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Westminster Hall

Thursday 2 November 2006

[Mr. Jimmy Hood in the Chair]

Immigration Control

[Relevant documents: Fifth Report from the Home Affairs Committee, Session 2005-06, HC 775, and the Government’s response thereto, Cm 6910.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Steve McCabe.]

2.30 pm

Mr. John Denham (Southampton, Itchen) (Lab): I am grateful to the usual authorities for arranging the debate and for the opportunity to discuss one of the first major reports produced by the Select Committee on Home Affairs since the general election. The Committee is fortunate in that most of its work attracts a fair amount of public attention, but it is fair to say that this inquiry attracted more attention than most. It was the inquiry in which a Home Office witness told us that it did not have the “faintest idea” how many illegal migrants there are, leaving the unfortunate, although erroneous, impression that no one cared. It was the inquiry that considered the problem of foreign prisoners and the failure to consider them effectively for deportation in due time. Obviously, it was also the inquiry in which the Home Secretary, who was new to his role, told us that parts of the Home Office, in particular the immigration service, were not fit for purpose. I hope that the Minister will update us on some of the progress that has been made since our report was published just before the summer and since the Government introduced their plans to overhaul the operation of the immigration service.

In such inquiries, Members are always grateful for the support that we receive from the Clerks, House of Commons staff and the Departments concerned, but I particularly want to thank them on this occasion. The Committee undertook two overseas visits, with half the Committee going to west Africa and the other half to India and Pakistan. That involved a great deal of work for officials from the House of Commons and Home Office staff, and we are grateful to them for the work that was done to support the inquiry, which undoubtedly enabled us to produce what has generally been seen as a valuable and useful report.

Let me start by referring to the immigration and nationality directorate staff and those we met during the course of our inquiry. Some of the evidence that we received invited us to take the view that the staff whom we would meet would generally be poorly motivated, low-skilled and would bring a set of unreasonable and irrational prejudices to their work, but that was not what we found. I draw attention to conclusion 139 of the report, which states:

but as we said,

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The Committee felt, and this is reflected in the report, that in the great majority of cases, the problems that arise lie with management and the lack of clear lines of responsibility and accountability, rather than with the deficiencies of front-line or more junior staff.

I shall not try to cover all the recommendations of what is a lengthy report, but let me set out some of the major issues. The first is the context in which we now consider immigration control. In the popular view, which is reflected in much of the media, immigration control is simple: it is about issuing visas, enforcing physical border controls and what we do to try to prevent the wrong people from getting into the country. Those activities are important, and I shall discuss some of the ways in which they could be strengthened.

However, one of the report’s fundamental conclusions was that we should challenge the idea that immigration control is simply about control over visas and borders. The truth is that an immigration control system that was so tight and robust that it could always stop all the people who we do not want to get into the country from getting in would change our economy, society and the nature of the country so much for the worse that we would not want to live here. The truth is that our society depends on millions of people moving across our borders in both directions every month. That is for business, tourism, study and, let us not forget, for ourselves. As British citizens, we want to be able to travel. Millions of people in this country have family overseas who they want to visit, and who they want to come here to visit us. It is because such mass movement is an integral part of the type of country that we are that we have to reconsider how we want our immigration controls to operate.

While we set out a series of recommendations to strengthen visa and border operations, the report has put a much sharper focus than any previous parliamentary report on what happens within the country: on enforcement, removals and the appeal system. Our message to the Government was that getting our internal controls right is every bit as important as getting the external visa and border controls right. I shall return to some of that in a moment.

The report starts by discussing the visa process. The key conclusion that I want to underline is that investment in front-line decision making will pay dividends all the way through the immigration system. On our visits, we saw no reason to criticise individual staff, but there are too many temporary staff and too many who have not been doing their jobs long enough and with sufficient training to be fully effective in those roles. Also, the staff work under a great deal of pressure to reach decisions quickly. The lesson to be learned must be that pennies saved in that part of the system cost thousands or even tens of thousands of pounds further down the line if the wrong visas are issued to the wrong people, which puts us into the lengthy and laborious process of going through the appeals system, of enforcement and removals, and everything that goes with that.

One of the first things that the Committee will look for in the years to come is significant investment in the training and remuneration of front-line staff, and in changing the conditions in which they work and the time available to them, so that a much greater
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proportion of them are permanent, skilled and able to do their jobs month in, month out. It may be that those things can be organised in a way that is more cost-effective. The proportion of visas that are relatively straightforward, processed on paper and for which there is no question of checking for fraud or of needing to haul people in for interviews might well be done much more cost-effectively at regional processing centres rather than in the country itself. We would point to such ideas to offset some of the investment that we think should be made.

My second point is that it is right and in many ways essential that the visa service offers a high-quality and fast service to its users, whether they are the family members of our constituents, in a country such as India, or one of the increasingly large number of prosperous, business-class temporary migrants who want to enter the country for business reasons. The Committee concluded that the time pressures—the public service agreement pressures—that our staff are working to meet are much more demanding than those in any other of the western countries to which we spoke, certainly than in the USA, which interviews every applicant, and Germany and other Schengen countries.

It is probably the case that the pressure to meet time targets means that occasionally staff do not undertake further investigations that might be necessary, such as checking potentially fraudulent documents or that an offer of a course at a British university is genuine. In the report we suggest that perhaps there should be greater flexibility to enable individual post-holders overseas to negotiate their performance targets in a way that takes into account the level of risk and potential for abuse in that country. We want neither targets to be relaxed across the piece, nor a regime in which there are no targets, because all the managers to whom we spoke said that if that were case, the waiting lists would simply grow and there would be no improvement in the quality of decision making. However, greater flexibility would be enormously helpful. It is important to get the right balance between the high quality of customer service that we want to offer and good security, and to ensure that the systems that operate in posts overseas are effectively linked to what we do in this country.

Those of us who were in Islamabad witnessed something that might be illustrative of problems in the system. We oversaw one application being processed. It was about to be granted when, at the suggestion of a Committee member, we asked that the sponsor’s address be checked on the computer. It revealed that 134 sponsorship applications had been made from the same address in Luton in the relatively recent past, of which 30 had been granted. It might be that all 30 were genuine, and, as sometimes happens, the details of the address had been sold on the black market. The lack of time to carry out such checks in every case is a problem. It was also apparent that there is no obvious system for feeding information about such an address back to the police or the immigration authorities in this country so that it can be checked out and possible abuse tackled. We need that sort of integration between what happens overseas and what happens here.

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We became concerned about aspects of the current system’s operation. It is clear that the development of a list of colleges by the Department for Education and Skills which is not subject to proper quality appraisal has made things worse when it comes to the business of post-holders trying to check out fraudulent applications to colleges. The fact that something is on a Government list gives a college an authority that it did not have previously and weakens the immigration officer’s ability to challenge an application. It is high time that that was brought into order so it is clear that none of the colleges on the list are not genuine educational institutions. This is one of the areas where we found that other bits of Government were not playing their role as fully as they might in supporting the Home Office. I shall return to that.

On internal decisions—decisions about the right to remain, change of status, confirmation of ability to stay, and so on—the Committee visited Croydon and, although we were again impressed by much of what we saw, we recognised real problems. Some of them might be addressed in the new system that the Government are going to introduce. The ability for someone who works in domestic service to come to the UK to work with no visa requirements, which translates into a long-term right to reside and bring their family here, is odd. The Government are trying to remove such anomalies from the system, and that must happen quickly.

We were concerned that the generally highly praised fast-track system might give people lower levels of scrutiny than other types of application. There have been issues and allegations relating to corruption at Croydon, and those must be tackled effectively. Our concerns about the internal side of the operation centred on three things: the operation of the appeals system; the removal strategy; and internal enforcement, particularly in respect of illegal working.

It is clear that decisions of the appeals system need to be independent from the rest of the system, but it should not be as managerially independent as it is currently. The lack of co-ordination between the appeals system and the posts overseas has created the long backlogs in appeals cases, which we were all being told about at the time of our inquiry.

Another problem is that the nature of the appeals system still does not provide a simple one-stop appeal examining all the issues, despite the Government’s aim to achieve that. Moreover, the procedural rules that have been introduced allow a large amount of new evidence that was not considered when the original decision was made to be introduced at the appeal stage.

Our report suggests that it might be impossible to limit the appeal very narrowly to the original grounds of the decision because the courts have regularly challenged that by saying that not taking relevant information into account breaches people’s rights. If the appeal system is to take into account new information, such as further financial details from the sponsor or something of that sort, it would be much quicker and better to have a “minded to refuse” stage in the process, as we have called it.

Such a stage would enable an applicant to be told, “We are thinking of turning you down because you haven’t provided the necessary financial documents.” They could be provided straight to the entry clearance
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officer so that they could take a new decision rather than, as happens now, the whole system going right into the appeals process, where it gets held up for months and is expensive, and we end up with a process where the entry clearance officer has interviewed the applicant but the appeals tribunal interviews the sponsor. Those two different people might present the case in two entirely different ways, and that is unsatisfactory.

We said that we did not feel that we could have confidence in the ability of the appeals system as it currently operates to do the job required. We encountered a symptom of that when we spoke to front-line decision-making staff about the system. We asked them whether they looked at the results of appeals against their individual decisions to inform the quality of their future decisions, and were told by everyone, “We take no notice of what happens in the appeals system. They don’t understand the job we are doing or the information we are working with. We have interviewed people, but they have not.” There was a similar atmosphere around the appeals tribunal: a feeling that many of those taking these decisions did not understand their jobs properly.

It is not satisfactory to have an appeals system and a decision-making system where neither element has much confidence in the other key decision makers in the system. A great deal needs to be done to bring those together. A minded-to-refuse stage would be helpful and would allow a lot of straightforward cases where people simply have not provided the right factual information at the outset to be changed and got right without things ever coming anywhere near the appeals system.

The second concern, which sometimes, although not always, follows the appeals system is that there is no alignment between decisions that are made which usually end up in the appeals system, and action to remove people from the country. Ultimately, the expensive operation of trying to get visas and appeals right means nothing unless those who are told that they should leave the country are required to do so. That is the part of the system in which we can have least confidence at the moment.

We examined where the priorities for removal activity lie and found that they do not lie in aligning removals with decision making. Unless we can operate a system whereby a decision that someone cannot stay in the country is swiftly followed by removal, the system clearly will not provide much of a deterrent to fraudulent applications. I hope the Minister will tell us that much greater effort will be made to align removal with decision making.

The Committee was concerned that the way removals are currently organised often means targeting the softer targets. It is easier to find and try to remove a family with children, because they are settled, resident and might have been here for five or six years, than to remove someone else in the system. We are not tackling the bigger part of the problem by targeting families that have settled in the country and have integrated themselves into communities. We need to change the priorities in the removal system.

My final point on the current operation of the system is linked to internal enforcement. A substantial number, although we cannot know how many, of those
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who are in the country illegally first entered legally then changed their status and became illegal, although some come in through entirely illegal routes. Overwhelmingly, the one thing that both attracts and enables them to do so is the ability to work illegally. We felt that the Government’s strategy for tackling illegal working was not as good as it should be. Trying to tackle individual groups of employees with occasional fines against employers will not lead to effective enforcement.

We had persuasive evidence from both sides of industry suggesting that we should target those employers and companies who deliberately and systematically abuse illegal labour and do not pay their tax and national insurance, do not abide by the minimum wage, do not follow health and safety requirements and so on. Those sources of illegal work undermine legitimate employers in agriculture and other sectors who want to play by the rules but also provide the pull factor for illegal labour. We need more effective enforcement of all aspects of employment law—not just that covering the employment of illegal labour—and particularly that covering tax and national insurance evasion if we are to deal effectively with illegal working and reduce some of the pull factor.

That is another area where the Home Office alone cannot deliver the answers. The Department for Work and Pensions, the Revenue and the Department of Trade and Industry must deal with illegal working, just as the Department for Education and Skills must deal with dodgy colleges.

We welcome the Government’s comments about improved cross-Government working and we welcome the fact that a committee will examine the way in which migration is handled, although it should go wider than just examining how many jobs we need to fill and consider some of the other social issues that come on to the agenda.

When drafting the report, it was difficult to get the balance right. Inevitably, much of it—as with my comments this afternoon—concentrates on what we need to do to tackle illegal immigration and to prevent people whom we do not want coming into the country from doing so, and dealing with them if they do. We tried to be careful not to feed the anti-migration debate and I want to make two points about that.

First, we face such challenges in this country because we can operate only if millions of people move in and out every month. That is essential to our society and our economy, and the Committee recognised that. Secondly, we discussed more investment in front-line staff, a better way of dealing with challenged decisions earlier and before they reach the appeal stage, and how to tackle exploitation in illegal migration. That would not only make us more effective in dealing with illegal migration, but make the quality of the service we offer much better for the vast majority of people who we need to come to this country, who should be able to get visas simply, and who should be able to travel in and out freely. That would be a win-win situation because we would deal with the problems that we need to tackle, but we would improve the quality of service for the vast majority of people who we want to come to this country, not just once but many times in the future.

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2.53 pm

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow) (Lab): I found the report useful and interesting and, as the Chair of the Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham), said, it covers a huge range of issues. I shall not attempt to deal with all of them, but will comment briefly on two or three points and then concentrate on one issue. I am sorry if that makes my comments a little disjointed.

My first point concerns appeals: how they operate and whether it would be useful to incorporate into the system a “minded to refuse” decision. I have read the Government’s response and understand where they are coming from—for example, on the points-based scheme. If we had a more transparent points-based scheme, it would be easier for people to see fairly quickly whether they were likely to be granted a visa. That is a small part of the system and applies only to people who apply to come here to work. However, people apply to come here in all sorts of other capacities and some make internal applications in the UK. One problem, which other hon. Members will have come across in their constituencies, is that information that could be supplied is not always supplied. There may be simple documentation that could clear up an argument one way or the other. There is merit in considering how to avoid the present situation in which perhaps one third of appeals end up being granted because information is eventually provided but was not provided with the initial application. I hope that the Government will re-examine that.

My second point concerns marriage cases. I understand perfectly well the argument about switching and queue-jumping. We introduced rules to prevent people from coming to this country on a visitor’s visa and then switching to a marriage application. I recall seeing the statistics and it was highly unlikely that so many people who visited this country met someone within a few weeks with whom they wanted to spend the rest of their lives. Some of those applications were very dubious. They did not necessarily involve sham marriages, although some undoubtedly did, but that was a mechanism for avoiding queues. If the queues had not been so long in the first place, we would not have encouraged that mechanism.

What concerns me is the people who legitimately enter into a relationship in this country, but at a time when they are unable to make a marriage application, perhaps because they had come on a visit or made a failed asylum claim. There are cases of people being told that they must return to their country of origin and apply from there when it is impossible for them to do so. As the report stated, their country might be one to which the Foreign Office is advising people not to travel, or there may be no British embassy or high commission where an application could be made. We should re-examine some of those cases.

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