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Jim Cousins: The hon. Gentleman has accidentally latched upon an important point that we ought not to forget. The regulations that we are debating do not apply to people from the European economic area. Within my own city, there is a growing community of Romanies from eastern Europe. They have arrived, perfectly legitimately, as members of the European economic area and they do not meet any of the language requirements that we ask of people who come from countries that see themselves, rightly or wrongly, as proper members of our British connected family.
Peter Bottomley: The hon. Gentleman has helpfully anticipated my point. We already have an artificial distinction—it may be a necessary one—between European Union and European Free Trade Association countries.
I have one other point, which I hope will not be treated as too trivial. Under these rules, were Jesus to come again and be speaking in Hebrew, he would be denied entry to this country. As a world religion, perhaps we would be more likely to go to him, but we must recognise that there are a number of people who we would probably wish to minister in this country, but who would not be able to.
2.57 pm
The Minister for Borders and Immigration (Mr. Phil Woolas): It is a pleasure to serve under you on the Committee, Mrs Dean, and I thank hon. Members for attending. The guidance notes from my officials say that I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) for giving me the opportunity to debate this motion. Let me say that I am. This is an important matter, and I am grateful to my hon. Friends for attending the debate. It is a shame that members of the fourth estate have chosen not to come to listen, as their reports could have been better informed. Perhaps I should express no surprise given the number of column inches that have been spilled on this issue.
I do not think that the Committee wants me to make even a short speech, let alone a long one, about the background and reasons for the rule changes, but hon. Members have expressed support for the principle behind them. The hon. Member for Ashford said that he had no objections in principle, and the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington echoed that. I am grateful for that consensus.
The hon. Member for Ashford did say that the implementation of the rules was “a nightmare”, and I want to reassure him that the Government are focused on the practical implementation of the rules, and this debate is part of the way in which we are improving the situation. We held a consultation, which was well responded to, and we made changes as a result of that consultation and after the debate in the other place. Let me answer the questions as best I can.
There will be no change in the policy towards ministers of religion under the new points-based system from that under the previous system. Reported problems, if they turn out to be real, are a result of implementation, not of policy, so it is incumbent upon me to give to the Committee the commitment that the issues will be addressed. The level of English language requirement for religious workers reflects a long-standing policy, predating the points-based system. The policy set the test at a level that was thought to be appropriate for religious workers. An ingenious example was those who take a vow of silence, although I assume that such people have to read and write. However, we decided previous to the points-based system that a higher test was desirable, because of the importance of the job.
Another example given was hovercraft engineers. The skills required for a position such as that of a hovercraft engineer would also be subject to test alongside the English language test. Someone who could not perform the task in that particular example of the hovercraft engineer would not be eligible under the points-based system, because of the skill requirement, and indirectly as a result of the language. However, I take the point of the hon. Member for Ashford. I hope that he does not object to the rule change—the introduction of the points-based system is not changing the policy that sets out a higher requirement for religious workers. Other examples have been given.
May I just run through the practical answers and then invite hon. Members to indicate any areas not covered?
Peter Bottomley: On ministers of religion, the Minister has explained that the higher test has not been brought in by these rules, it is just not being altered by the changes. Could he share with the Committee the reasons why there is still a need for a higher language test for ministers of religion?
Mr. Woolas: The reason that was given at the time of the introduction of the policy was that, for the requirements of better community cohesion, of a better ability to relate to the members of the religious faith who are English and whose first language is English, it is desirable that the minister of religion in whatever faith it is should be able to communicate with the indigenous people, whose first language is English, as well as with the people whose first language is not English, for whatever reason. The hon. Gentleman gave examples of English not being the first language. I suppose that what I am saying is that the policy intention would not necessarily cover all instances. The hon. Gentleman gave the example of the Dutch church, and my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central pointed out that the Netherlands is a member of the European Union, which was a fair point. However, there may be other examples, so I suppose that I could say that there may be some instances where it is not required, but as a rule we believe it desirable that ministers of religion, who have a special place in communities—a point that has been recognised in other legislation—should have a higher level of English because of the nature of the work that they do, in teaching and preaching.
Peter Bottomley: I offer one more important question to the Minister and his advisers. If an imam is, essentially, a teacher, and not a recognised minister of religion, what is the test for an imam? Is it that for someone coming to teach in a university, which I think has the ordinary level of language requirement, or is it the higher level?
Mr. Woolas: That is a good question. It should be the higher level but I will come back to the hon. Gentleman, because one then gets into the definition of ministers of religion and their functions. Whether an institution is a faith institution or a teaching institution requires examination, particularly in the voluntary and faith sectors.
Peter Bottomley: Presumably that criterion does not apply to non-stipendiary ministers or teachers in faith groups. If I am a ship’s captain but happen to preach or take services for free, which level am I covered by?
Mr. Woolas: The hon. Gentleman is correct. That is not covered by the minister of religion criteria. I hope that that answers his question. I will move on quickly to the youth mobility scheme.
Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): Please.
Mr. Woolas: I get the impression that the Committee wants me to do that.
At the moment, the list is restricted under this tier because we have reciprocal arrangements with other countries. The countries on the list are those with which we have reached reciprocal agreement so far. The BUNAC scheme with north America, which was referred to, is an important scheme, which has given our country, and I suspect the United States of America, significant benefits over the years. If I may be so arrogant: it has probably benefited the USA more than us. Perhaps after next Tuesday I will not be able to say that.
We believe that the new youth mobility scheme will be fairer than the schemes it replaces because, unlike them, it will be open to nationals of any country that satisfies its eligibility criteria. We have designed the criteria to ensure that the scheme operates in the interests of the United Kingdom. We are particularly looking to minimise the abuse of immigration risk, ensuring that people participating in the scheme are doing just that and are not using it indirectly as a means of entry into the country. The reciprocity of schemes is important, and we are talking to the USA to ensure that there is a new scheme with that country. We expect that there will be one, and I will certainly be personally committed to ensuring that.
The youth mobility scheme is just one of the provisions under the points-based system. Young people of other nationalities who are not in the scheme will be able to come here and do work of various kinds and on a variety of terms, whether they be highly skilled individuals, under tier 1, or skilled workers entering under tier 2 to fill the skills shortages in the UK. Tier 5, which is for the entry of temporary workers for a variety of purposes to satisfy primarily non-economic objectives, for example voluntary work and the exchange of best practice in various occupations, is available. Tier 4 provides for the entry of students, who can do incidental work and take up internships while they are here.
Regarding the points on researchers and the universities, I have listened to the sensible representations from Universities UK and from Members on both sides of the House and we are making changes to ensure that individual institutions—the universities themselves—can be the sponsor. Our intention—shared, I am sure, by all members of the Committee—is to be able to disallow “bogus institutions”, and the changes will provide reassurance to the universities.
Damian Green: As I understand it, one of the Government’s worries was that they did not want to let bogus institutions under the wire. Will the Minister tell us what precautions he will put in place to ensure that that does not happen? It is a genuine fear.
Mr. Woolas: That is a very important point because the UK Border Agency does close down bogus colleges. Bogus colleges, and language colleges in particular, have been used and are being used as a means of indirect, illegal immigration. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman will agree, although I have read his comments on this, but there are institutions in the private and voluntary sectors that provide a good service. The sponsorship arrangements, and the licensing and checking of those arrangements, give the authorities an extra tool to ensure that this means of entering the country is used legitimately. The UK Council for International Student Affairs has raised objections, which, on the whole, I reject because the Government should be able to say to an institution of learning, “Has the student turned up for the course?” and “Is the student participating or have they just registered, paid and scarpered?”, which has happened. Universities UK and others have made sensible points and I hope that they are satisfied.
There was a problem involving sponsored researchers and we were sympathetic to the arguments put forward by concerned parties, which Baroness Williams of Crosby expressed in the other place. We have reviewed the policy and agreed that institutions that are licensed as sponsors under tier 4 of the points system will be able to apply directly to become licensed sponsors of sponsored researchers under the tier 5 Government-authorised exchange sub-category. Sorry Hansard, but I think that the University will be grateful if I put that on the record. Colleagues in the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills endorsed the mobility of sponsored researchers, and the permanent secretary has written in support of a scheme for sponsored researchers. I think that the education lobby has got its wish and I would not want to stand in the way.
Moving swiftly on from universities to halal butchers and the important points that were made on that issue. As hon. Members know, under the new scheme we took the advice of the migration advisory committee, chaired by Professor David Metcalf of the LSE, to identify where the skill shortages are and quantify what the problems are. The MAC has not identified a shortage in that sector as yet, although it may do in the future and I will inquire about it. I understand the importance of the issue, for the reasons that my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central gave on animal welfare, food quality and the general desirability in society of having access to halal meat, for obvious reasons.
Employers will be able to bring in workers, if the job is skilled and the people meet the tier 2 points test and other criteria. I hope that that satisfies the hon. Gentleman. Halal butchers are not on the skills shortage list, but I can see circumstances in which they may be. If not, one of the benefits of the policy is that it enables us to identify, in skill-shortage areas, other possible solutions that involve the indigenous employment market, in this area and in others—what has been described as “British jobs for British workers”, which is a policy that we support.
The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington raised the issue of sponsorship licences. Sponsorship licences are withdrawn if there is attempted, knowing and systematic abuse—thus, intention is the key—or a sponsor fails to act on an action plan that has been agreed with UKBA on an agreed timetable. Sponsorship licences are withdrawn if there is attempted knowing and systematic abuse—thus, intention is the key—or a sponsor fails to act on an action plan that has been agreed with UKBA on an agreed timetable.
If a sponsor loses the licence, we will cut the duration of their migrant’s leave to either 28 or 60 days depending on whether the migrant was undertaking a dishonest action. If they are not complicit, they still have 60 days to find a new employer. As for how many organisations certify maintenance, it is too early to say. We have just had six weeks’ experience, including Christmas, and we have so far decided just over 100 applications in tier 2.
I come to part of the point on which the hon. Member for Ashford was reflecting in respect of the concerns of employers. We have not seen the measure as a cut-off date whereby everyone has to be ready on day one and, if they do not have the licence, they cannot apply. We have regarded it as an evolving policy, and we do not intend to be punitive. That would not be in our interests.
As for retired persons—
Tom Brake: Before the Minister finishes on sponsors, may I bring him back to the position in which a sponsor had previously been found to have abused migrants who had come under its sponsorship? Will anything ensure that that employer does not receive a sponsor’s licence? The hon. Gentleman might be about to come on to domestic workers, so I shall leave my question about that until later.
Mr. Woolas: We would not want necessarily to rule out an employer’s having a licence just because of past practice. Our pragmatic approach recognises that circumstances can change—ownership of companies being a good example. In those circumstances, the employer may remain under the same name—that of the same public or private limited company—but new management and new owners may be in place. We wish to stick to the criteria that the hon. Gentleman rightly asked me about.
The key point is whether the company had intended to breach the rules and whether it is implementing the action plan on the agreed timetable. If UKBA had good reason to suspect that there was bad intent because of previous action, that could be a criterion that would be used. However, we did not want to lay that down, not only because a leopard can change its spots, but because of the practical points of change of ownership and management.
On the overall question of simplification, I take the point that it can be argued, as the hon. Member for Ashford did, that there are a number of rules and complicated forms to fill in. I would have a very serious bet with him that the new system is much simpler than the one it replaces. He should acknowledge that there is progress, even if it does not go as far as he would like.
This is one of those areas of public policy implementation where we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t. If we were to simplify too far, abuse would be easier. There are individuals and organisations only too willing to exploit people and loopholes and to get round the rules. It is a balance. Through our business plan, which we will make available to Parliament this term, we are putting in place management policies and structures to back up the implementation of this scheme. I hope and expect consensus around the plans because—am I allowed to use the word modernising, Mrs. Dean?—we are modernising with a small “m” in a way that perhaps all Members will support. I have not answered the question—
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