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10 May 2006 : Column 99WH—continued

I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) that we are hostile to the role of local councils. I have said before that I believe they play an important role in the planning system. I also believe that their role in housing is hugely important. I am not talking simply about the work that they can do through section 106 agreements and partnerships with registered social landlords. Clearly, there are wide differences between the levels of social housing that some local councils are able to achieve through section 106 agreements and those that others can achieve.
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However, let me say to my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) that most of central Government’s funding for new homes goes through housing associations, because they can lever in additional independent investment so that we get up to 40 per cent. more homes for the same money. That is worth doing at a time when we need to increase supply.

We could use local authorities far more to create more supply and we are considering a series of ways to do that, such as local authorities using their own land to support new homes—both social housing and shared equity housing, interestingly. We are working with some of the local authorities in London that were previously under Labour control. We hope that, although they have changed hands, they will continue to be interested in this issue, but we do not yet know whether they will be.

We are also examining the use of housing benefit. Hon. Members asked about housing benefit and the fact that, particularly where people are in temporary accommodation in high-cost areas, a lot of money is paid through housing benefit. What more can we do to bring those costs down and use the savings to invest in increasing social housing? We are providing support for an interesting pilot programme in Newham, which involves, in effect, buying back properties to increase social housing over time to help people out of temporary accommodation.

Several hon. Members referred to overcrowding, which we take very seriously. With my hon. Friend the Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North, I have visited families in very serious circumstances. We must do the consultation on the overcrowding standards, but that will not solve the problem. We must consider a much wider overcrowding strategy. Overcrowding is particularly a London issue, as we can see when we compare the figures for London with those for areas outside London. Overcrowding makes a big difference in London, which is why we are working with the Greater London authority to try to integrate approaches to overcrowding into homelessness intervention strategy.

Mrs. Janet Dean (in the Chair): Order. We must now move on to the next debate.

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Migrant Domestic Workers

11 am

Chris McCafferty (Calder Valley) (Lab): May I say at the outset what a great pleasure it is to be speaking in this Adjournment debate with you in the Chair, Mrs. Dean?

Mrs. Janet Dean (in the Chair): Order. Will Members who are leaving do so quietly, please?

Chris McCafferty: I requested this debate because I am concerned that the Government’s new proposals, part of the “controlling our borders: making migration work for Britain” programme, will have a devastating effect on migrant domestic workers, who make up one of the most vulnerable groups of workers in the UK.

Unfortunately, I believe that the proposals will establish legal channels allowing migrant domestic workers to be brought into the UK for the purpose of exploitation. By removing even the most basic employment rights and leaving them powerless before abusive employers, they will effectively legalise trafficking, which I am certain the Government do not intend.

In fact, the proposals are a complete reversal of the Government’s previous policy, which was specifically intended to protect vulnerable workers. Migrant domestic workers are an exceptional category under immigration law. Since 1998, an employer has been able to apply for a migrant domestic worker to obtain a special visa. The rules of the visa allow the worker to change employer—a right that many other visa categories do not have. In order to qualify for the visa, migrant domestic workers must have been working with their employer for a minimum of one year outside the UK. When the employer applies for a tourist or a settlement visa, they can also apply for a migrant domestic worker visa for their employee. At present,80 per cent. of migrant domestic workers accompany tourists, and 20 per cent. accompany those with settlement visas. The law was introduced to encourage wealthy foreign nationals to come to the UK and help boost the UK economy.

About 10,000 migrant domestic worker visas were issued in 2003-04. If, as proposed, the visa were curtailed and became a six-month, non-renewable, non-transferable visa, the impact would be devastating. Migrant domestic workers who enter the UK accompanying their employer can leave that employer if they are abused or exploited. That gives them vital protection against violence, mistreatment and exploitation. They receive basic protection under UK employment law, and they are entitled to the national minimum wage, statutory holiday pay and a notice period. As a worker, their visa is renewed annually, and renewal is dependent on the migrant domestic worker being in full-time employment as a domestic worker in a private household. There is also a right to apply for settlement and for family reunification.

Those rights were won after 10 long years of organising and campaigning by migrant domestic workers themselves, with the support of the labour movement, trade unions and the British public. When the Labour Government came to power, they did not
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forget the commitment that they made in opposition, bringing migrant domestic workers out of the shadows of illegality and into the light.

Unfortunately, although the regulations provide some protection, they do not mean that employers stop abusing their domestic workers. Kalayaan, an organisation that helps migrant domestic workers and campaigns on their behalf, has documented the abuse that occurs within the relationship between migrant domestic workers and their employers. Among 114 workers registered at Kalayaan, during the two sample months of August 2004 and August 2005, 75 per cent. reported psychological abuse; 34 per cent. reported physical abuse; over 57 per cent. did not have their own room and reported sleeping in public spaces, such as the living room, kitchen or hallway or shared rooms with children, ensuring that they were always, “on call”; and 40 per cent. reported having to sleep on the floor. Kalayaan registers approximately 400 migrant domestic workers per year who have left their employers because of abuse. That is obviously just the tip of the iceberg. Many are unaware of the organisation, or their rights, and are too scared to seek help.

Under the current system, those workers have been able to escape abuse by leaving their original employer, provided they find employment of a similar nature and are able to maintain their immigration status as a domestic worker. The Home Office paper on the points-based migration system, as it was presented to Parliament in March, does not include migrant domestic workers. However, the draft proposals presented to Kalayaan by the immigration and nationality directorate show that it will restrict domestic workers accompanying their employer to a maximum of six months, with no right to change employer and no route to settlement.

The proposals raise the most serious concerns. First, they will effectively legalise trafficking. If these proposals come into force, migrant domestic workers will be outside the managed migration system. Instead, they will come to the UK as business visitors, tied to their employer for a maximum of six months. They will have no option to change employer during this time, or to renew their visa, which will make it virtually impossible to challenge any maltreatment or abuse. Indeed, it may encourage it. That is in direct contravention of the Home Office’s stated policy to protect victims of trafficking, and to stop trafficking “at source”.

Secondly, the proposals will lead to an increase in abuse and illegality. Taking away the provision to renew their visa or to change employers, as well as making the employer responsible—which it would—for ensuring that migrant domestic workers leave the UK at the end of their stay, will dramatically increase the power that the employer has over the worker. That will inevitably lead to increased levels of abuse and more migrant domestic workers will be forced underground where they will be further exploited by employers taking advantage of their irregular status.

Finally, the proposals will remove full access to employment law. Despite the immigration and nationality directorate stating that migrant domestic workers will be recognised as workers under the new scheme, it cannot be possible in practice to access UK
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employment law within the six months allowed, without the right to find alternative employment. As soon as migrant domestic workers leave an employer, they will be homeless and destitute with no right to support themselves in work. As I understand it, there is a belief in the Home Office that employers settling in the UK will probably keep their migrant domestic worker for six months until they find a new one in the UK. They will then send the migrant domestic worker back home. Whether they are sent back to the employer’s country or their own is not yet clear.

Many employers hold their workers’ passports illegally. Last year, I introduced a Bill that would have made the retention of another person’s passport illegal. It is not yet illegal here, and employers often hold their workers’ passports. There is a danger that migrant domestic workers will not be sent home but will be held here, completely illegally, for much longer.

Six months is not an effective time to mount a challenge under employment law if an employer is abusing staff. I am aware that the Home Office is seeking to identify abusive employers at the port of entry, which is excellent. However, migrant domestic workers have revealed in confidence to workers at Kalayaan that they are trained to answer such questions at United Kingdom embassies.

Changes to the migrant domestic worker visa mean that employees would be completely tied to the employer. Many employers already believe that they have ownership of their staff, and withhold their passports or keep them locked away in their houses. Many migrant domestic workers are terrified when they seek help from Kalayaan or other organisations.

Employers often tell such workers that they will be illegal if they leave their employer, that they will be deported, and that immigration will seek them out. Unfortunately, if the migrant domestic worker visa is not continued, that may well become true, and trafficking in such workers will effectively have been legitimised, leaving employers in complete control.

In my experience, migrant domestic workers are among the most conservative groups of people one could ever meet. They want to do things correctly, to pay their taxes and to live within the rules. They are not scroungers. This ill-conceived policy will have a devastating impact if it is enacted as it stands.

I fully accept that managed migration is in the interests of the UK and I support the Government’s policy of delivering a system that they describe as firm but fair, simpler, more transparent and more rigorous—a system that will benefit our economy and protect our borders. However, over the generations migrant workers have enriched the UK both economically and culturally. We need to ensure that the UK economy can safely continue to benefit from the input of migrant workers, and that they can live here safely.

The fact is that the abuse or exploitation of migrant workers, who have every right to live and work here, continues apace at the hands of unscrupulous employers. A major challenge for the Government is to ensure that those vulnerable workers receive the full protection of our employment law. I therefore request that the Government review their own evidence—evidence that resulted in changes to the existing
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immigration law in 1998—in order to afford protection to migrant domestic workers. As a minimum, the existing provisions that protect the human rights of that marginalised and vulnerable category of workers must be maintained.

11.14 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Joan Ryan): It is a pleasure to respond to this Adjournment debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Chris McCafferty) on securing it. The debate will probably stay in my memory for a long time to come, as it is the first time that I have spoken for the Government as an Under-Secretary of State.

Chris McCafferty: I congratulate my hon. Friend on her promotion, which is well deserved.

Joan Ryan: I thank my hon. Friend.

I welcome the opportunity to reply for the Government on this important subject. I take seriously my hon. Friend’s concern, which she has expressed on a number of occasions. She raised some important points, which I wish to address.

Before I respond to the debate, however, I shall begin with an overview of the Government’s approach to managing migration to the United Kingdom and thus put in context the position of those who are the subject of the debate and who are provided for under current immigration rules.

The Government are—and have been—very clear that migration makes a substantial contribution to economic growth. It helps to fill gaps in the labour market, including key public services, such as health and education. Migration also increases investment, innovation and entrepreneurship in the UK. Culturally, we are enriched by people with diverse backgrounds from other countries. With an expanded EU, an accessible and mobile work force are already contributing to our growing economy, closing many gaps experienced by employers. Our starting point is that employers should look first to recruit from the UK and the expanded EU before recruiting migrants from outside the EU.

Migration needs to be properly managed. It is understandable that people migrate to seek a better life for themselves and their families, but that can leave settled populations, including many in the UK, concerned about the impact on jobs, public services and their way of life. The system should therefore be focused primarily on bringing in migrants who are highly skilled, or bringing in migrants to do key jobs that cannot be filled from the domestic labour force or from the EU. The system should also be robust against abuse. Only those of benefit to the UK should be admitted, and once here they must comply with the conditions of their leave.

That, then, is the underlying strategy. On that basis, we outlined our proposals for a five-tier managed migration system in the Command Paper “A Points-Based System: Making Migration Work for Britain”, which was presented to this House on 7 March. The new points-based system forms part of our five-year strategy for asylum and immigration, which was
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published in February 2004. A thorough consultation on the points-based system was undertaken following the publication of a consultation document, “Selective Admission: Making Migration Work for Britain”, and those proposals were generally well received by stakeholders and the media.

The aim of the new system is to develop a more efficient and transparent migration system, which sets out clearly who is permitted to come to the UK and why. We want to design a system that is better able to identify and attract those migrants who have most to contribute to the UK—one that offers a more efficient, transparent and objective process and which improves compliance while reducing scope for abuse. As part of that work we have reviewed existing routes for employment, training and study with a view to identifying which are of most benefit to the UK. Underpinning the new migration system will be a five-tier framework replacing more than 80 work and study routes. That will help people to understand how the system works and will direct applicants to the category that is most appropriate for them.

Tier 1 will cover those highly skilled individuals who can contribute to growth and productivity. Tier 2 will be for skilled workers with a job offer, who can fill gaps in the UK labour force. Tier 3 will provide forlimited numbers of low-skilled workers needed to fill temporary labour shortages. Tier 4 will accommodate overseas students and tier 5 will cover what we describe as youth mobility and temporary workers: people who are allowed to work in the UK for a limited period, primarily to satisfy non-economic objectives. Examples might be a teacher on an exchange scheme or a sportsperson coming here to take part in a charity event.

We also intend to set up an independent body to identify employment shortages across all sectors of the economy, known as the skills advisory body. It will build on existing structures and expertise—in particular the skills for business network, which is funded in part by the Department for Education and Skills. Shortages identified by the skills advisory body will inform Government decisions on the use of migrant labour within tiers 2 and 3 of the points-based system.

I shall turn now to the position of overseas domestic workers within this framework. Overseas domestic workers accompanying their employer to the UK are generally low-skilled. As I have explained, our policy under the points-based system is to phase out low-skilled migration in response to the number of workers available from the newly enlarged EU. We expect that in most cases EU countries should be able to provide us with adequate labour in this respect. However, as I said earlier, tier 3 of the points-based system may provide for limited numbers of low-skilled workers to fill specific temporary labour shortages where those are identified by the independent skills advisory body. We have also proposed that in the Command Paper.

We do not currently have any evidence of a shortage of domestic workers. Were the skills advisory body to identify one, and were we to decide that immigration was the appropriate response, we could set up a
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quota-based, operator-led, time-limited route under tier 3 for overseas domestic workers with countries with which the UK has effective returns agreements. However, admission on that basis would be temporary. If employers want to employ low-skilled domestic staff on a long-term basis, they can look to the resident and EU labour market. There is evidence that that is what they are doing. More than 14,000 nationals of the new member states registered under the worker registration scheme as cleaners and domestic staff between May 2004 and 31 December 2005. We will not therefore be providing a route for overseas domestic workers under the points-based system. Those who are skilled and can meet the relevant requirements may be able to come to the UK under tier 2. We will also be making very limited provision for those currently referred to as domestic workers to accompany another visitor to the UK in certain defined circumstances, under the arrangements for business visitors. An example of that might be where a family on holiday in the UK want to bring their nanny with them.

We of course recognise that there are real concerns about abuse and exploitation of overseas domestic workers, and we will continue to make every effort to protect migrant workers in general from abuse while they are in the UK. Were domestic workers to be provided for under tier 3, we would of course need to ensure that they were not being exploited, and we would work with trade unions and others to achieve that.

My hon. Friend raised some specific points about abuse. It is important to state again that we recognise the concerns about abuse and exploitation of domestic workers in private households. However, immigration is not the way to deal with that. We are dealing with it in a number of ways. To understand how we are addressing matters such as abuse and trafficking, which my hon. Friend mentioned, it is important that what we are discussing today is seen in conjunction with other Government legislation. We have introduced legislation comprehensively to criminalise trafficking in human beings. The Sexual Offences Act 2003 introduced wide-ranging offences covering trafficking into, within and out of the UK for any sexual exploitation. A new offence of trafficking people for exploitation covering forced labour, removal of organs and the trafficking of vulnerable people including children is included in the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Act 2004. The maximum punishment for all these offences is 14 years’ imprisonment. That shows the seriousness with which the Government view these types of offences to do with abuse and exploitation.

We also have the Reflex joint taskforce, and with the establishment of the Serious Organised Crime Agency, the UK will continue to focus on targeting the organised crime groups that cause the most harm. We recently launched a public consultation on our strategy to combat trafficking and are committed to developing a national action plan to provide a comprehensive, end-to-end approach covering different elements, from prevention, including demand reduction, through investigating and prosecuting traffickers, to protecting and supporting victims.

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