The population of the Commonwealth far outweighs that of the EU and one Commonwealth nation alone, India, has a bigger population than the countries of the EU put together. Economic development in Commonwealth countries—not only the fantastic

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growth in India, but the substantial growth in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa and in Asia—has shown that the Commonwealth is, as my hon. Friend said, the place of the future. That is why countries have been queuing up to join. I am talking about countries that did not have a particular historical connection with the United Kingdom, such as Rwanda and Mozambique, which are already part of it, and Cameroon. Part of that country was under British administration, part under German, and at one time, after the first world war, part was under French administration. Burundi is also seeking to join the Commonwealth, and I believe that other countries have expressed interest.

It is therefore vital that we maintain, and indeed enhance, the links with Commonwealth countries. That is not only about history; it is about business opportunities. For instance, in Tanzania—I refer Members to my business interests in Tanzania, which are in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests—the United Kingdom is the single biggest investor and trading partner. These days, we tend to think that China has taken over everywhere in Africa, but that is not the case at all. In many countries, the United Kingdom is still a major trading partner and investor, and it is, indeed, growing in importance in those countries.

On the issue of visitor visas, a few months ago, a Tanzanian lady, Rhodi Samwell, was invited to the United Kingdom on an extremely important mission. She works for the Anglican diocese of Mara on female genital mutilation, and she is building a safe house in the area for women and girls who do not wish to be subjected to that practice. The House has debated this issue many times in the past year, and I know the Minister is keenly concerned about it.

At my invitation, Rhodi Samwell was coming to this country, and indeed to the House, to talk to the all-party group on Tanzania about her work, but she could not get a visa. Her application, which was processed in Pretoria, was refused. Only after a large number of Members of the House and the other place wrote to those involved and pressed her case was she finally able to come here on a visa.

This lady was in full-time, secure employment with the Anglican diocese of Mara. She had the backing of the Tanzania Development Trust, the Britain-Tanzania Society and many other reputable organisations, which bore witness to the fact that she would be supported while she was here and that she was planning to return. Indeed, the very reason she was coming here was to help to enable her to return home to fulfil her dream of setting up a safe house for women and girls. However, the United Kingdom was unable to issue her with a visa without pressure from Members of Parliament and without volunteers across the country putting in a great deal of time and effort. That does the United Kingdom’s reputation no good.

I am glad to say that, ultimately, Rhodi Samwell was able to come here, and she gave an excellent talk in the House of Commons, alongside my right hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone), who was then an International Development Minister. We were delighted to see her. She gave talks all across the country. As a result of her visit, the remaining money needed to build the safe house was collected—

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indeed, school children in my constituency also contributed. The safe house is now in operation, and more than 100 girls and women have found help there.

That is just one instance, but I have heard of many others from right hon. and hon. Members in both Houses. People are doing fantastic work for non-governmental organisations or charities, and we want to hear from them first hand. They are invited here, and they will be fully provided for, but the only obstacle is a visa. Most of the time, these are people from Commonwealth countries.

The second issue I want to bring up is business visas. It is vital that visas are made available quickly and easily for those with whom we wish to do business. Before coming to this place, I travelled to Tanzania and other countries fairly frequently on business. As a British citizen, I could send my passport, together with the necessary documents, to the Tanzanian high commission in London, and sometimes I would receive my business visa back within three days. However, Tanzanian business people, who are often running businesses that are far bigger and of far more significance to the United Kingdom economy than that which I ran, sometimes find it incredibly difficult to get visas. That cannot help our trade with Tanzania or, indeed, with other countries.

Finally, there is the issue of family. The Commonwealth of nations is a family of nations, but it also contains family members of people in pretty much every constituency in the House. Surely it is important that we facilitate family visits that are done in the proper way—where it is clearly shown that these are not visits to seek long-term admission to the country, but family visits to see nephews, nieces, grandparents or grandchildren. That is all about humanity.

In those three areas—visits from charities and non-governmental organisations, visits for businesses and visits for family—it is surely possible to organise things in such a way that the cost is reasonable and that applications are dealt with in a matter of days or weeks, rather than the months we sometimes hear about.

I want to give a final example from my own experience to show what things can be like. My son was born in Nairobi about 25 years ago this month. We took the birth certificate and one or two other documents to the British high commission there, and we were issued with a British passport pretty much over the counter. A constituent, whose grandchild was born in Kenya last year, went through the same process, albeit with one or two complications. However, those complications should not have resulted in it taking several months for that child to be issued with a passport. Surely, things should have gone forwards after 25 years, not backwards, particularly with the access we now have to technology, but it seems that things were a lot easier 25 years ago.

3.6 pm

Mr David Hanson (Delyn) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I thank the hon. Members for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) and for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) for their contributions on this important subject, which is worthy of discussion with the Minister today.

The subject of the debate is the Commonwealth and visas, and it is important that we begin, as the hon. Member for Romford did, by recognising the crucial

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importance of the Commonwealth to the history of the United Kingdom and our close ties with countries across the Commonwealth.

Yesterday was Australia day. Today, we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz; the second world war saw members of armed forces from across the Commonwealth join soldiers from the United Kingdom in the fight against fascism. Last year, we celebrated the start of the first world war. My grandfather, who was from the Lancashire area, fought his first battle in March 1915—almost 100 years ago—alongside thousands of Indian troops at Neuve Chapelle.

We have a long history with the Commonwealth, which we need to celebrate and recognise. As a member of the executive of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association for five years now, I know how important that link is and how valued our parliamentary democracy is by the 53 nations of the Commonwealth across the world.

As the hon. Member for Romford said, what is important is not just historical ties, parliamentary democracy or the history of empire translated into a modern partnership. The Commonwealth is also a crucial economic driver, which we need to look outwards to. I have been to Australia on holiday, and I have been to New Zealand with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. What struck me on both occasions was that those countries are beginning to look towards the east, because that is where their market is. We need to look at how we can cement and develop our ties in a strong, effective way.

With a combined population of 2.3 billion people, the Commonwealth is a significant market, and there are significant transferable skills that we may want to work with and develop. As the hon. Gentleman also said, there is also the potential for export, tourism, business, family and education links, and we should look at how we can facilitate and build on those, while maintaining the integrity and strength of our borders. The hon. Member for Romford took the route I expected—of querying why we are cosying up to Europe while partly shutting the door on our historical Commonwealth links. My view of the European Union is slightly different from his. He can speak for himself, but I recognise that we are still part of a family of nations in Europe, and have historical ties to a range of those. Portugal is our oldest ally, for example, never mind the other countries that we have worked with.

I mentioned that, 100 years ago next month, my grandfather was fighting in the trenches of France with Indian soldiers, against Germans. He would be happy today that we are part of a family of nations in Europe as well as the Commonwealth. Relatives of mine who lost their relatives in the second world war, when the Commonwealth fought side by side with us, would also welcome our present economic partnership with Europe, in addition to the fact that we look out to the wider world. The hon. Member for Romford raised conflicts in talking about tightening our relations with Europe and relaxing them with the Commonwealth, but I do not share his view. I think there is potential in both areas.

Andrew Rosindell: The right hon. Gentleman made the point that we are in an economic partnership with the European Union, but we are not. We are in a

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political union, and that is different from a simple economic partnership. If we were in an economic partnership alone, we could do other things with the rest of the world, including the Commonwealth. The fact that we are in a political union and not the economic partnership that was the original intention—or certainly the British people’s original intention—prevents us from doing more with the Commonwealth. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that point?

Mr Hanson: We have a large trading partnership with Europe and political union through the European Parliament and other agencies in Europe, and I do not have a problem with that. We will disagree on this issue.

We also have the potential for economic growth in Europe. The biggest employer in my constituency is a company that makes the planes that will probably take the hon. Member for Romford to Australia: Airbus. They are made by Britain, France, Germany and Spain, and free movement means that French people work in north Wales, and north Walians work in France, making the biggest plane in the world and our biggest export. That is a positive. The second and third biggest employers in my constituency are the car manufacturers Toyota and Vauxhall, and they are probably in that area for access to the European market.

There are big issues to debate, but perhaps not today, because I want to focus on how to encourage more aspiration and partnership in the Commonwealth without throwing out a valuable partnership in Europe. I am interested in where the hon. Member for Romford thinks the 1.6 million Britons currently living in France, Germany, Spain and Italy would go if we suddenly closed our borders to people from those countries. I would welcome his thoughts on that—another day, perhaps.

In preparation for the debate I looked at the Commonwealth Exchange report, which is valuable for this Government and future Governments as a way of generating discussion and positive suggestions about how to attain the hon. Gentleman’s objectives. It suggests the restoration of the youth mobility visa, and considers the idea of Commonwealth concessions for tourist and business visas. We have heard the case for “Boris bilaterals”; I would not necessarily call them that, but there is potential to examine the idea in detail. The idea of a Commonwealth component to exceptional talent visas is worth considering; another important contribution would be to think about how to make it easier for business people throughout the Commonwealth to get business visas to come to this country.

The hon. Gentleman did not focus much on post-study work visas, but they are also important. Representations have been made to the Opposition about them from people who want to come to the United Kingdom to study and then to work here for a short period afterwards—particularly those who have been sponsored. All those things are worth exploring and reviewing.

As the potential Minister in 12 weeks’ time, I am particularly drawn to the idea of the youth mobility visa. It could be very positive. If young people between the ages of 18 and 30 come to the United Kingdom and contribute to the economy and to life here, they should, after leaving to become chief executives of companies throughout the world, always remember the importance of the UK in their development. That is very important.

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It is worth looking at the idea of annually reviewing the case for returning more Commonwealth nations to the approved youth mobility list, and expanding it. We also need to think about how, with the immigration department, to improve our use of technology to achieve greater transparency, so that the public can be better informed on the matters in question.

The Commonwealth Exchange report makes it clear that visitors from Nigeria, South Africa and India are more significant contributors to the UK economy than Chinese tourists, because of relatives, business and historical ties. We make efforts to attract visitors from China to the UK, and we should make significant efforts to make the visa application process simple for people from the historic Commonwealth countries.

I challenge the assertion that we could drop the visa price. I do not say it cannot be done, but I should be interested in a proper review of the costings by the hon. Member for Romford or the Home Office. We need to know whether that uncosted proposal would generate a sufficient increase in visitors to offset the loss of income. Costings are important, and the hon. Gentleman would expect no less of me if I were to make such a proposal.

The hon. Member for Stafford made a cogent point about making it clear that it is easy to get business visas. It is important that people who want to invest here, or in whose countries we invest, and who do business with us, should be able to get their visas approved speedily. It is worth thinking about extending the idea of a faster track for visas for regular visitors to the UK. Business demands better, and we should not turn the best and brightest away. We need to review the matter, as part of a range of measures that we have been considering.

I still think that the central problem faced by the hon. Member for Romford is the Prime Minister’s net migration target. The Prime Minister said at the last general election that he would get migration down to the tens of thousands; to try to achieve that—which he has failed to do—he has had to consider making it more difficult for people from outside the EU to come to the United Kingdom. The target has been missed. The Government have said it will not be met. We should consider calibrating it.

For example, under a future Labour Government I would not want students to be part of the net migration target. The hon. Gentleman made the strong point that students who come here, who have historically included those from Australia, New Zealand, India, Pakistan, African countries and the wide range of Commonwealth countries, do so because we have some of the best universities in the world, and because they feel a historic affinity to the United Kingdom and want to be educated and to work here. The net migration target has caused great difficulties in that market, particularly in India and Pakistan but also elsewhere in the Commonwealth.

With some general tweaks in policy, even without the measures that the hon. Gentleman has proposed, we could and should make it easier for people to come to the United Kingdom to study and to learn. We need a general overhaul of a policy that is damaging the United Kingdom’s £18 billion-a-year university industry. That is particularly important because people who come to study in the United Kingdom do not simply learn about and enjoy our country and receive the best education;

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they will, at some point in their lives, be senior doctors, senior business people and world leaders who will do business with this country.

I happened to see in the Evening Standard that 200 Australian paramedics landed in London yesterday, having been recruited from Sydney, Adelaide, Melbourne and Brisbane for the London Ambulance Service. That shows that, for reasons that are not only historical but practical, we must look outwards to the rest of the world and to the Commonwealth. I support measures to manage migration in the interests of the United Kingdom, and if that means Australian medics, Indian students or Tanzanian business people, that has to be good. The positive contribution that such people make is sometimes lost in the ever-present debate about immigration issues.

Andrew Rosindell: I do not think that anybody in this room would disagree with what the shadow Minister is saying. The crux of the matter is that Australians have to jump through lots of hoops to be allowed into the country, but those from EU countries do not jump through any hoops; they can just walk in. Surely he can see the unfairness in how the system has developed.

We have discarded opportunities with countries with which we have the most in common and the closest connections historically. Successive Governments have made it harder and harder for citizens of the Commonwealth, and particularly those of the realms, to come into this country. At the same time, anyone from any country that happens to join the EU can just walk in unrestricted. Surely he can see that that is an unfair situation and that we need to redress that balance.

Mr Hanson: That is one of the conundrums of membership of the European Union. It goes with the club. However, there are probably as many Australians in the United Kingdom now as there are Greeks. We are not talking about two sides of a coin; we can look outwards to the world while recognising our responsibilities in the European Union. That is a wider debate, and I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman has focused us on a narrower issue.

I want to give the Minister the opportunity to contribute to the debate, so I will draw my remarks to a close. We must look seriously at possible solutions. I am attracted to some, and I am not attracted to others. In particular, I am not attracted to separate airport queues, as the hon. Member for Romford has proposed. The key message that I take from the debate—in the spirit of friendship, I hope that it is one that I can share with the hon. Gentleman—is that we should look at how to make it easier for businesses, students and tourists to come to the United Kingdom as part of managed migration. We need to know not only when they come, but when they go. We need to know that they are coming here for the reasons that they have given, and we need to encourage historic ties to ensure that we grow our economy for tourists, businesses and students.

I still think it is important—here the hon. Gentleman and I may part company—that we are part of the European Union and part of free movement within the European Union. Although we can apply certain restrictions on benefits such as child benefit and working tax credits, we still have free movement, which allows Britons to work and live in France and Germany, and allows Poles,

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Italians and others to work in Britain and elsewhere. That is part of the deal, but we should not close our eyes to the wider world.

3.24 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Karen Bradley): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) on securing a debate on this important matter, not least because it gives me a welcome opportunity to provide an update on the progress we have made.

The right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) spoke about the links that we have with the Commonwealth, particularly through world war one. On Holocaust memorial day, we should remember the links we need to have across the world. If we understand each other’s way of life, we will see that we all want the same things and we will maintain peace. The Commonwealth and the EU both have an important role to play in that respect. I hate to do this to the right hon. Gentleman, whom I respect enormously, but I am sure that he meant to say “commemorate” rather than “celebrate” world war one. I am sure that the record will be corrected accordingly, because I know that he would not have wished to give a false impression.

I will endeavour to address all the questions that my hon. Friend the Member for Romford has raised. In answer to his first question, which was a request for a meeting, I am happy to agree and I hope that it can be organised shortly.

There is much to be gained from promoting the trade, educational and strategic capabilities of the Commonwealth, and we are doing a lot of work on that. My hon. Friend the Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma) talked about the work that the Government have done to forge links with Commonwealth countries, particularly, in his case, India. I pay tribute to him for his excellent work in, for example, leading trade delegations to ensure that we maximise those opportunities. Businesses in all our constituencies benefit from trade with Europe and with Commonwealth partners. That is incredibly important and should not be forgotten.

I believe that our offer to students to stay in the UK after their studies is an excellent example of the work that we are doing. I will talk later about some of the things we do with students to ensure that Commonwealth students benefit. The building of links with the Commonwealth should never be to the detriment of the security of our borders. As the Minister with responsibility for modern slavery, I am particularly concerned about that. I will talk about how the Commonwealth can assist us in the important work of tackling modern slavery and human trafficking. I know that you have spent many years working on that area, Mr Bone, and I bow to your considerable expertise.

The UK is committed to the Commonwealth and to our relationships with all member states. The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr Swire), who has responsibility for the Commonwealth, has championed the UK’s relationship with the organisation, which we value greatly as a symbol of democratic values and prosperity.

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The Commonwealth is unique in having a young, vibrant population of more than 2 billion people, nearly half of whom, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) pointed out, are in India. It spans every inhabited continent. It is far more than simply a grouping of Governments, and we see potential in its future. That is why we continue to invest so much in the Commonwealth and we want to welcome people from right across it to the UK. There is much that we can do together to further the development of our countries, whether in education, health or trade, and we should take advantage of our shared values to enable us to do so. It is difficult to think of another organisation that brings together the representatives of 53 diverse sovereign states from each and every continent, and that gives each one, large or small, an equal voice in global affairs.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the attractiveness of membership of the Commonwealth. He is absolutely right, and it is incumbent on us all to send out the clear message that membership is a wonderful privilege and that we want to encourage countries to come forward and join with that diverse and exciting group of sovereign states.

Business and trade are areas in which the Commonwealth has great potential. Intra-Commonwealth trade in goods is already worth some £300 billion, built on our inherent advantages of a common language, shared legal principles and a commitment to inherent values and rights. Those advantages provide solid foundations for doing business, and they create a platform for trade, investment, development and, in turn, prosperity. That leads to what we call the Commonwealth effect, which studies suggest is worth between 20% and 50% in trade advantage.

The United Kingdom has a growing economy and a proud history of tolerance and acceptance of those who genuinely need our protection. It is, therefore, no surprise that we are an attractive destination. With that, however, we face particular challenges on all forms of immigration. My hon. Friend the Member for Romford introduced the debate by saying that immigration is a sensitive issue. He is right, but, despite those challenges, we are making significant progress on ensuring that our immigration system works in the national interest. He talked about a broken immigration system, but I do not believe that we have a broken immigration system today. We inherited a broken system of open-door immigration, and the right hon. Member for Delyn was a member of a Government who had an open immigration policy, but this Government have taken significant steps—I will address some of the steps we have taken—to address the important issues of EU and non-EU immigration.

Andrew Rosindell: To clarify, I spoke about a broken immigration system, but I commend what the Government are doing to change the shambles that we inherited five years ago. The system is broken in the sense that we have no power to control immigration from the EU. Whoever is in power after the election, no one can decide who comes in from the EU because we have given away that power. In that sense, the system is broken. We have failed to reduce immigration overall, which we promised to do, because we cannot control immigration from Europe; we can control only immigration from outside Europe. That is why I said the system is broken.

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Karen Bradley: I understand my hon. Friend’s point, and he will forgive me if I indicated that I understood it differently. The Government have taken significant steps to address that matter, and if we form the next Government, as I fully intend—I apologise to the right hon. Member for Delyn, but I fully intend to be sitting in this seat in 12 weeks’ time—the excellent measures that the Prime Minister set out in his speech close to my constituency in Staffordshire just before Christmas will enable us to take even further steps to ensure that free movement within the EU comes with responsibilities and that we do not have free movement of criminals, which I particularly care about, or for welfare benefits. There is agreement on both sides of the House that access to welfare payments for non-UK nationals should not come without the responsibility of having contributed to the system.

The immigration system plays a strong part in supporting growth and meeting the needs of UK businesses. Migrant workers can fill skills gaps in our labour market and help to boost our economy. However, as the economic recovery continues, we are clear that employers should look first to recruit people who are already in the UK and are already UK nationals.

The Government are aware of the Commonwealth Exchange report “How to Solve a Problem like a Visa”—I commend the Commonwealth Exchange for its engaging title—and we are working with other Commonwealth countries to consider options to improve migration opportunities within the Commonwealth. Although the UK is happy to work with and consider ideas proposed by Commonwealth partners, the UK maintains that immigration and visa controls are a matter for the UK Government. It is important to remind the House—I know this has been mentioned already—that citizens of the majority of Commonwealth countries, 31 out of 53, do not require a visit visa to come to the UK.

My hon. Friend the Member for Romford made the point that visas are an effective tool for the UK in reducing illegal immigration, tackling organised crime and protecting national security. The visit visa regime is an important tool in reducing the national security threat to the UK, allowing us to intervene in a number of ways before someone arrives in the country. We can prevent someone from coming to the UK by refusing a visa or, where appropriate, we can allow travel while setting up an operational response when someone in whom we are interested arrives in the UK. The information provided in the application process also allows us to identify links about which we would not otherwise have known. The backflow of data can be vital to new investigations, and the security and intelligence agencies require a biometric visa regime for all visa nationals.

Visas have a role to play in reducing crime. We can use the application to check whether someone is known to international partners, and we can check a range of databases to see whether someone has a criminal background here in the UK.

Finally, the process helps to tackle illegal immigration. The visa process enables us to check whether the applicant has a genuine reason for coming to the UK and enough money to support themselves. The use of biometrics enables us to lock an individual securely to their identity so that we know who we are dealing with.

As the Minister with responsibility for serious and organised crime, I know it is incredibly important that we keep in mind the security of British nationals with

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regard to foreign offenders. Commonwealth countries feature in the top 10 nationalities of foreign national offenders and, sadly, the top two nationalities are Commonwealth countries: Jamaica and Nigeria. We are working closely with those countries to ensure that we have upstream work to deal with foreign national offending so that it does not hit our streets, but I want to ensure that people in Romford, Stafford, Staffordshire Moorlands, Delyn, Tamworth and Wellingborough can walk the streets knowing that foreign national offenders are not coming to the UK without our knowledge. We should all recognise that that is incredibly important.

Economic factors are a big part of the decision on whether to impose a visa on a country, as they can be a big pull factor on illegal migration. Nevertheless, because of the traditional ties that we have with the Commonwealth, the UK is arguably more generous in that regard. Eighteen of the 31 Commonwealth countries with visa-free access to the UK, which is more than half, are classed as developing nations by the World Bank, which shows that there is occasionally a different approach to Commonwealth countries. The EU economies, in contrast, are more on the same economic level as the UK, with the majority being in the world’s 50 richest countries based on gross national income per capita per year. Economic criteria are one area of assessment for countries that want EU membership under the accession criteria.

I always think of immigration as being like the movement of air: it moves from high pressure to low. Wind is created when high pressure moves to fill a low-pressure gap. If we consider that high pressure for immigration is poverty, lack of opportunity and lack of education and that countries such as the UK represent low-pressure areas where there are opportunities, jobs and the potential to achieve wealth, it is understandable why people want to move from one to the other. Our job is to ensure that, when we look at the movement of people, we do not get to the point where, continuing the analogy, the low pressure in the UK becomes the high pressure that means we are overburdened—that is a strange analogy, but I hope it makes sense. I like to perceive immigration as being like the movement of air around the world.

Even within the EU, as the Prime Minister has made clear, disparities in income per head, as well as disparities in labour markets and work opportunities, create incentives for migration—let us remember that in the past four and a half years the UK has created more jobs than the rest of the EU put together. That is why the Government have started a debate within Europe on future accessions, such as linking freedom of movement to relative wealth and, of course, limiting the access of EU nationals to welfare and other services.

Visa regimes for some Commonwealth countries are an effective tool for the UK in reducing illegal immigration, tackling organised crime and protecting national security. The visa process enables us to check whether an applicant has a genuine reason for coming to the UK and enough money to support themselves. We take our duty to protect the public extremely seriously and, where foreign national offenders commit serious crimes in the UK, it is right that they are brought to justice and removed from the UK at the earliest opportunity. Since April 2010, we have removed more than 22,000 foreign national offenders. Where a Commonwealth national commits an offence in the UK, we will pursue deportation, unless they were resident in the UK before the

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commencement of the Immigration Act 1971. Visa regimes are an important part of the UK’s immigration system, which is fair to British citizens and legitimate migrants, and tough on those who flout the rules.

The UK has a flexible policy for visitors that enables people to come for a range of purposes. Work is under way to streamline the policy further and consolidate the routes that will make the system even more accessible and provide greater flexibility. I acknowledge, however, that obtaining a visit visa for the UK is an inconvenience for some, which is why the UK has invested heavily in ensuring that applying for a UK visa is as easy as possible.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford spoke about a specific visa case, although I cannot comment on the individual circumstances of that case. It is important that Members of Parliament always raise such cases because, no matter how good the system, there will always be the odd occasion when something does not quite work as it should. I am glad that the lady in question was able to visit the UK, and that my hon. Friend could help her in that regard.

We have upgraded our entire network of visa application centres to increase capacity. We have made our processes less bureaucratic, and we ensure fast turn-around times and offer appointments out of working hours. We have extended our three-to-five-day priority service, which is now available in more than 100 countries, and we have introduced a passport pass-back service in a number of countries so that customers can retain their passport while their UK visa application is being processed. A new super-priority 24-hour visa service, building on the popularity of the three-to-five-day service, has been introduced in India and China and will be extended to New York, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Manila, Istanbul, Bangkok and Pretoria by April 2015.

My hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham) mentioned the hub-and-spoke model for visa applications. We have more than 300 visa application points around the world, connected to a network of decision-making hubs. They are in similar places to the ones I just mentioned: Beijing, Manila, Abu Dhabi, Shanghai, New Delhi, Riyadh, New York, Istanbul, Chennai, Bangkok, Mumbai and Pretoria.

The next generation of the outsourced visa project has delivered the next set of outsourcing contracts for the visa application process, including biometric enrolment, courier services and interviewing facilitation. The new contracts have allowed us to increase the number of application points globally, offer improved customer services including increased access to premium priority services and deliver efficiencies in the visa application process. To increase access to our visa services overseas, we have considered how best to support our operation and our customers, including by extending opening hours in some locations and trialling new “user pays” services in developing markets.

Jeremy Lefroy: As for all such important new projects, will the Minister undertake to get a bit of customer feedback, particularly from Members of Parliament, to whom constituents often come as a matter of last resort when, for instance, a business partner, relative or non-governmental organisation worker whom they are supporting has spent weeks or even months trying unsuccessfully to get a visa? Will she consider collecting

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information from colleagues and seeing how the system can be improved? Clearly, if this is a new system, we will want to ensure that it works as efficiently as possible.

Karen Bradley: I assure my hon. Friend that we in the Home Office take seriously all comments and feedback from fellow Members of Parliament on all aspects of our work. He makes an important point about ensuring that we take seriously our colleagues’ feedback when their constituents experience new systems, because that feedback gives us on-the-ground evidence about what is happening and how it is working. I welcome comments from all Members about how the system affects their constituents and those constituents’ families. I have said that all the changes are working, and I hope that we have proved that they are. They provide greater flexibility and choice, and we know that they have been welcomed by many travellers and tour operators.

On longer stays, the UK views the Commonwealth as an important partner in helping the UK to grow. A number of routes are open to Commonwealth citizens who want to work in the UK. There are further provisions specifically for Commonwealth citizens, such as the UK ancestry route. My hon. Friend said that the Commonwealth was a family, and he is right. When I visited Pakistan last year, it was extraordinary how familiar it looked, given how Pakistani culture has become so commonplace within UK culture. The furnishings, the look and the things that we talked about—cricket, for instance—are common across the Commonwealth. In fact, during my visit to Islamabad, I do not think I met anybody who did not have family in Britain.

The UK ancestry route is for Commonwealth citizens with a UK-born grandparent who intend to work in the UK. Applicants do not need to come for a specific job and are not restricted to graduate-level occupations. They may be accompanied by dependants and can apply for indefinite leave to remain after five years’ residence. In 2013, a total of 4,100 UK ancestry visas were issued, including 1,600 to Australians, 500 to Canadians, 1,000 to New Zealanders and 870 to South Africans.

My hon. Friend the Member for Romford mentioned the UK’s youth mobility scheme which, as he rightly said, operates in eight countries, three of which are Commonwealth countries: Australia, Canada and New Zealand. It enables young people to come to the UK for up to two years to experience UK culture. The UK is happy to engage in discussions with any country meeting the YMS eligibility criteria, which include presenting a low immigration risk to the UK, having satisfactory returns arrangements and offering a reciprocal arrangement for young UK nationals. My message to those countries is, “Please come forward and talk to us.” We are open to talking to countries that want to be part of the arrangement to see whether the eligibility requirements and reciprocal arrangements can be put in place to enable young people from the UK and Commonwealth countries to enjoy each other’s culture by living in each other’s countries.

The right hon. Member for Delyn wanted to remove students from the immigration target. That might seem like a quick fix for reducing immigration levels, but it is important that we understand how many students are here in Britain and ensure that they are leaving, as we

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will be able to do much more effectively when exit checks are introduced this spring, because we know that the student visa route was being exploited. This Government have clamped down on nearly 800 bogus colleges, slashed 45,000 visas from the further education route and cut family visas by nearly one third since we came to power. Our reforms have reduced net migration from outside the EU and, importantly, ensured that our higher and further education systems are not being abused. I caution the right hon. Gentleman against removing student numbers from the net migration figures. Although that might give a short-term boost to the figures, it would not enable the Government to manage the situation, thus leaving the potential for that important route to be abused, as has been the case in the past.

We have an excellent offer for students to stay in the UK after their studies. In April 2012 we closed the old tier 1 post-study work route, which gave two years’ unconditional access to the UK labour market, allowing many students to stay on in low-skilled work. We have replaced it with a more selective system. Graduates who get a graduate job that pays a graduate-level salary can stay in the UK, and there is no limit on their numbers. Also, we have created a scheme for graduate entrepreneurs and doubled the number of places on it to 2,000, as well as creating a new visa for graduates wishing to undertake a corporate internship or professional training related to their degree.

We are continuing to ensure that the scheme for the exceptionally talented attracts those who are already internationally recognised at the highest level as world leaders in their particular field, or who have already demonstrated exceptional promise. We wish to encourage more take-up of that route, and we are working with the endorsing bodies to do so, but the number of places available—1,000—is a limit, not a target. We wish to attract exceptional talent, wherever it comes from.

On 1 December 2014, the UK introduced new “transit without a visa” provisions that make it easier and clearer to transit through the UK. Commonwealth citizens who hold valid exemption documents, including visas for Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US, which is a close partner, although it is not in the Commonwealth, can transit through the UK without a visa, regardless of where they are travelling. The UK has also reduced the cost of the direct airside transit visa to £30, making it cheaper than the Schengen alternative for the citizens of the 21 Commonwealth countries who need to apply for one.

Also, after a successful pilot, on 17 November last year we launched our new registered traveller scheme. The scheme permits approved members who undergo advanced security checks access to our e-passport gates at Heathrow and Gatwick, or the option to use the EEA queue at Heathrow or a special RT lane at Gatwick, expediting their clearance through the border. The scheme is open only to a select number of countries but, crucially, travellers from Canada, Australia and New Zealand who are aged 18 or over, meet the criteria for the scheme and travel to the UK at least four times a year are eligible to apply. Applicants pay an average membership fee of £50, and since the scheme’s formal launch in November, more than 5,000 regular travellers, almost a quarter of whom come from Canada, Australia and

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New Zealand, have been approved to join it. Keeping the UK’s borders secure is our priority but, at the same time, we want to welcome legitimate visitors and trade that contribute to the UK economy and to show that we value our links with other countries. Using the latest technology helps us to do both, and the scheme is proving popular with regular travellers.

My hon. Friends the Members for North West Norfolk and for Romford talked about separate entry as a possibility for Commonwealth citizens, or for citizens of those Commonwealth realm countries for which Her Majesty the Queen is Head of State. Any policy or operational decision to create an additional line for Commonwealth nationals at ports must be taken with due regard to the wider operational impact—the likelihood of placing an additional burden on port operators—and the impact on other passengers. That is key to ensuring that any benefits to a limited number of individuals are not outweighed by a negative impact on border security operations more generally by constraining UK Border Force’s flexibility to respond dynamically to fluctuations in passenger flow.

Having visited UK Border Force and seen its work, I can say that there is very careful management of the lines at the borders. We have a registered traveller scheme that enables people who have gone through pre-clearance to go through e-gates, which is the quickest and easiest way to access the UK, and such people include those from Australia, Canada and New Zealand. However, having a separate route for those travellers from Commonwealth countries who do not have registered traveller status would, in many cases, hamper UK Border Force’s ability to deal with fluctuations in arrival flows.

Let me give an example of that. If a flight arrives from Jamaica, it would be highly likely that many of its passengers will be UK nationals who have visited Jamaica, but many other passengers would be Jamaican nationals. Due to the prevalence of foreign national offenders from Jamaica, we need to check those people and ensure that they go through the proper immigration and border gates, as would be the case for people coming from places such as Albania, or perhaps south-east Asia. We want to ensure that those travellers have the right security checks at the border. It would create a problem if we had a separate Commonwealth gate when all the passengers being dealt with had arrived from Commonwealth countries, meaning that there was only a limited number of gates through which those passengers could pass although there were many other gates available for passengers whose flights had not yet arrived.

To give UK Border Force the flexibility it needs, if it felt that it would be appropriate to have specific gates in operation to help its staff, that would be entirely down to the Border Force itself. However, we should not try to restrict it, given how its staff have to manage flows of arriving passengers. It does not want to keep people waiting for longer than the 40-minute target that we have set.

Andrew Rosindell: The Minister seems to be saying that people from countries in which the Queen is Head of State—the realms—must go through security checks that are perhaps more stringent than those for an EU citizen. I find that strange, because Australia, New Zealand, and Jamaica, which she mentioned, are countries

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that have fought for King, Queen and country and stood behind us. They have the Queen as their Head of State, yet we treat people from those countries differently from individuals from European countries with which we have had this new partnership for only a few years—since they joined the EU. I understand why people in the Commonwealth countries feel that we have let them down badly over this issue. Surely this should be about not just operational convenience, but our cousins throughout the world with whom we have so much in common and to whom we owe so much.

Karen Bradley: I thank my hon. Friend for his comments, but perhaps I can clarify the situation. This is about having information and knowledge about people who come into the UK to ensure that they will not hurt our citizens. Within the EU, there are information exchanges for criminal records, such as the European criminal records information system, and data are available about criminals’ past activities. As the Minister with responsibility for serious and organised crime, I am determined that we have that same level of information exchange with other countries. Actually, I would like that same level of information exchange across the world.

I have attended meetings with Caribbean Community countries in which I have encouraged them to adopt the kind of criminal information exchange that we have in the EU. If they had that, we could start to have some certainty about how we deal with people travelling to the UK from those countries because we would then have any relevant information about criminals’ past activities.

This process is about the practicalities of how we ensure that people coming into this country are not coming here to do us harm, but so long as we do not have such information about travellers from certain countries—I do not wish to single out Jamaica, but it is the largest source country for foreign national offenders—we must put the security of the British people before anything else. However, if countries meet the eligibility criteria for the registered traveller scheme, travellers from those countries are welcome to join that scheme, as travellers from Australia, New Zealand and Canada have already done, which means that they can access the e-gates that are available to people from members of the European economic area.

Having seen the e-gates in action, I know that they are a good tool for finding any EEA national who is marked as being wanted, a criminal and so on, meaning that UK Border Force can stop them at the border and go through the necessary checks. We are stopping many EEA nationals who try to come through the border via e-gates because those e-gates have great technology that allows digital information to be used to find criminals.

Andrew Rosindell: The Minister is absolutely right that the security of the British people has to come first and that we need to know who is coming into our country. If people have a propensity to commit crimes, of course we need to take action to prevent them from coming in. However, does she understand that if someone is a New Zealander, a Jamaican, or from another one of these countries with such close links with the UK, the

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system might come across as slightly offensive because it suggests that we are worried about criminals coming from in Canada, and that while we can have arrangements with Slovakia and Portugal, we cannot have those same arrangements with New Zealand, Canada and the Bahamas, for example? Surely we can find a way to deal with this situation. She seems to be saying that she is not against the idea in principle, but that it is just a question of getting the practicalities right. Is that the case?

Karen Bradley: I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. I do not want to dwell on this issue for too long, because we are running out of time and I would like to cover modern slavery, but I reiterate that an enhanced criminal information exchange is available to us with regard to EU nationals, and that provides information over and above that which we have about non-EU nationals. I want to reach a point at which we have such exchange of criminal information across the board, because that would be a very good thing to keep all of us safe. While we do not have that, however, I am not prepared to put the security of the British people at risk by opening our borders in a way that might create a problem. I hope that he understands that point.

Let me conclude by saying something about the work that we are doing on modern slavery, which we all agree is an international problem. We are committed to working with other countries to prevent individuals from being exploited. Commonwealth countries are often source countries for modern slavery, so we are committed to working with them to tackle the problem. The modern slavery strategy, which was published on 29 November, commits us to raising the profile of modern slavery through the institutions of the Commonwealth and the EU, and to working with partner Governments to implement positive changes in law and practices. It also commits us to identify annually between 20 and 25 priority countries, which will include a number of Commonwealth countries.

Through our links with the Commonwealth and civic organisations such as Rotary, we are trying to ensure that we have on-the-ground information so that we can tackle this issue upstream, so that people are not trafficked and do not become victims of slavery in the UK, and so that we can deal with slavery on the ground. The UK Government are committed to stamping out that abhorrent crime by building on our strong track record in supporting victims and fighting perpetrators. Promoting links with the Commonwealth should not be to the detriment of maintaining the security of our borders, which is what allows us to tackle problems such as modern slavery.

Let me reiterate our commitment to the Commonwealth. We want to welcome citizens from across the Commonwealth to the UK. Britain is open for business. We welcome legitimate students, tourists, business people and others who want to come to this country to contribute. The changes that we have put in place ensure that Britain remains an attractive destination while maintaining the security of our borders. Britain is a place that people want to visit so that they can work hard, study, and enjoy our historic buildings and beautiful countryside.

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British Nationals in Goa

[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

4 pm

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise a slightly obscure and rather distant subject. It is, however, a subject that has the potential to ruin the parents of one of my constituents and apparently affects many hundreds of western expatriates who have also invested in property in Goa. I am delighted that the Minister is responding to the debate in the absence of the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr Swire), who I know is abroad.

Many other Members have been involved in this issue and frustrated at the lack of action by Indian and Goan Government officials when some fairly blatant corrupt practices are at work. That is why I am raising the issue and putting it firmly on the radar. I hope that something will come from it.

I want to give a brief background on this particular case, which came to me from my constituent. Just over 13 years ago, Mr Leslie Medcroft and his wife purchased a hotel in Canacona, Goa. They were at pains to ensure—they had done extensive research—that they complied with all the rules and regulations. They complied with the money laundering laws. The funds came from legitimate sources and banks in the UK. They complied with all the residency conditions, which can be strict, and bought the business through a local company that was properly registered. They were buying an investment in an ongoing hotel business, with appropriate Government of Goa licences. They paid all the taxes due and had all the licences that were needed. Those licences were kept up over many years as they ran that hotel business.

Subsequently, it was claimed that the property had been purchased illegally because, among other things, the area was designated for agricultural usage, but no evidence for that was produced. In contrast, my constituent’s parents produced a forest of documentation to show that everything had been complied with and that the purchase and the running of the business were entirely proper and above board.

A couple of years ago, they became the subject of an investigation by the enforcement directorate. The ruling given on 12 February 2013—almost two years ago—by Mr Lotlikar, the deputy director of the enforcement directorate, was that the property of the Hotel Oceanic should be confiscated. He claimed that it had not been properly acquired, despite all the evidence produced to the contrary. My constituent’s parents understandably appealed the decision, but had a long wait, which caused them huge stress. They had given up their life savings and their jobs in the UK to start the business in India and spend their retirement years there.

Eventually, on 26 August 2014, my constituent’s parents received a letter stating that their appeal hearing was at last to be held on 22 August—four days before they received the letter. Fortunately, the advocate they had retained in Goa saw a copy of the letter in time to attend the appeal hearing. That was quite coincidental; his office happens to be next door to the enforcement directorate. The appeal hearing was further postponed to 4 September 2014.

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On 2 September, the company accountant acting for Mr and Mrs Medcroft was approached by the special director of appeals in Mumbai, who said he would make a judgment in their favour if they gave him 10 lakh rupees. That is 1 million rupees, which equates to £10,800. There is a certain irony, not missed here, that the origin of the word “lakh” in the Indian numbering system is the amount of money that can be stuffed into a small suitcase, as no doubt those proceeds would have been, had they been forthcoming. It would appear that the request was made for the money not to be paid to the court, the legal system or a Government department, but directly into the pocket of said official. It was a thinly veiled threat that failure to comply with the demand for a bribe would result in a ruling against Mr and Mrs Medcroft and, ultimately, their property being confiscated.

My constituent’s parents were left in something of a dilemma, as we can imagine. Should they pay up, perhaps then getting recognition that they own the property they knew they already owned and had bought legitimately, and thereby condone corruption? Alternatively, should they pay up and risk the case not actually being resolved? As we know, blackmailers usually come back for more. Would they be charged as participants in corrupt practices for ostensibly bribing an Indian official? Should they not pay up and risk the confiscation that has been looming over them for some years? Whichever way we look at it, it appears that they cannot win.

My constituent’s parents were unable to raise the amount of money in the short term in any case, so they did not really have a choice: they did not pay the money. They were also unable to return to India—they were in the UK at the time, renewing their visas—before 17 September, but the appeal went ahead in their absence. The ruling from that appeal was that the argument they put forward was incomplete, despite their having provided comprehensive documentation in support. A further hearing date was set for 26 September, and they were subsequently told that on top of the bribe, they might have to pay an additional sum of £6,000.

“Where does it end?” you may well ask, Mr Hollobone. The case went to a further hearing and the presiding judge, Ajit Kumar, the additional income tax commissioner, very much expected my constituent’s parents to pay. In the absence of that, he deferred a ruling and apparently threatened to have them arrested in the meantime. Tape recordings of that conversation were taken as evidence. They were advised by their advocate that this process will go on indefinitely until they pay up and that they will have constant doubt and worry overhanging their business.

My constituent’s parents have invested their life savings. They were running a legitimate business that helps the Goan economy—tourism, in particular, on which Goa greatly depends. They have had to spend a lot of their money on lawyers, accountants and other professionals, first to ensure that they acquired the business legitimately and maintained all the licences and secondly to maintain their innocence against corrupt officials. If this case goes against them and their hotel is confiscated, they face ruin and a great deal more stress. They would probably have to return to the UK.

I gather, however, that my constituent’s parents are not an isolated case, and that is why I am raising the issue today. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston

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(Ms Stuart) wanted to be here today, but she is receiving an honorary doctorate from the university of Birmingham—I am delighted to point that out, as she wanted me to. She was approached by some of her constituents who were lecturers. They took early retirement and invested through a direct foreign investment channel in a dilapidated old colonial mansion on the coast in southern Goa in 2005. They spent a fortune renovating it. It was originally set up as a business to cater for convalescing foreigners undergoing medical and dental treatment.

The project was successful and has become a general guesthouse business. In 2009, on having acquired the business, the hon. Lady’s constituents were summoned to Panjim to give assurances, initially on money laundering. In 2011, they received notices from the enforcement directorate claiming that they had illegally purchased agricultural land and that their business was illegitimate—similar circumstances to the case against my constituent’s parents. Yet they had documents to prove categorically that the land they had acquired was in a settlement zone, was listed in the Portuguese book of descriptions in 1905 as an urban dwelling and has absolutely no history of crop growth. Clearly, the charge of agricultural usage is entirely bogus. The business is properly owned by an Indian private limited company, regarded as resident in India for the purposes of FEMA, the Foreign Exchange Management Act 1999. It complies with all the regulations, but the parents of my constituent are facing a lengthy and costly court action and the threat of confiscation.

Only today, I received an e-mail from a member of the British nationals’ working party in Goa, who has been dealing with a number of other expats in similar situations. She told me that in the past two years she has been working on a number of cases and has knowledge of four in which confiscation orders have already been served on people. In one case, a confiscation order has been issued against a British couple aged 80 and 77 in relation to their studio flat. Another confiscation order was issued two years ago against a single British woman in her 70s who owns a small flat in a purpose-built complex in north Goa.

In addition, hundreds of British subjects have been prevented from registering their properties in Goa, having previously fulfilled the requisite legal processes, primarily because of restrictions on visas. In some cases, that has led to criminality and harm against foreigners when they have tried to obtain the properties, causing loss of investment. Some cases have involved extreme violence. Other people affected include those who came together to invest in Indian tourism and who have been prevented from trading due to altered interpretations of the law and, in tandem, prevented from registering their properties.

The problem seems to be quite widespread, with a number of British expats suffering such consequences. It has been suggested that there are in excess of 300 similar cases that we know about. Huge stress is being caused to people who legitimately went out to invest in businesses in Goa. In most cases, they are not wealthy, but have invested their life savings. The situation is proving to be a nice little earner for the Government in Goa, and various Government officials are pretty brazen in demanding money to make the problem, which is of their making, supposedly go away. We seem to have the Goan equivalent of the mafia.

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It is surely entirely inappropriate for a fast-growing democracy such as India, which attracts, and needs to attract, large amounts of foreign investment as an important UK trading partner, to allow such practices to go on under its nose. The Indian Government should be keen to find out what is going on and to intervene. In the past few months, however, I have written to the Indian law Minister, Shri Ravi Shankar Prasad, and to the Chief Minister of Goa, Shri Manohar Parrikar. The latter responded and diverted my attention instead to Dr Rajan Katoch, the director of the enforcement directorate, who has also not responded. I have written to the Minister of Finance, Arun Jaitley, who is responsible for the tax commissioners, including the judge Ajit Kumar who I mentioned earlier.

I also wrote to the high commissioner in London, His Excellency Ranjan Mathai, no fewer than three times, and chased up with several calls and e-mails. I had no reply until yesterday—after I had secured this debate, coincidentally. The response came from the first consular secretary to the high commissioner, Mr P. K. Patel, and merely stated:

“You will appreciate that the High Commission cannot intervene in administrative judicial proceedings in India. If your constituent’s parents are aggrieved by Directorate of Enforcement actions, they may seek appropriate legal redressal of their grievances.”

They have been trying that, and they have not been getting anywhere. Clearly, they will not get anywhere with the high commission in London either, which is a great pity.

The British high commission in Delhi is aware of the problem and the Business Secretary, on a visit to the Indian subcontinent, raised it with Ministers. A high commission official has been dealing with British cases, but cannot get individually involved in them. I was also able to collar the British high commissioner James Bevan when he was about to appear before the Foreign Affairs Committee on 15 October. He has been helpful and entirely sympathetic, saying that the high commission is aware of the problem. Action needs to happen, however, and things cannot be allowed to go on unchecked.

The Government need to use their good offices to impress on their Indian counterparts that that sort of practice does the reputation of Goa and India at large no service at all. It stands in the way of legitimate investment. It would be a great problem if that investment were deterred by obviously corrupt practices.

I hope that the Minister will be able to give assurances today, to my constituent’s parents and to the affected constituents of other hon. Members, that this matter will be looked into properly and further pressure will be brought to bear on the Indian Government. I also hope that His Excellency the high commissioner to London is listening intently; I am sure he would not want such practices to besmirch the reputation of the Indian Government. They are clearly doing so at the moment.

Mr Philip Hollobone (in the Chair): I commend the hon. Gentleman on the interesting way in which he has presented this complex and important case. To respond, we have a Minister who is responsible for about half the world, I think.

4.15 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr Tobias Ellwood): Unfortunately, I am not specifically responsible for

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India and I begin by extending apologies that the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr Swire), is unable to reply to the debate. I know that he is aware of the issue, whether or not he is not able to watch the debate on the internet, and he will certainly want to follow the matter up with my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton).

I thank my hon. Friend for initiating the debate. He has been and remains an advocate for British nationals facing difficulties in property disputes in India. As hon. Members will be aware, until 2007—my hon. Friend alluded to this—the rules governing purchases of property by foreigners in Goa were open to misinterpretation. Many foreign buyers fell prey to unscrupulous lawyers and property developers who took advantage of the ambiguity of the laws.

Although the purchases of properties were made in good faith by foreign buyers, in 2008, the Indian enforcement directorate served notices to about 400 foreigners who had been found to have violated foreign exchange and immigration regulations. Simultaneously, the Goa Government sent a notice to all registrars instructing them to close the registry to foreigners. There are about 750 British property owners in Goa, many of whom have been under investigation for six years and are still unable to register ownership of their properties or to sell legally.

Our policy on dealing with property disputes worldwide is clear: we cannot get involved in private disputes, as we are in no position to judge the facts of the cases and have no overseas jurisdiction to resolve such matters. It is the responsibility of the Indian authorities to regulate property laws and Her Majesty’s Government have no authority to intervene in matters concerning domestic legislation. We do not become involved in individual cases, nor do we take steps to recover any capital outlay in individual property deals that might have gone wrong.

That said, we do consider raising systemic issues by lobbying national and local Governments. I reassure the House that we take this matter seriously, as my hon. Friend can attest. We are assisting groups of British nationals who have been genuinely cheated by lobbying the Indian Government to seek settlement or a reasonable solution. I am pleased to say that, through our sustained lobbying of a range of interlocutors, the Indian enforcement directorate has cleared for registration a number of cases involving British nationals. The high commissioner in New Delhi and the deputy high commissioner for western India have discussed with the former Goa Chief Minister the problems faced by groups of British property owners and asked that the cases be considered carefully. The Chief Minister was receptive to finding a solution to the problems faced by British nationals and as a result set up a special committee to assess all outstanding cases.

In addition, during a meeting with the deputy high commissioner just last week, the new Chief Minister renewed the Goa Government’s commitment to finding a resolution to the issue. Consular officials regularly meet with all local authorities—the enforcement directorate, the property committee and the state registrar—that are assessing the cases of British nationals.

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The authorities do not want to confiscate property and will act sympathetically where possible, especially where it is obvious someone has made Goa their permanent home, or when dealing with sick or elderly owners. However, they have made it clear that they cannot ignore cases where individuals have built properties on agricultural land or wilfully flouted rules on transferring funds or on visa regulations. We recognise that position.

In January 2013, we encouraged British property owners in Goa to start a working group. They have undertaken to lobby on individual cases, and we have facilitated meetings between them, the Chief Minister and local authorities, with some success.

Tim Loughton: I am grateful for what the Minister has said thus far, and I entirely appreciate, as the Foreign Office has told me, that it cannot involve itself in individual cases. However, could we not do more where there is systematic or systemic abuse, as he mentioned? We are talking about British citizens being denied justice. The rulings against them are not specifically saying what they have done and then proving it; they are constantly saying there is not enough information, so the case is deferred and deferred. In the meantime, money is, effectively, being demanded with menaces. If such corruption were happening in the United Kingdom, on the part of British officials dealing with Indian nationals, we would absolutely want to do something about it and to liaise with the Indian authorities.

Mr Ellwood: I will certainly relay that to the Minister of State. Perhaps I can put him on the spot in his absence and suggest that he and my hon. Friend meet so that, rather than the issue lying dormant after the debate, we can move the process forward.

Consular staff are dealing with the property issue at a wider policy level, engaging with the Goa Government and local authorities directly, and that must fit in with what my hon. Friend said about the difference between taking a systemic approach and looking at individual cases. That approach, which I hope will be joined up, has been effective, with approximately 40 cases being cleared of investigation over the last year. However, as has been reiterated today, many more outstanding cases need to be looked at.

We are aware of corruption allegations against local authorities in Goa. However, the matter must be dealt with by the Indian authorities. We have always advised British nationals to report corruption complaints to the Indian law enforcement system.

Although there has been some progress, I recognise that the issue continues to cause distress to British nationals. We will continue to lobby the Goa Government and local authorities on systemic issues relating to expatriate property disputes and to work with those who have been affected to find an appropriate solution.

Mr Philip Hollobone (in the Chair): I shall now suspend the sitting until 4.30 pm or until the next Minister arrives. I thank all those who took part in this important debate.

4.23 pm

Sitting suspended.

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SportsDirect (USC Dundonald)

4.28 pm

Mr Brian H. Donohoe (Central Ayrshire) (Lab): It is good to see you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone, and the Minister in her place. Of course, Mr Hollobone, you and I served in the same police force for 10 years, and I think that you still serve in the police, so it is good to see you here—after this debate, we might need your services.

I would like to make a few remarks by way of background to the reason why I asked for the debate. This year is the celebration of the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta, one provision of which was that no free man should unreasonably be deprived of his livelihood. I am speaking on behalf of 245 workers in my constituency who question whether they are treated as free men and women.

USC is a clothing distribution company providing goods to retail distribution outlets. It opened in 1989 in Edinburgh. The company was worth £43 million by 2004, when it was purchased by Sir Tom Hunter, a constituent of mine, but it went into administration in 2008, after which 43 of the 58 stores were bought by Sir Tom. That happened through something called pre-packaged administration, whereby a deal is struck to sell parts of the business before it is put into administration, minimising losses and cherry-picking the most profitable part of the business. At the time, MPs, through the Commons Select Committee on Business and Enterprise, raised serious concerns about that practice. In particular, the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Sir Peter Luff) said:

“The principle of administration is sound but you’ve got to make sure that the administration process is working in a way that doesn’t disadvantage people and impose other costs on the economy”.

In 2011, SportsDirect bought 80% of USC, and it completed the purchase of the remaining 20% in 2012. In 2013, SportsDirect bought the company Republic—more of that later—out of administration and merged it with USC. USC’s headquarters have long been in Dundonald in central Ayrshire. On 28 December last year, 245 people —79 permanent employees and 166 agency or zero- hours contract workers—were employed at the Dundonald site.

On Wednesday 7 January, senior managers arrived at the site early in the morning and informed staff that the business was not making money and was going into administration, and that all the stock would be removed to SportsDirect’s central depot in Shirebrook. There then followed a pantomime: staff were not told that they were being made redundant and were asked, would you believe, to assist with the removal of the goods. I am told that some 100 journeys were made by heavy goods vehicles between then and when the process was completed, on Sunday 11 January.

It is not clear whether USC/SportsDirect’s actions were initiated by the companies themselves or as a result of creditors, a clothing company called Diesel, seeking a winding-up order because of unpaid bills, to which USC/SportsDirect responded by moving the company towards administration, presumably resulting in Diesel joining the list of creditors that would have to wait for payment. I have heard it said that there was a one-week delay in the court process, which I am told means that the timetable followed by the company is

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even further out of kilter with what staff were told at the time. I seek clarification from the Minister on that point.

No information was given to staff about the future of Dundonald and their jobs until Wednesday 14 January, when Philip Norvell from Gallaghers dismissed all the staff, telling them that they would not receive any money at all from SportsDirect and that anything owed to them would have to be claimed from the Government via the administrator.

On Friday 16 January, Republic, a wholly-owned subsidiary company of SportsDirect, bought the USC business, apart from the Dundonald warehouse and operation, from the administrators. At the same time, billionaire Mike Ashley is well known for his love of football—he owns Newcastle United—and his company, the very same SportsDirect, has just bought a 26% stake in Rangers Retail Ltd, in return for £10 million of credit, adding to his previous 49% stake and making a total of 75%. Rangers football club gets a very small percentage of the profits from that retail activity. The worrying thing is that that is very much the pattern that he adopted in buying USC: he built up a majority stake in stages before finally assuming control of the company.

Of course, there are rules governing the ownership of football clubs, especially as there have been some notorious multiple owners such as the pensions robber Robert Maxwell. There must be a question whether Ashley’s activities are a precursor to a greater involvement in Rangers football club itself. Is it right for an individual to have a serious financial stake in more than one side? Is this man more than just a shareholder? Has he become the banker of the club?

Mr Angus Brendan MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): Does the hon. Gentleman feel, as I do, that the behaviour of Mike Ashley is damaging to him, and that the contrast between his wealth and the way the workers were treated is appalling?

Mr Donohoe: I am coming to that, but he does not care a damn. That is clear, given what I am about to say.

The USC Dundonald situation is a murky affair. It leaves unanswered a lot of questions about the way some businesses are allowed to operate. For instance, did Diesel seek a winding-up notice on USC as a result of unpaid bills, as claimed in some reports? That is an answer that I need this afternoon. If so, what alternative courses of action were considered by SportsDirect—such as, for example, paying the bill to its loyal workers at Dundonald? Was USC/SportsDirect’s action in seeking administration a response to the claim made by Diesel or was it initiated by the company separately? Was there a delay in the timetable for granting administration and, if so, what was the impact on the work force and the potential timetables for redundancy and required consultation on both redundancy and business plans? Was that brought to the notice of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills? What will the cost to the public purse be of supporting the 245 people who are out of work without back pay, holiday or redundancy payments and who have bonuses of as much as £12,000 outstanding?

Sandra Osborne (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on obtaining the debate. He is working hard on the issue, and he knows that many of my constituents were also employed in the

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business, and have lost their jobs because of this debacle. Yet again, a company in Ayrshire has behaved disgracefully —my hon. Friend knows what happened with the former coalfield sites. Is there a need to look at the way companies are allowed to do such things, treating employees so despicably, and to hold them accountable?

Mr Donohoe: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, whose constituency neighbours mine, as does that of my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Cathy Jamieson). I thank them for their support. I do not see any difference between the cases referred to, which is why there is a need to examine the law to protect workers in such circumstances. It is blatantly obvious that that does not happen now.

How long is it likely to take for the employees to receive payments from the administrators? Will employees get 100% of the money due to them? I doubt it. What sanctions can be imposed on the company for failing to consult employees about the future of their roles at the Dundonald site, or about redundancy? Given that all the companies in the exercise are owned by SportsDirect, is not it just a scam to let SportsDirect off its financial responsibilities to a less successful part of Ashley’s estimated £3.3 billion fortune?

Cathy Jamieson (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (Lab/Co-op): I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate; people in my constituency are, as he mentioned, also affected. Does he agree that it is particularly disgraceful that everything he described was happening over Christmas and the new year, when it was almost impossible for employees to get the advice and support they needed, which they might have been able to get in other circumstances?

Mr Donohoe: I agree with my hon. Friend wholeheartedly. I spent most of the Christmas period attempting to contact the company, and I was treated with total and absolute contempt.

Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on getting the debate. We had a similar one last Thursday, about City Link. He has spoken about changes to the law, and with City Link the pattern was the same. Workers were told over the Christmas holiday period that their jobs had gone. More than 1,000 men contracted to it could not take their jobs, because of the law. We have been pressing the Minister on those points. This is very similar.

Mr Donohoe: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. The Scottish Affairs Committee is about to call that company to book, or has already done so, and has approached me to ask whether to call Mr Ashley to the Committee for what he has done to the company for which he is responsible. Do we agree with the BBC’s 2009 quote from a self-confessed asset stripper that the law in such circumstances is a pirates’ charter? I wonder whether that description could apply to Mr Ashley.

Has the Magna Carta principle that no citizen should unreasonably be deprived of their livelihood been breached by Mike Ashley and SportsDirect? Given how he has behaved on the issue, is Ashley, SportsDirect’s supremo,

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a fit and proper person to buy shares and give loans to Glasgow Rangers football club, and to appoint his men to the board? Should not the Scottish Football Association look more closely at this person’s credentials for involvement in a team that is not just a business venture, but a Scottish—indeed, a UK—institution? His track record, particularly his treatment of USC workers, shows that he has scant regard for anything but balancing the books and maximising profits, even if loyal staff are thrown on the scrap heap as a result.

Mr Iain McKenzie (Inverclyde) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does he agree that it is wholly worrying that someone of Mr Ashley’s background, employment and business practice is moving into the highly delicate area of Scottish football, especially with a football team that is having difficulties at the moment?

Mr Donohoe: I agree. Glasgow Rangers is an institution, and some 25% of the population of Scotland follow that team. It is wrong that that individual should be allowed anywhere close to the team. As I will request of the Minister in a moment, I hope that the SFA gets to the bottom of this and does not allow him further into the club’s business.

Will the Minister set up an inquiry into the affairs of Mike Ashley in relation to the USC Dundonald situation affecting my constituents and his interest in Glasgow Rangers? Such a move would be welcome to the former employees of USC Dundonald and, I am sure, to the great bulk of Glasgow Rangers supporters. We need to bring some transparency to the affairs of Mike Ashley and of Glasgow Rangers. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

4.42 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Jo Swinson): I congratulate the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr Donohoe) on securing this timely but unfortunately necessary debate. I do not think that any of us wish the situation to be as it is—particularly those who have, sadly, lost their jobs.

The concerns about the events leading up to and surrounding USC’s failure, particularly some of the allegations made about the company’s treatment of its creditors and employees, are valid and genuine, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that they are shared across the House. It is important that answers are found. As with any company failure, it is important to establish the facts of the case: what occurred in the lead-up to the administration of USC, the reasons for the failure and whether the company has been a victim of circumstance, as sometimes happens with companies, or whether the conduct of its directors has fallen below the standards that we rightly and reasonably expect. Those standards include treating creditors and employees of the company fairly and in accordance with the law.

Based on the information that we have been given, USC’s administration seems to have been due to the company’s failure to pay its rent and suppliers when they came due. On the specific questions asked by the hon. Gentleman about the winding-up orders and so on, I understand that, according to the administrators, a statutory demand had been issued to USC by a key supplier on 17 December 2014, payable by 31 December.

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That would have allowed the creditor to seek a winding-up order if the debt was not paid. On 6 January, the company gave notice of entering administration, and it did so on 13 January, but I am not aware that a petition for a winding-up order was made.

Mr Donohoe: As a local MP, the Minister knows something about Glasgow Rangers, but she might not know as much about USC. Is there an urgent need for a change in the law if, on the one hand, a creditor can seek a winding-up notice and, on the other hand, the company can frustrate that by making an application to the courts for administration?

Jo Swinson: This case raises many questions. We are making several changes to insolvency law, and particularly to the pre-pack regime, where there are particular concerns. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that I have some familiarity with Glasgow Rangers—indeed, Murray park, their training ground, is in my constituency. I confess that I am not a football fan, but my late grandfather was a very proud and longstanding season ticket holder and supporter of Rangers. He enjoyed many trips to matches on the supporters’ bus.

We all have to think about the context. USC was not just a small company on its own; it was just one part of a large retail group. The events are particularly concerning in that context.

Mr MacNeil: Given what the Minister is saying, does she feel that USC, and perhaps Mike Ashley, too, have been guilty of using loopholes to get round certain situations and to create part of these problems quite deliberately? Could employment law be tightened so that workers are not victims, as they have been in this case?

Jo Swinson: There are a couple of different issues within that question. We will need to wait to see the specific facts that come out of the investigation. Obviously, the administrators will provide information to the Insolvency Service, and they have to file a report within six months, although the general practice is to file such reports much more quickly. Indeed, we will be shortening that time to three months.

On whether there are loopholes, action has been taken on the pre-packs issue, which I will address in a moment. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that employment law is not negotiable. Employment law is not something that is optional or that a company can decide to take or leave; it is the law, and it needs to be followed. Enforcement is particularly important. A range of issues have been raised, including some of the issues surrounding zero-hours contracts, which I will also address.

One of the key questions is why USC, which was wholly owned by SportsDirect, was allowed to reach the point at which its key suppliers and landlords were not just threatening but taking enforcement action. SportsDirect purchased USC’s business through another company, Republic. We have been told that USC’s key suppliers have been left out of pocket, so it seems odd that they would continue to supply Republic. There are, therefore, a lot of unanswered questions.

The law is clear that employees should be consulted where 20 or more people are being made redundant at the same establishment, and it can be a criminal offence

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to fail to notify the Secretary of State of proposed redundancies. Tribunals can make protective awards where employees are not properly consulted.

Mr Donohoe: Will the Minister and her Department do that through the criminal courts in this case?

Jo Swinson: I am not going to give the hon. Gentleman that assurance in the Chamber today, but I reiterate that we will be looking very carefully at all the facts that emerge and at the picture created from the information that comes from the administrators. There is a wide range of both investigation and enforcement powers, and it is important that they are used wherever it is found that companies have not behaved properly, and particularly when directors have not behaved properly.

Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): The Minister refers to wanting to look at the issue very closely without giving any commitments in this Chamber. Will she also give a commitment to refer Glasgow Rangers football club, and the potential issues there, to the sports Minister—particularly in respect of the constituency issue that has been raised?

Jo Swinson: I will happily talk to the sports Minister about those issues, and obviously there are specific issues for the Scottish Football Association to consider. Insolvency Service investigators are already in contact with the joint administrators of USC. That is at an early stage because the administration is fairly new, which affects the information that can be provided, but there is a legal duty to provide a confidential return to the Secretary of State about the directors’ conduct. Although the administrators’ view about that is certainly relevant, ultimately their assessment of whether there are grounds for disqualification is based on the Insolvency Service’s independent view and conclusions.

Directors can be disqualified for anything between two and 15 years. It is also worth noting that, in addition to director disqualification proceedings, the Insolvency Service can exercise its powers to investigate any UK company where it suspects misconduct. We are making it easier for disqualification proceedings to be brought where other laws have been broken—it is currently possible, but we want to make it crystal clear that it should be easier. Measures in the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill explicitly state that, in deciding whether someone should be disqualified, the criteria that courts will be required to consider will be extended to include breaches of legislation. That could include health and safety law, immigration law or employment law.

Sandra Osborne: I have been listening to what the Minister has said. In my constituency, directors walked away from coal mines leaving £140 million of damage. I have been pursuing that matter with the insolvency people for two years and nothing has happened, so she will forgive me if I am slightly cynical about what she is saying.

Jo Swinson: I will be happy to look into the specific issues that the hon. Lady raises. Although the powers already exist, we recognise that making it more explicit that breaches of law can be considered in the disqualification process will make such cases easier. That is why we are changing the law. I will happily look separately at the specific case that she is pursuing.

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I turn now to pre-packaged administrations, or pre-packs. They have been discussed in this House on many occasions, because there are understandable concerns about them. In a pre-pack, the sale of the viable parts of an insolvent company’s business is arranged before the administration starts and concludes shortly after the administrator is appointed. In the case we are debating, the administration has allowed the majority of the business, including more than 600 jobs across the UK, to be transferred to the purchaser, Republic, although unfortunately another 84 employees have lost their jobs.

It is important that we establish whether the pre-pack represented a necessary step to save an insolvent business, or if, as has been suggested, it was an abuse of the insolvency process. I reassure hon. Members that officials are looking at that as a matter of urgency. The changes that we are making, following the review of pre-packs by Teresa Graham, will mean that by spring there will be new checks and balances on pre-pack administrations where the sale is to a connected party, so that there is independent evaluation of whether that party is a viable business with a viable underlying business model that will not simply run into the same problems as the business in administration; there will also be evaluation of whether the sale represents the best value.

Mr Donohoe: May I ask to be kept posted, within reason, on anything that happens in the Department and whatever action or otherwise is taken by BIS?

Jo Swinson: I happily give that assurance. Obviously, certain elements remain confidential because of specific legislative requirements, but I am happy to keep the hon. Gentleman updated on the issue.

I will touch on the important matter of the employees and support for them, before coming to some of the specific issues raised about Mike Ashley. Obviously, whenever people are made redundant, support is crucial. That is why the Jobcentre Plus rapid response service is available and can provide everything from information to help with job search, identifying skills gaps and, ultimately, training to update skills or learn new ones to ensure that people can move back into employment. That is particularly important for those individuals.

In terms of redundancy payments, employees are guaranteed to receive their wages and other payments owed, subject to certain limits. That money comes from the national insurance fund.

Cathy Jamieson: Will the Minister say something about the position of those who are on zero-hours contracts and the particular difficulties that they will face?

Jo Swinson: I will certainly come to that issue. The redundancy payments service has begun processing claims—I understand something in the region of 30 claims have already been put in. It aims to pay 80% within three weeks of receiving the claim form and 93% within six weeks of receipt of the form.

Obviously, within the group of people who have been made redundant, there is a mix of those who were on fixed-hours permanent contracts and those who were on zero-hours contracts. However, it would not be

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accurate to say that somebody on a zero-hours contract has no right to a redundancy payment. The calculation for the payment tends to be made on the basis of an average of, I think, the 12-week period running up to when they were made redundant. I hope that will provide some reassurance to the hon. Lady’s constituents who may find themselves in that position. Guidance on redundancy pay for any employer affected is available on

Hon. Members have raised significant concerns about the behaviour of Mike Ashley, and I share those concerns. He seems determined to show that rules are for other people. We know that he bought nearly 10% of Rangers football club, and in doing so rather skirted the edges of the SFA’s rules on owning two clubs. Despite being blocked by the SFA from increasing his shareholding further, he appears to be looking to expand his influence. The rules that prevent the same person from owning two clubs are there for a good reason: to prevent conflicts of interest and to safeguard the integrity of the sport.

We are talking about a man who, according to media reports, forced through a £200 million bonus scheme at SportsDirect and subsequently withdrew his own participation amid speculation that he introduced the scheme simply to show his investors who was in charge. Some 90% of SportsDirect employees are reported to have zero-hours contracts, so they would not be eligible for the scheme. At least one worker was allegedly told that a zero-hours contract meant that she would not receive holiday pay. I cannot emphasise enough that that is against employment law.

There are serious questions to be answered about USC and many of its practices. I have outlined that the Insolvency Service has the power to receive information from the administrators and to investigate any company that it believes has questions to answer. I welcome the suggestion that Select Committees may also wish to ask questions.

I believe that zero-hours contracts have a place in a flexible labour market, but they are not a substitute for proper business planning. I fail to understand how a retailer can get away with employing the majority of its staff—up to 90% of the work force of 20,000 at SportsDirect—on zero-hours contracts. Apparently, SportsDirect operates some 420 stores, but it has a permanent work force of perhaps only a couple of thousand people. I do not see how a retailer can reliably open its stores every day if the workers on zero-hours contracts genuinely have the power to say that they will not take any given shift. A zero-hours contract should mean that the employer is free to offer work or not to offer work, and the employee is free to accept or decline that work.

I am at a loss to see how such use of zero-hours contracts can be deemed to be in any way responsible, and I think there are even questions about whether it is in line with employment law. Certainly, exclusivity clauses, which must be part of the way in which SportsDirect operates zero-hours contracts, will soon not be legal in such contracts as a result of the action we are taking in the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill, and rightly so. Using zero-hours contracts to fill the gaps by requiring people to turn up for work but not giving them guaranteed hours is not a responsible use of such contracts.

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Cases have been brought against SportsDirect by people such as Zahera Gabriel-Abraham. That case was settled out of court, but some of the media reports were concerning. The Guardian reported that

“the retailer will have to make clear in job adverts, contracts and staff rooms that it does not guarantee work, sick pay or holiday pay”.

I do not believe that that is the full story, because it is not for an employer to decide whether their employees get sick pay or holiday pay; it cannot simply opt workers out of their statutory rights. One of the barristers from Leigh Day summed it up well:

“Zero hours workers are not second class workers. They have the right to be treated fairly and with respect. They have the right to take holidays and to be paid when they take them. They have the right to statutory sick pay. They have a right to request guaranteed hours. Sports Direct will now have to make that crystal clear to staff.”

I hope that the reports do not suggest that those staff have not been getting sick pay, holiday pay or their other statutory rights. I encourage anyone at SportsDirect or anywhere else who thinks that they have not been

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receiving their proper rights to contact ACAS or the pay and work rights helpline on 0800 917 2368. Breaking employment law is absolutely unacceptable, and compliance will be properly enforced.

There are certainly questions to be answered about the matters in the USC administration and pre-pack sale, and the Insolvency Service will be looking at the information that it has received. The hon. Member for Central Ayrshire asked a wide variety of questions, and I appreciate that time is short—

Mr Donohoe: Will the Minister write to me?

Jo Swinson: I will happily write to the hon. Gentleman in full to pick up on any points that I have not addressed, and I will write further to keep him updated. I thank him for giving us the opportunity to debate these important issues.

Question put and agreed to.

4.59 pm

Sitting adjourned.