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17 Mar 2010 : Column 268WH—continued

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The very serious area that we are discussing is possibly an area for exemption. I can give the hon. Member for Reading, West, some comfort, in that it has occurred to me that although it may not be ideal to have a special visa regime in this area, that may be the least worst option. It may contribute to greater complexity in the system, but it may be a possibility.

Dr. McCrea: To return to the diplomatic issue, a worker should be given the right to run away from abuse, but that does not deal with the problem; the abuser is the person who must be looked at. I put it to the hon. Gentleman that if one worker runs away, another is likely to come and fill their place, so that abuse and exploitation will continue. Surely the solution is twofold: there must be protection of the worker, but there must also be prosecution of the offender.

Damian Green: I take that point. To move directly on to the point about diplomats, I share some of the impatience of the hon. Member for Reading, West, with diplomatic niceties in this area. Everyone in the debate, including him, was carefully tiptoeing around, not naming embassies or countries.

Martin Salter rose-

Damian Green: Oh, the hon. Gentleman is happy to do so, is he?

Martin Salter: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I was disappointed by his weasel words when he did not give a clear commitment on what he would do if he were fortunate enough to be the Minister, but on reflection, it is probably incumbent on me to say that it was at the residence of the Pakistan high commissioner of several years ago that I witnessed what I described. I hope that the situation has now been remedied.

Damian Green: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for saying that, although I suspect that his colleagues may not be. It is interesting to observe that, on the whole, we have avoided naming and shaming, whereas in other areas we do not avoid that. I have seen lists of parking fines for which various embassies in London are responsible. That information is in the public domain, and it is presumably put there by arms of the British Government. Parking illegally is irritating, but it is much less serious than the issues that we are discussing today. The Government could consider that.

That answers part of the point made by the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr. McCrea). If it is known on the diplomatic circuit around the world that if people come to this country and behave in the ways described, they will at the very least be removed from their country's embassy or high commission in this country and sent back to their own country, presumably in some kind of disgrace, that will act as a huge and effective deterrent. Indeed, it might quite quickly wipe out that type of behaviour. That would do a huge amount of good for what may be dozens or hundreds of people-we do not know.

We should not give up on the criminal law and the criminal justice system. Everyone who is doing what has been described is committing a criminal offence in this country. To say that for various reasons it is difficult to collect evidence, and that we therefore have to find a
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new way of stopping people committing that criminal offence, seems to me a counsel of despair. I know that it is difficult for the police to collect evidence, but there are other areas of life where that is so. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley, made the point about the paucity of prosecutions for exploitation more widely. It would be interesting to know whether any prosecutions have taken place in the area that we are discussing.

I have a final detailed point. The issue must come under the Government's general anti-trafficking strategy. One of the things that most worries me is that the Metropolitan police's anti-trafficking unit has been absorbed into the clubs and vice unit. That sends a clear signal that that force is now looking at human trafficking purely as a sexual exploitation issue; the type of exploitation that we are discussing is therefore likely to fall below the radar.

One conclusion that I reach is that our current anti-trafficking measures are not adequate, particularly in the area that we are discussing. That is one reason why a Conservative Government would introduce a specialist border police force. My second conclusion is that we should not give up on normal legal procedures and on naming and shaming embassies if necessary. My third conclusion-I know that this will disappoint the hon. Member for Reading, West-is that the long-term solution depends on harder evidence than we have before us today, unless the Minister is about to produce some. Individual cases are clearly hugely distressing and shameful, even if there is not a huge number of them. The long-term solution must depend on that evidence, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman and the House more widely that if there is a Conservative Government after the next election, we will regard the eradication of modern-day slavery in this country as a very serious and important part of our work.

10.46 am

The Minister for Borders and Immigration (Mr. Phil Woolas): It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship in this important debate, Mr. Benton. The traditional congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) on securing the debate would clearly be inadequate today. I suspect that this will be his last Adjournment debate, so it is right and timely to pay tribute to him, as I did on the day that he announced his retirement from Parliament. His work as a Member of Parliament has been incredible. I am thinking of the successes he has had from the positions he has held on the Home Affairs Committee and the all-party group on Gurkha rights, where he played an incredibly helpful role. His membership of Amnesty International has guided his work. I checked before the debate and my hon. Friend's declarations of political interest included India and Pakistan, so I have narrowed it down, but it was useful that he clarified the matter, especially as Pakistan day is next week.

I have a detailed prepared speech, but I think that hon. Members want me to answer two questions: one on domestic workers and one on domestic workers in diplomatic households. The hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) has had to leave us, but I undertook to provide answers to his questions. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) had a detailed list of questions that I might not cover now, but if he remains unsatisfied on those questions, I will of course write to him with the information.

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Let me clarify something. On the route for domestic workers that we have discussed with Unite and Kalayaan, which are represented in the Chamber today, the commitment was to look at the system within two years of the introduction of that aspect of the rules. That will take us to November 2010, which is slightly before the date that hon. Members were looking at. Let me make it clear that the Government's policy objective is to review how the system is working. We have been given some figures today, and hon. Members will remember that the original fear was that there would be a pull factor and that the ability to transfer the visa might encourage people to use that route.

The hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) made a valid point about evidence, because there are two other criteria that one would need to look at. One is the effect on settlement applications and the desire in the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009 to separate residency from automaticity of settlement rights. At the moment, people in the category we are discussing have rights to apply, but one needs to look at the effect of any proposals.

The hard information that my hon. Friend has given us shows, however, that the numbers using the domestic worker route are actually going down. There may be wider factors at play, including economic factors, although I have seen no evidence of that. Of course, that analysis assumes a rather little Englander view of the economic recession, because we remain a relatively wealthy country.

Martin Salter: Let me just put on record the fact that the decline in the numbers applying for migrant domestic worker visas covered 2005, 2006 and 2007, when the economy was in much healthier shape than it is now. Irrespective of the economic circumstances, the general trend is down.

Mr. Woolas: Yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. I will not repeat the figures, but what he says continues to be the case. Of course, there may be consequential changes in other areas of the immigration system, and the points-based system may have opened up other routes, although I have seen no evidence of that, particularly given that tier 3 is closed. Interestingly, the passenger arrivals data on the nationalities of domestic workers show that 36 per cent. of those in the category we are discussing are Filipino, 20 per cent. are Indian and 12 per cent. are Indonesian; their countries are the top three countries of origin, and they would not be covered by tiers 1 and 2 or, indeed, aspects of tier 5.

To answer the question, my commitment is that the Government will review how the system is working. We will not change our policy of providing protection to domestic workers. I would not wish to rule out the possibility that there may be a better way of providing protection, but there is no intention on the part of the Government to get rid of that protection. There is the caveat that one would need to look at the evidence, although that evidence would relate to how the system is working, not to whether it should be there.

Martin Salter: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that. I think that what he has said is progress. To be clear, the Government are saying that the protection will continue beyond 2011, in its current form or a new, improved form.

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Mr. Woolas: Yes. To repeat, the difficulty, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley and others have said, is that although the Government are aware of a number of cases, there are strong reasons why cases would not come forward. Therefore, one cannot look just at the transparent evidence available to the Government. It is really a question of reviewing how the protection is working, not whether it should be there. I do not rule out another way of providing protection-it would be foolish to do that-but there is no intention on the part of the Government to remove that protection. Indeed, the conversations that we have had with Kalayaan and hon. Members have been aimed at improving the system as best we can.

The hon. Member for Ashford made a very wise point-he has obviously started to think about policy in detail. It is true that the great advantage of the points-based system is its simplicity. It is also true that although relatively small numbers take the diplomatic route-the numbers for entry and potential settlement via the domestic servant route are actually significant-that is the third such exception that I have dealt with today. There are many such cases of special interests-I will not say special pleading, because this cause is clearly valid. That, however, is the Government's policy on the first question.

On the second question, I cannot give the positive answer today that I had wanted to give. The timing of the debate is fortunate from the point of view of raising the issue, but it is unfortunate from my point of view because the Government's deliberations have not been concluded. Those are not, I hope, weasel words. Let me give some of the background.

I was asked about the figures. Complaints from diplomatic domestic servants are forwarded to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which is aware of two cases involving allegations of abuse in the past 12 months. To emphasise the point, those are just the cases that the Foreign Office has been made aware of. As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley said, if someone cannot run away, they cannot be protected, and I think there is consensus in the House on that. I am not suggesting that there are only two cases of abuse; those two cases are the ones we are aware of.

It would be illuminating for hon. Members if I explained how the cases proceeded. Both complaints were referred to the FCO by the police. The first is the subject of a police investigation and a request for the waiver of criminal immunity to allow the diplomat to give evidence to rebut the allegations or to help to confirm to the police that there is a case to answer. In the second case, the police decided that no criminal offence had been committed. As has been suggested, therefore, there is the possibility, at the end of the road, that the diplomatic position would be withdrawn. As the hon. Member for Ashford rightly said, there is also the criminal justice route.

The question is whether the ability to transfer the visa to another employer would provide better protection for people we are not aware of because they have not come forward with complaints. We are undertaking investigations, but the issue is complicated because of our relationship with the diplomatic service and our reciprocal diplomatic arrangements. However, there is no question that we are putting those diplomatic relations above the interests of victims.

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I can confirm that the Vienna convention does not preclude us from allowing a private servant to switch employment to outside the mission. The issue is the convention's definition of interfering

We have to be on strong ground on that point.

Of course, I understand the point that we should not put the protection of diplomatic relations above the interests of victims of violent, physical or, indeed, verbal abuse. We are working to solve the problem. Our policy is to look at the suggested solution of switching visas. As I said, the timing of the debate is fortunate in terms of raising the issue, but it is unfortunate for me in that I have not yet concluded my deliberations. However, my experience based on eight years as a Minister is that it is better to get things right than to respond to an Adjournment debate or a question in the House just because it might make my life easier now.

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Port Business Rates

10.59 am

Mr. Ian Cawsey (Brigg and Goole) (Lab): It is a delight to speak under your chairmanship, Mr. Benton. I am grateful for the opportunity to have this short debate on port business rates, but appalled by the fact that it is still necessary to do so. To outline the position quickly, Parliament decided in 2003 that all companies operating at our ports would pay business rates in the same way as other businesses. Previously, some of them had paid an unspecified amount, in lieu of rates, in the fees to their landlords, such as Associated British Ports in Goole. That change was to begin in 2005. That in itself was not particularly controversial, and as I have often said, none of the affected companies that I have spoken to have ever said that they are not willing to pay their taxes in the same way as others. However, none of them, and I would guess none of us, foresaw what was to come.

The Valuation Office Agency failed to assess the companies before 2005, and by the time that the liabilities were beginning to appear, it was 2008 and not only were rate bills due but there was backdating to 2005. During that period, of course, the companies had continued to pay, via their fees to their landlords, and it is accepted by all that there is no legal recourse for the recovery of that money. Indeed, Associated British Ports made it clear in a meeting with me that it had no intention of making any repayments, as its own overall liability had been increased, even if that was not true specifically at Goole.

Companies had to pay rates for a second time for years for which the accounts had been signed off, and there was a new liability to be paid as well. In addition, there was huge concern that the rateable values were wrong and the figures were much too high. That was raised with the Government at the time by several hon. Members who represent ports. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) is present for the debate, along with the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis)-whom I regard as a friend on these occasions and who continues to share an interest in this matter and, indeed, in the port of Goole, which borders his constituency. Many of us made the point at that time that we were deeply concerned about where the situation was heading.

The Government offered some assistance. Their response was to announce that the historic debt could be paid, interest-free, over an eight-year period and that there would be a fast-track appeal process, through the Valuation Office Agency, when there was doubt whether the rateable value was correct. There is much more I could say about that, but this is a relatively short debate. I want only to say that that offer was not as helpful as it sounds.

David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con): I do not want to delay the hon. Gentleman, who has fought very hard on the issue, but may I ask whether he agrees that the Select Committee on the Treasury was right in its comment on the Government's response? It said:

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Mr. Cawsey: I agree entirely with the Select Committee. One of the heartening things about the campaign is the fact that it has attracted support from all the main political parties and that cross-party groups, such as the Select Committee, have been firm in advocating that the Government should do more. The fast-track appeal is one relevant instance. In a famous episode of "Yes Minister", Sir Humphrey was trying to explain to the Minister that things should always be given a title that was the exact opposite of what was going to happen; so if something was intended to suppress information, it should be called "Freedom of Information". I can only think that that logic was applied to the fast-track appeal. "Fast" is not the word that springs to mind to describe what some of my local companies have gone through. That case has been made over and again; fast-tracking has not happened.

The eight-year spread does not take away the fact that the debt is held on the books, leaving some companies at least technically insolvent. I realise that Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs has said that it is content if companies can show that they can pay over the period in question, whatever the technical status of their books; but companies still need access to finance to be able to operate, and we are already in a world where that is more difficult. Technical insolvency is not a status that helps. It makes things very difficult.

This is in one respect nothing to do with the situation in question, but it shows how difficult things have been for local companies. There is a system of transitional relief to help in dealing with sudden changes in rates liabilities. To put that into context for Goole, companies tell me that under the old system the rateable value of Goole docks was £298,000. According to the Valuation Office Agency, the valuation was set at £3.1 million in 2008, yet because of the arbitrary high values attached to the individual companies in the 2005 rating list, there was in effect no transitional relief.

All that has been put to Ministers privately and on the record, and as the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden has said, the Treasury Committee added its weight to the concerns that I and other right hon. and hon. Members have raised. We continue to be told that, on top of the measures already taken by the Government, colleagues in the Government continue to monitor the position and to discuss what more can be done. However, in the absence of further action, the clock continues to move on. Councils are required to collect the business rates. Indeed, the financial consequences for council taxpayers if they do not do so are onerous. The figures are quite large, certainly in the case of East Riding of Yorkshire council, so with some reluctance councils have begun the process of making collections.

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