|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal) (Con):
Does the Minister agree that those of us who are very sympathetic to his argument still have a number of cases that have taken a very long time? I had one such case in my surgery on Saturday, in which a perfectly respectable person in my constituency, and known to me, married somebody. The marriage is disputed, but he has been promised a decision again and again. However, when the decision comes, it is so ludicrous and the way in which it has been documented is so manifestly unconnected with that individual-the smallest amount of investigation would have discovered that what has been said is clearly not true-that it makes it difficult to say, "A lot of cases out there have to be put right because lawyers behave
badly." I would like to feel happier about the performance of the Minister's Department, which is much improved since he has been there, but it is still questionable in the cases that I see from week to week.
Mr. Woolas: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I do not claim personal credit for the improvements-at least not here. It is true that the UK Border Agency, since its creation, should be commended on the improvements in the clearing of the backlog and on the report by our chief executive to the Select Committee on Home Affairs. Any reasonably minded person who follows the letters and exchanges would accept that there has been significant improvement in effectiveness in terms of both quality and quantity. It is our policy objective to speed up decisions and to improve their quality. Part of that, however-this is not a contradictory point but a supplementary one-involves trying to improve the processes through the independent system. That is what this group of amendments is about. That is where Lord Kingsland played a very helpful role.
Mr. Walker: I agree with what my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) says. I deal with a number of immigration cases where I think, "For goodness' sake, this is clearly a good person, so can we get on with it?" However, I support the Minister in that I think that Members of Parliament have to be far more robust in supporting the work of his Department when we feel that it has got it right. We need to say to the people who come through our door, "No, a decision has been made. It was the right decision and it is time for you to go back to where you came from."
Mr. Woolas: The hon. Gentleman describes the two pressures on us, even if it is not quite a Jekyll and Hyde situation. I believe, as I am sure that he does, that most right hon. and hon. Members do the right thing. There is a balance between advocacy for the individual and pursuing the honest policy. My experience is that we, as Members, are often naive about the intent and content of cases that are put before us. Close examination by our officials often paints a different picture from the one presented to us. It is understandable that people present their case in a good light.
I oversee the detention of children. In the UKBA, we have a number of layers of checks to ensure that we are doing the right thing. The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) asked whether detention is necessary. It is a last resort, but let us consider case studies from among those children. Of course, I cannot name individuals but I have one such case study that I chose at random before today's debate. The person was involved in two counts of sexual assault, possession of a knife and blade in a public place, assault and battery and three counts of theft. He was sentenced to 12 months' detention-this is a child by legal definition; he is obviously a teenager. That sentence was increased to 18 months on appeal, as the judge decided that the crime was even worse than had been first judged. The person was put into immigration detention and then, of course, he appealed. He subsequently claimed asylum, which he is allowed to do under the Geneva convention, to which we are a signatory. That was refused. He was then served with a notice of intention to deport, he
appealed against the deportation order and a further hearing had to take place. So it goes on. Our policy runs against the background of those legal checks, which this House and the other place would support in general.
That case, which I have not chosen as an extreme example-it was a genuinely random case-shows that we are often not dealing with what hon. Members are presented with on the face of it. It is an asylum case; I do not say that about the majority of immigration cases. I agree with the point made by the hon. Member for Broxbourne that speedier decisions are better for all concerned. However, our policies are delivering in that regard and the Home Affairs Committee has played a useful role.
The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire talked about alternatives. We referred to the pilot project in the area represented by the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green). Of the 30 families in the pilot, only one turned up. Detention is used because people do not want to be deported and so abscond. We are sometimes forced to call on homes early in the morning to avoid having to call on schools. We want to keep families together: if there were an alternative, I assure the House that we would use it. Detention is the last resort, but I emphasise that we are talking about short-term holding facilities, and not detention centres.
The hon. Member for Ashford asked a number of questions and I shall answer them in the order that I have the answers before me, rather than in any other logical order. He asked about the typical immigration offences involved here, and I can tell him that issues relating to smuggling drugs and people are foremost among them. He also asked about the regulations that apply, and I can assure him that the PACE regulations will continue to apply to persons arrested and detained in the short-term holding facilities.
The hon. Gentleman asked about timetables. The PACE timetables apply in these cases-that is, a person can be detained for up to six hours in a facility that is not designated under PACE, and for up to 96 hours in a place that is so designated. He asked what levels of legal advice were available, and that matter again is covered by the PACE regulations, including the right to access the duty solicitor.
The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire referred to the concerns about the independent monitoring board. I do not dismiss their importance but, to be fair, they are largely historical. As I said before, we have taken up the recommendations in most cases.
It is difficult to accept amendment 20 on short-term holding facilities, not least because we propose to remove clause 25 but also because it is not clear from the amendment what sort of designation is being referred to. If it is the designation of a particular place as a short-term holding facility, it is not clear why that designation should need renewing every six months. In any event, all places of immigration detention are specified as such in a direction made by Ministers under paragraph 18(1) of schedule 2 to the Immigration Act 1971. The direction is modified or replaced from time to time, and a copy of the current direction is in the House Libraries.
Aside from immigration removal centres, which are identified individually, the direction specifies the categories of place in which a person may be detained, rather than
the individual locations. Short-term holding facilities therefore appear as a class of place: there is no reason why their inclusion in the direction should need to be renewed and no real purpose served in doing so.
If the term "designation" is meant to be a reference to the designation of a short-term holding facility for the purposes of PACE, again there is no need for the reviews proposed by this amendment. There is no such requirement in PACE, or in the orders applying PACE to Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs. I do not believe that there is any need for such a requirement here.
The Secretary of State will designate a facility for the purposes of PACE only when he is satisfied that it meets the requirements and standards set out in PACE and Home Office guidance. Only a short-term holding facility that meets those requirements will therefore be designated for the purposes of PACE.
I hope that the House accepts the logic of my argument. It is clear that, having designated a short-term holding facility for the purposes of PACE, the Secretary of State will retain responsibility for ensuring that the facility remains compliant with the relevant standards. If the facility falls below those standards at any time, the designation will be withdrawn, so there is no need to introduce an administratively burdensome six-monthly review requirement when PACE already provides the appropriate framework for the designation process.
Damian Green: I take the Minister's point, which is indeed clear, but how will the Secretary of State know? One of the purposes of our amendment was to ensure that there was a mechanism for the provision of information. Presumably the facility would be kept up to the mark, but I am not clear what mechanism there is under PACE to make sure that the Secretary of State knows what is going on.
Mr. Woolas: The independent monitoring board and the inspectorate regime provide the framework for specific places that are named. The hon. Gentleman said that he was concerned about too much inspection, and I understand that point, but the PACE regulations cover the classes of designated areas. He asks a reasonable question, but he may as well ask how the Home Secretary knows that a cell in a police station is up to standard. The answer is that he will know such information through the various inspection frameworks that are in place, and through the police authority mechanisms.
My answer to the hon. Gentleman's question is that the PACE regulations will make sure that the Home Secretary is in possession of the necessary detail. My concern is that amendment 20 is a long way around a short corner, to use a Lancastrian phrase.
Proposed new subsections (a) and (b) to new clause 2, which replaces the existing clause 25, attracted support in the debate this afternoon. I think that the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) was praising the lawyers for spotting the mistake, and it shows the Home Office's good intent that we have recognised the point being made. We have sought to put the matter right, and that shows why scrutiny in Committee is important. Sometimes it appears very technical-and, dare I say it, boring to the outsider-but it remains important and we have recognised the unintended consequence of our original proposal. However, let me explain our thinking on that point.
"by an immigration officer, general customs official or Customs revenue official."
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, because I asked exactly the same question as he did when the point was put to me. The effect of the amendment would be to undermine the objectives of the UK Border Agency and HMRC, which are seeking to maximise their ability to make use of existing detention facilities.
It was agreed in Committee that it makes operational sense that individuals who have been arrested on suspicion of committing a customs offence, whether by a customs official of the UKBA or an officer of HMRC, should be able to be detained in a short-term holding facility for up to six hours or, where such a facility has been designated for the purposes of PACE or PACE (NI)-that is, PACE as it applies in Northern Ireland-as a place of detention, for longer than six hours, in accordance with the time limits prescribed by the PACE clock. To restrict flexibility in the way that amendment 20 proposes would prevent UKBA and HMRC from making the most effective use of existing detention facilities.
Proposed new subsection (b) to new clause 2 would restrict the period of detention in a short-term holding facility of persons other than administrative immigration detainees to six hours. That is unnecessary: as I have already said, the revised definition of short-term holding facilities would have no effect whatsoever on the relevant time limits that apply to a person's detention or custody in those facilities, including those that apply in the case of an arrested person whose detention is regulated by the provisions of PACE.
In accordance with the provision that we are making elsewhere in part 1 of the Bill, where an arrested person is detained in a short-term holding facility the appropriate obligations and safeguards in PACE, or PACE (NI), will continue to apply.
Under the proposals in the Bill, individuals who have been arrested on suspicion of committing an offence, whether immigration or customs, may be detained in a short-term holding facility for up to six hours or, where such a facility has been designated as a place of detention, for longer than six hours. The hon. Gentleman is therefore seeking to change the designation process. What I am seeking to do in my amendments is to put right the unintended consequences, as I explained earlier.
Amendments 9 to 13 were tabled my hon. Friends the Members for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) and for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell). As they said, the amendments honourably reflect the concerns of the Public and Commercial Services Union, as did some similar amendments tabled in the other place. There are a number of broader issues at play, but to answer my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington directly, we have sought to meet the points that have been made. I am grateful to him for his thanks for the meeting that we held. It is not the role of Ministers to interfere in trade union matters, and I know that he is not asking me to do that. He is asking me to ensure that policy is implemented. He asked for another meeting if
circumstances arise during the discussions that make it necessary, and of course I will agree to one. I like to think that I and my colleagues always make ourselves available for meetings with Members of Parliament. It is not our job to interfere in the discussions between the management and the unions, but we hope that we will be able to reach agreement. Indeed, I am confident that we will.
Important assurances have been sought, and I think that I can give my hon. Friend the reassurance that he seeks. Only those who are immigration officers or other officials of the Secretary of State may be designated as general customs officials or customs revenue officials. Officials of the Secretary of State will include the current officers of HMRC once they have transferred to the UK Border Agency, but not the private contractors. I did not want private contractors to be so defined, so I hope that that answers my hon. Friend's second question and provides some reassurance.
The amendments would have two main effects. First, they would prevent the Secretary of State from designating immigration officers and other existing officials of the UKBA as general customs officials. Secondly, they would remove the director of border revenue's ability to vary the designation of customs revenue officials according to business need. Even though they would not, as seems to have been the further intention, prevent the director from designating immigration officers as customs revenue officials, the amendments would undermine the very point of bringing together the customs and immigrations functions, which everyone in Committee was agreed on, notwithstanding the differences raised over the police, which we covered in some depth.
The border force has been criticised for a lack of success in tackling crime, but I must reject that accusation. The new border force that we have in place already provides a team with a single purpose; it is a unified border force with a single strategy, a brand and an identity. It has the right blend of skilled and specialist staff who have defined career paths supported by a strong performance culture. The force has the flexibility to enable managers to focus deployment on priorities that matter to the public. We have stopped more than 14,000 attempts to cross the channel illegally and searched more than 400,000 freight vehicles. I was grateful to the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) for his acknowledgement of the bravery and hard work of UKBA officials, who have seized in excess of £240 million of smuggled cigarettes, representing a loss of £45 million of tax revenue. They have seized £100 million of illegal drugs and taken 5,300 dangerous weapons, including firearms, off the streets.
The relationship between the police and the UKBA has been raised, and it was discussed in Committee. Without repeating what was said in Committee, I suppose that the argument comes down to what is the relationship between the existing police forces and the UKBA. Apart from the disruption that a merger would bring about, our fear is that it would make proper partnership working with the 43 police forces in England and Wales, the eight in Scotland and the force in Northern Ireland more difficult.
Andrew Mackinlay: I urge the Minister to reflect on this and to be cautious about listening to the advice of the Home Office police advisers who are drawn from territorial policing. The obvious parallel is with the British Transport police, which is a dedicated, specialist force that collaborates with the county and Metropolitan police forces, and that is what would and should happen if we had a proper, comprehensive, highly mobile police force incorporating the border force in our ports around the United Kingdom. It is just common sense, and the people who oppose that are jealous of safeguarding the old territorial jurisdiction of the Met and the county forces.
Mr. Woolas: I can assure my hon. Friend that we have looked closely into the matter. It has been the subject of an important debate. The Stevens report raised it, and it was also raised in the other place. The Public Bill Committee found that opinion is divided among police authorities and forces, including not just those with a vested territorial interest. My fear is that if we created such a force as a designated force either within UKBA or amalgamated it with existing officials, our ability to get the nationwide police forces to work with us as partners would be diminished, not increased. The very example that my hon. Friend gave proves my point. It is sometimes difficult to get local police forces to take part in our endeavours. Anyone who has had the good fortune of watching "Border Force" on Sky Television, produced in co-operation with the UKBA, will understand the wisdom of my words. The fact is that the situation is significantly improving.
I turn quickly to the points about the Independent Police Complaints Commission and the evidence of the chief inspector. The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington said that it was by chance that he gave evidence this morning. It was a fortunate chance from the point of view of his argument. Nevertheless, it does not take away from the point that France is France. We have had some improvements as a result of the debate in Committee and we are looking at a voluntary means of ensuring that inspection can take place with the same effect as the hon. Gentleman seeks. Progress has been made on that, but the legal point that I made in Committee remains the same.
Tom Brake: I welcome the fact that some investigations are being undertaken into whether a voluntary arrangement could be brought into effect. Can the Minister give hon. Members any more information about what is being considered, the time scales over which it is being considered, what in practice we might see and whether it is something that the House might be given the chance to consider in the future?
|Next Section||Index||Home Page|