We have more enthusiasm for this amendment than the Government had for their last amendments. It would leave out clause 101, which is the only clause dealing with the authority-to-carry scheme. Two provisions in the Bill relate to carriers' liability and involvement in immigration control. Sadly, as a result of the earlier guillotine, new clause 13 and Government new schedule 2, which deal with carriers' liability, were not debated. Like me, Mr. Malins regrets that, because those provisions raised substantial issues of interest to hon. Members and to commercial operators and their employees, and have been the subject of significant decisions by the courts, one of which resulted in the Government introducing legislation. [Interruption.] Angela Watkinson shows her assent. It is a great pity that the only debate we can have about carriers is on clause 101.
I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman. A number of outside bodies, including the Road Haulage Association, have worked flat out and diligently not just in the past few days but in the past few hours, to ensure that their views are put. They will be as disappointed as we are that the House was not able to hear their views.
Indeed, that is a frustration. When the hon. Gentleman and I were, quite properly, asked by Government Whips before the spring break what might be an appropriate balance for the debate, within constraints which we did not accept but which we knew the Government would impose, one of the problems was that we did not have sight of the new schedules and new clauses.
In Committee, we had an interesting debate on clause 101, during which new policy was revealed with almost every minute that passed. By the end of the debate it was clear that the Bill did not say anything about the subject, and clause 101 is limited in that it merely gives a sketch of the scheme that might apply. It provides for regulations to be introduced subsequently when an authority-to-carry scheme is brought before Parliament, so we will have the opportunity to debate the issue under secondary legislation. We learned far more about what the Government had in mind than we had known before.
My hon. Friends and I are unhappy that the Government are clearly set on replacing conventional immigration controls—which there have to be and which we accept and agree with—with a new form of control, but without the same safeguards as when immigration officers, those working for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Home Office in our overseas missions, the police, and Customs and Excise officers working as agents on our borders and in our ports, act to enforce immigration and related matters. In theory at least, the current system provides the possibility of challenging an Executive decision through administrative review, an adjudicator and a tribunal. Had the Bill not been amended adversely yesterday, every case could have gone back into the legal system for judgment by an independent judicial authority.
I shall sketch out what the Government are proposing and explain my objections. I do not intend to take long, as I am conscious that we have to fit in three substantive debates with votes between now and 9 o'clock when the guillotine falls. That shows the impossibility of the task that we have been given.
The scheme will allow the Secretary of State to make regulations that require a carrier that brings someone to the United Kingdom without the required authority to pay a penalty. That transfers significant responsibility, including financial responsibility, to carriers. There is a big question over whether that should be the case.
When I was in Sangatte, I talked to the Eurostar people about the Eurotunnel operation. They were pleased that the Government had decided that they should not continue to be penalised when, despite the company's best efforts, people get on to vehicles that come across the channel. Eurostar had put in place heat-detecting and X-ray equipment. It had done everything reasonably possible, and had spent millions of pounds. I observed for myself that security at the Eurotunnel and Eurostar depot was far more effective than at the SNCF depot on the adjacent tracks, which is the responsibility of the French Government. I understand the anger prompted by the continuing incursion into cross-channel traffic, given that the operators who seek to make a living have done a great deal themselves. It is not as though they have not done things that cost them money, and have not had to pass the cost on to users of the service they provide.
This is how I assume the proposal is intended to work. As I have been to Japan, I shall use it as an example. Having bought a ticket, the traveller goes to a Japanese airport. As he goes to check in, he suddenly discovers that his unacceptability as a passenger has been flagged up on the airline operator's screen. He will not be told why he is not acceptable—the information that is held will not have been divulged—but the airline will have a method of checking with the British authorities whether he should be allowed on the plane. In theory, if other Governments pass similar legislation it will be possible for airlines to check with their authorities.
What redress would there be? Let us suppose that the traveller wishing to return from Japan happened to be a Member of Parliament who had to be here to do his or her duty the following day. There would probably be no redress if that was not possible.
Let us imagine that the traveller was from India, wanting to attend a wedding here—an occasion like the wedding reception I attended on Sunday evening. If when that person checked in on Saturday he was told he was unacceptable, he would not be able to do anything, apart from going to the British mission in India, which would not be open until the next working day. By definition, the reason for the flight would then be aborted, as would be the cost.
That system strikes me as entirely wrong. I recognise that it is better than a system that would give a junior employee of British Airways, or any other airline, information on why Sir Alan Haselhurst, Mr. Jeremy Corbyn, Miss Rosie Winterton or Mr. Simon Hughes was not an acceptable passenger. Of course I would not want such information to be given. I see that the hon. Member for Woking is glad that I did not include him on that list! I was trying to be fair; if I excluded Conservatives, I did not do so on purpose.
I appreciate that we would not want junior members of staff, or any other members of staff in private companies, to know something that might or might not be true, or for suspicions to be entertained about anyone. Understandably, someone travelling to a wedding, or indeed to a political rally—or someone who might have a previous conviction, or might be suspected of having a link with an organisation that might be considered unacceptable—might not want the information to be shared. What I do not consider acceptable is the effective replacement of a system whereby immigration control deals with such matters, through a proper process, with a system—totally unexplained in the Bill—involving an administrative block run by a computer link with the Home Office, or at any rate the British Government. Against that, it appears, there would be an appeal system of an unspecified nature—we know nothing about it, beyond the fact that the Minister says it will exist—and a compensation scheme which will operate if the Government get it wrong.
Let me give a real example. Let us suppose that, owing to a blip in the system, the person whose name had come up and shown her to be an "undesirable" was Miss Beverley Hughes. Let us imagine that it should have been Mr. Simon Hughes. In that event, Miss Beverley Hughes would rightly be aggrieved: she might find that the purpose of her visit had been entirely undermined. I do not think it would be easy to compensate her. I do not think it would have been enough for her to be told subsequently that she could have her money back, if the purpose of the visit had been aborted.
Mistakes do happen. I can give a parallel, although not similar, example. When I went to vote in a local election, a line had been put through my name on the electoral register. An inquiry revealed that the person whose name was above mine on the register had applied for a postal vote, and the line had been put through the wrong name. These things happen, and there is no immediate remedy.
Is my hon. Friend also worried about the establishment of identity? Airlines and other carriers will now have to collect far more personal information that is not relevant to the purpose of travel—for instance, dates of birth, which are not normally collected on application for a ticket. "Simon Hughes" on its own will not be enough; date of birth, perhaps an address, and all sorts of other personal data will be required under the authority-to-carry scheme.
I beg your pardon, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
Let me make my political point. Let us imagine that last year, a person was travelling from Zimbabwe. The flight was with a nationalised airline, Air Zimbabwe. The person at the Air Zimbabwe desk, where there were also customs officers, police and so forth, noted that the traveller was, according to the airline, not acceptable. It is surely pretty obvious that the authorities in the country from which the traveller sought to leave would be alerted immediately that there might be something suspicious—and that could be replicated in any country, at any time, when someone tried to leave that country. Under this scheme, it will be possible to trigger a refusal to allow a journey that has been lawfully purchased, and for no explanation to be given at the time in a way that could protect people.
The Government have not thought through their proposals. We seem to be saying that we are willing to help people who are fleeing from persecution, while being prepared to do exactly the opposite—to alert the authorities in countries where personal liberty and safety may be at severe risk. I want to hear the Government's explanation of how that problem could be avoided, because I cannot see how it could be.
I understand that this has, in a sense, been happening recently in one part of the world. The British authorities have, I think, placed Home Office officials at Prague airport to monitor those coming in, in order to prevent a large-scale arrival in the UK of Romany visitors, or Roma people, from the Czech Republic or further east. As I have not been to Prague recently, I have no first-hand experience; I can only relate what I have been told. I understand that there is at least some evidence of pretty crude discrimination on the basis of ethnicity with regard to who should be allowed and who should not, which has had a disproportionate effect on members of a certain ethnic group—people of Roma origin. I gather on good advice from the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants that a court case challenging the procedure is imminent, if it has not already been instigated.
The really big policy issue is this: we are setting up a whole overall network of different immigration control networks in the public and private sectors, at home and abroad, that are not open to the scrutiny that we would expect in the case of such important decisions.
The Bill is, substantively, about three things: nationality—not a matter for this debate—asylum and immigration. I assume we are trying to say that we still uphold people's right to seek asylum here. My hon. Friend Mr. Hancock made a telling observation in an earlier debate about people who were accepted here during the civil war in Spain, and who have been grateful ever since.
I note that the Westminster Hall exhibition of Low cartoons includes a cartoon from a February 1947 edition of the Evening Standard. It depicts a British worker reading his newspaper and complaining about "all these immigrants" arriving. Standing behind him are the ghosts of the Saxons, Goths, Vikings and others who—if our history is correct—made up the British race. We are in great danger of undermining the spirit of the refugee convention. If people find it impossible to leave their countries, it will by definition be impossible for them to make a case for asylum in another country.
The clause will introduce a visa regime without safeguards. The Minister asked me in Committee whether I would prefer a system of visa control, and in many ways I would. At least everybody would then know where they stand. I realise that such a system might prove over-bureaucratic, and that problems would arise in terms of people visiting for weekends, bank holidays and other public holidays. However, at least they would be within the system, rather than outwith it. Unless we are persuaded by the Minister's reply, I therefore hope that hon. Members of all parties will join me in voting to remove clause 101 from the Bill. If we cannot remove a system that would give responsibility to carriers, and establish instead an alternative visa control system, we should at least allow the House of Lords to come back with a more acceptable proposal.
I shall be brief, as there are other matters that need to be discussed. I was a Member of the House in 1987, when the Immigration (Carriers' Liability) Bill, the forerunner of clause 101, was passed. The motive behind that Bill was to prevent people who wanted to seek political asylum in this country or elsewhere in western Europe from fleeing places where they felt unsafe, and in which the danger was clear. It coincided with an increase in the number of Tamil people seeking political asylum from Sri Lanka, and with similar efforts on the part of many other countries in which political tension was increasing.
Simon Hughes is correct: what lies behind this development is akin to the privatisation of immigration control. In reality, it denies a considerable number of people—their wish to apply for asylum in another country may well be entirely genuine and well-founded—the opportunity to get near enough to an airline desk to pursue that application. If we think back to the situation in Chile before 1990, the question of whether a political person fleeing Chile merited asylum would now be judged not by due process in this country, but by an airline clerk who would be frightened that the airline would be fined £1,000 for bringing in a passenger who would subsequently have to be removed. In fact, enormous pressure was indeed put on the desk staff of British airlines around the world not to allow people about whom they had the slightest suspicion to travel.
The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey made a good point when he cited the example of Zimbabwe. In many other countries—Iran and Iraq, for example—someone could get as far as the airport to buy a ticket, only to be deterred from travelling by a clerk who knew nothing about the reality of the law and the justice of the claim, and who might well be a stooge of the police or the governing regime. That clerk could then deny them the right to travel, and as the hon. Gentleman rightly points out, if the police are observing them, they would be put in considerable danger.
Clause 101 is symptomatic of the paranoia that is sweeping Europe about people who seek political asylum. We live in a world that, for many people, is dangerous, divided and frightening. They regard the Geneva convention as their one hope. If we extend such controls and decision making to faraway airports, we will be comfortably ignorant of the facts. The reality is that some people put themselves at enormous risk merely by trying to exercise the rights that the United Nations convention has conferred in the countries that are signatories to it, of which we are indeed one.
In her response, I hope that the Minister will reflect on the impact of the Immigration (Carriers' Liability) Act and on the entire process, and that she will think again about the provision and the advice given to airline staff, which denies people their valuable human rights.
I want briefly to raise with the Minister a couple of matters relating to the authority-to-carry scheme that I discussed in Committee. I appreciate that she was not in her post at that time. I mentioned two rail trips that were causing some concern: the twice-weekly Bourg St. Maurice ski-train, and the Disney train. In both cases, when one purchases a ticket there is a Schengen exit check, but no UK check. I mention these matters now because the former Minister, Angela Eagle, kindly said in Committee that she would ensure that we were in a position to respond to any sudden clandestine activity. If the Minister has no information to hand, I should be happy for her to write to me.
A connected matter is the critical position concerning exits from France. As Minister may know, there is at most one decent, working heartbeat detector machine for Calais and Coquelles. There is simply insufficient investment over there, and the same applies to Dover. The Minister must understand that, whatever her polices in relation to carriers' liability and the authority to carry, only one lorry in every 100 is checked at Dover, and there is only one heartbeat detector machine. Because it is not being used properly by certain Dover authorities, it has broken down and that had to be repaired on several occasions. Far greater investment in machinery is needed, not just at Dover but on the other side of the channel.
Those are small points that are really Committee points, and I am sorry to return to them, but the former Minister was kind enough to say in Committee that they would be considered. I should be glad to be told of developments in due course.
As Simon Hughes said, the amendment would remove clause 101, which establishes an enabling power that allows for the making of regulations to establish the authority-to-carry scheme. However, removing that power would prevent the immigration and nationality directorate from embracing the potential of new technology, and deny us the opportunity to screen passengers better before they embark for the UK. There is an important point here. As the hon. Gentleman has acknowledged, the details of such passengers would be checked against data held by the Home Office, to discover whether they posed any known security or immigration threat. There is therefore no possibility of the carriers themselves, or anyone associated with them, having any idea of the information on which a decision would be based. All that the carrier would get would be a yes or no answer to the question whether it has the authority to carry the person in question.
The second important point is that the provision involves no decision as to whether the requirements of immigration rules are met. The provision is not concerned with immigration control in any shape or form. I should point out to my hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn that it is also in no sense a transfer or privatisation, as he termed it, of immigration control. In that regard, it has no implications. Nor does it delegate, as my hon. Friend maintained, any decision making to clerks or carriers. It is important that people understand that point.
If the authorities in this country say to Iranian Airlines, for example, that person X is not likely to be admitted here for terrorist or immigration reasons, will not that give some important information to a state-owned airline in a country whose human rights record is patchy? It could have implications for the person's family, especially if he or she has family in this country who are applying for asylum.
No reasons, be they terrorist or immigration-related, would be given to the carriers. They would simply be told whether they had the authority to bring the person to the UK. I understand well the point that my hon. Friend makes, but he and others need to consider my point: if the Home Office has information that suggests that someone is an immigration or security risk—perhaps he or she is travelling on a false passport or some information is known about his or her activities that raises concerns—is it right that we should allow that person on to an aircraft? That is the difficult decision that we have to face. If we have such information, is it right to allow that person to be carried to this country, with whatever consequences that might have? The Government contend—it may be a point of difference between us that we cannot bridge—that it would be wrong and irresponsible to tell a carrier that it can carry such a person even though we have unanswered questions about the security risk that he or she presents.
Will the Minister clarify the nature of the schemes proposed? They could vary from a narrow database that accurately defined individuals who posed a security risk to a blanket ruling that all Angolans travelling from Portugal are a risk because a passport scam is going on. In other words, schemes could be very specific or much more general. Will the schemes address specific individuals or classes of individuals?
We would need to have further discussions about the regulations, but my understanding—I have read the Committee report in detail and received further advice from officials—is that the schemes will be concerned with individuals. To be fair, I must add that that point was made by Ministers in Committee. Data will be presented by individuals to the carriers and the stored information against which the data will be checked will be about individuals. The authority-to-carry scheme would be authorised in particular areas, but the process of identification would be on an individual basis.
Does the Minister not realise the dangerous direction in which these provisions could lead the world? For example, two years ago the Government of Sri Lanka could have told the British Government that they did not want our carriers to allow on to a plane in London anybody who might support the Tamil separatist movement. Someone could be prevented from flying to the US on the basis of the sort of dodgy information that has resulted in people being banged up in Belmarsh prison but then released by the courts because they had no case to answer. Relying on state information to stop people leaving countries is a very different ball game from relying on the duty of the British state to stop people coming into our country. It should not be our job to try to rule the world or to let other people try to rule the world outside their own territorial boundaries.
The information against which a person's details would be checked would be the information held by our Home Office, not information that another Government had requested us to use. I accept that that point does not remove all the hon. Gentleman's concerns, but we have to strike a balance. The answer depends on judgments about what we should do when we have information about people and know the serious consequences that can arise from carrying people, especially in aircraft, who might be a security risk. The Government's judgment is that we have a duty and responsibility to consider refusing authority to carry when we are concerned that somebody poses a security or immigration threat.
I may not be able to bridge the gap between the Government and some hon. Members on this point, but I shall try to deal with some of the questions of detail in case that gives them some comfort. The Minister in Committee gave an open response to the concerns expressed and made it clear that the regulations would be subject to parliamentary scrutiny, and transparent. Attempts would also be made to provide sufficient remedy in the regulations for any passenger refused under the scheme to challenge the decision or the data on which it was based. We can discuss the nature of the remedy, but we might be able to provide a hotline through which cases of mistaken identity or wrong information could be checked. We do not have a closed mind about remedies, and hon. Members have already been assured that we will wish to consider, where possible, speedy remedies that will offset the potential disadvantage to people of not being able to board a plane at a certain time.
My hon. Friend Simon Hughes gave an example in which a person missed an event of great importance because they had been refused permission to board a flight. Does the Minister accept that in such cases of error it will be difficult to assign the blame to individual airline staff or to the Home Office? Given that the Home Office will require the airlines to implement the scheme, does she accept that the Home Office should pick up compensation claims? A hotline will not help an individual who has missed the event to which they were intending to travel.
I make no commitment in relation to compensation per se, but if a carrier acts on the basis of information provided by the Home Office, it will not be liable for the consequences of implementing the decision. I return to the need to strike a balance on this issue. The example was given of a trip to attend a wedding. It may be that the remedy for a person—that is, attending the wedding—is not available if the authority to carry is denied. No matter how quickly the information could be checked, we might not be able to put that right. However, the alternative proposed by the Liberal Democrats—a visa scheme—could have unnecessary disadvantages for many more people. The imposition of a visa scheme on everybody in a country, as opposed to an authority-to-carry scheme that would identify only those individuals about whom concerns were felt, is another important and difficult question of balance. We do not want to impose visa regimes where they are not necessary. That would be an imposition on a whole population. The authority-to-carry scheme gives the option that individuals can be checked. Some people, such as those involved in the wedding to which reference has been made, may suffer irredeemable consequences, but that possibility has to be balanced against the consequences if a whole population had to go through a bureaucratic process to obtain a visa.
I might be able to give the House some comfort on some of the details. A question was asked concerning the type of personal data that would be requested, and whether the requirements would extend to sources of personal information that are not sought currently. I assure the House that addressees would not be asked for that sort of data. The information requested would be confined to the person's name, date of birth, gender and nationality, and the nature of the travel document involved. As I understand it, people seeking leave to travel have to give exactly that information now.
Concerns have been raised about asylum seekers. Authority-to-carry schemes are designed to identify people thought to pose an immigration or security threat. Almost by definition, they would not normally be people who had been to the UK before. Unless a first-time asylum seeker was known to present a threat for some other reason, he or she would not fall foul, almost by definition, of the authority-to-carry scheme. It is unlikely that there would be any information at all on such people. Why would there be?
If a member of the family of a person in this country who has sought political asylum here applies to fly to Britain, will he or she be tagged on the system as a person likely not to be admitted, or will that person be allowed to come here?
I have made it clear that the information needed to give a yes or no answer to carriers would be that which suggests that there is or is not an immigration or security threat. Relatives of people who come here legally and declare themselves to be asylum seekers so that a claim can be handled in the normal way would clearly not pose an immigration threat. It may be a different matter when it comes to people who come here illegally, but in the circumstances described by my hon. Friend I see no reason to believe that there would be an immigration threat.
This issue raises some difficult questions about balance. I have listened carefully to what the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey has said. I hope that he is persuaded by the points that I have made about the detail of the scheme and about the extent to which we want to get it right so that we can reduce to a minimum the negative consequences for individuals. On balance, we think that the authority-to-carry scheme is preferable to an all-out visa scheme. For that reason, I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment. If he presses it to a vote, I hope that the House will support the Government's proposal.
With the leave of the House, I take this opportunity to thank the Minister for her courteous reply. We are talking about new ideas, so there are many unanswered questions. The proposal has not been thought through or prepared sufficiently, although I do not dissent from what she has said.
I mentioned the option of establishing a visa system, but that is only one alternative. I shall offer another. If the Government had information leading them to believe that certain people thought to be in Pakistan or Iraq, for instance, would not be accepted here, they could use the normal channels and communicate the matter to the authorities in that country. That is what happens now, and it would mean that the Home Office and immigration authorities, the police and the internal administration system could intervene if they wanted to and if they thought the person involved would get leave to come here and pose a threat.
If a person has a criminal past or a history of being what the Minister called an immigration threat—a phrase to which I shall return—or, more importantly, a security threat, liaison with agencies such as MI5, MI6, Interpol and others would offer other ways in which to handle the matter. That would be better than using commercial operators to tell people that they would not be able to travel.
Secondly, if the Government are going to go down this road, the time to tell people that they cannot travel is when they seek to book their tickets. The people involved will at least then be alerted to the difficulties before they arrive at the airport.
My hon. Friend Mr. Allan has pointed out to me that he has never been asked for his date of birth when booking an airline ticket or turning up at a checkout. Neither have I, so the sort of information that the Minister spoke about goes beyond what people would normally be asked for when purchasing tickets or boarding an aeroplane.
Thirdly, a real danger that the Government have not thought through—but which was mentioned by me and by Mr. Corbyn—involves people at risk in their own countries. If the authorities see someone being rejected and do not know whether that has happened because that person, in his or her past, came to Britain on a false passport, or because that person is an international security threat, they might draw the worst rather than the best conclusions. There is a terrible risk that a person in that situation could be regarded as much more dangerous than is truly the case. The result is that that person could become even more vulnerable, and that would also be out of our control.
Finally, if the Government want to pursue this proposal they should talk to partner Governments in the EU, in the international associations covering air transport and in the other international organisations, to see whether there can be agreement about a common scheme. However, any such scheme must defend people's liberties. It should not build yet more barriers around a fortress Britain in an increasingly fortress Europe and fortress world.
The Minister is right that a balance must be struck between combating international terrorism and preventing people from abusing immigration and other systems. We judge that the measure goes far beyond that. The implications have not been thought through, and I urge the House to support amendment No. 66.