The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Paul Goggins): I would like to inform the House that Ms Penelope Barrett and Mr. Alastair MacGregor have been appointed as members of the Criminal Cases Review Commission. Copies of the press release relating to these appointments are available in the House Library.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Fiona Mactaggart): I am announcing today the launch of the consultation pamphlet, "Strength in Diversity: Towards a Community Cohesion and Race Equality Strategy". The pamphlet sets out the Government's analysis of the issues and challenges that we need to address in developing our community cohesion and race equality strategy, which we plan to publish in the autumn. Our aim in publishing the consultation pamphlet is to promote an honest and open debate on a range of issues that are profoundly important to us all.
The Minister for Citizenship and Immigration (Mr. Desmond Browne): This is a further report to the House on the Government's comprehensive review of legal migration schemes, including details on lifting the suspension of visa restrictions in Bulgaria and Romania.
On 30 March, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announced that, as part of this wider review, Ken Sutton had been asked to investigate allegations of abuse of the European Community Association Agreements (ECAA) scheme by nationals from Bulgaria and Romania. At the same time, consideration of all visa and after-entry applications from these countries was suspended.
From 13 April, the suspension was lifted for the majority of visa applications in Bulgaria and Romaniafor business and family visits, and low-risk categories such as official staff. Visa applications remained suspended for the ECAA scheme, which relates to the self-employed, and for the employment schemes which were being investigated as part of the wider migration review. After-entry applications remained suspended.
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At the same time we were in contact with employers and operators who regularly employed Bulgarian and Romanian nationals under the temporary low-skill employment schemes. On 8 April we advised them that if they had pressing short-term labour needs, they should make alternative arrangements, since it could take several weeks before these schemes could be fully reviewed, and any necessary action taken, before they could be re-opened.
On 22 April my right hon. Friend announced that a series of taskforces had identified a number of measures which would be implemented to reduce abuse of migration schemes, across all countries. The first set of measures concerned people posing as students, people pretending to provide education or training, and people marrying for immigration purposes. He indicated also that he had ordered a review (again across all countries) of the temporary low-skill employment schemes.
Following that review, I am today announcing changes to the quotas that apply to two temporary low-skill employment schemes, the seasonal agricultural workers scheme (SAWS) and the sectors based scheme (SBS). I am also announcing measures which will ensure that these schemes are not open to abuse.
These schemes serve a valuable role in helping UK employers to recruit workers in sectors (agriculture, food processing and hospitality) where there are difficulties in meeting labour needs from the resident workforce. At the same time, it is important that these schemes should now reflect the fact that workers from the countries which joined the EEA on 1 May are now free to seek work in these sectors. Most important of all, it is important that these schemes are protected from abuse.
I am therefore announcing that the quota for 2005 for the seasonal agricultural workers scheme will be 16,250, a 35 per cent. reduction on the current quota; and from 1 June 2004, the existing overall quota for the sectors based scheme will be cut by 25 per cent. There will be a quota of 6,000 SBS permits for the food processing sector and 9,000 SBS permits for the hospitality sector. These quotas will be released in two half-yearly stages.
I am also announcing that the Home Office will introduce measures intending to ensure that those participating in our temporary employment schemes leave the United Kingdom at the end of their stay. These measures will include applying country-specific quotas within the overall quotas. These country-specific quotas will only be made available where we are confident that the source country will accept their nationals back if they are found to be here illegally.
The Home Office will consult industry on the detail of how these quotas will be applied, and will have immediate discussions in particular with the SAWS operators about action to ensure that the students who come in under this scheme return home at the end of their assignment.
I intend also to change the immigration rules so that those admitted under the SBS will no longer be able to switch into permanent migration schemes, such as work permit employment. Those admitted under SAWS are
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currently not allowed to switch into permanent migration schemes, and new guidance will be issued to ensure that these rules are being enforced consistently.
We are also issuing new guidance to ensure that applicants for SBS and SAWS are subject to rigorous checks, and to ensure that we act swiftly on the basis of intelligence of abuse, including the use of fraudulent documents.
With these additional controls in place on the temporary low-skill schemes, and in the light of our continuing review of abuse across all migration schemes, we are now in the position to take the next step in the progressive re-opening of visa applications from Bulgaria and Romania. With effect from today, I am announcing the lifting of the suspension on applications from Bulgaria and Romania for the temporary low-skill (SAWS and SBS) schemes, for the high-skill schemes (work permits and HSMP), and for all after-entry cases. The one exception is applications from the self-employed under the ECAA scheme, which will remain suspended in the light of the ongoing investigation by Ken Sutton.
The Minister for Housing and Planning (Keith Hill): The Housing Bill introduces measures to help create a fairer and more effective housing market, and will protect those that are most vulnerable in that market.
The Government have listened carefully during Commons consideration of the Bill and also to external stakeholders. It now plans to add two further measures to the Bill: provisions to tackle empty homes; and measures to protect tenancy deposits. These amendments will be tabled in due course.
The Government are committed to finding ways of bringing empty homes back into use. We have already encouraged voluntary measures wherever possible, but recognise that more is needed to reduce significantly the number of privately owned homes that remain vacant for long periods of time.
The Government therefore intend to enable local authorities to make management orders in respect of long-term empty homes. The legislation will contain the evidence a local authority would need to provide in support of an application to make a management order on an empty home. We will ensure intervention is proportionate, appropriately targeted and compliant with the Human Rights Act. Voluntary arrangements will continue to be appropriate in many circumstances.
Empty homes management orders would support measures to increase housing supply. We will set out the precise scope of intervention in legislation. Our intention is to apply this measure to genuine cases of housing vacancy. We do not consider it would be appropriate to apply it to property that is genuinely
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occupied, albeit not on a regular basis, or property subject to an action that will result in it coming back into use without the need for intervention.
A management order would enable a local authority to put in place arrangements to enable a property to be let. In the case of a dilapidated property, this might entail renovation. The legal estate would be retained by the owner who would be entitled to any rental income generated by the local authority after deduction of its relevant costs. The owner would be entitled to sell the property or request revocation of the management order.
The Government remain of the view that providing a link between the safeguarding of tenancy deposits and a requirement for all tenants to have written agreements is a sensible objective. However it accepts that the Law Commission proposals on tenure reform will take time to put into effect and need careful consideration.
Our intention is to add provisions to the Housing Bill to require that tenancy deposits should be subject to safeguarding arrangements. The Government accept that they will need to sponsor a scheme to provide for the safeguarding of the deposits sought by the majority of landlords. But they also recognise that members of trade or professional bodies should be able to look to those bodies to provide their own schemes if these schemes provide sufficient protection and the Government are able to approve them.
The provisions will need to define the term "tenancy deposit" and provide that where such deposits are required by landlords or their agents they should be safeguarded by a scheme approved by the Government. There will need to be civil sanctions for non-compliance. There will need to be provisions for the timely return of deposits and for their repayment following dispute resolution.
These measureson empty homes and tenancy depositsfollow extensive consultation with the key stakeholders, and there will be an opportunity for further debate when they are tabled for inclusion in the Housing Bill.
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