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14 July 2009 : Column 187

Mr. Woolas: I take on board what you said, of course, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but does not the case of Kent rather destroy the hon. Gentleman's argument? That is an example of success, and Kent police have said that does not support his proposals, precisely because they needs to be able to bring the whole weight of the force behind the UK Border Agency. That is not the case in all ports, but it is a very good example.

Damian Green: I have obviously discussed the issue with Kent police. Like all effective police forces, it would like to carry on doing what it is doing. However, there are two points to make about that. First, the national border force that I propose would be able to spread precisely that successful expertise offered by police forces such as Kent. Secondly, although as a Kent MP I am very pleased that Kent police is effective, that is not much good if people can observe that the system is ineffective next door in Essex. If we all know that, we can guarantee that the serious international criminals whom we want to stop know that as well.

Andrew Mackinlay: I bear in mind what you said, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but the fact is that with human nature being what it is, territorial police forces are jealous of their geographical jurisdiction and do not want another police force in it. In the vast majority of county police forces up and down the country, if somebody draws to a police officer's attention the fact that there is an illegal immigrant or somebody who appears to be an illegal immigrant, what happens? The police give them a card and tell them to go to Lunar house, Croydon, and they just disappear into the ether.

Local commanders do not feel able to draw the authorities' attention to somebody who looks like an illegal immigrant, nor are they charged with doing that. That is the reality both sides of the River Thames outside the Port of Tilbury police, the Port of Dover police, the Belfast Harbour police and the Tees and Hartlepool Harbour police. At all the other big ports, it is open season.

Damian Green: I cannot resolve the argument between the Minister and his hon. Friend, certainly not while keeping in order.

Andrew Mackinlay: I represent 14 miles of river front and I know what I am talking about.

Damian Green: We can all agree with that, and I think that the hon. Gentleman has the better argument. Those of us with such responsibilities know about these things. If the Minister is not careful, I shall start talking about alternatives to detention, about which I know something because one of his failed experiments took place in my constituency. I will not be attracted down that route because, you will be pleased to hear, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I want to talk about our other amendments.

I start with amendment 20, which states:

The purpose of the amendment is to probe the condition of the facilities-the point that the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) made. Given that we now have more than 30 short-term holding facilities near ports and airports throughout the country and people can be held in them for up to seven days-I daresay that it does not feel very short term if one is
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being held there day after day-it is important, in view of the extra powers that the Minister wishes to take in new clause 2, to know that the conditions are secure. That is the first thing about which we should care, but those conditions should also be satisfactory and humane.

I want to ask the Minister some questions, which I hope that he can answer when he winds up the discussion on the first group of amendments. What immigration and customs offences would typically cover people who will be held in the short-term facilities? What regulations apply to the officers who are responsible for holding those suspects? Is there any necessity to charge or transfer a suspect in a specific time period? Are suspects normally transferred to immigration detention centres or police stations after they have been in the short-term facilities? What legal advice or representation is offered to suspects in the short-term holding facilities? It would be helpful if the Minister could paint a picture of how the short-term facilities are currently used and how he envisages their being used in future.

We have already had an exchange about the independent monitoring board, so the Minister knows that the monitoring board for Heathrow airport considers the current facilities to be inadequate. Clearly, Heathrow is the busiest facility, so I am sure that the Minister will be concerned about that. Indeed, Lord West of Spithead said in another place that he had visited the short-term facilities in Gatwick and that he was "not over-impressed." There are clearly deep problems with the short-term holding facilities in all our airports. [Interruption.] Yes, that is two, but they are Heathrow and Gatwick. If the facilities there are unsatisfactory, it is likely that others are also unsatisfactory. However, given Lord West's description of the new facilities at Heathrow, perhaps they have improved. He said about Cayley house that

I have paid money to stay in worse places. I hope that Lord West is right but I also hope that the facilities are secure because they need to be.

Mr. Soames: As my hon. Friend may or may not know, Lord West is a goat; a member of the "Government of all the talents". Does my hon. Friend realise that the staff who run the homes do the best they possibly can under difficult conditions? As he rightly says, it will not be much fun staying there, but they do their best.

Damian Green: I am sure that is right, and I know my hon. Friend has great expertise in respect of Gatwick. Let me explain what I am seeking to achieve through this probing amendment: given that these facilities will become ever more important and widespread in the future, it is essential to strike the right balance so that they are secure but also humane. My final point on this matter is to do with interpretation facilities, as they will become increasingly important. Is the Minister satisfied that there is sufficient provision of such facilities at the various short term-holding facilities?

The third of our amendments addresses inspection, which the Minister and I had exchanges about in Committee. One of my worries about the Bill-indeed, about this whole part of the policy-is that there will be inspection creep, in that more and more inspecting
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regimes are being applied to individual areas. This amendment would allow one inspectorate to delegate its powers and duties to another inspectorate, if that is necessary. I can absolutely guarantee that now that we have three different inspection regimes that are all able to operate, as time goes by those who are doing this difficult job in trying circumstances will spend increasing amounts of their time ticking boxes to try to hit the targets of the next inspection regime. They will also certainly find that each of the three inspectorates that have some power to inspect the facilities will have a different set of priorities and will tell those facilities to do different things. We have seen this happen across the public sector over the past few years, and it would be very unfortunate if we introduced that particular failure into the inspection regime for any kind of detention facilities on the immigration estate, and perhaps especially for the short-term holding facilities.

The point was made in Committee that we know that the new inspectorate-UKBA's own inspectorate-will be the least powerful. It will be less powerful than Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary and the prisons inspectorate simply because they have greater expertise and history and know the ways of doing things. It will take some years for the UKBA inspectorate to build itself up. No criticism of the UKBA inspectorate is implied in that; it is just the way of the world. I have attempted at various stages of the Bill's passage to reduce the volume of inspection, because I think a single good inspection is what these facilities and those who work in them should have, and that multiple, constant inspections will result in the facilities providing a lower quality service.

I will not deal with all the amendments tabled by the Liberal Democrats and others, but I hope that the Minister and the House will take on board the arguments I have put for the three amendments we have tabled.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): Before speaking to my amendments, I shall address the issue of short-term holding facilities. There are at present concerns about short-term holding. Although there has been some jocular reference to the conditions in these facilities, the people detained in them are not criminals; they are being detained while further investigations take place. My concern about the new clause is that it would extend the short-term holding facility definition to police cells and prison cells. That is a worrying move, and I am also concerned about people being left in such short-term holding for considerable lengths of time. That is why I support the amendments which try to limit the hours for which people are detained.

The amendments in my name are amendments 9 and 10 to 13. When we debate legislation such as this, it is important that we look at the practicalities of the implementation of its provisions. I have Heathrow in my constituency and a large number of my constituents are immigration or customs officers. Most of them are organised through the Public and Commercial Services Union, and I co-ordinate the PCS group. We therefore get considerable feedback about the anxieties of existing staff about the changes proposed in the Bill.

5.30 pm

As hon. Members are aware, at present there are three lines of inspection-three sequential control points-for people coming into this country and therefore three
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opportunities for detection and intelligence. Passengers, vehicles and traffic are potentially subject to three checks: by immigration, by customs and then by the police. Over time, specialist knowledge and training have been built up in each area, as has, therefore, a professionalism.

Under clause 3, the Secretary of State can designate

That is an extremely sweeping power-"any other official" in the Department could, I suppose, apply to the departmental cat. The breadth of the designation powers being given to the Secretary of State is extraordinary. That has caused unease among officers in the service, whose first concern is that the extent of the power could lead to privatisation. I am grateful for the time that the Minister and management have taken to meet trade union reps and to reassure them that the thrust of the legislation is not about privatisation, but about trying to streamline the service, as some have said, and increase its effectiveness. The staff have gone along with that by looking at how effectiveness can be achieved.

There are still concerns, however, that the professionalism of the service will be undermined by the breakdown of specialisms. Nevertheless, the staff have gone into negotiations through PCS to look at where the specialisms can be maintained or drawn upon in a unified service. However, it is accepted that there will be change and that not all will be catered for. I have seen the correspondence between the union and management, and the union accepts that the business model being pursued by management will mean that there may not be a sufficient number of posts at every port to satisfy everyone's wishes. The union recognises that, as a result, management may wish to redeploy staff to new duties. That displays a flexibility in those discussions from the union in order to ensure that the implementation of the legislation is delivered as Ministers want it to be delivered.

However, there are genuine concerns about what could happen as a result of the breadth of the Secretary of State's powers. That is why my amendments seek to limit those powers and ensure that the Secretary of State can designate from either existing staff-that is, customs officers-or staff who are specifically recruited for that purpose. My amendments would also remove the flexibility that the Secretary of State is seeking to give himself to designate customs officers for a limited period, so that we can inspire existing staff, see them as professionals, build on their expertise and recognise that they need both the security of employment and the respect for their profession that they are pursuing in the longer term.

The implementation of the legislation could fall at the earliest point, however, because of the breakdown of the discussions that have taken place so far. Unfortunately, there has been a rush by elements in management to implement the single border approach, with the recent publication of integrated guidance, which has triggered some managers to change shift patterns, job content and ways of working among staff, despite the offer by the union to become involved in workplace planning and to look at how people can be redeployed. At the moment, if the legislation goes through and there is no proper consultation between management and the unions, which is what should happen, there will be industrial action on its first implementation in August. At the moment, the union is balloting on that industrial
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action. I believe that the Government have a responsibility to intervene to ensure that the management respect the wishes of the House.

The current union offer is that there should be a moratorium, not on change but on the compulsion on staff to move from their existing positions to new ones, and that that moratorium on compulsion linked to change should last until May next year. However, I understand that the management want it to last only until December, so we are talking about a difference of six months. If the management remain intransigent, there will be industrial action in August next year-August is one of the busiest periods for customs and immigration officers-and the morale of the staff and their confidence in the new system that the Government are introducing will have been undermined.

The Minister has intervened recently to reassure the staff that the sweeping power that he has given himself will not be used for privatisation or to bulldoze through measures that undermine the professionalism and morale of the existing staff. As I have said, there is a meeting on Friday between the unions and the management. If no agreement is reached, the ballot that is now taking place could well produce a majority in favour of industrial action, and the service will face a crisis at its very birth. Will the Minister give me an assurance that if no agreement is reached on Friday, he will meet Members of the House to see what can be done to resolve the industrial relations problems that the new service, as set out in the Bill, seems to be encountering at its birth?

A residue of good will among the immigration and customs officers within the Minister's Department and elsewhere has been drawn on, and it now needs to be bolstered, rather than undermined at this early stage. I do not believe that it is too much to ask of the service that there should at least be a moratorium on compulsory redeployment between now and May, so that negotiations can take place to protect the staff who are in situ at the moment. They are professionals who have served this country relatively well over the years. In fact, one of the arguments that we have had in the House has centred not on their professionalism but on the fact that there have been too few of them. We need to build on the strengths of the existing service, and that is what we are seeking to do.

The amendments enable me to highlight the problems that exist in the service at the moment, and I hope the Minister will give me the undertaking that if negotiations fail on Friday, we can have a quick ministerial meeting with Members and, hopefully, resolve the outstanding issues. That would enable the service to go forward on a basis of professionalism and with increased morale and stability from the beginning.

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): I shall speak briefly to this group of amendments on border functions. Before I come to our amendments, I should like to comment on those tabled by the Conservatives, starting with amendment 18, which would allow a police officer to be designated in relation to general customs functions. There is agreement between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats on the need for a UK border force, although there is some difference of opinion about precisely what responsibilities and roles such a force would have. I doubt that the Conservatives intend to press amendment 18 to a vote, as a little more
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preparation would be required than a simple reference to a police officer in order for the Bill to reflect the entirety of the requirements of a fully fledged UK border force.

The hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) was quite right to stress the importance of training-a matter we discussed at some length in Committee, and we sought assurances that the funding and appropriate level of training would be available for staff.

Amendment 20 would entail a review every six months of the short-term holding facilities, and I view it as a valuable probing amendment. Given the difficulties highlighted in some short-term holding facilities-the hon. Member for Ashford spoke about Heathrow and Gatwick for starters-the issue clearly needs to be kept under review. The hon. Gentleman outlined what was theoretically available in the short-term holding facilities. I do not want to stray into a debate about mental health services, but I wish that the level of provision available there were matched by that in many mental health hospitals, but having had an engaged dialogue with my local trust to secure just one additional newspaper in a similar facility, I know that it is not. However, I would like to see those facilities rolled out in other places as well.

Coincidentally whether police inspectors should be allowed to take on the role of the chief inspector of the UK Border Agency was, a matter discussed in the Home Affairs Select Committee earlier today. One aspect of the chief inspector's role that was underlined there was the importance of ensuring that he is perceived as being completely independent of government. It was suggested that he should not have an e-mail address with the term ".gov" in it and that he should have the word "independent" on his letterhead. There must be certainty about the degree of independence, which is an issue that can be resolved, and our proposals for a UK border force need to ensure that independence is maintained. Police inspectors must be seen to be completely independent of government in the same way as we expect the chief inspector of UKBA to be completely independent of government.

Our amendment (a) to new clause 2 welcomes the fact that Government lawyers spotted the possibility of certain difficulties arising in designating prisons and police cells as short-term holding facilities. One occasionally wonders how legislation arrives in such a form. I do not know whether the responsible official is here today and sitting in the Box, but it is strange the way these things happen, and it is fortunate that in this case it was spotted before the legislation went through. [Interruption.] The Minister says from a sedentary position that we are only human, and Ministers are also only human, so I welcome this change.

Amendment (a) is designed to provide even greater clarity about who the new clause applies to. It would provide for a detention

The Minister may say that that is already the case and that we are being over-cautious, in which case I will take that on board, but I think it provides clarity about who is going to be responsible for the control of the detention.

Amendment (b) is designed to ensure what I believe the Minister was seeking to achieve-that there should
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be a maximum detention period of six hours in these short-term holding facilities. As other Members have said, these are not necessarily facilities that people would want to be detained in for much longer. What the Minister said in Committee suggested his support for our position. The amendment would ensure that the short-term holding facilities could hold people under HMRC and court powers for a maximum of just six hours.

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