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It is difficult to overestimate the positive contribution that immigrants have made to our country over the years in economic, cultural and social terms, and I do not hesitate to preface my speech with that assertion. However, the system must be managed in a fair, efficient and humane way. That must be done to ensure that abuses such as we have heard about today are not allowed to flourish, that our economy can grow and that we can maintain community cohesion.

It is crucial that we continue to debate immigration in Parliament. Of all the issues that we deal with on a day-to-day basis, it is perhaps the one that most requires open and frank debate. Hon. Members will be fully aware of the myths and scare stories that abound if we allow a vacuum to develop. It is up to us to lead the way and to inform the public in a reasonable and rational way.

It is also important that we do that because the success of an immigration policy relies, to a great extent, on public confidence. The repercussions of a situation whereby the population lose faith and trust in the Government’s ability to control the borders are serious, to say the least. We all know that, without confidence, extremism will thrive and community cohesion will be damaged. Even the Government have to concede that events of the past few months have dented public confidence in Britain’s immigration system. Those failures have been amply demonstrated by the Home Affairs Committee, which deserves our gratitude for its thorough work.

The foreign prisoners debacle, corruption, deception and, of course, a Home Secretary admitting that his Department was not fit for purpose—all those calamities demonstrate the urgency of an inquiry such as this one. Reading the Select Committee report and the Government’s subsequent response, one gets an interesting insight into how our immigration system has functioned under this and, indeed, previous Governments.

The various reports we have before us today demonstrate starkly that the Home Office and, in particular, the immigration and nationality directorate have suffered from political mishandling on such a scale that it has made effective management of the operation virtually impossible. Perhaps most damaging is the assertion that political interference in respect of asylum statistics allowed the foreign prisoners scandal to emerge. There certainly seems to be evidence that the political pressure to remove failed asylum seekers directly influenced the rest of the operation.

However, it would not be entirely fair to suggest that the Select Committee’s inquiry and the Government’s response are purely negative. I hope that the various reports will serve as a wake-up call to the Government to remind them to focus on making the system work. Some of the suggestions made by the Committee reveal the surprising levels of incompetence that have existed in the system. The fact that guidance notes need to be made more accurate, that various authorities involved in the system need to work together better, that training, particularly for temporary staff, has been inadequate all point to a failing system that has been meddled with by politicians who in some cases prefer to talk tough and raise public expectations while not necessarily acting competently. As the Government
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have rushed to appease sections of the press on asylum seekers, they have lost their focus on managing the system as a whole.

As I said, there are things in the reports to be welcomed. Improvements in the quality of information for applicants are certainly welcome, and, if implemented properly, will no doubt provide positive outcomes for applicants and the Home Office staff who have to deal with them.

The overall simplification of immigration rules, laws and guidance is also to be welcomed. The complexity of the current situation is testament to a series of reflex—some might say panic—measures brought in by successive Home Secretaries. In many cases, they have caused chaos. The points-based system for immigration, which is supported by Liberal Democrats, will, I hope, assist in achieving simplification. However, as we have seen time and again with this Government on home affairs issues, their reflex action is to legislate and complicate the issue rather than concentrate on getting the basics right. Endless new legislation is self-evidently not always the right action, as events of the past few years have amply demonstrated.

“Exporting the border” is a welcome ambition, but it will rely on staff and management systems being joined up in a coherent way. That simply is not the case at present, and I am nervous about the greater use of contract staff abroad if we want to achieve a smoother operation.

In their response to the Select Committee’s findings, the Government have given a large number of undertakings which, if fulfilled, will undoubtedly improve the current system, and I am pleased that their response to the criticisms has been more candid than is sometimes the case. I congratulate them on that. I do not, however, have complete confidence that the Government will change their ways, for several key reasons. Primarily, I am not convinced that Ministers will be able to resist further meddling in the system. It would take a shift of seismic proportions in the way in which the Government do business for them to resist the urge to please the media at the expense of running a competent immigration system.

Only in the past few weeks, the Government have found themselves forced into intervening on the issue of immigrants from new European Union accession states. Instead of liaising with their partners in the European Union over the past few months to ensure the pressure on our borders was reduced, they appear to have panicked once again and emergency measures have had to be taken. That is another knee-jerk reaction that could and should have been avoided months in advance. It demonstrates, too, that the lessons of immigration from Poland were not learnt adequately or quickly enough.

Who could forget the badly thought-through suggestion that we could have an amnesty for illegal immigrants? Of course the idea was dropped as hastily as it seems it was dreamt up, but it hardly inspires confidence. Furthermore, I do not have complete confidence that we have heard the end of the corruption scandals, such as the one that was revealed at Lunar house a few months ago. If the Minister can tell us how many police investigations are ongoing in that regard, I would be grateful. The anecdotal evidence that I have heard suggests that there is a
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danger that we may have seen only the tip of the iceberg. It is as yet unclear whether corruption in the service is systemic or not.

Many of the proposed improvements we have read about also include new information technology systems. Throughout government, we have witnessed disaster after disaster in that regard and I am afraid that it will take a major change in fortune for the proposals to be implemented without further difficulties.

Overall, I urge the Government to take the recommendations of the Select Committee seriously, and I am sure that they will. They should look to ensure that politicians can no longer stifle the sound management of our immigration system. They should perhaps take a leaf out of my party’s book. We have suggested making asylum issues more independent of government through a new asylum agency, in a way that has operated successfully in Canada for some time. In fact, it is worth noting that in Canada only 1 per cent. of asylum appeals are overturned on appeal compared with a figure closer to 20 per cent. in the UK. The Government should concentrate less on sounding tough and devote more time to allowing staff to get on with the job. Only then will we be able to say that we have confidence in our immigration system.

4.12 pm

Damian Green (Ashford) (Con): I agreed with quite a lot of what the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mark Hunter) said in the early part of his speech, before he went slightly off the rails on Romania and Bulgaria. Regardless of what he thinks about the merits of what the Government did, it is deeply unfair to accuse them of a knee-jerk reaction. There were fully two months between when I and the Conservative party started to call for restrictions and when the Government acted. Whatever they did, it certainly was not knee-jerk.

I, too, want to pay tribute to the hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer), not only for her eloquent and passionate speech about forced marriage where she made a number of powerful points that we all hope the Minister will take on board, but for her remarks on the heating. I had assumed that in the developing cross-party consensus about climate change and global warning we had decided to set an example by keeping the Chamber unheated throughout the year.

I want to pay more than the conventional tributes to the Committee for the report. It is not just an extremely good report, but the hearings were fantastically illuminating, too. The phrase “not fit for purpose”, which now resounds around the political world, was of course originally said by the Home Secretary at one of the hearings. Indeed, as the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) mentioned, by saying that he did not have the faintest idea how many illegal immigrants were in this country, Dave Roberts in one vivid phrase swept away years of artifice and spin, saying the exact truth and something that we all knew was true, which needed saying. It reflects well, not only on him as an honest official, but also on the Committee for asking the right questions to obtain that answer.

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The report is full of extremely interesting ideas. I want to deal with the larger matters that the Committee brought up, to which the Government have responded. It is sensible to look at them with three questions in mind: are things improving at all, are they improving fast enough and if not, why not?

I am conscious that the Committee reported in July, at a time when the Government set out their own ideas, that the Government responded in September and that it is now early November. I do not want to be unrealistic in my expectations of what the Government can have achieved by now, but I think it is fair to look at the direction of travel—to use the newly fashionable phrase—that the Department is moving in.

The first matter that is worth addressing is over-stayers. The right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen made an important point that too often the entire debate about the integrity of our borders and our immigration system is based purely on border controls. Clearly, they are hugely important. If we do not have proper border controls, no other part of the system will work effectively. Equally, our borders have sadly been porous for so long that there is now an enormous backlog of people who are here, but have no legal right to be here. One of the tests that the Minister and the Department have to pass is whether they can deal with that effectively.

In their response, the Government say that they want to take action against over-stayers. They say that they will

I am sure that the Minister will admit in private moments, if not publicly, that promising to get that right by 2014 is not adequate. To say that from a standing start the system will be working in eight years’ time, only two years longer than it took to fight and win the second world war, does not seem ambitious, to put it no more strongly than that. I hope that significant progress can be made in that vital area some time before 2014.

The second, related issue is illegal working. Again, the Government set out in their response a large number of areas that they propose to act on, all of which, apart from the last, concern action against employers. The hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) made some powerful points about that. Of course, those measures are important but, as the Committee said, many of the problems spring from actions not of the Home Office and the IND, but of other Departments, which are not rowing in successfully enough behind attempts to crack down on illegal working. The last point that the Government make is that they need a “cross government enforcement strategy”. Yes, they do. So far, there is no evidence that such a strategy is being employed.

One of the scandals this year was that of national insurance numbers, which the Department for Work and Pensions appears to dish out more or less for the asking. In the current situation, such behaviour is unacceptable. I would be grateful if the Minister could find some reassurance for us today that that will stop happening and that mechanisms are in place to ensure that national insurance numbers are not freely available. I take the distinction made by the hon.
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Member for Walthamstow about employers who knowingly employ illegal labour and those who may be caught up themselves. If someone presents a national insurance number, it is not unreasonable for an employer to think that they have gone through some checks. If that is not the case, that is unacceptable and it will render nugatory any other attempts at control.

My third point is the promise of a step change in enforcement activity, specifically the Government’s response that they will aim to

I echo the point made by the hon. Member for Cheadle that such promises do not work if the original targets are wrong. Many would observe—I would agree with them—that the tipping point target, on which the Government, from the Prime Minister down, have set so much store, has diverted attention from the more important enforcement activities that the IND should have been undertaking. In many cases it has taken the directorate in the wrong direction. In particular and specifically, it has meant that enforcement activities have not been concentrated first on the most harmful. That may be doing more harm than good.

I urge the Minister to consider that again. If he must have targets, he should set the right ones, because there is anecdotal and better evidence of the IND concentrating on families rather than on single men. As was said earlier, the former are clearly an easier target but, equally clearly, they may not be the best target, for reasons of efficiency and common humanity. The Government may wish to reconsider that.

The next point, on which the report is most interesting, is the quality of decision making, particularly by the entry clearance officers. They are under enormous pressure. They have to make their decisions in only a few minutes, but those decisions are hugely important to the people involved. I have spoken to members of the Committee since the report was published and I get the impression that they originally felt that it would prove to be one of the weaknesses of the system. However, regardless of whether or not it was a weakness, the Committee was impressed by the quality of many of those individuals. They are forced to take difficult decisions, even though, as the report says, many of them are in temporary posts. I recall a reference to a minibus load of entry clearance officers in Lagos, who had been bussed in to cope with a crisis. People who work hard and conscientiously under such conditions deserve praise, but the system is clearly not good enough. Again, reverting to my three basic questions, I would be interested to know whether any improvement has yet been made in that area.

On foreign prisoners, the Government say in their response that the system is improving. I would be delighted if the Minister were to devote some of the large amount of time that remains to giving us some evidence of why and how it is improving. He has genuine problems with deporting people to certain countries—it is obviously difficult to enforce deportation to countries that do not have a proper legal regime—but it would be interesting for the House to hear where the Government have got to.

The next point is about corruption, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Cheadle. It is festering inside the system and has not been properly
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addressed. We have had at least two seriously big examples of corruption within the immigration system this year, but the Committee revealed some startling figures. It found that 703 allegations had been made, of which 409 were investigated, and that another 169 cases went to the immigration service operational integrity unit, 120 of them being pursued.

The report on the first corruption case described it as a one-off, a bad apple and not systemic and used other such phrases. The Committee’s report candidly suggests that that is not true. It seems that widespread corruption is at least suspected inside our immigration system, and everyone agrees that that is completely unacceptable. One of the Minister’s earliest and most urgent tasks must be to root it out. If we cannot have confidence in the honesty and integrity of the system, the already low level of public confidence will fall even further.

The final general area that I want to consider is the appeals system. I am sure the Minister will be aware that when the Countess of Mar resigned from the immigration appeal tribunal, she said:

Those of us who have spent time observing immigration tribunals have seen many people trying hard to make the system work, but it is in such a state that it does not work at all well. I spent a day at Taylor house and saw that many cases had to be postponed because the Home Office presenting officer had not turned up or the papers had not arrived in time, so people had not been able to read them. The system is under so much strain that it cannot cope with the important job being asked of it. I wonder if the subject could be included in a Bill during the next Session.

In summary, the picture painted by the report is of a shambles. That was remarked at the time and was not controversial. The Home Secretary agreed and set himself the task of turning things around. I am sure that the Minister will argue that it is early days yet, and he would be right. My concern, however, looking back over the report and the catalogue of horrors that it exposes and for which it has suggested remedies, is that in too many cases there is no evidence of progress, especially in those areas that involve other arms of Government.

I am sure that the Committee will want to return to the subject in coming years, spoiled though it is for choice on subjects about which useful and constructive reports could be made, but I genuinely hope that the next time it returns to the subject the picture is rather less bleak.

Mr. Jimmy Hood (in the Chair): Order. Before I call the Minister, I inform hon. Members that the House authorities have been doing their level best to try and effect a repair to the heating system. Unfortunately, it cannot be done without the engineers’ physical presence in the Chamber, which would have been disruptive. However, I am assured that before the House discusses the next report of the Select Committee the heating will be working.

4.27 pm

The Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality (Mr. Liam Byrne): I shall do my best to fill
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the Chamber with hot air, although hon. Members will be pleased to hear that I may not take the entirety of the 63 minutes that are available to me. Nevertheless, I shall try to respond to as many of the points raised by right hon. and hon. Members as I can.

The Home Secretary, in one of his more jocular moments, advised me that I should introduce myself at meetings as the “Immigration Minister for now”. While I remain Immigration Minister, I shall keep the Select Committee’s report close at hand. It was a privilege to read it over the summer, and I add my congratulations to the Committee. Its members worked hard both here and abroad, undertaking research and then structuring it with such analytical insight. In particular, I congratulate the Committee Chairman, my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham), not only on his work in leading the Committee but for the advice that he rendered to the Home Office when I wanted to pose questions.

I, too, enjoyed many of the evidence sessions; I watched them on television. I certainly enjoyed many of the comments made by Dave Roberts. Indeed, he paraphrased a remark that I had read much earlier, which was:

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