexual orientation, than with ensuring that those recruited have the necessary integrity, motivation and discipline. I believe that border force staff, who are not of the integrity that we should demand, should remain state employees. In my view there must be no question of hiving off this crucial role to the private sector; we have already seen enough disasters on that side.
I am prepared to believe for the moment that the Government were right to split the border force from the rest of the border agency, but it is a pity that command should have been given as a temporary appointment to a retired chief constable who is due to leave the job in September. The border force should be reformed as a highly trained, tightly disciplined uniformed force that is not allowed to take industrial action. It should have a clear command and control hierarchy, as do the military and the police. Its staff should be closely vetted and in general should have only British nationality. It should be under the close control of Ministers who represent the elected democratic Government.
At the moment I feel that far too much is left to the control and guidance of Home Office officials. The commander of the border force should have the same link with Ministers that service chiefs have with Ministers in the Ministry of Defence. At this time, when Britain’s Armed Forces are being reduced, it should be possible to recruit some first-class officers who are experts in administration, logistics, planning and management to fill some of these key roles. Whenever there is criticism, Ministers claim—I hope that the Minister will not do so this time—“Oh, it takes time to get it right”. The Government have had over two years, and time is now running out.
I turn to the question of passports. For years I have urged that the Government should always know what other passports UK passport holders have. There should be a strict obligation to divulge full details to the British passport authorities, probably including a photocopy of any other passport held. One response that I had from the Government was, “Oh well, people wouldn’t necessarily disclose the fact that they had a second passport”. The answer to that is simple: anyone found deliberately to have concealed their non-British passport would be liable to have their British passport cancelled.
That leads to the question of e-Borders, on which some £400 million has already been spent. This, too, has been a shambles. I quote the Commons Home Affairs Committee again:
“As of July 2011, the e-Borders system was collecting details of about 55% of passengers and crew on airlines, with no coverage of ferries or trains. The original target to collect 95% of passenger and crew details by December 2010 was missed, as were all other previously timetabled deadlines”.
To this deplorable situation the Government’s response was:
“We believe that the technical ability to collect data from the rail and maritime sector can be delivered by December 2014 … Clearly our preference is to have 100% coverage of e-borders on all routes”.
However, the Government concluded:
“Some benefits of the system do need a higher level of coverage to be valid but not necessarily 100%”.
I hope that the Minister will tell us that the Government expect to get at least 95% coverage on all routes—and by when. If you do not know who left the country, you have not the slightest idea who should or should not be here. It is clear that so far the Government have got their priorities wrong. They need to get a grip on this crucial aspect of our national security.
My Lords, I shall begin by asking the Minister a direct question, which I shall come back to if he feels unable to answer it in his winding-up speech: will he ensure that United Kingdom Border Agency staff are asked to read this debate in Hansard? Whenever I come to take part in or listen to discussions on the House of Lords, not least on issues of civil liberties, I am always struck by the extraordinary level of commitment and expertise to be found here.
Of all those who have contributed, like the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, my noble friend Lord Dholakia and others, among the prime movers in this whole area is my noble friend Lord Avebury. Without going on about him, I think that we all recognise that he is a great credit to this country and the kind of person who Parliament can be proud of because of the persistence and commitment that he shows unreservedly, and with great dedication, day after day.
I shall speak on several issues and be brief about all of them. One of those issues is the things that are patently and immediately wrong, and could be put right relatively easily without any great expenditure. Another is a good example of what could be done at no great expense at all. Then there is what I regard as the deep, almost impossible dichotomy in what we ask UKBA to do between, on the one hand, the commitment to human rights and human decency and, on the other, the overriding pressure on the agency to cut down the number of people coming to this country for whatever reason, however good, that is brought to bear on it by the media and to some extent by those of us who are politicians. In the end, we cannot blame UKBA for things that stem from political dogma and prejudice. We have to take considerable responsibility ourselves.
Let me first say that I strongly support what the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, said about being very cautious indeed about outsourcing. We have all read the reports in the past day or two about the House of Commons Select Committee investigation of G4S. However, G4S is likely to be given yet further responsibilities in the next few weeks, not least because of the Olympics. At a certain point, when an organisation, be it public or private, clearly fails, there has to be a careful investigation of its contracts and a decision on whether to continue with those contracts. The chief executive of G4S, Mr Nick Buckles, has been described by the Select Committee as someone who has no idea of what is going on and has shown an extraordinary ability to deny that he knows anything about it, which, I note, has become a great characteristic among those who are being subjected to investigation in almost any area. I strongly suggest that one has to ask whether such an organisation should be responsible for such sensitive issues as the deportation, or, for that matter, the admission, of people from other countries, many of whom have very profound histories of suffering and torture.
The second issue I want to raise very quickly is the question of what are sometimes called legacy cases. The issue has been raised by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, and others, and also by my noble friend Lord Avebury. What are legacy cases? They are cases that have been pending for five years or very much more, in which people have been living in this country as residents, but under the weight of a sword of Damocles, as they may at any point no longer have leave to remain. I believe that the Home Office’s decision to move from indefinite leave to remain to what is now called, in the Home Office’s own phrase, discretionary leave is extremely foolish. Somebody who is given only discretionary leave, but who has lived in this country for five years or more already, will be uncertain about his future and that of his family. He can make no long-term investment in his existence in this country, whether that be a financial investment or a social and personal investment in his children and grandchildren. Discretionary leave is a very poor substitute for indefinite leave to remain. I strongly suggest that we need to look closely at whether an amnesty should be considered as a serious possibility for those who have lived in this country for five years or more with no criminal record of any kind. Amnesties have been granted with good results in a number of other countries.
A further short-term issue I would like to bring up is what is called the fast-track process. It is almost the exact opposite of what ought to happen. The whole asylum and refugee system cannot be built up soundly unless careful attention is given at the first stage. In this country, we have an endless process of appeals and legal interventions, demands, requests and so on, which means that people live here for years without having the right to stay but without any pressure to go. That is because our first-stage processes of admission and refusal are so inefficiently, and, often, so inadequately, advanced. We have to look again at fast-track procedures and ask that thorough early-stage procedures be substituted for them. Failing fast-track procedures, which open the door to appeal after appeal, are disastrous if we want an inexpensive and efficient way to deal with the process. We see that more and more at the present time.
The third issue I want to mention very quickly—and I have a close eye on the time—is that of the return of young people literally within a week or two of reaching the age of 18. Some of these young people, who had been protected by their minority status, are being sent back, right at the present time, to Iraq and Afghanistan. I beg noble Lords to give one moment’s consideration to this: imagine you are an unaccompanied 18 year-old, who may have no contacts whatever in the country to which you are being deported. What do you think you do? You turn to those who are willing to befriend you and, if they happen to be called al-Qaeda, well, bad luck; they are better than nothing at all. We are returning potential terrorists to countries which are insecure and fragile. I cannot think of anything very much more foolish to dream up in a bath on a dark night.
The fourth issue, in only five, was raised by my noble friend and put forward by Asylum Aid: a complete failure to recognise the special position of women in a world where, tragically, rape has become a weapon of war. I first encountered this when Dame Anne Warburton produced a brilliant report on the way in which rape was being used as a weapon of war in Bosnia. Far from disappearing, it has become ever more significant, yet when a woman comes to this country as an asylum seeker, claiming that she has been abused and raped, her case is very often dismissed. That is partly because there are no expert elements in the UKBA, such as there are—thank goodness—in the Metropolitan Police, to consider the special cases of rape and sexual abuse. She usually ends up as a prostitute on the streets of King’s Cross or Everton or somewhere else, because it is the only way in which she can raise the money to keep alive. That is a totally undesirable contribution to the criminal community in our own country.
Finally—before I give an example of something better that can happen—there are those who are left on their own with no means of keeping alive until their case has been heard. The instance of trying to take a very long time to decide an asylum case, with no decent and legal means of support being made available, is once again an invitation for people to be degraded and for others to exploit them and make money out of them.
As for a good example, I am very proud to express to this House an interest that I share with my noble friend Lord Dholakia: we are both patrons of a body called the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group. The group has managed to recruit no fewer than 100 volunteers from among the citizens of the region around Crawley and Gatwick Airport. They are paid nothing; they spend their own money to be able to go and sit with detainees, befriend them, talk to them and give them a sense that, somewhere, there is a source of support, trust and help. There is a waiting list to join the volunteers, amazingly enough. Only a couple of weeks ago, 450 people turned up at a theatre in Crawley to listen to what the refugees had to say about what they had been through and about the songs and poems that had kept them going. This was a crowd of our fellow citizens, not specially selected but men and women who cared about the well-being of their fellow citizens. I suggest going down the path, at least to some extent, of providing confident, human help to one’s peers, rather than following endless, complicated, inexplicable and incomprehensible processes of immigration rules without recognising the human dimension. The latter makes everything more expensive, more complicated and sadder.
I strongly endorse what the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, said by saying in one sentence that one of the greatest investments that this country can make is in those who carry back to their own countries democracy, education and a commitment to the rule of law. We will not get that by making it harder for overseas students to come here or by treating human beings as if they were so much fodder to become terrorists tomorrow.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, who is one of this House’s treasures, for not only prompting a debate of exceptional power and authority but speaking so forcefully on so many of the shortcomings of the border agency. I want to focus on another.
At 6 pm on 14 January this year, I landed with my wife at terminal 4 of Heathrow after a very long flight from India. I was shocked as I came close to the border controls to see the longest queue that I have ever seen anywhere, probably 300 to 400 metres long. I am tempted to say it was longer, but that was my estimate at the time. As it was terminal 4, it contained predominantly people from the subcontinent, including a great number of families, many with young children, and 17 desks at border control were unmanned. I subsequently put down a Written Question asking the border agency to identify or estimate the average time in that queue. The agency came back with the suggestion that it was one hour and 40 minutes. I am sure that estimate was given in good faith but I am deeply sceptical of it. I myself, along with my wife, was in the UK nationals queue, which was very much shorter, but we still had to wait something like thirty or forty minutes before being let through. Even if it was only one hour and 40 minutes, that is far too long for people who have been on such a long flight and then find themselves on arrival in such horrible conditions.
I have travelled, and still travel, a great deal, either on business or for pleasure. I travel in the developed and developing world and have sometimes, as I am sure many of your Lordships have, faced queues in other countries, particularly in America. However, generally speaking, border controls the world over increasingly allow speedy and efficient entry. I have never seen, anywhere in the world, queues to rival those that are now commonplace at London Heathrow and which I saw that evening. This is profoundly unwelcoming and uncivilised. We all know and understand that it is damaging to the UK’s reputation and our national interest, not least because of its impact on potential investors in the UK economy, many of whom I regularly meet in my work and for whom London Heathrow is now a watchword for a torrid experience.
After I got through passport control on 14 January, I asked to see the officer in charge, who was not close to the desks but buried somewhere in the offices at the back. I questioned him about the reasons for this intolerable queue. He of course answered that he had insufficient resources to man the many empty desks and also told me that he thought the matter was only going to get a lot worse. Other noble Lords have mentioned the border agency’s own reports, from which we know that 5,200 staff are to be dropped in the next four years.
I recognise and support the Government’s drive to reduce public spending and the deficit. As somebody who has managed in the public sector, I do not for one moment underestimate the enormous complexity of the task that the border agency faces, which has been exceptionally clear throughout this debate. Implementing government policies in all the areas we have been discussing—security, immigration and asylum—is not trivial. These are very difficult and complex challenges. Many noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, and the noble Lords, Lord Judd and Lord Ramsbotham, gave us some very tough reminders of how important it is for the border agency to get so many things right to maintain our civilised standards with respect to the tortured and the brutally oppressed, to safeguard the vibrancy of our education system and to husband and develop the skills of the UK workforce.
I am also someone who has had to reduce costs at many points in his life, both in the public and private sectors, in a variety of organisations, and I am not one who assumes that increasing costs is necessarily the answer to all the challenges that we have heard about during this debate. However, in respect of Heathrow, is the Minister satisfied that the agency deploys its resources optimally? One obvious thing to note about international travel is that it is very data-rich. We know where the airplanes come from, how many people are in them and when they are going to land. It must be possible to give very precise estimates of the flow of passengers through an airline terminal. Is he satisfied that we have such accurate forecasts of passenger numbers? Is he satisfied that we can flex what capacity the agency has to varying demand? Are the working arrangements of the staff in the agency sufficiently flexible? Can they be shifted easily on the basis of need from location to location? Can they be rostered flexibly? Are there enough part-time staff to deal with the inevitable peaks?
If the agency is underresourced, and it may be, it must, like all organisations, cut costs in ways which create, not destroy, value and which are hard-headed about priorities—we have heard many of those in the course of this long debate. There can be no excuse at all for the UK having the longest airport queues in the world. It is a national shame.
My Lords, like other noble Lords I thank my noble friend Lord Avebury for securing this debate. Other noble Lords have paid various tributes to him; I simply draw the attention of your Lordships to the fact that Liberal International, the worldwide body of some 100 political parties, awarded him their highest prize, the Prize for Freedom. We all know why; it is because of his extraordinary lifetime of sterling service. When he raises this debate it is very much in the cause of freedom—our own and that of those who would come to visit us.
I shall touch on three areas in this brief speech. First, it seems to me that there is considerable conflict within government over the question of people coming to our country. Everyone from the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister down through ministerial departments, parliamentarians, NGOs, businesses and universities spends a great deal of time travelling the world telling people what a wonderful place this country is, how they ought to come and how beneficial it will be for all of us if they do—for conferences, to study, to do business or whatever. However, I frequently wonder whether we are being completely counterproductive, because when these people try to come to the country, they do not find the welcome that we describe; they find endless barriers, which they would never have found if they had not listened to us in the first place.
It becomes incredibly frustrating organising, for example, international political conferences. I find that even people at the level of Ministers and senior parliamentarians frequently cannot come to conferences in this country any more, because they cannot get visas and appropriate permissions; they have to travel to other countries in order to get them. Our universities have already been mentioned and it is also the case for business. Even businesspeople who live in this country but have passports from other countries frequently find it almost impossible to get in and out of the country without being obstructed in the endless queues so vividly described by the noble Lord, Lord Birt.
I ask myself why there is this inconsistency and incoherence within government about whether we want people to visit or whether we want to keep them out. We need to be clear about it. This country has never been able to survive and thrive by building a big wall around itself. It has always been an open country; that is why people want to come. In the past, other countries have built walls to keep their people in. We ought to be taking walls down to encourage the free movement of people and the rich diversity of the country.
If the first question is one of conflict within government about whether they want people to come, the second, frankly, is over the competence not only of the UK Border Agency but of the sponsoring department, the Home Office. I was astonished to find, when I asked the Bill team for the Crime and Courts Bill, which is to establish a border policing command, whether there had been any discussion between the Minister and the Minister of Justice in the Republic of Ireland—the only place with which we have a land border, where there is no requirement for any border checks and nor should there be—that there had been at that stage no consultation despite the fact that the Bill was coming to Parliament and we have institutions that bring these Ministers together on a regular basis, not just within Europe but directly. It seems to me that that is just one element of a raft of incompetences that have been revealed in the debate in your Lordships’ House today. It is not just that these things are difficult. It is that many of them simply are not being attended to. If we are going to have an e-passport system, the one country we simply have to get it sorted out with is the Republic of Ireland. If we do not, people will be able to come through into Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, yet there seems to be no coherent arrangement with the Republic.
Many noble Lords have described other areas about which there is a lack of confidence, but the most serious issue seems to be the problem of the culture within the whole department—within the Home Office and within the UKBA. I remember, many years ago, organising for a senior member of what is now the Police Service of Northern Ireland—it was then still the RUC, but many changes had taken place—to come to an international conference to talk about policing. He started his address by saying, “It is terribly important to understand what the purpose of your job is. I am a police officer. Our job is to maintain the human rights of all our citizens”. The jaws of a number of politicians who were at the conference dropped. They had expected the police officer to be talking about maintaining the rule of law, catching criminals and ensuring that people were brought to court to receive their due rewards. He said, “No, it is about maintaining the human rights of everyone”. If we create a culture like that, we end up with a lot less criminal behaviour to deal with.
When I look through the business plan of the UKBA on its website, I find that it is all about “securing borders”, “reducing immigration” and tightening down on things. There is no kind of sense that it is, as the noble Lord, Lord Judd, said, the first welcoming face for the rest of the world. I think that the noble Lord described it as the front line, but it should not be a front line as though it were the Maginot line. It should be a welcoming agency that encourages people to come in and, of course, looks to those who might create trouble.
My experience is that it is ordinary, legitimate travellers that the UKBA strikes fear into—not organised crime, which knows how chaotic it is. Ordinary, decent people end up in difficulties. I know this from my own family. One of my daughters-in-law is Brazilian and another is German, and I know how difficult they have found it, moving backwards and forwards to and from this country, even after they were married. There has quite rightly been much talk, some of it extremely moving, about the incredibly vulnerable people who are frequently left in great difficulties and distress; that, of course, is true. What is even more troubling in some ways is that sometimes capable, qualified, professional young women—lawyers and so on—are left in tears. That shows us just how abusive the whole culture has been. I do not say this out of speculation. I spoke recently to one of the most senior people involved with the UK Border Agency and asked: “What is the problem?” He shook his head and said: “It’s the culture of the agency. The whole approach within it is abusive and it’s all about keeping people out”. In that case it needs to change.
The noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, made an interesting suggestion. He talked about the fact that we are cutting many of our services’ staff and that in many ways this is about defence of the realm. I know from my own experience that many officers in the forces are accustomed not just to using hard force but to winning hearts and minds. They are frequently much more capable of making a judgment about whether the person coming up to them is likely to plant a bomb or whether they are a legitimate traveller than are some of the people employed by the UK Border Agency.
We have a serious problem. People become like those with whom they live and work. The UK Border Agency has not just employed G4S; it has become like G4S and it has the same challenge. If G4S has been damaged—perhaps even irreparably—by its incompetence over the Olympics, it may well be that the UK Border Agency will become another G4S over the next few weeks unless there is some radical change, which frankly I do not expect without a massive change in the culture of the organisation.
My Lords, I want to raise a single point concerning early legal advice for asylum applicants. It is an important point and one which I have raised on a good many previous occasions when we have debated asylum and immigration Bills. I was therefore pleased when an experiment in legal advice was started in Solihull, which continued until 2008. Since then, it has been extended to the whole of the West Midlands region. I believe that this system now covers 17% of total asylum applications. The results have been fewer appeals against initial decisions and a reduction in the level of successful appeals. Public trust in the system has been increased in this single region. Absconding has also been reduced. It appears that the UKBA is starting to do some things right, whatever its failings may be on other fronts.
Will the Minister confirm that it is the Government’s intention to extend early legal advice to the whole country as soon as possible? Will they balance the extra costs against the rather considerable savings that are likely to accrue? Will the Minister assure the House that there will be full consultation about extension with all the agencies involved, so that all applicants may benefit? Extension should now be much easier than it would have been earlier because of the declining trend in total applications. I should also point out that legal advice does not usually require fully qualified lawyers. Advisers need a sound knowledge of the refugee convention, together with a grasp of our asylum statutes and relevant case law. I have given the noble Lord notice of this question and I therefore look forward to his reply.
My Lords, I would first like to add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, for securing this debate. In his highly impressive opening contribution, he referred to a wide range of issues of concern and I hope he will forgive me if I do not even try to make a similar comprehensive contribution.
From April 2008 to February 2012, UK immigration, asylum and border operations were managed by the UK Border Agency, which employs around 21,000 staff and accounts for around one-fifth of Home Office spending. At the beginning of March this year, the Home Secretary made a decision to separate the UK Border Force from the rest of the agency so that it could report directly to her. The agency will be an executive agency and the UK Border Force will be a directorate of the Home Office. The transition arrangements to establish two separate organisations will not be complete until this autumn, with the transition to being a directorate within the Home Office, which is being managed by a transition board, set to be completed by December of this year. There must be a question about whether this summer, of all summers, is the best time to have the border agency and the border force in the throes of transition arrangements. Perhaps the Minister will say why from March until the autumn of this year was deemed the most appropriate time to implement this separation project.
Since 2009, the agency has undertaken change with a view to delivering better services and reducing costs. Its workforce was reduced by more than 3,000 between 2008-09 and 2011-12. A new IT programme, known as Immigration Casework, is being implemented in conjunction with improvements in processes, with the objective of transforming immigration and asylum casework by 2015. However, the Government’s 2010 spending review imposed a duty on the UK Border Agency to reduce its budget by at least 15% between 2011 and 2015 and its workforce by approximately 5,000 staff, or some 22%, with the result that it has had to look for additional cost reductions beyond its transformation initiatives. The result has been changes and staff reductions being forced through at a faster rate than planned and at a faster rate than the organisation can apparently properly handle.
A recent report by the National Audit Office, to which the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, referred, found that caseworking and UK Border Force changes have often been independent of head-count reduction plans. The National Audit Office reported that in 2011-12 the agency’s workforce was reduced by more than 1,000 more than planned, even though progress was slower than expected in the Immigration Casework programme and workforce modernisation at the border, and no agency-wide skills strategy was yet in place. The result of this disconnect, says the National Audit Office report, was, in some places, a dip in performance and the need to hire new staff or increase overtime. For example, performance in London and the south-east has come under pressure due to staff shortages. Two of the three regions visited by the National Audit Office team reported that they now needed to recruit caseworkers, having allowed too many to leave. Continuing, the National Audit Office report says that achieving significant change in any organisation requires strong leadership and good communication, which have not been evident enough to date. Apparently the most recent Civil Service people survey results show that only one-quarter of staff believe that the agency’s board has a clear vision for the future, and less than one in five consider that change is managed well.
The UK Border Force, which is in the process of being separated from the UK Border Agency, has to reduce its workforce by 10% over the 2011-15 spending review period—that is, by around 850 full-time equivalent staff. During 2011-12, staffing declined by around 350 full-time equivalents, which was much faster than planned. We have seen the effect of this pressure from the Government to make excessively quick and deep cuts in expenditure under the spending review in the length of queues and waiting times for many passengers arriving in this country, particularly at Heathrow. In that regard, the National Audit Office report has again drawn attention to a lack of transparency in how passenger clearance times are reported. That may not have mattered too much before the spending review staff cuts and lengthening queues but it certainly does when official figures—government figures—fly in the face of what everyone can see is happening.
The UK Border Force’s stated performance target is to clear 95% of passengers within published standards, which are within 25 minutes for European Economic Area nationals and within 45 minutes for non-European Economic Area nationals. According to UK Border Agency data, this target was achieved every month in 2011-12. However, in his recent report on Heathrow Terminal 3, the independent chief inspector highlighted shortcomings in both methodology and reporting. He found that measures were not taken frequently enough, and were reported in a way that made no distinction between the different experiences of EEA and non-EEA passengers, particularly during peak arrivals periods. The chief inspector reported that queue-measuring techniques did not provide an accurate reflection of performance.
The true figures show that in the last week of June of this year, waits in immigration queues for non-EEA passengers at Terminals 3, 4 and 5 at Heathrow exceeded the target time of 45 minutes on four, five and four days of the week respectively. For the month of June as a whole the figures for Terminals 3, 4 and 5 were 13, 21 and 18 days respectively when the targets were exceeded, with the longest wait being over two hours.
The Government’s Immigration Minister has previously given assurances that all immigration desks at Heathrow and other key ports and airports in the south-east will be fully staffed during peak periods over the summer. Unless one takes the view that June is not a summer month those assurances have not been delivered. The figures show that all desks were not being manned at peak times in June, hence the long queues and unacceptable waits. We have heard today from the noble Lord, Lord Birt, of his personal experience in queues at Heathrow and the non-manning of all desks. Long waits for passengers arriving in the UK give a poor first impression of our country and our level of efficiency. Along with additional staff temporarily drafted in, special arrangements have been made to avoid extended waits for Olympic Games personnel.
The question, though, is what happens after the Olympics. Will we be reverting back to waits of up to two hours in passport and immigration queues once the additional staff drafted in have gone and the special arrangements no longer apply? At the moment that looks like a distinct possibility, with the Home Secretary intending to cut staff levels by 5,000 at the UK Border Agency and UK Border Force by the end of this Parliament. This is despite the long queues at our major airports; despite an increase in the number of people absconding from Heathrow; despite the Government deporting some 1,000 fewer foreign prisoners last year than were deported in the last full year of the previous Government; and despite the considerable concerns that a number of noble Lords have raised in the debate today over different aspects of the role and performance of the agency and the impact—as my noble friend Lord Judd so eloquently articulated—that this has had on some of those who come into contact with the agency.
The Government need to get a grip on border control and security. It is not much good trying to encourage new businesses, investors and more visitors to come to Britain if their welcome on arrival is a wait of up to two hours in a queue at the airport, or before departure a less than helpful, fair or speedy process for dealing with their application to come here. If that continues some will simply be put off coming and the potential loss to our economy, image and reputation will be considerable. I hope that the Minister can assure us that we will not be reverting back to extended queues and long waits for non-EEA nationals at our airports, particularly at Heathrow, and at other points of entry after the Olympic Games and that the target times will be met.
Although policy decisions and procedures are at the heart of some of the concerns identified by noble Lords who have spoken today, it is clear that government decisions to reduce budgets and staff numbers at the UK Border Agency under the 2010 spending review much further and more quickly than planned, without regard to the consequences, have contributed significantly to a number of the problems that have been identified today. The Government’s responsibility is to see that the agency, including the border force, is properly staffed to do the job that it is meant to do on our behalf on immigration and asylum work, ensuring the effective, fair and efficient control and security of our borders. If you cut too fast and too deep, as the figures show that this Government have done at the border agency, they should not be surprised at the outcome and should not try to suggest that all responsibility for the problems that arise lies elsewhere.
My Lords, the first question I should like to answer was put to me by my noble friend Lady Williams of Crosby, who asked whether I would make sure that all UKBA staff read a copy of this debate. I do not think that I can ensure that that happens but I will certainly make sure that a copy goes from my office to Rob Whiteman, the head of UKBA. It will be up to him to decide on the most appropriate method by which he can disseminate the various words of wisdom that have appeared in this debate throughout the entire United Kingdom Border Agency.
Perhaps I may say to my noble kinsman Lord Avebury, who introduced this debate and asked a very large number of questions—they were coming out at the rate of four or five a minute at one stage and I am not sure that I got them all down or that I will be able to respond to all of them—that we accept that scrutiny of all government agencies is crucial to ensuring that they deliver the appropriate government policy and offer appropriate value for money. Reports on the work of the border agency have shown the Government that, as in all organisations, there is—how can I put it?—some room for improvement.
I stress that today’s debate is about the role and performance of the United Kingdom Border Agency. However, I will say a little about policy, which is a matter for the Government, because obviously it is important in this area. I think that it would be useful if I start by clarifying the roles of the United Kingdom Border Agency, which this debate is about, and the UK Border Force, which this debate is not about. In March 2012, the border force was split from the United Kingdom Border Agency. There are now two completely separate organisations which work together to provide border and migration control. The UK Border Agency is responsible for actions before people get to the border, and once they are beyond the border and in the UK. The UK Border Force is responsible for protecting the border itself through entry control and customs functions at the border.
Outside the United Kingdom, the UK Border Agency is responsible for the visa system and an intelligence network that checks people travelling to the UK before they arrive and ensures that those who have no right to enter the UK do not come here. In the UK, the UK Border Agency carries out immigration casework—for example, asylum applications, which we will come to in due course, and applications for people to settle in the UK—as well as ensuring those who have no right to be here leave, whether by helping them to return voluntarily or by enforcing their removal. Again, I will say a bit about that later.
I have to say that questions relating to the border force go somewhat wide of the scope of the debate. I appreciate that my noble kinsman, my noble friends Lord Marlesford and Lord Alderdice, the noble Lord, Lord Birt, and most recently, the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, all raised serious questions about the border force. But in light of the debate and the number of questions I will have to come to, those issues will have to wait for another day. I shall deal with just some of the concerns that have been raised by noble Lords in this debate before I say a word or two about policy and where we wish to be. I appreciate that a large range of questions were asked and I imagine that in the end, as always, I will deal with only a mere tithe of them in this wind-up. I hope that I can write to noble Lords about some of their other concerns in due course.
One of the first questions put to me by my noble kinsman Lord Avebury was about bonuses within UKBA and his regret that they were being paid when there were failures within UKBA. As he probably knows, only the top performers who have consistently worked to a very high standard are recognised through bonuses. We have significantly reduced the value and the number of payments made to senior managers. I think that only a quarter of all staff—the overwhelming majority of whom are front-line officers—were awarded an average of around £500 last year and, I should make clear, only after meeting very strict criteria.
My noble kinsman was worried about the number of appeals allowed, and suggested that 36% was an all-time record. In 2010-11 the Courts and Tribunals Service statistics recorded that some 36% of appeals were allowed, which was not an all-time record. Over the past two years, the figure for allowed appeals, based on the same statistic from HM Courts and Tribunals, has decreased both in percentage terms and volume. I think that in 2009-10 it was 41%, and 38% the year before. If I have got those figures wrong I will write to my noble friend. He seemed to say that it suggested that the decision-making criteria were too hard.
Appeals are allowed for a variety of reasons, including evidence being submitted at the hearing that was previously not seen in the decision-making process. He will know about that in relation to the changes we are making in the Crime and Courts Bill. Consequently the allowed appeal rate is not always indicative of whether the original decision was of poor quality or too harsh. Certainly the Border Agency works hard to analyse the reasons for allowed appeals, in order to identify trends and implement improvements.
My noble kinsman also asked about removal of overstayers, and whether that was a priority of the agency. As he knows well, enforcement is a vital part of the agency’s operations, and it relies on intelligence to identify and take action against those with no right to be here. The Government are certainly determined to crack down on any illegal immigrants who are here without any right to be, and anyone found living or working here is liable to be detained or removed. We believe that illegal immigration, as we have made clear on all occasions, puts undue pressure on public services, local communities and legitimate businesses. This summer we have launched a UK-wide operation to remove overstayers, and have already seen some 2,000 removals since the campaign started. In addition, local immigration teams across the country continue to deal with migration refusal cases. That brings me to the important question of how we deal with the removals, and whether we are doing them in the right manner.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Newcastle talked about dawn raids on families, and whether they were appropriate. We would always like people who are here illegally—whether families or others—to leave voluntarily. It is only our last resort to use an enforced return. To reduce the risk of families who will not remove themselves voluntarily absconding, it is sometimes necessary to visit them early in the morning when they are most likely to be at home. However, I can assure the right reverend Prelate that that process is overseen by the Independent Family Returns Panel to ensure that the welfare of children is taken properly into account.
My noble kinsman Lord Avebury, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Newcastle and others talked about the legacy cases and the problem of clearing the archive. We are dealing with a controlled archive of legacy, asylum and migration cases. These are cases that have not been traced or concluded but continue to be reviewed and checked. We are confident that we will close the controlled archive by the end of December this year. By that point, having checked cases a number of times across multiple databases, including against financial records, the benefits system and HMRC’s systems, as well as our own, we should be satisfied that those individuals are no longer in the country.
The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, also asked about ELAP, the early legal advice project. As he will be well aware, we want to ensure the provision of high-quality advice, including legal advice to asylum seekers—whether it comes from lawyers or others. He will be aware that ELAP is a very important opportunity to improve our understanding of what works. The project has run since November 2010 and has been extended until March next year. By then we will be in receipt of a final report so that we can make informed decisions about the next steps, based on a fair and thorough evaluation of front-loading legal advice services. Given that the evaluation postdates the next round of legal aid contracts, any decision on a national rollout may not be possible straight away; it will take time to work out the detail of funding mechanisms. The United Kingdom Border Agency will work with partners and the Ministry of Justice to do so as quickly and practically as possible.
My noble friend Lady Hooper raised questions relating to Mexico and asked whether we were meeting criteria for how we should be performing on visas in that country. I can say that visa performance in Mexico is currently good. Short-term visas in Mexico are turned around in an average of 10 days, which certainly matches the figure for other countries. It is something of which the border agency can be proud.
My noble kinsman Lord Avebury and the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, raised the case of Mr Jimmy Mubenga. The agency deeply regrets the death of Mr Mubenga. We will very carefully consider any issues that were raised by the CPS investigation and we will certainly decide whether any further action is appropriate once the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman’s investigation and the coroner’s inquest have been completed. The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, also asked whether certain letters relating to this case could be put in the Library. May I look at that issue, write to the noble Lord in due course and see whether a response is appropriate?
However, that brings me to the question of restraint and the use of force raised by the noble Lord. In the majority of cases, we believe that the use of force and restraint when undertaking removals is unnecessary. Home Office-approved control and restraint techniques, including the handcuffing of detainees, are only ever used in the removal process where they are deemed necessary to ensure the safety and security of detainees, escorting and airline staff, and other passengers. If handcuffs, for example, are used, they are always removed at the earliest appropriate opportunity, when it is considered safe to do so and when there is no risk to others on board. I hope that the noble Lord will accept that assurance.
I wanted first to deal with some of the points that had been made. I now want to say a little about government policy itself. The border agency obviously deals with the operation of our systems but, in the end, as my noble friend pointed out, it is we, Parliament and the Government, who are responsible for policy, and we should not blame the border agency for policy. That is a matter for the Government and I am here to speak for them. The Government’s overall aim is to rectify an out-of-control immigration system by bringing down net migration while still attracting to the United Kingdom those who we believe are the brightest and the best.
We believe that a comprehensive set of policy reforms on work, students, settlement and family have set the way to achieve that end. It is now for the border agency, which is building on those policy changes through operational change, to deliver the reductions in long-term immigration that the Government expect, while at the same time not preventing valuable and genuine visitors coming to the United Kingdom. The agency has recently implemented measures to control family migration and made significant changes to the visa routes for students, workers and those who wish to settle in the United Kingdom. Across the board the agency has tightened up the requirements for those who wish to come here, by increasing language requirements, salary thresholds and skills levels.
I turn first to students. I listened to what my noble friends Lady Williams, Lord Alderdice and Lady Hooper, and the noble Lord, Lord Judd, said about students and universities. I have some sympathy with the points that all of them put, but the arguments put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Judd, seemed to go somewhat too far at times. What was the remark I put to my noble friend sitting next to me? I think it was, “What planet is he on?”. He seemed to have gone so far away from what we are doing, and what we are trying to do. All we have done is to try to reform the student visa route. The measures we are taking are to ensure that students can be reassured that they are attending genuine institutions that have been properly inspected. That is good for the country, the education sector and the students themselves. The measures include: a tightening of the regime for licensing colleges that sponsor foreign students; restrictions on the entitlement of students, including the right to work; and the closure of the post-study work route from April 2012.
No student who has an offer from a genuine, proper university, and who can speak English, is going to suffer in any way at all. When the noble Lord looks, if he will, at the numbers of those coming from abroad to attend British universities, he will find the figures more or less as they have always been; the students are still coming in. What we have seen is a decline in the number of those coming into very spurious and dubious colleges that were really there just as a way of getting round the immigration system, and served no other purpose whatever.
I would give way, but I have only got two more minutes—
I thank the Minister for replying so fully, but he asked me to look at the evidence of what was happening. Has he looked at the evidence of what has happened to the number of students coming from India? This is very grave in the context of our future relationship with India and the world.
My Lords, I accept there has been a decline in the number of students coming from India. Will the noble Lord also look at the increase in the number of students coming from other parts of south-east Asia? He will find that it easily compensates for the decline from India. We are not seeing a decline in the overall number of students coming to universities. What we are seeing is a decline in the numbers of those who were coming here allegedly to study but using that as a way of getting round the immigration system. I think that what we did was quite right. I am proud of it, and there has been no damage to United Kingdom universities as a result.
I see that I am running out of time, so I will make my last few points. We want to see the border agency continue to move forward and to maintain its performance in removing foreign national offenders, in preventing others from coming in who should not be coming in, and in continuing to deal with the archive of legacy asylum cases that I mentioned earlier. As a result of its work, the agency will be a more streamlined and efficient organisation in future. For that reason, I am grateful for this debate. It will be a more efficient organisation in delivering its core objectives of a selective immigration system while also providing value for money for the taxpayer. The work of the agency is crucial in controlling migration and protecting national security. In this climate of change, we rightly expect the agency to continue to deliver.
My Lords, I thank the Minister very warmly for his comprehensive winding-up and for his kind promise to write to those whose questions he could not deal with. I am also grateful for the assurance he gave to my noble friend Lady Williams that what has been said in this debate will be drawn to the attention of the head of the UKBA, and I am sure that it will not be difficult for the agency to find a means of disseminating the Hansard report of the debate to the whole staff. It is important that people in the UKBA should be aware of the widespread concerns that have been expressed.
If I may say so, I thought that my noble friend was a little complacent about some of the issues that were raised. There was the failure to listen to criticisms made by the chief inspector, which were dealt with by the right reverend Prelate and the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, among others. We have heard repeatedly about the culture of disbelief that prevails in the UKBA. The noble Lord, Lord Judd, and my noble friends Lord Alderdice and Lord Dholakia raised that point. The dangers of outsourcing were particularly emphasised by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, and I agree with him entirely that the responsibility for escorting deportees needs to be thoroughly examined. Personally, I would take this function away from the sub-contractors who have dismally failed to look after the people in their charge and return it to the UKBA itself so that we can see exactly where the responsibility lies.
My noble friend Lady Williams mentioned discretionary leave to remain, which I do not think was dealt with in the noble Lord’s reply. I am open to correction, but I think that the legacy cases, which she did mention, are nearly all being dealt with by giving people three years’ discretionary leave, for which they have to reapply after three years, instead of giving them indefinite leave to remain. That surely cannot be right. The detained fast track system was raised by the right reverend Prelate and my noble friend Lady Williams, but we did not hear anything from the Minister on that matter. I raised the issue of the failure to have regard to the special needs of women. My noble friend Lady Williams also talked about this, and it has been comprehensively covered by Women for Refugee Women and Asylum Aid.
Finally, this country’s reputation and the effect on our future prosperity and well-being will likely be harmed if we do not attract the people we need in business, management and higher education because of the difficulties that are placed in their way. This was mentioned particularly by the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, and my noble friend Lord Alderdice. I mention also, of course, the problems that have arisen at Heathrow, which were the subject of a powerful contribution from the noble Lord, Lord Birt. I hope that we shall hear from the Minister about these other matters. They are of equal importance to the ones that he dealt with in his winding-up speech. I hope that, as a result of the distribution of this debate to the UKBA, some attention will be paid to the forceful and legitimate criticisms that we have heard this afternoon.