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House of Commons

Monday 13 March 2000

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Madam Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked--

Immigration Advisers

1. Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow): What progress he has made in curbing the activities of unscrupulous immigration advisers. [112572]

10. Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South): If he will make a statement on the steps he is taking to curb the activities of unscrupulous immigration advisers. [112582]

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mrs. Barbara Roche): Under part V of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, the provision of immigration advice or services will be prohibited unless a person is registered with the immigration services commissioner; authorised to practise by a designated professional body; or exempt under the terms of the scheme.

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We are in the process of appointing the immigration services commissioner, who will lead the body that administers the scheme.

Mr. Gerrard: May I welcome my hon. Friend's reply and encourage her to take a tough line with some of the people who currently give advice? In particular, will she ensure that solicitors are included in the scheme? I still come across far too many cases involving solicitors who give the most appalling advice at extortionate cost. Recently, a solicitor advised one of my constituents from Jamaica to apply for asylum, when that person had a straightforward application for a student visa. Of course, my constituent did not take the advice. Will my hon. Friend ensure that solicitors are covered and that nothing in the scheme has a damaging effect on the advice that is sometimes well given by small community groups?

Mrs. Roche: I am extremely well aware of the problem, both as a Minister and as a constituency Member of Parliament. I assure my hon. Friend that, since January, all legal aid work has had to be undertaken by quality-assured suppliers. I know that the Law Society has that in mind--it is one of the professional bodies included in the scheme.

Mr. Cunningham: Does my hon. Friend recall that, in 1992, the Select Committee on Home Affairs drew attention to unscrupulous immigration advisers? The Conservative Government had five years to do something about the problem, but they did nothing. What does my hon. Friend say about that?

Mrs. Roche: I certainly do recall that matter, because I was a member of the Committee; indeed, I was a member of its Sub-Committee. That Select Committee was chaired by a Conservative Member and recommended that the then Conservative Government should do something about the problem. They completely failed to do so, which resulted in the delay and has led to

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unscrupulous asylum cases. Who was the Minister at the time? None other than the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe).

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood): Is not the situation far too serious for such cheap jibes? Is it not true that monstrous profiteering, at the expense of the vulnerable and gullible, has to be stopped? People are gravely anxious about the steady increase in the number of bogus asylum seekers. The situation in many London boroughs is intolerable; there are neither the housing nor the schools necessary to cope. Will the hon. Lady give us hope that there will be some effective curb on unscrupulous advisers and that she will get a grip on her Department and bring the inflow to a halt?

Mrs. Roche: I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman gives me an opportunity to say something about unscrupulous immigration advisers, because the situation is deplorable; they serve nobody. However, the hon. Gentleman was a Member when the Conservative Government, whom he supported, were in power. They introduced the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary moved amendments to that measure when we were in opposition to do exactly what we are doing at present. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman supported my right hon. Friend's amendments, but I welcome a late convert to the cause.

Mr. David Ruffley (Bury St. Edmunds): Is not the Minister ashamed of the fact that, owing to the Government's incompetence, the asylum application backlog has doubled to more than 100,000 since May 1997?

Mrs. Roche: One of the facts that the hon. Gentleman might like to consider is that the average time, when the previous Government--

Mr. Ruffley: Is she ashamed?

Mrs. Roche: If the hon. Gentleman would keep quiet for a moment, he might be interested in my answer. He asked a question and I shall answer it; what he is about to hear may be uncomfortable for him. First, there is the backlog left by his Government. Secondly, under that Government, the average time to determine an asylum application was20 months; under the Labour Government, the time has gone down to 13 months--and it will go down even further.

Licensing Hours

2. Mr. David Watts (St. Helens, North): What plans he has to change the licensing hours for public houses and clubs. [112573]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Mike O'Brien): We have been looking at licensing hours as part of our review of licensing law. We shall shortly publish a White Paper setting out our legislative proposals for reform of the licensing system as a whole.

Mr. Watts: I thank the Minister for his reply. May I draw his attention to the fact that several private

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members' clubs are worried about the implications of the proposals? Would he meet a delegation from that group to try to resolve their concerns?

Mr. O'Brien: I have already met some representatives of private members' clubs to discuss their concerns.I assure my hon. Friend that I shall take on board the points that they made. When the White Paper is published, they will see that we have taken cognisance of their concerns.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle): As the media appear to have been briefed that it is in the Government's mind to introduce 24-hour licensing, will the Minister ensure that in his White Paper he sets out very clearly the measures that the Government propose to take to protect those private householders who live near pubs and clubs and who need to sleep between the hours of 10 pm and 7 am?

Mr. O'Brien: We think that there is a good case for greater flexibility in opening hours, but we need to take care that the new laws, which may well in due course come forward, take account of the interests of people who live near licensed premises as well as of those who would seek to use them. I certainly hope that, in due course, when we bring forward our proposals, there will be a proper balance between the interests of those who live near public houses or other licensed premises and want to ensure that they are not disturbed by unnecessary nuisance or disorder, and the interests of those who wish to use licensed premises in order, quite properly, to enjoy themselves.

Voting (New Technology)

3. Mr. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South): What steps he is taking to enable new technology to be used for voting in national and local elections. [112574]

12. Jane Griffiths (Reading, East): What steps he is taking to enable new technology to be used in national and local elections. [112584]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State forthe Home Department (Mr. Mike O'Brien): The Representation of the People Bill includes provisions to allow local authorities to pilot innovative electoral procedures, such as electronic voting and electronic counting. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has been able to give provisional approval to six such schemes to be piloted at this May's local elections.

Mr. Chapman: While I welcome the piloting of electronic voting at the local government elections this year, if we are to make voting as accessible as possible, do we not have to go much further and consider all-postal ballots, mobile balloting and more flexible times and dates for voting?

Mr. O'Brien: I very much agree with my hon. Friend that we need to consider all those things. I hope that, under the provisions of the Bill, we shall be able to pilot many of them and ensure that there is greater access to

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enable all those who have the right to vote to do so more easily. I hope that that will increase the number of people who participate in our democracy.

Jane Griffiths: Does my hon. Friend agree that, in the interests of democracy, we should all be concerned about the declining turnout at elections? Does he also agree that people will not understand the continuing Conservative opposition to measures to make voting easier and more accessible?

Mr. O'Brien: We have had varying degrees of support from the Opposition for our legislation. I believe that all Members of the House should be in favour of encouraging more people to go to the polling station and vote. It was with regret that we encountered some opposition to particular aspects of this legislation that could have encouraged people to exercise their proper democratic right to vote.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): While I welcome new technologies, does the Minister agree that some people--such as my mother, who lives in Lichfield--are quite nervous about using things like automated teller machine cards? My mother likes writing out cheques, and I am quite sure that she would like to be able to do the old-fashioned tick on the box--hopefully against my name. Does the Minister accept that, in this ruthless drive for new technology, he may well alienate older people who are frightened of using electronic devices? Or will this new initiative be as effective as the initiative announced in the first three months of the new Labour Government, when they said that they were going to introduce new electronic dispatch boxes? Like so many other promises, it has come to nought.

Mr. O'Brien: I think the hon. Gentleman is at least guaranteed one vote--or is he?--and, by the way, we normally put Xs, not ticks, on ballot papers. We certainly aim to encourage all people to vote, and we have taken precautions, in the legislation and in shaping the role of the Electoral Commission, to ensure that any spread of the types of pilot scheme that we shall now consider will be of the sort that will encourage people, especially the elderly, to feel comfortable with going into polling stations and casting their ballot. Therefore, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that, if he is to get only one vote, we shall want his mother to be able to vote.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): Can the Minister put my mind at rest by reassuring me that voting will continue in person, that voting electronically will not be open to fraud and that it will be deliverable in villages and market towns such as Easingwold, Thirsk, Bedale and Boroughbridge in north Yorkshire?

Mr. O'Brien: We certainly want to ensure that the new pilot schemes will be safe from abuse by any of those who might seek improperly to use them. None of the applications being piloted this year involves systems such as internet voting, but we hope that, in future years, we shall consider pilot scheme applications that involve such innovations. However, we will want to be reassured that, even when we pilot them, they are secure in terms of the operation of voting and that we do not have problems with personation, improper voting procedures and electoral

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abuse. We want to be very careful and we hope that the Electoral Commission's role in considering the pilot schemes will assist us in ensuring that things are done properly.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): What will the checks be against electoral fraud when votes are exercised and counted electronically? At present, the parties can send their people to the counts to keep an eye on the votes and to see how they are stacking up. What will the equivalent system be so that the representatives of the parties can ensure that we do not have a fiddled franchise?

Mr. O'Brien: We certainly want to ensure that there is no fiddled franchise and that we have a system that operates in a secure manner. If we receive any applications--I must tell my hon. Friend that we have received none as yet--we will want to ensure that the checks that are carried out provide safeguards. I cannot give him a list of the safeguards that we might have to put in place, because we have received no applications yet. I suspect that electronic and internet systems are not suitable at the moment for carrying out such operations. However, we will not close our mind to such systems in the years ahead.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes). In many ways, he has been the parent of many of the very good ideas for a rolling register that are being introduced in legislation.

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