Previous Section Index Home Page

Finally, so many resources were diverted to dealing with the foreign offenders scandal that the number of failed asylum seekers being deported fell by a massive 40 per cent. in the space of a few months. That suggests to me that the BIA is incapable of performing more than one task at a time. We learned today that a third of its illegal working operation is being allocated to
13 Dec 2007 : Column 486
dealing with that particular mess alone, so will the Home Secretary tell us what she thinks will be the knock-on effect of that massive deployment of resources? What other scandals can we look forward to as a result?

Jacqui Smith: It is a pleasure to see the hon. Gentleman in his place this afternoon. I presume that he feels confident that he has achieved success and that he no longer needs to be out on the hustings.

The hon. Gentleman asked about forgeries. As I said, we are adopting a sensible approach and making sure that the BIA’s expertise in respect of forgeries is made available to the SIA, and it seems a little hard to be criticised for doing so. In addition, the action being taken over the expiry dates of people’s leave and right to work is another example of the double lock—the belt and braces approach—that the Government are putting in place. When employers employ a person, they have the responsibility to carry out checks of that person’s right to work, and to maintain those checks. Notwithstanding that responsibility, the Government are assisting the SIA by enabling it to issue “minded to revoke” letters in all circumstances when a person with a licence is coming to the end of the period when he or she has the right to work here.

The hon. Gentleman asked about illegal working. In our responses to parliamentary questions, the Government often provide information about our illegal working enforcement activities, including breakdowns of those activities by sector. The answer to illegal working is not simply to provide more information. We must also ensure that there is more enforcement, and the doubling of the BIA’s enforcement effort is an important contribution to that.

The hon. Gentleman asked a linked question about the enforced return of failed asylum seekers. It is true that we matched our record for enforced returns in the third quarter of the year, but we are also carrying out our promise to prioritise those who pose the biggest threat of harm. That is why I believe that we will be successful in achieving the targets that we have set ourselves for returning foreign national prisoners this year.

If he had his way, the hon. Gentleman would provide an amnesty for people who are currently working illegally in this country as failed asylum seekers. That could only make the problem worse, so his criticisms are therefore a little hard to take.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): May I thank the Home Secretary for fulfilling her promise to return to the House and report back on the steps that she has taken? I warmly welcome what she and the Minister for Borders and Immigration have done to resolve what is a difficult problem.

I am glad that the Home Secretary has accepted the point about the application form that was made at the most recent Home Affairs Committee hearing. It is blindingly obvious that the form should have contained the question, “Do you have the right to work?” We could not understand why the SIA chief executive refused to change the form.

However, will my right hon. Friend tell us what the endgame will be? She has updated us on the figures and
13 Dec 2007 : Column 487
told us precisely how many licences have been revoked. She has also confirmed that the taskforce will continue under the supervision of the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker), but when will she be able to tell the House that the matter has been resolved completely and that the licences have finally been revoked?

Jacqui Smith: I thank my right hon. Friend for raising the point about a positive declaration of the right to work on the application form. We have taken cognisance of it and I have asked the authority to redesign the form to ensure that all the necessary information is included.

On what my right hon. Friend describes as the endgame, I can say that the result of the action we have taken, particularly since 2 July, is to strengthen, on an ongoing basis, both the immigration checks made when somebody applies for a Security Industry Authority licence—there is now a 100 per cent. check—and, from 1 October, the nature of the evidence required to verify somebody’s identity, which will ensure, as I said in my statement, that any doubt about the veracity of identity documents will be dealt with as licences come up for renewal.

My right hon. Friend asked when we would know the number of revocations. In my statement, I said that the revocation process takes a minimum of 42 days. Some individuals will exercise their right to lodge an appeal in the magistrates courts or sheriff courts, but I have made it clear that the SIA should maintain a record of licences that are being revoked, so that when we complete the process it should be able to report on the total number of licence revocations.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): Did the Home Secretary tell the Prime Minister about this particular calamity before 10 November?

Jacqui Smith: I did not.

Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South) (Lab): Does the Home Secretary accept that most people who take an interest in the Security Industry Authority—both of us—agree that it is doing a pretty good job? I am not uncritical, but it does a good job. If my right hon. Friend talks to people who have been around for a long time she will understand why the Conservatives are so aggressive: they never liked the concept of the SIA. Although they had the opportunity, between 1979 and 1997, to introduce such an authority they completely opposed the concept. There may be some sort of regression, so does my right hon. Friend accept that they have form in this area? When they held office there was no regulatory authority, so how many people slipped through the net in the absence of the SIA that they are now kicking?

Jacqui Smith: My right hon. Friend makes an important point. When I read some of the reports of the Committee proceedings of the Private Security Industry Act 2001, which brought in the SIA, I was struck by the wisdom of my right hon. Friend’s contributions. He has been interested in the matter for
13 Dec 2007 : Column 488
a long time, and he is right to note that a large number of people have come to it relatively recently with the intention of kicking the SIA, which has played an important role. The security industry, pre-SIA, was almost wholly unregulated in respect of its staffing, so regardless of whether a person had a criminal record or the right to work in the UK, or whether there were other slightly dodgy elements, they could get a job in the security industry. Thanks to the work of my right hon. Friend and others, and thanks to the Government’s willingness to introduce legislation, we have a regulated security industry, and members of the public and employers can feel more confident about the quality of the service they are offering and receiving.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): The Home Secretary mentioned the words “double lock” about 14 times. Can she confirm that the doors being double locked were actually wide open? Is she aware that the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007 brought under the SIA the regulation of private bailiffs? Can she tell the House how many private bailiffs are working without a permit and what steps she is taking to ensure that the regulatory regime for private bailiffs has at its core the prevention of any illegal work?

Jacqui Smith: The Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling, tells me that work is under way to bring the regulation of private bailiffs within the purview of the SIA. If the hon. Gentleman is genuinely interested, he might like to have a conversation with my hon. Friend.

Mr. Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): The Home Secretary rightly reminds employers of their obligations, but what does she say to employers who do make the appropriate checks but cannot obtain licences for people who clearly have a right to work? One of my constituents was told recently that no new licences would be issued for two months, despite the fact that there had already been a considerable delay. One Scottish local authority had to switch off a CCTV camera system for six weeks because the licences had not arrived. Is it the case that there is chaos at the heart of the SIA, or is it that because resources are being redeployed to firefight this particular problem, other parts of the authority’s work are going by the board?

Jacqui Smith: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is talking specifically about the situation in Scotland, where the need for an SIA licence was implemented only on 1 November, although people have been able to apply for licences since 1 February, which is clearly a much longer period than two months. My understanding is that 80 per cent. of licences are issued within eight weeks. The only instances where there may be a short delay—perhaps one to two weeks—are in respect of applicants from outside the European economic area, where, as I have already said, we are making additional checks.

Mr. Weir indicated dissent.

Jacqui Smith: The hon. Gentleman may shake his head, but I am happy to say that the Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Justice wrote to us recently to thank us
13 Dec 2007 : Column 489
and our officials for our co-operation in ensuring that the system works smoothly and securely.

Mr. John Baron (Billericay) (Con): May I suggest that the Home Secretary’s answer to the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) about the granting of SIA licences was completely laughable? Her suggestion that checks will be tightened up clearly shows that the immigration system is a complete shambles in that regard. She suggests that employers can make the checks, but does she not accept that in granting licences the SIA clearly creates the impression that illegal immigrants have been checked and can work in the UK, given the stipulations in the SIA regulations?

Jacqui Smith: I do not suggest that employers should check right-to-work status; it is the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996 that suggests employers have a duty to check, and the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act 2006 tightens up that requirement. Employers have a legal requirement to check whether somebody has the right to work, and now—to assist employers in the security industry—there will be an extra check by the SIA of people’s right to work before they are issued with a licence. That is the double lock to which the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden was referring.

royal assent

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that the Queen has signified her Royal Assent to the following Act:

Consolidated Fund Act 2007

13 Dec 2007 : Column 490

Topical Debate

Financial Services (Low-income Families)

1.8 pm

The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Kitty Ussher): I beg to move,

It is a pleasure to open the fifth-ever topical debate and to talk about such an important issue. Financial inclusion—ensuring that everyone can access the financial services they need to participate in today’s economy and society—is an issue in which many Members take a close interest. I welcome that, because the Government believe the issue demands our attention. We have made it a priority and we continue to focus on it, and I shall explain why.

Many Members have seen the effects of financial exclusion in their constituency, as I have. Being excluded from the system can mean that people face extra costs, such as paying commission to cash a cheque if they do not have a bank account. If they do not have savings or insurance, they may have difficulty replacing household necessities that are damaged or lost. They may experience the real problems of over-indebtedness, which could have been avoided with the right advice and support. Some people even face intimidation and violence at the hands of illegal loan sharks, as well as high costs, if affordable credit is not available.

Mr. Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): Although I fully appreciate what the Minister is saying, does she accept that the local post office was often the only place in many villages in rural areas and deprived communities where financial inclusion was available and that the closure of many of those post offices is causing real problems?

Kitty Ussher: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that specific initiatives are in place, in conjunction with my colleagues in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, to ensure that any avoidable closure of a rural post office is indeed avoided. However, it has to be said that if people used post offices more, they would be viable companies to operate.

As hon. Members will know, the effects of financial exclusion are felt most by those who can least afford them: low-income families and some of the vulnerable members of our society. Those effects can entrench poverty, because the poor end up paying more. Tackling financial exclusion is quite simply a matter of social justice, as well as a matter of economic efficiency. There is therefore a clear case for Government action. Over the last few years in particular, we have made that a priority. In 2004, we set up a financial exclusion taskforce to advise us and monitor our progress. That was in addition to the financial inclusion fund of, initially, £120 million over three years. So far, that fund has allowed DBERR to help more than 66,000 people to get free, face-to-face advice on their debt problems and the Department for Work and Pensions to increase the supply of affordable credit in rural and urban areas.
13 Dec 2007 : Column 491
Work has been carried out with more than 100 third sector lenders to provide £20 million of affordable loans to more than 46,000 financially excluded people.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Kettering Welfare Rights, which is a voluntary organisation, secures more than £3 million of benefits for people who otherwise would not get them. Would not the process be made that much easier if, instead of launching all these laudable initiatives, Departments simply did what they are expected to do: get benefits to people who qualify for them, rather than relying on voluntary organisations to make sure that the process works?

Kitty Ussher: Of course Departments put considerable energy into ensuring that eligible benefit recipients receive their benefits, but I am sure that we would all agree that there is often an information mismatch. I am delighted to hear about the work in Kettering. In my constituency, an invaluable role is played by Lancashire Welfare Rights, which is a free service provided by Lancashire county council to address that gap. I commend local authorities that complement the work of national Government.

I was talking about the effect of the national initiatives to combat financial exclusion. Over the past few years, we have also been working with the banks towards a shared target to halve the number of adults who do not have access to a bank account. By September 2005, we were 60 per cent. of the way towards achieving our target, with 800,000 adults brought into banking. That is the most recent figure available. We hope and expect that number to be even higher in the updated figures. There has been progress in helping low-income families to access the financial services that they need—bank accounts, affordable credit and money advice—but that progress needs to continue.

Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): Will the Minister acknowledge that the continued closure of post offices, particularly in rural areas such as those in my constituency, will only exacerbate the problem of financial exclusion, particularly for elderly people?

Kitty Ussher: I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman listened to my response to the hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Weir). I do not accept that financial exclusion will be made worse. The Government have tried every single avenue to ensure that avoidable closures in rural areas are indeed avoided, with some considerable innovative successes. Post offices have moved into other businesses and so on.

Anne Snelgrove (South Swindon) (Lab): Is my hon. Friend aware that the Post Office has just introduced a new Christmas savings scheme, which will be targeted at low-income families? It intends to introduce the scheme shortly after this Christmas, in time for next Christmas. I am seeing representatives of the Post Office on Monday to ensure that all the regulatory requirements are met. The scheme will ensure that post offices have even more business, so that they will remain open in future.

13 Dec 2007 : Column 492

Kitty Ussher: I am aware of the scheme and I commend the work of the Post Office in that regard and the efforts of my hon. Friend. That is just one example of how the Post Office is able to use its trusted brand—it is often particularly trusted at the lower ends of the market—to offer products that help to deal with financial exclusion issues. Low-cost insurance is a good example, as is making sure that people are able to use Post Office services to access broader financial services.

Mr. Newmark rose—

Kitty Ussher: The hon. Gentleman looks so keen to intervene that I must allow him to do so.

Mr. Newmark: I want to follow up on the interesting point made in the intervention about Christmas schemes. What lessons have the Government learned from the failures in relation to the Farepak disaster last year? Those lessons would be helpful in dealing with this issue.

Kitty Ussher: I am sure that a large number of Members will wish to mention Farepak, but the hon. Gentleman has been the first to do so. I was coming on to that point. We initially took steps to provide better protection and information for consumers. We have worked with the other hamper companies to put in place effective protection for customers’ pre-payments. We welcome the action by the industry to put in place independently controlled accounts to protect customers’ funds. We gave the Office of Fair Trading £1 million for an initial marketing campaign. The figure will be £2 million in the financial inclusion plan for the next comprehensive spending review, which I announced a couple of weeks ago. Specific action is being taken by the companies investigation branch and the liquidators with regard to Farepak. We have not ruled out further regulation once that process is complete. I am happy to return to this matter.

Mr. Weir: Does not the Post Office Christmas scheme, which is laudable and which I fully support, underline the point that in many deprived communities and small villages the post office is the only place left that offers any sort of financial business? The banks have long since gone from many of those areas. If the post office is closed, it does not matter what sort of scheme exists, because people will not be able to access it.

Kitty Ussher: That is why we are doing everything we can to prevent closures in rural areas, as I made clear to the hon. Gentleman previously. Special Government money is available and innovative solutions are considered on a regional and sub-regional basis to make sure that in every single case where the business becomes unviable, if there is an alternative that can be used to save the rural post office it will be pursued. There are examples up and down the land of post offices moving into other premises and of mobile post offices. I support every single one of those ideas.

Next Section Index Home Page