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David Davis: The Minister has announced an investigation, the first stage of which will presumably be to establish the facts about the procedures and the behaviour of the Home Office immigration service. Will she publish those facts within one month, so that the

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House of Commons can know what is happening before European Union accession on 1 May? Will she assure the House that any civil servant who tells the truth about this issue will not be disciplined or punished for doing so?

On Sunday, a Home Office spokesman said:

I take it that the Minister no longer stands by that statement. She claims that she was unaware of the behaviour described by Mr. Moxon. However, the Home Office has had three days since it was challenged by The Sunday Times over the issue on Friday, and two months since Mr. Moxon e-mailed her. At the very least, she should be able to confirm or deny the existence of the documents described in the newspapers.

As the Minister has asked us to believe that neither she nor the Home Secretary was aware of the decision, will she tell us who authorised it? In particular, will she confirm the existence of the document entitled "Flexibility guidance: ECAA guidance for Entry Clearance cases post August 1st", which stated:

Will the right hon. Lady explain that doctrine of unpublished policy? Is this a policy whose existence is withheld from Ministers, or is it just Parliament and the public who are meant to know nothing of it? Are there other secret immigration policies of which the House has not been notified?

Is it true that the document says that

Is that official policy, or is it another secret guideline unknown to Ministers? Is it true that the document states that guidelines were relaxed so that even if there were no proof of financial status whatever, the policy would still be to grant one year's leave to remain in the country? How many people have been allowed in under the new rules? Will the Home Office review the decisions taken in the last six months, and could decisions be overturned?

Does the Minister realise that this is not the first time stories have emanated from the immigration service about fiddling the figures? There have been at least three, if we include those about soft-pedalling on illegal immigration and asylum. Does she not remember that I raised this question with her at the most recent Home Office questions, and she dismissed it? Will she explain why she did not act on the e-mails sent to her about the problem? Mr. Moxon's supervisor confirms that those were sent to her on 12 January.

Does the Minister recognise that whether there has been collusion, cover-up or simple incompetence, the responsibility for this disgrace rests firmly with her and with the Home Secretary?

Beverley Hughes: I set up the investigation for the exact purpose of establishing the facts, and I will certainly find out how we can make those facts known to Members of the House in the most appropriate way. If it is any comfort to the right hon. Gentleman, I can tell

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him that I do not relish being in this position; it is not a position that I would want to be in. The situation that has been revealed as pertaining at a junior level in Sheffield is quite unacceptable; I make no bones about that.

The right hon. Gentleman has asked me several questions, and I shall deal with them in so far as I have the answers today. The response from the Home Office to the press reports on Friday—that there had been no dip in scrutiny—was wrong. That advice was given to the press office by a senior manager, who was one of the people who did not know at that time that the local guidance had been given and was operating. Arguably, she should have known, but she did not, and she gave the best advice that she had on Friday. Since then, as a result of The Sunday Times story, senior officials and I worked all through yesterday to get the information, as far as we could.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the e-mail sent to me, and I am grateful for an opportunity to clear up that matter. I visited the office concerned on 4 December and, as I always do, I had a question-and-answer session with staff. I understand that Mr. Moxon wrote three questions that he wanted to put to me. He was not in the meeting, and I did not get to see him, or those—[Hon. Members: "Why not?"] I have no idea why he was not there.

Mr. Moxon's questions then went round a number of managers and eventually came to my private office on 12 January. I did not know that until yesterday—[Hon. Members: "What?"] I know that Members will suspect another conspiracy, but the fact is that I had a new member of staff starting work on 12 January, and in the week from 12 to 16 January she was shadowing the person who was leaving. I am afraid that I was not informed until yesterday about that e-mail, which was not sent on for senior managers to construct a reply for me. The situation is not acceptable, but that particular issue was the result of a human error on the part of an assistant private secretary in my office. As the right hon. Gentleman has been in this position himself, I hope that he accepts that Ministers do not manage civil servants; we depend on senior officials to give us the right information so that we can correct points that need to be corrected.

The right hon. Gentleman asked who authorised the local guidance, and that is the point of the investigation.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker: Order. There are no points of order during a statement. I should have thought that a member of the Chairmen's Panel would know that. I also expect a member of the Chairmen's Panel not to shout while the Minister is speaking.

Beverley Hughes: Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

I have not yet established who authorised the publication and distribution of the guidance, and that is the point of the investigation. I saw the flexibility guidance to which the right hon. Gentleman refers for the first time this morning—it was issued in September 2003 and contains the quotations that he read from it.

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This is the system for ECAA applications: if a person is in the country, they can initially apply for one year's leave to remain. The terms of the accession treaties require such people to be treated in exactly the same way as other member states' nationals, so it is meant to be a light-touch assessment. If such people are still here after a year and their business is sustaining itself, they must apply again, and bank statements and records of national insurance contributions are required at that point. The situation is the same in every EU country, and there is nothing different about it here.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about numbers. People given leave to remain for that purpose are included in migration statistics, but they are not identified as having come through that route—they are included in the leave to remain figures and the further leave to remain figures. That is not acceptable, and we must see whether we can extract those figures so that they are discernable.

I think that I heard someone call out that 11,000 applications were processed in one week, and that figure has featured in some press reports. I can make no sense of it, and the investigation will explore that point. I am pretty sure that it is not possible that 11,000 applications were processed through the ECAA route in one week, because the backlog that staff were trying to reduce was 7,000 cases. However, the confusion over the 11,000 figure may have arisen because 500,000 cases come through the general group every year—those cases cover leave to remain and do not include asylum, nationality or work permits. That figure covers all the cases processed in Sheffield, Croydon and Liverpool for any purpose—marriage, students or whatever—and it equates to about 11,000 cases a week. I wonder whether it has been promoted as relating to the ECAA applications through confusion or a more malicious purpose, but I am fairly clear that it does not.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): May I welcome the statement by my right hon. Friend, who is right to initiate an inquiry? This may be the first time in history that Home Office officials have been criticised for removing a backlog rather than creating one. She will know that in 52 days' time such applicants will be full EU citizens with the right to work here subject to registration. Will she give an undertaking that the status granted by the Home Office in Sheffield will not be affected by Conservative Members' comments?

Beverley Hughes: I am grateful for my hon. Friend's question. It is not feasible to reconsider applications that have already been granted—among other things, there would be many legal impediments—but I shall ask my officials to consider the matter. My hon. Friend will know that, as far as self-employed people are concerned, no member state can derogate from the terms of the treaty.

I might point out that the terms of the treaty were agreed in 1994, when the Conservative Government were in control. The treaty allows nationals of acceding countries to come into this country under these special arrangements before 1 May 2004, in anticipation of the rights that they will have after that date. At that point, those nationals will be able to enter any EU country and establish a business without any requirement to publish

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a business plan or anything else. They are to be treated exactly the same as EU nationals. As my hon. Friend says, that will be the case in a few weeks' time.

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