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5 Feb 2007 : Column 663

I particularly praise the hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer), who is a very brave lady when it comes to the issues that we are discussing. In the past, she has bravely taken up many of the concerns raised today, and she is hugely respected, not only in her constituency but in mine, for all the work that she has done on the issue of forced marriages and immigration more generally. I certainly support her call to raise the minimum age at which people can be brought into the country for the purpose of marriage from 18 to 21. I also support her call to make it a requirement that people should be able to speak English before coming into the country, rather than sit a test once they have entered.

That brings me to a big problem. My hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) made a great speech, but there was one part with which I disagreed. He celebrated the fact that 93 different languages were spoken in Peterborough. I think that we should not celebrate that, but should instead be very sorrowful about it, because I would much prefer us to all speak one language—the English language. That would do more to enhance community cohesion than having 93 different languages spoken.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): On the important subject of social cohesion and community relations, does my hon. Friend agree that UK citizens who have been unemployed for more than 12 months as a result of not speaking the language should be encouraged to use the language?

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. Again, I remind hon. Members that we are discussing the content of the Bill.

Philip Davies: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I will heed your advice. I wish briefly to touch on the issue of asylum. In terms of numbers, asylum is not a big issue in the immigration debate; there are much bigger issues. However, I share many people’s concerns about the failure to remove failed asylum seekers from the country, and the way in which that has undermined the system of asylum. We in this country have a proud tradition of looking after people who are fleeing persecution, and I hope that it will continue for many years to come, but it can only do so if there is a robust system in which people have faith.

I certainly agree with the comments made by the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) about the time that it takes to deal with many cases. I met some asylum seekers in Bradford yesterday, and I was appalled to learn that all the families that I met had been in the asylum system for between four and eight years. Whatever the rights and wrongs of their claim, that is an obscene amount of time for which to leave them in limbo, wondering what will happen to them. Some have fled terrible persecution. We should not allow such delays to happen.

David Taylor: The hon. Gentleman wondered how large a contribution asylum made to the problems that we face. Is he broadly supportive of the tipping-point strategy, articulated quite some time ago, in which a
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greater number of failed asylum seekers were to be removed than the number of people added to the pile of those who are in the country without justification? Did not that system, and the new asylum model used in its wake, produce the kind of cases that my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) mentioned, in which immigration staff were required to go for soft targets, in order to meet the requirements of that particular model? That cannot work, can it?

Philip Davies: The hon. Gentleman may have a point, and the hon. Member for Thurrock’s point about soft targets is particularly relevant. In a case that had been going on for eight years, the person concerned had come to this country from France. I was always under the impression that people should be sent back to the first safe country they went to for their asylum application to be heard. I could not quite understand how, after eight years, someone was still being dealt with here, having made it clear that they made their first application in France.

There is one elephant in the room that it would be impossible not to mention with regard to immigration: the European Union. A huge number of people are coming into this country perfectly legally from the EU, far more than the Government ever predicted. In terms of people coming from outside the EU, the Minister will agree that our border controls can only be as good as the border controls in the EU. If people get into the EU without any particular problem, it makes it easier for them to get from those countries into the UK.

The excellent Speakout campaign has gained a lot of support across the country and has found that well over 80 per cent. support the view that Britain should get back control of its own borders. I would advise the Minister that if he really wishes to make a difference on immigration, we should get back our border controls rather than handing them over to the EU.

Ms Abbott: On the question of regaining control of our borders, how does the hon. Gentleman see that happening? Would it be by, in a sense, seceding from the EU?

Philip Davies: If the hon. Lady spent more time in the Chamber and less time on television, she would know that I have long argued, both within this place and outside, for Britain to withdraw from the EU. I am perfectly happy to clarify that point and I thank her for giving me the platform to make it clear that I think we would be better off out of the EU.

The problem of immigration is widespread and is a big problem for many of our constituents. It is no good burying our heads in the sand and pretending that it is not a problem. It is no good pretending, as the Minister would wish us to do, that everything is rosy in the garden and that we cannot even raise the concerns of those people who have voted for the BNP. We must reflect the legitimate concerns of our constituents, or we will see even more people voting for nasty, thuggish parties such as the BNP—something that I want to avoid.

The issue is in our own hands. We have an opportunity to get those votes back from parties such as the BNP by having some robust and effective measures to deal with mass immigration into this country. I am so sorry that
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the Bill does not seem to go far enough to address those concerns, but I hope that we can make it more robust in Committee.

9.13 pm

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): I was toying with the idea of abstaining on the Bill because of my concerns about it but, having listened to the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), I shall be enthusiastically supporting it. I found a number of the hon. Gentleman’s comments most distasteful. He is right to raise concerns about why people vote for the BNP, but I thought that he might have used the opportunity to condemn the BNP and all it stands for.

Philip Davies: At the end, I made it clear that there were thugs and nasty people in the BNP. I am more than happy to reiterate my view that they are a nasty bunch of thugs.

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. May I again remind Members that the debate today is on the contents of the UK Borders Bill?

Keith Vaz: Indeed, Madam Speaker, and I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman took that opportunity. However, it is no good him having a go at my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) for appearing on television. It is only because the hon. Gentleman is never asked to go on television, no doubt because of his views, that he had a go at her.

I do not want to stray too far from the Bill and my concern is that here we are yet again debating immigration and listening to yet another Immigration Minister—a different one from when the last Immigration Bill was introduced. My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington and I, who have been in the House for 20 years, have probably attended every immigration Bill debate over that two-decade period. What concerns me is that despite the fact that we pass legislation, we have still not solved the problem that lies at the heart of the immigration and nationality directorate.

We are not providing a good and efficient service, which is necessary to ensure that we deal with people’s cases. As a result, the backlog increases, decisions are not taken, there is delay in processing cases, as the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) and many other right hon. and hon. Members have mentioned during the debate, and we do not seem to be solving the basic problem. Passing yet another Bill and creating yet another Act of Parliament will not solve the fundamental problem.

The Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality is extraordinarily able. He was elected in a spectacular by-election in Birmingham. He has held a number of other ministerial offices and done so with distinction. If he and the current Home Secretary do not solve the problem that lies at the heart of IND, I do not think that any other Ministers could do so. They are able and have a commitment to deal with the system.

The Home Secretary was right to tell the House and the public that he felt that IND was not fit for purpose. I have said that for many years, not just under the
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present Government but, as I pointed out to the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green), under the previous Government. I know that he was not in the House then, but for the 10 years that I was in opposition, from 1987 to 1997, the situation in the Home Office was appalling. The backlog was twice or three times as great as it is now. There were sackfuls of unopened mail at IND. There is a systemic problem that needs to be solved, and I do not believe that it can be solved by legislation.

Mr. Stewart Jackson: I know that it is uncharacteristic of the right hon. Gentleman to be beastly to my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies). Is it purely coincidence that the rise of racist, extremist parties always seems to occur under Labour Governments because of incompetence and—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I have ruled on that already this evening. The debate is not on political parties, but on border controls.

Keith Vaz: What the hon. Member for Shipley says is not true. I have never seen a link between immigration policy and good race relations. We can have good race relations in the United Kingdom. The hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) has a seat next door to my Leicester seat. He has a growing Asian population in places like Oadby. Many of my hon. Friends and colleagues in all parts of the House have multicultural constituencies. We have good race relations in this country, and that has nothing to do with our immigration law.

Mark Pritchard: On the issue of borders, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that 2 million immigrants entering the United Kingdom since 1997 is unsustainable in terms of social and physical infrastructure, in particular in his constituency, or does he believe it is sustainable in his constituency?

Keith Vaz: It is absolutely sustainable. I do not believe that immigration has caused this country any problems. The presence of the immigrant community has benefited Britain. There is an economic case for it. I am a product of that system, having come to this country as a first-generation immigrant. Legal and lawful immigration to Britain has created communities that have helped our country and made it, I believe, the best country in the world to live in. The recent arrival of the east European people, following the enlargement of the EU, has benefited our country enormously. It is therefore not right to say that immigration has caused problems.

On the way in which the Government have dealt with IND, there is a commitment to act, but the problem is the way in which IND operates—how constituency cases are dealt with, how cases are processed and the speed with which they are processed. It is not enough for us to say to our constituents when they come to our surgeries that the backlog is getting smaller. I want this Minister to be the first Minister in 10 years to tell the House of Commons that the backlog has gone.

The way to get rid of the backlog is not to move resources from IND to the Prison Service. It is madness that there is a proposal to cut the IND budget by 9 per cent. in order to increase the Prison Service budget.
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That just will not wash. We need sufficient resources to allow people of calibre and ability to be able to judge cases. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with the civil servants who administer immigration policy; they are just demoralised. There are some fantastic people working in IND, but they are working in very difficult circumstances and there is a lack of leadership from the top of the management board as to the way in which things operate.

I write at least 50 letters a week to a woman called Lin Homer. I have met her, and I am sure that she is a dedicated civil servant, just as she was a dedicated chief executive of Birmingham city council. The fact is, however, that Lin Homer and her colleagues—her deputy directors and the higher management of IND—are simply not solving the administrative problems that need to be solved. They should not write letters to our constituents telling them that it is the IND’s ambition to address their problems and to give them a decision within 28 days, or that its target is that 70 per cent. of its cases are going to be solved within a 28-day period. Our constituents come to our surgeries clutching those pieces of paper, and they believe what they read. Many of those people have been waiting one or two years for a reply.

At the same time as we ask people to go through the misery of waiting for a decision, we also ask them to pay fees. We ask them to pay for a service that we would not be satisfied with if it were provided by the private sector. An application for a work permit now costs more than £300. Do they get a decision quickly? On balance, if they apply from outside this country, no. The service inside the country is actually pretty good, but anyone who applies from abroad under the new scheme instituted by the previous Immigration Minister—known as managed migration—will have to wait a very long time.

I know that my hon. Friend the Minister, representing a seat such as his in Birmingham, has a big constituency case load. I say to him in friendship that the only way to solve the problem in IND is to get people of talent into the service. He is giving a shadow agency the powers to get things done—not under the Bill—and creating a completely new agency. Moving the problems from the desk of the Immigration Minister and putting them on the desk of the chief executive of a new agency will not solve the problems that we face.

There needs to be a fundamental review of the way in which the decision-making process works. To be perfectly frank, when right hon. and hon. Members write to Ministers asking for meetings about difficult constituency cases, those meetings should be granted. In my 20 years in the House, I have written to Ministers of all political persuasions to ask for such meetings and those meetings have been granted. We need that ministerial focus. Create an agency by all means, but do not take away accountability to Members of the House or the Minister’s ability to scrutinise those cases.

Ms Abbott: Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is not only the question of Ministers granting meetings on the occasional difficult case that is key to the issue of accountability? Is it not also the case that delays
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have a multiplier effect on the problems in the system? They cause intense human misery, but they also give an incentive to shoddy immigration advisers to encourage a minority of people to put in baseless claims. If they know that they are going to have to wait two or three years, why not? If only the system were more efficiently managed, people would be happier and more content, and it would squeeze fraud out of the system.

Keith Vaz: My hon. Friend is right. This situation has been made worse by the cuts in legal aid, which mean that good practitioners are coming out of legal aid, leaving citizens at the mercy of unscrupulous immigration advisers. People then come to our surgeries and expect us to sort out the problems.

There are people of talent in the system. I urge the Minister to look at the way in which UK Visas is run. It has a better system than the Home Office: one writes a letter about a constituency case, which goes to the post abroad, and one gets a reply. One might not be happy with that reply but at least one gets a reply with information on which one can act As for the Home Office, one gets a reply from a deputy director saying that one must wait another six months or even longer for the case to be considered. For example, the family reunion cases, which the Minister’s predecessor agreed to years ago, are still going through the system, and have not been dealt with.

The Minister has the capacity, ability and personal charm to persuade people to make a difference in the way that they do their jobs. That takes resources, however, and it requires the right people. I urge him to consider some of the senior officials such as Carol Doughty in New Delhi or Mandy Ivemy in Bombay—directors of visa services who must deal with thousands of visa cases, and who are able to sort out the problems that are put before them and make decisions immediately. When one is operating on the basis of a right of appeal, that is so much better.

I will concede to the Minister all that he is doing on border controls. I do not know the answer—I do not have a coastline surrounding Leicester, so I cannot say what that is like. He has done the research, and he tells me that we need the provisions. On customer service and the ability to deal with cases, however, he has lost me. To regain me, he must provide a better system that works.

My next point is on liaison between Departments. In an Adjournment debate a few years ago, I raised the case of a constituent of mine who was killed by a foreign national who, before he went to court for the hearing, was given his passport back and allowed to return voluntarily to China. My constituent’s parents were told about that after it had happened. They have therefore never had closure. The person who killed their son has never been tried in this country, and for all I know is back in this country as a visitor. The lack of liaison even between parts of the same Department is lamentable. If the Bill means better liaison, I support it. When my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary replies, I want her to assure me that the Bill will have that effect and that there is not another Bill coming to solve the problems that we have seen.

My last point is on the European Union. We are an island—the hon. Member for Shipley would probably like to close the channel tunnel and stop direct flights
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from London to Paris, because he thinks that we can survive on our own; he is a Conservative MP, but that is not, of course, Conservative party policy. The fact is, however, that we need to work with our partners in Europe to combat illegal immigration. The whole Tampere II agenda, which became the Hague programme following European summit meetings, has been about countries working together. Of course, the Opposition and tabloid papers scream when we talk about giving up the veto on immigration, and the Government have not done that. The fact remains, however, that we can work with our European partners—short of giving up the veto, to make my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South-West (Mr. Davidson) happy—to ensure proper and adequate co-operation to prevent illegal immigration and the other problems addressed by the Bill.

That will mean our Ministers going to European summit meetings and taking forward the Tampere agenda, which has lain dormant for far too long. Justice and Home Affairs is just as important as ECOFIN and all the other work in the European Union, as it is so complicated and it requires co-operation. I am not suggesting that we should have a European police force. We have Interpol, but are we using it as effectively as we should to do the kinds of things that it should do?

I believe that my hon. Friends the Minister of State and the Under-Secretary have a willingness to sort this matter out. Both they and the Home Secretary are people of real talent. I believe that they want to make sure that the situation is improved. I plead with them not to come back to the House in six months’ time to say that they need another Bill; they do not.

What this Government need to do is to take a grip on the operation of the system to ensure that when the Immigration Minister starts to devolve IND, he consults right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House, and the community, so that he does not just move from Lunar house to Mars house in Birmingham, or from Apollo house to Jupiter house somewhere in the north of England, and the same problems go elsewhere. Let us try to solve the problems. It is about customer service and providing a good service for our constituents. If he does that, he will have done a real service to this country in his term as Immigration Minister.

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