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Session 2007 - 08
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Public Bill Committee Debates

Draft Immigration (Employment of Adults Subject to Immigration Control) (Maximum Penalty) Order 2007



The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: David Taylor
Banks, Gordon (Ochil and South Perthshire) (Lab)
Blunt, Mr. Crispin (Reigate) (Con)
Browne, Mr. Jeremy (Taunton) (LD)
Campbell, Mr. Alan (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
George, Mr. Bruce (Walsall, South) (Lab)
Green, Damian (Ashford) (Con)
Hillier, Meg (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department)
Johnson, Mr. Boris (Henley) (Con)
Lilley, Mr. Peter (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con)
Lucas, Ian (Wrexham) (Lab)
Mackay, Mr. Andrew (Bracknell) (Con)
Prosser, Gwyn (Dover) (Lab)
Rowen, Paul (Rochdale) (LD)
Ruane, Chris (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab)
Smith, Geraldine (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Lab)
Wilson, Phil (Sedgefield) (Lab)
Wright, Mr. Anthony (Great Yarmouth) (Lab)
Annette Toft, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Fifth Delegated Legislation Committee

Thursday 1 3 December 2007

[David Taylor in the Chair]

Draft Immigration (Employment of Adults Subject to Immigration Control) (Maximum Penalty) Order 2007

8.55 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Meg Hillier): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Immigration (Employment of Adults Subject to Immigration Control) (Maximum Penalty) Order 2007.
The purpose of the order is to set the maximum civil penalty for employers of illegal migrants at £10,000 per illegal worker. We have the ability to prosecute employers under the criminal law at present, but we hope that the civil penalty will lead to an improved and swifter system of penalties for people employing illegal migrants. It will also give us some flexibility with a sliding scale, which I will outline later in broad terms when I pick up questions from members of the Committee in my summing up.
As part of our approach on immigration enforcement, it is our overall strategy to bear down on illegal jobs, especially those that encourage illegal journeys into the United Kingdom. Irregular migration, as we know, can cause difficulties if it is not controlled, and our aim is to remove the economic incentive, particularly to act unlawfully, for employers and employees. We want to provide a cost-effective method of sanctioning those who break the rules.
We need a system that reflects a fair and balanced relationship between the Government and employers in regulating the participation of migrants in the labour market under which the rights and responsibilities of employers are clear. We also need to provide support to employers when checking documents and so on. Such steps are important because they will protect vulnerable workers from dangerous and exploitative working conditions, which is something that I am sure all members of the Committee support.
We also need to take action in other ways. We will see our systems change beyond recognition in the next 18 months, with better controls at our borders and, within our country, with foreign national identity cards and other measures to improve the integrity of immigration systems as a whole.
The order refers in particular to measures that have updated section 8 of the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996. Provisions under the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act 2006 will be brought into force to replace section 8 of the 1996 Act with the new system of civil penalties for employers who are less than diligent in their personnel practices—some perhaps knowingly commit criminal offences. As well as dealing with civil penalties, the legislation introduces a tough new criminal offence for employers who set out knowingly to give work to illegal migrants. There is a sliding scale of measures ranging from civil penalties and action taken by the Border and Immigration Agency on employers who slip into bad practices right through to criminal penalties.
Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): Will the Minister tell the Committee what happens if the body employing illegal workers is the Government? Who then pays the fine?
Meg Hillier: I will deal with that matter later. I was planning to do so in my summing up, but I shall make a judgment about whether to answer the right hon. Gentleman’s question now.
The repeal of section 8 of the 1996 Act will not provide an amnesty to such employers. Employers who have employed illegal migrants up to 28 February 2008, which is when the new provisions will kick in, will be liable to prosecution under the 1996 Act. There will be no escape for anyone who has employed illegal migrants. The new arrangements under the 2006 Act will, in some ways, be not dissimilar to the existing legislation, but, 10 years on, they rightly update procedures in line with practice and experience. We shall continue to encourage employers to carry out relatively straightforward document checks on all their workers before employment commences to avoid unlawful discrimination.
I recently visited the East London Bus Group in Waterden road in my constituency and met Nigel Barrett, the chief executive. We discussed the work undertaken by his personnel department to tackle the situation. He reckoned that his staff were experienced at checking documents. We discussed burdens on business, but he thought that that was not necessarily a burden, and he was pleased to participate in a system that ensured that the company employed people legally. When it employed new contract cleaners recently, it called in the Border and Immigration Agency to tackle some of its concerns. Three contract cleaners were then dealt with by the agency because they were illegal workers. Such responsible employers will benefit from the dialogue and co-operation that we want, but we will clamp down on employers who knowingly break the law.
Under the legislation, employers will face a new duty to carry out a light-touch, annual follow-up check on workers with temporary immigration status, so it will not be good enough to say that those workers were initially employed legally. If workers have temporary immigration status, it is important that that is logged by their employers and that checks are carried out. If employers carry out checks properly for permanent employees and those with a temporary right to work, they will establish a legal excuse against a penalty, unless they knew that a worker did not have permission to work. If they abide by the provisions, they will have some protection.
I have a diagram that demonstrates the sliding scale of fees. I shall pass a couple of copies around during the debate and will provide more afterwards. It demonstrates the scale of penalties that can be introduced, which range from those that will apply to employers who are a little disorganised to those that will apply when employers are known to be criminal.
In the majority of cases, employers who break the law will face an administrative penalty, as opposed to the current situation in which they face costly criminal proceedings and the possibility of a criminal record. That process is also costly and time-consuming for the Border and Immigration Agency, and we hope that we can tackle the matter more effectively, efficiently and frequently.
The penalty system will also be subject to stringent safeguards. If an aggrieved employer is unhappy with the process, they will be able to object to the agency and/or appeal to the courts against the level of a penalty. Employers who are found to have been knowingly or deliberately employing illegal migrant workers will face prosecution.
Last month, two codes of practice to underpin the new civil penalty system were laid before the House and the other place to help employers. One sets out the factors that we will consider in determining the level of penalty, and the other provides guidance to employers on how to avoid breaching race relations legislation while attempting to comply with the law on illegal working. Those codes outline the more detailed regulations that we laid on 22 November to bring the legislation into force.
I believe that the proposed £10,000 maximum penalty is about right for employers who conduct no document checks and wilfully abuse the system, but penalties will be imposed on a case-by-case basis. The sliding scale will set the parameters, but we will consider a range of factors, including the severity of the offence and the ability of the employer to pay. The idea is not to cripple small businesses that have made an error, but to work alongside them when there is a problem, and to ensure that such a thing does not happen again. However, we shall be quite tough on repeat offenders, which is appropriate, especially if employers are repeatedly slipshod rather than merely committing a small error.
I trust that hon. Members will support the measure to help to combat illegal migration and, particularly, the exploitation of vulnerable workers. It will demonstrate to the public and our partners in Europe that we are serious about tackling one of the root causes of illegal immigration.
I shall deal with the intervention and any other questions raised by hon. Members when I sum up.
9.4 am
Damian Green (Ashford) (Con): It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Taylor.
I am grateful for the Minister’s explanation. It was a touch thin, but that is not surprising because this is not a serious piece of legislation; it is a press release dressed up as a statutory instrument. The order was designed to make Ministers look tough with £10,000 fines, as though that would have a huge effect in cracking down on illegal working. As ever, I seek consensus with the Minister, who is of course right to say that illegal working is one of the principal drivers of illegal immigration and often leads to vulnerable people being exploited by unscrupulous employers. To that extent, I agree with her, and I agree with the Government that we need more effective action to crack down on illegal working. The issue before the Committee, however, is whether the order is the most effective way of achieving that end.
Privately, I am sure, the Minister knows that the order will be largely irrelevant and will do neither any active harm nor any active good. As she and the Committee will be aware, the overwhelming factor that determines whether somebody who is that way inclined is likely to commit a crime is the likelihood of being caught, yet none of the provisions before the Committee suggests that unscrupulous employers will be more likely to be caught if they employ illegal immigrants.
Mr. Jeremy Browne (Taunton) (LD): Will the hon. Gentleman expand on that point? When the Conservatives were last in government, the then Home Secretary introduced minimum sentencing guidelines, and I assume that part of the reason for that was to deter people from criminality. Is the hon. Gentleman now saying that it is not sentencing, but the likelihood of being caught, that acts as a deterrent?
Damian Green: Such things need to be done in conjunction with better policing, which is what we had under the previous Conservative Government, although we do not have it under this Government. I am extremely happy for the hon. Gentleman to lead us into a debate on the effective policing of illegal immigration, because that would give me the chance, which I always enjoy, of reaffirming my party’s commitment to a proper, integrated border force combing the police, the immigration service and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs so that we have proper control—
The Chairman: Order. Will the hon. Gentleman focus on the topic of the debate, which is the level of the maximum penalty set in the order?
Damian Green: I am very happy to do so. I merely sought to put into context the helpful intervention by the hon. Member for Taunton, which illustrated why the order, which will do neither much harm nor much good, is largely irrelevant to our attempts to crack down on illegal working, which the Minister rightly called an important issue.
In that respect, will the Minister tell us what estimates the Government have made of the number of people who are currently working illegally and of the change—presumably, the reduction—that will result from the introduction of the penalty before us? A recent Government press release said that the Border and Immigration Agency conducted 5,200 illegal working operations in 2006 and removed 22,000 people from the UK, and it would be interesting to know what percentage of the number of people working illegally those 22,000 people constitute. It would also be interesting to know how many prosecutions were made in 2006 and how many the Minister estimates will be made in 2007.
The problem is likely to be severe across the public sector. The Minister owes it to the Committee to explain who will be responsible for paying the fines, assuming that they are incurred, and whether any provision is made in departmental budgets for the extra expense that will certainly accrue if public sector institutions are made responsible for paying the fines. She will presumably know how much is in the Home Office budget for that.
That point highlights the underlying problem of this approach to policy, whereby Ministers are seeking a headline with a tough-sounding fine. Sounding tough for the sake of it does not achieve anything. One of the more disturbing parts of the Minister’s speech was when she mentioned individual cases and said, “We will be very tough.” One hopes that the courts will actually take the decisions on individual sentences. Last time I looked, there was still a distinction between the Executive and judiciary, yet Ministers gaily say what the toughness of individual cases will be. She has said specifically that there will be a sliding scale, so consideration will presumably be given to whether employers acted in good faith and were deceived by employees, or acted in bad faith.
Mr. Browne: Does the hon. Gentleman anticipate that the courts will look sympathetically on the Government, given the state of the public finances, and fine them less than those in the private sector?
Damian Green: I profoundly hope and expect that the courts will act fairly in any case and show neither fear nor favour towards the Home Office. Relations between the Home Office and the judiciary are rather better than those between the Home Office and the police, for instance, and other agents of the state over which the Home Office has control. I am sure that the courts will act fairly.
The order will be largely irrelevant to the fight against illegal working. Proper enforcement will make more difference than the level of a fine, whether it is for a criminal offence, or a civil penalty. The order will not do much harm, but it will not do very much good either.
9.12 am
Mr. Browne: I am grateful to you, Mr. Taylor, for calling me to speak.
I share the abhorrence of hon. Member for Ashford of the Government’s rather crude populism on immigration control. If their policy were effective, we would not need to revise the rules so frequently and come up with new initiatives—gimmicks, in some cases—that are designed to make a difference.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the likelihood of getting caught is the greatest deterrent for anybody who is minded to commit a criminal act, although I was surprised that he seemed to downplay the penalty as a deterrent, which I believe it is. Nevertheless, I do not wish to find disagreement with him where it does not exist.
My party supports the order. We hope that it will make some difference to reduce illegal working and give greater protection to people who work illegally and are often exploited by unscrupulous employers. After all, people who employ illegal workers are likely to be less concerned than many about the circumstances under which those workers are employed. For example, they might not pay them the legal minimum wage. If the order acts as a deterrent to that, it will be welcome news.
I have a few questions to ask the Minister. On what basis was the level set at £10,000, and will she explain at greater length how much scope there is for variation? She said that judgments would be made on a case-by-case basis, but if the headline figure is £10,000, does she have an estimate of the average, minimum or typical figures? How many cases does she anticipate involving a fine of less than £5,000, or of less than £1,000? If the maximum is £10,000, but the norm is £100, £10,000 is a truly headline figure. It reminds me of those signs that one sees on trains saying, “Anyone caught dropping litter will be fined up to £1,000.” I have never once seen anyone on a train being fined £1,000 for dropping litter or for smoking. The figure exists for the purpose of sounding sound tough and authoritative, but in most cases it is not applied. I should be interested to know the percentage of cases to which she anticipates the £10,000 maximum being applied, and to hear answers to the other questions that I have asked.
It is also reasonable to ask how much total revenue the Government anticipate raising annually from the measure. Indeed, following the point made by the hon. Member for Ashford, how much do the Government expect to pay each year to comply with the penalties that they, as employers, will incur as a result of the measure? I should also be interested to know how the revenue will be spent. Will it be earmarked for projects to reduce illegal immigration, will it stay in the Home Office budget, or will it go into the overall public spending pot?
There is an opportunity for the Government to make a wider political point, not because the revenue will be significant in the grand scheme of things, but because, in other areas of the criminal justice system, they have sought to correlate penalties with good deeds. For example, when magistrates fine people who commit offences, the penalties or the results of the fine go towards the victims of crime, so I should be interested to know whether a similar scheme is envisaged for the penalties under discussion.
Finally, does the Minister believe that the deterrent will be sufficient to have an impact on serious and organised crime? Some people might fear that the odd restaurant owner who employs an illegal immigrant to do the washing up will be caught in the system, but it is right that they are, because they ought not to do that. There will be a case-by-case judgment, so if an employer runs only a small restaurant or cafĂ(c), they will receive only a small fine. However, the big organised criminal enterprises that oversee cockle pickers, or are part of lower profile cases that, none the less, often involve greater numbers of people, will be caught in the net less frequently. In other words, the relatively small fry will end up being targeted and will inflate the Government’s figures to demonstrate that progress has been made. The measure will not necessarily address the nub of the problem.
In summary, I have no objection to the proposal. I want reasonable measures to be taken to reduce the problem of illegal immigration and to protect people of all types in the workplace. However, I am sceptical about how effective the proposal will be, given my doubts about how often the maximum fine will be applied in practice.
9.18 am
Mr. Lilley: In considering such an order, which imposes a fine, the Committee faces a central challenge: to ensure that the penalty fits the crime. We must evaluate the damage done by illegal immigration and ensure that the penalties that we impose are proportionate and appropriate. I want the Government to spell out the damage done to the community by illegal immigrants and by their employment, because it is not clear to me what damage the Government believe is done by illegal immigration.
The Government say very clearly that legal immigration is unequivocally beneficial to this country, and that when people are allowed lawfully to work here, they benefit the economy through increasing the size of our gross domestic product, through taking jobs that British workers are not willing to do, through being employed and thereby in future paying our pensions, and due to several other reasons. All the reasons that they give for welcoming lawful immigration imply that the benefits are proportionate to the number of lawful immigrants we have—the more immigrants, the greater the benefits. It is not clear to me why simply because someone falls into the category of illegal they do not bring the same benefits. Therefore, the appropriate view, according to the Government’s logic, is to legalise all immigration—indeed, I believe that is more or less the unspoken policy of the Liberal Democrats, and all credit to them for at least the logic of their position.
Mr. Browne: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
Mr. Lilley: In a moment. I do not think that the benefits of immigration are proportionate to the numbers, and I have spelled that out. I believe that there are limited categories of immigration that are beneficial to this country.
The Chairman: Order. May I remind the right hon. Gentleman that the debate concentrates on the maximum penalty set by the draft order?
Mr. Lilley: I take your point absolutely, Mr. Taylor. I am trying to establish the damage done by immigration so that I can relate the size of the penalty to that. Unless and until the Government spell out the damage done by illegal immigration, how can we relate the penalty to it? The Government’s argument is that far from any damage being done by immigration, it is entirely beneficial. If that is the case, why are they penalising it, restricting it and saying that some categories should be prevented? I simply want the Government to explain that.
I have explained the rationale for limiting immigration, but accepting that requires one to disabuse oneself of the argument the Government advance in favour of lawful immigration, because it applies just as much to the workers employed by the Home Office and the Metropolitan police. Those workers were doing jobs that otherwise would presumably have not been filled by British workers. Why are we to punish those people, or those who employed those people? Until we have a rationale from the Government for setting some restrictions, limits and punishments, we cannot rationally decide what the size of the punishment should be.
Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): Would the right hon. Gentleman include in the group of illegal immigrants cockle pickers and the pickers of fruit in Lincolnshire, who are run by gangmasters who do not pay any tax? Would he say that they were beneficial to the British economy?
Mr. Lilley: The hon. Gentleman misunderstands me. I am saying that his party’s logic is that all immigrants are beneficial to the economy. I have never maintained that. I think that the economic benefits of mass immigration are negligible. Limited immigration is a good thing—it is like oil in a motor car; oil is a lubricant and to have no immigration would be as absurd as trying to run a car with no oil. However, immigration is not the fuel, and the benefits to the economy are not proportionate to the amount of immigration in the same way as the amount of gasoline is of benefit when it is put in a car. We need a certain minimum amount of immigration and beyond that there should be a restrictive policy. That is a logical position from which to restrict the amount of immigration. The Government say very differently—[Interruption]
The Chairman: Order. Is the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd seeking to intervene?
Chris Ruane indicated dissent.
Mr. Lilley: I am sure the hon. Gentleman made a very important point and I am sorry that I missed it and cannot respond.
I appreciate that Labour Members are embarrassed at finding that they have no rationale for restricting immigration, but until they do have one, they cannot logically set a penalty for it.
Mr. Browne: I just want to clarify that it is not the policy of the Liberal Democrats to legalise all immigration. However, we have observed that the joint policy of the Labour and Conservative parties—that all illegal immigrants in the United Kingdom will be forcibly deported—is unlikely ever to be realised. I wait with eager anticipation to see whether that policy will come to fruition, or whether both the Labour and Conservative parties are colluding by advancing a policy that they know perfectly well that they cannot deliver.
Mr. Lilley: I am sorry that I accidentally attribute to the Liberal party a degree of coherence that their policies do not actually possess. To make it clear, the Liberal party of course simply oppose every specific restriction on immigration—
The Chairman: Order. These matters are appropriate for a wider debate, but the Committee is discussing the maximum penalty in the draft order.
Mr. Lilley: I shall therefore bring my remarks rapidly to a close. I simply wanted to leave the Government with a conundrum: unless and until they give us the rationale for restricting immigration, they cannot set penalties. However, I eagerly await the Minister’s reply to the question that I posed earlier, which she promised to answer.
9.25 am
Meg Hillier: It is my custom and practice in Committee to deal with specific points raised at the end of the debate.
I thank the hon. Member for Ashford for his comments, and I am interested to hear that he thinks that we govern by press release because I understood that to be his party’s policy. The Government are in the business of government and policy making, and we take the legislative process very seriously—I am sure that everyone is reassured to know that. I am proposing the order because it is important that we improve the processes for tackling illegal immigration on a proper footing. If his party chooses to operate by press release, that is fine, but he should not tar all of us with the same brush.
The hon. Gentleman raised the significance of the penalty figure as if it was our key headline, but we actually carried out a large public consultation and the amount is in line with the mid-point in European figures and equates to the cost of returning people. The hon. Member for Taunton might also be interested to know the cost of deporting an illegal worker. The Hampton and Macrory reports looked into it, and our proposals pick up on a number of the recommendations made.
I would also contest the point made by the hon. Member for Ashford about the order being largely irrelevant. We have seen a big shift already. Employers have redoubled their checks on employees simply because this has been in the pipeline. I know from ministerial correspondence that illegal workers from up and down the country have been turning up at MPs’ surgeries asking what they should do. Hopefully, MPs on both sides of the House have been reminding them that they are here illegally and encouraging them to leave the country. Our efforts have flushed out a number of people who slipped through the net before because employers did not think that they would face such a stiff penalty.
The hon. Gentleman touched on estimates of the number of people working illegally. We are introducing the new points-based system, e-borders and visas, fingerprints for foreign nationals and foreign national identity cards, partly so that we know precisely who is in the country and what they are doing—we want to be able to count people in and out, as they do in Australia. I am sure that he is very familiar with the work of my hon. Friend the Minister for Borders and Immigration in developing this important and significant change to our immigration policies, which I commend to the Committee.
It is worth reminding the Committee that in 2006 we removed 63,000 people—one every eight minutes. We removed people for different reasons. Some were removed for immigration offences and some for work offences. In 2005, there were 13 prosecutions under section 8 of the 1996 Act, which will apply until 28 February 2008. That is the most recent year for which figures are available. For the rest of the information we rely on management figures, but I shall write to hon. Members with precise details rather than going through them in Committee.
Ten years after the 1996 Act, we introduced the 2006 Act, and we are introducing this proposal partly because the criminal approach was slow and clunky. The system of civil penalties should be swifter and better. As I said, employers are already cracking down on illegal workers. The penalties are an incentive to obey the rules, so the number of prosecutions is not necessarily an indicator of success—it is just one of many steps on the way to success.
The right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden raised a number of points, including one about public authorities. Government Departments are in a peculiar position because strictly speaking they are immune under the Crown, but of course security and identity checks are undertaken on Government-employed staff as standard practice. Problems arising from the employment of people—for the Government and other organisations—through agencies often grab headlines. Measures that we have taken have helped to tackle those problems by ensuring that people cannot hide behind the nature of their employment.
We need to ensure that the rules apply equally to all businesses employing people. If people are employed through an agency, that agency, as the employer, is responsible. However, any organisation—whether the Government or any other—that uses such an agency also has a responsibility to ensure that agencies comply with the law. I raised that with the East London Bus Group, in my constituency, which took a very responsible approach, along with its contractor agency, to tackle those problems. That illustrates my point entirely.
Damian Green: This is an important point. If I understand the Minister rightly, when a public body—or, logically, a private company—uses an agency, the agency will be responsible. The consequence of that will presumably be that the cost of using agencies will rise. The agencies will know that people have slipped through the net and that they will end up paying fines, and they will want to cover the associated costs.
Meg Hillier: I suspect that hon. Members have not had the opportunity to visit such organisations—I would happily organise a visit. The Border and Immigration Agency would certainly facilitate a visit for Members so that they could see what happens in good, reputable companies.
Gordon Banks (Ochil and South Perthshire) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that it is the basic responsibility of all employers to provide legal checks, and that employment agencies should be no different from the end employer?
Meg Hillier: Exactly so. My hon. Friend raises a point that I was about to make. Whoever the employer is, he is responsible. The fines come into force only if a company does not fulfil that responsibility. Responsible companies, including agencies that employ people to do contract work on behalf of others, already do so. It is important that all of them, including those that are perhaps less compliant, hear that message.
I am not clear what the hon. Member for Ashford was referring to when he spoke of extra costs for employers. Responsible employers would not want to employ someone who was illegal.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about projections of the number of people likely to be prosecuted. As I said, there is a sliding scale of sanctions, so a simple projection is not necessarily possible. However, we will be watching to see how things work out, judging how different companies work, and listening to feedback from them and from the public sector organisations involved.
Reference was made to matters involving the Security Industry Authority. I alert the Committee to the fact that the Home Secretary will be making a statement on the authority in the House today after business questions. If hon. Members wish to know more about progress on that front, I refer to them to that statement. As for budgets, £500,000 of the Border and Immigration Agency’s overall budget is allocated for enforcement.
On the question of fines, the hon. Member for Ashford spoke about proper enforcement. I agree, and I am glad that he, too, wants proper enforcement. The level of fines is set very much as an incentive for employers to tackle the issue. If they do not do things properly and persistently break the rules, they will be fined quite a lot of money, which will affect their business. That seems fair, and I would be surprised if hon. Members were to disagree with that.
The hon. Member for Taunton—what a turn of phrase he has—spoke of gimmicks and said that we come back to things with such frequency. I know that 10 years in Parliament is quite quick in the grand scheme of things, but it is 10 years since the 1996 Act was introduced. Last year, we replaced it with the 2006 Act, and we are only now coming forward with the orders and regulations.
I have addressed some of the questions about why we settled for £10,000. I repeat that that is about the mid-point for Europe. I can provide details of European scales if the hon. Gentleman so wishes, but it will be easier to do so in writing. The sum is a big incentive to comply and covers the full cost of removal. We do not expect there to be a surplus, but the sum will cover the costs of the process. However, we will keep an eye on things. If there are too many bad employers out there, we might make more money than expected, but removing people has to be paid for. The system will not be used unfairly—it is about education as well as providing sanctions. Our aim is to give employers support.
I have done a bit of mystery shopping on the Border and Immigration Agency employers’ hotline. One can ring up and ask for all sorts of information about an employee or potential employee—or a fictional employee. I would not recommend making fictional inquiries, but my inquiry was legitimate because, as the Minister responsible, I was checking the hotline out. I received good, sensible and simple advice that would have been easy to use, and my call was answered within 30 seconds. I recommend that hon. Members advertise that fact in their constituencies.
The hon. Member for Taunton also raised the issue of big, organised enterprises. Organised criminal activity will still be subject to the criminal offence of companies knowingly employing illegal workers, so criminal sanctions will apply at the serious end of things.
Mr. Browne: Before the Minister moves away from the £10,000 figure, will she engage with my point about how many times the maximum fine will be applied? Although the headline figure, like the penalty for dropping litter on a bus, sounds like an enormous deterrent that is out of all proportion to the offence, my concern is that it will hardly ever be applied. The danger, as the hon. Member for Ashford said, is that the press release might look far more draconian than the reality. How many times, and in what percentage of cases, will the maximum figure be applied, and in what percentage of cases will half that figure be applied?
Meg Hillier: I hate to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but we are in the business of government, not speculation, and it would be wrong and impossible for me to speculate in this case or to set a target for the number of £10,000 fines—
Mr. Browne: Perish the thought.
Meg Hillier: Indeed. It would clearly be ridiculous to do so in this case.
The provisions are a disincentive to employers to break the rules. In an ideal world, everyone would comply with the rules because they were afraid of getting a £10,000 fine, but we do not live in an ideal world, so I suspect that there will be those who break them.
There could, however, be reductions in fines, and, if I may, I will indulge hon. Members briefly with an example. If there was a problem the first time—perhaps someone had done a partial check, rather than a proper one—a warning letter would be issued. The maximum penalty would be up to £5,000 a worker, but that would be reduced by half for every illegal worker reported to the agency and for proper co-operation from the organisation involved. For second and third transgressions, the fine and the reduction in the co-operation would be balanced out.
Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): Will the Minister give the Government’s best estimate of the number of people working illegally in this country?
Meg Hillier: As I said, we will find out a lot more about who is in the country. Unfortunately, the Conservative party abolished border controls in 1994. We would have much better figures if that had not happened, which would have made all our lives considerably easier. That is why we are introducing the changes.
Damian Green: Every time Ministers bring up that canard, it is worth pointing out that they are wrong. The abolition of all controls on exits actually happened in 1998, when, I believe, this Government were in power.
Meg Hillier: I think that you have been rather indulgent, Mr. Taylor, and I do not want to crave your indulgence any more by going further down that line, much as I am tempted. Perhaps we can pursue the issue outside the room.
Mr. Blunt: The Minister might have all sorts of reasons to explain why there is no precise figure—I am quite happy to accept them—but there must be some form of working estimate. If there is not, why have the Government introduced the order?
The Chairman: Order. The debate has strayed beyond our terms of reference. We are talking about the maximum penalty in the draft order.
Meg Hillier: Thank you, Mr. Taylor. I will happily conduct a conversation with the hon. Gentlemen outside the room, where we can perhaps have a longer debate.
Mr. Blunt: On a point of order, Mr. Taylor. The order has been introduced to addresses illegal working, and I should have thought that it would be in order for the Minister to tell us the Government’s estimate of the number of illegal workers that the order is intended to cover. I wonder whether you might re-examine the issue to see whether it is in order for the Minister to answer my question.
The Chairman: I will allow the Minister one sentence to respond before she returns to the thrust of the debate.
Meg Hillier: I never fail to find such things amusing and a little sad. I have four younger brothers, and sometimes, indulgently, I think of Opposition Members as little brothers who like to needle the Government. They know that they cannot give an answer about the number of people who are here illegally, and nor can the Government give a straight, simple answer. That is precisely because those people are here illegally, and a lot of them will go to great lengths to hide their existence. Thanks to the Government’s policy, however, we are winkling them out. We are removing them, and some are choosing to leave voluntarily because there will be nowhere for them to hide. However, you have indulged me, Mr. Taylor, and I sense that I had better move back to the point in question.
I recognise that hon. Members might have things that they wish to go and do, but I am tempted to respond to the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden at greater length than I might otherwise do.
Chris Ruane: Perhaps to illustrate the Minister’s point further, will she say how many criminals have never been caught?
The Chairman: Order. May I ask the Minister to return to the topic of the debate?
Meg Hillier: It gives me great pleasure to return to the comments made by the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden, who spoke about the penalty fitting the crime. That is exactly what we are trying to achieve with the sliding scale of penalties. I am staggered by his question about damage to the community. All hon. Members have seen such damage. Illegal workers have been exploited, and people have been trafficked to work illegally. I would have thought that the right hon. Gentleman would be concerned about the tax has not been paid.
Mr. Lilley: If the only damage results from immigrants’ illegal status, is not that damage best removed by legalising them, rather than by increasing penalties? I do not believe that the benefits that the Government talk about exist, so enforcement is worth while, but if the only disadvantages arise from the illegal status, surely the logic of the Minister’s position is to end the illegal status.
Meg Hillier: I am not sure whether the right hon. Gentleman considers himself to be an outrider for the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), but we are hearing some interesting ideas. I should be interested to know what his right hon. Friend thinks about that, because if it is Conservative policy, that is very interesting—[ Interruption. ] Ah, I see that there is a division among Conservative Members.
I alert the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden to the migration impact forum, which we established to assess the impact of migration on communities. It involves people from different public sector and business organisations in regions throughout the country. There are regional committees and a central committee, which has met twice under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Minister for Borders and Immigration and the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda) and considered the impact of migration. For many organisations, illegal immigrants create pressure on services. We recognise that, which was why we set up the forum.
I am tempted to go into detail about lawful immigration, but I will not do so. We established the Migration Advisory Committee, which is made up of a group of independent experts to advise the Government about the skills that we need. We have already ruled out low-skilled workers from outside the EU. Our assessment is that we do not need to encourage the migration of such people when we have enough resources in Europe.
In summary, it is worth highlighting some of the key aspects of what we are trying to do overall, particularly with regard to the order. First, we are carrying out tougher checks overseas and strengthening our border controls. The Border and Immigration Agency will be a unified border force, integrating customs, immigration and our visa operations overseas. The UK Borders Act 2007 received Royal Assent in October, and will introduce mandatory biometric identity cards for non-European economic area nationals with fingerprints on cards to identify foreigners who are resident in the UK. That will combat identity fraud. We are also considering how to incorporate such data and identity cards into arrangements for regulating access to employment and public services for those individuals.
The new points-based system, which starts in February, will introduce a licensing system for employers who want to bring in skilled workers from outside the EAA. It will be backed up by compliance and inspection. We are increasing enforcement activity and closer joint working—I hope that I highlighted that—with other enforcement departments to bear down on the harm that illegal immigration causes to the United Kingdom and to make it clear that illegal migrants and those who choose to employ them face an increased chance of being caught. We are also offering employers a checking service to help them to comply with the law, and we have a public communications campaign under way—I urge hon. Members to keep their eyes open for some eye-catching adverts that will appear in the new year—to ensure that employers are fully aware of the changes. That brings me back to the civil penalties outlined in the order, which I recommend to the Committee. I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the Committee will agree to this important improvement.
Question put and agreed to.
Resolved,
That the Committee has considered the draft Immigration (Employment of Adults Subject to Immigration Control) (Maximum Penalty) Order 2007.
Committee rose at fifteen minutes to Ten o’clock.
 
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