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Session 2006 - 07
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Public Bill Committee Debates

Draft Asylum (First List of Safe Countries) (Amendment) Order 2006

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Ann Winterton
Byers, Mr. Stephen (North Tyneside) (Lab)
Byrne, Mr. Liam (Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality)
Campbell, Mr. Alan (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
Featherstone, Lynne (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD)
Green, Damian (Ashford) (Con)
Hall, Mr. Mike (Weaver Vale) (Lab)
Lancaster, Mr. Mark (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con)
McDonagh, Siobhain (Mitcham and Morden) (Lab)
Mahmood, Mr. Khalid (Birmingham, Perry Barr) (Lab)
Marris, Rob (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab)
Purchase, Mr. Ken (Wolverhampton, North-East) (Lab/Co-op)
Russell, Bob (Colchester) (LD)
Touhig, Mr. Don (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op)
Walter, Mr. Robert (North Dorset) (Con)
Wills, Mr. Michael (North Swindon) (Lab)
Wilson, Mr. Rob (Reading, East) (Con)
Wright, Jeremy (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con)
Gordon Clarke, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Thirteenth Delegated Legislation Committee

Thursday 7 December 2006

[Ann Winterton in the Chair]

Draft Asylum (First List of Safe Countries) (Amendment) Order 2006

2.30 pm
The Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality (Mr. Liam Byrne): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Asylum (First List of Safe Countries) (Amendment) Order 2006.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to consider the draft Accession (Immigration and Worker Authorisation) Regulations 2006.
Mr. Byrne: I shall speak to the first order and then to the second.
The draft Asylum (First List of Safe Countries) (Amendment) Order 2006 adds Bulgaria and Romania to the first list of safe third countries. It is not about nationals of Bulgaria and Romania; a safe third country is not the country of origin of an individual. Therefore, by using the provisions, the UK is not denying its responsibility to consider wider asylum claims. It is an established international principle that third countries can remove asylum applicants to a safe third country, which is then responsible for dealing with the claim. That safe country must satisfy us that an individual will not be persecuted or removed in breach of the refugee convention or the European convention on human rights. It is our intention that the order should come into force on 1 January 2007.
The draft Accession (Immigration and Worker Authorisation) Regulations 2006 concern access for workers from Bulgaria and Romania to the labour market in this country after those countries accede to the EU on 1 January 2007. One of the great privileges of my job is that I am not short of advice. Everyone has an opinion and people have not been reticent in coming forward. The decision was much debated over the summer. We think that the accession of the A8 countries has been of enormous benefit to the UK. Billions have been added to the output of the economy, and new immigrants have made important additions to our public services and other sectors.
However, there have been transitional and isolated impacts on public services. The choice that confronts us is not whether to shut people from Bulgaria and Romania out and keep them out for ever. The choice that the Government have to make is how quickly to open the door. The decision that we have made is to open the door gradually, and to use the time that that decision buys to reflect more on the evidence of transitional impacts. That way, we can satisfy ourselves that they are isolated examples, and that we have the right remedial measures and policies in place.
The restrictions that we propose are not intended, therefore, to set back the existing rights of Bulgarians and Romanians to come and work in this country. However, those workers who come here to work in low-skilled areas of the economy are constrained to two specific parts of the economy—the agricultural sector and the food processing sector. Highly skilled migrants will not need to obtain work authorisation documents—they can apply under existing provisions. The same is true of students, who can apply to come to work and study in the UK as now. Nor can we place restrictions on the self-employed, although we can take measures to ensure that people are really working as self-employed, and are not simply posing as such. I am discussing those measures with the Paymaster General. The quota of low-skilled workers will stand at 19,750.
We are also proposing to take new powers to enforce the system. It will be an offence for an employer to employ a Bulgarian or Romanian national who needs but does not have a work authorisation document, or who is undertaking work other than that specified in the document. Employers will have a defence if they have been presented with false documents. In that situation, individual workers will be committing an offence for which they may face prosecution, although that will be waived if they pay a fixed penalty. It will also be an offence for a Bulgarian or Romanian national to obtain a work authorisation card by deception. In implementing the system, we are catering for the needs of law-abiding employers. We are introducing and investing in an information campaign for them, backed by a toolkit and a helpline, which we shall strengthen in the new year. We shall thus be able to provide employers quickly with information on their rights and obligations. We are also working with the International Organisation for Migration to provide Bulgarian and Romanian nationals with information on how the rules will function. That information will stress to prospective migrants the need to check their rights before travelling to the UK.
The regulations will apply for five years, reflecting the fact that we are required to notify the Commission after two years if we intend to maintain the restrictions, in which case we shall be able to continue them for a further three years. However, we said on announcing our intention to introduce the restrictions that we would review the arrangements within 12 months, in case we have been too conservative and restrictive in our access proposals.
I believe that the regulations will enable us to pursue a controlled and managed approach to migration that will be in the interests of the UK economy. I commend them to the Committee.
2.36 pm
Damian Green (Ashford) (Con): I shall follow the Minister’s example and address both instruments before us at the same time. I have no disagreement with his comments on the first list of safe countries. No doubt he is aware of the concerns that have been expressed, not least in another place, that it will be important to keep a careful check on the workings of the legal system in two new accession countries—particularly Bulgaria. I am conscious, however, that that will take place in the early months and years after the welcome accession of those two countries not just at the level of our own national Government but at European level.
On the other instrument, I hope that the Minister will accept that I speak as a candid and critical friend of the Government and what they are trying to achieve. The Opposition want the restrictions to work, but we have serious doubts about whether they will in practice. Putting tough words effectively into action is so often a task in which the current Home Office fails, especially in immigration. The Minister said that during the summer he was not short of advice on the matter, and I was one of those who added to the advice. In August we called for restrictions to be applied to Romaniaand Bulgaria, which was a common-sense course of action to propose, given the Government’s appalling misjudgment on the A8 countries that acceded tothe EU in 2004. The House will be aware that the Government estimate of the numbers who would come from those countries was about 15,000, whereas the actual number turned out to be closer to 600,000. I am delighted that, a couple of months after our suggestion that the Government use the transitional arrangements to put today’s restrictions in place, they have taken our advice. As the Home Secretary, in particular, is doing his best to copy our language on immigration, it would be churlish not to welcome the Government’s copying us on the odd bit of policy, and I do so.
I can understand that the Minister does not want to repeat the numbers debacle. I apologise to him for mentioning a subject with which he had problems this morning when appearing before the Select Committee, but could he essay a rough guess on how many entrants he expects from the two countries during the next year? Of that number, how many does he expect will settle permanently? He will know that without that guidance about the overall policy framework, there will be huge public scepticism as to whether the restrictions have substance. In particular, how many self-employed people does he expect to come? That issue is important because it is potentially a huge loophole in the regulations that he is laying before us. Nobody expects the Government to be spot on, but a rough guess would be helpful. What checks does he propose to make to ensure that such self-employment is genuine?
The Minister has spoken about the sanctions on both employers and employees, which we support in principle. How effective will such sanctions be, particularly the fixed penalty notice that will be available to employees, which sounds like a “Get out of jail cheap” card? Is it not the case that many potential illegal workers will simply regard it as a sort of tax? If they examine the Government’s enforcement record in this area, they are likely to think that statistically it is pretty unlikely that they would ever be caught. If the effect of being caught is simply that they have to pay a fixed penalty, they may well regard it as a risk worth taking, and I am sure that nobody would welcome that sort of attitude. Given that, will the Minister tell us the level of fine he is contemplating under this fixed penalty regime?
Let us consider those coming to the UK under the quota that the Minister is announcing for the low skilled, who will have their right to work limited to six months. How soon will they be able to return after that six-month period? Clearly, if they could come here for six months, go back for a couple of weeks and then come for another six months, and repeat that pattern, that is another potential loophole.
Will the Minister also address the issue of fake passports? These restrictions would be meaningless if any worker who thinks he is likely to fall foul of them could easily obtain a passport from another EU country. As the BBC “Panorama” programme showed this week, regrettably it is extremely easy to buy passports from other countries.
In a similar vein, what about those who are entitled to Bulgarian passports but who are not Bulgarian? Are the Government taking steps to crack down on this area? Are they at least talking to the Bulgarian Government about cracking down on it? This seems to be a phenomenon that, for obvious reasons, will grow.
The Minister talked about the possibility of relaxing the restrictions after a couple of years, as allowed for under the accession treaties, and about having a review after a year to see whether the restrictions are unnecessary. It would be extremely helpful if he could tell the Committee the criteria he will use to decide whether the restrictions will be relaxed early. If we knew that key fact, it would make it easier to decide on the merit of these orders.
As the Minister will see, although I welcome the principle of these orders—indeed, I called for them before the Government did—many serious practical issues need to be addressed if this is not to be yet another immigration disaster, following the many that have affected the Government over the past few years.
Yet again, there is the danger that the Government are talking tough but acting weakly. The Minister is saying that Bulgarian and Romanian workers will need a registration certificate, but he has given us no indication of how such a system will be effectively enforced. Workers caught acting illegally will be able to get away with paying a fixed penalty, and given the Government’s failure to prosecute more than a handful of illegal employers in the past nine years, that is barely a threat at all. The Minister will understand that there will be huge public scepticism about the practical effectiveness of the orders. I hope that he can allay my concerns.
2.44 pm
Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): I believe that I amthe only Member present who had the pleasure this morning of serving on the joint meeting of the Select Committee on Home Affairs and the European Scrutiny Committee, in which the Minister was grilled for two hours. It is fair to say that he did not havemuch of a sympathetic hearing from those present. I congratulate the Labour Whips for ensuring that none of the Labour critics from this morning are here this afternoon. I am sure that the Minister will confirm that the fiercest critics were Government Back Benchers.
It is crystal clear that Romanians and Bulgarians will now be second-class citizens of the EU. The citizensof every other accession country are here with equal rights. The Minister did not give a convincing answer to anybody as to why those two countries have been picked on, but one hon. Member suggested that there was a reaction in the summer to the Conservative tabloid press. The Minister will get an easier ride this afternoon. I cannot see in the room any of the hostile critics with whom he had to contend this morning. He survived, and he is here to deal with the regulations.
How will the Government deal with the issues that the hon. Member for Ashford raised? The Minister did not give a convincing answer this morning. It appears that many Romanians and Bulgarians will be allowed into the country but not allowed to take up paid employment. I am sure that there will be ways and means by which they can secure employment, and I suspect that many will be drawn into the shadow economy. The Treasury will therefore not get the tax take that it would if Romania and Bulgaria were fully fledged members of the European Union alongside the other 25 member states.
Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden) (Lab) rose—
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