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Session 2008 - 09
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Public Bill Committee Debates

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mrs. Janet Dean
Blackman, Liz (Erewash) (Lab)
Brake, Tom (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD)
Brown, Mr. Russell (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab)
Burns, Mr. Simon (West Chelmsford) (Con)
Carswell, Mr. Douglas (Harwich) (Con)
Cousins, Jim (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central) (Lab)
Devine, Mr. Jim (Livingston) (Lab)
Green, Damian (Ashford) (Con)
Hogg, Mr. Douglas (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con)
Huhne, Chris (Eastleigh) (LD)
James, Mrs. Siân C. (Swansea, East) (Lab)
Keeley, Barbara (Worsley) (Lab)
Ladyman, Dr. Stephen (South Thanet) (Lab)
Sharma, Mr. Virendra (Ealing, Southall) (Lab)
Soames, Mr. Nicholas (Mid-Sussex) (Con)
Woolas, Mr. Phil (Minister for Borders and Immigration)
Alan Sandall, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee
The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(2):
Bottomley, Peter (Worthing, West) (Con)

Fifth Delegated Legislation Committee

Wednesday 14 January 2009

[Mrs. Janet Dean in the Chair]

Statement of Changes in Immigration Rules 2008
2.31 pm
Damian Green (Ashford) (Con): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the Statement of Changes in Immigration Rules 2008 (HC 1113).
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs. Dean, and I am glad that we are able to debate this issue. My hon. and right hon. Friends and I have prayed against the measures not because we have any objections in principle to the points-based system that underlies them, but because experience has taught us that even on the occasions when the Government are trying to move in the right direction on immigration, their implementation is likely to be seriously flawed. In this instance we have, sadly, been proved right.
Combining the groups who have been in touch directly with me with those whose interests were represented in the debate on this matter in another place, I reckon that flaws have been found in the proposals by lawyers, universities, the catering sector, the TUC, some charities, bishops of various denominations and Buddhists. That is a formidable coalition to have assembled against the details of a policy that is not, in itself, particularly controversial. As the Immigration Law Practitioners Association has made clear, the development of the policy has so far taken place below the water-line—that is how it has been described—in guidance issued by the Border and Immigration Agency. Clearly, the House should have its say on the detailed implementation of the policy.
I want this policy to work, because we want to use the points-based system as a building block in our policy of setting an annual limit on the number of people who come here to work from outside the EU, which we regard as essential. It will therefore be most useful to the Committee if I put to the Minister some of the points that those concerned groups have made, so that we can hear his responses.
I shall start with the Churches, as that seems most appropriate. Their essential objection is that, under tier 2, religious workers are required to have a higher level of English language skills than other skilled workers who come here. I can best sum up their position by quoting from a letter to the Home Secretary from the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds, representing the Church of England; Mrs. Elizabeth Matear, who is commissioner of the Salvation Army and moderator of the Free Churches of England and Wales; and the Auxiliary Catholic Bishop of Southwark, Patrick Lynch, representing the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales. The letter says that
[Laughter.] From the Minister’s reaction, I take it that he agrees that is rather a powerful point, so I should be interested to hear his more considered response. As he knows, we are in favour of English language tests for those who come to this country permanently, so we do not want such tests brought into disrepute. It seems that with this part of the regulation, the Government are in danger of doing so.
Let me move from God to Mammon, in the form of the lawyers. ILPA is concerned about the practicality of many areas of the sponsorship scheme, and I share its concerns, simply because the number of those applying to be sponsors seems on the most recent figures to be many thousands fewer than the estimates that Ministers gave even six months ago. Will the Minister present explain why, and if possible update the Committee on the latest figure for such sponsorship applications?
Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): Would the hon. Gentleman like to speculate whether one reason is that sponsors have to look at 130 pages of guidance, and that there is a 35-page application form with 58 questions?
Damian Green: I suspect that the hon. Gentleman may have a point. If the Minister wished to explain that he had deliberately made it difficult and bureaucratic in an attempt to discourage employers, that would be a policy, and it would be interesting to hear whether that was the Minister’s policy. I suspect, however, that I am attributing unnecessary coherence to it, and that its bureaucracy and difficulty is just an accident. The purpose of this afternoon’s sitting is for the Minister to explain the various apparent serious glitches in the system that he is introducing.
I do not agree with all ILPA’s points, but some seem to be relevant. The first point is about simplicity, because as ILPA says, the visiting rules in the statement of changes have divided the visitor category into general visitors, business visitors, sports visitors, entertainer visitors, special visitors, which includes the existing category of child visitors, and student visitors. ILPA makes the point that that is the exact opposite of simplification, which is supposed to be the rules’ intention, and that, even with all those sub-categories, the category does not yet include the complication of sponsorship for family visitors, which the Government will introduce this year.
Within those sub-categories, there are some anomalies. A general visitor cannot have private medical treatment in the UK. It is possible to apply as a special visitor to enter the UK for private medical treatment, but we are unclear about what happens if someone who comes here as a tourist or to visit family members falls ill and wants to pay for private treatment. It appears that he would be unable to do so under the current rules, so I hope that we can address that issue.
The Minister will also be aware that employers have repeatedly expressed concern about the abolition of the training and work experience scheme and the student internships scheme. They are valuable schemes, and if the benefits that we as a country have enjoyed are to disappear under the points-based system, that will be a great shame.
Another point, which the TUC made, is that the current bureaucracy does not properly target employers who will not play by the rules—at its extreme, those who are involved in human trafficking and the exploitation of migrant workers. The Minister is fond of describing the points-based system as “Australian-style”. Australia’s employer-nomination scheme, which concerns sponsorship of those coming to live permanently in Australia, provides that, to gain approval to sponsor a skilled worker from overseas, the employer must demonstrate that an employee is of good standing, which includes a record of compliance with both immigration and workplace relations. The UK scheme does not ensure the same level of protection for the workers. In this, and in other serious ways, such as the absence of a limit, it is not right to describe it as an “Australian-style” system.
The final issue on the business front, which was raised not by ILPA but by representatives of the business sector, is the possible use of the business visitor scheme by large companies to circumvent the points-based system. Under the business visitor scheme, international companies can bring workers over from other countries, outside the system, and keep them here for relatively long periods. I shall be grateful for a response from the Minister.
Moving on to the universities, when their lordships discussed the issue Baroness Williams of Crosby described the Government’s failure to produce a workable sponsorship system as “a spectacular own goal”. In particular, since the Government are unwilling to let each university be a sponsor, the lack of a national sponsoring body for universities threatens to end the hugely beneficial system of visiting fellows. Sponsored researchers could no longer have a sponsor. During the debate in their lordships’ House, the Minister there promised to take the issue away and look it. I hope the Minister can bring us up to date with what has happened, and reassure us that the universities have had their problem solved. I understand that he has been in contact with the universities about the issue.
I do not want to cover every possible point, as I am sure that others wish to bring up their specific issues, but I hope that I have illustrated to the Minister and the Committee that, whatever good intentions lie behind the points-based system, the implementation, as so often, is proving a nightmare for those most closely involved. I hope that, when the Minister sums up, he can reassure us on the issues I have raised.
2.42 pm
Tom Brake: We would have prayed against the statement, had we not been pipped to the post by the official Opposition, and for many of the same reasons outlined—not so much concerns about the principle, but more about the practice and implementation, and about some of the potential difficulties. The hon. Member for Ashford mentioned a number of those reasons, so I shall try not to cover the same ground, but I shall raise a couple of other points to which I hope the Minister can respond.
In my intervention I mentioned the complexity of becoming a sponsor. What sort of feedback has the Minister had about the required process for sponsors? Is it leading to a reduction in available sponsors by design or by accident?
Can the Minister explain a little about the criteria for which sponsors could lose their licence? Could it be simply for an innocent mistake in relation to some information supplied? Could a one-off breach lead to sponsors losing their licence, or would it have to be for a cumulative series of events? What would be the impact on the migrants who had been sponsored? They may well be completely innocent and, in their view, have been through all the appropriate measures and received sponsorship. What would be their circumstances if their sponsor’s licence was withdrawn?
On the issue to which the hon. Member for Ashford referred about the comparisons with Australia and the safeguards in place under the Australian system, at present there is nothing explicit to suggest that a sponsor can be refused a licence on the grounds of worker abuse or exploitation. Is that my misreading of what is available or is that a consideration? Can a sponsor still become a sponsor if there has been a history of abusing the people who had been sponsored?
My understanding is that there have been some discussions and the Government are now allowing universities to sponsor their own research workers. Will amendments be required in the near future as a result of that? The Minister might not have the information to hand, but perhaps he can let me know later how many A-class sponsors there currently are and how many of them are providing maintenance support. That issue will be of interest, particularly to people coming from certain parts of the world.
The Government have produced a restrictive list of countries—Australia, Canada, Japan and New Zealand—from which people will be allowed to enter this country under the youth mobility scheme. I seek some clarification from the Minister about how that list was arrived at, and whether there are plans to expand it to other countries in the near future. Will he explain how the process will work and say when it is expected to start? In previous years, I have relied heavily on American interns. I do not know whether special allowances are made for them, but they have made a substantial contribution when dealing with significant issues nationally and locally. What might be available for them?
Why have the responses to the consultation on retired persons apparently been overlooked? The consultation did not identify a significant problem of abuse of that route of entry, yet it is being shut down. I want to know the reasons behind that decision.
2.48 pm
Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central) (Lab): I do not want to take much of the Committee’s time. We all recognise the limitations of the work permit system and the benefits of moving to a points-based system—a matter that needs to be emphasised. I wish to make three points, one of which concerns the future of student sponsorship arrangements. They are extremely important and play a considerable part in the attractiveness of British higher education on the world higher education market. It is a market in which this country has a considerable trade surplus, if we are to think of it in those terms, and it is something that we ought to maintain.
The important practical point is that the Government do not intend to allow individual higher education institutions to be sponsors. I understand, of course, the background of previous abuse that has led them to that conclusion, but the issue needs to be looked at again. Institutions that can establish their reputation and branding with the Government and in the world higher education market should at least be considered as capable of being sponsors.
The significance of the minister of religion requirements has already been pointed out, and I want to emphasise it. The mention of nuns and monks under vows of silence in connection with the English language test is the type of point that we make in Committee, but it misleads us about the reality. Our British family is home to many of the world’s great religions, which are a very diverse community. In our community, those religions are hosts to communities that do not always speak English in their own affairs. That must be recognised when we are seeking to provide for preachers and pastors to meet the needs of the faith communities in question.
It is important to note that in this context we are not dealing only with, say, the Muslim or Sikh faiths. We are talking about the Church of England and the Roman Catholic community as well. In my constituency there is a very large community of Keralan Catholics, with needs that are precisely relevant to this discussion, and they will potentially have difficulty under the arrangements before the Committee. That also applies to the Church of England. We should not overlook, because of its name, the fact that it is a world faith with many very diverse communities that it serves within our British family. That point should be acknowledged when we set language requirements.
We should not overlook, either, the fact that if the language requirements are too draconian they may be bypassed by the creation of all sorts of illicit and improper arrangements. To set up a scheme of rules that promotes such a reaction is to lay down problems for the future that are best avoided if possible.
My final point is about the scheme for workers. It cannot be disputed that the arrangements before the Committee deal very much with non-manual workers. They deal much less satisfactorily with manual workers who might want to come and work in Britain, and who have special skills. A point that when I have made it in the past has seemed slightly humorous, but which is a serious one, is that within the community in Britain that eats halal food there is an increasing demand for stricter enforcement of the halal rules. That is to be welcomed on animal welfare and food quality grounds. Anyone who visits halal restaurants will increasingly often see a little label stuck on the door, which says “HMC”. That is a reference to those stricter halal requirements being in force for the food products used there.
That trend in turn means that there is a considerable shortage in this country of people who can conduct butchery to those strict halal requirements. That is a small point, which affects a particular community in a particular way, but it is not dealt with at all in the regulations before the Committee. Would that Kandahar polytechnic was training people in butchery qualifications that would fit the system we are putting in place. Sadly, we are not in that position, and I suspect that we are some way from it. There should be a way of dealing with those specific kinds of need within the system, and I hope that the Minister will satisfy us about such matters in his reply.
2.55 pm
Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): I am not qualified to take part should it come to a vote, but I am grateful for the chance to speak. I may have to rush away if there is a vote in Room 9 on a different statutory instrument.
I support members of the Committee and those from outside who have made representations regarding the minister of religion issue. Behind Drapers’ hall in the City of London is the Dutch church, which holds its services in Dutch. It may require its minister to speak Dutch well, but there is no obvious reason why that minister should be able to speak English to a higher standard than most migrants. On the point about the Keralan Christians, the Syrian Orthodox Church in India might want to minister to its people, and there may be some who are required to speak Aramaic. It is for the Church to decide on that, but why should a higher standard of English be required for those people than for a general skilled migrant? It is not clear from the Department’s explanation.
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Prepared 15 January 2009