Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Bill

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Mr. Malins: My hon. Friend hits on a very important point. It reminds me of my parliamentary question a year or so ago on this very subject requesting details of the salaries paid to the officials who make these important decisions at home and abroad, and the length of training that they have. I was very disappointed by the reply. First, the length of training seemed to me to be very short indeed, a view that was shared by hon. Members on both sides of the House when I raised the matter on an earlier occasion. Secondly, as my hon. Friend rightly pointed out, the salaries were very low, which perhaps would not attract those of the highest ability, for obvious reasons they will want a better paid job elsewhere. She is entirely right to draw the matter to our attention.

While not committing my party to any particular policy, I agree with my hon. Friend. I feel that there is a good argument for ensuring that those who make the decisions are properly remunerated. As I have said time after time, that is because they are sometimes life-and-death decisions. They are not unimportant decisions; they can be critical not just to individuals
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but to families and the more important the decision, the more impressive should be the credentials of the person who is making it.

2.15 pm

Interestingly, in the letter that we received from the Minister, for which I thank him again, he talks about enhancing the role of the independent monitor, who is the subject of my amendments. I appreciated receiving the letter.

I intend no discourtesy to the Minister, but I think that he missed one or two of my remarks when I opened the debate. I spoke then of the Government's plans to create a full-time post, and offer a broad welcome to their steps in that area.

I shall quote from the Minister's letter, as it is worth putting on the record. He says:

    ''We are proposing to change significantly the role of the Independent Monitor for entry clearance refusals without the right of appeal (IM): we envisage enabling the IM to make regular reports to UK visas closer to real time,''—

not a phrase that I am awfully fond of, but I think that I understand what it means—

    ''rather than a long annual report, and for us to be able to respond more quickly to lapses in quality identified in these reports. We have appointed an additional member of staff to liaise with and support the IM.''

There are a number of other matters set out in the annex to the letter under the heading:

    ''Work underway to improve quality of decision making.''

which are not for debate in this section of the Bill, but I sincerely wish the Minister and his Department the best of good fortune in taking that work forward. Many people will be watching with interest to see how it develops.

We are trying, in one way or another, and initially through the amendments, to ensure that justice is done and that the quality of decision making is improved. Amendment No. 11 would permit the independent monitor to

    ''make recommendations to the Home Secretary concerning the reasonableness of any decisions made relating to grants or refusals.''

That would enable the independent monitor to have a real hands-on approach, and to take up individual cases if appropriate.

Amendment No. 20 would require there to be

    ''a review procedure carried out by immigration judges on circuit at entry clearance posts.''

That review would determine whether the system was operating satisfactorily.

There is an argument for the greater presence of a number of people at posts abroad. For example, the Immigration Advisory Service has a number of offices abroad and can therefore provide a service on the spot. That gives real help to applicants.

Imagine the case—I exclude myself, as I am not an immigration judge—of visits by judicial officers in this country to some of our posts abroad and their review of the situation and how it is working. That could produce some most interesting results and could be very worth while, because the whole purpose would be
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to ensure that the decisions that are being made are fair, decent and right.

Amendment No. 21 would entitle a person to have a particular refusal

    ''reviewed by the Independent Monitor or his appointee.''

There is a lot to be said for that. I want to give the independent monitor more teeth, to provide a check on the Government and their officials.

When the Minister replies—I am not sure which Minister will reply. If it is the Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality, he may be at a disadvantage in not having heard the debate in its initial stages, or perhaps he will be none the worse for that, since I am moving the amendments. Perhaps it will be his colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department. Whichever Minister responds to the debate, we in the Opposition would find it helpful to have a lot of detail about the proposals for the independent monitor—as much detail as the Minister can give us. Linked with that we would like some details—this is critical, and is the point of the amendments—of the powers of the independent monitor and their ability to get involved on behalf of some of the most disadvantaged people in the world, many of whom, by definition, need the most help and support because of their own lack of resources.

Dr. Harris: I wish to comment briefly on the three amendments tabled by Conservative Members and I hope to catch your eye, Mr. Illsley, to respond to the Government amendments after they have been moved.

We support amendment No. 11 because it is reasonable that the independent monitor should independently monitor, and there is plenty to monitor, as the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) said. I think that there is a role for the independent monitor not only to make recommendations, but to have a more direct influence on Government policy, rather like the independent monitor of the anti-terror legislation. Lord Carlile is often referred to before policy is made and has a much greater influence on policy. I accept the point made by the hon. Member for Walthamstow that some people might not wish the independent monitor to set Government policy or wish that to be delegated outside the Government, but it would at least be within the bounds of reasonableness for the independent monitor to set a time at which certain policies can be implemented or to make recommendations as in the amendment.

I have already spoken to amendment No. 20 in a different form and I do not intend to repeat my comments, but I did pledge to the Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality that I would consider the point that he made in response to an amendment along these lines about the import of the National Audit Office's comments on the competence of entry clearance decisions. He said, I think with fairness, that the NAO had said that in 34 per cent. of cases in which there is additional evidence, that may not have been available to the entry clearance officer. The words in the paragraph are
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''may not'' so it is not clear whether, in all 34 per cent., the additional evidence was not available to the entry clearance officer when they were making their decision. As I understand it from speaking to experts since the Minister made the point, it is nevertheless the case that additional evidence usually comes through the post and it is an opportunity and good practice for entry clearance officers to look at the matter again. I will continue to look where the Minister directs me as regards whether what I said was correct, but I do not think that there is enough evidence to assert that the general thrust of my concerns was not correct.

Amendment No. 21 is a probing amendment. It refers to the independent monitor being available to consider individual cases. That is not the best way forward; the best way forward is, of course, not to remove appeal rights in the first place and to have a sensible, well staffed appellate function in the areas that we are discussing, but I can understand the point made by the hon. Member for Woking.

The Chairman: Order. Before I call the Minister, I should clarify something. Although Government amendments are listed with amendment No. 11, the Minister is not required to move them at this stage, because they are out of sequence with where we are in the Bill. They will be formally moved later, but they will be debated as part of this group.

Mr. McNulty: I apologise for not being here at the start of the comments by the hon. Member for Woking. I wanted to go to the little boys' room before he resumed and was late because of traffic and other reasons. In another capacity, the balance between security considerations—not least what has been done at Black Rod's end of the Palace—and Members' ability to get into the Palace are things that we should look at.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Try a bike.

Mr. McNulty: I shall not indulge that comment from the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham), although it was his first, which I am grateful for. Forty minutes later, I went to the little boys' room, so I apologise for missing the start of the comments by the hon. Member for Woking. I accept much of what he said about the independent monitor and I am grateful for his comments about the direction in which we are trying to move with that. He will know that currently the independent monitor works for 50 days a year, produces one report based on a limited sample of cases and reviews only cases that do not attract a full right of appeal, quite rightly. We are seeking to move that to a full-time post by the end of the year. The monitor would still look at a sample of cases that do not attract full right of appeal, but would make twice-yearly formal reports to us by way of feedback. I agree about the clumsiness of the phrase ''in real time'', but the Committee will know what that means—we are trying to use real instances to demonstrate the quality of decision making, rather than just receiving a regular annual report. It is important to say that there will be no changes to the powers of the independent monitor; the post will merely move to full-time. We understand that the role is very important.
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One of our aims is to enable the monitor's report to be more regularly used, not only to monitor quality but to promote it. If we receive both our official reports and the more routine reports during the course of the year, and they reflect more closely what is actually happening rather than being retrospective, we will be able to achieve that aim, as noted by the hon. Member for Woking—my brief says ''my hon. Friend'', and I shall admonish somebody later for that, but for now I am more than happy to speak of him in those terms.

It will be a full-time post. The monitor will review as many cases as is considered necessary to establish a robust assessment of the quality of decision making. We will set no limit on that; it will be a matter for the person in the new, full-time post to assess what is needed in order to get to grips with the notion of quality. There can be broad agreement here except about the direction in which we are moving in terms of the independent monitor.

I would hope that if that person is in place by the end of the year, as anticipated, we shall be able to avail ourselves of that new full-time role in order to discuss with him or her not simply what follows from the passage of this Bill, but other matters such as the role and function of an ECO; decision making outwith the Bill in terms of the five-year plan; and, crucially, the points system. We need to marry together all those elements, as well as the rule changes that are required. It is only appropriate that I find some mechanism to ensure that the independent monitor is party to our discussions as we develop the system.

Turning quickly to the amendments, amendment No. 11 expands the remit of the independent monitor for entry clearance, as the hon. Member for Woking has suggested. We do not believe that it is the purpose of primary legislation to—shackle is too strong a word—impose on the independent function what this Committee determines should be part of the job. The postholder will have a very broad remit in terms of exploring the quality of the entire decision-making process, and if we accept amendment No. 11 there will be too great an overlap between his or her work and that of the immigration appeals tribunal.

I know that the hon. Gentleman was down the corridor when we discussed what I call the air miles amendment—that is, the notion of judges tootling round each ECO post to determine quality subsequent to the commencement order for anything that is in the Bill. As I said previously, that is not the most appropriate way to determine quality at the posts, nor would it probably—to put it generously—be the best use of the time of the hon. Gentleman's judicial brothers and sisters. We do not think that the air miles amendment is appropriate. Nor is it necessarily appropriate for there to be a formalised link between individual cases and people who are dissatisfied with the way their appeals have been determined and the independent monitor.

2.30 pm

Again, that is moving away from the independent monitor's important role of overseeing the quality and efficacy of these assorted processes. If the independent
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monitor is in place by the end of the year, and if the Bill returns to us from the other place in April or May, I would be more than happy to facilitate a discussion between the new appointee and about how he or she views the independent monitor's role panning out. Clearly that is to some extent dependent on the appointment being made by the end of the year. I will certainly keep Members informed about that.

I am grateful for the amendments in as much as they have prompted the debate. I fully accept and understand the important function that the independent monitor must have, which is why we are seeking to make it a full-time post. For the reasons I have outlined, the first and third of these amendments go too far and confuse the oversight role with other elements of the independent monitor's role.

As I did earlier, I cheerfully dismiss the air miles amendment as an inappropriate way to lock in the genuine concerns of increasing quality before we commence various provisions in the Bill. With all those comments in mind and in appreciation of the hon. Gentleman's comments about the enhancements we are carrying out with the independent monitor, I ask him to withdraw the amendment.

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