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18 Dec 2007 : Column 254WH—continued

4.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Meg Hillier): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), who is my constituency neighbour, on securing this debate on this very important issue. Also, I welcome her strong support for firm and fair immigration control. I can pay testament to her reputation as a robust and effective constituency MP in dealing with immigration and other matters. Furthermore, because our offices inevitably collaborate on certain issues, I know that she has an excellent team of staff supporting her in her work.

My hon. Friend raises a number of issues and I will do my best to respond to them in as much detail as I can in the time available. She raised issues generally about the allegations of abuse, particularly about private security companies and their work; about targets; about allegations of racist abuse and other abuse; and concerns from the airlines.

I slightly take issue with my hon. Friend’s suggestion that the removals are target-driven. Each case to decide whether someone has a right to an asylum claim is dealt with completely on its individual merits. The point at which someone is removed is when they have refused all attempts to require them to leave voluntarily, so they will have gone through the full legal process to determine whether their claim is valid in the first place. At the point at which their claim is refused, they always have the option, at any point, to go voluntarily.

I am sure that, like me, my hon. Friend has people in her surgeries who present themselves and ask for support to return. We have a very good voluntary returns programme. It was criticised in the media over the weekend for being too generous, but it is important to recognise that that programme enables people to leave voluntarily and is cheaper, quicker and affords people more dignity than if they are removed forcibly. It is important that we continue with that voluntary removal programme.

The Prime Minister set a target to remove 4,000 foreign national prisoners this year, but that was a target for foreign national prisoners and I think that we would all agree that we need to remove people who are a danger to the country. If some of those individuals should resist removal, we have a right and a responsibility to tackle their resistance proportionately. We certainly cannot have a situation whereby just because somebody resists removal, they are able to stay. We will always pursue removal of those with no right to be here, but we would encourage them at every step of the way to seek a voluntary removal.

In our last debate in Westminster Hall, my hon. Friend and I discussed the issue of children in detention. I invite her to come and visit the scheme that we have begun just this month whereby we enable children and
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their families to live in a type of hostel environment rather than going into detention, in an attempt to encourage voluntary removal. I am sure that she would be interested to visit that scheme, either alongside me or on her own, or indeed with my hon. Friend the Minister for Borders and Immigration, who is due to visit shortly. She may wish to go along with him on that visit.

It is important in this debate just to outline some of the challenges that are faced in dealing with removals. Clearly, there is going to be a core of people who are not keen to return to their home country and yet they have gone through every legal process and they no longer have a right to remain in the country. For the benefit of the House, I want to outline some of the measures that people resort to physically to resist removals. Such measures can start with passive resistance, but then move on to active fighting. They include refusing to leave the removal centre, refusing to board or leave escort vans, verbally or physically abusing escort staff, taking off clothing, defecating and spitting, and dirty protests in the holding room, on the vehicle to the airport or on the plane. Sadly—although it does not happen too often—parents have occasionally threatened to harm their children if placed on a plane.

Such are the difficult challenges faced by those seeking to remove people. We all agree that they should not use inappropriate force, but they are dealing in many cases with quite difficult situations. My hon. Friend asked how many removals fail because airlines will not carry those being removed. Clearly, some of the protest methods that I listed, such as dirty protests and violence, would make it difficult for an airline to carry someone. Last year, 6 per cent. of removals ended in failure because of an airline’s refusal to carry.

There are issues, but we cannot allow someone to remain in the country just because they resist removal, as my hon. Friend will agree. We must ensure that proportionate measures are in place. She asked about training for people assisting removals. All are trained to prison service control and restraint standards as a condition of their employment. It is not a job that any of us, when elected to office, think—

Ms Abbott: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for answering my question about training, but she explain to the House how long that training takes and what it consists of?

Meg Hillier: I shall have to write to my hon. Friend on the precise details, but I am happy to do so. If she ever wants to go along and see how that training works, we could certainly facilitate that. Detention custody officers have a difficult job. It is right to train them properly in that role, and it is right that they should be accountable. Whether or not they work for a private company, they are working for the public and the British Government, and it is important that they should be accountable. As my hon. Friend said, the complaints audit committee recently published a report. We need to deal with complaints systematically and fairly.

To give some background, the complaints audit committee audits the process of removal as well as the Border and Immigration Agency in general. Individuals
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dissatisfied with service can go to the parliamentary ombudsman. Last year, more than 14,000 complaints were made about service, of which 112 were investigated by the ombudsman. Some 76 per cent. of those, or 85 complaints, were upheld. We have introduced changes to how we handle complaints—particularly in detention, which covers some of the people that my hon. Friend talked about—and improvements to how serious misconduct investigations into enforcement cases are handled. The CAC acknowledges them. We are also working to design a radical new complaints system, which will come online in February next year. Her comments are particularly welcome in that respect, and I promise to keep her updated on how it works once we unveil it in more detail.

Ms Abbott: My hon. Friend will be aware that the complaints audit committee said in the foreword to its report in November that

That is quite a strong statement, and it was made a month ago. Is she assuring me that the measures that she is describing will address that weakness of systems and procedures for recording, tracking and managing complaints?

Meg Hillier: I am sure that we will see some improvements. I know that my hon. Friend will keep a close eye on the changes coming online from February next year and will, quite rightly, hold the Home Office and Government to account on the issue. I welcome that, because it is important that, as well as being improved, the system is seen to be accountable.

Any individual can register a complaint with the police if they feel that serious misconduct has taken place. I appreciate that the group of people that we are talking about might have difficulty reaching the authorities, especially if they are returned to their country of origin. That is why it is important that we improve the complaints procedure and log any incidents that arise.

Jeremy Corbyn: In a previous debate on the subject, I mentioned the Swedish model in which a caseworker is allocated to each individual asylum case throughout its life. Is that not something that we could think about here? Constant personnel changes often lead to confusion and misunderstandings, and sometimes to the wrong decisions.

Meg Hillier: I am delighted to tell my hon. Friend that only 10 days ago, I met the new case owners of all current asylum cases in the Border and Immigration Agency. Each case owner is assigned a few thousand cases to handle with their team, and will own each case from beginning to end. Each case in his constituency and my own, for example, will have somebody to take it through the whole assessment process. If the claim fails, that person will deal with deportation or voluntary return; if it is successful, they will take the applicant through to support for remaining in the community, ensure that they are established and so on. That will make a marked change.

Like my hon. Friend, I have been frustrated as a constituency MP by the feeling that cases are often passed to completely different individuals, without any
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continuity. The change, which has been driven through by my hon. Friend the Minister for Borders and Immigration, arose from that frustration. I think that we will begin to see a change. I am happy to say that the cases were allocated last week, a week ahead of time, so the changes should come through our case loads and those of other hon. Members in the new year. I hope that that will make a difference to the individuals concerned, and we will get the continuity that my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) mentioned.

In the time available, it is best that I concentrate on the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington raised about the so-called dossier of 200 allegations of abuse printed in The Independent on 5 October. The chief executive of the Border and Immigration Agency has requested the dossier from The Independent. We do not have it yet, but I am pleased to say that we have made some progress—we were told in early November that it would take about two months to prepare the dossier before it could be provided to the BIA. That is helpful. It is impossible without the full facts to investigate complaints and take the disciplinary action necessary in cases of abuse of position.

I should also point out in relation to police complaints that although 58 allegations were made during the last 14 months that illegal or disproportionate force had been used during removal, the police found that none of those instances had a case to answer, on the basis that the use of force was both legal and proportionate. The BIA and private sector investigations have identified only one case of non-criminal lapses in escort behaviour resulting in minor disciplinary action in the past 14
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months. We must get the issue in proportion. It is a challenging task, but we need evidence to take action against people who might be abusing the system. With the dossier of information, we will look into the matter in more detail. It is a shame that it has taken so long. As my hon. Friend rightly said, if we do not have the information to act quickly, things are much more difficult. Witnesses may be dispersed, or other individuals concerned may not consent to make information available.

We must ensure that we have a robust system while recognising the challenges facing us. We are a little disappointed by the failure to produce the dossier at the point of publication. Having been a journalist, I would think that if something might lead to action, it is preferable to print it when it is possible for that information to get results, rather than having to delay for three months from publication, or a quarter of a year, before we can investigate the matter. That is rather a long time.

We cannot discipline people without evidence. We look forward to the evidence, and we will act robustly and swiftly when we have cause to do so. I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate. As ever, she has highlighted passionately and robustly the concerns shared by many Members. Importantly, she calls the Government to account for actions taken by us or agencies on our behalf. She is right to do so. I look forward to continuing to work with her. I hope that I can continue to provide her with reassurance in the information that I have promised. She is welcome at any point to visit a detention and removal centre, or indeed the Kent project, if she wishes.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Five o’clock.

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