Draft Immigration (Leave to Enter) Order 2001

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Mr. Patrick Hall (Bedford) rose—

Mr. Hawkins: I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman in a moment. I know extremely well the town that he represents. I grew up there, and he will agree that Bedford has a very fortunate race relations record. For many years, a proper, integrated approach to race relations was led by a distinguished clergyman, the Rev. Nadkarni. I know that the hon. Gentleman will join me in paying tribute to that distinguished gentleman, who did so much to ensure proper multicultural relations in my native town.

Mr. Hall: I thank the hon. Gentleman for eventually giving way. I invite him to deal with the business before us this afternoon—the draft statutory instrument—because I have not heard him do so thus far. Will he come to the point and say whether he agrees with the measure, which is widely welcomed by those who know about such matters, and which is likely to speed up the process and reduce bureaucracy?

Mr. Hawkins: The hon. Gentleman is right, but I have already said that we welcome anything that will make the system work. He is being a tad unfair in saying that I have not dealt with the issue—I began by saying that I welcomed the Minister's response to my intervention. We will not oppose the pilot project this afternoon. We welcome it and hope that it will work, but I suspect that we might hear a slightly different view from the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey.

4.47 pm

Simon Hughes: I welcome you to the chair, Mr. Winterton, in this new Parliament. I welcome the Minister to her new responsibilities and I look forward to working with her. As someone with a huge amount of immigration constituency casework, I trouble her Department regularly, as do other colleagues. I should also like to welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross), who is a good and long-standing friend, and the hon. Members for Rhondda (Mr. Bryant) and for Henley (Mr. Johnson). I think that this is their first Committee, and I am sure that all three will add a lot of colour and value to the House.

I can be persuaded that the order ought to be supported for the reason given by the hon. Member for Bedford (Mr. Hall) and the Minister. I understand the streamlining issue. On realising that the order was to be debated, I asked the person who looks after immigration and nationality work in my constituency office for his view of the change to the procedure. He said that it will make a genuine difference. Frequently, cases that are referred to the caseworker and then returned to immigration officers are further delayed, thereby slowing down the process. In principle, we are keen to have a speedier process. That is in the interests of everybody, and particularly those whose claim is being considered.

I want to probe the Minister on a few matters of principle—constructively and relatively quickly, I hope—so that we can see where Government policy is going. Until the very last days of consideration of the Immigration and Asylum Bill, I was not my party's spokesman on these matters, and my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) dealt with the Bill. At the time, Ministers gave assurances to him in Committee—as this Minister is now doing—that this change was intended only to have a streamlining effect and had no other motivation. I think I heard the Minister say that that is the limit of its purpose. That was anticipated, and I want to check that the Government's proposals have not changed.

It will be useful to know whether the Government plan to extend to other people, besides caseworkers, what is a delegated power of the Secretary of State.

We may be talking about taking away from named immigration officers—the person named in statute—the power to grant or refuse leave to enter, and giving it to the Secretary of State. It is normal to give Ministers powers concerning immigration and nationality. Will the Minister say whether any thought has been given to that?

As a matter of law, should we give to Ministers powers that are currently exercised by immigration officers, for those powers to be delegated to appropriate people? There is logic in that argument. If one says that day-to-day routine decisions are to be made by civil servants and not by Ministers, which I entirely understand, one would say that immigration officers are also just agents of the state. They are employed by the Government and are accountable through the immigration and nationality directorate to the Home Office, so they have the same line manager and politically accountable boss: the Secretary of State. Has any thought been given to that. If not, why not? Why should immigration officers retain personal power? I understand the origin of it: police officers and Customs and Excise officers have personal powers, as opposed to those given only through the office of Secretary of State.

When someone—me, the Minister or anyone—is turned down by an immigration officer, they know the name of that officer. They probably know the officer's number and would be able to trace any concern about how they had been dealt with. Just as police officers have to wear something on duty that identifies them personally, so do immigration officers. Can I have the assurance that anyone using the proposed powers to seek asylum will know the caseworker by name, and that we, as Members of Parliament, could discover why the cases dealt with by caseworker X showed a 99 per cent. refusal rate while those dealt with by caseworker Y showed a 1 per cent. refusal rate? There is no way of tracking if records are not kept.

In what circumstances will the Secretary of State retain the right to make decisions on leave or enter cases? I understand that the order concerns only two categories: the asylum category and a general one, to which I will return. I want to know when, under present guidelines, through practice or law, the Secretary of State will make decisions. He made the decision in the Mike Tyson case and the Afghan asylum seekers case, which were both controversial. He said that both cases were exceptional. We need a bit more guidance than simply saying ``in exceptional cases'' if we are to have protection against undue political interference.

The order covers two categories of people. First, there are people who are making claims for asylum and secondly, those who are making claims that it is contrary to our obligations for someone to be removed. I understand that the Minister will probably have to ask for this information, but can she tell us, for any period for which there are figures, roughly what proportion of all those seeking leave to enter have fallen into the second category? In other words, how many are not asylum seekers but making the claim that it would be against our obligations under the European convention on human rights to turn them away? How often do such cases arise? Interestingly, paragraph 2(3) refers to that category of case. It states:

    ``This article also applies to a person who seeks leave to enter . . . for a purpose not covered by the immigration rules or otherwise on the grounds that those rules should be departed from''.

All of us who have done immigration work will have experience of cases in which claimants apply for a decision outside the immigration rules, or of cases in which the decision to allow a claimant leave to enter was made outside those rules. My recollection is that, traditionally, that most often happens when there are compassionate grounds—a death is imminent, or has just happened, or there is an ill relative—or in cases of unmarried partners, who do not qualify under the marriage rules but can remain because of their relationship. In what kinds of case will paragraph 2(3) apply? I would also like some indication of how many people will fall into that discretionary category.

I apologise for my final question, a central one for the Minister's Department, as I repeatedly asked it of her predecessors during the previous Parliament. It is, however, highly relevant to the order, and I have never had a satisfactory answer to it. How can someone who is seeking to come to the UK to claim asylum under the law, or to claim their rights under a United Nations convention, legally get here? How does someone in that position travel from another country to this one, without illegally getting on a ship, lorry, train or plane? It is my contention that there is no legal way for such people to get here. Therefore, what we claim that we do to honour our international obligations is actually a con. At the moment, asylum seekers cannot be given a legal route to get to this country and put their case. If that is true, we must change the position because we are not honouring our obligations under the 1951 Geneva convention or anything else. I would be grateful for as many answers as possible.

4.57 pm

Angela Eagle: I welcome what I think is the support of hon. Members on both sides of the Committee—although I cannot be sure until the question is put—for the streamlining measure in the order.

The hon. Member for Surrey Heath asked what the pilot projects would look like and whether we intend to report back to the House and deposit the projects' results in the Library. I see no reason why we should not. We plan two initial pilots, one in Croydon and one in Leeds, and we intend to start by training a small number of caseworkers in both places to do the relevant work. We will see how that goes and then, if no problems are identified, gradually ramp it up. I am happy to keep the House informed about how the scheme is going. We will not extend it nationwide until we are satisfied that it works operationally.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey delighted me by understanding the streamlining issue. Everyone ought to understand it. I agree with all those who have commented today that justice delayed is justice denied. We need to get the asylum system up and running in a way that allows quick but fair and effective decision making for everyone—those who fail to obtain asylum as well as those who gain refugee status, whose reason for fleeing their country may have been torture or other very difficult experiences. It is important for all the people who go through the system.

We are anxious to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the entire system. This order will contribute by removing the double handling that happens at the moment. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey mentioned a caseworker who is frustrated—no doubt as frustrated as I am—that casework has to be posted from one part of the system to another. It might go missing or sit in an in-tray for days, holding up cases that have, in effect, already been decided. There is nothing more frustrating than that in any system. I hope that we can finally get rid of that in the vast majority of cases.

During the passage of the Immigration and Asylum Bill, we said that the new power was taken predominantly in order to streamline the asylum system. There is no intention to use it in any other way. However, while developing the system and making it efficient, it could become obvious—as a result of the pilots or of other changes—that other changes would be beneficial. Then, we would use the order again, subject to approval in both Houses. So, I am not going to say that we shall never do so.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about tracking the decisions of named caseworkers. Caseworkers always introduce themselves at interview, and they sign letters personally. It is possible on the casework IT system, which is rather oddly named ACID—asylum casework information database—to print off records of all decisions taken by particular caseworkers, so they can be monitored. If there were a result of the type the hon. Gentleman mentioned—albeit he was exaggerating to make his point—we would notice it managerially and try to find out what was going on. There is such capacity.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about the Secretary of State's power to make decisions. That power is exercised by the Secretary of State in principle, but in practice it is exercised by civil servants, except in exceptional circumstances. That is known as the Carltona principle. Immigration officers, as statutory office-holders, have to make decisions at ports, where they can turn people around immediately. That is not the same as a caseworker considering the case of an individual who is already in the country. It makes sense for immigration officers to have the powers that the hon. Gentleman mentioned; it is not appropriate or sensible to give those powers to caseworkers.

The hon. Gentleman asked about decisions outside the immigration rules, on compassionate grounds, for example. In all cases, the Secretary of State may intervene if something exceptional is happening. There are many reasons why leave might be granted outside the immigration rules for people to enter the country or to remain here—for example, to testify in a criminal case, or when they themselves have criminal records. Such circumstances have arisen; the Mike Tyson case has already been mentioned. However, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be reassured by the fact that—from what I have learned from working with him so far—the Home Secretary has no desire to spend most of his time on immigration-determination cases. He wishes to leave all but the most exceptional and delicate cases to the effective and efficient system that we are trying to build. The order is not intended surreptitiously to extend the Secretary of State's involvement in cases.

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Prepared 11 July 2001