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House of Commons

Monday 14 January 2008

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Home Department

The Secretary of State was asked—

Student Visas

1. Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): How many overseas students had their visas extended in the latest period for which figures are available; and what proportion of those granted extension in that period had previously received an extension. [177758]

3. Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): What estimate she has made of the number of student visa holders who overstayed in the last period for which figures are available; and what steps she is taking to remove them. [177760]

9. Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): How many foreign students have failed to leave the UK when their visas expired in the last 12 months for which figures are available. [177766]

The Minister for Borders and Immigration (Mr. Liam Byrne): Some 134,240 applicants were granted extensions of stay in the UK as students in 2006. Although figures are not available for those previously granted extensions in that category, the fact of a previous extension would have been taken into account. Exit controls were phased out from 1994, but from this year we are reinstating those controls so that we can count people in and out of the country, identifying those who have no right to be here.

Mr. Lilley: I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. I understand why he mumbled it; he must be embarrassed now that it has been shown that 60 per cent. of overseas students in this country have their original visas extended. That must also be a source of embarrassment to the Home Secretary, given that she told her Department to relax student visa controls.

Can the Minister, above all, tell us why students from rich countries do not extend their visas? Only 1 per cent. of those from America do, for example. However, the situation is different in respect of students from poor countries, which desperately need them to return when they have qualified. Some 80 per cent. of those from China overstay their original visas, while 90 per cent. and 140 per cent. of students from the Indian
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subcontinent and Africa respectively are allowed to do so. When will the Minister realise that that is the biggest loophole in immigration control and that it should be taken seriously and not relaxed?

Mr. Byrne: Back in 2005, the right hon. Gentleman wrote wisely for the Centre for Policy Studies that taking a draconian approach to limiting immigration to this country would have a detrimental effect on our economy. We can see that in higher education. International education is now worth £12.5 billion to this economy and international students bring in £8.5 billion to our colleges. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that there is a need for tougher controls on students and every other foreign national. That is why we no longer issue visas without checking people’s fingerprints and why we will introduce identity cards on a compulsory basis, for those, including students, who want to stay in the country for longer than six months. However, the Conservative party appears not to be prepared to match that security measure.

Mr. Brazier: Some 309,000 students came in last year, a 9 per cent. increase on the previous year. Does the Minister accept that policing the issue, which is important—students are welcome to come to this country—is an important part of any successful system of immigration control? Will he tell the House whether newspaper reports that immigration officers have been told that chasing up overstayers is a low priority are true or false?

Mr. Byrne: Ministers, of course, do not comment on leaked documents. However, I can and will say that there was a good deal of selective quotation of the memo in question. Actually, the thrust of the document from the strategic director for enforcement was to ask enforcement officers to check whether the student in question was an enforcement priority. As it turned out, he had filled in his application form in time, but his credit card details were incorrect.

The thrust of the hon. Gentleman’s question was about the broader point of enforcement priorities. I make no apology for prioritising deportation for those who pose a threat to public safety and may harm the public. That is why we have prioritised the deportation of foreign national prisoners. We not only met the Prime Minister’s target of deporting 4,000 foreign national prisoners last year, but exceeded it, having deported 4,200—an 80 per cent. increase on the year before.

Mr. Swayne: The issuing of an ID card is a fat lot of use if there is to be no enforcement of the rules. The problem is not selective quotation, but selective enforcement of the policies. When will the Minister get a grip and start getting rid of people who overstay their visas?

Mr. Byrne: I welcome what I think is the sentiment that I detect behind that intervention. May I ask the hon. Gentleman to have a word with the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green), who was the Conservative Front-Bench Member in Committee when I asked to increase visa charges to spend an extra £100 million on enforcement? That Committee sitting took place on 26 March 2007, and when it came to the vote, Conservative Front-Bench Members abstained.

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David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): The scale of this is very significant. The number of student visas issued annually is significantly more than double the number of work permits issued to foreign nationals. What contact has the Minister had with the representative bodies for the institutions at which the students are registered? Surely they must have a part to play in all this, whether they are at the top end of the spectrum, such as the London School of Economics, or at the bottom end, with some fairly dodgy, hole-in-the-corner colleges with bogus courses that are just there as a means of access to the UK.

Mr. Byrne: Colleges agree that we need to tighten up the system. That is why, when the points-based system is introduced, we will introduce much tighter sponsorship arrangements for colleges. In order for colleges to be able to understand whether the student appearing in the classroom is indeed the student whom they sponsored to get a student visa, they must of course be clear about their identity. That is why fingerprint visas are so important, and why compulsory ID cards for foreign nationals are so important too. In the debates that we had on the introduction of compulsory ID cards for foreign nationals during the passage of the UK Borders Act 2007, the Opposition claimed to support them, but we then found out that that support is no longer—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The Minister is to answer the question, not talk about the Opposition.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): Does the Minister accept that the students most likely to overstay their visas are those who are signed up for some of the dodgy private colleges or for colleges that are little more than a filing cabinet somewhere on the Holloway road? What are the Government doing to ensure that, in their countries of origin, students are made very well aware of the dubious nature of some of the colleges that they are signing up to?

Mr. Byrne: It is important that we work with the higher education organisations to promote an understanding of what is a good college and what is not; that is also why we have to continue our work to crack down on those colleges that are bogus. Between August 2005 and August 2007, we removed 69 such colleges from the register of providers. The system works effectively, but it has to dovetail with the general tightening of border protection that we propose over the next year or two. Absolutely central to that system reform are more effective systems to identify whether people are who they say they are; that is why biometric visas and biometric ID cards will be so important.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): The Minister said in his earlier answer that the Home Office prioritises overstayers who are a threat to public order. Is he then prepared to say whether he endorses the actions of his officials in the case of Ama Sumani, a woman in Cardiff who overstayed only when she developed cancer—

Mr. Speaker: Order. That is too wide of the question.

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Damian Green (Ashford) (Con): I understand why the Minister prefers to talk about our policy rather than about his, because, as so often, he is trying to talk tough while acting feebly. We know how weak his actions are because we have his own words. As his colleagues have said, one area where we would expect to find overstaying students is in bogus colleges. Last November, the Government removed 114 bogus colleges from the approved register. When I asked the Minister how many illegal immigrants they had detected at these colleges, he replied:

In other words, they knew where dodgy activity was taking place, and even then they did nothing effective about it. Why, when the Minister had the chance to take some effective action, did he fail to do so?

Mr. Byrne: The system for tackling bogus colleges has got systematically tighter over the past couple of years. Back in 2004, there was a system whereby colleges only needed to report voluntarily when their students did not attend college. I did not think that that was strong enough, so we tightened the system so that there is mandatory disclosure when the BIA requests it. Under the points system, the system will get tighter still, and colleges will be required to disclose proactively all cases of non-attendance to us. If we are talking about systems that will have some kind of purchase on foreign students, the hon. Gentleman would do well to remember that the cap, one of the proposals that the Conservatives have talked about by way of sounding tough, does not touch foreign students at all. At least the points system will extend much more broadly and do something to get a grip on bogus colleges and the mis-marketing of higher education courses.

Police Priorities

2. Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): What recent assessment she has made of the impact of targets on police priorities. [177759]

The Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing (Mr. Tony McNulty): The Government’s targets in terms of the police are reviewed on a constant and regular basis. We have been in dialogue over several months with all key interested parties—if I can say that instead of “stakeholders”—as we develop the new priorities and targets set out in our new public service agreements, which were announced on 9 October.

Robert Neill: Does the Minister accept that the Government’s own figures show that, as a consequence of the targets regime, police officers spend about 19 per cent. of their time doing paperwork and about 14 per cent. of it patrolling? Most of my constituents regard that as warping priorities rather than meeting them. In his dialogue, will he take on board what Sir Ian Blair, the Met Policy Commissioner said when he called for a “bonfire” of that type of red tape?

Mr. McNulty: The hon. Gentleman must not confuse red tape with bureaucracy and paperwork, much of which is necessary. I wholeheartedly endorse Sir Ronnie
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Flanagan’s view about there being, in his words, good and bad cholesterol in terms of paperwork. We need paperwork to have appropriate audit trails— [ Interruption. ] My cholesterol is very bad, by the way, but that is neither here nor there. We are constantly reviewing the situation and trying to separate what is good and bad. For the sake of police officers as well as members of the public who encounter the police, there must be proper audit trails. The hon. Gentleman is right in the general sense that we are working very closely with Sir Ronnie and all interested parties to ensure that bureaucracy and paperwork are kept at a minimum.

It might have been helpful, given that the hon. Gentleman invoked Sir Ian Blair, if he had not voted consistently against increases for the Metropolitan police in Mr. Livingstone’s budget on a regular basis. [ Interruption. ]

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): If the Front-Benchers have quite finished, I shall proceed.

I sincerely hope that my right hon. Friend does have a target for increasing the amount of time police officers spend on front-line policing. Can he give the House an assessment of how effective the pilot of hand-held computers has been in allowing police officers to avoid repetitive record keeping and returns to the police station?

Mr. McNulty: That work is still ongoing, but I shall give an assessment to the House at the earliest opportunity. There are a number of cases—not least in relation to the bureaucracy under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, which is the subject of a later question—in which dealing with a misinterpretation by forces about exactly what is required has led to a significant reduction in paperwork.

I hope that this ends up as a non-partisan issue, and we are working very closely with those involved to get to the stage where all the processes to do with effective and efficient policing, including the replacement of constant returns to the station with the digital transfer of data, are broadly welcomed, and that the investment in them is welcomed, so that our police can spend more time out on the streets where they belong. That issue does not divide the House at all.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): Does the Minister accept that we still have one of the best police forces in the world, with superb officers, that the achievement of targets and a high level of performance depends, crucially, on police morale, and that that morale was knocked for six by his betrayal on police pay?

Mr. McNulty: I certainly agree with the early part of the hon. Gentleman’s question. I would not say “still”; for some time, we have had the best police force in the world, and I said so recently at a Jane’s Police Review dinner. I used a minor expletive there, but it was in the evening so it was okay, and it was not like the ones used by some of my colleagues on the Front Bench, as has been reported.

On the morale, pay and conditions of police, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has said clearly that we would like to talk to the Police Federation and others about how we can go forward with regard to
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pay, and develop multi-year agreements based on the accepted index from the tribunal, which was suggested in the first part of Mr. Booth’s review. The uncertainty of police pay will then be taken out of the equation, and the federation and others can talk about some of the other matters that will create better efficiency for the forces and the public; I know that they want to do that.

Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes) (Con): Will the Minister tell the House why human trafficking is not core police business?

Mr. McNulty: It is.

Mr. David Ruffley (Bury St. Edmunds) (Con): Former chief constable Peter Neyroud, now head of the National Policing Improvement Agency says:

This dysfunctional target system clearly is not fit for purpose. Is not that why violent crime has doubled from half a million offences a year to more than 1 million a year under new Labour?

Mr. McNulty: For all his pomposity, the hon. Gentleman had a point at the start of his question. He refers to precisely what we have been engaged in with other interested parties, culminating in the new public service agreements announced in October. Whatever priorities and targets we afford our police services, it must be right that they do move, and we should learn from experiences. The variously quoted examples such as milk bottles, cream buns or slices of cucumber are, as I said to the Police Superintendents Association, matters that lie more with local leadership and misinterpretation of targets and priorities than they do with the Home Office. We have said clearly in the new public service agreements that there needs to be a shift away from high-volume, low-risk crime, which should be dealt with at a local level, to targets driven from the centre that concentrate more readily on high levels of serious and violent crime.

Police Pay

4. Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): What recent discussions she has had on police pay; and if she will make a statement. [177761]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Jacqui Smith): I have discussed police pay with the police leadership and police officer representatives on numerous occasions. My right hon. friend the Chancellor set out the Government’s objectives on public sector pay for future years on 8 January. I have now written to the independent chair of the police negotiating board asking the board to start work quickly on exploring the possibilities for reaching a multi-year pay settlement for the police based on the index agreed by the police arbitration tribunal.

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