Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40-59)


27 NOVEMBER 2007

  Q40  Mr Clappison: You are telling me about the scope, but do you have a figure for the change that will be made in the number of work permits issued or the number of people coming here?

  Mr Byrne: No. If I gave you a figure now it would completely destroy the rationale for setting up the Migration Impact Forum and the Migration Advisory Committee and the whole principle of taking open, independent and transparent advice about the future needs of the country from people who serve this country and run businesses here.

  Q41  Mr Clappison: Are you telling me that no figure has been put on the effects that a points-based system will have or any part of it?

  Mr Byrne: I do not think it is right for an immigration minister to sit in an office in Whitehall and pluck a figure out of the air. I think we need to take a considered view about the right immigration that is in Britain's national interest and consider evidence from public services and the business community and publish it to justify the decisions we take at each stage of introducing the points system.

  Q42  Mr Clappison: Just to pluck a figure out of the air, at the time of the Queen's Speech and earlier in September there were a number of newspaper reports on the new system. The Evening Standard said: "Crucially, Whitehall officials have revealed that the new system will effectively cut the number of foreign migrant workers by 35,000 a year." The same report appeared in a number of different newspapers. Where does that come from?

  Mr Byrne: It did not come from me.

  Q43  Mr Clappison: Do you recognise that figure?

  Mr Byrne: What I have said is that as we introduce the points system we will take independent evidence on what the right number of points a migrant needs in order to come to Britain.

  Q44  Mr Clappison: You have already said that. Do you recognise the figure of 35,000?

  Mr Byrne: I have heard that figure; I also saw it in the newspapers, but my point is that we are not leaping to judgments a year or two in advance about what the right migration figure for Britain is. That is not just the position I have taken; it is the position also taken by Damian Green.

  Q45  Mr Clappison: I want to ask about the figure of 35,000 because it appeared in a number of newspapers and was attributed to Whitehall officials. Where does this figure come from? Do you say they have briefed journalists on their own account without you knowing anything about it, or have they got it all wrong?

  Mr Byrne: Far be it from me to speculate on where the media get their stories.

  Q46  Mr Clappison: The figure of 35,000 is therefore misleading because no decision has been taken?

  Mr Byrne: I think that the right approach for us at each stage of the introduction of the points system is to take independent advice on what the right figure is and for government to justify it. It may well be that when we introduce tier 2 of the points system for skilled workers that is the decision we take. If so, we will publish the evidence on which we take that decision.

  Q47  Mr Clappison: What about the figure of 35,000? Were you not unhappy when you saw this story in the newspapers? This headline story appeared in the Guardian and Daily Telegraph.

  Mr Byrne: You can ask this question in any way you like.

  Q48  Mr Clappison: You do not know anything about 35,000?

  Mr Byrne: You can ask the question in any way you like.

  Mr Browne: The officials are carrying out a briefing behind your back.

  Mr Clappison: Did you say anything to your officials?

  Chairman: We should have one question at a time.

  Q49  Mr Clappison: Do you want to see a change in net migration and the number of work permits issued, which is one of the main drivers of it?

  Mr Byrne: If you do not mind, I will look at the evidence first before making that judgment.

  Q50  Mr Browne: You are in a vulnerable, exposed position. Do you share my concern that there are officials paid for out of his and my taxes who seek to undermine him by briefing behind his back before this process has been completed?

  Mr Byrne: I am fairly relaxed about that.

  Q51  Mrs Dean: Can you explain why the Complaints Audit Committee found that investigations into misconduct complaints in immigration centres remained poor in 2006-07 with 89 per cent of investigations judged too be neither balanced nor thorough? What will the BIA do about it?

  Mr Byrne: I shall ask Lin Homer to talk about some of the details of our response, in particular the new process that will be in place in February.

  Ms Homer: The Complaints Audit Committee works very closely with us, not just by the publication of an annual report but by working with the agency throughout the year. We take all of its recommendations and comments very seriously. For me as chief executive any allegation of abuse or serious misconduct is a matter of great concern. We have already instigated significant improvements to our system on the back of advice given by the CAC last year. With its input we have some further improvements planned for February of next year which we hope will continue to build towards a system that can match best practice. I regularly meet with both the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman and Parliamentary Ombudsman because in all of our business there are routes through to the official ombudsmen for serious complaints. To be clear about those cases relating to serious misconduct, the CAC audits our process and looks in total at about 14,000 cases. Of those, a very small number relate to serious misconduct. For instance, in the second part of last year there were 38 allegations of serious misconduct in relation to the agency, of which five were upheld. To give a little flavour of that, one related to criminality; one related to missing property; two related to verbal abuse, which can be very serious because it can include racial abuse; and one related to lateness. We take those very seriously. Those are the kinds of cases investigated not only by us but by the police in all cases and by the ombudsmen. We are very determined to ensure that we have a rigorous process going forward. More generally, I think the Complaints Audit Commission commented on an area of continuing debate between us about what is best practice in relation to the investigation of complaints; in particular, the balance between what is referred to generally by complaints experts as local resolution—the concept that a complaint is decided near to the point of origination—and what is decided further away.

  Q52  Mrs Dean: One reason given as to why centres mishandle the complaints process is the fear of losing government contracts. Does this draw into question the role of private institutions in running immigration centres?

  Mr Byrne: I do not think it does. There are two points here. First, on site at every detention centre are BIA officials. Therefore, we are able to get into those complaints quite quickly. Second, since October last year we changed the system so that detainees could complain directly to the Prison and Probation Ombudsman. It is just worth setting out that of the 50 appeals sent to the ombudsman since October 2006 only three have been upheld. Complaints are important because there are public safety issues involved and we need to understand what they are much more directly in order to make service improvements in future. In part that is why the system was changed in this way so that BIA officials on site can get to the complaints but, more importantly, the independent ombudsmen can investigate them as well. That is not to say the BIA does not have further to go; it has. That is why the programme of change that comes into place next February is so important.

  Q53  Mrs Dean: Do you think it was the reason why before the BIA was on site there was a reluctance to handle complaints properly?

  Mr Byrne: That is hard to tell. The strong evidence we have is that there is not a widespread problem of abuse. Very often it is difficult because detainees, frankly, would rather be in a BIA detention centre than be sent home. Sometimes there is use of restraint and use of appropriate force to ensure that people are removed from the UK when they have no right to be here. I do not want to say that this is not an extremely difficult process, but that is why it is so important there are organisations like the independent ombudsman who is able to review these complaints directly. I meet Anne Owers pretty frequently as well to discuss these things face to face.

  Q54  Chairman: Have you seen the report on Lindholme detention centre?

  Mr Byrne: I have.

  Q55  Chairman: Have you also seen the report in today's Guardian by Alan Travis that wooden staves are being used against foreign prisoners?

  Mr Byrne: I have. The report does not say that wooden staves are used against detainees but that officers carry staves which are plastic rather than wooden. The point is that Lindholme is a facility that is not run by the private sector; it is run on behalf of BIA by the Prison Service, so we rely on the professional judgment of those officers to conduct themselves in a professional manner.

  Q56  Chairman: Ms Homer in her comment to the paper today said that she would work closely with Serco. Are you going to raise this issue with Serco?

  Mr Byrne: Absolutely.

  Q57  Bob Russell: What do you see as the key benefits of migration for the UK?

  Mr Byrne: I think there are two. First, Britain is a more interesting place for immigration. Perhaps I would say that as the grandson of Irish immigrants to this country. There are obviously enormous economic benefits of migration. As I say, in the House of Lords report published in the summer we tried to corral a cross-government view of what those benefits looked like. The two points that I pick out are: first, there is a big positive impact on the economy which is worth about £6 billion; second, the evidence we have suggests that migrants contribute more to the Exchequer than they take away. In the debate there are often questions about the impact on the growth of GDP per capita. We must be slightly careful about these debates. It must be remembered that if foreign-born individuals are only about 15½ per cent of the UK workforce they will be able to contribute only a relatively small fraction of the increase in GDP per capita purely because of the gearing effect. On average, for foreign nationals more than for British nationals the evidence points to the fact that the impact of migration on GDP per capita is positive.

  Q58  Bob Russell: I am grateful for that and also for your observations in answer to Mr Salter when he asked a similar question. That information is not so much a state secret but it is hardly one that the Government broadcasts widely. I suspect that it is not known to readers of the Daily Mail. Two years ago I recall that a previous home secretary published that information in the form of a readable digest. Can I suggest that it may be in the interests of community relations and the intelligibility of the general population if the positive economic benefits to which you have alluded are made more widely known?

  Mr Byrne: We do try to do so. Every speech that I have made has included a reference to the positive benefits of immigration to our economy. I realise that the speeches of Liam Byrne are not widely consumed by Daily Mail readers, but it is a case that we need to continue to argue. Frankly, it is not just for the Government to talk about the benefits. If you take foreign students as an example, they now bring to this country something like £8½ billion. International higher education is now worth something like £12½ billion. That is more than the tobacco industry, shipping and a lot of other sectors of our economy. In the West Midlands it is now one of our most important exports. That means there are other voices that need to be part of the debate. If you look at the agricultural sector at the moment, the survey we conducted for the House of Lords report showed that quite a large number of people in industry thought that their businesses would literally collapse without migrant workers. Very often we do not hear the voices of vice-chancellors or the business community making the public argument for why economic migration is a good thing. I have said that I do not think it is just the business community at which we should look. To answer Mr Clappison's point, part of the reason for my caution about the points system now is that it could be that the number of work permits we have issued is much bigger than 35,000; it could be that we need to rein back the number of work permits even further than the speculative briefing by Whitehall sources earlier this year. We need to do it in a transparent and evidence-based way and publish the ranges at the time the policy is introduced.

  Q59  Bob Russell: It is only because Mr Salter and I tabled the Question that you have become very upbeat on the economic advantages of migration. I urge you and the Home Office to up the game. I think the general population needs to know what the economic advantages are to the state. It has had to be dragged out of you by Mr Salter and me. You did not volunteer that here.

  Mr Byrne: The House of Lords report was the most comprehensive cross-government picture of the economic impact of migration published by the Government for many years. That was not dragged out of us; it was something in which we invested a lot of time and money.

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