As the right hon. Gentleman said, there are issues about the rise in the number of people who have come into the country in recent years. The Government are

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determined to look at how the issue can be managed differently, and the approach they have taken is to set targets and rigid rules.

Over the eight years I have represented my constituency, the number of immigration cases I have had has been very small, and I suspect I spend much more time talking to the Rural Payments Agency about single farm payments than the right hon. Gentleman does in Leicester East. In recent months, however, a number of people have come to see me about immigration issues. They have mainly grown up in my part of the world, and their circumstances are similar to those other hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather), have described. These people have gone overseas and fallen in love, or they have met someone who has come to this country as a student or to work for a time. They have formed a relationship and married, but they now have a problem—one that they and their families never thought they would encounter. They assumed it would be relatively straightforward to sort out, but they then found that it is not.

To help the Minister appreciate how we, as constituency MPs, are being affected, I want, without mentioning names, to highlight some of the cases that have been brought to me in recent weeks. One constituent grew up in my area and has been living in Canada. She is now in a permanent relationship with someone in Canada. They both have skills and want to bring them to this country, but they cannot come here together. Given the industry in which they work, and given the wages in places such as north Cornwall, there is no way they can come here and meet the threshold. They would be able to live without recourse to benefits because they would have access to housing and so on, but they cannot meet the threshold. Effectively, someone who wants to return to Cornwall will be unable to do so, and she will have to stay in Canada. That is very painful for her family, who would like the couple to come here. There are no children involved, but it is just as painful for the extended family that the couple have, effectively, had this ban imposed on them.

In another case, a woman who was born in the Caribbean married a British man. She had children here, and she has been here for more than 20 years. Unfortunately, the marriage came to an end. A number of years later, she got back in touch with someone from her home country. They formed a relationship, and they have married, which is a source of great happiness to them and her family, because she has children and a grandchild in this country. However, if the couple are to live together, she will have to leave her children and her grandchild, taking away the support that she could offer them as a grandparent, and return with her new husband to the country in which they grew up. She has a business and the means to provide the foundation for a life together in this country if he joined her. Indeed, he is a skilled tradesman, and there are opportunities here. He has been able to come over, and they have spent some time together, but the system is now saying that he has to leave.

In another case, a young woman born in the constituency married an American citizen. They have a child here, and they have a life together, but he will have to return to the United States. He gave up the job, the base and the support he had there to start a new life here, but it is

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not possible for him to stay. I could go on with this list of painful cases, which are affecting people who want to make a real contribution here as the new spouse or partner of a British citizen. These cases also affect those who are keen to welcome that new person into their family and to make sure they are part of the community. That is a real shame.

One of the big strengths of places such as Leicester is their diversity and the fact that people are from all sorts of backgrounds. Although I grew up in Cornwall, I spent my first six or seven years after leaving university in the town of Bedford, which is a very diverse place. It was a great experience and education to be part of a community such as that. Cornwall has many strengths. Those who have come from overseas to live there have often done so because they have married someone from the area, and that has added to diversity and enriched the local community. However, we will lose that because, given the wage set-up in Cornwall, there will, effectively, be a ban on people doing that in future. That is a great tragedy; it is not only a personal tragedy for the families, but an issue for society as a whole.

I said I would be brief. I just wanted to give a perspective from an area outside the cities with their more noticeable patterns of migration, and mention that the policy is becoming an issue for us too. I hope that in considering what to do about immigration policy the Government will examine such cases and come up with a system that allows families to stay together and contribute to British society.

3.20 pm

Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): It is a pleasure to take part in the debate, Mr Owen. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) for arranging it, and for serving as vice-chair of the inquiry. I am pleased to see the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather), who added a great deal of value to our discussions. I also thank Migrants Rights Network, which was useful and supportive in briefing the inquiry committee and gathering evidence for us, and the many people who shared their experiences, either in person or in writing.

For me, as for other hon. Members taking part in the debate, this is a constituency issue. Many of the constituents who have talked to me about the rules’ effect on them and their families are particularly upset, because they have been preparing for family weddings, or have planned for a long time to bring a relative back to care for them. They feel strongly that the rules cut across their strong attachment to the importance of family ties and family life. We recognise, as other hon. Members have said, the need to manage migration and protect the public purse, but the rules must be fair to families, and effective. We have heard of many instances where they were neither.

I recognise that the income threshold, at £18,600, is at the lowest end of the range suggested by the Migration Advisory Committee to take households out of reliance on benefits. However, as the Chair of the Select Committee on Justice—the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith)—and other hon. Members have said, the threshold will have a differential impact on different sponsors, and it will create a significant disadvantage for those who, by definition, are likely to be on low earnings. That includes women sponsors,

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who typically will be on incomes lower than men’s. They often work part time; also, taking time out of the labour market to care for family members may have depressed their ability to progress at work. Young people will also be disadvantaged. Let us not forget that many who want to bring in a spouse will be young, because they will be starting out on their adult and family life.

The people who would want to make such an application are often precisely those whom the rules will most effectively work against. Others who will be disadvantaged are those who struggle to earn well—people with low levels of qualifications, people with disabilities and those outside high-pay areas such as London and the south-east. Last week in my constituency, I was told of a young woman who has been forced to take three jobs to try to meet the income requirement and bring in her spouse.

It is important to understand that we are not talking just about poorly paid, poor-quality, low or entry-level jobs. The inquiry committee heard evidence from the Royal College of Nursing that health care workers can typically earn between £14,153 and £17,253, so they would be below the income threshold of £18,600. Pay levels in many other sectors, such as retail, security, administration and customer service, and in the public sector, are likely to mean people will not meet the threshold. That is unfair to UK sponsors, many of whom have lived here all their lives—people who are British-born, of British families—who cannot fulfil the income requirement. Those people make a valuable contribution to the economy and provide services that we all depend on. They are being told, in effect, that they cannot carry on living in their own country with their spouse. They are shocked and surprised to find that out.

As to the impact of the rules on the public purse, the picture is more complicated than the Government’s analysis and impact assessment may suggest. The Government suggested in their assessment that there would be savings to the overall welfare state—health, benefits, education and so on—of £660 million over 10 years. However, we must remember that most migrant partners would work and pay taxes. They would therefore be contributing to the public purse. Evidence presented to the committee by researchers at Middlesex university suggests that by preventing up to 17,800 migrant partners from coming to the UK and working here, the income requirement could lead to a cost to the UK Exchequer and economy of as much as £850 million in lost economic activity.

The Government impact assessment took account of tax forgone by reducing the number of migrant partners entering the country, but failed to consider the loss of the wider economic benefits of partner earnings: lost output, lower consumption and spending in the economy, and the loss of their overall economic contribution. Nor is it clear that the benefits bill will reduce as the Government expect.

Dame Joan Ruddock: If the resident person was on a very low income, so that they qualified for housing benefit, and they were joined by a partner who was in work, would not the benefit be set aside and no longer claimed? That is a different picture from the one that the Government always go on about, of people depending on housing benefit.

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Kate Green: That is right, and that is one of the perversities in the operation of the rules. Some families who could be floated off benefits if there were two adults in the household are being forced to remain on benefits because a second earner will not be coming to support the family—which may be a family with children. The hon. Member for Brent Central alluded to the fact that in some cases parents are forced to rely on benefits because they cannot share the responsibility for care of children with the other parent. Also, not being able to bring a spouse into the country to share the balance of parenting and working will affect the ability of the parent who is already here to enter the labour market or increase their working hours. We know sharing those roles is a feature of lifting families out of poverty; those two sets of earnings are important in keeping families off out-of-work benefits.

Quite a large part of the Government’s assessment of the benefits that would be affected has to do with benefits for children—child benefit and child tax credit. They are paid for children who are British citizens. In some cases they will continue for those children, but in a family in which only one parent is here to support the child; so the overall benefits impact is rather more complicated than the Government suggest.

Keith Vaz: My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. Did she find that mostly, in the case of people who gave evidence to the inquiry committee and wanted to bring in male spouses, those spouses wanted to work when they arrived, not sit at home? Obviously, they could not claim benefits, because it would be against their undertaking, but most want to arrive and work, so they would soon be over the threshold anyway.

Kate Green: That is right. Indeed, we already know that migrant male workers are more likely to be in work than non-migrant people of working age. The history of migrants, and particularly male migrants, arriving in this country is that they want and intend to work, and contribute to our Exchequer and the wider economy. Women migrants may be less likely to work than non-migrant adult women, but their earnings tend to be a little higher; so, again, the labour market picture is more complicated than the simple notion that may have been assumed—that a spouse coming to this country will simply be dependent. In fact, the opposite is often the case.

As the hon. Member for Brent Central said, we need to recognise some of the more indirect costs that we are piling up for society. I absolutely agree with her about the potential long-term impact on the public purse of separating children from their parents for long periods. We know that separation can have long-standing and detrimental effects on children’s health, including their mental health, and on their educational attainment and behaviour, all of which will increase costs to the public purse down the line. The Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England has made a strong case for children’s right to have their best interests taken into account as one of the factors considered by the Government, but it is important to recognise that not only a moral and legal but an economic case can be made in relation to children. The Government should also consider the long-term economic impact.

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The committee and I ask Ministers for a much more comprehensive review and assessment of the fiscal and economic impact of the policy, in both the short and longer term. The rules are causing hardship. They are riddled with inconsistencies. In some cases, I believe them to be discriminatory under our equalities legislation, and in terms of protecting the public purse, it seems that they may in fact be having a perverse effect. For those reasons, the committee strongly urges the Government to take the time to conduct a full review of the impact of the new rules on families and communities, and specifically to examine further the effect on the public purse.

3.31 pm

Gavin Barwell (Croydon Central) (Con): I will be brief. I am grateful to you, Mr Owen, for allowing me to speak, and I apologise to Members for not having been here at the start of the debate; I was on a Committee considering a statutory instrument. Members will know that I have a great deal of interest in this subject. I will limit myself to two minutes, because I see that an hon. Member who has been here from the start wishes to speak.

I have two points to make. The first is broadly in support of what the Government are trying to do. There is growing consensus across the House that net migration levels in recent years have been too high and need to be reduced. My view is that that should be done in a way that prioritises the forms of migration that are most economically beneficial to the country. The family migration route needs to be looked at. I say to Opposition Members, with apologies for not having heard all their speeches, that it is not enough just to will the aims; we must also consider the means of achieving any reduction.

I have sympathy with the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) on one specific point: the income threshold at which the rules kick in. There is a perfectly defensible intellectual logic to what the Government have selected: essentially, the income level at which people no longer need recourse to public funds. However, I have raised the issue privately with the Minister; an individual working full time on the minimum wage would be below the threshold set. The test set by the Prime Minister was that people should be doing their best. Preventing someone who has taken a full-time job that only commands the minimum wage from bringing a partner with whom they have fallen in love into the country seems to me to fail the test of fairness.

I support the principle behind the Government’s tightening of rules, but there is an issue at the margins about the point at which the threshold is set. I hope that Ministers will go away and look at it. I will be true to my word and stop at that, so that the right hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Dame Joan Ruddock) can speak.

3.33 pm

Dame Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab): I am most grateful to the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell). I did not come planning to make a speech, but I saw a few minutes remaining and thought that I would jump up. I wanted to ask the Minister a specific question.

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I referred earlier to a constituent of mine whose wife is Canadian. I want to fill in a few points about his case. His wife had the right to be in this country; she had taught here for three years. He was a high earner. The two of them established a relationship that led to marriage. They went on honeymoon to Canada completely unaware of the rules, and he, unfortunately, had been made redundant. They were shocked. He wrote an e-mail to me, which I have just received, saying, “Can you imagine a worse way to start your married life?”

He has tried everything. She has a job to go to and his parents have money, but that cannot be accepted. He is now raising the sum that must be lodged as capital—I think that the Minister will confirm that it is £62,500—because he cannot get a job at the moment. He is missing their first wedding anniversary, and he tells me—I have not checked this—that once the money is assembled, it must remain in his bank account for six months in order for the Government to find it acceptable.

That is not how we should behave. A civilised country should not be separating people who married in good faith and have their future ahead of them. All the cases that we have heard from hon. Members are unacceptable. The most tragic cases with which I am concerned are ones in which a split involves children, or children are left alone. It is just not acceptable. I urge the Minister to hear the important message from the committee. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) on securing this debate, which has been invaluable, and which demonstrates that this policy is against all human rights and must be changed.

3.35 pm

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I join the congratulations that have been rightly heaped on my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) on securing this debate, and on those involved in the all-party parliamentary group and the report. Without the vast resources that the Government would have for a full investigation, the all-party group has produced an important piece of work, and I was delighted to be at its launch last week.

I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green)—who made an important contribution to this debate, just as she did to the process of bringing together the report—and the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather). It was a delight to hear from a Conservative as well, in the shape of the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell), who, as we all know, has taken a strong interest in these issues and pursued them with an open mind and an interest in getting to the truth rather than dealing with the facile arguments that we sometimes hear about immigration in the media.

I take issue slightly with the Chair of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz). He said that because the Minister and I represent constituencies without large amounts of immigration casework, we somehow might not be as kosher in this debate as others. I say to him, first, that I suspect that people in the Rhondda take as great an interest in the issue of immigration as people in his constituency, but may come to a different set of conclusions about it. Secondly, in the Rhondda, we would not have the population that

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we currently have were it not for migration: particularly from Ireland and England, but also from Italy in the 19th century. Learning long-term lessons about immigration and migration is far more important than chasing daily or monthly headlines on those issues, and that is certainly what I hope to do as shadow immigration Minister.

I make one other point to the Chair of the Select Committee. The average wage in my constituency is considerably lower than the £18,600 threshold, so the immigration cases that I do have all arise from the rule change.

Keith Vaz: I would never accuse the shadow immigration Minister of chasing headlines. The point that I was making is that the Members here today, apart from those on the Front Benches, have a heavy case load. I said—he can check Hansard; I know that he is keen on people reading it—that despite the fact that he and the Minister represent the Rhondda and the Forest of Dean, they do have an understanding of the issues. I urge him to look at Hansard before he gets on his high horse again.

Chris Bryant: I was not very much on my high horse; I was just using an opportunity to tease my right hon. Friend. Anyway, he has risen to the bait, which is a great delight for us all.

I agree with many of hon. Members’ remarks. Largely thanks to several campaigning organisations, my inbox for the past year has been absolutely full of individual cases, not from my constituency but from all around the country. I will quote a few words from various people; I will not name them. One man wrote:

“I am at breaking point and I can see no chance of being a family, it is breaking our hearts”.

Another wrote:

“We feel trapped by our circumstances. I feel like I’m a prisoner in my own country!”

Both are British people unable to sponsor people to come here. Another wrote:

“This makes me feel extremely angry at the present government and very sad to be a British citizen treated in this way.”

There is certainly a great deal of distress out there. That might be because there has been a change in the law and many people were proceeding on the assumption that there would not be, so they have been suddenly caught out, but we should not underestimate the pain caused. At the same time, I accept that a fundamental duty of Government is to protect the public purse, which I do not think anyone would dispute. When there are real financial problems in the UK, which we need to sort out, it is all the more important for our public services to be protected and for the taxpayer to be protected. Furthermore, everyone accepts that a fundamental duty of Government is to ensure that the system is not open to abuse.

Use of the family route to circumvent immigration rules is small; it does exist and, indeed, I have had cases in my own constituency, but we need to look at it as the years go forward. Women have married someone from abroad, and the man has come to the UK, but, as soon as the marriage has happened, he disappears. We need to tackle that, however, as a form of exploitation and criminality—we need to look at whether there are further changes in the law we need to make.

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Mr David Ward (Bradford East) (LD): My apologies; I have been in a Delegated Legislation Committee. I was due to speak, so I am sorry about that.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the extraordinary thing is the ordinariness of our cases? We have all come armed with cases; when we read them, they are about a husband, or a child, and how the situation affects an uncle or a carer. The consequences are not unintended; they are things that were obvious to anyone who knew anything about the circumstances.

Chris Bryant: In political life and legislation, in many cases the effect on an individual is indirect; in this case, the effect is direct, and that is true of immigration policy generally—we pull a lever and something happens. It is, therefore, all the more important to look at our process for changing rules in Parliament. My point is not partisan; we, in the past—it is certainly true in this instance—have brought forward immigration rule changes involving an enormous screed of material, but with a negligible parliamentary process. We need to look at how we do that in the future.

Hon. Members have already referred to some of the real elements of hardship experienced. Inevitably, a significant number of children have been involved, because many of the relationships at issue are those of people who are just getting married and having their first children. My real concern is that children might be growing up now without either a father or a mother for the first three or four years of their life, and I do not know what that is storing up for the future in Britain, in particular in areas where there are already multiple layers of deprivation. That might become a bigger social problem in future than we have estimated thus far.

Mr Virendra Sharma: I hope that my hon. Friend agrees that the new rules are against the basic principles of family life, with husband and wife not being able to live together and children kept apart at a time when both parents are needed to support their future.

Chris Bryant: The right to a family life is obviously an important part of what we all accept to be intrinsic to humanity, but it is a qualified right—it always has been under human rights legislation. If it were not a qualified right, we would not be able to imprison someone who was married. I do not want to say that the right is categorical and exists in all positions, but my hon. Friend makes a fair point.

A Catch-22 now arises for many people: if they are the carer of a child and the other parent cannot be present, they might not be able to engage in a full-time job, so they cannot earn the £18,600 that enables them to bring the other parent in. That puts many parents in a difficult situation, and might end up placing a further burden on the state, rather than removing one, and would be a mistake.

As Members have said, it is also true that the effect of the changes is harsher in some parts of the country than in other parts. I suspect that that is why we have a large number of people from the more deprived constituencies in this Chamber today, rather than those from the country’s leafier suburbs. It is also true that the effect on women is disproportionate to that on men; because of the pay gap between men and women, many fewer

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women than men can achieve the £18,600 figure. Moreover, as the hon. Member for Brent Central mentioned, the report rightly makes the point that to all intents and purposes the adult dependent relative route has been closed: people have to be able to prove in this country that they have so much money, they can care for those dependants; in which case, people should care for them in the country in which the dependants live, unless they are so ill that they cannot stay there, in which case they probably could not travel anyway. We need to look at such issues.

Keith Vaz: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Chris Bryant: I will, although I am about to disagree again with my right hon. Friend.

Keith Vaz: When he does so, will he tell this Chamber what the official Opposition’s position is on the limit? Will it be removed if the Labour party gets into government, or is he planning to review the limit anyway in the next two years, to look at the impact that it is having on people?

Chris Bryant: If my right hon. Friend did not intervene, I would have more time to lay out what our plans are. I was about to say that he said the figure was arbitrary, but it is not arbitrary; it is deliberate. The Migration Advisory Committee advised on a range between £18,600 and £25,700—I suppose we should be grateful that the figure is not £25,700—and laid out that, according to its interpretation, at the lower bound of the range, 45% of applicants would not meet the income threshold. In other words, it is deliberate that 45% of people are caught by the limit. It is, therefore, important for us to look at the full impact of the policy—to look not only at the short-term implications, because I understand that it helps the Government to meet their net migration target, but at the full implications in the long run for the public purse and family life.

We undoubtedly have to examine some of the existing anomalies. Many who have written to me made the point, “It is fine if you can come in as a European economic area national; you don’t have to prove anything”, but that seems grossly unfair to someone coming in from outside the EEA. We need to look at such anomalies. We also need to look at what flexibility can be brought into the system. As many Members have said, a non-EEA partner’s earnings cannot be considered at the moment, even though they may be considerable. Ministers sometimes reply that people will be able to come in through a different route—a work route—but that does not apply to many, unless they have a specific job offer and so on. The way in which cash savings are estimated and the earnings of those who are self-employed similarly need to be looked at, as does whether third-party support can be brought into the equation, as it has been in several other countries.

I have already referred to the matter of the parliamentary process. I want us to engage in a proper process, so that Members can go through the legislation for any future change. We also need to assess the effect on the NHS, not only of people coming to this country, but of losing people who are working in the NHS—they might be worried about their elderly dependent relatives elsewhere in the world and decide to leave this country to go there. That issue is already affecting recruitment in south Wales and other places. Also, categorically, we will seek

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to repeal the Government’s recent abolition of the right of appeal for family visits. It seems quintessentially fair that someone coming to a funeral, wedding or some such occasion should have a right of appeal.

I have one final point to make. The honest truth is that in future there will be more British people falling in love with foreigners. That is simply a fact: more people go on holiday—one in four people go on holiday to Spain each year and one in six to Greece—and they go much further afield for their holidays than they ever have done before. Many of those people are not on vast incomes, but they end up falling in love. That is why we need to—we must—keep the issue under permanent review.

Jane Austen wrote:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

I do not entirely agree, but I suggest a different version: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that every family’s set of circumstances is different.” The law needs to be able to cater for that, rather than the opposite.

3.50 pm

The Minister for Immigration (Mr Mark Harper): I am pleased to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) on securing this debate. Before responding to him, I want to respond to points made by other hon. Members.

The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) took well over half the remaining time, so I will probably not be able to take many interventions, and I will struggle to cover some points. In response to the point that the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) ably made, apart from the commitment by the Opposition to repeal our changes to the family visa appeal route, I struggled to hear any commitments from the Opposition on what they would do about our policies. That may be a disappointment to Opposition Members, but the Labour party does not seem to think that it will change any of the rules that we have laid out. That is the impression I got from the speech of the hon. Member for Rhondda, so I suspect that he will be popular with people wanting to bend his ear. Despite saying nothing about the Opposition’s policies, he took a long time in doing so.

I will say a few words about the intentions of our policy, and then try to pick up some of the points ably made by the wide range of hon. Members who spoke. A general point about the immigration system is that we are determined to take control of it and to restore public confidence. We have made considerable progress with the changes on numbers, reducing net migration by more than one third since the election. The issue is not just about numbers—my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell) touched on this—but about preventing abuse and setting out sensible rules that people can follow. That was the context in which we implemented the reforms to change the rules for family migration for non-European economic area nationals seeking to enter or remain in the UK on the basis of their family life.

The rules have three aims. The first is to tackle abuse. The hon. Member for Ealing, Southall referred to the extension of the probationary period from two years to five years before partners can apply for settlement. That

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is to test whether the relationship is genuine and should help to deter applications based on sham marriages. That not only deals with abuse, but protects people who are often forced into sham marriages to provide a mechanism for someone to come to the United Kingdom. That is a welcome change.

Secondly, we want to ensure that family migrants are better integrated into British society, which is why, for example, from October 2013 they will have to pass the new “Life in the UK test” and demonstrate that they can speak English at intermediate level. Our view is that no one can properly integrate into British society without at least intermediate English language skills.

The third aim, which hon. Members largely focused on today, is to prevent a burden on taxpayers, which is why we have introduced the minimum income threshold of £18,600 for those wishing to sponsor the settlement of a partner.

Alison McGovern (Wirral South) (Lab): Will the Minister give way?

Mr Harper: No, I will not give way because the hon. Lady has not been here for the whole debate and I want to deal with points raised by hon. Members who have been here, if she will forgive me.

The central point, which came into all the contributions, is that we welcome people who want to make their family life in the United Kingdom, but we expect them to pay for it and we do not expect taxpayers to pay for it. This may be one area where our welfare system interacts with the immigration system. The £18,600 figure is not arbitrary—I agree that the Migration Advisory Committee did some serious evidence-based work. It is broadly the figure at which a couple are no longer able to have income-related benefits. If the argument is that that figure is high and that many people in this country will not earn that much, we must remember that they may have a level of income at which they may receive income-related benefits. That is the challenge.

I would turn the question that some hon. Members have asked around. If someone is on a very low income and wants to bring a partner to the United Kingdom, they are really saying that they want the taxpayer to support them. Hard-working families around the country would ask why their hard-pressed taxes were being used to fund someone else’s family, because that is what they would be asked to do.

Dame Joan Ruddock: The Minister said “a couple”. Our argument is that we should let the other person in on the basis that they will take work, and then be above the threshold and not claiming public benefits.

Mr Harper: The right hon. Lady makes a very good point.

Mr Roger Godsiff (Birmingham, Hall Green) (Lab): Will the Minister give way?

Mr Harper: I will not give way because the hon. Gentleman has not been here for the whole debate—[Hon. Members: “Yes he has.”] I will give way briefly as he did not get to make a speech.

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Mr Godsiff: That is kind of the Minister. I was waiting for his speech so that I could ask my question. Will he tell us how many applications have been made by spouses who come here for the two-year probationary period to try to access benefits? He must have some figures, so can he tell us?

Mr Harper: The point I was making was about people who come here when they are not entering into a genuine marriage. I will not have a chance now to find the data. If the hon. Gentleman had asked me earlier, or made a speech, I would have been able to find them before the end of the debate. I want to try to answer the questions that hon. Members have already asked.

I turn to some matters that will address the point made by the right hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Dame Joan Ruddock). There are some areas where we have been flexible already. I had a meeting with the hon. Members for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) and for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), who were here earlier. We looked at some flexibilities, which I agreed to take away and consider. They were about the length of time for which savings must be held if they arise from the realisation of an asset that can be clearly traced to that family. The example that was given to me was someone selling a property that was clearly their property. I also said I would consider the situation where people hold savings in an investment-based account, such as a stocks and shares ISA, and whether that counts as cash.

I am prepared to consider whether we can put in place some rules that are not vulnerable to abuse. The best argument was the example of a couple, one of whom would be working here but was insufficiently skilled to meet the criteria to apply under the tier 2 scheme. I thought one of the examples in the report was a bit odd. I struggled to see how someone who earned £400,000 a year and had £3.5 million of assets could not come here on a tier 2 visa, or would be unable to organise their finances sufficiently to meet the rules. If people can get here under a tier 2 visa, that is fine. However, clearly there are people who could make a contribution but could not meet those criteria.

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The situation is not quite as straightforward as people say, because we must guard against abuse. If all people have to do is to show a piece of paper saying that they have a job offer, I know from the number of cases I have seen that it will not be long before people are setting up vague companies and offering jobs that do not exist. There must be a way of putting in place processes that do not lead to abuse. I think that is worth doing and I am prepared to go away and do so. The Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee said that I listen, and I do. I see details of cases that colleagues write to me about, and I am keen to ensure that the rules are fair. They have been in force for less than a year, and we have already made some changes to make them more flexible.

Another suggestion was to have a different income level across the country, and the Migration Advisory Committee looked at that. We do not have a regionalised benefit system, with the exception of housing benefit. Most benefits are consistent throughout the UK. The logic for having a different income limit would mean a different benefit system throughout the United Kingdom. I do not know, but I am guessing that most Members who argue for a regional income level to be taken into account for this process would probably not be in favour of a regionalised benefit system.

Kate Green: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Harper: I have only 50 seconds left and I have not covered all the points. Let me pick up two specific points. The hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather) asked whether there had been any discussion with the Department for Education on children’s best interests. Yes, there has been. Our family consultation and the statement of intent that we published were discussed with all relevant Departments in the way that one secures agreement across Government. Our rules and policy on leave outside the rules take into account a child’s best interests. I will give an example. In exceptional cases, those circumstances can be taken into account. Since I have been doing this job, I have authorised the grant of leave outside the rules to an applicant who, with their British partner, was unable to meet the income threshold but had serious concerns about the health and welfare of a child.

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Car Clamping (Private Car Parks)

4 pm

Ms Margaret Ritchie (South Down) (SDLP): I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen, and I am pleased, on behalf of many of my constituents and many people throughout Northern Ireland, that the Minister is here to provide a response on this vexatious issue.

I have been made aware of the serious problem of dubious and irregular charges being levelled by private parking companies on customers who use private car parks, for example, near shopping centres. There is often little oversight or regulation of the marketplace and many companies seem to operate in a dubious manner. My constituents have made me aware of the problem, which I know exists across Northern Ireland. I am therefore delighted to have secured the debate, and again, I thank the Minister for coming to address the Chamber on the issue.

I am aware that the matter partly falls under devolved competencies, but given that the Department for Transport, or more specifically, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, provide such companies with driver and vehicle information, it is important that the UK Government address these concerns.

Mr Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way so early on in her speech, and I congratulate her on securing the debate. I reassure her that the concerns are not restricted to Northern Ireland; they are UK-wide. Is not the critical point the role of the DVLA, which she just mentioned, and how, in a largely unfettered way—sometimes inappropriately, it seems—vehicle licence details from the DVLA are released to these companies?

Ms Ritchie: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. That is absolutely correct, and the Minister needs to look into the unfettered handing-out of that information to private parking companies, because it is placing a lot of people, particularly the elderly and those who are disabled, in great distress.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I thank the hon. Lady for bringing the matter to the Chamber; it is important, as she said, to all of us across the United Kingdom, and especially to those in Northern Ireland. Does she agree that many companies seem to have no care whatever for people? In particular, they seem to have a zealousness for clamping the cars of those with blue badges, who are clearly disabled. Does she feel that perhaps the Government should take that on and train them, so that we ensure that they do not do a job that aggravates people, and pick on those who cannot necessarily defend themselves?

Ms Ritchie: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and I agree with him. He highlighted areas that I will move on to in my speech. These car parking companies are particularly zealous in their desire to overcharge people, and when they are taken on, they withdraw the charge. That makes me ask whether it was ever valid in the first place. He will be aware of some of the experiences that my constituents have had in his constituency, in the town of Newtownards.

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I accept that we are talking about a legal marketplace, within which there are many reputable companies, but I would like to highlight the most pertinent examples of bad practice and the existence of less reputable companies. From the outset, it must be clarified that private operators do not have the right to levy a statutory fine. Instead, they are effectively levying a charge for loss incurred by the operator due to breach of contract. However, in practice, in the cases brought to my attention, it would appear that some companies often go to every length to give the appearance to the customer that they are being fined, and that the fine is non-contestable.

Graham Jones (Hyndburn) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. There is a related issue, and I wonder whether it should be put out there as public knowledge. The Government need to come clean about whether we can tidy this matter up. These pieces of land were given a zero rateable value when the companies were given planning permission, or whatever permission it was, and now an income is being made from that land. The Government need to look closely at whether the Valuation Office Agency should try to revalue pieces of land where car parking charges are being applied, on the grounds that as there is now an income from it, the rateable value should be reviewed. I hope that the Government look at that, and I want to put that on the record.

Ms Ritchie: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I have found instances of that in Northern Ireland, but the rating of particular properties or pieces of wasteland now used for car parking purposes in Northern Ireland is a devolved matter. In this debate, I want to concentrate on the issues that are particularly the reserve of the Minister and the Department. However, I take my hon. Friend’s point. There is a certain over-zealous attitude on the part of many of the players, but the bottom line is that the ordinary person, whether they are elderly, young with a family, or disabled, is placed at great disadvantage—particularly a financial one—some months down the line.

I would like to give some brief examples of the way in which certain companies go to every length to put a significant amount of pressure on people to settle up as quickly as possible, without querying the nature of what they may perceive as an inescapable fine. Often the correspondence, especially the initial notification letter to the customer, will be designed to look like an official statutory notice of the kind issued by a council or a local authority. For example, they will commonly refer to “parking charge notices”, otherwise known as PCNs, mimicking the “penalty charge notice” title of official council tickets, and that will often be accompanied by an official-looking logo, such as the scales of justice. Such notices are clearly designed to make the person feel that this is something they have to pay, and that its source is a body other than a private company, thus making the person—it could happen to any single one of us—deeply uncomfortable.

In addition, companies will present the possibility of the Debt Recovery Agency becoming involved as early as the first correspondence with the customer. Such a threat is clearly vastly out of proportion for what amount to relatively small civil claims. Again, the purpose of that is clearly to get the person to pay up as soon as

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possible and not to question the source, reasonableness or accuracy of the claim. People are made to feel under pressure and that they have no right to recourse.

Such tactics are reprehensible, especially in that many of those being pursued are elderly or vulnerable, and they have even been employed in my constituency against people with disabilities who have very specific parking requirements. Surely the Minister agrees that his Department should not facilitate things for companies that operate in that manner, and surely he will confirm that he would act on evidence that companies are harassing members of the public over dubious claims.

Jim Shannon: The hon. Lady is being very generous in giving way. Is she aware in her constituency, as I am in mine, that when the companies are pressurised on behalf of our constituents, after a period of time, on many occasions, they back down and renege on the original clamping that they did? Does she feel that that underlines the fact that the Government need to be more aware of what the companies do within the law?

Ms Ritchie: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. In my experience, the companies do back down and withdraw the fines, but that is after a considerable period of time in which my constituents or other people in other areas have felt deeply under stress—

Jim Shannon: Harassed.

Ms Ritchie: Deeply harassed by the companies. These people feel that they are criminals when they are not.

Having considered the manner in which some claims are pursued, we need also to consider the fairness and reasonableness of the claims. Again, it seems that certain companies are pressing claims that are spurious at best. Previous court guidance has said that charges must be proportionate and that an owner is entitled to seek only damages relating to actual loss. For a start, the existence of tiered levels of payment depending on how quickly fines are paid suggests that any real evaluation of loss is not being used. The charges also seem excessive against any determination of an actual loss incurred. The fact that some companies are charging up to £150, which is more than 50% higher than, in our case, the Roads Service’s fine, or a council fine, indicates that it is not actual loss that is being charged to the customer.

Graham Jones: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way so generously. She makes a valid point about the loss. How is the loss quantified? In Hyndburn, there is free car parking everywhere, so how can a car park actually lose money? How can these companies fleece motorists for £100, £60 or whatever, as happens in the case of Eastgate retail car park in Accrington, when there is simply no loss of income? The comparator is that there is free car parking everywhere.

Ms Ritchie: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I agree; that is another point that needs to be investigated and explored by the Minister.

There is an associated issue about the prominence of the terms of use of private car parks. Those signs must be clear and of a certain size, but too often the terms are hidden in small print within a lot of other text. Surely there should be more of an onus on the operator to

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make clear to the customer the terms and conditions for using the parking space, and what action will be taken should those be breached. Instead, people often receive notification that they are being charged up to a month later, with very inconsistent evidence as to what their infringement was. What evidence there is normally consists of using automated registration recognition techniques, which are often highly contestable, and there are real fears that such machines are not being operated within the terms of the guidance provided by the Information Commissioner.

Graham Jones: I want to press the issue of the Equality Act 2010. How do these car parking companies square what they do with the Equality Act when they are indiscriminate in their charging? Surely it is illegal to discriminate against disabled people with these car parking charges—and with time limits, when disabled people need more time. It is absolutely outrageous that disabled people are treated in exactly the same way as others when the law of the land says that they should be treated in a different way because of their disability.

Ms Ritchie: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I agree that an area of the Equality Act needs to be investigated, but perhaps because these are private car parks, they sometimes fall through various loopholes. None the less, the issue requires investigation.

Mr Mark Williams: I concur with the comments of the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones). Mr and Mrs Sheldon, a disabled couple from Aberystwyth who visited me in my constituency surgery last week, had exactly the same experience. With regard to taking these complaints further, may I ask the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) what her experience has been of the British Parking Association, the body that is supposed to regulate the conduct of its member companies?

Ms Ritchie: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I think that part of the problem lies with the British Parking Association—he is right—because it is not doing the job that it is supposed to do. It is letting things fall through the net.

Let me explain some more of the background. People may well be asked for proof of purchase from the car park’s associated store. I do not know about the Minister’s shopping habits, but it would be very rare for me still to have a receipt, months later, for every small item of shopping that I had bought. None of this seems to constitute a fair claim or burden of evidence, and I would like to know whether the Minister agrees.

Given the very uncertain regulations that cover this area, consumers caught in such cases have very little access to recourse, and companies seem to obfuscate where possible. If the operator is approved and controlled by the British Parking Association, there is a more formal appeal mechanism, but it must be recognised that the BPA is not an independent body; it represents the parking industry. Moreover, many of these companies operate outside the BPA.

Surely the Minister agrees that there should be a requirement on companies operating in this market to be BPA registered, at least, and that there should be a clear set of independent guidelines that require companies

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to provide information on the right of recourse for those being charged. I put it to the Minister that any such guidelines or regulations should also put clear limits on the nature of letters that can be sent to consumers and put a robust burden of evidence on the company demanding the charge.

What exists currently is not fit for purpose and damages not only consumers, but those companies that seek to operate in a reputable manner. We have a private parking regime that is highly inadequate. The Government claim to want people to return to their city and town centres to support small business and the local economy. We have had the Mary Portas report, and we have had an emphasis on regeneration of our town and city centres, but what message does it send when people return from shopping trips and a month later are served with parking notices such as these? I will tell the Minister exactly what they think: “I’ll stay at home and do my shopping online.” That is only those who are fortunate enough to have that option. People will simply stay at home or go elsewhere, where there are not these impediments or hindrances, but they will not go back to the town or city that placed that burden on them through a parking operation.

I have come here today hoping at the very least to gain assurances that the Department for Transport is aware of the problems and, more specifically, will take remedial action to prevent companies that are operating in a disreputable manner from accessing the DVLA’s database. I know that in the Northern Ireland context, my party colleague who is the Minister of Environment there, Alex Attwood, has been talking to the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond), about this issue, but also about the very important need to devolve the DVLA to Northern Ireland, so that we have our own base there. Perhaps the Minister wants to take that issue away and talk to his colleague about it, but surely there should be a degree of concern that the DVLA information system—

Albert Owen (in the Chair): Order. I know that the hon. Lady has been very generous in giving way on a number of occasions, but to give the Minister the opportunity to make a full reply, could she make her concluding remarks?

Ms Ritchie: I was about to do that, Mr Owen; I have just one more sentence. The DVLA information system is being used to help process very dubious claims. I want to know what discussions the Minister has had on this matter, and what the DVLA considers when dealing with requests from private car parking companies. Private firms have no right to impose a fine or penalty, and anything that purports to be a charge but is in reality a fine or penalty should be outlawed.

Albert Owen (in the Chair): I am grateful to the hon. Lady. I call the Minister to give a thorough reply.

4.18 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mr Simon Burns): Thank you, Mr Owen. That is quite a challenge, given that my time has been reduced somewhat. May I begin by saying that it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship? I congratulate the hon. Member

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for South Down (Ms Ritchie) on securing the debate. I welcome the opportunity to discuss in detail a matter that is clearly of great concern to her and her constituents and to other hon. Members who have taken part in the debate. I will give the hon. Member for South Down the assurance, because this is a highly complex area and she has covered a considerable amount of ground, that I will get the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond), to write to her on those issues that I am unable to deal with specifically in the limited time left to me.

The management of private parking and the release of vehicle keeper details to allow car park operators to apply parking controls can, understandably, be emotive matters. Receipt of a parking ticket is never popular, and some drivers become very annoyed when they are subject to enforcement action, particularly if they disagree with the principle of vehicle keeper information being provided to private companies for such purposes. Unpopular though receipt of a parking charge may be, measures to control parking on private land are necessary to ensure that parking facilities remain accessible and provide value to all who use them. Drivers who choose to park their vehicles on private land do so in line with terms and conditions that should be clearly displayed on signage at the entrance to the car park and around it; I take the hon. Lady’s point about the size of displays and their accessibility.

Graham Jones: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Burns: I will not be accepting any interventions from the hon. Gentleman. This is the hon. Lady’s debate; I do not have much time and I want to address as many of her points as I can.

Typically, conditions relate to the need to pay a fee and display a valid ticket, and to observe the maximum permitted time for parking. There may be other conditions, such as a stipulation that parking is for patrons only. Parking control is necessary to allow landowners who invite drivers to park on their land to exercise their legal rights and gain the benefit to which they are entitled from the use of their property. Without any form of control, I am sure the hon. Lady would agree that errant drivers might park as they liked, breaching reasonable terms and conditions, without fear of any recourse arising from their misuse of the land and the detrimental effect that their actions might have on the availability of parking spaces for more considerate motorists.

It is important to bear in mind that UK law specifically provides for the release of vehicle keeper information to those who can demonstrate that they have a reasonable cause for requiring it. There is no statutory definition of “reasonable cause”, but our policy is that requests for such information should relate to the use of a vehicle, following incidents where there may be liability on the part of the driver. Where a parking infringement may have taken place, it is considered reasonable to provide the vehicle keeper’s contact details to allow the matter to be taken up with the driver responsible.

Those procedures are fully in keeping with the terms of the Data Protection Act, and the Information Commissioner’s Office is fully apprised of the release of information for such purposes. Although the law provides for the release of information, we are committed to

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striking the correct balance between protecting drivers from unfair or unscrupulous practices that some parking management companies may employ, and ensuring that land owners are able appropriately to control the use of their land and benefit fairly from it.

The management and control of parking on private land has been under considerable scrutiny over recent years, and the activities and standards of operation in the sector have changed substantially. Despite perceptions to the contrary, I assure the hon. Lady that significant control is already applied to the operation of private car parking companies. Unscrupulous operators can no longer put a sign up in a car park that sets outrageous charges and harass motorists for payment. Rogue operators might once have been able to request vehicle keeper details, but that is no longer the case. Unlike in the past, control is now exercised over the charges that can be imposed, the standards for signage and the operating standards for the conduct of staff employed by parking management operators.

Since 2005, when the previous Government were in power, the issues raised by motorists aggrieved by private parking enforcement have been carefully scrutinised. As a result of the first review, the systems for accessing vehicle keeper data were totally changed and formal safeguards were introduced. The review led to the introduction of a requirement for companies that receive keeper data via electronic links to be members of an accredited trade association. The conditions have been strengthened by making ATA membership a requirement for all car parking companies as a prerequisite for access to data. Since 2009, all private car parking companies that want to request vehicle keeper information for private car parking management have been required to be ATA members, regardless of whether they make such requests via electronic or paper channels. That requirement has delivered a regulatory regime for the parking industry where none previously existed.

An ATA must have a code of practice based on fair treatment of the motorist, which requires its members to operate to high professional standards of conduct while allowing them to take reasonable action to follow up alleged parking contraventions. We would expect any organisation that wanted to become an ATA to be able to demonstrate that it has a code of practice that ensures that only a fair parking charge is asked for and that prominent signage is present, which outlines clearly the restrictions on parking and the charges and conditions that apply. There should be no hidden charges or ambiguity for the motorist as to what is and what is not permitted on the land. The code also helps to ensure that contact with motorists is not threatening and that parking charge notices are issued promptly so that a driver can recall the circumstances surrounding the event. A reasonable amount of time must be allowed for payment to be made before any additional charges are imposed or the matter is escalated. That is the case in Northern Ireland and in the rest of the United Kingdom

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Even though strong requirements are in place to regulate the actions of parking companies, disclosure of data is also tightly controlled. Even when a company can demonstrate full compliance with the code of practice, the DVLA and its Northern Ireland equivalent, the Driver and Vehicle Agency, operate to the same standards and must be assured that there is good reason to believe that a parking contravention is likely to have occurred and that the company is acting with integrity when requesting data.

Parking management companies are visited to audit their operations and further in-depth checking of individual cases is undertaken to make sure that requests have been submitted for genuine reasons and with reliable evidence to back them up. All requests for keeper details of Northern Ireland-registered vehicles are written requests, and the information provided in support of the application is examined to confirm that the release of the information requested is fair and lawful.

Car parking operators pay fees when requesting keeper details. The fee levels are set to recover the cost of processing requests, so that those costs are not passed on to the taxpayer. The Government do not gain financially from the provision of such information.

It is inevitable that motorists who feel that they have been unfairly treated will complain. The first port of call is usually the ATA, and I have mentioned that an operator needs to demonstrate compliance with the code of practice in order to retain its membership. The ATA is there to investigate and ensure that, where appropriate, remedial action is taken. It is for the ATA to decide whether the operator needs to be placed on notice with additional scrutiny, follow-up audits and checks to monitor future actions closely. In more serious cases, a decision may be taken to terminate an operator’s membership of the ATA, without which they cannot operate. That consequence is serious for a company’s survival and it is an incentive for them to behave responsibly.

The agencies that supply data to operators also play a key role. Where sufficiently serious concerns are raised or ongoing issues are identified, agencies will consider whether continued access to vehicle keeper data is appropriate. Several parking management companies have had their ability to request vehicle keeper data suspended where shortfalls in the standards expected have been identified. In addition, trading standards departments can prosecute companies if they have breached consumer protection law. In short, if a company is not meeting the standards expected, there are serious consequences.

I trust we can all agree that we have come a long way in providing proportionate regulation for the parking sector. I do not have enough time to deal with the hon. Lady’s other points, so I will ensure that my ministerial colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon, writes to her. I conclude by urging her to forward to the responsible Minister the details of any cases experienced by her constituents and others that have involved questionable actions and bad behaviour, and where the expected standards of operation have not been met, so that those cases can be investigated.

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SMEs (Middle East and North Africa)

4.30 pm

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen.

The United Kingdom is the sixth largest economy in the world, yet we are, I believe, only the 12th largest exporter. Many colleagues will know about my passion for British exports. Having come from an exports background, I take a strong interest not only in exports but in the region we are discussing, namely the middle east and north Africa.

I have spent the past eight months undertaking a report into UK Trade & Investment—UKTI—and into how it interacts with small and medium-sized British companies in assisting them to export to the middle east and north Africa. Of great interest to me is that we have interacted with more than 220 such companies, which have come from all over the United Kingdom into the House of Commons to give evidence in a very positive and enthusiastic way, about their experiences of UKTI. Small and medium-sized enterprises—SMEs—are keen to improve the service they get from UKTI, and I pay tribute to all their work in helping me to write my report, which will be published in seven to 10 days’ time. I will give a copy of the report to the Minister, for his consideration.

I would like to put on record my thanks to Mr Nick Baird, UKTI’s chief executive, who has been extraordinarily patient with me over the past eight months. I sometimes think he must stick pins into a voodoo doll of me in his office, because of the number of issues that I constantly raise with him. Extraordinarily, I have had to take a lot of the companies that I have interviewed to meet with him directly—and he will testify to that—because they simply have not had the traction that they expect and deserve from interacting with UKTI on the ground in their various regions. I am delighted to help them by taking them to meet Mr Baird, but that should not be for a Member of Parliament to do; they should automatically get the traction and support on the ground that they so rightly deserve.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): The hon. Gentleman shows genuine zeal, and I congratulate him on his great interest in and passion for the issue. The agri-food industry in Northern Ireland is worth some £4 billion to the economy. Most of that comes from sales in Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom, and just some of it from sales overseas. Does he feel that the time has come for a UK-wide promotion of all the regions together, for the agri-food industry to market itself and get those markets in the middle east and north Africa? There is clearly the potential there to do even more for the economies back home.

Daniel Kawczynski: I very much concur with the hon. Gentleman. He will know that British agricultural products are among the best in the world. The British brand is extremely strong in the middle east and north Africa—they are crying out for dairy, beef and other products—and there should be a concerted approach, promoting the best of British of agricultural products in the region.

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Mr Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on his impressive work in this field. He mentioned agriculture and SMEs, but does he also think that important links need to be made between UKTI and the higher education sector, regarding the expertise in the sector and the work we are doing there? Wearing his hat as Parliamentary Private Secretary at the Wales Office, does he acknowledge that Welsh universities can offer a lot to UKTI in boosting our economy?

Daniel Kawczynski: I agree with my hon. Friend on that point, and I very much hope that he will engage—as I do—with the Minister in bringing directly to him, and also to Mr Nick Baird, examples of how UKTI can get involved with his constituency in Wales.

We must always be evaluating the structure of UKTI, its reporting processes and its accountability to Parliament. We must never forget that the organisation receives more than £400 million of British taxpayers’ money every year. We must also, and I will not flinch from this, be assessing, as with any other organisation, the calibre of its staff, in the United Kingdom and overseas. We must consider whether UKTI should remain in its current form, become a stand-alone entity along the lines of the Technology Strategy Board, or be brought, rather than being between the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, into a new external relations department of the Foreign Office, UKTI and the Department for International Development, focusing on our foreign relations interactions.

What there must be, however, is greater scrutiny of UKTI in the House of Commons. Since the general election, this is only the third debate—two of them initiated by me—that Parliament has had on UKTI and British exports, and I certainly will not be able to say everything I wish to say in 15 minutes. I am pleased that there is a Labour Member—the right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith)—here today. In the previous debate there were none, so I welcome the fact that a Labour MP is taking an interest. I do not know what mechanism could be used for that greater scrutiny. I do not know if an independent Select Committee just evaluating UKTI would be feasible, but we must always challenge UKTI and its Ministers and raise concerns when things do not go right.

I shall now turn to the subject of the debate—north Africa. I feel passionately about French-speaking north Africa because of its proximity to the United Kingdom and its importance strategically, for security reasons, and from an economic perspective. When I went to Mauritania two years ago, I was the first British MP to do so since 1960, when the current Father of the House, my right hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell), went there for its independence day celebrations. Regrettably, most MPs I talk to do not even know where Mauritania is, yet it is an important and rapidly growing country. It is close to Morocco, and is part of the Arab League and of north Africa. There are huge opportunities in its oil and gas sector, as well as in mining, education and construction, yet on the UKTI website no opportunities whatever are listed for the country.

I know that we have representation in Mauritania. Following my report about the country, the Foreign Secretary visited Mauritania, and we have now established

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a diplomatic presence on the ground in Nouakchott. As UKTI has a website for SMEs to look at and interact with, to find out what opportunities there are in a country, it is rather daunting to look up Mauritania and find nothing there. We must ensure that if we have a website it is properly populated.

Last week I took Nick Baird to have lunch with the Moroccan ambassador, Princess Lalla Joumala, and we talked about the importance of partnering with and working constructively with Morocco in joint venture operations. Morocco has tremendous relations from a banking, cultural and linguistic perspective with the other countries in the region—not just in north Africa—including Senegal, Mali and Niger. The Moroccans are keen to engage with us, so I was pleased that Mr Baird came with me to that lunch. I hope that there will be an increased focus on the Moroccans and on partnering with them to work constructively on penetrating the French-speaking north African market.

Luckily I speak French, because I studied it at university, but we are too guilty in this country of going only to places where English is spoken. If the first national language of a country is not English, we tend to gravitate away from it, and we cannot afford to do that any longer. All of the north African French-speaking countries are very keen to interact with the United Kingdom.

Mr Andrew Smith (Oxford East) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate and on his work on the report, which I look forward to reading when it is produced. I share his enthusiasm for the effort that must go into backing up and making a success of exports by our SMEs. Does he agree that everything he says about French should also apply to Arabic, a language to which more attention needs to be given in our country?

Daniel Kawczynski: I absolutely agree, and I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. A recent media report expressed concern at the number of British diplomats operating in Arab countries who do not speak fluent Arabic. If we are to send such people overseas, they must speak either fluent Arabic or fluent French.

I have been to Tunisia, where 60 British companies operate compared with 1,700 French ones, which I emphasise because it is a staggering difference. Interestingly, by far the biggest investor there is British Gas. I want to ask the Minister what we are doing in conjunction with British Gas to ensure that its network of contacts, particularly in the petrochemical industry, is harnessed so that more of our companies are encouraged to operate in Tunisia.

Pauline Latham (Mid Derbyshire) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate. It is important because if we are to get out of this recession well, we have to look to other markets, and UKTI is absolutely fundamental to that. I recently received a delegation from French-speaking Mali, which is desperately keen for our mining engineers and electricity people to go there to provide power and infrastructure in a country that has been in turmoil, but is now doing much better. We need to encourage such people to come and give presentations, and UKTI could play a much bigger role than it does currently.

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Daniel Kawczynski: I completely agree. We have seen what happens in countries such as Mali. When we are not present, not trading with them and not on the ground, a vacuum is left for others to fill, and the costs involved in sorting out the mess are greatly increased.

I met the President of Niger when he came to the Foreign Office. He informed me that bilateral trade between Niger and the United Kingdom was £4 million per annum—only £4 million with an incredibly important strategic country that has a rapidly growing population.

On Libya, I met Deloitte yesterday and was informed that it is setting up offices in Tripoli. I am very pleased about that, and I want to pay tribute to Deloitte for taking that plunge. I am concerned that media coverage of instability in Benghazi is preventing more British SMEs from exporting to Libya. I have a small company in Shrewsbury that has successfully managed to win contracts to provide metal piping to various projects in Libya. I urge the Minister to ensure that UKTI does more to encourage British companies to go to Libya, which is a hugely important market for us. We have spent nearly £1 billion helping the Libyans to throw off the shackles of dictatorship, and we must not fall behind our German, Italian and French counterparts, who are banging the drum for their companies in that country.

I am frustrated that UKTI does not engage more with parliamentarians. I have been the chairman of the all-party group on Libya for the past eight years. I have led many delegations to Libya, and I have an extensive network of contacts throughout the country. Before the revolution, I even wrote a biography of Colonel Gaddafi. Yet I have not had a single exchange with UKTI about anything to do with that country or the delegations I go on. It is almost as though it is impervious to, ignorant of or has no interest in what parliamentarians are doing.

Having prime ministerial trade envoys is a very good step that I want to be expanded. There are also catalysts—they are hired by UKTI as such—who have expert knowledge of a country. I want to mention one to the Minister: Mr Ali Mosawi, who came to see me, has been selected as an Iraqi catalyst. He has expert knowledge of the country, being from one of the best-known Iraqi families and having a network of offices throughout the country. He is an official UKTI catalyst, but he came to see me because he is getting very little traction with UKTI, which is not using his services at all. He has even offered UKTI free use of his extensive network of offices throughout Iraq, but nobody has responded to his very generous offer. I want the Minister to investigate that and I want his officials to ensure that Mr Mosawi is contacted.

On inward investment to the United Kingdom, I want to know—I will ask a series of parliamentary questions to find out—where UKTI staff are based and what areas they cover. I think that the UK is still No. 1 for inward investment in the European Union, although Germany is rapidly catching us up. It seems to me that the vast bulk of inward investment from the middle east, particularly Qatar, comes into London.

With the Shropshire chamber of commerce, I recently met UKTI staff in Shrewsbury. I asked them who was responsible for ensuring inward investment into Shropshire, and I was told that there is nobody. We have huge opportunities in Shropshire, with both the council

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and the chamber of commerce for Shrewsbury and Shropshire. It is vital that inward investment to the United Kingdom is spread more evenly and that professional staff in UKTI cover more rural constituencies. For the record, I will not rest from badgering UKTI until at least one of its members of staff is responsible for and dedicated to working with my local companies and authorities to attract inward investment into Shropshire.

The Prime Minister has set a target of £1 trillion of exports by 2020, which is a hugely important issue. We spend so much time in this House debating between Labour, Liberal Democrats and ourselves and having huge arguments about how to cut up the cake. I respect that, but we must come together as three political parties—with those from Ulster—to talk about and work collectively on how to increase exports. That should not be a party political issue; we should come together and work together to ensure that SMEs, which are the lifeblood of our country, are given every assistance to export.

The Prime Minister’s target of £1 trillion will not be met unless we radically change the way exports are carried out. I met Lord Green over breakfast at 8 o’clock this morning, with other parliamentarians, and he told me that the £1 trillion target would be rather challenging. He seemed to give the impression that it would be good to get to 80% of it, but I think that we should aim to exceed that target. I look forward to hearing from the Minister.

4.47 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Michael Fallon): On behalf of us all, I welcome you to the Chair, Mr Owen. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) for giving me the opportunity to explain in more detail the breadth and depth of support provided by UK Trade & Investment for UK SMEs in the middle east and north Africa. Let me reassure him that there is a very good story to tell. This is a large and growing marketplace, in which there are tremendous opportunities. We export more to the United Arab Emirates than we do to India, more to Saudi Arabia than to Brazil and more to Qatar than to Mexico. Equally, there are challenges, particularly in markets such as those in Iraq and Libya that he mentioned, where the business environment is clearly more challenging.

My hon. Friend will be familiar with some of the services that UKTI provides. A typical example is support for trade missions, of which 20, involving 150 SMEs, have visited Saudi Arabia alone since mid-2012. Indeed, independent research undertaken on UKTI’s behalf demonstrates that, for the year to September 2012, the organisation delivered 4,500 services to businesses across the region. Some 60% of businesses surveyed reported that those services generated significant business benefit, including an average additional profit of £84,000.

In addition to supporting companies in-market, UKTI brings its specialists from the region back to the UK to speak directly to SME exporters. For example, earlier this month, in partnership with private sector sponsors and other partners, UKTI organised a UK tour for specialists from the UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. My hon. Friend will be interested to know that they met more than 200 companies in four cities—Glasgow,

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Manchester, Bristol and London. Those events were organised in association with UKTI’s extensive domestic regional network, which is dedicated to supporting exporters across our country. I do want to reassure my hon. Friend, because he asked this specific question, that there are UKTI staff in every region, if not in every council area.

The work of UKTI officials to support SMEs is increasingly enhanced by the activity of the Prime Minister’s trade envoys and our British business ambassadors. As senior business leaders, they are well known internationally, and they consistently generate significant interest in overseas markets. For example, one of our business ambassadors, Malcolm Brinded, recently led a trade mission to Jordan, significantly helping the companies concerned to position themselves to secure a share of Jordanian business.

I should also highlight that SMEs in the region will benefit from another UKTI initiative—its high value opportunity campaigns. Those campaigns cover 100 of the world’s largest commercial projects, 19 of which are in the middle east and north Africa. Each will open up for our SMEs huge supply chain opportunities in projects as diverse as Qatar’s World cup stadium infrastructure, Dubai’s airport expansion and huge oil and gas projects in Iraq and Saudi Arabia. We want success in those major overseas projects to mirror the positive benefits of investment in our national infrastructure by Gulf sovereign wealth funds. Indeed, we are tendering for the provision of private sector support in the Gulf to help to grow that opportunity.

Looking forward, my hon. Friend will want to know that my colleague, Lord Green, and UKTI’s chief executive officer, Nick Baird, intend to build on the excellent services already provided to make the organisation more attuned to what its competitors offer, in line with their desire to bring more private sector expertise to bear in support of exporters. One of the key differences between us and our major competitors, especially Germany, is the range of business-to-business services available in overseas markets from organisations such as chambers of commerce. That is a difference that we need to address. Lord Green and Nick Baird also want to see a much stronger connection between domestic and overseas business networks. A strong case has been made, and British chambers and other British business groups offer a potential means to extend such services to UK SMEs. However, in most cases, that will require a substantial upgrading of those business groups’ own capacity to offer the requisite level of service, which is why the Prime Minister announced last year a transformational change to the support that business can offer to business.

UKTI has now launched a pilot campaign in 20 markets that will radically enhance the support to UK SMEs over the next three to five years. The pilot focuses on high growth and emerging markets and includes Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Our aim is that by 2017 the support available to UK SMEs from Government and business groups will have significantly increased in range, quantity, impact and quality in at least the first 20 markets. It is then planned to roll out the programme to include all markets and connect our overseas business-to-business support to UK business networks, so that we have one global British business network that is operating on a par with our competitors.

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At home, UKTI’s broader official business offering needs to adapt to the actual needs of business rather than to what we think they need. UK Export Finance understands that and continues to provide invaluable support to UK companies, many of which are SMEs, during turbulent times in the region. It was one of the first export credit agencies to resume cover for Libya, and even at the height of the Arab spring uprisings, UK Export Finance took a long-term view of the risks involved and remained on cover for the majority of countries.

I hope that my words demonstrate to my hon. Friend that UKTI intends to continue to build on its success in supporting SMEs in the middle east and north Africa, while at the same time developing new programmes of assistance. We want, for example, to be able to help more companies such as Apton Partitioning Limited of the west midlands, which designs, manufactures and distributes office partitioning systems for commercial offices.

The Apton story shows how a British business, dependent on the UK construction industry, lost 50% of its business in 2008, but emerged, with the help of UKTI, to be an international business operating in countries with major construction growth across the world. It is now exporting to Qatar, the UAE, Bahrain, Oman, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

My hon. Friend raised a number of specific points, which I will touch on if I may and write to him if I miss. He announced the publication of his report. We all look forward to reading that when it appears in the next few weeks. He asked about scrutiny of UKTI. I think today has been about scrutiny, but I take his point that there have not been sufficient debates on that important issue. It is of course open to the Select Committees to take up the work of UKTI.

My hon. Friend asked me specifically about Libya. We were one of the first to open an office again in Libya. Some 250 British firms have been to Libya since

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the end of the conflict, but I wholly accept that we need to do more than that. He mentioned Mr Mosawi in relation to Iraq, and I will certainly follow that up and reply to it. I repeat the reassurance that there are UKTI staff in every region of our country.

I hope that my hon. Friend will be reassured that UKTI takes seriously any scrutiny and comments on its activities. I hope he has had engagement with senior UKTI staff in response to any concerns that he has had. The fact that some companies occasionally feel that they are not getting the service they expect is, in my experience, the exception rather than the rule. Across the globe, countries that have used UKTI sing its praises. There may of course be exceptions to that, and if there are we need to learn why that is and to build on it. Nick Baird has made improving all levels of customer satisfaction one of the top priorities for him and his top management team. They are challenging the organisation and are seeing a response. Current indications are that, over the last calendar year, UKTI hit its target of 32,000 businesses assisted, up from just 25,000 the previous year. This year, UKTI aims to help 40,000 companies. Its target for 2015 is 50,000 businesses.

I hope that hon. Members will be reassured to hear that, of the tens of thousands of businesses that were helped and supported by UKTI in the year to September 2012, 90% of which were SMEs, more than 75% were either satisfied or very satisfied, and those companies say that UKTI has helped them generate additional sales of £49 billion. I hope that my hon. Friend and others will agree that that is an impressive performance. It is not a performance that we are complacent about, but one to which we should none the less pay tribute.

Question put and agreed to.

4.58 pm

Sitting adjourned.