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13 Dec 2007 : Column 480

Ms Harman: I do not accept the implication of some sort of conspiracy, especially in respect of the example that the hon. Gentleman gives. However, as my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House said, the Procedure Committee is reflecting on the quality, timeliness and accuracy of written answers.

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): Given the importance that the Leader of the House gives to the quality of written answers, perhaps she could speak to her colleague, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, so that the named day questions about his Department’s control of information held on the public that were due for answer two and a half weeks ago could be answered before the Christmas recess.

Ms Harman: I think that I am getting déj vu, as I thought that the hon. Gentleman had already asked that question of my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House earlier. I ask him to recall her answer, as I am sure it was correct.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Transport next week about the Government’s role in the new rail service to and from Kettering, which has had a dramatic reduction in services to London and a 50 per cent. cut in train services north? Will the Secretary of State publish the specification against which the new franchise was judged?

Ms Harman: My right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Transport, has recently been to the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. The hon. Gentleman will know that since we came into government there have been more passengers and more freight on trains, better rolling stock and improved time-keeping. If he has any further concerns, I suggest that he raises them in a debate in Westminster Hall.

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Security Industry Authority

12.35 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Jacqui Smith): Following my statement of 13 November, I would like to update the House on the actions that we are taking to address Security Industry Authority licensing checks and the issue of entitlement to work in the United Kingdom.

An SIA licence demonstrates that the holder has undergone training and that identity and criminality checks have been completed. An SIA licence has never constituted evidence of entitlement to work in this country, and it is the responsibility of employers to ensure that the people they employ are entitled to work.

Before my previous statement, steps were already being taken to prevent illegal working in the security industry. From 2 July 2007, the SIA introduced immigration status checks with the Border and Immigration Agency on all non-European economic area applicants as part of the security industry licensing process. That is not a substitute for employers meeting their clear obligations, but the SIA checks provide a double lock on illegal working in this area. Alongside the immigration status checks, my Department took steps to determine how many people who were granted licences prior to 2 July did not have the right to work. Plans were put in place for the BIA to check all the 39,885 non-EEA nationals licensed by SIA before 2 July. Manual checks had already started at the rate of 1,000 cases per week.

I wanted the process to be speeded up without compromising accuracy. I therefore ordered automatic matching between the SIA list of non-EEA nationals and databases operated by BIA and UK Visas. The BIA and SIA have now completed the checks on the 39,885 non-EEA nationals licensed by SIA before 2 July. On the basis of those checks, I am advised that the BIA is fully satisfied that 28,737 have the right to work in this country; the BIA believes that 6,653 do not have the right to work in this country; and, in 4,447 other cases, the BIA is not satisfied that the individual has proved the right to work. The balance of 48 represents duplicate records.

The following steps are being taken to revoke the licences of those found not to be entitled to work in this country. The SIA has written to all companies on their database to remind them of the need to check regularly on the SIA’s website the registers of licence holders and of revoked licences, to ensure that all their staff have the right to work. The registers are currently receiving more than 1,000 hits a day. Apart from a small number of cases whose SIA licence is close to expiry, the SIA has written to all of those individuals—more than 10,500—for whom checks indicate no right to work or where the BIA is not satisfied that the individual has the right to work. Those letters advise the licence holder that the SIA is minded to revoke their licence. The SIA gives recipients 21 days in which to respond with further information, and it expects that many will do so. If evidence is not forthcoming, the SIA will move to revocation. The law then allows the individual a further 21 days in which to appeal to the magistrates or sheriff courts. Once the SIA has
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completed the process, it will be in a position to determine the number of individuals who were not entitled to work but obtained SIA licences prior to the new double lock checking regime that is now in place.

The SIA expects that a significant proportion may yet establish that they have a right to work in this country. I am advised that, of the new applicants for licences initially considered for refusal by the SIA on the basis of checks with the BIA after 2 July, more than 30 per cent. have since shown that they have the right to work. The SIA will publish the final numbers of the pre-2 July group on its website when they are complete.

I repeat that it is important that all employers fulfil their obligations by carrying out all the proper checks before taking anyone on. We are also taking further steps to protect the public from those individuals whom we suspect have breached our immigration laws by working here illegally. First, all the cases where “minded to revoke” action is being taken against individuals have been passed to the BIA enforcement intelligence units to be assessed for further action. The BIA is screening those individuals against the police national computer and other databases so that we can target any individuals who may pose a risk to the public.

Secondly, the cases are being analysed for evidence of employers who appear to have a track record of employing people who do not have a right to work. The BIA tells me that a third of its illegal working operation is deployed on that employment sector. Visits to specific individuals and employers have already begun and swift action has been taken in those cases that merit it. A series of targeted enforcement operations will take place in the coming months, with a view to prosecuting employers and removing or prosecuting individuals in the worst cases.

Thirdly, in line with our enforcement strategy, we will continue to target illegal working on the basis of the risk of harm to the public. New powers which come into force in February will mean that we can more easily fine employers who break the rules. Now that we have identified a significant problem in the security industry, we will maintain a focus on its employers and staff.

We are taking other steps further to guard against illegal working in the security industry. First, the BIA has passed to the SIA the right-to-work expiry dates of all licence holders and recent new applicants. The SIA has agreed that in future it will send “minded to revoke” letters to all those licence holders shortly before their right-to-work status expires. Secondly, I have asked the BIA to work with the SIA to provide specialist advice to enhance its ability to spot fraudulent documentation.

Thirdly, the SIA’s licence application form does not specifically ask applicants to state that they have the right to work in the UK. I have therefore asked the SIA to review the application form to ensure that it contains all the information both the SIA and BIA may need, with a view to making changes as soon as possible. Fourthly, in January the SIA will run a joint seminar with the British Security Industry Association to underline the importance of employers’ meeting their responsibilities in that area. Fifthly, the taskforce that I set up to resolve the issue in September, chaired by the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department,
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my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker), will continue to oversee action.

I believe that the update that I have provided today demonstrates my determination, and that of the Government, to put in place effective systems and procedures to protect the public further. I commend the statement to the House.

David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con): I thank the Home Secretary for advance sight of her statement.

Last month, we were told there were 5,000 illegal foreign workers in the security industry. Then it was 10,000. Now it is up to 11,000. First, will the Home Secretary answer some simple factual questions? How many of the 11,000 people working in security positions without a work permit have had their SIA licence revoked? Is she telling us that so far there have been none after nine months? How many have been removed from their security posts? How many are still in place, and why? How many have been deported? How many of those illegal workers does she expect to be deported? Can she now answer the question that I asked her last month: how many have been engaged protecting police, military or Government posts or critical national infrastructure?

My next questions relate to how on earth the system went so badly wrong. The Home Secretary said today that an SIA licence has

That is not what the SIA says, and nor is it what any reasonable employer would accept. In a document published by the SIA in 2006, and repeated on its website, it states:

It goes on:

and No. 1 is the

Does the Secretary of State accept that the SIA led the industry to believe that it checked immigration status?

The SIA required a range of documents including passports and driving licences. It held those documents for up to three months. In some 5,000 to 11,000 cases they were presumably forgeries. How was the SIA—I emphasise that it is the Security Industry Authority—able to miss up to 11,000 forgeries? Who is responsible for that failure? Will there now be prosecutions in every case where forged documents were provided?

Not just the SIA was fooled. The application form provides for the applicant to give a national insurance number. In how many cases were illegal immigrants given a national insurance number? What are the checks made before a national insurance number is given? Is there a check on immigration status, and if not, why not?

There is also the issue of the Government’s candour—or lack of it. In her November statement,
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the Home Secretary said that Ministers were informed about the problem in June, yet the Minister for Borders and Immigration told the Select Committee on Home Affairs on 27 November that he knew in April. Was he mistaken or did the Home Secretary accidentally misinform the House earlier?

The Home Secretary told the House in her last statement that she did not tell the Prime Minister until the weekend before. She said:

I will pass over what it takes to constitute a fiasco in the Home Office these days. The problem we have is that when the Prime Minister was asked the very next day to confirm when the Home Secretary had told him, he refused to answer three times. When I asked him the next week by written question to confirm the account, he referred me back to his non-answer. When his spokesman was asked at the Lobby briefing, he replied that he would not get into internal government processes and discussions.

Let us be clear about what the Home Secretary has said. She was aware in July. However, in August, September and October, when the Prime Minister was actively considering an election, she did not tell him about the brewing scandal in the Home Office. Will she confirm that neither she nor her office and her advisers informed either the Prime Minister or his office before Saturday 10 November 2007? Yes or no?

Jacqui Smith: First, the right hon. Gentleman’s point about certainty of information proves the point made in my last statement about the importance of ensuring that information is certain before reporting it to the House. He has just cited a series of figures, even though I made it clear when I made that statement that they were not certified and checked. That was why I argued as I did and have come back to the House to provide the detailed information in my statement today.

There have been 409 revocations of licences from before 2 July, when the new immigration checks were brought in. More than 10,000 letters instituting revocation have been issued, but as the revocation process involves a minimum period of 42 days, there will obviously be more. However, 409 is the figure at the moment.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me specific questions about enforcement. The Border and Immigration Agency has rightly focused its attention on working with the SIA to identify the scale of the problem so that further work can be done. At the same time, however, the BIA has also started investigations into 328 of the cases referred to it. It has carried out 101 enforcement visits and arrested 15 individuals, and plans to make at least 400 further visits by the end of January.

The right hon. Gentleman then spoke about the system as a whole, and I want to begin my response to that by repeating what I said in my previous statement to the House. The SIA was not failing to do anything that it was legally required to do. The legal requirement to check an employee’s right to work has always fallen on employers, but the SIA did carry out spot-checks on a sample. Along with the enforcement activities that took place in April, those spot-checks identified that
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there was a need to tighten the system even further by the application of what I have described as a double lock. That is what has happened. It is why, from 2 July, 100 per cent. of those applying for a SIA licence have been subject to a check of their immigration status. It is also why the evidence required for identity checks was upgraded from 1 October—a change that will impact on everyone with a SIA licence that comes up for renewal.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about forgeries. He will know that they can be very expert, but the BIA has considerable expertise in discovering them and winkling them out. That is why, as I said in my statement, I have asked the BIA to provide the SIA with advice on how to identify forgeries.

As for national insurance numbers, I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that anyone applying for an employment-related NI number must supply proof of the right to work in the UK by providing a limited number of specified documents. I repeat what I said in my previous statement to the House on these matters: my hon. Friend the Minister for Borders and Immigration told the Home Affairs Committee that we undertook an enforcement operation in April. In other words, that was precisely the sort of action in respect of the immigration system that we must take if we are to clamp down on illegal working. The operation identified a potential problem in the security industry, and led to the action that was taken subsequently.

Finally, the right hon. Gentleman asked about keeping the Prime Minister up to date about what is happening with this matter. In fact, in his response to my statement he quoted how we did just that.

Mr. Nick Clegg (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD): I thank the Home Secretary for giving me advance sight of her statement.

For some time now, I have been following the series of scandals that has disfigured the Government’s spectacular mismanagement of the immigration system. I thought that we had seen it all, but this latest, belated revelation of Keystone Cops incompetence truly takes the breath away.

For instance, we learned today that the BIA will

Why has something so basic not happened before? Why have we learned only today that the BIA is finally passing to the SIA the right-to-work expiry dates of all existing licence holders? Why has that not happened before?

We learned from the Home Secretary’s statement today that as many as one in four of the 40,000 individuals licensed by the SIA might be illegal. Does she therefore agree that equally estimable analyses should be published of illegal working levels in those other sectors—such as agriculture, construction and hospitality—where they are known to be high?

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