Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill

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Simon Hughes: I shall reserve comment on the scheme for the clause stand part debate. Although that explanation was helpful there are still some issues about authority to carry.

The Minister was right to correct me on the use of the term ''racial grounds''. I remember that discrimination was permitted on nationality grounds, not racial grounds. I accept her remarks on the benefits of the Race Relations (Amendment) Bill—that is why my party supported it strongly and tabled amendments to increase its breadth in the House of Lords. It brought the public sector, including the Home Office, the police and IND, within the remit of race relations legislation.

I have not had an answer about how the provision may lend itself to discrimination. I would put the question differently. People from the UK will inevitably be treated differently from those in the EU and people in the EU will be treated differently from those outside it. Different entitlements apply that are consequential on different nationalities. Outside the EU, inhabitants of British overseas dependent

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territories are another group with special rights. Apart from that, and apart from Ireland and the old European Free Trade Association, which has common travel areas—conferring certain travel rights from Switzerland, for example, which would not apply elsewhere—everyone is in the same boat and has to enter via the non-UK, non-EC channel.

How can it be justified for IND, or an authority to carry scheme that delegates to airline X, to discriminate against an entire nationality? I understand that people who are a security risk—perhaps from Afghanistan last year—should be prevented from entering, but that should not apply to everyone with an Afghan passport. How can a justification on grounds of nationality not be discriminatory and open to challenge as such in international law under the relevant conventions? Under what circumstances might an authority to carry scheme incorporate definitions that referred to nationality and prevented Bulgarians, Angolans or Chileans from entering the UK? I do not understand how that could be justified.

Angela Eagle: I am not sure that authority to carry schemes will work in that way. We have 90 million visitors through our ports in the UK, and unless the hon. Gentleman wishes us to treat every single person the same—huge queues lasting for hours would result—we have to carry out our work with reference to risk analysis and intelligence. Sometimes intelligence about an offence to forge particular passports or about difficulties in particular parts of the world might mean concentrating our efforts more on people of a certain nationality. Forgers might be seeking to evade our immigration controls.

In certain circumstances, intelligence about people arriving from a different airport or about a particular nationality's passports will require us to check some people more effectively and more closely than others. If we could not discriminate on grounds of nationality at all, we would have to treat everyone in exactly the same way when carrying out close checks. As I said, that would lead to huge queues for everybody and create chaos in the airports.

When we authorise discrimination against particular nationalities—often because we have intelligence about scams or have detected that people of a specific nationality have forged documents, leading us to suspect an organised attempt to breach immigration rules—it is to enable us to pay more attention to passengers of that nationality when they arrive in the country. Authority to discriminate on grounds of nationality comes into effect to make it practical to act against such threats without having to apply the same close scrutiny to everyone. In immigration operations, that is to some extent inevitable.

I re-emphasise, however, that we cannot and will not discriminate on the grounds of race or colour. Clearly, that would be illegal, but an authority to travel regime is no more discriminatory than a visa regime. The immigration and nationality directorate must target high-risk passengers, and it must bring the reasons before Ministers if it wishes to add a nationality to the list for particular attention. That is

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open to public and parliamentary scrutiny, as the hon. Gentleman knows from his time on the Committee that considered the Race Relations (Amendment) Bill.

The system is open and above board, but I ask the hon. Gentleman to recognise that, because of the nature of the IND's work, there must be risk analyses, which often focus, inevitably, on particular nationalities at particular times. However, with the extensions in the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000, we have embedded the principle of non-discrimination on the grounds of race or colour. That is a major advantage and a major advance on the position post-1976.

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Simon Hughes: I repeat that the principle of non-discrimination on the grounds of race or colour is welcome and good; the Minister's affirmation of that is right. However, I will, if I may, talk the issue through with a Minister outside the Committee, because I do not wish to take up the Committee's time and I still have concerns.

I shall give one example. Recently, there has been much discussion with the Jamaican Government about ensuring that there is a better system for stopping drugs from Jamaica coming here. I know that Ministers from Jamaica have been here and there have been press reports about particular flights being checked and high numbers of people being involved, but I would still find it discriminatory if, for a year, for example, every Jamaican citizen who wished to come to the UK to visit friends and family were subject to an entirely different regime. I am talking about a non-visa country, which is why this is an issue.

I seek clarification on one matter. I presume that it would not be lawful, even under the authority to carry scheme and whatever the merits of the case, for the Government suddenly to say that there was a particular regime for the Portuguese, for example. I presume that, under the common travel and freedom of movement arrangements, such a regime would be in breach of EU treaties and that the EU must be exempt from the provisions, but it would be helpful to know that.

Angela Eagle: EU citizens have the freedom to travel and reside in any other EU country. The idea of a visa regime for Spaniards, for example, would be nonsense because of international agreements. However, the logical conclusion of what the hon. Gentleman says is that visa regimes are discriminatory. He is saying that it is somehow reasonable to have a visa regime, which is discriminatory, but that we should not be able to use intelligence to focus on criminals, many of whom have committed serious crimes, who attempt to subvert our immigration controls for various nefarious reasons that he will see manifested on the streets of Southwark and Bermondsey and many other areas in the UK.

I do not understand the difference between imposing a visa regime on a nationality for all time, and discriminating on the ground of nationality for a period if it can be proved to Ministers that there is an operational reason for paying particular attention to that nationality for a time. I think that discriminating

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for a short period on the ground of nationality might be a far better way of dealing with a perceived problem than imposing a visa regime, but the hon. Gentleman may have a different opinion. The nature of immigration control is such that we have to act in that way in certain circumstances. Our arrangements allow us to be open and transparent, and are more flexible than a visa regime. I hope that he understands what I am saying. We clearly disagree, but how could sensible, taut immigration control be maintained if no discrimination was allowed on grounds of nationality? Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will think about that question before he has a word with anyone outside the Committee. There are no current plans, and no decision has been taken, on whether to impose a visa regime on Jamaica, although clearly there are difficulties with organised crime and drugs.

Mr. Barker: This is a delicate issue, on which an important point of principle is at stake. It is right for the Committee, and Parliament, to probe and scrutinise any clause or amendment that touches on the matter, and the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey made some important points.

I am pleased that the Minister has addressed the issue with such clarity. I accept that as 90 million visitors come into the country each year we must be realistic. We do not have an open border and if, in the Minister's words, we want a ''sensible and taut'' system, the regime must ensure that that is the case. I hope that the authority to travel regime will reduce the queues at Heathrow. Nothing does more to fuel prejudice, suspicion and concern than arriving at Heathrow from an international flight and seeing people from the EU breezing past passport control while huge numbers of people from third world countries have to queue for hours. That looks like open discrimination of the worst kind.

Screening more people before they come into the country will help to reduce the time that welcome visitors to the United Kingdom have to wait at passport control. Screening will be welcome, too, if it prevents more undesirable people—criminals and so on—from entering the country. I hope that the authority to travel regime will work, although we will check closely that the ability to discriminate is not passed on to the carriers who bring people here. We shall watch carefully to ensure that there is no discrimination on grounds of race or colour. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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

Simon Hughes: I congratulate the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle on successfully straddling the positions of Back Bencher and Front Bencher in making his first, early bid for notice and preferment. The hon. Member for Woking is always good at encouraging the next generation and bringing on talent.

The Minister posed the right question: when we want to control people coming here, should we have a visa regime or another regime? The proposal is for an authority to carry regime, although I would prefer a

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visa regime. I accept that there would then be discrimination, but a visa regime has many safeguards that an authority to carry regime does not have. A flexible visa regime stating reasons for requiring people from country X, Y or Z to have a visa is far more legally justifiable, for many reasons. I am unhappy about authority to carry systems, so I accept that there must be a visa system and that is how to discriminate if, for a particular reason, control is required in respect of a certain country.

The Minister knows that many well-informed and respected organisations that work in this field share my concerns. There may soon be a legal challenge to such operations in Prague by officials, including officials from the Home Office, working with the carriers. That scheme is not a visa regime but a screening process, aimed particularly at screening people from the Roma and other communities from eastern Europe.

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Prepared 16 May 2002