Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill

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Simon Hughes: If the Minister has the information with her, it would be interesting to know which nationalities are at the top of the league table. If not, will she let us have a breakdown of applicants for work permits by nationality?

9.15 am

Ms Winterton: The top two nationalities applying for work permits are American, at 25 per cent, and Indian, at 23 per cent.

Concerns were raised about the effect on small businesses. The charge will be between £75 and £95 per application, which is marginal compared with the cost of recruiting people overseas. It is paid by everyone through tax. This measure will focus the charge on those who benefit from the service.

Mr. Malins: It is helpful to have an indication of the figure, but will the Minister consult widely on what should happen to charitable and non-profit making organisations?

Ms Winterton: I am coming to that. The consultation process began on 15 April. We are examining its findings, and considering a sliding scale for certain types of applications. In the consultation document, we asked whether customers would prefer a flat-rate fee or a sliding scale. Due, I believe, to the likely added expense of a more bureaucratic system, the early indications are that most people would favour a flat rate. We believe that that is the way to proceed, but we are awaiting the results of the consultation before drawing conclusions.

We do not intend to charge the NHS and publicly-funded schools directly, but we may consider suitable

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accounting arrangements. Hon. Members made a number of points about poor advice and practice from recruitment agencies. Clause 95 brings advice agencies under the regulation of the office of the Immigration Services Commissioner, so that we can avoid some of the problems that were mentioned.

The length of the permits will depend on the needs of particular jobs. The minimum is six months and the maximum five years, but extensions will be available beyond that period, particularly if someone demonstrates added value. Illegal working was mentioned, and there are measures in the Bill to try to tackle that. On the breadth of people covered, the work permits are obtainable only for medium to high-skilled workers—those at national vocational qualification level 3 and above. The measure also covers the new high-skilled migrant programme.

The fees will be set in line with Treasury guidance. It is important that fees are designed to ensure that the full economic cost of providing the service is recovered. Imposing an arbitrary cap on fee levels would be inappropriate. However, we envisage that, in the first year and the following two to three years, the figure will be significantly less than £150.

The fee will be set out in a statutory instrument subject to a negative resolution, but hon. Members will have an opportunity to object to the fee if they feel that it has become excessive. Setting out fee levels in a statutory instrument as opposed to primary legislation will provide much more flexibility, and will facilitate the efficient adjustment of fee levels if necessary.

On amendments Nos. 300 and 313, before the outcome of the ongoing consultation, which will be completed by 5 July, we will not propose any exemptions to the charge except prospective employers of people from countries that have signed and ratified the Council of Europe charter and the revised European social charter. Those countries account for about 5 per cent. of all work permit applications received, but we do not want to pre-empt the outcome of the consultation, as I hope hon. Members will understand. We are consulting a large number and wide range of employers, including charities and non-profit organisations.

Simon Hughes: Will the Minister ensure that the results of the consultation, particularly from the NHS, local education authorities and others that fulfil public service functions, are published in plenty of time before any decisions are taken, and that Parliament agrees the regulations? It is important that we see the results of the consultation, so that we know the views of such bodies.

Ms Winterton: Yes, those results will be published. If the consultation provides suitable evidence that we should consider exempting non-profit organisations, we will have to be clear on what organisations that category includes. We must take that into account, otherwise some organisations that people feel should be included may be excluded. We are reflecting further on the problem. The statutory instrument must clearly define which non-profit organisations will be covered by any exemption. If we conclude that such organisations should not be exempted at this stage,

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the provisions will still allow us to introduce exemptions if necessary later. The regulations will be passed by a negative resolution, which provides an opportunity for hon. Members to object.

I hope that that explains the position and provides some reassurance about the Government's intentions. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will therefore withdraw the amendment.

Simon Hughes: That was a helpful response, but I have one quick question for the Minister to clarify. She implied that the charge would be less than the cost of administering the scheme. Is the idea to make the scheme self-financing by covering all the administrative costs? Is that Government policy, or will the taxpayer be expected to subsidise parts of the scheme?

Ms Winterton: Perhaps I did not make myself clear. I referred to the Treasury guidance, which is designed to limit fees within any cost structure to ensure that only the full economic cost of providing the service in question is recovered.

Mr. Malins: This has been a useful debate, in which we have fulfilled the Opposition's function of teasing out from the Government some helpful additional material, and I am grateful to the Minister for providing it. It will be read with great interest by the many businesses that take a deep interest in these matters. I thank the Minister again for her good answers, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Malins: I should like to raise another matter. The office of the Immigration Services Commissioner was created under the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 to regulate immigration advisers who did not fall under the jurisdiction of the Law Society or other regulatory bodies. Up to now it has not been clear whether work permits fall under the jurisdiction of the office of the Immigration Services Commissioner, partly because permits were previously issued by the former Department for Education and Employment rather than the Home Office, and partly because they did not constitute leave to enter or remain. We would welcome some clarification.

The Bill makes it clear that providing advice on work permit applications that are not exempt by some other condition will be regulated by the office of the Immigration Services Commissioner. However, some people are worried that the Bill's wording is too restrictive. Many larger companies have in-house teams to deal with work permit applications, as exemplified by WIPRO, an Indian software house, Merrill Lynch, Intel and PricewaterhouseCoopers. Such companies have no need to seek external legal advice.

Concern has been expressed that, under the current wording, it may appear that anyone providing such advice or making such applications will need to register with the office of the Immigration Service Commissioner, when even level 1 OISC registration

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requires knowledge or information that has no relevance to work permit applications. It is felt by some people that that is unnecessary. Would the Minister at some stage consider whether the Bill should be altered to make it clear that in-house advisers will be exempt from that requirement?

9.30 am

Simon Hughes: After the general election the Government made the helpful announcement that they realised that we needed to look at our immigration policy again to allow people in whom we need for the labour market. They initially stated that people with particular skills and qualifications would be encouraged and a number would be assessed. After the White Paper they realised that a greater breadth of people was needed, not just those with qualifications. I gave the example that we need people to clean floors in public sector buildings or to wash cars just as much as we need doctors, nurses and highly qualified scientific workers. What sort of numbers do the Government expect will come via the work permit route? More than 100,000 a year come at present and the numbers might be significantly higher.

What is the Government's plan for the link between a work permit and more settled status should a person's employability make that logical? They might be given extended leave to remain in the first place and then indefinite leave to remain. I was speaking yesterday to a refugee from Iraq who is a surgeon and a specialist in renal medicine. He and his family have extended leave to remain. He is getting qualifications to practise here. If people in their late 40s come in via the work permit route with family and dependants and take the exams to work in the health service they will want to know that they can have a settled career. They could concentrate on giving themselves to the health service where there skills would be very valuable and not risk the possibility of having to return in their early 50s with all the difficulties that that would entail. This is not a trick question. I am just trying to get an idea of how we can have joined up government between the work permit and the immigration application routes for those with skills.

At recurrent problem that comes my way as a constituency MP is the difficulty of getting agreements in time for people who have come over on two-year work and travel visas. They often come from the old Commonwealth countries such as Australia and New Zealand and end up teaching in schools where they are valuable. Head teachers have come to me on several occasions about problems with deadlines. I just flag up for the Home Office and other Departments that we need a system that keeps up the general high standard of speed in dealing with cases where there needs to be certainty and where technically there is a change of status because the work travel visa cannot be extended beyond two years.

If people stayed on to teach in primary schools, for example, they would need a work permit extension of a different nature. Such attempts have occasionally

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run up against the buffers and some good teachers have been lost from schools where they have settled and of which they have become an established part. The Minister may deal with that now, but if not, I am happy for her to deal with it later. I flag up the issue of that useful source of teachers in areas of teacher shortage, especially in schools.

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