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9.1 pm

Mr. Woolas: I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

I would like to put on record my thanks to Members of the House for the work that they have put into scrutinising the Bill. I commend the many valuable contributions from Members on both sides of the House. Perhaps I may draw a veil over the less constructive points. The Committee on the Bill was particularly helpful, and its proceedings were conducted in exactly the right atmosphere and manner in which a Bill should be scrutinised. I thank the Chairs of the Committee and the officials who have been involved in the different parts of the Bill, the Public Bill officials, Hansard, and the Whips, who ensured that the Bill had smooth passage through Committee and on the Floor of the House.

The Bill is crucial to the future development of the UK Border Agency. I hope that its speedy enactment, subject to the agreement of the other place to our amendments, will enable the transfer of 4,500 customs officers from HM Revenue and Customs to UKBA. We want that to happen as soon as possible. That will mark a milestone in the reform of the way in which we protect our borders. The reform of the immigration system will be given yet more impetus, as I indicated earlier in answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), by the publication of proposals for consultation on a points-based system and by the publication of the draft immigration simplification Bill, which I know we are all eagerly awaiting, in the autumn.

The Bill is already making important changes to our nationality and immigration laws, and I have been grateful for the opportunities afforded to the Government, in the Chamber and the other place, fully to examine and explain their proposals and the intentions behind them. Principal among them are the proposals on earned citizenship, important debates which concern the affect of our laws on people's lives, aspirations and entitlements. Such debates enable us, as I have done today, to set out a new path to citizenship that makes a reality of the pledge to ensure that those who wish to become British citizens earn that right, to enable them better to get on in life and to do so in the context of the recognition by the indigenous population that those immigrants are here legally and with a positive purpose. I believe that we have achieved an important consensus on that issue.

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Concerns have been expressed by Members in this House and the other place about the transitional arrangements, and I hope that they have been satisfied this evening. Our intention is and always has been to make fair and reasonable transitional arrangements, and, in response to the debates in this House and the other place, I have made the changes that we discussed earlier today. I have therefore made a commitment to commence earned citizenship no earlier than July 2011, and placed in the Bill clear assurances, first, that people who apply for British citizenship before the earned citizenship provisions are commenced will be treated under the current law; and, secondly, that the transitional arrangements on the commencement order must allow for citizenship applications that are made within two years of commencement by those who have indefinite leave to remain on the date of commencement, or by those who are granted ILR following an application pre-dating commencement, to be considered under the current law.

I am hugely pleased with the success of the measures in parts 1 and 2. They enable change that the public want; stronger borders, with a single, integrated customs and immigration check now possible; and clear rules for those who want to settle in the United Kingdom. There have also been some important small changes in parts 3 and 4: the studies clause, which strengthens the points-based system by tying those on student visas more firmly to their sponsoring institution-a measure that our constituents strongly support-as well as the clause that will speed up the fingerprinting of foreign criminals and facilitate their deportation; and the extension of the power of detention at port in certain circumstances by immigration officers in Scotland, to help support the police in fighting crime.

I also welcome the duty to safeguard and protect the welfare of children, which imposes that important principle at the centre of the UK Border Agency's work. On a further issue of consensus, agreement was reached in the other place on the new clause on trafficking, which amends the definition to include those who traffic children. A specific point was made a moment ago about the statistics, and we are on course to be able to include them in the August bulletin. It was argued that Members wanted not just the snapshot of the numbers that we currently provide, but the average-a median and a mean, if I remember my schoolboy statistics correctly-in order to provide a better picture, and the independent Home Office statisticians are on course to be able to provide what the House needs.

I do not wish to reopen the debate about the common travel area, because I made my proposal a moment ago. I believe that there is an unfortunate loophole in our border security and it is obviously incumbent on the Government to find a means of closing it that is acceptable to Parliament. That is what we will seek to do.

One of the most important changes in the Bill is that to the judicial review process, and I hope that their lordships accept the proposals. I again pay tribute to the noble Lord Kingsland, who worked tirelessly on the issue and, indeed, on many other pieces of Home Office legislation in a constructive and positive manner. The clause restricts the transfer of judicial reviews to "fresh claims". It is a strange description for that category of claims, because they are not in fact fresh-but I never really wanted to be a lawyer in any event. Lord Kingsland's thinking was an important part of our underlying considerations in tabling the amendment.

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In today's debates, in Committee, and on Second Reading, the Bill has been criticised as being yet another piece of immigration legislation. The House should consider two important points in that regard. First, immigration law necessarily changes as a result of responding to changing circumstances-changes in global situations, in movements of people, and in the activities of those who are not well-intended towards our country. Many of the provisions in the Bill are in response to events.

Secondly, the laws that we pass in this place have a direct impact on many people's lives. Even the announcement of an intended consultation on a piece of immigration law has a direct impact on people and causes changes in their behaviour, not just in this country but around the world. The substantial changes to immigration policy that have been introduced in the past two years represent the first concerted, serious attempt to put in place a managed migration policy in the United Kingdom. It is important that we do that in a way that does not have unintended consequences, not only in law but indirectly, in terms of people's behaviour. One always finds such changes in behaviour as a result of proposed legislation. That is partly why I have been keen to try to build a consensus on the Bill, and I believe that we have done so, by and large. I am grateful to the House for that support.

The Bill is now in the right shape to send it back to the other place, where it started. It is therefore my pleasure to commend its Third Reading.

9.12 pm

Damian Green: I echo the Minister's thanks to all the officials who dealt with the Bill. That meant that technically its passage was smooth, even if in other ways it was less so; I also echo his remarks in that respect.

I think, most unfashionably, that in this case we can give about two and a half cheers for parliamentary procedure. It is pretty unfashionable to say that Parliament works and does its job, but it is unarguable that the Bill that has emerged at this stage is considerably better than the Bill that was originally introduced in another place. Significant improvements, both big and small, have been made to it in each House. To that extent, we can all feel reasonably satisfied with the work that has been done over the past couple of months.

The most recent and most dramatic example of that is the Minister's retreat on the common travel area, but the way he explained that means that I wish to return to it in a moment. We should also pay tribute to him for retreating on the retrospection clauses on highly-skill migrants, and others, and their moves towards citizenship. That is a welcome improvement. On the changes to judicial referrals, he rightly and generously paid tribute to the work of Lord Kingsland, which, again, I echo. I am glad that the House has reached an appropriate compromise that protects the interests of those who may have genuine cause for concern about the legal procedure, while not clogging up the courts, to repeat the legal phrase that the Minister used earlier.

I am glad that the Minister was able to confirm that he will be able to produce proper, useful statistics on the number of children in detention. As he is aware, that was the subject of one of the key amendments that Conservative Members tabled in Committee. It was
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good of him to say that that was the appropriate and right thing to do, and I am glad that he has confirmed that on the Floor of the House. Overall, after those significant changes, we should offer thanks to the Minister for presiding over that range of retreats with grace and good humour. I am aware that being a Minister at the moment requires a sense of humour, and I am delighted that he has kept his throughout the proceedings and at all other times in the past few months.

Keith Vaz: I intervene at the risk of breaking this wonderful consensus between the two Front Benchers, which I have not witnessed very often between them. It is not quite mutual admiration, because the hon. Gentleman was not lavished with praise, although maybe he will be in the remainder of the debate. Does he share my concern about how the Minister dealt with his points about the report on the Home Office and human trafficking, and the allegations that were made? Does he agree that it is important that even though those allegations relate to 2006, they ought to be investigated seriously?

Damian Green: I very much agree with the right hon. Gentleman, and I was going to come to that later. We had a greatly truncated debate about trafficking, about which I share his concern. As he says, I have lavished the Minister with praise, but I now wish to express deep concern about some matters. Before I come to trafficking, I begin with the common travel area.

Although the Minister has withdrawn the Government's original proposal and accepted an amendment to remove it, which is welcome, he used the word "necessary" to describe the Government's proposed changes and said that he proposed to return to them later. That struck me as a clear signal that we are not out of the woods and that the common travel area is still under threat. It is therefore worth rehearsing some of the arguments that won the day in another place. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) that they also won the day in Committee.

The Government's proposals, which the Minister has just described as "necessary", are offensive in principle to many of our fellow citizens. They are reckless with regard to the constitutional implications for Britain's relations with its dependencies, and if they were ever implemented, which he said he still intended to do, they would prove ineffective. He knows that the practical application of them would be fatally undermined by the fact that the land border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic is simply not policed. That is for good, historic reasons that we all know, but it means that it is simply non-existent as a security barrier.

Paul Rowen: I accept the hon. Gentleman's point about the argument not having been made. Given that 15.4 million people travel between the UK and the Republic of Ireland annually, my calculation is that if there were a 30-second passport reading, that would take up some 2,500 man days, or person days. Does he believe that that shows the whole process would be completely unworkable?

Damian Green: Certainly, at no stage has any Minister made the case that the process would not cause huge inconvenience to travellers on some routes. Almost before considering that practical stage, it is worth asking whether the security aspects that the Government pray in aid are themselves practical. I do not believe they are.

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Mr. Woolas: I do not wish to reopen the argument, but our proposals to amend the common travel area are based on our belief and strong advice that third-country nationals are using a route into the United Kingdom through the Republic of Ireland with criminal and malicious intent. Do the official Opposition accept that or not? If they do, do they have proposals as to how we should deal with it? Can we therefore have a discussion about potential amendments to how we police and secure our border?

Damian Green: I am not aware that the Government have produced convincing evidence about the loophole in our defences. I know that the Irish Republic has taken considerable steps to improve its border security in recent years and that the Minister approves of those measures. [Interruption.] We do not oppose the principle of e-Borders, as the Minister knows. He keeps repeating that canard-he knows it is not true, but he cannot resist repeating it. We object to the deep inadequacies in the implementation of e-Borders. He cannot have it both ways. If the Irish Republic is introducing a system that he supports and making its border effective, he cannot at the same time claim that there is a huge loophole, which threatens the security of this country, especially as he has made no proposals to change the status of the land border between the Republic and the UK in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Woolas: Sometimes we have a more interesting debate after the votes than before them. Let me be clear: the Conservative Opposition rely on the Republic of Ireland's border security measures to secure the United Kingdom. Those measures include electronic borders. The Conservative Opposition have substantial problems-I accept that they do not oppose the idea in principle-with our e-Borders, so their solution to the loophole is to rely on a foreign country's system of border control, which they do not accept for the United Kingdom.

Damian Green: The Minister wilfully misunderstands. We do not completely rely on the Republic of Ireland. As the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) pointed out, the Government have passed legislation, which, if implemented, would significantly affect precisely the people they are trying to keep out. However, they have not implemented it.

Chris Huhne: It seems extraordinary that we are now hearing from the Government Benches about apparent threats to national security, when we maintained an open border with the Republic of Ireland throughout the troubles, when we faced serious terrorist threats. The Good Friday agreement, for which I pay due tribute to the Government, means that that threat has been removed, yet they now propose ending the common travel area. That is astonishing and absurd.

Damian Green: I agree. The Minister should stop digging, because his warnings of what not taking the steps that he wants would mean for the security of this country are becoming ever more apocalyptic. If he genuinely believes that, he should argue his case. He should take it back to the House of Lords. However, having lost a vote there, he has given up and caved in. That suggests he does not believe that the security threat is as big as he has just claimed.

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Mr. Woolas: The answer to the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) is that the loophole has not occurred because of the Good Friday agreement. Smuggling drugs and other illegal objects through the Republic of Ireland is happening because of the stronger measures that we have established in UK ports. Hon. Members are more than welcome, if they wish, to have access to briefings from police and security forces to convince them of that. I have decided not to include a provision in the Bill because, despite the evidence of the 8,000 clandestine and illegal routes through the Republic of Ireland given in the other place, for other reasons-I do not impugn the hon. Gentleman's motive-the Opposition decided to oppose it.

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I have allowed some leeway, but as hon. Members know, Third Reading is about the content of the Bill.

Damian Green: I am grateful for your guidance, Madam Deputy Speaker, although I am sure you will admit that your generosity and latitude was rewarded by some interesting exchanges. We have discovered a lot recently, and, in rapidly closing the out-of-order part of my speech, I simply say that, although the Minister mentions evidence, the only evidence that he has produced so far is a newspaper cutting. That is frankly not convincing.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I am a member of the all-party group on trafficking of women and children and we have called for the setting up of a commissioner in this country, so that we can have a proper assessment of human trafficking, and proper evidence can be provided before any decisions are made.

Damian Green: My hon. Friend, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) and many other Members on both sides of the House and in both Houses, do very good work on that group, and I am glad that some of the Bill's measures will actually help in the fight against human trafficking. The Minister will be aware that we have been urging him to greater activity in this regard. We spent some time urging the Government to sign up to the convention against human trafficking, which they then did. They have now ratified it, and we can only hope that as a result of some of the measures in the Bill, this country will do better in combating trafficking than it has done in recent years.

In saying that, I am not seeking to make a partisan point, as I am conscious that any British Government would have had problems with the explosion in trafficking in the past few years. However, I hope the Minister will take on board what I and the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, have said. There were stories in today's newspapers about a three-year-old Home Office report that suggested that the traffickers regarded Britain as something of a soft touch and thought they could use bribery and corruption to ply their criminal trade in this country and to smuggle people into it. That is hugely disturbing. I very much hope that the Minister can give some reassurance to the House that that report is being acted on. Frankly, it should have been acted on some years ago, but if it has not been, can he give us some reassurance that he is acting on it now?

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We welcome the improvements in the Bill-there have been four significant ones that will help. However, sitting back and looking at the Bill even in its improved state, I think it is clear that it is still a fairly incoherent mixture of measures, some of which will be mildly useful, some of which will be mildly damaging, but none of which will address the scale and size of the crisis in our immigration system over recent years.

As has been said, we have an immigration Bill almost every year. I calculate that there have been eight of them under this Government; the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) always makes it nine.

Chris Huhne: Eleven.

Damian Green: The hon. Gentleman makes it 11; at some stage we must sit down and work out which he thinks are immigration Bills and which I do not think are. Either way, we have had at least enough, if not too much, such legislation, of which this Bill is the latest in a long line, that has not been matched by any significant increased effectiveness in the immigration system. Today, the Minister has heard Members from all parts of the House complaining about delays, routine incompetence and the unfairness caused by the administrative problems in the system, and he will be aware that unless and until the Government get to grips with those, the public confidence in the system will not be restored.

The other significant fact about the Bill is how small it is, especially when compared with the ambitions for it when it was first mooted. Last summer, the then Home Secretary published a huge draft Bill that was going to be all-encompassing and that would simplify and sharpen up the system. Over the subsequent months, that Bill melted. What was left was a small remnant of that Bill-a haphazard mix of a few ideas, some of which might help a little, others of which are fairly meaningless. Some were simply absurd, although I am glad to say that some of the more absurd have now disappeared.

However-this is almost the most serious charge-the Bill is also a missed opportunity. Part 1 deals with functions at the border. The failure to tackle the porousness of Britain's border has resulted in the disastrous rise in organised immigration crime that this country faces. We cannot tackle crime generally in the UK effectively without addressing the problem of our porous borders. We on the Conservative Benches believe that our borders can be better policed, preventing significant amounts of illegal immigration, as well as cracking down on people trafficking and weapons and drugs smuggling, by setting up a national border police force.

Keith Vaz: The hon. Gentleman will have noted in The Times today that a second report has emerged, from the Cabinet Office, which looked at serious and organised crime. That report showed that 30,000 people were involved in criminal gangs and that the illegal economy had grown to some £40 billion. Therefore, the issue touches not just on illegal immigration, but on all the other areas of crime that he has mentioned.

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