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10.48 pm

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): I shall be brief. I was prompted to speak by the intervention of my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (Mr. Spellar), who asked why British citizens should bear the burden of such responsibilities. The Minister, whom I thank for listening carefully to a series of representations that I have made about the rules, led me to write letters to 63 families in Slough, to which the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) alluded. I had a look at the families who would have been affected by this proposal, and in a large proportion of cases the families involved a number of British citizens, and the British citizen in question was married to someone from overseas.

I can think of one case about which I am still battling with the Home Office. A woman with five children who had been married for years was deemed not to be a wife, but was admitted as a fiancée. That happened because the husband had been married previously and, ab initio, the marriage was determined to be bigamous in UK law, although, when the couple originally married, he
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was a Pakistani citizen. He is now a British citizen. She did not know that she had been admitted as a fiancée—she thought that she had been admitted as a wife because she had been a wife for many years and had five children. When her six-month visa expired, she applied to the Home Office for indefinite leave to remain, and it replied, “Sorry, no marriage certificate.” She tried to book a wedding at Slough town hall and could not do it in the time left before her visa ran out. Shortly afterwards, she had her sixth child, and she is still here because the child is too young for her to return. In that case, I have not done what I usually do—advise people to go overseas and make an application from there to come back home, as the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey described—because her children need to be cared for.

My concern about the rules is their effect on family life and article 8 of the European convention on human rights. The Minister has listened carefully to my comments and I shall stop speaking soon because I hope that he will cheer us all up by saying that he recognises that the impact on British as well as long-resident families is unacceptable. The lack of confidence in the system created by that wee group of people, who happen to go overseas just before the period described in the other place as a concession and get refused but would not be refused two weeks later, is unreasonable. I hope that the Minister can tell us that those people whose applications were made before 1 April and refused after that date but would have fitted the concession will have their cases reconsidered.

I also hope that the Minister can tell us that he intended people who disregard UK immigration law to face penalties, but that those people’s families, who will be deprived of sometimes a breadwinner and always a loved one, should not pay those penalties. I look forward to his comments.

10.53 pm

The Minister for Borders and Immigration (Mr. Liam Byrne): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) for giving us the opportunity to hold the debate. I agree with many of the remarks of the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes). When we make changes such as those that we are discussing, it is important that a parliamentary process is involved. That is why there is an opportunity to pray against rules and have such debates. However, I also agree that it would be helpful in future to try to hold them before rather than after rules are introduced. The hon. Member for Eastleigh said that he had made representations to the Leader of the House. I shall check whether she has received them.

I want to start with some context and then I shall rattle through my notes because I do not want to detain the House much longer. Hon. Members know that we are making one or two changes to the immigration and the border security systems in this country this year; the introduction of the points system is among the most significant. We had a rather good debate on the points system a week or two ago, when I hope that our intention to make the rules much simpler came across. We want to make them clearer and easier, not only for the Government to administer, thus reducing the room for mistakes that derive from 10 measures since 1971, but in order to reduce the space for bad immigration
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lawyers to take people for a ride. I agree with the remarks that my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) made about that. When there is a complicated system of rules, vulnerable migrants often get taken for a ride and end up paying quite a high price.

Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North) (Lab): Is not the point that people who are in this country, rather than people making an application to come through the points-based system, have messy and complicated lives? They have relationships, as my hon. Friends have described. It is impossible to create a rigid and mandatory structure for making such decisions that accommodates the complexity and difficulty of those lives. That is exactly why discretion must be retained in the system.

Mr. Byrne: Yes and no. I agree with a large part of the sentiment that my hon. Friend expresses, and I will explain why shortly. None the less, sharp edges are sometimes required and sometimes we need to make rules clear so that people can understand them.

Jeremy Corbyn: The Minister is familiar with the point about immigration lawyers and advisers, which I have raised before. Is the Home Office making any progress on that, through communications with the Immigration Law Practitioners Association and recognised quality solicitors or action against advisers who take vulnerable people with no access to legal aid for a ride? They are often poor people who pay out hundreds if not thousands of pounds on nonsensical advice that only makes corrupt lawyers rich.

Mr. Byrne: Progress is indeed being made on that. I know that the House will not necessarily welcome another Immigration Minister saying that he hopes to bring forward legislation, because that is said in the House quite often, but we hope to introduce a consolidating measure that will simplify, overhaul and clarify the 10 Acts that have been passed since 1971. As part of that, we will propose new action to try to drive out such abuse. However, let me move on to the substance of my remarks.

As part of the changes that we are making through the introduction of the points system, we want to introduce a much clearer series of rules. That necessarily involves putting some boundaries on discretion, which can be exercised very subjectively. When people can take subjective decisions, as they can today, there is room for inconsistent decisions. That often means having to put in place an appeals process to try to regulate the system, which can introduce further complexity and cost, but sometimes it is not the migrants who benefit from such change. We have to try to strike a balance between clear rules that are clearly applied and discretion, accepting that discretion brings a degree of subjectivity into the system. That is the balance that we have tried to strike in framing the rules.

When we introduce the points system, we will be seeking to replace the discretion that an immigration officer has in judging somebody’s intention and their intention to obey the rules and leave. We have always considered previous breaches of immigration laws when considering whether to let somebody into the UK.
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However, in the past those powers have been discretionary powers that have allowed us to refuse people who have not complied with the rules when they were last here. I am not sure that that blanket discretion is right. I would prefer a system with clearer rules, so that migrants are aware of the penalties that apply if they overstay or breach the rules that are still in the Immigration Act 1971. That is why we have sought to introduce a system of blanket bans for those who breach the rules. We have sought to reserve the toughest rules for those who have cost the taxpayer the most money.

It is also important that there should be sanctions for deception. People need to take responsibility for the applications that are submitted in their names, subject to the caveat that I am about to add. There must also be quite strict tests for what we judge to be falsified documents. It is possible for people to make honest mistakes, and it is important that the system should be able to accommodate them as honest mistakes. None the less, deception must carry a sanction.

I will not rehearse the automatic provisions that we are proposing in the rules, because hon. Members are already familiar with them. I will just add one direct answer to the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green), however. It is important that people who have left the country at public expense should have the opportunity to come back into the country in due course, but it is only reasonable that we should ask them to pay back any costs incurred by the taxpayer before we allow them back in. The hon. Gentleman will be delighted to learn that I hope that this will be among the proposals in the legislation that I hope to bring forward. I also hope to publish the Bill in draft form, before we bring it anywhere near the House in a formal sense, so there will be ample opportunity over the long summer months to study this question in depth, and to check whether we have got it right or wrong.

Simon Hughes: I do not dissent at all from the proposition that the Minister has just put to us. On his earlier point, does he accept that there is a difference between an adult who acts improperly and a minor—somebody under 18—on whose behalf the conduct has been carried out? Such young people would be the innocent victims of other people’s arrangements.

Mr. Byrne: I absolutely accept that, and I shall spell that out further in a moment.

I want to make a number of changes in the light of some of the remarks made by right hon. and hon. Members this evening. I would like to put on record my thanks not only to the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), who has discussed some of these issues with me in the past, but to my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (Mr. Spellar) and my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), who have gone to some length to tell me where I have got things wrong and helped me to reshape the amendments that I shall now propose.

I said at the beginning of my speech that we needed to try to balance the application of clear rules—and the elimination of subjectivity—with an element of discretion. There is more room for discretion than was suggested in the concession that was announced by my noble Friend
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Lord Bassam in another place. I am announcing two further reforms this evening, and I want to add one clarification.

First, we will not automatically refuse applications from people applying to join their family permanently in the UK—that is to say, those applying for visas as a spouse, civil partner or unmarried or same-sex partner under paragraphs 281 or 295A of the immigration rules; a fiancée or proposed civil partner, as set out in paragraph 290 of the rules; a parent, grandparent or other dependent relative, as set out in paragraph 317; a person exercising rights of access to a child, as set out in paragraph 246; or a spouse, civil partner or unmarried or same-sex partner of a refugee or person with humanitarian protection, as set out in paragraphs 352A, 352AA, 352FA and 352FD. Following some of the comments made by hon. Members this evening, I will of course check to see whether we have cast the scope of those exceptions correctly, but my initial analysis is that that is where the discretion should apply.

Secondly, we will not automatically refuse anyone who is under the age of 18 at the time of the breach of the immigration rules. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North spoke powerfully on this subject, as did the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey. That case has been well made.

The clarification that I want to make underlines comments that I have made to the Committee of my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) in the past that there should be a carve-out for victims of trafficking. We will put that into effect when we have ratified the Council of Europe’s convention on trafficking.

Damian Green rose—

Mr. Byrne: There are two caveats that I wish to add, but before I do so, I give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Damian Green: I am glad that the Minister brought up the subject of ratification. His point that the Government were going to ratify was welcome, but will he give us some indication of when that might be?

Mr. Byrne: I have nothing further to add to what my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said in the House not too long ago.

Chris Huhne: In the light of his helpful remarks, will the Minister clarify whether any cases falling in the period before ratification will be subject to discretion in the same way as he outlined for those under the age of 18?

Mr. Byrne: I will take the advice of my lawyers on that point first, if I may, and write to the hon. Gentleman to clarify the position.

As to the caveats, this does not mean that people who need to go home and reapply will automatically get in; they will still need to meet the requirements set out in the immigration rules and they may be refused if they have contrived in a significant way to frustrate those rules. Nor is it or can it be a green light for the groups I have mentioned to deliberately overstay. We need to bring forward fresh proposals to ensure that there are consequences for these actions.

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Suggestions have been made to me. Obviously, the need to go home and apply for entry clearances is one sanction, and other opportunities are presented in our Green Paper “The Path to Citizenship”. For example, we may, because we could, make those who have breached immigration rules wait slightly longer before they become citizens, but I do not want to go into detail on that proposal this evening. I simply want to flag it up for the House’s attention in order to illustrate the wider point: we must have sanctions for those who overstay. These changes will have immediate effect as a concession and will be added to the immigration rules at the first opportunity.

I hope that the hon. Member for Eastleigh will recognise the benefits of some of the changes announced this evening, and indeed the balance that we are trying to draw between the elimination of subjectivity in decision making on the one hand and the need for discretion on the other.

11.7 pm

Chris Huhne: With the leave of the House, I will wind up the debate. I thank the Minister for his constructive response. I have been impressed this evening, as I was when we debated the points-based system, with the measured and rational way in which the Minister approaches these matters. It is slightly unfortunate that, given that these rules have already entered into force, this is somewhat late in the day. [Interruption.] It is late in every sense, both this evening and for the rules.

The Minister’s assurances on families and particularly those under the age of 18 relate to essential changes to the rules originally put forward by his Department. I am still concerned about the transition from the current situation. As was made clear by my hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), we are unfortunately debating matters that have already become law, as a result, in my view, of an unfortunate procedural lapse of this House— [Interruption.] It may be a normal lapse, but it is still a lapse and it definitely needs to be put right.

I am concerned that before the changes outlined by the Minister can come into effect, there will be a number of cases that fall between the two stools. I would like to know, if possible before we have to vote in the deferred Division tomorrow, whether these matters can be dealt with without leading to serious problems. If the Minister proceeds with the changes and if there is no transitional problem of the sort that I am concerned about, I will very much welcome this exceptionally adroit U-turn—the Government’s second today, following the Chancellor’s U-turn on compensation for those caught up in the doubling of the 10p tax rate. That reminds me that the diet of our own words is often, for a professional politician, one of the most nutritious available. I commend it to the Minister, who has clearly had his fill this evening.

Question put—

Hon. Members: No.

Division deferred till Wednesday 14 May , pursuant to Standing Order No. 41A (Deferred divisions).

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Delegated legislation

Local Government

Motion made, and Question put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Delegated Legislation Committees),

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): I think the Ayes have it.

Hon. Members: No.

Division deferred till Wednesday 14 May , pursuant to Standing Order No. 41A (Deferred divisions).

Mr. Deputy Speaker: With the leave of the House, I shall put motions 6 and 7 together.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Delegated Legislation Committees),


Value Added Tax

Question agreed to.

European Union Documents

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 119(9) (European Committees),

Financial Management

Question agreed to.

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