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Session 2001- 02
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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Draft Immigration (Leave to Enter) Order 2001

Seventh Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Wednesday 11 July 2001

[Mr. Nicholas Winterton in the Chair]

Draft Immigration (Leave to Enter) Order 2001

The Chairman: Before I call the Minister, I wish to say that the attention to detail of the Government Whip is very impressive. She has spotted that on the list of Members selected for the Committee, the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) has had attributed to him the constituency of Edinburgh, North and Leith. That, of course, is an error. I trust that hon. Members will make the appropriate adjustment.

4.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Angela Eagle): I beg to move:

    That the Committee has considered the draft Immigration (Leave to Enter) Order 2001.

May I say what a pleasure it is to be back Upstairs with you once again, Mr. Winterton, in Committee?

To assist the debate, I will try to put the draft order in the context of current legislation and explain the practical impact that it will have on the immigration and asylum process, if affirmed by both Houses. Under that legislation, the power to grant and refuse leave to enter can be exercised only by an immigration officer. Those powers are not given to other immigration or nationality directorate officers who, on behalf of the Secretary of State, can only grant, vary or refuse leave to remain. Section 1 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 changed the position so that the Secretary of State may grant or refuse leave to enter as well as leave to remain.

The order before us will enable those powers to be exercised. It is part of the general flexibility provision in sections 1 and 2 of the 1999 Act. We took the powers because it was becoming increasingly difficult within previous legislative constraints to maintain efficient and effective controls at ports while coping with substantial passenger growth. We wanted to create a legislative framework that would allow more operational flexibility, make better use of information technology and encourage inter-agency co-operation, thus maximising efficient use of resources to expedite passenger clearance and dealing more effectively with those who seek to abuse or circumvent our immigration controls. The order will add to and enhance that capability.

The main thrust of the order is that it will give the Secretary of State the power to grant or refuse leave to enter in cases in which the applicant has applied for asylum or for entry to the UK on human rights grounds. During the passage of the Immigration and Asylum Bill, the Government said that the power was likely to be used in such circumstances. The power being taken in the order has been drawn up specifically to improve the operation of the existing asylum process. However, the scope of the primary legislation does not preclude taking further, wider powers if the practical operation of the order demonstrates a need for them.

To put the matter in context, it may be helpful if I briefly explain how the asylum process works at the moment and how the provisions of the order will change it. Currently, in cases in which an applicant applies at a port of entry for asylum or for entry on human rights grounds, the application must be referred by the court to the integrated casework directorate of the immigration and nationality directorate. That is in recognition of the basic requirement set out in the handbook on procedures and criteria for determining refugee status provided by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The handbook recommends that there

    ``should be a clearly identified authority—wherever possible a single central authority—with responsibility for examining requests for refugee status and taking decisions in the first instance.''

The caseworker assesses the merits of the asylum or human rights claim and decides whether it should be granted or refused. In the case of someone applying in country, the caseworker also grants or refuses the right to remain. However, because of the way in which the legislation is framed, the decision to grant or refuse leave to enter can be made only by an immigration officer. In applications made at ports of entry, therefore, the case has to be returned to the port for an immigration officer to serve leave to enter.

There are no sensible, logical reasons for asylum and human rights cases to have to pass between the caseworker and the ports. It involves double handling of cases, which cannot be an efficient or effective use of resources. There are no sound reasons why the caseworker deciding the claim cannot also give or refuse leave to enter. Decisions are served by post by immigration officers, and they can easily be served by post by caseworkers. That will release immigration officer resources to handle other aspects of immigration controls for which they are specially trained; for example, combating clandestine entry, locating absconders and effecting returns of those who have no basis to stay here.

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey) rose—

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): Will the Minister give way?

Angela Eagle: I give way to the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins).

Mr. Hawkins: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. My point may be the same as that of the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes): we shall find out in a moment.

Does the Minister have any reason to believe that the changes introduced by the order are likely to increase the number of decisions in favour of the applicant? In how many cases does she anticipate the Secretary of State intervening personally in a given year? Although the order refers to the Secretary of State taking powers, in practice—as one would expect, and as the Minister made clear—those powers will normally be exercised by caseworkers. However, in some exceptional cases the Secretary of State will take a personal interest; for example, in those that concern someone who is well known.

Angela Eagle: There is no obvious reason why this administrative change should lead to a change in the percentages of decisions that are decided against or in favour of claimants. We intend to pilot the change, rather than immediately to introduce it everywhere, and we will monitor the situation. However, I see no reason in principle why it should make any difference to the outcome of a case.

On the hon. Gentleman's other question, there should be no difference in the number of cases in which the Secretary of State may want to intervene personally. That tends to happen only when an exceptional case presents itself, and there is no reason why the administrative changes in the order should make cases such as that of Mike Tyson more likely. That is a matter for the Mike Tysons of this world who decide to arrive at our ports and present the Secretary of State with a dilemma. Intervention by the Secretary of State is demand-led, and caseworker intervention will be the norm.

Simon Hughes: Is it intended that the transfer of power should be to caseworkers or to the Secretary of State? The Minister reminded us of the Afghan hijackers and the Mike Tyson case. Will more decisions be taken by the Secretary of State, or will they all be taken by caseworkers?

Will decisions be taken by named caseworkers who can be held to account in the courts because, like immigration officers, they are civil servants, or, if someone takes a decision that is wrong and ultra vires, and is to be judicially reviewed, will the Secretary of State be taken to court? Immigration officers can be challenged and disciplined if they are wrong.

Angela Eagle: First, I emphasise that the cases that are referred to the Secretary of State are exceptional, and I cannot say whether there will be an increase or a decrease in that respect. It is not intended that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary should take large numbers of decisions personally unless large numbers of exceptional cases present themselves at our ports. The order has no hidden agenda for increasing political intervention, if that is what the hon. Gentleman is asking. Secondly, if a caseworker's decision went to judicial review, the Secretary of State, not the named caseworker, would be the subject of the judicial review.

The powers provided by the order will have other welcome effects. The movement of people back to ports is a burden on the asylum process, especially as the system is almost wholly clerically based, as I have been discovering during the past few weeks. The process is cumbersome and slows up the outcomes, which everybody wants to be delivered as quickly and efficiently as possible. Cutting that unnecessary double handling will help the immigration and nationality directorate to speed up and streamline the process in accordance with the general commitment that the Government gave during the passage of the Immigration and Asylum Bill in 1999.

In my opinion, the provisions of the Immigration (Leave to Enter) Order 2001 are compatible with the convention rights as defined by section 1 of the Human Rights Act 1998.

4.40 pm

Mr. Hawkins: May I also welcome you, Mr. Winterton—perhaps more conventionally than the Minister—to your chairmanship of this afternoon's proceedings, which I anticipate will be short but important?

I have already put to the Minister Opposition Members' concerns about the operational effects of what the Government are introducing. In light of her helpful reply to my intervention, in which she said that the Government anticipate piloting these matters, will she say in her winding-up speech whether she is prepared to place the results of those pilot programmes at the disposal not only of members of the Committee, but, because the matter is of wider interest, of all Members of Parliament? I hope that she will be able to say, as Ministers helpfully do, that the results will be placed in the Library of the House for the information of all Members.

Conservative Members have always taken the view that there is great public concern about the number of people arriving in Britain who are economic migrants. Such people have no proper reason, other than being economic migrants, for coming to this country, but as soon as they arrive at our ports or airports—whether they have arrived legally or illegally does not matter for these purposes—they claim asylum. In some cases, they lodge asylum claims some weeks later once their arrival has been discovered and investigated.

There is no doubt that the Government's figures prove that the vast majority of those who are properly investigated turn out to have no proper claim for asylum. This country has a proud record of welcoming those who are in genuine fear of persecution, and we on the Conservative Benches say, ``Long may that continue.'' However, we live on a small, crowded island and there is great public concern about the matter, as one can read day in, day out in all newspapers—broadsheet or tabloid. One is constantly made aware that there is great concern among our existing citizens that there is not room for a huge number of economic migrants. There is huge resentment at people who make bogus asylum claims and disappear into the hills so that, by the time it is decided that they have no proper claim for asylum, they cannot be found.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) made several proposals that were initially decried by Government Members, but more recently they have received at least a guarded response, which shows that the Government, in the persons of the new Home Secretary and his new ministerial team, may be thinking again. Indeed, I take this opportunity, which is my first, to welcome the Minister to her new responsibilities. I look forward to many exchanges with her on serious Home Office issues both across the Dispatch Box in the Chamber and in Committee. I welcome the fact that the new Home Secretary and his new Home Office team appear to be considering the serious proposals that Opposition Members have been making.

Members of all parties recognise in their heart of hearts that, whatever insults may be traded across the Chamber at Question Time, there is often a more serious debate in Committee, in which it is recognised that all parties have good ideas. In recent months, the Government and the official Opposition have often had more in common with each other on issues such as this than each has had with the Liberal Democrats. I often feel that the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey is bent on outflanking the Labour party from the left. I have witnessed that interesting spectacle on many occasions in Committee.

I hope that we will see the results of the pilot projects. We all have an interest in establishing an immigration system that works fairly. Although we might have different views on how best to alter and improve the system, I know from his past comments on such issues that the hon. Gentleman will agree that it is vital to the interests of everybody that our immigration system is fair and that it works. Whether we are talking about a claim that proves to be fair or unfair, justice delayed is justice denied. Even a claim that is not well founded should be considered properly, so that a proper decision can be reached.


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Prepared 11 July 2001