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2 Nov 2006 : Column 162WH—continued

Someone else who went to see the Minister was Mr. Omar Massoud, who is Egyptian and works as a consultant for a British international engineering consultancy. He is here on the highly skilled migrant programme. He says that the change has had

on his life and the lives of his wife and newly born child. He now has to pay prohibitive international fees if he wants to continue professional development at any university, and he has missed the opportunity of doing a PhD as a result. His wife has had to return to Egypt with their baby, to study at the American university in Cairo, even though the couple have been paying taxes and national insurance in the UK, because they cannot afford the international fees.

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The change has also meant that for another year Mr. Massoud cannot participate in some of his company’s international projects, because of the visa problems; this is especially relevant when his UK visa is near expiry. He tells me that last year his company missed a new business deal in the middle east, costing it at least three months’ worth of work and revenue. He says that it is difficult to get a mortgage on a house, because he is stigmatised as a non-resident. When he and his wife borrow money it has to be at exorbitant rates because he is regarded as having a high-risk profile for financial transactions and dealings. They can get loans only at 14 and 17 per cent. interest rates, because they are not residents. Of course, although their child was born in the UK, they cannot claim child benefit because of the additional year’s requirement. Mr. Massoud’s family is now divided between the UK and Egypt and he and his wife feel vulnerable to what he calls the “inexplicable swings” in the Government’s mood regarding highly skilled immigrants. He says:

There are many similar examples, such as that of Mr. Yan Zhuang, a highly skilled migrant worker who came from China to the UK to work as a senior engineer for the European Space Agency. He is working with his wife and is a higher rate taxpayer. He needed additional qualifications and was going to read for an MPhil at Cambridge. Now he has had to put that back and the rest of his career progress has been severely disrupted. He and his wife have lost confidence in the Government and he feels that they have failed to give him the trust that he should have from them.

Mr. Nizar is part of an international team based in the UK working for Barclays bank. It has 40 other employees who are either work permit holders or work in the highly skilled migrants programme. The new arrangements do not make clear how much time he can spend outside the UK, but as highly skilled professional bankers he and his colleagues are required to travel all over the world. If they unknowingly stay too long, they will probably be refused entry when they come back to the UK. Mr. Nizar also says that he has lost confidence in the UK. He is a highly skilled banker working in one of the largest financial institutions in the world.

There are many more such examples, including scientists. Another is that of a teacher, Nirvani, who came from South Africa. She faces losing her job because she could not apply for indefinite leave to remain in the summer as she was expecting to. The school says that it is too late to reapply for a work permit and wait for approval because it wants to know who will be on its staff in the new term. Nirvani and her husband left good jobs in South Africa and their children were uprooted. Her husband resigned as a captain in the South African police force and is now working as a security guard because he cannot join the police here. He would have been able to do so in September when the four years were up.

Dr. Badri is a Cambridge-based public health consultant with an international reputation. He came from southern India in 2002 and his 19-year-old son had been accepted at university. He now has to pay
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£12,000 in fees. There are many more examples, with which I shall not bore the House, but plenty of people’s lives have been disrupted. They believe that the Government have shattered the legitimate expectations of their families, themselves and their employers through what they consider a unilateral change in the terms of the agreements under which they came.

Such people now have to apply for extensions, and thousands of people are making new applications to the IND which, as the report shows, is already overworked. There are already delays for a lot of people and we have just increased the work load by thousands of unnecessary extension applications. That means more bureaucracy, and the individuals concerned have to pay an additional £300 fee.

Highly skilled migrants pay taxes and national insurance contributions, but more importantly, by definition, they fill important gaps in our labour market. They are part of the international labour market and have skills that are in short supply. They are the sort of migrant that our country needs and whom my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) mentioned. We should be attracting them to the UK, but they feel cheated and betrayed. That feeling is relayed back to their home countries, so the people whom we want to attract from Russia, India, China or the United States will think, “Well, if the Government have changed the rules this time, what is to stop them doing it again retrospectively? What is the point in going to the UK? We might as well go somewhere else where we feel we will not be cheated in this way.” It will deter from coming here the people whom our economy desperately needs.

The Government accept that some lessons have been learned from how the change was introduced, and I believe that they are going to set up a body, the migration advisory committee, to try to ensure that such problems are dealt with more sympathetically in future. That is simply not enough for such people as I have mentioned, who make a huge contribution to our economy and pay their taxes. They are not the sort of people who are at the bottom of the pile, who come illegally as economic migrants to work in the sweatshops to which my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) referred.

We must reflect on what has happened and introduce transitional arrangements so that those who arrived in the UK under the programme in question before the changes were announced in April 2005 can be allowed to settle after four years rather than five. That is the only decent, honest thing for our Government to do. I fully understand the feelings of betrayal and of being cheated that many people have expressed to me since I got involved in the matter. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will think again and reflect on the human tales that he has heard from the people who have come to see him. I thought that he had sympathy for them when he heard those stories, but he has rejected their tales of hardship, family break-up, financial loss and disruption to careers.

3.34 pm

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): I congratulate everyone in the room on tolerating the conditions of a
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miserable, cold Chamber. I wonder if you could pass that message on, Mr. Hood. I cannot see why we should not have daylight and a bit of heat. It is very cold. That is my moan.

I want to refer to the part of the report on forced marriages, which begins on page 77. I seem to spend an increasing amount of my time helping the victims of forced marriages. I pay tribute to the staff who have looked after us on the Committee, particularly those who did all the donkey work of writing the report. When I was with the group in Accra and Lagos, the Clerk who was with us worked until midnight to draw up all the information and evidence that we had acquired.

I wish to give the background to my comments. I represent Keighley, which forms one fifth of the Bradford metropolitan district. Some 80 per cent. of all marriages in the Muslim community there—mainly Pakistani couples but some Bangladeshi—take place transcontinentally. Girls and young men go to Pakistan or Bangladesh, marry someone and eventually bring them back. Approximately 800 immigrants from the sub-continent enter the district each year. Many of them come on compassionate grounds, and I have absolutely no argument with that. They are elderly people who come to join daughters and sons to be looked after in their old age. Many, however, are husbands and wives coming for permanent settlement. I would guess that at least 600 of them enter the district for that reason. I look forward to a time when more young men and women will enter Bradford because they have a job than because they have a wife or husband.

The Pakistani community in Bradford hails mainly from Mirpur, where there is a strong tradition of first-cousin marriages. That makes it even more difficult for young men and women to duck out of arranged marriages, which therefore become forced marriages. The Bangladeshi community comes from Sylhet, and one of the less attractive traditions of the Sylhetis is that they tend to go in for child brides. I have dealt with several cases of 14-year-old girls being carted off back to Bangladesh for marriages that they did not want and should never have had inflicted on them.

I pay tribute to the work of the various Departments involved. A great deal of work has been done since I raised the subject of forced marriages in 1999. We now have the forced marriages unit, which is paid for and staffed by the Home Office and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It gives advice on forced marriages by phone or person-to-person, to help girls avoid being forced to marry or be reluctant sponsors to a marriage. Through various voluntary groups, the Government provide refuges in my constituency and in the rest of Bradford so that girls wishing to leave an unfortunate marriage can do so and be safe. The West Yorkshire police are absolutely brilliant—

3.39 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

3.51 pm

On resuming—

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Mrs. Cryer: Forced marriages are covered in pages 77 to 79 of the report, and I pay tribute to various people who, since 1999, when I first raised the subject, have improved the situations of reluctant sponsors and victims of forced marriages.

The consular section of the Islamabad high commission is wonderful in tracking down young women, often held in dire circumstances and against their will so that they can be forced to marry. Usually, a threat is used. The parents remove a woman’s passport and say, for example, “You will not come back to Keighley and your friends until you have married this man.” Sometimes the women are told that they cannot go back until they consummate the marriage or even that they cannot return until they are pregnant. Such girls are getting to know that they do not need a passport to get back. With the help of the consular section, they can be removed and housed safely. They can be brought back to the United Kingdom and, if they so wish, be placed in safe housing here.

I have not mentioned someone who has been crucial to many girls in the Bradford district. Philip Balmforth is employed jointly by Bradford social services and West Yorkshire police. He is the knight in shining armour who often helps girls out of a difficult situation, saving them from a forced marriage or violence that has erupted following one.

I have one or two suggestions, at least one of which is also in the report. I want the age limit for sponsors and applicants to increase from 18 to 21. A few years ago, the Government increased it from 16 to 18. That was a good move, but if we got the limit up to 21, young ladies would have the wherewithal, confidence and often the financial resources to withstand parental pressure to marry someone whom they do not want to marry. In Denmark, the age limit has been shoved up to 24 for the same reason. I would not suggest 24; that is, to say the least, draconian. However, I should like the age limit to go up to 21 for both sponsors and applicants.

I should also like the right of people on indefinite leave to remain to bring in a wife or husband to be removed. Increasingly, young women come to me who are loyal to and who want to please their parents. They marry the man from the subcontinent—sometimes as a result of force, sometimes not. The young man comes here, lives with the young lady, then leaves her, for whatever reason, before the end of the two-year probationary period required to qualify for indefinite leave to remain.

At that point, he disappears into his extended family—men in first-cousin marriages have lots of people to go to. She gets very cross and comes to me to ask for the man to be removed. She has every right to do that; he is without indefinite leave to remain. I report the matter to the Home Office and request that the young man be removed. We often know where he lives, and she often lives in fear, because he still has keys to the house. We are told, “Yes, we will take on this case and he may well be deported. Unfortunately, however, you and she become third parties.”

Mrs. Dean: Does my hon. Friend sometimes find it difficult to get the authorities to take action in such cases? Sometimes the young woman—it could be a young man, but I have only ever dealt with women—
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knows that her husband is still in the country and that he should not be here. Yet it appears that no action is taken. As victims, such women feel that they are being treated worse than the person who is not obeying the law, especially because of the third-party issue.

Mrs. Cryer: I thank my hon. Friend for that. Those women feel badly done by, not only because of their husbands, but because of the establishment. Such women are not given help. As has rightly been said, in such a situation they are told that they are a third party and I am told that I am. The issue has been considered, and it is mentioned in the report. We have been told that we will stop being treated as third parties and the young lady will be kept informed about what is being done to remove the young man.

In other cases, indefinite leave to remain has been granted. The young lady has dutifully filled in the forms and has got her husband indefinite leave to remain, on receipt of which he waves it in front of her and says, “Right, I’m off. I didn’t really want to marry you. You’re very stroppy and cheeky; I don’t want to live with you any more, so I’m leaving. I shall be sending to Pakistan for another wife.” Once he gets indefinite leave to remain, he has every right to sponsor another wife.

The man has to divorce the first one, of course. However, since he was married in an Islamic ceremony, he can divorce in an Islamic ceremony and go on to sponsor another wife to come here. That is extremely annoying for me and my constituent, who has done everything that she should have. She has abided by her parents’ decision and brought the young man in. Often, she will have bought a house. She has kept him for two years and receives that stunning treatment.

We should at least consider saying that no one can act as a sponsor until they get citizenship. That would mean that the young man entering would have to wait five years after entering—three years after being granted indefinite leave to remain—to be able to sponsor a wife to come here. That would make him think a little more carefully before using the young ladies in my constituency simply as a way around immigration control.

My other suggestion is mentioned in the report. Victims of forced marriages who are being forced to be sponsors—are reluctant sponsors—should be allowed to give evidence to me, and, through me, to the Islamabad high commission, about the fact that they have been forced into marriage. At the moment, I can give that information and could back it up with good, sound reasons why the man should not be allowed to enter—perhaps the young lady is not earning enough, she has not got a house or she has no money in the bank. Those are all sound reasons for refusal; we do not have to make it known that the real reason for refusal is forced marriage.

Unfortunately, or fortunately, some of the young ladies who come to me fulfil all those criteria, but we have no way of getting a refusal to the application other than saying, “She was forced into marriage.” If that happens, the high commission tells us that it has to make that reason known to the young man, and through him to her parents. It should not be beyond
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the wit of clever civil servants to think of a new wording of the law so that a woman can safely give evidence of forced marriage and safely have the husband refused without him or her family knowing why. I understand the complications and how such a law could be abused but, for the safety of some of the most vulnerable young ladies in my constituency, I ask that that sort of thing be considered when the Government draw up another immigration Bill.

Most of the young men and women who come in as husbands or wives are, in fact, economic migrants. As I said, I would prefer them to enter because they have a job rather than simply because they have a wife or husband. In respect of the comments by my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard), Keighley has some excellent examples—perhaps I should say poor examples—of people who are working illegally, or, in the case of the Polish, legally, for employment agencies or cheapskate employers. They are paid the minimum wage, but it does not end there. The employer makes deductions for the cost of housing and sometimes for food—any trick that they can get up to. Many legal and illegal immigrants work hard at some of the dirtiest, hardest, most horrible jobs but at the end of the day are paid as little as £2 or £3 per hour because so many deductions have been made from their pay.

Several things could be done about forced marriages, and I have mentioned most of them. I also want to mention something that is not part of the Committee’s remit, although it could be in another context. Perhaps we should consider a specific criminal offence of forcing to marry so that a girl can report to the police once she gets back that her parents have forced her to marry.

I am thinking of a 14-year-old Bangladeshi girl who was forced by her grandparent to marry in Bangladesh. She was allowed to come back here only when she had a baby, by which time she was 16. The police did nothing, although they knew about the situation. In fact, before the grandfather took the girl to Bangladesh, he was told by a judge that he must not take her there to force her into marriage. Although we all knew what had happened, the police took no action against the grandfather when the girl returned. It is high time that we introduce a specific criminal offence of forcing to marry. It may put the frighteners on some of the parents who currently really do not care.

4.2 pm

Mark Hunter (Cheadle) (LD): Before I begin my own remarks, I wish to pay tribute to the previous speaker, the hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer). She eloquently set out the case for changes to the way in which this country deals with the problem of forced marriages. I am sure that the Minister will want to respond to her contribution.

I am pleased that this topic has been introduced for debate in the House this afternoon. Immigration in general terms and, more specifically, the way in which we deal with the pressures of increasing migration are of huge importance to our country and are likely to be even more critical in coming years. Indeed, reports in the national press today reveal that we are currently experiencing the second-highest levels of long-term immigration into Britain since 1991.

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