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5 Feb 2007 : Column 611

Mr. Gale: The Minister said that he hoped that there would be a lengthy debate on the biometric issue in Committee. The timetable motion is not debatable but by my calculation we have roughly 12 sittings in Committee. There are 48 clauses in the Bill—that is four clauses per sitting. I do not think that he has enough time. Does my hon. Friend agree?

Damian Green: I agree with my hon. Friend. The Bill gives rise to a large number of issues and I suspect that there will not be time to discuss them all fully in Committee, but that is a common problem with the Government, who have never taken parliamentary scrutiny seriously. As a result, every year, they pass laws that are worse than they were when they were leaving the Minister, as it were. The problem has come back to bite them.

On the issue of the treatment of claimants, the Minister will be pleased to hear that we welcome the requirement for people granted limited leave to remain to report to an immigration officer, but we hope that that will become a genuine requirement, and not go the way of the completely ineffective sex offender registration system. We have no objections in principle to the changes in support for asylum seekers. We will have questions at Committee stage about the removal of the right to present new evidence at the appeal stage of an immigration hearing. The Minister will be aware that strong arguments have been advanced by lobby groups against the reduction of appeal rights. Indeed, the House should hear a point that was made in the House in 1992:

That point was made by the Prime Minister when he was shadow Home Secretary. Just because the Prime Minister says something does not mean it was not true, and I think that he was right about that.

Under the heading of “Enforcement”, we particularly welcome the clauses designed to combat people trafficking. We are pleased that the Government listened to us and to the many groups that called on them to sign up to the European convention against human trafficking, and we urge them to use the Bill to put into effect some of other suggestions for fighting that vile crime. It was clear from the Minister’s speech that he has read all my speeches and press reports avidly, so he will be aware that we recommended separate interviews at all airports for women and children travelling with an adult who is not a parent, guardian or husband. Every police force and local government department should have a strategy for dealing with suspected victims of trafficking, and the Government should set up a helpline to provide information for women who have been trafficked and for people who suspect that exploitation has taken place. We will try to help the Minister to go as fast as he wants to go in that part of the Bill, because the UK should take the lead in combating people trafficking, which is modern-day slavery. The 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade is a good year for us to take significant steps forward in fighting the modern slave trade.

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The Bill is a long way from being perfect—frankly, it is a long way from being very good—and it certainly does not face up to the scale of the crisis confronting the immigration system. Britain’s borders are not secure, and they have not been made any more secure by recent decisions at the Home Office. The Government have made some gestures towards better security in the Bill, and it is our duty as a responsible Opposition to help with that. It is vital for the country that we develop safe and secure borders, and an immigration system that is once again fit for purpose. Our party will play its part in making that happen.

5.47 pm

Mr. John Denham (Southampton, Itchen) (Lab): I broadly welcome the Bill, and the Government’s response to the Home Affairs Committee report that was published last summer. Shortly afterwards, the Government introduced their proposals, many of which are reflected in the detail of the Bill and the thinking behind it. There have been significant changes in immigration policy in the past six months. The hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green), who made a very clear speech, was rather dismissive of the Government’s decision to end primary immigration from outside the EU by low-skilled workers, but that is a major policy change that gives the lie to consistent claims that there is a system of uncontrolled immigration. It reflects the reality of the labour market and the expansion of the European Union, as it enables migration policy from outside the EU to concentrate on the contribution from highly skilled workers if there is a clear need for such workers in the economy. That is a massive shift in migration policy, compared with the policy of a few years ago, and it should be welcomed.

I should like to make a few general points about the Bill’s context before making some more detailed ones. May I draw attention to a couple of conclusions in the report that the Home Affairs Committee published last July? The UK Borders Bill is primarily about borders, and we emphasised that in a world where there is mass movement for many different purposes it is impossible to control migration purely through the security of borders. We said that illegal migration would increasingly have to be dealt with by internal measures, rather than at borders themselves. We concluded:

The Committee concluded:

That was an important conclusion. The Government—and the proposal under discussion—rightly want to strengthen and improve border controls. However, an illusion is about in public debate that border controls alone can deal with illegal migration. That is simply untrue, because such a large group of people moves in and out of our country, and we want that to happen. That group includes ourselves; we travel for business, to visit families and so forth. A major part of dealing with illegal migration must happen internally. Some of the
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measures in the Bill, particularly those to do with biometric ID cards, are clearly aimed at achieving that, as are the measures to do with sharing information between the immigration system and the tax and revenue system.

Mr. Stewart Jackson: I agree that it is important that data and information are shared. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree with the Government’s decision of last May not to take part in the sharing of criminal records data between seven EU countries, and why does he think that that decision was made?

Mr. Denham: The Select Committee is currently looking at the evolution of such matters within the European Union. I think that the hon. Gentleman is referring to the Prum treaty and to countries generally towards the eastern part of the EU and central Europe. There is a major issue in that. I do not want to anticipate the Committee’s conclusion, but my feeling is that it would be better if data sharing took place by agreement of the EU as a whole, rather than by small groups in the EU breaking away and coming to their own arrangements. However, I must say to the hon. Gentleman that that is a matter of some debate in the Committee, and we shall have to see what conclusion we come to on it. The Government had a reasonable case for not simply leaping into signing up to something that had been decided by a small number of EU member states.

Let me return to the point about internal measures against illegal migration. The clear conclusion of the Committee was that:

It particularly recommended that:

We found that evidence suggested that past strategies of trying to focus on certain groups of illegal workers in specific workplaces and of removing them from the country was missing the point. The fundamental problem is employers who are abusive and exploitative—and who abuse and exploit illegal workers and many other workers, too. The problem employers we should be most worried about do not just employ illegal workers: they do not pay their tax and national insurance; they do not comply with the minimum wage; they do not follow health and safety requirements; and they do not follow employment legislation. If we had a cross-Government drive against abusive and exploitative employers and agencies, we would certainly deal with illegal migration, but in the course of doing that, we would also deal with a lot of other abuse and exploitation.

The Minister is moving the Government in that direction—the Bill is a move in that direction—but he has some battles to win with other parts of the Government if they are to become fully fledged partners in the exercise. I will give him all the best support that I can in respect of those arguments. The Select Committee came to the view that targeting abusive employers would bring more success in dealing with illegal migration than would simply trying to find
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five or six people somewhere, or diving into a factory to grab 10 people—and let us not forget the costs of removing such people.

Stewart Hosie: Is there not a danger that those who are here illegally and are working on the fringes of illegality will, when faced with biometric checks for something or other, be forced deeper into the illegal economy and further out of sight of the authorities that can provide help and assistance—and out of sight of the law enforcement agencies that are looking for them? Might not people be pushed further underground because of fear of ID checks of the sort that the right hon. Gentleman describes?

Mr. Denham: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Some have responded to it by saying, “Let’s have an amnesty.” The Committee considered that and came to the conclusion that it would be the wrong approach to take. Until we have a secure regime in place at the very least, an amnesty would merely be an advertising brochure for the people traffickers. They could say, “Well, you’ve only got to get there, and once you’re in, you’ll be all right.”

It is true that the Minister will need to have in place a strategy to deal with the inevitable consequences of success both in tackling illegal labour and, using the biometric card, in dealing with access to public services and benefits. There is no doubt that there will be a difficult period. However, I see no way of avoiding that obstacle if we are to get credibility into the system in respect of dealing with illegal labour.

David Taylor: Of course my right hon. Friend is right that the focus should be on illegal working, but as we learned in respect of the gangmasters legislation, it is extraordinarily difficult to get cross-departmental co-operation even when the ends are shared. That is obviously still the case in 2007, as it was when the gangmasters legislation was under consideration some years ago. Does my right hon. Friend have any suggestions as to how individual Departments can be encouraged to co-operate and exchange information within the narrow limits specified by Ministers?

Mr. Denham: Let me make two points in response to that. First, in the past few months there has been a strengthening of cross-government systems and organisation for dealing with such matters. The Minister has, I think, indicated that more on that will come into the public domain in the next few weeks, so we will have better structures in place. Secondly, Members need to be very clear that it cannot always be the Home Office’s responsibility to deal with all such issues. We need to put pressure on the Treasury, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department of Trade and Industry and other Departments that have an interest in this area.

Jon Cruddas (Dagenham) (Lab): On the amnesty question, the Greater London authority estimates that in London alone there are some 320,000 unregularised migrants—not including dependants—many of whom will be working. If the regime is successful in clamping down on employers—I agree with my right hon. Friend’s sentiment on that—there is the possibility that we will push tens of thousands of people out of work
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who have no status in society, and that that will become a major public policy issue for social services and councils. What remedy might there be for that, other than an amnesty?

Mr. Denham: My hon. Friend is right that there will be a major public policy issue, but I see no way of avoiding that now. We might have to put in place measures that enable people to return home, if they wish to do so. Also, there will at least be a better knowledge of what our labour market genuinely needs if people are paid a proper rate of pay, rather than the poverty pay that is paid at present. I do not pretend that I have all the answers. I have raised this issue with the Minister. There must be a strategy for dealing with such a situation. However, I say to my hon. Friend that the alternative, which is simply to regularise everybody’s position, would lead to another 320,000 people turning up within the space of a few months or a few years in the expectation that the same would happen to them.

We are having a debate on this issue in this country, but it needs to be raised across the EU. Select Committee members went to Poland last week to visit Frontex, the border agency charged with co-ordinating European border activity both across the land border in eastern Europe and in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. We were interested to hear about the work that it was doing, but the fact is that the same issues arise time and again. Trying to strengthen border patrols along the Mediterranean will not work as long as there is massive use of very poorly paid and exploited labour—in the agricultural sector, for instance, as is the case in Italy. It is not possible to police a border if behind that border there are many opportunities to work—albeit in very bad conditions, but ones that, to refer to the example I have just given, are better for the many African people employed than are those in the countries from which they have come. The Government need to raise this issue in the EU, so that there is effective labour market enforcement across the EU and not only in the UK, because ultimately what happens along the European borders affects the pressure on our own borders. That is of relevance to some of the issues in the Bill.

Margaret Moran: I did not have the privilege of being on the Select Committee at that time, but I commend my right hon. Friend on bringing this issue to our attention. On visiting Ukraine, it became apparent that borders throughout eastern Europe are very transparent and, therefore, any approach that purports to be border control is, as he said, entirely permeable. As the Ukrainian authorities said, they are dealing with Russian immigrants coming into that country and perhaps purporting to be Poles. So we cannot possibly win with the Opposition’s strategy, which is to provide greater and greater walls to imaginary castles. That strategy will not sustain a proper immigration policy.

Mr. Denham: I thank my hon. Friend for that point, and I shall return briefly to EU issues in a moment.

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I shall not rehearse too much the argument raised earlier about the immigration officer powers in the Bill, but I hope that we can explore in Committee whether there should be a greater alignment of immigration and customs officer powers. Let us imagine that a car arrives with one British citizen, one foreign national, a quantity of cigarettes and some money. The reality is that if there is an immigration officer and a customs officer, one will be able to detain one of those citizens, and the other will be able to detain the other. One will have the power to confiscate the car and the cigarettes, and the other will not, and an assumption about where the money came from will determine which of them is able to confiscate the money. That is a slightly fatuous example, but all sorts of practical problems will arise.

Andrew Mackinlay: It is very realistic.

Mr. Denham: Thank you. All sorts of problems will arise from joint operations involving members of the two services, and a good favour could be done to everyone by aligning their powers. We do not have to go as far as having a border force at this stage, but simply providing some legal clarity would be enormously useful. Joint operations will move us in the direction in which we wish to go.

On identity cards, it is worth reinforcing the point that, although we talk about foreign nationals, some confusion exists. Compulsory biometric ID cards will be for those outside the EU and the European economic area.

Mr. Garnier: I shall, if I may, with the greatest of respect, correct the right hon. Gentleman. The Identity Cards Act 2006 requires anyone in this country over the age of 16 who is here for more than three months to register their details with the national identity register, and they will be subject to a penalty if they do not.

Mr. Denham: The strategy in the Bill, which the Minister outlined today, is targeted at another group of people. The compulsion will come in for those outside the EEA first. We will arrive—soon, I hope—at the point where everyone has a biometric ID card. That is clearly the ideal situation, which, in my view, we should work towards as quickly as possible. However, starting with selected groups of people outside the EEA will create a period during which there will be some premium on having identity documents from other EU states, as a way for those who are clearly not British to establish a right to be here. I hope that the Government and the Opposition can explore in Committee whether there are sufficient powers and penalties regarding the fraudulent use of identity documents from elsewhere within the EU. Someone who fraudulently uses such documents should face a penalty sufficient to give rise to a presumption that any other claims to immigration status will be removed.

Mr. Garnier: Does the right hon. Gentleman not agree that, while we still have a free travel area between the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic, and while we are not yet assured that Scottish legislation mirroring the Bill will come into force at the same time, there are two enormous holes in this so-called UK Borders Bill?

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Mr. Denham: There is indeed no end of material for fruitful discussion in Committee, and I am sure that those issues will be raised. I wanted to draw attention to the position regarding EU documentation, because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran) said, there are reasons to be concerned about the practice in that respect.

I have two other brief points. I welcome the proposal to remove the presentation of new evidence at appeal for decisions made according to the points-based system regarding work-related visas. However, I should point out that the Select Committee, which first came up with the proposal, did not want that power to be limited to the points-based system. We wanted it to cover all appeals, including family visits, which we observed a number of times at appeal tribunals. The problem is that at the moment, the entry clearance officer takes a decision based on one set of information, and then wholly new information is presented on appeal and a different conclusion is reached. It is not really an appeal, but a re-hearing of the same issues. On occasion, that happens simply because information that could have been provided at the initial stage was not, such as authentic information about the sponsor’s bank account or financial circumstances.

We suggested that the simplest thing would be to have a proper stage in the decision-making procedure at which entry clearance officers say that they are minded to refuse an application for lack of clear evidence or proof in a particular case. So if someone said, “I am going to turn this down because I am not satisfied about the financial documentation”, or “I am not satisfied that you have no family members living in the country that would lead you to return”, there would be a period of time in which those facts could be established and the case re-examined by the entry clearance officer. That would prevent the enormous waste of time and money that occurs when cases are transferred to the appeal tribunal here. There is a lengthy delay while documents are put together and sent halfway around the world, and the appeal is one of a long listing of appeals. I urge Ministers to consider the idea of a “minded to refuse” stage.

It is true, as many of us know from our casework, that on occasion, writing to an entry clearance officer with new information leads them to exercise their discretion and to change the decision. However, we also know that that often does not happen, and that new information is rejected on the basis that it was not presented at the same time. Ministers have gone part of the way towards a more rational and streamlined system, but they could have gone much further, in line with the Select Committee’s proposals.

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