Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)|
BYRNE MP AND
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
Q3 Chairman: To be clear, you were
told or you discovered this in April 2007?
Mr Byrne: Just before the summer,
Q4 Chairman: To be a little more
preciseApril/June is quite a long periodyou 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
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 farthe initiation
of a task force under Mr Coker and the promise to Parliament to
solve this matter by December of this yearis 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, 41about 1.4 per
centlicences 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
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 balancethe
need for enforcement action against the need to keep the public
abreast of the matterand 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
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.