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Damian Green: This will be the apogee of cross-party agreement on the Bill in some ways, since I am inevitably happy to support the Lords amendment, which was tabled by my noble Friend Baroness Anelay. Once the Government had rejected the arguments of a wide coalition, including the CBI and Universities UK, that their original ideas about the implementation of clause 4 would be disastrous, my noble Friends in another place had to find the best available option, given the pressures of the Salisbury convention, which they always observe, and Lords amendment No. 6 is precisely the best available option.
The Minister should be aware, however, that in supporting the Lords amendment we do not resile from the deep sense of unease that caused us to vote against the underlying clause, clause 4, in Committee. There are a number of reasons why the reporting back procedure that the Lords amendment proposes is the bare minimum necessary to allow Parliament to take a proper considered view of the Government's very radical reductions in the rights of those who apply for entry into this country.
The key to whether the new system will work is the quality of initial decision making. At the moment, almost no one has much confidence that that is up to the task. I dare say that even the Minister, in his more honest private moments, wonders whether it is.
The assurance given by the Government throughout the debates, and again this afternoon, has been that the new points-based system, which they have now published, makes everything so transparent and easy for applicants and their sponsors that the world will change and difficulties will melt away. Again, privately, in his honest moments, the Minister will understand why those who have regular contact with the immigration system in this country will be profoundly sceptical about the optimism shown by the Government on that issue.
In this debate we will wish to confine ourselves to the issues that make reporting back vital. The Minister will be aware that many people still find huge flaws in the operation of the system. As I said, the quality of decisions is the key to this matter. Last year, 53 per cent. of appeals against refusals of entry clearance were allowed. It is worth dwelling on that figure. It is more likely than not that if someone appeals against a refusal, they will be successful. The initial decisions are slightly more likely to be wrong than right. I cannot imagine many areas of public policy where we would regard that as an acceptable initial performance[Interruption.] As ever, the Minister has gone back into chuntering mode. If he wishes to challenge the figures, I am sure that he can do so.
Throughout the debates in both Houses, it has been clear that there is profound dissatisfaction with the entry clearance system. The Minister is trying to assure us that the new points-based system will resolve all that. At best, the verdict will have to be "not proven", because he has not got the new system in place yet. The degree of scepticism shown by everyone involved in the process is entirely right.
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Mr. Bone: Sitting in my surgery and listening to the people who come in and say that their applications have been refused, I wonder about the standard of consistency between decisions. I hope that this system will make things slightly better.
Damian Green: My hon. Friend makes one of the many good points that are made by those who suffer under the current system: the quality of decision making seems to be hugely variable, depending on from which entry post the applications are originally made. That is shown in the statistics as well. Some of them have much higher rates of successful appeals than others. One can only assume that that reflects a variable quality of initial decision making. It is impossible to imagine that it reflects anything else.
"100 per cent. objectivity is a fool's errand . . . It is not about simply ticking boxes and adding points up, although that is a large part of the measure."[Official Report, Standing Committee E, 20 October 2005; c. 116.]
He is absolutely right about that. The system will not be 100 per cent. objective. Subjectivity will still come in, so if the new system is to inspire more confidence and perform better than the existing system, it is essential that everyone can be confident that the people making the decisions, which will still be subjective in part, are up to the job. That is one of the key reasons why it is vital that we review the system after a few years.
The other key point was made at length by the outgoing independent monitor, Fiona Lindsley, who has been extensively quoted in the debates on the issue. Talking about the system and referring to the fact that 37 per cent. of appellants were successful in paper-based appeals, she said, "That is pretty damning." The Minister is famously contemptuous of everyone who disagrees with him, but I hope that he will take an independent monitor seriously, especially as she pointed out that the National Audit Office broadly agreed with her assessment of the system. If she thinks that the system is inadequate and the National Audit Office thinks that it is inadequate, it is not unreasonable for other people to think the same.
One could have many serious reservations about what the Government are doing, and I congratulate their lordships on producing a way in which the House, the other placeand, indeed, anyone involved in the systemcan come back in a few years to find out whether the Minister's optimism was justified. I hope that it will be justified, but I fear that it will not.
Again, I do not need to take long. I entirely welcome the fact that the amendment was moved and accepted in the other place and that the Minister is accepting it today. The amendment represents a small move towards effective post-legislative scrutiny. It is hardly a revolutionary step in that direction, but at least it gives us a yardstick by which we can measure the performance of the system in future years. I do not think that that measure will be
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enough to let us make a proper assessment, so I hope that the relevant Select Committees will examine the performance of the system carefully, using the report as their basis. I agree with the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) that the success rate of appeals is a crude indicator, but it certainly suggests that there is a limit to the accuracy of the present assessment procedures. That, at the very least, gives us an indicator of where we should be looking.
Proposed new subsection (3)(g), in Lords amendment No. 6, which reads "may record opinions", is especially valid because it will allow not just the accumulation of numerical data, but impressions to be sought and given about the way in which the system is working. When the Minister talks about stakeholdersmany of us have difficulties with that term as a conceptI hope that he is not referring simply to the usual suspects and the obvious organisations that might have a prepared opinion, whether that is on immigration, legal matters or business. I hope that the group will also include those who are directly affected, either as users, or perhaps as individuals in the small business sector. The Minister will know that there are specific concerns about the recruitment of staff in ethnic restaurants.
Keith Vaz: As the hon. Gentleman has covered the point, I do not need to go on about all the ethnic restaurants in the United Kingdom. However, I put it to him that when we examine the overall spread of immigration decisions, it is important that we consider the robustness and effectiveness of entry clearance decisions. It is not just a question of the Home Office getting things right. If the review process shows that changes have to be made regarding decisions on posts abroad, they should be implemented.
Mr. Heath: I could not agree more. When I was a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, we examined closely consular activities and procedures in the sub-continent of India and Pakistan. I hope that we made constructive comments about the arrangements that were in place. I agree with the hon. Gentleman's point, welcome the amendment and hope that we will examine carefully how the system works in the future.
Mr. McNulty: There is little to come back on. I thank hon. Members for their comments. The Bill will be improved by the amendment, which we are happy to accept. I shall not dwell on the undue provocation of casual empiricism at length from the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green). I forgive him that, given that he is new in his post, but much of what he said was complete nonsense and factually inaccurate, and it would not stand up in the gentlest of winds. However, in the spirit of emollition and scrutiny
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