Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)


27 NOVEMBER 2007

  Q1 Chairman: Minister, welcome to today's meeting. Originally, we invited you to come and speak about the accession review on Romania and Bulgaria, but since then a number of issues have arisen about which the Committee is very concerned, in particular the situation regarding the Security Industry Authority; statistics produced by different government departments on immigration and the treatment of asylum detainees at government centres. We are very pleased to welcome the chief executive of the Border and Immigration Agency, Lin Homer. I understand that you wish to make a very brief statement and table a paper.

  Mr Byrne: Indeed. Because you very kindly broadened the subject area today to embrace some more topical immigration issues I thought the Committee might find it helpful if I made a few brief remarks about progress against the BIA business plan published six months ago. We are now at the mid-year review point. I shall keep my remarks very brief, but I thought the Committee might find it helpful if I submitted a more detailed paper just setting out the progress we have made since June. Chairman, this is my first appearance before the Committee since you took over the chairmanship. It is a privilege to appear before you today. The Committee will be aware that I have published six major reform documents in addition to the UK Borders Act since I was asked to lead a programme of immigration reform very elegantly inaugurated by the former Home Secretary, Dr Reid. The business plan published in May drew together milestones set out in those documents. I am pleased to be able to report solid progress towards making BIA fit for the future. In the business plan I published 25 milestones for achievement this year. I am able to tell the Committee today that we are now hitting 22 of them. On three I am not satisfied with progress and have ordered steps to be taken to put them back on track. The paper that I table covers border and migration control, asylum and enforcement. In essence, I see border control as BIA's primary responsibility. We are now implementing biometric visas for about 114 of the 130 target countries. Global roll-out of biometric visas will be complete next year. We have now procured a new passenger screening system and are about to exceed our target of 30 million passenger records screened by 2008. In migration control we have completed preparations for the points system to be introduced next year. We now have the Migration Impact Forum and Migration Advisory Committee up and running. Soon I will bring forward proposals to reform both the visit visa system and family reunion policies, thereby completing our reform of the major routes into Britain. As to asylum, thanks to tougher border control we now have the lowest number of asylum claims since 1992. We have removed about 10,000 failed asylum seekers this year and have exceeded our target to resolve 35 per cent of cases within six months. Finally, on enforcement in the last quarterly statistics published by us we were able to say that we had matched our previous best record for enforced returns. We are on track to meet the Prime Minister's target of the removal of 4,000 foreign national prisoners this year. Our progress to date is already a 50 per cent improvement on the entire progress of the past year. Further changes are planned for next year, including expansion of detention capacity and a much stronger attack on illegal working. Therefore, this represents progress across a broad front for which I am very grateful to BIA staff.

  Q2  Chairman: Thank you for your kind comments. Perhaps I may return the compliment by congratulating you on becoming The Spectator's minister to watch. While you are minister of immigration this Committee will continue to watch you with great care. You have painted a very interesting picture, but we are concerned about a number of problems that beset the immigration service. One matter of great concern to Parliament is the discovery that there are thousands of illegal workers, some in government departments, as a result of the failings of the Security Industry Authority. When did you as minister for immigration first become aware of these problems?

  Mr Byrne: I became aware a little before the summer, in about April/June of this year, when as a result of a BIA operation we understood that a security firm, which the Home Secretary announced in her Statement, was employing 12 individuals who were guarding police contractors. It was at that time and shortly thereafter that a new service was put in place by the Border and Immigration Agency together with the Security Industry Authority.

  Q3  Chairman: To be clear, you were told or you discovered this in April 2007?

  Mr Byrne: Just before the summer, in April-June.

  Q4  Chairman: To be a little more precise—April/June is quite a long period—you as immigration minister were aware in April of this year?

  Mr Byrne: Yes. I was alerted to the BIA operation which had found a problem with some of the contractors being employed by the MPS. It was thereafter that a different service was put in place by the Border and Immigration Agency and SIA to make a different kind of check on the 10 per cent of applicants for licences.

  Q5  Chairman: Is it right that you became aware in April and the Home Secretary became aware in July?

  Mr Byrne: There are two stages to this. What I became aware of in April was that a Border and Immigration Agency operation had detected a number of illegal immigrants working for contractors employed by MPS, but in July the results of the new checks became available to ministers. If you go back to April 2005, about 10 per cent of applicants for SIA licences were checked; they were asked to provide evidence of the right to work. In April of this year we were told of a BIA operation that had uncovered a problem with some MPS contractors. That led to a different kind of check again on 10 per cent of SIA licence applicants and that identified the problem.

  Q6  Chairman: In April you were aware of it, in July the Home Secretary was aware of it and in November Parliament was told. In that long period who was it who asked for a full explanation of what was happening? I am concerned that the Home Secretary told Parliament that it was she who asked for a full report in July of this year before making a statement to Parliament, but it seems that the Home Office and you as immigration minister knew in April. Why did you not commission a full report?

  Mr Byrne: To make clear the chronology, in April we became aware of a BIA operation that had uncovered a problem with MPS contracts. That led in June to a different kind of check being put in place by BIA on 10 per cent of SIA licence applicants. That new checking regime revealed a greater prevalence of illegal immigrants amongst SIA applicants of which we had previously been aware. That was the trigger for the Home Secretary's Statement in July which resulted in the extension of 100 per cent BIA right-to-work checks on applicants and retrospective checks on those non-EU licence applicants who had not undergone the right-to-work check before July of this year.

  Q7  Chairman: With hindsight, on discovering in April that in the 10 per cent sample there were people working illegally should not the Home Office have immediately initiated a 100 per cent check on those who applied for licences?

  Mr Byrne: The right-to-work checks conducted from April 2005 onwards showed that about 1.4 per cent of those people who were checked did not produce evidence of the right to work. That is quite low. It was only in April 2007 that the BIA operation on Metropolitan Police contractors revealed a need for a different kind of check. That checked was then introduced and showed a much higher prevalence of those failing the right-to-work test.

  Q8  Chairman: Have you as immigration minister seen the form used when somebody applies for a licence?

  Mr Byrne: I have not seen it.

  Q9  Chairman: Do you not think this is a problem? If we are concerned about who is applying for a licence at the very least ministers should have seen the form. The form must be brought before you so you can check it and it should include the questions, "When did you get indefinite leave to remain in this country?" and, "Do you have the right to work?" Is it still the case that no minister has seen this form?

  Mr Byrne: I think the right thing for ministers to do is ensure that the appropriate checks are made by the right people at the right time. The whole House knows that there was no legal obligation on SIA to undertake right-to-work checks because since 1997 the primary obligation has been on employers.

  Q10  Chairman: What is the Home Office doing to try to clear up the confusion that exists on the part of employers? Clearly, employers do not understand that they should not be employing illegal immigrants to guard the Home Office or indeed the Prime Minister, if that is the case?

  Mr Byrne: I am not entirely sure I accept that analysis.

  Q11  Chairman: You do not think there is confusion on the part of employers?

  Mr Byrne: I think employers should be pretty clear about their obligations to check the right to work. It is not a new obligation; it was introduced back in 1997. When I launched the illegal working action plan earlier this year thousands of small businesses in this country were written to remind them of that obligation. In August the Home Secretary authorised the SIA to write to about 2,000 private security firms reminding them of their obligation. I think that British business has been pretty well informed of its obligations. The legislation dates back to 1996,

  Q12  Chairman: Are you satisfied that the action undertaken by the Home Office so far—the initiation of a task force under Mr Coker and the promise to Parliament to solve this matter by December of this year—is appropriate and sufficient to deal with this very serious problem?

  Mr Byrne: I do. I think the Home Secretary is right to say that a further Statement is required and that she plans to make in December.

  Q13  David Davies: You have said you were aware there was a problem in April 2007, but when was the Home Office told that there might be a problem? As the most junior newly-elected back-bench MP I was told it a year earlier by the National Security Inspectorate at a local meeting in my constituency, which was why I tabled those Questions. Is it credible that it would be telling newly-elected back-bench Members of Parliament and not the Home Office?

  Mr Byrne: You have to remember that there were right-to-work checks in place from April 2005. I have the figures here. About 3,000 checks were made between April 2005 and December 2006. Of those, 41—about 1.4 per cent—licences were refused. I then answered your Question on 11 September 2006.

  Q14  David Davies: But were you not being told a year earlier the same thing I was told by the National Security Inspectorate?

  Mr Byrne: My job is to make sure that the right actions are in place to tackle illegal working in this country, so when people were applying for an SIA licence samples were being checked.

  Q15  David Davies: The NSI as a private trade association was telling me, "Mr Davies, please do something about this. There are thousand and thousands of people working illegally as security guards and they should not be." The NSI told me that a year earlier than you apparently became aware of it. Why was that?

  Mr Byrne: Because there were right-to-work checks already in place from April 2005 to April 2007 and they showed that the refusal rate was quite low. Forty-one refusals in a sample of 3,000 is a 1.4 per cent refusal rate which is quite low. I answered your Question on 11 September 2006. Nonetheless, there were BIA operations to tackle illegal working and they included operations against security firms where we had intelligence. One of the BIA operations in April 2007 revealed a problem with some MPS contractors. That told us we needed to think differently about the right-to-work checks that we undertook. Those different checks were put in place in June. That revealed about a 10 per cent refusal rate and that was the trigger for the 100 per cent check.

  Q16  David Davies: What was the specific change made in the way you checked on the right to work that suddenly increased the percentage from 1.4 per cent to 10 per cent?

  Mr Byrne: From April 2005 to April 2007 those non-EU citizens who declared themselves as such were asked to provide evidence of their right to work. What changed in June was that we checked our databases on that sample, so rather than put the burden of proof on the individual we shouldered that burden of investigation. That revealed that more SIA applicants were failing and that was the trigger for the Home Secretary to order a 100 per cent right-to-work check.

  Q17  Gwyn Prosser: If I may say so, you have given us a rather convoluted chronology of events which led to the public disclosure. The British public can be pretty tolerant of the errors and mistakes, even failings, of government but not lack of transparency. If it did not seem right at the time, looking back can you understand why it now looks as if there has been a cover-up going on? Looking back, would it not have been better to disclose and declare it way back in April when the alarm bells first started to ring?

  Mr Byrne: I can understand that, but the Home Secretary took three steps that I believe were entirely appropriate. The Home Secretary had quite a delicate public interest question to balance, because if there was any kind of big public announcement when we were just beginning to understand the nature of the problem that might have undermined enforcement operation. For example, if I went out and said that it appeared there was a problem in effect I would be putting a number of illegal immigrants in this country on alert that we knew where they lived and would probably come after them. As an immigration minister I am paid to make sure that effective enforcement action is taken against illegal immigrants. Putting them all on high alert that we would be coming after them is not necessarily in my interest; I want to be able to track down those people and take appropriate enforcement action against them without alerting them to the fact we are so doing. I believe the Home Secretary was absolutely right in doing three things. She authorised the letter from SIA to senior managers in the security industry saying, "You are obliged to undertake right-to-work checks"; she wrote to HR directors across government reminding them that anybody with access to government assets needed to pass the baseline personnel security standard, which includes right-to-work checks; and she commissioned an action plan to ensure there were retrospective checks on all non-EU nationals that did not go through the right-to-work checks before July 2007. There was a difficult public interest question to balance—the need for enforcement action against the need to keep the public abreast of the matter—and I think she made the right call.

  Q18  Gwyn Prosser: In past inquiries the Committee has been very critical of private employers who have taken on people who do not have the right to work and not undertaken such pre-checks. Now we have a situation where this is happening within the department. The department and Metropolitan Police were making insufficient checks on people in sensitive areas like seaports, airports and even Whitehall. Being so close to government and security issues, should they not have been doing 100 per cent checks at the time? Why did they not do that?

  Mr Byrne: I think you are right. Employers need to undertake 100 per cent checks. I do not want to veer off into the philosophy of how to tackle illegal immigration, but if we are to combat it we have to combat illegal working. That was why last week the Home Secretary announced that she was minded to introduce £10,000 on-the-spot fines for those caught employing people illegally. That is why we are expanding quite dramatically the employer-checking service at BIA and that is why we believe that those who knowingly employ illegal immigrants should face up to two years in prison and an unlimited fine. We have to drive home the message that you have to know whether or not employees have the right to work here. But since 1997 the obligation has been on employers to make sure they have the right level of checks in place. We as the Border and Immigration Agency need to make it easier for employers to check. If we are asking employers to take on that responsibility and saying that we will come down on them much harder if they break the rules I think we are honour bound to make it easier for employers to check. Today it is very complicated to do these checks.

  Q19  Gwyn Prosser: But should you not be coming down rather harder on your own Border and Immigration Agency because it has failed to carry out checks and allowed this to happen?

  Mr Byrne: I do not think that is the case. If you wind back through this chronology, it was a BIA operation which uncovered the problem in the first place and it is BIA that is expanding the employer checking service so it is easier for employers to check. It is also BIA which is driving through compulsory ID cards for foreign nationals so that employers do not have to look at one of up to 70 different bits of paper that can be proffered at the moment to prove right to work and right to be here. We are trying to make the system much simpler for employers, but that should not distract from the principal obligation on them to undertake those right-to-work checks in the first place.

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