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14 July 2009 : Column 181

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): In increasing the period of this type of detention that some people will face, is the Minister satisfied with the quality of resources at the short-term holding facilities? There have been reports of inadequate facilities and lack of access to legal advice. What is he doing to improve the quality of those resources?

Mr. Woolas: I have of course looked into that point and I have read the reports, as the hon. Gentleman has. The reports from the independent monitoring boards are extremely helpful. I was able to address their conference in Bournemouth recently, not least to thank them for the work that they do. I genuinely believe that transparency and shining a light on the issues improves the situation, not least for the taxpayer. I am sure that he accepts the need to put the reports into context. Overwhelmingly, they are supportive, indeed congratulatory, of the work that the agency does, but that does not diminish the criticisms. We provide detailed responses to the reports, mainly agreeing with the recommendations and putting forward plans for implementation but where we disagree justifying that in terms of policy. I take a special interest in that. I think that the hon. Gentleman has asked parliamentary questions about the centres. Am I satisfied? Broadly, yes. Could matters improve? Some holding centres are perhaps a bit old, but we have a capital programme that is secure so yes, I am satisfied.

The new clause and amendments that I have tabled would mean that, in all cases, there was no change to the relevant powers of arrest and detention; I just reassure the House that there is no sleight of hand there. Also, there is no change to the statutory protections that apply in each case. I should just put on record that the detention of individuals arrested in connection with criminal offences would still be subject to the provisions of PACE and the associated codes of practice, including those on time limits in custody, even for those held in a short-term holding facility. Mr. Deputy Speaker, it may be of benefit to you and the House if I finish speaking now, so that the official spokesmen of the other parties-and other hon. Members, too-can, if they catch your eye, put their points on their amendments.

Mr. Soames rose-

Mr. Woolas: Before I do that, I give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Soames: I am very grateful. The Minister is always extremely courteous in giving way. May I ask him a question on a point that he raised before he was intervened on by the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart)? I took the Minister to say that he had some problem with the figures published by the Government's own statistics officers, the ONS. If the House is to get a true picture of the extent of the problem that the Bill is trying to deal with, it is important that it should know what his objections are to the ONS figures. On what points does he disagree with them, and which parts of the Bill are those disagreements likely to affect?

Mr. Woolas: I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for asking me that question, because it allows me to state in the House my actual views, rather than those that have been reported. My problem is not
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with the ONS. The ONS is not the Government's ONS, but the taxpayers' ONS; it is independent. It was set up by statute as an independent body by the House, with across-the-Floor agreement, if I recall correctly. My problem is with the interpretation of those figures by some-not, I hasten to add, by Migrationwatch UK. My simple point is that extrapolation is not the same as projection. The reported figures are extrapolations based on trends, but are reported as projections, and of course the two are extremely different. The extrapolation makes a number of assumptions on net migration that I just do not think can be backed up by actual fact.

My second point, which is extremely important-I think that the hon. Member for Ashford agreed with the point that I made to the Fabian Society when we debated the subject with it-is that there is a crucial difference between measuring the number of people who are not UK-born and measuring the number of migrants. There is a crucial difference between temporary migration and permanent settlement, or citizenship. On that latter point, to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead, who is now not in the Chamber, has referred, the importance of the difference between temporary and permanent migration needs to be highlighted, yet the reporting of the figure does not do that. Part of the purpose of policy is better to enable us to do exactly that, so that we can have a more transparent debate about immigration in this country, something of which the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex is an important advocate. Whatever our policy disagreements, we both agree that we need to get the subject talked about.

The immigration figures and their interpretation are extremely important, and it is interesting to note the Library's contribution to the debate. Of course, the ONS has strict criteria on the management of statistics and their public release, and it is difficult to answer the hon. Gentleman's parliamentary questions without including caveats on the statistical code from the authority in a way that is helpful, but does not leave me open to misinterpretation, if he follows my logic.

5 pm

Mr. Soames: I am grateful to the Minister. I understand that these are extremely difficult matters, but as he says, if policy is to be correctly informed and drafted, it must be based on sound numbers. We believe that the figures supplied to him by Balanced Migration are entirely accurate. Following his line of argument, does he agree that immigration will add nearly 7 million people to England's population by 2031?

Mr. Woolas: Straightforwardly, no. That is my point. That figure is an extrapolation, but I agree that it is important that we have policy measures to restrict the numbers, and that we must be able to show the country that those are in place, both for reasons of population and for reasons of public reassurance. I agree with hon. Gentleman on that point. My disagreement with him is that those figures, which are well known, are based, as I say, on an extrapolation, which includes an extrapolation of emigration as well as immigration.

I do not quarrel with Migrationwatch's figures at all. They are accurate, as far as I have been able to determine. Point 1 on the 10-point plan, on the use of the England figures rather than the United Kingdom figures, may allow them to be interpreted in a slightly unfair way
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from the point of view of honest debate, but I take the point that Migrationwatch is making-that the south-east of England is where significant pressure comes about. I shall stop there in order to allow other Members to speak.

Damian Green (Ashford) (Con): The Minister has entertained us by comparing the Bill to a beautiful tapestry. I see it as a more modern artistic artefact, with no apparent meaning on the surface and a random distribution of effects, from which only initiates such as the Minister can derive any pattern. I suspect the artistic analogy will not last much beyond the opening speeches in this evening's debates.

I thank the Minister for his explanation of new clause 2 and the consequential amendments. I take the point that the existing amendments and new clauses were technically defective and it is no doubt better to proceed along the route that he has been explaining for the past few minutes. I shall speak to amendments 18, 20 and 21 in particular, which deal with various aspects of the border functions.

Amendment 18 adds "a police officer" to the list of people to whom the Secretary of State can devolve power. To set this in context, it is not a matter of controversy across the Floor that those working on our borders could work more efficiently if they could share powers. We all agree about that. One of the disagreements between us is that the Opposition believe that those powers should extend to police powers if we are to be effective in preventing illegal immigration.

I take the point that the Minister made in response to the good point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) that the net numbers coming in will not all be illegal immigrants. The holding facilities that we are discussing are, presumably, to hold people who are suspected of being illegal immigrants. We do not need holding facilities to cope with the full number. As was agreed, the gross number will be about 600,000 a year, based on figures over the past few years. We believe that that is too high and needs to be brought down.

With reference to the Government's proposals on the subject throughout the stages of the Bill, we have been concerned that they are rushing to set in motion the cross-powers, which we agree are desirable, without taking the necessary steps that would provide the appropriate safeguards, particularly with regard to training of those who will be given those powers, and with regard to checks and accountability.

We are worried about the piecemeal approach to organised crime, generally. Obviously, a lot of the crime associated with our borders is international organised crime, and such an approach has clearly not worked so far. Yesterday, the new serious organised crime strategy was published and it revealed that very little has improved over the past five years, precisely because of the lack of cross-cutting powers which the Minister seeks to enforce through this legislation. The problem is that different bodies have been working to different agendas, and agencies have not made full use of their available powers.

Yesterday, the Government themselves identified the need for a new strategic centre to fight serious organised crime, which is, I am afraid, an indictment of the power
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of the existing structures. A significant proportion of the organised crime in this country is international and, therefore, ought to be stopped at our borders. That reveals one of the great divides between us: we propose a national border police force; and the Minister and his colleagues always oppose it-even though, in some speeches, they appear to accept the logic of it.

Mr. Woolas rose-

Damian Green: Before the Minister responds, I accept that he has said that the proposal has not been ruled out for some point in the future, but we think that we need to proceed with that option as a matter of some urgency.

Amendment 18 would allow for a very small step towards that important, wider aim of a border police force, by giving the Secretary of State the power to designate a police officer as somebody who can exercise general customs functions. That is the nub of the amendment's desirability, because we want the different expertise that is available to police, immigration and customs officers to be brought together at our borders so that it can all be effective.

It is easy to illustrate the importance of greater effectiveness at our borders. We know that our porous borders are a significant contributor to a number of crimes-not just illegal immigration, but drug trafficking, people trafficking and, at the margin, terrorism. We know that 60 per cent. of the illegal immigrants who are in the UK arrived through illegal means. Although the practice of overstaying by people who have arrived here legally is a significant problem, it is less significant than the problem of those who get through our border controls illegally.

We can discuss people trafficking in more detail when we consider a later clause, but, by most calculations, its economic and social costs to the UK amount to more than £1 billion a year. We know also that weapons are increasingly smuggled through our badly protected borders, and the regrettable increase in gun crime has been fuelled by a supply of weapons that have entered the UK, particularly from eastern Europe. The Metropolitan police commander, Cressida Dick, has said that three quarters of firearms used by UK criminals are converted replica and imitation guns, and that most of them are smuggled in from eastern Europe.

The Minister, in a fit of honesty that he may come to regret- [ Interruption. ] It is a common fit that comes over him. He has said that

I hope that he recognises that quotation. He will be pleased to hear that I agree: that is one of the mistakes that the Government have made.

I hope that the House agrees with me on amendment 18 and supports the step it takes towards a much more collective effort at the borders. One reason for tabling the amendment is our knowledge that the specialisation of police services is effective in fighting new types of crime. Such specialisation is the way in which policing is going, and that is why we welcome the proposals from Lord Stevens, who, after conducting a review of our overall border security arrangements, concluded that only a unified force can protect our borders. As I have said, a future Conservative Government would create a
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national border police force to replace the current inadequate system, but, in the meantime, through the amendment we seek to take a step towards that by extending the general customs function to police officers.

Let me widen the scope of my remarks a little and return to the point about appropriate training, because the question whether these important powers are exercised by appropriately trained people lies at the heart of the debate about changes within the UK Border Agency and Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs. As I said, there is no great divide across the House about that because the Minister and I agree that existing functions are subject to too great a diversity, sometimes an incoherence, on account of people exercising different powers at the border, and we want more cross-cutting powers. However, before we achieve that, and while the powers are being shared and spread around-as they would be under the amendment and, to some extent, under amendments in this group tabled by other hon. Members-it is legitimate to ask about the new functions that they represent and who would exercise them.

Customs officials' powers, which are extremely broad, are already being shared out to immigration officers, and the Minister will be aware that customs officers can already undertake a wide range of extremely intrusive activities. The threshold of reasonable suspicion needed for an officer to take enforcement activity is, rightly, very low, and that activity can relate to a combination of things, including the origin of a person's journey, their clothing, and the quantity of luggage that they are carrying. That is why I emphasise the need for only properly trained people to be allowed to exercise those powers, which in some cases, are greater than the average powers that a police officer can exercise. The amendment would allow the Secretary of State to designate police officers to do that such work. Of course, we accept that that in itself could entail extra training for the police officers involved, but the ability to exercise those cross-cutting powers would make it worth investing in that training. If we do not progress down the route towards a national border police force, we are in danger of giving increasingly extensive powers to people who may not be properly trained to exercise them, so that in an effort to make our borders safer, which nobody could object to, we could end up inconveniencing the travelling public. I am sure that we all agree that that would be undesirable.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): At the risk of offending the vast number of Labour colleagues sitting behind the Minister, I have to say that I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I do not think that the Minister has been fully briefed. Several police forces at ports, including Tilbury, Belfast, Tees and Hartlepool, and Felixstowe, exist under old legislation, and they do a tremendous job in fulfilling the functions that he describes. It is by sheer luck that those particular ports have uniformed police with those powers. If it is good for them to be able to exercise those powers, why should not all the other hundreds of wharves and ports around our country have comparable people who can intervene on immigration, customs and law enforcement issues?

Damian Green: The hon. Gentleman, who speaks from his own constituency experience, is exactly right. There are inevitably places where this expertise has, rightly, been built up. One of the problems is that there is no mechanism to extend that expertise or even to
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appoint the people who are able to exercise those powers in the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of small ports, and some of the bigger ones.

Andrew Mackinlay: Southampton.

Damian Green: Yes, as the hon. Gentleman says, there are some reasonably sized ports that lack that expertise. It is a glaring problem, not a hidden one. We all know that it is there. One point that I have been making throughout the debates on the Bill is that in some ways, it is a wasted opportunity. We have an immigration Bill every year, yet for all the legislation that this Government have passed on immigration, there are certain glaring problems that do not seem to get addressed. We probably need less legislation and more enforcement of the existing legislation.

Mr. Soames: Does my hon. Friend agree that as far as the public whom we are sent here to represent are concerned, the point made by the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) is absolutely key? They need assurance that the policies put forward for securing our borders are credible. They cannot be credible if the arrangements are not clearly satisfactory.

5.15 pm

Damian Green: My hon. Friend is right, and I can only repeat the point that I have just made. We are not short of immigration legislation. In the three and a half years that I have been doing this job, this is the third immigration Bill that I have had to investigate and probe, yet public confidence in our immigration system has probably never been lower. There are a number of reasons for that, and if I went into them at great length I suspect that you would pull me up, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is quite clear that the two big reasons are the sheer scale of immigration over the past 10 to 12 years, which my hon. Friend and I agree should be lower, and the fact that it is apparent that our systems for stopping illegal immigration and wider cross-border crime are simply not working well enough.

Mr. Woolas: I am following the debate carefully. I respect the hon. Gentleman's argument on the relationship between police powers and the UK Border Agency, but I cannot accept the point that he has just made, and certainly his own county police force would not accept it. The success that it has had, working with our officials, in reducing illegal immigration, and the success that we have had at the juxtaposed border in France, has brought the numbers down dramatically. His own police force would say that.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. May I say gently to the House that this is in danger of widening out into a Second Reading debate? Perhaps we can come back to the matter in hand.

Damian Green: I will rapidly move on to another amendment, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but not before saying that the Minister needs to address the point made by the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay). There are success stories in some ports, but we know that there are many failures in other ports around the country. There is no point in putting one brick back in the wall if the wall has holes in it all around the coastline.

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