[Relevant documents: Fifth Report from the Constitutional Affairs Committee, Session 2004–05, HC 276-I, on Legal aid: asylum appeals, and the Government reply thereto, Cm 6597, and Second Report from the Constitutional Affairs Committee, Session 2003–04,HC 211-I, on Asylum and Immigration Appeals, and the Government reply thereto, Cm 6236.]
Order for Second Reading read.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The Bill covers the aspects of the Government's five-year strategy on asylum and immigration, which was published last February, that require primary legislation. The purpose of the strategy is to make migration work for Britain. It includes measures to make our immigration system simpler, clearer and more robust. The reformed system will explain publicly and clearly who we will admit to the UK and why, and who we will allow to stay in the UK and why. It will also show that we enforce the rules rigorously in every respect.
The UK needs economic migration. We welcome people who migrate here to work and study—they are an essential part of our society and economy. Anyone who looks back over the recent years and decades will be able to give testimony to the major contribution that they have made to the life of this country. We need migration to fill the gaps in our labour market that cannot be filled from the domestic work force. Of course, the Government will continue to welcome people who are genuinely fleeing persecution. However, as we do so we will not—and cannot—tolerate abuse of the system. That explains why the five-year strategy contains four major work streams, in each of which we work with a range of other countries to improve the effectiveness of our system.
Has the Secretary of State considered carefully the interaction of the Bill with legal aid provisions and the warning of the Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs that lawyers deciding whether applicants face possible human rights concerns if deported should not have to gamble on funding decisions? Bearing in mind that the Government are sending people back to Zimbabwe and have been subject to challenge in the High Court on these matters, does he not realise what a chill that message sends through those who are concerned about the safety of those people?
Yes, we have considered those relationships. The Bill deals with some of those matters and the Lord Chancellor has made proposals in the other place on legal aid. He will continue to examine carefully the general aspects that the right hon. Gentleman raises. However, I hope that he agrees that it is important for legal aid resources to be focused on the people who most need them—the very people whom he described in his example. That is the purpose and intention of the Lord Chancellor's proposals.
May I ask my right hon. Friend about another aspect of legal intervention, namely, the way in which solicitors batten on to immigrants in this country who have legal problems? They charge money even for applications and then botch cases. I heard of a case this very afternoon involving the appalling Thornhills company in Manchester, which has botched cases so that they have to come to Members of Parliament anyway. Will my right hon. Friend make solicitors involved in immigration matters registrable in the same way in which advisers are?
My right hon. Friend is completely correct, so perhaps I can take this opportunity publicly to urge Members to let the Home Office know if they are aware of people who behave in the way in which he describes so that those cases can be dealt with. We set out in our five-year strategy specific proposals to deal with the problem because the sad fact is that a number of decent people are essentially taken in by fraudulent practitioners. That process is misleading and causes despair—it is simply a money scam in a wide variety of different ways. I take what my right hon. Friend says seriously and invite colleagues to communicate to us cases that need to be addressed, as he did in his intervention.
As my right hon. Friend progresses through his speech, will he address the problem of foreign students and the right of appeal? I am sure that he is well aware that universities are worried about that.
The Home Secretary should be aware that the proposed replacement of indefinite leave to remain with the right to remain for a period of five years, subject to revocation by his Department at any time, is of considerable concern. Further to the pertinent intervention of Mr. Beith, may I put it to the Home Secretary that the Aegis Trust, which is properly concerned with the genocide in Darfur, is horrified by the number of cases of asylum seekers from Darfur whom the Home Office judges it safe to return to Khartoum? That displays a truly staggering ignorance of the sinister character of the state apparatus in Sudan.
With great respect, the fact is that these are difficult issues. The Home Office is advised, as we rightly should be, by the Foreign Office about the conditions in any given country, whether it is Sudan, as the hon. Gentleman describes, or Zimbabwe, to which Mr. Beith referred. The principle, which must be right, is that we look at the circumstances of the individual and take those into account in the judgment process. I acknowledge that they are difficult judgments. I also pay tribute to the work of various non-governmental organisations that work in those areas. We talk to them—not all of which agree with us on every point, of course—about the right way to deal with the problem.
I listened to what the Home Secretary said about the need to consider individual circumstances. He will remember that recently he said in response to Steve McCabe that all Members' representations in asylum cases will be looked at carefully. Yet as I understand it, Mr. Absolom Mashamba, featured in The Times this morning, has been moved from Campsfield house to Heathrow for deportation to Harare tonight, despite the fact that his case has appeared in a British national newspaper and that I gave detailed representation to the Home Secretary's ministerial colleague last Friday. I have heard nothing back. Even if I receive something this afternoon, there is no opportunity for me to make further representations on the basis of that. Will the Home Secretary assure me that he will stop the removal tonight so that further legal action can be taken by that man, who has been on hunger strike for 10 days?
Order. Before the right hon. Gentleman replies, I remind the House that we are talking about the Bill. We should not use it as a peg to deal with individual cases that are under consideration.
I hear your injunction, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and will proceed with what I have to say about the Bill. However, the hon. Gentleman's representations were considered, as was my commitment to the House. I am not going to comment in detail on individual cases, but the issues are as I set out. Every individual case, including representations from Members, will be carefully considered.
The approach taken in the five-year strategy was to identify four major streams of work. First, we wanted to establish a single points system for those coming to the UK to work or study. That would be designed to ensure that we target those workers that the UK most needs, that we simplify the current system so that it is easier for employers and applicants to use and for the public to understand, and that we make it more robust against abuse. That will be accompanied by measures to tighten our rules for permanent settlement and to simplify the appeals system. We will consult before the summer on what the new system might look like, but the legal measures needed in primary legislation to deal with that are covered in clauses 1 to 10 and 42 to 44.
The second aspect to the strategy is that the Government are introducing a new asylum process, building on the major successes that we have had in reducing abuse of the system and speeding up the treatment of applications. The reduced asylum intake will enable us to fast-track almost all new cases and to maintain contact with asylum seekers at key points in the process, so that we are in a better position to remove individuals whose claims are not justified. The new process will be simpler and more effective for genuine refugees and it is complemented by a new strategy of refugee integration, which we published in March this year. Most of this part of our proposals will be dealt with by changes to administrative processes and by changes to the immigration rules through secondary legislation. Clause 38 develops our strategy of refugee integration effectively.
The third part of our proposals establishes a fully integrated immigration control that is intelligence-led and uses new technology to check people before they depart for the UK, on arrival, while they are here and on departure from the UK. By 2008, we will fingerprint all visa applicants, who will have their details checked before they can board aircraft for the UK under the e-borders programme. Identity cards will help us to ensure that people do not work illegally or fraudulently claim access to services and benefits. We will check people out of the UK so that we know who has overstayed. Those checks will be supported by measures to crack down on employers of illegal workers and by closer working with the airlines to deal with individuals who use forged documents or who destroy them en route. Those measures are a major part of the Bill and are dealt with in clauses 11 to 36.
Finally, we want to make a major new effort to increase the removal of failed asylum seekers. We will use £30 million of savings from the asylum budget to recruit 500 new front-line staff and we will continue our efforts to reach more agreements with major source countries on returns, building on the considerable successes that we have already achieved. That will help us, by the end of the year, to return more failed asylum seekers than there are new unsuccessful claims. We will achieve all of that through international co-operation—not through fortress Britain—with our European Union partners during the UK presidency by working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and by developing partnerships with major source and transit countries for immigration. Clauses 39 to 40 cover those measures.
The Home Secretary referred to the problem of illegally employed migrants which, as he and many hon. Members will know, has often resulted in human tragedy. Is he, like me, concerned about reports from an unnamed Government spokesman that just 12 individuals are employed in the central team dealing with that problem? Can he confirm that number—and if it is not correct, how many are there?
I cannot confirm the number from the Dispatch Box, but I will write to the hon. Gentleman. We are working closely with our colleagues across government, in the Department of Trade and Industry and elsewhere, to increase the impact on people who are employing illegal migrants. The measures in the Bill that I am about to set out will give us more power to do just that.
May I thank the Home Secretary for listening to hon. Members' concerns about family visit appeals? Is it still the Government's policy to remove the right of oral appeal? If so, where have abuses occurred in the system? Other hon. Members and I rely on that system to show that the immigration system is fair because people have a right of oral appeal.
We are ready to listen to my hon. Friend and many colleagues on both sides of the House who are concerned about the issue. As he knows, it is not addressed in the Bill, but it is certainly a matter of concern that he has raised with the Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality and me. Our policy remains as set out in the document—there should not be oral appeals, but we acknowledge that the process gives rise to a good deal of concern among many colleagues, so we are ready to continue discussing it with an open mind to see how we can make progress.
Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind the fact that appeals are rarely successful if heard on the basis of papers? The oral appeal allows the sponsor to state the appellant's case through a representative while the Home Office puts the case of the entry clearance officer. Removing that appeal would undermine people's ability to visit close relatives. I hope that my right hon. Friend will not do what the Tories did and undermine the appeals system.
First, I confirm what I said a moment ago—we are ready to discuss the situation and listen to the points made by my hon. Friend and others. Secondly, in my opinion the solution to the problem lies in achieving better and more effective decision making at the initial level in the process.
A number of complaints have been made to me by hon. Friends and others that our decision taking is not as accurate as it needs to be and does not take full account of all factors. It is important that we get a better level of co-operation than we have been able to achieve between the communities that we are discussing and the Home Office. All that is part of the same approach. I say again that our minds are not closed on the matter that my hon. Friend raises, although I am sceptical about some of the points made in that regard.
May I elaborate on the disquiet that I and others feel about the proposed withdrawal of appeal rights for overseas students and migrant workers, which could have a negative effect on the British economy? With regard to family visits, there is a need for great sensitivity towards different cultural groups in their understanding of the role of core family members. Will my right hon. Friend reinforce his determination to listen to these points and re-examine the matter in Committee?
Does my right hon. Friend agree that not only is there a problem with the quality of some of the decisions taken by entry clearance officers, but that some of the problems stem from the subjective tests applied? We need to ensure transparency and accountability in the decision making.
My hon. Friend puts his point clearly. One of the problems with the whole system has been a lack of transparency and clarity, both for the country as a whole and for the individuals who go through the system. It is important to establish a much clearer system. That is one of the reasons for the points system that we propose for people who come to the UK to work and to study, which will attempt to be much clearer, in the way that my hon. Friend described, for people who are thinking of coming to the country so that they can be better dealt with. My hon. Friend is right about the importance of a clear, transparent system. That is the thrust of the five-year strategy.
No, I think that it is entirely attainable. It is based first, on reducing the number of people seeking asylum in Britain, and secondly, on increasing the number of people who are returned to their country of origin. I shall give one clear example. We have stated clearly to our colleagues in the rest of the European Union that we believe that it is important that the EU as a whole gets a return agreement during our presidency—that is, before the end of December this year—with Russia, Ukraine and Morocco. Those are not mainstream problem countries from our point of view, but they are significant nevertheless. There is a series of such moves that we are seeking to develop and I believe we will achieve the target that we have set.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that entry clearance officers enjoy enormous powers of decision making and, to my knowledge, are not subject to any scrutiny by the Home Office? Will he reconsider the system of giving too much power to entry clearance officers, which cannot be challenged other than in an appeal in a court of law?
I understand what my hon. Friend is saying. It is true that the decisions taken are important for the people concerned. I do not accept, however, that there is no scrutiny by the Home Office more generally on the matter. In fact, there is a great deal of scrutiny of the way in which the process operates. As a result of that scrutiny we published the five-year approach that we set out last February, precisely to try and improve the quality of the work that is done. The new asylum process that we are setting out in the document and that some aspects of the Bill seek to take forward is designed to improve the quality of the work. I know, and my hon. Friend knows, that there are many cases where we have not done as well as we should, but our approach must be to improve, and that is what the Bill is about.
I shall make some more progress, and then I may give way again.
On the first of the four work streams—the rules for permanent settlement and appeals—clauses 1 to 3 and 9 are concerned with appeal arrangements for people in the UK who are refused further leave or whose leave is varied. The clauses replace the current system with a single appeal at the removal stage, which would deal with all aspects of the case. An exception is made for people who have previously been recognised as refugees in the UK but who we judge no longer need our protection because their circumstances or the position in their country of origin has changed. The provisions ensure that someone who was a refugee can appeal against a decision that he or she is no longer a refugee before we move to take removal action.
Clauses 4 and 5 abolish appeals for work and study routes for those refused entry clearance overseas and those refused entry at a UK port or airport. That policy was set out clearly in the five-year strategy and was a manifesto commitment. However, I entirely understand the points made by my hon. Friends the Members for Coventry, South (Mr. Cunningham) and for Bedford (Patrick Hall). Major concerns have been expressed about student visas—more so than work visas—and we have to take those very seriously. My proposition is that appeal rights should be focused on asylum and family cases that raise fundamental issues. As I said, the introduction of the single points-based scheme will ensure that the rules for entering the UK to work or as a student are as clear, simple and transparent as they need to be.
Since I became Home Secretary—coming, as some Members may recall, from the Department for Education and Skills—I have been acutely aware of universities' concerns about these matters, which I have discussed with them in a variety of ways. The changes that we have made will ensure a much more direct dialogue with the universities about the visa system that operates. Universities justifiably complained that we had an inflexible system in which it was very difficult for them to have any impact on the operation of the visa system as regards renewals and a whole series of issues that needed to be sorted out. We are trying to make progress in those areas. Their two fundamental concerns relate to the cost of visas and the question of appeals. It is important to bear in mind that, given that universities are bringing £3 billion a year in business into this country, it is not unreasonable for us to make a charge that meets the costs as they go through. The number of people on appeal is a very small proportion of the overall student body, but it makes the whole process for all students far slower and less effective than it would otherwise be.
I therefore defend our proposals. Colleagues may want to make further points in Committee, but we have the right approach and that is how I intend to deal with the matter.
Serious issues have arisen in the university sector—or I should say more generally the overall education sector—regarding essentially bogus institutions that are a device for people to come into the country pretending to be students. Together with the Department for Education and Skills, we have taken strong steps to deal with that. I remain of the view that the way in which to deal with my hon. Friend's genuine concerns is to have a proper dialogue between the university sector and the Home Office about how to ensure that the visa system works in the most effective way.
As my right hon. Friend knows, I have two universities in my constituency, but I am still unclear about his comments on the abolition of the appeals mechanism if a university has only a small number of students. I do not understand how that affects other conditions and arrangements that he wants to make with universities.
I am sorry that I was unclear. The reason for the proposals in the five-year strategy is that the appeal process is massively time consuming and expensive for the visa operational system. We want to make it as simple and straightforward as possible. We therefore included the points plan, which will make it easier for people to know—before they come to a university in Coventry or elsewhere—exactly where they stand. I believe that the proposals will lead to a far better service for the individual students at the universities that my hon. Friend represents and for universities to enable them to move more effectively.
I plead guilty to the charge that the system for universities was too inflexible. It is necessary to achieve a better state of affairs, whereby my hon. Friend's concerns can be sorted out. However, I do not believe that the appeals system is central to that.
Will the Home Secretary explain the high error rate on student visa decisions? It is such that the Immigration Advisory Service claims that 60 per cent. of its cases are successful on appeal. The university of Sheffield argues that, in 90 per cent. of the cases that it brought, they were either successful or the refusal was withdrawn. Since the errors are so enormous, surely the appeals system should be preserved.
I do not recognise the figures that the hon. Gentleman cites. However, the most important way of addressing the appeals problem is to get a more accurate system of making initial decisions. The overall process that we have set out will achieve that in the ways that I have described.
My understanding is that one reason for the success of appeals in student cases is that additional information is provided on appeal, which leads to the initial decision being overturned. However, the universities have expressed a concern about whether, if the same person decides on the prospective student's fresh application, there will be prejudice against that student given the black mark against his or her name.
I do not believe that such prejudice will exist, but the working party, to which I referred earlier, to establish the discussion between universities and the Home Office on those matters will deal with those specific points. Let me add another serious point, which relates to my hon. Friend's remarks. It is important that people who want to study here apply to come here in a timely way. There are tricky issues about late applications and the way in which they are tackled that relate to his point about information. I hope that we can reach a state of affairs whereby those decisions are taken properly.
I understand what the Home Secretary is trying to achieve. Bogus colleges became a specific problem in the past couple of years. In the past year or so, the National Audit Office conducted a study of entry clearance and raised the question of the quality of decisions. Although Conservative Members are minded to accept the Home Secretary's arguments on appeals, the decision hinges strongly on improvement in quality. Will the right hon. Gentleman therefore undertake to take on board the proposals in the NAO report on the subject and inform an early sitting of the Standing Committee so that it can reach a judgment on the matter?
I give the undertakings for which the right hon. Gentleman asks to take the NAO proposals into account and to inform the Committee. However, I can go further: because of the importance of his point, which I tried to make earlier, I am prepared to say that if we do not improve the quality of decisions, the matter should be brought before the House to ascertain how we move forward.
I emphasise the universities' concerns about the money that is brought in. However, from the perspective of the Select Committee on Trade and Industry, universities play a vital role in the long-term future economic well-being of this country by bringing people here and exposing them to our culture and our way of doing business. That pays long-term dividends when those people go back to be managers and decision makers in their countries. It is therefore vital that we have a system that ensures that as many people as possible get here as overseas students. To that end, when the Home Secretary says that he wants to make the system more transparent, efficient and effective, surely he can maintain the appeals procedure. If it is more transparent, effective and efficient, there will be fewer appeals.
I do not want to be dismissive or rude, but the general point is self-evident. It is critical for the economy that large numbers of people continue to want to study in this country in a variety of ways. It is important for the foreign policy reasons that the hon. Gentleman suggests as well as for economic reasons. Most importantly, however, British educational institutions, particularly the universities, must remain an attractive proposition—in what is, incidentally, a highly competitive marketplace—for people seeking to come to this country. Furthermore, so far as the Home Office is concerned, it is important that we deal with the applications of people coming to this country in the most effective and efficient way possible, which is what we are doing in these provisions.
Is it not the case that a significant number of the students from other countries who are accepted by British universities do not show up, and that others who do show up disappear rather quickly afterwards? Has it not also been the case, at least in the recent past, that some universities are in denial about this problem?
I would not be anything like as vicious and sharp in my use of language as my hon. Friend, but he accurately describes the state of affairs. The big issue involves a change of culture that runs right through the whole five-year strategy. We need to understand that responsibility for the migration and asylum system in this country is a matter not only for the Home Office and its agencies but for those who benefit from that migration. We are trying to form a partnership with the universities so that everyone can acknowledge their responsibilities in regard to dealing with the problem. I accept my hon. Friend's point, and I have set out what we are trying to achieve.
I am most grateful to the Home Secretary for his generosity. I thought that he said something very useful this afternoon—[Laughter.] Actually, he said many useful things, but one in particular was his expression of willingness to meet representatives of the universities. Will he meet a delegation of university vice-chancellors to talk about the partnership that could be created to deal with the issue of abuse? Will he ensure that either the Minister with responsibility for entry clearance or the Foreign Secretary are also present at that meeting, because these decisions are taken at posts abroad?
Yes, I can give my hon. Friend the commitment that he requests. Actually, a number of such meetings have been held already, between universities and officials and Ministers from the Home Office, and Foreign Office Ministers. This is an important dialogue, because these matters involve a change of culture. We shall have to work hard to change the Home Office culture, but everyone else will have to change as well.
Now I really must make some progress. On the first pillar, clauses 42 to 44 provide a power to prescribe procedures to be followed and fees to be paid when making particular applications under the immigration rules. The purpose of that is that, in addition to improving the management of the current system, these provisions will support the implementation of the new points-based system for managed migration. On the new asylum process and refugee integration, clause 38 amends the statutory framework creating the refugee integration loan to reflect the change in policy announced in the five-year strategy granting refugees an initial five years' leave to remain.
The body of the Bill addresses two aspects of what I have described as the "third workstream". A key provision in the Bill will effectively tackle illegal working by punishing those who use workers who are not legally allowed to seek paid employment in the UK. Clauses 11 to 20 create a new civil penalty for employers of illegal workers and set out how the scheme will work. In particular, clauses 11 and 12 set out the circumstances in which a penalty may be issued to an employer found to be using illegal workers, the requirements that employers must fulfil to be able to prove that they have taken reasonable steps to assure themselves that employees or prospective employees are entitled to work in the UK, and the grounds on which an employer can object to the issue of a civil penalty.
Clause 15 requires a code of practice to be issued covering the criteria to be used in determining whether a penalty should be issued, and the amount. The maximum amount to be paid per employee would be £2,000. Clause 17 creates a new criminal offence of employing a person knowing that they are not legally entitled to work in the UK. It provides that the maximum penalty for conviction following indictment is two years' imprisonment and/or a fine. It is critically important that we drive out those illegal employers who keep people here, often in the most appalling conditions, and we must ensure that we deal with them in the most effective way. These measures are designed to achieve just that.
Members on both sides of the House will agree with the Home Secretary's last comment about dealing with "illegal employers", if that is the right phrase. I am concerned, however, about how replacing a criminal instrument with a maximum fine of £5,000, which is not currently used—I think that the maximum fine given so far is £2,050, with a civil fine of £2,000—will help. One of the problems in this area seems to be that the current law is not applied in its full force.
Certainly, I am happy to address that point in Committee. The thinking behind the proposal, however, is that we have had great success through applying precisely that kind of measure to carriers of illegal migrants, as it forces them to think carefully about how they operate. Were the right hon. Gentleman to argue that we do not need that because the criminal measure is more effective, of course I would listen. But the measures that we have introduced so far, for other such abuses, have been the most effective response.
The Bill makes several amendments to existing legislation to facilitate the enforcement and transparency of the immigration and asylum systems and to build the e-borders framework that I described. Clause 23 brings together the provisions on detention and examination of passports and other documents that might be produced by a passenger, and provides the same conditions to govern detention and examination for all documents. It allows immigration officers to require passengers who present biometrically-enabled travel documents to provide biometric information such as fingerprints, to allow their identity to be checked against the documents. That is necessary to support the global roll-out of fingerprinting visa applicants by 2008.
Clause 24 reduces the notice period given to asylum seekers and their families who cannot be fingerprinted on application, which supports the new asylum model by ensuring that claims are considered more swiftly. Clauses 26 to 34 are necessary to enable the capture of passenger, crew and freight details in advance of travel. That will assist border agencies, such as the immigration service, police service and Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs, to detect known specific targets or to identify individuals whose travel behaviour indicates that they might be of interest to one or more of the border agencies. Capturing data in advance also maximises the time available to determine and deploy the most appropriate intervention action—a key component of the type of proactive, intelligence-led operation that we are trying to address. The sharing of data is essential to provide a joined-up approach to border management. It optimises the potential to identify those individuals who present a threat to the UK through their involvement in activities such as terrorism, drug smuggling and illegal migration. It also enables the border agencies to mount an appropriate, co-ordinated and proportionate response.
Clauses 26 to 28 and 30 provide for the immigration service, the police and Revenue and Customs to acquire that kind of data, too. The detail of what might be requested will be set out in secondary legislation. Clauses 31, 32 and 34 cover whom the information must or may be shared with, and the purposes for which the information may be shared, and introduce a new statutory duty of co-operation providing for information obtained or held by the border agencies in the course of their functions to be properly shared.
On detention removals, clause 39 puts Her Majesty's inspector of prisons' voluntary oversight of short-term holding facilities and escorts on to a statutory footing, and brings it into line with the oversight exercise in respect of immigration removal centres. Clause 40 provides that where a person has breached the conditions of limited leave, or has obtained leave to remain by deception, leave is invalidated when he is served with a decision to remove him from the United Kingdom.
The provisions to extend the competence of the prisons inspector are welcomed. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that all detention facilities in the United Kingdom in which asylum seekers or failed asylum seekers might be held will be covered, as we are concerned not just about failed asylum seekers but about those in facilities such as Oakington whose asylum claims have not yet been determined?
Certainly, that is the intention. Alerted by my hon. Friend's question, I shall double-check that the wording of the Bill meets his point, but I think that it permits us to deal with the issue in precisely the way that he describes. The reason for that is simple. Because of the concerns that are expressed, it is important for an independent inspectorate to examine conditions across the range of facilities.
I believe that the Government have already made great strides in improving the asylum and migration systems. We have reduced the number of asylum applications. We have speeded up processing, and strengthened our controls across the channel. We have introduced measures to combat abuse, and especially to deal with bogus college and marriage applications. Removals remain very difficult, often for reasons outside our direct control. The vast majority of failed asylum seekers have no documents, and their countries will not accept them back unless we can prove their nationalities, but we are reaching more and more agreements with source countries to deal with that, and even small numbers of removals to those countries can have a dramatic effect on new abusive applications.
Clause 37 deals with the provision of accommodation under section 4 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. Having made the welcome decision to abolish vouchers for asylum seekers on the grounds of their lack of flexibility and vulnerability to black market activities, the Government now seem to be introducing them again for failed asylum seekers who cannot be returned home. For various reasons, people from Iraq or Congo may not be able to travel back safely, or it may be unsafe for them to return. Since April, such individuals have been refused cash and given £35 food vouchers. How can that help people who are required to travel to the obligatory reporting centres? How are families with children to purchase nappies? How are women to purchase sanitary items? Will my right hon. Friend do something about it?
No. I am about to finish my speech.
The challenge now is for us to build on those successes, and to create a robust system that delivers the migration that we need and want and does not tolerate abuse. We intend to demonstrate publicly and clearly that that can be done. I believe that the five-year strategy and the Bill that implements its legislative aspects provide the necessary basis, and I commend the Bill to the House.
Let me make it clear at the outset that the official Opposition support the main thrust of the Bill, which is the fourth immigration Bill that the Government have presented. I had hoped to be able to go further. I had hoped to be able to welcome the long overdue introduction of a new points system for immigrants—something that we have advocated for some time—but there is not much sign of that in the Bill. If I understood the Home Secretary correctly, the Government plan to introduce such a system through secondary legislation, or perhaps through later primary legislation.
As I thought, it will be done through secondary legislation. I believe that the operation of the immigration strategy will depend greatly on the detail of that legislation.
I had also hoped to be able to welcome long overdue measures to strengthen security at borders, following the hastily added sixth manifesto pledge promising to keep Britain's borders protected. Notwithstanding the Home Secretary's comments, there is little in the Bill to meet that promise. Even after it comes into force, two thirds of Britain's ports will lack the 24-hour security that would genuinely help us to keep track of the number of people coming into our country.
The Home Secretary spoke at length about his five-year strategy. I had hoped that the Government had learnt the lessons of recent years, and decided to be open and honest with the people on this important subject. Yet last week, the Government finally confirmed what had been rumoured, and denied by them, for so long: that there may be as many as 570,000 illegal immigrants living in Britain today. We still do not know whether that figure includes dependants. What we do know is that it includes only those who registered in the 2001 census—not necessarily a very likely activity for someone trying to avoid the law. So in all probability, the 570,000 figure is an underestimate.
But what makes this revelation more damaging is the Government apparently misleading the public about the extent of the problem in the run-up to the general election. Just three months ago, in the throes of the election campaign, the Prime Minister said that it was "impossible" to know how many people might be living illegally in the country. He added,
"I don't think there's any point in speculating".
That was despite having commissioned an estimate of illegal immigrant numbers the previous year. In the same month—April of this year—and again during the throes of the election campaign, the Home Secretary backed up the Prime Minister. He said that
"There are no official estimates and any estimates would be highly speculative."
Dutifully, a former Immigration Minister said that the Government knew the 570,000 figure to be "grossly inaccurate". Now, his successor claims that the Government published it last year, which is clearly not true; in fact, the Government suppressed it in Professor Salt's document of last year. The Minister in question obviously was not paying attention to what his colleagues said in the middle of the election campaign.
At the very least, the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary and the former and current Immigration Ministers owe the British people an apology for misleading them when they had the chance to pass judgment at the ballot box. Not for the first time, this Government have some serious questions to answer about the way in which they respond to genuine public concern about asylum and immigration.
The right hon. Gentleman suggests that 570,000 people were here illegally, according to the 2001 census. Would he like to hazard a guess as to how many of them were here before 1997?
I will leave hazarding a guess to the Home Secretary, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind. The simple truth is that we have been asking for these numbers for some time, and we are not the only ones: so have several public bodies. For a very long time, the Home Secretary, his predecessor and his predecessor's Ministers all denied that it was even possible to assess such numbers—and at a time when the Prime Minister had actually summoned those numbers from the Home Office. So the hon. Gentleman has not got much to go on in this regard.
Last year, this approach to policy and its public handling played a part in the resignation of two Home Office Ministers. By now, the Government should have learned the lessons of those events, but the latest revelations from the Home Office have a ring of déjà vu. It would be more than generous to the men concerned to accept that they genuinely had no idea about the true figure on the numerous occasions in the past that they had denied it. But ignorance of such an important fact should be no defence; it merely confirms people's suspicions that this Government have let the immigration and asylum system run out of control, and are clueless as to how to put it right. [Interruption.] The Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality says from a sedentary position, "Go read the documents." He should spend a little while reading last year's newspapers, which would tell him a bit about this issue.
Time and again, the Government's left hand has not known what their right hand was doing. First, we had the chaos of the eastern European immigrants, who unveiled the breakdown in relations between the head office of the Home Office and the immigration and nationality directorate. A whistleblower revealed that immigrants from eastern Europe were being waved into Britain without proper checks. The then Immigration Minister first denied that it had happened—until it was proven to be true. Then, she blamed junior civil servants—until it turned out to be the work of senior officials, with ministerial acquiescence. Next, she said that such cases were rare and untypical—until they were shown to be widespread. Then, the whistleblower was sacked, but the Minister stayed.
Secondly, we had the scandal of the migrant scams in Romania and Bulgaria, which were brought to light by our consul in Bucharest. This incident revealed a complete lack of communication between the Home Office and the Foreign Office. Our consul warned the Government that groups in Romania and Bulgaria were making fraudulent claims, yet Home Office officials granted such people visas anyway, knowing their claims to be false. Again, the consul was sacked, the Minister stayed. The Minister was finally forced to go, but only because of the utter chaos and lack of communication in the Home Office itself. She claimed not to know of any of these scams; it turned out that she had been warned a year before by her own Home Office colleague. If ordinary people behaved like that in their daily jobs, they would be sacked straight away—and rightly so. Within this Government, however, there is no such sanction: if a Minister fails, cover it up; if that fails, blame someone else; only if that fails will a Minister give in and go. In the light of the Government's capacity for incompetence and irresponsibility, it is little wonder that people hold politicians in such low regard.
While we are talking about numbers, let us consider what the Government promised.
I will give way in a moment.
What did the Government promise about the number of immigrants from the new EU accession countries who could apply to live in Britain? They said that there would be between 5,000 and 13,000 such immigrants in a whole year, but there turned out to be 16,000 in one month—nearly 200,000 a year. What was the excuse when Ministers had to face the figures? Well, we were told, more than a third of them were living here already— illegally. It is hard to find words to describe their incompetence. On the subject of incompetence, I give way to Keith Vaz.
I am most grateful to the shadow Home Secretary for giving way. Does he regret the hysteria that he generated at the time of the enlargement of the European Union on
Once again we see the Government's favourite mechanism, which is to blame the messenger. Only this Government would think that telling the truth is whipping up hysteria and only this particular former Minister for Europe would think that telling the truth about the real number of migrants is whipping up hysteria—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman shouts from a sedentary position that we were wrong. The Government's estimate was that there would be 5,000 to 13,000 such people in a year. Does he deny that? I gladly give way for him to deny it.
Let me tell the right hon. Gentleman that he should take great care about playing with statistics on the subject of immigration. That just fuels prejudice in our society. He should be ashamed of himself.
The hon. Gentleman did not answer. He would not tell us whether the figure was 5,000 to 13,000, yet even the Home Secretary at the time said that the 13,000 figure was not his estimate, but the Home Office's. That was an interesting distancing exercise. The raw truth is that more than 190,000 such people have come here in one year. If the hon. Gentleman cannot cope with the truth, that is his problem rather than anyone else's. The simple truth is that large numbers of immigrants have come into this country and the Government have to make a judgment in relation to their points scheme about how many should be coming here on various skill and income levels. How can they possibly make that judgment if they confuse themselves by mistaking 192,000 people for 5,000 people?
I thought that the Conservative party was in favour of the enlargement of the EU and in favour of allowing people from the 10 countries to come here. What is the problem with allowing members of the public from Poland, the Czech Republic and other new member states to come to this country to work lawfully and legally by registering under the scheme? What is the right hon. Gentleman's problem?
Germany was in favour of enlargement, as were Denmark and Finland, but they all had intelligent transitional schemes that allowed them to manage the process. They took a sensible attitude towards the enlargement of the EU. The hon. Gentleman ought to know better, but this country did not and we have ended up having nearly 200,000 people come here. It was unplanned and we have yet to see whether it was a good or bad thing.
Every two years since the Government have been in office, we have had a big announcement followed by a failure. In 1997, the promise was a swift and fair asylum system. The reality is that it is not fair to anyone—not to genuine refugees, lumped in with the fraudsters and forced to plead their case; not to immigrants who spend their life savings paying people smugglers for the chance to come to Britain; and not to opposition party members of Zimbabwe who are caught up in this Government's public relations offensive and face torture or worse if they are sent back.
Again, in 1997, the Prime Minister promised to achieve firm control of immigration, but the reality is that annual net immigration into the UK tripled. Another promise was made in 1999—that we would have a fairer, faster and firmer asylum system. The reality was that, a few years later, the number of asylum applications in one year passed 100,000 for the first time in our history.
Two years on, in 2001, the promise was to remove more failed asylum seekers from Britain. The result was that a smaller proportion is removed now than was the case when this Government came to office.
In 2003, the Government promised to
"derail the gravy train of legal aid", but the result is that the legal aid budget for asylum and immigration has soared by 682 per cent.—from £26 million to £204 million. This year—election year—the shortest lived announcement of all was made. While the Prime Minister was quickly adding his sixth election pledge and promising to get a grip on immigration, almost simultaneously the Home Secretary was telling a private meeting of Labour supporters:
"We want more migration, more people coming to study and to work. We want more people coming to look for refuge."
One statement or the other is true: both of them cannot be. We are locked in a two-year cycle of big announcements, bold promises and botched policies.
About 14 minutes ago, the right hon. Gentleman said that he supported the Bill—and therefore the Government, on this issue—but since then he has not mentioned it. He has been campaigning for something, although I cannot imagine what. Will he return to the subject of the debate and explain why he supports the Bill? If he has any improvements to propose, will he explain what they are?
The hon. Gentleman forgets that this is a Second Reading debate. I said that I supported the Bill, but that it is too little, too late. The Opposition have been asking for some of the measures contained in the Bill, and for the other measures that would derive from it, for some time. However, the problem over and over again has been that this Government legislate and then nothing happens. Following a headline-grabbing initiative with inaction is not a very good policy premise. That is my point, and I shall go on making it throughout the debate.
I turn now to the consequences of uncontrolled immigration. I agree with the Home Secretary that controlled immigration has a proper and useful function. Managed migration contributes to our economy and culture, and to many aspects of British society, but uncontrolled immigration can have the opposite effect. That is the concern that I want to raise today.
The consequences of uncontrolled immigration for the everyday lives of ordinary people are there for all to see. Here in London, there are pressures on housing. That housing stress has led to the Government crippling the right to buy, with the result that many people can no longer afford to buy the houses that they live in.
In a moment.
Across the country, vital local services are under increasing pressure as people find access to health care and schooling more difficult because more people are fighting over fewer places. The Government are very quick to remind us, when it suits them, that Britain is still at high risk from terrorism, but the public have little faith in the very system that is supposed to control who enters our country and who leaves it.
The right hon. Gentleman has raised many issues, but has not yet discussed the Bill. I have a direct question for him: does he intend to table an amendment to introduce an annual quota for immigration that would be set by this House? That was proposed by the Conservatives during the election campaign. Will he table such an amendment, if that is what he believes in?
Certainly, if the Home Secretary invites me to and gives sufficient time in Committee. It is a very good idea, and I shall return to the matter of the quota in a moment. I shall also return to the question of how the points system that he proposes will work—if we ever see it.
Across Britain, taxpayers are footing the bill for the Government's failure. When they came to power, the budget for the immigration and nationality directorate was £212 million a year. It is now more than £1.7 billion. That money could pay for 80,000 extra nurses, 70,000 extra teachers, and 60,000 extra police. Ordinary people are literally paying the price for this Government's asylum failure.
I can understand why Ministers wanted to cover up the extent of the problem during the election campaign. However, I cannot understand why they let the problem get so bad in the first place. There has been no shortage of activity, but there has been a shortage of results. Six years ago, the House debated phase 1 of the Government's asylum policy—the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. It abolished the so-called white list, and the number of applications shot up to more than 100,000 a year—the highest in Europe. So three years ago, phase 2 of the Government's policy reintroduced the white list. By that time, the UK was well on the way to receiving the second highest number of asylum applications in the world.
Last year, we passed what the then Home Secretary described as the final phase of asylum reform—the plan to bring speed and finality to the appeals and removals process. The result is that the number of removals has fallen in five of the last six quarters. If that was the final phase, this Bill appears to be an afterthought.
We all acknowledge the problems of housing, education and health that the right hon. Gentleman mentions, but it is a grotesque caricature to suggest that they are the result of asylum and immigration. The asylum budget consumes 0.3 per cent. of public expenditure. If the right hon. Gentleman wants to lead the major Opposition party in this House, he must put his claims in context.
Given the hon. Gentleman's background, I am interested to hear that he thinks that £2 billion is not much, but with a billion here and a billion there one is soon talking about real money.
The Government and their supporters say that they take the issue seriously and are very concerned about it. But then what happens? To give one example, London is a housing stress area. Some 60 per cent. of immigrants and asylum seekers coming to this country come to London, so several hundred thousand people add to the housing demand in the city. I do not pretend that it is an easy problem to solve, but the Government do not even recognise the problem. That is the problem that we face, and we have to make them think about it.
The Secretary of State wanted me to talk about the Bill, so I shall do so. It promises new sanctions against people employing illegal immigrants. We welcome that. The exploitation that has developed in some sectors of our economy in recent years is a disgrace to a civilised society. We would all agree with that. However, sanctions are already available: they just have not been used. There have been only 24 prosecutions in the past seven years under the legislation introduced in 1996, just before the Government came into power. And that is against the backdrop of a group of Chinese dying in the back of a van in Dover and the deaths in Morecambe bay. That is a disgrace. There is no other word for it. I asked the Home Secretary—deliberately, because I want to be helpful on this point—whether he thought that more legislation would help, and he said that it was like the legislation that had been used before. The simple question is why the Government have not used that other legislation. That is what Governments are responsible for and what they are there to do.
The Bill promises new powers to track people entering the country, but it does nothing to address the fact that, as I said earlier, 11 out of 35 British ports are manned with security or immigration officials 24 hours a day and the others are not. The Bill contains provisions to allow immigration officers to verify someone's identity, using the Government's new favourite thing—biometrics. But as we saw in the ID cards debate, that technology is far from foolproof and remains open to fraud. It is a partial solution, not a panacea. The Bill also contains proposals to change the right of appeal. As I said to the Home Secretary, we shall look at those proposals in detail to check that they strike the right balance between an individual's rights and the needs of effective administration. We will look carefully at how effective the initial decisions procedure is in making that judgment, and I hope that the Home Secretary will meet his undertaking to take on board the National Audit Office proposals.
The Bill is significant not for what it contains but for what it does not contain. At the election, the Opposition set out a clear plan for controlling the number of people coming into Britain and as usual the Government began by ridiculing it, then they attacked it and then they adopted it.
No, not at the moment.
Now, the Government have watered down our plan. We said that we would adopt a points-based system for immigration, as they do in Australia. That is the biggest single thing that the Government could do to get a grip on the immigration system, while giving priority to people with the skills that Britain needs. We also promised to let Parliament put a limit on the number of people coming to the UK each year. That would ensure that we balanced the needs of Britain—[Interruption.] If Edward Miliband carries on shouting from a sedentary position, I shall not give way to him—he can make up his mind.
Our system would ensure that we balanced the needs of Britain's economy with the needs of the population as a whole. The Government agree with the first, but not with the second; they want the points, but not the limit. A points system with no limit is futile. How will it work? If someone gets 100 points, will they be allowed in? If someone gets 90 points, will they be allowed in? If someone gets 60, 50 or 30 points, will they be allowed in? Where does it end? If there is a cut-off point there is a de facto limit. If not, there is no point to the system.
The whole point is that Parliament would make that decision each year on the basis of a number of things, just as Australia does. The decision would be based on information about skills shortages and pressures on housing or public services. Without such information a decision cannot be made. It is perfectly possible for the Government to come up with a proposal—it would be easy—but it depends on information. Facts first, decision second.
The shadow Home Secretary makes a perfectly fair point but all those factors are in the public domain; they are known to him, as they are to the press and to the Home Secretary, at least in ball-park figures. The right hon. Gentleman is in a position to say what he thinks the limit should be when all the factors that he correctly enumerates are taken into account. What sort of figure is he talking about?
I am afraid that the facts are not in the public domain. In Australia, there are regular consultations between the national and provincial Governments on such information—where there are skills shortages and pressures on housing and public services. I do not know about such matters. We need to know about them not just for the present but for the year ahead. It is a perfectly practical, sensible and easy thing to understand, but the data are not available and I do not intend to make guesses about information that is not available.
I was not actually bowing to the right hon. Gentleman but to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
I take what David Davis says about a limit, but I disagree with him about imposing an annual limit and I shall briefly tell him why. Setting an annual limit is a dirigiste system where the state decides on the number of people to be let in each year. What the Government are proposing is a system led by employers, which is flexible and can respond to the needs they identify. That is why he is wrong to try to set an annual limit.
If the hon. Gentleman's economics is up to it, he will recognise that employers do not meet all the costs of the pressures on housing, public services and so on, so their decisions might not necessarily be right for society as a whole. That is why the Government occasionally have to impose restraints. I am sorry to give him lectures on how immigration policy is supposed to work in theory, but he asked for it.
No, I must make some progress.
What is the point of the system if there is no limit? Once again, the Government's policy seems half-baked. I hope that the Home Secretary, or the Minister when he winds up the debate, will tell us when the points system will be brought in, whether we shall have a chance to debate in full how it should work and how many points he thinks someone should have before being allowed into Britain, and how that will work. We need to know whether there will be a cut-off, and therefore a de facto limit. It must not be another example of the Government promising one thing before an election but doing something else after it. The Government were elected on a manifesto that promised to introduce the scheme. I hope that they will go ahead with it quickly, but I also urge the Home Secretary to think seriously about how they will limit the number of people coming into Britain—or is he simply going to recognise that there will be no limit, and will he tell the British people so if that is the case?
We cannot continue to have an open-ended immigration policy, driven by the need to prop up key areas of our economy—by stripping other countries, incidentally, of people with important skills. At the end of the day we must focus on improving our own skills base so that we no longer have to rely on the immigration lottery. A responsible Government would put a limit on immigration. The consequences of an uncontrolled, unlimited immigration system are potentially too great. It is the glaring hole in the middle of the Bill and it is the glaring hole at the heart of the Government's five-year strategy.
Over the past two weeks we have witnessed the Government trying to meet the debts that they ran up during the election campaign. First we had the unnecessary plan to limit freedom of speech by criminalising people who question religious belief—a debt that they promised to Labour voters in marginal seats. Then we had their illiberal Identity Cards Bill, to change for ever the balance of the relationship between the citizen and the state—a price they paid for playing political games before the election. Today we have a Bill that genuinely addresses an issue of serious public concern, yet it contains very little that will repay the faith that the people placed in the Government on
The Government have introduced several Bills on immigration and asylum since 1999. This Bill has several aspects that are very welcome, notably measures to control the unscrupulous and thoroughly irresponsible employers who have exploited immigrant workers. I welcome those aspects of the Bill and commend the Home Secretary for them.
I want today to address the asylum aspects of the Bill, not in the terms that David Davis has just referred to, but looked at from the point of view of fulfilling our international obligations, which I think he recognises are serious.
Each of the Bills the Government have introduced since 1999 has in various ways curtailed the rights and protections of those who turn to Britain for asylum because their life and liberties are threatened in their own country. Ministers, including this Home Secretary, are committed to our living up to our international obligations and I recognise and believe that they are honourable in those commitments. However, too many aspects of the policy as displayed by those immigration Bills have been driven not by a sense of responsibility to our international obligations but by what the Government see, I think wrongly, as the British public's impatience with those seeking asylum, and too much by the popular press. The policy is rightly hostile to those who apply for asylum when what they actually want is to come to this country as economic migrants and who mislead and abuse the asylum system, but it is also hostile to genuine refugees or those who are seeking asylum because of the horror that they face at home.
The hon. Gentleman knows that I am a great admirer of him and his parliamentary performances. May I put a difficult question to him? One of the things that concerns me about the way our asylum system works is not just the numbers, but who actually ends up claiming asylum in Britain. About 60 per cent. of the people who claim asylum are young men—a disproportionate number—and the indications are that the filter applied is whether people can find $10,000 to pay the Chinese people traffickers to get to this country. Does he accept that the way we operate at the moment seems to encourage people traffickers and not to get the right people to come here?
The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that that is a problem, but I do not see anything in the Government's policy that encourages such things—far from it. He cannot seriously say that Ministers are sympathetic to or encourage that sort of behaviour. Indeed, the Government have taken good steps in many respects to crack down on that problem, although he has a fair point when he says that we still do not have proper 24-hour controls at even the major ports of entry, and the Government ought to look much more rigorously at that issue.
The expression "illegal asylum seeker" is meaningless. No asylum seeker is illegal, but it is difficult to distinguish the misleading and erroneous asylum seeker, who should be properly described as an economic migrant—a perfectly respectable thing to be, but distinct from an asylum seeker—from those who are genuinely in fear of their lives. It is not easy to distinguish between the two. The only way that we can do so is by using the tribunal and adjudication system and, again, the Bills that we have introduced over the past four years—and, indeed, this Bill—turn the ratchet on that system, particularly on the appeals mechanism, and make it more likely that we will err on the side of scepticism. Thus people with good claims and good reason to be in fear of their lives and their liberty in their country of origin are being turned away. I do not think that that is what the Government intend, but that is the effect of those four Bills, and this Bill may inadvertently add to that because the context in which the adjudicators work is hostile to asylum seekers.
Let us consider the context in which we are debating the Bill and the financial support that we give to asylum seekers. We recognise that, until we have adjudicated on their cases, they are serious and genuinely in fear of their lives. Can we honestly say that providing £37 a week is the right way to treat a human being? Is that dignified? Is it right to ask them to live on that amount while we make up our minds?
Let me share with the House a case from my constituency. One of my constituents is married to a British woman while still claiming asylum. She runs a takeaway business, which is, of course, their livelihood. They choose to claim nothing in benefits. Yet, under the current system, if he steps into that takeaway, which is owned by his wife, he can be deported. Does the hon. Gentleman think that that is a fair and just way to treat refugees in this country; or does he think it is time the Government changed the legislation and addressed the biggest gap in the Bill, which is that asylum seekers are not allowed to have the dignity of working in this country?
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. The attitude towards employment is wholly unsatisfactory and makes the system much more expensive. Many people seeking asylum have skills and would like to work temporarily. That would reduce the cost to the Government and, perversely, it would mean that the Government could track those people more easily. Nothing is more conducive to losing an asylum seeker in the system than forcing them into illegal work by proposing the ludicrous payment of £37 a week. No Member of the House could support themselves on £37 a week.
Additionally, we must consider the quality of housing supplied by the National Asylum Support Service. If the Home Secretary is serious about his responsibilities, he should get NASS to look again at the landlords used and the quality of housing provided. Yet again this winter we will see NASS houses that are damp, cold and frankly a disgrace. We turn our eyes from that because of the larger issue of the number of asylum seekers, but we should be ashamed of the way in which we treat people while we make up our minds. They have not been found guilty—they are not guilty of anything, anyway. They have come to ask for our protection and to seek asylum here, but the way in which we treat them is not good.
The Home Secretary needs to lean heavily on NASS and ensure that the system improves considerably. Work is one aspect of the problem, so we should seriously examine the practice of countries that allow asylum seekers to work temporarily while their claims are considered. The Government might well find that there are advantages all round—and few disadvantages—to allowing that. Young men from Kurdish Iraq in particular are skilled, hard-working and determined and they have great resources, but they are sitting idle and frustrated while trying to survive on £37 a week. This daft policy does nothing for them or for us and actually encourages them to work illegally or disappear from the system. Greg Mulholland is quite right to say that the Government should look at the situation again.
The other aspect of the Bill about which I am concerned is the question of the adjudication and the tribunal system because the Bill marginally turns the ratchet on that once again. The present system is hugely unsatisfactory. Those who act as adjudicators are, to my knowledge, decent and hard-working people doing a difficult job. However, they are being asked to make judgments about the credibility of the evidence put before them on matters about which they have absolutely no experience. They are asked to decide, on the basis of language, whether a person genuinely comes from a specific part of Somalia. I suspect that all hon. Members have read adjudicators' reports on applicants. The adjudicators simply make arbitrary decisions in many cases by saying, "I don't believe this person comes from this particular Somali tribe." Although the adjudicators have no basis on which to make such an assumption, the decision is a matter of life and death for the applicants.
The appeal system is now such a high hurdle to get over that it is inevitable that we are turning away people with genuine cause to fear for their lives. We need to look again at the advice available to adjudicators and the quality and specificity of Foreign Office reports because they are often general about the theatres from which refugees come. The judgments are made difficult because there are distinctions between different cities in different regions—and indeed, different parts of cities—and because of the divisions and tensions inside those cities. The way the system works at present is not fair to adjudicators and certainly not fair to refugees. Of course, adjudicators work under pressure from the media and, regrettably, the Government, but all the pressure is towards cutting the figures. The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden played a part in setting the general mood of being appalled by the size of the figures. That has put such a pressure on the adjudicators and the system that there is a desire and tendency to keep the figures down.
I have a single point to make in response to the hon. Gentleman's suggestion—I shall not call it an accusation. Last year, his Government tried to remove appeal rights altogether—the so-called ouster clause. My party, in conjunction with the Liberal party, blocked that in the Lords and said that we had to have an appeal process, not just because of the importance of the process in its own right, but because it maintained pressure on the rest of the system to get it right. The fact that there can be an appeal ensures that the adjudicators are, as it were, kept honest. That was not playing to any gallery or to the 250,000 failed asylum seekers who are still here. It was playing to the point of simple justice and simple proper treatment in a proper process.
Although I am getting comments from my hon. Friends, I accept that point. These are not easy matters and we do not help the quality of debate by flipping accusations across the Chamber. We are more likely to come to decisions that will benefit our country and, in particular, those seeking asylum if we do not throw about accusations relating to good faith or otherwise, either inside our parties or across the Floor of the House. A debate such as this does not respond well to party political point scoring.
The other mess relating to the tribunal and appeal system becomes apparent when people are finally refused—a point to which my hon. Friend Lynne Jones alluded. When people are refused after appeal—as I said, the system is sometimes deeply flawed—they get a letter withdrawing their access to NASS and telling them that they will be evicted from their house the following week. They have no visible means of support. Clearly, the purpose behind that is to put pressure on them to deport themselves voluntarily. That is a disingenuous policy. The Government know full well that they are not going to deport them—or at least they are certainly not in a hurry to do so—because the countries from which they have come are not safe and they cannot send them back, yet they cut off their means of survival. That is an act of great cynicism. Those people are left dangling. It suits the Government because they can say, "We've rejected them. They ought to go," but they know full well that they have nowhere to go to.
My hon. Friend rightly referred to the problem of turning to vouchers and the unsatisfactory nature of that, but there is also, of course, the totally unsatisfactory nature of a situation in which those people no longer have any housing. All hon. Members who have asylum centres in their constituencies know that those people are too frightened to return to their own countries and, as they are not being deported by the Government, live in a terrible form of limbo. They have to rely on the charity and good will of their fellow asylum seekers, which means that they sleep three, four or five on the floor of a pretty rotten piece of NASS accommodation that is designed for one, and carve up that £37 a week into ever smaller bundles. That cannot be acceptable.
My hon. Friend is not quite correct. Since the provisions of section 4 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 became more widely known, those failed asylum seekers are allocated accommodation under what is called "hard cases support." The Government's preference is that that should be on a full-board basis, but the numbers have grown by more than tenfold and of the more than 5,000 such individuals in accommodation, only 10 per cent. receive full board. The rest are given food vouchers and no other support. It is that situation that I raised with the Home Secretary, and I ask him to consider it urgently because such people are in dire need. They cannot even get the bus fare to travel to the reporting centres, which they are obliged to do on a regular basis.
I am sure that my hon. Friend is right officially, but that does not accord with my experience of surgeries for asylum seekers. People who are refused asylum are in despair because they have lost their access to NASS and their housing. They turn to what they see—perhaps erroneously—as their only method of support, which is each other. That is wholly unsatisfactory.
I fear that for all the good employment measures in the Bill, it will make the situation marginally worse. It may appear initially to appease some of those who wish that the problem would go away, that we did not face international obligations and that there was no pressure across the world to make people leave their homes in fear of their lives, but that wish fulfilment is not going to come about. The Bill may appeal to them, but it will not solve the problem.
I fear that the Bill and its predecessors will do nothing to enhance Britain's reputation across the world as a safe haven—the very thing for which those asylum seekers turn to this country. When someone's tribe or country has been in turmoil and their life threatened, people in the 20th century—in particular since the second world war—have rightly said that Britain is a safe place, with justice, decency and fairness, to which they can appeal and, if they make a good case, be looked after. Neither the Bill nor its predecessors contribute to that. We are in danger of losing that reputation.
Although the responsibilities are difficult and not popular with the British people—understandably so, in many ways—we have those responsibilities internationally. This is a reputation that we built up by the decent treatment of asylum seekers and refugees throughout the 20th century. Do not let us throw away that reputation and be seen in the eyes of the world as yet another country that wants to turn away and ignore the awful realities that exist around the world.
It is always a pleasure to follow Mark Fisher. He speaks with intelligence and compassion. His speech was an excellent model of the reasoned and level approach that is needed in contributions on such a subject and I commend him for it.
Here we are again. It is another Tuesday and another Home Office Bill. It seems in this brave new Labour world that the legislative output of a Department is inversely proportionate to its effectiveness. Taken on that measure, I suspect that the Prime Minister's reported concerns at the weekend about the Home Office may have some foundation in fact.
The Bill is a mixed bag: a mix of the good, the bad and the indifferent. Some parts of it—the restriction on the right to appeal, for example—are plain wrongheaded and contradict other parts of Government policy, such as the encouragement of universities to recruit students from overseas. Other parts could be made to work with appropriate safeguards in place. They include the further rights of the Home Office and the police to demand information about passengers on ships and aircraft before they have reached the United Kingdom, and to share information between them and the Revenue and Customs. A few measures are broadly to be welcomed and we can support the Government on them—I think in particular of the measures to deal with those who employ people working illegally. However, they must not be targeted at the employees; their focus must be tackling the worst and most exploitative employers.
David Davis made an interesting speech, but I was surprised that initially he was so unambiguous in his support for the Government. Having listened carefully to the whole speech, I am no better informed as to why the official Opposition have given their unambiguous support to the Government, but perhaps in the course of today's debate or in Committee that will become clearer.
As currently drafted, the Bill proposes to remove all rights of appeal against refusal to vary leave to remain except where previous leave was granted to a refugee. Such appeals could be argued only on the basis that someone was a refugee and that the United Kingdom's obligations under the UN convention on refugees had been breached, not on any other family, compassionate or human rights grounds. The Bill gives the Secretary of State absolute discretion to restore rights in circumstances to be specified by order—or not, as he sees fit. I am afraid that there is little in the current standard of decision making to justify that change. Even if the current decisions were all flawless, the removal of any check by the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal would lead to deteriorating decision making. The only fair method is to allow people to challenge adverse decisions before the AIT, failing which there will inevitably be increased resort to judicial review, along with the accompanying costs and hassle.
The Bill will remove rights of appeal against refusal of entry clearance abroad from everyone, except people who are applying to visit specified family members or who are applying as defendants of specified individuals. That means that students, workers, working holidaymakers and ministers of religion would not be able to appeal. I am afraid that I simply do not see the justification for that. Where are the abuses in those cases and what mischief are the Government seeking to cure? Fiona Lindsley, the independent monitor of entry clearance refusals without the right of appeal, said in her report of February 2005 that
"extrapolating from my file samples in 2002 and 2003 I calculate that 28,000 applicants have been wrongly denied rights of appeal in these two years".
That figure is quite appalling.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the priority should be to achieve high quality first decisions? Assuming that such decision making is achieved, it is essential that we retain the right of appeal to ensure that individuals making those decisions know that there is a system of scrutiny that does not involve resort to judicial review.
I agree and I shall come on to that point in a moment. The hon. Gentleman may find that he has more support for that proposal at a senior level in his own party than he realised. Essentially, however, I agree that in any judicial process—and this is a quasi-judicial process—the first decision will be better if it is thought that a higher authority may review it at a later stage.
As my hon. Friend has said, the Bill removes the right of appeal from international students. Is he aware that Welsh universities are trying actively to increase their intake of international students, given the social and economic benefits that they generate? Given that two thirds of appeals by international students are overturned, does he not think it appalling that the Bill removes the right of appeal, making it harder for international students to come to the UK and thus creating injustices?
I was not aware of the position in Wales and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing it to my attention. It is worth stating again that overseas students bring benefits to this country. They improve the diversity of further and higher education institutions and help us to establish contacts and build bridges to the future decision makers and opinion formers in countries—generally, developing nations—that are important to our future security. My hon. Friend therefore makes a fine point.
I have dwelt on those provisions because they are a good illustration of the difficulties caused by the Government's general approach in that policy area. A major consolidation Bill could have been introduced this year, and such a measure would have been timely. Instead, we have another Bill that chips away at appeal rights in an unco-ordinated and piecemeal way. We have not been given an explanation of why it is thought necessary, which demonstrates a lack of respect for people seeking to migrate, visit or study in the UK.
If those provisions constituted the entire Bill I could not countenance abstaining from voting. As I said at the beginning of my speech, the Bill is a mixed bag. Some provisions are downright wrong—including those with which I have dealt—some provisions could be improved in Committee, and others are good. It is probably not necessary to do so, but I remind the hon. Gentleman that on Second Reading we debate a Bill's broad principles. We are acting responsibly in allowing the Government the opportunity to atone for their sins and make proper amendment if possible. We are unlikely to vote against the Bill tonight, but that will not necessarily be the case later if significant improvements fail to materialise.
Clauses 4 and 5 will have an impact on overseas students. The proposal is not new—it was last tried in 1992, which may explain why the Conservative party is enthusiastic about it. The then shadow Home Secretary made some interesting comments on
"No justification has been advanced . . . other than this, which we heard again from the Secretary of State: the system is overloaded"—
I believe that that is what the present Home Secretary was saying today. In 1992, the then Home Secretary continued:
"It is a novel, bizarre and misguided principle of the legal system that if the exercise of legal rights is causing administrative inconvenience, the solution is to remove the right. No doubt that might satisfy bureaucrats and Government administrators in many areas, but it can hardly be a justification for removing rights."
He went on to make a point that has also been made today:
"When a right of appeal is removed, what is removed is a valuable and necessary constraint on those who exercise original jurisdiction. That is true not merely of immigration officers but of anybody. The immigration officer who knows that his decision may be subject to appeal is likely to be a good deal more circumspect, careful and even-handed than the officer who knows that his power of decision is absolute. That is simply, I fear, a matter of human nature, quite apart from anything else."—[Hansard, 2 November 1992; Vol. 123, c. 43.]
The point about the quality of the decision making bears closer examination. I shall favour the House with a brief example offered to me by the university of Sheffield. Following a refusal decision made by the British high commission in Nigeria on
"The cost of your tuition, maintenance and accommodation is to be borne by your sponsor. Funding your education will impose an additional financial burden upon him and I am not satisfied that this increased financial outlay is commensurate with his current economic circumstances."
In fact, the student had been awarded a 50 per cent. university of Sheffield fee bursary and was to be on leave on full pay from his position as a dental surgeon. The appeal came to the appellate authority in the United Kingdom and was successful.
We do not have the full decision letter, but that was one of the cases where even informal representations, which are often successful without the matter going to appeal, had been made and were unsuccessful. If Dr. E had not been allowed to appeal, he would not have been allowed to come to the United Kingdom to conduct important research. The university of Sheffield gives a figure of 90 per cent. of cases where, after informal representations or appeal, the decisions of entry clearance officers are overturned. The point about the quality of initial decision making cannot be overstressed.
I want to say a little about a fairly minor part of the Bill, but which is nevertheless profound in its impact—clause 9. The provision adds a restriction to make the lives of people contesting a Home Office decision that much more difficult. Its effect is that people who are appealing against decisions will no longer retain the rights that they had under their previous leave to remain. Thus they would no longer be permitted to work or to receive benefits to which they had been entitled. As the Home Office is pressing through decisions and the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal is hearing cases ever more quickly, one wonders why the extra restriction is necessary. It will cause real hardship to individuals and families.
A person who has been recognised as a refugee is entitled to work and to claim, and is now usually given indefinite leave to remain. Under new plans, if it is alleged that he can return to his country of origin, his leave could be curtailed or indefinite leave refused. On appeal, he would not be entitled to work, his employer would face criminal sanctions for keeping him on, and he would not be able to support his family or retain his home, still less pay for legal representation in the appeal process. Those who previously held humanitarian or discretionary leave or others previously in long-term categories with the right to work would face the same plight, were the Home Secretary to exercise his power to extend appeal rights under proposed section 82.
There is no indication that the Home Office has considered how people would live to be able to fight their appeals. Will the National Asylum Support Service remit be extended to people in that situation? Perhaps the Minister can answer that when he sums up. Would it be section 4 emergency support, or would people in effect be denied any redress for adverse decisions because they would be unable to live while waiting to fight the case? It will be a stark situation facing such people.
As I indicated at the start of my speech, we broadly welcome the proposals for dealing with those who employ illegal workers. I organised a briefing for Scottish Members last night from the director of the Scottish Drug Enforcement Agency, who is intimately involved in the setting up of the Serious Organised Crime Agency as it will operate north of the border. One of the things he told us last night was that people trafficking and illegal working lie at the heart of just about every aspect of serious organised crime in this country, in particular the drugs trade. There is still some scope for improvement in the Government's proposals and we will probe Ministers in Committee.
Although we all want to see an end to the illegal employment that my hon. Friend describes, is there not a concern that the introduction of a new inspection regime and civil penalties and the documentation provided by the Home Office might discriminate against ethnic minorities being employed by risk-averse employers? I would welcome Government attention being paid to that.
Perhaps because we have discussed the Bill previously, my hon. Friend anticipates two points that I intended to make. First, there is a danger that we will pass on to employers an administrative burden, particularly in relation to the checking of documentation. Secondly, and perhaps more insidiously, there is the issue of risk-averse employers. My hon. Friend puts it well. There is a danger that informal discrimination will build up as a result of the measure. Safeguards must be put in place to ensure that that does not happen. I hope that we can deal with this aspect in Committee.
Civil penalties, to which my hon. Friend refers, are dealt with in clauses 11 to 16. I do not want to get too involved in the matter, but the Government have not yet made the case for the introduction and use of civil penalties as proposed. I have some reservations about it and about the way it would be administered. I would prefer more to be written into the Bill, but we will let the Government make their case and we will judge them accordingly.
That is not a million miles away from the position stated in our manifesto at the last general election. The point that we were making in relation to people trafficking is that the focus of Government attention has been all wrong. We should be offering protection to the victims of people trafficking and illegal working instead of treating them as the criminals. We should be giving them support so that we can pursue those responsible—the employers and the traffickers. That would be an eminently sensible and practical way of dealing with the problem, which will only get worse if we continue to go for the low-level victims.
In his speech, the Home Secretary made brief reference to the establishment of a code of practice under clause 19. Again, I recognise the need for a code of practice, but I am concerned that we have reached Second Reading without seeing even a draft. If we are to take the Bill into Committee in the autumn, the Minister has two or three months to make at least a draft available to Members to consider; otherwise, the Government are selling us a pig-in-a-poke. We deserve better treatment from the Government. If a code of practice is crucial to the operation of the Bill, as part of the scrutiny of the Bill the House should know what the terms of that code of practice will be.
The part of the Bill relating to claimants and applicants was described by the Immigration Legal Practitioners Association as
"a miscellany of the unobjectionable and the deeply worrying."
Parts, such as clause 37, represent a sensible extension to local authorities of powers currently delegated only to the private sector to accommodate failed asylum seekers and other applicants granted temporary admission or bail pending decision or removal.
The provision for integration loans to refugees introduced in the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Act 2004 was framed with reference to the common-sense and humane policy introduced by the Government in their 1998 White Paper, which granted indefinite leave to remain to refugees at the point of recognition. It is now proposed, under the five-year strategy, to renege on that policy, so the amendment in clause 38 that ensures that integration loans can be provided to refugees with limited leave to remain is to be welcomed as at least limiting the damage. We nevertheless deplore the proposed policy change, which is bound to militate against integration and thus undermine the benefits of the clause by deferring settlement for at least five years. Several practitioners in this area believe that that places the UK in breach of article 34 of the 1951 refugee convention, which obliges contracting states to facilitate the assimilation of refugees, and in particular to make every effort to expedite naturalisation.
Much of the Bill is capable of improvement. I am not minded to suggest to my right hon. and hon. Friends that we should impede its progress at this stage, but we shall seek very substantial improvements in Committee and thereafter. If those improvements are not forthcoming, the Government should not count on the support of the Liberal Democrats at later stages.
I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me in this debate. In the 18 years since I have been a Member of this House, I think that I have spoken in every Second Reading debate on immigration Bills.
When I was first elected, there was always a Division at the end of Second Reading, with the Labour party opposing whatever the Conservative party was doing. Over the years, a consensus has developed on immigration and asylum, and I understand that no party will vote against the Second Reading of this Bill. That places me in a dilemma, because I want to vote against it but find myself with nobody to vote with me. As a serial loyalist who has been accused of voting with the payroll even though I am not on the payroll, I was looking forward to this first rebellion of my career. I then heard the Home Secretary reassuring me about several key aspects of the Bill and decided that I would vote in favour of it in a Division. But then I heard the shadow Home Secretary, and decided that if he was going to support the Government, I had to vote against. I then heard the Liberal Democrat spokesman tell us that the Liberal Democrats, who so often campaign in the Asian community about their support for that community, intend to abstain. I have not sought the advice of the Clerks as to whether I can call a Division on my own, but it seems as though my ambition of rebelling will be short-lived.
The importance of a debate of this kind is that it enables Members of Parliament with large ethnic populations to bring issues of concern to the House. It also enables those who do not have large Asian and black communities to tell us about their constituents' concerns. The emerging consensus is that we should be tough but fair as far as immigration policy is concerned. I believe that this is a very tough Government on immigration matters. When I write to the immigration and nationality directorate, only in very few instances are Ministers and officials prepared to overturn decisions that have gone to adjudicators. I understand that. After 18 years, I now have to tell constituents who come to see me on a Friday afternoon and ask me to intervene in immigration cases that once they have been to the adjudicator I am unable to intervene and they should make arrangements to return to their country of origin. I did not say that 10 years ago, partly because the mood has changed, but also because I am pleased with the changes that the Government have made over the past eight years to ensure that the settled British Asian community is protected with important rights, such as the abolition of the primary purpose rule in 1997 and the decision to restore appeal rights three years ago.
I wonder whether an immigration and asylum Bill is necessary at this stage. We should be considering how the immigration system operates, which means having a long and careful look at how the immigration and nationality directorate deals with casework. When I first came here, I tabled several parliamentary questions and discovered that at IND in Croydon there were hundreds of thousands of unopened application letters that people had sent in at the time of the previous Conservative Government.I knew that that situation would change once Labour got into power in 1997, but my first message to the Government is that it has not changed enough: we still have a major problem with the way in which IND operates. That is not a legislative issue, but one of administrative control. Many constituents come to my surgeries and complain about the famous 13-week-target letter. They make their application and are told that their case will be dealt with in 13 weeks' time, but two years later it is still not dealt with. We are then forced to write to Ministers and officials to ensure that something is done about the delay.
The problem with a system that does work efficiently and effectively is that people make their applications, wait for years, and during that time become, not in the legal sense but in the emotional and physical sense, settled in the United Kingdom. Some of them have managed to conceive and give birth to up to three or four children in the time that it has taken for IND to determine their cases. They come to the Member of Parliament's surgery right at the end of the process, having been to an appeal and been told that they must leave the country, and throw themselves on our mercy expecting us to perform miracles, but of course that is not possible. The huge cuts in legal aid mean that we cannot send our constituents to solicitors who practise in this area because there are so few with the necessary expertise to deal with such issues properly. As my right hon. Friend Sir Gerald Kaufman said, many practitioners called "immigration consultants" exploit our constituents, but unfortunately there is nothing we can do about that at the end of the process.
I believe that the Home Secretary and the Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality are seized of the importance of this issue, and they make a good team. They are clearly tough and robust; they are big men. It is important to have immigration policy in the hands of such people. I was gratified to hear what the Home Secretary said earlier. I am pleased with the approach taken by the Minister, who is aware of the importance to this country of the settled British Asian community because he has 36,000 people of Asian origin living in his constituency. I have 40,000 people of Asian origin living in mine—although this is not a competition. Several hon. Members on both sides of the House have sizeable settled British Asian communities. On my side, we have my hon. Friend Mr. Khabra, and on the Opposition side we have Mr. Scott. Their majorities at the last election are dwarfed by the size of their settled British Asian communities. My hon. Friends the Members for Watford (Claire Ward) and for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) are in a similar position.
We welcome the contribution of the British Asian community, which is settled in this country. That is why I am so much against the Government's proposal, in their five-year strategy, to remove the right of oral appeals. During the 2001 general election, I campaigned to get those appeals restored. Originally, we charged a fee for them. The then Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend Mr. Straw, who also knows all about these issues, arranged to have them abolished, giving our constituents the right to tell their relatives that they can appeal if the entry clearance officer turns down their application to come into this country. The right of oral appeal is extremely important. The Minister rightly pointed out that the Government will not completely abolish the right of appeal for family visits. They will abolish only oral appeals. However, the facts are clear: 70 per cent. of oral appeals are successful. It is vital that people have the chance to put their views to an adjudicator. I know that many people appeal in writing, but that is not the same. They have a right for their cases to be heard.
It is extremely important to bear in mind my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister's words, which Mr. Carmichael quoted. The hon. Gentleman took away the best quote of my speech. Those words reminded us of the genuine importance of the right of appeal.
The proposals do not only affect family visitors; the Bill also provides for taking away overseas students' right of appeal. Several hon. Members—almost every hon. Member in the Chamber this evening—have in their constituencies educational institutions that have overseas students. I have two big universities— De Montfort, which is one of the biggest universities in the country, and Leicester. We rely on overseas students and believe that they contribute enormously to the life of the universities in our areas.
This morning, Universities UK not only wrote to the Financial Times—we do not often disagree with 120 vice-chancellors who all agree on the same issue and write a joint letter to the Financial Times—but held a meeting in the House. Several hon. Members were present. The organisation made the point that not only do overseas students contribute more than £3 billion to £4 billion to the economy, but 210,000 of them come to this country every year.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his admirable speech, with which I agree. Does he agree that, if student visa changes, on top of visa charges, deter applicants to the UK, the inevitable consequence will be a reduction in income to British universities, and that the Government will be obliged to pursue other sources of student income, perhaps raising in advance of their timetable British domestic tuition fees?
The hon. Gentleman is right. He reminds me that when my family came to this country in 1965, when I was nine, as first generation immigrants, we settled in his constituency. My mother retrained as a teacher—her qualifications from the then South Yemen and originally from India were not accepted—at St. Mary's college in Strawberry Hill, which is another example of a higher education institution that attracts people from all over the world. The hon. Gentleman is right about visa fees. I stress that people do not mind paying fees if they get the service. They resent having to pay a fee if the service they get is bad—as it is, I am sorry to say, in the immigration and nationality directorate.
The proposals will place enormous power in the hands of entry clearance officers. A couple of years ago, under the inspirational chairmanship of Mr. Beith, the Constitutional Affairs Committee went to the sub-continent to consider immigration appeals from source. The Committee produced an excellent report, in which we considered the quality of decision making. The Prime Minister, the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland and I believe that it would be bad to take away the right of appeal. It would place more and more power in the hands of entry clearance officers. That is fine when they can make high-quality decisions that are justifiable and can be defended. Let us consider, for example, Carol Doughty, director of visa services in New Delhi. If there is a problem with which UK Visas cannot help and the appeal process does not work, one can ring Carol Doughty and get a good decision.
On the other hand, I have only three cases in Islamabad—all 20,000 of my other cases are with India—and one can never get through to an entry clearance manager in Islamabad and Karachi. I cannot understand why more of my hon. Friends who represent constituencies with many Pakistani-origin cases do not complain more. One has to get up at 5 am to speak directly to an entry clearance director, who spends her entire time telling you how awful the system is and that she needs more resources.
If we take away the right of appeal, we place power in the hands of unelected decision makers. That encourages us to go to the Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality and the Minister with responsibility for entry clearance. The work load of Ministers, not adjudicators, who will not be able to determine the cases, will increase under the proposals. We will be ringing Ministers all the time, asking for overturns because the system does not give us the right of appeal.
I want to end with one example of what happens in a system that has no right of appeal. This afternoon, a constituent telephoned me because his nine-year-old nephew had come to visit him from South Africa. The nephew is of Indian origin and his name is Yash Patel. He arrived at terminal 1 of Heathrow airport and was refused admission because the immigration officers believed that there was not a sufficient programme of activities for the nine-year-old during his visit to his uncle in Leicester. They thought that he would spend all his time at the hairdresser's shop owned by his aunt. The immigration officers also felt that it was wrong for him to come to this country because his parents are very poor and the officers wondered how he could afford the ticket.
The boy has been at Heathrow airport for most of the day. I telephoned the office of the Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality. As usual, it provided a fantastic service and I pay tribute to the Minister's private office for its work. Staff gave me the phone number of the chief immigration officer. I spoke to chief immigration officer No. 1, who passed me to chief immigration officer No. 2, who would not overturn the decision. He said that he could not make the decision and he passed me to the deputy director at IND who deals with such cases. I rang her twice. On both occasions, her mailbox was full and I could not get through.
Luckily, given that we are discussing Second Reading of the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Bill, I bumped into my old friend, the Minister. I told him about my problem and he behaved sympathetically. He got on to his private office and the deputy director at IND rang my office. I am pleased to say that the young boy has been allowed to stay, not for the original period that he wanted to stay for his holiday, but for two weeks on temporary admission.
There is no right of appeal against refusal for temporary admission. We have to ring all those offices and get the Minister involved to deal with those cases. I do not make a personal attack on individuals in the system, who work extraordinarily hard. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, who is rightly respected and admired in the Asian community in this country for his work. However, I stress to him, the Home Secretary and other hon. Members that we are dealing not with asylum seekers but with our constituents—people who are settled in this country and are equal citizens to us.
Although I cannot find any hon. Member who will vote with me against the Bill tonight—my rebellion therefore ends when I finish speaking—I urge the Minister in his winding-up speech to give me the assurances that we need to show us that the Government are seized of the issues and that there will be genuine progress to ensure that we have the necessary safeguards to protect our citizens' rights.
It is always a pleasure to listen to Keith Vaz. He was worried that his instinct to vote against the Bill was not shared by his colleagues or by anyone else in the House. He also gave a lucid explanation of one or two aspects of the Bill that he found wrong. The hon. Gentleman is not noticeably shy, and he has always stood up for causes that others, particularly in his own party, have abandoned—the euro and the European constitution, for example—so I think that he ought to go with his instinct on this occasion and force a vote, although my own Whips might not want me to say that.
I appreciate having this chance to comment on the Bill. I particularly welcome the powers in clause 39 to extend monitoring operations to cover the escort services. I am concerned that the Bill is otherwise defective, however, in that it does not provide sufficient protection for detainees from arbitrary decisions. I am also worried that the Home Secretary has given his guarantee that the provisions of the Bill are compatible with the European convention on human rights. I shall query whether such a guarantee is appropriate in relation to some of the detainees who are facing return to places such as Zimbabwe.
I had not intended to speak today, but events connected to Zimbabwean detainees in Yarl's Wood in my constituency over the past three weeks—and particularly over the past 24 hours—have left me appalled at the way in which some of their cases are being handled. I want to make it clear to the House, and to the Minister, where I am coming from on this issue. I represent Yarl's Wood, and I take very seriously my relationship with those who work there and those who pass through. I try to understand the asylum policy that we apply and, by and large, I support the principles behind it, as the Minister is aware. If a person has been properly represented and has gone through all the appeal processes and been adjudged to be not an asylum seeker but someone who needs to be returned, the policy must require that return, if it is to mean anything.
I have defended such a system, and I have defended my constituents who work at Yarl's Wood in difficult circumstances to make that policy work. However, my defence of that system was based on a sense of justice and decency, and I am now beyond defending it and the decisions of those who are behind it. Their cavalier treatment of the vulnerable people in their care is a scandal to our reputation as a decent nation.
My right hon. Friend David Davis spoke earlier of how the Government had let people down over the years. He mentioned briefly their proposal in 2001 to increase the number of removals. That was when my change of heart began in relation to this policy—when I found out that Yarl's Wood was built on fraud. In November last year, the Prison Service ombudsman published his report on the 2002 fire at Yarl's Wood, in which some 300 people avoided death purely by chance. That report exposed the fraudulent nature of Yarl's Wood's origins. It was built to enable the Government to meet a target of 30,000 removals a year, a commitment given in their 2001 election manifesto and on the Floor of the House by the then Home Secretary, Mr. Straw.
It transpired from the ombudsman's report, however, that that target was nonsense. No one responsible in the Home Office or the immigration service believed in it. How did the Home Secretary come to rely on such a figure? As the report made clear, it was because the officials who challenged it were told that they were "troublemakers", and "not one of us". "Reasoned debate", said one senior figure, chillingly, "was forbidden". Immediately after the election, the new Home Secretary was informed that the target was undeliverable. Is it credible that it became undeliverable during the course of an election campaign, and that the Home Secretary did not know this? Frankly, no. It was either incompetence or deceit; the House must make up its own mind. In the rush to achieve that nonsensical target, an inadequate fire trap was built, in which people worked and were detained until it burnt down in minutes after being set on fire in a wicked act of arson perpetrated by persons unknown.
The revelation of the story, chronicled in full in the ombudsman's report, and the shameful failure of the Government to apologise for what had happened, or to counter the statement that reasoned debate about the targets was forbidden, profoundly changed my perception of the asylum system and those who were behind it. It offends my sense of justice not to see put right the things that were wrong. But that is history, although it has a bearing on the matters before us today.
Let us come up to date. I am pleased that the Bill will extend powers of inspection to the escort services that take detainees to ports of departure. I should like to illustrate the kind of incident that the new monitoring service should look at. Three weeks ago, I met a Zimbabwean detainee who alleged that she and two others had been assaulted by the escort service taking them to the airport in pursuance of an order to remove them. She had been temporarily released, but had learned that one of the others, who was scheduled to have an X-ray at Bedford hospital, was being removed a few days before the appointment, and before the completion of the inquiry into the alleged assault in which she had been both a victim and a witness. That seemed strange, but not unusual. I had a written question answered by the Minister yesterday, in which I had inquired how many people who had made a complaint about the escort services were removed before the investigation had been completed. I was told that the answer could not be provided, because to do so would take up inordinate resources. So that recent incident cannot have been all that unusual.
Problems with the escort services are not uncommon. They have a very difficult job to do. Those who do not want to leave the United Kingdom can make life very hard for the people whose job is to carry out the order. If those scheduled to return resist physically, it must be lawful to use reasonable force to get them to comply. But the problem can be seen immediately. What is reasonable force in those circumstances, particularly in the highly charged circumstances of a removal? And if allegations and cross-allegations are made, who is to judge what has happened if there is no independent witness?
I, and other MPs, have taken this matter to the Home Office before. On a visit to Yarl's Wood about a year ago, I was shocked by the vehemence of the women detainees when the question of the escort services was raised. There were too many accounts of casually inflicted violence and verbal abuse to dismiss out of hand. And while I understood very well how difficult it could be to move a powerful woman resisting removal, the majority of African and Asian women at Yarl's Wood are not big people, and they were never in a one-to-one situation. It was obvious who would come off best in a physical confrontation.
Is it surprising that, when women are being forced to go back to countries such as Zimbabwe, they resist the escort services? We all know how horrendously Mugabe is behaving towards the people of his country. If I were being deported to Zimbabwe, I would resist strongly as well.
My hon. Friend understands my drift; she has also anticipated a point that I was about to make. There is a problem facing the immigration service and those who work at Yarl's Wood. What should they do when people feel an instinctive sympathy with those who are resisting deportation?
When those allegations were made, I did not go public, heavy with outrage. I went to see Mr. Browne, then the Minister responsible for these matters, about the need for CCTV to be carried in the escort services' vehicles. He agreed with me that the Government took the allegations seriously, and CCTV cameras were ordered for the vehicles. We have to assume, therefore, that there was some substance to the allegations. Accordingly, I am afraid that the House must assume that physical abuse by the escort services taking people to ports of departure existed, and continues to exist.
I shall return to the incident of the other week. The allegation was that on
As those are allegations, I will say no more about them, except that I would have thought—I hope that the House agrees—that they were pretty serious. I have therefore asked the Home Office to stop carrying out deportations unless escort services are equipped with CCTV on all occasions, or failing that, to give the detainees the chance to have an independent observer with them. I tabled that written question to the Minister last week, and it has not been answered definitively. Will he say in his wind-up whether no escort service will be used unless there is CCTV or an independent observer, in order to prevent the problems with such allegations? For the sake of the system's integrity, the independent monitoring of the service, as under clause 39, is to be welcomed. I am only sorry that it is needed.
What of the omissions from the Bill? Last Sunday, I paid another visit to Yarl's Wood to see those women who had been refusing food. I wanted to ensure their welfare and to discuss with the Yarl's Wood authorities what their responsibilities toward them were. I was aware of an incident on the previous day, which was reported subsequently, in which about a dozen women at Yarl's Wood had obstructed the deportation of another detainee and barricaded a room. After a few hours, the authorities were able to regain control without violence or injuries to anyone. The women responsible for the protests and on hunger strike were segregated in a separate unit. I met them, they had free association and plenty of space, and apart from being understandably sad at their situation and distressed at reports of what was happening in Zimbabwe, they were physically well. They were encouraged by reports of what people on both sides of the House are doing to raise the issue of deportations back to Zimbabwe, including the efforts of Kate Hoey. They were as puzzled as the rest of us that the Government seemed to be turning a deaf ear to the cry to halt deportations to Zimbabwe.
The Yarl's Wood authorities appeared to be ready to return those women from segregation to the rest of their friends. Last night, at 10 o'clock, I received a call from the Zimbabwe Association, which told me that three women in segregation had been removed from Yarl's Wood to an unknown destination, without reason, at 9 pm last night. I began to make inquiries—I asked why they had been removed and who had made the decision. Those are the least inquiries to be made by an MP. The Yarl's Wood authorities told me that the ladies had been told that they were going to Colinbrook, a short-term detention centre, but no reason had been given, and it was not the decision of Yarl's Wood to remove them.
I was given another number to call of an official in the Detention Escort And Population Management Unit—DEPMU. That official sounded nonplussed when I asked him for a reason why the women had been removed . "We don't have to give a reason for moving people around, I was told. He sounded surprised, as if no one had asked him that question before. After a short and heated conservation, in which I indicated that in this country he did indeed have to have a reason for moving people around in the detention estate, I was passed on to someone else—it was now 11 o'clock in the evening. That official was equally surprised to be asked to have a reason. After about 10 minutes of discussion, however, he told me that the women had been placed in Colinbrook because it was ultimately easier to remove them from there to Heathrow— once they had been separated from their friends and their spirit had been broken—and that that was why they were taken away from Yarl's Wood. This lunchtime, I spoke to the deputy head of the immigration service, who was good enough both to confirm that, and to accept responsibility for the move to Colinbrook, on the grounds of what he termed "security".
I appreciate the courtesy in difficult circumstances of those who spoke to me, because I was not as courteous as I might have been—I was extremely angry—particularly that of the Minister's private secretary, Claire, to whom I was courteous, who spoke to me until 1 o'clock in the morning in her efforts to find out what had happened? Let us examine what I have described, however, in relation to the Bill and its protection for detainees.
I am immensely concerned that a DEPMU officer's first instinctive response to my question about the reasons why those in detention, who had committed no crime and been removed from friends and supporters, was negative. The deputy director of immigration indicated that that was wrong and that a reason should have been given, and he was clear with his own reasons, but he had had many hours to think of them. I know what I heard at 11 o'clock last night. It was the instinctive reaction of a system that was not regularly challenged and did not like to be challenged—"We don't need to give reasons to move people around." That frightens me. I said to the gentleman that I did not think that I lived in such a country.
Where in the Bill is a provision to protect detainees from arbitrary decisions, to ensure that when they are given such orders they are given a reason and that those who represent them are given a reason why such a decision has been taken? Many other agencies operating for asylum seekers have alleged for some time that detainees are regularly shunted around, breaking their contact with lawyers or friends, and I have not always believed them. I am not so sure now. I was particularly concerned because two of the three names given to me last night were of people I knew. The first was one of the victims of the alleged assault by the escort service, and the second was an articulate young woman who had acted as spokeswoman for those who had barricaded the room to prevent their friend from being removed—two women who had spoken at length to an MP. Was it coincidence that they were two of the three removed, or, in a bid to ensure security, was it tactically astute to remove those who had had contact with an Opposition MP, or perhaps it was natural that those who would speak to me would probably be the sort of people who would encourage their friends? I do not know the answer.
If the latter is the case, however, and it might be, may I make a plea to the Minister on behalf of my constituents who work at Yarl's Wood? They are having to implement policy, segregate ringleaders and subdue the spirit of those who are resisting removal, all to help our country send women back to a country that is a byword for tyranny. Should those women resist, as my hon. Friend Mrs. Dorries said? Would we? And should they support their friends? If the Minister sees only the determination of the system to enforce its rules, and to return detainees regardless of destination, he is creating an almost impossible situation in our detention centres. How can removal directions be carried out unless there is a sense of justice and a confidence behind them?
As for the grounds of security that were given, I presume that it is thought that the women removed last night might be the focus of further resistance if they are given removal orders, or that they might be violent. But let us remember with whom we are dealing. These women have not committed any crime. For the most part, they have been living peacefully in the UK, on temporary admission, for many years. One woman was in the third year of her law degree at Leeds university, and was reporting regularly before she was picked up, and has been in Yarl's Wood for many months, so she has not been able to complete her degree. These are not convicted criminals with a history of violence, who, I remind the Minister, were placed at Yarl's Wood deliberately by the immigration service in the run-up to the incident there in February 2002. These are frightened African women, who are pleading for our compassion at a time when compassion is supposed to be oozing out of every pore of the Government when they talk about Africa.
The potential of those women for violence can surely be discounted. One of them is so frail now that she was described to me this lunchtime, by an officer at Colinbrook—not a representative of the asylum agencies or organisations—as being so weak that she now finds it difficult to move. Where in this Bill is the British state given the power to break the spirit of women's resistance to going back to a country such as Zimbabwe? I am sorry that the Bill does not address those issues, but it provides a chance for the Government to review again their policy on asylum in the light of the hard case presented by today's conditions in a country to which they are prepared to return failed asylum seekers.
The reason that I have spoken out in such a way today is that when a woman from a far country, with a black skin, is shunted around the detention estate, having committed no crime, in a situation in which the system does not believe that it owes an explanation to her, to citizens or to representatives, all our civil liberties are at risk. These women have been assaulted by the state's escort service, prevented from completing a degree, prevented from seeing an investigation completed into an allegation of assault, picked on perhaps for talking to an Opposition MP, and removed at night for no reason at all. Return those ladies to Zimbabwe? Some of them probably think that they have never left.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in the debate, as the subject of migration is extremely personal to me, as an immigrant to this country in 1959, and as the Member of Parliament for a constituency with the third highest Asian immigrant population in the United Kingdom.
I have no illusions about the Conservatives' policy on race and immigration. They are learning, but they are very slow and sluggish in adapting to changed circumstances and in changing their attitude to ethnic minorities in this country. During my time in the United Kingdom, rhetoric on the issue has generally and thankfully grown more measured, and attitudes have softened. Even in the midst of the hard-fought general election campaign, when the immigration issue was an ever-present reminder of many people's concerns, we never sailed into the murky waters of the "river of blood". Yet the fact that the issue is still so potent is in itself a measure of the work that we still have to do in reassuring the public that we can learn the lessons of the past eight years after taking office, while also ensuring that people appreciate the real contribution that immigrants make to the economic and social infrastructure of Great Britain.
One way in which we can offer that reassurance is by continuing to work on a system which, although it is improving in some respects, has some way to go if it is to meet the aspirations of the Government's five-year strategy. The Bill is fundamentally about controlling immigration into this country. I welcome several of the steps outlined by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. I particularly like the ideas for better co-ordination between border agencies, and the plan to take stricter action against employers who, knowingly or through neglect, shirk their legal responsibilities.
As one of the Members of Parliament who must deal with a large amount of casework, I know that one of the greatest challenges facing any Government is the need to ensure that agencies with a range of different but related responsibilities work as seamlessly as possible, as a team, to make it that much harder for people to exploit weaknesses in the system. Improved sharing of information is the most obvious example of such team work, and the e-borders programme allowing easier access to carrier information should help to identify individuals who may present a risk to our security and our immigration system.
I also strongly welcome the Government's efforts to take stronger action against employers such as those in my constituency who pay awful wages to the illegal workers—cheap labour—whom they knowingly employ. The proposal for a new civil penalty for employers of illegal migrant workers is sensible, as are the plans to differentiate between those who negligently employ illegal workers and those who are merely negligent. Hiring illegal immigrants is not just wrong in principle. It can compromise the safety of other workers, as illegal workers are often uninsured, undertrained and overworked and therefore a danger to themselves and those around them. Moreover, they do not have the option of joining a union, and are frequently exploited and paid shameful wages.
Nevertheless, while I welcome the proposals, I feel that there are real problems that we are not tackling adequately and issues that the Bill should be addressing. The most obvious, and the one from which others flow, is the continued backlog. I receive letters from constituents who have been waiting for five, or even 10, years for an answer from the Home Office. That is simply unacceptable. In the meantime some of those people marry. They may have children. Understandably, at that point removal is no longer a humane option.
We need more, and more well-trained, caseworkers, and a real will to clear the backlog that is the main problem at the Home Office. An exacerbating factor is the fact that those seeking information from the immigration and nationality directorate on their applications for asylum, or for indefinite leave to remain, find it difficult to know the status of their applications. Members of Parliament who receive letters from constituents then contact the department at Croydon, thus adding a whole new and unnecessary layer of bureaucracy which slows the system even further.
Essentially, people want to know what is going on. Obviously they would prefer speedy decisions on their applications, but I am sure that many would not feel that they had to contact the department if they were kept advised of the progress of their applications and were given realistic deadlines.
I agree. I speak from experience when I say that the right of appeal is fundamental. Those proposals will not help the Home Office to deal with immigration problems.
Unrealistic deadlines are contributing to the present confusion. We need only think of the concession on indefinite leave to remain which, although it was supposed to be completed by May 2004 and then in December 2004, has still not been completed in July 2005. People contact Members of Parliament because they hear about the deadlines, and assume they have missed out because they have heard nothing from the Home Office. The upshot of all the delays and the uncertainty is that people feel that it pays to disappear—and some of them do. That makes effective removals difficult, and leads to headlines about illegal-immigrant numbers such as those that appeared in the press last week.
I am also concerned about the quality of entry clearance officers' decisions. Since 1992, I have seen thousands of standard refusal notices from ECOs that do not seem adequately to reflect the complexities of many cases. The stereotyping of questions and of circumstances and the way in which interviews are conducted, especially in the case of applications from the Indian sub-continent, are extremely unhelpful. The system of interviewing needs to be modernised to meet the changing and varied realities of visa applications. ECOs enjoy enormous power, but are not currently subject to proper scrutiny by the Foreign Office. Consequently, in many cases genuine applicants for visits are refused visas.
While we have been admirably flexible in many of our dealings with European migration, we make applicants from countries such as India jump through hoops. That, I feel, is a sad way in which to treat a Commonwealth country where so many people have such personal ties to our population in the United Kingdom.
As I said earlier, there has undoubtedly been some progress, both in attitudes and administratively, as a result of reforms in the previous three immigration-related Bills passed by the last Government. Further progress has been made in dealing with immigration cases at the Home Office. But although I am a strong supporter of much of what this Government have done, I also have a duty to my constituents to raise concerns on their behalf, and to act as a voice for the frustration that many of them feel daily.
We have it in our power to make the system work, but we need to show that we have the will to follow through on our promises. Let us not waste the progress that we have made on community cohesion and economic prosperity. Instead, let us show that a well-managed, efficient and flexible immigration system can be a truly great asset to our country's prosperity. I support the Bill.
Keith Vaz said that he has spoken in every immigration Bill debate since entering this House. I am afraid that I have to tell him that until now, I had never spoken in such a debate, but there is always a first time, even for someone who has been in the House as long as I have. Perhaps because this is my first such debate, I have found it extremely interesting and rewarding. It has been so not merely because of the expertise demonstrated by the hon. Members for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Khabra) and for Leicester, East, but because of the passionate and sincere speech of my hon. Friend Alistair Burt. The whole House listened to him with rapt attention, and I hope that he will get a proper reply from the Minister who winds up the debate.
I accept that the Bill is a specific measure that implements the five-year plan, puts into primary legislation the provisions necessary to bring that plan to fruition, and deals with some anomalies in the law. There are many aspects of it that I support. It is necessary for officers to have the power to obtain information from airlines and shipping lines, for example, and to have powers of search. Indeed, I am surprised that such powers have not already been included in primary legislation.
I also accept the point that was made—very well made—about employment practices. Mr. Carmichael rightly said that in many ways, it would have been better if the Government had enforced existing laws more effectively, rather than introducing new ones. There is sometimes an inverse relationship between the Government's effectiveness and the amount of legislation that they introduce.
The appeal process is a very important issue. Non-experts and non-lawyers such as myself enter into this area with some trepidation. Members in all parts of the House have referred to the difficulties associated with the current appeals system, and the Prime Minister himself has been quoted in this context. The shadow Home Secretary pointed out that it is certainly possible that eliminating the appeals process could lead to less rigorous decision making. If such a process does not exist, such decisions could be taken less carefully and thoroughly.
I cannot comment on the Government's motives, most of which are currently concealed from us. Nevertheless, we must face the fact that they are doing away with appeals in some situations. The Home Secretary himself acknowledged in his opening speech that the quality of decision making will have to improve. The difficulty is that the current appeals process is extensive and is attracting immigration, as the Home Affairs Committee said in its 2001 report on borders. It is clearly a much more long-winded process than that operating in some other countries. It is question of efficiency, which the Government must address.
Even with my limited experience, I have no doubt that the system is being abused. Sir Gerald Kaufman said in an intervention that some solicitors batten on to immigrants and use the system to prolong the process, which was never the intention. As I have discovered from cases in my own constituency, people are left in limbo for many years, which is unacceptable. So although I understand the cynicism that some feel about the Government's position, this is a real issue that has to be addressed.
I would describe the feeling as concern, rather than cynicism. I have many such cases in my constituency, and I am worried about the very low standard of initial decisions, to which organisations such as the National Audit Office have referred. I have yet to be convinced that doing away with the appeals mechanism will improve the initial decisions. We have to be reassured that other steps will be taken to improve them; otherwise, we will need the appeals process.
That is a very fair point, which is why I said that the Government have to address this issue. The hon. Gentleman mentions other steps that the Government could take to ensure that the quality of decision making is improved, but I do not know what they might be. However, we in this House will be watching the Government to see how they deal with this important issue.
As my right hon. Friend David Davis said in his opening speech, we have to see this Bill, specific and detailed as it is, in the context of the wider debate on immigration. There is no doubt that the question of the number of illegal immigrants is an important issue. I am particularly concerned by the Government's reprehensible attempt over a prolonged period to conceal the numbers, which has not enabled proper debate. Under the heading "Liars and bullies", The Sunday Times pointed out in last Sunday's leader that the Government attempted to conceal—[Interruption.] The Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality says that the article is wrong; he will doubtless address this point in his winding-up speech. The article pointed out that in the run-up to the general election, the Prime Minister denied that it was possible to estimate the number of illegal immigrants in this country. But we now know that such an estimate has been made—[Interruption.] The Minister says that no estimate has been made; again, he will doubtless address that issue in his winding-up speech. However, we are led to understand that there is such an estimate.
I pay tribute to Migration Watch, an independent organisation that has, over the years, teased out some of the relevant issues. Although I am sure that the Office for National Statistics does a perfectly sensible, professional and technical job, given its very limited scope, Migration Watch has attempted to estimate the level of illegal immigration—along with other related factors—which is very difficult for Government statisticians to do. In that regard, it has performed a very important public service.
When the Government get headlines in responsible journals such as "Liars and bullies", they really should be concerned about the way in which people are regarding the statistics that they produce. In some ways, my right hon. Friend Mr. Letwin was right to say before the general election that the statistical element—be it the ONS or the organisation that produces crime statistics for the Home Office—should be separated from the Government and put under the aegis of this House. We need an independent body that reports to a Select Committee of this House, for example, and which is therefore able to make totally impartial judgments on the nature of such statistics and when they should be produced. That way, no one will have any doubt about the quality of, or background to, such statistics. That is the only way now that this particular Bill could give anyone any confidence that the facts are in any way correct; otherwise, we will take the view—Labour Members must recognise it—that a great deal of it was simply spun in one way or another or concealed. That is not the way to have an honest debate on such a sensitive and important subject. The Government should reflect more on that.
The Government have a responsibility to fit immigration into other aspects of policy. In that respect, we are all indebted to my right hon. Friend Mr. Lilley—he will doubtless want to enter the debate at some stage—who has pointed out the link between the level of immigration and housing policy in the south-east. If I recall correctly, my right hon. Friend said in one of his pamphlets that the Deputy Prime Minister made 17 different statements without ever mentioning the fact that the prime driver of housing demand in the south-east was international immigration. It is the biggest factor and my right hon. Friend estimates—I am not trying to grab his speech—that it could be as much as 40 per cent. For anyone living in a suburban area of outer London, that is a huge factor. We are losing nurses, teachers and others who can no longer afford to live in places like Bromley. We must address that problem seriously: it is not good enough to consider only the supply of housing without taking account of the demand. If we do not mention that critical factor at all, we are not likely to get serious policy or even serious discussion of policy.
It is also important, as my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire said, to take account of the international context. He eloquently raised a point about Zimbabwe. We have all had a debate—quite rightly, in my view—about Africa over the last two weeks and we are to have more of it this week. Last year, I went to Botswana, 40 per cent. of whose adult population has AIDS. I found that the people there were complaining about losing their nurses to the UK. That country is effectively being deskilled by demand in this country to fill gaps in our national health service. In many African countries, up to a third of graduates in any one year come to Europe. How can capacity be built to deal with the sort of problems that Africa faces, particularly given the lack of leadership—in some countries, corrupt and venal leadership—when a third of a country's graduates are disappearing to Europe every year? That applies even more to the Caribbean. The problem has to be tackled on a moral and practical basis as well as a domestic UK basis.
A final point put very eloquently by my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden is that there is clearly a division of Government opinion on this matter. In his speech at Gateshead before the last general election, the present Home Secretary seemed to be saying that all immigration was welcome. Indeed, he wished that we had more immigrants of all kinds—students, refugees, economic migrants and so forth. The Prime Minister, however, in an attempt to win the election, was obviously setting out targets and trying to assure everyone that immigration levels would come down. The number of asylum seekers has come down, but the fact is that there is no intellectual coherence about Government policy. The lack of management is stark and the attempt to stifle debate by obscuring and denying the facts—
This is the sixth Bill on immigration and asylum that I have seen before the House since I was elected in 1992. As other hon. Members have spoken about their experience of those Bills, I shall start by saying that I am probably the only Member who has served on the Committee considering all five of the previous Bills. I always tried to approach the Bills objectively. The first two were under a Tory Government and the next three under a Labour Government, but I have been objective in voting against Third Reading on all five.
I have to say that my experience of Bills on immigration and asylum has been that they are generally bad news, although the current Bill may be rather less bad news than some of its predecessors. Bearing in mind some of the comments of David Davis earlier, I recall that in 1993 and 1996 Tory Home Secretaries told us that they had every answer to every problem in the immigration and asylum system. In respect of Tory comments about illegal immigration into this country, I recall being a member of the Committee considering the Immigration and Asylum Bill in 1999. One sitting started at 4.30 on a Tuesday afternoon and finished at 1 o'clock on Wednesday afternoon. We went right through the night and into the next day. That happened because of a Tory filibuster over our proposals to introduce penalties for people who were bringing illegal immigrants into the country in lorries. Clearly, the Tories have changed their views a bit since 1999.
There are some problems with the Bill. Some of the more serious ones lie not in the Bill itself, but in the secondary legislation that relates to it. Indeed, much of the Bill is to do with secondary legislation. I shall do my best to concentrate on the Bill itself, Mr. Deputy Speaker, although I am aware of its relationship with such secondary legislation. We have already had a wide-ranging debate about the asylum and immigration system in general.
First, I want to speak to clause 1, which deals with changes on appeal rights regarding variation of leave to enter or remain. The aspect that concerns me most is the proposal for someone given refugee status to have five years discretionary permission to stay—not indefinite leave, which applies at the moment. We actually introduced indefinite leave for refugees at the point at which they are given refugee status. Before 1998, even those given refugee status had to wait for four years before acquiring permanent permission to stay here. It was something that we did, and I have not yet seen any explanation of why the Government believe that there is any need to turn the clock back. We are not talking about huge numbers of people. The number given full refugee status is actually quite small, but for those people the provision amounts to an enormous change. It sits very badly with talk about the need to integrate refugees if, at the point when someone is given refugee status, they are not given security as well.
A couple of weeks ago, I spoke to a psychiatrist in my local health authority who works with refugees. She told me about the difficulties faced by people who have gone through traumatic experiences and that she was able to start dealing effectively with their problems only from the point at which their status was confirmed. At the point that they acquired security, it became easier to deal with some of their other serious problems.
I am not clear either what exactly the Government expect to happen at the end of the five-year period. People will still be given the right to family reunion at the point when they are given refugee status. Inevitably, after five years people will have families and children here—perhaps some children who were born here. We already know the sort of problems that will arise if we start telling those people that they are going to be forcibly returned to their countries of origin. I am not even clear that it will always be five years and I would be grateful if the Minister clarified that matter.
I recently saw a presentation given to a number of organisations by Home Office staff trying to explain how the changes would be implemented. It was said that one of the factors that could lead to someone being returned was a change in the refugee's country of origin. The Home Office said that it envisaged a
"system of declarations, to be used sparingly, that a country of origin has undergone fundamental change so that all grants to nationals of that country will be reviewed."
It also said that cases might be reviewed individually at the end of the five-year period. The implication is that a decision will be made—presumably by the Home Office—that a country is safe to return to, and that people who have had less than five years here will be caught by that change. That will certainly cause insecurity for them.
I am not clear about how the Bill will deal with people who have not been given full refugee status, but who have been given humanitarian protection. It appears to be the Government's intention that that will usually attract a five-year grant, rather than one of three years. At present, people given humanitarian protection cannot get a family reunion until three years have passed. I welcome the fact that the Bill means that they will be able to get family reunion rights as soon as they get humanitarian protection.
If people are given family reunion rights and their families, spouses and children are encouraged to come here, the problems at the end of the five-year period will be multiplied if we tell them that those rights will be subject to review. I do not understand that logic at all. If we give people full refugee status, we recognise that they have been persecuted and need protection. Why, then, will we not give them the right to remain in this country?
At present, unaccompanied minors are routinely given discretionary leave to stay until they are 18. Clause 1 will mean that they will not be able to appeal against a refusal of extension of that discretionary leave. That will have a significant impact, as they will lose some of the access to services that they had enjoyed previously. I do not see the necessity for that provision.
Before I leave the subject of asylum, I note that many hon. Members have spoken in the debate about the need for good initial decision making and for getting things right at that stage. Apparently, the new asylum model to be introduced as a result of the five-year plan will rely to some extent on a process called "segmentation". Asylum seekers will be divided into nine queues, or streams, such as "late and opportunistic", with "low barriers to removal" or "high barriers to removal". Another category is for people designated as "high priority" with "low barriers to removal". Different reporting and detention regimes apply to the different streams into which people are divided.
Deciding which stream is appropriate for people applying for asylum will almost certainly prejudge the final decision about their applications. If a person is put in the "late and opportunistic, low barriers to removal" queue, it is difficult to see how he or she can have much chance of proving an asylum claim. If we want better initial decisions, I question the wisdom of creating a model that is far too sophisticated and requires immediate decisions about where people are to go.
Clause 4 deals with entry clearance appeals. It has already received much attention in the debate, so I shall be brief. However, I agree with what has been said about oral appeals for family visitors. The Tories abolished that right, but this Labour Government brought it back. The people who will be affected will be the families of British citizens—our constituents. Why is clause 4 necessary? Where is the abuse? I have seen no evidence that the system is being abused—quite the opposite, as the evidence is that oral appeals have a very high success rate. I do not regard that as abuse of the system, so where is the abuse that the removal of the oral appeal right is supposed to correct? If abuse exists, I hope that Ministers will say exactly what it is.
Some other bits of the clause also concern me, although they have not received any attention so far. The existing immigration rules already allow Ministers to define family members. The present definition is fairly wide and includes relatives such as grandmother, granddaughter, brother, sister, uncle, aunt and nephew, but it is suggested that it is to be tightened up. Any such change will have implications for many communities in this country. I hope that Ministers will tell us exactly what is proposed. I do not want to find out when an order appears after six months and a Committee deals with the matter under the negative resolution procedure.
Clause 4(3) is the sort of provision that we ought to be taking this opportunity to do away with. It states that a person
"may not appeal . . . against a refusal of entry clearance if the decision . . . is taken on grounds which relate to a provision of immigration rules, and are specified for the purpose of this subsection by order of the Secretary of State."
That gives enormous powers to the Secretary of State to decide, by order, who will have rights of appeal and who will not. The phrase "by order" means that there is never a proper debate of such matters in this House.
I come now to the part of the Bill dealing with employment, and I welcome the fact that the employers of illegal immigrants will be targeted. People who employ illegal immigrants in large numbers know very well that they are breaking the law. I think that we ought to consider a variety of ways to deal with such people and not limit ourselves to powers under the immigration legislation. There is no doubt that people who employ illegal immigrants do not pay the minimum wage or national insurance, or fill in the proper VAT returns. I have reminded Ministers before that Al Capone went to gaol for tax evasion: there are always other ways to get at people if one's preferred approach proves more difficult than expected.
As has been noted already, we must be very aware of the effects of the Bill on race relations. We do not have to think very hard to imagine who is likely to be asked to prove their ability to work. I am bothered by one aspect of clauses 11 and 9, taken together. Clause 11 will make it illegal to employ a person if his
"leave to enter or remain in the United Kingdom i) is invalid, ii) has expired, or iii) is subject to a condition preventing him from accepting the employment."
I am sure that I am not the only hon. Member who frequently sees people with temporary or limited permission to enter the country who have made an application for an extension or for indefinite leave. Applications for the latter by people granted exceptional leave can take up to a year to be decided.
At present, people granted exceptional leave who apply for indefinite leave retain their rights under the exceptional leave provision until a decision is made in respect of the application for indefinite leave. It is not just people who have appeals—it is people who have put in applications for extensions or to turn exceptional leave into indefinite leave. If clauses 9 and 11 are read in conjunction, it appears that someone in that position will no longer be entitled to work at the point at which their exceptional leave expires, and their employer will commit an offence if he continues to employ them. I do not know how people are supposed to keep track of the position. I hope that the Minister will either confirm that I am wrong or, if I am right, will consider how the clause can be amended to ensure that people do not suddenly lose the right to work, because that would cause them all sorts of problems.
I am glad that clause 19 mentions a code of practice in consultation with the Commission for Racial Equality. The clause gives the Secretary of State scope to involve several other organisations and individuals, and perhaps the Minister could give us some examples.
Clause 37 will allow local authorities to accommodate failed asylum seekers and others under section 4 support. Who will cover the costs? Will it be the local authority or will it all be administered through NASS? It is not clear how that will work in practice. People will not have the right to go to a local authority and request section 4 support. I assume that the decision that someone is eligible for section 4 support will still be taken by NASS and not by the local authority. Will there be some sort of contract between NASS and the local authority? There will be enormous scope for confusion, in the same way as when someone who has been supported by a local authority is transferred to NASS support. That problem also relates to clause 9. If people suddenly become overstayers as a result of waiting for an application to be dealt with, where should they go for support?
My final point relates to detention facilities. Alistair Burt made some excellent points about them. I reiterate the point that I raised with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State about being clear that inspection by the prisons inspector will apply to all detention facilities. I would not be pleased to discover that such inspections would apply to Yarl's Wood and Harmondsworth, but not—for some reason—to Oakington, Dungavel, or another place that is used not for failed asylum seekers, but for asylum applicants. We also need to take control of the escort arrangements because there have been several serious allegations of assault.
I have served on the Committees that have considered previous such Bills. Unfortunately, on occasion some very nasty surprises have been sprung on us late in the consideration. In 2002, for example, section 55 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002, which removed all support from some in-country applicants, was put into the legislation at Committee stage in the Lords and received less than half an hour of consideration in this House, even though it was a major change. I hope that nothing like that will happen with this Bill.
I hope that the Minister will respond to some of the concerns that have been raised this evening, especially on appeal rights. That section of the Bill raises the most concerns and I hope that we will be able to achieve some positive changes in Committee and on Report. Some aspects of the Bill are worrying. My hon. Friend Mr. Vaz mentioned voting against it. Well, if some of the measures are not amended by Third Reading, a few more colleagues will be thinking along the same lines.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak after Mr. Gerrard, who brought to bear his considerable expertise in an important speech that should be read in conjunction with the truly remarkable speech by my hon. Friend Alistair Burt. He highlighted how painful, sensitive and harrowing it can be to remove people from this country to a country as ghastly as Zimbabwe. The hon. Member for Walthamstow reminded us that those problems of removal increase the longer someone has been in this country. The longer the time, the more harrowing and difficult removal becomes.
The hon. Gentleman also highlighted that, in a shameful move ahead of the election and in order to sound tough, the Government announced that there would be no automatic right of settlement after four years and no right of settlement at all for unskilled workers, effectively creating a category of guest worker. It sounded tough and perhaps popular in some quarters, but all hon. Members know that it has probably created an unworkable situation. The longer people have been here, the more they have established roots—they may have got married and had children—and removal becomes ever more difficult.
We should remember the evidence that Dr. Teitelbaum gave to Congress on that point:
"There is virtually no such thing as a temporary immigrant from a low wage economy to a high wage economy . . . Don't be tempted by the siren song of temporary worker programs. If they involve movement from poor countries to rich countries, they universally prove to be more permanent than temporary, and very difficult to turn off once turned on."
I would add that they inevitably involve inhumanity if turned off. It is far more sensible and humane to limit immigration at the initial stage than to allow people to come here temporarily.
Recent debates in this Chamber have been oversubscribed. It is remarkable that on such a controversial subject, we are not subject to a time limit and only a few Labour Members have wished to speak. Even on this side of the House, our numbers are limited. I cannot help feeling that that reflects people's reluctance to participate in debates about immigration because all too often those debates are curtailed by accusations of racism, which are freely bandied about and recklessly applied to anybody who implies that any greater restriction should be placed on immigration. When I became involved in the immigration issue—which was almost by accident, because I was studying the housing issue and discovered that housing policy was largely driven by Home Office immigration policy—I was warned by all my friends, who had let me be reckless enough to write pamphlets in favour of legalising cannabis, that I should not write about immigration. They said that I would be written off as a cranky libertarian or a dangerous racist. What I am about to say will probably have me written off on both counts.
The Bill is about handling illegal migrants, failed asylum seekers, illegal entrants and those who have overstayed their visas. However, illegal immigration is simply the flipside of the lawful migration coin. The Government say that we need lawful migration because it is good for us. We need not just skilled people, but unskilled people. The Prime Minister has said that we need people to fill unskilled jobs that people living here are not prepared to do. We are told that lawful immigration increases the growth of our economy, and that the more there is, the faster it will grow. We are told that immigrants pay more in tax than they draw in benefits and other costs on the public sector, so the more immigration, the less tax the rest of us will have to pay. We are told that we need immigration to pay our future pensions, so the more immigrants we have, the fewer the difficulties of coping with the pension problem in the future.
I shall discuss the credibility of those claims in a moment, but if they are true they imply that the more immigration there is, of both skilled and unskilled workers, the greater the benefits for the rest of us. The question inevitably arises, why, if economic migration is good for the rest of us, do the Government want to send back failed asylum seekers, illegal immigrants and over-stayers, who are, after all, economic migrants? The Government might say that it is a question of numbers; it is good for us, but there is a limit to the number that we can accommodate or absorb. However, they say that it is not a question of numbers. If it were, it would be natural and right to set a limit for that reason; but the Government say, no, there must be no limit to the numbers. They spent the whole of their election campaign ridiculing and opposing that idea. The Home Secretary and his predecessor said that there can be no upper limit to the number of immigrants who should be allowed into this country, and the current Home Secretary has said:
"we want more immigration, more people coming to study, to work . . . to look for refuge".
If immigration is a good thing, we have to ask whether we can have too much of it. I do not ask such questions rhetorically, so when I faced up to the problem I ended up writing a pamphlet entitled "Too much of a good thing?". When I started looking into the issues, my first conclusion was, if I am honest, not so much a conclusion as a prejudice. It came from living in areas with a high concentration of immigrants, from my experience and that of my neighbours and from working with immigrants as my constituents. I concluded that the overwhelming majority of immigrants are decent, hard-working, law-abiding people who come to this country wanting to better their lot and that of their families, and to make a positive contribution to the country. Most of them do. Indeed, to a large degree, they epitomise the very virtues of enterprise and family cohesion that Conservatives particularly admire, so we start off with a natural prejudice in favour of immigrants. We think of them as a good thing. We welcome those who are in the UK and we feel, as it were, at one with them.
I then considered the Government's economic arguments in favour of large-scale immigration. There can certainly be no reason to oppose it on the grounds of the character of the people who want to come to this country, but what are the arguments for and against encouraging large-scale migration? The first remarkable thing I found was that almost no economists thought that there were substantial economic benefits from large-scale migration. I have to confess that when my pamphlet went to print, I had not read what is probably the definitive work on the subject, published last December in the Population and Development Review, by Coleman and Rowthorn, entitled "The Economic Effects of Immigration into the United Kingdom". Their conclusion was:
"We conclude that the economic consequences of large-scale immigration are mostly trivial, negative or transient; that the interests of the more vulnerable sections of the domestic population may well be damaged; and that any small fiscal or other economic benefits are unlikely to bear comparison with immigration's substantial and permanent demographic and environmental impact. We demonstrate that such findings are in line with those from other developed countries".
Yes I have, and it is fairly comprehensively demolished in the report that I have cited, which I urge the hon. Lady to read. I shall come to that point in due course and explain to her why that Home Office report was so unreliable.
My conclusion was somewhat different from the one that I read out. I concluded that some immigration does enrich, and has enriched, this country both economically and culturally, but beyond a certain point the benefits of additional immigration do not rise with the number of people who come to the UK, whereas the costs and difficulties, especially the costs of extra housing and the pressure on land, rise in proportion to the numbers, so it is sensible and rational to set a limit.
Let me use an analogy. Immigration acts as a lubricant for the economy, rather than a fuel. If we do not put oil in the car, it will not work well. If there is more than sufficient oil, the car will not go any better and too much oil may cause problems. To stop all immigration would be bad for the economy, but beyond a certain point increasing the amount of immigration does not make an economy grow any better. Immigration is a lubricant, but unfortunately the Government have been under the mistaken apprehension that it is a fuel. They put their foot on the accelerator and think that the more people we take into this country, the more we will grow. As a result, net lawful immigration has trebled under the Government; over the last six years it has averaged three times the level that they inherited.
I am listening carefully to the right hon. Gentleman's speech and I feel that he is tilting at a straw man—the straw man of completely open borders. I do not think that either side of the House advocates the extreme position that he is taking in his argument.
I am merely pointing out the logic of the Government's position. The hon. Gentleman may say that as the Government are not logical we need not do that, but that is the inherent logic. If he had given a logical reason for restricting immigration—the Government may not have vouchsafed it, but he in his influential family position can tell us what it is—I would have welcomed it, but he has not done that.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way again. The question is whether we set an arbitrary limit, which is the idea of a quota, or whether we have an approach, such as the set of policies that the Government propose, so as to shape the number of people who come into the country—something that can be reconsidered and revised. I do not see an inconsistency in our position.
If there is no logical reason for having a limit, any limit will be arbitrary, but if the hon. Gentleman will not give us his reasons for having a limit, whether by process or by number, he is behaving irrationally or is advocating irrational policies.
May I make a little progress? The hon. Gentleman may then find that I have answered his question, or at least added more substance and fuel to it.
The main problem—certainly the one that brought me to the issue—the main cost, as it were, of large-scale immigration is the pressure of housing and land. Edward Miliband denied that that was a serious problem, but the Government themselves admitted, in an answer in the other place, that a third of all the households expected to be formed in future, for which housing will be necessary, are the result of net immigration to this country. Obviously, that excludes the figures for illegal immigration; if we made some estimates based on the recently published figures for illegal immigration, the number would probably be nearer 40 per cent. of all households in the United Kingdom. Net legal migration only is running at the rate of two constituencies a year, so two constituencies a year are being created in this country as a result of immigration.
By 2031, the Government expect—again, excluding all illegal immigration and assuming a slowdown from the current level of immigration—an extra 5.2 million people net in this country, solely as a result of legal migration. Those are substantial numbers, which play an enormously important part in the housing pressures in southern England, because obviously the figures are suddenly more important. Of course the bulk of migration does not go directly to Hertfordshire, where I come from, or other home counties; it goes primarily to London. But the people who would have occupied the houses that are let, allocated or sold to the newcomers to London, move out to the home counties to get housing—they have to get it from somewhere. They do not leave because they do not like the newcomers—they themselves are Londoners of all ethnicities moving out to us. That is the process: a net inflow of about 150,000 a year, mostly into London; and a corresponding outflow to the home counties, requiring very substantial house building, about which the Government refuse to talk. As my hon. Friend Mr. Horam—
Order. I have been listening with some interest to the right hon. Gentleman's remarks, clearly setting the background to this debate, but it would be helpful if he would now confine his remarks rather more to the context of the Bill under discussion.
I shall certainly follow your ruling, Madam Deputy Speaker. The Bill is about controlling immigration, and I am trying to find reasons for doing it. If we cannot find them, we cannot have a Bill, so I am sure that you would agree that we need to do so.
I was hoping to find in the Bill a fulfilment of the promise that the Government made just before the election: that they would establish an independent commission to advise on how much immigration was necessary and desirable. Sadly, I can find no such reference in the Bill, but such a commission would, I hope, analyse the arguments in favour of more large-scale immigration and see whether they were justified. If they were, we would have that advice; if not, we would obviously have even more need for the controls and restrictions inherent in the Bill.
The Prime Minister said that according to the Treasury, our economic growth rate would be 0.5 per cent. lower a year if net migration ceased. Lower growth, he said, means less individual prosperity. But economic growth is the sum of the growth in the number of workers and the growth in output per worker. The Treasury model, about which the Prime Minister was talking, says that immigration will add 0.5 per cent. to the growth in the number of workers, but will not increase output per worker, and it is only if output per head goes up that we get richer. So even on the figures that the Prime Minister quoted, he merely showed that we shall have a bigger economy, not a richer economy, and when he said that growth meant more individual prosperity, he was simply treating the facts with his normal discombobulation.
Mrs. Ellman asked about the study that showed that the immigrant community makes a net fiscal contribution to this country. The report that she mentioned, which I happen to have, says:
"Migrants in the UK contributed . . . a net fiscal balance of approximately £2.5 billion . . . This is equivalent to around 1p on the basic rate of income tax" for the rest of us. When we look at the figures, we find that that was a year when the Budget was in surplus. Not just immigrants were paying more in than they were taking out; the whole population was paying more in than it was taking out. When we allow for that fact, half of that £2.5 billion disappears. The other problem was that the study attributed to both immigrants and non-immigrants in proportion to their shares of the population the taxes paid by foreign owners of companies. If we take that out, and if we also allow for something that the authors of the study wholly ignored—the biggest single item, probably: the accruing pension liabilities of members of the immigrant population who are disproportionately below retirement age—all that gain disappears and turns into a net deficit.
But I am not particularly arguing that immigrants are a burden, just that it is absurd to say that they are reducing the tax burden on everybody else. Rich people pay more taxes than they receive in benefits from the state, whether they be immigrants or previously resident people. Poor people, on the whole, pay less in to the state than they take out, whether they are immigrants or are born here. It is silly to aggregate them all. If one wants to use immigrants as a fiscal milch cow, one will obviously limit those coming here to high earners, but that is on the whole a rather unattractive policy.
Does the right hon. Gentleman discount the contribution made by immigrants to the economy generally by providing skilled services, which are often scarce, and their wider contribution to society as a whole? He seems to be relating his comments only to fiscal matters and discounting the general contribution that immigrants can and do make to society.
Everybody in society makes a contribution to everybody else. In a free market society we are all exchanging goods and services and we are all mutually interdependent, and that is a wonderful thing. But if the hon. Lady is referring to the shortages argument—effectively to the Prime Minister's statement that
"There are half a million vacancies in our job market and our . . . economy needs migration to fill these vacancies", she is referring to the same misunderstanding of how economies work. Since the Prime Minister first referred to there being half a million vacancies which we need immigrants to fill, half a million immigrants have come to this country, and there are still half a million vacancies to be filled. That is not a coincidence; it is inevitable in a well-working economy, because immigrants not only produce goods and services but consume them, and the value of the goods and services that they produce is equal to the value of the goods and services that they consume. Also, in consuming goods and services they create demand for an equal net further inflow of workers, and that is why, in countries like our own where we have had a net inflow, there is still the same level of vacancies. The same is true of California, and of west Germany.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way, but not for the manner in which he did it. I want to make a comparison with the late 1980s and early 1990s, when we saw a tightening labour market, leading to inflation taking off—I genuinely say this in a non-partisan way—and all the consequent problems that we saw in our economy. Does he not think that the continued buoyancy of our labour market combined with subdued inflation has something to do with the fact that in the south-east in particular, jobs have been filled by people coming from overseas?
Well, Prime Minister—I am elevating you, Madam Deputy Speaker. The Bill was promised in the election, and it was promised in the Queen's Speech as fulfilling the election pledges, one of which was to bring in an Australian-style points system. Would I be in order if I were to address that, even though it is not in the Bill? It ought to be in the Bill, and the terms of the Bill will be used to enforce such a system if it is introduced via secondary legislation.
I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for that ruling. I will therefore briefly refer to those aspects, which relate back to issues that we were discussing.
The Government have promised an Australian-style points system as their way to limit immigration. At least, that is how they presented such a system at the election. Of course, the Australian-style points system included a numerical limit and a system of taking the immigrants with the maximum number of points up to that limit. That is how it operated. The idea of the points system without that numerical limit makes little sense.
My right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary asked rhetorically—I was almost tempted to intervene at that stage—how a points system would work without an annual limit. We know how, because the Government have already put one in place. It is called the highly skilled migrant programme. They assess the points needed to be granted permission to enter this country. They set up the system; they set a level of points; and they found that they got a disappointingly low number of applicants. So what did they do? They reduced the number of points that people needed to be allowed into the country, until they got a welcome increase. Indeed, they were swamped by the increase, and they are now six months behind in processing applications.
When the Government establish a points system, they manipulate the points to increase the number of people coming to this country—not, as they implied at the election, to reduce the number of people coming here. I am therefore extremely suspicious of any such proposals, unless a quantitative limit is imposed. I hope that the Government will progress that proposal, if not during consideration in Committee, subsequently by secondary legislation, and that they will progress their promise to introduce an independent commission to establish to what extent we need large-scale immigration into this country from an economic point of view.
I am confident that such a commission would work if it were genuinely independent, not employer based, as the Government rather laughingly suggest. Employers will always want to employ cheap labour from abroad; there will be a demand for that. There is an almost limitless supply of people whom they could bring in from abroad in almost any profession, except possibly those that depend on fluency in the English language and familiarity with our systems, and employ at lower rates of pay than they need to provide for people from this country. Therefore, one wants a commission to be established that will make the assessment on a economic basis, rather than on a desire to undercut the pay levels of the people who are already here.
One way or another, we need to hear from the Government the reasons why they put any limit on immigration. We can then establish what that limit logically should be. We can then determine how the terms and tightening of the rules on appeals and so on in the Bill will apply at that limit, and in doing so, I, like everyone else, would want those rules applied as humanely, sensitively and rapidly as possible to minimise the harshness and damage that was highlighted so eloquently earlier in the debate by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire.
It is very important that the Bill is discussed in the context of the Government's five-year plan for asylum and immigration. In the Bill and in that plan, there are a number of positive measures that I support. Those measures are extremely important and relate particularly to trying to reduce exploitation and trafficking. It is right that they are tough, and perhaps they need to be made increasingly tough.
I wish to concentrate my remarks about the Bill and its context on two issues that are of great concern to me. Indeed, my comments have been made in a similar way by other contributors during the debate, but I wish to add my remarks because those issues are extremely important. They relate particularly to two aspects of policy: first, the proposals on restricting appeals; and, secondly, what amounts to a fundamental change of policy in how refugees are dealt with.
One of my concerns about that fundamental change in policy on how people who are acknowledged to have a well-founded fear of persecution are treated is that, while the consequences of the change in policy are dealt with in the Bill, the change of policy itself does not appear in the Bill and therefore cannot be voted on, although it can be debated.
The change that I refer to is the proposal to end the policy of granting indefinite leave to remain to people who are accepted as refugees—people for whom there is a well-founded fear of persecution—and to substitute it with permission to stay in this country for up to five years for new cases. The people concerned may be returned to their country of origin, depending on whether circumstances have changed in that country.
I am extremely disturbed by that fundamental change of policy. Everyone who has any involvement with refugees knows how strong those refugees' emotions are. They know how often those people have suffered not only fear but perhaps torture in their countries of origin, how strongly they wish to make a new life and want the stability of a decision that gives them the certainty that they will be able to make a new life. They know that, if someone may have to return to their country of origin, where they may have been tortured and persecuted—a fact that has been recognised by the granting of refugee status—they can be in constant fear, which can be extremely harmful.
To say that someone who is accepted as a refugee can stay for up to only five years, depending on what happens in their country of origin, not only produces more instability for people who want to make a new start in their lives, but can be extremely traumatic for children. Five years can be a very long time in the life of a child. If a young child has come to this country as part of a family of refugees, is at school here, making friends and doing well in the education system, as often happens with refugees, it can be extremely traumatic for them to be told that they have to return, and that is even more traumatic for their parents. That is a matter of great concern.
We should also consider whether circumstances have changed in the refugee's country of origin. If there has been a change, how is it known that there will not be a further change to the detriment of the refugee? In countries such as Iran, Somalia and, indeed, many others, we know that there can be constant changes in situation. At some point in five years, there might be a change in the situation even though it is said that a refugee ought to return. What would happen if that person is returned and, a short time afterwards, the instability of those regimes leads to another change and the returned refugee faces persecution again?
This is a very profound change of policy, and if the Government wish to introduce it, they should include it in the Bill so that it can be voted on. We can certainly all debate and discuss that change, but it is wrong to include in legislation something with such drastic implications without including it in the Bill. I ask the Minister to think again about that change.
The other issue about which I have great concern is mentioned in the Bill, although it is not clear whether the extent of the change in policy is included in the Bill. The change relates to the restriction and, in some cases, removal of rights of appeal. Perhaps I should say the additional continuing restriction of rights of appeal because rights of appeal were reduced by previous legislation. It is clear from what happens in practice when people apply for permission to come to this country, not only for asylum, but to work, to be with their families, or to study, that in too many cases it is easy for important facts to be omitted and for errors to be made. Subjective judgments are inevitable. The right of appeal is thus extremely important so that a case can be reappraised if facts have been put wrongly, if significant omissions have occurred during judgment, or if judgments have been faulty.
The right of appeal is also important to ensure that the scrutiny of decisions can be undertaken. Reference has already been made to the high number of successful appeals. The fact that more than 56 per cent. of appeals on entry clearance are successful throws doubt on the reliability of initial decisions. If the right of appeal is to be removed, the scrutiny of such original decisions, many of which are questionable, will be removed as well. It is clear from reports by the independent monitor and the National Audit Office that the quality of initial decisions needs greater attention, but nothing in the Bill will improve that quality. There is simply a desire to remove or withdraw rights of appeal, which I find disturbing.
I am greatly concerned that it is not clear from the Bill to what extent appeal rights will be removed. Ministers will be able to make orders and put forward secondary legislation, so it is unclear whether the categories for the withdrawal of appeal rights designated under the Bill will be exclusive, or the beginning of a wholesale reduction of the important rights of appeal. I would like to hear the Minister's views on that.
Many hon. Members could cite examples of cases with which they have dealt in which rights of appeal proved to be extremely important. I shall cite just two examples that illustrate my point. In one case, Dr. A, a prestigious medical person, wished to visit this country on a work-related visit involving members of his family. He had a sponsor with financial security. Owing to the person's specific situation, the sponsor arranged the detail of the proposed visit. At interview, Dr. A was unable to answer questions about the precise detail of his visit to the UK because that detail was being organised by his sponsor, so he was refused permission for his visit. It was only when that fact was pointed out on appeal that the visit was granted. In that case, a proposed visitor appeared to be unable to answer a question of significance without the questioner understanding why he could not answer it, although the matter was easily clarified on appeal.
I cite a further case. A young lady, Miss B, is extremely ill with a life-threatening disease. She requires constant care and is extremely unhappy and desperate. She wants her mother, who lives in the far east, to come to stay with her, so it would not be a normal visit because its purpose would be to allow the mother to look after her daughter. At interview, the mother, who was extremely distraught, was unable to answer clearly questions from the interviewer about the length of time that she wished to spend in the country or to give precise details of her daughter's illness. Medical evidence now clearly shows the nature of the illness and we know that the mother was unable to answer detailed questions because she was too distraught about her situation. The matter is still being reviewed, so that shows why it is important to have an appeals procedure.
The Home Secretary spoke about the importance of immigration at the start of the debate. Indeed, he said that we welcome immigrants who come within the rules of this country. I support what he said because I welcome immigrants coming to this country, whether they be asylum seekers with a well-founded fear of persecution, or people who wish to work in this country and contribute to it. I am worried that the Bill and the context in which it is put, with restrictions on appeal rights and the drastic change to the treatment of people who are recognised as refugees, sends out the very different message that refugees and immigrants are not so welcome. I accept that that message might meet with populist support, but it is not consistent with the Home Secretary's words or my views.
I ask the Minister to comment on the points that I have raised in his winding-up speech and to think about them again in Committee. They might be points of detail, but they are also points of substance about matters that cause me great concern. I listened carefully to the speeches made by my hon. Friends the Members for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) and for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) and associate myself with their comments. I, too, will be looking closely at what happens to the Bill in Committee. I support a diverse, multicultural society. I oppose the exploitation and abuse of immigration laws, so I support strong measures to deal with that. However, I also want fairness, and I am worried that the measures that I have discussed in my speech are not about fairness, even though they might be populist.
Thank you for calling me, Madam Deputy Speaker. I assure you that there will be no academic arguments from me—I leave those to my hon. Friends.
As hon. Members on both sides of the House have pointed out, this country has a proud tradition of taking people in from abroad. We benefit from foreign doctors, nurses, teachers and, of course, bankers, so there are many positive aspects to immigration. However, many of the advantages that immigration brings to this country are being obscured by a system that is still widely perceived to be failing. It is incumbent on all elected politicians in the Chamber to find a way forward that restores public confidence in our immigration and asylum system.
I am worried that if we fail to fix the system, many more constituencies throughout the country will be faced with the problems that we currently experience in Broxbourne with the British National party. As many hon. Members are aware, the BNP uses the problems surrounding this country's immigration system as an active campaigning tool to recruit people to its standard. Whether appealing to Conservative or Labour voters, the BNP message is the same: "The established parties don't care who comes to this country. They want to create a free-for-all at your expense." Thankfully, most people still have nothing to do with that nonsense. Their concerns about immigration are far outweighed by their dislike for the BNP and its hateful policies, but we cannot rely indefinitely on the good sense of the British public to keep the BNP at bay. We must also do our bit as their elected representatives.
The BNP already has a councillor in Broxbourne and at the last general election it managed to double its vote to 2,000. It came within a whisker of saving its deposit. Our one major success was that we stopped it doubling its representation on Broxbourne council by taking the second seat in Rosedale ward. However, the BNP remains a threat. In my constituency, it is well organised, works hard on the ground and has the capacity to draw in activists from across the region. Its campaigning techniques are aggressive and at times intimidating. As one constituent said to me, "It's hard to slam the door in their face when they've got their bodies in the way."
The BNP message is deeply depressing and makes no concession to the truth. Every black or Asian face in the community belongs to an illegal immigrant, with no distinction made. We worked hard to beat the BNP in Rosedale. We had an excellent local candidate, Dave Lewis—
My experiences of Broxbourne confirmed to me that the BNP must not and cannot be dismissed lightly. It has tapped into a seam of disquiet and will continue to mine it as long as we allow it to do so. Hon. Members can only imagine the collective cheer that went up from Nick Griffin and his mates when the Prime Minister was forced to admit that he had no real idea how many illegal immigrants currently reside in the UK. Statements like that are the stuff of BNP fantasies. They are the oxygen of its recruitment drives and provide a rich source of text for its leaflets. They allow Nick Griffin to say, "I was right. Your Government, your elected politicians are no longer in control. The things that matter to you don't matter to them."
If the House is genuinely committed to stemming the rise of the BNP, we must ensure that an immigration system is put in place that carries the confidence of the British people. It must be seen to be fair and transparent. The system must make room for genuine asylum seekers while rewarding those immigrants who follow our laws.
The next time there is a general election, I want to be able to look my constituents in the eye and reassure them that their Government, whoever it may be—but it will probably be this one—have taken control of this country's ports of entry, making it almost impossible for people to enter the UK illegally.
I assume that this Government are not going to give up and go home before the next general election is called.
I want to be able to tell my constituents that the Government will only allow people into this country who are in genuine fear of their life or who have applied through the correct legal channels, and that the emphasis is on quality not quantity, so that the people coming to this country bring with them scarce skills that can be put to immediate use. I also want to be able to tell them that those people who have entered this country illegally are being identified and removed swiftly. If I can tell my constituents those things, the BNP in Broxbourne will have reached its high watermark on
I want to return to the content of the Bill, in particular the remarks of Mrs. Ellman on the removal of the right to appeal against the decisions of an entry clearance officer, as contained in clause 4. I also want to focus on international students, the subject of many interventions earlier in the debate.
Keith Vaz said that 120 vice-chancellors wrote a letter that appeared in the Financial Times today, expressing their dismay at the content of clause 4 and many other aspects of policy, including the Government's recent decisions to tighten the entry clearance obligations faced by international students. I raised with the Secretary of State for Education and Skills the subject of visa fees as part of the system, including the unwelcome signal that the rise in fees sends to international students. The Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality mouths, "Rubbish." I accept that the amount of the fee may not be an economic barrier in relation to the tuition fee that the student pays. None the less, it is indicative of the Government's approach that they are making it harder for international students to apply to study in this country. Although the fees themselves may not be an economic barrier, the removal of the right to appeal against an entry clearance officer's decision is a barrier to students coming to this country, and there is a danger that we will lose them to other countries such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States, which are all competing for that key international business.
The hon. Members for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Khabra) and for Leicester, East referred to the huge powers that entry clearance officers have under our current immigration system. Their decisions can certainly be made on subjective grounds. The removal of the right of appeal against such decisions effectively makes an entry clearance officer infallible, and his decisions or the grounds on which it has been made cannot be challenged. I have only been the MP for Bristol, West for two months, so I cannot match the experience of Mr. Gerrard, who has debated five immigration Bills and has undertaken years of constituency work. In those two short months, however, I have certainly learned something from the vast majority of people who come to my constituency surgery. More than three quarters of them come to see me about immigration cases, and I have learned that entry clearance officers often make ludicrous decisions. They are certainly not infallible.
My hon. Friends the Members for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) and for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) referred to the evidence presented by the university of Sheffield, which found that 90 per cent. of initial refusals of permission to study in this country by entry clearance officers are overturned on appeal or, more likely, once the facts are clarified before an appeal is even heard. If there is no right of appeal, a process to examine the facts will not be initiated, so many cases will be closed at the outset and the individuals concerned will study elsewhere. This morning, the Minister conceded that 1,200 appeals—I think that I heard him correctly—by students under the existing legislation were upheld last year. If clause 4 eventually stands part of the Bill no appeals will be upheld, and gross injustices will be suffered by numerous individuals who might otherwise come to this country. Studying here would benefit them directly but it would also benefit us.
There are 3,200 international students at the university of Bristol and the university of the west of England. They make a huge contribution not only to those universities but to Bristol's cultural life and economy. If the clause remains in the Bill, there is a serious risk that British universities' research base would be damaged irreparably, particularly in science and engineering, which are important for the aerospace industries in Bristol. I hope that in Committee the Government will reconsider clause 4 in the light of our proposals.
My grandfather came to this country in 1940 with many Polish airmen and servicemen. This country has a tremendous tradition of allowing people to come here when they are in need. People came here during the war to fight in the battle of Britain, but afterwards they were allowed to stay, because communism had descended on their countries of origin and they would have been at peril had they returned. We have built up a tradition of tolerance and of looking after people in need from other countries, and I am very grateful for that.
The Bill does not address the changes that are taking place to immigration to this country or the changing nature of immigration. It does not address the position of the 500,000 or so people who are illegal immigrants in the United Kingdom. It does not state how those people are to be identified and how they will be deported. Those are important issues. There has been little discussion about improving the method of dispersal of asylum centres. Recently, the Government proposed to place an asylum centre in a tiny village in Shropshire, close to Shrewsbury. That caused great distress to the local villagers and a great deal of anguish. The Bill does not explain how the asylum processing system will be improved so that there will be no need for such asylum centres in the future.
There are countries in Europe that are tackling the issue—for example, Denmark, which is a socially liberal country and has had a Labour Government for many years since the war. Denmark has a quota on immigrants and a proper policy, and it has recently started to tackle the problem of illegal immigration. There is nothing in the Bill about a quota on the number of immigrants allowed into our country. Denmark's policies have been praised by many national institutions.
There has been little discussion of how to deal with the long-term reasons for illegal immigration. The Home Office is tinkering at the edges and making a few changes in our country, whereas it should be working with the Foreign Office to get countries around the world to take responsibility. I was visiting the Kenya-Somalia border when there was a crisis in Somalia. I have never seen anything like the treatment by the Kenyan authorities of refugees who wanted to escape persecution in Somalia and reach the first free country. They were turned away. Some were brutally pushed away. Kenya and other democratic countries must take responsibility for helping with refugees. At present, people from Somalia are getting on a plane and coming to the United Kingdom. That is what the Government should be dealing with.
The source of illegal immigration must be tackled. The Prime Minister recently visited Tripoli and had a meeting with Colonel Gaddafi. I hope he uses that communication with the President of Libya to make sure that that country takes responsibility for stopping all the illegal immigrants who pour into Libya from neighbouring sub-Saharan countries and use Libyan ports to get across the Mediterranean in a clandestine way to places like Italy, Malta and France and from there to the United Kingdom. There should be more joined-up government. The issue is one for the Home Office and the Foreign Office to work on together.
Finally, I welcome the proposals to tighten the rules on the employment of illegal immigrants. We had a case in Shrewsbury of somebody employing people illegally. They were housed in stables fit only for horses. It was an appalling case. It did not happen in London or some major conurbation. It happened in a tiny village called Dorrington, just south of Shrewsbury, so the problem occurs even in rural areas. The conditions in which those people were held were dreadful, yet, as we have heard, there have been few convictions. There have been 24 prosecutions since 1998 and only nine convictions of people illegally employing illegal immigrants. I do not see how the Bill will tackle that problem.
In the two months since I was honoured to be elected as Member of Parliament for Ilford, North, I have had more than 100 immigration and asylum cases to deal with, and I hope that this Bill will address some of the problems that my constituents have been experiencing.
We must deal with people in a fair manner and with compassion and common sense, but also quickly. In several of the cases that I am dealing with, some of which I have inherited, it is a question not so much of 13 weeks but of 13 months, and I sincerely hope that it does not become 13 years. One case involves a lady who has been given leave to stay, as has her younger child, but her older child is still waiting for it. Can that be right? Some cases involve people who wished to visit for relatives' weddings and have shown the necessary proof but have missed the occasion because they were never given their entry visas.
Does the Home Office have enough staff to deal with these cases? I do not wish to get anyone into trouble, but during a recent phone call to inquire about one of my constituents, I was told that it was inundated and could not cope. Will the Minister look into that as a matter of urgency and ensure that more staff, properly paid, are dealing with these cases to try to clear the backlog? I do not wish to sit in judgment on whether someone should stay in this country, but I do believe that out of respect for them we should deal with their case quickly and let them know where they stand.
Why is the Home Office getting things so wrong? Is it because the numbers are so vast? If I have had 100 cases—I accept that not every Member of Parliament will have had that number—that must mean that thousands of cases have come in over the past eight weeks. Multiplied over the year, that is 96,000 cases.
"Poor decision making by the Immigration Service combined with changes to the law could prevent significant numbers of people from visiting their families".
We must tackle this. It cannot be right that people cannot visit their own families who are allowed to stay in this country.
The Labour party's immigration policy says:
"We will support family life by admitting the spouses and minor dependent children of those already settled in the UK. We will ensure that the asylum decisions are both swift and fair and fully meet the UK's obligation towards refugees under international law. And we will detect and remove those entering and remaining in the UK without authority and take firm action against those profiting from abuse of the immigration laws, including effective preventative measures."
The current system is not working; it is in chaos. I hope that the Bill will go a long way towards tackling that, but I fear that it will not.
I start by referring to the excellent speech by Keith Vaz, particularly now that he is back in his seat. He struck a chord with me when he explained his dilemma in wanting to vote against the Bill. Like him, I am a serial loyalist—indeed, in my party I am the payroll vote—so I would find it difficult to bring myself to vote against it. However, I share many of his reservations.
I have three points to make: first, a point relating to administrative procedures and processes; secondly, a personal point; and thirdly, a point to do with economics. Although I disagreed with much of what Mr. Lilley said on the latter subject, he introduced an element of rigour into the arguments that was hitherto lacking.
The hon. Member for Leicester, East is absolutely right that the issue of processes and procedures is a useful place to start, and it is where we start as constituency MPs. My constituency has only a small ethnic minority population—just under 10 per cent.—but well over half my casework concerns immigration and asylum. There is something fundamentally odd and very wrong about that. It takes that form for two reasons. The first is that there are enormous problems with administrative hold-ups, which the hon. Member for Leicester, East described, such as the four-year expiry of exceptional leave to remain, the 13-week letters and so on. Members of Parliament are constantly drawn into problems that arise simply from administrative slowness and inefficiency in the immigration and nationality directorate.
The second reason is more important and more directly related to the Bill—it is the functioning of entry clearance officer procedures. It is important to stress, especially in the context of the Bill, that we are considering not immigrants or asylum seekers, but visitors—people who want to visit their families or visit the country as students or temporary workers on a work permit. We are worried about the procedures that apply to them. Like the hon. Member for Leicester, East, I have many cases in which entry clearance officers—I am sure that they are perfectly honourable, highly efficient British servants, who are trying to do their best—make decisions that are often arbitrary and subjective. That is the nature of the decisions that they are required to make.
I get more and more rejection forms, which probably relate to people who spent a couple of days travelling to Delhi, Bombay or Islamabad and paid a large sum for a visa. It is clear from the documentation that they have been impeccable in their application, whether it is for a family or a study visit. All their sponsors are lined up and their colleges have produced authentic documents. However, entry clearance officers often conclude that they find it impossible to believe that people of such modest means would wish to return to their country. The purpose of the appeal is to challenge that sort of subjective judgment. We have heard of many cases, especially in relation to student visas, for which the right of appeal is a crucial discipline.
Several hon. Members—the hon. Members for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) and for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) intervened to make the crucial point—said that if we are trying to improve the quality of the initial decisions, the best way of doing that is to ensure that there is provision for an appeal so that the quality of the argument is improved from the outset. The loss of the appeal mechanism is a crucial and negative aspect of the Bill.
I want to make a personal point that goes back a long time. I first became concerned about the trend in British immigration legislation almost 40 years ago. I can trace that concern back to a specific day—
That experience was important because it taught me that we have immigration panics every few years in this country. A wave of emotion flows through Parliament, a populist politician and the press, and there is a call for something to be done. I remember reading articles almost 40 years ago in the context of the Kenyan Asians about our overcrowded island. The question of how we could cope with a few thousand more people was asked. The population then was about 10 million fewer, but it was still an overcrowded island and "something had to be done." Legislation was rushed through, by a Labour Government then, that deprived a specific group of people, put them under immigration controls and removed an appeal here and there, and the process has continued ever since. The Bill is yet another response to that sort of emotional pressure. There will be another one four, five or six years down the line.
I want to consider the economic aspect of the measure. Now that the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden has returned, perhaps I can compliment him on trying to introduce some rigour into the argument. He is right that many of the economic arguments for immigration are often spurious and superficial. It was important that the Home Secretary started his speech with the rather bold assertion that Britain needs economic migration. I happen to agree with him, but that case is often casually put and not properly argued. I think that Edward Miliband got the argument right on about his fourth attempt, when he said that an economy can run at a much higher level of capacity if it has people coming in who are flexible and entrepreneurial and who can change their working patterns and move around. These things are very difficult to quantify, but the Governor of the Bank of England—hardly an economically illiterate man—has attested to the fact that the British economy is able to function at a significantly higher level of activity than it would be able to without the current flow of immigration.
How does the hon. Gentleman explain the experience of the German economy, which, despite a very large inflow of migrant labour both from East Germany and from Germans returning from all over eastern Europe and Russia, seems not to have the buoyancy that he believes such an inflow has caused us?
The German economy has many problems. One could argue that macro-economic mismanagement and, above all, an extreme rigidity and lack of flexibility have cancelled out many of the benefits that the immigrant work force might have brought. Germany certainly flourished in the post-war period on the back of a great many immigrant workers. However, Madam Deputy Speaker, you have pointed out that you do not want us to go too far down that road, so I shall restrict my comments specifically to the Bill.
The Government have not addressed the fundamental question of the economics of immigration. They have tried to make a distinction simply between the legal and the illegal, and want to bring in new powers to clamp down on racketeers. I think that we would all broadly endorse that, but it has been pointed out that powers already exist in the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996—they were strengthened in the 1999 Act—to deal with racketeering and the serious abuse of immigration rules. They have rarely been invoked, and it is difficult to see what the new legislation could add that would be helpful.
Indeed, many aspects of the Bill are very worrying. Employers already have to go through a substantial process of compliance in order to meet the employment requirements of the 1996 and 1999 Acts. When we debated the Bill that became the 1999 Act—I served on its Standing Committee—it was pointed out to us by employers associations that to be fully compliant, a company had to carry out approximately 50 tests to establish that all its employees were compliant with visa and other immigration requirements. That was an enormously difficult administrative task.
What is crucial about this new piece of legislation is that it will penalise companies even if they are unwittingly employing illegal immigrants. The Home Secretary did not make that point. He concentrated on the deliberate criminal abuse of the immigration rules, but he did not stress the key new element of the Bill, namely, that such unwitting behaviour by employers will lay them open to substantial charges. I can see no reference to a regulatory impact assessment of the Bill. Perhaps the Minister will tell us whether one has been, or is going to be, carried out, so that we can have some idea of the implications for employers who are going to go through this process.
Because the process is difficult, particularly for small and medium-sized firms, many of them will, understandably, take the safest course of action when faced with someone with dark skin or a foreign accent who is looking for a job—they will simply not employ them. Of course, that will then open them up to challenges under race discrimination legislation. The balance that will have to be struck in order to deal with this problem is, I believe, going to be set out in a code of conduct, but none of us knows what it contains. Some very worrying conflicts could arise for perfectly law-abiding, fair-minded employers.
In addition, companies will face a new set of charges, which will be set according to civil, rather than criminal, proof. It will be easy to impose a charge on an employer on an allegation that they have unwittingly hired an illegal immigrant. That is a potential nightmare for law-abiding employers and hundreds of thousands of small and medium-sized companies that do not have the capacity to engage in sophisticated compliance. At an early stage, we need a proper statement from the Government about the implications for the employer.
I want to support the comments of my hon. Friend Stephen Williams about students. It is clear that overseas students make an enormous contribution to British universities, both intellectually and financially. They account, I think, for about 10 per cent. of undergraduates and 38 per cent. of postgraduates. What is worrying is that Britain is already seeing a significant slowdown in the number of overseas students coming here, contrary to the Prime Minister's expressed ambition to make Britain a magnet for overseas students. There are several reasons for that, such as the world economy, trends in countries such as China, visa fees and the additional deterrent of the removal of appeals in student visa applications. As I pointed out in an intervention, if universities in this country see their source of income from overseas students drying up or substantially decreasing, they might have no alternative but to resort to other sources of income generation, the most important of which is top-up fees. Universities will come under great pressure from their vice-chancellors to demand much higher top-up fees than we have seen so far. That is one of the unintended consequences of this tightening-up of immigration control legislation.
Many aspects of the Bill worry me and I would be tempted to vote against it were there a consensus, but I think that we will all be well-behaved and abstain. There are many sources of concern, however, and I trust that at least some of them will be resolved before Third Reading.
It is always a great pleasure to address a full House, and tonight is no exception. [Laughter.] We have had a good debate, with some excellent contributions from both sides of the House and from all political parties. Perhaps we have more in common in terms of our approach to certain issues than might be thought outside. It is good to have a debate conducted in a good-tempered, constructive way, which contrasts with the inflammatory approaches sometimes presented in the newspapers.
Briefly, I want to thank some of my hon. Friends for their contributions. My hon. Friend Mr. Walker spoke for the whole House when he said how important it was that the asylum and immigration system should carry the confidence of the people. He was right to express his opposition, reflected throughout the House, to the British National party and everything that it stands for.
I enjoyed the contribution of my hon. Friend Daniel Kawczynski, who spoke movingly of his experience of the treatment of refugees on the Kenyan-Somalian border. My hon. Friend Mr. Scott said rightly that dealing with applications quickly was important, as it would demonstrate our respect for those who make an application. My hon. Friend Mr. Horam was absolutely right to allude to the need for more efficiency and less legislation, to which I shall refer shortly.
My right hon. Friend Mr. Lilley said that he wondered whether he would be accused of being—I hope that I have his words right—a "cranky libertarian" or a "dangerous racist". The truth of the matter is that he stands accused of being neither. His was a powerful speech from a colleague who knows the subject deeply, always speaks in measured tones, and from whom we have come to learn a great deal in recent months on this topic.
My hon. Friend Alistair Burt made a moving and powerful speech, which held the attention of all in the House. His track record over the years of commitment to his constituency and issues involving the Yarl's Wood centre is well established, well known and much admired, and his observations about the Zimbabwe detainees moved the whole House. We were extremely pleased that he was able to make such an excellent contribution to the debate, and I thank him for it.
A number of Labour Members spoke—not always, I must say, in support of the Government. I was particularly pleased to hear from Mark Fisher, who always speaks in a decent, humane and knowledgeable fashion. The expertise of Keith Vaz in these matters is extremely well known and is matched only by his commitment to his constituents, which he has demonstrated for many years. He and many other speakers raised constituency issues. That shows that all Members—the hon. Gentleman is a shining example—take asylum and immigration issues raised by their constituents very seriously, and do their best to deal with them.
Mr. Gerrard is extremely knowledgeable about such issues. He made me smile, because he said more or less what I was going to say: serving on a Standing Committee considering an asylum Bill is very ageing. The hon. Gentleman has been doing it for a long time, and I feel that I have—and I have aged visibly each year when we have had to deal with yet another asylum Bill. His help in Committee, however, will be as invaluable as ever. There were extremely interesting contributions from other Members as well.
I think that, in one way or another, I have been involved in all three of the most recent major asylum Bills over the past few years. I believe that in Committee I have spoken on some 400 clauses, most of which seem to have been introduced as Government amendments on the last day of the Committee stage. That makes my point for me. Most of us regret the Government's insistence on more and more legislation, accompanied by less and less efficiency and proper enforcement of existing law. I directly accuse the Home Office of having been inefficient in many ways over the past seven or eight years, and I shall illustrate that shortly. I exempt from any criticism, however, not just the individual Ministers with whom I have dealt—the Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality is no exception: he always shows great courtesy—but the private office, which is consistently helpful to Members who contact it.
The tendency to legislate is becoming almost a disease in the Home Office. Why can it not focus much more on enforcing properly, and administering properly, the existing law that has been built up over a number of years? That tendency to over- legislate is illustrated by yet another Home Office Bill—the Violent Crime Reduction Bill, which appeared a week or two ago and which deals with crimes associated with alcohol and knives. The truth is that all these issues are amply covered by existing legislation, and more legislation is not needed.
My general proposition is this. The Government should talk less but do more. They should not legislate so much. A smart headline is no real substitute for efficient action. Let me give an example of talk as opposed to action. The hon. Member for Walthamstow and others will recall the flagship asylum policy of 2002—the establishment of a number of accommodation centres in rural areas to house young asylum seekers. That was going to cure the problem. It was a major part of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002. A huge amount of time was devoted to debate on the issue, and millions of pounds were spent on it. Perhaps the Minister will tell us just how many millions were spent. The Government thought that accommodation centres were the answer to all the problems, despite opposition to them. Can the Minister tell me how many of those centres are up and running today? The answer is: none. That great flagship policy has been quietly ditched. How much money has been spent on it? I simply do not know. I would like to find out, but I doubt whether the Minister will tell us.
What about another issue—the removal of failed asylum seekers? Three or four years ago, the Government set out their target. They said, "We have a target and we are confident that we will meet it. We will be able to remove 30,000 failed asylum seekers a year from 2003 onward." What happened? They could not do it and that policy was abandoned. It collapsed.
The hon. Gentleman mentions Labour party policies. It was of course Conservative party policy that asylum applications be processed on an offshore island. Is that still party policy, or have we moved on?
It is as though I am in a dream. Every time that I speak in an asylum debate, I spend five minutes paying huge compliments to the hon. Gentleman about his tremendous speech—[Interruption.] I am far too generous, as my hon. Friend Mr. Prisk points out—only for the hon. Gentleman to make a not-very-kind intervention on me. I can answer him very well indeed. There is a major difference between our policy and the Labour party's policy, and it is simply this: we believe in controlled immigration. It appears to me, given what previous Home Secretaries have said, that Labour do not believe in immigration controls.
I want to make progress; this is not just a debate between the hon. Member for Leicester, East and me.
As for the policy of dealing with claims offshore—[Interruption.] Mr. Winnick makes a sedentary intervention and it is very nice to see him join the debate—even at this late stage. We did see him earlier, briefly. It is indeed our policy that Parliament set a quota for the number of people settling here each year, and in due course, we would move toward a policy of region-of-origin applications, rather than applications through this House.
In giving way briefly to the hon. Gentleman, I should point out that there is quite enough by way of Home Office failure in the past nine years to occupy us in a very lengthy debate. It is those failures to which I shall return shortly.
I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way a second time. I just wanted first to thank him for his kind compliments; I did not wish to be rude or unkind to him. But given his strong feelings about this issue and his legal background, I cannot understand why he and his party are supporting a Bill that will remove the right of appeal in some cases. I find it extraordinary that they should support such a Bill.
The hon. Gentleman does not find it extraordinary at all. I have known him long enough to realise that he is indulging in a bit of mischief. The truth is that there are parts of this Bill with which we agree, and by giving it a Second Reading we will be able to look at it carefully in Committee. Furthermore, a great deal will emerge during the summer that we will want to examine and debate in the autumn.
I return for a moment to removals. The policy collapsed—the Government must accept that—but what is happening now? Including dependants, only 14,000 failed asylum seekers were removed in 2004–05, which is 21 per cent. fewer than in the previous year. Let me illustrate another of the Government's failures—sham marriages. The Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 placed a duty on registrars to report to the Home Office those marriages that gave reasonable grounds for suspicion of a sham. What did the registrars do? They reported their suspicions in the thousands. What did the Home Office do on receipt of those reports? Virtually nothing. As one senior registrar told me, it was hardly worth reporting suspicions to the Home Office because the registrars well knew that nothing would be done following any such reports. There were many thousands of sham marriages over a five-year period, but how many prosecutions? It is another example of having legislation, but no action to follow it through.
Let me give a little advice to Home Office Ministers about what they should do, and I shall try to be constructive. First, will the Government please ensure that those who take initial decisions in asylum and immigration cases are properly trained and thoroughly expert? The whole House believes that that is important. The quality of initial decision making still gives great cause for concern throughout the House and throughout the immigration world. When I tabled a parliamentary question on this matter a couple of years ago, I was astonished to find out how little training was given, even though for the individuals concerned the decisions are sometimes a matter of life and death. I was astonished not only at the lack of training, but at the very poor pay.
What is needed is a driving up of the quality of initial decision making, which will greatly assist the immigration and asylum world, and then we must speed up the whole process. Delays, delays, delays: it is still not good enough that more than 6,000 asylum applications per year have to wait more than three months, even for an initial decision.
I turn now to a question about initial decisions, which I asked the Home Secretary about five months ago. The answer was effectively that, as of last June, a total of 8,900 asylum cases had been awaiting an initial decision for more than six months. I do not believe that that is satisfactory. It is an unacceptable lack of efficiency by the Home Office, and emphasis must be placed on reducing that time.
The Government should also be able to keep better track of the whereabouts of asylum seekers. Effective removals are impossible unless they do. I tabled a parliamentary question about that matter last month and the Home Office replied, stating that it was going to manage asylum seekers "much more closely" through "various means", including the use of "electronic monitoring". Will the Minister tell us tonight what those various means are and how many will be affected by electronic monitoring?
While on the subject of returns, will the Minister tell us more about the success rate of the voluntary returns policy of failed asylum seekers? In particular, how much public money has been spent returning failed asylum seekers to the Czech Republic over the last few years—only to find, of course, that they are entitled to return here anyway?
Let me conclude my criticism of the Government by saying that they need not only efficiency, but humanity. As my right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary said earlier, one of the more unpleasant aspects of Government policy over the last few years has been ensuring that more and more final decisions are made by Home Office officials with less and less involvement of the courts. We saw that in the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Bill 2004, where the Government tried to oust the jurisdiction of the courts entirely. That was a very wrong thing to do. Many Labour Members in their places behind the Home Secretary tonight also believed that it was a wrong and horrible thing to do and it was through a combination of such Labour Members, Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members and the other place that the Government were persuaded to change their minds. Otherwise, the courts would not have been involved at all.
I told the hon. Member for Leicester, East that we could support some aspects of the Bill. Clause 11 introduces the civil penalty for employing an adult subject to immigration control. We do not have a big problem with that in principle. Clause 17 introduces the criminal offence, but I wonder whether it is necessary. There is no lack of existing criminal law in that area. Surely it is already illegal under section 8 of the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996 for an employer to hire a person subject to immigration control where that person lacks permission to work in the UK. If the 1996 Act was a good piece of legislation, why have not more prosecutions been brought under it? If it was bad, will the Minister say why the Government did not attend to it five or six years ago? Why have they waited until the ninth year of their term in office before looking at it?
I am sure that the House would like a few more details about the factors that the Home Secretary will consider in determining the amount of the new civil penalty. The Bill states that an employer will be excused
"if he shows that he complied with any prescribed requirements in relation to the employment."
However, none of those prescribed requirements are set out in the Bill. I hope that the Minister will publish some of them over the summer.
The Government have promised a so-called points system for immigrants. I want to make a plea on behalf of those who deal with work permits. Any reforms in this area should bring efficiencies, but they must not damage Britain's competitiveness. I hope that the Government accept that there is a clear distinction between people wishing to emigrate to the UK on a permanent or semi-permanent basis, and those whose companies need to transfer them here to work on specific, short-term projects. If we are to remain competitive, companies must be able to deploy international staff flexibly.
Many hon. Members referred to clauses 1 to 5, which deal with appeals. These provisions are troubling. The clauses cut various rights of appeal, and some of the provisions could result in unfairness. Clause 1 takes away the right of appeal against an adverse decision in relation to varying leave to enter or remain. That may hit genuine students, who could also be hit by other elements of the Bill. There is a danger that taking away students' rights of appeal when initial decisions are often flawed will mean that the quality of those initial decisions will become even worse and more arbitrary. If an appeal cannot be mounted against a decision, the person making the decision will be less likely to concentrate hard on making sure that it is correct.
Have the Government considered delaying the removal of the right of appeal until there has been a demonstrable improvement in decisions made by entry clearance officers? The arguments about the value of international students have been well deployed in the debate by several hon. Members, and I shall not go through them again. However, when the Bill is considered in Committee this autumn, I judge that there will be many amendments and speeches in support of the concept of the value that international students bring to this country.
I conclude by saying that the tenor of debate has been friendly and constructive. Much information about the Bill will emerge over the next two or three months, and I urge the Home Secretary and his team to ensure that the House is kept fully informed about his plans. I also urge him not to submit 50 Government amendments suddenly, at the end of the deliberations in Standing Committee. A great failing in the past is that not enough time has been set aside to permit the Committee to debate matters properly. It is important that that does not happen with this Bill.
Like the Government, we want the system to be humane and efficient. I promise the Minister that the Opposition will work hard over the rest of the year to be constructive and helpful in every respect.
I also think that the debate has been very good natured and good tempered, and that many contributions have been very well informed. That is not so true of some of them, but I shall return to that shortly.
Two perspectives must be kept in mind. First, the backdrop: it is simply not good enough for people to talk constantly about chaos and crisis, and to besmirch—sometimes with a wide brush—every official at the Home Office or the immigration and nationality directorate. There is, and must be, room for a substantive and mature debate on asylum and managed migration, but that debate must reflect reality. I appreciate that we have not had a whole lot of the rather feeble Enoch Powell impressions that we had during the election, and that is good. However, the sub-text is important. We have had a 75 per cent. reduction in intake since the peak in October 2002. It has fallen back to 1997 levels.
Several points need to be appreciated to colour a substantive debate on the issue. The initial decision backlog is the lowest it has been for a decade. More than 80 per cent. of new substantive applications on asylum get an initial decision within two months, except for one quarter in 2004, where it was 77 per cent., compared with an average of 22 months or more in 1997. From my own constituency experience, I can tell the House that the wait was substantially longer than that before 1997, but that is by the bye.
United Kingdom figures for asylum applications fell by a greater proportion than in the rest of the EU—by 33 per cent. compared with a 17 per cent. average for the other member states. Airline liaison offices resulted in more than 33,000 inadequately documented passengers being denied boarding by the carriers in ALO locations in 2003. Let us have the debate, but let us have it in those terms.
I listened with care to Mr. Lilley. For some time, he has been making the substantive case about the merits or otherwise of economic migration. It is a valuable contribution to the debate and I do not think that he is opportunistic, racist or cranky. I do not necessarily agree with anything that he says, but I welcome his measured contribution to the debate.
The facts on migration are available. It is not enough to say that we all accept that some migration is necessary or that refugees under the 1951 convention are acceptable, almost in passing, and then move on to knocking the system and saying that it is in chaos or crisis. I would say to the three new Conservative Members who contributed to the debate that such talk is what feeds those who would do us all down. As Mr. Walker said, we do need a fair, transparent and speedy system, but it is not enough to say that and then, in the next breath, legitimise the Nazis—as we are allowed to call them now, following a recent judgment—by saying that if we do not improve matters, we give them succour. That misses the point entirely.
That is the most fatuous point I have ever heard. The National Front's vote went through the roof in 1974 and had disappeared by 1979. Some of my colleagues would argue that that was because we had the most right-wing Tory Government ever and there was no need for the ultra-right. Then, all of a sudden, the vote bounced back in 1997. With the greatest respect, those are fatuous points. It annoys me that the BNP has any support anywhere.
It should not be lost on the hon. Gentleman—I am sure that he and other parties do splendid work in Broxbourne against the BNP—that by talking constantly about chaos and crisis, he feeds BNP support not in those areas that already have rich, vibrant and diverse communities, but in neighbouring areas where it is easy for the BNP to say, on the back of the claims that legitimate politicians make about the system, that it is in chaos and crisis. That is exactly the entrée that the BNP needs. It is no accident that when that party first broke through in Burnley, it was not in the hard-core inner city areas but in the middle class white suburbs around the town—very similar to Broxbourne.
Let us have a substantive debate, but let us have it in the context of where we are at. It should also be in more than a throwaway remark that we say that of course we accept genuine refugees and legal migration. Many specific points were made by hon. Members, and I shall dwell on some of them in the slightly longer than usual time that I have left.
I know that the shadow Home Secretary is at the reception that my hon. Friend has just come from, but that is by the bye. It was a courtesy for the right hon. Gentleman to tell me that he might not be back for the wind-up speeches; what he is doing is not my business at all, in oh so many ways—so many different ways.
The right hon. Gentleman made some points about the existing legislation in relation to the introduction of civil penalties for illegal working. There are several reasons for what we have done. The section 8 legislation to prevent the use of illegal workers, introduced in 1997, before May, was flawed and provided a poor basis for launching prosecutions against employers. Last year, we took action to strengthen section 8 by reforming the system of document checks, and there were 10 convictions.
Furthermore, I would say to those who ask why it has taken so long to do anything about section 8 that it is important to remember that there is other legislation under which cases have been brought, especially for facilitation. In 2002, there were 62 convictions for facilitation in magistrates courts and 147 in Crown courts. Some of those cases will have involved people who import and supply illegal workers. We can go into the matter in more detail in Committee, but we think that civil penalties will be a swifter and more effective way of tackling negligent employers. The new "knowingly" offence, with a custodial penalty, will be used to deal with those who deliberately use illegal workers but cannot be reached either by the law on facilitation or the original flawed law under section 8. I welcome any contributions to strengthen those provisions, because we need to go in that direction. We are not talking about bona fide employers who try their best to establish what is going on with their employees.
If the debate is shifting away from where we are at with the asylum system—notwithstanding the point made about removals, to which I shall return—to a substantive debate about where we are at with managed migration, it must deal in substance with illegal working and the employer's role. That is an entirely fair point and we can explore it. Somebody said that that was all very well, but that in terms of managed migration there were only 12 individuals in the central team. I cannot remember who made that point, so I apologise to the hon. Member; I think that it may have been the Conservative Whip with whom I have the delight to serve on the Identity Cards Bill, Mr. Prisk. He is entirely right, but that is all we need at the centre. By the time the law is introduced, there will be about 1,200 warranted immigration officers with full rights to employ the fixed penalties. That is where we want our staff, out in the community dealing with such matters.
My hon. Friend Mark Fisher, who is no longer in the Chamber, made some fair points about massive dispersal and we have to deal with that, but I take issue with much of what he said about the substance of the Bill. I do not believe that the system in terms of either the Bill or the wider context of the five-year plan is, to quote him, too hostile to genuine refugees. Nor do I believe what he said about adjudication. The key point at the end of his speech, with which I entirely disagree, was that the Bill would do nothing to enhance Britain's reputation for providing a safe haven. As my hon. Friend is not in the Chamber I shall take that up with him at another time, but I do not agree with his point. The Bill must be seen firmly in the context of the five-year plan, as the Home Secretary said. Much of the plan can be achieved through immigration rule changes and secondary legislation, but much of what is in the Bill provides the building blocks for further secondary legislation and to tweak parts of the existing system.
I did not catch much of the speech of Mr. Carmichael in the Chamber, but I heard it elsewhere. It is the second time today that one of his speeches has delighted me, because we were debating a Bill together this morning. It was a terribly—not terrible—measured and temperate contribution and I look forward to discussing some of those matters further with him. I shall come on to some of them later.
One of the hon. Gentleman's specific points was that the Government had not yet made the case for using civil penalties against employers. That is a fair point and we can discuss it further in Committee. As I said, we believe that civil penalties can be an effective tool to encourage employers to adopt appropriate checks to prevent clandestine entry.
The hon. Gentleman asked about a new inspection regime in terms of civil penalties. I can say that the immigration service will continue to carry out intelligence-led operational visits as now, and civil penalties do not presage a new inspection regime. The inspection service only works where it is intelligence that leads the problem.
Clause 19 provides for the Government to issue a code of practice to employers on the avoidance of discrimination. Given that our deliberations will now be after the summer recess, I will try to ensure that at least the headline elements or framework of that code of practice—my hon. Friend Mr. Gerrard and others mentioned this—are available to the Committee during our deliberations. If an official falls over in the Box, that is because it is the first time that I have told them that.
We need to discuss more fully some of the other points raised by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland. He voiced concern that clause 1 does not give a right of appeal to people who have been granted protection for human rights reasons when the Home Office decides that their circumstances have changed and that it is now safe for them to return to their country of origin. Actually, the clause does provide a right of appeal to people who were previously recognised as refugees, against the decision that they no longer need protection, but we can explore that further in Committee. It contains an order-making power to extend that appeal right to other classes of people and it is our intention to use that power to extend the right to those granted humanitarian protection for human rights reasons. That sounds convoluted. It deals with the hon. Gentleman's point, but we can explore that in far more depth in Committee.
I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East is resisting the urge to rebel, whether he is on his own in that rebellion or otherwise—if indeed he can manage to get a vote tonight. I fully concur with what people have said about his long, long record in this area, on an entirely cross-party and non-partisan basis. He is an expert, and he was very helpful to me in 1997 and during my first couple of years as an MP—and has been helpful since—when I was first dealing with a substantive community. As he rightly says, all the issues about family visitor appeals are outwith the Bill. They are not in substance part of the Bill. They will be among the elements that can be more readily discussed on immigration rule changes. My hon. Friend has already led a delegation, for want of a better word, of Labour Back Benchers to see me specifically on this issue. I told him when we went through the issues that I would be more than happy to reconvene that meeting and have another in September or October to let him know exactly where our thoughts were in terms of where to go with that rule change.
People have raised significant issues in terms of papers only versus orals, the definition of family and other elements on which we would like to reflect. We will look at that in more detail and get back to Mr. Malins. I am more than happy, if this answers his question, to extend the previously mentioned courtesy to the official Opposition and the minor—but sadly grown a bit—third party, if they want to avail themselves of it.
Will the Minister tell the House what is happening to the accommodation centres, with particular reference to Bicester, and how much taxpayers' money has been pumped into that scheme? Will he also deal with the electronic tagging of asylum seekers?
With the greatest respect to the hon. Gentleman, I will answer in the way that I have got down in front of me rather than otherwise. If I do not get to it, I refer him to some extensive parliamentary questions, which were very well crafted, by his hon. Friend Tony Baldry and answered in full some months ago, on all aspects including the costs. If he thinks that that intervention was a useful contribution to our deliberations and our way forward, that is a shame.
Several Members have referred to measures being taken to improve the quality of initial decision making in entry clearance cases. Those were fair points in part, but we do not want to get lost in the premise that every ECO decision is by definition a bad decision. I understand that hon. Friends and other hon. Members say that to make their point in terms of rhetoric, but we do need to be quite steady on that. I will return to student visa appeals in a moment, but I am trying to elaborate on ECO decisions. With the fairest of winds, we are certainly six to nine months away from Royal Assent on the Bill. We are doing this now, so the university lobby's suggestion that we try to get enhanced developments to ECO decision making before the appeals are removed will almost follow in terms of our timing.
I thank my hon. Friend for what he has said so far about visitor appeals, but one way to help the system, if he is considering improving decision making, is to ensure that there is a person in UK Visas, whom Members of Parliament are able go to, who has the power to overturn or review decisions, so that we need not keep contacting the posts abroad if there is a problem.
Let me explore that point and come back to my hon. Friend. I am not sure whether that suggestion is appropriate; it may well end up being undermined as a sort of formalised second-guessing by every ECO in the world.
On the Home Office implementing changes now in ECO decision making and reviewing them before the Bill receives Royal Assent—if indeed, it ever does—will the Minister perhaps give an undertaking to the House that he will not bring those provisions into force unless the outcome of the changes that he will make to the ECO system indicate that there has been a substantial improvement in the quality of initial decision making?
Yes, I can, and to be honest, we would not be embarking on the roads on which I am about to elaborate unless we thought that substantive improvements would be made at the end of the process.
An independent monitor is responsible for scrutinising refusals, including those that do not attract the right of appeal. That is not done in some sort of vacuum in the way that some hon. Members suggested. The independent monitor's role will be enhanced to become a full-time post that is more embedded—for want of another phrase—in the system. There will be greater training for ECOs and their supervising managers—that is under way as we speak—and greater resources will be engaged to allow entry clearance managers more time to review decisions and to enable the recruitment of the network of regional managers. The points system will equally provide clearer and more transparent criteria.
So the irony is, in part, that a small amount—barely 2 per cent.—of all refusals for student visas go to appeal and are then successful. In relative terms, the amount of time and effort taken by UK Visas and the ECOs to process those cases is enormously inflated. If we get rid of that appeal layer and implement all the improvements to ECO decision making that I am talking about, both elements will ensure that more resources can be devoted to the front end of the operation, rather than otherwise. Again, we can talk about that specific appeals element, which is in the Bill, in Committee.
My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow makes the case, I suspect, for serving on yet another Committee considering a Bill on immigration, asylum and nationality, but that is a matter for the Whips, not for me. I would hate to destroy his record, given that he is running so well and has served on all those Committees since 1992. Again, he makes a fair point about the five years for refugees. If we go down that route, it is incumbent on us to ensure that people do not wait five, eight, 10 or 12 years to get to the stage where they are declared as refugees in the first place. That is the Government's starting point, and that is what we are trying to do.
We are trying to implement those changes for two key reasons. First, we want to establish across the board the principle that people must reside in this country for five years before they can become eligible for settlement. That is not new; it is more or less the system that was in place beforehand.
May I put it to my hon. Friend that the provision that refugees were given indefinite leave at the same time as they were granted refugee status is something that we introduced? I have still not heard any reason to reverse that policy. What is the reason for reversing it?
That is, at least in part, what I was going to start to elaborate on today, but I am sure that we will discuss it more over the summer and subsequently in Committee.
More generally, we are making changes to increase the economic benefits to the UK of permanent settlement and to introduce requirements closer to the rights and obligations of full citizenship.
Secondly, we are applying the principle that the UK should offer people protection and refuge for as long as they need it, but if conditions in their home countries change and it is safe for them to go back, we would expect them to do so. The Geneva convention says that it shall cease to apply to someone who
"can no longer, because the circumstances in connection with which he has been recognised as a refugee have ceased to exist, continue to refuse to avail himself of the protection of the country of his nationality."
The measure is thus within the spirit of the 1951 convention, but we can discuss that in full another time.
My hon. Friend was right to say that we should look for a range of measures and actions to tackle people who use illegal workers beyond what is in the Bill and the five-year strategy. I totally agree, and that was why we supported the Gangmasters (Licensing) Act 2004. We are developing joint working with other workplace enforcement bodies, such as the Health and Safety Commission, the Department for Work and Pensions, the national minimum wage inspectorate and others. That work includes establishing a joint pilot scheme in the midlands to examine such matters in more detail. We are working closely with employers, unions and others to examine the whole issue of illegal working, as it is right and proper to do.
My hon. Friend said that a wide power was being sought to define the grounds on which entry clearance appeals could be brought, but that power already exists under the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Act 2004. He made an important point, as did Alistair Burt, among others, about the oversight extended to all detention centres. As my hon. Friend knows, Her Majesty's chief inspector of prisons already has statutory oversight over longer-term immigration detention facilities, as well as exercising oversight over short-term holding facilities and escort services, although that is currently done only by invitation. The Bill will put all immigration detention facilities on the same statutory footing, so I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that he wants.
I did not accept the Liberal Democrat point that removing appeal rights for students would drive them to our international competitors because the countries with which we are competing for the brightest and best international students, such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand, do not offer appeals against the refusal of student visas in the first place. I do not want to underestimate the difficulties of the university sector in attracting foreign students. There is a combination of factors behind that such as the strength of the pound and the fact that our competitors are getting far better and thus catching up with us. All those matters need to be put into the mix, but a £50 increase in visa fees for students who spend between £20,000 and £30,000 over three years would not represent such a problem. I cannot emphasise enough that no aspect of the measure runs counter to everything that we say about the contribution that overseas students make throughout the university sector. We set up a joint working group with the education sector to examine in detail how we can work together to ensure that that continues to happen.
Dr. Cable made a perfectly fine and temperate speech, but he got sidelined by talking about some 50 tests that employers must carry out. That is for the birds—it is simply not the case at all.
I am hopeful—perhaps naively—that following the disgraceful emphasis that the official Opposition put on these matters and the way in which they did so, they now have a sort of collective corporate hangover and perhaps a little bit of shame. We have a window in which we can have a reasoned and mature cross-party debate about what we want from our asylum and managed migration systems and the overall contribution that both elements can make to the vibrancy of our country in the 21st century. We need to say all the time that immigrants make a substantial contribution to this country—and not simply in economic terms. We will always cherish both our responsibilities and our record on being party to the 1951 convention and our treatment of refugees.
If the Bill, if nothing else, augers the start of that mature debate not only in the Chamber and across the parties, but in our media as well—that might be hoping for too much—it will have served its purpose. Perversely, the nasty ultra-right-wing excesses of the Conservative party might then also have served their purpose. I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time.