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Baroness Turner of Camden: My Lords, my name is to these amendments and I spoke on Clauses 40 and 41 in Grand Committee. At that time I was speaking on a brief supplied by the Public and Commercial Services Union, the union to which immigration officers belong. They are concerned about the provisions in the clauses for part of the services their members now provide to be contracted out to private operators. Obviously, they are worried about what they see as a threat to their jobs. Contractors currently operating under arrangements with France are paid less than the UK Immigration Service staff, with no access to pension provision and
 
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no career prospects—at least, so I am told. The union is also concerned about maintaining the professional and security standards which apply to their members.

I raised some of these issues in Grand Committee. Since then I have received further briefing, this time from the Immigration Law Practitioners' Association. It points out that Clause 40 would allow the contracting out of powers to search and detain for up to three hours at ports to other authorised persons—i.e. to private contractors. The contractors would be used to seek out and to detect people hidden in vehicles, and to expose and arrest them.

It is generally accepted that extremely difficult conditions can arise when desperate and vulnerable people, who may include children, are detected. The Minister said the Government intended that contracting out would relieve immigration officers of what she termed "mundane work". The Immigration Law Practitioners' Association points out that while it may be mundane to walk alongside vehicles looking for people, it is anything but mundane to find them. This is where experience and professionalism become all-important, and that is particularly true where children are involved.

The Government have not fully explained why contracting out is necessary. I hope it is not thought that it will be cheaper to use less well-paid people and that is why the Government want to proceed down that path. That does not seem acceptable to me and I hope the Government will look at this again. Indeed, experience of contracting out in the public sector has not always been good. The Institute of Employment Relations, of which I am a member, has recently published research into what it calls the impact of contracting out on employment relations in public services. The experience, quite clearly, is not uniformly good. Accountability, as they say, is impaired as responsibility is shed—the point that has just been made by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. Can the Minister explain why it is necessary to go down this path, to contract out the work of highly skilled, professional and well-trained people—people, moreover, who are subject to a very rigorous security check? I think, in the present circumstances, that that is of utmost importance and I support the amendments.

The Earl of Listowel: My Lords, I also support these amendments. I have an amendment in this group—Amendment No. 35, which would delete Clauses 40 and 41. I go slightly beyond the concerns of other speakers in that I am also concerned about extending these powers to customs and police officers. This is important work because it relates to vulnerable children arriving in this country. Over a period, immigration officers have developed considerable expertise and we all need reassurance that that will not be lost.

Let us consider the journey of a child coming to this country in these circumstances. Sometimes they do not know what country they have arrived in. Sometimes their trafficker will tell them that the alien officials are villains and are cruel and unkind and they should be
 
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avoided. Their experience of officials in their own country may be very unhappy. I will give the example of a young man from Afghanistan whom I will call Abdul. All his immediate family were killed when he was aged 11. He spent four years travelling in Pakistan and at the age of 15 he arrived in Nottingham in a lorry with his uncle. He was very disoriented and unwell. He is the kind of person these officers may come across. We must be sure that they are well equipped to act with compassion, consideration and understanding in these circumstances.

The Minister is likening this reform to that which has occurred in teaching and other areas. In teaching, less qualified individuals are allowed to do the more mundane work so that the full expertise of the teacher is used more effectively and efficiently. My understanding is akin to that of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. Already it is possible to farm out the less sophisticated work to individuals, not immigration officers. When, for instance, a heartbeat is found in a lorry, that less qualified person goes to the immigration officer and says, "Look, there is somebody in there. We need you to come in and detain, search and hold this person". The expertise appears already to be used most effectively and therefore I do not see why this provision is necessary.

If the Minister wishes to persevere with this reform, I should be grateful if she could give a number of reassurances. It would be helpful if these new officers came under Section 11 of the Children Act 2004, which puts a duty on authorities to proceed with regard to the promotion of the well-being of children. If every individual had an enhanced Criminal Record Bureau check before they started work, that would be helpful. If they had a certificated qualification in the handling of children, that would be a reassurance. If the local safeguarding children board was alerted immediately these children were found and there was an approach to a child protection officer, that would be helpful. If the Minister will continue to ensure that the Children's Commissioner is fully consulted on the importance of this reform, that would be helpful. A report from the senior immigration officer at the scene within 24 hours of a child being found would be helpful. Finally, perhaps the Minister would write to me on how the monitors who will supervise the contracts will be equipped to judge whether contractors are doing a good and sensitive job when it comes to managing children.

The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, highlighted concerns about accountability on two grounds. First, at the juxtaposed controls, which authority is responsible for these children? Secondly, which contractors hold the main responsibility? Clarification on who would be accountable for these children at the juxtaposed controls is necessary and I hope that the Minister can provide that. I look forward to her response.

6.45 pm

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords for covering many issues on the important point of ensuring that we contract out
 
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appropriately. Noble Lords have moved for deletion of the clauses, but I am taking many of the comments to be on ensuring that the system we are designing is fit for purpose. It ranges from the continuing desire of the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, to ensure that children are properly safeguarded to ensuring that the current workforce is not displaced or ill-treated, as expressed by my noble friend Lady Turner. There is also the general principle of ensuring that the system is robust and uses people appropriately.

I will try to deal with some of the issues that have been raised rather than read the text of my brief. The concerns are specific. I take the point about the mundane tasks turning into something less than mundane. However, the search activities are straightforward. If someone is found, we want to ensure that the people carrying out the searches are able to deal with the individual. As the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, will recognise, some of the young people in such circumstances could be extremely vulnerable.

As I hope I spelt out well in Committee, we want to ensure that contractors have the proper safeguards in place, that they train their staff appropriately, that it is an individually based contract and so forth. The powers of the contractors are set out in Clause 40(7) and they are deliberately limited. I know that there is an issue surrounding the three-hour time limit because I have discussed the matter with some of our stakeholders in the past couple of days. When dealing with legislation, one tries to ensure that one has captured the widest spectrum of possible need. In this case, we want to ensure that we can hang on to people so that we can hand them over properly. However, when I have discussed the matter with officials, the expectation has always been that you would hand them over very quickly—much more quickly than three hours. The three hours is a maximum limit and the critical point in legislation is to be clear about the maximum limit.

We would expect that to be extremely rare. However, it is possible—not because immigration officers are off-site having a cup of tea or whatever—that it may be extended. Let us say that, for example, a number of people have been found, that the officers are trying to move from person to person, and that other incidents may have taken place. There could be a range of circumstances in which that maximum of three hours is important, but it is there as a safeguard and we would expect it to be exceeded only in extremely rare circumstances. The current pilot schemes are different because the private contractors work only alongside immigration officers. Here we are setting up something different, which is why we have set it out this way and have been clear about the maximum time.

I understand noble Lords' need to ensure that the contractors are properly trained. They will have to provide the Immigration Service and the appointed monitors with access to the course material and the opportunity to attend the training they provide to ensure that there is high quality. I am happy to make
 
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that training document available to noble Lords, if they would find it of value. There is no difficulty with that whatever.

Furthermore, the French police will check all those who are to work in the Calais port area, regardless of the nationality of the employee. All persons will be checked for the existence of a criminal record in France. These records contain all charges or other issues around sex offences.

My noble friend Lady Turner has been particularly concerned about the PCS and has reiterated it. My honourable friend Tony McNulty and senior managers of the Immigration Service have held meetings with the PCS. There is no intention to replace warranted staff with contractors. I put it this way: there will be no redundancies. Perhaps that will reassure my noble friend Lady Turner more completely than anything else I might say.

The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, was rightly concerned that those who had a complaint would need to know to whom they could complain. At the time, they can complain to the Immigration Service officer in charge, the chief immigration officer, who will be required to refer the matter to the monitor.

The noble Lord asked about PACE. We discussed this matter in correspondence. As the noble Lord knows, the application of PACE is neither a legal requirement nor, we believe, appropriate and there will be no alternative code. But the contractors will be provided with detailed operational instructions which in some respects will mirror a number of the requirements of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act. For instance, all those detected will be advised in writing of the reason for their detention and the purpose of any search undertaken. Records will be kept. There will be significant safeguards within the proposed layers of scrutiny to ensure that those searching abide by the operational instructions provided by the Immigration Service. Because essentially the provisions of PACE are intended to protect the rights of those under investigation and facing arrest, the noble Lord will recognise that there are different circumstances, but I hope that I have given some assurances.

The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, rightly focuses on the general question of children. I have talked with the noble Earl on a number of occasions. I accept that any child found in these circumstances will be among the most vulnerable we may ever find—a child who speaks no English and may not know where he is or why he is here and so on. I sought to spell this out in Committee. It is important that those who detain the child do so appropriately and properly. I have had good discussions with the Refugee Children's Consortium, with which we shall continue to work to ensure that the provision is right.

If a heartbeat is detected, I want those persons to move swiftly because that child could also be in trouble. There have been too many tragedies. It is not about getting somebody else to come in. I would want the people finding the heartbeat of the child or the
 
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adult to move swiftly to ensure that we got him out and that we held on to him. The noble Earl and I, and the Refugee Children's Consortium, discussed ensuring that people are properly trained to hold on to young people in particular. They might run away because they do not know where they are and what is happening. It is important that they are held on to for their own safety. We are in discussions with the Children's Commissioner. My ministerial colleagues have not yet met with the Children's Commissioner, although that is no more than a diary issue. The meeting is being arranged and we await the outcome. I shall let the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, and the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, know about it. The Foreign Office has found the French equivalent—Défenseur des Enfants—and we seek to make contact in order to raise equivalent concerns with our French counterpart on those issues.


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