Immigration Entry Clearance Standards

– in the House of Commons at 12:32 pm on 30th March 2004.

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Photo of David Davis David Davis Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office) 12:42 pm, 30th March 2004

I beg to move,

That this House
condemns the Government's failure to maintain immigration entry clearance standards;
regrets the confusion as to whom the relaxed guidance actually applies;
notes the unwillingness of Ministers to take responsibility for the operation of immigration policies;
expresses deep concern that, at a time when homeland security is paramount, current fast-tracking procedures do not enable full and thorough checks on applicants;
applauds those public servants who bring the Home Office's failings and dishonest internal workings to the attention of honourable Members and the wider public;
calls on Her Majesty' Government to reinstate those officials currently suspended from duty;
recognises with regret that recent revelations have exposed grave deficiencies in the immigration service;
and believes that the Government has lost both the confidence and the trust of the British people in its ability to control immigration policy.

Before I start on the substantive motion, may I, through the Home Secretary, offer the congratulations of the Opposition—and, I suspect, all hon. Members—to the security services and the police on the remarkable operation that they carried out today, thwarting, we believe, a major terrorist attack?

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his words. I believe that we all give considerable thanks to the security services and the counter-terrorism branch, which have done and are doing a first-class job of securing our safety. We now wish to ensure that due process of law takes its course and that the public, especially in those local communities, are reassured both of the adequacy of policing, and that we have in hand any other measures that might be necessary to secure social cohesion.

Photo of David Davis David Davis Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office)

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that.

Today's debate is about the effective collapse of immigration controls in this country. Let us start by recognising the origins of that catastrophic failure. In May 1997, the Labour Government tore up all our policies on immigration and asylum. In particular, they got rid of the so-called white list, restraints on benefits and the agreement with the French Government. The result was an increase of 200,000 incomers per annum in the UK in the first five years of the Labour Government. It is therefore no wonder that the immigration and nationality directorate was collapsing under the strain.

Photo of David Davis David Davis Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office)

I will give way in a minute.

That is why the Government have a problem. It is why they are mounting a pathetic attempt to blame everyone else—the civil service, the right-wing press including the Daily Mirror, and now the Conservatives. That is daft. We did not face half a million incomers every year, because we got our strategy right.

What emerges from the documents—[Interruption.] I am sure that hon. Members will be on their feet today. What emerges from the documents that we have seen so far—and the new documents that I am releasing today—is a picture of civil servants—honourable, committed and hardworking—who are struggling under impossible burdens.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of David Davis David Davis Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office)

I will give way in a moment. I see that we have a good set of Government Whips' plants today—almost vegetables, one might say.

These are civil servants who were instructed to hit clearance targets with no consideration for the quality or purpose of the work that they do. Civil servants are being instructed to do—

Photo of David Davis David Davis Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office)

I will give way in a moment.

Civil servants are being instructed to do things that they believe are improper or even illegal. We are clear from what they say, explicitly, that the collapse has happened over the past two or three years, not 10 or 20 years. It emerges also that these civil servants are the heroes of the piece, not the villains, as Ministers have intimated during the past few weeks.

I give way to the first plant.

Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour/Co-operative, North West Leicestershire

I will resist the temptation to turn this intervention into a point of order that ends in my instructing my hon. and learned Friend Mr. Marshall-Andrews for being called a Government Whips' plant.

Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us whether that golden asylum and immigration legacy to which he is referring, which the Government inherited on 1 May 1997, included an average time to deal with applications of almost two years? Does he not believe that that played some part in the problems that have been encountered since then?

Photo of David Davis David Davis Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office)

I shall remind the hon. Gentleman of the figures, if he wants to talk numbers. I always enjoy bandying numbers with Whips' plants. In our last year in office, I think that there were 35,000 applicants, compared with 125,000 in Labour's first year in office.

I shall move on to the sequence of events.

Photo of Tom Watson Tom Watson Labour, West Bromwich East

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Photo of David Davis David Davis Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office)

I will give way in a moment—I will give another plant a chance.

Photo of Mrs Gillian Shephard Mrs Gillian Shephard Conservative, South West Norfolk

Speaking as a Whip non-plant, perhaps I could strengthen the evidence that my right hon. Friend is giving the House by telling him that over the past two to three years the Breckland district council, which covers part of my constituency, has calculated that between 15,000 and 20,000 migrant workers have arrived in its district area. It has no means of knowing whether they are here legally or illegally. It has been extremely difficult to raise concerns among Ministers about whether these people are protected, catered for, dealt with or in any way rendered less vulnerable than invisible people will be.

Photo of David Davis David Davis Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office)

My right hon. Friend makes an excellent point. She flags up something that I had not intended to raise, but I think it important: that is, that the issue has serious implications. The proper management of immigration in its totality has an important role in improving or maintaining good community relations, reducing or controlling the burdens on societies and protecting the people themselves. As the cockle pickers' incident demonstrated only too clearly—it took the Government six weeks to convene a ministerial meeting—everyone is affected, including people coming into the country.

I shall go through the events of the past few weeks. Three weeks ago, the civil servant, Steve Moxon, revealed that immigration officials in Sheffield had been ordered by senior managers to drop key checks on migrants coming to Britain under the European Community Association Agreement. First, the Home Office denied it categorically again and again. Eventually, the Minister was forced to admit that the allegations were correct. However, she did not tell us the full facts.

The Immigration Minister told the House that the decision to waive checks was "rare and untypical". Now we have learned that it applied to bogus students, sham marriages, people with dubious immigration histories—in fact, it applied to anyone whose application was more than three months old. In effect, this meant granting visas on the back of spurious and demonstrably false claims. As one civil servant in the immigration and nationality directorate wrote in a letter this weekend,

"This is almost like the CPS"— the Crown Prosecution Service

"being told to destroy the papers in all prosecution cases, except where there is a 100 per cent. prospect of a conviction, so that the backlog can be cleared."

That is the view from the front line—not from the ministerial suite, but from the front line of the immigration and nationality directorate. If virtually all applications were being granted, how on earth can we believe the Minister's claim that the practice of rubber-stamping was rare and untypical?

The Immigration Minister also told the House that the decision to sanction such a policy was taken at a junior level in Sheffield. She told us that she had had nothing to do with it. This week we learned that the Minister had sanctioned a much broader policy. The memo that ordered civil servants to grant all applications over three months old stated:

"This exercise has been agreed by the Minister of State, Beverley Hughes."

So how can the Immigration Minister deny all knowledge of this practice, when she ordered it in the first place?

Photo of Tom Watson Tom Watson Labour, West Bromwich East

When the right hon. Gentleman received the e-mail from Bucharest on 8 March, did he consider it his duty to submit the evidence to the Sutton investigation? Why did he wait three weeks to bring it to the notice of the House?

Photo of David Davis David Davis Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office)

I could almost see the Whips' sheet in front of the hon. Gentleman when he was reading out the question. I have two points to make. I remind the hon. Gentleman and this arrogant Government that Ministers are accountable to Parliament, not the other way round. If the hon. Gentleman had listened to his own Home Secretary on the radio this morning, he would have heard him say that that was the responsible thing to do if one did not know the provenance of a piece of information. That is what I did until I could confirm the provenance of the document, which was last Wednesday night/Thursday. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman should talk to his own Home Secretary. He was the one who said that that was the right thing to do. The Whips' plants should get their act together.

I shall excite the Whips' plants now. In the past few days, documents that have been sent to me, which I am making public today, indicate that the decision to waive checks on ECAA applicants went wider and deeper than any previous memo suggests. These documents suggest that ministerial denials of responsibility are, frankly, incredible. I have given the Home Secretary a copy of the documents and placed a copy in the House of Commons Library. The story they tell is one of concerns ignored, warnings unheeded and objections overruled.

Last night the Minister of State claimed that she knew nothing of the allegations of the consul in Bucharest. That is difficult to believe when one looks at the facts. I have a letter written by Sir John Ramsden, a senior Foreign Office civil servant, to Chris Mace, who is the deputy director general of the immigration and nationality directorate. It was copied to Peter Wrench, the deputy director general in charge of policy. It is one of several accounts of the abuses of the ECAA scheme.

Let me read the House the key extracts. Sir John is writing about the ECAA scheme. He states:

"It clear from what they"— the British Embassy in Bucharest—

"told me that this has developed into an organised scam that completely undermines our entry control procedures—and indeed makes a bit of a nonsense of having a visa regime."

He continues:

"Post had just received 70 virtually identical business plans . . . Interviewed applicants rarely knew what was in their business plans, typically explaining that these had been 'written by the solicitors.'"

The letter goes on:

"It was often clear that applicants had no idea about the trade they were supposed to be setting up in the UK. . . Post have to write long referral letters pointing out the flaws in the cases submitted to them . . ."

But the business case unit in the Home Office

"only rarely refuses applications. . . . Even those with a previous immigration history e.g. people caught submitting forged documents in the past have been accepted under the scheme."

He concludes:

"It is demoralising for our Post to have to devote a great deal of work to servicing a scam which makes them look ridiculous."

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I do not dispute for a moment that such allegations are deeply serious and should be dealt with as such. Is the right hon. Gentleman suggesting that any Minister approved the actions that he describes—that where previous fraudulent activity had been identified and where there was clearly illegal action, Ministers had told staff that they should ignore it and wave through the application?

Photo of David Davis David Davis Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office)

Unfortunately, the Home Secretary has teed me up well for my next paragraph. The letter was written to the Minister's senior civil servants in November 2002, six months after the Immigration Minister was appointed to her position. Are the Government seriously suggesting that she was not told? In which case, who is running the Department?

Photo of David Davis David Davis Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office)

In a moment.

Last night the Minister asked why the consul in Bucharest had not taken the matter up with his senior managers. Let me read to the House a letter that James Cameron wrote to the Home Office as far back as October 2002 to complain about the way in which ECAA applications were processed. He states that the Home Office

"judgement and decision making with regard to BCU/ECAA applications is a continual problem for overseas posts such as Sofia and Bucharest."

He continues:

"Many of the applicants have adverse immigration histories, administrative removals, suspect relationships, have applied after Leave To Remain has expired, and been working illegally in the UK for sometime prior to their ECAA application."

He goes on:

"As if this was not enough, most of our ECAA applicants have paid £1500–£2000 to a UK lawyer who 'guarantees' them a visa at the end of the application process.

The applicants rarely know what is in their business plan, cannot speak English, and have absolutely no knowledge or experience in the type of skills needed for respective businesses.

Unfortunately against our strongest recommendations," the Home Office

"continues to issue ECAA applications such as these."

Let us understand what this means in reality—what Mr. Cameron and his demoralised staff had to face. I shall give just a few examples of the people being let in under the scheme. I have concealed individual names to protect their identities. One example is a Ms A. who was a former British asylum seeker. All her claims for asylum and all her appeals were turned down in the mid-1990s. Facing deportation, Ms A. absconded. She was subsequently picked up by the police and removed from the UK in 1997—[Interruption.] Yes, picked up and removed. Exactly right—[Interruption.]

Photo of David Davis David Davis Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office)

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I need protection.

Ms A. was not, one would have thought, an ideal candidate for the ECAA scheme, yet in October 2002 she was granted an entry visa to the UK under the scheme, under a Labour Government. Or consider Mr. N., whose application to the ECAA scheme was reviewed in March last year. The British embassy "strongly" recommended that Mr. N.'s application be refused because he had insufficient funds to support himself without recourse to public funds. The Home Office's response? "Entry cleared."

Many other examples of extraordinary ECAA applications include not least a range of builders who know nothing about bricks and mortar, and electricians who know nothing about electricity. A common factor in these applications was an inability to speak English. And the Home Office response? "Entry cleared."

Photo of David Davis David Davis Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office)

No, I will not. I have given up.

Those are not one-off examples. It is an organised scam. It is well run and well known to the Home Office, yet instead of being tightened since these examples, the rules have been weakened. Yesterday the Home Secretary made a statement on organised crime. This is a prime example of organised crime. One of the excuses given by the Minister and the Prime Minister was that the vast majority of ECAA cases were already in the country legally, but that was all part of the scam.

I have a letter from the British embassy in Bulgaria to the immigration and nationality directorate in Croydon. It lists the names of 48 people who applied to come to the UK for four to six-day holiday visits from Bulgaria, with an organisation called Delfi Tours.

Photo of Geraint Davies Geraint Davies Labour, Croydon Central

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Photo of David Davis David Davis Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office)

No, I will not—I want to finish this point.

More than three quarters of those who came to the UK on those holiday visas applied for ECAA status and never returned to Bulgaria. The vice-consul points out that Delfi Tours is

"just one agency of about 40 we have on a list."

The letter states that that

"is clear evidence of organised human trafficking for economic migration from Eastern Europe . . . If this does not demonstrate the enormity of the problem and that something should be done about the ECAA problem sooner rather than later, I don't know what would. It is surely high time Ministers were addressed and the policy of 'switching' in country removed altogether".

The letter also states:

"It is no wonder that our daily work is now confined mainly to the depressing task of processing ECAA main applications, ECAA dependants, family visits to ECAA members, or hapless visitors or businessmen with forged documents and increasingly credulous applications to visit the UK with the sole purpose of working there . . . Many local agencies and legal firms in the UK are now jumping on the ECAA bandwagon and submitting mass applications here for applicants with horrendous previous local or UK immigration records, as it is widely and correctly perceived that it is easier to get into the UK under the Agreement that it is to go on a visit."

That letter was from the British vice-consul in Sofia to the immigration and nationality directorate in Croydon, and it was sent on 20 October 2002. How can Ministers seriously claim that they knew nothing about that?

I will give way to Geraint Davies, who has a constituency point.

Photo of Geraint Davies Geraint Davies Labour, Croydon Central

When the right hon. Gentleman was Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, he signed off a report showing that the previous Government's legacy on immigration was a computer system that did not arrive—hundreds of staff were sacked during that wait—and the loss of hundreds of files when the whole department moved from one office to another. Given that history and his intention to cut £600 million from the Home Office's budget, will he accept that the prospects of his managing the system any better are next to nil?

Photo of David Davis David Davis Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office)

Rather sadly, coming from an ex-member of the Public Accounts Committee, barely a point in that intervention was correct. The hon. Gentleman omitted to mention that the Passport Agency was famously computerised under this Government, and as a result one could not get a passport to leave the country—everybody could get in, but one could not get out. [Interruption.]

Photo of David Davis David Davis Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office)

I think that Mr. Speaker is protecting the hon. Gentleman from me.

We are discussing a massive well organised migration scam that civil servants had drawn to the attention of the Home Office, but Ministers did nothing about it. That is the central allegation that the Home Secretary must answer.

When my office spoke to Mr. Cameron last Thursday, he said that the concerns he raised could easily have been brought to my attention by any one of his demoralised staff. As the man in charge, however, he felt he should be the one to raise them. Frankly, he is a very brave man: at the end of the day, the buck stops with him, and the Minister should learn something from that.

This is not a question of one or two operational failures; what we have witnessed over the past month is an extraordinary outbreak of incidents that are symptomatic of a catastrophic failure of the system. It is a story of committed and loyal civil servants struggling to make a failing system work, and having their cries for help ignored.

Photo of David Davis David Davis Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office)

The hon. Gentleman is being ignored, so he knows how the civil servants feel.

Three weeks ago, I said that there had either been collusion, cover-up or simple incompetence; I am beginning to believe that it was all three.

I am glad to see that the Home Secretary recognised the magnitude of the problem this morning. That is why, as I understand it, he has announced a major investigation, with staff being sent to Bucharest and Sofia—the problem is here, not there—and the setting up of a hotline for civil servants who want to reveal problems without being set about by the Government public relations machine. I welcome those measures, which belatedly begin to recognise the size of the problem.

The Home Secretary must make a decision, however. Either he believes that what I have described is the result of systemic operational failure, in which case the Minister is to blame, or it is a failure of policy, in which case he is to blame. Whichever it is, somebody should shoulder responsibility for this disaster.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department 1:05 pm, 30th March 2004

I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

"congratulates the Government on having embarked on radical end to end reform of the immigration and asylum system including strengthening border controls, reducing asylum intake by more than half, increasing immigration removals to record levels and speeding up the processing of applications for leave to remain in the UK;
notes that, as indicated in a statement published by the Government on 29th March, all Governments have instituted reasonable and proportionate measures to deal with backlogs of applications by people already in this country for permission to extend their stay;
and applauds the fact that the Government, by investing more staff resources than ever before, has reached the point where the Backlog Reduction Accelerated Clearance Exercise (BRACE) is no longer necessary."

The allegations are serious and concern sensitive issues with profound implications for attitudes to immigration and for the actions of the Government, both now and in the future. [Interruption.] It is no good Conservative Members shouting, "Hear, hear", because they will not get any jokes or knockabout—these matters should be treated with the gravity that they deserve. This is not a knockabout occasion; this is supposed to be a serious debate. [Interruption.] When children shout, "Get on with it", they do themselves no service.

We should have a grown-up debate and examine the issues with the gravity that they deserve, and we should also understand the concerns that the issues raise with the public. Whatever the knockabout in this House, the concerns of the public affect not only how we do business but race and community relations, and wider immigration policy.

We should conduct the debate carefully: we should not duck the issues or underestimate the concerns, but we should not play into the hands of the British National party either.

Photo of Dr Jim Marshall Dr Jim Marshall Labour, Leicester South

I do not recognise the system described by David Davis. I have to deal with many immigration and asylum cases in my constituency, and it is still exceedingly difficult for people from certain countries to get into the United Kingdom either to settle or as visitors, so I do not understand the big picture that he is painting. If, however, what he says contains some truth—it appears that it does—will the Home Secretary put the issue into perspective by discussing the order of magnitude of the people whom we are talking about compared with people who want to come to the United Kingdom from all parts of the world either to settle or as visitors?

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I will happily do that for my hon. Friend and the House, and I intend to work through the allegations one by one. Today, I have announced the suspension of all applications from Romania and Bulgaria, and the fast track has already been suspended, as those who are familiar with the issue will know. I am instigating an immediate further inquiry, and, as the shadow Home Secretary, David Davis, has said, I have indicated that staff should immediately go to Bucharest and Sofia to examine the further allegations.

Had the claims been made available to the Sutton inquiry, we would have taken them into account from 8 March. Unfortunately, the claims were not available, but as I indicated on the radio this morning, we are setting up a hotline and a website so that those who do not want to use the existing whistleblower procedures can feel free to speak without intimidation. That may disappoint The Sunday Times and other newspapers, because staff will have to report things through the system, not outside it. I promise them, however, that any allegations will be dealt with properly and sensitively.

We will pick up on the work of the National Criminal Intelligence Service. That was mentioned in Mr. Cameron's e-mail, which indicated that it was doing an excellent job—as it was, on the back of the conference that was held with the Foreign Office in November 2002 on dealing with the problems and opportunities of developments in south-east Europe. That was part of our recognition of the fact that organised criminality would undermine the case for accession to the European Union, undermine proper immigration procedures, and undermine our attack on drug smuggling. That led to allegations of the kind that have been reiterated today.

I mention the conference in November 2002 because the fresh material—not fresh in the sense that the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden has had it for a long time, but in the sense that he has put it into the public arena—relates very much to what was happening in autumn 2002. Yes, Chris Mace and Peter Wrench did work for the Department then, but they have not done so for some considerable time. [Hon. Members: "So what?"] Conservative Members should not assume that we disagree with them just because they have a political hare running. Some of us agree that action should have been taken. Some of us—including the Minister of State and me—believe that if material is placed before senior management they should act on it. We are talking about allegations of fraud and forged documents. People who use false papers and have an immigration history that rules them out should be ruled out. It does not require a great deal of intelligence to recognise that, just common sense. [Interruption.] I hear another sedentary intervention saying that my right hon. Friend the Minister is to blame. How on earth can one blame her for actions taken in relation to the failure to follow through on allegations of the magnitude that I have described and have been alleged by the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden?

The e-mail that was revealed last night was sent by Mr. Cameron on 8 March. That coincides exactly with the day on which my right hon. Friend the Minister set up the review to examine these issues. I do not dispute for a moment that the shadow Home Secretary did not know who had sent the e-mail, and I do not doubt his word in terms of its not being revealed until last Thursday, but I do think that it was irresponsible, having had that document and others, not to have placed them before the Sutton review.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I thought that we had all agreed that where fraud, deception, forgery and illegal action need to be dealt with, we all have a responsibility to do so.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I shall give way in a moment to Mrs. Browning, who will have apoplexy if I do not, but I just want to make it clear that responsibility is not confined to Ministers: we all have an obligation. I simply put myself in the position of the shadow Home Secretary and ask whether I would want to make mischief—

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons

Order. There are so many voices in the Chamber that I cannot hear the Home Secretary. I should be able to hear the Home Secretary. I say again, as I have said before, that shouting is unacceptable in the House.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

Thank you, Mr. Speaker, although I am not worried about being shouted at.

Were I to be in the shadow Home Secretary's position, I would certainly want to cause maximum embarrassment to the Government. Oppositions do that—we did it ourselves. However, I would have questioned my conscience as to whether, having received material and held it for several weeks, I would have been honour-bound to present it not to me, the Home Secretary, but to Ken Sutton.

Photo of Angela Browning Angela Browning Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

I point out to the Home Secretary that I am listening very quietly, unusually for me. As a former Minister, I, like many of my colleagues, was subjected by this Government, when they were in opposition, to a two-year full public inquiry chaired by the Master of the Rolls, with all ministerial papers being made available. I refer of course to the BSE inquiry. I have no objection to having been put through that exercise, but I remind the Home Secretary that not one Minister who was subject to that inquiry sought at any time to blame any official. During our term of office, the buck stopped with Ministers, and we recognised that fact.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

But I do not remember a single Minister resigning. I remember that BSE cost the country billions of pounds, that it cost people a great deal of misery, and that there were very many allegations, but I do not remember the Secretary of State or any Minister resigning. [Interruption.] Hon. Members are shouting that they were exonerated. Well, my right hon. Friend the Minister has been exonerated. [Hon. Members: "No, she has not."] Yes, she has. This is not simply a matter of protecting my integrity or that of my right hon. Friend or other Ministers: it is about the confidence that the public need to have and about the morale of staff in dealing with such issues as they undertake a difficult job. The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden said, "We value the staff, we have confidence them, and we applaud them for their courage." So do we. We have, above all, a duty of care to our staff, and we have not sought to blame them for what has happened. [Hon. Members: "Yes, you have."] No, we have not. We have sought to get to the root of the allegations that were made in relation to specific measures that were taken, why they were taken, and who authorised them to be taken, even if we understand why they were taken. There is a difference.

Photo of Mark Oaten Mark Oaten Shadow Secretary of State for Home Affairs, Home Affairs

As the internal inquiry was unable to consider the Cameron e-mail, will the Home Secretary come to the Dispatch Box and agree to a full independent inquiry so that it can be considered?

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I am already at the Dispatch Box announcing the measures that we intend to take and the way in which we will deal with the material: we will of course make it publicly available.

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Shadow Minister (Education)

The Secretary of State said a moment ago that Ministers have not sought to pin the blame on officials. Was he not present for the statement that his right hon. Friend the Minister made to this House about a month ago, when she specifically indicated that officials, not herself, were responsible for what had gone wrong? She should know what is happening in her part of the Department. If she is not in full control of the situation, that suggests that she is not up to the job.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I am sorry, but I intend to deal with the specific allegations one by one; trying to slur the Minister does not shed any light on the situation—

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I want to make some progress before I give way again.

We need to get a bit of light on the issue, as well as heat, so I am happy to deal with the facts. I remind Chris Grayling that I was not in the Chamber for my right hon. Friend's statement because I was in the United States; otherwise, I would have made the statement myself. I have read it, however, and the truth is that she simply gave the facts. There is a big difference between trying to get to the facts and blaming staff, as was illustrated by the example of BSE that was cited a moment ago. Somebody had made the decisions, so somebody was to blame, but in the end nobody was blamed. Well, fair do's: if nobody is to blame for anything, nobody is accountable for anything. We are accountable and responsible for our policies. I am responsible and accountable even when I have not devised the policies because that is our constitution, which goes back a very long way. As someone who did politics at university, I am fully familiar with its niceties.

Let me deal with the context of the events. For example, let us consider the suggestion of the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden that we inherited a golden era of immigration and asylum control. In fact, we inherited a complete shambles in 1997. The previous Government did not have an electronic fingerprinting system; they had a computer that had broken down, and it took 20 months to process the initial decision on asylum compared with two months now. There were 54,000 outstanding cases whereas there is now less than half that number. Fewer than 9,000 people were removed every year, whereas last year we removed 17,000 asylum seekers as well as 12,000 other illegal immigrants. If the Opposition want to bandy words about who inherited a shambles and who did something about that, we are happy to do so.

My right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Citizenship and Immigration has been instrumental in turning the system around in the past 18 months. She has ensured that, instead of a 45 per cent. increase in asylum claims, there has been a 50 per cent. drop in the past year. [Interruption]. I mention asylum only because there has been a clever attempt to combine the word "asylum" with the immigration allegations that have been made in the past three weeks, to the point where even a BBC political reporter did that on the news yesterday. That is not surprising because some of the newspapers that have jumped on the bandwagon have hinted—they have not told lies because not telling the truth is good enough for them—that the matter related to the asylum system rather than entry clearance, and to those who were already in the country and having their cases reaffirmed. [Hon. Members: "Blame civil servants and the media."] I was not blaming anybody but simply pointing out that there is a desire to confuse the system. It exists because some people deeply oppose any inward immigration to this country.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I shall in a moment. When we published our White Paper two years ago, we set out a clear, balanced policy and a comprehensive approach to immigration, nationality and asylum. We said that we wanted to clamp down on those who entered the country clandestinely. We wanted people who did not have a legitimate asylum claim to apply openly and legitimately to come into the country to work.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I shall give way in a moment. People inside and outside the House have opposed that balanced policy throughout. I want to make it clear that we are sticking to it. Whatever the allegations, whatever the truth of the matter, we shall not be diverted into believing that everybody who applies to enter our country—those who want to work or happen to have a foreign name, a different nationality or religion—is somehow suspect and up to no good, and should be rejected.

Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous Conservative, South West Bedfordshire

The Home Secretary spoke of the importance of good community relations. All hon. Members agree with that. However, does he accept that the failure to remove 250,000 failed asylum seekers since 1997 has the potential fatally to undermine the ability to build good community relations in this country?

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

Doubling the removals of those who are not here legitimately has helped. Identity cards would be a major step forward in ensuring that we knew who was in the country, whether they were entitled to services and whether they had been authorised to draw on those services. It would also make the reinstitution of embarkation procedures, which the previous Government abandoned, at least a possibility. At the moment, it is not.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Hall Green

There are two central issues. The first is the specific charges of fraud, which need to be fully investigated; the second is that we have deliberately misused the European Community Association Agreements system, which the previous Government introduced. It has been put to me that the charge constitutes nothing more than naked opportunism. If there is any substance in the allegations, surely we need to know what happened when Mr. Howard was Home Secretary. Should not we be able to compare the previous Government's policy with the current one? Should not all documents and memos that relate to that period be disclosed so that everyone in the country can see the whole picture and the whole truth?

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

In a moment. I simply want to make the point clearly that we need a properly managed, correctly authorised and accurately reported asylum and nationality system that rejects those who should not be in the country but welcomes those who should.

I want to deal specifically with the four issues that the media raised in the past few weeks.

Photo of Neil Gerrard Neil Gerrard Labour, Walthamstow

Before my right hon. Friend moves on, I want to make a point about responsibility. Will he cast his mind back to the backlog clearances that took place in the past and remember who was responsible for conducting them in 1993? The details were never made public. Yet the results of such exercises in the past few years have been announced and Ministers have clearly stated the criteria for them.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

We all remember who was Home Secretary in 1993 and we shall remind the public of that repeatedly between now and the general election. We are dealing not with naked opportunism, to use the term of my hon. Friend Mr. McCabe, but opportunism clothed in concern by those who want to get it right only when it suits them to put the evidence in the public arena.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I shall do so once and then I shall deal with the four allegations.

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron Deputy Chair, Conservative Party

Given the state of affairs that my right hon. Friend David Davis described, will the Home Secretary give a guarantee that anyone else who comes forward to tell him what is happening in his Department, about which he apparently does not know, will not be suspended or sacked?

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I have made it clear that people who use the normal whistleblower procedure or the new hotline will not be disciplined for producing evidence. Let us show some maturity: I do not know everything that goes on, with the tens of thousands of people that my Department employs directly or indirectly. Any politician who pretended that they did would be stupid or duplicitous. We are neither.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I shall in a moment but first I want to deal with the four allegations. Two were straightforward and would not normally have been viewed as a cause celebre and, as I said earlier, two raised profound issues that need to be tackled. The first of the latter was the Moxon allegations. Whatever that individual's background and whatever statements he may have made, he deserved to be taken seriously. The review was set up to examine what he had alleged. The allegations related to the accession countries and what would happen before 1 May.

It was alleged that fast-tracking had been authorised to get people through the system and thus reduce the number of people who were seen to come in and register after 1 May. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State's head was supposedly on the block and her resignation was called for because of that. First, the allegations were proved to be entirely untrue: she had not authorised any change in practice in relation to fast track. Secondly, 80 per cent. of the cases were of people already in the country whose stays were being reauthorised. Even if one is not terribly intelligent, it is not difficult to understand that one cannot fast-track people into the country who are already here. Therefore, one cannot be accused and found guilty of fiddling the figures—that was the allegation—so that those people would not be counted from 1 May. Despite all the hysteria, that allegation did not stand up to scrutiny.

Photo of Nick Palmer Nick Palmer Labour, Broxtowe

The civil servant who made the original allegations, who reportedly believes that Muslims will need to be dealt with by nuclear weapons, is today quoted as saying that the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration is

"not long for the political world".

Does my right hon. Friend think that that is a matter for a civil servant to decide? How confident is he that there is no political agenda involved?

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I am trying desperately to keep the debate on a level that addresses facts and issues. People will have to draw their own conclusion both about behaviour in the Chamber and how people have been dealing with these matters outside. The facts in relation to the case that was put by Mr. Moxon, whose subsequent revelations will lead people to make judgments about his motives, need to be set aside.

After the Moxon suggestions, we had the e-mail from Mr. James Cameron, which was sent, as I understand it, on 8 March. As I spelled out, that was the day on which the review began. Incidentally, that was just four days after Mr. Cameron had been in the same room as one of my senior officials in Bucharest, along with others, talking about the very issues that we are debating this afternoon.

On 1 and 2 March, Mr. Cameron was quite properly in a meeting with a senior official from my Department. That official was seeking to get to the truth about the allegations and behaviour involved. When he came back, he wrote a note indicating that he would take action on the appropriate lines to ensure that the allegations were properly investigated. As he had indicated that, I was surprised to learn that, four or five days later, these allegations were made as if no one had been listening or taken any action at all—[Interruption.] No, I am not smearing anyone. Perhaps it would be better if I did not give the facts so people could just have their prejudices. I am merely spelling out that tightening checks and investigating concerns are not the prerogative of the Opposition. It happens that my staff were, rightly, concerned about that and prepared to act on it. Therefore, the Cameron allegations must be taken seriously, unlike the second allegation, which was about the backlog reduction accelerated clearance exercise.

Photo of George Osborne George Osborne Shadow Minister (Treasury)

If there were concerns about the Cameron allegations before they were expressed in the e-mail, why were they not investigated by the Sutton inquiry? In addition, if the Secretary of State is in charge of his Department, why do so many civil servants feel that they must send missives to the Opposition? Why do civil servants in his Department feel that they cannot use internal channels to raise their concerns?

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

First, Mr. Cameron is not a member of my staff, but that does not change the issue. We should not bandy words about which civil servants leaked what to whom, because we had a bellyful of receiving e-mails and faxes when we were in opposition, some of which were accidental, as Mrs. Shephard will recall, including finding her diary and handing it back to her. I put that on the record because it is important to show that politicians have some integrity. We remember what we received and did not receive from nefarious sources when we were in opposition, and that will continue.

I will come back to James Cameron in a moment. The second allegation was about the clearance exercise, which was not only in line with practice developed from the late 1980s, as was described a moment ago, but entirely sensible and in accord with the practice that we would have expected to be laid down, not necessarily authorised by current Ministers but certainly authorised in the past by Ministers. The second call for my right hon. Friend to resign was therefore absolutely spurious, and had no basis in fact.

The third allegation was even more ridiculous and concerned applications for citizenship. With security checks still in place, character checks and references still taken up, full immigration history still undertaken, and after a risk assessment and 100 per cent. tally with passport checks on visits overseas, it was decided not to recall people's passports that had already been in the possession of staff dealing with those cases. Again, a call was made for my right hon. Friend's resignation on a completely spurious issue designed to muddy the waters on the premise that if one flings enough mud, repeats things often enough, and feeds something into the equation on a daily, weekly or Sunday Times basis, eventually something will stick.

I want to make something clear. The Sunday Times, the Tory party and anyone else can keep on throwing mud, but my right hon. Friend is not resigning, she is not being sacked and she has the total support of this side of the House and everyone who has dealt with her.

Photo of Mr Clive Soley Mr Clive Soley Labour, Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush

My right hon. Friend is right to pinpoint The Sunday Times, which is full of dishonesties and inaccuracies on stories of this nature. This one was particularly untrue. Is he aware that its editor is a man called John Witherow, of whom the vast majority of the public will not have heard because of his hiding behind a wall of privacy? He is fond of misleading the public and charging them money for the privilege of being misled, but has never thought about resigning himself. I can tell my right hon. Friend that in 100 years, not one editor has resigned for giving inaccurate information or lying to the public—

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. That was far too long. The Home Secretary has got the point.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

My hon. Friend, in his usual acerbic way, makes a point. My relations with The Sunday Times are bad enough as they are, so I will not make them any worse by commenting on it.

Photo of John Denham John Denham Chair, Home Affairs Committee

My right hon. Friend was describing the process that has been under way over the last few weeks. Does he recall that, a few moments ago, the shadow Home Secretary claimed that not until this weekend did he know about previous backlog clearance exercises? Would he be interested to know that on 14 March, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration gave evidence to the Home Affairs Committee, at which she spoke openly about the BRACE exercise? Would he also be interested to know that in the audience when she said that was the shadow Home Secretary? Does the Home Secretary agree that, although these issues are serious, some of the outrage is a trifle synthetic?

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend. The allegations included one that my right hon. Friend the Minister would not come to the House, as if she had not just been in front of the Home Affairs Committee, answered the private notice question, dealt with Home Office questions at the beginning of last week—[Interruption.] Of course, we took it for granted. I am merely advising colleagues about the allegations that she had not done so. I heard those allegations on the radio. One can say things on the radio and be heard. That is a fact; I have discovered it. Those things can be recorded and used in evidence against one, which is why programmes such as "Question Time" and "Any Questions" are so boring nowadays. One has to be so careful about what one says, which makes life much less entertaining.

Let me return to something that is not at all entertaining—

Photo of Mrs Alice Mahon Mrs Alice Mahon Labour, Halifax

May I say something before my right hon. Friend does that? I do not think that I could be described by any Member as a Whips' woman, but may I now say how delighted I am that my right hon. Friend has defended the Minister of State so vigorously? As a humble Back Bencher who deals with her Department regularly, may I say that she probably has the worst job in Government, but that she does it extremely well? She is always available and is a very committed Minister.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I could not have put it better myself, and someone who is normally the scourge of the Front Bench is probably the best person to say it.

Photo of Paul Farrelly Paul Farrelly Labour, Newcastle-under-Lyme

The Home Secretary has described the exemplary record of my right hon. Friend Beverley Hughes as a Minister. May I record my appreciation, and that of my constituents, of the timely, courteous and entirely proper way in which she has dealt with immigration inquiries that I have raised with her? I am sure that Members in all parts of the House share my experience.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I entirely agree. But let me now return to Mr. James Cameron, because the allegations are genuinely serious and require action.

I said that Mr. Cameron had been at a meeting with one of my senior officials in Bucharest at the beginning of March. Shortly before that meeting, a clearly undesirable lawyer had been arrested. As the shadow Home Secretary said, the lawyer has been involved in fraud and unacceptable illegal dealings relating to entry to this country from Romania and Bulgaria. This individual was picked up at the end of February, a week before the e-mail was sent, and will appear in court on 29 April. That was part of the ongoing National Criminal Intelligence Service work that Mr. Cameron was generous enough to mention at the end of his e-mail.

I have mentioned both the NCIS work and the lawyer's arrest to show that, far from being behind the door, my officials, the enforcement agencies and all concerned have been working assiduously to try and ensure that the right things are done. One of the allegations—that lawyers were not being pursued, and the enforcement and intelligence agencies were not doing their job—was quite simply untrue. If it is true that staff in Sheffield were dealing with matters in an unwarranted fashion, we must look into that, and look into who gave the instruction. I agree that low-level staff should not be blamed for what is not of their making.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I will in a moment, but I want to finish the point.

In February, middle managers in Sheffield were concerned about fast-track clearing from Bulgaria and Romania, so they reverted to more detailed assessment. I have announced today that we are stopping all entry from Romania and Bulgaria, because that should be done while we get this right. When I met the Romanian Prime Minister last year, we stressed—as we stressed to the Interior Minister two weeks ago—that part of the movement towards full accession and the lifting of visa regimes from Romania and Bulgaria would depend on getting to grips with criminality, illegal and forged documentation and an atmosphere and culture that lead naturally to suspicion.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Labour, Cardiff West

My right hon. Friend speaks of necessary measures, but in the long term is it not right to bear it in mind that many immigrants from Romania have made a great contribution to the United Kingdom—not least Mr. Bernat Hecht, the father of the Leader of the Opposition, who cannot be blamed for the subsequent sins of his son?

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I certainly do not want any of my sons to be blamed for my activities.

Let me put this on record. As soon as the lawyer was arrested at the end of February, staff in Sheffield—sensibly, from their point of view—not only suspended dealing with cases that had been handled by him, but recalled those that had already been dealt with. Our staff are caring. They do give a damn. They wanted to get this right, and—I say this very forcefully—they were not under instructions from any Minister to do other than follow the procedure, deal with the law and uphold what we would consider to be decent, proper, professional standards.

Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Minister (Constitutional Affairs)

A few moments ago, the Home Secretary spoke of his dealings with the Romanian Prime Minister last year, and a strong reprimand—my word, but I think that it summarises the position reasonably—or warning to him about the dangers of improper practice in relation to visa applications. If the Home Secretary made those remarks to the Romanian Prime Minister at that time, presumably he did so following advice from officials in or around Bucharest, and from his own Department. If he had that advice, why did Mr. Cameron's revelations this month apparently come as a surprise that required a complete reversal of policy?

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

The specific allegations made by Mr. Cameron go much further than allegations made previously. The e-mail does not simply say what Mr. Cameron said to my senior official at the meeting, or what was said to his immediate colleagues. In the light of that, and in the light of the mistrust, misapprehension and concern that now exist among the public—understandably, given what they have been reading—it is sensible to try and bottom this once and for all.

Yes, I did know that there were difficulties. Jointly with the Foreign Office, we had a conference here in London attended by Prime Ministers from all over south-eastern Europe. The publicity is on record and shows that we discussed the real issues of organised crime that we debated here yesterday afternoon. I was surprised that the revelations came after that statement rather than as part of it, because we are dealing with exactly the issues of trans-border and cross-border organised criminality that we discussed yesterday. It is because of such issues that we are establishing the serious organised crime agency. We have been aware of them, and the Romanians themselves are aware of them. That is why they have been prepared to work so closely with NCIS and to have our staff working with them on both immigration and border controls and on drug enforcement.

Photo of Tony Lloyd Tony Lloyd Labour, Manchester Central

My right hon. Friend has made one of the most sensible points that we have heard in all this. In the context of migration from south-east Europe, we know that we are dealing with criminality and possibly even with terrorism. The allegation that our right hon. Friend the Minister of State would collude in that is not just ridiculous but goes so far over the top that I think Opposition Members should consider their own position. Having alleged a lack of integrity on the part of our right hon. Friend, unless they can demonstrate that she had a motive, the charge is not against her but against the Opposition Front Benchers.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

My hon. Friend has put his finger on a central issue. If, for the fourth time, there is a call for my right hon. Friend's resignation, on what basis is it made? To substantiate it—having not substantiated the three earlier calls—those issuing it would have to show that she had authorised or condoned the actions that Mr. Cameron alleged to be taking place, which are now to be investigated and about which a further allegation has been made this afternoon by the shadow Home Secretary. There has to be some route back from the authorisation or condoning of the sort of gross illegality that has been alleged. That is why I agree that making allegations is easy, but providing facts to back them up is much more difficult.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government)

I am grateful to the Home Secretary for giving way. He has now twice told the House that on 8 October one of his senior officials went to Bucharest to investigate what was going on there. Was that a routine investigation and, if not, why was the Sutton inquiry not asked to investigate those matters, too? Does it not show that the Sutton inquiry was not in possession of the full facts and therefore not a thorough inquiry?

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I said that my senior official went on 1 and 2 March, and I pointed out that the Sutton review was about the first of the spurious allegations and was being investigated. The subsequent allegations, including those made in the e-mail sent on 8 March, but not revealed by the shadow Home Secretary until last night, were an entirely different issue. I have already said that the blending of all the different issues together is understandable as clever politics, but it is wholly a tactic rather than a reality of fact.

I have therefore disentangled points one, two and three this afternoon. We dealt with the first through the review; the second and third were spurious and, in any case, conformed to the practice of previous Home Secretaries—of which, incidentally, I approve and take responsibility for. The fourth is now about to be investigated. Those are all nothing more than allegations against a Minister who has done so much to reinforce our border controls, and to tackle—she will announce it in a few days' time—months of work on sham marriages, bogus student applications and the lack of proper controls that we inherited from the previous Government. She has done a fantastic job on turning round the asylum system. Of course, our opponents, who have to move on to the next issue, have tried to present what we have been doing in getting a grip on the system as a shambles.

Those who have made the allegations this afternoon have failed to make their case. They have failed to demonstrate the facts and failed to demonstrate again and again that calls for my right hon. Friend's resignation were justified. That is why we stand four-square behind her. We are getting to the truth by all means and reassuring people that we know what we are doing. We are ensuring that we have a balanced nationality, immigration and asylum policy, and we are proud of the work that we have been able to do so far. We are determined to ensure that no one undermines that policy, whether through illegal activity outside our country, through sloppy work inside it, through lawyers—I have indicated that a lawyer has been arrested—or through a failure of enforcement.

All of that will be taken into account in the review, but, in the end, we have to make a judgment. Has the Minister of State done a first-class job? We all know that she has, so the answer to that question is yes, yes, yes. That is why she has our unequivocal backing and will continue to do so.

Photo of Mark Oaten Mark Oaten Shadow Secretary of State for Home Affairs, Home Affairs 1:53 pm, 30th March 2004

This is a serious debate, and I am glad that the Home Secretary has acknowledged that some of the issues raised, particularly in the most recent allegations, are indeed serious. I wish to examine the allegations in some detail and also examine some of the operations taking place in the Department, particularly those of the immigration and nationality directorate. There have been calls for the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration to resign, so I shall also look at some of the reasons behind those demands for her resignation.

Before I go into the detail, I would like to make a general observation about the climate in which the debate is taking place. I am convinced that if we did not live in a society where issues of migration, asylum and immigration were sometimes deliberately muddled and confused, and where we had to respond to so much nonsense in the tabloid press, some of the misunderstandings and the actions of individual civil servants would not have happened in the first place. In a climate where politicians and Ministers are so frightened to explain transparently and in some detail what they are planning to do—in other words, their precise intentions on asylum and migration—the real issues will be buried and hidden away, leading to the sort of confusions that have emerged over the last couple of weeks. I believe that all sides have a responsibility to improve the quality of debate on asylum and migration issues, so that we do not end up with the sort of debate that we are having now—a debate that is the consequence of the climate in which we live.

Clearly, the allegations that have emerged over the past three or four weeks are of serious concern. This country cannot have a system of immigration that is open to different levels of interpretation in different Government offices and that is not transparent. The House should be able to know exactly what Government policy on immigration is and we should not allow decisions to be taken, as it would appear, without clear ministerial approval.

The issues are complex and hard to understand, so I want to look in detail at the three basic allegations that have been made. The first could be described as the Moxon/Sheffield set of allegations. In layman's terms, they suggest that a policy was in place to fast-track in-country applications from EU accession country nationals. It is alleged that rather than going through the usual detailed paper process, a simpler application base was used and that the policy was put in place not necessarily to deal with a three-month backlog, but from day one in order to speed up the process. Sutton has investigated that and I am happy to accept Sutton's conclusion that, on the specific allegations made by Moxon, the Minister did no wrong.

The second allegation can best be described as The Sunday Times memo. It was written by Graham Austin and Moira Bing to senior immigration officials at the casework directorate at Croydon. Again in layman's terms, it suggests that there is a policy to waive through immigration applications if they take more than three months and that those applications are for a range of permits—family visits, spouses, domestic workers and so forth. The memo stated:

"As there is a large number of applications that are over three months old waiting to be decided it has been agreed at ministerial level that an enhanced procedure should be undertaken to clear these as quickly as possible."

It goes on clearly to state that the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration approved the exercise. It is alleged that there was a new procedure for fast-track applications. Even though that was not examined by the Sutton inquiry, I am prepared to accept the Home Office view that it was not a new policy, but standard practice which had been applied to in-country applications for some time.

Photo of Beverley Hughes Beverley Hughes Minister of State (Citizenship and Immigration), Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) (Citizenship, Immigration and Counter-Terrorism)

For the record, Ken Sutton explicitly dealt with the backlog reduction accelerated clearance exercise. Many people may have read my ministerial statement and various commentaries, but not the Sutton report itself. If they read it, they would find that it refers expressly to BRACE and its predecessor.

Photo of Mark Oaten Mark Oaten Shadow Secretary of State for Home Affairs, Home Affairs

I am grateful for that clarification. My understanding was that the particular allegations and the memo presented to The Sunday Times had not been submitted to Sutton and that we had therefore not had independent clarification of the allegation by a national newspaper, which we did have in respect of the Moxon/Sheffield case.

Photo of Beverley Hughes Beverley Hughes Minister of State (Citizenship and Immigration), Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) (Citizenship, Immigration and Counter-Terrorism)

For further clarification, the particular minute dealt with my intervention in the case of Mrs. Martin, which Members will recall arose about a year ago. Mrs. Martin was an American woman who came here with her British husband after the second world war. She had lived here for 40 years and had several children. Under BRACE, taking a decision on the basis of the papers, Mrs. Martin's case for settlement was refused because she could not prove that she had lived in the country for 40 years. I intervened to say that that was not a sensible decision in cases such as hers. I said that such a refusal on the basis of the papers under BRACE should be referred to a senior caseworker to ensure that it was a sensible decision.

Photo of Mark Oaten Mark Oaten Shadow Secretary of State for Home Affairs, Home Affairs

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for clarifying that point.

On the second allegation, which relates to The Sunday Times memo, I accept the Home Secretary's assertion that this procedure has been in place for some time. However, I have two concerns, the first of which relates to the word that he used yesterday on the Floor of the House. He said that such applications were "substantially" in-country applications. It would help if he clarified what he meant by "substantially". As I understand it, some 80 per cent. of applications are in-country, which means that some 20 per cent. are not. It is important that we do not simply assume that, in all such cases, we are simply recycling the numbers.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Hall Green

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Do the official Opposition require a quorum when it is their motion that is being debated? I can see only four of them in the Chamber.

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

As the hon. Gentleman knows, he is making a political point, not a point of order for the Chair.

Photo of Mark Oaten Mark Oaten Shadow Secretary of State for Home Affairs, Home Affairs

So, these applications are not just in-country applications. We need to acknowledge that a number of outside-country applications are involved.

The third allegation, which is by far the most serious, relates to the Cameron e-mail, as we might best describe it. Cameron clearly claims that normal checks were being waived in respect of certain countries that are among the next wave of EU member countries, and the Home Secretary is right to say that that claim is serious. Cameron's memo states that

"no right-minded entry clearance officers would consider issuing a visa to these applications".

That hard-hitting statement raises a number of serious issues and, as the Home Secretary has acknowledged, concern also exists about the activities of certain lawyers. The Cameron memo also states that there is evidence that one lawyer helped more than 500 applicants. Incidentally, such help cost each client between £1,000 and £2,000. Those are serious allegations, and I should make it absolutely clear that we have no time for a system that allows clearly bogus applicants to fast-track the system in that way. We are also extremely concerned about the activities of certain lawyers, and when the Minister responds I hope that she can say a little more about what is being done to crack down on them. It is clear that a rip-off is taking place in some of those countries, and that there is another, hidden story behind the detail.

Those are the allegations, and although I accept that the Minister does not have a case to answer in respect of the first two, there is a strong need for a proper inquiry into the third. I am disappointed that the Home Secretary did not acknowledge that such an inquiry should be independent; instead, he wants to establish another internal Home Office inquiry.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Attorney General

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we need to examine how a climate has been created within a Government Department in which such short cuts can be contemplated? Surely one reason is that this Government are being target-driven by public relations presentation, in order to justify certain policies in a difficult environment. That is one key reason why nobody has any confidence in what the Government say any more.

Photo of Mark Oaten Mark Oaten Shadow Secretary of State for Home Affairs, Home Affairs

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point that touches on my opening remarks. While we live in this climate, which was caused in large part by his own party, Ministers will adopt a public relations, target-driven approach, rather than tackling and talking about the issues in an honest and up-front way.

Photo of Tom Watson Tom Watson Labour, West Bromwich East

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on taking on this issue in a cool and sober way, and on the fact that more Liberal Democrats are present than Conservatives, even though it is a Conservative-initiated debate. He talks about the need for a proper debate, but does he agree with Mr. Lansley, who said that immigration was

"an issue which we raised successfully in 1992 and again in the 1994 European election campaign. It played particularly well in the tabloids and has more potential to hurt"?

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that this debate has more to do with Conservative PR than with the real issue of fraud?

Photo of Mark Oaten Mark Oaten Shadow Secretary of State for Home Affairs, Home Affairs

There are surely some among the so-called official Opposition who believe that this issue will help them to win votes at the next general election. However, it did not seem to do the Conservatives much good when they raised it during the 1997 and 2001 elections. So one of three allegations is serious and worthy of investigation, and I say again to the Home Secretary that I am disappointed that such an investigation will not be independent.

I turn to the allegation that is not talked about, but which constitutes the wider problem: the underlying culture within the Departments and the way in which they are run. The Sutton report considered this issue in some detail and raised a number of concerns. It is a great pity, incidentally, that the report was pushed out last week, on a day when endless Government announcements were made. As a result, it did not receive the coverage and detailed examination that it deserved. Sutton revealed a serious breakdown in the managerial process. Some of its recommendations are quite remarkable. Recommendation No. 5 says that the immigration and nationality directorate should produce for all staff a guidance note outlining how IND policy is developed. That is breathtaking. No Department should need to produce guidance notes on its own policy. If such guidance was necessary, it should have been provided ages ago, rather than being provided now in the form of a recommendation.

Recommendation No. 6 says that all staff new to IND at grade 7 or 6 should undergo training on policy and working with Ministers. It is breathtaking that such policy guidance and training was not in place to begin with. The fact that it was necessary for an internal inquiry to recommend that training be given to staff on how to work with Ministers illustrates that a complete failure has occurred.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Attorney General

The hon. Gentleman's point reinforces what I said earlier, and describes the difficulties that officials encounter in interpreting Ministers' policy guideline wishes. As a result, a breakdown in communication occurs, and such a breakdown is surely squarely the responsibility of both the Minister and the Secretary of State.

Photo of Mark Oaten Mark Oaten Shadow Secretary of State for Home Affairs, Home Affairs

One of two things is being demonstrated. The Department failed because proper training was not in place and policy guidance was not given to officials in the first place; or Ministers' new guidance is so complex, or it changes so quickly, that front-line staff have been unable to keep up. Whichever of those is true, it is clear that something has gone wrong.

Recommendation No. 7 is also breathtaking. It says that technical expertise should be included for those deciding cases. Of course it should. The implication—that those deciding cases did not have the technical expertise in the first place—is astonishing. If we are to have confidence in the system, the individuals involved in complex cases should have such expertise in the first place. Why were they allowed to do what is a complex job for such a long time without the necessary skills and knowledge? We should not need to wait for an internal inquiry to come up with such an obvious and basic recommendation. There is a serious case to answer in respect of that fourth allegation, but Sutton touches on only some of the managerial problems that existed.

I want to ask a few questions of the Minister and the Home Secretary, and to discuss the list placed by the Home Secretary in the Library last night concerning the backlog clearance process that has taken place since the 1980s. I acknowledge that that principle and that process began under Conservative Governments, but does the Home Secretary not accept that his Government have gone further than the Conservatives in respect of backlog clearing? Why was it decided that the BRACE scheme would kick in only after a 12-month delay? He has changed the guidelines, and the scheme now kicks in after a three-month delay. Is that not a clear acknowledgement that the system is getting out of control?

Can the Minister say more about the plan to tackle the clear pressure to which the IND is being subjected? In his Library note, the Home Secretary said that he believed that the introduction of charges for applications on leave to remain would give the IND an opportunity to invest more, and to move towards "high standards". It is true that from 1 August 2003, there has been a big increase in the charges for applications. Can the Minister explain where that money is going, how much money has been raised by that increase in the charge and how much money has gone directly to improving the quality of IND and exactly how many extra staff will be employed? There is clearly a pressure, a backlog and a burden on staff, and I hope that the Minister can explain how many additional staff will be employed to clear that backlog.

What is the position of the so-called whistleblowers? Where do Mr. Moxon and Mr. Cameron stand in relation to their employment? Are they both under investigation? What kind of hearing will they have? Have either of them broken any codes that they signed in relation to employment? Based on what I have heard in relation to Mr. Cameron, I have concerns about the way in which a consul or other diplomat, who must surely be privy to extremely privileged information, has operated in sending that e-mail.

While I want a system in place that protects whistleblowers, I acknowledge that some individuals, especially in consulates or embassies, hold positions of enormous trust. I do not necessarily argue that the two individuals who have been referred to should be reinstated. That is one of my concerns about the Conservative motion, which implies that those individuals should be praised as heroes and reinstated. I do not take that line, but I hope that the Minister will explain that they will be treated fairly and under which codes of conduct they will be processed.

Photo of Kali Mountford Kali Mountford Labour, Colne Valley

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for clarifying his attitude to civil servants. I welcome what he said about whistleblowers, but when it comes to disciplinary action is it not the duty of the House to avoid political interference? The matter should surely be one for the civil service.

Photo of Mark Oaten Mark Oaten Shadow Secretary of State for Home Affairs, Home Affairs

I entirely accept that. I hope that the process that the Minister sets out for any disciplinary action will be independent and clear and will be undertaken according to the proper codes. I am sure that it will.

Photo of David Lepper David Lepper Labour/Co-operative, Brighton, Pavilion

Is the hon. Gentleman acknowledging that there is a proper process in place for whistleblowers to report their concerns and have them investigated and that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has announced extensions to that process with a website and a hotline? Does the hon. Gentleman agree that what we heard from the official Opposition earlier suggested that no such system was in place and that the only recourse for civil servants who are concerned about certain practices is to shoot off e-mails or messages to the press or the official Opposition?

Photo of Mark Oaten Mark Oaten Shadow Secretary of State for Home Affairs, Home Affairs

I do not accept that. Clearly, in this case, the individuals did not feel able to go to senior managers and they decided to send e-mails in a different direction. So there has been a problem with the process, and the climate in the Department is not one in which individuals feel that they can go through the proper process. For whatever reasons, the individuals involved felt that they had to go to the tabloid press or Opposition parties. So there is a problem that needs to be addressed.

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron Deputy Chair, Conservative Party

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that Mr. Moxon's options were effectively closed down because he sent an e-mail to the Minister's private office and received no answer for two months? He could not really go to his senior officials because they were the ones who had apparently introduced the illegal policy without consulting Ministers. What was he meant to do?

Photo of Mark Oaten Mark Oaten Shadow Secretary of State for Home Affairs, Home Affairs

I accept that Mr. Moxon made a number of attempts to send an e-mail to the Minister, but the process by which whistleblowers should raise a concern should not involve sending an e-mail to the Secretary of State or the Minister of State. They should understand that those Ministers will be bombarded by endless e-mails. If the system is to work properly, there has to be someone within an organisation whom employees can approach rather than having to go to a national newspaper or to a Minister. Clearly there has been a failure and it needs to be addressed. Proper procedures need to be put in place.

Photo of Tom Watson Tom Watson Labour, West Bromwich East

Given that it took David Davis two weeks to answer his e-mails, can we forgive my colleague on the Front Bench for not taking note of some of hers?

Photo of Mark Oaten Mark Oaten Shadow Secretary of State for Home Affairs, Home Affairs

I am sure that none of us wants to examine how long it takes us to respond to e-mails at any given time.

As the Home Secretary has acknowledged, there was valid criticism of the Conservative Front-Bench spokesmen for jumping slightly too quickly in their relationship with Mr. Moxon. I am on the record as saying that I met Mr. Moxon in the morning and it was clear to me that he was a troublemaker. Just a few alarm bells started to ring in my mind. They did not seem to ring down the corridor in a different office. However, the Conservative Front-Bench team seems to have learned a lesson in relation to the Cameron e-mail. I accept, as the Home Secretary accepts, that it was right not to draw conclusions immediately from an e-mail—e-mails are not signed—but to take some time to check out the source. So on this occasion we can excuse the Conservatives for the delay in responding.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon Shadow Spokesperson (Women), Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's generosity in taking yet another intervention. He has criticised the wording of the Opposition motion in a particular regard. Is it his opinion that the allegations made by the shadow Home Secretary—I wrote down the words that he used at the time—of "collusion", "cover-up" and "incompetence" are extremely serious when there is not a shred of evidence that the Minister of State or the Home Secretary authorised any such activity? Will the hon. Gentleman comment on the serious words used by the shadow Home Secretary?

Photo of Mark Oaten Mark Oaten Shadow Secretary of State for Home Affairs, Home Affairs

The hon. Lady has a valid point. The shadow Home Secretary was clear in the language that he used and the allegations that he made. I shall come shortly to those allegations and how they relate to the Minister of State. They are important. One of the only ways in which we shall clear up the allegations is to set up an independent review. The hothouse of allegations around here means nothing. An independent review could check whether such allegations have any merit.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Attorney General

The hon. Gentleman may agree that the evidence is already pretty clear that the Government have been at some pains at departmental levels to avoid publicising some of the things that they have been doing in relation to entry clearance. We have that on the documentation that has become available.

In terms of the Government's way of going about their business, does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is already pretty clear that on that level there has been a cover-up?

Photo of Mark Oaten Mark Oaten Shadow Secretary of State for Home Affairs, Home Affairs

The phrase "cover-up" can be interpreted in many different ways. When it comes to the serious matter of asking a Minister to resign, do we believe that a general allegation that the Government have covered something up is a resigning issue? I argue that it is not. All Governments manage their stories to put across the best message. For goodness sake, if people had to resign for doing that, none of us would be left in this Chamber.

Photo of Mark Oaten Mark Oaten Shadow Secretary of State for Home Affairs, Home Affairs

Not even me.

I move on to the timing in relation to the applicants who were so close to the 1 May deadline and EU accession. I understand that in a busy office with a pile of papers to go through one might say, "What is the point of rejecting this application when in just a few months, on 1 May, this national will have full EU membership? Let's just let this one go through." But the Government have a policy of taking other applications right up to the 30 April deadline. They have made it clear that for asylum applications from the Czech Republic the deadline should be 30 April. Surely there has to be some consistency. What guidance is being issued in relation to applicants from countries that are just a couple of weeks away from becoming EU members?

The Home Secretary has announced that he is suspending all immigration applications from Bulgaria and Romania. Is the Minister comfortable with that? Has the decision been legally checked? Is the process legal? Does she believe that the decision could be challenged legally? If it is legal and necessary due to the concerns of the Home Office, does she believe that there is a case for widening it to apply to other countries? Is she sure that the kind of practice that Mr. Cameron has exposed in Bulgaria and Romania is not taking place in other countries? Surely there is a case for the investigation that the Home Office has announced into those countries to be expanded to consider practice in other countries; otherwise, we may have to have another debate in six months' time, after we have had another leaked memo from a different consul in a different part of the world.

I come to the sensitive issue of the Minister's position. I have found the Minister to be able and polite, and during the passage of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Bill, my colleagues and I found her to be open, frank, honest, helpful, clear and plain-speaking. I have nothing but respect for the Minister. I have never, in seven years of doing this job, called for another politician to resign. That is done on a knee-jerk basis, far too often and I am uncomfortable with the constant calls for individuals to resign. However, on this occasion, I have had to consider the issue, because the press have asked me endlessly whether I support the Conservatives' calls for the Minister to resign.

In considering the issue, I have had to analyse several points. First, did the Minister ignore warnings from officials? The Sutton inquiry found that she did not ignore the warnings on the specific allegations and that in fact some of those warnings did not get through to her. On that ground, there is no case. Secondly, did the Minister mislead the House? That is one of the most serious allegations that can be made and is a reason for individuals to resign if they have done so. Again, despite some of the comments in the memo in The Sunday Times about the Minister knowing about the process, I am clear that there is a difference between her authorising that process and the allegations that were made when she came to the House on 8 March.

Thirdly, has the Minister got to grips with the management process? Sutton does set out some concerns about what is taking place in the Department. I know that the Minister has said on the airwaves that she has been responsible for sorting out the chaos and introducing procedures to try to improve matters. However, she still has a case to answer on some of the problems in her Department. Fourthly, should a Minister be held to account for managerial failures? That is the most complex and difficult question because increasingly Ministers say—with some justification—that something is an operational issue, and not a ministerial responsibility. However, the extension of that argument leads to questions of where democratic accountability lies and where the buck stops. There are concerns that the Minister has not got to grips with the managerial process.

In the circumstances, it does not appear to me that a case can be made for the Minister to resign. That is why we have not supported such calls. However—and I hope that the Minister and the Home Secretary will consider this—because of the public concern about what has happened in the Department, Ministers should agree to a full inquiry into the Cameron allegations, and a broadening of the remit of Sutton to examine the procedures in place in the immigration and nationality directorate. The concerns are so severe that a wider independent inquiry should take place. The Minister's future should be decided after that, and not in the hothouse of the television studios or the Chamber where it is too easy to call for resignations.

Those of us who wish to speak tolerantly about asylum and immigration—who wish to argue that the country is not going to be flooded and that we should have a mature debate—are undermined enormously if the information and figures from the Government are not accurate. That does not help us in making our case. That is why a full, independent and public inquiry into the facts should take place.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. I should advise the House that Mr. Speaker has placed a 12-minute limit on Back Bench speeches, which will apply from now on.

Photo of Frank Dobson Frank Dobson Labour, Holborn and St Pancras 2:24 pm, 30th March 2004

I am sorry to have to speak in this debate, because I had hoped for better from a Tory party led by the child of someone who was a refugee from Romania. However, if one has any expectations of the Tory party, one is frequently disappointed. My right hon. Friend the Minister is being pursued as part of a deliberate strategy by the Conservatives to stir up antipathy towards people coming to this country. The Conservatives do not give a damn about the damage that that does to community relations. As far as they are concerned, a few cheap hits in the House of Commons are worth it, even if they result in some expensive hits on the streets and estates of this country. Those of us who represent constituencies where various communities manage to live happily with one another—including intermarrying—are disgusted by that approach.

If people think that I exaggerate, all that I can do is remind them—as my hon. Friend Mr. Watson has already done—of the stated views of Mr. Lansley when he was director of the Conservative Research Department, even though he is now a shadow health spokesman. He said that immigration was

"an issue which we raised successfully in 1992 and again in the 1994 European election campaign. It played particularly well in the tabloids and has more potential to hurt"— to hurt whom? It might hurt the Labour party or the Liberal Democrats, but it will hurt most—many—of our fellow citizens and people who come to this country to try to earn a decent living in peaceful circumstances.

All over the world, since history began, there have been huge movements of population and they have always presented great difficulties. However, they have been a huge asset to this country. A book published a few years ago, with the strange title "Hitler's Gift", listed all the geniuses whom he drove out of Germany and eastern Europe to this country and north America. They transformed the standard of our mathematics and physics, and we left Germany and eastern Europe far behind. That was a permanent legacy.

We should also consider the people who have come to this country more recently and the benefits that they have brought to our fellow citizens. For example, Professor Sir Magdi Yacoub is the world's greatest heart surgeon and he is welcome. He contributes, and so do hundreds of thousands of other people who have come to this country and made it a better place. We should make them welcome, instead of indulging in cheap stunts in pursuit of Ministers, in the hope of some short-term, shoddy political gain.

Photo of Frank Dobson Frank Dobson Labour, Holborn and St Pancras

No, I have only 12 minutes and I intend to use them.

The Government inherited a huge mess in immigration and asylum, with huge delays. The Conservatives apparently confused the amount of time taken to deal with applications with thoroughness, but the two are not necessarily related. The process was not thorough, but it did take a devil of a long time. The Government have set about tackling that problem and have faced enormous difficulties in doing so.

Things have gone wrong, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister—and she is a friend—will not take offence if I say that the Home Office and the other Departments involved did not cover themselves in glory in relation to events at Morecambe bay and the warnings given by my hon. Friend Geraldine Smith. We cannot blame an individual Minister for the failure of four Departments to co-ordinate their activities properly. If everybody in the House, on both sides and in all parties, had listened to what Joan Maynard and Dick Body said about gangmasters 20 years ago and had done something about it, those events would never have happened. We cannot blame my right hon. Friend for those failures, because she was not even a Member of Parliament at the time.

My right hon. Friend has an awful job, but it is done more efficiently than it has been in the past. I have been a Member of Parliament for 25 years and I know that she achieves a good turn-round on the innumerable letters that I send her. I do not know what else she can manage to do besides answering my letters, because her replies are always thorough and accurate. I believe that other Members write to her, too. She is in a terrible position; when she makes a decision she is denounced by some people as illiberal and by others as limp-wristed and weak, because she has let all sorts of "villainous" people into the country.

Now we have the Tory party jumping on the bandwagon with a leak from Sheffield. In an excellent speech, the Liberal Democrat spokesman, Mr. Oaten, asked whether the Sheffield civil servant had broken a code of conduct. He may have broken such a code if it turns out that he has pulled a political stunt with the Leader of the Opposition. It is against the civil service code of conduct for a civil servant to appear at a political stunt with the Prime Minister, so it would probably also be the case if he did so with the Leader of the Opposition.

The Tories are trying to link that to the advice that work permit applicants from the immediate accession countries should be "waved through", because it is so close to when they will be entitled to enter the country anyway. I have news for the Tory party: there is nothing new in that. The Tory party may have no corporate memory, but as the Leader of the Opposition was involved, he should be able to remember that the Home Office acted in the same way in 1995 when Austria, Sweden and Finland were about to join the EU. As we were never told, we do not know whether the right hon. and learned Gentleman was unwilling, in the words of the motion, "to take responsibility" for the policy, or whether there were "dishonest internal workings" in his Department. He certainly kept quiet about it. Of course, he could say that he was following another Tory precedent, because exactly the same thing happened when Spain and Portugal were accession countries in 1986. As the period of accession drew nearer, the easier it was to enter this country, and eventually work permit applicants were "waved through", but that policy was not disclosed.

As has been mentioned, in 1992–93, when the Leader of the Opposition was Home Secretary, 20,000 people whose applications would otherwise have been turned down were given exceptional leave to remain, yet nothing was said about that. We found out that it had all been done secretly only when the figures were published some years later and had to be explained.

Of course, there are well organised scams. Indeed, I turn from scams to scum, because the people who organise the trafficking of their fellow human beings are among the scummiest people in the world. It appears that some of them are involved in what is going on in Rumania and Bulgaria and we need to check that and sort it out—and it will be sorted out.

There is a wider point, however. We are talking about people who are applying for work permits. They will receive a work permit only if we do not have people qualified for the work for which they require the permit. Work permits are going to people in the construction industry, to electricians and plumbers. Why do we not have enough of those workers? It is because the stupid Tory Government, under Mrs. Thatcher, abolished apprenticeships and sold off the training centres that could have trained the skilled people whom we now lack.

The Tories did not train enough doctors. They cut back on the training of nurses and reduced the number of nurses in training. Despite all that, they had planned to hold a debate later today—until they suddenly, opportunistically, chose to change the topic—about Labour's failure to prepare for doctors' reduced hours. The Tories reduced doctors' hours, but they did not increase the number of doctors to compensate for that. That is how we got into a mess, and the Labour Government are trying to get out of it.

When Nigel Lawson was Chancellor of the Exchequer, he mocked our calls for more and better training. He said that the jobs of the future would not necessarily be high-skill or low-skill, but that they would be no-skill jobs. As a result, we have a lot of people with no skills and they are the ones who find it hardest to get a job.

Today, we see the complete hypocrisy of the Tory party. The Tories left the immigration service in chaos and the Government are improving it. As for blaming officials, we shall take no lessons from the Leader of the Opposition; blaming officials was his stock in trade. The House will remember the famous interview when he said that he was responsible for prisons policy but not for operations. Paxman asked him again and again and again whether he took responsibility for operations in the Prison Service and he denied it. That is another reason why we shall not tolerate this lousy, opportunist, second-rate, smeary effort from the Tories today. [Hon. Members: "Say what you mean."] One of these days, I shall say what I really think about them.

I want to say something very serious: if this sort of stirring up against people goes on, Islamophobia will grow. Our fellow citizens will be assaulted because they wear a scarf around their head. They will be spat at as they take their children to school and they will find life more and more difficult—

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. The right hon. Gentleman must respect the time conventions as well as everyone else.

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Conservative, Hertsmere 2:36 pm, 30th March 2004

I look forward to the day when we hear the frank and unvarnished opinions of Mr. Dobson.

Control over borders should be a high priority for Members, in today's world more than ever. Many of our constituents say that there can be fewer high priorities and they expect us to hold the Government to account for the security of our borders and the soundness of the immigration system.

When something goes wrong, as it has plainly done on several occasions, we need to find out how bad the breakdown of the system is, the extent of what has gone wrong, how long it has been going on and the number of cases affected. Notwithstanding the remarks made from the Treasury Bench earlier, it is clear that something went wrong in the Sheffield department of the Home Office. Indeed, I thought that had been accepted on both sides of the House, but as I listened carefully to the Home Secretary earlier he seemed to be rowing back. He seemed to be trying to suggest that all the allegations made by Mr. Moxon had been disproved and that the Sutton report, to which I shall return in a moment, had completely exonerated the Government.

On Mr. Moxon, there seems to be an attempt in certain quarters to play the man rather than the ball—something with which we are all far too familiar. Whatever else may be the case about Mr. Moxon, his allegations turned out to be right. The Minister admitted that to the House and said that the procedures that had been followed would be withdrawn, so we do not need to go over that ground today. However, I remind the House that the Government's case then was not that everything was above board and that everything was going right; they said that something had gone wrong but that it was an isolated matter involving local guidance. On 8 March, the Minister told us that she knew nothing about what had gone wrong at the Sheffield office.

Today, we have heard new allegations that put a rather different complexion on the information that the right hon. Lady gave the House on 8 March and the Select Committee on Home Affairs the next day. They also overtake the Sutton report, which she set up—an internal inquiry by a senior civil servant from her own Department, albeit from a different part of the Department, but still an internal inquiry. The matters that have come up over the last day or so clearly overtake the Sutton report, whose remit restricted Mr. Sutton to looking into a particular range of issues in the Sheffield office. In the final report, which I have read, Mr. Sutton emphasised, above all, that the context for his inquiry was a limited proportion of the casework of the immigration and nationality directorate. That was what he put first and foremost.

The suggestion that the Home Secretary has confirmed in large measure today is that, in fact, the issues run much wider than those considered by Mr. Sutton and that there was far more irregularity than just that which he considered, covering far more issues. As Mr. Cameron apparently put in his e-mail—one could not do better than this—what was revealed at the Sheffield office earlier this month was just the "tip of the iceberg", and we now need to look at how much of the iceberg remains beneath the surface. Not only is the Sutton report completely overtaken by what has emerged subsequently, but the new matters, which are partly admitted at least, put a completely different complexion on what the right hon. Lady told the House and the Home Affairs Committee earlier this month.

The right hon. Lady told the House that the relaxed procedures employed by the Sheffield office, about which Mr. Moxon complained, related to people who were already legally in the country and who were seeking to extend their stay. In her statement to the House, she emphasised:

"It is worth remembering that, principally, the people affected were already lawfully in this country."—[Hansard, 8 March 2004; Vol. 418, c. 1245.]

Yet in the new allegation, backed by documents, the case is clearly made that relaxed procedures were employed for such people, at least in Romania and Bulgaria, when they sought to enter the country in the first place.

According to Mr. Cameron—the man behind the report—the procedure involved thousands of applications from those seeking to enter or settle in Britain as students, spouses, au pairs, domestic servants, working holiday makers and dependant relatives of migrants already here. If that is right—it seems to have been admitted that it is right—I am afraid that it does not tally at all with the impression, given by the Minister on 8 March, that those involved were already in the country.

The Minister needs to tell us just what the state of her knowledge was about the allegations made by Mr. Cameron at the material time. If what Mr. Cameron is saying is right, the defences were down at every stage of the immigration control proceedings. They were down when the applicants applied to enter, and they were down again when people already in the country applied to the Sheffield office to stay.

How the fraud was dealt with is even more serious. Again, what has transpired puts a completely different complexion on what the right hon. Lady told the House. When she spoke in the House on 8 March, she was at pains to dismiss the question of fraud altogether. I remind her of her words:

"There was no question of staff being instructed to grant such leave to those whom they believed to be fraudulent."—[Hansard, 8 March 2004; Vol. 418, c. 1245.]

Breaking away from what she said, we know from what Mr Cameron said that fraud was very much an issue. I have only seen reports of the e-mail sent from the British embassy in Romania, but it would seem that fraud was very much an alarming issue in the case of both Romania and Bulgaria. According the reports that I have seen, the e-mail says:

"both countries were until March 1 overwhelmed with badly prepared bogus applications. When entry clearance officers write to Sheffield and state clearly that the application is being supported with forged and counterfeit documents the letters are ignored and the applications are still being issued".

We have heard more details about that, the involvement of the National Criminal Intelligence Service, and the extent of bogus applications and irregularities among the legal profession.

I shall ask the Minister some questions that she has to answer today. Was she aware of the allegations being made by Mr. Cameron when she made statement to the House on 8 March? Was she aware of what he said then? If so, how can she possibly justify the way in which she dismissed the question of fraud out of hand, as she did not only on 8 March on the Floor of the House, but in her evidence to the Home Affairs Committee?

I turn now to the memo that we have heard about in a separate allegation. The right hon. Lady told the Home Affairs Committee on 9 March—the day after the statement—that the backlog had arisen as a result of matters that took place in the previous autumn. She referred to the BRACE procedure, but she said that it was a longstanding approach to backlogs that simply allowed caseworkers to use discretion if all the papers in certain cases, possibly marriage cases, were not there.

The memo, which has apparently come from two senior civil servants in the Minister's Department, clearly refers to an enhanced BRACE policy that was implemented in July 2003, with, it is said, the specific approval of the Minister. If so, it puts an entirely different complexion on what she told the Home Affairs Committee, when she said that the policy was not implemented until later last year and that it arose because of backlogs. Was she aware of that memo? Was the memo true? Was the policy implemented with her agreement in 2003—not in response to an individual case, as she told the House in response to Mr. Oaten, but on a much more widespread basis than she admitted to the hon. Gentleman?

The memo of July 2003 says:

"As there are a large number of applications that are over three months old waiting to be decided, it has been agreed at ministerial level that an enhanced procedure should be undertaken to clear these as quickly as possible.

This note confirms that the decision in this case has been taken under an enhanced procedure for clearing backlog cases, which commenced on 14 July, 2003."

Why did the Minister not refer to that memo when she appeared before the Home Affairs Committee? She had something to say about BRACE and the backlog procedures. Does the memo not put an entirely different complexion on the evidence about the Sheffield problems that she gave to the Home Affairs Committee?

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Conservative, Hertsmere

I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman, because time is limited.

The Minister said that the Sheffield matters were all locally determined by staff and had arisen as a result of local problems with a backlog later in the year, but the policy was decided centrally and agreed by Ministers. The right hon. Lady should deal with the question of what she knew about the BRACE procedure and the enhanced procedure in 2003. She should also deal with what she knew about Mr. Cameron and his allegation that the iceberg would have remained completely unknown if it had not been for my right hon. Friends on the Front Bench. They deserve congratulations for bringing this matter to light. They have done a public service, and I commend them on the way in which they have brought the issue to the attention of the House. They are right to do so.

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Conservative, Hertsmere

No.

The Minister now has to face up to her responsibilities. She has been asked many times what responsibility she takes in all this. How does she square her responsibilities with what she has said in the past? What does she accept responsibility for today, given the mess, with all the immigration system's defences down, as described in the memo at the Sheffield office? It is no use the right hon. Lady shaking her head; we want answers. What responsibility does she accept?

Photo of Sally Keeble Sally Keeble Labour, Northampton North 2:48 pm, 30th March 2004

I am pleased to have the opportunity to take part in this debate because it touches on one of the issues of greatest concern to my constituents—matters relating to asylum and immigration—and it is precisely for that reason that I believe that the Conservative party has raised it particularly at this time. When an election is coming, the Conservative party talks about immigration. Muddling up debates about eastern Europe and the EU also plays well.

Photo of Sally Keeble Sally Keeble Labour, Northampton North

No, I will not give way because time is limited.

I am particularly pleased to support the work that my right hon. Friend the Minister has done in pushing forward improvements to the asylum system. An awful lot of what is needed in her job is exceptionally unglamorous and does not involve big policy decisions; most of it relates to putting in the proper procedures, seeing them through and getting the systems working. She has done that extraordinarily well, and certainly the recent moves that she has made have produced real benefits for my constituents.

Shortly after I was elected, I went to look at some of the asylum procedures that were in place in my constituency. A number of people were arriving there, but we inherited the system from the Conservatives, and it was the most ramshackle, non-system that I had ever seen. There was a completely farcical approach to the payment of benefits, there was no networking between the different agencies, and the Conservatives' idea of new technology was a pencil sharpener. There was no proper system for identifying the people who were claiming asylum and receiving benefits. For a party that talks tough about identity cards, it was astonishing to see the total failure to identify properly the people who were coming in and out, claiming benefits and moving around the system. There was also a complete denial of the fact that many people were coming into the country and claiming asylum. If there were not scams then, that was partly because one did not need to run an effective scam to work through what was a totally shambolic system.

The Labour Government have increasingly put steps in place that have improved the system, and my right hon. Friend the Minister has pushed them through. For example, a new system was put in place for asylum support. Certainly, it faced problems, but it was a distinct improvement on the shambles that we inherited from the Conservative party. A range of different identification documents and cards are in place and they will establish who people and their dependants are. Those documents can be relied on and they replace the lack of documentation in the previous system. There has been an increase in the number of decisions taken, and they have repeatedly been reported to Parliament.

There has also been an increase in the number of removals. Any Member who visits their police station can ask the police officers there about the number of removals that they have to deal with. There has certainly been in an increase in the number of removals going through Northampton. There has also been open discussion about managed migration, which relates to the points that my right hon. Friend Mr. Dobson made about ensuring that we have the people to do the jobs that others simply do not want to do.

In my constituency, there has been, particularly recently, an increase in the number of enforcement actions taken. For example, a successful raid took place today on a factory that employed illegal migrants. Fifty-seven people were stopped and, so far, 33 of them have been arrested and will be removed. I very much welcome the increase in such actions.

It is certainly true that there is further to go. The Conservative party has highlighted a scam, but it is not the only scam that has ever existed. There should be proper recognition that circumstances have changed over the past couple of years and that an increasingly and extremely sophisticated international industry is engaged in trafficking and the forging and sale of documents. That has made it extremely hard to tackle some of the problems that we confront.

I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister shares my concerns about the proliferation of forged documents, and I know that she and her Department are also working to tackle the problem. An examination of the forged documents in the possession of the immigration and nationality directorate at Croydon and at Heathrow make it clear that they are produced to an extremely high standard and put through a sophisticated market. However, there is an increasing problem of documents being obtained through apparently legal means and then being used by different people. There are increasing problems of impersonation, and I hope that my right hon. Friend will put more resources into dealing with the appalling problem of forgeries that are part of a huge international trade. The people detained today in my constituency were found to be travelling on false documents.

Photo of Laura Moffatt Laura Moffatt Labour, Crawley

Does my hon. Friend agree that all these issues are real and that this Government have tackled them by putting in more resources and getting the organisation right? The last thing we need is any future Government threatening cuts in those resources. That would make it impossible in future to tackle the problems created by new technologies.

Photo of Sally Keeble Sally Keeble Labour, Northampton North

My hon. Friend is right. I was just about to come to that point.

The Conservative party has been extremely good at talking the talk in the way it did before 1997. It absolutely refused to put in place the steps and procedures that were needed to deal with the problem. Just as it did not have proper procedures for dealing with benefits, it did not have the proper documentation available to check on who people were, or the proper new technology in place to enable the different agencies to network properly. It also refused to support openly the proposals that my right hon. Friend the Minister and colleagues introduced to improve and speed up the legal procedures, so that we could deal with claims, in particular false claims, more quickly. Rather than just talking about the problems, we need to ensure that there is proper support in place for the solutions that the Government are putting forward.

My right hon. Friend is tightening up on the procedures to prevent abuse of the legal system, but there is also a need for the Law Society to deal with some of the problems created when certain lawyers handle such cases. It is noticeable that the case in Bucharest involved lawyers who were taking substantial sums of money for processing many claims that they must have known were false.

I very much welcome the steps that have been taken so far. My right hon. Friend has done more than any other Minister who has held her position to tighten up the procedures, to take difficult decisions and to see them through. I hope that she will continue to do that in exactly the way she has done previously. The public must also realise that, if the problems of asylum and immigration are to be dealt with properly, it will take tough decisions and proper resourcing. Cuts of the type proposed by the Conservative party will not suffice, and impractical proposals such as parking people on offshore islands, are complete nonsense. It is only by clamping down on the procedures while dealing with the issues of properly managed migration that my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras mentioned that we can allay people's fears and make for a civilised society that has decent race relations and sound systems.

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron Deputy Chair, Conservative Party 2:58 pm, 30th March 2004

We have learned three important things in the debate so far, the first of which is that Ministers seem very reticent about wanting to get to the facts.

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron Deputy Chair, Conservative Party

I have only just started my speech, but I will be delighted to give way to the hon. Lady.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon Shadow Spokesperson (Women), Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I am enormously grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene so early in his speech. For clarification and my peace of mind, will he justify the shadow Home Secretary's use of the word "collusion"? I should like to learn four things from the debate, one of which is the justification for the use of that word by the shadow Home Secretary.

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron Deputy Chair, Conservative Party

Much of my speech will be about the Minister's role, so I shall try to answer the hon. Lady's question during it.

We have learned three important things. First, Ministers seem reluctant to get to the facts. The Home Secretary told us that Mr. Cameron—no relation, I stress—the official in our Bucharest embassy, met Home Office officials on 1 March. We need to know who was told about his concerns. Why were they not examined by the Sutton inquiry? We need to see the minutes of the meeting between Mr. Cameron and the Home Office official so that we can find out who knew what and when. If Ministers wanted to get to the facts, the Sutton inquiry would have covered that straight away.

Secondly, Ministers seem reluctant to take responsibility. The Home Secretary said on the radio this morning that Ken Sutton will now widen his inquiry, go to Bucharest and examine the matter further, which is important. He also said, as he repeated in the House, that no Minister would resign—there will be no scalps. What will happen if Ken Sutton finds that Ministers were responsible in some way and that they knew something but did nothing about it? The Home Secretary has effectively prejudged his own inquiry.

We learned a third important fact from my right hon. Friend David Davis: that our embassies in Sofia and Bucharest had written to the Home Office raising important concerns. The most important question that the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration must answer is whether Ministers saw those letters. If they did but did not act, they are to blame for much of what has gone wrong. If they did not see the letters, does that not prove that we need a wider inquiry, worthy though the Sutton inquiry is? I am sure that Ken Sutton is a great man, but we need a proper independent inquiry.

I wanted to speak in the debate because immigration and asylum are of long-standing interest to me. I am not some Johnny-come-lately to the subject, although Labour Members say that we are interested in the matter only because of the politics. I worked in the Home Office, I have served on Committees that have considered asylum and immigration Bills and I am a member of the Select Committee on Home Affairs. I have asked the Minister questions about the Moxon affair in that Committee and the Chamber, but I have not been satisfied by the answers that I have received. I do not believe in pursuing Ministers for the sake of it. We did that with the former Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions; he has gone and what benefit was that? We must try to get to the truth.

I agree that the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration has what I once described in The Guardian as the "job from hell" in having to deal with all inquiries. I do not pretend that a Minister with thousands of civil servants can be held responsible for every last thing that they do. However, I have seen events unfold from relatively close at hand, so I know that the way in which the Government have handled the matter has not been impressive in any sense.

Let us be absolutely clear about what has happened throughout the saga. First, the policy on entry clearance for one group of people was being operated by officials without ministerial knowledge. That is clearly evidence of a failing Department—we have heard further evidence from my Front-Bench colleagues about its failure today. The Minister herself said about the Sutton report:

"This report makes clear that the current system of management and lines of accountability in parts of IND are not good enough"— as I said, we have a failing Department.

Next, we find out that the whistleblower—Mr. Moxon—told the Minister's private office that the policy has been introduced, but he received no response for more than two months, which is evidence of a failing private office. As she told the Home Affairs Committee:

"That was a failing in my office, there is absolutely no doubt about that".

We know from the Minister's mouth that as well as a failing Department, we have a failing private office.

The whistleblower then went to the press. The Sunday Times called the Minister's press office and the Home Office made several denials. Its final denial said:

"There have been no changes in procedures or dip in the level of scrutiny applied by case workers."

That was simply not true, because as the Minister admitted at the Dispatch Box on 8 March:

"The response from the Home Office to the press reports on Friday . . . was wrong."—[Hansard, 8 March 2004; Vol. 418, c. 1247.]

As well as a failing Department and private office, we have a failing press office that actively misleads the press. In the same statement on 8 March, the Minister said that the lapse in scrutiny was "rare and untypical"—those words are important.

Next, the Prime Minister backed up the Minister during Prime Minister's Question Time by saying:

"the issue is simple: a practice developed in" the Home Office

"that should not have developed . . . I am trying to put the matter in context because it is not the case that it involves hundreds of thousands of people a year. It almost certainly involves only a very small number of people"—[Hansard, 10 March 2004; Vol. 418, c. 1516.]

He repeated the line that the problem was a rare and untypical one in the Home Office. However, we know that it was not rare and untypical and that the accelerated procedures were applied to other groups. As the leaked memo in The Sunday Times said:

"all applications as far as possible over 3 months old should be granted . . . This exercise has been agreed by the Minister of State, Beverley Hughes."

No one can doubt that the matter is serious.

From what I have seen, a clear picture emerges of complacency among Ministers, of them not wanting to get to the facts and of them having the truth pulled out of them slowly, bit by bit. Let me give two examples of that.

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron Deputy Chair, Conservative Party

I have given way to the hon. Lady once; I am trying to answer her question at length.

First, in the Minister's response to the urgent question on 8 March, did she tell the House that accelerated procedures were being applied to other groups of applicants for residency in this country? No, she did not. Did she answer questions about that matter from my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden and others? No, she did not. Did she deliberately give the impression that the situation was rare and untypical? Yes, she did. If the Minister had come to the House to apologise for what had happened, announce a proper inquiry and talk frankly about the problems of dealing with backlogs, the Home Office would not be in the mess that it is in now. The way in which she made her statement on 8 March was a genuine misjudgment.

Photo of Parmjit Dhanda Parmjit Dhanda Labour, Gloucester

The hon. Gentleman talks about misjudgment and backlogs. Was it a misjudgment in 1992 and 1993 when the backlogs were wiped out by the Conservative party?

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron Deputy Chair, Conservative Party

If we were to have a proper debate, we could talk about a time when we had a Home Secretary who actually cut crime and had a decent asylum and immigration policy with fewer applications than at present, but that is not what we are discussing today.

The scope of the inquiry that the Minister set up shows a second profound misjudgment. Part of her Department is failing, and her private office and press office have been shown to fail. There are huge question marks over the extent to which the accelerated procedures for migrants have been applied. We know that much more widespread concern exists, including that expressed by our embassies in Bucharest and Sofia. However, what was to be covered by Ken Sutton's inquiry? Would it cover her private office? No. Would it cover the press office that deliberately misled the press? No. Would it examine initially how far the accelerated procedures for granting immigration went? That was not the case to start with because there had to be a second announcement about the inquiry on 12 March. A third extension of the Sutton inquiry was announced on the radio this morning by the Home Secretary when he said that Ken Sutton is going out to Bucharest. The situation is utterly unconvincing. As my right hon. Friend Mr. Oaten said, we need a proper independent inquiry. The Minister has made a profound misjudgment.

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron Deputy Chair, Conservative Party

I will not give way again. We have seen a picture of complacency and unwillingness to get to the facts. The truth had to be dragged out of the Minister time after time. The hon. Member for Winchester was rather generous to the Minister—

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron Deputy Chair, Conservative Party

He was polite as well. The Minister has lost the confidence of many of her officials because she has blamed them for what went wrong. She has certainly lost the confidence of much of the press because her press office has completely misled it. She has lost the confidence of many MPs because she simply has not given us full answers.

The question for the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister is: if one has a Department and a private office that have failed, and if there is more and more evidence of chaos in the system and clear evidence that a wider inquiry is needed, is the Minister of State the right person to turn matters around? I find it hard to believe that the answer to that question is yes.

Photo of Parmjit Dhanda Parmjit Dhanda Labour, Gloucester 3:08 pm, 30th March 2004

I am sure that I am not the only person in the Chamber to remember the episode of "Yes Minister" in which Sir Humphrey remarked that almost all Government policy was bad, but frightfully well carried out. I do not think that that is the case in this instance. Today we must ask with whom responsibility lies when a policy is right, but not carried out properly.

Let us not mistake the broad consensus—I think that there is probably some consensus on both sides of the House—that the basic policy is right. I hope that there is some agreement that this country needs hard-working migrants to boost our economy and enrich our society. When my parents came here in the 1960s, they were part of a generation of immigrants who helped to build up our public services. Likewise, prospective immigrants today, if they have qualifications, skills and a willingness to work, should be welcomed—and, yes, even fast-tracked.

Today's dispute is about the implementation of such a policy and the ways in which my right hon. Friend the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration should be held responsible for errors in that implementation. Unfortunately, David Davis advanced an argument the conclusions of which bear no relation to its premises. The Opposition cite the principle of ministerial responsibility, by which they mean the Minister taking responsibility for officials' actions that contradict the very policy set out by the Minister. Not only do the Opposition blame my right hon. Friend personally, but they claim that the only way in which she can exercise responsibility for it is by resigning. That is simply not the case.

Ministers are answerable to Parliament for the actions of their officials. They can be and are held accountable through questioning and public debate, as has happened in the present case. Ministers might have to explain in the House what has been done by an official, and that, too, has happened in this case. That is the convention, that is what my right hon. Friend has done in the House, and that is what has been examined in some detail by Ken Sutton. None the less, the Opposition allege that responsibility must, at all times and in all places, equal a resignation. No offence is considered too far removed from a Minister's private office. The claiming of a ministerial scalp seems to be the most important—indeed, the only—thing that the Opposition are willing to accept.

The Tories' rationale for demanding that my right hon. Friend leave office was unwittingly revealed by Mr. Paice last night on "Newsnight". He told Kirsty Wark:

"It is difficult for this government to accuse us"— that is, the Tories—"of popularity." I would not dream of accusing them of such a thing. However, in the present case, they are guilty of ham-fisted and unprincipled opportunism.

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron Deputy Chair, Conservative Party

If this is all about opportunism, why has the Home Secretary today announced that no further immigration applications will be accepted from Romania?

Photo of Parmjit Dhanda Parmjit Dhanda Labour, Gloucester

I was coming to those points. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is absolutely right to have a further investigation. He says that if there are issues to be investigated, let us investigate them, and he is right to do so.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Conservative, Harborough

Will the hon. Gentleman allow me to intervene?

Photo of Parmjit Dhanda Parmjit Dhanda Labour, Gloucester

Let me make a little more progress, then I shall be happy to give way.

In my view, when the shadow Home Secretary received the e-mail in question, he should have reported it to the Home Office straight away. Instead, he decided to wait three weeks. The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire tried to explain the inordinate delay by claiming:

"We needed to check out the email before handing it over. We needed to check if the allegations were accurate."

That has been repeated today in the Chamber. However, checking the accuracy of the allegations was the whole point of the inquiry, so the e-mail should have been forwarded three weeks ago.

Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office)

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is misattributing remarks. The point that my right hon. Friend David Davis and I have made, time and again, is that we needed the time not to check the accuracy of the statement—we were in no position to do so—but to check the e-mail's provenance. All we knew was that we had an anonymous e-mail; we had to find out its provenance and determine whether its author had some justification for making the allegations set out within it. That is totally separate from authenticating its contents.

Photo of Parmjit Dhanda Parmjit Dhanda Labour, Gloucester

I believe that if the hon. Gentleman found evidence of a burglary or a murder, he would not act as judge and jury himself, but would report that evidence to the authorities immediately. The Opposition chose not to do that in the present case, and although the hon. Gentleman has given his reasons for acting as he did, I disagree with them. The Opposition stood back and calculated the political gain that they believed they would score from delaying for some weeks. They put the e-mail in the public domain only yesterday, repeated its allegations today, then—feigning indignation—they called for the resignation of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration.

Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office)

The hon. Gentleman appears to be in conflict with the Home Secretary, who this morning accepted that my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden was right to wait while the provenance of the e-mail was checked. Of course, we had no knowledge as to its authenticity until the Foreign Office interviewed Mr. Cameron and suspended him, and he then telephoned my right hon. Friend's office. That was the first time that we were certain that the author of the e-mail was anyone who knew what they were talking about.

Photo of Parmjit Dhanda Parmjit Dhanda Labour, Gloucester

As I said, the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues could have sent the e-mail to Ken Sutton for investigation had they chosen to. They chose not to do that, and that is a matter of record.

A resignation in these circumstances not only lacks a basis in constitutional principle—

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Conservative, Harborough

Will the hon. Gentleman give way on that point?

Photo of Parmjit Dhanda Parmjit Dhanda Labour, Gloucester

No, I have given way enough.

A resignation would also fail to serve any practical purpose. We are well aware of the developments in the Home Office and of how much my right hon. Friend the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration has managed to achieve. Margot Asquith once memorably said of Lloyd George

"He cannot see a belt without hitting below it."

Neither can the Opposition—nor can they see a bandwagon without jumping on it, or a principle without abandoning it.

I know that a great deal of work needs to be done in the Balkan states. On Saturday, in Split, I met representatives of south-east European countries. I believe that they would be the first to accept that much work is necessary before their countries can become accession states. However, I share the concern expressed by my right hon. Friend Mr. Dobson that debates such as this one can have a detrimental effect on immigrant communities resident in this country. I hope that the debate and the way in which the Conservatives have decided to handle these issues will not have a negative impact.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Conservative, Harborough

I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not under the misapprehension that the debate is about Beverley Hughes. This debate is about the Minister

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. The hon. and learned Gentleman will use the correct parliamentary language.

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

No, there is no "with respect". The hon. and learned Gentleman must use the correct parliamentary language.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Conservative, Harborough

Let me rephrase my intervention. This debate is not about the individual woman who happens to be Beverley Hughes. It is about the office holder who happens to be the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration at the Home Office. It deals with a precise and discrete constitutional question about where ministerial responsibility lies. It is not a personal attack on the individual Minister—[Interruption.] Will Mr. Dhanda accept that—

Photo of Parmjit Dhanda Parmjit Dhanda Labour, Gloucester

Mr. Garnier tries to make a point in his own way, but I do not think that he has taken the House with him.

The shadow Home Secretary said that he feels that the Conservatives had their immigration and asylum strategy right. I say that a strategy that in April 1997 had people waiting up to 20 months for a decision was not the right and proper strategy. The current incumbent in the post of Minister for Citizenship and Immigration, my right hon. Friend Beverley Hughes, has presided over a Home Office department that has ensured that the people in two thirds of cases now wait for less than six months. She is doing a terrific job and everyone in the House should get behind her.

Photo of Peter Lilley Peter Lilley Conservative, Hitchin and Harpenden 3:19 pm, 30th March 2004

The debate raises two issues. The first is the pattern of behaviour of Ministers, which began with denial, followed by grudging acceptance when finally they were faced with documentary evidence of what they had previously denied. That was then followed by denigration and suspension of the whistleblowers. They moved on to protestations of ignorance of what was happening in their Departments, and in the end they blamed officials. Above all, and most wrong of all, Ministers refused to accept responsibility for the actions and inactions of their Department. In my view, to blame officials is despicable, to claim ignorance is culpable and to deny responsibility is intolerable.

It is not only the Minister of State. The Home Secretary behaved with apparent chivalry by clasping the right hon. Lady to his bosom but, in fact, he was using her as a human shield. He must ask himself who is ultimately responsible in the Home Office for policy and who will take responsibility. The position of the Home Secretary must itself be under question. I suspect that the Prime Minister will move the right hon. Gentleman from his present post before too long. Anyway, there must be an independent inquiry into what has happened under his stewardship of the Government's policies.

Far more important than that is the policy that is being pursued by the Home Office. Most people imagine that its policy on immigration is to restrict immigration to what is necessary for family reunions, for meeting shortages that cannot be met until we have trained indigenous people to meet the requirements of particular jobs, and for bringing in people with company-specific knowledge necessary for the functioning of their companies, for example.

We learn, however, that there has been a transposal of policy. The basic thrust of what is happening in the Home Office is to facilitate and encourage immigration to this country. I say that advisedly, and not only because of the devastating revelations about particular eastern European countries that my right hon. Friend David Davis set out. The Department has set a target to boost the number of people asking for work permits to come into this country: from a figure of about 47,000 in 1997, it has set a target of 200,000 in the current year.

I asked the Minister, on the day after she made her statement, a series of questions. I asked what the targets were within the Department. Characteristically the right hon. Lady has not answered. Is that because she does not know the answers to the questions that I tabled for answer within five days or is she withholding them until after this debate, as has been done so many times before?

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon Shadow Spokesperson (Women), Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Forgive me for being boringly repetitive, but will the right hon. Gentleman explain and justify Mr. Davis using very serious language and suggesting that there was collusion? Where is there one item of evidence that there has been collusion?

Photo of Peter Lilley Peter Lilley Conservative, Hitchin and Harpenden

I did not catch that particular word, but I take it that my right hon. Friend was referring to collusion with the accelerated procedures, which seem to have been responsible for the bulk of cases. It is claimed that only a small tweak was introduced. The Minister of State said that it was not introduced by senior managers, but Ken Sutton said that it was introduced by senior managers.

It is not only that a target has been set to increase the number of work permits; people are being actively encouraged to apply for work permits. I have a letter that was sent out by the Home Office Work Permits (UK) to small businesses in this country, which reads:

"Dear Sir or Madam: Are you struggling to find the quality of staff you need to run your business effectively? Do you want to employ an individual from outside Europe but are not sure how?"

The unit says that it can get help from the Department in bringing in high, medium and low-skilled people to fill vacancies. It continues:

"Work Permits (UK) is a department of the Home Office and is based in Sheffield. We have set up a Small Business Unit with the specific aim of raising awareness of the work permit arrangements amongst small and medium sized businesses . . . "

Photo of Peter Lilley Peter Lilley Conservative, Hitchin and Harpenden

No. I am not going to give up more time.

The Government are actively encouraging people to bring other people into this country. They have reduced the rate of refusals from more than one in eight under the Conservative Government to fewer than one in 20 of those who apply to come here. We have seen how they are colluding in the exploitation of loopholes. The particular loophole that was the origin of all this was the requirement under the accession treaties to allow people to come from the accession countries to the UK to establish businesses. That was not meant to allow people to come to this country as office cleaners and describe that as setting up a business.

In his report, Mr. Sutton says:

"A typical case would be a Romanian student coming to the end of their course in this country and planning to set up in business as a cleaner."

Should we be allowing thousands of people—possibly tens of thousands—to do that? Mr. McCabe seems to think that that is amusing, but most people do not believe that that is the purpose of the immigration service.

The reason why we have such backlogs that constantly have to be dealt with by accelerated procedures is that there is a growing number of applications—about 500,000 according to the Sutton report. The reason why there are so many applications is that the Government have made it easy and speedy to get into the country, unlike the position in most other countries. Consequently, more people apply and they overwhelm the system.

It has become clear, too, that the default position in the Department is to let people in rather than to deny them entry: if they do not provide sufficient information, let them in. The document says, "If they don't supply a bank statement, let them in. If they don't have other information about their national insurance and so on, let them in." Surely if people cannot or do not provide the information that is requested of them, they should be refused entry. That should be the default position.

My constituents, by and large, want a restrictive immigration policy, and that includes people of all ethnic groups there. I have had representations from ethnic minorities in my constituency to the effect that they would prefer a stricter and firmer immigration policy. The reason my constituents want that is certainly not because they hold racist views. They accept it when I say that the bulk of the people who want to come to this country, be they asylum seekers, economic migrants or even illegal immigrants, are basically decent people who want to better the lot of themselves and their families. But they know, as we surely all know, that this country is too crowded to be a country of net immigration.

Apart from the Netherlands, England is the most densely populated country in western Europe, yet for the first time in our history we have one of the highest rates of net immigration and it is being deliberately encouraged by the Government. We see the consequences in our constituencies. The bulk of the people who come to this country come to London and the south-east. Accommodation has to be provided for them. The Government admitted in response to a question that I tabled that 85 per cent. of the growth in population that they expect over the next 30 years—5.6 million extra people—is the result of net immigration. That is one of the major reasons that there is pressure on housing accommodation and public services in the south-east.

Unless and until the Government and the Ministers concerned are prepared to make the immigration service do what it ought to do—restrict immigration to those who need to come to this country, not encourage it on a large scale—there will not be the public confidence in the Home Office that there ought to be.

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Conservative, Woking 3:29 pm, 30th March 2004

The Minister and I have had many dealings together in Committee and across the Floor of the House. Throughout my dealings with her, I have found her courteous, kind, helpful and efficient and I make no challenge whatever to her personal integrity. But today she and the Home Office face two central charges. The first is that Ministers have presided over an increasingly chaotic and shambolic asylum and immigration system that, after more than seven years of the Government, is universally condemned throughout the country for its inefficiency. The first charge is massive incompetence.

The second charge is more serous and it is this: in order to persuade the general public that all is well when plainly it is not, Home Office and Foreign Office officials are encouraged, if not ordered, by someone somewhere to manipulate the system, to operate it improperly and to behave improperly, in an attempt, first, to please their political masters and reach the targets they have been set, and secondly, to persuade the general public that everything is under control, when plainly it is not.

Photo of Kali Mountford Kali Mountford Labour, Colne Valley

What does the hon. Gentleman say to the charge put to his party by my right hon. Friend Mr. Dobson that exactly the same procedures were adopted for the new accession countries under the Government that the hon. Gentleman supported?

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Conservative, Woking

No, not in the same way. I shall come to that in the course of my remarks.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Conservative, Harborough

May I add another reason to my hon. Friend's two? Is there not a fundamental constitutional issue? Under our eccentric constitutional arrangements, we have the Executive sitting in Parliament. Unless they are prepared to be accountable to Parliament, they are not performing their proper constitutional function. Irrespective of the personality involved—I was ticked off a moment ago for using a personal name—unless Ministers are prepared to accept responsibility for their role as Ministers, rather than passing the buck down the line to civil servants, the system breaks down. That may not be important to some, but to me, and I hope to my hon. Friend, it is.

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Conservative, Woking

My hon. and learned Friend is right. It is nothing to do with personalities. It is to do with the office of Minister. Responsibility must be lodged somewhere. It is not right for Ministers continually to blame junior officials when, in truth, the buck stops with the Minister. My second allegation relates to the integrity of the system, which I believe is now at stake.

I shall deal briefly with the first allegation—incompetence. In the Government's first year of office, the bilateral treaty that we had with France whereby people arriving unlawfully on our shores were returned to France lapsed and the Government were never able to renegotiate it. That was their first failure. Partly in consequence, the number of asylum seekers began to rise dramatically. By 2002, we had become the asylum capital of Europe, with well over 100,000 asylum applications in that year, the largest total ever.

The Government could not cope properly. That important area of initial decision making was hopelessly neglected—and is still neglected, according to the Labour-dominated Home Affairs Committee. Life and death decisions are made by officials who receive a mere 27 days' training and a salary of only a little more than £15,000 a year. Proof that the quality of initial decisions under Labour is going down can be found in the statistics. In 2002, 22 per cent. of appeals against their decisions were successful, whereas in the last year of the Conservative Government, that figure was only 4 per cent. Members in all parts of the House—Members of the Minister's own party—have roundly condemned the Government for failing to put sufficient resources and expertise into initial decisions.

Photo of Tom Watson Tom Watson Labour, West Bromwich East

As a former member of the Home Affairs Committee, I remember the dignity with which the hon. Gentleman took evidence. Does he recall taking evidence about the computer system and, more importantly, about the 1,200 redundancies of experienced caseworkers that that situation created, which contributed significantly to the backlog?

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Conservative, Woking

We are sick and tired of Labour Members discussing so-called failures seven or eight years ago. The Labour Government have been in power for more than seven years, and they should take responsibility for their actions and for their failings.

I note that delays are still endemic in the system. More than 10,000 cases a year still take more than eight weeks to get an initial decision. The average time to get from the initial decision to the adjudicator is now some 17 weeks, or more than four months.

Photo of Tom Harris Tom Harris Labour, Glasgow Cathcart

It is a bit better than it was in 1997.

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Conservative, Woking

Again, a Labour Member mentions 1997. When will the Labour party begin to take responsibility for the past seven years, rather than continually looking back to the seven years before that?

Given that the conduct of the appeal is usually in the hands of the Home Office, a 17-week delay is far too long. Much to its shame, the Home Office is increasingly unrepresented by lawyers or its own presenting officers at hearings before the adjudicator, which causes further delay.

Life for the adjudicators has been made even more frustrating by the ability of appellants to include all their human rights claims in their appeal. As a result, thousands of applicants for asylum who fail under the convention are nevertheless permitted to stay and are granted exceptional leave to remain under the Human Rights Act 1998. It is a stark statistic that, in the last year of the Conservative Government, about 3,000 people were granted exceptional leave to remain in this country, whereas under this Government more than 20,000 people have been allowed exceptional leave to remain in each of the past two years.

What happens at the end of the day to the failed asylum seeker? In truth, the Government's removals policy has been an abject failure and is widely recognised as such up and down the country. They set themselves a target of 34,000 removals per year, but they have been unable to get anywhere near it and have had to abandon it. The system has been discredited, because four out of five failed asylum seekers know that they can remain in this country, notwithstanding the fact that they have no case whatsoever. One consequence of that discredited system is that the Home Secretary was obliged to grant, as he did last year, an amnesty to about 50,000 failed asylum seekers.

The Government say that legislation is the answer, but I remind them that the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 had virtually no effect on the system, and the flagship policy of placing asylum seekers in accommodation centres and induction centres has been a disaster. In the past two years, not one accommodation centre has been set up under this Government. They have talked a good case but failed to act.

The Government have no clear or effective policy on managed migration. When the Home Secretary was asked to estimate how many people are here illegally, he replied that he

"has not got a clue".

On migration generally, he argues, quite wrongly, that there is no obvious upper limit on the number of migrants who could be present in this country.

The charge of incompetence is proved beyond reasonable doubt, but the second allegation about the integrity of the system is even more serious, and we must deal with it today.

Photo of Hugh Bayley Hugh Bayley NATO Parliamentary Assembly UK Delegation

The hon. Gentleman prefaced his remarks by paying tribute to the Minister's competence and personal integrity. Is it just a coincidence that whenever the Conservative party guns for the scalp of a Minister, it happens to be a woman, as was the case with the former Secretary of State for Education and Skills, who is now Minister for the Arts, and with the Minister for Children, and now with this Minister? Was Miss Widdecombe right when she said that her party was a "nasty party" that would take such action on such grounds?

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Conservative, Woking

Frankly, that is such an absurd intervention that I will not dignify it with a response.

The story of Mr. Steve Moxon, which broke a few weeks ago, should have put the Government on notice that there were serious problems ahead. He is an immigration caseworker who revealed that officials had been ordered to fast-track thousands of applicants with few or no checks on their authenticity. Since November 2002, civil servants have been told to fast-track applications under the BRACE—backlog reduction accelerated clearance exercise—procedure. Rather sinisterly, the memorandum said:

"as this is not a published policy, no reference should be made to this, either to the applicant or his representatives or on the Home Office website."

That shows that a lot is going on behind the scenes with this Government that we do not know about, and that we should know about. When challenged about it, the Home Office said that there had been no changes in procedures or dips in the level of the scrutiny applied by caseworkers. Pull the other one: the truth is that there have been changes and dips in scrutiny. Unwisely, the Minister told the House of Commons that the case was "rare and untypical". She would have been much wiser at that stage to acknowledge the seriousness of the allegation and set up some form of independent inquiry right across the Home Office. She went on to tell the Select Committee on Home Affairs that it was absurd to imply that she should be made responsible for this.

The second major allegation relates to what took place on 28 March, with new leaked documents claiming that the Minister authorised the fast-tracking of applications. The memorandum from two senior officials at Croydon stated:

"All applications—as far as possible—over three months old should be granted, unless the information available on file is such that it can properly and defensibly support a refusal. Where a case will result in a refusal, the case must be cleared by a senior case worker. No further inquiries should be made."

Significantly, it adds:

"This exercise has been agreed by the minister of state, Beverley Hughes."

Thirdly, we heard from the diplomat in Romania about what he was instructed to do.

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Conservative, Woking

No, I have no time: I must move on. I have given way on many occasions.

The third serious allegation comes from the British consul in Bucharest, who said:

"The Home Office judgment and decision making with regard to ECAA applications is a continual problem for overseas posts such as Sofia and Bucharest."

He goes on to say that there has been excessive pressure to grant applications that in effect have no merit whatsoever. The truth of the matter is that there are countless examples of cases that those people had to grant when they should never have done so. One example is that of Mr. C, who applied for a visa under the ECAA—European Community association agreement—scheme in August 2003. The visa assistant at the British embassy said:

"We telephoned his company and they told us they've never heard of him and he's never worked for them."

However, the Home Office lost the letter—surprise, surprise—which suggests that the claim was bogus, and Mr. C was granted a visa allowing him into Britain.

One example of bad practice would be one thing, and a second example might be thought to be coincidence, but in the past three months we have had three clear examples of a practice adopted across the Home Office that brings the integrity of the whole system into question. It is time that the Government considered a full and independent inquiry, probably by a High Court judge, into exactly what has been going on.

The Home Secretary acknowledges that the position is serious, but where does responsibility for it lie? Does he believe that it lies with junior officials? Does he think that it lies with middle-ranking officials? Or does he believe that it lies with senior officials? He would probably reply, yes, yes, yes. It may be slightly old-fashioned to say so, but Conservative Members believe that the responsibility lies with Ministers and that the buck stops there.

Photo of Beverley Hughes Beverley Hughes Minister of State (Citizenship and Immigration), Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) (Citizenship, Immigration and Counter-Terrorism) 3:45 pm, 30th March 2004

First, I thank all my hon. Friends who have intervened and contributed to the debate for their support and speeches. I also thank the hon. Members for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) and for North Down (Lady Hermon), who were the only two people on the Opposition Benches to conduct any research or have well-informed views about the issues that we have discussed during the past few weeks.

Photo of Beverley Hughes Beverley Hughes Minister of State (Citizenship and Immigration), Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) (Citizenship, Immigration and Counter-Terrorism)

I shall give way in a moment.

I genuinely regret the way in which Conservative Members have approached the issue. They have shown that they do not care about the substance of the matter. It is simply another bandwagon to jump on for their purposes.

Photo of Beverley Hughes Beverley Hughes Minister of State (Citizenship and Immigration), Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) (Citizenship, Immigration and Counter-Terrorism)

I want to make some progress first. I shall inform the right hon. Gentleman when I am ready to give way.

I genuinely regret Conservative Members' approach because they know, as we do, that migration is important for this country. That has always been the case because we are an island nation. Immigration is important now and will increasingly be so as our population changes. Immigrants have helped us to create wealth, compete in world markets and build strong relationships with other countries. However, the Tories and their newspapers promote a barrage of scare stories, which demonise all immigrants—we heard an example of that today from Mr. Lilley—as scroungers, criminals or worse, claim that everything is out of control, undermine the staff who have achieved genuine reforms and stoke up fear and insecurity instead of encouraging the rational and open debate that we need. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend Mr. Dobson and others who said that we need that debate to face up to some genuine issues and decisions.

Photo of Peter Lilley Peter Lilley Conservative, Hitchin and Harpenden

The Minister must have misheard. I said that all immigrants are hard working, industrious people who want to improve their lot and that of their families. Will she therefore withdraw her remarks? Earlier, she castigated Opposition Members for not conducting research. I tabled questions on the day of her previous statement. They asked, among other things, what targets she had set for processing claims. She has not replied. Is that because she does not know the answer or is she withholding the information until after the debate?

Photo of Beverley Hughes Beverley Hughes Minister of State (Citizenship and Immigration), Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) (Citizenship, Immigration and Counter-Terrorism)

The right hon. Gentleman might have said that migrants were hard working but he also said that he did not want any in the country, period.

Photo of Peter Lilley Peter Lilley Conservative, Hitchin and Harpenden

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for the Minister, having once said something untrue about one, to go on to say something else untrue about one?

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

We are considering very serious matters. I say to the Minister and the House that everybody involved in the debate should choose their words carefully.

Photo of Beverley Hughes Beverley Hughes Minister of State (Citizenship and Immigration), Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) (Citizenship, Immigration and Counter-Terrorism)

That is exactly right. The Conservatives do not like hearing about their record in Government, but it is important to recognise the absolute shambles in which they left the immigration department, with no proper systems or management and more than 1,000 caseworkers dismissed on the basis of a computer system that never arrived. I remind Mr. Malins that the Home Office was totally unprepared to respond to the Kosovan crisis—an enormous crisis that led to an influx of people here.

It has taken a systematic and radical reform, step by step—it is not complete yet—to put that right.

The Opposition have criticised us for not being able to say how many people are here. I remind them that the Conservative party in government removed embarkation controls, so we have no way of articulating that. The asylum system had in it, as we have heard, delay after delay, with cases going on for years and years. Secret decisions were taken quietly to grant asylum seekers leave to remain, of which we became aware only later when the figures were published, as my hon. Friend Mr. Dhanda pointed out.

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron Deputy Chair, Conservative Party

We have heard from the Home Secretary that our consul in Bucharest met with an official in her Department on 1 March to make his concerns clear. Were minutes taken of that meeting, were they passed to the Minister, and who saw them in the Home Office? If she did not see them, why did she not?

Photo of Beverley Hughes Beverley Hughes Minister of State (Citizenship and Immigration), Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) (Citizenship, Immigration and Counter-Terrorism)

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has already said today that a senior immigration and nationality directorate official visited Bucharest for talks on strengthening measures on illegal immigration and other matters, including the ECAA route. A report of that meeting was given to Ministers, or a record—

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron Deputy Chair, Conservative Party

This is vital to the issue that we are debating. If a report was given to Ministers about concerns in relation to immigrants from Romania and Bulgaria, why was that information not included in the Sutton inquiry when it was set up? Why do Ministers have to have the truth dragged from them bit by bit? Why do they not want to get to the truth?

Photo of Beverley Hughes Beverley Hughes Minister of State (Citizenship and Immigration), Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) (Citizenship, Immigration and Counter-Terrorism)

If the hon. Gentleman recalls, the shadow Home Secretary did not reveal the memo that would have been germane to the Sutton inquiry. I also remind Opposition Members that the subject of the allegations leading up to my statement on 8 March was specifically the eight accession countries and the allegation that Ministers had fast-tracked nationals from those countries in order to beat the deadline of 1 May. The focus was on the accession countries at that time.

As for the record of the Conservative party—

Photo of Beverley Hughes Beverley Hughes Minister of State (Citizenship and Immigration), Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) (Citizenship, Immigration and Counter-Terrorism)

No, I want to make some progress.

I remind Conservative Members of the record of their party in government: no action on border controls, no review of immigration control, no action on people trafficking, and no action at all on the organised immigration crime that fuels much illegal entry. Since moving into opposition, its record has been characterised by hypocrisy. First, Mr. Howard, on becoming leader, paraded his migrant history. When he was Home Secretary, he and his party argued strongly in favour of EU enlargement, but he has since reversed his position on that. Secondly, he created a storm about our proposals to remove support for failed asylum-seeking families, when he had clearly forgotten that he took away support from all asylum seekers the moment that they claimed, which was overturned by the courts.

Photo of Neil Gerrard Neil Gerrard Labour, Walthamstow

My right hon. Friend is talking about the record pre-1997. She may recall that in 1997, I and some other Labour Members used the word "amnesty", and I think that we were told by the then Home Secretary to wash our mouths out with soap and water. The Government then rightly embarked on a backlog clearance exercise, which was made public and which everyone knew about. Can she remind us how many backlog clearance exercises took place in the 1990s, which only came to light when the figures were published two or three years later?

Photo of Beverley Hughes Beverley Hughes Minister of State (Citizenship and Immigration), Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) (Citizenship, Immigration and Counter-Terrorism)

I thank my hon. Friend. As he knows, the Home Secretary yesterday put in the Library details of all those exercises that have taken place from 1988 onwards. Apart from the secret one, which was not disclosed at all—in marked contrast to the exercise that we announced in October—the other exercises were by and large what any sensible Government or Department would have to do. Backlogs are completely anathema to immigration control. If we have large backlogs, we are not managing the system properly. With proportionate and sensible measures, it makes sense to reduce backlogs as much as we can.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Conservative, Harborough

Could the right hon. Lady give us a brief definition of her understanding of the concept of ministerial responsibility of the House?

Photo of Beverley Hughes Beverley Hughes Minister of State (Citizenship and Immigration), Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) (Citizenship, Immigration and Counter-Terrorism)

It is to do what I am doing—implementing the Government's policy and being responsible for dramatic and radical change in the asylum and immigration system. That is what I intend to go on doing.

Tory hypocrisy is reflected not just in the record of the Tories' new leader, but in their failure to support us in most of the tough measures we have included in legislation—and, I might say, in this kind of thing. I have here a sheaf of letters, including letters from the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe, David Davis and the hon. Members for Woking, for Witney (Mr. Cameron), for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan), for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), and Mr. Ancram. All the letters ask me to reverse decisions about constituents when the Department has decided that they should leave the country but those Conservative Members want them to stay. Conservative Members want me to use my discretion to overturn decisions that people should be removed from the country. I cannot see a Member on the Conservative Benches who has not written to me— [Interruption.] I must finish my speech. Our record, in contrast—[Interruption.]

Photo of Keith Simpson Keith Simpson Shadow Minister (Defence)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Minister is preening herself. Having raised this matter, why does she not read out the names of the constituents involved and really make a hash of it?

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

That is not, strictly speaking, a point of order for the Chair. It is more a matter for debate. Let me say to the House that this is a serious matter. Members should listen to what the Minister is saying. They should also remember that people outside the Chamber are noting the way in which we behave inside it.

Photo of Beverley Hughes Beverley Hughes Minister of State (Citizenship and Immigration), Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) (Citizenship, Immigration and Counter-Terrorism)

In contrast, our record in government shows that we have instituted systematic, step-by-step reforms of asylum procedures. We have reduced the number of claims, there has been a record number of removals, we have speeded up decision making, we have acted on border controls and tackled organised immigration crime, and we have introduced a new charging regime. I repeat that I do not suggest that all the reforms we want are necessary. I am not saying that all parts of the organisation are yet as strong as I want them to be. We have seen over recent weeks that that is not the case. However, we are moving in the right direction, and we have made much more significant progress than the Tory party ever did.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes

Rather than engaging in knockabout, will the Minister focus on the future? The Home Secretary has suggested an investigation. Will the Minister commit herself to making it a full, public, independent investigation of the allegations that have been made?

Photo of Beverley Hughes Beverley Hughes Minister of State (Citizenship and Immigration), Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) (Citizenship, Immigration and Counter-Terrorism)

We shall have the inquiry that the Home Secretary has announced. I entirely accept what the hon. Gentleman has said: these are serious allegations which require a thorough investigation, and I want that to happen.

Hon. Members have asked me a number of questions. I shall probably not be able to deal with all of them, and I hope that they will allow me to write to them about some of them. In answer to the question about whether there was any reason to suspect that the inquiry would not be legal, I can say that there is no reason to believe that the action we have taken today would be open to legal challenge. We have explored the position, and I think that our action would be generally accepted as a sensible measure. Not only will we suspend applications under the ECAA, for a short period we will suspend all applications for any purpose from Bulgaria and Romania to ensure that we have a complete view of what is happening there.

The Home Secretary has dealt with the specific allegations against me in some detail. Let me simply say that I would not be interested in hanging on to office if I knew in my own mind that I had a personal case to answer, because it is what is in my head and on my conscience that matters to me. I would never compromise my integrity or my honesty, and I am not resigning because my conscience is clear. I believe that, working with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, I have made systematic and significant progress in implementing our policy and delivering real change and improvements. I am neither incompetent nor dishonest and I intend to carry on doing my job as long as the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary want me to do so.

Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question:—

The House divided: Ayes 156, Noes 378.

Division number 116

See full list of votes (From The Public Whip)

Question accordingly negatived.

Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 31 (Questions on amendments), and agreed to.

Mr. Deputy Speaker forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House congratulates the Government on having embarked on radical end-to-end reform of the immigration and asylum system including strengthening border controls, reducing asylum intake by more than half, increasing immigration removals to record levels and speeding up the processing of applications for leave to remain in the UK; notes that, as indicated in a statement published by the Government on 29th March, all Governments have instituted reasonable and proportionate measures to deal with backlogs of applications by people already in this country for permission to extend their stay; and applauds the fact that the Government, by investing more staff resources than ever before, has reached the point where the Backlog Reduction Accelerated Clearance Exercise (BRACE) is no longer necessary.