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Mr. Piara S. Khabra (Ealing, Southall) (Lab): I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in the debate, as the subject of migration is extremely personal to me, as an immigrant to this country in 1959, and as the Member of Parliament for a constituency with the third highest Asian immigrant population in the United Kingdom.
I have no illusions about the Conservatives' policy on race and immigration. They are learning, but they are very slow and sluggish in adapting to changed circumstances and in changing their attitude to ethnic minorities in this country. During my time in the United Kingdom, rhetoric on the issue has generally and thankfully grown more measured, and attitudes have softened. Even in the midst of the hard-fought general election campaign, when the immigration issue was an ever-present reminder of many people's concerns, we never sailed into the murky waters of the "river of blood". Yet the fact that the issue is still so potent is in itself a measure of the work that we still have to do in reassuring the public that we can learn the lessons of the past eight years after taking office, while also ensuring that people appreciate the real contribution that immigrants make to the economic and social infrastructure of Great Britain.
One way in which we can offer that reassurance is by continuing to work on a system which, although it is improving in some respects, has some way to go if it is to meet the aspirations of the Government's five-year strategy. The Bill is fundamentally about controlling immigration into this country. I welcome several of the steps outlined by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. I particularly like the ideas for better co-ordination between border agencies, and the plan to take stricter action against employers who, knowingly or through neglect, shirk their legal responsibilities.
As one of the Members of Parliament who must deal with a large amount of casework, I know that one of the greatest challenges facing any Government is the need to ensure that agencies with a range of different but related responsibilities work as seamlessly as possible, as a team, to make it that much harder for people to exploit weaknesses in the system. Improved sharing of information is the most obvious example of such team work, and the e-borders programme allowing easier access to carrier information should help to identify individuals who may present a risk to our security and our immigration system.
I also strongly welcome the Government's efforts to take stronger action against employers such as those in my constituency who pay awful wages to the illegal workerscheap labourwhom they knowingly employ. The proposal for a new civil penalty for employers of illegal migrant workers is sensible, as are the plans to differentiate between those who negligently employ illegal workers and those who are merely negligent. Hiring illegal immigrants is not just wrong in principle. It can compromise the safety of other workers, as illegal workers are often uninsured, undertrained and overworked and therefore a danger to themselves and those around them. Moreover, they do not have the option of joining a union, and are frequently exploited and paid shameful wages.
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Nevertheless, while I welcome the proposals, I feel that there are real problems that we are not tackling adequately and issues that the Bill should be addressing. The most obvious, and the one from which others flow, is the continued backlog. I receive letters from constituents who have been waiting for five, or even 10, years for an answer from the Home Office. That is simply unacceptable. In the meantime some of those people marry. They may have children. Understandably, at that point removal is no longer a humane option.
We need more, and more well-trained, caseworkers, and a real will to clear the backlog that is the main problem at the Home Office. An exacerbating factor is the fact that those seeking information from the immigration and nationality directorate on their applications for asylum, or for indefinite leave to remain, find it difficult to know the status of their applications. Members of Parliament who receive letters from constituents then contact the department at Croydon, thus adding a whole new and unnecessary layer of bureaucracy which slows the system even further.
Essentially, people want to know what is going on. Obviously they would prefer speedy decisions on their applications, but I am sure that many would not feel that they had to contact the department if they were kept advised of the progress of their applications and were given realistic deadlines.
Keith Vaz : Does my hon. Friend not agree that the proposals to restrict rights of appeal in a number of categories will put more pressure on the IND, and increase the backlog?
Mr. Khabra: I agree. I speak from experience when I say that the right of appeal is fundamental. Those proposals will not help the Home Office to deal with immigration problems.
Unrealistic deadlines are contributing to the present confusion. We need only think of the concession on indefinite leave to remain which, although it was supposed to be completed by May 2004 and then in December 2004, has still not been completed in July 2005. People contact Members of Parliament because they hear about the deadlines, and assume they have missed out because they have heard nothing from the Home Office. The upshot of all the delays and the uncertainty is that people feel that it pays to disappearand some of them do. That makes effective removals difficult, and leads to headlines about illegal-immigrant numbers such as those that appeared in the press last week.
I am also concerned about the quality of entry clearance officers' decisions. Since 1992, I have seen thousands of standard refusal notices from ECOs that do not seem adequately to reflect the complexities of many cases. The stereotyping of questions and of circumstances and the way in which interviews are conducted, especially in the case of applications from the Indian sub-continent, are extremely unhelpful. The system of interviewing needs to be modernised to meet the changing and varied realities of visa applications. ECOs enjoy enormous power, but are not currently subject to proper scrutiny by the Foreign Office. Consequently, in many cases genuine applicants for visits are refused visas.
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While we have been admirably flexible in many of our dealings with European migration, we make applicants from countries such as India jump through hoops. That, I feel, is a sad way in which to treat a Commonwealth country where so many people have such personal ties to our population in the United Kingdom.
As I said earlier, there has undoubtedly been some progress, both in attitudes and administratively, as a result of reforms in the previous three immigration-related Bills passed by the last Government. Further progress has been made in dealing with immigration cases at the Home Office. But although I am a strong supporter of much of what this Government have done, I also have a duty to my constituents to raise concerns on their behalf, and to act as a voice for the frustration that many of them feel daily.
We have it in our power to make the system work, but we need to show that we have the will to follow through on our promises. Let us not waste the progress that we have made on community cohesion and economic prosperity. Instead, let us show that a well-managed, efficient and flexible immigration system can be a truly great asset to our country's prosperity. I support the Bill.
Mr. John Horam (Orpington) (Con): The hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) said that he has spoken in every immigration Bill debate since entering this House. I am afraid that I have to tell him that until now, I had never spoken in such a debate, but there is always a first time, even for someone who has been in the House as long as I have. Perhaps because this is my first such debate, I have found it extremely interesting and rewarding. It has been so not merely because of the expertise demonstrated by the hon. Members for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Khabra) and for Leicester, East, but because of the passionate and sincere speech of my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt). The whole House listened to him with rapt attention, and I hope that he will get a proper reply from the Minister who winds up the debate.
I accept that the Bill is a specific measure that implements the five-year plan, puts into primary legislation the provisions necessary to bring that plan to fruition, and deals with some anomalies in the law. There are many aspects of it that I support. It is necessary for officers to have the power to obtain information from airlines and shipping lines, for example, and to have powers of search. Indeed, I am surprised that such powers have not already been included in primary legislation.
I also accept the point that was madevery well madeabout employment practices. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) rightly said that in many ways, it would have been better if the Government had enforced existing laws more effectively, rather than introducing new ones. There is sometimes an inverse relationship between the Government's effectiveness and the amount of legislation that they introduce.
The appeal process is a very important issue. Non-experts and non-lawyers such as myself enter into this area with some trepidation. Members in all parts of the House have referred to the difficulties associated with
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the current appeals system, and the Prime Minister himself has been quoted in this context. The shadow Home Secretary pointed out that it is certainly possible that eliminating the appeals process could lead to less rigorous decision making. If such a process does not exist, such decisions could be taken less carefully and thoroughly.
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