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Session 2005 - 06
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Standing Committee Debates
Compensation Bill [Lords]

Statement of Changes in Immigration Rules

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: David Taylor
Benyon, Mr. Richard (Newbury) (Con)
Bottomley, Peter (Worthing, West) (Con)
Byrne, Mr. Liam (Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality)
Cawsey, Mr. Ian (Brigg and Goole) (Lab)
Clegg, Mr. Nick (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD)
Fabricant, Michael (Lichfield) (Con)
Green, Damian (Ashford) (Con)
Grogan, Mr. John (Selby) (Lab)
Hodgson, Mrs. Sharon (Gateshead, East and Washington, West) (Lab)
Horwood, Martin (Cheltenham) (LD)
Lepper, David (Brighton, Pavilion) (Lab/Co-op)
Malik, Mr. Shahid (Dewsbury) (Lab)
Morden, Jessica (Newport, East) (Lab)
Riordan, Mrs. Linda (Halifax) (Lab)
Smith, Ms Angela C. (Sheffield, Hillsborough) (Lab)
Streeter, Mr. Gary (South-West Devon) (Con)
Trickett, Jon (Hemsworth) (Lab)
Geoffrey Farrar, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Second Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Tuesday 20 June 2006

[David Taylor in the Chair]

Statement of Changes in Immigration Rules

10.30 am
Mr. Ian Cawsey (Brigg and Goole) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr. Taylor. I wish you well in the Chair. We hope that the sunshine reflects England’s prospects for later in the day. I am very pleased to see my hon. Friend the Minister entering the room and taking his seat, so I think I can end this point of order.
The Chairman: I am not sure whether there was a deviation in that point of order. I am pleased to see that the Minister has arrived.
Mr. Nick Clegg (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the Statement of Changes in Immigration Rules (HC 1016).
I am keen to take the opportunity to highlight our serious reservations, on a number of grounds, about the measure before us. The intentions of this delegated legislation are uncontroversial. It is not controversial to extend by 12 months the qualifying period before people can apply for indefinite leave to remain; nor is it fundamentally controversial to adapt the rules to ensure that those people who are properly qualified to work in our health service, for instance, are given the opportunity to do so. Our objections are not based on any great principle; they are serious reservations about the measure’s practical effect.
The legislation has been sprung on us without any meaningful consultation. In the Government’s February consultation document, there was no mention of the new five-year qualifying period. There is a suddenness—a brutality—about the way in which the measure has been announced. There was no preceding consultation whatever, and that strikes us as bad practice, which will lead to several unintended—or perhaps intended—consequences that merit further examination.
The measure is retrospective, so it covers a large number of people who are already resident in this country, and who came here and applied for their various visas with the explicit understanding that after four years they would be free to apply for indefinite leave to remain. The estimate of how many people the rule change will affect ranges from 100,000, to 200,000 if we include their dependants.
I am sure that we have all received correspondence from constituents whom we know to have been directly affected by the change. In my constituency, I have come across a large number of families who, if the measure proceeds, will need to change their plans, leave their work or studies, sell their homes and take their children out of school or university, because they have received no warning that the rules have changed, or that the understanding on which they entered this country has summarily changed. The measure seems to fly in the face of the basic fairness, transparency and predictability that anybody who is resident and working in this country expects and deserves.
There has been no proper analysis of the measure’s impact and there is no regulatory impact assessment attached to it, yet estimates suggest that the overall cost to UK employers of renewing their employees’ work permits could be as high as £15 million. In other words, the change is not cost-free. In addition to its sudden introduction and its retrospective application to those who were perfectly entitled to expect that the rules would not change from one day to the next, it will be costly to UK business.
The impact of the measure on overseas students and trainee doctors, specialists and others working in the national health service has attracted a great deal of attention. I shall quote an e-mail that I received from a constituent who is a consultant and the head of the assisted conception unit at the Jessop wing in Sheffield:
“The changes regarding the need for work permits will almost certainly affect our ability to recruit appropriately trained doctors to work in our department. It is increasingly difficult to attract UK graduates into our specialty as a whole, and the field of reproductive medicine is even more specialised. In order to get the best people for the job, we need to recruit from all over the world, and indeed to date we have been very successful in attracting a very high calibre of applicant to these jobs. I am concerned that, with the introduction of these new rules, we will no longer be able to attract these high-quality trainees to work with us, as the UK will be perceived to be hostile to overseas doctors. This may mean that we will be forced to employ someone who is less suitable, which would be a disadvantage to our service, the women of Sheffield and the scientific community as a whole.”
Similar observations have been made by the British Medical Association, which claims that the change is unfair on the doctors who already work here, and by many other professional bodies, which fear that they will have a detrimental effect on the quality of work undertaken in a number of specialisms in the NHS.
Let us step back for a moment. Given that the principle behind the changes is not the issue at stake here, and that our objections are practical, I would ask the Minister why a relatively minor change which appears to have been introduced on the hoof but which will have extensive and disruptive consequences has been pushed through in this way. I wonder whether, at a time when the immigration and nationality directorate and the Home Office as a whole obviously have larger fish to fry, a relatively minor rule change such as this should have assumed such importance.
For those and many other reasons, we object to the change. We are not convinced that the provisions of EC Council directive 2003/109/EC—uttering those words takes me back to a previous incarnation in the European Parliament—in fact require such a rigid rule change, let alone justify the brutality with which it is being introduced. We ask the Minister to consider whether he can develop coherent transitional arrangements, particularly for those who are already resident and working in this country who assumedthat the four-year qualifying period would prevail,to address the reasoned and reasonable concerns expressed by a range of professional bodies in the NHS. If he took time to develop such arrangements and present them to the House, I am sure that he would enjoy the kind of cross-party support that he would want for the measure but which does not exist today.
10.38 am
Damian Green (Ashford) (Con): May I start, Mr. Taylor, by echoing the welcome to the Chair extended to you so eloquently and necessarily by the Government Whip?
I half agree with what the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg) has just said but, unlike him, I have objections in principle to the change. The arguments specific to the medical profession and trainee doctors have not only been rehearsed by the hon. Gentleman this morning but have been the subject of an Adjournment debate, so I do not propose to go into them in detail, although I share many of the concerns expressed, particularly by associations representing doctors from the sub-continent, about the practical effects of the change.
In particular, I do not agree with the Government’s plan to change retrospectively the rules on settlement. Whatever the merits of changing the qualifying period from four years to five, it is unfair and wrong to apply the new rules to people who have been living and working in this country for some time, many of whom had planned their lives around the date on which they expected to gain full settlement rights. Retrospective legislation such as this is wrong in principle—that is where I part company from the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam—and that principle is one that should be broken only where a really significant and urgent problem exists that would justify it. We have heard nothing from the Government so far—and I do not expect to hear much from the Minister this morning—to suggest that there is an urgent problem facing the Government that the proposals would solve.
One of the stranger claims in the, as ever, enlightening explanatory memorandum produced by the Home Office is that
“The overall policy change is not regarded as controversial.”
That is an extraordinary claim, and one that is, frankly, simply wrong. The Minister will be aware that last Friday’s demonstration, led by the British-Chinese community and supported by a number of others, including the Turkish, Indian and South African communities, was only the most recent in a series of public protests against the proposals. Indeed, the proposals have given rise to early-day motions, some of them tabled by Labour Members—most recently the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), who makes the point that those affected, who pay taxes and make a major contribution to the economy, now face uncertainty and hardship. I cannot believe that the Government intend that to happen, and if they are not prepared to listen to me or to the Liberal Democrats, or even to listen to representatives of the communities affected, I urge them at least to listen to their own Back Benchers’ objections to the changes.
The Government ought to listen to those who are protesting, because a number of their points seem to me to be valid. The protesters argue that the lack of any transitional arrangements means that the rule does not discriminate between people who have been here for three years 11 months and those who have been here only two or three months. The change is a big blow to the lives and future plans of those who have been here longer. In particular, as the Minister will be aware, without fully settled status it is almost impossible to secure a mortgage.
Those who have been working here and paying taxes for a long time and who intend to stay here—people who are already contributing to the community and wish to contribute more—regard the change not only as a blow but as a hostile act by Britain. Many of the migrants affected are highly skilled: they are exactly the sort of people who the Government say they seek to attract.
Ministers’ only response so far has been that they are harmonising our rules with those of other EU countries. I have no objection to that in principle if it serves a useful purpose, but I fail to see how the people and economy of this country are helped by harmonisation in this case. The problem could have been solved by a transitional period, but that is not on offer.
It has been argued—and it is a persuasive argument—that the long-term effect of the Government’s blunder will be to discourage highly skilled migrants from coming to Britain in the first place, because their trust in the British Government’s fairness will have been damaged. I hope that that is wrong, because it would do big long-term damage to our economy if it were so, but that is the risk that the Government run if they insist on pushing the proposals through.
Most of all, there will be bewilderment at the fact that the Government have chosen to make life more difficult for precisely the highly skilled migrants who they say they want to attract here in ever increasing numbers. We can and do have legitimate differences of approach on many aspects of immigration policy, but every reputable person who comments on the issue agrees that highly skilled economic migrants are good for Britain. In this instance, the lives of many of them are being made more difficult by this unnecessary change in the rules. I simply cannot understand why the Government have chosen this strange measure—still less why Ministers have not mounted a graceful retreat in the face of reasoned opposition from the communities most affected. I urge them, at this late stage, to do so. If they do not, the Opposition will vote against the proposals.
10.45 am
The Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality (Mr. Liam Byrne): I welcome the opportunity to discuss the proposed rule changes. The change that has been at the heart of this morning’s debate is one of six that have been introduced to the immigration rules. I will come to the one that I think is controversial in my response to the hon. Members for Ashford (Damian Green) and for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg).
If the Committee will permit me, I would first like to put the changes in their proper context—the context of the five-year strategy on asylum and immigration that was published in February 2005, in which we set out the premise that we need to be much clearer about which migrants we admit and why. That strategy will henceforward be the basis of our immigration policy. It builds on the manifesto commitment that we put to the British people just over a year ago.
We are very clear about our obligations. It is the job of the Government to manage migration into the United Kingdom so that the needs and rights of United Kingdom are met and maintained. That is precisely why we proposed in our manifesto a points-based system for managed migration. We consulted on it widely between July and November last year, and went back to first principles to identify and select migrants whom the United Kingdom really needs and whose presence here will benefit the us.
The Government are and always have been very clear about the need for migration. We are clear about the contribution that migration makes to this country: not only does it fill gaps in our labour market, as the hon. Member for Ashford said, but many of our public services, not least the health service and our education system, are quite reliant on those who come from overseas to work in this country.
That highlights the wider point that globalisation presents us with an extraordinary opportunity in the years to come, but we have to bear it in mind that, with an expanded European Union, much of that opportunity is on our doorstep. We must ensure that our immigration system is adapted and modernised so as to take account of that opportunity. Our starting point is that employers should often look first to recruit from the UK and the expanded EU before recruiting migrants from outside. In that regard, it is nice to see on both Opposition Front Benches spokesmen who, if not perhaps Euro-fanatics, are supporters of much of the Government’s European policy.
Let me turn to the debate about settlement. I am glad that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam agreed with the principles set out in the proposed changes. I want to remind the Committee, however, that the proposed change to the qualifying period from four years to five were announced in the five-year strategy on 7 February last year. A lot of people have said—not least this morning—that the proposals have come out of the blue and unannounced, and I want to disabuse them of that notion. A lot of people said that they had lost sight of the change. That is perfectly possible: as the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam said, there has been rather a lot going on in immigration matters over the past 12 months.
In particular, the hon. Gentleman talked about the impact of retrospection. It is important to be clear that the proposed change does not affect anyone’s right to remain and work in the UK. Anyone with valid leave to remain who is continuing in employment or earning their living or investing in the UK still qualifies to remain here and should have no difficulty in completing their fifth year. If their employment were about to cease after four years, they would not qualify for settlement anyway, so the argument or complaint that the change has made some people’s immigration status worse or less secure is slightly flimsy. The measure prevents no one from carrying on what they were doing in the UK: they are simply being asked to carry on for one more year.
Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): If the change makes no difference to people with existing leave to remain, why is it being applied to them retrospectively?
Mr. Byrne: I shall come to that in a moment.
Those who have read the Government’s five-year strategy will know that it went on to say that the rationale—a rationale that I think the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam supports—that permanent migration should be a journey towards being as socially integrated as possible, and this measure encourages that journey without taking away anyone’s ability to carry on working or making a life for themselves. The Government think that settlement should be closer to the citizenship end of the migration process, rather than following almost automatically from a period of employment. We are simply asking for a stronger degree of attachment to the UK than at present.
The change is not restrictive. It does not prevent people from doing what they are doing already. Those who, like the hon. Member for Ashford, are particularly interested in closer relations with the continent of Europe will welcome the fact that the proposals bring us into line with European directives.
Damian Green rose—
Mr. Byrne: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman is going to disabuse me.
Damian Green: As I say, I have no objection in principle to the harmonisation when it serves a purpose, but in my view this change not only serves no purpose but is damaging.
I want to return to the Minister’s previous point. He said that he wanted to move the grant of settlement much closer to citizenship qualifications, and that he thought that people who had been here for four years had not displayed enough attachment to this country. Is he aware that many of those people who have been living and working here for four years, or nearly four years, will find that quite insulting? They have come here, worked hard and paid taxes and, in saying that they have not shown much attachment to this country, the Minister has struck a false note. I hope that he will withdraw.
Mr. Byrne: I understand the hon. Gentleman’s attempts to mis-characterise my remarks, but they were worded quite carefully. I said that we would be seeking to move the qualification closer to the citizenship end of the spectrum, so seeking to strengthen people’s attachment to this country. Surely the hon. Gentleman would admit that an extra year would help do that.
To the answer the point about why we did not give more notice of the change, let me say that there issues associated with giving dramatic amounts of publicity to certain categories of change, but it is none the less important that we follow the consultation procedures that are set out for us, and that is why we flagged this proposal on 7 February last year.
The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam referred to transitional arrangements. Such arrangements are in place to ensure that those who apply immediately before the changes can be dealt with under the old rules even if the decision is made after 3 April. There are also transitional arrangements for those who apply for settlement immediately after 3 April having only completed four years in the UK. Those applicants will have the opportunity to vary their application from a settlement application to a one-year leave-to-remain application without losing their original application fee.
I hope that my remarks help to put the proposed changes in context. They should not be seen in isolation from a broader set of reforms that is intended to introduce a system of managed migration that helps this country take advantage of the changes in the world beyond our shores.
10.53 am
Mr. Clegg: Let me assuage the concerns of the hon. Member for Ashford (Damien Green), who claimed that he only agreed with 50 per cent. of what I said, by saying that I agree with 100 per cent. of what he said. We all agree that there are—[Interruption.]
The Chairman: Order.
Mr. Clegg: I am keen to maintain a united intellectual front against the measure on the Opposition Benches. We agree that the measure was introduced with insufficient warning and consultation and inadequate transitional arrangements, and, most important, that it is being applied retrospectively to communities for whom it is proving extremely disruptive. Where the discrepancy lies is that I am so reasonable in expressing my objections that the hon. Gentleman somehow gleaned the impression that I undervalued the affront that the measure represents to the communities it affects. I do not. I reiterate that an extension of the qualifying period from four years to five is not in theory or principle the controversy at stake. What is controversial is that the measure is being applied in a manner that is causing unnecessary and unfair disruption to large numbers of people—up to 200,000—who reasonably assumed that the rules would not be changed in such a cavalier and capricious manner.
I repeat my plea. In the absence of real transitional arrangements that soften the savage blow that such a sudden change of rules represents, it is extremely difficult for the Opposition to support this measure. The most simple and logical way of proceeding would be to ensure that the measure was not applied retrospectively, by introducing a grandfather clause to the effect that the measure applies only to those who apply for indefinite leave to remain after it takes legal effect. There is no rational or legal or political reason why the changes need to be applied retrospectively. That simple generous measure would make the change more workable and far more acceptable to the tens of thousands of people who will now otherwise be detrimentally affected by it.
Question put:—
The Committee divided: Ayes 9, Noes 6.
Division No. 1]
Byrne, Mr. Liam
Cawsey, Mr. Ian
Grogan, Mr. John
Hodgson, Mrs. Sharon
Lepper, David
Morden, Jessica
Riordan, Mrs. Linda
Smith, Ms Angela C. (Sheffield, Hillsborough)
Trickett, Jon
Benyon, Mr. Richard
Clegg, Mr. Nick
Fabricant, Michael
Green, Damian
Horwood, Martin
Streeter, Mr. Gary
Question accordingly agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the Statement of Changes in Immigration Rules (HC 1016).
Committee rose at two minutes to Eleven o’clock.

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